Category Archives : Short Stories


Short Story: A Careful Man’s Death

MNiC Feat Careful Man

My death is coming, but I am not afraid. A careful man prepares for death.

Those were my father’s last words. My father was a careful man.

Yet in the end, a death found him.

The branches of the bleak forest creak and sway. I wonder if they’re strong enough to hold me. I could meet my death falling. Wouldn’t that be ironic? It is a risk, and I do not like risks. Like my father, I am a careful man. The branches creak, but they do not break. I picked this spot to see the distance, with a cliff behind so I need not worry about my back. My eyes see nothing can be seen but the grey-white branches, against a grey-white smudge of winter sky, separate, but never quite distinct. Something between a shimmer and a smudge. Dry old tree bones; waiting to be reborn, they hide now from Cold Death, as they hide me from my own.

So many trees met the Axe Death at my father’s hands, as he cut and cut, building mountains of their bones, to keep that same Cold Death at bay.

“In the coldest night of winter,” he told me, “the trees hold the heat of summer in their hearts.”

It was true of animals, too, and some nights we burned their fat. All living things carry the heat of summer within them.

In the end a death found him. But it was not the Cold Death.

I wait for my death in the tree near the hill’s crest, with a long view of the trail. I listen, but I hear nothing except the creak of the trees, the hiss of the iced over river down the way, the whisper of wind, the soft scuff of my boots on the bark, and the low rumble of my stomach. The branches yet hold me, because what my father told me was true: the heat of summer was in them, waiting to wake in spring.

Every spring we would plow the earth, and plant the seeds, from dawn until dusk, we pulled cold stones from hard earth each year. There were always more stones.

“The Hungry Death will come,” said my father, as he wiped the sweat from his eyes and stretched the aching muscles of his back, “but these seeds will scare them away.” Then he placed another stone upon the pile.

In the end, a death found him. But it was not the Hungry Death.

I remember the scent of the tilled earth. Here, in the forest, there is no smell but distant smoke and the nearness of the damp wool that clothes me. The Cold Death claims the rest. Are scents alive, I wonder?

SNAP!

The branch shatters, pieces dropping away, and me with them.

I fall, and I catch myself, dangling for a moment, above the stones. The branch I hold bends, but it holds me, too. I picked this place because there were branches to grab. Like my father, I am a careful man. I remember, staring down at the cold Stone Death below, that branches die even when trees live. They’re everywhere.

“The Small Deaths are everywhere,” my father told me, as we stacked the stones from that year’s field pile onto the wall, building it up. “And this wall will stop most of them.”

He groaned and massaged his back, then he lifted the next stone.

In the end, a death found him. But it was not a Small Death.

I lift myself back into the tree, choosing a thicker branch to stand on. I had passed it by earlier because it is more exposed, more visible. I am hiding from my death, but only until I can see it coming. I do not know what my death will be, but I feel it coming. I feel it hunting.

“Death hunts all of us,” my father told me, long ago.

“Even me?” I asked.

“Especially you,” said my father, nodding, and tugging at his wiry beard with gnarled hands. “Death loves to hunt children, because they are small, and easy victims; like lambs to wolves. Three of your sisters, and one of your brothers, the Deaths have taken.” He looked far away, then, at brothers and sisters I could not see, who lived only in memory. Then he shook his head and lifted me over a broad shoulder with a grunt, whisking me off towards the well. “Now off we go to wash our hands and faces, to keep the Sickening Death away.”

In the end, a death found him. But it was not the Sickening Death.

I am bored. Boredom is a friend of the Deaths. It robs the mind of sense, exposes weaknesses . . . I resolve to stay alert, and focus on the world. I hear what I have heard; the creaking trees. I see what I have seen; the swaying bone branches against the gray winter sky. I feel what I have felt; the dry wood beneath my hands. I smell what I have smelled; the smoke of burning wood.

The wind shifts.

Then I know my death, I see it because I have seen it all along, I hear it because I have heard it all along, I smell it because I have smelled it all along.

The Burning Death! The hungriest of deaths, who steals the air from your lungs and then meat from your bones. The death that feeds on the heat of summer within you.

I look behind, and there it is, the flicker and glow. Hidden until that moment by the cliff at my back.

I leap. I drop through the branches, they slow me, but do not stop me. I nearly fall—do fall, really, but I fall slowly enough, and land hard on the cold ground.

I run.

The Burning Death is hungry. It does not flow like water; it swallows the trees in leaps, bounding from one to the next, swallowing each whole.     

Water. The river. The river is my salvation. I run across the snow, and it robs me of strength. Each footfall breaks through the crust of ice. The ground is rocky beneath, because there are always more stones in the earth. One twist, one bend, one break, one sprain on hidden stone, and my Death will find me.

I slow down, because I am a careful man. A pace must be kept. Too fast is one death, too slow another.

“Never run faster than your footing!”

My father was angry. It scared me, because my father was never angry. He was kind, and patient.

“I’m fine!” I told him. My tone was not kind, or patient. Partly from annoyance, partly from the pain.

He sighed then, and looked me in the eyes. After a long moment, he said, “You will be, but you could have met a Stupid Death. And that is the worst kind. It is important to run, and to be fast, but you must know when to slow down, when to stop, my son. Do you understand?”

I nodded.

“Good,” he said. “And today, you learn how to set a broken arm, but first I will go get some snow. The ice will help the pain.”

