Long ago, in a cabin deep in the forest, there lived a woodcutter’s wife who imagined on Christmas Eve that she saw an angel through the fog outside her window. That was, at any rate, how her husband described it when she told him about it.

“You’re imagining things, Lindy. It’s only a trick of the light reflecting from the snow,” he said impatiently. There were chores left to do, as always. Time couldn’t be wasted with foolish daydreams.

When Lindy looked again, nothing was there in the twilight but snow and fog. “Yes, that’s what it must have been, George,” she conceded, as she began closing the blinds.

Christmas morning dawned clear and bright. The only angels to be seen were the statues at the church and the ornament atop the tree. After church, Lindy had a busy day preparing the holiday meal with help from her daughters, who were grown and married with small children of their own, but lived nearby.

After the roast beef had been eaten and the gifts exchanged, Lindy wasn’t expecting to see anything besides a happy family around the tree. When she stepped outside on this frosty evening, she had in mind only to say goodnight to her departing children and grandchildren. Standing on the front walk, however, she distinctly saw a silvery figure with glowing wings in the moonlight.

“I saw the angel again just now, George,” she declared, as she stepped back into the cabin’s warmth. “At the edge of the clearing, where the road leads into the forest.”

“Hmph,” he snorted. His muscular neck rippled under his graying beard. “Nonsense. It’s probably the change of life—doesn’t that give women strange thoughts sometimes? You’d best come with me into town in the morning, so that you can see the herbalist while I deliver wood. Maybe there’s a potion for what ails you.”

Although Lindy hadn’t been feeling at all poorly, she supposed there couldn’t be any harm in seeing the herbalist. She felt certain that George meant well; he was a sensible man and a good provider. And, however distinct the figure might have looked to her, seeing angels surely was out of the ordinary.

“I’ll come along with you, George,” she agreed.

They rode into town early in the morning with a cartload of wood drawn by their brown ox, Ralph. Strong and well trained, Ralph had been a dependable beast for many years. When they reached the town’s narrow, cobblestoned streets, Lindy hopped down at the corner where the herbalist’s small shop stood. She crossed the street, being careful to hold her long dress up out of the half-frozen muck.

A bell jangled when Lindy pushed the door open. Candles gave off a pleasant apple-spice fragrance, illuminating shelves full of jars and sacks. The herbalist, a kindly woman named Kate who was short and round-cheeked, asked Lindy what had brought her to the shop on this fine winter’s day.

“Well, I don’t rightly know,” Lindy confessed, taking in a deep breath of the apple-scented air. “I saw an angel outside my cabin—twice. George says that I’m only imagining things, and he wanted me to ask if you have a potion for that.”

“For angels?” Kate’s friendly laugh was melodic, blending with the high chime of a clock that had started to strike the hour. “Most likely, you just have a touch of the winter blues. No cause for worry—a good tonic will soon have you feeling right as rain.”

Lindy left the shop with a small stoppered flask, which Kate assured her would remedy most winter ailments. She dutifully took her afternoon dose when she returned to the cabin with George. It tasted of mint, among other things. When no angels appeared for the rest of the day, Lindy went to bed thinking that perhaps she’d been cured.

She woke long before dawn the next morning, jolted out of a sound sleep by howling winds that shook the cabin ferociously. George hurried to hitch Ralph to the cart by lantern light. Tiny particles of swirling snow left no doubt that a bad storm was coming; today’s wood needed to get delivered right away, before it got worse.

“Stay indoors after you collect the eggs, Lindy,” he warned. “Don’t wander off chasing angels. It feels like there’s a blizzard on the way.”

Lindy nodded in agreement. She didn’t need any convincing; the wind-driven snow stung her face bitterly, even through a thick scarf. After George drove away, she plodded out to the chicken coop, head down, with no thoughts of anything but getting back inside the warm cabin. It wasn’t until she reached the coop that Lindy raised her head and saw the angel standing, large as life, only a few paces away.

“Who are you?” Lindy asked, looking into the angel’s shimmering silver eyes as the otherworldly figure loomed above her, wings outstretched as if about to take flight. “What do you want from me?”

The angel only smiled, extending a hand in invitation. When Lindy took a step closer, the angel, hovering just above the frozen ground, began to drift slowly back toward the forest. Lindy felt compelled to follow, even though George had told her to go back inside after getting the eggs. She hadn’t yet collected them, after all; so she wasn’t exactly breaking a promise.

Soon Lindy found herself among the trees. Dawn brought only a weak light, barely enough to see a path that was quickly becoming obscured by new-fallen snow. The angel still gleamed brightly, not far ahead of her.

Footsteps crunched to her left, and Lindy turned her head. She recognized her son Peter mainly by his tall stature and nimble gait, rather than by his face, which was covered against the biting wind like her own. He carried a sack over his shoulder, from which a beaver tail protruded.

“What are you doing out here in this storm, Mother?”

“I saw…”

Raising a hand to gesture toward the angel, Lindy looked in that direction again, only to find that the silvery glow had vanished. The path she had been following sloped gently downward, barely visible through the thickening snow.

“Nothing,” she said quietly, as much to herself as to Peter. “I must have imagined it.”

