Deep in the Shenandoah Valley, along west Virginia—not West Virginia, but the western edge of regular Virginia—stands a rock. The motionless ocean waves of the Blue Ridge Mountains resolutely dominate the horizon behind this rock, framing it; casting it forth toward the viewer who stands at the base of its shallow hill. The otherwise ever-present forests of that region keep a respectful distance from the hill, leaving a wide circle of open slope so that it is impossible to sneak up on the rock. No matter who you are, no matter how skilled you might be at the arcade or with a skateboard, that tall wise stone immediately demands your attention as you stumble into its clearing and freeze in place with awe. Only once you have paid it deference may you slowly approach. Your friends might jeer at you, but they, too, will make the journey up the slope in silent apprehension. I know this to be true because I myself froze with awe, gulped awkwardly, and began trudging up toward that rock in the late summer of 1998. My friends, Owen and Cora, initially made fun of me—but then followed in silence just the same.
We had no idea it was one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
There was a certain hesitation once in range, as if it would have been rude to step too close. I reached out my hand, lost my balance a little, and then found it again by flattening my palm on lichen-spotted stone. I looked up in fear, but the rock just continued to gaze calmly out over the world. I had the distinct impression I was just a blip hardly worthy of notice in its centuries-long vigil.
Owen slapped a mosquito on his arm, but his eyes were on me. "It zappin' you or anything?"
"Nah." I pulled away and reeled a little with the force of the motion needed to right myself without stepping closer to the rock. Afternoon yellow gave way to a touch of evening gold as I studied the shadow lengthening out the way we had come. "What was the full dare again?"
Hands on her hips, Cora scanned the tree lines below our position. "Stay all night, like Deganawidah did."
Owen narrowed his eyes at her. "Deganawa did what now?" He made a face. "Day-ganawa-did... Day-wa-gonna-did..."
"Deganawidah," she said again bluntly. "That's the Iroquois that carved his name on this rock. He was a teenager, like us, doing this same dare."
"I'm not a teenager," Owen shot back. "I'm twelve."
"Yeah, well I'm thirteen. That counts!"
"What about him?"
I scoffed. "I turn thirteen in twenty-five days. That's close enough, so I count too. That means we have more teenagers than not, so we are like that Degan guy. And we can do this. We're not chickens." I slung my backpack on the ground and pulled out the scant camping supplies I'd been able to grab without my parents noticing. "We are not going into high school known as chickens."
It was an ironclad argument, and Owen had no choice but to concede the point and join me in setting up. I'd brought the tent from my attic, and he and I fought against uncooperative bendy rods for a solid fifteen minutes before we made real progress. Meanwhile, Cora pulled a thick book out of her backpack and stood in warm gold light while peering alternately at the rock and at the page under her thumb. "I... arrived... a place..." She paused, flipped back and forth through the book, then said, "I came to this place..."
Owen grumpily raised his foot to punt the tent, but turned and kicked the air instead. Giving up for the moment, he turned and asked her, "Is that Indian writing on there?"
"They're called Native Americans."
"Well, did they have writing or not?"
"Only one tribe did." She began to circle the rock. "Their alphabet was made of the syllables they spoke, but written down, so I have to compare eighty-six different symbols. One for every syllable." She moved repeatedly to get her own shadow out of the way of the carvings.
Owen looked at me, but I just shrugged. She'd found an expert excuse not to help us set up. While the sun fell, we forced the tent into a reasonable approximation of a dome and stomped the pegs down at regular spots around it. As we circled and gave down high-kneed stomps, our setting of the pegs became an impromptu dance, and Owen fanned his hand over his mouth to make a classic Indian call.
We thought we were hilarious, but Cora was not impressed. "Guys, stop messing around. The story on this rock is hella weird."
Owen went over to look at it, but I hung back as an uncommon chill seemed to settle over the world. Virginia was a hot, humid, and miserable environment in summer, but sunset's breeze had brought a momentary icy bite. I followed that unseen wind with my eyes as dark gold became amber shadows. Some of the hills along the way we had hiked were still blazing to behold, but our slope was eclipsed by the Blue Ridge Mountains themselves. I glanced back their way just in time to see the crown of the tall wise rock go dark like an extinguished candle. At that instant, a flash of bright red hit the corner of my left eye.
I looked out along the treetops as they swayed in the soft winds of twilight, but there was no sign of red. I chalked it up to a brief reflection of the colors of the sun. What else could it have been?
Cora got out a flashlight and held it against her shoulder with her neck as she checked and re-checked the long engraved scrawl that circled the stone.
Owen got his flashlight, too, and tried to make sense of the carvings. "What's it say?"