In the end, a death found him. But it was not a Stupid Death.

The ice on the river is thin. Not from lack of cold but from the strength of the current.

I stop.

The Burning Death or the Freezing Death?

I go down on my belly and slide across it. The sheets crack and break, and the water feels like the Burning Death as it soaks through my clothes. I manage to stay on top of the pieces. My hope is to be near enough the far shore to feel the bottom before I plunge through.

Hope is a fool’s friend. Near the middle, where the current is quickest, the ice hangs above the water, and I plunge down through it. Then I am under. I am in the black. I am tumbling against stones and ice, indistinguishable. I feel their strikes but not the pain, for numbness has taken me. Still, I pull myself along. I push against the bottom, I push against the ice above.

There is light ahead, and I scramble desperately towards it. I nearly miss it, but arrive in time, with a thud of impact that I hear through my ears and through my flesh. Even numb, that hurts.

I hear the snap of a bone in my arm. I see the shock impact as a flash of light within me.

I am pinned against a large stone, in center stream, where the motion of the water has created a narrow space of clear water around it. I follow it up, and I find air. The air between the fire and the ice. I pull the knife from my belt and hack at the crust of ice until there is a hole large enough for me to squeeze through. The desperate hacking costs me half the knife’s blade, as it snaps, but it buys me my freedom.

I haul myself out, gasping for air. My heart pounds and I massage my chest.

My father massaged his chest and gasped for air, the day he died. He had felt the death coming, and he had, as he said, prepared. My father worked every day to stop the deaths, from the rise of the sun to the setting, and past.

A death found him in the end. It was the Fear Death.

“That is the way the Deaths,” he told me, once. “They hunt in packs. Like wolves, running from one chases you into the path of another.”

My salvation is short lived. The fire is racing towards me, the air is burning. I had been wrong about the river. The fire leaps across it above me as easily as a cat onto a fence. Burning I submerge myself beneath the cold water, watching the sky flash dancing orange above me.

It burns beneath the water, too. A minute later, my lungs begin to burn, too. I risk surfacing, and the shelter of my cave in the ice gives me clear air enough to breathe. Even here, though, there is the tang of smoke. The Burning Death is swift, and it moves quickly past in search of other things to devour. I am, for the moment, alive.

When I buried my father in the cold dark ground, I piled above him the stones which I had pulled from the earth while digging the grave. It was then that I said my last words to him. I did not say that Death could not be avoided, only, at most, chosen. He knew that, and in learning had taught me. The last thing he had taught me.

I only cleared my throat, and, placing my pack on my shoulders, said, “I am going now.”

I left the stones of the field and the stones of the walls, the fields, and many other things I had loved. Another would find them. And I went searching for my Death. All my Deaths. To find them, and to kill them.

I climb out of the water. My limbs are stiff and clumsy. The Cold Death would take me, but ground is littered with the burning trees of the fire’s passing. So as the Cold Death saves me from the Burning Death, and the Burning Death saves me from the cold.

I splint my arm while it’s still cold.. I don’t know if it lessens the pain; if so, I’m glad to avoid the full of it. I tie a long branch to it, the end wrapped in kindling and leftover cloth, soaked pitch. I build up the fire. Hours pass. The cold fades. The hunger grows.  

I hear then a howling that is not the wind. The light of the fire returns from twin pinpricks in the shadows. 

A Bloody Death is coming for one of us, then, to save the other from the Hungry Death. A growl from the darkness. My stomach growls in answer.

In my good hand, I hold half a knife.

My attacker rushes forward. I plunge the branch tied to my splinted arm into the fire, and it bursts to life even as I swing it forward and rush at my attacker. In a liquid twist of fur and muscle, breaks off to circle around, uncertain. It growls and fangs flash red in the firelight. I grin back. A careful man prepares for death.


Stone River Walker: Standing Stone

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We live in an extraordinary era. One where all the world’s adventures play out on live TV, and all our heroes die of exposure. Figuratively, of course. My exposure concerns, on the other hand, were as literal as a frozen corpse in a snowbank. I bundled my jacket more tightly about me, fighting the cling of  the night wind.

Warmth is like water in a bucket; it finds every hole, every seam, and flows away.

It had been warm the night before. Winter comes fast to the shores of Eerie, and people willing to give you a lift in Ohio are few and far between. The wind was roaring from the south, bending the trees and rattling the dessicated fields. The situation was what they call untenable–which I believe means normal in Canada, but pure misery by civilized standards. I turned off into the brush, where I thought the wind might not bite.

I thought wrong. At best, it had smaller teeth. I stumbled on anyway, hoping for a gully or nice thick bush to huddle in.

I thought I’d be farther along; the cut on my leg was finally healing, but it had slowed me down when I didn’t have the time to waste. I gathered dry wood as I went, and finally came to the edge of the lake. Like much of shoreline I’d seen, this was rocky, granite cliffs fronting the water. I realized as soon as I got there that I’d made a mistake, and the spray from the lake was going to add wet to the cold before long.

I berated myself for wasting energy I couldn’t spare, and started to turn back towards the road. When the cold gets to you, there’s only two ways to survive. You find shelter or you keep moving.

Something caught my eye: A long thin stone pointing like a lonely finger towards the sky a few hundred feet away, dark against the shimmering water where the cliffs retreated from the lake and left a bit beach between them. I walked towards it, though I didn’t know why, along the shore just on the solid side of where the cold steel waves wrestled with the stony earth. Who would ever imagine unbridled fury like that could exist on a lake?