“Mother, go home now. Whatever you saw, this is no day for anyone to be out of doors. I’m going back to my cabin as soon as I check my last trap.”

Without any argument, Lindy turned back toward home. She made her way along the path as much by memory as by sight; the whirling snow blotted out every landmark. When she got home, she collected the eggs right away and went straight indoors, as George had told her to do. No more foolish visions of imaginary angels for her.

It was much later in the day when George returned, shivering and covered in snow. Lindy took his coat and hurried to pour him a mug of hot cider while he stood by the fireplace warming his numb hands.

The empty cart had overturned in a strong gust, George told her, not far from home. The harness had snapped. Ralph the ox, spooked by the crash of a tree falling close by, had bolted into the forest. His tracks had disappeared almost at once in the blowing snow, and George had not been able to find him anywhere.

“I’ll have to go back there right away and search for him again, Lindy. We can’t lose our only ox. If he’s not found soon, he could freeze to death or be taken by wolves.” George drained his cider, handed the mug back to Lindy, and reached for his coat. “Keep an eye out—it’s possible Ralph may come back on his own.”

After George trudged back out to the road, which couldn’t be seen at all by now, Lindy went to take a look around the outbuildings. There was no sign of Ralph, but of course that didn’t mean much; the snow was falling so heavily that Lindy couldn’t have seen the ox unless he came within arm’s reach.

Muttering about how useless this was, Lindy turned a corner of the barn and found the angel standing directly in front of her. A radiant, benevolent smile graced the angel’s smooth features. Lindy, however, was in a very uncharitable mood by now.

“Just what are you doing here, you horrid thing! Are you trying to get me killed in this blizzard?” She advanced on the angel, waving her fists furiously. “You’re not real—and even if you were, I don’t want you interfering in my life! What good are you? It’s all your fault that my husband thinks I’m crazy—and I may very well be losing my mind, talking to you when you can’t possibly be real! And now the ox is lost, and without him we’ll have no money to buy food this winter, and, and…”

Lindy had been taking angry steps toward the angel with every few words, not realizing what she was doing. All at once she noticed that she wasn’t standing next to the barn anymore. Instead, snow-covered trees surrounded her. The angel had led her into the forest without her being aware of it.

“Now I’m sure you must be trying to kill me!” Lindy shouted, turning on her heel to go back to the cabin. She had lost all sense of direction by now, though. It wasn’t possible to retrace her footsteps, which already had disappeared under the thick snow; and nightfall was coming fast.

After she blundered around for several minutes without coming back to the clearing, Lindy saw the angel with open hands, beckoning to her.

“And just why should I follow you,” Lindy demanded, “when you’re responsible for getting me lost? I have no reason to trust you. Less than no reason!”

The angel silently beckoned once more and then glided away through the trees, leaving Lindy alone in the deepening gloom without any idea of how to get home.

“Wait, wait, don’t go away—I didn’t mean it!” Now starting to panic, Lindy hurried to catch up to the angel’s fading glow. Rocks underfoot, snowbanks rising on both sides, and indistinct shapes of trees looming high overhead came together in Lindy’s mind, showing her where she was. The angel had led her into a ravine not far from her cabin.

Just ahead, an animal bellowed in fear and pain. It was the lost ox. Ralph had gotten his forelegs tangled in a pile of fallen branches and could not move. Although most of the branches were too large and heavy for Lindy to pick up, she found a smaller one that would work as a lever to shift the others. After a few minutes, she was able to free the ox. Ralph had a few cuts and bruises but was not much worse for wear.

When Lindy looked up, she was not surprised to find that the angel had disappeared. That was all right; she knew how to get home. The storm had almost ended, and the setting sun’s faint rays helped Lindy to find her way. Ralph obediently limped along beside her.

George came home soon afterward, while Lindy was in the barn tending to Ralph’s injuries.

“He was in the ravine,” Lindy said, rubbing more liniment on the right foreleg.

Looking puzzled, George asked, “How did you find him in the storm? The snow was so thick, I walked in circles for hours and couldn’t see a thing.”

“The angel showed me where he was.”

“Hmph.” George looked as if he might have wanted to say more, but then—evidently thinking better of it—he closed his mouth again. Lindy finished tending to the ox and went back inside the cabin with George.

——————————

The Crone’s knitting needles clacked busily away as she finished a row of her scarf-in-progress. Leaving it in her lap, where it had been when she started telling me this story, she picked up a gingerbread cookie from the plate on the end table.

“Did Lindy ever see the angel again?” I asked.

Taking a bite of her cookie, the Crone chewed meditatively for a moment before she gave the question back to me.

“Well, what do you think—did she?”

“Yes. Maybe.” I paused to arrange my thoughts in a more sensible order. “If she had a reason to. If something happened and she needed help.”

“Indeed.” The Crone gave me an encouraging smile before she went on to say, “Wayfinding is much easier when we trust that help will be there for us, even if it doesn’t always come as we might expect.”

This is the second story in a series. Click here to read the first.

At first glance, the tiny speck circling high above the white stone walls of the Romanian castle might easily have been taken for a hawk or an eagle. I had come here in search of something else, though; and I wasn’t at all surprised when the long, scaly wings of a dragon became visible.

