Be sure to keep a night light on, this one will chill you to the core!
“My foot did not discover the prize, nor was I the first of the object’s erstwhile owners.
According to every account, it was a young girl who innocently tripped over the mostly buried artifact while skipping across a whisper field. Since this was near the edge of the habitable world, onlookers assumed that the object was an artifact lost by one of the Great Cranes, and perceiving rarity, it was the girl’s uncle who excavated the prize…”
Our 100-character Twabble winner this week comes from Ichabod:
Lifeless yet clueless
He clutches at air, runs into walls
Pity the one eyed zombie
Tragically lacking death perception
Enjoy the show! The full story is printed below the player.
Drabblecast 414 – Dance, Siege, Swoop
Dance, Siege, Swoop
By Robert Reed
My foot did not discover the prize, nor was I the first of the object’s erstwhile owners. According to every account, it was a young girl who innocently tripped over the mostly buried artifact while skipping across a whisper field. Since this was near the edge of the habitable world, onlookers assumed that the object was an artifact lost by one of the Great Cranes, and perceiving rarity, it was the girl’s uncle who excavated the prize, then lifted it without help, setting it inside a rugged cart that he and two powerful dogs pulled home.
Of course I had no idea about any of this. I didn’t yet exist, and later, as a boy living in a distant village, I was unaffected by the subsequent tragedies. What I eventually learned was that the uncle, proud about his possession, now considered himself to be a wealthy man in this modest place. Envy and other volatile emotions led to battles over an object that no one could understand. Several of these would-be robbers were killed before the uncle himself was murdered, and soon after that the new owner was incinerated by a mysterious fire. Stabbings and beatings followed, and more funerals, with the strife ending only when the initial discoverer — the now-grown lady — took back what should have always belonged to her.
Unfortunately, within the year she acquired a gruesome malignancy that tortured her before killing her, and that was when the battered village concluded that the artifact was cursed. Why else should so many suffer? Not because we are weak people, or greedy, or stupid. No. Humans will never believe that their failings are larger and more impressive than the cruelty of an unsympathetic universe.
Easing the artifact back into the uncle’s rotting cart, the surviving local men returned to the same remote whisper field, and on ground devoid of fence posts and rock piles and everything else that a counting eye might use as a landmark, they buried what they still secretly craved.
At this point, I will mention that I do believe in curses. But not in the tidy spells that push us to violence, misfortune, or kill us with vengeful fevers. To me, what is self-evident is that those small, clumsy brands of magic accomplish very little. Furthermore, I am certain that every fight is always ready to be won or lost, that luck loves nothing more than to change its course, and that even the wicked plague leaves most of its victims alive, and in special cases, stronger than ever.
No, the only effective curse is any spell that wipes away all memory of a soul’s life or an object’s existence, and what those men buried inside the whisper field was never protected by such powerful enchantments.
And how do I know this?
Because I found the artifact.
Decades after its burial, I walked out into the whispers. Out where the sweet nettles murmured in those vegetable languages otherwise dead to existence. Standing beyond all landmarks, I considered where clever scared and exhausted men might dig a hole, how deep that hole would be, and how carefully they would cover up their desperate work. Then raising an iron mallet, I drove a sharpened pole into the most likely spot, and then more spots after that. Quite intentionally, I didn’t count my attempts. But the telltale resistance came far sooner than I would have guessed, which made me sorry that I hadn’t counted. What a thing to tell others, if I ever have the chance. “A vast area to hunt, and only fifteen hundred and nine failures before earning success.”
With shovels and my broad back, plus my own native greed, I dug into the wet blackness, earth and groundwater yielding to a set of rotten boards — the floor of the overturned cart. What was always going to become mine was waiting below. Not a large treasure, as these things go. Tiny compared to a man’s home, which has so much value, or a man’s good name, which is incalculably precious.
