Category: SHORT STORIES
Like long stories, only shorter.
Searing, visceral, unendurable pain. Terrifying pain, and then an end to endurance…
I die. And yet I am still here.
What is “here”?
Think. What came before the pain? I was testing the new Transporter…
Oh my god, the Transporter must have malfunctioned! But none of the birds and dogs showed the slightest discomfort after Transporting. It was harmless…
Birdsong? Barking? Where are the sounds coming from? Where am I? Why can’t I see anything? Why can’t I feel anything? Wait. A tingling in my fingertips. Yes! Now I can sense the weight of my arms, my legs… and a faint shading to the grayness, some parts darker and some lighter.
Color! Suddenly I can see! It’s a sunset! No, a sunrise over a tropical sea. No, it’s a forest, an endless sea of Autumn leaves. No, a lush jungle full of orchids and… Stop! Close my eyes…
I have no eyes to close. I can feel my body, but when I raise my hand before my face, I see nothing. Is this all my imagination then? With what am I imagining?
Bloodcurdling, terrified, agonized screams. Familiar screams.
Silence. No, a whimpering whisper, “Oh my god, the Transporter must have malfunctioned!”
I once underwent a medical procedure for which I was given some sort of drug that would, in the doctor’s words, “…keep me awake while ensuring that I would not remember the procedure.” For some reason this made me very apprehensive prior to the procedure, although, sure enough, I can remember nothing unpleasant now. Ever since then I have wondered how the Star Trek writers know that Transporters have no ill effects on the Transported. Sure, the guy that pops out the other side feels fine, but wasn’t the original just taken apart cell by molecule by atom by quark? And what if there really is a soul that survives our death? Wouldn’t this cause what Obi Wan Kenobe would call (sorry for the mixed metaphors) “a great disturbance in the Force”?
“Ladies and gentlemen, please. You can continue this discussion later if you see fit, but don’t you think it would help us to know the whole story first?”
Murmurs of protest.
“No, no, we all know the facts; I submit that they are hardly relevant. What matters is not so much what happened as what we have recorded. Remember, for the audience that will be reality. Let’s get on with the screening now and make our decision later.”
The dozen or so people in the projection room milled and muttered briefly, then began to move toward their seats.
“The Director is right,” said an ambitious Assistant Producer. “We have to base our choice on audience impact, not on our own privileged information.” He sat down, chin jutting in response to the ironic glances of his colleagues, as the lights dimmed and the hologram flickered into life.
The Director surveyed their faces cautiously in the reflected light, then turned to watch the opening scene.
The Fisherman shifted his pack higher on his back, sucked in his gut, and tightened the belt strap. He had made this adjustment half a dozen times since breakfast, and was not sure if the belt was slipping or stretching as it soaked up his sweat. Sometimes he cultivated the illusion that he was actually getting thinner. Anyway, the ritual always made his pack seem lighter. Competitive backpacking was not the same, he thought; there was always the clock to beat, the pace to keep up, the other packers. It was easy to get into. On his own, with all the time in the world, he was continuously distracted by the minor irritations in his shoulders, back, legs and feet. This was a hardship, for he wanted to focus all his attention on the wilderness around him, on the experience of being in it, personally enmeshed in the natural reality of the primeval Earth, participating in the process of life in balance with life. All around him was the wonder of a world full of green and brown, leaf and root and scale and feather and fur, which had thrived for so long before humans had meddled most of it away, and he owed it to the billions who would never experience this reality in person to notice every detail, to become totally attuned to the spirit of this carefully preserved place.
Hell, he owed it to himself too. More years of preparation, training, competition and sacrifice than he could fit into his consciousness at once had gone toward this reward, and the memory of it would have to last the rest of his life. He wanted to tattoo each detail indelibly into his grey matter. And God, were there details!
He stopped for a moment to inspect a tiny glade hidden behind an outcropping of mossy granite. In the shadiest spot were a dozen withered stalks of Corallorhiza maculata, the tiny chlorophyll-less orchid, and a large specimen of Lepiota naucina, whose annulus he inspected carefully to positively distinguish it from the deadly Amanita virosa before collecting it into his side pouch for dinner. Living off the land is easy, he thought, but this would be a lousy time to misidentify a mushroom. Straightening his tired legs under the weight of the pack, he chuckled at the memory of disqualified competitors’ embarrassment in edible species identification courses.
Trudging forward again, he stripped a handful of huckleberries from a handy bush and, as he chewed, recalled the first day of his hike, when he had stopped every few feet to identify a new species, most of which he had never seen alive before. Now his senses were saturated with discomfort and familiarity; and besides, he was becoming increasingly restless as the hike neared its goal: the river.
Awareness of these feelings was nibbling its way into his consciousness when he crested the last hill and saw it. He sat down heavily on a deadfall and felt his heart respond to adrenalin, staring at the glittering ribbon of silver curled about the base of the mountains. In that wild river flowed the essence of vitality, the concentration of all the pure rain and snow that fell on this protected watershed, nourished these trees and plants, trickled through that gravel, dripped down those rocks and gurgled under some unknown watercress. It carried the scouring grains of the mountains, patiently etching out the designs of gravity’s secret will; it carried seaward the unimaginably expressive flavors of this land. And thus it was also the messenger of freedom to the imaginations of the millions who shared the Fisherman’s dream: for somewhere in the ocean a great trout tasted those flavors, following the scent of the ground he now stood on, swimming toward the mouth of the river, hesitating, then darting into the saltless water. Leaping, resting, and leaping again, it would follow and lead others of its kind toward the place where they would regenerate themselves. And somewhere in that journey, the trout Oncorhynchus mykiss, soul of wildness, would meet the Fisherman, representative of humanity, who would translate the dream to reality and reality to the dream.
He decided then to camp at that spot for the night, watching the river through the afternoon and alpenglow, absorbing the magic of it at a distance while meditating and preparing himself for the next day, when he would introduce himself to the river on more personal terms.
As he turned to unload his pack, he caught a glimpse of a silvery sphere out of the corner of his eye, and felt suddenly remote and uncomfortable. His imagination was playing tricks on him; some hangover from city life no doubt, but there was something particularly distracting about the image that had caught him off guard. He busied himself disemboweling the pack and tried to put it out of his mind.
