-- I hope never again to see such a sight as I witnessed last night in the moonlit hills ... who would have thought that the primitive rites of a pagan people would still be practiced in 1852 ...
Why did it have to come to this, after so long?
I'd prayed I wouldn't find something in the Sentinel literature that I couldn't run away from, couldn't avoid, couldn't obfuscate, couldn't just write off as something from an obscure culture that would not affect us in post-modern times.
And there it is, in Richard Francis Burton's own handwriting, in a one-of-a-kind primary source document that nobody's seen for decades.
We'd had it so easy, overall. Here's a Sentinel, here's a Guide, put them together, wind them up and send them on their way to guard the Great City.
Why did I ever think that would be all there was to it?
Just because it looked like a formula or a system doesn't mean it is one. It doesn't even mean it's necessarily the right formula.
Look how many knights of the Round Table died trying to find the Grail, for one thing. And neither of us is qualified to be the pure and innocent Galahad, by any stretch of imagination.
How I'm going to explain any of this to Jim is beyond me. I don't want to explain a damn thing right now. I want to panic and throw things and run screaming into the sunset, but I don't have time to do any of that. I have to meet Jim for a stake-out in a hour. That's not enough time for a decent nervous breakdown, let alone a full-scale life-and-death crisis.
I know, there's no sense in rushing to meet the inevitable. Death. Taxes. All the other things that catch up with you, no matter what you do, you can't avoid. No matter how finely you split the second into milliseconds, they still pass, and in the end there's nothing you can do to get away from it.
Why couldn't it have waited until I was a stronger shaman, someone more knowledgeable and able to deal with this kind of thing?
Was anyone ever able to deal with it? And survive?
Change is inevitable, according to the Buddha. Change is the only constant. Nothing stays the same, and the only way to surpass the pain is to accept it, to release it, to let it pass. It's like Naomi always says, detach with love.
The irony is that if I'd stayed a dispassionate observer, nothing would happen now. It's only my involvement, my being Jim's Guide, the Sentinel's Shaman, that makes this a problem at all.
But I can't detach from this roller coaster ride. I can't get off the skis when I'm shooting down the mountain into the trees. I can't stop the car from speeding when the brakes are gone. This time there's no way out of this spacecraft. The orbit is decaying, and I'm slowly but surely falling into the sun, and taking him with me. We've come too far to turn it around, and in doing so have set loose something that may destroy us.
It's a binary problem, and I never was good at yes/no questions. I've always liked multiple- choice tests, or essays. You can grade on a curve for them, you can take general knowledge and experience into account. It's not as bleak a situation as binary.
Irony abounds here. In a way, I'm the Cascade P.D.'s expert at binary situations, for two reasons -- binary again, right? -- Jim Ellison and Simon's computer. Computers operate on binary code, and I've always been able to warp that code to get Simon's machine to do what I want it to, or, rather, what he wants it to. It's the same with Jim; he goes into zones, I get him out of zones. He doesn't torque off at the rest of the Major Crime detectives when I'm around, he does when I'm not for any length of time. Binary, again. It's almost like an on-off switch.
As it is, I'm not personally binary. I have a potentiometer, a dial, calibrated more finely than anything Jim's used to control his enhanced senses, and on a logarithmic, exponential scale with no end point. My potentiometer's interlocked with a lot of other things in my life, affected by all of them, but it can't overrule them. It's a bit like a barometer measuring air pressure and, with it, changes in warm fronts and cold fronts, but unable to alter where those warm fronts and cold fronts go. The barometer can't keep a hurricane from hitting shore, or a thunderstorm from taking out the power in Cascade with one well-aimed lightning bolt. It can only measure air pressure, not the outcome.
Right now my potentiometer's just hit the red zone. It'll be hard into it soon, unless something changes more drastically than I can imagine, and I have a good imagination. In fact, if you bought into the whole "you create the world you live in" notion, you could say I imagined the Sentinel phenomenon when I was 12 and found a beat-up copy of Burton's monograph in a secondhand book store, and then the power of my thoughts instigated everything that happened with Jim in Peru and later on, and pulled me into his life to change it and give me my dissertation subject and so on.
But that gives me too much power. Why should my thoughts have so much strength that they reroute Jim Ellison's entire life, not to mention the lives of his men in that helicopter and the Cascade P.D. and everyone else he's met that have been affected by him? I'm not a magician on that kind of scale. Besides, he's had these senses since long before we met; he was having trouble with them and with his father when his friend Bud died, and that was either just before or a couple years after I was born. I really doubt that I was affecting the course of the universe when I was in diapers, regardless of what Naomi might say.
So there has to be another reason for this happening. Coincidence doesn't exist for us any more. It hasn't for a long time.
It can't be a coincidence that this envelope from Timothy, with its damnable contents, shows up today, just when I'm starting to be able to let myself feel again, just when the touch of another human hand on my skin doesn't send me into flashback hell.
The last time things were so far from being under control, mine or anyone else's, I drowned. I'd rather not do that again, if it's my choice. Dying wasn't fun.
Neither is living on this particular finely sharpened edge, waiting for something that I can neither escape nor evade.
Maybe death was easier, after all, the last time. It won't come so easily again.
Not this way.
"You're pretty quiet over there. Is something wrong?"
"Why should something be wrong? We're on a stakeout. I'm paying attention to the job."
"You're still not saying anything."
"What is this? Twenty questions? I thought we were supposed to be keeping an eye on Annalise Minieu's house. That's what I'm doing, all right?"
"Your heartbeat's too fast; it's been high all day, and so's your respiration."
"Give me a break, Jim. I'm actually getting paid to be here now, I'd like to do the job. You got that?"
Five minutes pass.
"Are you sure you don't want to talk about it?"
"Jim, will you please quit acting like a me-clone? There's nothing to talk about."
"You're being very quiet."
"And you're making up for it. Maybe you should cut back on the caffeine -- wait, there she goes, out the side door and toward the Buick."
"I'm on it." And Jim was on the cell phone to Brown and Rafe, on the side street, and the two cars followed Annelise Minieu to her meeting with a mob boss who wanted her for more than her decorative presence, and the four of us came into the building just in time to catch the mob boss taking out a contract on an interfering cop named Ellison with Annelise as the hitter. Instead, I took her out of action with a disabling shot to the shoulder of the arm that held her 9-mm pistol on Jim. My partner had the mob boss in handcuffs, Brown and Rafe took down the capo's lieutenants who weren't terribly good at their jobs anyway, and a good time was had by the cops, if not by the crooks.
It's a satisfying thing to end a stakeout with a good bust, and the paperwork kept us busy enough that Jim didn't ask me anything more that night.
It started in the temple of the old gods. There the head men of the village confronted them, in language that sounded archaic to my ears, and the taller one put himself between them and his companion, but to no avail ... The townspeople pursued them through the ruins of the old temple and up into the hills like feral beasts after prey ... and none could stand between the mob and the one who had until then been their Sentinel's guide and companion.
I knew from the start that I was ignorant, but ignorance just kicks me into research mode.
