This is not a short story.
Yesterday I hit the wall. Writing a story a day was no less taxing than I expected it would be, and I simply ran out of gas. I could not think of a single plot line that was worth tackling yesterday, and even now my brain still hurts.
So that was the experiment for this year. I'll rest a bit, get my brain back into working order and begin turning it to the next project. I hope some of you have enjoyed the work this month.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
The client, Abraham Jackson, stood behind the curtain and finished removing his clothes. He reached for the woollen breeches and pulled them on. They were loose and baggy and had no tie ... but there was a string, also, and it had been explained how to tighten the breeches around his waist. “Where am I going, exactly?” Abe asked.
“That’s hard to pinpoint,” answered the vendor, Garrett. “You can be pretty sure that it’ll be somewhere between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries. And probably somewhere in Europe. It took me months to get the fibrillation that fine. I’d hate to muck with it.
“Do people complain?”
“Some. But hey, it’s time travel. It has a certain appeal no matter what past you see. It’s a damn sight different from Gulfport.”
Abe lifted the woollen robe off its hanger and pulled it on. “I gotta agree with that.”
“I have to ask if you have any second thoughts. Nothing meant by it, I just have to ask everyone.”
Pulling the curtain aside, Abe looked Garrett in the eye. “Are you kidding?”
“Sorry. Just a precaution.”
“Well forget it. I made up my mind after looking over your equipment. There isn’t enough amperage to hurt me, and if nothing happens, I’m not going to be surprised. And that check I gave you won’t clear.”
“No, no, I understand,” said Garrett. “We both understand, don’t we Jerry?”
Jerry was sitting quietly, his EMT tool box beside him, looking ready. Every time Garrett had a new client, Jerry did him the favor of being available. That didn’t include selling the clients however, and Jerry only grunted.
Abe pointed at Jerry; “And he’s here in case I hurt myself.”
“Yes. Please understand ... about half my clients come back hurt in some way. Time doesn’t pass here while you’re in the past. So you can stay there as long as you like. Most people give it a week or so, and find they can’t get comfortable in the rustic surroundings, or they get a little freaked out with the culture. Those that try to stay longer quit the moment they get really sick, or they break an arm or something. That’s why Jerry is here. He’ll take care of you when you come back.”
Abe nodded. “I see.”
“Don’t worry ... there’s probably no more chance of getting injured in fourteenth century France that roaming around downtown Houston – everyone’s bound to need medical attention every few months, even if it’s just for a cold. There’s no sense in you sitting around here waiting for me to call an ambulance ... especially since the trip just takes a couple of seconds from our end.”
“I’m sorry?” asked Abe. “You want to explain that again.”
“Surely. I told you ... time doesn’t pass here. You step in and the machine cycles you out and into the other time line. Then, when you want to come back, the machine cycles again and brings you back. From our perspective, you’re in, you’re out. The only thing that takes time is the machine cycling twice.”
“Do some people stay a long time?”
“We had one fellow come back at ninety-five years of age. How he survived that long, I can’t guess. He said he arrived just in time to learn Polish before getting a chance to sit down and talk to Copernicus. Then he spent years just building himself up to being an important doctor in a town called Konigsberg. Take my advice – if you try to stay, be a doctor. It’s an easy life, and if you stick to basic first aid you’ll build up a good reputation and when a patient goes sour on you most of the villagers will keep you from being lynched.”
“You sound like you’ve been.”
Garrett squared his shoulders and beamed. “Four months in Cadiz, Spain. I was too early to see Columbus or the Spanish Armada, but the sights were worth the trip. I had to come back, though – I was afraid I’d caught syphilis. Turned out to be a false alarm, eh Jerry?”
“Shit, I hadn’t thought of disease,” said Abe.
“Don’t worry about it. You’ve got shots for most of the serious ones ... you could turn up during the Black Plague and you’d be fine. Be a pretty nasty vacation, though. I’d run for the hills just to stop yourself from having nightmares. If you’ve got a strong stomach, though, you could make a killing as a doctor ... end up living like a king.”
