Wednesday 7 September 2011

Footprints: Fed By Our Lands

Reprint-o-mania continues here at the brown, I'm sorry to say, but I hope these little reruns keep you entertained while I'm away.

Of course, I'm not really anywhere except right here, but right now I'm behind in my public typing due to circumstances. You know circumstances. They're bastards.

As some of you know, I haven't been very gung-ho about the traditional publishing system ever since being burned by those American jokers on my novel. Despite this I was recently persuaded to give it another go, and so far the go is going reasonably well. I've had one short story accepted at a minor publication (I'll link it when the issue goes live), and I've just finished off a submission for another venue.

At the same time I have been moving forward on the conclusion of
The Secret Mathematic. This is invisible progress, however, as it is my plan to post all the remaining chapters in a single sustained burst. In order to guarantee no hold ups in the last spell of the telling, I won't begin posting until it's all written out. I know that's very old fashioned of me, but the story has become too complex to kick about on the fly. Too many damn threads.

If you're a local reader, look for my next story on the last page of Footprints magazine this autumn:

If you're not a local, instead consider this Footprints reprint (which is sort of a double reprint, because the idea is really just a rehashing of my novellette
Leslie and the Powder which you might have read already anyway)...

Fed By Our Lands

Sure, there are ghost stories in Innisfil. But this isn't one of them.

Mr. P called out, "Do you see any spirits yet, Mr. Brown?"

I slogged through the wetland, rubber boots squelching in peat. Frogs chirped and groaned. It was twilight and my eyes strained against the gloom. Mr. P, a local farmer, waited anxiously by the truck. "How bout now?"

"Nothing," I called back irritably, but then a flicker caught my eye. I turned to stare at the strange, slithering glow, then frowned. "You dragged me out here to see swamp gas? It's just a will-o'-the-wisp, just regular old fashioned ignis fatuus."

"Did you just call me an ignorant fart?"

"No, no -- Lytemenn, sir. Peg-a-lantern. Basically, a by-product of the oxidation of hydrogen phosphide and methane from the bog." I shook my head. "I'm afraid this is no ghost."

He sighed. "Can I still get my picture in Footprints?"


He fell silent, and that's when I heard it: the purring of a motor. It was hard to hear under a bed of crickets and croaks, but I shut my eyes and followed it. When my boots found something hard I clicked on my flashlight: the churning of the wetlands had revealed an old landfill. I wiped mud off a metal sign: KNICKERBOCKER ICE COMPANY.

Among the junk was an ancient refrigerator, the very beast of technology that had killed the ice industry in Innisfil. Ironic, at least. Stranger was the fact that the fridge was still running. Somehow, some way, with its plug embedded in oxidizing peat, this primitive kitchen appliance was still cold after more than half a century buried in a bog. I called for Mr. P's assistance.

By midnight we had winched the thing out. By the witching hour there was nothing to stop us from opening it. Already, water was dripping from its hinges. I steeled my nerves and applied the crow bar. The fridge creaked open.

Inside, predictably, was a block of ice. Less predictable was the yellowed envelope wrapped in wax paper affixed to the crisper. Mr. P held the flashlight while I peeled through the ruined pages for something legible. "9 Nov 1913. We have found a thing frozen in Simcoe & it is a grand curiosity." I squinted at the next page. "It will eat only certain flowers…ink blot...the bite will not heal…ink blot, ink blot. I can't make out any more."

Mr. P got a wild look in his eyes. "Let's thaw it out."

I could not dissuade him. And, as a journalist, I felt it was my duty to witness whatever came next. So together we drove the fridge to Mr. P's barn. He drew up two chairs and poured two glasses of rye. While the sun rose we watched the block of ice turn smooth and begin to fade, a pool of wet growing beneath. Soon, it became apparent there was a shadow within the ice -- a silhouette of something small, curled up and blurry.

I searched the ruined pages again. "There is fortune for he who feeds it," I read; "but beware its punishments, for its sense of justice is not the justice of men. I fear to free it & I lack the courage to kill it & so I entrust it to time, frozen as found."

I looked up. Mr. P had left his seat. He was crouching over what remained of the block. "Holy smokes," he whispered. "Would you look at that!"

Wet, bent, scrawny: a tiny pale figure. I gasped when it stirred. The eyes opened -- black and shiny, like a spider. With a shudder two dewy membranes spread apart from its spine. Wings.

"What is it?" I wondered, taking a step back. The wings flickered. The black eyes fixed on me.