Even though that's true, I should have realized something like this might happen about four years ago. Well, four years, six months and some days, but who's counting? It was a moot point from the time I moved in with him.
The conventional literature on Sentinels, such that it is, says a lot about bonding, about how the Sentinel needs the Guide in order to guard the tribe. It says a lot about support and guidance, and precious little about the details, such as psychic bonding, spirit guides, and twenty-four/seven attention to every little Sentinel need.
Most of the literature ignores the role of the Guide, or passes over its details in favor of more writing on the Sentinel. It's probably a practical thing; if your Sentinel is keeping a tribe of several hundred people safe, you're likely to see a lot more of what he's doing than you are of what the Shaman who's Guiding him is doing to keep him going. Oh, it says the Sentinel is devoted to the Guide, and protects him.
No shit, Sherlock. But how is the Sentinel supposed to protect him from what his role requires?
And how often is the Guide also a police detective, with all that entails?
My guess: I'm the first and only. The experiment starts here.
It may end here, too.
No, damn it.
Not if I have my say. I refuse to be King Pentheus in this drama. That's not my choice. Or his.
"Chief. Blair. Do you still want me to work with you on that shamanic journey thing?"
"Umm. Yes. But not right now, okay?"
"Okay. You just say when."
"I will. Don't worry."
"Chief, you want to talk about something?"
"Look, Jim. I realize you're concerned, but I'm kind of working something out right now, okay?"
"Okay. I guess you'll tell me later on, right? You want a cup of tea?"
"No, thanks. I'm going to be awake for a while if you want to crash."
"What are you reading?"
"Something a friend sent me on Sentinel research. It's fairly arcane."
... nor did anyone intercede for the life of their Guardian and Sentinel himself, who had violated one of the oldest sanctions on his way of life ...
For a long time, I felt like that woman in the Sarah Caudwell novel, the tax attorney who never filed tax returns because she figured that her work was all academic and it had no relationship to the Real World. Then she got hit with a governmental request for overdue back taxes and panicked.
I know about that.
When I started working with Jim it was academic to the max, a purely barter relationship. I bartered teaching Jim to control his senses for his allowing me to test the limits of those senses. We used each other. It was as simple and mercenary as that. It was easy. He was the test subject and the learner, and I was the researcher and teacher. In other words, I was in control all the way, which probably was the last thing Jim expected. He's so used to being the one running the show, and there I was telling him how to do it all the time and being right about it, too. It had to be a shock.
Then the relationship evolved, from use to sharing. We became co-conspirators, you might say. I helped him figure out how to do his job better, not that he wasn't already excellent at it. He helped me with research, with a place to live, with money, with material goods like a bed or clothes.
And then I was seduced.
It wasn't Jim, it was the police work itself, the unexpected golden fleece that waved itself under my nose from the moment I followed him into the Cascade Police Department first-precinct station and sat down to type up a report for him. I was lured into the detail, the who did what to whom with what and why. I fell in love with the dark lady of research, who gets you too involved so that you can't get back out again.
The relationship evolved again, from my being an observer to becoming Jim's virtual partner, acknowledged covertly by the Major Crime Unit as one of their own in all but paycheck. And I went further and further from my goal of degree and publication. Data for one dissertation I had within ten months; I was there for three years before the curtain rang down on my hopes and dreams, and when I walked away from La Belle Academe it was as much because I finally realized how far I'd been seduced as because I wanted to protect Jim. It was about him in the concrete, present sense, but in the abstract and longterm it was about me, about succumbing to the seduction that had wooed me for three years and finally brought me to bed. It was about becoming a cop, a detective, someone who would live and move and affect the real world, not only the ivory towers I'd lived in for so many years as an academic.
But La Belle Academe still had me in thrall, and didn't let go. I wrote the diss on closed societies, defended it as if I were invading Normandy with the Rangers, and walked off with a doctorate, a guest lecturer position, and sufficient credentials to cause trouble wherever I wanted. If I wanted to.
It only took eight months for trouble to lift its head above the usual sea of chaos in my life and sniff after me, but that was enough. It was long enough for me to have worked a few traumatic cases, the kind that it takes a good shrink to get you through with your sanity still in your hands. It was long enough for me to start to go into shock realizing how different Real Life was from La Belle Academe, and to wish sometimes that I was still hiding my head in a classroom for a while longer instead of sticking it up and walking into situations that should only have shown up in Hill Street Blues or Homicide: Life on the Street.
It was long enough for me to start to rely on Jim for my emotional stability, for my healing from my hurts, in ways I've never trusted anyone else.
"You can come upstairs if you want."
"Thanks, but not right now."
"Okay. I'm not trying to put any pressure on you or anything."
"I know, Jim. It's okay, really. I'm just working some things out."
"If you want to talk -- "
"Not yet. I'm sorry, Jim, but I have to have some things sorted out for myself before I can talk about them. Are you okay with that?"
"Yeah. I'll be upstairs if you want me. For anything, Chief. Anything at all."
"I know. Thanks, Jim."
The nightmares slowed down after I started to keep a private journal again, the kind of journal where you figure you'll finish writing the pages and then use it for fire fodder because you'll be damned if you'll ever show it to anyone and you're never going to want to reread it. But they didn't go away, and they hurt so badly. Intellectual and emotional memories are bad enough when they go sour -- just ask anyone who had a nightmare after a scary movie how real that can be -- but physical, sense memory gone bad is worse. You can trick your emotions, given a little training, and you can distract your intellect, but you can't escape your body. It's there, all the time, and if you don't let the stresses out, the accumulation will kill you.
It's like metal stress in a suspension bridge. A little of it is fine, but too much and the right speed of light breeze can take you apart just like the bridge in that old newsreel, waving like a flag and spitting lengths of concrete in a 27-mph wind.
Right now my suspension bridge is tight with those exponential stresses. The wrong touch from Jim would shatter me in dust, and he'd never understand how much it isn't his fault.
I've watched over Jim when he awoke in tears he wouldn't acknowledge because he'd relived the crash in Peru while he was sleeping, and had just buried his team again. I was there for him as much as I could be -- I couldn't stand to see him suffer and not try to help -- and now he's there for me. It's not the same, and it is. I didn't have to teach him anything except how to dial his senses down to a useful level. He's teaching me to feel again, to use my own senses and allow my nerve endings to perceive touch and pressure and sensation as good or neutral things and not as indicators of pain. It's an incredibly slow, difficult lesson to have to learn. It makes me feel sorry for the times he had trouble learning to leash his own sensations, learning to reconsider what is normal and what is extraordinary, and how to use both of them.
It's not that Jim hasn't helped me. He has. He's given me more than I could have asked for, and asked for little or nothing in return except for me to talk with him and not to leave -- but those are things we agreed to a while back, so that's different. He's been incredibly patient and kind and generous, with his time and his caring and his strong honest self. He's made room for me in his home, in his heart, in his bed, in his arms, for whatever I'd be willing to accept.
I'm not sure how honest I can be any more about what I want and what I need. It's not like I'll have a choice about that much longer. What I want, what I want so desperately, is likely to kill us -- or make us kill each other, according to the manuscript that Timothy sent me.
