Posts Tagged ‘Weird’

Genres:

Episode 224: Welcome to Willoughby’s by Michael Reid


Welcome to Willoughby’s

by Michael Reid

 

You ever been to Upsilon Orionis? As far as asteroid belts go, that one’s pretty weird. Someone dragged every last asteroid in that system right up close to the star then built a temple to a different sun god on each one. How about Beta Pictoris? That solar system isn’t even properly formed yet and there’s already a golf course in its asteroid belt. It has fairways and sand traps and everything, with each and every hole on a different rock. So you could say I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff in asteroid belts. But the taxidermist was definitely the weirdest of them all.

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 104: Captain Cleveland Grackle’s Galactic Cabaret vs. The Goblins of Vishnu 6 by Jamieson Ridenhour

Show Notes

As you’ll hear in the outro, Jamieson’s inspiration for this story is the episode art for this week, a fair-haired young girl piloting a large mechanical fish. This arresting image was created by the exceptional artist Jasmine Becket-Griffith. You can find her work online here. Please go check it out! It’s well worth your time, and she has our thanks for allowing us to use the piece as this week’s episode art.


Captain Cleveland Grackle’s Galactic Cabaret vs. The Goblins of Vishnu 6

By Jamieson Ridenhour

Load-in is always a bitch on a gas giant gig, but the moisture off the methane sea on Vamana really played havoc with my drum heads. The city, Upendra, was a big, domed thing with old-school terra-forming and flora-powered atmos that amounted to a human-made jungle in the midst of the rocky moon. We were playing the Municipal Amphitheatre, a screamingly Corporate name that was typically boring and grandiose all at once. That we got booked at all is probably due more to the backwater status of Vishnu 6’s fifth moon than any real thought about whether we’d be a good fit—we were a hell of a lot cheaper than the big CorpMuses who played closer to Earth.

Not that any of this mattered, mind you. A gig’s a gig, and this one was if anything a little bigger than we usually pulled. I’m just saying that for the all the “professionalism” of the local staff and the “modern ease” with which the intra-dome transfer was supposed to run, we might as well have been playing a dive bar in the Pleiades. But we did get the equipment set up, ‘cause you always do, and we did get what could technically be called a sound-check before we were hustled off the stage so the other two bands on the roster could do the same.

I’m telling the story like I’m a veteran, but truth be told that gig was only my third or fourth with Cleveland Grackle’s Galactic Cabaret, even though the Neverending Tour was a full decade old by that point. This is right after they started using the mechanical fish during “Nearer to Land,” the one Kimmy would pilot out of the wings on invisible filaments when Peter began his guitar solo.

That’s right. Peter Van Conklin was still with the band at this point. The core of the group in those days was Peter Van Conklin on guitar, K’tehx McMahon on bass, and Sammy the Hoover on keyboards, auxiliary percussion, and Organism. The Clone Brothers were on brass, and Belle Swain played double violin and a slew of other strings. Kimmy Thistle danced, sang back-up, drove the fish, and was in charge of all Steampowered Effects and Trickery. And of course, the heart of the group was, as it is still, Captain Cleveland Grackle, singing his heart out while strumming away on his vintage harp-guitar or squeezing the mangalon as he capered and trilled.

So to say I was in elite company was understatement. Having played in a handful of small-time bands in and around New Ireland, I had built up my chops pretty well, but I would never have thought myself worthy of the Cabaret. When they played my hometown in County Centauri, my band Gripe Water had scored the coveted opening slot. That happened to be the day that the Cabaret’s previous drummer was taken down by goblins before the show even started, and Captain Grackle had asked me to sit in, sight unseen. I don’t like to brag, but I owned that gig, and there wasn’t even any discussion after that. I just loaded my stuff into their ship after the show and we took off.

The show began in a fairly mundane manner. The Vamana audience was big and rowdy. Big, as in numerous, but also as in gobsmackingly huge. Gas miners, mostly, with all the biogged biceps you’d expect. I couldn’t see any goblins from where I was standing backstage, but then I could only glimpse a small slice of the crowd through the edge of the scrim, and I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for, anyway. One of the opening acts was on, some local group doing covers. The mix was bad, unsurprisingly The Upendra crew working the boards looked half-lit during load-in four hours ago, there was no telling what kind of condition they were in now. The Cabaret always had its own sound guy, a time-jumped earthling named Stewie Jensen. He was every bit as big as the locals, and he didn’t need whatever they smoked or snorted on Vamana to stay mean. But the guy had serious ears.

I heard the Captain talking with Petey V. and sauntered over to join them. Pete was scruffy and paunchy, perpetual four-day salt and pepper beard, the lines on his face a road-map to the history of rock and roll he had seen. You probably know all about Peter Van Conklin—lead guitarist for an elite prog outfit in the 1970s, descent into madness and drugs, partial rehab before settling into an alcoholic holding pattern. I heard he was homeless in London when Cleveland Grackle gave him a new lease on life by time-jumping him two hundred years into the Cabaret.

“…under conditions like these, I wouldn’t bet on it,” Pete was saying. “You can’t count on things running that smoothly, Cleveland.”

“You are always the gloom,” said the Captain. “This is a glorious stage for a glorious show. The reports, I think, were off by a light-year.” Both men looked at me as I walked up.

“Ah! Young Dunnigan! How fares the crowd?” Captain Grackle clapped me on the back.

“It’s filling up,” I said. “Miners, mainly. Some women.”

“Nothing besides men and women?”

“Nothing I could see. A few extra-Corps guys, the ones with the blue skin.”

The Captain made a “see, I told you” face at Pete.

“That doesn’t mean anything, Cleveland,” said the older man. “Tommy, do you even know what a goblin looks like?”

“Of course,” I said.

Peter did a little “pfft” of air. “You’re lying.”

“Doesn’t matter if he is,” said the Captain. “You know as well as I do, Petey my friend. Can’t miss a goblin when you see it, whether you’ve ever seen one before or not.”

“What…what do they look like?” I asked. I had wanted to know ever since Sammy the Hoover had told me about the Cabaret’s unofficial commission, but I had been sort of afraid to ask. This was the first time the conversation had moved directly there.

“They look like Hell’s younger brother,” said Peter.

“That don’t mean anything at all,” I said.

“What the good Mr. Van Conklin means,” said Captain Grackle, “is you’ll know ‘em when you see ‘em. They’re all different, and they’re all bad.”

“And they’re here?”

“I haven’t smelled any.”

“The information felt pretty solid,” said Peter. “Our Captain is feeling optimistic.”

“Not optimistic—disappointed,” said the Captain. “I’d prefer to find ‘em and dispatch ‘em as quick as we can. It just feels like a clear venue.”

I must have looked disappointed, because he added as he walked away, “Keep your eyes open, Tommy. You’ll get to see one yet—and closer than you’d like, I’d bet my boots.”

I got antsier the closer time came to our set. I could see Kimmy putting the finishing touches on the S.E.T. pieces, her elfin face set in concentration as she worked the steamdrill and the wrenches. Fifteen minutes before we were due to begin, I was standing in the tiny hallway outside the greenroom with K’tehx, running through the opening of “Bramblecakes” in my head.

