Saturday, October 31, 2009

Chapter 2, Part 4

The Dark Forest

Clemsy sat straight up, breathing hard while the bark echoed and faded.

Or was it only in his mind?

He hadn't been asleep long; the fire was still fairly high. A pine branch hissed and popped. He looked down at Runt, curled up next to where Clemsy's head had been. Purring, Runt looked back at him with a soft chirp. There was no other sound.

He'd left the last settlement behind the day after that nasty downpour. That was the worst of his journey so far. He'd had enough time to build a shelter and get a fire started, and he'd even managed to find a spot where the canopy was thick enough to keep it going, but the drops that came through were the size of a fist. Sidetrack stayed fairly dry up against the trunk of a grandfather pine, but was still moody and miserable. A drenched and bedraggled Runt had run into the shelter complaining as if he hadn't really signed on for this adventure and what was it all about any? Clemsy told him he could have stayed home. Runt ignored him and started cleaning himself.

The night had turned much colder and the drops diminished and stopped even though the rain continued. Dang, Clemsy had thought. He knew what he'd wake up to if he could ever get to sleep: the rattling and snapping of ice covered branches up above and a road far too slippery for man or beast. Fortunately the sky had cleared, the temperature rose to where it should have been for early November and he was on his way, muddy though the road was, by midday. He was through the stockade gate of Fort Hamilton and fast asleep in the Inn well before sunset.

The following day had taken him beyond the border of The Territories and into the Wild. The road had diminished then disappeared beyond the ford of a wide river. The supplies he'd bought at the settlement would last him some time, but he wasn't worried about running out of food. There would be enough forage for Sidetrack here and there. Runt would take care of himself wherever they were and, as a child, old Mujekeewis had taught Clemsy how to get by in the forest no matter the weather or season. He'd met the Abo on the border of the field at sunrise once a week and, as he grew older, would spend days learning the Abo way. Of course his teacher despaired of teaching Clemsy how to track and stalk. The entire forest was always aware of Clemsy's presence, and didn't seem to care. He wasn't much of a threat.

Those lessons ended when he'd turned twelve. Pa and Mujekeewis seemed to believe some debt to have been paid in full. The two had nodded to one another and Mujekeewis had faded into the trees as if he'd never been there and Clemsy never saw him again. Afterward, Pa had reluctantly taught him to work a rifle. Clemsy may have been terminally clumsy but he wasn't, and isn't, stupid. He was well aware of his danger when handling a firearm, just as he knew what he was doing when he worked with explosives. Ironically this was part of his particular talent, so he became quite a respectable shot. However, he'd never killed a thing. He wouldn't and Pa respected that. If he had to, maybe he would. Otherwise, it just felt wrong.

Right next to his shovel, a rifle lay within reach. He looked at it but felt no urge to pick it up. Runt lay undisturbed and Sidetrack was fast asleep, one hind leg bent, the hoof barely touching the ground. The dog bark was a dream then.


For the past three nights his dreams had been vivid and very strange. In one he rode a mare through a forest of giant trees, much like the one he was in now. There was always a dog, large and black with ears that pointed straight up and a snout that looked more wolf-like than dog. As often happens with dreams after waking, the image appeared in his mind from wherever dreams hide. The dog had looked right at him and barked a warning. Just as it had the night before.

And the night before that.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Chapter 2, Part 3

Clemsy's Refusal

Clemsy eyed the ribbon of thickening cloud cover between the old growth trees lining the Road . No one was around to notice, so he indulged himself and pouted. What am I doing? Where am I going? Wherever I'm going and whatever I'm doing why am I doing it and why am I going there? She knows.

"Just go," she'd said.

What? Where?

"Don't worry about what. Just go. West."

West? Just go West? Dang, Ma! Why?

"Don't worry about why. Just go."

Jes' go? No, dang it! Ma, I got a job! The rains'r comin' then snow an I'm th'one keeps the roads clear and lamps lit! I cain't jes up'n leave! I got responsibilities!

"Watch how you talk to your Ma, boy," rumbled Pa, suddenly standing behind Ma. "But you have to trust us, Clemsy. You have to. We can't tell you any more now. Trust us, son. You know we wouldn't ask this if we didn't have reason."

No, no, NO!

That last No! had been shouted into the darkness of Clemsy's room at the boarding house. He'd sat up trying to remember the dream that had his heart pounding. He closed his eyes and saw his mother sitting at the dining room table back home. She winked, smiled and the image faded like smoke.