“And come back an old man.”
“Sorry, nothing I can do about that. Time keeps passing for you. You’ll get older. Those are the breaks. You’ll see a world you’ve never seen ... and come back to find your kids are still alive. Don’t wait too long and the people at the office won’t be shocked to find your hair’s gone grey over the weekend. ‘Course, you could come back and find you can’t go back to your old job.”
Abe laughed. “Maybe I should write a history, huh?”
“If you like. Nobody has yet.”
“Have you ever had anyone not come back?”
“I hate to talk about that.”
“Go on, don’t worry,” said Abe. “I’m committed.”
“Well, one fellow went through and the machine didn’t cycle again. He had that same chip in his arm that you had ... and I’ve tried the GPS to locate it, but apparently the transmitter in it was destroyed over the centuries. It must have been something that killed him instantly, so he didn’t have time to activate it.”
“Heck. The law of averages dictates ...”
“No, don’t say anything else. It’s not important. Just so long as I have enough warning to squeeze my wrist very hard –”
“The chip will be activated. That’s right.”
“Okay then. What do I do?”
Garrett put out his hand. “Shake my hand. You’re starting an amazing adventure.”
Abe grinned and they shook.
“Just move inside the box. Go ahead and lean on the sides, it won’t make any difference. The machine cycles everything inside, despatializing it and plopping it into the other time frame.” Garrett waved his hand. “Sorry, that’s not very scientific. It all particle physics and it isn’t easy to explain. Take my word for it ... you and the air with you are going together at the same time.”
“Cool,” said Abe.
“I’m just going to close the box and the machine will start to cycle. You’ll hear an escape of air, and a quiet whirring, and then there’s going to be a hell of a flash. Don’t worry about closing your eyes ... the flash is your brain cells interpreting the new data. It isn’t coming through your vision. Ready?”
Abe climbed two stairs and went though the box’s entrance. “Hit me.”
“It’ll be quite gentle. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
Inspired, Abe answered, “I’ll see you in a few months.”
Garrett grinned, and gave a sharp, approving nod of his head. He moved to a console and activated the machine. The door closed, and for twenty seconds it cycled.
It didn’t cycle again.
Letting out a big breath of air, Garrett shrugged and looked at Jerry. “Why do they always think they’re going to come back?”
“I don’t know,” said Jerry. “Let’s get a beer.”
Monday, December 12, 2011
The other player’s stick blade slipped neatly into the slot of Norman’s skate, and Norman crashed onto the ice.
The ref didn’t call it.
For a second, Norman heard the player’s laughter as he sped away.
Getting up from the ice was not Norman’s best thing. He tucked his legs under him and failed on his first try ... he fancied he could hear his father shouting at him to get up, from the board way across the rink, but that was probably just Norman knowing his father would be yelling. A blur of skaters went past him, on their way back to the other side’s net, and Norman finally climbed to his feet – just in time to get blindsided from the back, and dumped on the ice again.
It was the same player. Norman saw the blue helmet with yellow flecks. He didn’t know the other player, or any of the other team. They were in Thornecliffe, playing at an outside rink, and Norman’s team was losing.
Norman got to his feet and got back to his place on the blue line. He was a defenseman. He knew what that meant. He was a no talent loser. The talent played on the forward line.
His father told him different. His father had been telling him different for six years, and now that Norman was twelve he was past telling. For awhile there, when he was nine, he nearly bought into it. And maybe, when it came to real hockey, being a defenseman did mean something. But in the league, Norman knew it was where they put you because they had to put you somewhere.
The puck came to him and he whipped it across the ice in the direction of the left wing. He didn’t try to play the puck ... that would have been a disaster. It would have just gotten taken away from him. He was done trying that game.
Now the coach was yelling at him and that was fine. The coach was always mad. His parents were always mad. Norman hated hockey and there was no way out of it, at least not for another season and a half.
