Thursday, 9 January 2014

THE INK BLOT GUEST SPOT: "How I Got Elsie" by Sam Dodge

Out there at night the wind glows, and the moon hangs neon green and hazy. It's beautiful in a horror story kind of way, but it's rare that any of us get the urge to go for a midnight walk. Not that daylight around here is all that much safer; it's just that when your whole world's a cemetery, you tend to see odd things in dark shadows. As I sit here writing by the light of my little bio-globe, I'm occasionally distracted by movements and flashes of light in the tangled forest outside my window.

I don't know what made me decide to put all this down on paper. I suppose it's because I didn't see anyone else doing it. I don't see it as a cautionary tale or a heroic epic; it's just one perspective that might make it easier to understand this time in human history for those who may come after us. If it provides any reference point for you, it's been fifty five years since the inception of the Biorad Plague, which, by the standard Gregorian calendar, was in A.D. 2014. I read every book I can dig up from those times. I dream about the wonders chronicled there. I see myself as my own grandmother, living in the stories she'd tell of airplane flight and microwave ovens, email, space shuttles....

They say curiosity killed the cat; well it sure did a number on the human race. Don't get me wrong, I love a lot of the things that the great minds of Man have dreamed up. But there's a point where the safety rails end, you might say. When they started messing around with bioradioactivity, they were way past that point. Viruses and bacteria cultured to eat heavy metals and shit useful isotopes must have looked pretty tasty on paper. The scientists didn't take into account the supernatural vigor that all that nuclear energy would give those little bugs.

A few of us survived the infections intact. So far, it seems that we're not only immune to the bugs, but to radiation as well. Most weren't so lucky. If you can imagine a flesh-eating disease that turns a person into a glowing puddle in the same span as the common cold runs its course, you've got an idea.

But that's not the worst of it. A few were affected differently. As the diseases rampaged through their bodies, they were...changed. Their metabolisms sped up until they were living seven or eight times as fast as normal humans. Their minds were corrupted, either by the disease or the anger that having a ten-year life span will instill in a person. They are very fast, and very dangerous. Lucky for us, their fertility rate seems to have been reduced to about 15 percent, and their intelligence seems to have been adversely affected as well.

It wasn't only people that were affected when the Biorad Bugs got free. A lot of living things suffered the same fate as most of us did; there were a lot of green puddles where much of Earth's flora and fauna used to be. The surviving plants and trees almost all evolved into symbiotic relationships with the radioactive germs. Their life cycles were drastically accelerated, like the “Speedies”, as we call our warped siblings. The forms of the plants haven't changed much, except that there are a few more semi-animate ones, most with a taste for flesh.

For the animals, it was a little different. Accelerated metabolism seems the most common mutation; there are things moving around in the woods that go almost too fast to see. Most creatures seem to have suffered drastically reduced fertility. That's probably a good thing for us.

Insects, for the most part, seem unaffected. Again, probably a good thing for us. What if scorpions were eight times as fast? Reptiles, as far as we can tell, were entirely wiped out by the Biorad Plague. Nobody's seen a snake or a lizard for years.

The Biorad Bugs continue to thrive. Almost every living thing has become symbiotic with them in one way or another, including the surviving Normals. We saw the bioluminescent clouds, the glowing flowers, the animals with flashlight eyes, and we quickly invented ways of bringing light to our darkness, courtesy of our little nuclear buddies. We're working on ways to generate power with them, but since they don't seem to produce much heat at all, we haven't made much progress. Still, some of our best minds...well, you know. Safety rails. We're a little more cautious these days.

The biggest inconvenience our little bugs have caused us lies in their voracious appetite for metals. Iron and gold are the only metals they've left alone. All the others they turn into crystalline isotopes as fast as we smelt them from their ore. It's pretty tough to maintain a technologically advanced society without non-ferric conductors.

So there's no radio, no television, and no Internet. There are no cars, no phones, no...well, you can make an itemized list if you want. We do have steam engines again, so the old rails have working trains on them. And there are steam-powered boats. We get around a bit when we have to. Mostly, we've carved out little villages where we can watch out for each other and share the work, and what's left.

