The Poison Pie Publishing House presents:
Wouldn't the Wood Weird
(link to main page of novel)
a post-existential romantic fantasy
Impractical Prayers from the Spindle of the Void
February 1, 2018
The Forest Path
"Absolutely not!" Samudra exclaimed. She was forced to feign her astonishment at the suggestion because, in truth, she had anticipated that the astronaut would make the request of her. She sped down the county road away from the junkyard. "There is no way that I am driving out into the middle of the woods to find see if an exterminator named Prime Rib has, as local rumor suggests, stolen your spacecraft!"
"I will ask him kindly if he has it and, if so, whether he will let me inspect it."
"You said his mother was a holy terror."
"Those were Ohu's words," the astronaut corrected her.
"Anyway, he is probably a chip off the old block."
The astronaut examined the hand-drawn map of the junkyard proprietor. "According to the map, we must take a left after the Pump'n'Go. There won't be a street sign."
"I'm not going to do it," Samudra insisted.
They shared an uncomfortable silence. "This is my best chance to find out what happened to my wife," the astronaut repeated.
Still, Samudra seemed unswayed by the argument for she did not lower her speed as a gas station appeared off in the distance.
"Remember what Wouldn't said," the astronaut reminded her. "Making the world a better place without personal sacrifice is like making breakfast without maple syrup."
Samudra smiled despite herself. "He did not say that!" She considered the phrase again and became less sure. "He didn't really say that, did he?"
"He said it privately to me," the astronaut assured her.
Who would know more about maple syrup than a tree? Confounded by this logic, Samudra flipped on her turn signal after they passed the rundown Pump'n'Go. The first left was only a thread of gravel road surrounded by brush and trees. In summer, the entrance to the road was probably almost entirely camouflaged by a coverage of leaves. It was only in winter, when the bare branches allowed the eye deeper penetration into the woods, that a gravel path could be seen snaking away from the county road.
Despite her better judgment, Samudra turned into the road. "Do you think this is it?"
"I think so," the astronaut agreed with no certainty. There was no obvious way to distinguish this path from any other winding trail in the woods.
The path itself proved so narrow that retreating by any means other than putting the car in reverse was impossible. A set of tire tracks led them forward, a necessity since, the snow made discerning the path from the surrounding forest floor quite difficult.
Thus, the drowned woman and the astronaut proceeded into the woods along this winding, poorly marked path. They navigated around the trunks of old conifers and beneath the boughs of towering hardwoods. As they mounted the first hillock and descended beyond, all signs of civilization disappeared save for the path they followed.
A small mountain appeared in front of them and the path seemed to lead beyond it by taking a route that slowly ascended and led to one side, a sort of compromise between surmounting the peak and avoiding a steep crevice, which separated this mountain from the next. Thus, the path followed a series of narrow ledges with the mountain rising on the right and dropping precipitously on the left. In several places where the ledge widened the gravel gave way to round depressions that surely filled with water during and after rains. In the winter, before the thaw, these empty depressions could be crossed without fear of becoming lodged in the mud.
Although the path from the county road to the home of the Prime Minister's son was less than three miles in length, Samudra did not feel comfortable driving along the precarious route more than five miles per hour, so the minutes stretched out as they wandered deeper into the woods. Many times, an exasperated Samudra proclaimed she would turn around at the next opportunity, but they had yet to encounter such a widening of the path.
When they encountered the most harrowing part of the path, where a good portion of the road had been washed away and simply adopted the slope of the mountain, Samudra initially refused to go forward. That eventually she dared traverse the snowy slope was a result of her utter lack of alternatives. A fury at the astronaut began to grow in her. It emerged in snaps of irritability.
Sitting in the passenger seat, the astronaut did his best not to slide into the driver as she passed sideways along the slope. It was only twenty feet or so before they regained the level path but one would have thought from their shared reaction that they had just sailed the Atlantic Ocean in a dinghy or some such heroic act of passage.
The remainder of the path proved more or less reasonable, given the overall condition of the road. They descended into a vale surrounded on all sides by mountainous terrain. They arrived in a clearing, which contained within the circle of trees, a small one-story home and numerous out-buildings of various sizes, some of which seemed to be barns and other garages and smaller workshops. The buildings uniformly were painted in a shade of maroon. In many places, sheets of paint had peeled, revealing a paler shade of red beneath the top coat, an indication that once these building had been well tended. Now, they stood with their facades neglected but their structural integrity yet intact.
Behind the largest barn, which occupied the rear of the clearing, the mountain rose steeply. A plethora of rusting old farm equipment and portions of trucks lined one side of the clearing. To the other side, land had been cleared revealing a slope upon which an ordered array of bushes were planted--perhaps the size of blueberry bushes, although it was difficult to definitively identify in winter. To the side of this small orchard, several pens, which appeared to be empty, were separated with wooden fencing. An orange school bus had been abandoned behind these pens. All was covered in snow. It provided a picture of pastoral life, in which the wealth of natural freedom and the fruits of honest, agricultural labor were mixed with the reality of rural poverty.
They saw no sign of movement, save for birds disturbed from their snowy reverie by the noise of Samudra's car. They also detected no vehicle that appeared to have been capable of motion within the last many decades.
"I don't think he's here," Samudra said with relief. She immediately took advantage of the opening to turn the car around.
When she had brought the car around, the astronaut opened the door, lest she depart without further discussion. "Wait for me," he said. "I will go knock at the door."
February 2, 2018
The astronaut followed a path worn by larger footsteps across a layer of snow, no more than a few inches thick, to the front door. He knocked but instead of summoning the occupant of the house he brought himself to the attention of three large dogs, one black, one brown and one some of both, who rounded the corner of a barn and raced toward him barking savagely.
He stood no chance of regaining Samudra's car, for the dogs veritably leapt across the snow. The house offered no protection. The astronaut ran from the front steps to a two-vehicle garage next to a wooden platform four feet off the ground, upon which rested an old rain barrel. He managed to get a foot on a corner of the platform, not occupied by the barrel, and hauled himself up. The three dogs were nearly upon him. He feared that this platform did not provide sufficient height to protect him. He therefore, climbed onto the rain barrel and from there leaned onto the roof of the garage. However, as he shifted his weight, he dislodged the rain barrel, which slipped off the side of the platform and crashed to the ground. The plastic, turned brittle in the cold air, shattered into a thousand shards, revealing a chunk of ice the size and shape of the bottom third of the barrel. The astronaut cleared a spot free of snow on the roof and crouched, staring down at the dogs as they jumped futilely against the siding of the garage and the platform.
'Of course,' he thought to himself, 'there would be dogs.'
As soon as the first dog had barked, Samudra had spun around in the front seat of the car and observed the chase through the rear window. Her immediate panic for the safety of the astronaut quickly transformed into fury, once he was perched in his secure roost.
What followed was to be a one-sided, heated exchange carried out through a window opened only slightly. "Tony!" she began, making no attempt to hide her anger. "Get in the car!" She gave little heed to the logistics by which her command might be obeyed.
The dogs, drawn by Samudra's voice, paid momentary regard to her. Once the safety of her position was ascertained, the dogs returned their undivided attention to the astronaut treed on the roof.
Samudra and the astronaut discussed in exasperated shouts how to accomplish the astronaut's re-entry of the vehicle.
"Back the car up!"
As soon as the car began to move, the dogs returned their attention to it, leaping against the driver's side door and leaving trails of saliva to freeze on the window.
"I don't want to run over the dogs!"
"They'll get out of the way!" It was difficult for Samudra to hear each word over the cacophony generated by the dogs.
The yard was full of a variety of snow-covered pieces of equipment, some of which may have been relevant to the exterminator's trade and others of which were surely common household appliances that had outlived their usefulness. Thus navigating this obstacle course in reverse took considerable care on Samudra's part. She imagined that she might be able to get the car close enough to the garage that the astronaut could at least climb on top of it. She might then drive off a distance or somehow distract the dogs for the moment it took from him to slip safely inside.
She was in the process of making her final maneuver to back up alongside the garage when the roar of a diesel engine broke through her frayed nerves. Samudra and the astronaut, now standing on the roof, observed the truck appear. The driver paused at the point where the gravel path opened into the clearing. The dogs raced toward the truck in greeting. The astronaut, now cast in the role of observer, failed to take advantage of this moment to get in the car.
Both Samudra and the astronaut could not help but notice that the driver of the truck did not pull forward into the clearing. Instead, he left his truck where he had first stopped, in a position where it blocked access to the gravel path. Their reactions to this observation were considerably different. Samudra had lived, since an adolescent, in this country. She knew as well as any other citizen the fearful stereotypes that surrounded isolated, country folk. She had watched with girl-friends at slumber parties horror movies where high school kids on spring break were gruesomely murdered by a solitary man who had descended into a masochistic madness. Seeing herself trapped, she therefore immediately imagined the worst. Her solace, of course, was to imagine that she was drowning. As her lungs filled with water and the end of her life drew nigh, it helped put into perspective these last few moments in which she had to interact with this immense, threatening stranger. She waited for him to reveal an axe or chainsaw or some other grisly implement by which he would dismember them.
