Spreading Darkness

Image of man with animals growing from the top of his head: rhino, monkey, lizard, octopus
by Yuuki Morita

When I saw the above image in Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie Prompt #360, I felt a strong urge to write a story. That’s probably from my enjoyment of weird fiction. The image strikes me as having an H.P. Lovecraft-kind of vibe.

Here’s my story…


Spreading Darkness
by Dave Williams

Everyone has darkness in them. Inside us is the capacity for cruelty and kindness. It’s up to us to choose which we act with, in our hundreds of interactions every day.

These nuggets of wisdom were said to Collin Ebersole on a cloudy Thursday afternoon by his mental health therapist: Lucas Snelling, a man who had managed to keep slim in his mid-forties. No “dad bod” here. Perhaps part of Lucas’s attempt to appeal to clients was a fit body/fit mind approach. Not that either came easily. Both needed habitual attention. You exercised, you meditated. If this guy could do those, you could too.

In the beginning of this particular session at Lucas’s office, Collin Ebersole had told of visions he began having recently. Collin had said, “They come anytime. While I’m at work, while I’m walking to work or from work. When I’m at home. There’s no particular pattern. None that I can tell, at least.”

“And what are these … visions?” Lucas Snelling had asked, his face showing no emotion. Open to whatever came next.

“Lots of things,” Collin had said. “Wolves roaming the halls at the office. Their mouths open, showing fangs, dripping spit. And rats swarming out of sewer drains. Large ones, nasty-looking things. Octopuses — or is it octopi? whatever, either way — they’re reaching out of the doors of office buildings and stores. I see them. I actually see them. But then I blink a bunch of times, and they’re gone. It looks normal where those things had just been.”

Lucas had tilted his head a little to the side. Perhaps a practiced movement to attempt to appear thoughtful. Lucas had asked if Collin had been watching horror movies. Collin had not. How about horror TV shows? Collin had not. Reading horror books? Collin had not. Purposefully thinking of horrific events? Collin had not.

“This is curious,” Lucas had said. “Do you have an idea why your thoughts are dark this week?”

“That’s just it,” Collin had said. “I don’t have dark thoughts. These visions pop up out of nowhere. I’ll be standing at an intersection, thinking about what to make for dinner, and bam, I’ll see monkeys with red eyes, and they’re on the tops of cars, hopping from car to car.”

Then Lucas had dropped those nuggets of wisdom about darkness. As if gleaned from a self-help book chock full of quotations from famous people — Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and the like — and soothing illustrations. Collin said he was aware of the capacity in all of us. We can follow a path trod by Martin Luther King, Jr., or a path trod by a killer.

Lucas unfolded his crossed legs, so both feet were placed on the gray carpet. He asked, “What path do you think you’re on?”

“Neither,” Collin said “I’m not a saint, and I’m not a maniac. I’m somewhere in the middle.”

“As is everyone. Nobody’s completely a saint or a maniac. There are many complexities.”

Collin nodded, appreciating the observation — which, he thought, came to anyone who grew out of the youthful need for every movie and TV show and book to have a “bad guy” and a “good guy.” Reality was much more muddled.

“Something different did happen to me, though,” Collin said.

Collin described the events of the past Saturday. His friend Trish had invited him to a dinner party hosted by another of her friends, a woman named Willa Magness. Collin wasn’t keen on going, as he didn’t know this Willa Magness and felt anxiety in going to social functions at the homes of people he didn’t know. That was one of his jumbled anxieties. Trish knew of Collin’s social anxiety. She tried to put him at ease by saying Willa Magness was very friendly. Ms. Magness was a wonderful host who enjoyed meeting new people and asking their stances on a variety of topics. Not that Ms. Magness would interrogate guests. Simply that she was more the type to ask questions than the type to talk your ear off about the exotic trips she had taken and the meals she had eaten at ultra-expensive restaurants.

A swift debate inside Collin’s brain ended by agreeing to go to the dinner party. The experience would meet the suggestion by Lucas Snelling for Collin to “try stretching himself in small steps.”

On Saturday evening, when the car-service driver parked before the Magness estate, driver had whistled and said, “Man, I’ve got to get a friend like this.”

Indeed, Ms. Magness was very friendly and obviously wealthy. The fenced estate was large, as was the house, and it was tastefully decorated with antiques whose glossy wood shone in light from wall sconces.

Ms. Magness was graceful and welcoming. A widower in her sixties, her age was double the ages of Collin and Trish. The other guests looked to be around the same age as them. Six people attended the dinner party, which Collin was thankful for, since crowded parties made his anxiety worse. His medications had helped dull the anxiety a bit. Also helpful was the deep-breathing exercise Lucas had taught him.

Dinner came in five courses, each announced by one of the two black-jacketed waiters. Words from the descriptions seemed to float above the plates put on the table before every guest. Foie gras, carpaccio of tuna, herb crusted, loin of rabbit, morel stuffed, gingered pears. Collin felt he had strolled into a fantasy lived only by the rich.