He was bigger than most of the others, and that worked against him. Everyone said that if he could improve his stick handling and his skating and his balance and his shooting, he’d go far. They had been trying to make him go far for a long, long time. Norman didn’t want to go far.
The puck came again and Norman tried to back up to get it. He got his stick on it, and it slid down the board into the corner. Skating as best he could, he went for the corner, and sensed – or heard – someone coming up behind him.
A moment after he touched the puck, he felt himself slammed off it and into the boards. His helmet hit hard and for a moment he saw stars. Then he was on the ice, sliding on the boards, rolling onto his back.
The player with the blue and yellow helmet grinned, and called him, “Slowpoke.”
Dazed, Norman got to his feet. The other defenseman, Greg, swept by and took the puck, and the play was heading out into the middle ice again.
“GET GOING!” shouted the coach. Norman knew they meant him.
He got on his feet and started back across the ice. He knew he’d been boarded. Again, the penalty hadn’t been called. It was never called.
Norman had been feeling dull and uncaring, but now he had a mission. He didn’t care about the puck, or the ice. He was mad, now. He began picking up his feet more, following the pack, but not for the puck. He wanted to catch the player with the blue and yellow helmet in just the right place.
It took awhile. Norman ground his teeth together and skated in wide circles, waiting for his chance. The puck came past him and Norman fought to play it in the direction of his enemy. He didn’t care if he lost the puck now, so long as the puck got him right where Norman wanted to be.
When the chance came it was so perfect he couldn’t have hoped for a better set-up. Norman played the puck towards the right side boards, just past the red line, and blue-and-yellow went right for it. Then the right winger, Tony, came face to face with him and together they crossed sticks to get the puck. Norman didn’t care. All he could see was blue-and-yellow framed against the white boards.
Without hesitation, Norman dug his feet in, pushed with all he had and skated straight at his enemy. Norman tucked, and hit his target low, dead in the shoulders, crushing the player against the boards. The sharp, sickening impact was like music to Norman’s ears.
He kept his feet. He turned around, and skated away. No one was yelling at him. No one was making any sound. The kid wasn’t getting up off the ice.
Norman couldn’t see if there was blood. A ring of players surrounded the struck player and hid his view. He hoped there was blood.
The coaches were coming across the ice now in the shoes, slipping and sliding. Norman didn’t get to see what they did, because at that moment the ref came forward and braked with a hard stop.
“YOU!” the ref shouted. “GET off my ICE!”
Norman could see the man was really, really pissed. Fuck you, Norman thought. You should have called that penalty.
He started for the way off and passed a couple of the players on his own team. They weren’t angry, just confused. None of them were Norman’s friends. They were just other kids who were always disappointed that Norman couldn’t play better.
His father was there when Norman came off the ice. He wasn’t mad, either. He looked scared. Norman couldn’t see why. He looked back, and saw they were carrying the kid off the ice now.
“What did you do?” asked his father.
“Nuthin,” said Norman. He didn’t bother to explain. In his head, he thought, Carrying out justice.
Things got hard after that. Norman was pulled aside and into the community centre, where his mother watched over him. There was no friendly moment where his mother bought him a drink or something to chew on. She just watched him, like he was a bug. Norman was used to it.
He knew his father was talking to the coach. It was a long conversation. Norman began to think about taking off his skates. He knew he had to wait until he was told to.
His father came in and walked to Norman’s mother as though he was carrying two big suitcases. “The other boy has a concussion,” Norman’s father said, directly to Norman’s mother, as though Norman wasn’t there. “He lost two teeth. They don’t think it’s anything really serious. I talked to the boy’s father and thankfully there isn’t going to be any action. I asked if there was anything we could do and he said no. But he said he would call us if he learned anything else.”
“Oh good,” said Norman’s mother.
“As far as Norman goes –” ... and here Norman’s father at last acknowledged Norman’s existence with a look; “– he’s off the team. The coach doesn’t want anything more to do with him. So that’s it. A thousand bucks of hockey equipment down the fucking drain.”