In a lot of ways it's a pretty good life. We don't work too hard; what would be the point? We've got plenty of food. There are more than enough houses for everyone. And if you keep to the boundaries of your village, or make sure you're in a decent sized, well-armed group, you're pretty safe most of the time. I'd say at least half of us would stay here over going back to the “good old days” that our old codgers reminisce about. Grandma used to tell about her life like it was some sweet fairy tale, like you didn't even have to wash the dishes or wipe your own ass if you were one of the privileged ones. I guess she must have been. I guess some of her enthusiasm for those days rubbed off on me before she got grabbed by a gang of Speedies on her way to the train. I think about her stories a lot. I'm still not sure I'd trade a shot at her old life for what I've got now, but....Air travel! Wow! On the other hand, some of the stories the old codgers tell make me think there was a little too much in the hands of the privileged few, and it seems like a lot of people got a pretty raw deal. It doesn't work that way here. Everyone pulls their own weight if they can.

I'm Greta, by the way. I suppose you'd like to know who's writing this. Just Greta; we don't have surnames in our little town. There's no real reason for them in a place this small. You know who your brothers and sisters are. You know your uncles, aunts, and cousins. The only relative you don't usually get to know is your father. Most of this area has a strict policy about interbreeding within the villages. All the men are your uncles, brothers, or grandfathers. I'm glad I'm a woman. I'd hate to have to go a'courting. That's something a man does alone. It's hard getting around alone.

I guess that's the first story I'll tell you. This is how I got my third little one. And how I got to lay with the biggest, strongest, best looking, smartest man that ever came through Smith Hollow (that's the name of our village) in the whole of my life. As you might have figured, they're one and the same story.

Most towns that I've heard about put a pretty good premium on healthy children. You're well cared for from
the minute your belly starts sticking out. If you carry that little one to term and bring them into the world all pink and screaming, there's a pretty good chance that you could just sit back and enjoy life for a year. I'm not that way; I get pretty bored just lounging around at the town kitchen and making small talk. Give me about two weeks of being fussed over and I want to get my hands in some dirt, or dough, or even axle grease. Still, I'd already brought two sturdy little hellions into the village, and only miscarried three times. I had a pretty good record, and I was only halfway through my twenties.

Some folks thought I'd done my share. I, on the other hand, really liked that stuff you do to get with child. It had been two years since little Rafe had come. Cherry was two years before that. Men didn't wander into town often enough, and there was always stiff competition to deal with from the other women. I was ready to make another one. And those first eight months of pregnancy, you got freebies from any strange man you could talk into your bed. Wasn't frowned upon, either. If you were with child, you got what you wanted. The Old Mothers saw to that. So I tossed my number in the hat again, figuring I'd waited long enough to satisfy fairness. After all, there were only one or two other women in the village that hit the odds as well as I did. Why waste?

It had been a pretty dry spell, man-wise. The Speedies had been extra active, there was a bumper crop of guillotine flowers, and the train tracks that ran three miles north of our village had been washed out for most of the spring. Most of us girls were feeling like our parts were going to dry up if we didn't at least get a sniff of testosterone pretty soon. Man, you don't even want to know some of the filth we'd talk late at night under that green moon with a jug of Judy's Blackwater Brew sharing around between us.

It was a thick May night. I was in the kitchen loft with three of the other Nubiles (that's what women of childbearing years are called around here; I looked it up in an old dictionary once and it isn't perfectly accurate, but it gets the point across). Cassie, a broad-shouldered, broad-hipped, pink-cheeked towhead with a bosom you could hide a boar's head in, was giving us the detailed account of her last (fruitless) encounter. We were laughing and passing that big old bottle around. You could probably smell the pheromones all the way to the next village.

“ I told him to put it wherever he liked, as long as it would make a baby there!” She made a wry face as the rest of us burst out laughing. Lana, a lean, olive-skinned blond who was getting close to the end of her child-eligible years, sniggered and said, “You've got to teach some of these boys everything, don't you?”

Melinda, a chubby black-haired girl with the whitest skin I'd ever seen, was the youngest of our little party. She had a mystified look on her face. She was just about to ask Lana something when I put my hand up for quiet. Someone was rapping softly on the front door of the kitchen house.

