Shadow Shoals 1.3

~ 3 ~

K realized that returning to reassure Isadora had clouded her thinking. “We could have used that boat,” she admitted.

The blind woman tilted her head. “But, how are you here? Did you not sail or row?” Isadora had eventually composed herself after her brief show of emotion.

K looked at her and admitted that the young woman’s beauty and blindness had conspired against her. Her golden hair, blue eyes and heart shaped face, dirty but pock-free, along with her fully matured body must have cost the Pratt brothers a hefty sum. Her loose, ill-fitting and filthy clothing could not hide her obvious allure.

“I have a canoe, but I am not alone. In fact…” Kasmira rose and coaxed the woman, leading her to the front door of the cabin. “I assume you know your way from here. I’ll send the twins. We must secure that boat.”

Isadora pushed open the door that Josh had left swinging. “Twins? What twins? Are they older? Should I fear them?”

“They are young girls. Capable, I think. You’ll be safe with them.”

K returned to the children on the hidden beach and explained the situation.

“Help me unpack the canoe. We need speed to catch the boat–”

“What boat? What happened? Where’s the–” they all seemed to ask at once.

“Not now. Help me first, then you two can help the woman. The bad men are no longer a worry.”

The children joined in to unload all of K’s belongings; even the two large trunks of books were wrestled from the belly of the aluminum craft. Once all the parcels were stacked high on the beach, K explained that the woman waited for them in the cabin; that no one else occupied the island, and to wait for her there, while she and Deus tried to fetch a boat that had drifted away.

The girls wore their boots, shoes were a luxury few could afford, and carried their still wet clothing up through the pines to the cabin.

“Sit yourself on the seat, young one,” she said to Deus. “The spare paddle rests there along the slats on the bottom.” She placed her Cherokee fashioned bow, still strung, and the case of arrows on the wooden boards, as insurance.

Now empty, K powered the canoe down the sand — the returning tide was still hours from its peak — hopped in and navigated her way between the reaching limbs of the flooded forest. She instructed the boy to paddle as best he could, switching sides as he tired. She would steer around his strokes.

As they went, she cautiously offered as little information about the events at the cabin, not wanting the boy to think her the callous murderer she found that accurately described her deeds. A sullied salvation delivered by the point of an arrow.

“The men are dead. One ran to a boat. He died but the boat drifted away. We will need it if we want to bring the woman with us.”

Deus, as if aware of the test, paddled steadily, only pausing to turn to ask questions. “Did’ ju shoot ‘em?”

“The world is such a place. And I am sorry for it. Yes, I shot them both.”

“Kin’ I learn ta’ shoot like you?”

It had been only a day and the boy had somehow adopted himself onto her. Kindness and strength; K had experienced the attraction herself, and had been the target for such attachment, more than once.

“You must have kin someplace. They must wonder about you.” She suspected the opposite, but couldn’t take full responsibility unless she explored all the possibilities.

He turned back to the front and paddled a time before replying. “I be run’ away from da home I be livin’ at. Be no one lookin’ fo me.”

They paddled up the long wide bay. To the west, five or more miles, the mainland poured fingers of creeks and rivers into the brackish water. To the east, the peninsula continued to pace them, its dark line a quill scratched north to south, as far as the eye could see. The southern wind had died as the temperature climbed, but K figured the boat they tracked was still a mile or two further north. Fortunately, the sea remained smooth and within a few songs the boy, his odd grey hawk-eyes peering out over the green and silvered waters, caught sight and gave a whoop. Their chase had no doubt given him a sense of camaraderie, something K was sure he’d probably rarely felt.

“We’ll pull along side, but I want you to look away at what might be inside.”

The boy nodded, but couldn’t help but steal a glance. K watched him and when the black smear of dried blood that spread across the back bench and the pale face of the dead man showed, he quickly looked away.

“I’ll just be a minute. You hold onto the side of the skiff while I take care of this.”

Deus grabbed the bow of the small sailboat, a lap-planked affair with a lateen rigged sail, while Kasmira crawled over the side, next to the big man who’d bled out within a minute of his injury.

K rifled his pockets, finding some coin, a good antler-handled knife, and three red patches of cloth to match the yellow ones on the girl’s hooded shrouds. Relieved of his personables she sat his corpse up and pushed him head first over the edge. He’d just started to become rigored and she had to balance and heave, careful not to throw herself off the opposite side. Deus remained clutching the bow and the canoe’s stern swung away from the sailboat a bit when Josh Pratt’s legs finally lifted like a sinking log and slid with barely a bubble into the murky waters of the bay.

Before he’d slipped over the edge, K had made sure the boy’s eyes remained averted, and with the man’s knife, slit his belly up and down. She didn’t expect the body to remain sunken, but this would give it a day or three, she figured, before it surfaced, gassing up; having buried a few dozen such bodies, she knew the mechanics of watery decay.

“You have a choice, now. You can get towed in the canoe. Or you can come aboard, sit in the bow and learn a thing about sailing.”

Deus looked back at the woman. She sat in the stern, the tiller in her hand, dried black blood staining half the bench. To her back, the boom lay the length of the boat; tied to it was a grimy brown sail, that, K hoped, remained viable, at least to get them the five miles back to the island. In the bow was another bench which seemed to suit him.

“I can sit der’, if dat’ be alright.”

“Good, swing the canoe back so I can hold it and climb on up there.”

The boy, smiling with the adventure, scrambled over and forward. K tied the canoe’s nose-ring rope to a cleat on the sailboat’s transom and proceeded to raise the boat’s filthy sail. Leaves and dirt and the nest of some creature tumbled from it as its folds unfurled. It filled well enough, and with the scant breeze still from the south, K tacked as well as she could, back and forth across a mile’s worth of bay, the canoe following in its light, easy manner.

It took them nearly three hands of the sun, but they eventually returned the sailboat to the timber skids where K spotted a winch used to haul out the boat. The thick hemp rope fouled however, and K had to leave it only half drawn up. She and the boy took the canoe and paddled to their original beach, secured the craft, and with some hesitation, walked to the cabin.

K thought she smelled an odd scent in the wood smoke that lingered in the air at the heart of the island. As she and Deus approached the back of the timbered dwelling, she could see the remnants of a bonfire smoldering in the clearing there. A few stub-ended logs ringed the blackened circle which gave off an odd stench. The back door stood open and now that she had time, noticed a set of hinged board-flaps, that served as window shutters, had been lifted around each side of the cabin. From inside, animated conversation spilled through the doorway.

“Isadora? Girls?” K probed, her short but strong bow still in her hand, her case of arrows closed, but carried beneath her arm.

Nita and Jessa emerged from the dark cabin, its shadowed insides obscured by the brightness of the sun shining on the wood shingled roof and the glare from wood chips around the backyard. The girls wore their rough pants, dried in the warmth of the cabin, but had kept the blue and green shirts of K’s. K determined, from then on, to separate the girls by color.

Nita, in blue, spoke up. “Miss K! You came back.”

Deus went to the girls and they reached out to touch his arms, hesitantly affectionate. Isadora then appeared in the doorway. She’d cleaned her face and wore a colorful shirt instead of the drab thing she’d had on before.

K pointed to the large ring of fire. “House cleaning?” she asked.

“Jessa and Nita helped me be rid of everything the brothers owned that wouldn’t be useful. We kept tools and stuffs that might be sold, someday. I wanted to burn up the cabin, but thought better of it. These two helped me.” The blind woman reached out her hands and both girls grabbed one each, guiding her out into the sunshine. The woman lifted her glowing face to the warmth.

The cleansing fire creaked behind them, cooling. K realized that the one brother’s body had vanished. “Where’s the first brother?” she said looking more closely at the fire’s ashes.