"I mean, I hope I'm getting this right, but it's the story of what happened here." She frowned down at her book and used one hand to dig in her pocket and get a pen. As she wrote, she said aloud, "He came to this valley on the tall places of the hot days..."
Frowning, I suggested, "The heights of summer?"
"Probably something like that." She looked up and focused her flashlight on the stone. "And he found a place where the trees hid."
Owen angled his flashlight around us in an arc, highlighting the slope and the abrupt tree lines that began at its base. Where his circle of light fell, greyscale dimness became colorized greens and browns. "That's here, isn't it? The trees are all facing the other direction, like they're trying to get away."
At first, I laughed. "Like trees can face a direction." But when my flashlight joined his, I saw what he meant: the canopy closest to us was sparse, and the branches were all angled up and away, spreading further back into the forest. "Dude."
"But my vision quest had led me. I had to defeat the challenge to become a man," Cora continued, scribbling and peering. "So I entered the place of strangeness."
The sound of a twig snapping emanated from somewhere to our left, and Owen and I both jumped before sending our beams in that direction. We stared into the tree line, but saw nothing. He made a pfft noise and shrugged it off.
"While the sun was high, I was safe, but at night's descent—" She paused.
Together, Owen and I asked, "At night's descent what?"
She shook her head, sending her flashlight beam jumping. "He just carved his name again. I'm not sure why." Turning back to the rock, she continued, "I built a fire, and lay to sleep."
Acrid warmth and the distant scent of smoke passed my senses.
Beside me, Owen scrunched up his face with worry and confusion.
Lowering my voice, I said, "Uh, Cora. Do you smell that? It's like a campfire."
She did. Crossing back and forth past the stone, we surveyed the entire hill.
"There!" Owen approached a blackened circle in the low wild grass. "Was this here before? Tell me this was here before and we just didn't see it."
We stood encircled, first shining all three of our beams on the ashen remains, then turning to scan the deepening night.
Cora insisted, "Yes. It had to have been here before. We just missed it."
I was unconvinced, but it wasn't entirely implausible. The grass was wild and ankle-high, and we'd been squinting into the setting sun. Shakily, I offered, "I'm sure people come to camp here all the time. It's a natural spot."
Owen begrudgingly bought that, and Cora was happy to take that reasoning and return to the stone. As I watched her walk toward it, a blue flash of light hit the corner of my right eye. Turning suddenly, I sought the source, but there was nothing out there. Once during sunset was just a coincidence, but this second occurrence—and now with the sun deep behind the mountains—put me greatly on edge.
"I slept, seeking... orenda?" Cora aimed her light at her book. "Orenda..."
I turned to look at Owen, but he was turning and looking at me. As the echo of that called-out word lingered in my ears, I realized I didn't recognize the voice. It was male, but it wasn't his, and it wasn't mine.
There was someone out there with us.
Cora slowly looked up from her book as she, too, realized what she'd just heard.
I stood absolutely still and silent, turning my flashlight this way and that. They did the same. My heart raced in my chest as the sheer terror of that moment built and built until I thought I would scream. We were out in the woods on some stupid dare. No one had any idea where we were. Each of our parents thought we were sleeping over at someone else's house. If there was someone in the dark nearby, hiding among the trees, watching us—
"It was an echo," Cora finally said hesitantly. "Yeah. An echo."
Owen breathed out a big sigh of relief. "It just sounded different because of the rocks and trees and stuff."
I chose to accept that outwardly, but I was not relieved. "Can we leave that stone alone now? We are not helping ourselves by reading those carvings."
They obliged, but we were left with a powerful sense of unease. We certainly couldn't hike back to civilization at night, so our only choice was to climb into the tent, zip everything up, and hope there wasn't really anyone out there. If there was, we had to hope it was just a prankster. Yeah, I liked that idea. Maybe it was one of the older kids that had dared us to do this. Sure, they'd spooked us, but now they had to sit out in the creepy woods at night all alone.
At some point, as I sat listening to every rustle and snap outside, I looked to my left—and saw myself. I was sleeping sitting up, back to Owen and Cora, who had also fallen asleep. They, too, were outside themselves, and we stood up in confusion together. Somehow, we moved right through the tent, and we were able to see the slope and the stone. Stranger still, the colors were all wrong. The wild grass glowed dimly, the tall wise rock was bright and free of lichen, and the stars were purple.
Around the curve of the hill, where we'd seen the ashes, there now flickered a low campfire. A young man lay sleeping, but also standing above himself, and his gaze turned upon us with surprise.
