Carys, next time someone asks you to go with them to the middle of nowhere, say no.
My old professor asked me to come along on a trip to study native music. He was cataloging the songs of an obscure tribe. I had nothing more important to do, so I said sure. Got all the necessary shots and documents, and we made the long journey down.
Little did I know, it would be a life changing experience.
Our destination was a small village in the heart of the South American jungle. How he ever heard of them, I didn’t know. Took us three days by boat to get there. Our team consisted of the professor, our guide/interpreter, the professor’s assistant who was using this trip as info for his thesis, and me. As a music therapist, I used music to heal people’s souls, so I would be lending my expertise in the emotional resonance of the songs.
Approximately fifty people lived in the village, some of the nicest people I’d ever met, instantly welcoming and glad to share their musical history. My job was recording the performances with the handheld camera. They kept staring at me when they thought I wasn’t looking. At first, I attributed it to them never seeing a fair-skinned woman before, but the stares continued through the week.
That should have been my first clue.
One night, they asked us to observe an ancient ritual in tribute to one of their gods. We were delighted to, since we were told it was only done once every hundred years. Witnessing a historical event? The prof was positively giddy.
The ritual happened that evening around a bonfire. They cast offerings in to the flames and said their prayers to the deity. We sat quietly out of the way, eager to learn. Once everyone was gathered around the fire, the elders began to chant. The oldest threw something into the fire, and an odd smoke rose from the flames.
The smoke started searching through the air like it had sentience. Looking for something. Was anyone else seeing this? The particles glowed blue and got brighter as the trail of smoke headed toward me. I stood from the log I’d been sitting on and backed away. It was definitely coming for me. Was this a hallucination? I tried to run, but the tribe closed in behind me.
“Let me go!”
The elders never stopped chanting. The smoke entered my nose, I screamed, and the world went black.
The next morning, I woke up in a hut and not my tent. The wise-man was there with our interpreter. He apologized for tricking me, but they felt it was necessary.
He spoke of a prophecy. A pale woman with blue eyes would come to them and be the Chosen vessel for the essence of the Cat. She would be infused with this essence through the ritual, and become the patron Protector of their people.
“What did you do to me to make me pass out, and what the hell does this all mean?”
He told me to reach out my senses, and I would know.
“Breathe. Listen. Learn.”
I took a deep breath, and to my utter shock, every scent was intense. Sounds came to my ears I never noticed before—bugs, air currents, voices—and for the first time that morning I didn’t need my glasses.
I scrambled back on the bed. “I want no part in this! I have a full life back home!”
He chuckled and told me not to worry, that I was only required to come if the village was in danger. He said I would know what to do.
“What do you mean by being ‘infused with the essence of the Cat’?”
He said my heightened senses weren’t the only power I was given, and that I would be able to shift form at night. The instinct would guide me.
Whatever that meant! “I still don’t believe in all this.” It was stuff out of a movie, not real life! “You drugged me. You’re not keeping me here.”
He said I was free to go.
We were scheduled to leave that day, and said our goodbyes to the tribe. They all tried to give me gifts, but I just couldn’t take all that. After a lot of pushing, I accepted a woven bracelet and a necklace with a carved panther claw attached. The wise-man was the last to come to me. He told me to be careful, practice my new “gifts”, and that I would know if they ever needed me. He hoped I didn’t harbor him any ill will.
“’Ill will’? I’d report you to the authorities, but considering how remote this village is, I doubt it’ll do any good.”
I got in the boat, and a week later, I was home.
The interpreter, being a tribal member himself, never told my friends what had been done to me and I certainly didn’t want to talk about it. They assumed we all hallucinated from something thrown into the bonfire, and everyone had a hangover.
Having a stronger sense of smell was not a good thing in Southern California. Smog stung my nose. Neither was sensitive hearing, once my neighbor started construction on a deck in their backyard. I walked around with earplugs in for about a week until I started to get used to it. I was grateful for the sharp vision, though. I’d worn some kind of correction since I was eight, but I could read a street sign from almost a mile away now!
I wasn’t ready to accept something supernatural had happened, but they’d definitely changed my body. My asthma was gone and I no longer needed any medications. So, okay, I couldn’t take a deep breath without wanting to vomit and my ears had been ringing since the moment my plane was in the sky, but the visual acuity was cool. If you’ve always woken up with clear vision, you have no idea what it’s like to be able to see in the morning for the first time in nearly twenty years.
It was weird and difficult, but I slowly started to adapt.
A month later, it was my first day out doing something normal—shopping at the mall. Up to now, I’d avoided crowds, doing my grocery shopping when the stores were almost deserted. Walking to my car in the parking garage, my hands were full of bags, and a man walked behind me. At first, I didn’t think of hearing someone behind me, until his footsteps sped up to get close to me. He demanded my purse. I was willing to cooperate since I didn’t want to provoke him. Better my stuff than my life, right? That’s what the police tell you to do. So, I set down the bags, and the guy lunged for my purse.
I can’t tell you how I did what happened next.
Next thing I knew, I had the guy in a choke hold with claws pressed to his neck. Claws! The guy started freaking out, then, begging me not to hurt him. I tightened the hold until he blacked out, then called 911 on my cell phone. The police arrived, took my statement and the mugger, and I went home.
My fingernails turned into claws. That was NOT normal. Both hands? I stared at my left. Yep, both hands. Oh God.
And then the fight moves. What was that? This wasn’t The Matrix. I hadn’t been plugged into a machine for a kung fu download. Had I? What really happened in that village?
Two months later, I was teaching a class for two semesters at a university, so I rented an apartment and packed what I would need. It had been arranged long before my trip to the jungle. It was a long commute from home, so I preferred to stay there, even if it was only three days a week.
The change of scenery would be good for me. My friends and family didn’t know. I blamed allergies for staying at home. Didn’t want questions to come up when I hardly had any answers, so moving to a town where no one knew me seemed like a plus. And I hated lying to those closest to me.
Due to an inheritance—Grandpa invested in Microsoft when it was a baby company, so I didn’t have to work, but I enjoyed teaching a few voice students. Helping special cases. I had my Masters, and still took classes that interested me. It was a good life.
Well, had been.
After a week of class, it promised a challenge for the year. Distraction. Just the thing I needed to focus on. I read references on South American tribal beliefs in my spare time, but discovered nothing that would help me.
Alone in the apartment, I tested my new abilities.
Claw extension was controlled by simple thought. A little concentration and I could tune out strong odors and loud noises. But I knew that wasn’t all to my new powers…the old guy mentioned shape-shifting. I was afraid to find out what he meant, and avoided thinking about it after dark in case I turned into some kind of monster.
It would be my luck.