“We dragged him over to the midden, ‘n left him. Didn’t know to bury him or burn him or…” said Nita.

Jessa deferred, and as K watch, the girl looked away from them, focusing on the sky and the pine trees. After a moment of silence the girl in green spoke for them all, “We could stay here a while, couldn’t we? But not if that man is here. Even dead.”

Kasmira looked into the vacant eyes of the blonde woman, and then into those of Jessa who, she knew, sensed the world on a different level than the rest of them.

“Alright. I’ll take the man off the island; he can join his brother. But the Newains may show up. I don’t think they’re done with us yet. We’ll set some rules. Find our feet. But only if Isadora is good with stayin’. I know a thing about her mind and wouldn’t think to force her to remain in such a place.”

Isadora walked tentatively toward K’s strong voice, her right hand extended. K switched the bow to her other hand and reached out to grasp Isadora’s extended fingers. The blind woman then held K’s hand in both of hers and kissed it, and held it to her cheek. “Thank you. Thank you for saving me. I’ll do whatever you think best,” she said, her head bent in deference to the older stocky woman.

K handed the bow and arrow case to Deus and hugged the woman. “We can be safe here, I believe. You’ll be safe with us. We’ll keep each other safe.”

The children stood in awkward silence while the women exchanged their unspoken vow.

“There is one of us, I believe, I have not met,” Isadora said, breaking away. “The girls told me of a friend and I have yet to hear his voice.”

Deus, naturally shy, K thought, figuring he’d seen the woman in a way that confounded his sensibilities, surprised her. “I be Deus ma’am. I ken do most tings a man ken do, and some tings dey cain’t. I like’n to stay here with Miss K and Nita and Jessa and you, if’n you like.”

“Deus,” the woman replied, her face radiant with new found hope. “I am pleased to meet you.” She held out her hand and with his free one, hesitantly reached out his own to grasp hers. She gave it a squeeze and then said, “We have stores inside. Enough to feed us for a while. Are you hungry, Deus?”

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Non-Seq Drippleday

  • Do you think the Pope likes chocolate or should the Kangaroo sit this one out?
  • If you use a toothbrush why would the buckle flap unhinged?
  • Sally dipped her finger and seventeen times three.
  • Beneath the rotting log there lived a mouse that found that balloons shouldn’t be trusted.
  • Barkley fell and barked his knees on the bark of a persimmon tree but solar-cells only provide twenty-one percent.
  • Mom yelled, “Honey!” so that Jupiter’s moon Europa has amoeba like creatures the size of whales.
  • “Checkmate” and the dishwasher fell off the cliff.

 

Shadow Shoals 1.2

~ 2 ~

K imagined that this island would provide little shelter. Over the decades, rising seas and yearly hurricanes had submerged what had once held a small settlement. Now, only ancient foundations, like jagged teeth, and the stumps of trees showed amongst the ocean grasses that overwhelmed the sea-swept island. The girl at K’s feet moaned as she watched the brighter shadow of the island slip by.

“There are other islands north of here. There’s dried deer meat wrapped in a bundle behind you; find it if you can. We have ten songs yet to travel.”

K felt the girl shift and squirm as the child wormed her thin arms into the mysterious heap against which she’d lain during the crossing.

“Just under the tarp, higher up.” Soon, the sound of fibrous venison being torn and the chaw of young jaws grinding at the meat came from the girl. Despite the headwind, the smoky aroma of meat, freed from the bundle, wafted forward and the two children in the bow begged for a share.

The boy crawled over the top of Kasmira’s packed belongings. “Jessa, I’s sorry you be back here with…”

“You three should call me K.” Kasmira said, her teacher’s voice sneaking out unexpectedly.

“Like’n the letter ‘K’?” the girl asked around a mouthful.

“Yes, the letter ‘K’. Do you have schooling?” Kasmira continued to dip, stroke and kick, the kick straightening out the nose of the canoe after each churn of her paddle. The lapping of midnight waves pat to the rhythm of lively music against the hull.

“Some,” replied the girl. Doling miserly, she’d handed a pair of venison strips to the boy who then inched cautiously back to the front. “Before the Newains came and beat the learners,” she said, a tinge of bitterness clipping her words.

This one seems stronger than she appears, thought Kasmira.

“Tell me of these Newains.”

The girl at K’s feet twisted between her knees presenting her shoulder towards K. “New Way people. I don’t like ‘em,” she said lifting the yellow square patch in the dim light of the stars. “They came, took our, I mean, took Aunt Sarah’s cows, and took our goats, too. Nita ‘n me, they’s was our goats. Then they banged the door, broke it too. They took us then.”

The girl’s voice must have carried, as the first girl, Nita, spoke back, clearly commanding the second. “Don’t tell that woman nothin’ more, Jessa.”

K let the conversation die. The second island appeared, its higher banks and trees rising from the darkness. It, too, had suffered inundation. A number of hang-tree oaks surprised K as their submerged trunks ghosted by; jutting above the water, their weathered branches scowled down at them, judging as they passed.

Curving around to the distant side of the island, K spotted a fresh beach, no doubt torn open by a recent storm, and headed toward it.  Fewer snags reached out from the depths here and she sped up her paddling to run the canoe into the sand. With a satisfyingly soft grind their forward motion came to a halt. She whispered to the children for stillness and silence. They listened for signs they’d been detected. None showed, so they disembarked. K spun the craft, end for end, and pulled it up to secure it. The tide had dropped a few feet and would continue that way until morning.

It wasn’t cold. It never really got cold anymore. But she knew the children’s small bodies would be chilled through, the girls’ doubly so. But a fire at this time of night, as late or early as it might be, risked too much.

“The three of you will have to bunch up with me tonight.” No one complained. Kasmira, well practiced at making camp, stood the children to the side while she cleared the higher beach, laid a wide tarp and all the blankets she owned alongside her own quilted bedding, old bones and ground beds soured the most amiable of sleepers. She let the girls strip, darkness their curtain, and gave each a spare shirt. The sand molded to their bodies as the four of them burrowed into the bedding, the boy to K’s left and the girls, entwined, to her right. Within a five-song the children’s breathing evened and slowed.

The woman pondered the day. Bury one and earn three for the trouble. But, she found that as hard as she wanted to frown at her predicament, the presence of the three warm innocents, dependent though they might be, lifted the corners of her mouth and crinkled her eyes. The night passed without further incident. Despite the hardness of the sand, K found that, in the morning, she’d had her best rest in years.

Reticent to rise from their nest, the group lounged while the sun rose two hands high. Kasmira coaxed the girls, Nita and Jessa, sisters and orphans, to tell her more of these New Way people.

“When we turn eighteen, they said we’d get a part, our part of the Way,” Nita said, after apparently deciding that K posed little threat to her and her sister.

“So you worked for them as slaves then. Worked at what?”

The two girls, both with straight dark hair, looked at each other. Jessa spoke up. “We sewed, and weaved, and tapped and twisted little tools on little shiny boxes. Some of the olders, we was all childrens, I think, they worked big tools on big boxes — some with wheels and some with snakey tubes.”

“An’ we all had dirt work, too. Diggin’ an’ scrapin’ at rows of greens,” Nita added.

K reclined back onto the hard ground, her head propped up on her rolled jacket. The children had pulled away somewhat, but the shared heat kept them close. “You had schooling before the Newians showed up?”

“Yes’m, learner–”

“–Teacher,” K corrected.

“Teacher Briarson, she had eleven books, and three had stories, and she would read, and learn… teach us letters and writing. Numbers we learnt from Aunt Sarah.” Jessa looked away, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. “Them were our goats, five of them. We milked ‘em, ‘n fed ‘em and made sour cheese. Ten fists of flour for one of our cheeses. Or two ten-eggs for one.”