Dragon next to a white stone castle, with water pouring down.

(Image by Philip A. Benyola, Jr.)

The castle, built on high ground above what once was a medieval town in the Transylvanian hills, had been converted during the communist era into the municipal utility building. It now served as both the waterworks and the control facility for a hydroelectric power station. Or, to be more precise, those had been its functions until the sudden appearance of dragons had sent its workers scurrying away in a panic.

“Well, Chris, at least it’s not a nuclear power plant,” my companion Shay observed, as we stood beside the flooded main road into town. The wide-open sluice gates must have been letting massive amounts of water flow past the castle for days. A truck engine started up and then roared away—again, not much to my surprise—as the town official who had given us a ride from the Bucharest airport evidently had second thoughts about sticking around.

“Small mercies,” I agreed, glancing down at our dusty suitcases, which held our fire suits and other dragon-wrangling gear. Shay and I had gone into business three years ago in Tennessee as Dragon Control, Inc., after the skies above Knoxville mysteriously filled with dragons one evening. Nobody had ever discovered why. Until now, we’d thought Knoxville was the only area affected—and then we learned otherwise last week when we got frantic phone calls from Romanian officials pleading for our services.

They had wired us a generous amount for expenses, with the promise of much more if we succeeded in ridding their country of dragons. Shay and I hadn’t needed much convincing to take off for an international adventure. We had been training a few assistants in Knoxville who could handle things well enough—we hoped—in our absence.

The road curved steeply upward through a thick forest, which didn’t seem too creepy on this bright, sunny afternoon until I heard rustling leaves very close behind me. I spun around, alert for danger; but there was only a tiny old woman climbing slowly onto the road from a path.

She wore a long multicolored dress that looked like something out of a medieval fairytale, with thick stockings and heavy shoes. Curly gray hair, which seemed to have a mind of its own, tumbled over a colorful shawl. Her face was deeply lined, and the hands leaning on her walking stick were gnarled and spotted.

“Be welcome here, dragon slayers,” she said in accented but understandable English. “Your arrival was foretold in the ancient prophecies and has long been awaited.”

I figured this was a roundabout way of complaining that we’d taken forever to get here. If so, it seemed unfair, considering how far we had traveled. Deciding to ignore it, I answered what she’d said first.

“Ma’am, we appreciate the welcome, but we are not dragon slayers. We are modern animal-control specialists, licensed by the State of Tennessee, and we capture and relocate dragons humanely.”

She just kept on nodding, as if she’d been so certain of her description that nothing would change her mind. Then again, maybe what I’d said just didn’t translate well into her language, or she didn’t know enough English to make sense of it.

“You are the one chosen to travel through the sorcerers’ portal,” she declared, staring fixedly at me with wide hazel eyes as if she’d totally forgotten Shay was here. “You are the Hermaphrodite, the one who is neither female nor male, drawing upon all the powers of the earth and sky.”

My first thought was that she must have been reading too many fantasy novels. Even in a forest in Transylvania, who really believed that stuff? And hadn’t she ever seen a genderqueer person before?

Shay, bustling around by our suitcases, saved me the trouble of having to reply when he spoke. “Uh, Chris, you might want to put on your fire suit now. That dragon is heading straight for us.”

I grabbed my gear from Shay, who was already suited up. Sure enough, the dragon was very near the treetops and coming this way fast. It was much bigger than we had expected. Most of the dragons we’d captured in Knoxville had been about the size of the steers that Shay wrestled in the rodeos, but this one easily could have swooped down on an elephant and carried it off.

Tugging my visor into place, I looked through it, finding the view not at all improved. Daddy Dragon was bearing down on us like a tornado, and he didn’t look any smaller. He probably could’ve carried off two elephants, one in each front claw.

I stood there without moving, as did Shay. Out local visitor didn’t run away either, which did surprise me. Wearing our fire suits didn’t actually make it much safer for us to stand facing down this behemoth, given the fact that he could squash us flat no matter what we were wearing. But at least we looked like well-equipped professionals. Not soon-to-be-dead ones, I hoped.

Just as the dragon’s shadow fell over the road, he disappeared.

Literally. Disappeared. Meaning that I had been looking directly at him, and an instant later he wasn’t there.

I turned my head from side to side. Nothing. The Romanian woman was still standing right next to me, placidly nodding, like vanishing dragons weren’t anything new around here.

When I took off my headgear for a better view without the visor, that was when I saw the sorcerers’ portal. Or at least, that was what I assumed the woman had meant when she used that term. Just above the road, extending for a short distance above the trees on either side, a square of blue sky flickered like a poorly streamed video.

Shay, who was also bare-headed by now, stared at the portal for several seconds before he said what we both were thinking.

“No way either of us is going through that.”

The factory doors gaped wide on this hot and sticky Tennessee afternoon, without a worker in sight. Someone had taped a BEWARE OF DRAGON sign crookedly to the outside wall before heading for the hills. I parked my truck and walked through the doors, well protected in my fire suit as I searched the rafters for the troublesome dragon.

