"Smile Angel" is the working title of my new novel yet in manuscript form but submitted to a publisher for consideration. You are wekcome to read the beginning:
An unlikely Siren beckons someone to shore.
Churning waters veil an unforgiving reef.
Her hallowed invitation soars,
Enchanting an old sailor,
Drawn strong in joy,
Charmed toward jealous death;
Odysseus bound never had it so good.
In the spring of 2012 in Southeastern Pennsylvania, an angel appeared to a girl and her dog...
Hi. My name is Emmet McDuffy. Old childhood friends still call me Emmer. I have no idea how Emmet became Emmer. That's how things go. Maybe some kid did not hear my name right in grade school or my dad thought it was cute. Good old dad—I still wonder what ever became of him?
Emmet means ant in a Cornish dialect. Emmer is an ancient form of wheat cultivated by Babylonians. There's a wild disconnection for you, one that I finally discovered at age twenty when I was stationed in the Middle East!
I am an attorney and have been for nine years. I spent some of my youth in the armed services, did one tour in Afghanistan where I sustained a head wound—the gift of metal bits from an explosion I never saw or saw but cannot remember. You can see a three-inch scar on the right side of my forehead into the hairline. No hair grows in that old gash. Now and then, when my anxiety builds up, I go to a vet group rap session.
I wear my thinning, wavy auburn hair long. I tie it back with one of those simple, black elastic bands in my professional role, you know, when I am at the office or in court. The only jewelry I wear is an ivory and black onyx yin yang medal that hangs from a cord around my neck. It is one of the few things I own that belonged to my dad. I wear round, wire-rimmed glasses like my dad did. Not so subconsciously, I want to pretend he is yet in my life. I look like him, I suppose, so I see him in the mirror too, but he was a lot thinner than me when I last saw him when he was around thirty-one. I'm six feet two or so, maybe fifteen pounds over my slim, six-pack abs days—maybe twenty. I am forty-four years old at this writing, born in November in 1969 in New Jersey.
My parents were hippies. Mom grew up Jewish in Brooklyn but not as a believer. Her folks were Progressives—she said they joined the Communist Party in the Thirties. I never met her folks before they died. They did not like dad who may have been too progressive for them.
When I was ten, we were living in a propane-heated trailer just inside the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey. The Pine Barrens, for those of you that never heard of them (or missed that episode of The Sopranos), or the Pinelands contain a vast forest that stretches over seven counties in the flat, coastal plain. Much of it is swamp. Over one million acres is a pristine National Reserve, so designated by the U.S. Congress in 1978. It feeds one of the purest aquifers in America with rainwater filtered through sandy soil. As a matter of expedience, Mafioso transported and dumped murdered stiffs into the Barrens where they sunk in the swamps—so much for pure water, eh?
Mom and dad never wanted to be married and never did marry.
Dad was into Carlos Castaneda’s bogus Indian sorcery when mom met him. Dad never met the elusive author, but he read and believed the books as if they were about a real Indian. I never mentioned this in public before, but mom told me they were tripping on mescaline when I was conceived. In any case, I am not sure what that has to do with me—I was practically not there at all. Mom reassured me that she stopped all drug use when she found out she was pregnant. I want to believe her.
Dad was a dreamer, and maybe he was a little crazy. According to an old high school friend of his I met once, he was known as McDaffy. But, then again, crazy was hip during the late 1960s. On one occasion, I helped dad create a Jersey Devil costume—not the hockey team uniform—you know, that legendary bat-winged, two-legged, hairy man-beast that roams the Pine Barrens. The scary legend has been around for at least two hundred years. One version says it was a freaky, practically indestructible child born to a pioneer woman. Dad gave me twenty bucks to help film his charade with a 16mm camera as he dashed in costume among the trees and disappeared into a swampy thicket. He presented a fuzzy, fifteen second film clip to a local television reporter. The regional news ran with it as a human interest anecdote, as they might in Scotland with sightings of the Loch Ness monster or in Oregon of a Bigfoot.
I must admit, the images of our Jersey Devil on TV looked impressive. I was proud of my work. Credulous people came flocking to our home in the Barrens with cameras to interview us. Many overran the area hoping to score with their own pictures of a sighting. Mom refused to participate. The county sheriff put a stop to the parade of cars and foot traffic that trampled sensitive habitat. Dad finally fessed up, not liking the attention that often included ridicule—skeptics saw through it immediately.
My teachers were none too happy with me, but I was famous with the fifth grade fringe. I had my fifteen minutes of infamy—Andy Warhol once said everyone deserves fifteen minutes of fame.
My parents split apart for good by the time I was twelve. Dad disappeared in 1980 and his last note to mom was in 1981. Mom said he was on a quest after reading about a shaman in the Amazon. I once overheard her say that an anaconda strangled and ate him, but I never believed that. Or did she mean she hoped one did?