“Twenty.” Kasmira gently wiped the tears from the girl’s cheek. The girl accepting the roughness of the woman’s touch.

“Twenty eggs, for one,” she amended.

The boy, restless, said, “I’m hungry,” from beneath the grey-green woolen blanket that he’d wound himself within.

“So?” K replied. “What are you going to do about it?”

“Oh, I’s know. I’s got nuts ‘n ‘taters in the boat. From a’tradin’,” he said grinning at K.

Freed from his bedding, Deus laced his boots, but before he could stand, the woman grabbed him and pulled him down next to her, as the loud thwack of someone striking ax to wood resounded from the island’s center.

“Shhh. We’ve got others here.”

The girl’s pulled up tight to her, but the boy tugged away.

“I go see who be choppin’ dis early.”

Thinking to deny him, she stopped and reconsidered, having seen the look on his face, the pride of acting the man. “Deus right? Deus, quiet as a mouse, do you hear? Just a peek and then you scurry back to us.”

The boy nodded, his expression serious.

Deus replaced his cloak and headed north up a slope and through a stand of tall white pines leading toward the noise of splitting wood, decades of fallen needles quieting his steps.

Kasmira doubted trouble awaited the child. She’d traveled this bay from top to bottom, nearly two-hundred miles, many times, meeting and trading with people who lived within the tidal basin. Rarely had she found the need to fear others. The prior night’s events, however, gave her pause.

“We’ll give him a few songs to get back,” she said to the girls who now stood, still dressed in K’s spare shirts. “I’m sorry, but until we know it’s safe, we’d better not start a fire. You two can stay wrapped in the bedding. I’ll fetch the boy’s cache of food.”

K returned with the sack and handed it to, hmm, she thought, I can’t tell them apart.

The girls, identical, or close enough, accepted the sack and frowned at the contents.

“You can wait,” said K before either could complain, “for your friend to return, hopefully with good news. Otherwise, cold taters and pignuts is what we have for now.”

Each took an egg-sized tuber and ate it silently. “Why are you so strong, for a girl?” asked the one, Jessa, K thought, identifying the girl’s subtle speech pattern.

“Strong?”

“You picked me up last night, like I was nothin’. You, you are a girl, aren’t you?”

K laughed a burst of mild indignation. “I’m woman enough, where it counts anyway. I did hard work when I was young. And traveling and trading, on my own, it makes you strong.”

The scene from their small beach showed the stand of drowned trees that stood out a hundred steps, arrayed like a watery garden. To their right, they could see the island they’d passed two miles distant, the mound of its back covered with greens and browns. Straight out, ten miles or so to the east, the distant peninsula that tapered from the north shown like a long line of shorebirds, just a dark rim at the edge of sight.

“Tell me why you two needed rescue last night?”

Nita spoke up this time. The girl wore the blue plaid shirt. She seemed the leader of the two, K thought, but only because the other appeared to be the thoughtful one. “We ran away after we saw Master Franko kill Betha. We waited until the night, when all us yellows and reds were counted in the long houses and we snuck out the high window in the storeroom.”

Before K could delve deeper into their story the boy returned. Perhaps as proof he could move with stealth through the woods, he reappeared without a sound at the edge of their camp. “I think dem’s bad men up there. I seen one, and a lady, an’ heard another’n in the cabin.”

The girls startled as the boy spoke up. K had begun to worry at the boy’s absence and so witnessed him slip back into camp with her frequent glances up the slope.

“Why do you think them bad?” K asked, crouching to his level. She held out her hand and he took it.

But he soon dropped it. “I got close to see a cabin and some peoples. Da one man he, he was choppin’ and breakin’ wood, and a lady, her hair like sunlight, she tried to pick up the pieces but she kept droppin’ em and stumblin’. Ever’ time she did, da man laugh at her. Den he got mad or sumptin’ and he grabbed da lady and yanked her drawers down and started ruttin’ against her, she layin’ against da wood pile. She, she…”

K motioned for the girl in the green shirt, Jessa, to hand her the sack. K found a deep purple potato, the only one like it, and handed it to the boy, pulling him down to sit with them on the tarp.

He took a bite and continued. “She didn’ cry or nuthin’. Da man pushed her away and grabbed da wood his self, and he yelled some words into the cabin and I heard another’n man call back. And den I sneaked away, real quiet.”

The four sat considering his story.

“Yes, they sound like bad men.”

“Can we kill ‘em?” Deus asked, expectantly.

“I can see why you might want to. Why I might want to. Killin’ men, we just don’t do such things. Or, we try not to. But we can help this woman. Do you think she’s sick, or weak?”

“I don’ know. When she turn my way, her face be like a sunrise, like a doe with eyes that look up to the sky.”

“I’ll have to go take a look myself.” Kasmira weighed the boy’s age again. Maybe he’s more than seven, nine maybe. His words and composure, while telling this repulsive tale, made him appear older, despite his small stature. “If I can’t speak to the woman alone, we best move on to another place. There’s one more island north. But it’s a good distance.” She wore her jacket and boots and her woolen hat. When she was just inside the woods she appeared to vanish.

Within a hundred-stride, weaving through the trees, she spied the woman, sitting, arms crossed, hugging herself, on a high flat stump. K saw the wood pile where the rape must have occurred, and the cabin, smoke billowing like a leaf fire from the chimney.

Within twenty steps Kasmira paused and waved to the woman who faced her. When no response came, she must be dazed by the attack, she gave a small whistle, like she’d do to draw attention in a busy market.

The golden-haired woman spun her head from side to side, ranging in on the sound. “Who’s there?” she whispered loudly.

“I’m a friend.”

“You’d better leave. If the brothers catch you I can’t say what might happen.”

K was undeterred. “Do you need help?” Of course she needs help.

“You can’t help me. I’m useless, but for one thing.”

K stepped forward, the woman had avoided her gaze, looking to the tops of the trees. “I’m here,” K said, trying pull her away from her distant view.

“I can’t see you. I’ve been blind since I was twelve.”

Understanding bloomed on Kasmira’s face. “I’ll ask again, do you need my help?”

“Can you free a slave?”

“What?”

The woman, narrowing in on K’s face by sound alone, blinked her jaybird-feather blue eyes, their unnerving focused just over K’s shoulder, and explained.

“These brothers, Pratt’s their name, bought me a year ago. I was sold by my father after I got sick, when my eyes went dark. I’ve been sold over ‘n over ever since.”

“My god, how, where?”

“Brothels, in the South mostly, I think. I only know by the smell of the air, the chill of mornings on my face. I would have run away, but how could I?”

K determined then and there to save the woman from her heinous plight. Slavery, like she believed the New Way were imposing on children like Nita and Jessa, and Betha, my Anna, she thought, violated every righteous bone in her body.

“Do you have belongings you hold dear?”

“Can you fight these bastards? They won’t give me up, not for gold nor threat.”

So much death already. Kasmira’s mind returned to a previous age. A time when she herself had been forced to marry; forced to birth children she loved and lost; forced to kill their father, her husband, Joe, when he threatened their lives. She was sent to prison for three years, an ancient fetid prison, fouled by centuries of neglect and unspeakable use. And, finally released to a bright world where she learned business as a trade, politics as a passion, and love, she learned to love, later, much later.

But that first murder, the knife blade sliding up between her husband’s ribs, his hands around her throat, that murder prepared her to do, later on, much worse things, for much nobler reasons.

Killing these two rapists and slavers would taint her soul only a little.