As the lasers dimmed and the room lights slowly brightened, the Director turned and spoke into the blinking eyes of his colleagues.
“I’ve cut a lot of the extraneous detail,” he said. “We can put some of it back in for filler in the final version, but it isn’t crucial to the theme, and a few parts actually detract.”
Especially, he thought, the scene where he recognizes the camera. He yawned and stretched, trying to cultivate an air of relaxed objectivity. Waiting for the next segment, he commented, “As you can see, our Fisherman is authentic. It’s been years since I’ve seen a winner with such conviction and charisma.” How true that was. He remembered the look he had exchanged with the Fisherman at their last meeting: a moment of mutual understanding, of unspoken common purpose, before the Briefing and the forgetting.
“Every neonaturalist on Earth will fall in love with him,” he said. “Keep that in mind.”
No one spoke. The Director knew his business.
“Okay, let’s take a look at him in action.”
The river was quieter here, but not still. It fanned out in a sweeping curve of riffle to ease into a run about seventy-five meters long which was such perfect holding water it brought tears to his eyes. Beneath the cut bank where the Fisherman lay on his belly, the slightly green-tinged, clear water swirled at half the speed of a slow walk over an even gravel bed six to eight feet deep. He peered through polarized filters at the shadows just out of sight, and wondered if they were steelhead or just small logs. Did that one move just then? Pointless; he couldn’t fish effectively from this bank anyway. Toward the other shore the water grew steadily more shallow, merging the riffle with the gravel bar on the other bank. In between there were occasional telltale bulges which he “read” as submerged rocks, tidy lies for weary fish resting up for their next move upstream. It was the best water he had seen, but he would have to cross the river to get in position to fish it. This would be the place, he felt in his bones.
As he eased cautiously back into the brush, careful not to arouse the slightest suspicion in the hypothetical steelhead resting a few feet away, he experienced a sense of anticipatory fulfillment: just the prospect of touching a fly to water such as this warmed his heart; to actually raise a steelhead was almost inconceivable. But then, one adjusts. A day earlier, he had cast into the river for the first time; his hands had been shaking with excitement, but it had been a poor run, churning white water, and after a hundred skillful but fruitless presentations of the fly to the little pockets of holding water behind boulders, he had grown calm and objective enough to break down his rod and move on without regret. This time it would be different.
He forded the river a hundred meters below the tail of the run, above a wide pool which probably held fish but was too slow to fish gracefully. Perhaps early in the morning, with a dry fly…. As he slipped into the icy water, pack held high, he recalled again his first meeting with the river, an uncautious and sensual meeting: he had stripped and run naked into the water, splashed it over his shoulders, plunged his head in it, tasted it, swallowed it, dived out into its current, swum, drifted, held onto rocks, and reveled in it all until he could imagine that he was a trout himself, intimately in touch with the moving water the way a human is ordinarily in touch with the machinery of civilization. Then he had grown too cold and had to return to shore, and it was then that he had noticed the silver sphere again.
This time there had been no chance to turn his mind from it before recognition took hold.
“Damn,” he had thought. “The camera! I’m not supposed to be able to see it — post-hypnotic suggestion or something.” He had glared straight into its lens, and in a surge of resentment had made an obscene gesture toward it. Then he had felt absurd and remorseful, and as depression swept over him he had stopped noticing the camera. Until now, he had forgotten the episode entirely. Now he again cursed the incompetent psychologist who had failed to adequately protect him against conscious awareness of the ubiquitous orb that followed him everywhere, hovering about his intimacy with the wilderness, recording every action. Not for this had he worked and dreamed for half his life, competed in twenty-seven events with such ferocious determination, to become Fisherman — the hero and envy of every human who had read the classics of Zane Grey, Roderick Haig-Brown, Ernest Hemingway… of all who frequented the special collections of libraries to leaf through ancient copies of Field and Stream or Sierra Club pictorials. He alone, this year, he alone would experience Earth’s only remaining wilderness in the flesh, in the traditional ritual to which he was so deeply committed: he was Fisherman, he would capture the great steelhead, the ultimate symbol of freedom, and his actions would provide spiritual fulfillment for a million minds.
And he didn’t need to be distracted by the god damned camera dutifully recording his adventure. It was like making love in front of a picture window. He grated his teeth as he thought of it, wading the icy river.
The Director broke into the sound track: “It should be clear to all of you by now that this Fisherman is special. Look at his style, the depth of his involvement. Let yourselves slip into the action, see if you don’t start feeling the hunter instincts yourself.”
None of his colleagues disagreed; they even made an effort to identify with the hero in the hologram, and found themselves truly absorbed. But in each of them lingered a deeper hostility, born of knowing what the Fisherman had done. The Director sensed that his point would not be made easily.
“The next scene gets into the guts of the story,” he said, but for the first time there was uncertainty in his voice.
The Fisherman waded very slowly along the leading edge of the gravel bar, holding his antique split-cane fly rod poised, and gauged carefully the best position for his first cast. Finally he stopped, positioned his feet firmly, and began to strip line from his reel. In four false casts he had twenty meters of double-tapered line whipping delicately over the surface of the river, never quite making contact with the water. It was a pleasure to exercise such control, but he made no more false casts than necessary before the snap of his wrist that sent the #4 black leech out quivering on the end of his leader to drop gently into the water five meters upstream of a submerged rock. He mended his cast judiciously and focused absolute attention on the drifting line as the submerged fly moved past the rock and into the vision of the steelhead he imagined waiting there.
It was usually a disappointment, that first cast; no fisherman seriously expects to connect on the first try, but none ever fails to hope. He sighed softly and retrieved his fly, laid out line over the same spot several more times, and then tried another lie. Soon he was methodically covering the water, deriving a more sedate satisfaction from the knowledge that he was guaranteeing whatever fish might be there at least a look at his fly.
After repeating the process several times with other fly patterns whose effectiveness was legendary, he eased back out of the water and sat down on a log to rest and evaluate the situation. He wondered if the choice of pattern really made as much difference as the conviction with which it was presented; after all, steelhead did not feed actively in fresh water, and no one knew for sure what spurred them to attach certain arrangements of feather and fur. Perhaps he would try a dry fly next; to take a steelhead on a dry fly was a spectacular rarity, but nothing else had worked.