The driver emerged from the truck. He squeezed past the brush lining the path and strode empty-handed into the clearing, where the dogs threw themselves maniacally against him. He easily stood six and a half feet tall, unperturbed by the attention of the dogs. His barrel-chested build was exaggerated further by the bulky, insulated work coat he wore. Upon his head he wore a dirty, green baseball cap bearing three yellow letters, CTX, presumably an advertisement for his exterminator's business. His long face ended in a trimmed moustache and beard. The hollow of his cheeks and his deep set eyes expressed only a quiet dismay at the chaotic scene he had interrupted at his house.
The astronaut for his part was unfamiliar with horror movies and local stereotypes. He had found the residents of this county to be exceptionally helpful, with the sole exception of the Prime Minister. He chose to remain optimistic that the demeanor of the son might have developed according to a model at odds with that of the mother.
"Are you Prime Rib?" hailed the astronaut from the roof of the garage.
"Yeah, I am," said Prime Rib in a booming baritone that suited well his giant stature. "What're you doing on my garage?"
"I came to pay you a visit," replied the astronaut, "but it seems I ran afoul of your dogs." He glanced down at the shattered rain barrel. "In my clumsiness, I broke your barrel."
"I see that," said Prime Rib. He walked farther into the clearing with the dogs maintaining erratic orbits around him. "What do you want?" he asked the astronaut.
"I have a business proposition for you," said the astronaut.
"You need something exterminated?"
"No," admitted the astronaut. "I have come on other business."
Prime Rib now stood about a dozen feet from the edge of the garage. His gaze settled only briefly on Samudra, locked in the paralysis of drowning. Then he intensely scrutinized the face of the astronaut. It seemed a flicker of recognition flashed across his face. He waited for the astronaut to continue.
"I am looking for a spacecraft. I thought you might be able to help me locate one."
"Nope," said Prime Rib without pause. "Don't have no spaceships around here." He cast his eyes to the mountain that formed the backdrop behind the rear barn, in what seemed to the astronaut a rather obvious gesture that belied his words.
So, it was settled. The astronaut and the exterminator faced each other, frozen in an implacable confrontation, waiting for a détente that had no intention of appearing on its own.
February 3, 2018
Claude Tulliver and his wife, Amanda, were thought to be descendants of a group of people known as Melungeons, who bore the mixed blood of Europeans, African slaves and Native Americans. In this country, where racial discrimination was legally outlawed only in 1964, its practice continued in locales urban and rural, well into the following century. With a mixed heritage revealed in his complexion, Claude Tulliver was deemed suited for a certain class of jobs, among which was included that of exterminator. His wife was a competent seamstress.
The Tulliver family had dwelt in an isolated vale for time out of memory. It had never been a large family and, with the death of his brothers in a mining accident, Claude became the last of the line. He married Amanda Garland, a near neighbor of like heritage, with hopes of a family, but the couple, though they passed many a year in wedded bliss, was not blessed with children.
An unexpectedly sociable couple, they found limiting their interactions with the community at large to the removal of vermin and a weekly session at the women's knitting group in the basement of the local church to be unsatisfying. Together they cleared a modestly level field next to their home and planted a small orchard of blueberry and blackberry bushes. After several years, they opened their orchard through-out the month of June to local families, who came to pick fruit. The Tullivers counted June their favorite month of the year, when the laughter of children could be heard as they raced through the array of bushes in a friendly competition to find the largest, most succulent berry.
Virtually all of the children in the community could be spotted in their orchard at one point during the month, with the sole exception of the lone child of the proprietors of the bakery, located on a nearby mountain ridge. That child, a boy too large for his clothes, was found almost exclusively laboring in the kitchen behind the counter of the bakery. Outside that building, he was seen only sporadically, in the company of his father, when the man ventured into church on Sundays. The boy did not attend the local, public school; his mother, it was said, home-schooled him.
The general opinion held with regard to the boy was one of pity, for his parents were by all accounts abrasive beyond reason and there were occasional signs that he suffered from excessive application of corporal punishment. Mountain people know, as do many others, that fortune is not distributed uniformly. In the words of a poet from a distant time and place, "Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night."†
That a child should know nothing but the rod seemed even to the stern folk of this county an overreach of discipline. Still, these people cherished their independence. They neither voiced words of reproach nor took action to succor the boy, for they wished no one to meddle in their own affairs, especially in something as personal as the manner in which one chose to raise one's own children. Perhaps, the child would have turned out exactly as his parents--bitter, hard-willed, free of empathy and unsympathetic, but for a curious turn of events.
Amanda Tulliver died a year shy of eighty and within a month her husband followed. When their will was revealed, it was discovered that they had bequeathed all of their accumulated wealth, such as it was, to the local church. The property, however, along with the exterminator business, which consisted only of a truck, a handful of cages and a list of clients, they willed to the boy, now eighteen, who still labored in the bakery. It was Amanda's hope, and she had little trouble in bringing Claude to her cause, that this gift might serve to alter a child's destiny for the better.
No account of the discussion that took place between son and parents was ever made public. One imagines heated words were exchanged. The community supposed the son was disowned, when he adamantly insisted upon leaving the business of baking for that of extermination. Certainly, it was widely rumored that his mother did not allow him to attend the burial of his father several years later, though he was seen later that same day standing alone beside the new grave. In the more than two decades that had since transpired, mother and son were never observed together.
As to whether the hopes of the old couple bore fruit, it was difficult to judge. The boy, now a man, never married and remained alone in the home at the end of Tulliver Lane. Still, he maintained the berry orchard. When bushes succumbed to old age or blight, he replaced them early the following spring. Each June, the community descended upon his farm. If the path had become dangerous during the winter, men brought rocks to form an embankment and shore up the road where needed, to allow safe access to the farm.
On weekends, during days when the berries were in season, the exterminator could be found standing at the edge of the barn, watching the families compare their bounties and listening to the laughter of children echo in the valley. Families departed with baskets of fruit, for which they left him with their cheerful thanks as well jars of preserved vegetables and other simple gifts.
So, at least on the surface, there is some evidence that the good work of Claude and Amanda Tulliver was not entirely wasted.
†Auguries of Innocence, William Blake, ca. 1803.
February 4, 2018
A Prayer for Those Who Dream of Dying
Lord, forgive us for seeing both the perfection
and imperfections of the world, which You created,
and for judging, in moments of isolation and despair,
its flaws of greater substance than its virtues.
Lord, deprive of us our wanton desire for early
release, for, though we imagine a solace
in oblivion, we would readily accept a more
palatable alternative, were it presented to us.
Pardon me, O Lord, for the presumptuous nature
of this plea, for now I find the gall within me
to suggest just such a remedy. Though I know
of Your omniscience, I describe it all the same:
Consider those immersed in a perpetual drowning,
those who find peace in the oft return to a quiet fantasy
of hanging in a lonely place, those who are relieved
at night by the outside hope that they may not wake
in the morning. Grant, not only these hard cases,
but Your more resilient people as well, a vision
of a parallel reality, in which the Earth turned
inside out and all the laws, natural and man-made,
that we know to facilitate misery over joy,
were repealed without regard for the consequences.
In the chaos that follows, let the alternatives
spill forth. Let angels come down from Heaven
and dance with cripples. Let the moribund
miraculously recover. "Let anything but what
is coming come!"† Let the spark of this fantasy
flow into the dying and jolt them back to life.
†Here I Am, Paul Bowles, 1991 (modified).
February 5, 2018
The astronaut, on the roof, and the exterminator, surrounded by a canine frenzy, concluded their careful examination of the other. In the car, with the window rolled up, Samudra waited for the apocalypse to arrive.
"Come down," said the exterminator.
The astronaut took a step backward. Although the buildings appeared to be generally structurally secure, he found a weak spot in a board straddling two rafters. It gave way beneath his foot and he fell backward onto the roof. His impact caused a second board to snap and he fell awkwardly through the gap into the darkness of the garage. He crashed against a wooden slope and slid to the floor, which was nothing more than a frozen surface of packed earth.
He lay still in the darkness, gauging the extent of his injuries. Nothing seemed broken but the back of his left arm had snagged against something in the fall. It throbbed and was surely bleeding, though he could not see it in the darkness. His hand rested on something that felt like fur.
The barking of the dogs grew louder as they accompanied the exterminator to the front of the garage, where he swung the pair of doors open. Light flooded the garage and the giant form of the exterminator appeared in silhouette. He ordered the dogs to keep behind him and they reluctantly obeyed.
Samudra remained too terrified of the dogs to venture forth from the car. From her position, the open garage door blocked her view of the exterminator. Nor could she observe the interior of the garage.
"Are you okay?" asked the exterminator to the man lying amidst the shadows.
"I think my arm is bleeding," answered the astronaut. He took a moment to examine the contents of the garage. The single, square room, two dozen feet on a side, was filled with the skins of various animals, mostly raccoon, although there were several skunk pelts as well as others unidentifiable to the astronaut (opossum and groundhog). Some pelts hung from hooks suspended from the rafters. Others were nailed in place to sheets of plywood, set at an angle. It was against one such nail that the astronaut had fallen, injuring his arm and dragging the raccoon pelt down to the ground with it. Already blood accumulated on the fur.
The exterminator followed the gaze of the astronaut. It seemed to him that some explanation was in order. "Mandy Tulliver was a seamstress and she made winter garments for her husband out of vermin he collected from the attics and basements of folks around here. He had a beautiful overcoat made from raccoon. It was the talk of the town in the winter months."