“First, tell me your name,” Kasmira urged. “And then tell me, should these men die?”

~~~

“We’ll be staying a while, long enough to dry your clothing, long enough to cook a porridge,” K said as she returned. She went to her canoe, still ladened with her mound of items; from it she withdrew a short, horn-bellied bow and a hardened leather case containing more than two dozen beautifully crafted arrows. The children crowded around her as she dug through her pile of unusual items. Odd copper pots and tubes, glass bottles wrapped in packing, colorful bolts of cloth and a box containing chromed tools, the likes of which few had seen for generations. Beneath it all, raised on a bed of slats to keep out any shipped water, rested a set of trunks — full of books.

“Deus, can you manage a fire? Good. Girls, bundled there is a pot and my shovel. Fill the pot from this…” Behind the back seat of the canoe, K folded down a panel and inside was a metal cistern half full of fresh water. “When it rains next, we’ll be sure to collect water to refill our stores.”

The children all reacted to K’s use of the word “our.” They smiled at this, but concern washed over their faces as they watched the woman string the bow and select a handful of arrows from the case.

“Where…”

“I’ll be back. And I’ll be bringing the woman Deus saw earlier. Her name is Isadora. She’s blind.”

Before she left, she reached just inside the gunnel of the canoe and retrieved a blunt knife as long as a child’s arm. This she tucked through her belt before looking at each child to reassure them. She turned and walked back up the slope.

The blind woman, Isadora, sat just as K had left her. The brothers remained inside, drinking, Isa said, the cider they made from fruit collected from the apple and pear orchard that covered most of the island. Isa stood when she recognized the birdsong whistled by K. She beckoned at the sound for K to approach.

“They have not stirred from the cabin since earlier,” Isadora confirmed.

“Then they will be needing to piss soon, if drinking is all they do.” Kasmira unslung the machete from her belt and handed it to Isadora. “Hold this to your side, behind you as you stand to call them. If I cannot kill them both, and they attack you, swing with all your might, around and around. I will call when all is clear. Until then, any noise you hear, swing to kill.”

“I… They are big men. Josh Pratt is twice me, or more.” She took the long blade and held it as if toxic.

“They must not realize how dire is their predicament, until too late. Hold the blade lower and behind. That’s it.” K wondered about a rear door, but figured both would come out this side if trouble sounded. “Isadora, you must get closer to the cabin. Draw them out. I’ll not let them hurt you again.”

The sun was pole high and warmed the ground around the cabin. Spring growth had pushed young shoots up all around. Willow and birch saplings, growing from stumps that circled the plot, had tiny green leaves peeking out. The white pines that capped this end of the island, whispered their susurrations, while dragonflies investigated the open glade, their inspections going unnoticed by the blind woman standing at the east corner of the cabin.

“Jacob! I’ve fallen. I need your help.” Isadora yelled at the squat dwelling.

When no response came, the woman yelled again.

Kasmira, her arrow nocked, her bow resting horizontal, watched as the slatted door of the cabin swung out and a tall, balding man stumbled out, letting the door hang open behind him. He was shirtless and filthy. His torso glistened from his alcohol induced sweat, suspenders held his floppy pants high around his waist. He walked out into the yard, not expecting the woman to be at the corner.

“Dora, where the hell are you?” He held his hand up to shade his eyes as he looked around.

K rounded the tree behind which she’d hid and clicked her tongue. The man spun at the sound and dropped his hand from his eyes as a Cherokee fashioned arrow buried itself up to the fletching just beneath his sternum. He grunted and tilted his head down to stare at the brown and white turkey feathers and fell onto his back, dead, the arrow snapping off behind him.

The second man appeared, stooped in the doorway. He was just as big as Isa had related. The thin liquor must not have addled his senses as much as his brother, for Josh Pratt’s first reaction was to grab the door and slam it shut.

Kasmira nocked another arrow, but the plan had twisted sideways.

“We’ll have to burn it down,” K said, coming to just out of swing range of the blind woman wielding the long knife. She told Isadora to lower the blade, which she’d raised as soon as she’d heard the thwack of the arrow striking flesh. K held the woman’s elbow to guide her away from the cabin’s corner.

The pair stood out of harm’s way of any missiles or the rare possibility that the brother’s owned a working firearm. Such weapons existed, mostly the flintlock kind, but carbines, or pistols, which used cartridges, had vanished from use fifty years after the sunstorm broke the world; ammunition had become rarer than medicine. And no new manufacturer had taken up the process — for either; none that Kasmira knew of; and she’d traveled further than most.

“Josh Pratt! The citizens of Tidelock have decreed that you and your brother are in violation of civil law prohibiting slavery. Show yourself or face certain death.” Kasmira bluffed legalese, trying to determine how much a problem Josh Pratt presented. Whether he believed her or not, she heard a scuffle coming from behind the home, which turned out to be the actual front. She ran to the other side leaving Isadora behind. There she noticed the orchard and the gravel road that split the island leading right to the cabin. A hundred strides down the road ran the big man, loping away.

K returned to Isadora who had begun to feel her way around to the front. “What lay at the end of the road?” she asked, breathing hard.

“The brother’s have a boat, or they did. They brought me here in it. I don’t know its fate. I heard the one arrow. Did you kill Josh?”

“If Josh is the bigger one, then no. He’s running north on the wagon road.”

“If he gets to his boat, and sails to where they sell their cider, I won’t be safe ever again. Josh be as bitter as tannin tea. He won’t ever stop huntin’ me.”

Running was not something Kasmira did often enough to ease the thought of it. But she struck out after the brute, moving as fast as she could. The black haired man, running with boots on, a flapping shirt, overalls and, she thought, an ax in one hand, rounded a corner at the end of the orchard and when K approached the spot, she paused, cautious. Another hundred strides further on, she spotted the man attempting to push a heavy skiff down a skid of timbers made for easy launch.

When she got to the slip, the man was twenty yards adrift looking back at her.

“You kilt my brother. I seen it,” he screamed at her, his big voice booming in her ears. “I’ll be huntin’ you down. And that blind bitch, too. Ain’t no place you can hide from me after I get my boys.”

He was standing in the boat as it drifted further from shore. Kasmira nocked and loosed an arrow, which whizzed by, a mad but useless hornet. She nocked another while Josh gestured and cursed at her. She tried to slow her breathing, pushed out with her left arm, pulled back with her right and drew the arrow’s feathers beneath her nose. She lowered the tip of the rusted, but still sharp steel broadhead until it dipped below the man’s chest. Then, for every ten-yards distance she lifted the shot a hand’s breadth up the target.

Josh stood, his hands on hips to taunt her, and waited with a scowl while she drew and shot. The arrow buried itself in his left arm. He roared back at her in drunken hatred.

“Windage,” she said to herself. With her last arrow she held a foot above his head and the same to his right and let fly. The man stood as he had, his right hand trying to snap the arrow off at his bicep. Kasmira’s final arrow flew high, and caught the man in the throat. It tore through the right side, severing his carotid artery, and disappeared behind, into the green water of the bay. The big man collapsed into the bottom of the boat, his right hand switching to press at the rip in his neck, bright crimson blood streaming down his arm. K stood for a long song as the skiff drifted north with the tide and the wind. No motion showed above the gunnels. A hundred miles north the boat might come to rest in a marshy, reed-choked creek of the north bay. Raccoons, foxes and seagulls might find him and feed on his rotting flesh.

Or so Kasmira hoped.

Returned to the cabin, she related her exploits and the golden-haired woman sat stunned for a moment. First one and then dozens of tears streaked down from Isadora’s unseeing eyes. She sobbed into her hands and Kasmira embraced her while the realization of freedom seeped into the woman’s psyche.

The way of things today

You walk in, a mirrored straight razor dripping blood in one hand, a flipped-clip hand grenade in the other, and you ask the room, “Who dies next?”

You hand her a bouquet and whisper, “I’ve hidden a wasps’ nest in this, enjoy.”

You ice-pick the tire of a cop car waiting at a traffic light, look her in the eye and mouth, “DO-YOU-LIKE-PANCAKES?”

You refused to turn your phone’s radio off during take-off. And when you’re air born shout this fact to the entire plane while simultaneously stripping to your boxers and canary yellow socks.

You swipe a co-worker’s phone and post to their facebook page, “the president must die.” The phone dings before you replace it, someone has replied, “The president of what?” And you spastically reply, “The president of EVERYTHING!”

You buy a bag of marshmallows and eat them in the store, stuffing your mouth and talking like Marlon Brando, shooting people with your finger, “pow, pow… pow.”

You sharpie a poster and walk out onto the highway: “1000 points!”


Without edge, no story stands a chance. Which sucks, because, many stories are more than the gore and bizarre and ripping, electric current that shocks us these days like a drug slapped and stabbed into our forearm.

Shadow Shoals 1.1

I’m starting a new novel.

Shadow Shoals. It takes place in the same era as my Blue Across the Sea novel (~230 years from today, after a pair of coronal mass ejections destroy earth’s technological civilization).

It’s about an older woman, who fishes and wanders, philosophizing to herself and to orphans who feel drawn to her. Yes, I realize this is a strange plot tagline, but it’s also about loyalty, kindness, Stoicism, death and the exposure and disassembly of avaricious capitalism.


 

Shadow Shoals

By Dave Cline

November 2017

Part I

~ 1 ~

The smell of corruption drifted through the canebrake. She’d grown familiar with the odor, water-rotted flesh, while still afloat, smelled almost sweet, burned beet-sugar sweet. But once snagged in the cane, or beached by low tide, a dead body’s scent took on the telltale malodor of decay.