And after the last weekend, when he made me moan with pleasure from his touch -- the first human sexual touch I've been able to accept for months -- and held me all night as I slept in his arms, how can I bear to tell Jim that something more deadly than AIDS may already be stalking us?
...as the headman explained carefully, it would not be accounted murder but considered justifiable, for they had brought it upon themselves. I argued for reason, but went unheard; this was the practice, here in the land of the mysteries, and I was not of this land, I did not understand, he said. ... More guardians and guides would arise, he assured me, and these would know their place and follow the ancient way. I protested that the men's lives were sacrificed for no reason ... Although the stranger is treated as sacred in this land, my host, a man not originally of this village, hastened to get me away before I, too, might fall to the hands of the angry crowd...
"Sandburg. My office. Now."
"Sit down....Is everything all right between you and Jim?"
"It's fine, Captain."
"I'm here as a friend, Blair, if you want me. If you need me for anything. I'm not just Jim's friend, I'm yours too."
"I know that, Simon. I appreciate it."
"You've looked so tired lately. Are you feeling well? You don't have that flu that's going around, do you?"
"To be honest, I think I had that while we were on the Minieu stakeout. I'm over it now."
"Good. Good. You take care of yourself, all right, Sandburg? Get some sleep?"
"I'll do that."
"Good. Take care of yourself. I"m counting on you."
Simon had enough sense to call me into his office when it was Jim's turn to pick up sandwiches; he'd never have been able to do it if Jim were around, and I wouldn't have been able to go. Simon's a good detective, but I can still obfuscate to him without any trouble at all. Jim would have seen straight through me and had me pinned down in Simon's visitor's chair until he got answers he liked.
If he didn't like the answers, I'd probably have been pinned to a wall, preferably not the glass one. How nostalgic. I've known how to get out of that kind of thing since the Academy, but I would've let him do it if it made him feel better.
The truth wouldn't help him feet better at all. I know. He and I are a lot alike, and the truth is doing nothing for my well-being.
Then again, it's not just any old truth that's in question. It's the truth from Timothy's manuscript. To be more precise, it's the truth from Sir Richard Burton's manuscript, the part of it that I thought didn't exist any more because his wife burned it with her letters after he died. Isabella Burton may have been a wild woman while her husband lived to take her on adventures, but she was a Victorian after he died and she preserved his reputation, what there was of it, by consigning whatever she thought most objectionable to an honored place in her parlor fireplace. Since Burton translated the Kama Sutra, as well as an uproarious and scatological version of the Thousand and One Nights, and she didn't burn these, it's a fair bet that whatever hit the flames was truly extraordinary in ways the average reader probably wouldn't appreciate.
Timothy's even more of a rare-books fiend than I am, and with the money to afford his taste. He found the pages folded into a large illustrated folio copy of the Thousand and One Nights, stuck into its back cover near the binding. When he opened them and saw the words 'Sentinel' and 'Guide' on the top line, he refolded them without reading them further, stuck them into a padded envelope and sent them to me by express mail. As far as I can tell, they're Burton's handwritten originals, saved somehow from Isabella's parlor fire.
It's not that unusual, historically speaking, for someone to discover cast-off relics of genius in odd places. Felix Mendelssohn discovered many of Mozart's original works being used as wrapping paper and crumpled as packaging; if he hadn't noticed them, the world would be far poorer in terms of music than we'd know, since Mozart's original popularity died out shortly after he himself died, very young. There's no way to know how much of Mozart's music was lost; we can only know what survived.
This isn't the same. I'm not about to publicize what Timothy sent me. Even though it adds another dimension to my understanding of the Sentinel-Guide relationship, I wish I'd never seen those three folded pieces of old paper. I wish Naomi had pushed me to get involved with youth soccer or Little League instead of making sure I had a library card everywhere we went, not that it would have changed much in the end.
I wish with all my heart that I could ignore what I read in those pages, but I can't. Soon I'll have no choice but to act on what I know, on what I've just learned as well as how that fits in with what I already knew.
It's too dangerous to ignore that which can hurt you, or the person you love most in the world. I'll have to find some kind of preventive medicine, some shamanic magic to ward off the curse, before it happens.
"About that shamanic meditation ... can we do that soon?"
"No problem. You say when, I'll be there. Do I need to do some kind of preparation for this thing?"
"Well, I can do it one of two ways. I can use the drumming tape to put me under and you can just come in with the other drum on the rhythm I show you when the time's up. The other way, you're there keeping a slow beat for me while I'm under, anchoring me, and then you speed it up to bring me out."
"I can do that, Chief. When do you want to do it?"
"In a few days. I have some things I need to work on first."
... their mouths and hands black with blood in the light of the full moon ..."
I'm going about this all wrong. Up to now, I've been accepting without a doubt that the manuscript is genuine. I'm forgetting everything I've learned in the police academy, everything I know of detection. The only excuse I have for forgetting this is that the timing threw me off. The envelope arrived on the first morning after I'd spent the night in Jim's arms, feeling him hold me safe from the nightmares.
I never expected that opening an envelope from Timothy would cause worse nightmares than the ones I'd already faced, or that these nightmares would be ones that sleeping in Jim's arms couldn't ease.
He's hurt that I haven't come upstairs since. I can tell, even though he hides it well. He'd given me the bookcase he made by hand for me the day before, to hold my anthropology books, and I'd kissed him. I hadn't promised anything more, and he knew that, but I don't think he expected me to back away from him emotionally when everything about his own emotions was open for me to read.
I read that open book. I loved every word on its pages, every syllable of his feelings for me. And then I backed away the next day, far enough that I couldn't see the words on those pages any more, and couldn't tell him why because I was so confused myself.
It's not something I wanted to do, either. Everything in me wanted to move ahead, go up those stairs and lay the ghosts of the past permanently, in the most effective way.
He's giving me space, giving me rope. He knows he's not the cause of my fears -- at least that's something. He's still waiting for me, and that won't stop. God help us, he still loves me, and I love him more than I could have imagined.
If I didn't love him, if I didn't care, if it were still just a research project, none of this would be happening. If he were only a research subject, I could ignore this section of research, mark it down as some kind of aberration of a different culture's perspective on the Sentinel phenomenon and not even give it a footnote.
But that level of abstraction ended years ago. I'm involved here. I've seen the spiritual side of the Sentinel phenomenon in action, and I can't afford to minimize or dismiss any of it.
I trust Jim. I've trusted him with my life for years now, and with my heart for longer than I want to admit.
The one I don't trust now is myself.
If that manuscript hadn't been written by Burton himself, or if it concerned a Sentinel in a culture less rigidly constructed than the Middle-Eastern one he'd observed first-hand, it might be different. We're all brought up with ideas about what ancient Greece and Rome and Persia were like, with theories about Alexander and Darius and Minos. Mythology, legends, stories are with us from the start, but too often they've been sanitized by someone like Edith Hamilton or Bulfinch, made nice and acceptable. We don't see the bright blood spilled by Theseus, or hear the cries of the Minotaur and wonder why it lived alone in the darkness. We don't wonder why Theseus left Ariadne on Naxos, at a temple sacred to Dionysus. We don't step outside our own rationalistic culture enough to find the reasons behind the fears and the beliefs, or listen to the ancient double-edged words of Pythian Apollo and his fellow deities.
