I recently moved to a beautiful, airy, light-filled home high in the hills above Mt. Shasta town. I’m a few feet away from the National Forest. Two and a half acres of delicious solitude, a long, sandy driveway, an oasis of quiet except for the occasional flower-eating deer, scurrying squirrels dancing on the roof, and yes, a hungry bear sidling up to the porch in search of bear treats.
These are sounds I adore, feeling a communion with the natural world, this human form just another visitor, a participant in this wild, mysterious life cycle.
But then… one night, as I crawled into bed in my cosy loft, window oozing out onto Holy Mountain, I heard a distinct cough just beyond the window. It must have been close to midnight. I was intimate with the sounds of my animal friends, and this was different: very definitely a throaty, long, labored man’s cough. I lay in the dark for a few minutes, just to see if I had in fact imagined it. The mind can dream up strange things, I know. But no, there it was again, a cough ringing through the air like rusty church bells. It seemed so close, barely a few feet beyond the wall, which I was beginning to feel was made of flimsy paper and not mortar.
Suddenly, I realized how isolated I was, or so it felt at that moment. I hadn’t met any of the neighbors and besides, there stood dozens of trees and trails and brush between us. Why hadn’t I introduced myself when I moved in? As I lay there, my heart pounding, I scrolled through all the people I knew whom I could call.
Crawling out of bed and quietly as I could navigating the stairs in the dark, I went in search of my phone. Calling my closest friend who lived half an hour away in the logging town of Weed, I walked from room to room, trying to see outside but all was quiet, except for that cough that seemed to grow louder each time.
“Call the police,” my friend advised. I didn’t want to do that. By the time they’d find me up here in the wilds, I could be dead.
“Okay,” my friend sighed, hefting himself out of bed where he’d been on the verge of sleep. “I’ll come. Stay with me on the phone, all right?”
And I listened as he walked out his front door, heard the purr of the car engine starting up, a familiar, comforting sound. All the while, I was peeping through windows like a caged animal, poised to either flee or pounce.
“I’m just getting on the highway now,” my friend gave me a running commentary of his whereabouts, and his voice soothed some old trembling inside. I’d never had fear of animals, having come across a cougar last year in the middle of the road. The vision of such untamed, regal beauty electrified me. I’d nuzzled with wild horses, had hummingbirds rest on my head. We were family, that seemed clear. But strange people in the middle of the night… now that was another story.
Perhaps this visceral fear that clutched at my innards harkened back to my childhood – memories of intense and unwelcome violence had resurfaced a decade ago and while I left the world for seven years (which was really one long, dark, grueling night) in order to really meet that past this time around, and had learned to embrace and love and see through it, still some latent anxiousness seemed to linger.
My spiritual teacher has always emphasized how everything in the phenomenal world is a direct reflection of what’s occurring inside, and I have seen it to be true myself many times. Back in the days when memories were flashing onto the screen of awareness at lightning speed – it was almost like living in stereo: the past wedged up against the present – I’d go for a walk in a park or some public place and men would flash at me.
Then, a few years later, my teacher remarked, “that doesn’t happen to you any more, does it?” And I realized the bulk of the work had been done. The reflection of my past was dying out.
And yet here, now, all these years later, here it was again: that old threat hovering, brooding, close as the breath.
“I’m on Shasta Boulevard now,” my friend updated me.
Which end, I wondered. It’s a long road. God, I wished the neighborhood bear would come foraging again.
“I’m at the bottom of your hill, sweetie, soon you’ll hear the sound of the car.”
When my friend finally arrived, hair askew, teddy bear pajamas hanging off him, we went out on the deck but saw nothing but the night sky streeling with stars. He offered to stay in the guest bedroom and as we were hugging goodnight, we both heard it: the same loud, long, ominous cough. It was definitely not the sound of an animal.
My friend stood back, and I swear I saw a look of fear in his eyes, even as he stroked my arm and assured me everything was going to be all right.
I shuffled up the stairs by flashlight and slid a video of my spiritual teacher into the computer by my bed. If I die tonight, I thought, let his be the last image I see…
The sun woke me next morning. My friend has risen early and slipped off home. I got up and went outside and everything felt different in the light of day. No hovering dark, no coughing, just the winsome sound of birds chirping.