The woman, her woolen hat pulled down snug, fetched the crude shovel from her canoe and trod the game trail upwind, homing in on the corpse. She thought about yesterday’s body, a large man missing both feet, his belly swollen from days of gassing. “I hope this one’s smaller,” she said aloud, her breath mingling with the morning tule fog rising from the river.

Using the shovel’s handle as a lead she wove her way through the tall water grass, startling mud ducks that skittered away like ugly toys. The ground was solid, too sandy for clams, but good for flounder when the tide returned. This close to the water her boot prints vanished within seconds of her passing. She pulled her coat tighter as the wind from the bay, a few miles distant, sent the fog and the putrid scent streaming into her face.

A dab of yellow peaked through the green-grey curtain of tall cane. When she turned down the last stiff wall of grass, the small body of a child, face down in a few inches of brackish water, tugged at the threads binding the woman’s soul, unraveling them bit by bit.

The girl, nine or ten, filthy blonde hair entangled with eelgrass and insects trying to find a place to dine, was dressed in the common clothes of the time; rough woolen smock, canvas pants, shoeless, but with one sock of dark purple still clutching her right foot. The yellow came from a square of material stitched onto the upper arm of her shroud, like a brand, or perhaps the insignia for a workcamp.

“You look like an Anna,” K said as she gently turned the body onto her back. The water had cleansed the girl’s face, but crustaceans had already begun eating their meal around her lips and eyes. K shooed away a dozen fiddler crabs, their lopsided claws lifting in protest. She removed the yellow patch, tucking it into her pocket.

The woman wrapped a ragged sheet of stiff cloth around the girl, looped a rope around the bundle and began to drag the body up to a clear part of the shore where she could bend to lift the girl. The woman, sadness pulling at her face, carried the child up into the forest that covered this arm of land that jutted out towards the bay. The rich sandy loam yielded easily to her shovel and soon a shallow grave enfolded the frail body of ‘Anna’.

A red-headed woodpecker pounded at a hickory tree, and grey squirrels shuffled through the leaves of last autumn. K refilled the grave and tamped it down with the back of the shovel. She knew a dedicated predator could disinter the body, so she searched higher up the slope for a few large rocks she could place upon it. The woodpecker stopped tapping and K heard the unmistakable sound of a thump against the hull of her canoe echo through the forest.

“Sorry, Anna, I have to go. You didn’t deserve such a fate. But your suffering, in this undone world, is over,” K said over her shoulder as she abandoned her stony consecration of the girl’s final resting place and marched off at a steady pace upriver to secure her possessions.

“Too heavy for ya?” K stood at the edge of her camp chuckling as a bedraggled boy tugged and pushed at her canoe attempting to drag it into the water.

She’d slowed to a hunter’s walk as, through the tight trees, she identified the would be thief. At the sound of her voice he jerked upright, and seeking escape, declined a swim and tried to dash past her at arm’s length. She nabbed his cowl bringing him up short. He then twisted and tried to bite at the wrist that held him.

“Whoa their snapper. You ain’t got much sense, but I’ll give you one for effort and one for orneriness.” At the end of his hooded cloak, a black wool thing that took its color more from mud than tint, the boy squirmed and grimaced up into the face of the vagabond woman.

“If’n I don’t come home, pa will come huntin’ for me. N’ he be big as bar!” the boy snarled.

K figured the rascal to be about seven, too young for thieving and too young to be allowed out alone. “Your daddy eh? Big as a bear? Well, I could use me a new skin tarp for the comin’ rains, a big bear would do nicely.” She released him and he stumbled back tripping over her bedroll to land with a flump. He flipped over, and sprinted away rustling like a badger through the leaves. “You’ve got to learn quiet when you travel,” she called after him.

Turning back to her canoe, she smiled appreciatively at the distance the boy had moved the laden craft. She dragged it back up and went about getting a small cooking fire going. She’d smelled the girl’s body first thing and, once noticed, the thought of it had continued relentless until found and buried. The same had occurred for the other few dozen she’d committed to the earth since last summer. So many, in fact, that she actively sought them out, storing extra crude tarps for the task. The dying towns up river were the source of the bodies. At one point, a hundred years after the collapse, the towns had begun to prosper. Now something else must be tearing them apart, she thought.

Kasmira cooked fresh catfish fillets over glowing coals and sipped at pine needle tea. She still possessed some number of tubers, turnips and starchy potatoes, which she roasted in hot sand beneath the fire. The catfish she’d pulled from a trot line set the night before. The mono-filament fishing line she lovingly cared for had come from a trade she’d made some years ago with a fellow three rivers north.  He’d known that such stuff was rare, and easily degraded over time if left exposed to the elements. Hers she rewound and hid from sunlight, when she could.

She ate the fish and left the tubers to continue to cook, but let the fire die while she went to collect any hickory nuts the squirrels and weevils had not already eaten. K found a big shagbark hickory tree and began to use a bent stem branch to clear the leaves. She placed the nuts, hull and all, into a sack at her waist. Intentionally, she made her way back to the grave of Anna.

She found a dozen large stones, which she piled in a pyramid atop the black moist soil. Sitting above it, gazing beyond the grave to glimpses of the river, she began to remove the bur from the nuts, discarding the shells bearing tiny holes.

“Anna, have you ever tasted a raw hickory nut, I wonder?” Using a flat rock and a fist-sized stone, K tapped to split the good nuts, eating every other sweet kernel, saving the rest. She sat and shelled a double fist full of nuts, talking to the grave, posing impossible questions.

Eventually, she brushed off the casings from her tough canvas jacket, the haphazard stains from field-dressed fish and small game lent an unintended camouflage pattern to its olive color. Her centuries old military issue pants were similarly mottled. Were she to lay back into the leaves beneath the early spring sky, leafless hardwoods filtering the light, she might be mistaken for a dark, lichen-covered boulder. She’d obtained her clothing from a similar trade as she had the fishing line; an age old quonset hut, hidden in the woods, guarded by a lone family and a pack of black-tan dogs, sold her the set, they said, unpacked from sealed trunks abandoned and forgotten for two hundred and twenty years. The “Before” dates on the parcels proved their point.

“The Before” was what the family, as well as those on most of the East Coast of the continent (if not the world), referred to when they spoke of the period from which such things originated. Since that time, no newly made ‘manufactured’ stuffs could be found. Geologists, in the eons to come, might look upon the soils of this era and quantify the end of man-made materials as an iridium-like line etched in the strata: “This is when we see the end of technological civilization.”

K let herself snooze for a moment, oddly comforted by the company of the dead child. Her senses never dimmed, however, and she heard the crinkle of light steps approach her from above. They stopped twenty paces distant. If the owner of the footfalls wished it, he could have had her life at the end of a well-placed arrow. K calculated, with an ever uncanny awareness, that the owner merely sought a few of her nuts.

“You saw the spot I foraged. Go. Fill this sack and I’ll show you the tricks of teasing out the meat from a pignut hickory.”

Still lounging on her back, she tossed a spare sack, wadded into a ball, toward the source of the rustling. She remained staring at the blue sky, listening while the secretive creature crept forward to retrieve the bag.

The creature, the boy, she reckoned, scampered off through the leaves and she waited. The sun warmed her in her nest above the grave and she removed her wool cap and rubbed her short-cropped silvered hair to free the matted sensation from her scalp.

An arrowed V of geese flew over, a lone gander honking to keep the morale. The glimpse of a crimson cardinal flashed by like a fire-alarm and the comical throaty gobble of a tom turkey, further out on the peninsula, rattled up through the forest. Half a hand of sun passed while Kasmira waited for the boy to return. Then, she recognized his leaf-kicking strut long before she could see him.

He carried the sack, full to overflowing, and, as if knowing she presented no threat, walked up and sat right next to her, touching her, with the sack between his legs.

Her eyes widened at this brazen, innocent act of communal acceptance. “Took your time,” she said, in defense against his assumed familiarity.

He looked at her, his head tilted. “But?” he said, patting the sack.

“Where’s your pa?” she asked. When he looked down she was quick to temper the moment. “Nevermind,” she said.

She selected a nut from his cache, peeled the hull, made to examine it and spied a tiny hole near the pointed end, which she indicated to the boy, tossing it over her shoulder in disdain. She then selected another; this one she found sound. She took her pestle rock and knocked it against the nut she’d placed on her anvil-stone until she  heard the dull sound of a crack.

She pried apart the shell extracting a golden nugget which she popped into her mouth.

He looked hungry and anxious, his dark brown hair a wide nest on top of his head. He jumped up and went looking for tools. He started to remove the stones from the grave and she quickly rebuked him.

“No. Leave those. They are sacred now. A girl sleeps there. Leave her and go find another set. Or, here…” She lifted her own rock tools and set them near his sack of hickory nuts. “Use these.”

He returned and she watched as he quickly mastered the simple task, eating every untainted kernel he could find. His teeth, she realized, appeared whiter and sturdier than her own. And his eyes were distinctly grey — an odd color, one she couldn’t recall ever seeing before. When he withdrew a moldy seed and ate it, quickly spitting it out, she laughed, startling him.

“There’s good ones and bad ones. Stay away from the bad ones. They’re nothing but trouble.”

Satisfied he’d acquired a useful skill, she rose and returned to her camp, leaving him tap, tap cracking and eating his fill.