All the guests were cordial, as if the food and environment caused them to be on their best manners. Collin sipped the silken wine that gave him a lovely sensation.

After dinner, the party shifted to a short tour of the house’s main level, nice to walk after sitting for a spell, then Ms. Magness led them through opened French doors to the back yard. Two fire pits were aflame. Glasses of scotch were waiting on a table. Chairs were arranged in an oval around the fire pits.

Each guest took a scotch and a seat. Ms. Magness said she enjoyed wrapping up parties while sitting outside if the weather was pleasant. The fresh air was therapeutic, and sitting near fire connected with something ancient within us.

“I’m wondering what all of you think of a view I’ve had for some time,” Ms. Magness said. “I happen to believe in other worlds. Back in the olden days, people thought the separation between us and the fairy world became thinner on certain days of the year. The winter and summer solstice were such days. But I believe that could happen on any day. The separations can be thinner, and openings can pop up. Portals, if you will. Then we could see strange creatures. Or people and animals that shouldn’t be there. What do all of you think of that?”

Trish was the first guest to reply, and she talked of having doubts about other worlds, how she believed them as a kid, then thought they were simply children’s stories when she was in middle school. But odd happenings caused her to change her mind.

Other guests volunteered information of sensations of being watched while they were alone at home. Or feeling a presence of someone. Or seeing movement out of the corner of their eye, then turning around and seeing nothing moving there. Every one of the five guests stated they believed in the possibilities of things existing outside our normal range of perception.

As the guests spoke, Ms Magness listened with clear interest. She took sips of scotch. Frequently, she performed an unusual gesture. Collin found it unusual, something not seen during his ordinary conversations. Ms. Magness held the scotch in her left hand. Her right elbow was on the arm rest, her right forearm sticking up, and her fingers would lower. First the pinky, then ring finger, then each finger in succession. Up and down the fingers went. Collin thought her fingers were mimicking a spider’s walk. Up and down, her fingers moved in a fan-like fashion. During the conversation, in which Collin contributed, his focus kept returning to the hostess’s mesmerizing finger motions.

Collin did not tell Lucas Snelling about the finger motions. Rather, as he told the story of Saturday evening, Collin reenacted the same motions, his right elbow on the armrest of the gray couch, his fingers walking. Lucas Snelling’s eyes shifted from Collin’s eyes to his fingers and back. Observing all.

“And how do you think the dinner party affected you?” Lucas said.

“There are creatures out there,” Collin said. “Things only some of us can see. I was worried about them when I started seeing them. But now I look forward to them.”

“Really? So they don’t bother you in anyway?”

“Why would they?” Collin said. “I’m lucky to see them. I wish more people could see them. It’s special. It’s like I’m in a club that most people don’t know about.”

“And why tell me if it doesn’t bother you?” Lucas said.

“Because I hope you’ll start seeing them too.”

End


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

What Could Be Out There

Photo of railroad tracks, woods on either side of them.
from Google Photo Frame

Here’s a new story, inspired by Fandango’s Flash Fiction Challenge #112. Looking at the photo and coming up with different ideas for stories is fun. I’ll try to make this a weekly habit, as long as I can fit it in with my other projects.

I hope you enjoy the story…


What Could Be Out There
by Dave Wiliams

What things might be waiting after the curve of the railroad tracks were mysteries. Hiding now, but could show themselves soon.

Paige and Alondra had locked their bikes at the parking lot of the hiking trail. The fifteen year-old girls had taken the beaten path until they spotted the tracks. They had stopped to listen to other hikers, heard none and saw none, so they jogged from the path through the slice of forest, and came out to the clearing formed like a channel. Walls mostly made of trees, some concrete here and there to keep an incline of land at bay.

The girls had rested their ears on opposing railroad tracks, iron pillows, and wondered aloud if the saying was true. Could you actually hear a train that’s farther off by listening to the tracks instead of relying on the sound traveling through the air to your ear? Possibly. Vibrations could travel a long way. At least they thought they remembered something like that from science class.

Paige and Alondra balanced on the rails, arms extended like high-wire walkers. But only for a minute, since Alondra had heard that a surprising number of people died while they walked the rails. She couldn’t remember the exact number, only that it surprised her by being higher than she had thought — because she figured the number should’ve been very low, as you would think they could’ve told when a train was coming and had enough time to jump out of the way. Maybe they were distracted by their smartphone. Maybe they were on drugs. Or some other reason that Alondra hadn’t imagined.

“So glad we’re doing this,” Paige said. “This is much better than the trail.”

“But it’s got some pretty trees,” Alondra said.

“Yeah, but it’s so flat. It’d be better if you climbed up a bunch of rocks. This is more adventurous.”

“Seriously,” Alondra said. “It’s like we’re always saying. Boys get too much attention in movies and books. A group of boys gets together and they go on some wild trip.”

