About three months ago, my brother Wendell went off his medications. A couple weeks later, he put the barrel of his revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger, because he could not take the voices anymore. After his funeral, of which I was the only one in attendance, I came out there to Star Lake in the Adirondacks to chill out as they say. The cabin that sits on the north shore of the lake has this window. My first night in the cabin a full moon crossed the window casting silver light on the black water, creating a postcard panorama, but there was this wind that sounded like whispery voices passing through the pine trees.
“Devin, hey Devin, why didn’t you come when I texted you?”
“Devin, it’s me, your brother Wendell.”
Sleep did not come easy to me that night despite the absolute stillness and silence of this remote location. Reaching over, I grabbed my medicine bottle of Xanax and swallowed down two without water.
Later after I managed to doze off, I was awakened by someone touching my shoulder and gently nudging me, but there was no one there as the early morning sun peeked at me through the trees.
There are a lot of things I have to do when I get back to settle my late brother’s estate, but for the next three days, I intend to be left alone as I need to work out some things in my own head.
Mom needed medication, too. One night she took a whole bottle of medication for sleep and never woke up. I think that is what she planned to do. Dad had left, because he couldn’t take anymore of her craziness. He wasn’t very educated and seeing what mental illness could do to a person was more than he could handle.
Wendell was my younger brother and he was as smart as anyone I knew. He landed a full ride scholarship to Cornell, but in his second year there, he had his first psychotic break. When they finally found him, he was living in an underground shelter he had dug himself. No one even noticed him doing it. Goes to show you that in places where there are a lot of smart people, does not mean they notice the strange goings-on of a person who is losing their grip on reality.
Growing up with Wendell was not easy. I’m not asking for pity or anything like that, just an acknowledgement that besides his mental illness, Wendell was a mathematical genius who would go on to become a professor at Cornell until he had another break that put him in the hospital for months after he tried to kill his supervisor for some off-handed comment about the shirt Wendell was wearing.
It was like that, one minute he was the smartest man in the world, the next, he was unable to control his impulses.
“Why am I here?” He sat in his bed.
“Because he tried to kill Professor Kaskinski.” I answered sitting in the visitor lobby with him. He was dressed in a gown where the back is all tied up. That was supposed to discourage the patient from running. Did not seem like enough, but who am I to say?
I put a couple of sticks on the fire that seems to be more smoke than flame. The wood around here is sometimes too damp to catch, but I keep trying. I have some good pieces stacked in the pot-belly stove. It has a dual purpose of keeping the chill out of the air in the cabin and cooking my dinner at the same time. It can get quite chilly up here even in the middle of summer which is why a lot of folks in the city come up here to begin with.
I have a stew mix I bought at one of those outdoor stores where all you do is add hot water and it becomes your dinner.
“Where is your brother, Devin? I told you to keep an eye on him. You know how he likes to just wander off on his own.”
The window no longer shows the scenic view of Star Lake instead in the blackness, shapes and forms twist into an uncertain reality in the reflection of the glass. There are patterns as faces seem to form and then melt away.
I remember at camp when I was a boy, one of the councilors was an Iroquois storyteller who told a story about the window of the lost souls. His deep voice seemed to fill my head with images of people who died and were left to wander the wilderness lost in search of a portal to heavens. In their searching, some of the unfortunate souls encountered a wolf. The wolf would drag them unwillingly to the Underworld where they would suffer the pain of Hell. “Not all who leave this world will find their way into the peaceful place in the next.” He concluded.
I did not sleep that night as I lay in my tent with three other scouts. My eyes staring into the opaque darkness unable to see the roof of the canvas tent.
Windows of the lost souls.
Suicide is a sin.
Suicide keeps us from entering Heaven. That’s what Father Jack Solden told us at Sunday School. He used dark images to scare us into compliance. Wendell was with me and after hearing old Father Jack rant about the evilness of suicide, he had his first anxiety attack.
In the window, I can see his brown eyes.
What do you want from me, Wendell?
Why won’t you leave me alone?
Mom sent me. I am lost. There is a wolf out here stalking me.