~~~

The tubers raked from the warm sand, K smoothed the firepit and arranged another grid of thick branch pieces, pressing them into the sand. These would reduce to embers long after the flames from the main fire burned down. She dare not let firelight linger into the night.

With two hands until sunset, K began her nightly ritual of setting a trot line. The tide had returned and the far end of the canoe floated free. She retrieved one of her precious spools of line and anchored the end fast to a strong stake in the sand. Her camp was up a shallow bank from the river with a wide opening in the cane grass that allowed her an arm-spread view of the river and the far shore a quarter mile away.

Sliding her pride and joy, an aluminum canoe that was haphazardly decorated with now impossible to find green and brown paint, into the water she began to unspool the line behind her as she let the boat drift out toward the center of the river. As she slipped by the mouth of her small cove, she made sure no others were traveling within her sight. Isolation in such times, she’d found, was key to survival.

Fishhooks were a problem. She owned a half dozen rare steel versions. These she attached with arm-long leaders. She threaded dried fish fins onto these hooks and let them sink into the drab water behind her. She reserved her handmade bone hooks, which also worked, but less efficiently, for later in the season. K knew springtime meant starvation for many villages along the coast. Winter stores were exhausted. Animal migrations to the north had barely begun. Summer runs of fish were months away. Smoked game, mostly channel catfish, gave her barter power up river. Food meant leverage.

“Too many bodies,” K said to herself as the end of her line came up, a hundred yards from shore. She looped the line around the neck of a leather pouch filled with sand and released it over the side. Slack tide let the handmade sand anchor descend directly below her. Straightening her posture she dipped her hand-carved paddle and returned to the shore, eyeing up and down the open water, leery of interlopers.

She debated whether to avoid this river’s towns and head out to the bay and then farther north. “If they’re done killin’ each other… I’ll give them a few more days.”

She beached the canoe and spotted the nest-haired boy squatting at K’s small pile of roasted potatoes and turnips. He stood as she approached, his clumsy, too-large boots, serving as pedestals to his small frame. None of the tubers had gone missing. The spare sack she’d tossed him, sat full, showing the small bulges of hulled nuts; indication of an industrious afternoon.

“You here to trade?” she asked, bending to light the fire. She’d left it unlit, but ready; smoke in the afternoons drew unwanted attention. Fires at twilight allowed the grey billows to blend with the sky, but with enough daylight to hide the small blaze.

“I sorry on your boat.” The boy’s grey eyes looked straight into her own.

She nodded up at him, her single stroke of flint against the back of her steel knife threw a bright spark that caught in the leaves and twigs she’d prepared.

“Half your sack for half the ‘tatoes,” she proposed. The crinkle of a smile teased at her eyes as she watched the boy work at the deal. He tipped his head a bit, and then with more vigor. She could see him eyeing the pile with obvious envy. Why hadn’t he just stolen the pile… she wondered, but she had her suspicions.

“My sack sits there by my bed.” She pointed, and the transaction was complete.

He carefully selected his portion of the tubers; the smallest joining his nuts in what was now his sack. The largest one he palmed and consumed with relish: biting, analyzing and rotating the white-fleshed potato. She handed him a spare tin cup filled with lukewarm tea.

She examined him closely now. The cloak he wore resembled the weave and color of that of the dead girl. Even the socks he wore, visible above the boot tops and below his canvas pants, bore the purple coloration.

She pulled the yellow patch from her pocket.

“You seen one like this?”

His demeanor changed instantly; a coin flip from casual observation to furtive wariness.

“Take your ease. This not be mine nor of me in any way. It came from the dead girl–”

“Anna,” he whispered.

“Ah, so you heard me, did ya?” She returned the square to her pocket. “Anna, yes. You have a notion what this means?”

The potato gone, he sat, his food sack held close, and sipped his tea, nodding to her question.

She waited patiently while he worked at his words.

“‘Ligion house, dark men and loud talk. They, they beat chile’s like me, we don’ do wa te wan.”

“And Anna, did you know her?” No, of course you didn’t. I named her Anna.

He shrugged. “Know other’n, with’n ta yella’ mark. Men, dey got plenty chile’s ta do ‘deir work.” He gestured at K’s pocket while explaining.

Despite his broken English, she nodded in understanding as she’d had considerable practice deciphering such speech from disparate peoples along the coast.

He looked ready to ask her a question, but she quickly shushed him down. A clunk from a wooden oar against a boat hull echoed across the darkened water. Someone was rowing downstream toward their location. The pair of them listened attentively and heard voices tossed from the boat to shore, and other voices responded from the woods just west of Kasmira’s encampment.