He gazed down at the astronaut who continued to bleed. "When I took over the business, there were only a few pelts in here. I collected some furs, but I never got anybody to make such a wonderful coat for me, not even a coonskin cap like Davy Crockett. Once the garage filled up, I stopped."
The astronaut rose to his feet. He clutched his wound with his right hand, trying vainly to staunch the flow of blood.
"After a while," the exterminator continued, seemingly unaware of the condition of his uninvited guest, "I started releasing those animals that I caught live out in the woods, where they wouldn't bother nobody." He sighed. "It's not too hard when you are an exterminator to get your fill of killing." He added unnecessarily, "It's not like that for bakers."
The astronaut did not know how to reply to such words, spoken by a man who seemed accustomed to solitude outside his business transactions.
"Let me go get you something to wrap that up." In no sign of hurry, the exterminator led his dogs from the entrance of the garage, allowing the astronaut to emerge from the shadows. He then walked past Toyota in which Samudra cowered, to a pen beside the house. One dog, in passing, leapt at her window, sending her into hiding. The exterminator swung open a gate and ordered the dogs inside. They whined but complied. He walked back to his truck, still parked in the gravel path, and emerged a minute later with a roll of gauze suited specifically for such injuries. He maintained a first aid kit as his line of work periodically resulted in injury either from claw or roof nails projecting down into the confines of attics, a routine hazard for a man of his stature.
From the front seat, Samudra watched the astronaut take off his coat. She saw the blood fall to the tramped snow. The exterminator patiently wrapped the gauze around the wound. When he had enough, he cut the gauze with a pocketknife. Although he had been initially garrulous, the impulse to speak had left him and he now worked in silence, save for the bay of the dogs on the far side of the yard. When he had tended to the astronaut, he handed him back his coat.
The exterminator returned the remaining gauze to the truck. Then he walked around to the driver's side, started the noisy engine, and pulled forward, exposing the exit to the clearing. He remained in the seat, waiting for his guests to depart.
Samudra unlocked the passenger side door and motioned for the astronaut to enter. When he did not move, she leaned over, lowered the window, and shouted, "Tony, get in!"
Ignoring her, the astronaut approached the truck. Despite the cold, the window was rolled down.
"The forecast is snow," said the exterminator. "You better go before you can't get out."
"Do you know where my spaceship is?"
The exterminator shook his head. "I can't help you." It seemed an inconsistent answer for one who only moments before had tended to him with such care.
Samudra watched the discussion continue for only a few more moments.
At one point, the astronaut stepped back from the truck, as if in surprise. He returned quickly to the vehicle. "Let's go," he said to Samudra, who immediately put the car in drive.
The exterminator watched them as they drove past the truck and left his home.
Samudra could clearly detect that the astronaut was agitated. "What did he say, Tony?" she repeatedly asked him.
It was not until they were off the precarious gravel path and back on the relative safety of the county road that the astronaut dared confide in her the words of the exterminator.
"He told me that he didn't believe me. He said that I couldn't be the owner of the spaceship."
"Why is that?" Samudra asked.
"Because I don't have four arms."
"What does that mean?"
"It means," said the astronaut, "that he has seen my wife."
February 8, 2018
Ohu sat across from her rival at the coffee shop. She had insisted on meeting Monday night, though Samudra had pleaded for some additional time to come to terms with her harrowing encounter with the exterminator and the precarious path that had led to him.
"I arrived on the next bus," Ohu said. "But you had already left."
"What can I say?" Samudra replied defensively. "I didn't want to go at all but Tony gave me his puppy-dog eyes." She lowered her voice to imitate the register and pitiful tone of the astronaut. "But my wife..."
Ohu suspected that the shared, traumatic experience had formed a connection between Samudra and the astronaut. She was determined to discover the depth of the bond and to ascertain whether Samudra reciprocated any feelings the astronaut might have for her. She asked for Samudra to retell the story in detail. When Samudra came to the part where the exterminator returned with the gauze, she asked, "Why didn't you get out and bandage his arm?" Certainly, Ohu would not have allowed an opportunity for tender ministrations to pass her by.
The particular angle from which Ohu viewed this encounter had not yet dawned on Samudra. She therefore replied innocently, "The exterminator seemed to have everything under control." She did not admit her irrational terror of the man.
As the conversation progressed, Ohu became increasingly unnerved by her inability to maneuver Samudra into an admission of her feelings for the astronaut. "When he was safely back in the car, did he embrace you?"
Perplexed by the question, Samudra managed, "What?"
"You know, in relief, at having escaped the exterminator?" Despite Samudra's truthful account, Ohu had little doubt that the scene at the valley farm was more accurately described by one of many horror films in which a reclusive farmer held a terrible secret, probably in a subterranean complex of tunnels, accessible only through a secret door, covered in hay on the floor of the barn. There would be, at the very least, an embrace between survivors after escaping from such a scene. A prolonged kiss was not out of the question by any means.
Samudra didn't answer Ohu's questions, which only served to aggravate her suspicions. "We are looking for his wife!" she said.
"He is looking for a wife," Ohu countered, finally, plainly revealing her hand.
Samudra stared at the thin, high-strung woman across the table. "You don't think his wife exists."
"Of course, his wife doesn't exist." Ohu stated this fact with certainty. She had confirmed it by communing with spirits from beyond the mortal realm. Although they often spoke in riddles, she had cast aside any doubts and now fully embraced the fiction of the astronaut's wife. "You don't believe she's real either."
Samudra took a deep breath. "No," she admitted. "No, I don't."
"Then we are helping him find a wife," Ohu concluded.
Samudra refused to move this conversation forward. She sipped at her coffee and remained silent, forcing Ohu to paint the complete picture.
"There's only two candidates," said Ohu.
Samudra raised an eyebrow. She then, purposefully imagined herself married to the astronaut. She considered years of wedded bliss with a man who spent his days repairing old computers. Her parents would be appalled. They might even storm out of the room at the sight of him during their initial introduction. They would tell her, "You have married beneath your station." They hailed from a generation, which put a great deal of emphasis on social standing. She imagined their umbrage at her choice of groom in a man she had met in the asylum. It would be fitting, she thought, since it was her parents who had virtually forced her to seek counseling at Lake View. She smiled at the irony.
Ohu observed the smile. She interpreted it in the only way she thought reasonable, namely as a challenge. Ohu sipped her own coffee and stared through the rising steam at the conniving, dark-haired beauty who sought to wrest the affections of the eligible astronaut from one who more truly and deeply deserved them.
February 9, 2018
They met at the park on Wednesday evening. Each arrived separately, Ohu and the astronaut by bus. Samudra parked her car in a spot in the lot closest to, but still fifty yards, from, where Wouldn't stood. Before exiting the vehicle, she silently asked herself again, "Why am I doing this?" A ready answer did not come forward. Nevertheless, she braced herself for the cold and stepped out into a whipping wind.
The trio huddled beside the trunk of the tree, their gloved hands stuck deep in their pockets. The women wore scarves around their necks, while the astronaut had turned up his collar. Ohu casually nestled up against the astronaut for warmth. Everyone present already knew the facts. On the same night that Ohu had met Samudra in the coffee shop, the astronaut had paid a visit to Lake View. Consequently, there was no need to review the events of the previous weekend.
"We have to go back," said the astronaut. "I feel certain he has the spacecraft."
"I swear to God that I am never going back there," said Samudra in a resolute tone. "You are crazy if you think you can change my mind." She immediately regretted her rash choice of words because 'crazy' was imbued with a special meaning on the former grounds of a psychiatric hospital.
A sound emerged from the tree. "I'm not crazy," said Wouldn't, "I really am a tree."
"I'm not crazy either," Ohu chimed in. "I really am a psychic."
Not to be outdone, the astronaut said, "I also am not crazy. I really am an astronaut. And so is my wife."
Shivering in the cold, Samudra considered the fact that, of those gathered, she alone had not been committed against her will to the care of Lake View. She had merely acquiesced to counseling in order to allay the concern of her parents. "I'm not crazy either. I really have drowned ten thousand times." She said the words aloud, but no one believed her. She felt ashamed to stand so poorly among such noble souls, even if they were, all of them, patently insane.
Since a direct entreaty of the exterminator had not yielded the desired results, the astronaut suggested a second attempt based on subterfuge. "We go at night. We drive as far as we can safely get down the gravel road. We put out steaks for the dogs, laced with sleeping pills." He looked at Ohu, who he knew to have such a prescription; it was sometimes necessary for her to quiet the voices from beyond when she needed to rest. "When the dogs are asleep, we pull the car just far enough into the clearing to get it turned around for a quick getaway and pull just out of sight down the road." The astronaut had clearly given this plan considerable thought.
He continued, "We then skirt the perimeter of the clearing." At this point he produced a map from his pocket and unfolded it, containing a sketch of the clearing as best he remembered it. His gloved finger traced a path along the map. "I think my spacecraft is in the large barn or maybe behind it." He had committed to memory the glance of the exterminator at the mention of the craft.
"Even if we find it," Samudra said. "We can't move it."
"I don't want to steal it," the astronaut countered. "I just want to examine it for signs of my wife. Perhaps she left, intentionally or unintentionally, a message for me there. It shouldn't take more than fifteen minutes."