I walked towards the stone, which was harder going than it sounds, walking completely exhausted over slippery stones with a bundle of dry wood in my arms. Still, it was out-of-place and therefor probably worth at least checking out. Had it been placed so improbably by the waves, or by hands? It was barely three feet tall, small enough I was surprised I’d spotted it. No, it wasn’t some improbably act of nature, it had been placed as marker. A glance to my right  where moonlight was shining off the cliff revealed a dark line. A narrow cave, really more a seam between two giant boulders, lay ahead.

I’ve experienced romance, victory, and joy, but there is no feeling as wonderful to me as the understanding that I might not die. I squeezed into the cave and set about getting a fire going in its mouth. It wouldn’t put too much heat out on its own, but I thought the rising air might make a bit of a barrier to keep the warm air in. I might have been right, even, but I’ll never know on account of the wind being just too damned heavy, even in the relative calm at the base of the cliff. I couldn’t even get the Bic lit.

So I sat there and thought about the real heroes in our lives; the ones we never know, and who never know they helped us. I wasn’t sure it made sense but it was far more pleasant than dwelling on how bloody cold it was. From whoever decided to mark the cave to whoever it was that first set any stone on end, I owed them all. I was just too cold to think straight.

I wormed my way into the very back of the rocky crevice, making a bit of a lean-to out of my useless sticks. My eyes started to droop, but snapped open when I heard someone speaking on the wind. Calling my name. Searching for the speaker, my eyes found the black silhouette of the stone against moonlit lake. I’d never met it before, how did it know my name? I ignored it.

Definitely too cold. Too too cold? I wondered. Was I dying? As I thought it I couldn’t remember if I had asked the question or the stone had, so I told it, No.

Just in case, so it wouldn’t get any ideas.

Am I to be your gravemarker? It asked me.

No. I told it. And stones don’t speak.

What are the standing stones but the voices of those who came before? It asked me. Since the first man set a stone on edge to mark his footsteps, we have been meant to tell those who followed who walked, who worshiped, who died. We are the oldest of voices.

I’ve never heard a good story from a stone, I told it. Damn it, said some corner of my mind. I’m arguing with a rock.

And your losing. Said the stone. I didn’t hear any apostrophes. At least, I told myself, my grammar was better. We’re full of stories, but they are hard to read.

That seemed like a bit of a non-sequitur. But you could say the same thing of my entire life, so who was I to judge?

Fine. You have a voice, but you’re still wrong, I insisted, Because I didn’t walk here just to die here.

As I said it, I knew it was true, and I guess the stone knew it too, because it didn’t say anything else. I was alone with the roar of waves and howl of the wind, the clatter of my teeth echoing from the stone, and the towers of moonlight built in the gathering mist by the trickery of the cold, cold moon, and the certainty that I would not die on that cold and barren shore.

But I did pick up a rock and carefully balance it on another. Just in case I was wrong.

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Stone River Walker: But What Turns the Wheel?

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I was walking through the middle of nowhere when I stumbled upon the Center of the Universe.

See, in the middle of nowhere, there’s a hill. It’s not a steep hill, or even a very tall hill, it’s just a very long hill in a place without many hills; the sort that makes a person tired without really knowing why, until they reach the crest. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that, in the middle of nowhere, there is a slope.

Anyway, when I reached the top of the hill, I met a kid with a spare tire. Not around his belly, I mean an actual spare tire. I smiled and waved. He grinned back.

“About time,” he said, “I thought you’d never get here.”

“Why were you waiting?” I asked.

“Seemed like a bad idea to roll this thing while you were in the path.” He held out his hand, “I’m DJ.”

“Cool.” I shook his hand. “I’m Jacy. Is this what,” I asked him, “you guys do for fun out here in the middle of nowhere?”

“This ain’t the middle of nowhere.” He told me. “This is,” He paused, looking out at the distant flat horizon. I waited for him to tell me what combination of farming and town they called the place. Farmington? Farmville? Farmburg—actually, I’d never seen a Farmburg, for some reason, so that would be interesting. He didn’t oblige, instead he asked, “You ever heard that the universe is infinite?”

“Yeah.” I wasn’t sure where he was going with his questions.

“So, then, the center is wherever we want to put it, right?”

“I guess it’s pretty arbitrary, really,” I admitted.

“Congratulations,” he drawled, “you’ve reached the Center of the Universe.”

“And now we’re going to roll a tire down a long empty highway to see how far it goes from the Center of the Universe?”

“You don’t think that sounds like fun?” he asked, smirking.

“It does seem like it could be more interesting.”

“Oh,” he laughed, “I can’t imagine how.”

I pulled a piece of orange sidewalk chalk from the pocket of my pants and drew a circle on the tire, about the size of a quarter, as high on the rim as I thought it could be without getting rubbed off.  Then I added a line about even with it across the tread, to show that it was a point on the radius of the tire.

“What’s that?”

“The Center of the Universe. Approximately,” I said. “I moved it.”

He looked at it for a second, then grinned. “Nice.” He said, then repeated, in a more excited tone, “Nice. I see what you did there, Jacy.”

After a few more seconds of silence, while he was carefully aligning the tire with the center stripe of the road, and the far horizon, he asked, “That’s a brain-twister, man. All clear?”

I looked out down the long empty road.

“All the way to Kansas.”