And if we do, we find out very quickly that we're not in Kansas any more.
"Chief, we have to talk. Please."
"What's wrong? Is it something I did? Something I said? Please, tell me."
"Oh -- oh, no, Jim. It's not like that. You haven't done anything. You're good. Really. It's not you, it's me."
"Is there something I can do to make things better? It's tearing me apart seeing you like this, Blair. You're not sleeping or eating, you're tense." His voice dropped. "You won't let me touch you."
"I know, Jim. I know. But it's not you."
"Then what is it? What's on that manuscript that's worth this?"
"I can't answer that right now. Please, don't ask me to answer that now."
"Because I'm trying to find a way to prove that it's wrong."
"And you can't say anything more than that? You're scared, Chief; I can smell it from across the room."
"I have to face this in my own way. Right now it's my problem, Jim. I need to try to take care of it."
"Well, do it soon. I don't like what this is doing to you."
Something tells me that Burton was as upset by some of what he was writing as I was by reading it. He wasn't normally a squeamish man; this alone tells me that the manuscript is real, and I can't ignore it.
In the meantime, while I'm trying to figure out what to do, I'm going through anything I can find on the societies he wrote about, in the hopes that some of what that manuscript said were meant to be taken symbolically. Symbolism is your friend, often as not. Symbolism is substitution. It's the Judas goat being turned loose in the desert instead of exiling a human. It's the athame in the cup, standing in for the Great Rite of sacred intercourse. It's the part substituting for the whole, the fragment of a dead saint's clothing made into a holy relic to stand in for the saint's presence, instead of a piece of the actual body.
Symbolism might get both of us out of this alive, if I could read it properly.
Symbolism was period, to use the Society for Creative Anachronism's catch-all phrase of justification. Re-enactment of sacred rites could be done symbolically; it wasn't always necessary to sow the body of the Corn King into the field with the seeds each spring. Reverence would make up the holiness of the substitution; an actor could dramatize Oedipus the King's rage for the wider community, expiating the evil to placate the gods without actually shedding blood. It could be done.
I'm an anthropologist. I'm supposed to know about these things. I'm supposed to be the outsider, the ultimate observer, making notes on what I see around me in society. Instead, I'm as compromised and involved as it's possible to be. I've joined the closed society I wrote about, I'm united in every way but marriage with the original subject of my study -- and I am the problem.
... could hear their frenzied cries behind me for miles as I galloped away ...
Textual research has come a long way in the past century. Just look at the kind of detailed literary and thematic work that's been done on the Bible by various scholars. It's been pretty well proven that some epistles attributed to Paul were written by later followers who wanted to use his name to promote their own agendas, that there was more than one person writing as Isaiah, and that many of the historical books thought to be much older were compiled or written during the Babylonian exile to remind the people of their heritage. I couldn't hope to do as complete a job with these three fragmentary pages, but I could try.
After all, my life depends on this. Talk about incentive.
What did I have? Three folio-sized pages, folded in half crosswise and before that in thirds, on what was originally a heavy parchment-textured paper. The writing on them was in English, in an ink that had faded only a little in the past century or more. According to the text itself, the pages must have been written either during Burton's time or very shortly after it, either by Burton himself (the handwriting had peculiarities that pointed directly to Burton) or by someone so familiar with his work that it was an accurate mimicry.
Internal evidence showed that the events portrayed were ones Burton had found while on one of his earliest Middle-Eastern journeys, but not on the famous trip to Mecca. He'd noted these events down before that, probably while journeying from Greece through Turkey and down toward Persia and the Arabian Gulf. He'd traveled alone, and after being a reluctant witness to what he'd written about he'd gotten himself the hell out of wherever it was as soon as possible. The scrawling handwriting witnessed to the pages having been written hastily, in secret; the heavy creasing along the folds showed that they'd been stored for a long time before being committed to their hiding place. He didn't state outright where the events had taken place, only that it was 'up in the hills, near an ancient site of worship' and the name of the nearby village and the deity worshiped had been so fiercely scratched out that they were unreadable.
More textual evidence: the tribal society he documented had a long history of Sentinel-type guardians; its customs in every way were different than those of the South American cultures with Sentinel traditions that he documented later on; and Guides were rarer in this Middle- Eastern tribe than Sentinels were. Sentinels practically sprouted on every hillside, while Guides were held to a higher standard.
Elsewhere, in the rest of the documentation that I knew Burton had written, it was the other way around. Sentinels were rare and valued, and Guides were sought to work with them. The Guide was installed in the work, sanctified, consecrated, made holy in his job by a shaman or by the tribe itself, but after that the Sentinel-Guide relationship was practically independent of the tribe itself. Whatever happened between the two was their own business, without societal sanctions. Either Sentinel or Guide could take another person as mate and have children; this happened particularly when the Sentinel was younger than the Guide, and was considered a good way to keep the protective genes and attributes alive in the tribe. Everyone understood this. If the Sentinel and Guide chose each other, this was accepted, and everyone from the children up to the gods rejoiced at their happiness.
Except in this three-page manuscript, where the penalty was death of the most unpleasant kind I could imagine.
I've been dead. It wasn't fun. It hurt like hell, and then it didn't hurt at all. I can deal with death. I can't deal with the kind of pain this would entail. Regardless of what someone observing the past five years of my life would say, I'm not a masochist just for following Jim Ellison around. Pain does not thrill me.
But I'm getting too personal again, too far away from the textual analysis. I can't deal with even the thought of it any more, as an anthropologist or even as a detective seeking clues to human behavior in a rational, methodical way.
If I die again, I die. But I won't let this put Jim into danger.
When all else fails, I have one more method I can resort to, one last way of looking at the world I live in that goes outside the lines, beyond logic and detection and anthropological skepticism -- the shamanic world of visions and dreams. I'm going to go there, and see if I can find the answers.
"Jim, will you be busy this afternoon?"
"Wasn't planning anything. What's on your mind?"
"I want to take that shamanic journey. Are you still up for it?"
"Sure, Chief. Just say when."
"It might be a bit longer than I expected. I'm thinking it will take about an hour or so; no matter what, I want you to get me out after that."
"You want me to beat a drum very slowly for an hour, and then speed it up so you'll wake."
"Right. But I also want you to be a Sentinel for me then. I need you to track my vital signs, make sure I don't go too deep into the other world. This is really important."
"Are you sure you want to do this, Chief? It sounds like you're getting into some dangerous territory here. You're not taking peyote or anything this time, are you?"
"No way, man. I need to be clearheaded to do this trip, and I need you with me."
"Okay. I'll be there for you."
I'm not a devout man or a particularly religious one. I'm Jewish, I'm moderately observant of the High Holy Days, though I don't keep kosher. I've always respected the beliefs of others, including the gods of the Chopec that Jim taught me about, and those of the Peruvian tribes that Burton documented.