“Ned,” corrected Norman’s mother.
“Sorry. I’m just pissed. Let’s go home.”
They told Norman to undo his skates and they collected everything to take it out to the car. Norman kept his head down, to hide his smile, that he couldn’t quite get under control. They weren’t watching him, and they didn’t see.
They were talking about how they could see the equipment somehow. Norman wasn’t listening. He was wondering what it would be like to have a Saturday that didn’t have a game he had to play, and didn’t have a practice he had to go to.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
The building had no elevator. It was five stories and the movers had maneuvered the sofa-bed up four of them. The stairs were narrow and inconsistent from floor to floor, so that as they made their way around each turn, it took figuring and a lot of shoving to make the piece of furniture go. “God help the poor bastards who have to take this out again,” said Brett as they passed the third floor. Later on, his comments towards the sofa-bed were less considerate.
Mark took the nature of his partner in stride. Brett was 52, thirty-one years older than Mark, and a little bit frightening at times. Brett was massive, quick to anger, indifferent to pain – both his own and Mark’s – and often impatient. What he did not have was endless energy, and that was where Mark beat him hands down. But because of it Mark had to do most of the leg work around the Furniture store’s warehouse.
Brett did all the driving. They spent most of their days in the truck, delivering or picking up, but they didn’t talk much. They didn’t listen to the radio much. Mark could start a conversation and Brett didn’t seem to mind, but their talking never seemed to go on very long.
Now they were making the last turn to bring it onto the fifth floor. The stairs made a tight bow around a bit of plastered wall. Brett was below, holding most of the weight on his shoulders, and Mark was squeaking the sofa-bed between the stair’s railing and the wall. Then suddenly Mark heard a grunt, and then a great wheeze, and the sofa-bed fell out of Mark’s hands.
Mark couldn’t see what happened. He could see the end of the sofa and that was all. “Brett?” he asked.
Mark took a couple of steps down and squeezed around the corner of the couch, so he could look underneath it. Brett was upside down on the stairs, the couch pinning his hip, his legs pointed at Mark and his head out of sight.
“Brett, what’s wrong?”
He heard the answer with some trouble. “Come here,” Brett said.
There was all of fourteen inches between Brett’s legs, the sofa-bed and the wall. Mark bent forward, let himself fall into the hole, and caught himself on his arms without touching Brett’s legs. From there it was easy to snake the rest of the way through.
Brett was covered in sweat. His face was brick-red. “I think its ... a heart-attack,” said Brett. “I felt my arm just before ...” He caught his breath. “Call,” he managed.”
Checking around himself for his cell, Mark realized he’d left it in the truck. “I’ll be right back,” the younger kid said, and with that he was gone.
Brett tried to stop him, but he couldn’t shout. Helplessly, he listened to Mark run and jump down the stairs, until finally going out the inside front door, then the outside front door. Brett heard them close, one at a time.
He laid as still as he could, wishing he could get the sofa-bed off him, not daring to do it himself. He didn’t want anyone else, either, not unless they could both pick it up together. A long time passed. Brett chastized himself for getting into this trouble. He was mad at himself for being as old as he was.
Distantly, he heard an apartment buzzer ringing insistently. Mark had realized by now that the truck was locked, and that he couldn’t get back in the building. Brett heard Mark yelling. Then the downstairs door opened, and Mark started running up the stairs.
Brett heard the door open at the top of the stairs.
“Hello?” said someone, probably the client. It was a woman. “Did you need an ambulance?”
Brett did his best to be heard. “Yes,” he answered, biting off the word.
“I’ll call it,” said the woman.
The footsteps told Brett that Mark was nearly up up to the fourth floor. “Brett, I can’t get my phone,” he said.
“Someone else is calling,” said Brett. He felt a wave of nausea. Then he realized he couldn’t feel his legs.
Appearing, Mark moved to kneel on the steps, where he looked down at Brett. “Do you want me to do something?”
“No,” said Brett. “Just stay there and don’t do a ... fucking thing,” He barely breathed out the last words.