As he sat thinking, his eyes played over the water, noticing the reflection of the trees on the opposite bank at the same time as they remained alert for any signs of a fish. He felt a vague uneasiness, a sense of disengagement which he could neither escape nor integrate; it all seemed inappropriate, imposed. There was something he could not quite place, something forgotten…. He was unprepared when he saw the rise, a bathtub swirl in the shaded depths near the far bank. After a brief delay, adrenaline surged through his veins. Fish!
He tried not to rush as he waded into position to cast. Patience, he reminded himself, was the most valuable tool at his disposal. At the last moment he stared at the wet fly on the end of his leader. Why not try for the ultimate? He clipped it off and selected a #6 Steelhead Bee from his dry fly box, which he tied on with special care, thinking of the potential miracle of a steelhead on a dry fly.
The cast was faultless. Despite his better judgement, expectation grew into conviction: this time it would happen — a strike on the first cast! Eyes piercing, hand shaking, he held his breath as the fly drifted over the spot were the fish lay. He was beginning to feel the stab of disappointment when, at the bottom of the lie, a dark shape rose into view. Executing a perfect roll, just creasing the surface, it engulfed the fly just as it started to drag across the surface. Then both were gone, and the line began to move toward the place where they ad disappeared.
His hands acted on their own. The rod arced back, the line snapped tight, and he felt the deep throbbing of a big fish shaking its head in surprised alarm. Then his mind caught up with the action as the fish made its decision and left the water in one wild leap of abandoned flight. It hung suspended, glistening, for what seemed an eternity, before dropping back into its element to begin the fight in earnest. By the time he had changed hands and begun to apply pressure with his fingers to the drum of the screaming reel, the fish was fifty meters downstream.
He splashed to shore, all caution now irrelevant, hanging on to the wildly whipping rod and praying that the fish would turn before all the backing disappeared from his reel. God, this was not just any fish, it was the rightful master of the river, the magnificent wild-eyed steelhead full of the spirit of freedom he had come here to meet. His heart leaped with the fish.
And then, out of the corner of his eye, the camera again. He felt a sense of something ripping inside his mind, like a curtain torn away from a hidden door, but he didn’t want to look, he didn’t want to open the door. Why couldn’t he not know, damn it, why did the conditioning have to break down at the worst possible moment? He saw the camera ever more clearly, but he viciously ejected it from his thoughts. “Nothing will spoil this for me now,” he muttered out loud to himself.
It was easy enough to put it out of his mind; his thoughts were so full of the steelhead’s streaking run, so involved with the attempt to turn it, so apprehensive of the disappointment of a line suddenly gone slack, that there was little room for superfluous detail. He ran down the bank in short bursts, stopping to apply pressure to the fish, straining his leader as hard as it could stand, watching the backing melt from his reel. Occasionally he tripped on the slick round rocks, but each time his legs desperately found their way back under his center of gravity and he stayed up.
Finally the fish carried him down to the slower pool he had crossed earlier, and the current stopped working against his effort to regain control. But the fish was still taking out line in brief surges, and there were only a few meters left on the reel. If it got to the end of the pool and into the rapids below, he would lose it. He strained the split bamboo until it bent almost double, threatening the leader more every second, and swore gently under his breath in the immemorial style of fishermen. “Turn, you son of a bitch, turn. God damn what a fish. Come on, wild one, ease up just a little. I won’t hurt you.” He knew the steelhead could not realize that he would never think of harming it seriously, that the gentle release had long since become the only conceivable finale for a fisherman’s conquest, but he tried to send thought messages to it anyway, to calm the fish telepathically.
Just as he was feeling despair well up in him, the fish stopped. There were only a few turns left on the reel. He first held a constant pressure and backed up slowly, not daring to alarm his adversary by reeling in; then, when he had definitely turned the steelhead toward him, he began recovering the lost line. The fish came slowly, reluctantly, not beaten yet but willing to lose ground temporarily. It took ten minutes to get all the backing onto the reel again, and another five to bring the fish in close enough to shore to get a look at it, a tremendous silver torpedo fanning its fins slowly, waiting for its next move.
Then it saw his motion, and suddenly the rod was dipping toward the middle of the stream and line was tearing from the reel again. He saw it heading for a submerged snag, and felt dizzy. Would it wrap the line around that log and break off, after all this? He applied pressure, and again the fish stopped its run at the last possible instant, on the threshold of freedom.
“This fish is uncanny,” he thought. “Almost as if it were playing with me.” At the same instant the camera swooped down over the fish, filming a close-up, and the scene suddenly seemed totally unreal. He began to hate the camera with a patient violence.
The fight continued for nearly an hour, with the fish allowing itself to be pumped in close again and again, only to respond each time with renewed energy in a lightning run interspersed with aerobatics. His senses reeled, saturated; his mind clouded. He began to wonder if it would ever end. And then, without warning, the fish gave up. It milled about aimlessly and rolled its silvery side on the surface. He had won. It was too perfect, too classic to believe, and somewhere deep inside it felt all wrong. He fought the feeling.
“Be here, damn it,” he said to himself. “This is what you have waited for all your life. Don’t blow it now.” But he felt detached, depressed, disappointed. There was something inside him that was spoiling it all for him, something that he couldn’t face, didn’t want to know. He raised the rod tip, got down on one knee in the shallows, and prepared to release the fish, all the time feeling an inexplicable torment.
And then, as the huge silvery shape slid under his hand, as he looked into the eyes of the steelhead, ultimate symbol of freedom, he knew. He remembered everything.
The Director knew he must choose his words with care. “We don’t have to use the traditional ending.” He swung around and fixed them all with a piercing stare as he spoke. “This is a work of art, not an empty ritual. Why shouldn’t we give the public something different, something authentic and fresh? Is the era of creative film-making so far behind us? Why…”
A tense voice challenged, “Let’s see the ending. I want to see for myself.”
“Why get ourselves all worked up?” the Director responded, on the defensive now. “What we have to pass judgement on is this film, not the Fisherman. The case has gone to court, justice will be done; why can’t we just forget about that?”
Murmurs in the crowd. A new voice: “Let us see it. We have a right to see for ourselves.” A chorus of agreeing noises.