“You bring trouble with you?” she asked harshly, not expecting a reply.

“No miss, no, I, I…”

She chuckled at his words. Miss? Me? Not for years. Decades.

“They’ll be using dogs. We need to set out quick.” K rose, kicking sand over the fire. It snuffed out with a sigh of steam. She grabbed her bedroll and odds and ends she’d encamped with: the shovel, a set of tarps, some cooking gear; and wrapped it all quietly in one of the tarps. This she stowed in the forward part of the canoe. The boy stood, a frightened look on his face. “You come with me.” She then bent and lifted him by the armpits, his hand clasped tightly onto the neck of his food sack. She strode heavy over to her boat and lowered him into the front. “No noise, mind those nuts and your clunk-boots.”

He took her meaning and lowered himself further into the bow, collapsing like a mouse crawling into a hole.

She hove the stern of the weighted canoe, skurring it along the sand into the water. She looked longingly at the trot line stake, knowing she’d probably never see it, and her line, again.

With practiced grace she stepped into the boat and paused, listening for sounds of discovery. When no shouts barked across the water, she slipped her paddle alongside and canted the long sleek boat to the left along the reeds.

Dip, stroke, kick. She repeated the smooth motion moving the boat like a drifting cypress snag. She estimated they’d gone a hundred strokes, maybe a quarter mile when the baying of a pair of hounds broke in on the pensive night. She boosted her speed and power now, shooting the craft at speed, the tide ebbing with them.

At a point she figured to be two thirds the way to the mouth of the bay she let the vessel glide. They remained a stone’s throw from the shore. The cane grew thicker here, and the peninsula tapered flat, but hardwood and some sand-loving pine still stood dark against the lighter sky to the north.

In her pause she heard splashing and child speech, girls arguing about the cold.

“They must be huntin’ these girls, not you.” She bit at her lip in consideration, but only for a moment before angling the prow of the canoe straight at the sounds of struggle.

When they’d gotten to within ten yards or so of the apparent argument, the wedge of the boat easily parting the reeds, the boy popped his head up from his nook.

“Nita! Jessa! It be me, Deus. Deus! You’s ‘member, ‘tink-a-tink, da dink-a-dink’.”

“Boy! We have no room!” K gruffly announced.

“Why’d you come ‘dis way ‘den?”

“Shit!” Kasmira said, trapped in the boy’s obvious logic. “How big are these girls?”

“Deus? Dues! What are you doin’ out here?” one of the girls asked, incredulous.

“Dem dogs gonna fine’ you,” Deus replied.

K drove the canoe deeper into the tall reeds, the darkness filling all their eyes, only the starlight above showed which way was up.

“The two of you will have to ride with me. With us.”

“Who’s that?” the other girl asked, her voice wavering.

“Tonight I’m your savior. I’ve got the boy here. And it looks like we’re escaping from some bad people. Are you coming aboard or shall I leave you to swim to the islands?”

The boat rocked as the first girl hauled herself in next to the boy.

“There’s no room up here for me,” the last one said, timidly.

K drew one more stroke forward and could see the outline of the other girl standing waist deep in the water, with a yellow square emblazoned on the arm of her cloak, visible despite the dark. K reached over and lifted the lithe girl, setting her at her feet, leaning against the bundle of gear that filled the entire middle of the canoe.

“Sit there and stay silent while I back us out of this snarl.”

The canoe pulled away easily from the divot it made in the reeds. The woman pivoted the nose of the boat and paddled strongly for several minutes, finally rounding the nose of the peninsula.

When she’d spoken the word ‘islands’ a thought came to mind. The channel islands would provide isolation from the dogs on land. And the night appeared calm enough for the journey.

“We’re going to be heading out into the big water for some time. Get comfortable, but stay as quiet as you can. I think we’re safe now. But bad men don’t like to lose.”

K listened to the two in the bow as they began to chatter like squirrels. The girl at her feet began to weep. Exhaustion and release from anxiety, K thought.

They reached the first of the low islands two hours later.

Warming up

“Wha’cha doin’?”

“Warming up.”

“You mean like exercise or breathin’ or something?”

“No, more like musical patterns.”

“Oh, like scales n’ such.”

“Yeah, like scales of some coelacanth dredged up from the depths of an ocean trench near Madagascar, its body thrown to the deck of a Somali trawler and kicked about as the freak it must appear. Scales like those of a Galapagos sea iguana scraped by the crude scalpel wielded by Charles Darwin himself. Scales like those of the insidious dragon that lurks beneath your town, crawling now, through the old coal mining tunnels, sniffing out the breaths of children. Scales like those of Justice as she cries to see the plight of her peoples, those with all and those with none and she sobs great silent, wracking sobs knowing that only catastrophe can possibly right the wrongs, rebalance her tins, her hanging, lopsided plates of righteousness.”

“Oh, those scales.”

“Yeah, those scales.”

Can I help you?

“Can I help you?”

The words feel utterly inadequate now. Now that I know how little my efforts would help, in the end. The weather’s pounding onslaught left a bare fraction of the lives I’d struggled for, but it left enough. Enough to allow me peace knowing I did what I could. Not enough to stem the nightmares. No, those would hang around for decades. Yet, I can’t blame them, how would anyone know the trauma that nature might throw in our way?

I didn’t know. She didn’t know. I looked into her clouded eyes, her imploring face beaming into mine, and there was no way either of us’d known the levels nature would rise to try and eradicate us. She reached to me before I even had the chance to ask. But I asked her nonetheless, “Can I help you?”

“Uh course, you can fookin’ help me, ya fool!”

Tessa reached for my arm as I lifted the fallen cabinet from her pinned body. Her small house, sitting dry in the Australian dust on a bend of the Tickatock Creek, she declared, hadn’t see the stream flow since her hair was yellow. I breathed out and my breath fogged in the cold. The house floated now in a river of fist sized ice that bobbed like white apples in the flood waters coursing down the channel.

“Whut are those?” she cried, scrabbling onto my back as I slogged through the icy-cold water churning through her kitchen. The house bumped into a rock or something and I lost my footing, nearly falling into the frigid slough.

“Hail, I’m guessin’,” I replied.  I kept her saddled and with the rickety home anchored for the time being, I sloshed to the backdoor, which was now the front, forced the screen open and jumped to where I figured higher ground might be. I missed. But not by much. Tessa yelled in my ear about the searing cold water that now swirled around my waist and up her own bare legs, her house dress sloppy rags waving in the rust-brown water. But I pushed on, the house blocking much of the flow that now began to rage through the small canyon.

“Make for the lookout!” she yelled in my ear, her arm, pale for an outbacker, pointing through the few acacia trees she’d left for shade around the house.

I nodded and grab her thighs with both arms and pushed my sodden legs against the current up near dry ground. Once I’d reached water that only came to my knees, I set her down and towed her by the hand to her “lookout” up the bank and toward the highest ground we could see, a few hundred yards distant.

“Stay here!” I said, over the growing sound of rain that had begun to pelt us. The flood must have happened miles from here and only just now shifted our direction.

“Those ice-rocks ‘gonna strike you down! Here’n there’s a crop-out I sit in and watch the sunset.” We reversed roles and the old woman pulled me up the slope a bit further to a recess in the rock. Sure enough, the lip of a shallow cave save our lives. Hail the size of hedgehogs began to fall, blasting every flat thing in sight. Thousands of explosions burst on our ears as we watched branches get snapped from trees, ice-bombs detonating as the balls of frozen water devistated the area.

She looked on silent as the hail pelted her home, driving holes through the roof, puffs of air from the explosions billowing out the house’s yellow-flower curtains.