We armed ourselves from the big knife block in the main kitchen and I led the way to the door. We crept up to it along the wall. I don't know what made me so nervous. The village was well guarded through the night, and anyone that would knock was probably a Normal. Still, my heart was rapping away in my chest like a blacksmith beating out buckets. I peered out from the edge of the little glass panel inset in the door. No good; I'd have to get straight on with it to see who was standing there. I motioned the other women to either side of the door, screwed up my courage, and shoved my face belligerently against the window.

I was staring at a great, hairy, muscular chest. The shirt on it was stretched open in a wide “V”, exposing all that, um, masculinity. My eyes slowly drifted upward, along that long, beefy neck, past the broad, chiseled jawline, and finally settled on a pair of large,wide-spaced green eyes. He stared back at me through the glass with one eyebrow raised quizzically.

“Are you going to open the door?”

“Yes, ah, yes, just a minute, I have to, um, just a minute.” I handed my knife to Cassie and motioned them all toward the knife block. They scurried over to put the cleavers and chef knives away and I composed myself. This wasn't how courting was usually done; normally men would come to the village and petition the Old Mothers, then either numbers would be drawn or, if there were special circumstances, a woman would be called on to accept or decline the man's petition. It would keep getting passed down the lottery list until it was accepted. Most of the time, unless the man was a real loser, it didn't go far down the list. But here was this guy we'd never seen before, in our village in the middle of the night, looking at me through the kitchen door window! If he wasn't the best looking thing I'd seen in....well, ever, I'd probably have told him to go find the Wayfarer's Lodge and wait until morning to talk to the Council. But there I was, with three other half-drunk women. What to say?

“I haven't seen you before.”

“Be easier to talk if there wasn't a door between us.”

“How do I know you won't...?”

“You don't. I won't. What if I did?”

“There are four of us.”

“Any of your friends better conversationalists?”

That peeved me a little, but I guess it broke the ice. “All right, come on in. Don't get funny!” I pulled the bolt and opened the door. He was twice the figure in person than what I'd seen through the glass. I thought I heard long, moaning breaths escape the other three. Maybe it was me.

“I'm Garner. I come to your village a'courting. I'd have been here earlier, but your tracks are washed out. I had to walk the last twelve miles.”

“At night? Through the woods?” I hardly believed him. Nobody did that, and if they did, you didn't hear about them again.

“I've been in worse places at worse times. Like I said, I'm Garner...?”

“Oh, um, I'm Greta. This is Cassie, Lana, and Melinda.” The girls all gave him their best greetings, including some little wiggles and eyebrow convolutions.

“Delighted to meet you. Got anything to drink? I'm parched.”

Cassie hurried up the stairs into the loft for our bottle of Blackwater Brew. making sure she hitched up her skirt a little extra on the way up. I offered him a stool, and we all got as comfortable as we could under the circumstances. A few rounds of the bottle made things easier.

Garner asked, “So, how does courting work in your neck of the woods?”

I told him. I added, ruefully, that there were no pre-lottery assignations allowed; the winning number got full rights to all the “genetic material” the guy could produce for one moon cycle. After that, he could play one more lottery round, or dabble if he wanted to. But he had to start pulling his weight after the first month. The men of the village usually didn't take kindly to a guy who stayed more than a moon after his lottery draws were done. The work got hard. And dangerous.

“So what are my chances of courting one of you?” His smile was mighty distracting.

Lana piped up. “One in three. We've all got our numbers in for the next guy, and there are eight more girls in the village who are also in it.” We all had a nice little chat while we finished the bottle. I was walking him to the Wayfarers Lodge. He'd stopped to get his weapons out of some bushes, then put his hand on my arm.

“Is there any way a courting gentleman can get his pick of the ladies? The other girls are nice, but you....”

“Well, there is a way, but I don't think....”

He insisted I tell him. Next morning he went to the Old Mothers and asked for the Right of Selection. Being that this was the first time it had been requested in a whole generation, a village assembly was called.