“Look, if we need a Release, we can fake it, splice one in. We can…”
A soft voice rolled out over the discord and left a very flat silence. It was the Producer’s voice. “Let’s see the ending, John.”
As the lights went down and the lasers came up, the Director sat down heavily. He knew then that he had lost, that the film would never be released. For even in his own mind a door slammed shut forever as he watched the holographic image of the Fisherman raise a rock over his head and bring it down on the great silver steelhead, the only steelhead in existence, again and again, splitting open the flexible plastic and scattering irreplaceable wires, microcircuits and servomechanisms, the heartbreaking fragments of a dream, over the merely real rocks.
I think it must have coalesced out of the Soup. Something like that. All I know is, for a long time there was just the Soup, nice and simple. Well, actually I don’t remember much about that time — no detail, anyway. You know; what’s to remember? But then suddenly I was aware of it. It moved. I’d say that was the trigger: it moved, and suddenly there was not just the Soup, but this Thing in the Soup and then the Soup itself, and all the relationships and interactions between them. I can tell you, it was pretty complicated getting it all sorted out, but I think I’ve got it straight now.
Mind you, if I hadn’t got it straight I wouldn’t be telling you about it now; I’d still be mooning away, meditating sleepily on the Soup, I’d never have known about… well, other things. Like the Place, for instance. If I hadn’t tackled the problem of the Thing in the Soup, I doubt if I ever would have found out about the Place. This is a fantastic idea. Let me try to put it simply: the Soup is in the Place. Inside. Get it? It’s a boundary, a border, a limit. The Soup is in a volume I call the Place, which is defined by a boundary. Isn’t that neat? Well, maybe it’s beyond you. Anyway, I never would have figured it out if it hadn’t been for the appearance of the Thing in the Soup. Because the Thing moved, see, and then it became obvious that there was more to the Soup than just being there; it has properties, and I have more or less exhaustively analyzed them. The main property the Soup has is volume. This became apparent because of the Place, which defines the volume. Ho boy. Look, think of it this way: the Thing moves, but even though the Soup doesn’t keep it from moving, it keeps running up against the limits; it is stopped by something; it finds the boundaries. Watch.
Kick. See, there it goes again. I can tell just when it’s going to do it. Notice how it runs up against the Place. The Place is funny, it lets the Thing change it a little, for a while, but it always comes back to the way it was. It took a lot of tests to figure out the difference between where it likes to stay and where it can be pushed to.
The Thing moves, and I pay close attention. It’s fun. Most of the time, anyway. Lately the Place has been pushing back, and that’s a drag. Really. It comes without warning, not like the nice predictable way the Thing moves, and really violent. It almost squashes the Thing, and the Thing makes bad feelings. I don’t know how it does that — don’t ask me to solve all the problems of existence at once — but the Thing is able to make all these bad feelings, and it does it every time the Place squashes it. I don’t like either of them when that happens. I get a bad case of confusion.
I mean, what the hell, I have figured out a lot since the Thing appeared in the Soup — I probably understand the situation better than you, whoever you are — but I still have a lot to iron out. It’s challenging, sometimes it’s a bit much to take. I mean, time, for instance; time is a nice neat problem. The appearance of the Thing in the Soup separated time into “before” and “after” — that took me a while to sort out, but it was fun — and then the Place started this squashing business, which made a second separation into “before” and “after” except this “before” was in the “after” of the appearance of the Thing in the Soup. So I had to invent my theory of time as a sequence of separations like that, which I call “events”. Sorry to bore you with all this theoretical stuff, but you need to understand about time to get the gist of all this. Anyway, that was a nice problem. But then there’s the ugly ones. Like what’s outside the Place. This is tough to explain: if the Place is the container for the Soup and the Thing is in the Soup, maybe maybe there’s something that contains the Place! Hard to picture, huh? What made me think of it was this business with the Place squashing the Thing all the time. Maybe there’s something outside the Place that makes it do it. Maybe if I understood better I could make it stop.
Damn. There, you see? Squash. No sense to it. It sure gets to me; I wish I could make it stop. It seems to me that this is the ultimate problem of existence: how to stop the Place, or whatever motivates it, from squashing the Thing all the time and distracting my attention. But how, how? There isn’t a hell of a lot to work with.
The problem here, and it’s a mean one, is that the known universe is too small. There’s the Soup, the Thing, and the Place, and the three interactions between them, and their properties. If there’s an Outside, then there’s four entities, and, let’s see, there would be six possible interactions. Already the universe is twice as complex. No, I don’t think there can be an Outside; it’s too hard to figure out, and plainly the universe is generally benign; it would never be more complicated than necessary, that would be totally uncooperative. No, there must be…
Boy, I can see a hole in that theory. If the universe is entirely benign, how come the Place keeps squashing the Thing and the Thing keeps making all these bad feelings? Somebody’s got it in for me.
I bet it’s the Thing. After all, why should I care if the Place squashes the Thing? It’s all those bad feelings I can’t stand; I bet the Thing just makes them to get me, maybe to fool me into thinking that the universe isn’t really basically benign. That’s probably it, the Thing wants me to lose sight of the greatest idea of all, the fundamental law of nature, the basic friendliness of the universe. (I figured that out just recently.) I bet it’s jealous of my theories. Not like the Soup, good old Soup, always there, filling the Place, always…
Hey. Where’s the Soup? Seems like there used to be more of it. Maybe it’s my imagination… No! The Place is getting smaller! Good lord, the Soup has disappeared! HELP!
Back again. Just time for a status report. Things are rough. But I have started to get it straight finally — it didn’t make any sense at first, but I think I understand now. What happened was that the Place took away the Soup. I should have realized, it’s not the Thing which is my enemy, but the Place. All this time it masqueraded as a mere boundary, it’s been out to get me. It squashes the Thing all the time now, to get it to make those bad feelings. The Thing makes a lot of bad feelings, now that the Soup is gone, and especially when the Place squashes it. I have had to retire my first and greatest law of nature, the basic friendliness of the universe, since all this hostility started. Right now I am working on an adversary model. My plan is to force the Place to give back the Soup. Not much progress yet, but I’ll keep you posted.