A flash of red light somewhere nearby caused me to startle awake, and Owen and Cora began to move because of me. Before I even had a chance to process what I'd seen, I realized aloud, "The light is coming closer..."
"Alright, what the heck is goin' on here?" Owen demanded, his voice tinged with overt fear. "You guys saw that, right?"
"That guy?" Cora asked, her eyes haunted above a suddenly lit flashlight. "That was super freaky."
"That had to be him, right?" Owen asked, looking to me. "Day-ganawa-dude. How did we see him? How did we see each other?!"
Cora was unzipping the tent and dashing out into the night before we could say anything. Following her, Owen and I shined our lights around guardedly while she began study the stone again. "This orenda thing," she said hurriedly while glancing down at her book. "It means essence or spirit or dream world."
Owen stared. "As if!"
"I'm serious. And this next row of carvings says: in orenda, I saw three strangers, arrived to witness my challenge with the black snake."
"The black snake?!"
On a strange notion, I walked slightly away from Owen and Cora as they continued to argue over the meaning of that particular string of words. My subconscious had been nagging me for quite some time, and I was overcome with a feeling that I needed to decipher the source of the strange lights out in the forest before it was too late.
I took a step back while staring down. "Guys, I don't think Deganawidah is going to beat that black snake." They came over and stared with me. There, in the loam, was the upper portion of an open-mouthed skull. It was the first time I'd ever seen death in real life, rather than on television, and I shuddered to think that a human being had actually died, fallen there, and then sunk into the soil over the years.
"Do you think we should warn him?" Owen asked.
Cora snorted. "He's been dead for like five hundred years. How could we possibly warn him?"
"I dunno. Maybe we could see him in our dream again."
"I'm not falling asleep on purpose out here. Do you want to?"
Owen shook his head at that idea.
Somewhere out across the hill, I heard the vague sounds of someone talking in a despairing tone. "You guys hear that?"
They did, but it faded before we could figure out what was being said.
Cora returned to the stone and began reading aloud, "In my dream, a red snake came in peace as a friend and said, another will come to warn you."
I circled the base of the hill, looking for more evidence of what was happening and nervously checking the tree line every few seconds. As I grew near the far end of the clearing, I could almost hear that despairing tone emanating as a whisper on the wind. There was no one standing there, not even a shadow, but I could swear I was hearing an adult man sighing and saying, "It's not the first time." Every few seconds, he would sigh and say it again.
Sigh. "It's not the first time..."
Sigh. "It's not the first time..."
Huddled near Cora on the hill, Owen demanded, "What is this place?!"
Continuing to slowly translate line by line, she said, "An age passed, and I remained guarded by the stone. A snake approached and hissed the promised warning. This snake was blue."
Stopping in my tracks, I looked up at my friends and the beam-lit stone that crowned the hill.
"It said, another will come, but not neutral like I am. The black snake is the utmost enemy, and you will not survive its arrival."
Too many puzzle pieces were floating around my head. We were stuck here because of that number one rule: never try to hike through the forest at night. We were held back from sheer panic by the odd nature of the happenings here: no clear danger had presented itself. The plan was simply to put up with the weirdness until dawn, but the puzzle pieces... they didn't make one cohesive picture. If those pieces had come in a box like a real puzzle bought at the store, I couldn't imagine one single image on the front of that box. I'd realized that impossibility when Cora had spoken of the red and blue snakes. Maybe they fit the flashes of light I'd seen, but that still left the unknown man sighing and saying It's not the first time.
What if it was not just one puzzle?
"The black snake will be heralded by a cold wind," Cora continued. "The more important piece of courage—"
She stopped as a tide of chill air came upon us. The trees began to writhe like a circle of mad dancers.
Owen screamed over the din, "Stop reading it!"
"It can't be that," she shouted back. "It's just a rock with words cut into it! We have to know what to do! We have to see how his story turned out!"
"But if he died," Owen shrieked at her. "Then who carved the story?"
It's not the first time...
Who would be saying a phrase like that with a heavy sigh?
How would anyone know what to carve in the stone if Deganawidah had died?
And if he hadn't died...
That was the first moment in my life that my brain sparked with something more than the ideas given to me by others. In my scant nearly-thirteen years, I'd learned from teachers, my parents, older kids, books, and television. Somewhere in the long dark of that night on that hill, I had my first vision outside the box of my life. "What if it's not his name?"
Cora shouted down, "What?"
I ran up at her, yelling, "You said you didn't understand why he wrote his name again. What if it's not his name? What does that word actually mean?"
Grasping the book tight, she flipped frantically as the wind became forceful and downright freezing. Finding the definition, she looked up at us in terror. "It means... Two Rivers Flowing Together."