Then it all came back to him.

"Oh no," he moaned, head in hands.

He'd left home to start his own life. He may have stumbled and bumbled his way to a place in this town, but he'd done it. He was valued. Well, there was that incident with the black powder when he turned some rocks at a bend in the river into perfect number three drainage stone but had overestimated the charge. He'd promised the mayor not to play with explosives anymore, and Mr. Tanner was back on his feet within a few days with no hard feelings at all.

How could he just up and leave?

He couldn't and that was that.

"Dang, but Ma wouldn'ta done this without there bein' something dang important goin on. Shoot." He didn't get back to sleep that night.

Now here he was, three days out, heading West. His weather sense told him that cloud ceiling was deciding between a really cold rain or a heavy, wet snow. Sidetrack was not pleased. In fact, Clemsy had the distinct impression that the horse was not talking to him in a decidedly human, "I'm very angry with you at the moment" sort of way.

Runt had followed him out of town, but was nowhere to be seen.

Clemsy had done everything he could to not leave. But the world conspired against him from the moment he went into town the morning after Ma's little "visitation." The town's tool shed was locked. No one knew who locked it. It was never locked anyway, the key having been lost at some time no one could even recall. After practically destroying the shed trying to get the door open, Sidetrack threw a shoe and the blacksmith was nowhere to be found.

So, of course, Sidetrack wandered off to find him himself.

By this time, Clemsy's pale complexion was a beet red and everyone gave him a wide berth. Not because he was a bomb about to go off, but because accidents seemed to follow the boy like the plague on the best of days. His was the sort of personality that gave a town character, but you didn't want to get too close when his temper was up and he was mumbling to himself. That would have been tempting fate.

Clemsy made his way to the Post Office and ignored the workers repairing the window. (They, however, noticed him and acted like the glass would shatter all on its own just to be over and done with it with Clemsy so close.) He collected the mail for the Boarding House and came up short at a letter addressed to himself in his Ma's strong hand. His red face paled after opening the envelope and reading the short note:

You think today has been bad? Wait til tomorrow. Love, Ma

He gave up and, talking to himself, walked across the street to the Mayor's office to tell her he'd be leaving for an indefinite period of time. "'Why,'" she'll ask? 'Cuz my Ma says so,' I'll answer. 'In a dream.'"

"Dang embarrassin'," he grumbled.

But the mayor was very understanding. Unnaturally understanding. And everything after that went as smoothly and effortlessly as could be. Even Sidetrack was back in his stall in the boarding house barn... with his shoe replaced.

But now, the first cold drop smacked him on the back of his left hand. Clemsy growled low and turned Sidetrack off the road to find a campsite while there was still dry wood to be found.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Chapter 2, Part 2

The Plains

Doug spent a week gathering and preparing food for the crossing. Game was plentiful in the forest, and more often than not he retrieved the arrows he used. The rifle he saved for extreme need: a bullet that didn't save your life was a waste. He had a dozen, as reliable as he could make them.

His horse waded into the tall grass at a bright, cloudless sunrise. The air was dry and spoke clearly of the colder weather to come. The dog, a large hunting breed, all but disappeared, his head floating above the green blades and leading a wake of waving grass behind him. He'd follow on his own, patrolling ahead or flanking the horse depending on the messages brought to his ears and nose

Around noon of the third day, clear and warmer, the dog stopped, ears pricked up and nose in the air. Doug reached back and gripped the rifle, but didn't pull it from its leather case. The horse's ears darted up, alert. The wind shifted and a low, rumbling thunder came from beyond the gentle rise just ahead. To the right and north a golden haze hugged close to the ground. The thunder wavered with the breeze and faded. The dog looked at the man as if for instructions and Doug grunted, shrugged his shoulders and nudged the horse into motion. He pulled the rifle free and held it across the saddle in front of him.

From the top of the rise, the land sloped down into a basin a few hundred yards wide before climbing to the next long frozen wave of a hill. Across the whole expanse, the grass was pounded flat and the soil churned into brown clumps. The damage extended as far as the eye could see south and north, where the haze clung and a hint of low thunder drifted back for a moment before dying away.

He was out of his knowledge. The maps showed a wide plain, but of whatever creatures may have lived here there was no memory. Inspecting the ground it was easy to determine that whatever came this way, they were big and there were thousands of them. The hunter thought immediately of meat and hide and was reassured. Just then, the dog uttered a short warning bark and the horse moved nervously beneath him. Reflexively, the man readied his rifle. Growling low, the dog directed his attention north along the opposite rise to the figure silhouetted against the blue sky, gazing at them. It was joined by another. The two groups studied each other for a moment before the two figures turned and disappeared behind the hill.