“Good thing that doesn’t happen as much these days. Like on Stranger Things. They’ve got a girl.”

Alondra laughed a derisive laugh. “A girl. That’s it. It’s like a bunch of people complained and the writers said, “Okay, okay, let’s put in a girl. But just one. Let’s not get crazy here.’”

“At least they’ve got her,” Paige said. “That’s better than The Goonies. Just some dork boys in that one.”

“Sad, so sad,” Alondra said. “Same with It. They had more boys in their stupid club and still only one girl was allowed in.”

“No boys allowed on this adventure.”

Alondra grinned. “No way. They’d only go mouthing off about how they can do this, how they can do that. Boasting to look all manly.”

“And who needs that? Not us.”

The girls fist-bumped and cheered and enjoyed the sounds of their voices lifting, expanding into the sky. Their enjoyment increased as their volume increased, the cheering more akin to bellowing. Paige ended the yelling first, and both girls laughed.

On they walked in the area between the sets of train tracks. With each step, their sneakers made the small stones clack together, like bodies colliding, miniature sumo wrestlers in training. Their backpacks held water bottles and trail mix. Alondra’s also held sliced apples in a plastic bag.

“So whaddaya think we’ll find in these here woods?” As Paige squinted one eye, she spoke in an affected manner, a gruff and world-weary traveler.

“Don’t rightly know.” Alondra tried to match the affected voice.

“Maybe a dead body?”

“Could be, could be,” Alondra said. “This looks like a good place to stash a body after you’ve killed him.”

“I’m with ya, man. And some people deserve to be shot, you know? They’re no-good sons a bitches, so you shoot ’em like dogs and throw their bodies in the woods.” Paige spit to the side to emphasize her toughness.

“But all the dead bodies could’ve decomposed by now.” Alondra’s voice returned to normal.

Paige nodded. “I got ya. Worm food.”

“Right. And we could find a monster instead.”

“A monster?” Paige asked, sounding more like a cartoonish pirate. “What kind of monster are we talkin’ about?”

“Could be anything. Bigfoot, Mothman, werewolf.”

“Don’t think so about a werewolf. They only come out at night, so we’re safe there. How about trolls?”

“Could be,” Alondra said. “I think they hang out in the woods. Or maybe an axe murder.”

“Ooo! Now you’re getting more realistic. That’s not as fun. I’d rather see something like a giant spider.”

Not keen on spiders, Alondra shivered. “I’ll skip on that one, thanks. How about a killer gorilla?”

“Killa gorilla!” Paige thumped her chest with her fists and howled.

“Killa gorilla!” repeated Alondra, who also thumped her chest and howled,

The girls laughed, and it melted away Alondra’s tension from imagining spiders. Of course a killer gorilla was also fearsome to think up, but the rhyme softened that reaction.

“What would you do if we saw one of those things?” Paige asked. “Not just the gorilla. Any of them.”

Alondra stopped walking. Spread her stance a little wider. Stuck her hand in her pocket. Whipped out a pepper spray canister. Extended her arm, canister aimed ahead, her finger resting on the top. A gunslinger would’ve been proud of her quickness.

Alondra’s parents had warned her about nasty men in the world, so they had given her the pepper spray and reminded her to carry it whenever she went out—except for school, where it wasn’t allowed. Thankfully, Alondra had never had to use the pepper spray. She had tried it once, in her back yard. The thin jet had launched from the canister, flew an impressive distance, then landed harmlessly on the grass. She had been fascinated by its potential power to cause pain in an adult man.

Yes! You’re a badass!” Paige said, admiring her friend’s stance with the pepper spray canister.

Smiling, Alondra slipped the canister back into her pocket. “That’s right, toots. You’ve got nothing to worry about.” She returned the gruff affect to her voice, sounding like a detective in a black-and-white film.

“I’m not some damsel in distress,” Paige said. “I can take care of myself.”

The girls fist-bumped again and continued walking on the middle, stony section of the mound formed for the train tracks. True, anything seemed to possibly await them after every curve of the tracks—and in the darkness amid the trees growing close together. Excitement mixed with some fear in the girls as they adventured onward.

End


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Daffodils in the Rain

Their yellow and white
(and some orange)
are muted
on this wet morning.
Occasionally
one of the daffodils
nods a little,
as a raindrop
taps its head,
like a teacher saying,
“Wake up, sleepyhead.
Just because
the sun isn’t shining
doesn’t mean the world
isn’t beautiful.
It’s lovely in a different way.
Listen to
the melodious music
of us raindrops.”

TV Review: The Expanse

Bright Center Star Cluster, by NASA
Bright Center Star Cluster_by NASA on Unsplash

A year passed between when I finished watching the fourth season of The Expanse by myself and when my family started watching the series at the beginning.

While I liked the series the first time, the second viewing was even better. There was the sense of sharing the story with my family and talking about it together. And I more appreciated the arc of the characters who become the crew of the Rocinante.