Yup, there she was, busily building a nest out of boxes and pallets. Her golden-green scales gleamed in the harsh light from the fluorescent tubes. She was about the size of a small horse, with broad, flaring wings. Evidently, she wasn’t at all happy with my intrusion on her nesting space. She turned her head toward me, hissed angrily, and shot a thin stream of flame in my direction.

Green dragon in side view.

(Picture from publicdomainpictures.net)

I wasn’t always a dragon catcher. Three years ago, I was working at an Amazon warehouse with my buddy Shay when we heard there were dragons all over downtown Knoxville. At first we thought it was a hoax, but then some of our friends said they had seen the dragons, for real. So we drove into the city after work. Sure enough, there they were, roosting all over the rooftops like a flock of oversized pigeons.

Nobody had any idea where they’d come from. The most popular theories were secret government experiments or an alternate universe. But however they might have gotten here, nothing was being done about them. The Feds just wanted to send biologists to study them. Tennessee’s politicians were gleefully seeing dollar signs from dragon tourism. Most folks in Knoxville were totally freaking out, needless to say; but the Feds weren’t letting anyone shoot the dragons, and the animal control officers’ union was threatening to strike if anyone ordered its members to capture them.

“What a bunch of wusses, threatening to strike,” I said to Shay, who had grown up on a ranch in Texas and was a regular competitor in the bull-riding and steer-wrestling events at the rodeos. “I bet you could catch a dragon, couldn’t you?”

“Yeah, sure, Chris. No problem. They’re just animals, right?” Shay scratched his bushy red beard. “You gotta show ‘em who’s boss.”

The next day, I asked a guy at the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce to help me write a business plan. He was so thrilled to find someone brave enough to start a dragon-control business, he practically wrote it for me. When I set up a crowdfunding page, contributions from the long-suffering citizens of Knoxville poured in. Shay’s cousin Wanda designed a fancy logo with a hog-tied dragon thrashing and spitting fire.

In all honesty, most of the time it’s not that hard to catch a dragon, once you’ve learned how to go about it. When I went after that dragon building a nest in the factory’s rafters, I ignored her warning flame and took another step forward. Then I tossed down what looked like a big, juicy steak on the concrete floor. I took an aerosol can from my pocket and sprayed some raw-meat scent, just to make sure the dragon would notice.

“Chow time!” I announced cheerfully. “Fresh meat! Come and get it! Yummy, yummy!”

Slowly taking a few steps backward, so as to give the dragon some space, I kept a close watch on her. Most dragons were impulsive enough that they went for the bait quickly, and this one was no exception. Spreading her wings, she glided toward the floor, opening her jaws wide to snap up the steak.

Of course, it wasn’t really a steak. Just as the dragon was about to snatch it, I pressed a button on a remote control, and a finely woven mesh net popped up and settled over the dragon’s head. She could breathe just fine, but she couldn’t see anything, which prevented her from flying away; and although dragons are dumb animals, they usually have enough sense not to breathe fire with their head in a bag.

All she did was sit there on the floor, making pitiful whining noises like a whipped dog and pawing at the net. Shay (who also wore a fire suit, just in case) didn’t have any trouble getting her outside and loading her into the custom-built cage on our trailer.

“Not much different from loading steers for market,” Shay observed in a satisfied tone, after we’d merged onto Interstate 75 and were heading north toward the dragon study facility up in the mountains. Passing drivers gawked, snapping photos with their cellphones. The dragon, with the net still over her head, mostly had settled down by then, although we still heard the occasional high-pitched shriek from the cage. Just another ordinary workday for us.

This is the first story in a series. Click here to read the second.

This is Part 23; click here to read Breaking the Ice from the beginning.
 

Reluctance to help was one thing; a flat refusal was quite another. Woods couldn’t make any sense of it. Although he did not actually say so, it must have shown on his face because Hioki gave an exasperated sigh. Sitting back down in his desk chair, Hioki turned it to face his visitor and indicated with an abrupt hand gesture that Woods should take a guest chair in the corner, which he did.

“Quit looking at me like I just kicked a puppy. I’m trying to save your silly idealistic ass, Woods—and mine too, while I’m at it. Yeah, okay, we’re supposed to be explorers serving the greater good of science, and all that. And you know, I don’t even disagree that being the first to communicate with a sentient alien species would be amazing. It’s not going to happen, though, for a very practical dollars-and-cents reason. Think about it. What happens if we make a public announcement that we’ve found intelligent life on Europa?”

This was about money? Woods felt even more confused now. Why would the agency not want to spend money studying sentient aliens after it had paid for this exploratory mission? Wouldn’t success mean a lot more government funding? Not having any idea what Hioki was getting at, Woods simply put together a response to the question he’d been asked.

“Well, first of all, the linguists would get to work on translating their language accurately, and other scientists would study their biology and culture. I suppose government officials would negotiate a treaty of friendship and send an ambassador to Europa. Maybe Tiny Leaf,” and Woods paused to reorient his thoughts, just now remembering that Hioki didn’t know the name by which he called the alien traveling aboard their ship, “er, I mean the one here—she might become an envoy on Earth for her species.”

Hioki gave an impatient nod, running a nervous hand through his carefully sculpted hair without even noticing how rumpled he made it. “Right, and would there be any tourists going to Europa? Anything like what we have on Mars?”