"Wolves," muttered the man. The dog looked at him and wagged his tail twice, as if in agreement. "Let's hope the rest of the pack is far enough away following whatever passed through here. Don't want those two convincing them there's easier meat back this away. " The dog began nosing his way toward where the wolves had been. Doug whistled him back. "Mind your nose, dog. Bad enough they know we're here. Least we're downwind. All the same, we'll veer southwards for a day or so." He glanced at the sun which stood about an hour past noon. He'd put a few more hours between this place and his next rest stop.

On the eighth day the sun set behind the first trees he'd seen since leaving the forest. Huge maples, mostly bare with a few flaming red leaves, hugged the banks of a wide, shallow stream, and were centered around the remains of an Old World foundation. He'd crossed more streams and creeks than he'd hoped for, so his water bags were never empty, but this was a blessing. He'd run out of firewood the day before and woke that morning colder than felt safe. Also, the food was running low. The stream promised fish, and perhaps he could collect some groundhog or squirrel before moving on. He'd crossed two more herd trails since the first one, but hadn't caught sight of the beasts that made them. He couldn't take the time to follow one as he was now in a race with the oncoming winter. His goal was either out there and he'd find it or he'd lose the gamble and most likely his life.

But for now there was food, water and wood.

The dog woke him late into the night. The fire had burned down to glowing coals and his blanket was rimed with frost. He roused himself and fed the fire generously until the flames leapt high and shadows danced between the trees. Then he heard what he thought had disturbed the dog.

A long howl came down the wind, far off, but not far enough. Doug checked the horse, who seemed to be listening very carefully to the night sounds, then made sure of his gun and spear.

But the dog was not aroused by the distant wolf. There had been a sound out of place with the night downwind. Just one, but it worried the dog until he was growling low with his back fully bristled. Something was there.

It ignored both man and dog and exploded across the firelight onto the horse's back, whose screams were answered by another wolf, closer and from a different direction from the first.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Chapter 2, Part 1


This much was certain, no human had come this way since the oldest tree was born. He'd followed the river into the Trackless Forest as well as he could, detouring along the numerous deer trails where the banks were steep or cut into the bedrock. Mostly there was more than enough room between the towering trees for his horse, the way made difficult here and there by deadfall. Occasionally the canopy opened up and the undergrowth grabbed annoyingly at the spear strapped to the horse's side. Once, he'd almost gone into a rectangular, Old World pit matted over with creepers. Soon after he'd come upon crumbled, overgrown ruins. He'd camped to the side and, with the dog, briefly explored the place, but any value had been stripped well before the forest had claimed possession.

He'd come upon many such ruins. Some the remains of individual dwellings, others the bare Old World bones of towns broken by the creeping vegetation, towering trees and countless winter frosts. The stream he'd been following ended at the largest body of water he'd ever seen. Following the shore he'd come to the open grave of an Old World city where the remains of towers thrust into the air like broken fangs. He'd spent a week exploring, but all was dust, stone and the constant cacophony of countless shore birds flittering about the towers like a cloud.

Beyond the City the coastline curved north but the man followed the sun into the Forest once more. The old documents gave him a clue as to where he was and told him there was much to find this way, but they were copies of even older documents which had crumbled to dust lifetimes before. This was a gamble, no question.

But wasn't everything?

The old maps had shown two rivers after the City, and he had spent days finding a way across one and weeks to cross the other which worried him as the nights were growing cooler. The third river came as a shock, but just a day upstream he'd found an Old World bridge, where the water ran wide and shallow, that appeared to have been repaired long ago with some crude stone work.

The Forest on the other side diminished after three more days of easy travel. Now he stood next to his horse with the dog sniffing about his feet. His deep blue eyes gazed over an endless expanse of open plain. The sky was iron gray and a rising breeze made the tall grass wave like the sea. He took off his wide brimmed hat and long blond hair fell over his sun darkened face. Wiping the cooling sweat from his forehead, he replaced the hat and, nodding, turned back under the trees. He'd need to stock up on food and water to cross the plain.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Interlude I

Reality. What a Concept. ~Robin Williams

Everything is really quite simple as long as you're focused on precisely where you are and what you're doing. Even if there's a bit of worry over the consequences of what may have happened before on what might happen next, it's all rather straightforward. Good word for it, 'straightforward.' What other choice is there?