His image blurs on that and when I blink, I can see Star Lake through the window. The moonlight reflects in the lake like slivers of light in the black water.
The stew is ruined by the water as the gravy clumps and the meat chunks do not have any distinguishable flavor. But I am hungry and I eat the bowl of stew without regard to flavor. It doesn’t matter.
My dreams are punctuated with dealing with doctors and care providers for Wendell. Once he had one of his episodes, as I used to call them, I would have to make sure he was cared for since he was unable to do it for himself. Not only unable, but unwilling as well at times.
“I won’t go and you can’t make me.” He sat cross legged in the middle of his empty living room.
“You have been living in this house without heat or running water.” I explained as a police officer stood on either side of me, “I’ve seen the bathroom. I nearly vomited.”
“There is no law against how I am living, is there officer?” He looked at one of the police officers.
It took a taser and then another. I was afraid his heart was going to stop, but it didn’t.
Next morning, I hiked one of the trails near the lake. The rocky trail led me into a rather steep ascension on a mountain ridge. When I got to the trail end, the complete view of the unfolded lake before me. Shaped like a five point star, I now understood how the lake got its name. As I stood there admiring the view, a cool wind raced over the rocks and through the trees. As soft as an angel’s whisper, I began to hear a name from the past.
He fell in love just before his break with Gretchen Cassidy. I have often felt that it was the trigger on his first psychotic break. Love and other strong emotional reactions can echo inside your head like a cool mountain breeze, triggering a cascade of feelings that will bury under an avalanche. She fell for him, but the paranoia he encountered that told him she was seeing someone else, nearly cost Gretchen her life.
“I saw you with some guy the other night.” He shrugged as they sat drinking coffee at the student center.
“What guy? I wasn’t with some other guy.” She shook her head.
“I saw you.” His voice raised a full octave.
“Are you sure it was me? I was in the library.” She was concerned about his temper and for good reason as he had used on her before.
“It was you. I’m sure of it.” His face turned red and she knew what was coming next.
“Maybe I’d better leave.” She stood up ready to walk out the door, but he tripped her. She fell hard on the floor. One of the students at a nearby table came over.
“Are you alright, miss?” He asked.
“Is this him?” Wendell raved pointing his finger at the student, “Is this the guy you’ve been seeing?”
“Are you nuts?” The student asked not knowing that this was one of his triggers. Wendell hit the student in the side of the head with his metal tray.
“Stop it!” Gretchen yelled at him and the next swing caught her right above her eye.
I wish I could have seen what else took place, but I got the call from the hospital telling me he had been admitted. Gretchen had a fractured eye socket and was resting in her dormitory. She would never be able to see clearly out of that eye for the rest of her life.
“I didn’t mean to hurt her.” He had his head in his hands.
“You nearly killed Kyle O'Reilly.” I sighed.
“Who is that?” His hoarse voice squeaked.
“The boy you attacked with the tray.” I answered.
“Well he was seeing Gretchen.” Wendell’s voice hardened.
“He didn’t even know her.” My voice rose to meet his rising emotional response.
“I saw him.” His voice became thin again.
“No.” I shook my head.
“Why am I here?” He began to sob.
“Because you attacked two people. Assault.” I folded my arms across my chest.
“I was defending what was mine.” He scowled.
“You’re right on that. What was yours? Gretchen filed for a restraining order.” I nodded.
“So she can see that other guy, right?” His sobs became even deeper.
I felt sympathetic watching him sitting on his cot, sobbing like a baby, feeling as if the world was out to get him. I was his big brother. I was supposed to be looking out for him, but I wasn’t doing such a good job.
Why didn’t he call me before he put that gun in his mouth?
What difference would it have made, I suppose?
He had his mind made up.
I yelled out an obscenity that echoed all the way into the valley.
When I returned to the cabin, I got in my car and drove to the Corner Market to buy something frozen to eat for dinner. The stew played havoc with my stomach and I wanted something that resembled food.