K’tehx McMahon is a hell of a bass player, and a really nice guy. If you can handle the strange name (it’s pronounced “mac-man”) and the horn-rimmed goggles, you’ve found a guy as loyal and stalwart as they come. The third arm allows him to do some truly amazing things with his bass, giving us the most impressive low end in the galaxy. K’tehx was smoking a long, thin carcino with one hand and flipping through a Girls of the Corporation mag with the other two, slender fingers sliding across the screen, when Belle Swain came down the hallway from the outside door.

Belle was dead, but that didn’t stop her from being about the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. I don’t know what all she had in her genes, but surely the wild black hair and pale eyes said Coronadic gypsy. I got tongue-tied whenever she was around, which I hoped made me seem surly and mysterious instead of a stuttering schoolboy. I began tapping my sticks against my legs as she glided past. She was wearing a loose cottony shirt over tight denim pants. Her legs ended mid-thigh, but I could imagine they looked good all the way down.

“Hello, gentlemen,” she said. She disappeared into the green room and emerged a moment later with her violin, holding it by the upper of its two necks. “Are you ready to tear it up?”

“Ready as I’ll get,” said K’tehx while I mumbled some inane thing.

“It’s a big crowd,” she said, and began to float away.

“The Captain says there aren’t any goblins here,” I managed to blurt out, and was rewarded by the full weight of those eyes.

Belle twisted her mouth. “Oh, the place is swarming with goblins. We’ll see serious action tonight.”

“You’ve seen them?”

“No,” she said, smiling fully now. “I don’t need to. Trust me. It’s goblin city out there.” She poked me in the chest with her bow. I could feel the cold coming off her. “You be careful, Tom. Best to just watch and learn your first time.”

K’tehx and I watched her drift down the hallway towards the stage, where the band was starting to assemble. “Is she right, K’tehx? Are we in for an Encounter?” I asked, using the official Corporation phrasing.

“Aw, hell, I don’t know,” said the bassist. “I just play the gig, you know? If there’s goblins, you know how we do.” He didn’t look up from the Miss Mars spread he was perusing.

“Almost time,” I said.

He thumbed the mag off. “Suppose so. We’d better get the Clone Brothers out of the box.”

The second band was filing off stage by now, accompanied by the cheers of the increasingly raucous crowd. I had never heard of these guys, but Kimmy said they were some mildly famous old-timers doing a reunion tour. They were pretty good—solid groove, good look—but we were the Cabaret. The crowd had an inkling of what was coming, was even now beginning to chant: “Grack-le! Grack-le! Grack-le!” The chant had almost certainly been started by the Cabaret Cadets, the rag-tag collection of groupies and hangers-on who followed us from planet to planet, but once the chant got started it spread across the audience like influenza. By the time the roadies had changed over the equipment, the noise from the crowd was deafening. Sammy was feeding the Organism the small rodent algae that made it musical, Peter and K’tehx were checking their tuning one last time against Belle’s violin, the Clone Brothers were finally awake and clutching their horns in the eerie silence that marked them as old-model embryots.

We walked on the stage in black-out, and I took my place behind the kit. The Captain crowed into the darkness, “Upendra Municipal Auditorium! Prepare for boarding!” I clicked off four on the high-hat, Kimmy detonated the first starburst, and the lights blazed out as we thundered into “Phrenology.”

Playing with the Cabaret was unlike any other experience I’d had. Some people—critics, or younger punters who like to slag the older groups just because they’re not following the latest trend—say that Cleveland Grackle’s Galactic Cabaret was no real band. They would say that the S.E.T. pieces were all that we had going for us, that it was all spectacle and show. And I’ll admit that Kimmy’s art certainly made us stand out visually. A Cabaret show could include a boxing match between eight foot tall automata, or a Shakespearean tragedy performed by brass marionettes. We used to surprise audiences during the old Titus Groan tune “Into the Gloaming” by releasing a cloud of mechanical fairies into the crowd. And that doesn’t even cover the theatricality of our own performance—Kimmy gyrating while Belle floated above the drum risers, Pete playing the opening guitar riff of “Terra Spiritus” while standing on the Captain’s shoulders. And the Captain himself: running, tumbling, flourishing instruments, lewdly squatting at the edge of the stage before leaping away over the keyboard stand.

But those critics could never have actually seen us play. The musicianship on that stage steamrolled any lesser group who dared challenge us. Peter Van Conklin alone was formidable enough to warrant our reputation, but when you factored in Belle and Sammy, K’tehx’s muscular basslines, and the Captain’s voice and songwriting, you had a true “force to be reckoned with,” as the Daily Earth had called us on one occasion. We could play anything—any style, any tempo, from the simplest three-chord anthem to the most complex faux-classical Andorrian sex jingle. The Captain had a series of hand signals he would use to indicate styles: twirling a finger by his head meant reggae, a fist-pump with thrusting hips announced a twenty-first century love ballad. He would throw these gestures out randomly during the show, and we’d adjust whatever song we were in the middle of accordingly. We never got bored, and we sometimes missed a step, but we never sucked. Of course, all that was complicated by the goblins.

We had just finished “Into the Gloaming” (most of the crowd not even hip to the fact that Peter had played on the original recording over two hundred years ago), and Kimmy Thistle was collecting the mechanical fairies as they flew back to their box on the edge of the stage. I had started the steady bass drum beat that heralded Belle’s “Ghost Girl.” Belle Swain hung in the spotlight, drawing minor key moans from her double-violin. The music had unkilled her for over half an hour at this point, and she was as solid as she could get, her hands pinking on the strings and her legs visible almost to the ankle. We were into the second verse when I saw the Captain lean over and clutch his belly, wrinkling his nose and looking into the crowd. Without stopping the music, he head-motioned to Kimmy, who was watching him. She gave a quick nod and worked the little S.E.T. control panel the hung next to her mic stand. Big lights sprang to life on either side of the stage, and Kimmy used her levers to swivel them out onto the crowd, illuminating the gloom of the stalls like a sun.

The place was lousy with goblins. They were climbing over the seats, jumping between audience members, moshing among and between and beneath the crowd. Grey ropy arms and great flat heads. Feet with three toes, or eight toes, or no toes. Skin scaly and smooth, flaky dry and swamp slimy. Rattlesnake eyes and curved clutching hands. When the lights hit them, they turned as one and swarmed toward the stage.

Three weeks before, when I had just begun rehearsals with the Cabaret, Sammy the Hoover had pulled me to the side one afternoon while the Captain was overseeing the Clone Brothers’ recalibration. Sammy was smoking one of those fat Delrinican fobies, his eyebrows prehensile in the smoke. He had told me that aside from playing music, the band had other duties to perform. “We don’t just rock the face off the galaxy,” he had said. “We also kill all the goblins the ‘verse sends.” I bet you thought Goblin Hunter was just a concept album. The Captain apparently got an unofficial subsidy for cleansing goblins from the places we played. I was a little taken aback, not because it confirmed the rumors—goblins were supposedly just a snopes to scare children and naïve college girls off-planet for the first time—but because it sounded like the Captain was working for the Corporation. Sammy corrected that view quickly. “Captain Grackle don’t work for no stinking Corporation,” he had said. “This is through a private firm, somebody in the Sol system. I don’t know the deets. I just know that the nasty buggers are out there, and we take ‘em out.” I had since gleaned that part of the subsidy was the fact that the Cabaret usually flew under the radar of the Priestial Arbiters. Which is how we got away with some of the things we did, in both content and execution. Rarely did the Cabaret pay Homage, and we were never required to Worship.