James Holden says in the first episode, “No heroes here, Cap,” to Captain McDowell of the Canterbury, as Holden and a handful of characters are on a shuttle to investigate the distress call coming from the Scopuli.

Well, those characters go a long way, literally and figuratively, in five seasons of the show. Traveling the solar system (and beyond), they become heroes.

I enjoyed the series for the complex storytelling involving many more characters than the main folks of the Rocinante. And the characters are interesting for their motivations and goals, from Chrisjen Avasarala to Joe Miller to Bobbie Draper to Fred Johnson to Jules-Pierre Mao. All of them contribute to the plot’s weaving, their motivations pushing against each other, and conflicts arising.

The show takes place (mostly) in our own solar system, so we get a chance to see how fictional humans have ranged from Earth. And those new homes have consequences. The main source of conflict is among three factions — people from Earth, Mars, or the asteroid belt — in how they view and treat one another. We see how the effort to terraform Mars, and the delay of that goal, has affected Martians. And how mining has affected Belters, as well as scarcity of water. They view Earthers as spoiled by having breathable air and easy lives.

For an overview of the plot, split by seasons, where you can drill down to episodes, check out the Wikipedia article.

The Fandom hosts The Expanse Wiki if you want to check out that for more info.

The storytelling and characters are huge strong points for the series. To me, the details add a great deal to the show’s feel. I’m not an astrophysicist, but these details seem more “realistic” than other science fiction series and movies.

What I mean about the details…

Ships don’t have “warp speed” or “hyper jumps.” Instead of getting to a destination in a flash of zoomy lines, a ship takes a while to get there. This is important for different reasons, such as military ships traveling toward conflicts. And for rescuing stranded characters. In season 4, one character says it’ll take their ship a week to get to Illus. In The Expanse, ships are equipped with the Epstein Drive, which uses fusion.

Also on the note of speed, communications aren’t instantaneous. If characters are in close enough proximity, they can chat back and forth on video — such as Luna (our moon) to Earth. However, long distances can take more time for a video message to be delivered. In those cases, a conversation doesn’t happen, just a video clip is shown.

In the scenes on ships, we’re not treated to lovely backgrounds of stars through windows. The ships have video screens instead of windows, so the characters can check out different views on the screens. This might not be as scenic as windows, but it strikes me as more practical. Especially in battles, when fired rounds can punch through ships’ hulls.

Some ships have comfortable space for their occupants: Rocinante and various military vessels. But that’s not true across the board, as many ships have cramped quarters. For example, the Tynon, which Klaes Ashford captains for a time.

Gravity on board the ships isn’t automatic. When ships are not accelerating enough to simulate gravity, characters turn on the magnetism on the bottom of their boots, so they can walk and don’t float around.

This story began as a book series by James S. A. Corey. While researching for this post, I learned that isn’t one person, but the pen name of two writers: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. I haven’t read the books yet, but I’ll have to make time to do so.

The TV show ran on the Syfy Network for three seasons, then was picked up by Amazon Prime and came out with seasons 4 and 5. I’m looking forward to season 6. Wikipedia says that will be the final season, but the authors say that’ll be a pause.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens after that.

Oak Tree People

Illustration of oak tree with three silhouettes of people forming the tree's trunk

While writing my short story “Tree Made Into Flesh” that was posted yesterday, I remembered an illustration I created last year, to be used on signs for neighborhood community. The signs were not made. That’s okay, as I like how the illustration turned out, an absurd feel to it by combing three silhouettes of people into a tree.


Oak Tree People is available on T-shirts and other products on my Redbubble store.
copyright © 2020 Dave Williams

Tree Made Into Flesh

Photo of a woman in a lavender dress, and tree branches with human hands at their ends are grabbing her.
by Brooke Shaden

I’m trying another photo prompt, this one from MindLoveMisery’s Menagerie. Thank you for hosting the prompt.

The photo immediately made me think of fairy tales, of Little Red Riding Hood running through a forest. Instead of going down that path, though, I wanted to try something different. A tree who wants to become a person. Pinocchio with roots rather than strings.

As I started writing, the story’s idea flourished. And the story grew much more than I anticipated. So it’s a bit on the long side. It’s not exactly flash fiction. I hope you enjoy it…


Tree Made Into Flesh

The eldest in the grove of druids heard the tree’s wish as he strolled the woods. Years of meditation had gifted Aelfraed — and a handful of other druids — with the ability to hear trees. But only when the trees spoke loudly enough. Their murmurings were never heard by humans.

This afternoon, a tree directed its voice to Aelfraed: I wish to become a person.

Startled, Aelfraed stood still and tried to figure out which tree had communicated.

Tis me, an oak said.

Why? Aelfraed projected his thought to the particular oak. Why not remain a tree?

I wish to move. Really move. The wind plays with me, and I can move my branches when I concentrate hard. I want more. I walk to walk and run and jump and dance. I want to see other places.