The length and breadth of a smallish three year-old child. That’s what the ovoid was. Smooth as if polished. And gold, though not the pliable, beguiling gold of jewelry and crowns. What I found was more like a picture of the metal — a rendering painted upon some smooth mass perhaps twice as heavy as that precious metal would be. A weight that almost no human could lift alone, much less set inside a strong cart and wheel back home again.
The long-dead uncle must have been a powerhouse. That was a part of what I was thinking. Or perhaps the object had grown heavier while waiting for me underground. Who am I to define the nature of such a wonder?
I did not bring a cart, since that would have required a beast to pull it.
Where I was going, freight dogs do not survive. Nor will humans, if they stay too long.
What I brought was a quality wheelbarrow, twin heavy-duty tires filled with my own honorable breath, and perched along the basket’s edges, supplies such as a tough fellow might need on a very long walk.
Working alone, I established my claim over golden mystery, winching it out its grave and rolling it up a plank, dropping it into a bed of waddle down and spirit bark and old, once-loved clothes.
The nettles whispered, and once moving, my wheelbarrow sang with the voice of good iron bolts under stress — a sharp rhythmic ringing that lingered even after I paused to rest and regain my bearings.
Sound is that way, you know.
Heard once, it diminishes forever, and forever means exactly that. Which is why what stands above us hears everything that we say and everything that we have ever said, and this is enough reason to explain why we live as we do today.
Perhaps I knew what my treasure was, or maybe I convinced myself of something that was entirely wrong.
Either way, my state of mind was set.
I will mention that I was never alone on the whisper field. There were always a few local children nearby, weeding the nettles whenever they weren’t playing games with one another. Which is exactly what the long-dead girl had been doing when she fell over the unexpected object. Seeing a strange older fellow probing and digging, one of them ran home to report, and that was why a few of the more curious locals arrived in time to watch the wheelbarrow being loaded. But nobody approached me. Caution ruled the adults, while their offspring were threatened with thrashings and new duties if they didn’t leave that “crazy fool” alone.
This was critical for me, I should mention. I wanted others to serve as my witnesses.
The habitable world ended with a dilapidated stone fence wearing signs that said nothing at all, painted words stripped away by centuries of sun and wind. Later hands had created a gap in the barrier, presumably back in those years when adventurers still walked beneath the Great Cranes. That was the point where I crossed over. The sweet-voiced edible nettles had already been replaced by stinging cousins and bitter grasses, cockleburrs and ferns, but those weeds persisted only for another mile. Then, as my audience fell away entirely, a second, much shorter fence arrived, and a second set of nothing signs, beyond which was a terrain as flat as every other part of the world, all of it covered with purplish black vegetation — shades that no earthly plant can achieve. Not just inedible weeds, no, but in every case, poisonous too.
My wheelbarrow wanted nothing to do with this business. I say that knowing full well that wheels and handles and the big black bucket have no opinions about any subject. Yet that indifference was hard to believe, judging by how the vehicle fought against me.
The soil was damp at its best, watery mud at its worst. The alien foliage didn’t come in ten species or a thousand species. No, I was surrounded by a multitude of thick stems lifting every conceivable shape of leaf and black blossom toward a sky that belongs to Them. What wasn’t pasture was waist deep, sometimes head high, and occasionally taller. This was the nightmare that I willingly marched through. And worst of all, there was no uniform pattern to the growth. I shoved my wheelbarrow past the tangles and over knotted roots, then sudden holes dropped both of us into mud that stank of toxic waters of foreign rot. And wherever the plants broke, vivid white saps ran in bitter streams that thickened the tongue, and if I foolishly left my flesh exposed, burned me within moments.
Yet all of this was nothing besides inconvenience and frustration. What mattered was the apparition rising straight before me.
Every Great Crane has a specific name. Who was responsible for these identities is a mystery, what with so many dead and the evaporation of civilization. But from the evidence on hand, I am of the opinion that whim and memorability are why our visible Cranes are called Marshall and Caroline, Bismark and Santa Cruz. While the giant standing directly before me will always be known as Solomon.