“Tourists? No, that certainly wouldn’t happen—or at least, not for a long time. We couldn’t interfere with their world by building hotels all over it. Maybe sometime in the next century, if a treaty allowed for tourism, but of course it would be very limited…”

Hioki interrupted with a loud snap of his fingers, startling Woods. “Bingo. And who stands to lose trillions of dollars by not being allowed to build those hotels?”

That question made more sense to Woods; after all, only one company had successfully brought tourists to Mars. Nobody else had the know-how and the resources. He started to answer while still thinking through the implications.

“That has to be Splotz—but, if everyone knew that Europa had intelligent life, what could Splotz do? Even if they could somehow avoid an outright ban on commercial activity, public opinion would be so strongly against any sort of exploitation that just mentioning tourism would likely cause millions of angry people to stop buying their products.”

“Exactly.” Hioki leaned forward, elbows on knees, his tone low and earnest. “And that’s why they would do everything in their power to prevent such an announcement from being made.”

“How could they? Even if Splotz had, I don’t know, mafia enforcers or something, we’re traveling through space many thousands of kilometers away. There’s nobody on this ship but a few scientists and astronauts. You don’t seriously think any of our crewmates would harm us on orders from some corporate boss, do you?”

“No, they wouldn’t, or at least not physically. What I’m saying is no more than you already know. If you tried to make a report like that without solid proof, it would be discredited and your sanity questioned. Splotz would see to it. Even though Rita Mastroianni looks nice and friendly, she was a company doctor for many years, and you can be sure that’s where her loyalties still lie. You haven’t told her anything about—well, any of this, have you?” Hioki sat up straighter, and his voice took on a note of worry.

“Not really.” Woods glanced down at the tablet he was still holding in his right hand. “I asked her if there were scientific ways to test the existence of telepathic communication. She didn’t seem to take it seriously—told me a story about her aunt who talked to cats, and then suggested that I keep my notes about telepathy in a journal…”

“You’re keeping the notes on this tablet? Not in your official log, and not backed up in the ship’s system? Good. That’s very good.” Hioki reached out a hand that showed evidence of recent nail-biting. “Let me have your tablet for a few minutes. I’ll encrypt the notes for you, so that if Mastroianni does any snooping through your personal things, she won’t find them.”

That sounded at first like a reasonable suggestion made out of friendly concern, and Woods had almost started to hand over the tablet before he thought more about it. Then he pulled the tablet away. “No, you might destroy them.”

Sitting back in a more relaxed posture, Hioki laughed as if he had just heard a good joke. “Not quite as innocent as you seem, are you, Woods? I have to admit that yes, it did occur to me. On second thought, erasing your notes would be pointless because you could easily create them again. So, I’ll just warn you once more to be careful. And to be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that Splotz or anyone in its management is evil. My parents work for the company, after all. It’s probably no worse than any other. But I will say this much: Growing up on Mars taught me that if you do anything the company wouldn’t like, you had better keep it hidden because if you don’t, there will be consequences.”

Woods looked down at his tablet again while a few possible replies came to mind, most of which had to do with courage or the lack thereof, and the fact that it had consequences too. He knew all too well, though, what could happen to anyone who did not conform to expectations. Letting his thoughts settle for a moment, he gave a mild answer while reminding himself that most decisions were better made after reflection and without judgment.

“I learned 35 years ago that there can be other ways besides hiding.”

July 6, 2018 · 2 comments · Categories: Stories

To read Part 2, click here.
 

Lightning flashed again, dimly visible around the edges of heavy oak shutters. Ina, wide awake on a straw pallet in a corner of the small cabin, counted to six and then heard the distant rumble of thunder. The cabin’s other occupants all slept soundly—Nellie and her husband John, their daughter Mabel, and little Godfrey in his cradle.

Ina felt that she ought to be sleeping soundly too, after a long day of farm work. She had cleared weeds from row after row of corn and other crops, swinging a hoe till her hands got sore and blistered. Then, after lunch, she had filled a few baskets with early vegetables and sweet black raspberries before helping Nellie to cook and clean until dinner. She’d expected to be fast asleep by now—but instead, something called persistently to her. She felt it at the edge of her thoughts, an elemental energy as strong as the storm that had by now started spattering the cabin with loud, heavy raindrops.

What was out there in the storm, waiting for her? Ina couldn’t see much of her surroundings. The cabin had been dark since Nellie, while reciting a prayer for protection from evil spirits, had latched the shutters and barred the door before blowing out the candles—hours ago, it seemed like. Although Ina could hear the door and its thick wooden bar rattling in the gusty wind, she couldn’t make out the shapes.

Lightning at night.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Light—she needed light to find her way. The next time the lightning flashed, and without thinking about it at all, Ina reached toward the shuttered window and caught the fading glow between her hands, like a child capturing a firefly. It flickered and then brightened, much as a candle would, when she opened her hands to let it hover above them. The tiny flame’s warmth felt good on her blistered palms—but no, there weren’t any blisters to be seen now. All at once, Ina’s hands had healed completely.