The foul things were near the lip of the stage now. “Ghost Girl” had slid to its conclusion, and Belle had floated back down to where Sammy was stroking the Organism into the next song, “Nearer to Land.” As you know, it’s a fast tune, driving and raucous and frenetic. This was going to be tough. My first goblin raid and it was during a long up-tempo number. There was only one rule to the goblin skirmishes, I’d been told by the Captain. The gig goes on.

The first one climbed the barrier and leapt onto the stage, squatting horribly next to the monitors. Now that I could get a good look at them, it was obvious why the average dude ignored them. No way it was a perception shield, this was good old cognitive disconnect. Your basic brain doesn’t want to accept something like a goblin, so it makes it not there. That’s why the buggers were such a rutting nuisance. It’s also why they charge us when we turn the orclights on them—they hate being noticed. The one on stage tensed up to launch itself at the Captain, four feet away. The Captain was singing, focused on the microphone, and therefore not well-prepared to meet the attack.

K’tehx took it out, pulling a metal shiv from his boot and stabbing the thing with his third arm while still pumping out his furious slap-fest of a bassline. The goblin shuddered and burst, sliming the stage with a viscous green goop.

Two more made it up together, bounding over the monitors and charging right toward me. The kit was between me and the things, but it would offer little shelter once they got to me. They swung across the stage on ape-like arms, all tooth and bulge. I was trying to figure out how to defend myself without dropping the relentless rhythm of the song when Peter Van Conklin came to my rescue. You know the part where “Nearer to Land” goes into that sweet organ break? When we hit that, Pete was able to quit playing for eight bars. He pulled the strap over his head and swung his axe by the neck in one smooth motion, baseballing the front goblin back into the second one with a popping concussion that burst them both. He followed through the swing and used the momentum to slip the strap back over his head and hit the first chord of the middle eight on the downstroke. It was the most badass thing I’d ever seen a guitarist do, and that’s including the Finals of the Vai Olympics on Satrianus 12.

They kept coming, and the Cabaret kept kicking their collective ass. Belle Swain used the sharpened end of her bow to skewer them as they clambered onto the platform, and the Captain had an assortment of weapons stuck through his bandolier; since he was unencumbered by a guitar for this tune, he could dispatch missiles or fire an audible while singing if he saw them coming. Like Belle had told me, I watched and learned, mainly because I was trapped behind the kit. I was able to get one: a goblin climbed up onto the floor tom, clacking its teeth at me and reaching for my throat. I improvised a funky fill on the toms, battering the thing to mucus with my sticks.

Even with the full-on rock and roll carnage that the Cabaret was doling out, the goblins were still coming in numbers. There were a couple of dozen left, and they were moving in larger groups. We were gonna have to stop the song, or else we were gonna be over-run. I saw it coming, a wave of warty flesh and grasping claws. I looked at K’thex, wondering what to do. And then Kimmy Thistle piloted the big clockwork fish on stage.

Her timing was dictated by the song, of course; the fish was scheduled to swim in the air over the Clone Brothers as “Nearer to Land” swelled in to the final vamp under the long outro guitar/violin duet. As the Organism’s howls reached a crescendo, Kimmy levered and pulleyed the thing into the midst of the goblin horde, steam jets screaming. The crowd, still under the impression that we were simply putting on an unusually athletic performance, was going absolutely compost. Her brow creased as if considering a mildly difficult math problem, Kimmy worked the control panel in the fish’s cockpit, opening the great brass jaws to reveal rows of gleaming metal teeth, sharp and glinting in the spotlights.

A steam-driven feeding frenzy. Titanium teeth splitting through goblin flesh, the great sweeping tail battering the foul things as they attempted to assault her from behind. The music crashing to finale, Peter and Belle transcendent over the cacophony. The final goblin fell to Kimmy Thistle’s great gear fish just as we hit the last, big chord. We held it, swelling the ending into ecstasy. Cheers of joy from the crowd as we bowed and breathed.

And then, in the midst of the relief and release, I saw a goblin. A small, sharp thing that had escaped both the fish and our notice. It was crouching behind Kimmy as she climbed down from the fish just at the edge of the wings stage left. The thing spread its claws and tensed to leap. No one saw it but me.

I didn’t think. I yanked the sixteen-inch crash cymbal from its stand in front of me, and frisbeed it across the stage towards Kimmy and the goblin. It was a high-end hand-made instrument from Istanbul 4, a clear and beautiful thing. The leading edge caught the goblin as it leaped, neatly beheading the little monster before clanging harmlessly off the side of the big brass fish. Kimmy looked back, saw the bifurcated beastie, and gave me a smirk and a thumbs-up.

Is it ironic that the next, and final, song of the set was the title track from Goblin Hunter? Who cares? It rocked, and even the sticky blood on the edge of my crash didn’t dull the bright falling menace of our performance. After the last notes faded we sprinted for the wings while the crowd lost its collective mind.

There was much whooping and hollering behind the tab curtains. Captain Grackle was slapping backs like a politician, and even Peter Van Conklin had a grim little smile lodged in his stubble. There were many handshakes and congratulations to me on my first kill. I got a smile from Belle Swain, which warmed me like a torch, and a surprisingly tight full-on hug from Kimmy Thistle, who jumped her slight frame into the air to hang on me for a full thirty seconds. She smelled like grease and steam. When she dropped back to the floor there was an awkward pause that was broken when the Captain pulled a flare derringer from his waistcoat and fired it into the rafters with a shout.

That’s showing the bastards what rock and roll is all about,” quoth the Captain.

I looked around at these people. We were sweaty, exhausted, bleeding, and covered with various unholy fluids. Smiling. My band. My tribe.

“What now?” I asked.

Cleveland Grackle surveyed the band and the stage. “Have we got a tally?”

One of the Clone Brothers, I think it was Trombonio, spit a punch card from its neck and held it up like a trophy. It tapped the side of its head, indicating that its headcam had captured visuals of the skirmish for confirmation.

“Just so,” said the Captain. “Then there is only one item left.” He gestured towards the stage, from whence we could hear the chant beginning anew. “Ladies and gentlemen, after you. Encore!”

We hit the stage, embraced by the roar of the crowd.

Episode 98: Daphne’s Daughter by Jennifer Tiemann


Daphne’s Daughter

by Jennifer Tiemann

When the man came into her sphere of perception, she had almost not realized he was there, concentrating as she was on the new nest of cardinal chicks that rested high on her south side. So occupied was she on shifting her branches just so to protect the nestlings, it wasn’t until the male cardinal reacted with alarm that she turned her awareness down from her branches to her roots.

At first, she thought he was a sapling – he was so very small. Then she remembered that no, that was the size men generally came in. What was startling to her, though, is that she perceived that he was colored much as she was; his body was a rich green and there was a tuft of bright red at his top end, almost exactly the color that she herself became when the cold winds began at the end of the Summer.