“Nice. Well Jacy,” he asked, “want to set the universe rolling?”

“Spin it, Dee-Jay!” I told him. He gently set the Universe rolling on a sixteen inch radius about a center point. Slowly, slowly, the tire rotated around the Center, and of course, since the tire was touching the earth, the earth had to rotate, too, relatively speaking.

So there we were, on the earth, rotating about the Center, faster and faster as the tire gained speed. And the rest of the universe spun with us, in thirty-two inch circles, faster and faster. Places I had never seen, spun with me. The whole Universe, places men have never been, places men will never go, rotated right along.

No one noticed, of course, because when the Universe spins, we all spin along, but it was spinning, about its arbitrary Center, down the slope, in the middle of nowhere. And wow, it was sure spinning fast.

DJ and I both said, “Whoa!” when the tire hit a pothole and the Center flew up a full two meters into the air, dragging the whole Universe along, and spinning it even faster for lack of resistance. Then it hit the ground with a lurch, bouncing a few times, but it stayed true to its course.

As watched it continue on, and on, it eventually seemed to reach a steady speed.

DJ laughed and asked, “I feel like I should be dizzy.”

“Just because you’re rotating about a center a mile away five times a second while simultaneously moving in a three foot circle?”

“Right in one,” he said. “I hope it rolls off the road at some point.”

“You lined it up perfect, but it’s definitely drifting right.”

We watched in silence as the Center of the Universe rolled along.

“You know,” I said, watching the Center, “it wouldn’t take you too long to get there. We’re moving at about twelve miles an hour right now, and I’m barely even trying.”

He considered, “More like fifteen, and it’s definitely drifting hard left now.”

Just after he finished speaking, the Center veered off the road, and the Universe was subjected to a rough ride for a few seconds, before being shot into the air once more, then spun clockwise before the Center landed, against all odds, with the tread down, and the grass rotated over for a few moments before, finally, the Universe rotated ninety degrees, and the Center ceased to rotate in respect to us.

“There’s a storm coming, it’s going to wash off the chalk,” said DJ, “And that grass is going to grow tall over the tire.”

“No one’s going to be able to find the Center of the Universe, again.”

He nodded, “There’s a little old farmhouse about a hundred yards off the road. We keep it in pretty good condition for when we’re working up this way. Feel free to stay there.”

“Thanks DJ,” I said. “Take care.”

“You, too, Jacy.”

I waved once as I walked away, straight as an arrow away from the Center. So, if you’re ever in the middle of nowhere, keep your eyes open for an old tire in the grass a ways off the highway. It might be the Center of the Universe.

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Stone River Walker: Main Street Husks 3

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It was not long after dawn when I found myself suddenly passing through one of a swarm of small towns that materialize out of the plains. Some are good, some are bad, most are just one more small town; this one was buzzing. Not a person in sight, nor a car with inflated tires parked on the main road. Actually buzzing.

I rested for a moment in the shade of an empty shop, setting down my pack and taking a drink. I found myself examining the brittle husk of a dead insect, clinging to a nearby two-by-four. Twisted and translucent, it was a carapace of layered plates like armor, rent asunder from within. I realized what it was, Not dead, just a shell left behind. Cicadas, they’re called. I remembered somewhere hearing they lived underground for the first eighteen years of their lives.

It had stuck in my mind, the idea: Eighteen years in the cold and darkness, alive without feeling, until some indefinable call woke them from their slumber, and sent them crawling for the surface. White and pale, little more than worms with legs, they had felt the first touch of the sun, and left their skins behind, trading the earth for wings, two decades of silence for a voice that could drown the world.

Imagine to one day be able to cast aside all you did not want to need, and fly away. Imagine that. I laughed at myself, Imagine being jealous of an insect. Why should I be jealous, though? Isn’t that what I had done. Maybe I wasn’t flying, but I had at least climbed free of the darkness.

Convinced the husk had shown me all it was likely to, I let my eyes wander. Someone had pried loose the boards over one window, and shattered it. I noticed a large piece of unbroken glass on the ground. It was upside down, so it took me a moment to read. Since 1879. What had the faded name on the sign been, when I walked up? I searched my memory, and found it: Beaufort’s.

Someone’s great-great grandfather had started this store, and five generations had worked there, maybe more. Then the last of them had been force to board up the windows and walk away.  The whole town seemed to be that way. Main Street was a long line of beautiful brick buildings, quaint edifices, each and every one shuttered and boarded up. To their fronts clung countless cicada husks. Husks on husks.

The town was buzzing, but it was dead. A pity cicadas don’t make a beautiful noise, the kind that would make us all anticipate their awakening. Wouldn’t it be something if they sang like nightengales, and we spent the long years waiting for them to come out and sing. Still, I guess they don’t play their music for our ears. Perhaps to their own, it’s a symphony. A million-strong ode to the joy of leaving their husks behind. They’d flown like the people who once walked the street.

They’d flown into the light, though, whereas the people had flown from everything they’d ever wanted to somewhere else. Flown, not by choice, but because they could stay no longer. I pulled the flashlight from my pack and shined it around inside. Looters hadn’t left much intact. It looked like it had been a store at one point. The far wall was painted with big red letters: Go Huskers!

And they say the universe has no sense of humor.

