Orange Dawn - 1

John Clark Smith
Chapter 1

Even after many years I can summon that powerful evergreen scent from the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania. It arose from woods so thick that I could rarely see more than a few feet into them. The rusted oil pumps, like monstrous metal grasshoppers, would appear occasionally. Once squeaking away without rest, the pumps were reminders of a generation that believed it had unending resources. To a future race they might be thought the relics of a religion, like the giant stone figures of Easter Island.

I had been driving on Route 6 and had missed a turn. I could’ve turned around, but the dense woods were calming – so calming I was unaware I was going in circles. Eventually I realized I had to ask for directions. I noticed a hut set far back off the road with smoke streaming from its chimney.
After parking the car, I made my way through a thick section of red maples and elms past two pumps. I heard finches and sparrows in the trees and chipmunks moving upon the dry pine needles and dead branches. A smell made me gag before I came to a wide stream. On the surface dead insects floated in patches of scum. Otherwise it appeared clear, though there was nothing visibly living in it. I covered my nose and mouth. How could the stench that belonged in a city sewer appear here in such a gorgeous forest?

I placed a large tree branch over the stream, crossed and hurried on. Away from the stream, the area smelled like home. When I was a girl, we had often travelled through the Alleghenies on our way to my grandparents’ house. I would press my nose up against the partially open backseat window, mesmerized by the unending forests. Deep in those woods, on one of my many hikes with my Dad, I saw a little head peeking from behind a tree. Panting heavily, the stray was barely more than a bunch of fur on a skeleton. He became Rusty, my first dog. As an adult, I had often camped nearby, memories calling me to return.

The hut appeared to be a one-room wooden structure set on cement blocks in a well-groomed clearing. Piled under the structure were carefully cut mirrors of the same size. I looked down into one of them and saw me, a woman surrounded by massive firs questioning if she should return to her car,
I surveyed the environs like a wary animal and approached the door. My hope was that the one inside would be friendly. I finally knocked, still prepared to run back to my car. No one answered, though I could hear movement within. I walked around the back and noticed a path leading into the forest. Down the far end, there was an entrancing, bright orange light.

I looked back at the hut. No one appeared.

I proceeded slowly on the path, cautiously advancing toward the glow, occasionally glancing behind me. The glare increased on each step toward the clearing, coloring more and more of the trees along the way. I was entering an orange tunnel, its pulsating richness luring not only my eyes but also my mind. The light hypnotized me, as if there were small suns buried within it. Emerging into a clearing, I was almost blinded by the vortex of swirling light. I covered my eyes with my hands, then peeked through them. What could produce such an odd color? It produced no smell, no heat.  The movement within it was dizzying.

When my eyes adjusted, I was overlooking a valley ringed by mountains. Below, I recognized the small city of Harding caught in the center of this inexplicable glow. The shade was brighter than the fruit, almost phosphorescent, with more yellow in it, as well as a kind of beguiling movement. It was impossible to gaze at it for long without briefly seeing spots.
I sat down to clear my eyes and marvel at the sight. The trees, grass, bushes and flowers seemed unaffected.

A loud voice jarred me. "Who are you?"

I turned. A tall, thin man stood before me in a black shirt and khaki pants. He had broad shoulders, long black hair and a few streaks of gray at the temples.

"I’m lost," I said.

He said nothing, watching me through bloodshot eyes with deep wrinkles at the corners.

“Well, not completely lost. My grandparents lived nearby.”

"When were you here last?"

“Couple years ago."

He held out his hand. "I’m Paul Sheffield. I saw you from the hut.”

His appearance coming up behind me along with the orange made me hesitate. But I stood up, shook his hand and introduced myself.

“This is no place to be lost,” Paul said.

"Why?"

"Did you see the stream?" he asked.

“Yes. How did it happen?"

"You don’t know? Of course you don’t.” There was something almost entertaining about Paul—he swept his arms around as if he was gesturing to thousands. "Perhaps you’d like to learn more? It’s not too long a walk to town. Time for me to go back anyway."

His invitation excited the kid in me, as if someone was daring me to cross a rickety bridge. It’s only an orange light, I told myself. I had seen similar clouds of gray or yellow over cities or around heavy industries.

After all, no one was waiting for me, I thought, I had no schedule to keep. Paul seemed harmless. The orange is captivating. Why not take a little trip to Harding?
“OK, let’s go.”

*
As we came closer to Harding, with the orange ring hovering around us, I had a growing feeling of dread, as if that kid in me had lost her mother in the darkness. I hoped I wasn’t stepping into another Chernobyl. Who could forget that twentieth-century newspaper headline in London that quoted what the Health officials had told nuclear workers: "Don't have babies!"

Though anxious, I couldn’t resist the lure of the orange. It was as if I was standing on the edge of Niagara Falls and I yearned to jump in and become a part of it. I gazed in awe, as if it was calling to me.

Paul stopped, and looked down upon the town in a fixed stare. Finally, he moved away from the mountain path and sat on a boulder. “I'm not sure I should return.”

We sat in silence.

"Yes, I should go,” he said, convincing himself.

“What’s stopping you?”

“My brother Ben, he's the Mayor, you know. He won't let anyone in or out.”

“How can he stop you? You could sneak in—”

“He called the National Guard. They’ve put up roadblocks and are even patrolling the forest."

He looked at me.

“I hated to leave my friends, but they wanted me to go. We had a plan."

"But why did you leave?"

“You think such a light is normal?"

"Of course not.”

"People are sick. Look at my hands, my hair. It changes people.”
He shook his head in frustration.

“If I go back to Harding, perhaps I won’t want to leave."
We sat beside each other on the boulder for some time, not speaking.

“You return to the hut,” I finally said. The strangeness of it all had seduced me. “I’ll go on."
He composed himself.

“No, no. I’ll go too. Don’t worry. Glen showed me a way.

“Glen?” I asked.

“Glen Harding. Knows this land better than anyone.”

Excitement soon replaced apprehension as we continued down the slope. How extraordinary a single color could appear! Once I adapted to its brilliance, it had the soft feel of sunset in the way it colored the landscape, buildings and the metal grasshoppers. A tender and ethereal orange moonlight of the day.

But this impression wouldn’t last. Beauty, I would soon learn, does not imply innocence.



[To be continued ...]

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