Folklore: The Totem

The Totem - for web, falls

BY NATALIE CONE

“The Totem” is the winner of the Lookout Alabama-SELTI Writing Contest, sponsored by Lookout Alabama, the Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative, DeKalb Tourism and Greater Gadsden Area Tourism. The competition, which challenged writers to compose fictional short stories set in real places in Alabama’s Lookout Mountain region, was the nation’s second tourism-fiction contest and was judged by a panel including New York Times bestselling author Homer Hickam, university representatives and tourism professionals. A guide with information on visiting the real locations mentioned in the “The Totem” can be found on the SELTI website.

Roy James ran his hand across the soft leather book cover. The symbol of an eagle with outstretched wings was imprinted on the front, with no title or author. The woman at The Book Shelf had recommended it when he wandered into her store looking for a good read to pass the time until the rain stopped and the sun shone again. “It’s guaranteed to bring out the child in you,” she’d said with a twinkle in her kind eyes. Connie, he thought, drawing her name to mind.

The real Connie Fuller from The Book Shelf, etc. in Fort Payne, Ala., sells a magical book to the fictional character Roy.

He’d paid for it and left, jogging through the rain back to his Jeep. Beville, a shaggy brown dog, greeted him from the passenger’s seat. Roy tossed the book beneath the dog’s feet and twisted the key in the ignition, returning back to his quiet campsite at DeSoto State Park.

Sitting in a lawn chair, Roy watched as the rain poured in rivers off the awning. At 48, he was a retired second lieutenant in the army, and his camper was his home. Moving from state to state was the only life he was accustomed to, and it suited him well.

As the sounds of gunfire filled his ears from a distant memory coming to life, he unconsciously rubbed at the bullet wound scarring his left shoulder. It was a permanent reminder of the day his life had been saved, and the day that Lieutenant Carter Beville died saving it.

Roy cleared his throat to force down the rising emotion and patted the dog’s head, relieved when the echoes of gunfire faded into the sounds of rain beating the ground.

He opened the cover of the book in his lap and began to read the handwritten pages.

It was the warmth of the sun that woke him. Roy uncurled from his lawn chair and yawned, feeling refreshed after such a deep nap. Roy stood and stretched, taking a deep breath of fresh, rain-dampened air. The moment his pants slipped from his waist and crumpled at his feet, he knew there was a problem.

“What the…” he muttered as he looked over at Beville, who stood as tall as his chest.

“Beville, you’re huge.” It was when he spoke the words that he realized his voice had lost its depth.

Roy waded out of his jeans and tripped on the hem of his shirt as he stumbled into the camper and stood in front of the mirror. “What’s happening?” He asked his smooth, freckled-face reflection.

Roy reads the book before falling asleep at his DeSoto State Park campsite.

He lifted his sleeve and found the scar gone. He scratched his head as he tried to remember the last thing he did before falling asleep.

“The book,” he said as he darted back outside and retrieved it from the ground. He remembered reading about the Cherokee Indian chief who learned the secret of staying young forever. Roy shook his head. “This can’t be real.”

The woman from the neighboring campsite stared as she hung clothes on the line. He tugged at his shirt awkwardly.

“Bingo,” he said to himself as he noticed the small jeans that she pinned up. He waited until she left before snapping the jeans and a T-shirt off the line.

“Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” a voice called from behind him.

Roy turned, unable to think of a lie quickly enough. “If I told you, you’d never believe me.”

The boy’s blue eyes glittered with the opportunity of a secret. He glanced back toward his own camper, where his mother shuffled around inside. He shifted his attention back to Roy. “Try me.”

“I fell asleep a grown man, and woke up like this.”

The boy blinked, glanced at Roy’s oversized shirt, then nodded.

Roy continued. “I read this book that I bought earlier today. I think it may have done something to me, because the next thing I know, I… well…” Roy held out his arms. “See?”

“That’s so cool,” the boy said, then stuck out his hand. “I’m Aiden.”

“I’m Roy,” he said, shaking Aiden’s hand. “So, you believe me, then?”

“Of course I do. Don’t you believe in magic?”

“No. That’s ridiculous.”

Aiden shook his head and sighed. “Let’s see this book of yours.”

He thumbed through the book while Roy changed.

Roy and Aiden prepare to hike to Laurel Falls in DeSoto State Park.

“Did you notice the map at the end of the book? It matches the one for DeSoto State Park. It says that a Cherokee figured out the secret of true life, but it’s hidden at Laurel Falls.”

“What are you suggesting?”

Before Aiden could answer, Beville slurped a long tongue over his arm. “Great dog you have,” Aiden laughed. “He should come with us.”

“Come where?”

“To Laurel Falls. If we can find this totem, maybe it will have some kind of reverse effect and make you into a man again.”

“What totem?”

“It’s the way Cherokee Indians stored magic, by making totems.”

“I don’t know. I mean, how do we even know what it looks like?”

Aiden held up the book. “It’s on the cover.”

Roy laughed, despite himself. “Well, I guess we should go try to find this totem.”

At the trail head, Aiden spread out the map. “If we start here, it will lead us right to Laurel Falls. If the totem has stayed hidden all these years, it must be tucked away out of sight. I think it is probably behind the falls somewhere.”

Roy grinned. “You’re pretty smart for a kid. How old are you?”