The flame rose higher and made a bobbing motion toward the door, like a playful puppy hoping to be taken for a walk. A memory teased at the back of Ina’s mind—it had something to do with a pet she’d once had, but it slipped away, elusive. The flame bobbed again, more insistently. Ina took a few steps toward the door and located her shoes, which were neatly lined up with the family’s shoes on a mat beside the wall, underneath some pegs from which hung thick cloaks.

A sense of being watched came into her awareness. Turning to her left, she found little Mabel standing in a nightgown, with wide eyes reflecting the supernatural glow.

“You’re a witch,” Mabel said softly, in a matter-of-fact voice that held neither question nor fear.

Ina turned the word over in her mind, letting it settle into the empty space where a now-distant identity once had been. It seemed like it fit reasonably well. “Yes, I suppose I must be,” she answered, in the same calm, descriptive tone.

Mabel glanced up at the hovering light, which had by now floated over to the door. Rain pounded steadily on the roof, but everyone else in the cabin still slept without stirring. “Can you teach me how to make witch-fire like that? It’s pretty.”

Putting on her shoes, Ina considered the question. Had she made the fire, or had she simply come upon it already existing in nature, waiting to be found? And was anything about it a skill that could be taught? She had no answers.

“I don’t think so, Mabel. It’s not something that I know how to teach.”

The little girl nodded as if she hadn’t expected anything more. “That’s all right. Mama probably wouldn’t want me to do it anyway. She says witches are evil. But the fire doesn’t look evil, and you don’t either—so maybe, sometimes, Mama could be wrong.”

“Maybe witches, like other people, are not all one thing or the other,” Ina suggested. She couldn’t feel anything evil in the magical firelight or in herself—but then, how would she know what evil felt like? It might seem okay at first glance, like a tree that looked healthy but had rot or insects hidden under the bark. She remembered ash trees dying from the borers, their dry bare branches outlined against a crisp, clear autumn sky. Where had that fragment of memory come from?

She wouldn’t find any answers here. It was time to get going.

Ina lifted the heavy bar, setting it carefully into its slot beside the door. The flame danced eagerly out into the storm when she opened the door a crack. The rain wasn’t dimming its light at all. Ina was about to follow when it occurred to her that Mabel wasn’t quite big enough to put the bar back across the door. She lifted the bar partway, told Mabel to hold it there for a moment, and pulled the door shut behind herself. Although she was instantly soaked through, the rain felt invigorating. The bar clattered into place, and Ina thought she heard a little voice saying “Bye,” as thunder boomed again.

The bobbing firelight already had moved several paces ahead of Ina, in the direction of the Wild Forest.

June 9, 2018 · 3 comments · Categories: Stories

This is a continuation of a story that began on the blog Nuggets of Gold.
 

Somewhere across the lake, a rooster crowed. The sound carried clearly in the still air before dawn. She blinked, startled; the lake now reflected pale pink clouds instead of moonlight. It seemed that only a moment had passed since she closed her eyes, but somehow she must have dozed off without knowing it.

Rising to her feet, she brushed grass and twigs off her long, full skirt, which came down far enough to brush against wooden shoes fitting tightly over thick homespun stockings. But no, that wasn’t right at all—she had been wearing jeans and gym shoes when she walked through the woods to the lake.

When she turned around, she couldn’t see any path through the tall grass and midsummer wildflowers. Farther back, instead of the familiar patch of woods, a large old-growth forest loomed, with trees much taller and broader than she’d ever seen.

Old-growth forest with large tree trunk in foreground.

(Photo credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli)

The air felt invigorating; it was fresh and pure, filled with the scents and sounds of nature. She turned back toward the lake, only then noticing how easily her body moved, without the aches and stiffness that she’d have expected from falling asleep outdoors at her age. Although she was in fairly good health at 67, camping in the woods would not have been on any list of her favorite activities.

The landscape on the other side of the lake had changed, too. Where was the new subdivision of expensive lakefront homes that she’d driven past, and the state highway not far behind them? Now there was only a small, tidy log cabin, surrounded by vegetable gardens and—yes, that was definitely a chicken coop.

“Hello.” The little voice came from a girl, also wearing an old-fashioned dress, who was walking across the grass to her left. “My name is Mabel. Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

None of this could be real, she thought. There was only one sensible explanation—she was still asleep in the grass where she had dozed off listening to the bullfrogs in the moonlight. “I am in a dream,” she said, more to herself than to her young companion.

Mabel smiled, showing a gap from a newly lost baby tooth. “You’ll have to come and meet my Mama,” she declared, setting off toward the cabin, where a woman had just stepped outside with a wicker basket.

By the time they reached the cabin, the basket was full of freshly collected eggs. Mabel announced cheerfully, “Mama, this is my new friend, Miss Ina Drim. I found her on the other side of the lake.”

The woman had light hazel eyes and a kindly smile. “Good morning to you, Miss Ina. You can call me Nellie. Have you traveled far? You’re very young to be walking through the Wild Forest by yourself—why, you can’t be much over sixteen. And today, of all days!”

Her first reaction was to open her mouth in surprise, thinking that she’d better set matters straight as to both her name and age. But her hands looked young and smooth at the end of her long, billowing sleeves, with no age spots or swollen knuckles. How old was she, really? And what had her name been? The more she breathed this lovely fresh air, the harder it was to remember.