However, when what you're precisely focused on is how things work and what's at the roots of it all, things can get more complex than even an intelligent person can wrap a head around. Hidden deep down below where subatomic particles pop into and out of reality for no seeming reason at all is a secret that shouldn't affect anyone. In fact it wouldn't affect anyone as long as everyone minded their own business focusing on where they are and what they're doing.

But of course, eventually someone will come along and muck it up making things a bit more interesting than usual. 'Interesting' is another good word often used to understate a certain trend toward a particularly nasty catastrophe.

Reality has a structure, hinted at back in Forward II, which may come as a shock to everyone except quantum physicists and Hindu mystics. Reality only appears to be straightforward. It also goes straightbackward, straightsideways, straightup and straightdown.

It even straightcurves and straightspirals all over the place.

Thankfully we're designed for just straightforward, keeping things simple, although there are occasional exceptions brought on by various mental disorders or controlled substances.

But there's a catch.

Imagine reality as a great big apartment building. Let's say we're in apartment 10A with a nice view of the river. Well, suppose some moron in 5F decides to investigate his bathroom plumbing with a good sized wrench just to see what would happen. Well your water pressure drops, doesn't it? And the poor sap in 4F is trying to understand why God is telling him to build a boat and gather all creatures great and small and can't He just make it stop raining?

You see how it works? Don't even get me started on what happened to the dinosaurs.

There are various utility lines and pipes behind the scenes connecting reality into one Great Everything, and while there are backups and circuit breakers and valves and such to keep one reality (apartment) from affecting another, sometimes God (The Super) isn't Paying Attention (watching the game with a beer and chips with the phone off the hook) or He just has it in for the poor sap in 4F (Who do you think gave the moron in 5F the wrench?).

The result, after the dust settles and the population comes back from the brink, is often a new religion with a new Book and a new God (the old Super having been fired by the Landlord.)

Next up, of course, is the amateur plumber.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Chapter 1, Part 5

Later that Day...

Anyone who had ever met her had no doubt within the first few moments that Clemsy's Ma was one powerful person. One also learned quickly that she had a very well defined system of values, aspects of which didn't quite match up with what might be considered "common." Step on those values, whether on purpose of by accident, and one also learned that Ma was not as reticent about using her power as others who considered restraint a noble virtue.

Clemsy knew all this quite well. As a lad she could summon him from the creek a mile away by saying, quite conversationally while adding a piece of wood to the fire in the oven, "Clemsy, time for supper." That always meant he had fifteen minutes to cover the distance and get washed up. If he dawdled any she would say, "Now," and his attention would be yanked from whatever interesting thing had distracted him. If she actually had to open the door and yell his feet would take over in an uncontrolled sprint that ended in the trough by the hand pump. (Nothing amused the farm hands like the sight of Clemsy, leading a trail of dust, running at maximum speed while yelling, "AAAAHHHH!!!!!")

Of course there were also times when the breaking of a particularly valuable family heirloom had him running in the same manner but in the opposite direction. The neighbors were all in agreement that, as a result of such training, Clemsy was probably the fastest human that ever lived, at any distance.

Feel free to consider this a bit of foreshadowing.

Right now, Clemsy, chin in hand and tapping his upper lip, was sitting on the bench outside the stable mulling over the situation. The late afternoon sun cast a long, maple tree shadow on the packed earth in front to him. A soft breeze wafted the smell of hey and manure into the occasional short lived swirl of a dust devil.

Ma and Pa had a chore for him, no question. The image of Ma sitting at the dining room table with Pa standing like a bear behind her, was as clear as crystal. The sense of calamity was so strong it had initially sent him into a chicken-with-his-head-off panic in front of the whole town. The sight of Runt sitting between Sidetrack's ears like a vulture over a kill provided a strong enough distraction to break the spell... and allowed the memory of Randi's heady scent and her body atop his to creep in. He had turned and looked up at her Cheshire cat smile and raised eyebrow and blushed from his forehead to his toenails. Her laugh had nearly stopped his heart. Randi got up from the boardwalk, brushed the dust off her skirt and looked Clemsy in the eye.

"Gee, Randi," he had stammered. "I'm so gosh danged sorry fer fallin on ya just then. I guess I sorta lost m'balance. Fer some reason." He looked down at his boots. "I guess I should rope off the area when I'm cleanin' the lamps. Put up a 'Danger! Fallin Fool Zone' sign... Er somethin..."