She understood that this was a male man, and not a female man, because deep inside still lived the memory of the part of her that had once been human.  She and all her siblings were female; there were no males in her family- except for her father, whom she saw but seldom.

The man put his hand out and touched her body lightly. She shivered – this had never happened before.  She had perceived men near her in the past, mostly their small ones, (children, she suddenly remembered they were called) but none had actually touched her. She wondered if he saw what some other men had seen when he looked at her. Much had been sung and written of her kind, particularly her mother.

All of her sisters were slightly different, but they had this in common; tall, straight trunks with heavy crowns of leaves; the crowns representing their sovereignty in the sight of the gods. Their gently curving trunks and twin upraised branches hinted at the womanly spirit hidden within.  She doubted that this man saw anything but a birch tree. Most didn’t.

The man stood for a moment with his hand on her waist, looking up into the shaded green of her. Then, he dropped his hand, turned, and sat down on one of her roots. He had something with him. As he began to put the thing near his face and take it away at regular intervals, she realized it was some kind of food. (She understood food, the squirrels talked of nothing else, and were quite tiresome about it. Especially in winter.)

Eventually, the man got up and went away, but not without touching her waist gently once more.


After the first day, the man came every day, when the sun was at its highest. He always brought something with him, mostly food. Occasionally he brought another thing which was not food; he would place this near his face also, but it was never consumed the way the food was.

She was greatly puzzled about what this thing might be, so one evening she sang down through the Deepest Root and inquired of her mother if she knew what this small, oblong thing was.

Her mother’s spirit touched hers and she felt a rush of love and humor cascade over her, along with the scent of bay leaf. They exchanged pleasantries; her mother asked after the cardinals’ nest and if the chicks had flown yet. When they had done with that, she brought up the man and his object.

A great puzzlement flowed to her from her mother; she did not know what the thing might be. However, she was worried about the man being so close to her daughter so often.

“Men should be feared, my daughter. No good comes of them. They destroy. I remember.”

“Oh, Mother. How can you know for sure that ALL men destroy? You have been out of the world for many, many years, protected as you are by my father. Surely men can’t all be the same as they were when you were in the world?”

“Daughter, you forget that also you have sisters. Some of your sisters have spoken of great catastrophes brought down by men. Some of your Elder sisters have perished as well. You know this.”

“That was many, many seasons ago. I am Eldest in the wood; for all of my years I have never seen such a thing. I have seen lightning and fire and death, but these are natural things, not precipitated by men. Are you sure you don’t know what the man’s object is?”

Her mother assured her that she did not know, but she thought that surely her father did. She should ask him instead.

With a gentle caress, she left her mother and sang back along the Deepest Root until she was returned to her body. She settled back in with a sigh; she did not have the strength to call upon her father tonight.


A few days later, when the sun was just touching the mountaintop, she stretched her branches skyward to the sun and sang to her father. As she sang, she swayed slightly in a graceful arc, back and forth. The song, the dance, these were her father’s devices, his escutcheon. Soon, the sound and vibration that she had begun began to sustain themselves, and then coalesce into a shape before her.

In form, this time, her father appeared as a muscular man, clothed in white. Upon his head of golden hair he wore a crown that echoed the one she wore.

“Greetings daughter! I command you to come forth.”

Inwardly, she smiled. Her father much preferred his daughters to manifest their womanly form in his presence. They couldn’t do it without his aid, and frankly, she felt it a bit of a waste of time, as he could communicate with her regardless of what form she dwelt in.

He did have his little peculiarities, she thought.

She stepped forward, away from herself and felt the sun on her shoulders, and warming her moss-colored hair. She took a few steps forward and embraced him.

“Why have you called me, Daughter?”

She gazed into his eyes, and as she did, the whole of her story flew between them. The man. The object he carried that she did not know, and wished to learn of.

When her father began to laugh, she stared at him in astonishment until he got control of his mirth and told her what the thing was.

“A—book? It has words on it? Words that stay? Like a scroll?”

“Just so, my Daughter. The form has changed, but it is still much as the ones I gave to his ancestors. A carrier of knowledge, from one spirit to another.”

She considered this for a moment, and found herself very pleased that the man would share something so significant in common with her father. It spoke well of him.

She spent the remainder of the day with her father, showing him all of the places that were within her domain. She introduced him to the squirrels, who greatly amused him, and to the red-tailed hawk as well. The time passed quickly, and soon, the sun was setting and they must part.

She embraced him warmly, and stepped back into herself as the fading sunlight took him with it.


Now that she knew what the man was doing, sitting there with the book at the end of his nose, she found herself wondering what he was reading about. So, she expanded her perception to touch him gently and see if she could find out.

At first, it was difficult – he was much harder to perceive than say, a rabbit. His thoughts were chaotic and complex. But as the days passed, she began to gather random thoughts of his to her. At first, she could barely make sense of them – but at last she began to know.

He was reading a book of children’s stories, it seemed to her. There were fabulous beasts that she knew quite well did not exist, as well as magic of a form she had never experienced nor heard of before. Most fascinating to her, though, was the fact that every one of these stories seemed to take place in a vast wood – he was reading about her! It warmed her inside to know it.


One day -quite surprising herself- she began to do things for him. It started with the mosquitoes. She realized that the small insects were annoying to him – he would swat and slap at them, and curse when one drank from his arm or neck. She decided to let it be known to the mosquitoes that they were not welcome in her sphere of influence. They left the man in peace. On another day, when a light drizzle began to fall, rather than have the man leave for shelter as he had done before, she subtly moved her branches to block the raindrops from him. On a particularly hot day, she moved herself gently to and fro to create a small cooling breeze.

And every day, when he got up to leave, he would touch her for a moment, at the place where her waist would have been.

It was her favorite part of his visit.


The summer waned and the cool winds began to blow. The squirrels grew even more frenzied in their hunting and burying, so much so that they made her a bit dizzy. But it was a joyful dizziness, for the squirrels had managed to put by more than enough already. There would be no small deaths this spring to mourn, she thought.  The kits had a very good chance.

Her glorious crown began to turn red-gold, much as the hair of the man was. With the rich green moss that covered her body, they were now dressed alike. This thought pleased her. Every day that he came to her pleased her now. She joined her mind with his and listened to his thoughts gather and flit about. She smiled inwardly when he was amused by what he was reading, and shook with indignation when he was displeased by it. Inevitably, she began to wonder: “I can hear him. How can I make him hear me? For he does not yet know me, and I want him to.”

For days, she puzzled over the problem. Unlike her father, the man did not have the power to draw her forth. Unlike her mother, the man did not sing along the Deepest Root. As time passed with no solution to her dilemma, it began to grieve and worry her.


She was still preoccupied when she noticed that the first of her leaves was beginning to fall. She sighed. With the cold weather coming, she would not see the man. Soon she would have to sleep and dream, with only the dreams of her sisters to keep her company.

She was so lost in her melancholia that she did not hear the man approaching. When he touched her waist, she was startled. More startling yet were the dark and turbulent thoughts coming to her from him.