My spiritual teacher soon arrived for the meditation session we’d scheduled at my house. I told him about what had happened and he sat quietly for a while. “Nothing is going to harm you any more,” he said. “This is just bringing up some residual pieces but you are completely safe now.”
Nevertheless, after satsang, he asked a man who lives in town to keep an eye out for me. Two friends heard about it and suggested downloading some fearsome sounds on the computer to play if I heard the coughing again. We scrolled through hundreds of choices and came up with “aggressive dogs barking.” You should have heard them go at it, could almost see the bared teeth – it must have been a dozen, vicious wolves – saliva drooling down their chins, eyes squinted, throats full of venom and phlegm. They didn’t hold back one bit. With eyes closed, it might engender more fear than a simple man’s cough. If you ever need an in-house bodyguard, this is your ticket.
I attached the speakers to the computer and we listened, half laughing, half awed, as the dogs howled throughout the house, aggression spilling out into the woods around us.
I got the number of my nearest neighbors from my landlord, and left a message. They must have been away or busy because I heard nothing back.
As dusk inched in again, I decided to visit my neighbors on the other side. Walking up the steep driveway, I came upon a house that looked like a faux Italian villa, stone walls, huge windows, a manicured lawn. The ground was drenched with water; I had to skip through the puddles. They must really hose the garden thoroughly, I thought. There was no obvious front door, as the driveway seemed to go in several directions once I reached the crest.
I chose one and ended up at the garage and a small side door next to it. I rang the bell. Nothing. Oh, if life could always be this calm, I thought.
Then I heard a woman’s voice, ‘Mom, there’s someone out there. i’m not answering – it could be anyone. You go.”
A body shuffled towards the door and a bright-faced woman opened it, a look of surprise on her face. This is not the kind of neighborhood where people just show up, especially at the servant’s entrance.
I introduced myself and told her the whole story.
“Oh,” she said, more warmly. “My husband’s in law enforcement. I’ll give you his cell number.” Now that was music to my ears.
She invited me inside to a vast, skylit living room with a double-sided red velvet couch. It looked like the sofa version of siamese twins. I was mesmerized.
“Oh,” she said. “That was my splurge. My friend comes over and lies on one side and I lie on the other facing her and we drink wine and chat across the back!”
The room was so big, it took a while to come upon three other people in there. A young woman sat at the kitchen counter, her daughter who lives in town, has a baby, and is bored by the limited social life in these parts. She yawned.
A couple sat cuddling on the couch. I’m still not sure of who exactly they were, but they were friendly and warm. They told me that the family had just yesterday purchased a huge plastic swimming pool and filled it with an inordinate amount of water.
Wanting a drink, a deer had then apparently tipped one side, perhaps punctured it, and gallons of liquid had spewed out and down the driveway.
We chatted for a while about the various surprises and adventures of living in the wilds.
“Maybe it was a fox, they can sound like coughing when they get going.”
No, I insisted, it was a human sound, I was certain.
The couple was planning a hike up the mountain the following day. It involved sleeping overnight at base camp and getting up at 2 a.m. to begin walking before it got too hot. I was impressed. At 14,179 feet, this is not a venture for the faint of limb. .
Just as I was leaving, the young man shouted after me, “hey, maybe it was Marty!”
“Marty! He coughs a lot, used to be a firefighter.”
“That’s my husband.” The older woman chimed in. “Yes, he came home about midnight last night and was outside checking the swimming pool. It might indeed have been him.”
Even though we couldn’t figure out how the sound could carry so far and seem like it was only inches away from my bed, I was comforted to learn this. I left the Italian mansion feeling safer. If the coughing happened again, I’d just tell myself it was Marty roaming his driveway after dark.
Just then, my teacher called to see how I was. He said, maybe all this came up to show you how very much you are loved.
How perfect, I thought, and could feel my heart swell at the outpouring of support and love. And I sauntered home in the gloaming to my cosy nest, my pack of wild dogs poised by my bed to defend me, and settled under the covers for a long, juicy, peaceful slumber.