I picked out some mac and cheese and a couple of hot dogs, but the truth was, those hot dogs would most likely not make it all the way home. I was hungry and the aroma was hitting me just right. Next I got one of those super sized sodas and filled it with ice and soda.
I was right about the hot dogs.
The mac and cheese would finish off my ravenous hunger and the soda would be my nightcap. I was tuckered out from the hike and would most likely hit the hay when I finished the soda.
Oh, if it were only that easy.
As I finished my soda, the window of the lost souls took me to a dark place.
I found her. She had been dead for over six hours and rigor mortis was setting in. A smile was frozen on her face and she was lying on the sheets, naked. It was more than a sixteen year old boy should have to take.
A nice lady who was working for the state took us to a shelter. Wendell kept asking a lot of questions.
“Where is mom?” He kept asking, “What have you done with her?”
The nice lady kept asking me questions, but Wendell made things difficult with his constant jabber.
“Wendell, keep your mouth shut!” I finally yelled at him. Everyone in the immediate area stopped what they were doing and looked at me. Wendell started crying and I began to get that ice cold feeling in my gut. Guilt was crawling out of my skin.
Two years later, when I turned eighteen, I moved out of foster care and took Wendell with me. I made sure he stayed in school and looked as though he was taken care of, but the real truth was, we were struggling. I just didn’t want to go back into foster care, because we had been separated and I did not want that.
Sure, it wasn’t easy, but I made it right. He got the scholarship and I went on with my life.
I was dozing sitting on the deck in front of the cabin when a man began setting wood in a burn pit a few yards from the cabin.
“Hey!” I called out to him, but he did not turn to look at me. I got up from my chair and began to walk toward him. “What are you doing?”
“I thought it was pretty obvious.” He continued to stack wood in the pit.
“Why are you here?” I asked with an edge to my voice.
“I’m Mr. Sampson, I own this place.” He turned and smiled at me as he put his Bic lighter to the paper he had placed below the pyre he had built in the pit.
“Oh, so you are Mr. Sampson.” When I rented the place, I used my credit card to pay for the four days I’d be here to a Mr. Sampson.
“I am a shaman and I am on the lookout for the lost souls who wander these hills.” He sat on a crude bench near the now blazing fire and put his hands out to the fire. “Have you noticed seeing anything unusual in that window in the cabin?”
He invited me to sit on the bench with him and as I did, I affirmed, “Yes, there have been some strange things that have appeared in that window.”
“They are the lost souls and they are looking for me to help them.” His long black hair was now peppered with gray, his smile was as wide as the lake, and the deep lines etched in his dark face was like a road map of the long journey he had been on.
From the darkness between the trees, they came, the lost souls. He stood up and addressed them. “I am pleased that you found your way to my fire.”
They kept coming out of the woods. Must have been a hundred or more.
“Don’t be afraid.” He told them.
“We have come as we were told to do.” One of them spoke.
“And we shall find what you have come for.” He said in a soothing voice.
“Devin?” I heard one of them call out.
“Wendell?” I answered when I saw him step from the gathering. He ran to me and we embraced.
“I wished you had come. The voices got so bad.” He began to sob into my shoulder.
“I wish I had, too.” I sighed, “Mr. Sampson is here to guide you.”
“Come before the white wolf finds you.” Mr. Sampson said as his ceremonial shirt began to glow like a lantern in dark woods. With a wave of his hand, they began to follow him swallowed up by the darkness of the night.
“You’d better go.” I told Wendell.
“Yeah.” He nodded, “I don’t hear any more voices.”
“That’s good.” I could feel tears running down my cheek.
“Send you a postcard.” I heard him chuckle and then he was gone.
The next morning I woke up after sleeping for almost twelve hours, made a quick breakfast, packed my gear, and drove away with one final glance in the rear view mirror.
What I had witnessed was a miracle of sorts. It was no accident that I had come to this place where there was a window of the lost souls.
I felt relieved that Wendell had found Mr. Sampson. I hoped his journey had gone well and he was no longer lost. I hoped mom found Mr. Sampson. He was ageless afterall, a faithful shaman guide for all lost souls.