I'm not sure how I feel about extending that respect to what I found in the manuscript.
But I'll do what I have to do.
"Chief after this is over -- "
"After it's over, I'll tell you anything you want to know."
"I'm going to hold you to that."
I lit a mild incense, pine-scented, something Jim wasn't allergic to that he could ignore. It would help me detach from the outside world as I moved into the spirit world. I set up a nest of pillows on the floor so that if my body moved while my spirit was elsewhere it wouldn't be hurt. I put a tall glass of water by the pillow where Jim would sit, so he could take sips between drumbeats if he needed to.
And I prayed that whatever might come would fulfill what was necessary to take care of us, so that neither of us would have to die.
Joining the Guide to the Sentinel in a spiritual way was a necessary condition of the partnership. We'd already come a long way toward doing that, without the final step. Whether this would be sufficient to avoid what I feared was something we would find out.
I made a visit to the bathroom, took a drink of water, came back to where I'd set things up, on the floor of the loft in an empty area, and asked Jim to join me. I showed him the drumbeat I needed him to play and made sure he was comfortable with it and with where he'd be sitting, so his legs wouldn't fall asleep. I made sure he understood that the sound of the drum, and the scent of pine, would be the only things connecting me to this world, and that no matter what was happening with me he had to use the drum to call me back. Touching me suddenly could either ricochet me back or send me further out away from my body than I wanted to go, with no guarantee of return.
I did one last thing before I lay down. I took Jim Ellison by the shoulders as he sat on the cushion, and kissed him gently, with all my heart. I looked into his eyes and saw acceptance allay the confusion my silence had caused.
Then I lay down, closed my eyes, and let the drumbeat send me out on the perilous voyage into the world of shadow and spirit.
The first thing you do on a shamanic journey is to call your spirit guide, go to somewhere familiar that's a boundary between two worlds, and wait. Something should happen there to answer the question in your mind.
This time didn't go according to the script.
A boundary -- a borderland -- can be between any two worlds; in the spirit world, time and place and the state of matter are all flexible, intermixing, interchangeable. I'd chosen to visualize a spot in the park near a walking trail, where the border was the line between the creek water and the sand in the streambed, by the tall pines.
If all had gone as I'd intended, I would have been there waiting on a rock by the creek, with a spirit guide next to me. The same spirit guide doesn't always show up; it's like they're on rotation, or different shifts according to what's needed. But this time none of them were visible, and that was a little scary. No wolf, no panther, no other familiar creature to wait with me, not even the mouse that has shown itself in the past to guide me down tight passages in spirit journeys. I was alone, and the sky was darkening with the beginning of a storm blowing in over the mountains, and the trail was gone. I was in another time, somewhere in the past, more than a century ago when the land was empty of pale humans and the trees stood thickly together around the rushing, untamed water.
The drum, slower than a heartbeat, kept me attached to where I'd been, but I knew I needed to go on to find where I needed to be. As I looked around, I saw a deer track along the creek and climbed down from the rock to follow it. My feet touched the ground and I felt a presence with me, behind me, but when I turned I saw no one. The presence moved with me, not threatening but constant, and I accepted that it was there and walked away down the path, feeling it near me.
I came to a point where it felt as if there was an invisible wall, as far as I could reach, keeping me from going any further. When I tried to imagine a way to take it down, I saw the light changing around me and felt dizzy for a moment. The dizziness passed, and I realized I was no longer on the land in the park but on a rocky, arid hillside dotted with trees, behind the marble columns of a Greek-style temple. It was a moonlit night, and the dry air was cold on my skin. As I looked down at myself I saw that I wore soft woolen cloth, a tunic and a cloak, and sandals on my feet with straps that came up my legs nearly to my knees. I heard a rustle nearby and saw Jim there also, in the same kind of clothing, looking as confused as I felt.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Jim was supposed to be watching over my body, beating that drum, not here in the spirit world. He should be here only in the form of his black panther guide, not as himself.
Neither of us could speak aloud, only stare at each other in confusion. I heard the drumbeat, the only constant, and couldn't tell it from the sound of my heart.
When we looked away from each other's shocked face, we weren't alone any more. We were surrounded on all sides by people in draped robes streaked with dirt and grass, women whose hair straggled long and loose down their backs, men whose faces were covered in strange masks and who wore leopard skins over their shoulders. They stood back from us in an irregular circle, panting a little, wild-eyed.
The crowd parted silently to allow two beings to pass. I couldn't tell at first who they were, but from the reaction of the people I knew we were in the presence of personages that, if we'd been in a North American mythos, I would have had to call gitchee manitous. Great spirits. Gods. They looked like young men, beautiful young men, tall and graceful and moving steadily toward us through the bowing throng until they stood in front of us.
"You have refused to enter the mysteries. Why?" The speaker carried a tall staff wound with a grapevine. His gently curling hair fell to his shoulders, and he tossed it back negligently. He carried a winecup in one strong, shapely hand.
Oh, shit, I thought. It's really him. Now we're in for it.
"We are travelers from another land, my lord. We wish you no ill, no disrespect," I said, grateful beyond belief that I was able to speak now. From the confusion on Jim's face I realized that I was speaking a dialect of classical Greek, and not one of the literary ones that I'd studied, either.
"All who pass this way must partake of the mysteries, especially those who are Guardians. We offer you our hospitality; do you dare to refuse it?" Dionysus held the cup forward toward us. "Will you take my cup and drink?"
Deny the gift of the gods, and die. Accept it, and take madness with it.
I turned to the other man, the slender one whose eyes pierced the darkness with a darker glow of their own. "I have honored you, teacher of truth, all my life. What do you counsel?"
"Each of us must face his own truth," said Apollo. "Will you wear a mask or reality?"
"Is reality not a mask of its own?" I countered. Dionysus stood by, watching the exchange, with a small smile on his lips.
"Lord of all lords is fate. I see you have met the Three Sisters already." Apollo drew closer, his eyes gazing through me to the core. "The thread of your life has been rewoven more than once, as has his."
"You have not ignored me either, traveler, but this is not a matter of jealousy." Dionysus stepped forward. "All this does is delay what must come. You have an offering to make, a simple choice, an honest bargain. Make your choice."
"He is guiltless in this." I had to try to forestall him, though I knew it wouldn't work. "If I drink and he does not -- "
"He is the Guardian you guide. He will not pass this place." He waved a hand back toward the silent crowd that strained as if at invisible leashes.
No choice. I reached for the cup and took it in my hands. Jim moved to my side. I took a sip, passed it to him for a sip, then took it back from him and drained it to the dregs before I handed it back.
Dionysus took the cup back, stepped forward and kissed my brow. "Who, now, is the guardian and who is the guide?" he murmured. "We will be kind to you. You will feel no pain." He reached a hand out to touch Jim, who fell over as if fainting as I collapsed beside him.
The gods went away, or the crowd came forward. It was hard to tell from the cold stones I lay on. I saw the ragged dark nails on the hands of the women, and the dark wet streaks on their robes and around their mouths, and heard the yearning moans they made as they closed in on us.