Aelfraed couldn’t remember hearing or reading about such a request from a tree. His heart’s sympathy shone toward the tree, yet his mind chose caution. He thought, I cannot give you an answer right away. I must mull on this dilemma. I don’t know if it can be done.

It can, the oak said. Stories have been passed down of trees becoming people. The druids made a magic to transform them. The tree-people were spotted by other trees who knew they weren’t real humans. Word spread of the journeys of the tree-people.

But that could be legend, Aelfraed thought. Made-up stories of old.

It was real, the oak said. Much more has passed in the lands than you humans know of and can even imagine.

Aelfraed nodded slowly. I will think it over and ask the others for advice.

Don’t waste your time, another tree said. It’s a foolish wish.

Stay a tree, yet another tree said to the oak. You are lucky to be one. Humans live the lives of twigs. We are of sturdier stuff.

I don’t expect you to understand, the oak said. I’ve been wanting it for years, and finally have expressed my desire.

Rather than continue his afternoon ramble, Aelfraed returned to the home of the druids — a circle created by several small cabins and a large dwelling, all log-walled, the trees of which had been prayed over for three days before felling for construction. The circle was centered by fruit trees and a garden of vegetables and herbs.

As Aelfraed called out to his fellow druids for a meeting, they stopped their tasks to assemble in the large dwelling’s main room. The elder spoke of his experience in the woods. The other druids listened with growing wonder, and flicked glances at each other. When Aelfraed finished relaying the tale, the fellows gave their opinions.

“We can’t offer assistance to this tree,” said a druid with long, gray hair. “It goes against nature.”

“Aye, that it does,” said one with an especially bushy beard.

“If we did it,” another druid said, “other trees could want the same treatment. Think of the consequences. The forest would lose trees.”

The long gray-haired druid (which, truth be told, described several of the gentlemen) said, “That would be a tragedy. And all the extra people walking about would need extra resources. More food, more houses.”

“That would throw the world off balance,” said the one who always had foul breath, no matter how many mint leaves he chewed.

Aelfraed said, “But that wouldn’t happen if we agreed to help the oak and stopped there. We could refuse other trees if they asked for the same metamorphosis.”

Many druids chirped their agreement with the elder’s statement.

“Why can’t the oak wait?” said a druid. “When it passes on — which will hopefully be years hence, God and Goddess willing — it will go to the Otherworld. It can move about there. Perhaps it will be reborn as a human.”

“No one knows if spirits have a choice in the Otherworld for their next life,” said one who sported a braided beard.

Aelfraed said, “Choice or no, the oak could be reborn as a moving creature. Doesn’t have to be a human. Could be bird, bear, or bug. Any of those would answer the oak’s wish.”

“I hope to be reborn a bird,” one druid said.

Many others chirped their agreement with that hope.

The druids voted on the topic of the oak, and the overwhelming majority chose against helping it turn into a person. One of the two voters on the other side was Garrick, the youngest in the grove.

That night, Garrick waited until his roommates were snoring, then quietly left the cabin and went into the large home. To the small library. Lighting a candle, he searched the crowded shelves for a tome that might include the spell. After a few tries that didn’t offer the answer, a book offered it on a page topped with the title, Transmutation From Tree To Human. The lettering curled ornately on the capital letters. Garrick read the spell once with enthusiasm, realized he didn’t comprehend, then read it multiple times until he memorized the incantations.

Garrick wolfed down breakfast the next morning, amid gentle reprimands of others who said his stomach was sure to gurgle. He paid them no mind. He volunteered for the chore of collecting nuts, so he could head deep into the forest.

There, Garrick whispered, “Which one of you wants to become a person?”

He closed his eyes and concentrated on sounds. Bird song. Wind. Rustling on the ground, perhaps a squirrel or chipmunk. Garrick had been jealous of the elders who could hear trees, and he wondered how many years of contemplation were required for him to accomplish that goal. Now, though, he had to gain the ability if he was to carry out his want to help the oak. Garrick found nothing wrong with the oak’s wish. Let the tree have its dream before shifting to the Otherworld.

However, no tree’s answer alighted on Garrick’s ears — that he could detect. Possibly, the trees talked to him, yet he didn’t have the power to listen. He continued walking, asking the same question in his normal voice. Shouting would’ve spread his query farther, and would’ve raised the risk of another druid overhearing Garrick, then telling the others.

Still no answer came for several days in which Garrick searched the woods, repeating the question. He ventured into different parts of the forest. His mind said this was a fool’s quest, to give up and carry on with his life. But he argued back that he should keep trying.

One afternoon, Garrick’s mind took a break from its debate, and he thought of nothing in particular. The kind of entrancement one gets while giving oneself to the moment, not concerned with past nor future. When one is lured by the rhythms of striding legs and fresh-air inhalations.