Samudra shook her head in disagreement. "I think it's a terrible plan. I think the dogs are going to bark and the exterminator is going to wake up and the best we can hope for is that he calls the sheriff and we end up in the Hawkins County Jail." She left the possible details of the alternative, namely that the exterminator took matters into his own hands, up to their imaginations.
"Do you have a better plan?" Ohu asked her. In this way Ohu thought to show support for the astronaut, though she too thought the plan unlikely to succeed. Later, she resolved to consult the spirit world for their opinion on the merits of the astronaut's proposal.
Samudra shook her head again. "Look, I really don't care what you do because I already told you that I am not going with you."
"Come now, Samudra," said the tree. "You must go."
"Why must I go?" she pleaded.
"Because, by doing so, you will make the world a better place."
"I don't think so," Samudra argued.
"Then go because I ask you to go, for I too am going and I shall not feel so afraid with you beside me."
February 10, 2018
They had agreed to meet at Lake View on Saturday evening to depart on their nocturnal mission, but flurries of snow descended all day. "I could barely get here safely," Samudra protested. There was likely more snow in the mountains and the thought of navigating the gravel road that led to the exterminator's farm at night through fresh snow seemed unwise, even to the astronaut. Reluctantly, they disbanded.
On the bus ride home, Ohu consoled the astronaut, as he peered out the dark window. "We'll try again next weekend." She even tempted the astronaut with an invitation. "Do you want to get a late bite to eat?"
However, the astronaut had already eaten and was in low spirits, due to the unexpected delay. "I'm afraid that I wouldn't be good company," he said as he gently declined her offer. He examined her disappointment in the harsh, fluorescent glare of the lights in the bus. Her face was too thin; it hid poorly an underlying anxiety, quelled on a daily basis by a regimen of medications to which she had gradually equilibrated. He found a soft spot in his heart for this woman who so selflessly aided him and he almost recanted his refusal. However, the bus jerked to a halt and Ohu rose to her feet. "This is my stop. Good night, Tony."
"Good night, Ohu."
On the following morning, the astronaut attended the church service per the terms of his employment. The second reading contained the following passage, which particularly stuck in his mind.
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another, the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another, faith by the same Spirit; to another, gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another, mighty deeds; to another, prophecy; to another, discernment of spirits; to another, varieties of tongues; to another, interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes.†
The astronaut reflected upon these words. It seemed in this list of talents, he found each of his friends. Ohu was the easiest to identify for she clearly possessed a gift for the discernment of spirits. The astronaut further reasoned that the gift of healing belonged to Wouldn't, for he had experienced first-hand that his recuperation was due more to association with Wouldn't than it was to any other therapy administered at the hospital. And to Samudra, the astronaut identified the gift of mighty deeds for he felt that it must indeed take an enormous strength of will to resist daily the lure of drowning, while continuing to engage in the motions of life and to help one's friends. Well after the reading had concluded, his eyes scanned the missal, looking for his own gift in the list presented. Presumably, he thought to himself, it was faith. He endeavored to maintain an unwavering belief that he and his wife should be reunited on happy terms. When that glorious day came to pass, he resolved to get down on his knees and thank Jesus for whatever effort, however well hidden, had been exerted on his behalf.
†1 Corinthians 12:7-11, Paul the Apostle, originally Saul of Tarsus, ca. 53-54 AD.
February 11, 2018
Early on the following Saturday night, Wouldn't climbed out of his tree. With the drowned woman, the psychic and the astronaut as witnesses, the transformation unfolded in a smooth, but gradual process. The distinction between man and tree, initially imperceptible, slowly grew, until, momentarily a creature equal parts of each was present, only to be replaced, finally, by the form of a man, standing beside the tree, one arm propped against the trunk for support.
He was dirty! Such a state was unremarkable in a tree, but on a man it normally drew considerable censure. These companions, however, said nothing.
It appeared that the tree had bathed in nothing more than rain and snow for several years. The creases of his weather-worn face were lined with dirt. His unruly gray hair and beard had a mossy sheen to them, like the fur of a sloth. Only his deep, brown eyes remained clear.
He wore a thread-bare jacket, the color and texture of bark, utterly unsuited to the winter season. He shivered. Samudra almost offered him her own coat, but she was afraid that the tree might be offended. Besides, he must have long ago become accustomed to the elements.
They walked the fifty yards to the spot where Samudra had parked her car. The tree seemed to tread unsteadily, as if it would take some practice to remember the rhythm of walking. He did not look over his shoulder at the lonely oak, which he left behind to darken in the evening shadows.
Samudra took the driver's seat and the astronaut the navigator's position beside her. Ohu easily entered the door behind Samudra. They watched as the tree contorted itself into unfamiliar bends in order to enter the remaining, vacant position in the car. He settled in with a grunt. An arboreal odor emanated from him, filling the car.
Samudra started the engine. A digital warning beeped. She examined her three passengers and her eyes came to rest on the tree. "Put on your seatbelt, Wouldn't," she ordered him. "We are going to find a spacecraft."
February 12, 2018
"Are you sure this is the way?" Ohu asked as she leaned forward in the back seat and peered through the front windshield. They were following a narrow gravel path through the woods. At times the path disappeared almost entirely and Samudra was led, as before, by the ruts left by the previous passage of another vehicle. No one answered Ohu's query. In the darkness, the forest seemed unfamiliar. Doubt nagged at both Samudra and the astronaut. Perhaps they had turned at the wrong drive. One gravel path through the woods would look very similar to another, especially in shadows cast by the moon.
The tree remained silent as he had during the entirety of the nearly two hour journey to reach this point. Periodically Samudra glanced back in the rearview mirror at him. He seemed withdrawn, as if he was marshalling his strength until he was able to return to his natural state.
"What's that?" Ohu asked pointing to a sign ahead.
Samudra flipped on the high beams. They found reflected in the light a worn sign in red lettering that stated, 'Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted to the Fullest Extent of the Law".
"I don't remember that being there last time," Samudra admitted.
"It's possible we were both too focused on the road," said the astronaut by way of diluting her doubt.
"It's an old sign," Ohu said. "It's not like it could have been posted since you were here." She concluded, "I think we've gone the wrong way."
Despite this opinion, Samudra continued, although now her thoughts were divided between the treacherous path and the punitive, legal repercussions of their trespassing. Her worries about anything except the state of the path vanished when she reached the slope where the path had washed out. "This I remember," she said with no satisfaction whatsoever.
All four occupants leaned to the right as the car left the level surface and crept cautiously along, titled to the incline of the mountain.
Ohu began to whimper. "We are going to slide down the mountain!"
"Stop it," Samudra ordered her. She required all of her concentration to drive. Her words, however, had little effect on Ohu, who seemed stressed beyond the reach of words, commanding or soothing. The astronaut reached back and placed a calming hand on her closer knee.
The car managed to cross the short passage without mishap and Ohu quieted down as they resumed their slow passage along the gravel path. When the astronaut withdrew his hand, she was tempted to renew her efforts but decided, for the good of the group, to refrain from doing so.
Talk now turned to attempting to gauge how close they were too the clearing, for their plan called from them to stop just short of it. Several times the astronaut said, "I think it is here." When Samudra stopped, he got out and proceeded by foot ahead only to find that the next bend in the path led further into the forest. It was on the third such excursion that he hurried back and hissed at Samudra, "Turn off the lights! We're here."
Samudra left the engine running because she knew at some point she had to enter the clearing in order to turn the car around. The tree exited the car awkwardly and succumbed to a great stretch in which he seemed to expand in height. Samudra and Ohu remained inside the vehicle.
According to their plan, the astronaut removed the slabs of beef from the trunk. Ohu had already opened several capsules and worked the powder into the meat. The astronaut found the tree standing beside him.
"Let me do that," said Wouldn't.
"That's not necessary," said the astronaut. There was no need for the old man to risk the fury of the dogs on his account.
Wouldn't seemed not to hear the astronaut. He took the meat and shuffled forward. From inside the car, the women watched the tree disappear around the bend.
Wouldn't did not stop at the entrance to the clearing. He walked without any particular care for quieting the sounds of his passage. He imagined being a dog, though he found it hardly preferable to that of a man and certainly inferior to that of a tree. He passed the exterminator's truck and the garage with a worn gray tarp tied over half of the roof. He spotted the house in which all lights were off. He also noted that one of the front doors of the largest barn was left partially open. If he were a dog or three, he imagined that he would like to be sheltered from the wind in such a barn. He approached the barn but heard no sounds of activity, save for the ordinary sounds of the forest on a winter's night--the wind moving through the leafless branches, an odd bird disturbed by some passing sound to emit a single chirp in praise of the moon overhead. Wouldn't entered the barn.
The dogs were waiting for him. They had risen to their feet. They had no fear of trees nor were they trained to raise an alarm at the approach of one. The fruit of this tree was beef, a favorite of dogs the world over. With an encouraging grunt, Wouldn't distributed the meat between the dogs and they happily set to wolfing down the unexpected feast.
Accustomed to standing, Wouldn't remained where he was and observed the dogs. With their bellies full, they seemed content. One rubbed affectionately against his legs.
Two of the dogs retreated to a stall in the barn, where blankets awaited them. One of them curled up at Wouldn't's feet. Within ten minutes, all three dogs had fallen into a deep sleep. The placidity of their resting state proved too great a temptation for Wouldn't to resist. He too fell asleep, while remaining upright, per the long-standing tradition of trees.
