Late one night, wandering drunk through the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, far from the cell towers and bright lights of Gatlinburg, Karim al-Marin tripped over a root, flailed his arms wildly, and sat down hard.
“Ouch,” the famous qalandar of the Muir tariqat muttered to himself.
It was dark. The sort of intense forest darkness that the unaided drunken eye cannot easily penetrate. Fortunately, Karim had enough juice left in his phone to turn on the flashlight.
He saw at once that though he was still on the trail, it had narrowed sharply at that point. He was deep inside the woods. All around him were trees, the creepily lush, full-of-life kind from horror movies. His ankle was caught in a tangle of hard, crooked roots poking out of the ground. The roots had spread across the trail, forming a sort of low, woody wall across it. As he began to carefully extricate his foot, aided by some minor sawing with his handy Leatherman, a stern grandmotherly voice rang out.
“Ouch!” it said theatrically, but with real anger.
Karim stopped his sawing and looked around warily. To his surprise, the root he’d been sawing at uncurled, slowly and with apparent pain and effort, releasing his foot. He withdrew it at once, and stood up.
He said, loudly and firmly, “Who goes there! Show yourself!”
“I am Abigail Autochthon, Matriarch of the Mountains. I go nowhere, and I come from nowhere. I am of this land!” said the voice.
“Mountains? More like hills,” Karim muttered to himself.
“What was that? Speak up, stranger!”
Karim frowned, directed his phone flashlight downwards, and bent down to peer more closely at the roots.
The voice was telling the truth. They were not roots, but the snaking, root-like limbs and digits of a wild Tenessee autochthon. What the Murshid of the Muir tariqat, John Muir himself, had once poetically called forgettings. They had the characteristic mottling one sees in the woody exteriors of wild autochthons above a certain age. The skin of aging autochthons, as many qalandar have observed in their songs, grows brittle as the forgetting spreads through their bodies. Eventually it cracks, acquiring the fragile, peeling hardness of bark. The toes grow long, splaying, forking, and burrowing deep into the ground, seeking out and drawing in the essence of the the land. The mysterious soil-essence the elders speak of as flowing along invisible ley lines, allowing authochthons to forget time, space, and motion, and become pure creatures of matter.
All this, of course, would have been immediately obvious to even a young adept like Karim in the sober light of day, but this was the drunken darkness of the night.
Though he had not met many, this was an old autochthon, Karim could tell. The mottling was barely visible. In a few years, the mottling would fade entirely, and the autochthon would become indistinguishable from a tree to any muggles who happened by. They would only notice the distinct terroir of the local mushrooms.
“You are in my spot. You must turn around and leave,” said Abigail, belligerently.
The limbs of the largest tree by the path — or what seemed like a tree — swayed slightly. The leaves rustled. That was the old woman, Karim decided.
“Leave. Now. You’re not welcome here.”
Now Karim of course, was having none of that. But it would not do to challenge Abigail directly. It would not do to remind her that she too had once come from somewhere, and that her ancestors had come from somewhere else even further away. That she had not sprung from the earth at this spot she now believed to be her own. That she was named for Abigail, third wife of King David. Abigail, who had lived, thousands of years ago, thousands of miles away, not far from where Karim’s own grandmother Amina, a mean old autochthon herself, had been born and had grown rooted.
“Your spot? What do you mean?” Karim asked, feigning innocence.
“You must leave. Now.”
Abigail was clearly old, and deep into her forgetting. But she had already forgotten enough to learn the deep hatred of the mobile that is the mark of the sessile. She had grown tall, mean, and powerful as a wild autochthon. There was no telling how she might react to a direct challenge.
So he simply said, “I am Karim, qalandar of the Muir tariqat.”
“I do not care where you come from, calendar, or where you go. But you must turn around and return whence you came,” replied Abigail firmly.
“You are in my way Old Woman. You must step aside and let me pass. I seek that which is beyond the horizon, on this path.” said Karim.
“There are no paths through here,” said Abigail loudly, “and no room either. The land is full.”
“Then what have I been walking on?” asked Karim.
That seemed to silence Abigail for the moment. Karim looked around surreptitiously. If he could only…Ah, there it was, the faint brow-like ridge across the trunk, about eight feet above the ground, marking where Abigail’s eyes had once been, when she was still human.
They had long since closed into a blind, woody crease of course, but it was enough. The trick to dealing with an autochthon is this: once you see where its eyes used to be, you can instantly make out the entire outline of the human it used be.