Amid the forest’s typical music came something different for Garrick. Tis me, a voice said. The two words appeared in Garrick’s head. But he figured someone had uttered them out loud.

“What?” Garrick asked, turning around and looking for the speaker of the words.

Me, the voice said. I’m the tree who wants to become a person.

It worked! Garrick thought, then he said, “Which tree are you?”

Here. As branches rustled, Garrick kept turning until he saw the trembling branches.

“I can do it for you!”

You don’t have to speak aloud, the oak said. Think on what you want to say, and I can hear it.

I’ll try, Garrick thought. Can you hear this?

I can. So you know the spell?

I used to, Garrick thought. But I can’t remember all of it. I have to study the book again.

Please do, the oak said. And please bring clothes. I doubt my bark will turn into some manner of clothes if the spell works. I hope it works.

As do I. Good idea about clothes. I had not thought of that.

Garrick sneaked into the library again that night, more excited this time about opening the book and reading the transmutation spell. After reading, he closed his eyes and mentally repeated the incantations. Opened his eyes to check if he was correct. Since a few words were wrong, he did the eyes-closed test a few more times to ensure he knew the words. On the way back to his cabin, Garrick took a set of robes from the room of supplies.

The next day, right after breakfast, Garrick set off into the woods. The extra robes were secreted underneath the robes adorning him, so he looked as if his belly was fuller than usual. He followed the trail he had prepared the day before. Two small stones next to trees served as markers for the path he needed. He smiled at the lesson gleaned from a children’s story. The last marker was a circle of pebbles at the base of the oak, now seeming as a necklace to Garrick.

I’m glad to see you, the oak said. I worried that you wouldn’t come back.

“I wouldn’t do that to you,” the young druid said, then realized his mistake and thought, Sorry. I’m not used to this way of talking.

It takes a while to get used to. Do you remember the spell?

I do, Garrick thought as he set the extra robes on the ground. Are you ready? Do you still want to become a woman?

After the oak answered both questions, Garrick drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out. He envisioned the spell book’s page, the careful writing. He spoke the words, focusing on the specific words for female, not wanting to make an error for the gender.

The oak blurred, as rainfall can blur the edges of things. Except now, only one tree was affected. The oak’s blurriness grew in intensity. Garrick watched in fascination as the branches, leaves, and trunk could no longer be distinguished. The blurry mass lowered in size. Its edges began to sharpen. A silhouette came into focus. Then details, then no more blurriness remained. There stood a woman. A handsome woman with brown hair. A nude woman.

“Sorry!” Garrick cried out, whapping his hand over his eyes, which had snapped shut. Two layers to block his vision.

The woman let out a guttural yowl, as if she was suddenly in pain. Garrick asked what caused her the pain, but she still yowled. Garrick braved a peek. The woman was bent over and clasping her head with both hands. She fell, landed on her side. Garrick looked at the ground and went to the robe bundle and placed it on the woman, who had thankfully stopped yelling.

“Put on the robe,” Garrick said, hoping her pain had ended, not that she was getting accustomed to it.

As the druid replaced his hand as blindfold, he heard the woman grunting and the sound of fabric rustling.

“How?” The voice was feminine, with its owner suffering a sore throat. The woman coughed, cleared her throat. “This … this is your talking?” Her voice had smoothed a bit.

“Aye,” Garrick said. “Are you hurt?”

“The trees. They shouted. Shouted I am stupid. Shouted I make a mistake.”

Garrick had not heard the other trees in his head, and he felt sorrow for the woman to endure the punishment. He said, “I’m sorry. Are they still shouting?”

“No. This talking feels strange. And the clothes. I do not know how to wear the clothes.”

“Look at how the robes fit on me.” He tugged the bottom of his robe. “Put this part over your head, then pull it down yourself. Move your arms into the sleeves.”

The woman’s grunts mixed with rustling fabric again. Finally, the woman said she had finished. Garrick released his self-given blinder. Enrobed, the woman stood as if she was drunk or on a frozen pond. She trembled, and her arms windmilled.

“May I hold your hand, so you won’t fall?” Garrick asked.

She consented. Since the woman looked so off balance, Garrick held her left shoulder and her right forearm. His grip helped steady her. Garrick walked slowly, telling the woman to put one foot in front of the other. When she got the hang of it and walked by herself, both of them cheered. She said she was tired, so they sat with their backs resting on trees. The woman said she wanted her name to be Clover. Her tree name was quite long, so she preferred something simpler.

Clover kept looking down at herself. Raising her hands and wiggling their fingers. Sliding her legs to extend them, bending her knees to slide them back. She placed a hand on her belly and said that part felt uncomfortable. Garrick, assuming she had a stomach ache, stood and gazed around to see if mint grew nearby. The idea dawned on him that Clover might be hungry. He offered that as a possible explanation.

“What is hungry?” Clover asked.