Mom sold our trailer home after our big mutt dog Tarzan was dying of cancer. He was skin and bones. It was awful. We could not afford treatment. We had to put him down ourselves and bury him. I shot him point blank in back of the head with dad’s shotgun. We moved to Camden. The fellow that bought our grungy trailer hauled it away to the county dump. He put up a fantastic A-frame in its place with exquisite landscaping. The place ended up looking like something out of Home and Garden magazine.
Thankfully, Mom landed a good job at a high-end restaurant in the city. We rented a half a double, two-story house in an old, ethnically and racially mixed neighborhood. Mom raised me alone from there and did her best as a pot-smoking waitress to give me a home until I signed up for the service. Mom took her social security early at 62 and moved in with her older cousin Joan in Arkansas a few years ago.
The military helped me reset my priorities. Boot camp blew out my childhood insecurities. My Purple Heart award got me some recognition and academic assistance. With the help of military benefits, I managed to finish college and law school at Rutgers where I met a fine Canadian girl and married her. She divorced me ten years ago. She said I drank too much and got violent once with her. I did and I am ashamed. I now live alone in a small, comfortable if messy apartment with a big flat screen television. My drinking is under control. I am too distracted anymore to keep a pet—not even a goldfish—and every plant anyone gave me as a gift died. My ex has our son and they live in Canada with her family; but enough about me.
This story is about Sirena Toth, a little girl—she was around eleven and small for her age—that I represented in a civil case recently. I want to tell her story while events are yet fresh in my mind and in my heart, and while I have access to witnesses and evidence. I have boxes of paper files, a flash drive with many images and documents, and several DVDs. She and her parents gave me permission to relay the story as best I can. In fact, they want the facts to speak for themselves, but facts, I have to admit, have a way of getting muddled in memory, from points of view, and through controversy.
For many reasons that will become apparent, this family, the Toths, no longer wanted to be personally involved in self-promotion. I take responsibility for this story about what happened after an angel appeared to Sirena at Indian Rock.
“Baggins, get back here you dumb dog. You’re not supposed be out today!” Sirena shouted breathlessly. The small-for-her-age, eleven-year-old with long, tied back black hair, limped her way up the rocky, wooded slope in sight of her pet bounding along a familiar trail. The morning sunlight streaked through the canopy of oak, ash, maple, walnut, beech, and hickory trees creating a flickering light effect on Sirena as she moved through one ray of sunlight after another. It was late spring and warm in hilly, southeastern Pennsylvania. New corn had broken ground surface. Birds had built their nests. The spring equinox had passed. Sirena lagged well behind the spunky Cocker-Jack cross. “Get back here, Baggins” she yelled again with all the breath she could manage.
Baggins was due for a routine examination and shots later that morning. Sirena figured that the dog knew it and slipped out the door. Veterinarian visits made him nervous. But that was not why he was running away. He was running toward something.
The mottled tan and white mutt led the way toward the ridge above a familiar, huge, gray boulder. Sirena and Baggins knew the rock site well. The rock with a domed top was easily eight feet across and nine feet to its base. From ages past, it had been exposed by erosion as an outcrop along a steep slope.
Before I continue with the rock event, I want to give you more background. This apparition occurred a little over two years after Ian Toth, Sirena’s dad, moved his small family to live in their old, stone farmhouse. The cozy home was forty yards off the main road and two hundred yards of rugged trail from the big rock. The four-bedroom, two-story house had many new features including newly installed, energy efficient windows and doors. Solar panels on the sloped roof supplemented power from the nuclear reactor twenty miles to the southeast. The house combined vintage features—original plank floors upstairs, nine-foot ceilings downstairs, claw foot tub in main bathroom, white ceramic doorknobs—with modern comforts like central air. Ian inserted a heat blasting Jotul F-500 wood stove into the original living area fireplace that had a white marble mantel.
Ian and his wife, Rani, appreciated Pennsylvania’s colonial heritage. They eagerly invested a portion of Ian’s inheritance into remodeling after purchasing the property from their elderly neighbor, Seth Prosser. Mister Prosser figures strong in this story. The big rock was just across the property line on Prosser’s land. Prosser was a second generation farmer on that land.
After sealing the house deal and saying goodbye to realtors, Prosser invited his new neighbors to walk with him to his farm and house for drinks and snacks. They hiked along a semi-worn trail through woods and a meadow for a quarter mile. The four new friends sat in a roomy, rustic kitchen to go over more details about the property. Sirena, then going on nine, was preoccupied with Mooch, Prosser’s orange tabby cat that rubbed against her leg. Mooch was the only barn cat among several on the farm that he allowed inside. All Prosser’s cats were neutered. Decades before, he made the mistake of letting his outdoor cats breed—no more. The house cat purred as Sirena scratched its head. Ian asked about the Native American rock site Prosser mentioned when they passed it during the hike.