February 16, 2018
The astronaut had left the two women exchanging increasingly dire predictions of disaster to explain the prolonged absence of the tree, for nearly half an hour had elapsed since his departure. Although armed with a flashlight, he found it unnecessary given the plentiful light of the gibbous moon reflecting off the patches of snow at his feet. He followed the shuffling footprints of the tree. He too noticed the tarp over the garage and the silent house. Passing these, he arrived at the open door to the barn. Flipping on the flashlight and poking his head inside, he found, not far inside, the tree standing perfectly still, breathing calmly. He also observed the dog, apparently asleep at his feet. He did not detect the other two dogs. The astronaut called out to the tree in a whisper, but succeeded in disturbing the dog more than the tree. He gingerly inched forward until he could tap the tree on the shoulder.
Wouldn't started at the touch, confirming the astronaut's suspicion that he had fallen asleep. He carefully stepped away from the dog and followed the astronaut outside the barn.
"You fell asleep," accused the astronaut in a whisper.
"It seems I did," admitted the tree.
The astronaut waited for additional explanation or an apology but when no words seemed forthcoming, he said, "Are all the dogs asleep?"
The tree nodded.
Satisfied, the astronaut said, "Wait here. I'll go get the others." He resisted the temptation to admonish the tree not to fall asleep again.
Back at the car, the astronaut did not share the truth with Samudra and Ohu. He said only that it had taken longer than anticipated but that the dogs were now soundly asleep.
Samudra got back in the car and Ohu took the seat beside her. The astronaut led them into the clearing and guided them until Samudra had executed the one-hundred-eighty degree turn and pulled the car back out of sight down the gravel path. The astronaut reassured himself that no lights had come on in the house and that the tree remained standing obediently at the corner of the barn.
While they had waited for the dogs to be put to asleep, Samudra and Ohu had been arguing in hushed voices whether it was important for Samudra to remain at the vehicle, as a driver for the waiting "get-away car". Samudra had argued both sides since she neither wanted to accompany the others into the clearing, nor did she want to be left alone in the woods. In the end, her fear of being surprised alone by the exterminator, even inside a locked car, overwhelmed her unwillingness to engage in criminal trespassing. As a result, the trio joined the tree where he stood.
"There's no spacecraft in the barn," he told them. "Of that I am sure."
The astronaut nodded. He led them single file, with the tree taking up the rear along the side of the barn sheltered from the house. At the far side of the barn, they observed a pair of doors similar to those in the front. It presented a path, through the barn, along which the spacecraft could have been towed.
Upon further inspection, the path continued, wide enough to accommodate a vehicle, leading beyond the barn and down a gentle slope to the edge of the clearing. The valley was bordered in places by an incline, covered in hemlock and spindly rhododendrons, both still green in the winter. Along one portion of the clearing's edge, a stone bluff arose, at the top edge of which, the rhododendrons hung down from precarious perches. At the base of this rock wall, a cave opened.
As they approached the bluff, the texture of the ground changed. They looked down to find sand covering the earth, the evidence of a process, still on-going, by which the cave system formed through the erosion of sandstone, leaving more durable rock to enclose the space thus vacated.
This opening into the Earth was also wide enough for a vehicle to enter. There were ruts in the sand that indicated, at least sometime in the past, vehicles had entered the cave.
The astronaut shined his light into the depths of the cave, revealing only darkness. He looked from the cave to his companions.
"I didn't sign up for spelunking," said Samudra. Her regret at participating in any part of this misguided search deepened at the prospect of entering a cave.
"Someone should stand guard at the entrance and warn us if a light turns on in the house," said Ohu. She looked at Samudra but neither woman wanted to remain alone at the mouth of the cave.
"I'll do it," volunteered the tree.
Of course the astronaut understood that the vigilance of the tree was not to be trusted, given that he had already fallen asleep on the job once this night. Still, he had kept this fact from Samudra and Ohu. He feared that if he now revealed that he had withheld information from them, they would immediately call off the search and, perhaps, rightly so. Consequently, the astronaut said nothing. The trio entered the cave, walking three abreast with the astronaut in the middle, while leaving the tree to stand at one side, outside the entrance, with one eye on the distant house and another on the stars as they hypnotically wheeled about the galactic axis behind an irregular lattice formed by the array of branches overhead.
February 17, 2018
In imagining how their night would go, none of them had envisioned caves. As such, they had between them the heavy flashlight of the astronaut and a penlight that Samudra had taken from the glovebox of her car. Ohu made a mental note to take issue with the spirit world for failing to alert her to the need for her own light. She made the best of the situation, though, and kept a firm grip on the astronaut's right arm, lest they be separated in the utter darkness.
For the most part, the walls and caves maintained their natural shapes, derived from geological processes. There was, however, some evidence that the stone walls of the cave had been worked in select spots in order to widen the passage into a vaguely rectangular shape. Several smaller crevices and tunnels led off from the sides but none were large enough to accommodate a vehicle. In any case, these side passages were so much smaller than the main tunnel that they posed no threat to the trespassers of becoming lost underground.
The path descended gently, warming somewhat as it did so. The near freezing temperature outside gave way to the pleasant fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit, maintained year round within the cave. The trio traveled scarcely a hundred yards, but when the only things visible were two circles of light, one modestly sized and one smaller, it seemed like a thousand. At one point, the astronaut scanned the wall beside them and noticed a power cable strung along the bottom corner. It trailed forward and backward into the darkness.
The passage led them to a door of sorts. A wooden frame had been erected at a spot where the stone had been worked into right angles. This frame held two doors that swung open from the side to expose nearly the entire width for passage. Aside from the doors, the power cable was threaded through a small hole at the base of the wall. The doors were closed with a sliding bolt. There was also a hasp and staple to secure the door, but the padlock hung from the staple unlocked. The lock appeared to be so rusted that they doubted it able to close at all.
"I guess he wasn't expecting us," said Ohu optimistically. They were all relieved for they had neglected to bring any additional tools, even one so obviously useful as a bolt-cutter.
The astronaut slid open the bolt and they pulled back the doors. He left the padlock in his pocket, in order to prevent it from being used to lock them inside.
Beyond the door, the passage opened into a huge cavern, but there was no way for the trio to detect this, limited as they were to the small spots of light at their feet. They could only note that the walls that they had earlier been able to perceive in the beam of the flashlight had disappeared.
Had they possessed better light, they would have observed that the cave appeared to have been used in times past for cold storage. Around the world, many caves have been put to such use based on their natural temperature control, supplemented in modern times with additional refrigeration as necessary. In the darkness they could not see the two cooling units, no longer in functioning condition on either side of the chamber. Nor had they any means to detect the array of spotlights mounted on the walls of the cave at regular intervals, for not a one was illuminated. Nor did they detect the stacks of wooden pallets and crates that remained from some previous commercial activity.
They stumbled forward blindly into the cavern, gauging the magnitude of it size only by the echoes of their footsteps. Eventually, they discovered the flatbed trailer of a size that could be pulled by a pick-up truck. Upon the trailer rested the wrecked remains of a vehicle. As the two lights scanned over its surface, it seemed the damage was extensive.
"You are lucky to have survived this," Ohu said in the darkness. She clutched his arms more tightly, as a gesture of reassurance.
From a distance, Samudra silently agreed.
Upon closer inspection, the astronaut decided that in addition to whatever damage had been done during the crash, the vehicle had also been subject to extensive scavenging. The vehicle was far from whole, a kind of ambiguous, twisted, metallic skeleton.
Let us be fair to both parties who next spoke for each described what they perceived in the limits of the darkness.
"My spacecraft," said the astronaut with a mixture of vindication and dismay at its condition.
"I don't get it," answered Samudra, thinking the astronaut spoke only in metaphor, "It's just a totaled Chevy."
February 18, 2018
They quietly debated among themselves the nature of the ruined vehicle before them. Their arguments echoed in the massive darkness in which they were enclosed.
"I don't think it's a car," said Ohu. "It doesn't have any wheels."
"Somebody must have taken the wheels off," said Samudra, as if Ohu were intentionally being obtuse.
The astronaut slid the beam of his flashlight along the length of the vehicle.
"It's metallic," said Ohu. "The crash couldn't have removed all the paint."
"No," agreed Samudra. "Someone removed all of the paint from this vehicle before the accident."
Standing beside the astronaut, Ohu turned to him. "Did you do that?"
"I had no hand in the preparation of the vehicle," he answered. "That is the purview of aeronautical engineers. I'm just an astronaut."
It proved exceedingly difficult to imagine the thing in its undeformed entirety when they were limited to observing it a fragment at a time, within the circle projected by the flashlight. It seemed roughly the size of a van, but it did not fall outside the realm of possibilities that it could have maintained originally an ellipsoidal shape. The relatively complete crumpling of the vehicle made it impossible to reconstruct, without extensive analysis.
"What are those?" Ohu asked, pointing at a spot on the vehicle.
"Hmm," said the astronaut. He removed one glove and leaned over the edge of the trailer. For the first time he touched the vehicle with his bare hand. Although it was absurd to expect otherwise, he was disappointed to discover that he felt no connection with his wife. "It appears our vehicle was struck by micro-meteors. Perhaps that had something to do with our loss of control."