Mark swallowed. “Does it hurt?”
“Not as much as you’d think. I can’t feel that much now.”
“Oh,” said Mark, scared. “That’s not good.”
Brett whispered. “It is what it is, kid. Don’t ... don’t get worried about it.”
Neither spoke. A minute passed and the woman came again to the top of the stairs. “They’re on their way,” she said. “How are you?”
“He’s in a bad way,” answered Mark. “Find someone up there who can help me get this sofa off him!”
The woman paused, and said, “Okay.” She went away and the door above the movers closed.
“Kid, if you try to move this fucking thing off me, I’ll kill you.”
“We can’t leave it on you like this.”
Brett grinned. “Stop worryin’, I said. I can’t feel my left arm at all, and my right one’s just about dead. So am I, I think.”
Mark was really scared now. He’d broken into his own sweat. “Brett?”
“Don’t be a kid all your life, kid,” Brett told him. “It ain’t worth it.”
Then, like that, he was gone.
Mark blinked, and began to cry. It was shock, really ... he didn’t sob or break down. He didn’t take his eyes off Brett’s face, either. He’d never seen Brett look the way he did.
The door opened again and the woman’s voice came down. “No one’s home,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it,” answered Mark. Then he started, remembering it was what Brett had told him. Mark moved back, walking down the steps until he came to stand next to the fourth floor door. And there he waited. He thought about deciding not to go to university the autumn before. He thought about not starting the band with Fred and Roddy. He thought about ending it with Olivia, four months ago.
He’d decided how to stop being a kid before the paramedics arrived.
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Her mouth made a big round ‘O’ when he told her he’d never been fishing, and she insisted that that weekend they strike out. She arranged for a fishing rod for him, she bought him a sleeping bag, and Saturday morning, early, they packed up. They hiked up to the back-end of Boom Lake and picked a spot amid the trees, and set out their tent and their gear. She laid a huge blanket on the ground under the sky, and spread open their sleeping bags on top of it, and as the warmest part of the day passed, they christened the campsite with great sex.
They laid together naked in the woods, him on his back, her nestled in his shoulder. “So this is fishing, huh?” he asked.
“Yep,” she answered.
“I like this. It gives me ideas. Maybe this fall we could go hunting.”
“I’m up for that.”
“And then after Christmas, we could go skiing. And in the spring we could try some rafting and next summer some horseback riding.”
She grinned. “I’ll organize everything.”
They snuggled and kissed and watched the birds flit in the trees and listened to the rustle of grass along the lake shore.
“What’s the future going to be like?” she asked.
“You mean, after we’re married?”
“Oh, I’ve been thinking about that.” He made an arc in the air with his hand. “First thing, your parents get killed in a car accident.”
“At the same time?”
“No. First your father goes, and then the hearse with his corpse and your mother goes off a cliff.”
She thought about it. “That works for me. What next.”
“Well, next, my brother buys us a lottery ticket, which wins us ten million dollars ... but he’s been carrying the ticket around so long it’s too late for us to collect.”
She nodded. “Believable. And then?”
“Well, I get a job I don’t have to explain to your parents –”
“Because they’re dead.”
“Right. I make a little money, you get a job and get a little money, and then we have fourteen kids.”
“Well, you go menopausal at 38, so we have to stop.”
She counted it out in her head. “That’s an average of about 26.7 days between giving birth and the next conception.”
“That’s how I figured it out too,” he said.
“Crap. You got lucky it wasn’t one kid too many.”
He sighed. “It’s always one kid too many.”
“I’m not sure I’m into this future where I’m visibly pregnant sixty-two per cent of the time,” she said. “How about another future?”
“You want a reboot?”
“Will my parents still be dead?”
“If I’m predicting the future they will be,” he answered.
She tucked in closer to him and kissed his nipple. “Good. Start again.”
“Okay. Hm... okay, you start practicing the clarinet again.”
“I meant to do that.”