Remembering Grandma's stories and the descriptions of Internet communication in the few old books we kept around, I mused on which was faster; instant messaging or village gossip. There was still dew on the grass, and every Smith Hollow denizen who could walk, crawl, or beg a wheelbarrow ride had materialized in the square. Every eye in the little crowd was firmly fixed on either Garner or me, and twenty two of those eyes burned angry holes in the face of yours truly. Many of us looked at him with awe or pity on our faces; Right of Selection comes at a heavy price.

“Garner of Tavern Wood, your petition for Right of Selection to the Nubile Greta of Smith Hollow is heard.” Saundra, the oldest of our Mothers, raised her gravelly alto voice to be heard over the murmuring in the square. “Greta, how do you hear Garner's request?” I was a moth fluttering at the hot edges of a flame; all eyes were on me, and I knew I was going to get singed at the very least. But one set of green, wide-spaced eyes brought more heat to me than all the others. He was risking his life for one short month with me. I was risking a few weeks of haughty glares, and maybe one or two long-term enmities. Good sense and politesse said I should decline, but I couldn't. The moth dove into the fire. “I accept.”

The mothers conferred. It was all done quietly, but body language and gestures told me there was disbelief and dissent on the way to a decision. Finally, Saundra turned her weathered face to address the village. “Very well. Garner of Tavern Wood, your petition is accepted. You will abide in the Wayfarers Lodge until we select your Trials, whereupon, after hearing them, you will be given a final option to honor the Lottery or begin the Tasks.”

The Old Mothers now had three days to set his Trials. I kept to myself for that time, going about my daily routine with the minimum of conversation. I was viewed with near-reverence by the pre-Nubiles, with raw antagonism by the other eleven lottery holders, and mostly with pity by the women beyond childbearing years. Two of the Old Mothers had the Evil Eye for me; their daughters were lottery holders. Those three days seemed like the longest of my life. The days were about to get still longer. Finally, the village assembled once again on the dewy grass. Garner stood before us in all his leather-clad, masculine glory, a compact, confident smile teasing his broad, full lips.

Saundra's voice knelled ominously, “Garner of Tavern Wood, are you ready to hear your Tasks?”

“I am.”

“Firstly, you shall bring us the fresh entrails and brains of six Speedies.” Certain secretions of their overactive glands made powerful medicine, but it was very rare to find a freshly dead Speedy in the prime of life. My blood went as cold as the dew between my clenched toes; if this was only the first task, what would the next two be? Garner looked unperturbed by the grisly Task. “Next, you must go into the Hellevere Mountains and bring us three gallons of water from the Steaming Springs.” That was a four day walk into the wilds to our north and there were no villages anywhere along the way. Fire-bears, giant coyote packs, and hell-boars were only three of the direr menaces that teemed in that area. Even the Speedies rarely went there. More than two of the Old Mothers must have been insulted by Garner's petition. I felt a cold anger mix with my apprehension. This was too much. Still, he seemed unshaken. His eyes met mine with a twinkle of intrigued humor. Maybe he's crazy, I thought. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. But I didn't have the option of withdrawing my acceptance, and it didn't look like he was going to. The only plus at the moment was that the other lottery holders were as taken aback by the tasks as I was. Their anger at me was turning to disbelief at the Tasks the Old Mothers had concocted. “Finally, you will delve the Glowing Caverns for three ounces of gold.” Saundra's words almost seemed to echo off those deep cave walls. “Garner of Tavern Wood, do you accept these Trials?”

I pleaded him with my eyes, shaking my head and gushing tears. The murmurs of the crowd had all dried up into a desert of shocked silence. The Glowing Caves were notoriously unstable. They were also dauntingly extensive, spreading over many miles and descending in levels further than anyone could lay claim to plumbing. Old maps suggested that there were at least nine levels that had been discovered, the lowest of which was some eight hundred feet underground. Gold had been found only below level five. The only good thing was, most of the time spelunkers didn't need a light. Most of the time.....

He didn't even hesitate. That big, beautiful man sealed his own death warrant with the blithe audacity of a child asking for ice cream. “I do.” Twelve sets of reproductive organs cramped in unison.We were now sisters in mutual grief, watching the finest example of masculinity we'd ever seen prepare to commit suicide in the name of posterity.