Garrick was stunned into silence. Clover looked as a woman, yet her mind was as a toddler about being human. Garrick had been focused on the spell and had spent no consideration to what might happen afterward. While Clover continued to rest, Garrick hunted for edible plants and returned with wood sorrel and chickweed. Clover had no problem with chewing her first meal as a human. The motion came automatically.

The druid took the mantle of responsibility to begin Clover’s education. As a tree, she had never needed to move for nourishment. It was delivered to her. Now she had to work for food. As they walked hand-in-hand, Garrick pointed out which plants could be eaten. They followed a stream’s sound and soon came upon it. Garrick demonstrated how, while kneeling, to scoop up the water and drink it. He told Clover that he had to get back to his home. He would visit her tomorrow. In the meantime, she shouldn’t stray far from the stream, as she required its refreshment. Clover promised, and said she remembered the safe plants to eat. They were already well known to her, from her tree years of witnessing the cycle of growth and death.

In the days afterward, Garrick plunged into the forest and walked to Clover whenever he had the opportunity. He brought her bread, which Clover always ate with fervor. Her confidence and ability in movement grew quickly. Clover laughed as she jumped, skipped, twirled. Showing off her new skills for Garrick. Her excitement was infectious, and Garrick could not help but laugh with her and clap for her progress.

An unexpected feeling bloomed within Garrick. An earnest love for Clover, brighter than what he had felt as a teenager for a few maidens in the village, before he left and became a druid. That ardor differed greatly from the adoration Garrick had for nature and the camaraderie for other druids.

While walking alone and lying in bed, Garrick entertained visions of running off with Clover, stopping at a village where he was a stranger, and starting a new life. Husband and wife. They’d have children. Every day, Garrick would feel the warm glow of Clover’s light. Each time, however, he got after himself. That was a selfish dream. Clover should experience the world beyond him. Let her roam without him. She deserved that.

And so, Garrick didn’t suggest joining Clover as her impatience strengthened to leave the forest. From him, she had learned about village life, what to be careful about when around other people. The lessons helped to prepare her.

Clover had one last request. More comfortable clothes than the druid’s robes. Garrick scorned himself for not thinking more than the kind of Eden he enjoyed with Clover now, and a variation on Eden they could have in a town.

“I will have a dress made for you,” Garrick said. “It will take days to get made, though.”

“It would be worth the wait,” Clover said. “And I’d like it to be lavender colored, please.”

Garrick went to the tailor in the nearest village, and they sorted out a trade. A dress in exchange for many deliveries of fruits, vegetables, herbs, roots, and leaves. Some, Garrick would steal from the druids’ garden. More, he would find in the woods. Plants for eating and plants as medicine. Garrick would have to work for a time after the dress was finished to pay off the debt. Yet he was willing to expend those efforts for Clover’s happiness.

Happy she was when Garrick brought the lavender dress to Clover and held it up. She called it beautiful and marveled over its softness. Far softer than the robes. Garrick turned to face the opposite direction as Clover changed clothes.

When Clover said she was done, he turned back around. Here was a princess from fairy tales. Also a wood fairy from those tales. A combination of magical creature and human. Garrick was at a loss for words, and even more astounded when Clover hugged him.

“Thank you for all you have done for me,” Clover said. “I shall never forget you.”

A storm lashed within the druid. Joy and love for this woman. Shame for his thoughts. The embrace was a sanctuary and temptation.

After a moment, Garrick broke the embrace and stepped backward, saying, “And I’ll never forget you. You should go now. Go and have adventures.”

Tears slid down Clover’s cheek, toward her wide grin. She nodded and began to walk.

Branches reached for Clover, the ends sticking into the bodice and sleeves of her dress. This time, Garrick heard the trees yelling: Stay here! You belong here! You are not one of them! You’ve had your fun, now make him turn you back into an oak! That is your proper life! You defile nature!

Shock held Garrick in place. As if he had become a tree.

But Clover didn’t need a dashing prince to save her. She spun, like in her bursts of dancing, and freed herself. She ran faster than Garrick had seen her run before. Other branches reached, but could not snag her. Seeing the rips in Clover’s dress angered Garrick. This was her first time wearing the lovely garment. Even though it could be mended, the dress would never look the same.

He would never be the same, either. The lavender dress diminished as Clover extended her distance from him. When the lavender spot disappeared, Garrick went home, burdened by a heavy heart.

Several days later, he followed the trail of pebbles leading to the stones that once encircled an oak tree. The circle’s middle was dirt. Garrick found a patch of clover and, with his hands, dug up clumps of it and replanted them inside the circle.

Frequently, Garrick returned to the growing clover with its necklace of stones. He sat by it and spoke of his wishes for Clover, for rich experiences and a life of wonder. The trees did not say anything to him.

End


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Book Review: Before Familiar Woods

front cover of Before Familiar Woods

Before Familiar Woods: A Novel by Ian Pisarcik

Two teenaged boys from North Falls, Vermont are found dead. Three years after that tragedy, their fathers disappear. Those events occur right away in this amazing novel.