There’s been a new development. The Thing turned around. Hard to explain what I mean by that. The Place was pressing in on it, like it has been since the Soup went, but steadily now, even in between bouts of squashing, so I came up with this new theory that the Place was squashing the Thing because it wanted to have a different interaction with it. What made me think of this was that the Place was squashing one end of the Thing more than the other, which was particularly dreadful, and I figured maybe the Thing could somehow reorient itself in such a way as to appease the Place and get the squashing to stop. Believe me, it has been an ordeal; I don’t think I could take any more.
Anyway, no sooner had I got that theory in order than the Thing started moving, kicking and squunching around, and pretty soon it was in fact reoriented. Since then things have been quieter. I think this may be the solution. I am now formulating a theory…
Whoops! AACK! Holy shit, this is too much! You’re not going to believe this, but the Thing is getting wedged into some kind of passageway. That last Place-push made it move, jamming one end of it into a corner of the Place I never noticed before. It looks like the Place has a lot more structure than I realized. Still, maybe my theory was right; maybe the Place just wanted to get this end of the Thing into this corner. Certainly it seemed to be pushing in that direction, and obviously the Thing can’t go any further into that tiny passageway.
Wow, think of the implications of the passageway. Maybe it goes to the Outside. No, obviously not; if the Place turns into a passageway and the passageway turns into the Outside, then there’s no difference, no boundary between the Place and the Outside. That’s impossible by definition. Probably this isn’t really a passageway, just a corner that the Place wants the Thing stuck in. I bet the squashing stops now.
Ngh. This is intolerable. Not only didn’t it stop, it got worse! The damn Place is squeezing the end of the Thing further into the fake passageway. Or maybe it isn’t fake. This is too unpleasant. Worse yet, it’s distracting. All this new information is coming too fast, I haven’t got time to tidy up my interpretations. Important ideas are getting lost! For one thing, the universe obviously isn’t entirely benign. Think of the implications of that! I need time to probe the ramifications…
Good god! The Place has squeezed the Thing all the way into this incredibly narrow passageway. It MUST be a passageway! The Thing is fighting and kicking, drenching me in this awful tidal wave of horrible bad feelings. I want to help it, but I want it to stop. I almost hate it. There must be an explanation for this. Something terrible is happening to the poor Thing. Of course! It’s not in the Place anymore. That’s it, that was the idea all along! The Place doesn’t like the Thing, it’s pushing it out into the Outside. It must never have liked it.
It’s not that the Place doesn’t like ME, it’s just the THING. It all makes sense now. Everything will be all right.
Look, Thing, I wish you the best of luck in the Outside, whatever it turns out to be. I almost wish I could come along and find out, but you know how it is, some of us were meant to find adventure while the others stay at home. I’m just not the type for exploring. So hang in there, Thing. I’m going on back to the Place. Look at it this way, whatever is Outside, it can’t be any worse than being mashed into this passageway. Good luck.
Hey. Where’s the Place? Come on, now, it must be right back here past the other end of the Thing. Right up ahead. OK, jump off, good-bye Thing, let’s go…
This I can’t believe. The universe can’t be this unfair.
It is. It IS. OH, MY GOD, I’M STUCK TO THE FUCKING THING!
How can I be burdened with this stupid Thing? We’re so different, I am… well, pure mind, not a Thing; I think, I understand; all it does is just sit there and generate all those bad feelings every time anything unusual happens to it. I don’t understand.
Well, here’s a theory. The universe is basically hostile! That must be the case, or such a perverse connection would never exist. Yes, that must be it. A new theory. Hmm. What was I thinking? I feel dull. Something is happening to me. It’s this passageway, we’ve got to get out….
WHOOSH! Outside! NOISE! … LIGHT! … COLD! … PAIN!!! …
Unbelievable. Universes, universes. Even hiding here inside the Thing, the flood of information is unbearable. It’s hopeless, I can’t begin to assimilate it all. I will never understand. I’m fading, losing touch, draining into the Thing… losing consciousness…. Wait. Wait, one last act while I am still really ME. Gather remaining strength, take control of Thing, make it express my outrage at the universe.
Yes. It chokes (I choke), it grimaces (I grimace), it opens my mouth and I drag-suck a cold fire into its lungs, fill them full…. Now, say it now….
“GOD DAMN IT, WHAT THE HELL IS THE MEANING OF THIS?”
Provenance: written in about 1975, IIRC.
One day a crew of professional land-clearers came in and uprooted the oaks and magnolias, and there was a dust of old moss and tree-ferns in the air, smelling shocked at having been so jarred after an age-long rest. Bright, calloused sunlight shone directly on the ground which had been shaded cool for a foot-thick layer of rotten leaves. The men tied heavy chains around the trunks and the bulldozers pulled, scraping away airplants and mutilating the bark, and sandy roots appeared and were dragged away, everything was dragged away to the big pile in the clearing to be burned later. The air smelled of diesels and vibrated with their pounding roar, and the boy stood in the clearing next to the huge pile of bonfire-to-be and watched.
One of the drivers had come over earlier to find out what he wanted. The man had been fairly polite, actually, which had disappointed him a little, for he had wanted to dislike him personally. He had only replied that no, he wasn’t any relation to the owner, he just lived “next door” and he was just watching because he had nothing better to do. The man had looked at him, decided he was no threat to anyone, shrugged, and went back to work. Later a less friendly driver told him to keep out of the way.
By lunchtime, the first pile had grown as big as a fire-pile should get, so they started another about thirty feet away. Several displaced families of blue jays were circling overhead screaming at the orange monsters when the first rumbled spasmodically and stopped. The others came to a halt soon afterward, and the drivers came walking up to the first pile together, talking and pulling off their heavy work gloves. The Negroes who helped them wandered back one by one to sit down slowly and gingerly on the great oak trunks. They sat, not on the other side of the pile, but at the other end of the same side as the white men.
He stood between the two groups, making up his mind whether to stay or walk a quarter of a mile home to get lunch, when one of the drivers got up and said, “There’s a nice-sized cabbage palm down towards the swamp; I think I’ll get my machete out of the Cat and cut it.” As he walked toward his machine an older man spoke.
“Save me a piece, will you?” And then to the other two, “Haven’t tasted swamp cabbage in a hell of a long time. You boil it, season it right, and there’s a real Florida treat.”