Village life went on in an almost normal fashion after he left to pursue the first Trial. Except for the twelve lottery holders, everyone seemed to think the whole issue was now dismissed. No one figured he'd come back, even from Task number one. I wandered around in a daze, seeing that broad chest and those green eyes through the kitchen door glass as often in daytime visions as I did in my nightmares; that is, when I slept at all. After three nights, some of the lottery holders seemed to shrug it off, but Cassie, Lana, Melinda, and I were all stumbling around in a sleep-deprived haze.

It was just at dusk of the fourth day when Garner returned. He looked a little tired and scratched up, but he wasn't missing any parts that we could see, and he had a big, sloshy-looking rubberized duffel slung over each shoulder. He made a short tale of it. “I knew there was a pack of them roaming over near Solum's Creek, so I baited them for two nights to get 'em going toward my pit falls. They're fast, but they don't climb well. Once I had them down in the holes, it was child's play to wait until they stopped flitting around and put an arrow in 'em. I waited until dawn to plug 'em since they like to sleep in the daytime. The rest of the pack had deserted them, so it was pretty safe. Hope you don't mind I brought a few extra.” You can bet there was talk! I saw dark looks on the faces of a few of the Old Mothers, but overall the whole village was pretty intrigued by Garner's success. We hadn't had such an interesting topic for gossip in a long time. I wasn't interested in speculating. I still saw those next two Tasks as the real killers, and his easy victory against a few Speedies nearly meaningless in that light. I wasn't allowed to speak to him, and neither were the other lottery holders, but I tried to make it plain with every passing glance that I'd prefer he just gave it up and played the lottery. Of course, the rest of the girls felt the same way.

By the rules, he had two days to rest up between Tasks. I planned on trying to get a note passed to him, telling him I was withdrawing my acceptance (a bald bluff; once you'd accepted the petition, you couldn't rescind) but he didn't give me time. After he dropped the sacks at the feet of the Old Mothers, he washed up and headed for the Wayfarers Lodge, presumably to get some sleep. No one saw him for the rest of the evening, and when the workday started at first light his bed was already cold. People started chattering that he'd skipped out on the Tasks, but I knew better. I wished I didn't. Some time around noon, it was discovered that one of the old plastic 5-gallon jugs from the kitchen was missing. The Garner-bashing dried up like an un-sucked teat.

I knew I had at least a week and probably forever in front of me before he returned, so I flung myself into the daily chores with extreme prejudice. I only stopped working long enough to slake my thirst and grab a quick bite at mealtimes. At dusk I would reluctantly clean myself up and head for my berth, stopping at the brew house for what I considered to be a well-earned jug of my favorite sleep aid. I tried not to count the days. It buggered me to no end that everyone else was counting them for me. Everywhere I went, my village-mates had to remind me how long he'd been gone. I'd just nod and mutter, then brusquely send them on their way if they persisted in trying to cheer me up.
Eight days went by, then nine, ten, eleven....every ounce of irrational hope was leaking out of me with the sweat that rushed from my pores as I worked myself to exhaustion. Two weeks gone I pretty much stopped eating and stumbled around mechanically tending to daily business, though my work was starting to suffer.

On the fifteenth day, the impossible happened; Garner crawled into town from the north, dragging that damned plastic jug three-fifths full of yellowish, cloudy water. He was in worse shape than I, having lost a lot of blood and surviving on putrid puddle water rather than drink his precious charge. When I heard the cheer go up my head went light and I keeled over into some bread dough I'd been kneading listlessly. As consciousness echoed out of my ears, I remember being mildly irritated at him for distracting everyone in the village away from stopping my fall.

I was on my feet and feeling better after a couple of days, but it took Garner half a moon cycle to recover. It took about a hundred and fifty stitches and half a gallon of straight moonshine liquor to sterilize him, sedate him, and get his wounds closed up. After the first week, once he was well enough to have company, he was constantly badgered to tell the story of his exploits on the way to and from the Hellevere Mountains. I could hardly look at him (funny, I could hardly keep myself from staring, too), but I figured, since I'd started writing down the various happenings in and around the village, I'd better come and take notes at one of his recitals.

