We found ourselves standing in nowhere. Grey fog stretched as far as I could see.
The old Dakota man, Billy, chanted quietly. His deep voice carried far into the nothingness until it took a tangible form. The fog seemed to react to it, move and dance in rhythm with his voice. Shapes seemed to form. I thought I recognized each of our faces come like from deep water, surface, then float back down and dissipate. Animals danced and played in the light that wasn't. A mountain lion chased a pronghorn around us. The cat's paw lashed out and connected with the flank of its prey. Like smoke hit by a gust of wind, they both faded back into the fog.
Johnny, Mark and Josh stood close by, watching the shapes come and go in awe. Suddenly, a break appeared in front of us. Slowly, color seemed to form; first red then a deep blue. The blue vapors began spinning and taking solid shape. A round door of mist seemed to take shape.
Billy's chanting slowed then cut off. He spoke, “You must listen for your animal's call. It is a long journey, and they may be frightened or disoriented. You must guide them here. Then they will guide you.”
He nodded to Johnny first. “Go. Stand before the portal. Call your spirit guide.”
Johnny looked back at us uncertainly before going in front of the swirling door. He stood for a moment looking straight ahead. “What do I do now?” he asked. There was a quaver in his voice. It echoed out into the fog then came back to us, the quaver taking a life of its own.
Just then, from the door a rumbling started low but quickly became deafening. Johnny cocked his head like he heard something else. Suddenly, a thin shadow snaked out from the door and wrapped around his waist. We cried out for him as Johnny was lifted into the air.
The thin tendril of shadow was connected to a larger shape that pushed itself through the doorway. I heard a bleat and a squeal that made me wince. It sounded again, and I realized it was the trumpeting of an elephant. The huge gray animal became clear as it charged right at us, Johnny still held by its trunk. We scattered.
As I was running for my life, I glanced back to see Billy standing impassively as the beast charged mere inches from his face. Johnny and his elephant disappeared into the fog. One last trumpet sounded and echoed away.
“Wow! Should we go after him?” Josh squeaked.
Billy said, “The elephant: strong and compassionate. A good choice.” He pointed at Mark. “You are next.”
“What about Johnny?”
“It is up to him to make peace with his spirit animal. They will return or not.” He shrugged.
“Great,” Mark muttered as he took his place before the door.
Josh and I stood next to Billy and watched. We looked at each other behind the old Indian's back and shrugged. This place is as safe as any other, I thought.
Mark stood still for several breaths then a great wind seemed to come from the door. He visibly braced himself against it. Leaning into the wind, he suddenly froze with his head cocked to the side. He yelled and threw himself to the ground just as a shape burst through the door. It streaked at him but narrowly buzzed his head then streaked upward.
Mark shot to his feet. “Holy hell!” he shouted.
“Duck, man!” The bird-like shadow screamed and dive-bombed Mark's head. Mark yelled and ran into the fog. His animal climbed and followed him. I thought I saw it dive back into the fog some distance away followed by a muffled yell.
Billy said, “The hawk: fast and all-seeing. Another good choice.” He locked eyes with Josh. “It is your turn, young one.”
“Oh, no. I'm not standing in front of that thing just so something can jump out and eat me. Uh-uh.” He shook his head emphatically.
“There is no turning back. You must.”
Josh looked at me. I shrugged. He gave me a hard look. “Thanks.”
He went to stand in front of the door throwing dirty looks my way. I looked at Billy, but his expression revealed nothing. I took a deep breath and hid my face in my hands. I parted my fingers unable to look away completely.
I heard Josh gasp, and I looked up. His eyes were wide, his mouth open. Quickly, he turned and ran. Then I heard it: a low menacing growl. Josh yelled once, then he too was gone through the fog. A large animal shape darted from the door running on four legs snuffling and growling as it chased after.
I stood dumbfounded. “Was that a bear?”
Billy answered, “Yes. The bear: tenacious and rugged. He is a great spirit animal.”
I looked to where Johnny disappeared but saw nothing but the roiling fog. I checked where Mark and Josh had been consumed in the murk; also no signs.
“It is now your turn.”
I turned a stricken look to the old man. A ghost of a smirk turned the corner of his mouth. “Good luck.”
I nodded and found myself in front of the door. I concentrated on trying not to think about what might come through the door next. I kept seeing myself bowled over and disemboweled before I could get a scream out. Dangerous animals flitted through my mind: lions, tigers, snakes, huge spiders, wolves, dragons, space aliens... I took a deep breath to steady myself.
Just then I thought I could hear something. I cocked my head trying hard to listen. It was water and maybe a bird's trill; an undercurrent of a cat's purr. I strained my ears trying to put the sounds together. In my mind, I saw a huge lion eating a great bird. I tensed my legs, ready to run, but I also rubbed my hands together in anticipation. My animal: a big cat!