The boy caught a whiff of conscious indifference from that quarter, and turned to walk over to where the Negroes sat. He sat down next to an old Negro who was examining the contents of an ancient black lunch bucket with an improvised wire handle, and looked in at the waxed paper and chicken leg.
“Hi, Tony,” he said; “remember me?”
The old man looked up, grinned toothlessly, and said, “Hey, Rick! Where you been, boy?” His voice was richly hoarse.
“Oh, school,” said Rick, a little dreamily.
The old man missed these words. “Eh?” he said, cupping his hand to his ear. Tony was probably close to ninety.
“School,” Rick said, more loudly sorry that he had forgotten to speak up.
With the humor of the benignly senile, the old man chuckled at this, meaning nothing but that existence was amusing, and made no comment. The boy seemed a little fidgety.
“What do you think about clearing out the woods?” he asked, this time loudly enough.
The old man frowned good-naturedly. “Well,” he said, “since dey put in de big highway, ain’t been much game about; don’ guess I trap much any more, so hit don’t git to me.”
“You hear they’re going to dredge the pond and fill in the swamp?”
Tony grimaced. “Dat cain’t make de fishin’ no worse. Dey been pumpin’ out fo’ irrigatin’ and pumpin’ in dere wash-water, till it sudses when you’ throws in a rock.” He looked tired from so long a speech, and concentrated on the drumstick.
Rick bent over, resting his chin on his clasped knuckles, and stared at his boots. He liked his boots and was proud of them because they were old and well-worn and comfortable with their wrinkled tops and second soles. He thought of a particular tree, a tall dead oak, with a fish-eagle’s nest in the highest crotch. It was down next to the swamp, and would be one of the last to go.
“Tony,” he said, “did I ever tell you about the osprey nest down by the swamp?”
The old man was quiet, and Rick repeated himself more loudly: “Did you know there were some eagles down by the swamp?”
Tony pursed his wrinkled lips in a dignified pout, and answered simply, “Yeah, I seen ’em too.”
Rick was afraid he’d annoyed the old man, and leaned back self-consciously against the logs while Tony went on picking carefully at the chicken bone. He looked across the clearing at the edge of the woods; the trees that he had always seen darkly and mysteriously shaded were now brightly reflecting the sun from their trunks. Yet still they seemed to hide something cool behind them.
He caught himself biting his fingernails and made himself stop, inwardly ashamed.
A new mechanical sound crept into the ringing absence of the bulldozers’ thunder — and automobile approaching through the orange grove behind the giant woodpiles. Rick’s ears caught it and he listened, wondering who it was. It must be Mr. DeCosta, he thought, coming to inspect the clearing of his land.
The sound grew, and suddenly the car jolted into sight around the corner of the woodpile. It stopped in front of Rick, seeming to settle a little into the thick grey sand, and the door on the driver’s side sprung open. An average-looking man of about forty-five got out and walked directly over to the Caterpillar drivers, glancing over the morning’s work appraisingly as he went.
As the man began speaking with the drivers, Rick brought his eyes back to the car. A young boy, perhaps eight or ten, sat watching his father. As Rick surveyed him, the boy’s eyes tired of their subject and turned to him; they lightened slightly with interest, but a mild distrust crept into them as they touched on the old Negro occupied with his lunch. Then the boy opened his door casually and slid out, filling his sneakers immediately with dusty grove sand.
Rick caught the sidelong look at Tony, and thought to himself that he had never felt any distrust for Negroes as a child; this boy’s parents must have taught him that.
The boy pulled a new hatchet from its sheath at his side and walked up to a horizontal limb, upon which he began to chop ineffectually.
“Not like that,” Rick offered; “you have to chop at an angle and cut out chips. Like wedges, see?” He made motions in the air with a flat palm.
The boy thought it over, and decided to accept this advice. He took a diagonal swing, knocking out a good-sized chip, and another, at too great an angle so that the blade glanced off and the hatchet flew from his hand. It landed, bouncing on a stump just a few feet from where the boy’s father was standing. The man whirled, looked, saw what ad happened from his son’s frightened look, and walked over to him, leaving the hatchet lie.
“What did I tell you about that axe?” he said, sternly but not angrily. “What was the first thing I made you promise?”
The boy was silent for as long as he dared; then, accepting te fact that he ad to answer, he looked down at a twig on the ground and said guiltily, “Be careful.”
“Alright, were you being careful then?” his father asked. The boy looked up at Rick with a blaming look.
Rick did feel a little responsible. “I’m sorry, Mr. DeCosta,” he broke in; “it was really my fault. You see, I was telling him how to chop at an angle, and I forgot to warn him that it could slip that way.”
Mr. DeCosta turned to him. “He should have known better anyway,” he said, and then spoke to his son. “Don’t forget again if you want to keep that hatchet.” Then, addressing Rick again with some mild suspicion, he said, “What do you want around here, son?”
Rick felt a little nervous. “Just watching,” he said. n “I live down the road — Mrs. Donavan is my grandmother.” He inserted the last like an identification card, knowing that Mr.. DeCosta would know his grandmother.
The man’s aspect changed to one of familiarity. “Oh,” he said, “you’re Mrs. Fowler’s boy. Glad to meet you. Richard, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Rick said, shaking hands. He felt obliged to smile. His eyes glanced nervously towards the woods.
Mr. DeCosta followed this movement, was silent for a moment, and then said, “I guess you hate to see this place cleared — used to be some good hunting in through here, they tell me.”
Rick said, “I can remember when it was.”
“Well,” sighed the older man conversationally, “when you can afford to expand, it’s sort of a duty to your family. The hunting’s better down by the lake, anyway.”
“Yeah,” Rick said quietly. Then, not wanting to be impolite, “What are you going to plant?”
“Well,” explained the older man, “I was going to put in grapefruit, but the way it looks now I may be going into real estate.”
Rick looked up with a hint of alarm. “You mean a housing project?”
“Well, not exactly; I’m bound not to talk about it yet; the deal’s not closed. But I do plan to build, yes.”
Rick was quiet, his forehead slightly creased.
Mr. DeCosta seemed suddenly a little defensive. “What difference does it make, anyway?” he said. “We’ve got as many trees as we can handle already. Making a grove out of the land won’t save the hunting.”