He was regaling the crew at Judy's Blackwater Board and Brew with a recount one evening, so I brought my pencil and a few sheets of the bumpy mush that passes for paper these days. I did my best to keep up with the tale, but I'm nowhere near as fast a writer as he was a talker, so this is just as close as I can piece it together.

“I knew it was going to be a lousy trip,” he started, “when the first thing that happened was my foot caught on a jagged stump and the heel of my boot ripped clean off, leaving me half-barefoot with three and a half days of hard walking in front of me. I tried to stitch it back on with a fish bone and some twisted grass, but I'm no damned cobbler, so I ended up wrapping a shirt around the boot with my foot in it, then tying it off as well as I could. So now I'm stumping through the woods, dragging twigs and branches along in the wadded-up shirt, making as much noise as a pack of angry squirrels bouncing around in dry oak leaves. That'll teach me to grab whatever is on the shelf at the old Z-mart when I'm out foraging!

“I suppose I should have turned around right then. Stubborn pride pushed me onward, though, and by sundown I found myself on a lake shore ringed with old houses. Most of them were pretty well done for, but a few were still solid. I picked a smaller place that was made of stone, with a slate roof. The door was open, which probably should have made me nervous.”

Here is where I gave up on a verbatim account of Garner's story; I was getting too far behind. I started writing just the high points, figuring I'd flesh it out later. So he settled in to the little stone house for the evening. He found some candles. There were even some old tins of food dating back to pre-Biorad. Being the tough guy that he was, he cut the cans open with his knife and ate the contents cold. It wasn't an hour later that he was puking his guts out. He spent the better part of the night doing that, finally passing out around dawn. Too weak to travel, he slept through the day and was well on his way to sleeping through the night, when he was set upon by a colony of vampire mice. He was lucky to wake up; those nasty buggers have turned the Biorad germs into a mild general anesthetic. After the first few bites you feel pretty complacent. So he shook them off and set the bed ablaze, knowing the bloodsucking rodents would run from fire. He sat and watched the bed burn until it was getting too hot in there to stand, then he grabbed his stuff and tottered out of the house. Counting on the light of the fire to help him find another place of safety, he followed the lake shore until he spied a big metal bin with wheels on it outside a crumbling, mansion-sized place. The hinged lid wasn't too hard to lift, and the inside of the bin was dry, so he climbed in and curled up for the rest of the night.

He woke up feeling better. The sun was directly overhead. He poked around a little bit in a few of the houses. One of the bigger places was still locked, so he broke a window and went in. Right inside the back door was a row of footwear lined up on a dirty rug. There was a pair of boots there that caught his eye; he grabbed them. They looked about his size, so he tossed his crappy Z-mart boots and swapped. They were only a little bit tight. Lucky day!

The next couple days were uneventful. Garner was able to make good time, and there was plenty of wild “forage” to get his strength back up. He beat his way through tall prairie grasses, beset by clouds of hungry mosquitoes. The scrub oaks of the foothills presaged dense mountain wilderness, and soon he was wending his way carefully from glen to meadow, studiously avoiding thickly wooded areas wherever he could. Late afternoon of the sixth day he was forced to traverse the deep green shadows of a cedar forest, where he met a small pack of hell-boars that he was lucky enough to dispatch with some well-placed arrows. He'd only had to get up close and personal with two of them, so aside from some singed clothing and a gaping rent in one of his pants legs, accompanied by a nice pair of gashes in his leg, he came out relatively unscathed; at least that's how he described it. He'd had to camp dangerously close to the bloody mess so that he could bandage up the leg, but at least he'd had meat for dinner. Too bad hell-boar doesn't keep.

Once he'd made it through the foothills and into the Helleveres proper, there was only one real menace to contend with; the fire-bears. They, like the hell-boars, had been mutated to produce nuclear heat on a small scale, then secreting volatile oils from glands in their throats, which produced a flamethrower effect when they were riled. The difference between facing a fire-bear and a hell-boar was mostly one of volume and strength, both in the size of the animal and the damage the fiery breath could cause. The bears were a little more reclusive, but the mountains limited where they might be. Trying to get around them meant making some really difficult climbs. They also tended to cluster around the steaming springs, which riddled the Hellevere range.