The elephant's trumpeting shocked a scream from me and sent me on my ass in surprise. I looked up to see Johnny explode from the fog on top of his elephant. He yelled with both arms above his head.
“What's up, bitches?” He laughed. The elephant circled the door, Billy and me a few times like a victory lap. “Hey! Hey! Look at me! Isn't this the greatest?”
“Congratulations,” Billy said in his quiet way.
“How...” I began, but then another yell came from behind me. I turned to see Mark emerge from the fog. He waved with his free arm and nodded to what sat on the other. “That is a hawk!” I said dumbly.
Mark nodded smugly. “A red-tailed hawk.” He looked the bird in the eye and it squawked at me. Mark looked up at Johnny atop his elephant. The two shared a knowing smile and nodded to each other.
We all turned toward a growl in the fog. Josh appeared, smiling hugely. He waved and laughed. Behind him came a huge, bulking shadow. His bear shambled from the fog and plopped down to sit next to him. Josh touched the fur on its shoulder affectionately. The bear shrugged like a prize fighter.
“'Sup, dudes.” He met Johnny's then Mark's eyes. They each nodded to the other.
“What's going on, man? How...” Then I heard the water, the bird and the cat's purr again. It was loud, overwhelming. I turned back to the door. It was open but all I could see was water; a stream or a river maybe.
The door exploded in light. I shielded my face with my hands. I blinked the residual flash from my eyes and looked around. The fog had encroached on me; I couldn't see the others.
I looked down to see a small furry shape waddle out from where the door had stood. Its odd feet slapped against the ground. My mind couldn't make sense of what it was seeing. The little animal shook itself like a dog; water flew in all directions. Then I heard that sound again: a combination of a bird's chirp and a cat's purr. I knelt down to get a closer look and saw brown fur, a duck's bill and webbed feet. Its little eyes met mine, and it made the sound again.
I shot to my feet. “A platypus!” I yelled. It made a kind of low, wet quack in surprise.
Billy's voice floated from the darkness, “The summoning is complete. You have guided your spirit animal. Now it will guide you.” We never saw Billy again.
I could hear Johnny's elephant stomping around and Mark and Josh laughing. I looked in that direction then back at the platypus. It peered up at me with beady little eyes. “What am I supposed to do with you?” I asked it. It only peered back at me.
When I met its eyes again, I heard the river. Its sound flooded my brain, and I could feel the water rushing against my skin. I felt buoyant and light. I moved through the water a little jerkily but quickly. The fear and sense of failure I had been feeling in the days before washed away. I felt alive. I felt free. The fog cleared a short distance away. Slowly, color seemed to form; first blue then a deep red. The red vapors began spinning and taking solid shape. Another round door of mist seemed to take shape. Johnny reared back on his elephant. It let out a triumphant squeal and plunged through the door. Mark and Josh waved back to me and took their animals through.
I smiled down at the platypus. “Come on.”
I began to walk away, but the platypus stayed where it was. “What are you waiting for? Let's go.” Still it didn't move.
I reached down to pick it up and it bit the hell out of me. I yelled and let it go. “Ah! Come on, man!” I looked down to see a duckbill-shaped welt rising on my hand.
With new determination, I circled the small animal and tried again from the other side. It jumped and did a back flip right into me. Surprised, I fell backward. Then my leg started to go numb. I looked down to see a small tear in my pants. I put my finger through the hole; it came back bloody.
The world swam for a moment, and I thought I might vomit. “You little bast...”
I fell onto my back, but I don't know how long I lay there. Eventually, I felt something brush up against me. I looked to my side and saw the platypus curled up against my ribs. I stroked its fur tentatively at first. It nuzzled closer, so I touched it more confidently. I even tried tickling its bill, but then it made bird purring sound again; I slowly backed off its bill.
As I stroked my hand down its little body to the beaver-like tail, I found something sharp behind its leg. I craned my head to see one large stinger still dripping with my blood.
I looked down at the platypus. It raised its head to look directly in my eyes.
“You're more formidable than I thought.” It seemed to nod and stood. I tested my leg and found it better if not 100 percent. I stood shakily and turned to the red door. I looked down at the platypus. “Ready?”
I walked away and could hear the rustle of fur and the slap, slap, slap of webbed feet. I looked over my shoulder to see the small furry blob waddling along behind me.
I never knew what the platypus was, beyond a slightly humorous representation of my luck/fate/karma. Now I know. The platypus is kind of like my spirit animal, but more than that, he is my muse. Just as the writers suggest in the Radiolab story, I am constantly wrestling with the little bugger. Sometimes, I hold him in place for a few scant seconds, but mostly, I take the brunt of his stingers and spend the next few weeks/months/years nursing myself back to health.
He is always waddling along beside me, and I will continue to pick fights with him. I promise myself that I will.