I watched from a distance, feeling nothing at all.
The women were gone. The masked men had taken them on the hillsides after their feast, so that any children born of that night would have the power of the ones who had been sacrificed. The strength and watchfulness of the Guardian, the intelligence and wisdom of the Guide.
Out of the darkness two creatures walked to the hillside on sore paws, as if they had run many miles. A black jaguar nosed at a small heap of cloth by the rocks, and a gray wolf lay down next to another tattered pile. The two animals touched noses once. The big cat screamed into the night, and the wolf howled, a sound that seemed to go on and on.
The moon moved slowly across the sky. A small breeze touched the tips of the pine branches.
Something swirled in the breeze, picking up dust from the dry ground, making shapes in the moonlight where it met the torn cloth. A body, reforming from earth and spirit-wind and blood and bone, one body where two had been, one body that sat up slowly, endured the harsh lick of the jaguar's tongue and the anxious nosing of the wolf, and stood alone under the moon. Jaguar and wolf nodded to each other, and both leaped at the translucent form, meeting it in a flash of light.
On the hillside, standing on a rock, Apollo smiled. Dionysus raised his cup toward the flash of light and turned away toward the temple below.
The drum beat speeded up, once, twice, again. A pause. Once, twice, and again.
I opened my eyes.
"Chief?" Jim's voice was more shaky than I'd ever heard it outside a hospital. "What happened?"
"What time is it?" My throat felt as if I hadn't had anything to drink in a month.
"You've been out cold for four hours, Blair. Are you all right?" Jim put the drum down with trembling hands, stretched and rubbed his arms.
"Four hours? Why didn't you bring me out?" I was starting to get some feeling back into my arms and legs, and I rose up on one elbow carefully. "Are you all right? That's a hell of a long time to be drumming."
"Believe me, I tried to bring you out, but it didn't work. I did it after an hour, and you didn't budge a muscle. Then I touched your hand and ... something happened." He shuddered. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." I sat up the rest of the way and realized that the horrid heaviness I'd felt around us all week was gone.
Jim lunged forward to grab me as I wavered, and hold me tight in his arms. "You had me scared, Chief. You weren't breathing much; I was sure you'd stopped breathing a couple of times, and your heart kept stopping, and starting up again. And after I touched you, things got pretty strange around here."
"I wasn't here any more; I was with you, but I could still hear myself hitting the drum. It was night, somewhere in the Middle East according to the stars I could see, but they didn't look right. We were wearing short robes and cloaks, and there was a crowd. I couldn't speak, and I couldn't understand what you said. You were talking to two men but they seemed like more than men, somehow. They glowed." He rubbed his face. "I'm not good at explaining this kind of thing. One of them handed you a goblet, and you drank and I drank, and you grabbed it back from me and chugged the rest. And then the crowd came."
"You were there." Certainty.
Jim nodded, his head against mine over my shoulder. "We both died this time, didn't we?" When I nodded once in reply, he whispered, "This has something to do with how you've been all week, doesn't it?"
I put a hand against his face and felt him kiss my palm. "Can we move to the couch? This floor's a lot harder than it was a few hours ago."
I stood on wobbly legs and checked the area out before we left it. The incense had burned out hours earlier; no danger of fire there. The glass of water I'd left for Jim was empty. The drum sat on one of the cushions from my room, and nothing else needed attention. I gave Jim a hand -- his legs looked almost as wobbly as mine felt -- and started to the couch, but stopped part way there and went back to my room for a moment.
"You all right?"
"I'm fine. I need to show you something." I took the folded manuscript from my backpack and went to the living room couch.
Jim was in the kitchen, one hand on the fridge. "You should eat something. We both should."
"I don't think it'll hurt me to wait. I don't have a lot of appetite right now."
Something in my voice must have convinced him, for he came to the couch without another word, sat down next to me and pulled me into his lap. He wrapped his arms around me, holding me close, and put his face down into my hair, the longer part on top that I never had cut short. "I thought I was losing you," he whispered.
"You can't lose me. I've got a built-in homing signal," I said to his shoulder, my eyes shut. "But I've been terrified all week because of this." I flicked the manuscript with one finger, and it rustled like a locust settling its wings. The sound made prickles run up my spine. Jim's head came up, his warning look in place. "I think we're all right now."
"Okay." He didn't let go of me, but he was watching the old folded paper as if it harbored a snake. "C'mere. I think I need to be more comfortable." We shifted around until my head was on his other shoulder, my forehead against his neck and cheek, and he leaned back against the cushions, his arms never leaving me. "Talk to me."
"This came in the envelope I got on Monday from Timothy -- guy I introduced you to last year at the end-of-semester party?"
"The one you said was the only grad student you'd ever met who really had money?"
"That's him. He collects rare books when he's not sponsoring digs, and he found some papers in the back of a first-edition folio of The Thousand and One Nights that had the words 'Sentinel' and 'Guide' in them so he sent them to me." I rested my head against his shoulder. "I don't think Tim even looked at them; it's not something he's into."
"Okay. He's a prince." Jim's voice rumbled softly, deepened with concern. "And then?"
I took a breath. How to say this? "This story isn't linear; I have to tell you a lot but I'll tie it all together." Jim nodded. "The manuscript is in Burton's handwriting. It's not part of the original record; it's something that's been hidden almost since it was written." Jim still looked worried and confused. "Did Incacha ever tell you anything about the sex life of a Sentinel?"
His eyebrows drew together in a frown as he thought. "Not in so many words. I got the impression that whatever I wanted would be fine with them, as long as I was guarding the tribe."
"Well, different cultures have different sexual mores. You know that and I know that. I've spent years studying the differences." I took a deep, slow, calming breath that didn't help that much. "Most of what we know of Sentinels comes from South America, but Burton found them in the Middle East, in Africa and India as well. Some of that's in the notes in the Paraguay book. This isn't. It's way off the mark for Sentinel studies; but it's right on the target for some ancient Greek and Turkish and Persian cults, so I had to pay attention to it."
Jim was following along, making encouraging noises in his throat, cuddling me close.
"The sexual mores of Greek-influenced cultures, especially the ancient ones, were a lot different from what we live with now. Men had their most important relationships with other men; women were there in the background, if at all. You can see that down to classical times in Plato's writing, for example." Jim's arms were warm. I let myself relax, felt the muscles in my back loosen slowly. "Sexuality was sacred to the gods; if things got a little wild during a religious festival nobody got upset about it afterward."
"Bacchanals, I think they were called?"
"Yes." I shuddered. "You just saw one of them." I picked up the papers in my lap. "So did Burton. That's what this is about. He reached a village one night just after the village elders discovered that the Sentinel and Guide had angered the gods, and he saw the villagers tear them apart and -- and eat them. His host, who lived on the outskirts of the village, barely managed to get Burton away in time to save his life."
Jim shuddered. When he spoke, a few minutes later, it was so softly I could barely hear him. "Why? I'd have thought that whole area was Christian or Moslem by that time. Cannibalism doesn't fit into those cultures."