Outwardly, each monstrosity appears identical to all the others. Solomon begins as a trio of bird-like feet, every toe buried inside the wet soil of the earth, reaching for miles across the flattened landscape. One foot is always aimed squarely at the earth’s north pole while its mates point southwest and southeast. Above the feet are the legs — a tripod considerably taller than our atmosphere.
Being so narrow and distant, these limbs are almost always invisible to humans, appearing only when the sun strikes at a rich angle, leaving them momentarily silvery and proud. Otherwise nothing about the Cranes is visible until the gaze reaches the cylindrical Body, the articulating Neck, and the Crane’s wicked Head.
Every self-proclaimed authority swears that the Great Cranes resemble the crane birds of old Earth. But how do we know this? After all, we have done nothing but lash a few human sounds lashed to structures free of human design, and having no experience with any extinct creature, I nourish few opinions on the subject, or give any emotion to these trivial matters.
If you let them keep talking, the same ignorant authorities will tell the story where the Great Cranes arrived inside a single day — a space-crossing flock bent on conquest. Each of these aliens claimed its own round territory, none able to touch the others, and then with powers never understood, the Cranes quickly flattened the face of this world, erasing the mountains while filling the oceans, stealing or hiding all of the saltwater and river water and glaciers, as well as the blood of most everything that was alive.
Except for the crops and weeds, that is.
Plus rats and dogs, humans, and a few other weedy species.
This popular history of conquest and survival might be true. But factual or not, it is repeated so often and with so much feeling that no other respectable tale can live in its shadow.
Now smoothed-over, the earth has been divided into identical purple-black circles with little green triangles squeezed between — havens existing beside these invaders, yet just out of reach. This is where we must live. We eat grains and nettles, grasshoppers and fat rats. We build villages and roads, and every triangle has its one city, usually set in the center. Every haven touches three neighbors, but only at their knife-narrow points. Trade and talk can be carried across conjoining trails, but not every day and not to sustain any important trade. Besides, everyone alive enjoys the same climate, endless sunshine and ample potable water rising from below. So why wander far from where you are born?
Languages like to vary, and certain customs, but I have little experience with any of this. Just once did I meet a stranger who spoke with an accent, and she claimed to have come from three havens to the west. But her authenticity was always under suspicion, and when the next morning began, she was gone from my bed, never to be seen again.
I am deeply ignorant — the same as everyone else.
The same as all of us, I march through the universe pretending to conquer meaningful distances. But unlike most of my species, I never stop reminding myself that the plants I walk past and the humans that meet my eyes are the same as me, unlearned and foolish about everything that is true.
I pushed my wheelbarrow through what is not regarded to be cropland or garden or any other human concept. A life of hard physical labor had prepared me for this work. Or so I believed. The towering visage of Solomon was my goal, and for company I drew friends and family out of golden memory, explaining what I was doing now and the wondrous things that would be accomplished.
But being such familiar people, my imaginary companions felt no need to appear understanding. Laughing mockingly, they denied my good sense and mocked every dream for triumph. Then night came and I mashed down a patch of vegetation, covering that ground with an impermeable tarp. This was where I ate and slept. But even in my dreams I was being told to be sensible, to turn the wheelbarrow around and retreat back to the habitable world, and when I rose in the morning, stubbornly continuing my quest, the others fell into the most wicked insults.
I managed to cross three days and not enough miles carrying their unexpected abuse. But the fourth morning found me alone. My imagination had failed, thank the gods, and suddenly happy as well as energized, I pushed forwards for another three days as well as half of every night.
It wasn’t until the seventh day that true exhaustion grabbed hold, and that was when I began to miss people — not just the rude voices, but also every nameless soul who watched me walk into this never-ending horror.
Food meant to last a full month proved inadequate.