She shrank away from them; they were full of resentment and sorrow. Regret, which such as she barely understood. Yet she could not escape them. They crawled over her and numbed her mind, and she started to weep, tears of amber sliding down the place where her face would have been, and collecting in the hollows of her body.

A screaming noise filled the air, and as she felt the pain, she, too, began to scream.

She had never known that she could scream. But as she died, the forest shook with the sound.


Alex was sitting in the break room, drinking coffee when Norm came stomping in and tossed his chainsaw onto the work bench, along with his lunchbox and a paperback. His green State Park uniform was covered in sawdust and sweat, and his reddish hair and beard were greyed with dirt.

“What’s the matter with you?”

Norm poured a cuppa and sat down across from him. His face was like a thundercloud. “Damn thing threw its chain. I couldn’t finish today – I gotta have Barry fix it and then go back up the mountain tomorrow to finish bucking up the trunk.”

Alex sighed – he knew that wasn’t what was really bugging Norm. “Dude, you had no choice.”

“I know, but I hate cutting down a perfectly healthy damn tree. John’s an idiot – there’s no way that tree was close enough to Cabin Six to fall on it. This winter or EVER.” He took a sip of his coffee.

Alex sighed again. The incompetence of their Park Supervisor was well known amongst both the permanent employees and the seasonal. Hell, he’d even heard that John was a joke as far away as Ringwood. Thank God the guy was due to retire this year. Still, that didn’t help at the moment.

Norm said, “I really wonder if that jerk knew that I liked to take my lunch breaks under that birch, and made me cut it down just to get me.”

“Nah, man, it must have been just coincidence. John’s not that smart.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right, but still.” Norm sat quietly with his coffee and thought about how beautiful the tree had been with its fall colors, and how he had laid his hand on it to apologize for what he had to do. He didn’t believe in anything particular – God, or whatever you call it – but he did believe in the soul of the forest he worked in. He had started the ritual out of respect for that soul. Or maybe he did it for himself, to assuage the guilt he felt. Today it hadn’t helped, though. Today he felt like a murderer.

Maybe it was time to put in for a transfer.

Episode 94: The Drove of Maris-Charlottes by David Turnbull


The Drove of Maris-Charlottes

by David Turnbull

Ida spat dirt from her mouth as she rode her weevil through the dust cloud churned up by the drove. These were healthy potatoes, Maris-Charlotte cross breeds, not a hint of blight on their creamy brown skins, none of them with a circumference less than three feet. Good rolling stock too, each one amply rounded so that their tumble was sufficiently smooth and uninterrupted, allowing them to gather a swift forward momentum.

There had to be at least four hundred head. They were feral and stubborn – not used to human contact. Managing them was going to be a challenging prospect, however, with Ida’s father and most the more experienced drovers felled by influenza it was imperative that she tried. A drove this size could make all the difference. If the potatoes could be enticed to settle in the three-acre field that had been cultivated in anticipation of their arrival there would be sufficient food to see her community through the winter.

Astride the speckled shell of her weevil, Ida maintained her position centre back of the rolling, tumbling drove, eyes constantly peering through the dust for signs of any attempted break away by rogue potatoes. She could see that her crew, most of them inexperienced teenagers like herself, were tired, but she knew she couldn’t afford to slow the pace – at least not until they were within sight of the settlement.

This expedition had originally been her father’s idea.

It was something never attempted before –the capture and domestication of an entire drove. An end to the perilous task of sending out hunting parties whom, at best, only managed to bring back half a dozen potatoes with each foray. His vision was to establish a settled drove that could be tended and cultivated season after season, bringing at last an end to the long winters with hardly enough food to see them through.

There were, of course, those in the community who said this was a foolhardy proposition – doomed to failure from the start. They called her father crazy and irresponsible. They tried to engineer a vote against him in the assembly and continued to foment dissent even when a clear majority had decided in favour. More than anything Ida felt that she owed it to her father to try and prove those people wrong.

Just ahead of her one of the potatoes hit a rock, the jagged surface tearing a gash into its skin and gouging out a white chunk of starchy flesh. The potato skidded and skewed away in an awkward and erratic trajectory. In doing so it hit another rock, causing a deep fissure to split along its dusty skin.

This one wasn’t going to survive.

Ida yanked at the reins, turning her weevil in the direction that the wounded potato was hurtling. Drawing level with it she unsheathed her machete. A dozen eyes blinked up at her, weeping trails of starch. Seeing that it was in pain she slashed downward, putting it quickly out of its misery.


As they pushed on across the flat miles of the dirt plain, heading ever south to the grasslands of their home, Ida watched the crew manoeuvring their weevils to the left and the right of the thundering charge of the Maris-Charlottes, using the speedy agility of their six-legged mounts to block and steer the direction of the drove so that it constantly rolled forward like a mighty, unstoppable avalanche of boulders.

“Ha!” they cried. “Get along boys!”

The sound of their voices was mainly for their own benefit. The potatoes sensed only vibrations in the ground and the proximity of scents and odours to their porous skin. They could have just as easily been steered in silence.

They passed a vast pride of red skinned Desiree boars, their girth four and five time bigger than the Maris-Charlottes. These gargantuan beasts were nestled down in the sandy belly of a crater, basking in the warmth of the early afternoon sun, eyes shut against the glare of the sun. The Maris-Charlottes picked up their pace, instinctively reluctant to encroach on the territory of their larger and far more volatile cousins.

Five miles or so beyond the crater Ida relented and called a halt to allow the crew to rest. No one dismounted. They ate astride their weevils, gnawing at dark strips of goat meat jerky, vigilantly watching the Maris-Charlottes for attempted breakouts. The potatoes were bursting with accumulated energy and ready to roll on the slightest encouragement.

Kwami, her father’s oldest and closest friend, came riding up alongside of her. His wiry white hair was laden with fine, russet coloured dust, sticky sweat winding streaks down his dirty face. He pointed to the distance. “Lea’s on her way back.”

Lea was one of their most proficient riders and Ida had sent her ahead to scout out the terrain. “Should we ride out to meet her?” More than any of the others she valued Kwami’s opinion.

“It might be best for you to hear what she has to report without anyone eavesdropping,” he told her.

Without waiting for her response he spurred his weevil on.

Ida chased after him.


Ida knew from a short distance that Lea had bad news to deliver. She could read the signs in the way her childhood friend hunched her shoulders and avoided direct eye contact as she and Kwami approached.

The three of them drew level and slowed their weevils so that they circled each other, clashing shells from the closeness of their proximity. Lea was clearly breathless from her ride and Ida could see from the manner in which her weevil quivered beneath its shell that she had been pushing it remorselessly.

“There’s a celery colony headed this way,” she said.

Ida felt as if a hot needle had been plunged into her heart.

The marauding celery colonies that prowled the dirt planes were voracious herbivores, devouring every form of plant life in their path, mercilessly and savagely preying on any potato herd they encountered. If they were to get in amongst the Maris-Charlottes there would be utter carnage.

“Have we time to turn and run?” she asked.

The legs of her weevil churned in the dirt as it circled before the other two.

“They already have the scent of the drove,” said Lea. “They’re moving this way – fast.”

Lost for words Ida turned to Kwami.

“Your father always says that if you can’t run you should attack,” came his response.