Once you have that, everything becomes much easier.
Karim allowed his gaze to trace out what had once been Abigail’s arms. They were now long, forking branches of course, each nearly eight feet long, and obscured by newer branches that had grow around the trunk. But the slight bends of what had once been elbows and wrists were unmistakable.
And nestled in a knot of branches, which had once been Abigail’s left hand, was a shotgun, barely visible amidst the leaves. It was aimed directly at him.
Karim took a deep breath. There would be no easy way out here.
He said firmly, “Abigail, you must step aside and let me pass!”
“That’s Ms. Autochthon to you. You must turn around and leave!”
“The path must be open to those who must pass through!”
“Land belongs to whom it is most sacred!”
Karim glared at Abigail’s blind eye ridge, though of course that could do no good. The one advantage you had in dealing with autochthons, Karim had learned on his travels, was that you could buy time by derping. They seemed to enjoy it.
But he couldn’t do this forever, and meanwhile, the shotgun was still aimed directly at him. He decided to risk one more strident demand.
“I must have right of way,” he said.
“YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” said Abigail.
Her voice was accompanied by the sound of a shotgun being pumped.
Karim did not reply, but tried cautiously moving stepping to one side. The shotgun moved to follow, branches creaking.
Old Abigail was blind, and halfway sessile, but she could clearly sense the alienness of Karim’s presence. And there was a certain streak of meanness in her voice that Karim recognized. It was a streak he had sensed in his grandmother too, when he’d visited her as a child, when she was just beginning to grow her own forgettings into the soil of Aleppo. Mean old Grandma Amina had never forgiven his father for emigrating to California. She had screamed curses at them every time they visited, before finally descending into her own wooden silence, much like the one Abigail would descend into one day.
But that day was not today. Today, Abigail barred his way, with a shotgun pointed at him.
If he turned around to leave, Abigail might shoot anyway. His elders in the Muir tariqat had warned him: there is no act of greater honor in sessile society than that of shooting the mobile in the back. He did not quite believe that, but he could not take the chance.
He had met a few autochthons in his global wanderings. He had learned that they could be the most gracious hosts if they had invited you to drop by. But he had also learned that they simply could not be trusted under other conditions. If you just happened to find one of them squatting, uninvited, in your way, all bets were off.
But one does not simply abandon a journey, or stop chasing a horizon, because an ornery autochthon is barring the way. It simply encourages their delusions of being earth-born.
He decided to try a new tack.
“If I could just step across your roots here, I’ll be on my way, back towards the north, whence I came.”
“Ah, a tricky, deceitful calendar I see!” said Abigail, “but I smell the Mexican in you! From the south you came and to the south you will return. Turn around at once.”
It was then that it hit Karim: it was the tequila. The old woman could not see but she could sense — perhaps even literally smell — the two strong margaritas he had had in town before heading into the woods, drawn by the mysterious call of the wild!
Well, as luck would have it, he was equipped to play that game. Very carefully, he reached into his backpack and pulled out his flask of Kentucky bourbon, and took a big swig.
“Curses, what are you doing, you sneaky calendar? Is that whiskey? Or is that bourbon?” Abigail growled.
A large branch swung forcefully across the path, missing Karim by inches.
He took another swig of the bourbon, and gingerly moved a little to the left. The shotgun moved uncertainly to follow, but it was no longer pointed directly at him.
“What sorcery is this, you wily Mexican? Goddamn brujo. You think I can’t sense you moving? Ha!”
The shotgun fired, shredding a shrub behind where Karim had just been standing.
He took another swig of the bourbon. Abigail pumped the shotgun, and the barrel probed around tentatively, trying to track him.
Karim stepped forward and crouched slightly, wobbling slightly on his feet, and directed the flashlight at the path. The tangle of Abigail’s forgettings was about three feet across.
He’d have to tread on her at least once, but if he was quick, he’d be across and down the path before she could react.
He took a deep breath, and bounded across. Then he ran as fast as he could down the path, unsteady and drunk as he was.
There was a loud rustling on the path behind him, and the shotgun fired again. This time the shot missed him by several yards.
“YOU DARED TREAD ON ME!” Abigail screamed after him.
“YOU WERE IN MY WAY!” Karim yelled back over his shoulder, still running.
And then he slowed down, out of breath, and took another swig of the bourbon, draining the flask. He was seeing double in the darkness now.
He would have to sleep it off under a tree and continue on his way in the morning.
He was not out of the woods yet.