Of course. That was the key. The name of the place was a literal description of what was horribly wrong with it. I grabbed each of my friends by the wrist and pulled them. "We gotta go!"
Owen resisted. "We can't hike out there at night! We might get hurt!"
I pulled myself right up against his face in the gale-force winds. "If we stay here, we are going to die!"
"You don't know that!"
"Yes, I do!" I screamed in his face. Behind him, I could see that young man from our dreams beginning to appear like a flickering silhouette. He watched us with equal confusion and awe while I pointed at him. "He doesn't die here! We do!"
Owen didn't understand, but Cora sort of did; she dropped her book on the ground and helped me drag him forward. As we ran down the slope, I looked back and saw that translucent young man taking heed from us. He ran the other direction, bolting into the forest—and all of us hit the tree line just as a monstrous silhouette slithered into the open and up the hill at terrifying speed. From the single glimpse of it I got, I saw that it was at least as tall as that stone and long enough to coil around the hill multiple times. A massive raised head darkened the stars, and a shadow tongue flickered out, searching for us.
We ran through the pitch black forest together, flashlights pointed forward and our heads down because we feared branches. The woods at night could be incredibly dangerous, but all we could do was flee in panic. Was it following? There was no way to know. Even at that enormous size, it had all the stealth grace of a snake, and it was as dark as the night. If it had caught our scent or heat, we would never see it coming.
So, we ran.
At the absolute limit, when every muscle in our bodies burned and we could hardly breathe enough to stay conscious against the inner tide of desperate exhaustion, we finally fell to the leafy ground between several high walls of roots.
We couldn't talk. We couldn't think. We just panted, gripped the ground, and stared out into the night for any sign that we were about to die. Tears ran down Owen's red face, and Cora glared angrily out at every shadow, but I chose to believe that we would live because we had chosen to leave the clearing. We sat in our hiding spot until the world went from pitch black to greyscale.
Finally, Owen cleared his raw throat and asked, "How did you know?"
"I saw red and blue flashes of light," I breathed.
Cora nodded. "Like the warning snakes!"
"No." I shook my head tiredly. "No. Like the flashing lights on a police car."
Owen narrowed his eyes. "What?"
"The cops were there because it was a crime scene."
I looked him right in the eyes. "Not yet. After. While I was walking around the base of the hill, I heard someone. I think it was a cop talking about what happened. He was telling our story, or at least what it looked like happened to us."
"It's in the name." Cora stared down at the leafy ground. "Rivers That Run Together. Somehow, at night, the stories there happen at the same time. Like a fragmented dream."
Owen stared at us like we were crazy for a moment, but he had no better explanation. "So the skull...?"
I nodded, but that just made me think of my head—and the bones within it. "It came from one of us."
We had enough strength to begin the walk home soon after. We wouldn't enter high school known as chickens, so we at least had that, but we never told anyone about what happened that night. Being young, Owen and Cora bounced back pretty quickly, and eventually considered the whole thing a game we'd played to frighten ourselves. Not me, though.
About two years before that night, I'd fallen down the stairs and cracked my brow above my right eye. It had been a long and painful healing process, but I'd gotten through it. That night on the hill, it hadn't registered with me until I got home: that skull in the dirt had a distinct discoloration in the bone above its right eye socket.
In a place where stories run together, I saw my own skull. I saw my own personal Death lying there quietly in the dirt, a fate which will eventually happen to me later even if it doesn't come sooner. Thinking about that might drive a man mad. For a time, I thought it would be impossible to live my life having stared Death in the face like that. Nothing matters in the face of inevitable silence.
But just as often, I think about the last phrase Cora had begun to translate, the one containing the wisdom Deganawidah's vision quest had taught him. The more important piece of courage—or, rather, the better part of valor—is discretion. Instead of ignoring the warnings and staying to fight because he thought it would make him a man, he took our example and chose a smarter path. Apparently, according to the history books, he went on after that to become a great peacemaker.
And toward the end of his life, he had the Oneida tribe, his new allies, the people of the Standing Stone, erect a marker at the place where he earned his name. It was they who carved his story into it, using symbols from a private book he never let anyone else read while he was alive.
Deganawidah went on to do great things, but he, like everyone else, ended up dead. Stories that go on long enough always have the same ending.
So, instead of obsessing over my own mortality day in and day out, I choose to run away. I know my fate, and all our fates. I know I'm going to die someday and wind up lying in the dirt eaten by worms—but it doesn't bother me, because I just don't think about it.
You should try it. I guarantee somewhere out there, in some place or time, someone is telling your story, too. It's happening right now, at this very moment.
To them, we're long gone.