“See? We’re already in the future. You’re parents will probably be dead by the time we get back home tomorrow night. Can I go on?”
“As I was saying, you practice ... a LOT. All the time. I start to miss you, and we don’t have any children.”
“Shut-up. You get really good at the clarinet and people start to take notice. You get a gig with an orchestra, and you start getting drunk with the girl violinists and half the time you’re doubling down in Vegas.”
“And what are you doing?”
“Working a steady job. Now, it happens in Vegas that you meet a manager of some kind, and you wind up doing a clarinet duet with Britney Spears and you become world famous and make millions of dollars.”
“I like that. And what do I do with that?”
“You start sleeping around with famous people.”
“Um, Michael Jackson.”
“And, uh, Amy Winehouse.”
“Interesting. And also dead.”
“Okay, Heath Ledger.”
“I’m sensing a pattern here.”
“Well, you’re in an experimental phase, this being the best chance you’ve had to examine your long-held latent necrophiliac tendencies.”
“And my lesbian tendencies also.”
“Obviously. You’re playing the field.”
“And apparently finding my partners there,” she observed.
“With a shovel,” he added. “These are deep relationships you’re having.”
She didn’t miss a beat. “And what are you doing all this time.”
“Suffering. Suffering horribly. I never see you and I’ve lost my job and there doesn’t seem to be any purpose at all.”
“I tell the girls I sleep with about it all the time. They’re very sympathetic.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “But none of them are necrophiliacs and they hold no interest for me.”
“None at all.”
“Well, the cheerleader’s kind of cute, but no, really, just not my type.”
“So I decide I’ve got to have you back. I start stalking the tour you’re on, going from city to city and selling drugs to enable me to overcome the staggering ticket prices. You don’t even remember I exist anymore ...”
“Am I still fucking dead bodies?”
“Sure, whatever you can dig up between giving massive drugs to your roadies in the hopes it will make their hearts stop. Oh, and between times you’re increasing the size of your girl scout uniform collection.”
“I’d never give that up,” she agreed.
“I felt certain of it. Anyway, one night I get lucky and the guard at the stage door is having a heart attack, being your intended lover that night ...”
“He’s good looking?”
“I hardly notice as I’m stepping over his twitching body.”
“Okay, you’re off the hook for that one.”
“I hide around the back stage, making my way to your dressing room door, and when I see you enter, and the three big hirelings you command go off to collect the guard’s recently demised body, I take my chance and burst into your dressing room.”
“And what happens?”
“You panic and reach for the gun you keep on your dresser –”
“For when my lovers aren’t quite dead?”
“Exactly,” he said. “And you shoot me dead with it. And at that moment you realize I’m the perfect man for you, and we live together happily ever after.”
“Good. That’s how I’d like it.”
She laughed, and he laughed, and for awhile they rested.
“Let’s go fishing,” she said. “Actual fishing.”
“Let’s lie right here instead.”
She sat up, and began pulling on his arm. “Come on, it won’t kill you.”
“That’s what you said when I came through the stage door.”
“I was lying then,” she said. “I’m telling the truth now.” She had some success at getting him on his feet.
“Wait!” he said. “I’ve had another vision of the future. You go fishing, and make the beds in the tent and fall asleep.”
She dragged his arm. “Come on, stupid.”
He put a hand to his forehead. “I see myself falling into the lake ... and being eaten by a fish ... except for my boots ...”
She handed him his fishing rod and he took hold of it. “This way.”
His voice could still be heard from the camp and they started towards the lake. “You fall in love with my left boot,” he said.
“Yes. The two of you have four kids together ...”
Friday, December 9, 2011
Mary sat at the lab bench, her feet wrapped around her stool, surrounded by her brothers and her husband, all three leaning over her. They were afraid to speak to her. They were afraid to interrupt her. Mary peered in the microscope and at long last she finally said, “Uh huh.”
“The right balance?” asked her husband Tom.
“As near as I can tell,” she answered. “The viscosity is nearly perfect, the color looks right. And the source was extremely productive.”
