The Right Question

Who am I?

What kind of answer counts? Name? Job? Relationship status?

My name is an identifier, but not an identity. Jobs and relationships change.

Who answers? Me? My family? My friends?

The rune Sowelu represents wholeness. It speaks to becoming who you already are. But who is that? What is the essence of a person?

One way to approach this issue is the debate between essentialism versus existentialism. Is there an essence in place already, or does a person create an essence through their choices? As with so many important questions, this one skips over a preceding one: what is an essence of a person?

What does it matter if the essence is in place already or created after the fact, if we don’t know what it is?

For much of my life, the question of who I am has dominated my thinking. I have pestered others with it, hoping they might know. Hoping that they might have a connection to me that gives them that insight, and thus means that I belong somewhere.

“Is that the question? And if so, who answers? Who answers?” – Pearl Jam, “Alive”

For too long, I have tried to figure out who answers. I am starting to think that it isn’t the question. Who am I? The sum total of all my experiences, desires, beliefs, concerns, and more. And all of those can change. What sort of answer could capture that? What finite set of words could express that?

Who am I? That’s the wrong question, so every answer is also wrong. What’s the right question? Depends on who’s asking and why. 

The question I’ve been asking, for years, should have been: Where do I belong?

I’m still not sure I know the answer, but at least I know what the answer might look like.

The Longest Night

“Gran’pa, it’s cold out here.”

“That’s why we have a thermos of hot chocolate.”

“We have two thermoses.” 

“Yes. And yours has hot chocolate.”

My grandfather sat back in his rocking chair and stared up at the night sky. When he pulled the chairs out onto the front porch, I had expected my grandmother to yell at him, but she didn’t. This woman, who never allowed shoes to be worn inside her house, was letting her husband take indoor furniture outside. Instead of objecting, she smiled a sad, wistful smile and said nothing.

Almost as big a surprise to me was when he announced that he and I would be sitting up night together. My grandfather was a kind man, but he was also a stickler about bed times. My mom once told me that she had to be in bed by ten until she moved away to college. Suddenly, just a few days before Christmas, he expected me to have an all-nighter with him.

“So why are we staying up?”

He didn’t answer right away. Just continued staring. I looked to the sky myself to see what had his attention. My grandparents lived out in the country, so there wasn’t any light from a city or even other houses to dim the stars. You could see a lot of them on a cloudless night. I always loved looking at them, but I couldn’t see anything special that night.

“It’s tradition.” His voice startled me a little, as I had been entranced by the night sky. “This is the longest night of the year. We keep watch to make sure it ends, to keep the sun from getting lost.”

I was young and unsure whether he was trying to pull my leg. “The sun can get lost?”

He smiled just a little. “Probably not.”

“But you said . . .”

“I said it was tradition. When my grandfather passed it on to me, I asked him if he believed it. He never said, but I think maybe he did. And there’s no reason to take a chance.”

“So you stay up to make sure the sun comes back?”

“Tonight, we stay up.” With that pronouncement, he fell silent once more.

I went back to staring up. Because I often spent time at their house in the winter, I already could recognize a few constellations easily. The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia were the first. While looking at them that night, I saw a shooting star.

“Gran’pa! Look!”

“Good eye. That’s from the Ursid meteor shower. My grandfather used to say they were guides helping that sun find its way. I think that part he made up. Still, it never hurts to make a wish when you see one.”

I kept watch for awhile and spotted two more shooting stars. Eventually, the cold and the lateness began to have an effect on me, and I started to nod off. My grandfather caught me. He shook me awake and poured me more hot chocolate.

With his occasional help, I stayed up all night with him. Sure enough, the sun rose late the next morning. I had seen it come up before, but that was the first time I remember being anxious about it, the first time it seemed like a miracle.

After it was safely above the horizon, my grandfather took me to bed, and I slept until early afternoon. I don’t think he slept at all. Several months later, he passed away, and ever since, I stay up on the longest night of the year to make sure the sun comes back.

I’m not telling you this story because I’m going to die in the coming year. You don’t need to worry about that. I just want you to understand why you are staying up all night with me. Would you like some more hot chocolate?

Infiltration

The ring Sarah had given him made him invisible, but wandering through the compound was still a little nerve-wracking. With every step, David expected someone to raise the alarm. It wasn’t that he doubted Sarah’s skill; he just had no experience with this magic, so it was difficult to relax.

In theory, the plan was simple. Sarah would distract Marie by inquiring about Rebecca. That provided her an excuse to enter the compound and allow David to sneak in with her and look around. There was no concrete reason to think this group had abducted Rebecca, but Sarah had a hunch. 

The problem with the plan was that neither of them had any knowledge of the layout of the place. Sarah had only been here once, and only in the first house. David, who had never been here, had no real idea where to even begin. His own village had a communal organization, but this place had an air of hierarchy that he was unfamiliar with. Every building seemed like it held secrets, but their nature was indeterminate. None stood out.

David entered the first house he came to after the one in front, as much to get out of the open as to start looking. Would things be hidden? Or did the group feel safe enough from the outside world to not bother with concealing anything? Because he couldn’t be sure, he looked through every room.

The floor above ground was normal looking, if sparsely furnished. There were single beds in three of the rooms, and a front room with a couch and several chairs. It took him a bit to realize that what seemed off was the lack of a kitchen. There was no one obviously being held captive, however. That just left the basement to investigate.

The basement was dark and unfinished. After fumbling around for a few moments, David found a light and turned it on. Against one wall were shelves piled high with food. Considering the lack of a kitchen in the house, the supply seemed especially out of place.