He'd only had to fight one fire bear. That part of his story is branded into my mind; I could recite it word for word, just as the words rolled past his lips, to this day.

“I was mighty stiff after tangling with those hell-boars, so I found a wide-open ridge where I could keep track of what was going on around me. The bandage on my leg was getting pretty soggy, so I ripped up the last of the old shirt I'd used to keep my boot on and re-wrapped the wound. You can bet I slept with one eye open when I did sleep, which wasn't much. I mostly just rested and tried to stretch out my bruised body. You'd swear those damned pigs had arms, the way they twisted me up! Anyway, next morning I made my way up that ridge, sniffing for the sulfur of those steaming springs. It was a nice long ridge, but eventually it died in a broad stand of high pines. I was just starting to get a whiff of rotten eggs when another scent smacked me in the nose; the brimstone tang of fire-bear. I guessed it couldn't be more than forty feet away, because the smell of them blows off pretty quick. I stood stock still for a minute, then nocked my wickedest broadhead in the bow. I tell you, I wasn't going to move until I saw that monster; maybe not even then. All I could hope was that it would just keep on moving.

Bad news for me; I saw the cub first. Mom had to be nearby. Now my only chance was to slink away, but which way? If I waited until momma showed her face, she'd see me too. If I started going before I knew where she was, I might run right into her. I decided to head back down the ridge.

Wrong plan. She popped up out of the trees and onto her hind legs not ten feet away from me. I pulled that bowstring back as far as I could and let fly. I must have been a little shaken, because instead of hitting her in the windpipe the arrow sunk into her shoulder. She let go a gout of fire with her roar of pain and I pulled that bow in tight to my chest and did a forward roll down the hill to avoid the flames. I came to a stop against a chest-high boulder with my pants leg on fire. I didn't have time to put it out, though. I fumbled out another arrow and tried to put it where the first one missed. It was close; just above the collarbone. Still not a kill shot, and she was barreling down on me like a log over a waterfall. I tried to put that boulder between us, but one of her big old claws raked across my calf as I dove. Only good thing was she put the fire out. I felt those claws burn deep in my calf muscle.

I grabbed my broadaxe and took a swing at her leg, feeling the blade bang into bone. She howled out another blast of fire and I ducked down behind the boulder. The cloud of burning oil went right over me and splattered on the rocks behind me. I was dumb enough to look; she reached over the rock and raked me one across the shoulder. I felt like my arm was going to come off. I went bouncing down that ridge, black spots fighting with the stars in my eyes. I must have banged my head pretty good, because when the spots went away there was a wash of red over my vision. I didn't dare reach up and feel for the source of the blood.

My axe had landed right next to me. My good right arm was out of commission from that little love tap she'd given me, so I wrong-handed it and took a clumsy swipe at her as she swept down do put the bear-hug on me. Finally a little luck! My wobbly roundhouse took her full in the throat. Glad I keep it sharp! Opened up a big wide smile under her chin.

She came down right on top of me. I barely had time to roll myself up in a ball and she was whaling away on me, grabbing and banging like a house afire..My head must have cracked on another rock, because I blacked out figuring I was dead.

I woke up with wet sandpaper dragging the skin off my cheek. That little cub was licking the blood off of me! I glanced around, seeing two of everything. Mama was sprawled out against some scrub pines about thirty feet down the ridge, dead as a doornail. I was weak as a kitten from blood loss. Every move was a fire of agony, but I stripped off all my ripped up clothing and wrapped all the gouges I could reach, as tightly as I could. I put on the heavy pants and jacket I'd brought in case of a late spring snow, then took a long break.

I took a lot of long breaks on my way to some water. I crawled until I hit a little creek and nearly drowned getting a drink. I could smell that sulfur strong now, so I was glad I'd tied that jug to my back. Must've been around nightfall the second or third day after I tangled with that fire-bear that I started really choking up from the stinking steam.”