Drawn by the talk of meteors, Samudra, who had wandered off to the far side of the trailer, came back around and inspected the surface of interest. There were a dozen small, irregular puncture points in the vehicle. After a few moments, she said, "I don't think those are from micro-meteors."
"What are they then?" challenged the astronaut.
"I think someone shot at you with a shotgun. I think that's buckshot." Without a doubt, Samudra was no expert on the subject of guns; she did not own one herself, but she had once been invited to go skeet shooting by a former boyfriend, who had explained, in detail far in excess of her interest, such things to her.
"Hah," laughed the astronaut. His remark echoed loudly. He added softly, "No one would shoot at us. We certainly never gave anyone reason to do so."
Samudra did not continue the argument. Instead she spoke what was on her mind. "See if you can find what you are looking for; then let's get out of here."
In moving to the rear of the trailer, the astronaut chanced to swipe the beam of light on the cave floor several feet away. There he spied another component of the vehicle. He quickly discovered that there was an ordered array of smaller mechanical and electronic parts distributed across the surface of the cave floor. He and Ohu walked the roughly rectangular perimeter of the objects, perhaps twenty yards long and fifteen wide. From a vantage point above, it would have looked very much like an exploded diagram of a mechanical device. Plenty of space had been left between the objects for them to wander through the grid, albeit in single-file.
"I guess," said Samudra, who had joined them, "he was going to sell it for parts."
The astronaut began a methodical route, intending to cross each row and examine each item individually. Samudra made a point of shining her penlight at her watch. The astronaut hurried his step for only a moment then resumed his patient inspection.
He stopped above a silver briefcase.
"What's in there?" asked Ohu excitedly.
They knelt down and soon Samudra crouched beside them.
Removing his gloves, the astronaut flipped the case over. It was locked with a three digit combination.
"Do you know the number?" Ohu asked.
In truth, the astronaut could not recollect this number, but he set his fingers to it and, in the familiar motion, they triggered a memory. He adjusted the three dials and was rewarded with a satisfying click. This demonstrated to Samudra the first incontrovertible link between the astronaut and this vehicle, whatever it was.
Opening the briefcase in the lights held by the two women, he found the interior fitted with a stiff, gray foam. Cut into the foam were two rectangular holes. One of them was filled and the other empty.
With a racing heart, the astronaut plucked the undamaged electronic device from the suitcase.
"What is it?" asked Ohu, sensing his excitement.
"These are communicators," he answered.
"There's only one here," Ohu pointed out.
Samudra could already see where this conversation was going, but she resigned herself to letting it play out without interruption.
"There were two," the astronaut assured Ohu. "This means my wife has already been here and retrieved one of them. This gives me a way to contact her!"
He paid no attention to the ambivalent response to either of the women, crouched on either side of him. Samudra rolled her eyes in the darkness, while Ohu pondered the increasing odds that the astronaut's wife was not a figment of his imagination.
The astronaut held up the black electronic device for Samudra to observe more closely.
She said drily, "In the space age, people call that a cell phone." She pulled her own phone, similar in size and shape, out of the front pocket of her jeans. She tapped the power button and it glowed a blue light in the darkness. "I wouldn't try to call her right now. You probably won't get any signal this far underground."
February 19, 2018
It was perhaps, the unusual, prolonged silence of the dogs that roused the exterminator from his sleep. He dressed and donned his boots, coat and mittens, before stepping out from the house into a scene, cast in a chill moonlight. He found the dogs in the barn. He initially thought that they had been poisoned, but he observed the steady rising of their rib cages and the absence of vomit at their jaws. He knew well the consequences of rat poison and saw none of it here. The dog at the barn door, he carried to the stall and lay next to the other two.
He examined the ground outside the barn. There was sufficient snow to capture several sets of unfamiliar footprints. From a garage, he withdrew a lantern mounted on an industrial, six-volt battery. He did not yet turn it on. Looking around the clearing, he did not see any vehicle, but he did not venture down the gravel path to peer around the first bend. The exterminator next walked around the side of the barn and toward the cave set in the bluff at the edge of the valley. There was little doubt where he would find the trespassers.
He passed by the hemlocks and rhododendrons to the mouth of the cave. Whoever had entered had not activated the lights along the tunnel to the cold storage chamber. Nor did he. In approaching the cave, he passed a tree, who woke with a start.
The exterminator jumped back in alarm. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" he exclaimed. "I thought you were a tree!"
"I am a tree," explained the tree in a calm voice.
The exterminator caught his breath and allowed his pulse to slow as he examined the decrepit, old tree. "What are you doing on my property?" he asked.
"I'm friends with an astronaut," said the tree. "He came to have a look at your spacecraft."
"This the same guy that fell through the roof of my garage couple weeks back?" asked the exterminator.
"I believe so," confirmed the tree.
The exterminator gestured into the cave with a mitten. "He in there now?"
The tree nodded.
"With the girl from the car?"
"Yes," said the tree who eschewed prevarication of any degree.
"They shouldn't be there," said the exterminator in a warning tone.
"He is there," said the tree, thinking to defend the astronaut, "in the name of a just cause. He has, through that accident, lost contact with this wife. He is looking for clues that might reunite them."
The explanation sounded somewhat far-fetched to the exterminator, who could not imagine what sort of useful clue could be found in the tangled wreckage. However, he said nothing to rebut it. Instead he offered words that surprised the tree. "It's not them I'm worried about. My mother has been working on the spacecraft at night."
"The astronaut reported to me that the Prime Minister is regarded locally as something of a holy terror."
"Yep," agreed the exterminator, noncommittally.
It was the exterminator's turn to be surprised for the tree then said, "How did such a gentle soul emerge from someone with her reputation for hostility?"
The exterminator shifted in the snow and moonlight. He paused and a breath formed in the cold air before him. He had watched his mother poison his father. He hadn't done anything to stop it because, by and large, his father deserved what he got. He answered the tree with a candor inappropriate to those better versed in social interactions. "I'm just trying to get through life without making the same mistakes."
The tree nodded sympathetically. "You have a noble bearing. I have been looking for someone just like you. We are assembling a team with much the same purpose."
The exterminator wasn't clear what purpose he had expressed in his few words, so he asked directly, "What purpose?"
"Why making the world a better of place, of course," said the tree. "Would you like to join our team?"
It had never been clear to the man how an exterminator could make the world a better place. Removing vermin he judged more an act of sanitary utility than virtue. He had reconciled himself to the idea that he should endeavor only not to worsen the situation. He was therefore unprepared to accept the invitation on the spot, irrespective of the oddity of the encounter from which it arose. He therefore did not answer. Instead, he pointed with a mitten into the darkness of the cave again. "I better get them out of there before my mother arrives."
He took a step toward the cave. The tree hadn't moved. "You just going to wait out here?"
"I think you have things well under control without my assistance," replied the tree cordially.
"Suit yourself." The exterminator disappeared into the darkness of the cave.
February 22, 2018
Contrary to popular belief, the Prime Minister and her son were not completely estranged. While this may have come as some surprise to many locals, even more revelatory would have been the fact that it was the mother, rather than the son, who had instigated the renewal of relations. Of course, she had done so in her own peculiar way.
Long before the crash of the spacecraft, the Prime Minister had ventured forth from Marge's Baked Goods atop the ridge into the valley where the Tulliver farm was located. The two locales were linked by a series of roads spanning nearly ten miles, as they wound between mountains and into town before leading to the other. The Prime Minister did not travel by road, for the bakery and the farm were separated by a mere four miles as the crow flew. Accordingly, she marched resolutely up and down the forested slopes, regardless of the weather, to stand at the edge of the valley and peer at her son, when he was present, working in the valley. The dogs soon became use to her presence, as did the son, though he was careful never to let on that he knew of her visits.
She harbored a great resentment for her abandonment. Often, as she stood among the hemlocks, she glared with undisguised animosity at her son and imagined a terrible vengeance wrought upon him. In this light, it was an awkward sort of correspondence between mother and son, well-suited to their imperfect relationship. This went on for some years until, one winter evening, the Prime Minister was trapped in the valley by an unexpected snow storm. She watched her son haul several loads of gear and supplies into the cave at the edge of the valley, then return to the warmth of his home to sleep the storm out.
Retreating to the cave for shelter, the Prime Minister found a sleeping bag and two blankets, a jug of water, ground coffee, a loaf of bread, a slab of cheese and three apples. She also found an electric stove, connected by an extension cord to the line that powered the lights in the cold storage room deeper in the cave.
While some may condemn the son for not inviting his mother inside his home during the storm, the reality was that the mother would never have accepted such charity. On the contrary, she would have frozen to death on principle. This rather half-hearted attempt, in which she was left to endure the elements in what shelter the cave provided, lay at the furthest edge of the indignity she would allow herself to suffer. In short, the son saved his mother's life in a manner she could accept and only he could have known to propose. To be sure, this act of filial kindness only deepened his mother's bitterness.
As is the case with many mothers and sons, communication did not come naturally to them. Whatever maternal bond had existed between mother and newborn was as old and irrelevant as prehistoric cave paintings. Whatever message she was hoping to convey had apparently not been transmitted, for she continued to make her journeys on foot. Once she established the most direct route, it took her about two hours of laborious hiking each way. She also discovered in her exploration of the cave that she could travel one of the smaller side-passages, located between the mouth of the cave and the wall that sealed off the cold storage, for the last mile of her trip. This proved a relief on days when the weather was particularly hot or cold or wet, for she was by this time an old, diminutive woman and there were limits to her strength and endurance.