“Ten.”

“Me, too. I think.”

“I learned a lot of these things in Cub Scouts. I don’t have a dad, so my mom likes for me to stay involved in boy-type stuff.”

“Why don’t you have a dad?”

Roy and Aiden hike the trail to Laurel Falls.

Aiden folded the map carefully and tucked it into his shirt pocket. “My mom never got married, but she wanted a baby really, really bad. So she prayed, and God brought her a baby.”

“Well, I had a mom, but she died when I was really little,” Roy said. “I don’t really remember her. My dad once told me that my eyes were like hers, but he never talked about her much.”

Aiden nodded, straightening his backpack. “Yeah, I know what you mean. So, are you ready to go?”

Roy eyed Aiden’s full pack. “Is all that really necessary?”

“Like I learned in Scouts, always be prepared.”

Roy chuckled. “You would make a great soldier.”

Within minutes, Roy found Aiden to be very inquisitive. As Aiden fired off questions, Roy found himself talking about growing up as a general’s son, moving over and over. He told about how hard it was to make friends only to leave them again, so he’d never bothered to make any at all. He told stories about Lieutenant Beville, and the time they’d gotten into trouble for building sand castles in the desert. He told him the jokes they used to share, and how Beville had died.

When the boys finally reached the falls, Aiden led the way around the other side. Laurel Falls was a majestic cascade of water over two tiers of rock. There was a deep pool at its base, and the thick woods around both sides made them feel as if they’d discovered a secret place.

“I think if you crawled over from this side and flattened yourself between the tiers, you could search behind the falls,” Aiden said.

Roy nodded, then took a deep breath and began the climb, easing onto the damp rock on his belly. He inched forward, wincing against the cold water droplets that trickled into his eyes.

The boys arrive at Laurel falls.

Once Roy was behind the falls, he began to feel around, wishing he’d brought a light. “This is stupid,” he shouted back, feeling nothing but cold rock beneath his hands.

Just before giving up, Roy felt a mossy patch at the back of the rock. He dug deep into the wet mud. When his fingers wrapped around a small, loose stone, he dragged it out and wiped it clean.

It was the totem. An eagle with outstretched wings, just like the cover of the book.

Roy sighed with relief, gripping the small carved stone. He held it to his forehead and wished himself back into his real body.

Nothing happened.

“Did you find anything?” Aiden shouted.

Roy didn’t answer. He backed out of the crevice and descended the rock back to the base of the falls, and held out the totem.

“I found it, all right,” he said. “But it doesn’t work. All of this was for nothing.”

Roy tossed the totem into the pool of water and stormed away, leaving Aiden behind.

By the time Roy reached his camp, it was getting dark, and the temperature had dropped. He built a fire and huddled near it, wrapping his arms around Beville for warmth. He had abandoned his wet, muddy clothes for the oversized jeans and shirt. At least they were dry, even if they did hang from his small frame.

Aiden appeared from the shadows and sat down. “I don’t know how things are in the Army, but in Scouts, we learned that you should never leave a man behind.”

Roy finds the totem buried behind Laurel Falls.

“I’m sorry, Aiden. I should have never left you like that.”

“It’s okay. I just want to say one thing. Magic isn’t supposed to be just some fun trick. When a person experiences magic, it means they have something to learn.” He held out the totem.

Roy took it, the stone warm from Aiden’s hand. “Did you learn that in Scouts, too?”

“No. I learned that from my mom. I attached it to some twine I had in my pack so that you can wear it around your neck. That way you’ll always remember me.”

Roy slipped the totem around his neck. “I’ll always remember you,” he said. “You’re the best friend I never had.”

Aiden smiled. “Goodbye, Roy. We’re leaving in the morning. I hope that one day I get to see you again.” He rose and returned to his own camp.

Roy curled up to the fire. With the totem clutched in his fist, he drifted off to sleep.

Roy woke with a start, the fire still hot beside him. The first thing he noticed was how much smaller the totem felt in his hand. He sat up and touched his left shoulder where his scar had returned. He leaped to his feet, and miraculously, his pants stayed in place.

When he heard laughter from the neighboring campsite, he ran over to show Aiden that the totem had worked.

Aiden and his mother looked up from their seat at the picnic table, surprised at his sudden appearance. Aiden frowned at the strange man standing before him, then recognition filled his eyes. “Hi, Roy.”

Aiden’s mother stood, her glossy brown hair hanging in waves at her shoulders.

After changing back to his older body, Roy meets Aiden’s mother, Rachel.

She held out a small hand. “I’m Rachel. It’s nice to meet Aiden’s new friend. Would you like to join us for dinner? It’s just roasted hot dogs. But we have plenty for a third.”

“And a fourth,” Aiden laughed as Beville snagged a hot dog from the table.

Rachel giggled. Roy couldn’t help but notice that her eyes glittered when she laughed.

Aiden patted the seat next to him. “Do you believe in magic, now?”

Roy smiled. “Sure do.”

Just before closing time at The Book Shelf, Connie meticulously dusted the shelves. She restocked a few titles that had recently sold, making sure to leave a space at the end of the shelf. Before her eyes, a leather-bound book appeared, bearing an image of a dragon on the front.

She smiled. “Good for you, Roy. One adventure down, another to go.”