"Clemsy?" said Randi. "You just saved my life." Then he noticed the smashed Post Office window.

"Wheel off that wagon up the street would've ended her fer sure, Clem," said one of the bystanders. The small audience nodded in agreement and a few familiar folks patted Clemsy's back before moving along.

"What?" said Clemsy, totally confused.

"That's what happened," Randi replied. "You saved my life. Now what am I gonna do?"


"Clemsy, my Pa's people take the savin' of a life real serious." She smiled again. "I guess it'll work itself out. But you went out cold for a bit. You didn't hit your head hard did ya? You came to talking about your Ma..."

"Ma?" Clemsy had become thoughtful for a moment as the memory of the vision started coming back. He couldn't see the whole thing, but the feeling of urgency returned. "I musta had a dream there, Randi. Wasn't nuthin, I think."

She looked at him and her deep brown eyes seemed to penetrate the lie.

"Maybe. Maybe not. Some dreams are important." She looked away then back again. "Then maybe you'll tell me what it was sometime." She took him by the arm and kissed his cheek. "Thanks again, Clemsy. I think we'll see each other again fairly soon." Then she had blushed and looked uncomfortable for a moment before smiling again and walking away.

A horse in the stable snorted in his sleep. Clemsy touched his cheek, his mind aswirl with Ma and Pa and calamity and Randi and scents and touches and a kiss.

He stood up and scratched his head. He was supposed to do something. He could feel it.

But what?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Chapter 1, Part 4

Someone Else Takes Notice

Chanting softly, Mujekeewis swiped the burning sage above his head, moving down the front of his body, then his back as far as he could reach. He swept beneath both feet and stepped forward onto the rug. Then he removed the misshapen lump of lead from its pouch and, still chanting, gazed at it for a moment. Though he wished otherwise, this metal was not welcome inside.

It had taken the life of his son.

He placed it in the bowl before the entrance to the Lodge, gently removed an Eagle feather from his head band and, blessing his relations, ducked into the small, skin covered dome lowering the flap behind him. The only light came from the seven Grandfathers, glowing in the Navel of the Mother.

His prayer, barely a whisper now, followed a pinch of cedar onto the stones. He swept the aroma over him with the feather. Next, a pinch of sweetgrass, which brought, as it always did, memories of childhood, of his Father teaching him the etiquette of the Lodge. Bowing his head, he sent his thought to Father's Spirit, asking for the strength he knew would soon be asked of him. A growing unease had sent him here. It was time to open his heart and ask for instruction.

Last went the tobacco, the smoke allowed to rise straight to the top of the dome above the Mother's Navel where the Great Spirit listens.

Praying for guidance, Mujekeewis tilted the dipper over the stones, the steam whooshing up and covering him like a blanket. Another pour. Then again. He began rocking back and forth as his pores opened and streamed his body's water, cleansing.

Raising the flap, he exited and stood silent for a moment before taking up the deer antler to remove another Grandfather from the Sacred Fire. Three more stones he placed in the Navel, then entered and repeated the ritual.

It was after the third pour of the third Sweat that the Vision lit up before him, a lightening stroke that widened his eyes and stopped his lips mid-prayer. Heart pounding, he spread his arms wide and accepted the awful gift. When it was done, he breathed deeply three times and again focused on Father. Strength, he prayed. Strength. Lips set, he exited the lodge.

Mujekeewis faced West, his body glistening. Fitting, he thought, that the threat grows there. The West brings Change.

And Death.

No matter. Once again, his steps cross with the White's. A piece of pine popped in the fire sending up a fountain of sparks. He looked down at the bullet in the bowl. One path to the future ends with such a thing for him. Another for his Granddaughter. Others to other deaths. This is a delicate matter, he thought, requiring patience. Haste will kill blindly. He sighed deeply, indulging in a moment of regret. His braid was more gray than black. The still pool by the river showed a face, deep-lined. No peaceful nights before the fire, telling the children stories. Not for him. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

Enough. Setting his lips again, he carefully inserted the Eagle feather into its accustomed place in his headband, picked up the bullet and held it in his fist. A breeze from the South cooled his skin. He turned in that direction and nodded. Sister Butterfly lighted on a milk plant. Mujekeewis smiled and thanked her for the reminder. Wash and eat, she said. Prepare.

Then, he whispered, I must speak to the Farmer.