Ruth Fenn and Della Downing are the unfortunate characters who have to bear the burdens of killed sons and missing husbands. They investigate in separate ways to try to find out what happened to their husbands. In this storyline, we spend time with Ruth, as she’s one of the two main characters.

The other is Milk Raymond, a young man who has returned to town after serving overseas in the military. He takes custody of his son because the mother has left. Milk rents a place to stay with his son Daniel, but Milk needs to find a job.

With the setup of the tragic events, this book sounds like it could be a suspense thriller. And there are thrilling parts.

But to me, the book was more about how people deal with the absences of loved ones. In addition to the absences of Ruth’s son and husband, her mother has memory issues. Daniel Raymond first had to deal with Milk’s absence, and now must deal with his mother’s.

The book has a steady, deliberate pace as the characters struggle to gain understanding and footholds. And throughout, the book describes the small Vermont town and the woods around it.

In this book’s blurb, we learn it’s the first novel by Ian Pisarcik. So I knew that going into the story. And after reading it, I thought, “What the hell? He’s this good on his first book?!”

Why that reaction? Before Familiar Woods has a precision of language along the lines of what I admire of Cormac McCarthy, Karen Russell, and George Saunders. We’re talking sharp and vivid. There are some lines that stopped me in my reading tracks. I read the lines several times because they so finely conveyed the ideas. For example, the sentence after how Ruth Fenn “had treated her son like a tanager that she could hear but not see.” I won’t put the sentence here, from concern that would lessen the impact if you read the book.

Book Hunting

For the first time, I’m trying out Fandango’s Flash Fiction Challenge — it was a neat experience to write a story based for the prompt. This Fandango’s #111 Challenge, and it presents the photo prompt below. For more info on the challenge, check out the blog entry. #FFFC

photo of man standing before bookshelves
by Celine Ylmz/Unsplash

Book Hunting

Pamela had teased him: buying a gift card would’ve saved frustration. Russell agreed with his wife. Yet the easy solution wasn’t always the best solution.

This errand was such a case. For years, Russell offered no suggestions for their daughter’s birthday presents, while Pamela handled choosing and buying them. Russell’s focus was on his job, performing what he was good at, what he thought a husband/father should do for his family. His successes in business management brought in quite nice paychecks.

Now retired, Russell wanted to be more hands-on. Gone was the opportunity to broaden from acting mostly as a weekend parent, since Bridget was about to turn 46, and lived in another city with a family of her own. (One wondered: did being an only child motivate Bridget to have two kids? Really didn’t matter. Kyle and Eddie were wonders of grandchildren.)

At the used bookstore, Russell walked past the sections he visited for himself (biographies, business) and for Pamela (mysteries), to the section he visited once a year. He studied the titles on the book spines of the shelves in the science-fiction section. Here was the yearly hunt for a book he hoped Bridget had not read. Always a shot in the dark, as she was well-read.

Yet again, he marveled over the difference of reading tastes. Russell couldn’t understand why his daughter preferred mind-bending fiction to other books. But then, how did she become a physicist with parents like hers? Of course, life doesn’t have to make logical sense. Russell and Pamela didn’t try to raise a daughter to be a carbon copy of one of them. (If they did, the logical choice would’ve been Pamela as the template.)

Life had progressed the way it did, and Russell tried to make peace with it. Sure, he had regrets. Wished he had been present more while Bridget was growing up. But time machines only existed in stories. And he had made up for lost time through frequent visits to Bridget and her family. A keen pleasure to visit with them, chat about a variety of topics, and spoil Kyle and Eddie.

Another keen pleasure to stand in this store, inhaling the musty smell. The combined aroma of knowledge, imagination, history. Russell refused to buy current books for his daughter. Far better to reach into the past for what older writers had invented to bend minds with fiction.

Russell pulled out several books and read the descriptions on their back covers or inside flaps, then slid them back into their spaces on the shelves. The next book he checked was To Feed Upon Stars. The front cover’s artwork of a human silhouette filled with stars was calmer than the other, lurid covers. The description seemed promising: a ship-full of astronauts dealing with a strange entity in far space, an entity that explored their minds for memories.

A plot that Russell guessed Bridget would enjoy. Victorious, he walked to the mystery section.

——-

copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Eternal Road – The final stop is on Sale at 99¢ Till Wednesday — Fiction Favorites

The description of Mr. Howell’s book is quite intriguing, ending with “If you like time-travel, adventure, mystery, justice, and the supernatural, this story is for you.” And the book is on sale through Wednesday!

In case you missed the announcement,  Eternal Road – The final stop e-book is on sale on US Amazon through Wednesday, March 24 at midnight Eastern Time. Here is the link Eternal Road – The final stop has 26 ratings for an average of 4.8. This special is being featured on Ereader News Today. […]

Eternal Road – The final stop is on Sale at 99¢ Till Wednesday — Fiction Favorites