But worse was the water lost from sweat and sun.
Calculations of distances and likelihoods. That was what I had generated before embarking, scrubbing every number until creating what seemed to be perfectly rational. Yet reality will always prove itself to be something else. Reaching Solomon’s nearest leg was never reasonable, but after twelve days it was obvious that the leg’s nearest toe was out of reach too. Counting mouthfuls of rations and the remaining sips of clean water, I decided that three days remained before I would offer my gift, which honestly should not have presented any sort of trouble at all.
You see, I never wished to believe or even pretend that the golden ovoid was important. At least not to the Great Cranes, no.
From the beginning, I assumed that I was in possession of trash. Bizarre and perhaps even fancy trash, but still, nothing but waste to whatever power or majesty owned it before. And why is that? Because if this bauble had value, then Solomon and its brethren would never have let it out of their grasp.
But ignorant, superstitious people had a very different opinion in this matter, and watching me vanish into the flat dark purple land, they would have no choice but to predict either my death or some grand success. And if they ever saw me again, they knew that I would have a story to tell.
My story. And I would be free to tell exactly as I wished.
My only intention was to walk to some halfway point with my rations, then shove one handle upwards while pushing down on the other. Spill the wheelbarrow in a likely place. Drop the rubbish into the muck, and without ceremony of any kind, turn my back on that disinterested god, following my path back to the land of possibility. Back to the whisper field. And there, facing children and other innocents, I would offer some story where the Cranes spoke to me. In thanks. With knowledge. Giving me a tale that would live a thousand lifetimes after my inevitable death.
Yet in the midst of my trials, that mission was lost.
The days of misery, the battles with ghosts and my own growing fatigue, and I was helpless to quit shoving my way towards the unreachable toe.
How many days I have walked is unanswerable.
Today I pushed beneath the sun and then into the slightly cooler but rather more treacherous darkness. Solomon was taller than ever, though the change was slight. The sun, preferring the god to me, still shone on the Body and Neck and Head, and I navigated by that glow until one of my legs rebelled, leaving me crippled on the muddy ground.
The tarp was left folded, just large enough to protect my prostrate body. I fell asleep weeping.
Then in the middle of the night, something exceptionally rare took place — a wonder that happens only beneath the Cranes. Clouds were forming, and not just the high wisps that occasionally gathered around the invisible legs, up near the top of the air. No, these were heavy clouds, low and wet enough to throw sparks and make rumbling while they leaked water. That was the only reason I woke. Explosions in the sky, and with panic and focus, I dug a hole in the toxic mud below me, then spread my tarp out, denting it in the middle to let the falling water roll into my own sweet pond.
What I drank was a treasure. What remained filled my empty sacks.
Usefully insane, I convinced myself that my Solomon was responsible, giving me this gift because I had been mistaken. What I was bringing was special, and I was a very brave entity, and more blessings than hydration and pale urine were in the offering for me.
I slept as I hadn’t in ages.
The sun was high when I finally woke, and reaching for the nearest satchel, I was astonished to find it as empty and dry as it was yesterday.
My desiccated brain had a conundrum that it could not decipher.
The clouds had been real. I could not so much as pick up any other explanation. So I decided that someone had found me unconscious and stolen my water from me. But at least my god had shown Its love to me. What more did any soul need?
Up came the heavy, heavy wheelbarrow, and on my third attempt, I coaxed it and the miraculous prize into rolling forwards.
I staggered but persisted.
Then after a very long time, I found myself listening to the voice of a woman who I had never met. But I knew full well who she was.
A dying woman helpless on her bed, her belly swollen from the tumor and gases and rot and despair.
And she called to me by name.
“About human nature,” she said. “Let me tell you this:
“Even the richest man — the fellow who can embrace and accept his idiocy, with cynicism and clarity — will always take one step too many on the journey. And in a geometry far greater than captured on any map, that fool will soon discover what it means to be lost.”