It wasn't until the spacecraft had been impounded by the police then delivered for auction to the county scrapyard that the Prime Minister ventured into the valley and spoke to her son. She issued a terse command then abruptly turned and left before her son had a chance to reply.
"The spacecraft belongs to me," she had said. "If you are my son, go get it for me."
February 23, 2018
The Prime Minister had taken to carrying a shotgun with her during her travels to and from the valley after an encounter in early spring with a black bear, who had expressed undue interest in her. She had managed to escape the situation only by retreating slowly back to the bakery. By the time she had collected the shotgun and retraced her steps the bear was nowhere to be found.
With the gun slung over her shoulder by a leather strap, she followed the path through the light snow. Scarcely more than a deer trail, the path led to the entrance of the tunnel, which wound a mile underground toward the valley. With an electric lantern in one hand and a walking stick in the other, she navigated the familiar path in a subterranean silence.
Underground, the route was circuitous and the footing hazardous, save for the fact that, having traveled it so many times, she had committed to memory each sharp angle and each loose stone. Her thoughts therefore dwelt elsewhere; she mentally reviewed her progress in disassembling the spacecraft and cataloguing the components. The first order of business, of course, was to perform a rigorous inspection of the components to confirm that they had not been tampered with in her absence.
Once already, there had been a disturbance. Someone had shifted several pieces of the ship, which she had laid out in an orderly array. They had made little attempt to return them to precisely the same position and orientation as she had left them. The Prime Minister had reviewed the list of potential culprits, her son first and foremost among them, for he was the only one who, without a doubt, knew of the location of the spacecraft, having delivered it there himself. Other local personages certainly suspected his hand in the disappearance of the spaceship, but as far as she knew this knowledge was limited to speculation.
Although she had not confronted her son with her suspicion, she eventually ruled him out. She knew him better than any other. He had given this craft to her as a gift. It was not in his nature to take it back nor to interfere with it to any lesser extent. Therefore, it was someone else. She suspected a conspiracy involving a host of locals including the proprietor of the scrapyard, who had suffered a monetary loss in the theft. It could not be him alone, since he surely lacked the initiative to mount a surreptitious raid into the exterminator's valley.
Whatever the identity of the trespasser, it appeared, curiously enough, that they had not taken anything. The Prime Minister assumed this was because they had not found what they were looking for. It only made sense, therefore, that they would return. As a result of this train of logic, the Prime Minister instituted a surveillance regimen of unparalleled vigilance. Every night, she appeared in the cave. If she chose not to work on the craft, she hid herself in dark shadows of the cave, waiting patiently for the intruder to show himself again.
It was on just such a night that the alien revealed itself. Ragged from living on the margins of civilization, it was vaguely female but completely bald. The Prime Minister watched it moving along the aisles of the vehicle parts. The alien knelt over various pieces, examining them. She even opened one briefcase with a lock that had stymied the Prime Minister. From a distance, it appeared to the observer that the alien took something from the case.
Theft was too much to bear. She aimed the shotgun and though the distance was too great for the shot to have lethal effect, her efforts were rewarded by a shriek of pain as the metal pellets buried themselves in the flesh of the alien.
Wakened by the echo of the report of the shotgun, the exterminator had raced into the cave. He found his mother standing over the alien, who lay on the stone floor, amidst the various parts. She whimpered, expressing both pain and fear, for the shotgun was aimed at her head.
"What have you done?" said the exterminator in a soft voice, careful not to alarm his mother.
"You stay out of this. This is none of your business," ordered the Prime Minister.
But the exterminator did not heed his mother's command. He marched resolutely to the alien on the floor and discovered, in the light of his flashlight, the form to be only a human woman, bleeding through her jacket, from more than half a dozen puncture wounds. Ignoring his mother's protests, he pushed the barrel of the shotgun to the side and gently carried the woman out of the cave.
In her fury at the disobedience of her son, the Prime Minister fired the shotgun into the ceiling of the cavern in an impotent rage. She howled and screamed, filling the chamber with echoes. "She stole something from me! Take it back!"
He did not look over his shoulder, as he carried the woman out of the cave and into his house. He lay her down on the sofa in the front room, a piece of furniture he had inherited with the house from the Tullivers. Although he had thought her an ordinary woman, when he unzipped the jacket to have an unimpeded look at her wounds, he was surprised to discover a second set of vestigial arms hidden inside, crossed in front of her torso. Despite the physiological anomaly, she seemed more human than alien to the exterminator.
She screamed repeatedly as he picked the metal balls out of her flesh with a pair of tweezers sterilized in rubbing alcohol. He had no anesthetic to offer her; he did not drink. After the second piece of shot was extracted, she fainted. In silence, he finished his work and bandaged her wounds, leaving her asleep on the sofa. In the morning, she had fled. He had not seen her since.
This is what was meant by the epigraph in traditional copies of this tale, in which the fortune teller predicts, "What the mother has done the son will yet undo."
February 24, 2018
Before the Prime Minister discovered that the door to the cold storage room had been left open, she had already heard the echo of unfamiliar voices emerging from the cavern. To her thinking, the thief whom she had nearly caught months before had finally returned with reinforcements. She had no reason to believe anything else, since no channel existed by which her son might have shared knowledge of the visit a week earlier by the astronaut and his accomplice.
She turned off her lantern and armed herself with the shotgun. As quietly as she was able, she entered the cavern. She observed the two handheld lights dancing over the various components of the craft laid out behind the frame on the trailer. She approached as close as she dared then fired the shotgun with the muzzle directed upward.
A great deal of frantic yelling and shrieking followed. A woman's voice seemed determined to establish and re-establish the origin of the report. "That was a gun shot," she shouted again and again. "Inside this cavern." Another woman asked the others, "Are you okay? Ohu, Tony, are you hurt?"
A man's voice shouted out, "Don't shoot, Prime Rib. It's me, the astronaut!"
These words conveyed to the Prime Minister that her son's betrayal ran deeper than she knew. In a fury, she strode forward, turning on her lantern and directing it into the eyes of the trespassers. In a hoarse voice, she ordered them to lower their lights and back up, and they immediately obeyed.
They rightly feared that if they met their end in this cave, their disappearance would likely never be solved. They had told no one else of this clandestine outing.
The old woman found their compliance unsettling, as if hiding treachery. She nervously backed them thirty yards to the edge of the cavern. There, the trio found their backs against a metal door, set in rock, leading to a second smaller chamber, once equipped to be held at temperatures below freezing.
"Inside," ordered the voice behind the flashlight and shotgun.
Again, the trespassers obeyed the command, for they realized that this was not the exterminator who had tended to the astronaut's wounds and they imagined whatever lay within this second chamber of less immediate threat than the shotgun pointed at them.
When they were inside, the Prime Minister swung the metal, freezer door closed. It shut with a resounding thunk. Built in an era predating occupational safety standards, this freezer had no means of opening from within. The Prime Minister felt confident she had them trapped.
She checked the door again to make certain it was latched tightly; then she marched back to her well-ordered array of components to examine at length the damage that had been done to them. She was utterly resolved that no further pieces should be stolen. Perhaps, if the original thief was numbered among those now trapped in the freezer, she might even reclaim the contents stolen from the locked case months ago.
She found the same case, lying open this time. She examined the foam interior and the two vacant holes from which some devices had been taken. She had been robbed again. She did not howl in rage; such was not her way. She performed several, patient circumlocutions around the trailer, as she entertained thoughts of how best to achieve her ends.
Probably, she decided, she needed to give the thieves a day or so in the freezer to allow a sense of desperation to grow among them and weaken their resolve. She could not, however, leave them unattended, for by this time she believed her son to be utterly untrustworthy. She would have to tend to him first.
February 25, 2018
In order to conserve their batteries, after a brief inspection of the room, no more than thirty feet in diameter, they had turned off their lights. The darkness inside the chamber was complete. None of the three could discern even the faintest outline of another. At Ohu's request, Samudra again turned on her penlight. After the period of darkness, the illumination from the modest source seemed brilliant.
Although none of them had been able to clearly observe the face of their assailant, the astronaut and Ohu had little doubt it was the Prime Minister. They had explained as much to Samudra, who asked, "What does she have to do with the wreck?"
"It happened in front of her home," said the astronaut.
"She shot it off the road," added Ohu. "Those marks on the vehicle were probably from the same gun."
"We don't know that," countered the astronaut, but Ohu's suggestion had already taken hold of her imagination. At this point it seemed a certainty to her.
They examined the chamber again. There was an electric refrigeration unit on one side of the chamber. The cable was unplugged. A circulation duct had once fed into the machine from six-inch bore holes drilled in stone, but the duct had collapsed leaving the holes in the wall exposed. This discovery provided at least the relief that the chamber was likely not air tight.
The cell phones were useless. The remote location, compounded by the tons of rock overhead, deprived Samudra's phone of any signal. The battery of the device that the astronaut had removed from the case was dead; it would have to be recharged before use.
They did not immediately test the security of the door, afraid as they were of the lingering presence of the Prime Minister. However, after an hour in darkness, they did test the door and found it solidly sealed. They met with no success in their attempts to so much as budge it.