“Lucky you came along when ye did, don’t think I’d a made in there.” She nodded to the house which freed itself from the stone anchor and went spinning down the raging stream. “Don’t think my rabbits ‘r gonna survive. Chicken’s neither.”

Where Tessa’s miniature livestock had lived, shacks and raised cages, nothing stood. They’d been washed away with the first rumbling wave of the flashflood.

Earlier, I’d come out to check on the old woman’s eyesight. Her glaucoma had advanced over the last few months but damn if she would accept treatment or assistance. Her ancient homestead would be her grave, she said, every time I’d come out to see if she hadn’t died of dehydration or pure orneriness.

“I’m gonna have to go check on the others,” I said, as the curtain of falling ice finally settled to a peppering.

“George and Georgia ain’t gonna make it. Mr. Reef ‘neither. You best just stay here ’till things settle down,” she said.

“No, I’ve got to try, they’re doomed otherwise.” I rose and patted her hand as she tried to hold me back. “You’ll be fine here. Besides, Reef, he’s…”

Tessa’s nearly milk-white eyes looked up into my own. For a moment I could see how her face and hair and high cheek bones would have made her a beautiful woman years past.

“I know. I know what he means to you,” she said. She dropped my hand. “I’ll be jolly. But come back when ye can. I can’t spend the night here. No home you see.”

I bent and pecked her on the cheek. “If I’m not back in an hour… I’ll be back in an hour at most.”

I left Tessa sitting under the eave of that red rock, looking out at the most wondrous sunset I’d seen out here in Australian’s red desert. “Ice! In the desert, no less. Who’d uh thought, eh?”

 

 

Random Setting Number Three

From:http://writingexercises.co.uk/create-a-setting.php

  • It’s dawn.
  • There’s a mist rolling in.
  • You’re in a rough neighborhood.
  • There’s a desolate feel to the place.

Last night was rough. Rip out your throat and feed it to the coyotes, rough. Not your own throat rough, but, the half dozen falsies that tried to wreck your camp when they popped up like gophers and you had to let your stew burn while you handled them, rough.

And you hated to let your food char-out. Good veggies were like blessings; vitamins and minerals and — jeeze did you hate that creepin’ feeling of scurvy crawling up your legs –type blessings.

But the the sun did decide to scrape itself up from the night-side and show its ruthless self. So, rough or not, you’re happy to see it. And you’re also happy to see that fog tumbling down from the hills to the west. Of course the falsies didn’t bother to bust up your collectors. What did falsies know, anyway? So, that satisfying drip would soon be beating its rhythmic tune as your tanks began to refill.

It was the season for the mists, after all. The fires had burned their way through. The vicious cauterizing heat that had ravaged every living, every fragile thing for the last six months, was over. So the mists were a welcome sight.

The falsies had caught you feeling complacent. You knew the seasons had set to change. “Boil up the dried tubers, withered shrooms and the last of the tender greens!” you’d thought to yourself. “Ooh, we’ll get some nutrients piping through us in an-ti-ci-pa-tion!” you continued as you stirred the pot. Lucky for you you hadn’t neglected your traps. Falsies didn’t quite know how to maneuver themselves around and over and through your web of snares.

Too bad Fido had to take one through the chest. You knew the rat was on her last breath; but damn! She was your only companion for what, a year now? You lift her body, a good fifteen pounds — yeah, she was a big rat — and don’t have the heart to butcher her body. Her dark brown fur was matted by the blood she’d shed. The falsie that had stuck her had ended up skewered itself.

“Rats!” you say and chuckle to yourself. This place, desperate as it is, won’t be the same without her.

 

 

A future glimpsed

handwaist

I rest my hand on the curve of her hip.

It doesn’t belong there. She knows it. I know it. The hand that should be there holds a drink while its owner tells a story of ours. We three have been friends for ages, the legs of a stool that sits a friendship. But two of those legs, he and she, have always been a bit closer than to the third. I didn’t mind.

My hand fits unexpectedly well there.

The two of them had come together before I’d met them. Any look I shared with her, and she with me, had always been congenial. We were friends. I adored her company. She smiled, honest and true, when she saw me walking on our way to join him. He and I were fast buddies. She held his attention and I held both of theirs.

My hand cups the slope where her waist rounds out and down.

I am there to to leave. I’m going away. Opportunity strikes and one must submit. Not to would be foolish, we all know it; what a great time you’ll have, they say. And I say it to myself. Other friends and family are here to say goodbye to me as well. In the warm summer air we wear shorts and sandals, breezy shirts and tops.

I settle my hand on her bare skin there at the swoop of her femininity.

My touch there, forbidden but suddenly right, exceeds the shock of a million volts. My eyes lock with hers and I am transported in time and place as I watch a future unfold. A future of love and laughter, of marriage, kids and silly times and sad times; of homes and travel and schools and transitions and experiences a perfect, loving couple would have. I see all of this in an instant. And I know she sees it too.

I lift my hand from her hip, lean in and kiss her cheek, my eyes never leaving hers.

She gives me her friend-smile and then a touch of melancholy saddens her face. The tiniest of pouts pushes out her lips. I return a forlorn smile. I back away and whisper to her “farewell.” And I mean it, in every sense of those two words, fare well, I mean it with all my heart. For in that instant, and every one since, until this very moment, I have wished her well. But that future, briefly glimpsed those years ago, will never fade.

Random Setting Number Two

From: http://writingexercises.co.uk/create-a-setting.php

  • You’re in a forest.
  • It’s the middle of the night.
  • There’s a storm brewing.
  • There’s a peaceful feel to the place.

I’m quite certain these are my footprints. I place my foot as a mate to the one in the snow. Yup, it’s mine. I think back and can’t recall if I’ve ever walked in a circle before. You might forgive me, it is the middle of the night, no moon, no starlight; and I’m sure the overcast clouds are brewing a foul weather stew.

Wandering in the dark through a foot of snow, one must admit, could be the result of a desperate search. Or a faulty mind. I cannot discount this last theory. I’ve tried. My faculties have assembled the facts, a sack of hard-won evidence but with a tear in its side; and one by one my nuggets of insight dribble out. If I’d used them as a crumb trail they might have afforded my salvation from the pending blizzard.

I chuckle at the thought, my pouch of clues hangs loose and empty. No matter, I think. The night is, so far, calm and pleasant, in a stiff and frozen sort of way. You could say I’m a born adapter. Baking desert, sweltering swamp, wind scoured tundra — if I found myself there I could, once upon a time, survive.

It’s cold tonight. If I could see my breath in this abysmal gray night, I’m sure my puffs of steam would freeze in shape: puppies, wizards and elephants drifting translucent up into the branches of the forest to split and fragment into tails and trunks and things.

I believe I’ll sit a while. Walking in a circle can be tiring. The snow is not so cold as to reach its icy fingers into my seat. I will admit though, my bum might already have gone numb. Which would be a blessing. Although a survivor, no one likes the feeling of frigid air, the penetrating grasp of winter, like reaching into the downstairs chest icebox and its fog of crystalline haze burgeoning to spill like spooky smoke onto the basement floor.

You’d think that the snow under any night sky would glow. I would have thought that. It seems that closing my eyes produces no difference; darkness either way. And closing them does keep them warmer.

And it’s funny, I’d have thought, too, that I would be colder by now. This one tree I’m leaning against does afford a nice backrest, its trunk leans just so. I’m sure it won’t matter if I spend a few more minutes out here, as peaceful as it is.

Hmm, I have a sinking sensation that I’ve read about such a situation before. No worries, I’ve left a wide trail of me wandering around, some scout or rescue must surely be on their way. I wonder if they’ll be following the circle I etched in the snow. I hope they bring hot cocoa…