Ida drew breath – Kwami was right, they couldn’t possibly hope to hold a defensive line between the colony and the drove. As soon as they sensed the approach of the predators the Maris-Charlottes would scatter and flee.

“If we mount an attack some of us will have to stay back to try and prevent the drove from dispersing,” she said.

“Your father and I passed through this section of the plain a few years back,” said Kwami. “There’s a closed gully less than a mile to the east. If we drive the potatoes in a few of us can hold them there.”

“You take six with you, then,” said Ida. “I’ll take Lea and the other five to mount the attack.”

“You think seven of us can take down a colony of celery?” protested Lea.

“Eight,” said Kwami. “I can drive the potatoes to the gully with five. Myself to the rear and two on each flank, one scouting for strays.”

“You’re sure you can get them to the gully?” asked Ida.

“I don’t see that we have much choice,” said Kwami.


With Lea by her side and the six volunteers bunched in behind them Ida kept her eyes firmly fixed on the ridge. To the east a cloud of rusty dust was rising as Kwami and his team pushed the Maris-Charlottes toward the sanctity of the gully. Her heart began to pound furiously as the first clump of celery appeared on the apex of the ridge, green plumage of leaves shimmering with menace.

Her weevil reared up on four legs, antennae trembling in fearful anticipation. Ida patted its head to sooth it. “Hold fast,” she told the volunteers.

Now the entire colony passed over the ridge, heading straight at them like some pale, ghostly army, battle pendants of green leaf clusters raised high above them, vermicular root tubers ploughing deep furrows into the dry soil in their determined forward advance. Trembling slightly Ida drew her machete. “Slice down and at an angle,” she told the others, demonstrating with a swift slash through the air.

“On my word!”

The volunteers raised their machetes and held their spurs at the ready. Ida waited; sweat soaking her brow and drenching her back, her left hand trembling with the weevil’s reins wrapped tightly around it. She could smell the acrid scent of the celery on the wind. It was thick with intimidating malice. She hoped the stench of it wouldn’t reach the drove before Kwami had them safely corralled in the gully.

As the colony drew closer the individual bunches of celery formed themselves into an offensive huddle, razor sharp leaves whipping ferociously through the air. “Now!” screamed Ida, digging her spurs into the weevil’s underbelly. “Show them no quarter!”

Adrenalin charging her veins she rode her weevil in amongst the colony, feeling suddenly small and inconsequential as the wan bunches loomed gigantically above her, eight and nine feet high. Worried than even a moment of hesitation might cause her to turn and run she slashed down with her machete, slicing through the raised vertical ridges of one of the advancing stems. Pungent juices splattered her face and stung at her eyes. The celery reacted violently to her assault, bearing down her with its whipping foliage.

One of the leaves caught her shoulder, tearing a gash into the sleeve of her blouse and drawing blood from her forearm. Cursing against the pain she hacked back, tossing severed leaves into the air with every determined swipe of the machete. The celery reeled and tried to plough a retreat through the soil. Seizing the advantage Ida drew in the reins and swung her weevil around, swiping and hacking as she went. One last chop and the celery collapsed like a mighty tree.

As the weevil skittered clear its legs became caught up in the furrowed earth and it tumbled head over shell, sending Ida flying. Spitting dirt she scrambled back to her feet. All around her Lea and the other volunteers were charging and hacking as the colony thrashed its bloody frenzy, slashing red ribbons across their flesh.

When she saw that her weevil was on its back, churning its spidery legs as it rocked its shell back and forth to try and right itself, Ida stuck two fingers between her teeth and gave a high pitched whistle. Immediately the creature rolled over and ran to her, bowing obediently down to allow her to remount.

Spurring it on, machete raised high above her head Ida rode once more into the melee. She saw her cousin, Kieran, reining back his weevil as a bunch of celery bore down on him. The whip of the leaves missed him but cut straight through skull of his weevil, slicing it cleanly in half. The weevil collapsed instantly, translucent slime oozing slowly from the wound.

Kieran dismounted and hacked a wedge with his machete blade into the base of the celery. The leaves lashed at him again. He dodged them and hacked out another wedge – and then another. When the celery teetered he raised his boot and kicked it on its way.

Ida rode toward him and hauled him up behind her on the shell of her weevil. They entered the fray – Ida hacking her machete to the left, Kieran hacking his to the right.


“It’s a miracle,” said Kwami, dabbing stinging ointment onto the latticework of scars that crisscrossed her face and arms. “The entire colony routed and you didn’t loose a single person.”

“More stubborn mindedness than a miracle,” said Ida, wincing as he tended another cut. “We’re one weevil down though. Kieran is going to have double up with someone else.”

“We should camp here in the gully,” suggested Kwami. “Give everyone time to rest properly. Cook up a pot of potato broth to lift moral. Let the weevils feed on the peelings.”

Again she accepted Kwami’s counsel. A potato broth wouldn’t just lift moral, it would help everyone overcome their fatigue and regain their strength for the remainder of the ride. The weevils were being driven hard. They too needed food and sustenance if they were going make it back to the grasslands.

Five minutes later Kwami returned with the potato he had selected from the drove. His arms were wrapped around its plump girth, muscles straining from the weight of it. He laid it down by her feet. It trembled a little and rocked back and forth, grains of dust falling around it. Its eyes blinked and observed them both.

“We have another problem,” Kwami told her, running his fingers gently over the potato’s dappled skin.

“Feel,” he said.

Ida did as he asked. In several places on the smooth surface of the skin her fingers detected little raised knots. She gasped. “It can’t be? Surely it’s too soon for them to be rooting?”

“It’s a stress response,” said Kwami. “You and the others have the smell of the celery all over you. When potatoes feel threatened their natural instinct is to bury themselves in the soil.”

“If they start digging in we’ll never get them back home,” said Ida. She could feel the situation slipping away from her again. “How long do you think we have?”

Kwami shrugged his shoulders, creasing his wrinkled brow.

“Maybe a day if we’re lucky.”

“Can we do it?” she asked. “Can we get back in a day?”

“We should make the broth,” was his reply. “But two hours sleep is the most we can allow. Then we have to roll the drove.”

He picked up the Maris-Charlotte and held tightly it in his arms once more. He’d selected a fine specimen. The broth would be good and hearty. Ida drew her machete. With a single lunge, tempered with a tender respect, she stabbed through the potato’s skin and sliced into the crisp flesh of its waxy heart.


Onward they rode, pushing south across the plains, into the sunrise and then once more into the full midday heat, the drove of Maris-Charlottes rumbling and tumbling ahead of them, riders constantly blocking the way with their weevils whenever a patch of fertile soil temped a breakout from the main group.

Ida had sent Lea ahead once more to scout for predators. Being a weevil down meant everyone had to work all the harder. Tempers were frayed and patience tested. Ida worried that any little incident might kick off an argument that could lead to them loosing their slender hold on the drove.

She wasn’t in the best of fettle herself. Her mouth was parched from the inhalation of the dust, her nostrils were crusted with it, her eyes stung and wept from the constant scratch of the grit trapped behind her eyelids. Her back ached; her thighs were chaffed from the rubbing motion against the camber of the weevil’s shell. Angry blisters covered her hands, making it painful to keep hold of the reins.