I smiled, if sadly, and turned to leave. I’d lingered too long in a graveyard, and gazed uninvited into the crypt of a century of dreams. I shouldered my pack, and realized it felt heavier than it had when I set it down. Then I started walking. Like Beaufort’s, most of the old shops had been broken into, and had gaping holes surrounded by broken piles of lumber and glass, where once had been a wide window or tall doorway.

Scavengers had come and devoured the corpses of the fallen, I thought. It didn’t take too long to reach the edge of town; I was a walker, after all, and the town was small. It would have been a decent place to spend the night, but there’s something disconcerting about sleeping in the ruins of someone else’s dreams. Personally, I’d rather sleep in a crypt. Still, even as it faded behind me, I couldn’t leave it behind. I was carrying the weight of it with me.

Maybe, I thought, maybe, they broke out, not in. That was nicer thought, wasn’t it? That all those generations of dreams had not died, been abandoned? No. They hadn’t died, they hadn’t been stripped and left for dead. They’d just realized they didn’t need their husks anymore, and burst free of them, flying free in search of a new sun. Go Huskers!

I continued along, chasing the morning sun, and realized my pack was not all that heavy, after all.

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Stone River Walker: Butterfly House

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The Oklahoma map had been folded so many times, in so many ways, that whole towns were swallowed by white creases and the bottom fifth of it hung like a dog’s ear by a thread. As I debated tearing it off, the breeze decided for me. I considered chasing the lost piece, but why? I wasn’t going that way, and chasing things that aren’t going your way is the business of fools and heroes, and I’m just another walker.

The highway was flat, the ground was flat, the fields of corn in their neat little rows were flat; there was a creek in the distance, damn me to hell if that wasn’t flat, too. As far as I could see, what wasn’t growing or storing crops was pumping oil. Derricks dotted the landscape like tasteless lawn ornaments dot the suburbs.

It was hot, and the only clouds in the sky were birds wheeling and chirping, searching for the best field to plunder. The little white farmhouse up ahead had a yard full of little windmill butterflies that would have been right at home in suburbia, and a lady with a hose sat on a lawn chair, watering her flowers. I waved as I walked up, and asked, “Mind if I top off my water?”

She looked at me with green eyes over a freckled nose, and the fine wrinkles around her mouth ran counter to her smile.

“I sure do,” she said, “If you mean from the hose. Come on in, we’ll get you some decent water, and a glass of lemonade if you like.”

Her dress was billowy, obscuring everything above the cross around her neck.

“You’re a guardian angel,” I told her.

“Hardly.”

She released the trigger on the hose, and stood up. The breeze caught her dress as she stood, and I could she was tall and thin as a willow. Her long graying hair was still strung with bits of gold like the thread through blue butterflies on her white dress; they caught the afternoon sun when the breeze set it all dancing, so they fluttered about her. She smiled once more, wrinkles screaming protest, and spun with the grace of a younger woman; without her face to anchor them, the dress and the long hair seemed to blur into the breeze.

She could have burst apart into a million morphos, and it would have seemed only natural, the way her form seemed to flit about with the swirling of the breeze. It was mesmerizing.

As she opened the screen door and stepped into the shelter of the house, all the ethereal beauty faded away, leaving behind a thin woman in a too-large dress, with graying hair and frown lines, who smiled again at the look on my face, and asked, “Are you coming or not?”

I nodded, and followed her in. There was a butterfly door knocker, once brass, clearly hand-painted to be a monarch. I paused to look at it. She saw me.

“I painted that.” She said, with pride, “I painted all of them.”

The kitchen was through the first door on the right in the hallway, and as we walked in I understood what she’d meant by all of them. Every square inch was painted with butterflies; every tile had its own, every cabinet door was a garden. It was beautiful, and spoke of someone possessing a great deal of free time and acrylic paint.

“They’re very good.”

She reached over and unhooked my canteen from my belt, and another from my bag. She opened an old turquoise fridge, which, to my surprise, was better than half full of gallon water jugs.


Stone River Walker: Storms in the Night 2

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There was a storm on the horizon. It was one of those big plains storms that move like a silent wall stretching from the earth on up to scrape the stars. There was a bridge out towards the horizon. Shelter. The storm raced towards me with the weight and haste of the far end of time. Distant, boundless, unknown–but always closer. I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the bridge.

The light of the set sun still clung to the tops of it, white and grey above the gathering black underbelly.

The first blast of stormwind flew towards me, a ripple in the grain. It bent me backwards in a negligent whisper of power to come. The thing about storms is sometimes they pass you by, but you can’t outrun them. You just better be glad you saw them coming, and you can use that time to worry, to whine, or to get prepared.

I tightened the black all-weather coat I’d bought from the Navy surplus shop with a ten I’d found on the sidewalk. Heavy and waterproof, the weight of it was a comfort. I pulled a frayed gray beanie from one of the pockets and onto my head. No, you can’t waste your life running from storms.

It was a late season storm, and if it was anything like the last one it would be cold. Storms like that can kill you with wind, kill you with lightning, kill you with cold, maybe even kill you with hail. But I hear only the good die young.

I should be fine.

Still, it’s important to have a goal, and I figured not dying would be more comfortable under a bridge so I broke into a jog.

It was ten minutes before the first drops started falling, twenty before it began to pour. Rain–real rain–is a tricky thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a waterproof jacket and boots. It soaks into your hat and beads into little rivers running down your neck past the collar. And the water not being soaked up by your trench coat? That forms bigger rivers the flow onto your pant legs, until they cling to you like they’re drowning, and onto your boots until they weigh down your feet.