“Extremely,” agreed her brother Graham.
“Double that,” added her brother Alfred.
“So with that, amino acid content is down, and the caloric expectation is just about twice what we might have hoped for. I think if the seasonal temperature stays about the same ... our efficiency should prove spectacular.”
“We’ll be rich,” said Tom.
“Fifteen years,” said Alfred. “I can’t believe this took twenty-two years.”
“It was a genetic problem from the start,” said Mary. “It doesn’t happen over night. And the first five years were wasted from not understanding enough about the subject. We learned from that, however.” She ran her eyes over the glass apparatus, the books of notes, the burn marks on the wooden table ... signs of years and years of effort and research and disappointment. Step by step and year by year they had built the source, and sometimes at great cost. Three times they’d come close to losing everything.
But here it was now. Mary reached out and picked the full cubical bottle from the table. The tea-brown liquid flowed and rolled within, catching the light, glistening in it as no comparable formula had. It was the light and the way it shone through the bottle that was sure to make them millions.
She handed the bottle to Tom. He brought it close to his eyes and stared. “Amazing.”
Tom handed it to Graham, who handed it to Alfred. “Cost?” asked Alfred.
A hundred and fifty a bottle here in North America. Possibly twice that in Europe or Japan. We’ll have to contact our overseas distributor once he sees the result. He might suggest a higher sum, depending on market analysis.
“More than three hundred?”
“Boys, we have something that can’t be equalled – unless someone else is working on this right now, and I think we’re all sure they’re not. This is ground breaking. It’ll be at least a decade before someone copies it, and by they we’ll have sewn the market.” Mary grinned. “Just selling the process alone would be enough – they’ll scream blue murder in America once the supply starts.”
“We could cut in some of the interest groups,” said Tom. “We have pretty hefty debts we could stand to take care of right now. Maybe Vermont would pay.”
Mary stood up, and took the bottle from Alfred. “To hell with Vermont.” She held the bottle up to the light, again enjoying the way it changed the liquid’s color.
“Let Vermont dare make maple syrup as good as this!”
Thursday, December 8, 2011
I had got a brace of pheasant in the Lord’s wood, and thought to be working my way out the way I come in when I ran across a ploughed field, and along the field a wood fence. I spied around me but saw no Hayward, and counting myself lucky I headed along the fence in quest of the lane I knew to be west of where I was. The sun was setting and I knew the way.
The young girl was sitting upon a stile, watching me come on, seeing me before I saw her. Her hips were swathed in a rag, and the shirt she wore was tied around her waist with a dirty sash. She was none too clean herself, but not being a man keen to ablutions either, that made little difference to me. I wondered at her intent, and would have asked her, but that her intent was made clear as she climbed down off the stile and came towards me, her eyes never leaving mine. I dropped my pheasants near a post, and leaned my bow, and together we laid down in the wheat that had grown wild next to the field, and knew each other better.
I know not what happened when I woke, to find myself whole, and the girl still beside me. Now there were two men, who looked alike to each other that I knew them brothers. My first thought was that my poaching had been discovered, but this was not their look. They rode no horse, or showed any sign of heraldry, but one had my pheasants and one had my bow. The one with my bow had gotten my knife, too, for I could see it clearly in his belt. The one with my bow spoke to the girl in an unfamiliar tongue, and the girl answered likewise, and I got from her way and from the man’s way that they were acquainted. I grasped my waist and found my pouch still there, and seeming all the coin that was in it, ten pieces in all. The man did not seem interested in my coin, and was not angry, nor was his brother when he said a word or two, but it was made clear to me that I should stand up and that I should walk with them.
We made our way together, all four of us, the girl ahead, towards the same lane I mentioned before. I had come to guess by then the girl was their sister, for they had ways about them that suggested as much, but though I had bedded her in the grass, and the brothers clearly knew it, they carried no malice for me.