The trio waited then in darkness. Surely, Wouldn't would come to their rescue, as he had before at Lake View. He would wait until the Prime Minister departed and then release them from their captivity. Even if Samudra's car was damaged or missing, they could walk the gravel path out of the woods, back into the relative security of civilization.
Each passed the time in a different way. Samudra was left to her familiar devices. Her anger at being lured into accompanying her friends on what she had known from the beginning to be a fool's errand had largely dissipated. The blame for being threatened at gunpoint and confined to an underground freezer seemed too far beyond the pale to lay at the feet of Ohu and the astronaut. Besides, it was Wouldn't who had persuaded her to come. He still had a chance to redeem himself; she relied on that hope.
Ohu communed in the darkness with like-minded spirits of darkness. They foretold a future in which she and her companions engaged in a marriage both fatal and polygamous. Bound together in an eternal ménage à trois with this common crypt as their shared bed, their dry skeletons would remain closely clustered for reassurance through life and death. She did not share this vision with her fellow prisoners. She felt the vision both too morbid and too licentious. In the darkness she blushed and huddled closer to the astronaut.
Having now spent a considerable number of Sundays in church, the astronaut recognized this situation as an ideal opportunity to pray. Although he was a little self-conscious about doing so, he invited the two women to pray with him. His doubts proved right, for he could feel Samudra's incredulous glare fixed upon him in the darkness.
At a loss for words, she eventually managed to reply, "I'll pass," though she failed to keep the contempt from her tone.
Ohu, attuned to spirits other than those active in the Judeo-Christian tradition, nevertheless kept a more open mind. In fact, she rose to the defense of the astronaut. "Well, what are you going to do, Samudra? Pretend to die? Daydream about killing yourself?" While little can be said in defense of this unkind sentiment, we urge the reader to consider the frayed state of Ohu's nerves under the circumstances. Once the words were spoken, the darkness congealed around them giving them a lasting substance, around which they now were forced to maneuver. Ohu instantly regretted her words, but before she could apologize and retract them, Samudra had already responded in kind.
"You are a fool, Ohu, though I do not pity you for your ignorance. Did it ever occur to you that there may be a nobility in suicide, both in committing it as well as in postponing it?" The question was rhetorical and neither did Samudra wait for a reply nor did Ohu attempt to answer. Samudra continued, despite her better judgment. "It was Dostoyevsky who wrote, 'I am bound to shoot myself because the highest point of my self-will is to kill myself with my own hands.'"† Having expressed publicly thoughts she had no desire to share, Samudra folded her arms across her chest in a manner that would have conveyed her utter dissatisfaction, had there been light to by which to view her.
Ohu shuddered. Although she wanted to reach out and comfort Samudra in an embrace, she did not. Instead she declared, "Samudra, the only thing worse than being trapped in an underground freezer is being trapped in an underground freezer with you!"
†spoken by Alexei Nilych Kirillov in Chapter 6. A Busy Night of The Possessed, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1871-2, translated by Constance Garnett.
A Prayer for Estranged Sons
Lord, forgive errant mothers no less
than their wayward sons. Although one
emerged from the womb of the other,
their understanding diminishes as the long
years sunder what remains of their common
link. O Lord, it was by your design
that there is more than twice the information
in the X chromosome as in the Y;
thus the son is always more mother
than father, though by their behavior
many sons would have us believe otherwise.
O Lord, did you make this the order
of the world to help mothers better see
themselves in their sons or, rather, to hinder
sons from forgetting who nursed and cradled
them in their most vulnerable moments?
Lord, succor both mothers and sons,
especially those who are estranged, who
no longer recognize the other, who resent
the life one gave and the other took away.
February 26, 2018
The respective responses of the tree and the exterminator to the report of the shotgun from within the cave were diametrically opposite. The tree remained rooted in place while the exterminator leapt forward. He paused only long enough to ask the tree, "Are you coming?"
The tree declined the invitation, saying, "Trees don't belong underground."
The exterminator strode to the mouth of the cave. He paused and turned again to the tree. "My mother is in there with your friends. She has a gun. She is..." He searched for words, before finishing, "strangely possessive of that wrecked vehicle."
The tree acted as if these words had not reached him, so the exterminator flipped on his electric lantern and disappeared into the cave on his own. When he approached the wall marking the edge of the cold storage room, he turned off the light before entering. In the darkness, he listened to his mother back the trespassers against the wall. Knowing of the several smaller rooms at the back of the cave, he anticipated her plan and observed by ear alone as her plan came to fruition. He heard the thud of the freezer door. What he did not know was whether the first blast from the shotgun had injured one of their number. He desired no one to bleed to death on or under his property.
He stood in the darkness as the Prime Minister scrutinized the frame of the vehicle on the trailer and the grid of parts behind it. He was loath to reveal himself for nothing pleasant awaited him.
Time passed as the Prime Minister took stock of the various pieces of machinery and electronics. Eventually, she too came to a standstill, waiting, it seemed, for events to move forward of their own accord.
"Where are you?" the Prime Minister asked of the darkness.
"I am here," replied a familiar voice, revealing its position only by the general direction from which the sound emerged.
"The thieves have stolen a part," said the mother in a voice that filled with fury as she admitted the transgression.
"Let them have it," said the son. The wreck meant nothing to him but a criminal liability for having stolen it himself from the scrapyard.
"Come here so I can shoot you," said the Prime Minister disgustedly.
The exterminator chose to remain silent. All of his life he had known this woman in her misery and madness. Twice he had chosen to defy her, once in leaving the bakery to take on the mantle of exterminator and more recently in robbing her of the wounded alien. Although in both cases, he felt confident that he had done the right thing, this admission brought him no satisfaction, for he knew too that his disobedience further isolated his mother from the only person with whom she still communicated, such as it was.
Now, he was forced, so soon after the last instance, to defy her again. He could not find the will within himself to do so, though he knew that he must. Therefore, when he stepped forward into the circle of his mother's lantern, it was as much to offer himself to be shot as it was a gesture of defiance.
Mother in darkness and son in light stared at each other, though only the face of the latter was visible. Of the two options presented to them--filicide or release of the captives--neither seemed possible of coalescing in this reality. What held the mother's trigger finger we shall not know, for surely she did not share the source of her restraint. Perhaps it was merely a remnant of maternal instinct. What prevented the son from crossing the chamber and opening the freezer door was less opaque, composed as it was of equal parts pity and fear for the well-being of the captives. In the end, they settled on a compromise, which resulted in the exterminator being locked in the stone chamber adjacent to the freezer in the back of the cave.
February 29, 2018
A Whispered Exchange
In times past, the chamber in which the exterminator found himself had been dubbed the "hot room" because the heated exhaust from the refrigeration unit in the adjacent freezer was vented through the bore hole connecting them. Through this stone duct, a passage of only half a dozen feet, the voice of the exterminator roused the occupants of the freezer.
Startled, the trio rose to their feet. With a brief use of his flashlight, the astronaut found the hole in the wall. He and the others huddled around it. The astronaut answered, "Prime Rib?"
"Yes," said the man at the opposite end of the cylindrical tube.
"She locked us in here."
Ohu was particularly disturbed by this news. "You let yourself get locked up too?" Having forgotten apparently that the Prime Minister had wielded a gun, she added, "You are much bigger than she is."
"She's my mother," confessed the exterminator, in this way revealing that the presence of the firearm had had little effect on the outcome.
His admission was not news to anyone, since this relationship had been explained by the proprietor of the scrapyard.
"What is she going to do?" Ohu asked.
There was a pause before the exterminator answered, "What she always does."
"And what is that?" Ohu asked, fearing, correctly, the answer.
"She acts out the role she was made for."
They absorbed these words in silence. Samudra thought of Wouldn't stationed outside. She did not mention the presence of the fourth member of their expedition, since she did not trust the exterminator and suspected that he had been placed in this conveniently adjacent cell by his mother in order to precisely root out the truth of their numbers. She wondered how many such cells were located in this cave. Perhaps the Prime Minister had already encountered the tree. Perhaps, Wouldn't was locked up in a stone cell like their own, less the ductwork. Her thoughts focused on the tree. 'Wouldn't the Wood Weird, where are you?' she mouthed as the water rose above her face.
Having secured the cave to her satisfaction, the Prime Minister ventured out of the mouth of the cave onto the edge of the Tulliver farm. While she was familiar with this view, she did not take particular note of the unusual placement of a tree; there were many trees about. Staring out across the various out-buildings by the light of moon, she did not observe the great black shadow rise behind her, as tall as a tree. She did not hear it shift between her and the mouth of the cave nor did she observe two branch-like appendages, ending in finger-like twigs, reach over her shoulders until it was too late. The long gun was snatched from her hands and flung capriciously into the air where it was caught in a high place by the willing arms of a host of hemlocks.
She spun about ready to berate and attack the assailant, but she saw only the tree, ancient and bemused, gnarled and unnatural in its motion as it leaned forward to grasp her in its many limbs. The old woman fled in the direction she judged to her best advantage, away from the open space of the valley and deep into the woods, where she hoped the presence of the other trees would hinder the passage of her much larger pursuer.
She of course did not understand the nature of trees, for the hemlocks and the rhododendrons parted like the Red Sea allowing Wouldn't an unimpeded path to his frantic quarry.
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