Prosser hunched over a vintage, double-pedestal, maple dining table. He traced an imaginary path on its surface with his finger when he told the Toths, “I figured that the huge boulder was rolled into that position by the expanding Laurentide ice sheet and left there when it withdrew. It has not moved since.”
Prosser was a sturdy seventy-nine years old in 2012 when I knew him. He stood five feet, eight inches tall. He trimmed his thick gray hair in a crew cut, a style he retained since his service as an officer in the Navy. He continued to farm twenty of his forty acres to raise soy beans and feed corn for his small herd of beef cattle, several pigs, and two goats. He lived alone. The farm and government checks kept him going comfortably. His wife passed away from cancer ten years earlier. The Prossers only child, a daughter, died from leukemia when she was Sirena’s age. He naturally saw his daughter in her—his Laura also had long dark hair.
“That ice sheet was maybe a mile thick around these parts. Imagine that!” he exclaimed with his left hand held high above his head and eyes wide open for emphasis. “Huge boulders moved like grains of sand when that thing crept along. Locals started calling this one Indian Head Rock because when you see it from a lower vantage point, it has a rough but distinct profile of a bald man’s head. Local Indians used it as a ceremonial place.”
Prosser may have been wrong about the Laurentide sheet that reached only into northern Pennsylvania territory at its most extreme glaciations. He may have been closer to correct in saying that some form of major erosion sculpted, set, and exposed the rock. Prosser was quite the storyteller, not shrinking from embellishment.
“Does it look like an Indian? Sirena asked.
“Not so much, Siri. No feathers, no warpaint on it!” Prosser chuckled at his humor. “One anthropologist said the site was used by Indians many centuries ago. Could be thousands of years old,” he said. “The chiefs sat above the head there in the stone seats,” he said while tapping his finger on imaginary seats on the table.
Prosser was referring to a row of seats carved or chipped and fitted by aboriginals out of gray boulders that they imbedded along the hillside above the head.
“The seats might accommodate eight or nine elders from a tribe,” he said. “One university chap suggested that it might have been a sacrificial site, but no one found any old bones of animals or people—yet.”
He winked at Sirena. She half-smiled back.
“The rock head, however, was not carved or chipped by hand. It appeared to be a purely natural formation that adds to its magical presence. A large bowl-like depression, also natural, on top of the head may have served a ceremonial function. The entire setting spoke of ritual or ceremony to two anthropologists who studied it. Oh, if you go there, take a hammer with you. There is a spot around the forehead with high iron content—it’s a bit worn there. It rings like a dull bell when you strike it with a hammer!”
“That must have added some drama to the ceremony,” Ian noted with a smile. “I wonder what happened.”
“We can only imagine,” Prosser responded thoughtfully. “I don’t mind if you all go there, but I’d rather you not bring any visitors without my permission. Few people now living in the area know of Indian Rock, as we used to call it when I was a kid. No one gets to see it without my permission anymore.”
Seth Prosser protected his land and the site with no trespass and no hunting signs. Most of the property was not fenced. The semi-retired widower was the second generation owner. Mister Prosser, as everyone addressed him, allowed few people to see the Amerindian site since the late 1960s.
“Back in the day, groups of Beatniks,” Prosser said with emphasis, “with their romantic ideas about Indian culture, overran the place several times. They took their drugs and smoked their pot there. I was told they were doing a ceremony, but to me they were more like parties. I had enough of them after hearing complaints from neighbors. The last straw was when I had to rush one long-haired, skinny kid to a hospital after he fell off the rock and cut his head open. His dopey friends dumped him on my front porch, not knowing what else to do. I guess they were scared. They wrapped his bloody head in a tie-dyed under shirt.”
“I hope he was okay,” Rani remarked.
“Oh, he survived after a few stitches and a big headache. I tried to be tolerant of the kids. I was wild in my day too. But the liability was too much for me, you know?”
“I do not blame you for closing it,” Rani said. “Mister Prosser, tell us about your Indian heritage. I know so little about Indians in this area.” Rani noticed Prosser's native features, his broad face, strong nose, and light brown skin when they first met. The realtor told Rani that Prosser was an Indian.
“I have family roots in this part of Pennsylvania. My father was Welsh. I take after my mother more. My mother was full-blooded Lenape (pronounced le-NAH-pee). She was born in 1899 in the springtime or, as she put it, when robins laid eggs. No one recorded the exact date. As best I could determine, Lenape people last used the site before the 1800s. Neither mom nor dad had any idea it was here until I was a teenager, maybe thirteen. I found it when I was looking for a tree to build a tree house on. I got thirsty and stumbled onto the spring. From there I saw a huge rock below me that was the top of the head. When I jumped down onto the head, I turned and saw what looked like the seats.
