The fire was an inviting beacon working its way through the brisk night air. It radiated peacefulness, but Robin’s agitation grew. “How long do we have to wait” he asked Billy? “We’ve hiked for three hours, in circles. We’ve been waiting here for over an hour. What’s going on?” He shifted uncomfortably towards the fire to fight a chill in him that was not caused by the night.
“Come on, man. I’ve done all I could. I convinced most of the elders to let you meet her, but I still can’t be sure if she’ll come. Two of the elders were against it. They said it was the wrong time. I had to leave it to the others to talk them into it. They all have to agree or she won’t move.”
Robin leaned closer to Billy, “Sure, but why all this hiking in circles? Why haven’t you ever told me about Talking Panther?”
Billy stood. He stepped into shadows. “Listen, you’re a good friend, but this is tribal, it’s sacred. Not even all the tribe knows about her. Shit, man, the council was really pissed off when I told them you knew. They think I broke my oath. They didn’t buy your story either. An old man, a book that predicts the future, mysterious forces in England? You think our stories sound strange? It’s a miracle they let me bring you here at all. Most Seminole are not even allowed in this place. It’s completely sacred, only for healers and elders and the most secret gatherings. They wouldn’t even let me come here if Talking Panther weren’t my sister. They certainly wouldn’t let me just bring you straight here. That’s why they said you could only come like this, hidden by the night. If you get to meet her, it’ll be pure luck.
We just have to wait.”
As he was about to ask Billy another question, he realized that a woman was sitting across from him. She was old, perhaps eighty, with a huge girth. Her dress was a long ceremonial skirt in rich gold-colored hues. Despite the age, her hair was black and long. Her complexion was wrinkled yet somehow smooth, the texture of golden leaves that had dried and lay on a hardened autumn ground.
She was too old to be Billy’s sister. Robin grew wary. The note in the book was clear. He must talk only to Billy’s sister.
Doubts stabbed him. He had not seen or heard this woman arrive. He had watched Billy move away from the fire. When he looked back, she was there. Did Billy move to distract me?
She had not yet spoken a word. Billy returned. He sat and leaned close. “Don’t say a word until she speaks directly to you. She may be talking with the spirits. This is a solemn ceremony. You can’t interrupt man.”
An hour passed, and Talking Panther’s eyes remained closed.
Robin’s agitation grew and he whispered, “How long is this going to keep up? Ian’s danger is urgent. It’s daytime in England already. Every hour, every minute …” He stopped whispering because the woman opened her eyes and focused her attention on Robin.
“You are troubled, my friend. I felt your agitation even as you were driving. You have brought heavy burdens to me. I know this already though we have not spoken and I have not used my stone. The forces are disturbed in a way I have never experienced in my years. Is this not a problem you should take to your white brothers rather than bringing these dark forces to our people?”
MacAllen shifted before the heat of the flames. “I need your help, Talking Panther. I have never asked for help like this before, and ask now only because I have no other choice. If this is not a matter for you, then you know it already.” Shifting away from the fire slightly, he peered towards the edge of the woods. A fleeting movement fading in the shadows caught his attention, but he saw that Talking Panther took no notice of it at all. Her attention remained only on him.
“Talking Panther, I am not actually here for help. I am not even sure why I’m here except that a note was given to me that told me to speak with you. This is the only reason I have come here. The message said you have an urgent communication for me and that you would share the Golden Words.”
At his mention of the Golden Words, Robin saw Billy Osceola’s face become as pale as the ivory moon that was climbing in the sky. Robin’s explanation to Billy had not mentioned the Golden Words. The notes in the journal had been addressed only to him. The message had ended with “Speak these words to no one, do not even think them until you have spoken to Talking Panther.” Though written in strange prose, Robin had immediately understood its meaning.
Billy moved his lips as if to speak, then swallowed and remained silent. Talking Panther, her eyes widening slightly in surprise, spoke quietly.
“That is the message I never thought I would hear.
“We of the land come from many generations and come from a place far way. That we are now in this small place is no accident. We have known this would be our temporary fate since time for us began. We have also always known you would come – a white man asking for the Golden Words. I never expected that I would be the Carrier to hear the words asked.
“Unlike the white man, we do not leave our love, our understanding and our generations to scrawls on paper. How can paper speak of the moon glow, or tell of the sunrise? How can the paper see when the word has passed, and when it is not clear? We are a people of words and I am the Carrier of the Words. It is I who have the words of our fathers and their fathers, as it has been passed down since the beginning of time. Some of these words we tell to all. Others are for only a few. But the Golden Words are only for Carriers. It is only the Carriers that know to ask for them. Since in our people’s time no one has ever asked, I understand now what I have felt… this rift around us. I must go and prepare.”
She rose gracefully despite her bulk, and left.
Robin started to object but Billy cut him short. “Man, if you want to stay for Talking Panther, be careful. I don’t know everything, but I do know there is some kind of door connected to the Golden Words. This door is supposed to be shut for everyone except the great healers we call Carriers. It’s supposed to stay shut for ordinary people for our protection-not to save the words. We’d better get out of here.”