Other buildings he checked followed the same basic pattern, simple furnishings and a stocked basement. Water, gasoline, freezers stocked with meat, tools, and so on. This group had enough supplies to be self-sufficient for some time. And yet, there was no sign that Rebecca, or anyone else, was being held against their will.

A somewhat larger building towards the middle of the compound held a sizable kitchen and dining hall. Unlike the others he had been in, this building was occupied. Several people were busy preparing a meal. David headed to the basement expecting to find yet more food.

To his surprise, there was a small room at the bottom of the stairs, with a locked door on the far wall. He knew nothing about picking locks, and there was no obvious place for someone to have hidden a key nearby. Using magic to get through the door would be destructive, but the only other option he could think of was leaving. While he was trying to determine the least noticeable method of getting rid of the door, footsteps on the stairs interrupted his train of thought.

The invisibility was still intact, but he wasn’t intangible, so he tried to get as flat against the wall as he could. A man in a simple white shirt and jeans appeared after a moment.

“Is there someone down here?”

When no response came, he finished descending the stairs and walked over to the door. After checking that the door was still locked, he produced a key and unlocked it. Once through the door, he turned on a light. David carefully followed him inside. Several work benches were stationed around the room, and there was a gun rack on one wall. While the scene was disturbing, it still wasn’t what David was looking for, so he turned to leave. In doing so, he accidentally kicked the table nearest him.

“Whoever you are, don’t move.”

Looking behind him, David saw the man holding a rifle aimed at the door. At first, he worried that the invisibility had finally failed, but he could tell the man was still scanning the room. Slowly, David took a step towards the door. The man aimed and squeezed the trigger. The bullet just missed David’s head.

“I said, don’t move.”

David wasn’t sure how he knew where to shoot. Rather than risking another attempt, he decided to cause a distraction. There was a table right behind the man, and it was a simple enough matter to start a fire on it. Unfortunately, something on the table exploded when the fire touched it. David’s world went black.

An Unexpected Meeting

Waiting for Marie was unnerving. Getting into the compound had been relatively easy for Sarah, but confronting the leader of this group again was unpredictable, especially after her previous visit. However, she wasn’t sure how much choice she had. Julia would almost certainly find Bailey, but they might not talk or even not know the answers Sarah needed. As risky as this visit seemed, waiting felt riskier.

When Marie entered the room, Sarah studied her closely from where she sat. The woman looked the same, but something was different about her demeanor; she was less confident, carried less authority.

“Hello, again. I’m sorry for coming . . .” Sarah stopped talking when she realized Marie wasn’t looking at her, hadn’t even acknowledged her. This woman, who had exuded power at their last encounter, simply stood inside the door, her whole body turned toward the entrance. She almost certainly could see Sarah in her peripheral vision, but she merely stared straight ahead.

Her confusion grew and mixed with shock when Rebecca walked into the room. Marie nodded in deference to her, but Rebecca ignored the gesture, instead rushing over to Sarah and embracing her.

“Rebecca! Are you okay?”

Rebecca released her and took a step back. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

That was not the response Sarah expected. “Well . . . you . . . you just disappeared so suddenly. We had no idea where you went. Or even how.”

“Oh. I would have thought Bailey would have told you.”

“No. She said she had no idea.”

“Hmm…” Rebecca looked over her shoulder at Marie, who gave a quick nod. “Perhaps she didn’t understand that I wanted all of this explained.”

“Wanted what explained?” All of Sarah’s assumption were melting beneath her. “What is going on, Rebecca?”

“I’ll tell you what I can. Some of it is private. Family matters. I’m sure you understand.”

Sarah was not at all sure she understood, but she nodded anyway.

“You already know that Marie had been left to take over when I ran away. When you described things to me, I didn’t realize how overwhelmed she really was. Bailey brought me a letter that made things clearer. With Peter gone, I came to realize how much I was needed. So I returned to help.”

Marie still wasn’t looking at them, but Sarah couldn’t ignore her presence. “Could we talk alone?”

Without turning around, Rebecca said, “Marie? Would you give us some privacy, please?”

Marie said nothing as she left. After the door closed again, Rebecca’s expression broke into a big grin.

“It’s so great being back!”

“Rebecca. It’s just us now. Tell me what’s really going on.”

“I already did. I just didn’t want to act too happy in front of Marie. My return has displaced her some, and I think she resents it. I don’t want to rub it in her face.”

“So you really do want to be here?”

“Of course. I told you before, this is my family. It’s good to be back home.”

“Why did you disappear from the cafe?”

“The letter contained a transport spell. Bailey should have explained all of this to you.”

“They didn’t.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“You’re not being held against your will? You’re not afraid of Peter?”

“Peter was exiled shortly after I ran away. He wouldn’t dare show up here now. This is probably the safest place for me.”

Sarah studied her, trying to read her body language. It seemed as though she was telling the truth, but nothing about this felt right. Still, Rebecca insisted she was here because she wanted to be. Sarah had no reason – other than an uneasy feeling – to contradict her.

“So you’re going to stay here?”

“This is my home.”

“Will you visit us?”

Rebecca smiled. “I don’t know if that will be possible any time soon. I’m very busy here.”

“Well, then, can I come visit you?”

“Of course! You are welcome here whenever you like.”

Sarah tried to think of something else to say, some way to draw Rebecca out, but nothing came to mind. She hadn’t expected to see Rebecca here, and hadn’t properly prepared. The best she could do was leave without arousing suspicion so that she might return later.

“I’m glad to have found you safe and happy.”

“Again, I’m sorry I worried you.”

“I suppose I’ve taken up enough of your time. Please reach out if you need anything.”

“I will. Thank you, Sarah.”

The entire way back to the car, Sarah braced herself for something to happen, but she was allowed to leave without incident. It was only after she passed through the gate when she heard an explosion back in the compound.