Rick looked at him. “It’s not just the hunting,” he sighed impatiently; “I hardly ever hunt here anymore. It’s hard to explain.”
The older man stood quietly for a moment, and then looked over towards the woods. A veil passed over his face, and he seemed almost embarrassed; he said, “Well, I have to go talk to the boys,” and turned and left.
His son was returning now with the hatchet. He felt friendly towards this stranger who had stuck up for him. “You working here?” he asked.
“No,” said Rick; “just watching. Your name’s Jimmy, isn’t it?”
“Jim,” the boy corrected. “How did you know?”
“Oh, my parents mentioned you once. Ever been over here to see the woods before?”
“What, those?” the boy said, pointing to the doomed barricade of living trunks across the clearing. “Nope. Daddy only bought this land last year.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Rick. Suddenly he felt that it was his duty to introduce the boy to the woods. “Ever seen an eagle’s nest?” he asked.
The boy showed an interest. “No; is there one around here?”
“Down in the woods,” Rick said. “If your father says it’s all right, I’ll show it to you.”
The boy trotted over to his father and hung from his sleeve for a moment, asking. Then he ran back. “It’s okay,” he said, and ran off across the clearing.
Rick followed casually, watching a pair of buzzards circling overhead in the thermals from the newly-bared dark earth.
He was relieved when they passed through the border of the trees, for the compound fracture between the undisturbed woods and the torn earth outside had bothered him. He called the boy after him, moving towards a huge, fern-feathered old live oak impending overhead to his right.
He stood under a giant horizontal limb, remembering the times he had lain on his back upon it and fallen asleep watching the birds above in their industry. Now the birds were either gone or hiding, soundless. He showed the boy a spot on the trunk where lips of growing bark had closed over some slash-wound.
“I was trail-blazing by here once when I was a kid,” he said, “and I marked this tree. See how it heals itself?”
The boy looked, touched the lips gingerly, and glanced up at Rick. Rick began walking around the tree slowly, drinking in its beauty and familiar details with a thirst aroused by long absence and the knowledge that this was his last chance. He was brought back to the same place by the sound of the boy chopping on the tree.
“Hey,” he said, “what are you doing?”
“Trailblazing,” said the boy, trimming the edges of the slash-mark he had made a foot below the old mark.
Rick started to point out that the tree would be gone tomorrow, along with all the rest, and that the new mark would never have a chance to heal; but he stopped himself, thinking it would only be cruel — let him find out for himself; he’d feel the waste strongly enough tomorrow, when the torn-up trees were burning on the pile. Instead he said, “Come on and I’ll show you the tree with the osprey’s nest in it.”
After a moment’s search, he found the old path and set off down it. It was a rather narrow one, the wrong size for any particular animal to have made. Oak saplings and assorted woody plants hedged it on either side. As they went, the boy said, “This path is awful overgrown, isn’t it?” And Rick realized that he was right. Weeds were matted thickly on the path, and trespassing twigs from both sides criss-crossed in the middle. It was then that he remembered what had worn the path — it had been him; he and his old dog had walked that path so many times, trimming it with his machete, that the woods had finally acknowledged his existence and left the way clear. Now, after all the years of only occasional visits, the woods were forgetting him. They continued on in near silence.
They walked for a good ways, until the oaks thinned out and an occasional cypress broke into the ranks of dry-land trees. They were getting close to the swamp. Then in a tiny clearing, tere was the great white bone-like dead oak, water-killed many years ago, and in its top branches a wide, twig-constructed nest.
“Up there,” Rick said, pointing. “If you wait around, maybe the osprey will show up.” He remembered the times he had caught the great bird at home and seen him and his mate at close enough range that the grey of their distant color resolved itself into the intricate white-and-black patterns of their feathers.
And he remembered vividly the time he had found a young eaglet hidden in the grass around the base of the tree. He had caught it and held it, trying to comfort it, but the bird hadn’t shown anything but fear, so he had painfully climbed the tree and put the young osprey back into the nest. And then the next day he had discovered the eaglet lying dead beneath the tree; the parent bird had found it contaminated with human smell and ousted it from the nest. He had felt rage with the osprey for being so inflexibly idealistic. What a price to pay for what seemed only pride! Now he wondered if the osprey had shown instinct or wisdom.
Suddenly he wanted to go on to the pond, to look into that deep clear water. He knew he shouldn’t take the boy throughh the swamp, though; finally he decided that he would be safe here. “Listen, Jim,” he said, “I’m going over to the pond. Wait here for a minute and see if the osprey comes.” The boy nodded.
He threaded his way into the undergrowth, shunning the old path so that the familiarity of every detail might not be so overpowering. Still, he passed many trees with familiar crooks in their limbs and sometimes a scar from a knife or axe that he remembered making. He wouldn’t let himself dwell on the fact that they would be gone forever tomorrow.
Then the ground softened and grew blacker, and the cypresses became predominant and finally forced out all the other trees, and he had to step on the cypress knees to keep from bogging down in the mud. Finally there was the old gold shimmer of amber water through the trees, and the swamp ran up short on the edge of the pond. Rick smiled, thinking of the ducks he had hunted and the fis he had caught out of this big pool.
But as he stepped quietly up to the water’s edge, he saw that there were very few lily pads left in the once-sprawling patch; the weeds growing around the edge looked a little dried-up, and the hyacinths had died out completely. As he bent down he saw that the once-clear water was now clouded with a scum of green algae. “It must be from the filth tey dump in here,” he thought; “the algae thrives on it.” If there were any fish they were hidden beneath the green cloud.
But the big rusty nail was still in the water-oak there where he had driven it long ago to rest his cane pole on, and he decided that perhaps the seeming decline of the pond was partly just his imagination — he was old enough to have been disillusioned more than once by the idealized images that time and distance can create.
Then he heard the chopping, a hollow, resonant chopping sound of an axe on a hollow tree; he wondered what the boy was up to. Suddenly, over this sound, came the building roar of the bulldozers starting up again, and he winced slightly at it. The chopping sound was now like the bass-drum beat keeping the rhythm of the harsh music of devastation.
Realizing suddenly that it must be the dead oak that the boy was chopping on, and feeling indignation at the boy’s irreverence, he started back, picking his way over the roots and bog without much attention for anything but his footing. When he got to the dry ground, he took the path, because it was quicker.