When we come to the lane, that being the way into the Lord’s fiefdom, down the glen and to the little hamlet with its mill and villiens, the girl and the brothers grew quiet and fearful. We crossed it quickly, my thinking being that they were as feared of the Reeve as I. From that point we stole through the woods beyond the lane, the brothers on either side of me beckoning and pointing my way, and the girl ahead. I grew occupied with wondering our purpose, and with what should become of the game I stole, or my knife and bow.
By and by we came into the bottom of the valley, where all was tough grass and pond water, where none lived but cotters and worse, souls who lived off the Lord’s land but depended upon the labor they could gain there for livelihood. We came in time to a clearing where there were two hovels, hardly wider through the middle than I could stretch my arms wide. An old woman sat at the doorway of one on a stool, and the brother with my pheasants gave them to her, and she smiled and began to pluck them straight away. The other brother called and an old man stepped out, and this I knew was the father, and the old woman of course was the mother. The girl fetched water from a pond, pulling me along beside her until we came to one where there was movement in the water, a branch of the stream that was further on. What anyone thought of her and I going off alone I knew not, for they made no move towards it, and I could not understand the words they used to speak of it, if they even did speak of it, for I could not know that either.
When we came back with the water, the old woman had plucked the birds and a fire had been set and a clay pot sat resting in the fire. The girl beckoned me to pour the water into the pot, and it sizzled as it fell in. The girl stopped me from pouring all of it.
The old woman had my knife now, and she cut the bird to pieces and dropped it into the pot, and the young girl fetched wild turnips from all about, and the men smoked a weed through pipes they’d carved themselves, resting against a small circle of trees that were a bit above the hovels where it was driest. The one brother offered me the pipe, and I smoked it too, watching the women move about, trading it back and forth with the brother as the sun got lower in the sky.
We ate the bird and the soup in the twilight, from wooden bowls they had, picking the meat out with our hands and sipping the broth off as it cooled. The soup was flat and had hardly taste, but it was warm and filling, and they felt good enough to talk and tell stories and play with each other as people do around a fire.
As it grew full dark, and the fire died away, the brothers went to one hovel and the girl and I, and the father and mother, went to the other. All was dark inside, but the girl brought in a taper, lit by the fire, and showed me a place to sleep. It was upon a dry, greasy cloth, laid overtop straw and leaves and grass, against the wall. I crawled upon it and found it was restful, and turned to face the wall and sleep.
The girl laid beside me, and the father and mother upon another cloth in arm’s reach of us. I found I could not keep my eyes closed, as the girl pressed her body against mine. The moon rose, and a thin light came through the doorway, and presently I could see the dry clay walls inside, with nothing to mark them.
Then the girl began to fuss with me, pulling and moving me, impelling me to turn over, not letting me alone until I did. She pressed me until my back was to the wall, and her hands stole down the breeches to make her way. She arranged and nestled herself until she was beside me, and I in her, bedded like husband and wife.
And over her shoulder I saw the eye of her mother in the moonlight, staring at me but making no sound or movement to stop these goings on. For a moment I saw the girl’s father lift himself and look, but he took no notice of it and soon he was snoring. I closed my eyes against the mother’s gaze, as the girl humped against me, but I knew the mother did not close her eye against me. I know she went on watching, until the girl’s keening wail broke the night, and I had finished my last grunt. We were not disturbed, not by anyone, and the night passed thereafter uneventfully.
With the morning I rose, and climbed over the girl, my clothes tied up, and found the mother near the fire, making a tea with the water left from the night before. I approached her, to make a sign of some kind, and she stretched out her hand to me. I took her meaning at once, and found my pouch, and chose to give her four coins. She smiled, and pointed me to the door of the brothers’ hovel. There was my bow, newly strung, and my knife, oiled. My pheasants I did not miss. I nodded to the old woman, and collected them, and bowed to her. She wished me away with her hand.
I did not fear to make my way to the lane now, for I could not be caught as a poacher with no game. But I was happier than I’d been since I’d come, and knew I’d be happier when by the end of that day I had two other birds to bring home to my own family.