He spent a night in one of the steaming pools that was bath temperature, then filled the jug and headed for the ridge. The springs must have done him some good. He started out walking, but by the time he was in the foothills again he was forced to crawl. By dint of indomitable will, he kept going until he made it back to the village. By sheer good luck, he didn't meet with any more trouble.

He was with us for the rest of the moon cycle. I lay awake long into each night, trying to think of a way to get him out of doing the last Task. I knew it was a futile whim; he'd already done two of the three, even though number two had nearly killed him. I guess that was probably all the more reason for him to continue. He had a lot invested.

It was one of those July mornings when you wake up sweating when Garner set off to take on the final Task. I'd set my mind that I was going to behave like it was just another summer in Smith Hollow. No more
of that sissy starve-and-swoon stuff I'd pulled last time he left! But I did have a nasty knot in my belly, and
breakfast didn't look any too good.

He almost hid the limp in that game leg he'd gotten tangling with the fire-bear. He should have rested up a whole season before setting off to spelunk the Glowing Caves. A couple of men from our village had made it down three levels, hot with Gold Fever, before the arduous climb sent them on their heels back up and out. They were no weak-kneed skinny boys, either.

I decided my best course of action was to be mad at him. I started bad-mouthing him all around the village, day in and day out. At first people were a little shocked that I could say such things, but it eventually dawned on them that it was an act of desperation on my part. The sympathetic looks I got after that were far worse than the raised eyebrows.

After a week the numbness set in. I went about my daily chores in the early August heat, sweating and chafing just like everyone else. It was life as usual, except for one big, muscular, handsome, empty place inside me. Once in a while I'd dream of him, sitting on a broken stalagmite in the nebulous green glow of a cave that looked just like a thousand other caves above, below, and all around him. In my dreams he was thinner, paler; not radiating that giant aura of energy that had grabbed me the first time I saw him.

The early corn silk was reddish-brown when he walked back into the village, swinging that little pouch like a set of bolos he was winding up to fling. There was a gauntness to his cheeks and a hint of something in his eyes that told of a trial he wouldn't shake off soon. The whole village was a blur of joyous activity as a feast was hastily thrown together to celebrate his triumphant return. I did my best to be helpful with the preparations, but eventually I was told to just get out of the way and get ready to start my month with Garner. Lana and Cassie gave me playful glares of jealousy, but offered to let me wear their Sunday best since I'd been neglecting my own wardrobe.

Around the fire that night, sated to bursting on lamb chops and grilled chicken, Garner sat in the chair of honor and accepted the praise of every person in the village. Even the Old Mothers were forced to come forth with congratulations for the deeds he'd done. He wouldn't talk about his time in the Glowing Caves, though. Not even after a king's share of Judy's Blackwater Brew.

My month with Garner was everything I'd expected it to be. He gave me that “glow” that all the other girls envied, every single night. Sometimes more than once. And, sure as winter snow, my “monthlies” quit. He didn't stick around for a second moth, just a few nights to give out “consolation prizes”. Nobody else got pregnant, though. I was going to have the only baby from that heroic figure of a man.

Elsie was a little early, but healthy as a horse. Everyone was shocked at what a tiny child she was; almost elfin in her spareness of frame. She was certainly not what anyone expected from a union of Garner and me, and I guess it was foolish of me to assume it'd be a boy. Fate is such a prankster!

She grew up smart as a whip and a lot stronger than her 75-pound, four foot nine frame would seem to indicate. She climbs trees like a monkey and she's just as mischievous, even now that she's full grown. I'm sure glad it's not like it was when Grandma was a child, when there were mothers and fathers who promised to stay together forever and had to raise kids on their own. It definitely took a whole village to raise Elsie! Even so, she would sometimes disappear into the woods for days or even weeks. Still does, in fact; must have got some of Garner's wanderlust.

She's going to be somebody if she doesn't get herself killed. I don't know if she'll be anything here in Smith Hollow. She makes too much trouble. I think she might be the first world traveling woman from Smith Hollow. I sure hope her stories aren't as exciting as her father's!


Sam Dodge

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