"You'd think not, except for the symbolic kind in Christianity, but you never can tell with old cultures. It's not uncommon for old practices to still be there, under a veneer of modern acceptable behavior." I thought of some of the examples I could give, and decided to save them for another time; there were enough for another dissertations, one I wasn't planning to write.
"What had they done that was so bad that it would call down something like that?" Jim shuddered, and I knew he was remembering the faces, the hands, the passionate blood-covered women.
"They didn't become mates when they first came together as Sentinel and Guide. They had sexual relations with other people, served other gods." I paused. "Dionysus is the god of wine, of sexual pleasure, and of the senses, and they disdained him by not taking each other in the temple. He's a patient deity, but even his patience has limits. Did you ever read a classical Greek play, The Bacchae, when you were in school?"
"I think so. Some king who set himself up, and the god took him down for it?"
"You got it. King Pentheus wouldn't honor Dionysus in the small ways, so Dionysus made him the honored guest at a bacchanal the main dish. Passions running away with themselves and devouring their object, you might say."
"Yeah." He moved so he could look me in the eye. "I'm a little confused here, Chief. I'm Catholic, or I was, anyway. I don't see how this relates to us."
"So were the people Burton saw. Greek Orthodox, or something similar. Anyway, I don't think it has anything to do with Carolyn," I temporized, "or even Laura or Lila, though you thought, for a while, that she might have been the one for you." I put a finger on his lips. "I'm not criticizing; hell, look at my own track record. As far as this is concerned, though, that's not really the problem. The problem is what happened to me in the Gordon case." I swallowed hard. "Like it or not, I was playing a prostitute, and I was used as one while I was drugged. You and I know there were good reasons for it, and you've helped me more than I can tell you, but on the symbolic and archetypal level it's ritual prostitution for a different god than the one that got us together."
I could sense Jim running through pantheons in his mind. "I'm not clear on who was who back then, Chief."
"Dionysus was lord of the senses, sensory experience, sensuality. Think about how we got together -- your senses out of control. Isn't that Dionysus's realm? And my academic work, at least then, was seeking the truth, which is Apollo's area. Both of them claimed us on the hillside, but Dionysus is the one who insisted on the offering." I felt him kiss my finger on his lips, and I shivered a little. His arms tightened around me.
"I did some other research this past week, and this Burton thing wasn't an isolated case. There have been a few other situations in highly structured societies where the Guide had a sexual relationship with someone other than the Sentinel, and when they did get together the Sentinel tore the Guide apart and then killed himself. Something primal took them over; they were listed as murder-suicides. One was in North Africa in the '20s, another in Turkey. There was even one in Mexico in the 1950s." I felt the chill again that I'd felt when I looked up those cases. "It wasn't that they didn't have good reasons for delaying, or for being with other people, but good reasons didn't save them."
"We're not in a primitive society, Chief, or one with that kind of religious structure."
"The couple in Mexico City were an accountant and a soldier, and both were casual Catholics. It was written off as a homosexual thing, then, but it fits too well into the same framework as the other cases -- and the soldier had three enhanced senses on record. That's too close, man. I had to chase this down, make sure it wouldn't happen to us."
"You think that some kind of god or gods would have made us do that? That is so far out there, Sandburg. The old gods are dead, if they ever existed."
"Are they?" I held his gaze with my own. "Even if they're only in the mind, whatever affects the mind affects the body. You know that. We've been using your mind to control your senses for years." I saw this register. "You saw who I was talking with. You drank from the cup of Dionysus. And Pythian Apollo, who speaks double-edged truth, told me to face my own truth without a mask. It doesn't matter whether we call them archetypes or deities, they're real. They have power in the world of the spirit, the psyche, and if we don't acknowledge that, we're in trouble. I couldn't take the chance that this would happen for us here." I waved a hand at the loft, the real world we lived in. "So I had to try to face it in the spirit world, because what happens there affects what happens here."
"I'm glad you didn't tell me," he said slowly. "I don't think I would have taken it well."
"What could I have said that you'd listen to?"
"Yeah. It's not like this happens every day in Cascade." His eyes darkened to a deep-sea blue. "I almost lost you again." His arms tightened around me. "I don't like that happening."
"I didn't want to lose you, either, but having it happen in a substitutionary ritual is better than having it happen in our physical lives, isn't it?"
Jim shuddered. "If it had to be, that was better. But I'm going to be nervous whenever you find another old document for a while, Chief. "
"I hear you, Jim." I put a hand up on the other side of his head, feeling the prickle of his unshaven face against my fingers. "How do you feel now?"
"Tired. My arms hurt a bit -- that's a long time to be drumming -- but I'll live. We've got the rest of the weekend to recover before we get back to work, unless there's an emergency." His face was against my hair, his voice low. "It'll take that long for me to want to let you further away from me than this."
No masks now, for either of us. I felt behind me the curve of an archaic smile on lips that spoke only the language of the senses, and a question that floated invisibly in the air. When I closed my eyes I could almost see pillars of fluted marble in the corners of the room, covered with vines, shaded by a plane tree whose branches twisted with age.
No masks. No fears. No more waiting, when the god beckons.
I turned on Jim's lap until I was facing him, and his arms loosened around me. I unbuttoned two flannel shirts and shucked the undershirt off as well. As I reached down to undo the jeans, Jim's eyes darkened and his warm hand caught my wrist. His eyes asked so many questions, but I could answer only one of them. I brought my hands up and cradled his face between them. His lips opened under mine, and his hands went to my jeans, shaking a little as he unfastened them, pushed them and the briefs down as far as they could go, then lifted me so they could be pulled off my feet. When the kiss broke I was naked on his lap, feeling his hardness through his old sweatpants and hearing the roar of the breath in his lungs as if it were wind in the trees on a hillside.
Jim pulled me up, knees on either side of his lap, as he shucked himself out of the sweats and pulled off his shirt, and I grabbed the blanket from the back of the couch and slid it underneath him. It was soft and warm, it wouldn't chafe or itch, and it would serve well as an altar cloth for this ritual. When he sat down on it his eyes smiled; his lips were too busy with mine until he started to trail kisses, licks and nips down the side of my neck and across my chest. I started to sit down again but he held me up, one warm hand supporting each buttock and the fingertips playing together in between, and as I moaned his head came down and his mouth opened and he took me in with a teasing lap of tongue on my sweet spot.
How could I ever have felt cold around this man? The heat rose from him in sheets like the ripples above a sidewalk on a hot day. His mouth was hot on me, striking fire that burned all the way to the root and beyond, up my spine and down my legs, and kindled a brush fire in my groin. I moaned and throbbed and started to move against the stability of his hands, but my pelvis was captured and I could only sway above his head, grabbing his shoulders and hearing myself babble in languages that had no meaning but one.
My mouth opened over his head, and I could almost taste the wine from that cup again in the back of my throat, heavily sweet, unwatered, intense. It flowed down through me and the brush fire flared into a fierce blaze that roared through me, flickering, in its heat, and I came and came again, pumping into the inferno. I panted, over his head, my muscles trembling, and felt his hands shift on me, one of them supporting me and the other moving behind to stroke something into my anus and open me with a finger, then two, that moved slickly and slowly into me until they found a trigger and the flames leaped again.