Seeing that she looked confused, Nellie clarified the last sentence. “I meant, today is the summer solstice. Folks say that the witches who live in the Wild Forest use their magic every Midsummer’s Eve to bring girls here from far away, so as to train them in the secret ways of witchcraft. The magic is said to be so very strong, the girls can be summoned from distant countries or even through time itself. They forget everything about their old lives.”

Ina, who by now couldn’t recall if she’d ever had another name, shook her head in denial. She couldn’t possibly have been summoned by witches, could she? No, of course not, that was ridiculous. She’d come here to the lake because of—something about family, and memories, and an old woman. Surely it would all come back to her soon.

“I was visiting my grandmother,” she said finally, not sure whether that was quite right, but concluding that it must be close enough. “And I lost my way in the woods.”

Nellie looked horrified. “Lost and alone in the Wild Forest all night—you’re lucky the wolves didn’t get you! Of course, you’ll have to stay here for now. It would be much too dangerous for a young girl like you to travel through the forest alone, especially today.” Her tone made clear she wouldn’t stand for any argument.

Although her first inclination was to argue anyway, Ina decided that was silly. After all, the invitation plainly was well-intended, and there didn’t seem to be any reason to leave just yet. She might as well stay for a little while—at least, until she could remember where she ought to be.
 

Click here to continue to Part 3.

When I started writing a recent post about cultural beliefs and archetypes related to aging and health issues, I have to confess that I wasn’t quite sure where it would end up. The plan was simply to visualize my inner Crone, ask her what she’d like to say on the subject, and wing it from there. I was pleasantly surprised when she offered to tell me a story.

Closing my eyes for a moment while I sipped my imaginary coffee, I listened. She began the tale with the traditional “Once upon a time,” and then she went on speaking in a smooth, flowing cadence…

——————————

In a far western desert valley, there lived a girl named Rose. The name suited her well because she climbed all over everything, just like the big pink roses on the trellis outside the kitchen window. She climbed pine trees, getting the sticky sap all over her saddle shoes and poodle skirts; and she climbed the high cliffs on both sides of the valley.

Her favorite spot to climb was the steepest part of the cliff, right next to a little stream that flowed out of the rocks and through her family’s small farm. A smooth ledge, almost all the way up, made the perfect place to sit and watch everything that happened in the valley. Sometimes she would lie down on the ledge and look at the clouds drifting by.

When her parents saw her up there, they scolded her about the danger. Rose had no fear of falling, and she imagined that she would keep on climbing to her favorite ledge forever. But eventually she grew up—as we all must—and her days of climbing cliffs became a distant memory. She spent time with friends, but she never married; and when her parents died, she inherited the farm and lived there alone.

She rarely felt lonely because she had a big shaggy dog, Jack, to keep her company. There were days when she felt unsettled, though, as if she had lost track of something that once had meant a lot to her. On a hot summer day, after going for a long walk with Jack, she came back to the house feeling tired and achy. A hawk passing over the farm made her glance up, toward the ledge on the cliff.

“I am starting to get old,” she said to herself, wondering what had become of the little girl who loved to climb. Had it really been that many years? Wanting to get such thoughts out of her mind, Rose impulsively decided that she might as well just go and climb that cliff right now. After all, there was nobody around to tell her to act her age.

She set off toward the cliff, taking long strides across the rocky ground. Jack happily trailed along, though he didn’t look as cheerful when Rose began to climb. She ignored his whine of concern as she pulled herself upward, searching for the handholds that once had been so familiar. It took a lot of effort. Sweat dripped down her face. The ledge still looked far away. Could this be the same climb that had felt so effortless in her younger days?

Nowhere to go but up, Rose told herself. It can’t really be that hard—after all, people say you’re only as old as you think you are.

The sound of splashing water soothed her as she climbed higher. On her right, the stream that sprang out of the cliff was flowing steadily. She placed a foot carefully to avoid a mossy rock that looked slick, and then she reached for the ledge.

Just as she started to pull herself up with aching arms, Rose lost her grip. The ledge hadn’t been as dry as she thought it was. She tried to catch herself, as she always had been able to do before; but she wasn’t nearly as slim or as limber as she once had been. She tumbled all the way down the cliff, breaking several bones in her feet and ankles.

Slowly, nudged on by Jack, she managed to crawl back to the house and reach a phone to call for help. The doctors at the county hospital patched her up as best they could; but even after they told her the bones had healed, putting weight on her feet was still painful. To get around the farm, she took slow, difficult steps, leaning heavily on a walking stick.

Almost every waking minute—which now included much of the night because her aching feet often kept her awake—Rose berated herself for having been such a fool as to think she could still climb that cliff. She also had a lot of anger toward the doctors, at first because they hadn’t completely fixed everything and, later, because they cut off her pain meds out of concern about addiction. Soon after that, she stopped going to town. It was just too hard, and she didn’t want to see anyone’s pitying faces. In fact, she didn’t want to see anyone—period.

Giving up any hope that she might ever be healthy enough to farm again, Rose leased much of her acreage to the power company for wind turbines. She arranged for her groceries and other supplies to be delivered. If there wasn’t anything perishable, she might leave the boxes on the porch for days. Nothing seemed to matter anymore.