Suddenly Mr. P slammed a corroded bird cage down over the thing. It reacted by bouncing around with vicious velocity, flitting back and forth in a blaze. I fell backward in surprise as Mr. P rolled the cage around and dogged the latch. He set it upright and watched as the creature raged inside, dashing itself against the enclosure. Rust rained from the thin bars.

But it calmed when Mr. P advanced with a handful of mixed clovers and heather. Its wings fluttered in anticipation as he drew nearer. Finally, two tiny, clawed hands whisked the grasses from him. It hunkered in the corner to consume.

I shivered. "Mr. P, seriously: this is dangerous. Do you know what I think that thing might be?"

He nodded as he watched it. "Faeriekind, that's sure." He straightened, his eyes wide. "And she's all mine. I'm the feeder. That fortune's for me."

I held up the moldering papers. "There's more here you should read. It might be important."

He grabbed them and shook his head. "Ink blots! What good is it?" He tore the pages into smithereens as he smiled at the cage. "Besides, I've got luck on my side now. I won't be needing anything else."

Mr. P was wrong about that. Sure, he wins all the raffles around town. Gas always gets cheaper on the day his tank is dry. And it's true what you've heard about his nights at the Georgian Downs. But when he telephoned me last winter there was something hollow and frightened in his voice. He asked me to come right over.

In his kitchen, over coffee, he showed me the pages he'd carefully taped back together and deciphered. His fingers were all covered in plasters, the skin at the edges white and morbid. He caught me looking. "She bites," he explained sheepishly. "And they don't ever heal."

I felt dizzy after I read the highlighted passage. "Nine men killed in 1914. More the next year. Holy crow. You've got to get rid of this thing, Mr. P."

"I want to!" he cried. "But any time she's nearly escaped I've been bitten half to death. Can you imagine what she'd do if she were free?" He gulped. "I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't."

I took a deep breath. "I'll do it."

His eyes bugged out. "You can't! She'll come after me! She'll kill us both!"

"Yeah, well…I guess luck evens out in the end. That's a kind of justice right there, sir."

After a moment he nodded. "I know you're right. I've just been too yellow to own up to it." He licked his lips nervously. "You'll help me, honest?"

We went out to the barn together, boots crunching in the snow. The cage sat on a hay bale, its bottom lined with old copies of Footprints. The faerie was drinking from a hamster bottle. It turned to us with a flutter of its wings, brow beetled and black eyes inscrutable. Mr. P's hands began to shake more and more the closer he got to the cage. The thing hissed and spat, stopping Mr. P in his tracks. "I can't do it," he blubbered.

I reached forward and unhitched the cage door. The faerie stared at the opening, absolutely motionless for a moment, and then hesitantly flitted over to it. All the while I was slowly backing away. It climbed upon the edge, panning its little pinched face back and forth at me and Mr. P. It flexed its claws. My mouth went dry.

And then it flew away, wings buzzing as it swooped to and fro, looping through the air and out into the day.

Mr. P and I turned to watch it go, agog to see that every naked branch it passed along the way burst suddenly into spectacular blossom. The hard winter air was cut by a cloud of pollen perfume. In the distance, a tunnel of flourishing green marked the creature's trajectory away into the woods.

Mr. P whistled. "Ain't that a sight?"

I guess this my confession, then. The creature is now loose in Innisfil, come what may. Fed by our lands, I suppose fortune belongs to the countryside itself. Should the faerie turn out bitter, however, and seek out missions of mischief, I share in the blame along with Mr. P and Bell Ewart's long-dead ice men.

Though it may be a goodness to set something free, to be set free we must first imprison it. I can't pretend to be wholly innocent. I can only guess what fate the creature may have marked for me, for the part I have played.

Time will tell.


Sheik Yerbouti said...

A bit more Lovecraftian than the longer work. I like it.

SaintPeter said...

I am stoked beyond belief about the possible conclusion of TSM. That's the good stuff!

This story was fun, but I think it lacked the punch of the longer version - I thought the "it makes things better" and the implications thereof in Leslie and the Powder was more profound. I imagine that it would have been much harder to pull off in this shorter form.

It was not clear to me if the fairy was killing people, or what the downside of the luck was, or how the guy even knew that it was linked to the fairy.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Yes, I don't disagree, SaintPeter. My memory is hazy, but I strongly suspect this was one of those "holy smokes it's due today?!" panic attacks where I banged the whole thing out moments before the deadline...which often seems to happen to me with these pieces despite the fact that I know the deadlines months in advance every year.

I'm not sure which is next, but I don't think it's quite as hastily executed.

Cheeseburger Brown