The last couple of weeks have brought such incredible changes to my life, I hardly know how to begin describing them. It started with a trip back across the country to a place different from anywhere I’d ever been.
There’s no quick way to get to Selu. After you land in Greensboro, you drive past miles and miles of flat green fields with picturesque rolls of hay. If you come, as I did, in the fall, you pass beneath clouds of amber and crimson foliage. The houses get smaller and more infrequent.
You turn from the interstate onto state highways, then back roads until, if you don’t miss the sign as I did the first time, you’re bouncing down a dirt track, nothing more than a pair of wheel ruts leading through a cornfield. Finally you crest a hill and a cluster of vehicles comes into view, then log cabins, mud-and-wattle huts and cob houses scattered in the birch and pine. That’s Selu.
No one was around, so I parked my rental Concorde, its new white paint spattered with red mud, and stood next to it uncertainly. The place seemed so remote, so primitive, so nothing that I couldn’t imagine anything really good coming out of a visit there. I was just about to get back into the car, when a gray bearded man wearing blue jeans, sandals and a Peruvian poncho came out of the center log cabin.
Although I was expecting to see Leif, I didn’t recognize him at first. Superficially, not much had changed, aside from the graying of his beard and hair, the deepening of lines on his forehead, and a general thinning. It was more the way he moved that seemed unfamiliar; the Leif I remembered carried himself with an athlete’s casual power. This man put his feet down lightly, as if he didn’t want to make footprints.
“Adrienne?” he said, when he got within a few feet of me. Everyone else I’d met on this odyssey had hugged me as soon as we got close enough. Leif instead clasped both my hands in both of his. “I hardly recognized you,” he said.
“I cut my hair,” I joke.
“Yes, you did.” He looked into my eyes, as if trolling for my soul. Then he smiled with a softness I couldn’t remember from his intrepid face of the old days. My hands between his trembled a little and my breath came shorter as my old ambivalence about him surged. This was the man who had led our family into so much trouble, but also the man who had saved me from drowning.
“Well,” I said, pulling free. “Let me introduce my kids.”
I opened the car door and Dante and Chloe peered shyly at him. He smiled, more brightly. “Hello, I’m Leif,” he said. “What are your names?”
I answered for them.
“Dante and Chloe, welcome.” He held out his hand. “I understand you’ve come to visit for a while.”
Dante hesitantly clasped Leif’s fingers, then let go.
“We’ll just be here maybe one night, if that’s okay,” I said. “I tried to call you so I could see what your schedule was, but the woman who answered just kept telling me you didn’t want to talk on the phone, and we should come anyway. I hope it’s not an intrusion, and if it is you’ll let me know right away.”
He pulled his head out of the car to look at me. “Stay as long as you’d like.”
“We’d also be happy to stay in a hotel or something tonight. I don’t want to impose.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“I mean, if this is not a good time or whatever, just say so.”
“Adrienne.” He reached a slim hand out and touched my shoulder. I felt a charge of cool energy. “You’re welcome here.”
He gave a short nod. “Let me show you around.”
I unfastened Chloe from her booster seat and we three followed Leif to the heptagonal thatched building on a mound in the center of a clearing. Inside were concentric circles of benches with a fire pit in the center. Seven shaved tree trunks set in a circle held wooden beams that slanted to form a teepee-style cone-shaped roof, shingled with bark. “This is our Gatuyi,” he said, “where we hold ceremonies and meetings. It’s the oldest building in the community.”
There was no fire burning, but the place smelled of wood smoke. Facing the fire pit were three high-backed white chairs and behind them, fixed to the pillars, were boards painted in quarter moon and zigzag patterns. “Gatuyi is a Cherokee word,” Leif said, “essentially meaning ‘town hall.’ For the first seven years, a fire was kept burning here continually, day and night, according to the Cherokee custom.”
The strangeness of it all nearly overcame me. It was incongruous that someone I knew, who had been a part of my intimate daily life, had given everything up to play Indian full time. “I was just wondering,” I asked. “Why Cherokee? I mean as opposed to, I don’t know, Iroquois or Zulu or Serbo-Croatian.”
“The short answer is that the Cherokee set some good examples.”
“And the long answer?”
“The long answer is what you get if you stick around a long time.” He smiled.