She could see that some of the drovers were almost asleep in the saddle, heads and shoulders slumping and then jerking straight when their weevil clambered over some rock or raised clump of turf. The weevils themselves were flagging – their steady pace noticeably slowing to a weary trot rather than a solid gallop. Still Ida wouldn’t allow herself to relent. She was more determined than ever that she would fulfil her father’s ambitions and get the potatoes home before they had a chance to take root.

It was late afternoon when Kieran came riding back from the head of the drive, clutching the loose cloth of the jacket of the rider who held the reins of the weevil he’d been allocated to. Scars from the encounter with the celery had crusted darkly red on his forehead. “Look, Ida,” he said, pointing to the distance. “It’s the hill. We’re almost home.”

She had been noticing for a while now that the dirt terrain they were passing over was gradually merging into the scrawny scrub that marked the approach to the grasslands. She looked though the clouds of dust to where Kieran pointed and her heart soared when she saw the green hill rising up in a pronounced hump from the flat plain. On the other side of that hill was their settlement.

She imagined the smug looks on the faces of the doubters – another sunset approaching and still no sign of the drovers’ return. But if they maintained their current pace she felt sure that they could make it around the hill and be driving the potatoes along the track by dusk. See what they have to say for themselves then, she thought.

Now Kwami came alongside her, his weevil dancing in the dust he tugged the reins to slow its pace. “Lea’s on her way back,” he said.

Sure enough Lea’s weevil could be seen, deftly skirting the lower slope of the hill.

Again Ida and Kwami rode out to meet her and again Lea was the bearer of bad news. “There must have been heavy rains over the past week,” she said. “The track is like a mud bath. We’ll never be able to drive the potatoes along it.”

Kwami agreed with her. “If the drove gets anywhere near soft mud they’ll settle in and we won’t be able to budge them,”

Ida felt a deep rage go shuddering her.

Does every single thing have to stack itself against me?

She looked to the green hill. For as far back as she could remember that hill had been their shelter from the winter winds and the landmark to guide home anyone who became lost on the dirt plains. Now it was the possibly the last insurmountable barrier that might ruin everything they had strived so hard to achieve.

For moment all seemed lost. She thought of her father and the others who had taken to their sick beds before she left with the drovers. They would be weakened from the virus and without an accessible food supply they might never recover sufficient strength to see them through the harsh winter.

She looked again at the hill rising before her.

“I have an idea,” she said and spurred her weevil.

***

On Ida’s bidding the drovers assembled at the foot of the hill, astride their poor, worn out weevils. Their exhausted faces were layered with dust and dried blood. Ida could see from their mood and their deportment that they were all painfully deflated and demoralised.

“My father had a dream,” She told them. “It was a dream we all shared. Yesterday some of us almost lost our lives fighting to defend that dream. We owe it to ourselves, and to those waiting for us at the settlement, to finish what we started.”

“But how?” asked someone. “You know we can’t drive the potatoes along the track.”

“We should have listened to those who said that this would never work,” grumbled someone – she couldn’t quite see whom.

“They’re rooting already,” said Lea. “We don’t have time to scout another way around the hill.”

“Why would we drive them around the hill when we can drive them over the hill?” asked Ida.

“Over the hill?” said Kieran. “Impossible. It’s too steep.”

“On the other side of the hill is the field that we cultivated,” Ida reminded them all. “We each had a hand in that – removing the boulders and turning the soil. Turning it again and again. Didn’t we all fetch pails of fat worms from the mire so they would break it down further? The soil in our field is deep and moist and the potatoes we have driven all this way are so desperate to root. All we have to do is get them up to the top of the hill. Once they bathe in the earthy smell rising up from our field they’ll willingly roll down the other side of their own accord.”

“Can’t we just let them take root on the track?” asked someone. “We would know exactly where they were whenever we needed to harvest them.”

“It wouldn’t work,” said Ida. “As soon as their offspring matured they would scatter back to the dirt plains and we would have to revert to sending out hunting parties. In the winter our tables would be empty. Have we not prepared paddocks next to the field so that the offspring can trundle free within boundaries of the fences?”

“Ida is right,” said Kwami. “We have to try this. Remember the broth last night? Remember how fine it tasted? Just think what it would be like to taste broth like that every night. Just think what it would be like if we could guarantee that our children and our children’s children after them could taste broth like that every night.”

This subtle change from Ida seeking Kwami’s guidance to Kwami following Ida’s lead seemed all at once to focus everyone’s attention.

“Imagine potato baked in the ashes of the fire,” said someone.

“Imagine potato mashed with a splash of goat’s milk,” said another.

Ida could sense a palpable lifting of moods.

She knew that she had to seize this moment before it slipped from her grasp.

“Come on!” she urged, spurring her weevil. “Let’s get these potatoes back home!”

And the drovers, every last one of them, rallied behind her – Kwami to her left, Lea to her right, Kieran and his rider not far behind.

The potatoes had become lethargic, swivelling in the dirt to try and grind away the surface so that they might gain enough purchase to bury themselves in and settle.

Then slowly, in the face of resolute and determined persuasion, they started to roll up the green slopes, multitudes of eyes blinking, tiny claws of white root now clearly visible on their dirt caked skins.

The weevils stumbled and fell, rose up and fell again, legs sometimes becoming hopelessly tangled in the gorse and the heather that grew on the hill. Several times Ida saw drovers having to dismount to cut them free. But they pushed on, yelling encouragements, as much to each other as the potatoes.

“Hah! Get along boys!”

When at last they crested the hill Ida almost burst into tears at the sight of the snaking streamers of grey smoke rising from the chimneys of the little huts in the settlement. She saw the cultivated field, dark and loamy against the red sunset. She saw her father come to the door of her hut, wrapped in a blanket, looking weak and frail. She called out. She didn’t think it possible that he would hear her from this far away, but somehow at that moment he looked up to the hill.

His head turned to the open doorway of the hut. Her mother came out and looked to where he was pointing. They both turned to hug each other. Other members of the community stopped what they were doing and craned their necks to the slope.

Ida spurred her weevil.

“Ride them down!” she yelled.

With the drovers and their weevils urging them on the Maris-Charlottes rumbled over the hill, coveting the sweet, dark soil that awaited them.

Episode 77: The Long Cut by Tom Howard


The Long Cut

by Tom Howard

“Do you want me to drive for a while?” my mother asked from the front passenger seat.  It was the middle of the night but, unlike my older sister, I couldn’t sleep. The desert streaked by just out of sight of the headlights.  Off in the distance I could occasionally see a cluster of lights. I often wondered if there were kids like me asleep in their beds in little houses.  Kids who didn’t have crazy fathers who insisted on driving everywhere because planes and trains were too expensive and buses were too slow.

“I’m good until Tucson,” said my dad.  He and Mom traded off driving since we never stopped at a hotel because Dad said he’d never pay hard-earned money just for sleeping.  “I could use another cup of that coffee if there’s any left.”