The water splashing from the road carries mud up onto you, and that mud mingles with the drops running from your pants into your shoes. Soon your socks are soaked, and your shoes carry twice their weight in water. The wetness and the friction soon separate the outer layers of skin from the lower layers wherever the boots rub, fill them with water, until the grit gets in and slices them open.

Each blister burns for awhile, but soon enough it’s too numb or worn to hurt. By that time there’s a new one. Then there’s a new, colder, flavor of pain, as the last layer of skin on that bit of the ankle or the heel gets abraded away, and the exposed flesh begins to bleed. It turns your socks pink, or it would if they weren’t already red-brown with mud.

Running in the rain is strange. Probably not for those suburban “hardcore” joggers who jog around the park even when it drizzles, in six hundred dollars of rain gear that still breathes. But if you’re wearing normal clothes, after awhile, a weird imbalance creeps in: Feet, legs, torso, arms, those are alway steamy sweaty hot; hands, toes, and especially head, those are numb, aching, and freezing.

It was hard to place my feet. The storm was quickly covering the last twilight glow in the night sky, and I couldn’t see the ground clearly, nor feel it in my numb feet. My foot struck the ground awkwardly, sending a jolt through my left knee. I stumbled and rolled to the ground. I landed hard on my knee rolling painfully across the things in my pockets, and the raw spots they’d created while I ran.

I heard something snap in my leg. I waited for the sharp pain of a break, but it didn’t come. Relieved, I reached down and felt my leg. Two halves of my toothbrush poked against the fabric of my pants.

My hand was scraped, and my knee screamed as I pushed myself to my feet, but it held my weight. My weary legs were too tired to be trusted. I had to slow down. I looked back saw the halo of headlights down the road. The bridge was invisible in the darkness and the rain. I felt a moment of hope and relief.


Stone River Walker: Truckers and the World at Night

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I don’t generally hitchhike. There’s too many crazies out there and it’s too much effort to convince people I’m not one of them. Still, I was walking by while Marg was working on her engine, and I’d been more or lesspress-gangedintohanding her tools.

When we finish up, she starts up the rig, so I wave goodbye and turn to go. The window rolls down and she yells, “Get in.” Then she gives me a gimlet stare and tells me, “Try any drifter tricks and I’ll chew you up and spit you out like you were bubblegum.”

A six foot tall, heavy-set, plaid-and-ponytailbruiser, she’s the look of someone who’s lived a hard fifty or so years, and I don’t doubt she ‘s as good as her word. I have a list of rules, number thirteen is never start a fight with someone who wears plaid. They’ve always got something to prove.

“Where are you going?” she asks.

“East.”

“I’m headed East as far as Oh-KayCity, then I’m hittin’ the Seventy down to San Antonio and looping back to Tuscon on the Ten.”

“Oklahoma, it is.”

As I climb in, she starts the radio, satellite variety, and turns on someconservative-soundingtalkradio show. After a few minutes I decided to break the silence, “So.. .”

She turns a baleful eye towards me and says, “I’m giving you a ride because you helped me fix The Beast, don’t mean I want to hear you talk. You want to talk, you can walk.”

I nod, and for six straight hours, fourhundredeighty-threemiles, I said not one word. After listening to the conservative tell the world why we were all doomed (illegal immigration and gay people) for a couple hours, Marg grunts and changes the station. Then we listen to a liberal radio host explain why we were all doomed (guns and global warming) for a couple more hours. Then we listen to a conservative and a liberal argue about why we were doomed. About the time one of them (I’d lost track of which was which) calls the other a “wing-nuttreasonousrat” I drift off.

When we pull into the Flying J Travel Plaza, nine miles out of OKC, Marg wakes me up, “Out. Dinner time.”

We wander into the painfully bright interior, and we sit down at the bar, still in silence. I study a framed poster, proclaiming itself The World at Night to amuse myself, trying the see the rhyme and reason behind the distribution of the lights across the world.

A lady with curly graying hair, maybe a few years older than Marg comes forward, smiling, and says, “Hey there Marg, where’d you pick up the stray?”

“Handed me some wrenches outside of Amarillo—“ Way she says it, it rhymes with billow, “And he kept his mouth shut straight out to here.”

The lady chuckles, “That’s how men should be, like I like my coffee; strong, bitter, and quiet.”

Marg laughs. “I’ll take your word for it Mabel. Know how a good woman’s like a good cup of coffee? She’s hot, strong, and keeps you up all night.”

I smile but still sit quietly. I could pick out the big Old World Rivers on the map. Yangtze, Indus, Nile, Tigris, Thames, and so on. They were all glowing yellow serpents; the dragons of antiquity hiding in plain sight.

The old lady looks at me as she pours me a cup, without asking, and tells me, “You can talk now, kiddo.”

“Thanks.”


Stone River Walker: Catawampus 4

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I was walking, loster than usual, down one of those muddy dirt roads on a moonless night in the low country where the braided Mississippi pulls down the land. The kind of road that doesn’t quite grab your shoe as you walk, but seems reluctant to part with your heavy feet. It’s one of those really, truly, dark nights, where the stars hide behind low thick clouds and the moon is somewhere off visiting the other side of the world. Obviously, my flashlight had died ten minutes in.