He had me; I could let go of his shoulders and tip his head back to kiss, to taste my own saltiness and his sweetness. I reset my shins on the blanket and ran my hands down his chest, memorizing the lines and shapes of his body, the dark hairs fading out below his armpits, the lineaments of muscle and tendon under smooth skin, until I reached his phallus, his cock, slicked with saliva and smelling of me already. I moved forward, downward, hesitating only a second as the dark mushroom top came into me and his breath caught and his eyes flamed steel-blue, and I slid slowly, carefully, down that velvet-steel pillar until I sat on his lap again.
Neither of us moved. It was enough just to feel the pounding of his blood inside my body, to know there was no distance between myself and him. No borders. As I looked into his eyes I could see everything in his life, every word and action and thought and emotion laid bare between us, offered to me, and I accepted them all, knowing he could see my own lonely nights and long roads and fears as well. His arms came up around me and held me close, flame against flame burning together.
And then we moved, a ripple, a small tremor, and his hands came down to support me again as I quivered around him and above him and he surged into me slowly, irrevocably, and I felt myself harden again and my head went back with pleasure as his mouth found the ring in the right nipple and toyed with it.
A nightingale sang in the branch of the plane tree just outside the pillars, and a sweet-scented breeze drifted through the temple, warm and caressing.
Jim's breath caught and his hands clenched iron on my hips, pushing me up and bringing me down again on him, harder each time, and I cried out as he found the trigger again and loaded me and cocked me and shot me off, and the kickback from that explosion fired his own fierce cannonade into me.
One heart pounded. One windstorm of breath entering lungs. One skin without a boundary wrapped me -- us.
The nightingale finished singing. I felt a touch on my forehead as if a leafy branch had brushed past me, and the tall pale pillars faded. When I could focus my eyes again I saw the hint of Dionysus's smile in Jim's eyes, and felt its answer within myself.
I heard the little creak that the roof makes as it settles for the night, and smelled the rich warm flavor of Jim's fragrance in the midst of the calm loft, and felt the movement of the air between us, pulsing with our heartbeats, a liquid current, and I tasted the dark wine in the back of my throat, fading into the taste of Jim's mouth.
I gasped. I had to remember to breathe. I felt the air rush in through my sinuses, down my throat past my larynx and through the bronchial passages, into the forest of swaying alveoli in the lungs that separated out oxygen and gave up carbon dioxide, swirling as it passed the buds and branches and was pushed out again by the diaphragm as I exhaled to the steady drumbeat of my heart -- and his heart. His lungs, flowing with air. His skin, feeling the pulse of his own heartbeat, and the feathery touch of my own hair against him.
This is what it is to have enhanced senses? Oh, Jim. No wonder we were made for each other, so the Guide would know, even briefly, how it felt. No wonder the gods on the hillside had made us into one being after the sacrifice, not two.
Jim's eyes locked on mine. I could see in them that he knew what I was experiencing, without my having to say a word.
"What do you get out of it?" I had to ask.
"Besides you?" His lips curved into a smile. "Everything is deeper, richer. It's like the senses have gone fourth-dimensional, way beyond three. Maybe it's a defense mechanism, so we couldn't be caught unawares?"
"Maybe." I could feel the fragile soft curls of my hair moving in the air as Jim's breath went past me. "How long will it last?"
"Don't know. It hasn't happened before." He paused, his hands gentling my back and thighs, a warm touch of skin on skin. "Will you let me try something?"
"I want to see how far I can go on the senses. I don't think I'm going to zone. I don't think I could, right now."
"Okay. Wait a minute," I started to leaned over to grab the other blanket I'd put on the table hours earlier, to put around us, and realized that even with the touch of the cool air on my skin I wasn't cold at all. Even my fingertips and toes were warm. I put my hands on his shoulders and rubbed them a little, and he smiled and closed his eyes. "Tell me where you're going."
"First traffic light: Prospect and Main. Second light. Nelson. Third light..." He went out to the city line and beyond it, until he'd gone past the state highway to the beach and the ocean. Then he started in another direction, and followed the interchanges to the airport and the campground on the mountainside and the riding stable beyond it.
I couldn't hear all the lights change as he did, not beyond the first mile or so, but that was a mile past anything I'd heard before. Even so, my extended senses mutated as I used them, shifting into something that combined the information I was getting into a blend of them all. With my eyes closed, I could feel a pattern assembling within my mind, a virtual hologram, a dimensional, moving map that lit up as he named the intersections, zooming in for detail and back out again for a hawk's eye view. I wasn't just a guide, I was a living guidebook to the Great City.
Move over, city information bureau; tourists need not apply.
By the time he'd finished going to the city limits in all directions he was hard inside me again, and he opened his eyes. They glowed in the dim light of the loft.
"You were with me the whole way, weren't you?" he whispered. "I could feel it. Usually I know you're with me here, but not out there."
"Man. Talk about side effects." I was still keyed into the sound of a car four blocks away, and a cat pouncing on something smaller that squirmed in an alley over to the side. The cat finished the kill and licked its whiskers. Jim brushed his lips against my shoulder and neck to bring me back. "You think this is permanent, or only when we're joined?"
"If it's only like this, that'll be really interesting when we're working cases."
"Oh, yeah, I can just see Simon's face when we tell him we need to go enact a sacred ritual to get his answers for him."
"Just tell him it's mystical and he'll run the other way." He nuzzled my neck, and I tipped my chin back, feeling the brush of his lips on my throat echoing all the way down my spine. "You know, we'll have to do some tests."
"You want to do tests?" I rubbed my cheek with its nine-o-clock shadow against his face, like a cat, and felt something suspiciously like a purr rumble in his throat.
"Oh yes." He smiled that Jim Ellison smile that makes my heart expand. "Any time."
It was almost dawn when we finally let go of each other long enough to eat, but neither of us wanted the usual late night snack of leftover pizza or an early eggy breakfast. Instead, we put together a meal of whatever felt right: cheese, bread from the neighborhood bakery, grapes, new- harvest apples, the last quarter of a cantaloupe sliced thin and wrapped in left-over Italian prosciuto, and a bottle of red wine.
As Jim handed me the bottle I felt a tingle go through my hand from him and up my arm. Our eyes locked. I cast a glance around the loft; there. That would do.
I went to the side of the balcony doors where a ficus tree sat in its pot. Megan had given it to us as a present a while back; we moved it outside in summer and back inside in winter, and it grew green leaves and seemed happy there. Jim followed me, and I handed him the corkscrew. One eyebrow up, he opened the bottle and handed it back to me. I put his hand back on the bottle with mine, and tipped it to pour just a few drops into the soil at the base of the ficus.
They had ficus -- figs -- in ancient Greece. We didn't have an olive tree, or a laurel, or a grapevine. This would have to do.
"A libation to Dionysus and Apollo," I said aloud.
Jim nodded. He kissed me and we put the food on the coffee table and ate together as we watched the sun rise over the Great City.