Mom unscrewed the lid from a battered aluminum thermos in a ritual that I’d seen her perform a hundred times.  She’d pour the dark, steaming liquid – rarely spilling a drop – into Dad’s big travel mug. He’d complain about how bad restaurant coffee was.  I didn’t wait for Dad’s expected comment. I just looked out the window. Where the heck were we?

“Dad?” I said.

“Yes, son.  Why aren’t you asleep?” 

Considering that I’d been sitting in a SUV for the last two days since we left Grandma’s house, I answered truthfully, “I guess I’m not very tired.  Dad, what’s that big lake off to our right?”

“A lake?” asked Mom, opening and looking at an atlas more battered than the thermos.  “There’s nothing bigger than a pond for hundreds of miles. What are you seeing?”

She peered out her window into the darkness.  “Stan, he’s right. I can see the full moon reflected on a big lake out there.”

“Maybe we’re lost again,” said Dad.  “Check the map for a reservoir or irrigation canal.”

Dad didn’t like to use the interstate highway in case there were tolls, so we took the back roads whenever we traveled.   Unfortunately, Dad didn’t have much of a sense of direction. If Mom was napping, Dad would explore new, and unnecessary, territory, usually in the exact opposite direction from where we needed to be.  My sister and I called them ‘Dad’s Long Cuts.’

“Well, it’s about time for a potty break anyway,” said Dad.  “I’ll find a place to pull over up ahead.”

“I’d prefer a service station restroom to a bush,” said Mom.  This was another ritual. Dad had a bladder the size of a kiddie pool, and he never pulled over until all the rest of us were squirming and begging.

“Randy!” my sister screamed and punched me.

“Ow!” I said.  “What was that for?”

She made a face and pointed to her window.  “Like that thing would fool anyone.”

I stared at the strange creature pressed against the glass of Trudy’s window.  It looked like a hairless bat if a bat had tentacles with suction cups.

“Dad,” I said slowly and then changed my mind.  “Mom!”

“What is it?” she asked, turning from the map to look at Trudy.

She gasped.  “Stan! There’s something on Trudy’s window.”

“It’s just one of Randy’s plastic toys,” insisted Trudy.  She started to roll down the window.

“Don’t!” I shouted.  “Look! It’s breathing.”

Just then something smacked against the front window.  Dad swerved and cursed. “Did you see that, hon? It looked like an albino bat!”

“Yes, dear.  I think one of them is on Trudy’s window.  Trudy, don’t open that. Randy, if this is one of your practical jokes, you’re going to be grounded for a year.”

“Hang on!” yelled Dad as more of the unusual bats bounced off the windshield.  During the swerving back and forth, Trudy’s bat slid off the glass and flew away into the darkness.

Dad slowed down and nothing else hit the SUV.  “What in the world do you suppose that was?” he asked.

“Maybe a group of albino bats hunting for insects,” said Mom, always the practical one.  “Wasn’t that exciting, kids?”

Trudy looked questioningly at me and I shrugged.  “Yes, Mom,” I said.

“Hey,” said Trudy, looking out her window.  “What’s wrong with the moon?”

Mom looked around.  “Where, dear?”

“Up there,” said Trudy.  “Why are there two of them?”

I bent over and looked out her window.  There did appear to be two full moons in the night sky, one smaller than the other.  Neither had the man in the moon face I was used to. Trudy shoved me back onto my side of the seat.

“Probably just some optical illusion,” said Dad.  “The desert does that sometimes. You know, like a mirage.”

This time Trudy gave me a look that said “the old man is crazy,” but she remained silent as she turned back to the window.

“Hey, I see a station up ahead,” said Dad.  “We’re lucky they’re still open after midnight.”

When we pulled up to the pump, a buzzer went off.  Dad looked down at the hose he’d run over when we got out.  “Wow,” he said, “I haven’t seen one of those in years. You don’t suppose they still have full service out there in the middle of nowhere?”

“I don’t care,” said Mom, “just as long as no one gets between me and the bathroom.  Come on, Trudy.” My sister was still squinting up at the moons.

The station was brightly lit, very clean, and surrounded by water.  I could hear it lapping against the edges of the highway we’d just come in on.  The air was warm, warmer than I expected the desert air to be at night.

“What’ll it be?” asked a little man appearing out of nowhere.  Dad and I both jumped. In the bright lights, he looked faintly Asian or perhaps Eskimo.  His face was lined with enough wrinkles to make him look like he’d been soaking in a tub too long.  He wore a coverall with an unfamiliar logo and wasn’t much taller than I was.

“Uh, fill ‘er up,” said Dad, digging for his wallet.  “You guys take credit cards?”

The old man, busy with the gas pump, looked at Dad for a minute and nodded.  “That will be fine. Where you folks headed for so late?”

“Tucson,” said Dad.  “We hope to be there by morning.  This is the right road, isn’t it?”

Again the old man paused for a moment before speaking.  “No. You’ve got off on the wrong road. You need to go back to the last fork and go north.”

“Dang it!” said Dad, moving out of the old man’s way as he started to wash the SUV windows.

“What town is this?” I asked.  “We didn’t see any big lakes on the map.”

“Town?  No town,” said the old man, taking Dad’s credit card.  Even in the bright lights, the service station attendant’s skin looked gray.  “Go back to the fork in the road,” he repeated.

Something nearby bellowed out on the water.  The loud roar sounded like it was made by something that was a cross between a lion and a train whistle.  Dad and I both jumped and then laughed at our skittishness, but I was glad that it was too dark to see what animal had made that noise.

“You’d better hit the bathroom, son,” said Dad.  “I’m going to see if they can refill our thermos.”

I nodded and headed toward the bright lights of the building.  Mom and Trudy were coming out with an armload of snacks. 

“Their stuff is very reasonable,” said practical Mom.  “Although where they got purple chocolate, I’ll never know.”

“You’d better get in the car and lock the doors,” I warned.  “Dad and I heard something big and loud out on the lake.”

“Yeah,” teased Trudy.  “It was probably a brontosaurus looking for his mate.  Come on, Mom. Look, this National Inquirer has a story about President Presley!  What a hoot.”

I hurried inside and went to the bathroom.  On the way out, I grabbed some blue potato chips and paid for them with change in my pocket.  The pretty blonde behind the counter looked at the silver strangely before she said, “This will do.  Have a good trip back to the fork in the road.”

I nodded at her, noticing that she hadn’t picked up the money.  I don’t think she moved or even blinked while I was in there.

“Dad, I think we better go,” I said as I got in the car and locked my door.  He was already back in the driver’s seat and looking at the map.

“I don’t see a fork in the road,” he complained.  “I don’t know what that old man was talking about.”

“Just go back the way we came, Dad,” I said.  “They probably have tourists lost out here all the time.”

“Okay,” he said, starting the SUV and turning around.  “It’s too bad that we couldn’t see this place in the daylight.  It might be a real tourist attraction.”

I didn’t say anything.  I just stared at the two moons.

“Coffee, dear?” asked Mom, reclaiming the map.  Trudy was busy reading the Interdimensional Inquirer.  Behind the smallest moon, a point of light appeared and streaked toward the service station.  As I turned my head to look back, I really wasn’t surprised to see what looked like a flying saucer float down and hover beside a pump.

I turned back around and closed my eyes, hoping we found the fork in the road before the sun came up.