Something strange yowls in the distance. A bird, a cat, something else, I don’t know. It’s a disconcerting sound, but I don’t pay it too much mind; fact is every sound is disconcerting in the dark. It’s swampy country, with that peculiar smell swamps seem to have, and everywhere’s just a bit too damp to make camp for the night, so I keep walking. The Mississippi’s an odd place. Most great rivers of the world stretch back into history, and have been carving their way into the earth for tens of millions of years. The Mississippi, though, is young, as young as humans, even; like us, a prodigal child of an ice age that shaped us, then abandoned us.

I’m lost in thought, alone but for the hum of the living cloud of insects that accompanies me as I walk, and the phosphorescent flash of the occasional firefly. Lightning bugs, they call them in these parts. One of them fires up whatever strange engine hides in their guts right next to my face, and in the sudden illumination, a smile and a pair of eyes materialize out of the darkness about three feet away and four inches taller than my own, and a deep voice says, “Gotta be lost to be here on a night like this.”

“Evening, sir,” I say, for lack of anything better, finishing, rather lamely, with, “I didn’t see you there.”

“You don’t say.” The man laughs as I fall back to earth and climb back into my skin, so to speak. This is one of those times there’s just no way to guess whether you’re in for conversation or trouble, so I wait to hear what’s coming next.

“Didn’t mean to scare you, boy,” he tells me, but his grin, what of it I can see in the inky dark that surrounds us, suggests he doesn’t exactly mind it, either.

“No worries,” I tell him, “didn’t see you.”

“Old black man on a night like this,” he drawls, “might as well be a ghost.”

True enough. I ask the obvious question, “So you’re lost too, eh?”

“Lived here my whole life,” he tells me. “But that’s lost enough as some might think, I suppose.”

I nod, then remember he can’t see me. “Then you can probably show me the way back to the main drag.”

He chuckled. “Show you? No.” After pausing a beat, he chuckles, adding, “But if you can follow my voice, I suppose I can get you there. This isn’t a good place to linger on a night like this, anyhow. I’ll take you as far as the crossroads,” he announces, as if making a weighty decision, and introduces himself. “They call me Catawampus Jack.”

It takes me a moment to realize he’s holding out his hand. I take it, spend a moment wondering why it feels strange, then realize he’s missing a finger. I consider asking about it, then don’t, just saying, “Jacy. Don’t suppose you have a flashlight, Jack?”

“Nope.” We start walking in silence, but he soon begins to talk, “What brings you to these parts, boy?”

“Just heading through, not going anywhere.”

“Ah,” he says humming to himself as he thinks it over. “I never did any traveling, myself.”

We walk on in silence for a bit, then I ask something that’s been tugging at me. “So what’s a catawampus?”

“It’s nothing,” he told me, “an old story about a swamp boogieman they used to tell around here, back a long time ago. I hang out in the swamp, so, you know, the name just sort of attached itself, the way they do.”

We walk on, our feet squelching through the mud. It occurs to me, I could be going anywhere. As if he can read my mind, Jack says, “Fear of the unknown has put a lot men in chains over the years; that’s what the catawampus was. It was a lot of things, sure, but that more than anything.”

“Fear of the unknown?”


Stone River Walker: Dirt from Far Away 1

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The small kitchen seems even dimmer, dingier, and more cluttered than usual in the gray light before the dawn. Every space where a wall should have been, clear around the room, was lined with shelves, about four inches deep and six inches tall. They twist and bend like the scrap wood they’re built from. It’s charming in a way, I guess.

I hate those shelves. Not as much as I hate the jars that line each and every one of them. Pickle and jam jars, old glass spice containers, here and there a Sobe bottle–whatever was at hand when we found one of the place. Each and every one of them filled with dirt.

“The sky forgets,” she used to tell me, “the water moves on, but the earth remembers everything. Remember that.” She was always so adamant about remembering that. I never remember thinking much of it, even when I was little, but I haven’t forgotten. Mostly because it reminds me of the places I haven’t gone, because we suddenly had to turn off down some road to go fill some stupid jar with dirt. It sounds like an adventure, I know it does. When you’re six an on your way to your first Disneyland experience, but you end up hiking two miles through Griffith Park wearing a Mickey Mouse hat, instead, though, it’s the sort adventure you hate. We did go to Disneyland, about a year later. We were there for almost a whole hour before we got kicked out.

Why dirt? Because earth remembers, I guess. I never understood why it was some dirt, but not other dirt. I guess dirt is not the right term. Jars of dirt, yes, like red-brown dirt from the pitcher’s mound at Wrigley Field, but also jars of sand from a dune off a pass in the high Sierras, a jar of clay from an old drive in theater on the banks of a river in some small Midwestern town, jars of gravel, jars of soil, jars of dust from a quarry so fine it could have doubled for talcum powder. Hell, maybe it is. Talc is some sort of rock, right? Thousands of jars.

She’d be totally normal, just going along through the daily routine, then, suddenly, she got a look in her eye, and off we would go. Most dirt was nothing, but once she’d found a place, we’d follow it like a bloodhound, through any terrain, anybody’s backyard, wherever, until we’d reach some arbitrary-seeming patch of ground, and she’d scoop up a bit of it, and the tension would leave her, and she’d be normal again for just a little while, but not until that moment.

She’d look at particular things along the way, and mutter things, like, “Yes, yes, that’s the tree with broken branch,” or, “the yellow house, we’re close!” as if she were following someone’s poorly written directions, rather than aimlessly wandering. Maybe she was. Wouldn’t matter, really. Following voices in your head is crazy, even if they seem to know where they’re going.