After a while Rose’s old truck rusted out, and brambles grew around it. Weeds filled the yard. A cold snap one winter killed most of the climbing rose on the trellis. Rose didn’t care—she had no interest in looking out the kitchen window because that was the direction of the ledge on the cliff. She kept the curtains drawn and spent most of her days lying on the couch.

Jack, who faithfully kept her company, was by now an old dog. A veterinarian living nearby, whose name was Henry, was kind enough to make house calls. The day came, however, when Jack fell gravely ill, and there was nothing to be done.

When Henry came back with the urn after having Jack’s remains cremated, he also brought—much to Rose’s surprise—a small brown mixed-breed puppy.

“One of my clients was giving away the litter,” he explained in a deep, gruff voice, looking somewhat uncomfortable as he shuffled his big feet on the dusty hardwood floor. “I thought you might want him.”

“Well, you thought wrong,” Rose snapped. “Take him away.”

“Maybe just think about it for a bit, then. I’ve left a bag of puppy food on the porch.” Putting down the puppy, Henry scooted backward and was out the door before Rose realized what he was up to. By the time she struggled up off the couch and got to the door, Henry’s van was roaring away.

Rose’s first impulse was to shout something very nasty after him; but she didn’t want to frighten the puppy, who wasn’t to blame. Instead, she just said, “Oh, for pete’s sake!”

The puppy wagged his little tail happily, in the evident belief that she was talking to him. Rose couldn’t help but to smile at that; and then she told him, “All right, so it looks like we’re stuck here together for now—Petey.”

Although she gave him a name, Rose had every intention of giving him back to Henry at the first opportunity. The last thing she needed, as she saw it, was the nuisance of having a puppy around. She had to take Petey out for walks because he was small enough that he couldn’t be put outside unattended, or he’d be a tasty snack for a hawk or coyote. Leaning on her walking stick, she trudged along painfully on cold winter mornings while Petey, at the end of his leash, gave impatient yips.

As hard as it was, though, she had to admit that by the time Henry finally showed up about a month later, she was doing better. The more she got off the couch and moved around, the easier it seemed. By then, Petey was fairly well housebroken, and she had gotten used to seeing his perky face every day.

“I might keep him,” she allowed grudgingly. “Not making any promises, mind you.”

Henry just grinned.

Winter soon turned into spring, and Rose found that she had enough energy to start cleaning up the house and yard. She whacked weeds, cut back the half-dead rose on the trellis, and got rid of the old truck. Instead of just heating up random food from a can, sometimes she cooked a nice dinner and invited Henry over to eat with her.

Now that she was in better shape, Rose didn’t need to lean on her walking stick like she had before. She still carried it out of habit, though. Her pain, although no longer constant, hadn’t gone away. She still had twinges during the day and bone-deep aches that left her tossing and turning at night, often with her mind troubled by those old angry thoughts.

On a warm evening in midsummer, Rose was throwing a tennis ball for Petey to fetch. He had grown a fair amount but, still, he was a small dog—mostly terrier, she thought. She threw the ball especially far, and Petey dashed eagerly after it. Just then a large coyote bounded over a rise, heading straight for him.

The panicked dog fled toward the nearest cliff and somehow managed to scramble most of the way up. Rose ran toward the coyote, shouting and brandishing her walking stick until it ran away. Shaking in terror, Petey sat huddled on a ledge. It was the same ledge from which Rose had fallen; but, with her thoughts entirely on rescuing her dog, she didn’t even notice that until after she had climbed up. With Petey tucked under her arm, she carefully made her way back down to solid ground.

It wasn’t until Rose got back to the house that she realized she had climbed the cliff without any pain or difficulty. Climbing had felt natural, in fact—just like when she was a young girl. She hadn’t even remembered to pick up her walking stick, which still lay at the base of the cliff where she’d dropped it when the coyote ran off.

Just as soon as those thoughts came into Rose’s mind, the pain came back. But this time, instead of letting herself get overwhelmed by stale feelings of anger and helplessness, she opened the curtains wide and gazed out at a beautiful evening.

Rose sat down at the kitchen table, with a contented Petey wagging his tail at her feet. She sat with the pain until it faded into the last gleams of sunlight on the cliff, the pale blooms of the rosebush, and the stars coming out across the desert sky; and then she went to bed and slept soundly.

——————————

I put down my empty coffee cup and said to the Crone, “Thank you for the story, and for taking the time to visit with me. Both are very much appreciated!”

The Crone rummaged in her handbag for a dark red lipstick and touched up her lips before she answered. “Any time, dear. I’ve quite enjoyed your company.”

Reluctance to help was one thing; a flat refusal was quite another. Woods couldn’t make any sense of it. Although he did not actually say so, it must have shown on his face because Hioki gave an exasperated sigh. [This is Part 22. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

Harsh fluorescent light glinted off the knives in the lunch line of the university cafeteria. Mark turned away, trying only to focus on squeezing the ketchup onto his cheeseburger… [This is Part 21. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

Going through his mail at the start of the workday, Woods skimmed the fan-letter summary… [This is Part 20. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]