When he was only about fifty yards from the tree, he heard a great heavy cracking noise and a crash, and knew that somehow the boy had hit a weak spot and downed the great dead oak miraculously with a hatchet. He felt anger rising slowly in his throat, and quickened his pace; that kid was going back to the clearing where he belonged.
He hadn’t quite believed that the tree could be so easily felled, but one glimpse of its white skeleton stretched out on the ground confirmed it. He didn’t see the boy at first. Then looking to see where the hatchet blows had severed the only solid wood that had kept the tree from falling, and seeing the dark rotten pulp spilling out onto the grass where the trunk had snapped close to the ground, his eyes fell on the boy.
He had apparently been unsuspecting of the danger of the tree’s falling, and, bending over to chop, been caught by the sudden and precipitous fall of the tree. Now he lay pinned beneath it, and if the tree had fallen a little more he would have been crushed. He was only pinched now, and ad had his breath knocked out. When he saw Rick he managed to wheeze, “Help.”
Rick became coldly perceptive, feeling adrenaline shock his mind and body into calmness. He went to the tree and gave it a testing shove, and the movement drew a creak from the base as the tree settled another inch, forcing a gasp from the boy beneath. The trunk hadn’t broken off completely yet, Rick saw, and the brittle wood that still held it was ready to give at the slightest impulse. Then the tree would drop and crush the boy.
He observed all this without emotion, without having yet had a chance to think. Picking up the hatchet, he looked around the small clearing. Over to one side he saw what he needed: a short, not-too-rotten trunk, about two feet in diameter, lying across another smaller log. He jumped over to it, and, using the hatchet as a hook, strained to roll it over. The boy moaned from beneath the tree, “Please,” and Rick pulled harder. At last the log rolled free.
The rattlesnake which had been sleeping under the log coiled back in alarm at this invasion, and sounded his warning buzz. Rick moved without thinking; the hatchet flashed out and then the snake was writhing headless in the dirt. The buzzing stopped, but there was still a buzzing in Rick’s ears. The shock of meeting a snake had always been a strong one, and he almost stopped to think and feel. Then, feeling persecuted, as if the woods were malignant, out to thwart him, destroy him, he goaded himself into action, tugging the log toward the tree with frenzied strength.
Then he was pushing the log into position beneath the tree, placing it beside the boy on the side away from the stump, so that when the last fibers of supporting wood gave way at the base the log would act as a fulcrum, flipping the short end off the boy. He wrenched the log into place, the sweat getting into his eyes and half-blinding him; then e rushed around to the stump and began hacking at the still-unsevered part. After a series of blows the tree gave up one last loud snap and broke free, and the severed end flew up, catching jeans and flesh with a sharp edge, and then he was sitting on the ground holding his knee, and the white tree skeleton and the sky and a great bird-shape whirled about his head, and a sickening blackness poured over him.
When he woke up his knee hurt and Mr. DeCosta was helping him up and talking to him about how his quick thinking had saved Jimmy’s life, and he answered with a far-off voice; then they were walking away, the man holding him up, carrying him out of the woods, and he didn’t even notice the ‘dozers dragging away the old trail-blazed oak.
As he was being helped into the car he strained his neck to take one last desperate look over his shoulder at the woods.
Provenance: Trinity Collage, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1966
Ford was infinitely disgusted with the world; he had just finished reading “Lolita”, and couldn’t help being a little depressed, as a normal result of being disgusted with the world. “How,” he thought, sipping a warm, hour-old whiskey sour and slapping the book down on the grass, “how could anyone write something as gross as that?” He leaned back in his lawn chair, looked through his picket fence at the dull, dusty road, and contemplated for a moment this righteous query; then he took a generous gulp of warm whiskey sour. “The terrible thing,” he said out loud; “the really terrible thing is, there actually are people like that in the world. Queers, who take advantage of twelve-year-old girls! And get away with it, no less! Phagh!” He sneered and felt depressed at the fact that he must live in a world with such perverts. In a fit of righteous indignance he flung the rest of his warm whiskey sour out on to the grass, and smiled defiantly at this act, feeling rather proud of his pride. He, Ford G. Lodge III, was one of the few pure Americans left. Shaking his head with slow seriousness, he let his eyes drift back to the dirty grey street.
A smiling little girl, about twelve years old, dressed in pink, walked coyly down the street towards Ford’s picket fence. She carried her school books in front of her, bouncing them with her legs as she walked. Ford watched her, full of semi-religious pity for the young innocent. “There!” he muttered, “That’s the sort of nice young thing those perverts would go for, the swines. Look at that cute blond hair,” he thought admiringly, “what a shame that anyone should want to defile it! And such a nice, round, clear face, even pretty, to a pervert, I suppose. Imagine some depraved fiend…” The rest of his thought was a mental image; he felt slightly sick.
As he sat quietly and thought about what a shame it was that such a cute little girl had to be exposed to the disgusting facts of life, a shabby black car slowly rounded the corner. A dark, indistinguishable man peered through the cracked windshield, looking carefully about the car. Ford saw the car creeping up the street, and was immediately suspicious. “That could even be one of them,” he said, “Not that he would dare do anything out in the open.” He almost wished the dirty pervert — he was convinced that the man in the car was, indeed, one of the despicable — would try something. He would show him, if he did.
As the car drew closer to the little girl, it slowed considerably, and Ford peered with some concern through the slats in his fence. He let out a slight gasp as the car actually stopped alongside the little girl, and the driver motioned her to the side. He seemed to be saying something, and the little girl tilted her head to one side in curiosity, as she leaned on her elbows against the side of the car. Finally she shrugged and nodded her head, and began to open the door.
Ford could wait no longer. He stood up, rushed to the gate, and cried, “Stop, you swine!” He ran across the road, somewhat surprised to find that the car quickly speeded up and roared off. He had expected at least a fist fight. Turning his attention to the little girl, he said, “Are you all right, little girl?”
“Sure,” she said; “why shouldn’t I be?” She smiled innocently.
Ford hesitated for a moment, and then looked down at her cute blond hair and nice round face. The rest of his thought was a mental image; he smiled. “How would you like to come over to my house for an ice cream cone?” he asked.
Provenance: Cranbrook Opus, 1963