I asked her, when I was about eleven, why some dirt, and not other dirt. She’d just shrugged, got a funny look on my face, and told me, “The dirt remembers the stories that were there before, even though the people who told them have left, but the stories can’t leave the dirt. So I save them.”

I think that was when I knew she was crazy. Not weird, like some people, but crazy, because there were no limits, there was no rationality. One time, when she was serving a month in jail for getting caught, for the fourth time, trespassing on a private country club, she sent me in there to get the dirt for me. I was fourteen, and that was when I realize she was a strange kind of crazy.

She’d been there, sure, but she never made it where she needed to go, but told me where to go as if she’d walked the whole path twice a day. Where to cross the fence, near the rock with the green graffiti, then to walk towards the willow with the two trunks, then past the place where the cart path was cracked beneath the faded sign, turn right at the patch of clover, to the rose bush that looked like the a crying woman.

“Be careful,” she had told me, when she gave the directions.

“Yeah,” I told her, unkindly, “I hear their security guards are really on the ball.”

“You don’t even try to understand.” Tears were welling in her eyes. What could I do? I was younger then. So I went.

Sure enough, I found each place, and the rosebush, a great tangled old beauty with white flowers, looked like nothing so much as a woman bent over and crying, one arm raised as if to ward away a blow from above. It was in the same gray light that currently bathed me that I’d made that trip, furious at her, but so alarmed by how ragged she’d looked and how desperately she’d begged me, that I’d gone anyway. It was a strange sort of place, the sort that raises goosebumps for no reason, and I bent down to scoop the dirt into a spice jar that had once held dried rose petals.

I reached out and took it from its place on the shelf, feeling it cold in my hand and remembering that strange morning.


Stone River Walker: Life Can Be Informal 1

 

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It’s after nine, and the locals had clearly rolled up the sidewalks before I wandered into town. It was one of those tiny desert towns, the kind that has “Welcome to… ” written on both sides of the sign, or it would have been if there’d been any sign besides the eyeball-frying-flickering-blue-and-pink neon monstrosity beside the highway, which declared–declared!–the undeniable state of the Thunderbird Bar & Diner to be OPEN 24HRS. It was the kind of message that stayed with a man for awhile–awhile being however long it took to repair the smoldering path it had carved through his retinas.

It’s not so much a fifties diner as a diner that had simply been there since the fifties. It’s a shabby sort of place. The three days a year it rains here the roof must leak like a sieve. The parking lot opens right out onto the highway. I count six beaten up pick-ups (not a two wheel drive model or a factory paint fleck between them), nine bikes (not a Yamaha or Honda in sight), and a shiny new Dodge Caravan with one of those stick-on families on the rear windshield. Someone was a long way from home.

The restrooms are on the left through the entrance, so I walk on in. There are three urinals, the one on either side occupied by a cowboy. Both of them are a head taller than me, and I’m not short. I’d have to more or less shove my way in between them to reach the urinal. As I pause, debating the etiquette of the situation, one of the cowboys, without turning, says, “You need to take a piss and there’s an open pisser.. . Kid, life’s informal sometimes. Man up.”

The other one doesn’t say anything, just spits some chaw into the basin.

So, I man up.

While I’m waiting for a turn at the sink the tobacco-chewing cowboy turns and nods. He’s got a face like one of the wind-shaped cliffs that dot the region, probably a product of the same general process, scarred and the color of tanned leather. He might be thirty-five or he might be seventy.

As I walk out I look around. The diner’s long and thin, with booth seats against the long front windows, half a dozen of them. The cowboys aren’t the Southern version, but the Western one; the real sort, as at home on an ATV as they are on a horse, and more at home on either than their own two feet. The bikers might be Hell’s Angels, or they might be something else. I’m not so up to date on bikers, but. . . leather and Levi’s, not kevlar jumpsuits.

All the other seats are along the bar, sixteen total, naturally the only open one’s between the bikers at the far end and the cowboys. I man up and sit down in the empty seat between one of the smaller bikers and the tobacco-chewing cowboy. Both are reading the paper, and I don’t feel any need to interrupt them.

The waitress saunters over and brushes aside some stray hairs so she can properly glare at me. She knows my type and I know hers; she started working there in high school and is still working there to put her kids through college. She asks, “You got money?”

I nod.

She smiles, “Welcome to the Thunderbird, darlin’ I’m Bess. Can I get you anything to drink while you decide?”

“Water. Please.”

“Sure, hon, you look thirsty, I’ll leave a pitcher with you. Want to hear the specials?”

“Is it some kind of meat, some kind of soup, and biscuits with some kind of gravy?”

“You’re a sharp cookie,” she says, then ads, “Comes with some kinda potato, too.”

“I’ll have the special.”

As I sip my water, I take stock of the dive. I spot the family hiding in the corner booth at the far end, parents shushing their kids and clearly wishing they were far far away. The wife’s of the trophy sort, blonde, manicured, and augmented. The husband’s of the small, well-dressed, and presumably rich type.

What happens next happens fast. One the bikers, a monster with a shaved head, goatee, and a teardrop tattoo calls over to her, “Hey baby, want to go out back, find out how it feels to be with a real man for awhile?”

She pretends not to hear. So does her husband. Then the oldest kid pipes up, “Mommy, that man’s talking to you!”