Billy rose from before the fire and squatted in front of Robin as he continued. “The legends say that when you get the words you go through a door and can never return. Where you go, I don’t know. But that’s one reason I’ve never talked much about her. This is real. This is not just a weird story. I’ve been around her enough to know it really happens. I’ve never seen her act like this. She’s never left a sacred fire before. To prepare means she is preparing for death. I’m not waiting around. You should come with me and forget this ever happened.”
“I can’t go Billy. Ian’s in trouble. I don’t understand but I can’t stop, and your sister is the only lead I have.”
Robin rose and took Billy by the arm, guiding him back towards the fireside. “Let me explain something I didn’t tell you before. Even though part of the book was missing, there was a handwritten note telling me to come here. It said that the Golden Words would answer all my questions and said I’d be warned about the words but that I had to ignore the warnings. None of this makes sense, but it’s all I have to go on. I have to stay and see it through.”
None of this made sense and making sense was his business. He knew this had to be a scam, and a good one because one final note in the book had brought him here.
The handwritten prose had been clear. “Go forth, man of the mount-go forth to your friends-to the Golden Cat and to the wilderness. Go forth to the rivers of grass, for there your answers will be. For there will be your life. There you will find the Golden Message. Go forth into the wilderness and speak of your heart to the woman who does battle with spirits, sickness and snakes. Her memories are yours. Evil lurks near, and no one else is pure. Speak these words only to the Golden Cat and ask her for the Golden Words. Speak only to the Golden Cat, for to any others your words will be like a death blacker than a starless night, like a storm such as you’ve never seen.”
Robin thought about this a moment and then said, “Billy, I didn’t really believe Talking Panther would shed any light. I just wanted to eliminate you from the picture. I thought you would think the story was amusing. It’s a crazy scam and I’ve got to start excluding the people who aren’t involved. You’re acting like the Golden Words are real. They can’t be. The sequences are wrong. You’re the only connection in all of this. And I want to know what’s going on.”
He moved closer to the flames to ward of the growing chill, waiting for Billy to reply. “Robin, you’ve got me wrong. Let’s forget this, man. I don’t know what you’ve stumbled onto, but there’s a lot more danger than you can understand. Let’s just get out of here.”
Robin stood and balanced the strength of his suspicions against the earnestness of his friend. He saw Billy’s fear. Can he be scared because I’ve caught on to him, or is his fear about something he really doesn’t understand?
He stared at the flames and decided to trust his friend. “Billy, I’ve gotta stay. Maybe later, I’ll need your help. I’ll call. But you should take off.”
Talking Panther had returned without a sound. “We must leave,” she said. “No Carrier has ever given the Golden Words more than one time in their life. It is the last thing we do when we are ready to pass and enter the Spirit Realm. We must divulge our words to a new Carrier before we make this journey. I am not ready to die but I must be ready for death. This is the only way to bring the words. Such an asking for the words like this has never taken place and I do not know what will happen. I cannot guarantee anything, even your safety, but you and I must leave. To share with the Golden Ones who deliver the Golden Words, it is necessary to be alone.”
Robin followed Talking Panther through the night. The dry raspy throttle of palmetto bushes cracked like cannons and drowned out the night sounds. They moved from clearing to clearing, into and out of small hammocks of oak, pine and palmetto. The land seemed wilder, the brush taller and the smells more ominous than any terrain he’d covered in the Everglades before.
When the two entered a large clearing, Talking Panther walked to a small hammock of palms standing on a large mound. In the middle was a grave decayed and half tumbled inward, with a cracked granite headstone. From the height of the mound MacAllan could see the major four-lane 1-75, which ran from Naples on the western coast through to the east. They had been traveling south, away from the darkness and towards this road that bisected the southern tip of the reservation. Robin had been turned entirely around.
Talking Panther stopped. “This is the place I have chosen to meet with the Golden Ones and with them share the Golden Words. It seems close to man but I have a reason. Others are looking for you. I can sense this. If you want the Golden Words, this is to be expected. There are some who need to stop you from knowing these secrets.”
Robin stared at headlights as they sped past. He longed for something ordinary- the safety and familiarity of his Durango, with its aged but perfectly preserved seats and vigorous hum of its engine as it flew down the highways.
“How tied we are to the familiar,” he muttered. Talking Panther stood silently. Doubts pummeled his thoughts. This has to be a con, I’m just missing clues. Talking Panther and Billy must be involved. Maybe I’ve mentioned Ian Fletcher to Billy in passing. They could have known enough about Ian and me to set this up.
Talking Panther pulled a golden orb from her leather pouch. The globe pulsed with an unearthly glow and radiated peculiar warmth. She sat, holding the small globe in her hands, and without another word slipped into a trance.
Robin could not speak. He knew he was looking at the very same orb Ian had described in his note.