“When I discovered it, in 1946, vines and shrubs covered a lot of it. There was no trail then. Dad's signs kept hunters and hikers away. I cleared it over a few of days of hard work. I got a good case of poison ivy rash for my effort, mostly on my face and hands. But the worst was my crotch, if you know what I mean, Ian?”
The men laughed. Rani merely shook her head. She expected no less from Prosser. In all innocence Sirena asked, “How did you get it on your crotch?”
Prosser glanced at Ian briefly for a permissive nod before stating, “The poison was on my hands when I stopped to pee in the woods, kid. Men have to hold theirs, if you know what I mean!”
“Oh, sure,” Sirena said flatly as she continued to pet the purring cat next to her chair.
Prosser’s cat jumped onto the table in front of Sirena. She reached out to stroke its back, but Prosser shooed it off.
“Down cat. Not now.” The cat dropped to the floor. “Sorry, I usually feed him up here when we eat breakfast together. He often sleeps up here.”
Prosser continued, “I took my mom down there. She had no idea what it meant or why it was there.”
Prosser paused to rub the white stubble on his chin. “Centuries earlier, her Algonquin-speaking ancestors thrived from Canada into Delaware.”
The farmer traced a large, invisible ellipse on the table. He used his index finger to indicate a route.
“Starting in the 1600s, the main tribes of Lenni Lenape, or the Real People, in the Delaware Valley migrated west and north after white settlers arrived. William Penn may have been fair to the Indians at first, but later the whites placed a bounty on rebel Indians. They were forced off traditional lands by bad treaties and greed on both sides.
“My father, a mining engineer from Wales, bought this land in 1919 shortly before he met my mother. She was a hostess and cashier at a diner. She was a plain looking woman with a big nose, but he thought she was pretty—that's how they met. She was living nearby in Allentown at the time. She hid her Indian identity from him for many years.”
“Why would she hide it, Mister Prosser?” Sirena asked.
“She was taught to be ashamed of it, Siri. Her given Indian name was Mahwah but school officials made her use Mary after she was orphaned. Most people thought she was a mixed black person. She was one of those kids forced to go to a government school, to speak English only. Her parents died from European diseases when she was seven or eight. She mostly forgot her native tongue. A generation later, she may have been one of the few, full-blooded Lenape left in these parts.”
Prosser liked the Toths or he would not have sold to them. He allowed Sirena and her parents to view his small but significant collection of Indian artifacts. His Indian heritage meant only as much to him as his Welsh ancestry. For a half-blood Indian, he had an odd connection to Indian culture, almost as a curious white man might. His mother rarely talked to him about Indians, from what I could determine. Hell, my crazy dad was more into Indian culture, even if it was fake, than Prosser was as a kid.
Now, we can get back to Sirena at the rock.
Sirena knew where Baggins was headed. Indian Rock was her favorite spot for playing picnic with her dog. Baggins looked forward to sharing snacks there. As she approached the site, she could see Baggins on top of the rock head. The dog did not appear to notice or hear her. “Baggins, don’t you move,” she said as she approached him with a woven leather leash in hand. The dog was statue still with head cocked as if fixated on something nearby. That something stood, or seemed to stand above a gurgling, spring-fed spill that looked like a miniature waterfall.
The slim, irritated girl was about to clip the leash onto the unmoving dog's collar when a glow in the pet’s line of vision startled her. She raised her eyes slowly. She noticed the bright shape emerging from the source of the spring above the spill. Cautiously, Sirena stood upright. The leash hung slack from her hand. Both dog and girl were gazing at the same thing. Sirena’s expression changed from surprise to wonder to awe and then to silent laughter as the light took form and spoke to her. During the minutes-long encounter, Sirena would answer, then giggle uncontrollably, yet not make a sound.
“Dad, I met an angel.”
Ian turned his head as he removed his tortoise shell eye glasses. He leaned and twisted sideways in his stuffed fabric recliner, the better to see his daughter. She stood in the foyer between him and the front door, her thin figure backlit and in silhouette. The bright early light surrounded her in a halo through the door’s oval window. Her long black hair hung behind in a braid. She had returned with Baggins who stood obediently by her side, happily wagging his stub.
“Glad you guys are back. We have to get going,” Ian said with emphasis. Then the angel statement hit him. “What did you say, honey?”
go to Aperture Press for more information about Mushroom Satori: The cult diary and more titles
Smile Angel is around 66,666 words now: 1/31/2014
The turtle plays a major role as a theme in this story: