Swarms of fruit flies frolicked along, darting in and out of the moving cloud, heading nowhere in particular. Butterflies flitted about, singly and in pairs. stumbling through the air. Orange and black, green and gold, mosaics of moving light. From deep burrows, ants and beetles emerged foraging for whatever they could find. The winter had been unusually long this year, they were famished. Deer, elk, fox, and sleepy-eyed bear wandered through looking for edibles. The eagle and the hawk stood on high branches scrutinizing the hunting ground, waiting for a brave field mouse, gopher, or hare to make a run for it.
Trees grew sparse near the upper bound of the forest where it was dotted with meadows of every size. Flowers formed clumps, claiming territory, and new grasses popped up amidst rough, prickly bushes. Beneath the earth, the fungal web of commerce and communication connecting the trees surrounding the meadows awakened with a surge of activity, forming a single consciousness, accelerating growth. The growing season was brief at this altitutde and fast paced; there was no time to waste.
In the center of the highest and largest meadow a colony of ants had awakened, grudgingly, it would seem, and pushed dirt and stones out and clear of the main opening to the outside, piling the debris around the portal to act as a berm against the rain. As the workers put the finishing touches around the mini-caldera, curving the edge just so to make it easier to step over, the first phalanx of scouts headed out. Sliding slightly with each footstep, they reached the meadow floor; the dirt, cold and coarse from winter's grip, crunched under their feet. Living in darkness for months on end, relying on other senses, they shielded their eyes from the harsh, mid-morning sunlight. The crisp, clean air sharpened its intensity, concentrating the beams to fuel the life-giving processes nurturing the meadow and the tress enclosing it. Three scouts followed the path of least resistance, turning westerly. They walked beside one another, spaced apart by a few inches, over fledgling ground cover and sticks and stones of various sizes and irregular shapes, pausing occasionaly to examine something, to feel its texture and smell its nature. They stopped on the rounded crest of a hill, a good foot above the ground, to scan the area. The border where the meadow met the trees was a good month's journey, with any luck, from their current position. Several bees passed overhead, their buzzing and speed startling and breathtaking at the same time.
They stood together on the peak, breathing deeply the fresh air and savoring their freedom. Friends since they could remember, they remained silent, their antennae twitching for sign. In spite of belonging to the group mind, they moved in and out of individuality at will, transcending the superorganism consciousness. Leroy was the biggest and strongest and had a gift for reading the surroundings; Yancy was the youngest and swiftest and often took dangerous risks most ants wouldn't consider; Dominic was the smartest, not easily fooled by appearances, who dreamed of adventures and spoke of them to his friends. He was the leader. [Those aren't their real names, but their ant names are not only too difficult to pronounce but also too tedious to spell.]
The landscape was a wasteland of crumpled, entangled weeds, a mish-mosh of mingled life and death. They could barely see over it and, except for a splotch here and there, the ground could not be seen. Their antennae picked up no chemical traces of anything that could be foraged. Green shoots, blades, and clumps of grasses stood out amongst last year's straw-colored dead. Heavy snow had crushed them down to ground level; they lay sideways, bent and broken into unnatural shapes, forming twisted alien sculptures and darkened hollows where a creature might use as a dwelling. Animal trails coursed erratically throughout. A scene of madness and devastation, but also of promise and hope.
It was all too quiet, too still in spite of the mild breeze welling up from the valley floor. But in a couple of months, the new growth will be several feet tall, basking in the sunshine, sharing space with countless insects--for better or worse--the old having returned to the earth to replenish its larder.
"Well," Dominic said dryly, "you guys see anything?" He uncapped his canteen, took a swig, and handed it to Leroy.
"No," Leroy said. He took a sip and gave it to Yancy. Leroy's antennae rotated in a careful circle, each working independently. "Nothing out here. It must be too early yet. I knew we should've waited another week at least. The fresh ground cover's barely visible."
Yancy wet his whistle and handed the canteen back to Dominic who capped it and put it back in the pouch belted at his mid-section. "There's a pool of rain over to the right. Can you see it?" They nodded. "Why not head over that way, see what turns up."
They set out in that direction, walking more closely together. They were looking for whatever they could find. Berries that had been frozen to bushes before they had a chance to fall would be ideal. Winter had come earlier than usual. Sugary leaves would also work in a pinch, rough on the stomach but nonetheless satisfying and nutritious. However, you had to eat a lot of them. Cadavers would also be good. Creatures who'd gotten caught too far from home when the first chill tumbled down from the volcano's caldera, snow and ice a permanent feature covering the sloping cliffs leading to the mouth.
The Standard Order from the Head of Collections and Disseminations was to move quickly, efficiently, and with all due consideration to those of the colony most in need. The trio, however, never paid much attention to orders, especially not today. It was their first outing, their first exposure to sun and fresh air and sights and fragrant smells, with a not too disagreeable tinge of dankness. The meadow, the trees, the mountain, the glorious deep-blue sky. It was great to be alive and they were in for taking advantage of it. As they sauntered along, pausing now and then to take in this and that as though seeing it for the first time ever, Dominic told them about a dream he had. He said he was on a raft going down a fast-moving stream. It appeared to be daylight but the far edge of his surroundings was foggy and incoherent. Yancy asked what a raft was and Leroy, having once crawled onto a flat piece of bark in a flash flood, explained.
Dominic continued, "I was standing at the rear holding tight the steering oar, avoiding rocks and floating debris, twigs and leaves and stuff. I came around a sharp bend and there before me was the end of the stream."
"The end?" Yancy asked, confused and incredulous.
"Yes," Dominic replied, trying to sound ominous. "The stream plummeted down a waterfall. I pulled hard on the oar trying to reach the near bank, but the strength of the water was too great."
They stopped to gaze at a large beetle lumbering by several inches away, ignoring them. Intricate and colorful designs, a spectacular mosaic of bright reds, orange, and green, adorned his head and back.
"The dream?" Yancy finally said.
"Oh, yes. Holding fast the oar, I went over and down, expecting to be squashed when I hit the lagoon far below, I could barely even see it. When suddenly I rose up, I mean the raft did, and headed out straight into the sky. After a while, it started to get dark. Then the stars came out, the dark had become a rich black color. Stars were everywhere and I was standing there, holding the oar. I wasn't cold or afraid."
"Then what?" asked an excited Yancy.
"I woke up, had to pee." Leroy laughed till his sides hurt; Yancy shook his head and kicked a tiny pebble.
Nearing the pool, they heard, or rather felt, a scraping sound across the ground getting closer. For caution's sake, they hid in a hillock of rough, old grass and waited. Before long, a creature composed of similar sections, each with a pair of legs, and a head that was frightening to behold, its teeth sharp, its tentacles quickly gyrating side to side, searching. Arching over each segment were red, yellow, and blue bands, stiff green bristles extended out. Around its feet were more stickers projecting in every direction. It crept or rather undulated by, the sound disappearing into the distance.
"What was that?" asked Yancy, scanning the way it had come. Dominic explained calmly that they ate grass, lots of grass, and leaves, and eventually turned into butterflies. "How could something like that become a butterfly?" his face smiling, assuming he was being put on. "Nature is very strange, Yancy. And mysterious. Why and how it does what it does, I don't fully understand."
The circular pool of rain water, perhaps the last for a while, was about two feet in diameter. Two bees crouched at its rim, drinking. With few exceptions, bees are notoriously snobbish. They think of themselves as the aristocrats of the insect world and have even been known to shun the most beautiful of butterflies, and wasps are treated by them as uncouth cousins having far too belligerant an attitude and lacking all but a rudimentary intelligence.
The trio approached with antennae crossed, the universal sign of peace and good will. The bees murmured something, snickered, then without a glance, buzzed off.
"Not very friendly," Yancy observed as he approached the pool. Dominic stuck a hand in and tasted it. "A little brackish," he pronounced, "but drinkable." He topped-off his canteen, then drank from the pool. Leroy walked around to some old straw and felt it, squeezing it in his powerful hands. "You know, we could make sun hats out of this. It's stiff yet pliable." Dominic took a quick glance at the sun then at Leroy. "Good idea," he smiled. They proceeded to weave together three very distinct hats with wide brims. Yancy's curved downward, covering his forehead, his antennae poking through at different angles. He then stared into the pool. "Pretty cool, huh?" He straightened, leaning to the side on all four legs.
"Yeah, Yancy," Leroy said, "all you need is a feather and you'd be the coolest scout in the colony." Yancy didn't know if he was kidding or not; he decided he wasn't and smiled. Leroy's fit tight on his head, shaped snugly, the brim stiff and straight out. Dominic went for a softer look. His hat molded smoothly around his wide head and the brim flopped down all around. They posed next to one another and peered into the still, dark water, smiled, then laughed. "Okay," Dominic said, "let's head west and try to remember where this water is." They scanned the area, taking note of landmarks, then strode off.
Flowers reached for the sky. The heavy rain of the previous week--they could hear it thundering above--followed by the warm sun had combined to accelerate growth. This is how it went in the high country, intermittent periods of rain and sun. And, of course, the soil had something to do with it. Some areas were richer and more conducive than others; not all soils are equal when it comes to mineral distribution, for instance, deposits varied across the wide meadow, and the type and number of organisms working the dirt--macro and micro--played an important part. Some sectors were more agreeable to certain plants than others; consequently, different types tended to cluster where they were most welcome.
The trio was drawn to a section that, for whatever reasons--the soil, the sun's duration and angle, a peculiar mixture of minerals, something or everything--was exceptionally hospitable to single-stem flowers of glowing gold. There were so many and they were so densely packed that the very air shimmered with bright yellow light. Dominic stopped at a tall one rooted on a mound enclosed by stones. It towered over the others around it and appeared to be in charge, or, perhaps, was overseeing distribution and population control, communicating through the underground network, pointing out underrepresented parcels, nooks, and crannies in need of fulfillment.
Dominic decided that it was a good perch from which to scan and observe. That was his official scout self talking. Actually, he thought it would afford a spectacular view, and he wanted to feel the flower, its dense arrangement of petals most inviting. He squeezed through a crack in the rock wall and climbed the mound to its base, looked up one more time at the distant flower, a dark disc from below, then stuck his claws into the stem's rough covering and began to ascend. Leroy and Yancy followed without a word. Although he'd been as faithful as he could to the rigorous exercise routine demanded by his section leader, he could tell he was way out of shape. Or was it just age, he wondered. That thought annoyed him; he dug his claws in deeper and climbed with a single purpose. With a couple of pauses along the way, he eventually reached the flower.
Carefully, using all six claws, he crawled upside down across the underside of the flower; he didn't want to fall and have to do this again. He grabbed at a petal on the edge; it was soft and plush, yielding. He pulled himself up and over; the others, younger and stronger, scrambled onboard right behind. They walked around on it a bit, testing its springiness. Dominic removed his utility belt, then let himself fall backwards, momentarily disappearing. The others laughed and proceeded to do the same. They needed a break, scouting was hard work.
Dominic rolled over and wormed his way to the edge. He peered down at the hard, stony ground far below; landing on it would not be pleasant. Then he looked out at the enormous expanse before him and his heart filled with awe and wonder and profound beauty. Berry bushes scattered at random were budding and you could almost see grasses getting taller. And the flowers. Purple and yellow dominated but here and there were patches of shades of red and violet. The meadow sloped at an angle which allowed him to see the forest on the down side. It went on forever. He couldn't imagine what creatures lived there. Closer in he could see spiders diligently working, creating webs of every size and configuration, stupendous feats of engineering and marvels of architecture.
He then rolled onto his back to stare up at the glorious mountain, its ascent sharpening until it was almost vertical. Yet the snow and ice did not slide down; it would never be warm enough no matter what time of the year. He dreamed, no, he wished, he could travel to where the tree line met the snow. Or maybe even to the very top to see the world from that vantage. He envied those spiders who could make gossamer webs that they attached to themselves, would stand on a high point of a rock or plant, and wait for a breeze, the wind, to take them aloft, to fly over the meadow and up to the highest tree.
"Look," Yancy yelled, pointing off in the distance. A doe and fawn meandered along, apparently coming from the woods above, stopping occasionaly to eat the tops of certain grasses and sampling flower buds. Mother deer kept her eyes open for bear, mountain lion, , coyote, and whatever else had either just awakened in desperate need of a meal or were hungry from the sparse winter. The fawn was bedazzled by butterflies. Insects flew about them, each on its own mission, ignoring one another. But the birds didn't. After the long winter, they set about picking insects out of the air. Berries and fruit droppings would be available later. Apple and plum trees were scattered over the meadow, but now they were just flowering.
Dominic rubbed his right shoulder, recalling how, at the end of the gathering season, he wrenched it wrestling with a morsel of apple. It was a good score, but costly. The pain was almost incapacitating, but with help from the group mind, it healed quickly. What aches now and then, he believed, was the memory of it. Climbing up here he put his all into it. Perhaps it's not as healed as he imagined and never would be completely. It needed work, he decided, and that was all. In his youth he could carry twice that much with little effort. He was getting old and didn't like it; time, he knew, was running out.
Leroy stood and bounced a bit. Then yelled, "Now here this. We have come to take you all back to our world. Surrender or face the wrath of Yancy the Terrible." His tiny voice didn't travel very far, but he imagined it filled the entire field. A bee flew up and stopped to stare with disdain; they didn't bother to cross their antennae. Yancy stood beside Leroy, defiant. The bee turned to face them, they held their petal. With a high-pitched buzzing, it left for the next flower over.
Dominic, still sprawled on his back, had taken the whole scene in as though from a million miles away. What courage, he thought. No. More than courage--contempt. He had to smile at his mates. Then he laughed and rose in one movement, walked to the edge and, adjusting the brim of his straw hat, slowly surveyed what lay before them. The birds would need to drink. They could fly off to the woods whenever they were thirsty, no doubt there's plenty of water sources--streams and brooks and pools--to be had there. But they're more resourceful than that. And cleverer. And they can see the smallest detail. Where there's water, there'll be birds and, possibly, bird leftovers.
Last year's berries, frozen all this time, still good. Shrunken and tasteless, but better than nothing. If they could find something large, the remains of a centipede or worm, the three of them could drag it under cover, then return to the colony, leaving trail. But that's not likely; birds don't waste anything, ordinarily. On the other hand, where there's feast, there's liable to be a more relaxed attitude, a carelessness. Dominic had faith in serendipity; it guided him and formed the basis of his optimism. Besides, he could see nothing else and had no other idea except to wander around alimlessly.
They rested in the luxurious comfort of the yellow petals for a while, enjoying the quiet and the warmth and feel of the early spring air. When the sun was at its peak--no shadows to hide anything--they climbed down, a much easier task, and stood at the flower's base. They wanted to remember where it was, so once again they noted landmarks. They could leave a scent trail, but hadn't from the watering hole and wouldn't here either. They didn't want anyone following their wayward path, their search pattern, if you could call it that.
The ground had warmed and the air was mellow with the sweetness of fresh beginnings. They drank from their canteens and ate a handful of sugar mixed with dried blackberry juice, scout rations. Dominic refound the tree he'd spotted that appeared to have a large pool near it. He pointed in that direction and headed out. Yancy asked where they were going and he explained. That was enough for them.
They were taking a more or less curvilinear route to their destination. Pausing to examine whatever drew their interest. Not dawdling, mind you, but not hurrying either. They were pacing themselves to conserve energy, it's in the manual. Moreover, urgency didn't seem to be a rationale sufficiently meaningful to call them to action. There were other motivators, urgency wasn't one of them. You can get into a lot of trouble when you rush into things. Urgency leads to impulsive behavior, acting without forethought, without thinking things through. In that state of mind, there's an increased likelihood to overreact to incoming sensory stimulation, movement, sound, chemicals in the air. Given the opportunity to plan in advance is always the ideal and how they liked to conduct their professional responsibilities. But, not having a plan to speak of and with no desire to rush, they concentrated on the present, it was all they knew. You might call it their default plan.
They were traveling in a region of the meadow new to them. The bushes from afar seemed quite ordinary, but close-up they revealed distinct differences in how they intertwined, some branches spiralling around others; their sheer density, flowering twigs growing on larger flowering twigs; and the symmetrical way they converged at the base as though swirling. The spring buds radiated a piercing light from within, cause unknown. Dominic wondered if this effect could be seen at night and if so, what it must look like from a distance. They moved on, the sun had shifted and they wanted to get back home before nightfall; they left no trail so would have to rely on familiar landmarks. As they were busy studying a particularly intricate sculpture of dry, grey sticks, a strong yet delicate aroma glided by on a puff of a breeze. Unable to ignore such an unusual scent, they followed their noses. A trail, their size, led through a confluence of several bushes of the same kind into what would be darkness when they fully flowered. Now, however, light shafted onto the bare ground. The scent intensified. They heard voices. Cautiously, they crept behind a cluster of ground-level branches to take a peek.
A few feet away, sitting on separate, elevated slabs of wood with a backing made of vertical sticks held together at the top by another, were two beetles side by side. One was twice the size of the other. They stood to face the bush and point up at different places, talking to one another quietly, then sat back. The smaller had a curved, orange back with several large, circular black dots on it evenly dispersed, and the other's was a mixture of glistening turquoise strips over an iridescent silvery background. He was doing most of the talking. Between them sat a circular chunk of wood with a flat bottom. On it, the source of the rich aroma: a pot, round with a handle, and two cups, no handles.
Dominic slapped Leroy on the shoulder and smiled. He stepped around their concealment and approached the pair with antennae crossed. Leroy and Yancy did the same.
A moment of alarm and confusion on the part of the two shifted to a cordial sign of greeting. Dominic returned the feeling and introduced them. He went on to say that they were scouts from the central hillock community and this was their first day out above ground. The larger one introduced his friend, Malcom, who nodded politely, and then stood and said, "My name is Nathan." His grey eyes, flecked with gold, sparkled with warmth and wisdom. "Please, come into my living room and have a seat." He gestured to three chairs off to the side ingeniously weaved together with thick straw. They looked well broken-in and quite sturdy. The scouts hadn't seen them a moment before. Leroy and Yancy looked surprised; Dominic stared hard, certain he would've noticed them when spying and on their approach. It was a trained habit to observe, in detail, the surroundings when encountering other beings in a strange situation. The insect world was often not what it appeared to be.
They gathered the chairs and arranged them in a semi-circle in front of the table. Nathan, almost half-again taller than Leroy, turned, saying, "I'll be right back. Please, make yourselves comfortable." They removed their utility belts and laid them on the ground, then sat into the high-backed chairs. The backs curved around, moving to adjust to their body shapes, settling in. Nathan went to the thick base of the bush and, as Dominic watched, disappeared. Momentarily, he emerged with three cups which he placed on the table before them. Smiling, he asked, "Tea?"
"Why yes," replied Dominic, feeling slightly overwhelmed by the attention. "It smells delicious."
"Oh," said Nathan in a lower tone of voice, "it's more than just delicious. You'll find it most invigorating." He filled all three cups and then regained his chair. The trio sipped carefully, it was hot but not too hot. Brightening somewhat and expressing murmurs of pleasure, they drank more deeply. "Perhaps you'd like to join in our conversation? You don't appear to be in too much of a hurry."
They laughed. "We're scouts," said Dominic. "We look for things. Today though, we're more concerned with getting the lay of the land. A mental map. But sometimes in the process we find the unexpected, the unusual."
"Well, I hope this qualifies."
Dominic finished a sip and said, "Most definitely."
Nathan nodded his approval with a hint of a grin at what he saw as a compliment. "Now, Malcolm, my good friend, where were we?"
"Ramadji, I believe. You mentioned him. Reminiscing."
"Oh yes." He laughed, jiggling his round belly. "He was from the North, near the pond where fish live. He had huge feet and a skinny body, hardly any weight at all, and could walk on water. Unfortunately, this miraculous feat got him into trouble. One day, when trying to impress a group of females who'd come to the pond to drink, he lost track of where he was and a fish grabbed him."
"Oh no," Malcom said, dismayed.
"Ah," consoled Nathan, his hand raised. "But that wasn't his end. He tickled or scratched, nobody knows for sure, the fish's mouth until he spat him out. Ramadji swam to the surface and over to the bank where the females dragged him out and revived him. One of them he fell in love with and they remained together for the rest of his life."
"So, what's the moral?"
"When things look bleakest, that's the time to fight the hardest, life will reward you. Or, walking on a pond filled with hungry fish may not be the smartest thing in the world to do."
They both laughed and so did our trio of scouts, more loudly than usual. Dominic leaned forward to gaze at Nathan. "Who are you, sir? Do you live here?"
"Well, as far as who, that's a deep question we can fathom into the night. But yes, this is my home. Would you like a tour?"
Leroy and Yancy elected to stay for more tea and to talk to Malcom. Nathan led Dominic, cup in hand, to the darkened base of the bush. An abrupt turn left and he was gone as before. Dominic heard him say, "This way." He crept forward until he could see light coming from a side corridor, hidden from view by a sheet of bark. Down the hall the light got brighter. A right turn opened onto a spacious sitting area, his inner living room, Nathan declared. The interior wall was of dried mud, smoothed to near perfection, following the contours of the bush.
A long, rectangular, wooden table sat separating a couch and three chairs, all made from a combination of stiff straw and smoothed sticks. A fireplace with a stone mantlepiece was inlaid into a niche in the wall. A chimney made of stones joined together by a mixture of straw and mud rose up to an opening to the outside. A stack of firewood lay beside. After describing all this and how it was he built, he continued on to the bedroom. Nestled into the exterior wall was another fireplace, smaller than the other, without mantlepiece; the massive bed was set sideways a few feet from it. The bed itself was of dried, manacured moss and the blanket made of layers of silk interspersed with straw. Over in the far corner sat a thick-legged, triangular table on which stood wooden statuettes and pieces of colorful crystals, behind them sat a large, dark brown box with a door in front. A chair draped with a reddish robe stood before it. In the wall next to it were three shelves cut into the hardened mud that went the remaining length. Carved figurines of other creatures, some Dominic recognized, along with stones and rocks. Some were shaped and faceted, sharp points jutting out at odd angles. Then to his kitchen of which he was most proud. He spent a lot of time there, he said, entertaining guests for dinners and conversation, with tea, of course.
Dominic was flabbergasted, to say the least. He'd never seen anything like it, didn't know anyone lived this way. Back in the living room, he stared at the jewel-like stones attached to the mud wall and ceiling radiating light, enough to illuminate the whole space with a soft, yellowish glow. He was about to ask what they were when Nathan explained that he gathered them from a special place far from here. He believed a swarm of lifeforms lived inside giving off light as they interacted with one another. He'd sat up many a night, drinking tea and wondering, trying to figure it out.
"How did you construct all this, this space?"
"Friends. Friends helped. It was mostly open space to begin with, just a few, maybe more, tendrils had to be removed and the mud applied and smoothed out. By now it's baked in solid. There's a community around here; we all get along. Most of my life I've lived here, know just about everybody." They stood for a bit, Dominic absorbing the ambience, the positive resonating energy was almost palpable. Finally, Nathan said, "Shall we rejoin the others?"
Dominic walked outside with a grin and said, "You guys need to see Nathan's home. It's amazing." Malcom offered to act as tour guide, Nathan agreed and the three left. Seated again in the comfort of the straw chairs, Nathan said, "Each member of the community has an art form or a craft that they are especially good at. A gift, a talent. Malcom gives performances of stories he makes up, apparently on the spot, he won't reveal how, and acts out all the characters. It's as though he's channeling real beings."
"And yours?" Dominic asked. Not wishing to be rude but too curious not to ask.
"I'm a seer and weaver of spells. Certain spells. It takes time to develop particular effects, the incantations and mental alignments must mesh precisely. I learned, my apprenticeship, from my parents and extended family of practitioners how to create or find the words to shape the mental images and to focus desire. We lived far west of here, near where the forest begins. But it was too cold for me, even in the hot season. When I was old enough, I left home to explore the warmer domains downslope. I found a home here and so I've stayed."
A warm smile creased his ruddy features. "You were startled by the sudden appearance of the chairs," he waved at them, "more so than your companions. We sensed your approach and thought we'd play a trick, see your reaction. Did we look convincingly startled?" He chuckled, then continued, "In fact, it's how I preserve my estate. I could've cast a veil over our presence and also blocked the smell of the tea. But I could see the three of you meant no harm."
Peering at Dominic, Nathan leaned forward to pour more tea, which, strangely, was still hot. Dominic stared at the stone pot, wondering if it possessed special properties to hold heat like the lights. Was it magical or simply an ordinary material that he wasn't aware of? It was a big world, he knew, and he had only scratched the surface of what curiosities it possessed. Nathan held his cup in both hands and sat back. "You're a dreamer, Dom, but also a realist. You need to have plausible explanations for things, for how things work. But things happen in this world for which there are no reasonable explanations. When circumstances demand it, when they lay beyond our understanding, one must go on faith and intuition. Sometimes, we're prodded to do something for reasons unknown, but the desire comes from within and must be paid attention to." He paused for a moment as though considering what he was about to say. "I can see that you are not wholly satisifed with your life, Dom, you lack fulfillment. You seek adventure."
Dominic was about to ask if the dreams he keeps having might be expressive of that and was prepared to divulge a few, when Leroy and Yancy came out, their faces aglow with wonder. "What an incredible work of art," exclaimed Leroy, looking at Dominic. Turning to Nathan, he said, "Magnificent, sir. Brilliant, in fact. I've never been inside someone's private home, it must be enjoyable, gratifying, to have all that space to yourself."
"Yes, it is," Malcom agreed. "But it does get lonely sometimes. But I make do. I've learned to use my times of solitude productively," he cringed, "most of the time. I do like to just sit and dream, however. Imagine another life, other places I would've liked to have seen. When I was young, I did a lot of traveling around this meadow. Spending time in different places. Meeting other beings with their own particular lifestyles and ways of making a living. But,..., I have a home here and friends and it has done me a world of good. I could not have accomplished what I have otherwise."
Yancy found his chair and plopped down, his eyes wide and somewhat glazed. As Malcom went by the table to his chair, he stopped to pour Leroy and Yancy more tea. He then handed Yancy's to him and said, "Here, son. I think you could use this." Yancy grinned and took it, then withdrew into the straw backing, unabashedly overwhelmed.
The private conversation was over. The subject changed. Dom would have to wait for another time, if there was one. They talked and drank. Malcom entertained with stories of people he knew from where he'd grown up in the southeast; Nathan recalled anecdotes of characters he'd run into. Time passed.
Finally, Dominic announced that they must be on their way. They had places to investigate. There were thank yous all around and Nathan told them they were always welcome. Dominic decided he'd take him up on that.
They strapped on their utility belts, drained their cups, and were about to depart when Nathan handed Dom a small, smooth, elliptical-shaped pebble, black in color. "Take this," he said. "It's a charm of concealment. If the need arises, stand close together, hold it over your heart and say the words dark be done. A cloak of invisibility will embrace you all. To undo it, say light be life. But it'll only work once, so pick your emergency carefully. Oh, and if you lose it while invisible, don't worry, its effects wear off, eventually." He laughed.
Dominic stared at it, felt its coolness and light weight, placed it in a special pouch, and with one more look at the two of them, off they went. When they reached the tangle of ground-hugging branches from where they'd spied, Dom turned to wave good-bye, but Nathan and Malcom, the chairs, the table and the pot of tea were nowhere to be seen. For an instant, he wondered if he'd imagined it all. He reached into the pouch and rubbed the pebble, feeling its smooth texture. And the tea, of course.
They felt euphoric and energized, and their physical surroundings were much more vivid and detail rich. The air smelled and felt wonderful, the temperature just right. They stepped out into the sun, it hadn't shifted as much as it seemed. Dominic found the landmark tree and they continued on their journey. Moving and walking, their bodies felt stronger. Every sinew and joint worked with a relaxed precision and grace that was effortless. Yet at the same time, a hard granularity pervaded their openness with everything they came in contact with. They discussed what could've been in the tea, none could imagine. The tea they were used to in the common chambers was dark and bitter. It had one purpose: to wake them up. Leroy wondered if there'd be any harm come to them because of it. After a pause, all three burst out laughing. It was not a day to worry, it wasn't in their natures to begin with let alone now. Not yet anyway.
Over and under, over and under, stubby grass, sticks, floppy leaves, pebbles and stones. Mostly they kept to the dirt trail, but in their present condition and state of mind, they were actually enjoying climbing over things, brushing new grass blades aside, their velevety finish a pleasure to rub against, and feeling the texture of the warm, dry dirt beneath their feet. Common smells now aromas wafted by, their antennae tingling with each new sensation. And they found no shortage of objects to study, appreciate, wonder at, discuss the merits of. They passed patches of yellow flowers that seemed to proliferate by the moment this time of year and were tempted to climb one and bask in its peatls. What a sensation that would be now. But if they dozed off, a likely scenario, they'd be trapped when the flower closed up for the night as they do. They were already quite a distance from home, time was running out. They decided they'd check out the pond for any future possibilities and then head home by another route, the landmarks visible from anywhere. But even in the dark, though, once they neared home they could pick up multiple trails to follow.
Eventually, as the effects of the tea were wearing off, they smelled the pond just around a cluster of rough, stunted, leafy grass. Something made Dom pause. Instead of openly circumnavigating the raised shelf of earth on which the clumps were growing, he suggested they go through the middle, up and over. That way they'd have cover. Leroy led the way, followed by Dom then Yancy. He pushed through incipient ground cover, moss, for the most part, until the water's smell was all he knew. The trio crept up to a tangle of grey twigs from the overhanging willow branches and raised their heads enough to see through an opening.
The pond was much larger than expected, but they could see the bank on the other end. They anticipated seeing birds this time of the afternoon coming in for a drink, but the dry bank was empty. They stepped out and began to survey the beach for any sign that birds brought prey here. They moved to the left down the long side of the oval-shaped pond towards the tree. The sun's angle over the mountain was sharp, casting a shadow on that side, so their thoughts were to cover that first. They figured it would take until the sun was almost at the top of the mountain to inspect the whole bank, leaving enough time to get home before dark.
Halfway along at the point closest to the tree, a sharp crunching sound preceded the emergence from behind a twig of a creature from nightmare that spun to face them. Several times taller than they with an elongated back, its massive head swiveled slowly side to side, huge bulbous eyes glared down, measuring them up. It held its long arms raised and close together, bent at the elbow, forearms dangling, poised. Bristling hairs protruded from them like barbs, glistening in a shaft of light shining through the branches of the willow. It opened its maw as though in anticipation, revealing long, sharp teeth.
The trio stood firm, afraid to move but knowing they had to. Caught out in the open, the pond on one side, the tree on the other too far to run for cover, nothing but bare beach behind, and in front, a being from another world. Dominic had never seen one before; although, he overheard stories told by the elders in the public room. One he remembered of a dozen or more soldiers killed and eaten at one time by a gigantic monster who ran them down relentlessly, attack on its legs not enough to slow it.
Leroy on Dominic's right whispered out of the side of his mouth, "Do you think this qualifies as an emergency?"
Dominic remembered. He immediately reached into his pouch, retrieved the charm, placed it over his heart and said, with all the feeling he could muster, "dark be done." The lights went out. They found themselves in an empty, gray void, their surroundings gone. The tree, the pond, the beach, the greenery, and most especially, the monster, all gone. They didn't know what to do, Nathan hadn't bothered to mention this. All they could see was each other standing on nothing, but standing nonetheless.
As the gray swirled about them, it began to thin like morning fog in the sun. Here and there the world they were familiar with showed itself until it all returned in a quick, soundless rush. Everything snapped into focus. The pond with its watery smell, the tree with its hanging branches, everything including the monster frantically turning its gargantuan head in every direction, searching. They stood in front of it as before, but now, apparently, they could not be seen.
"Time to go," Leroy stated. They turned and ran as fast as they could, Yancy out in front and pulling away. They raced to the clump field where they had reconnoitred, jumped behind the pile of sticks and poked their heads up. The monster was thrashing about in the fresh greenery, knocking stones and sticks out of its way.
"How much time do we have on that thing?" Leroy whispered.
"I don't know, he didn't say. Only that it would eventually wear off."
"Well then, let's get."
They'd caught their breath as well as they were willing to wait; what was left of the tea effect helped them regain strength quickly. Taking a different route home, they started off running but soon slowed to a rhythmic jog, their footfalls landing on the dirt path together, over and under, not saying a word, putting distance between them and the pond creature was foremost on their minds. Almost exhausted, Dominic pulled up, catching his breath, the others did the same. He looked around and saw a group of purple flowers bunched tight, in their midst was darkness. He nodded that way and they proceeded into the thick of them, dropping their belts, lying down, closing their eyes. When matters calmed they glanced around at their hiding place with approval.
"What was that?" Yancy asked, not really expecting an answer.
"I don't know. I never seen one before," replied Dominic. "I heard of them but I thought they were gone."
"Must be back," Leroy said, his voice deep with irritation.
"When we get home," Dom said, "we'll have to tell the elders. Everyone must know to be aware."
After a time, their hearts beating regularly, Leroy said, "That was quick."
"What's this?" Dominic asked.
"Nathan gave you that stone intentionally. It wasn't much time afterwards we came upon that thing."
"He must've seen it coming," Dom said. On the way to the pond he'd told them of their conversation, brief though it had been, that Nathan was a seer and of the community he was a part of.
"If he could see it, why didn't he warn us?"
"I don't think it works that way, at least, not in our case. He saw some event happening where we might need to use his charm, but didn't know what exactly. If he knew and told us, we would've avoided the pond, gone somewhere else and ran into another emergency, maybe something worse. He had a premonition of great danger, but not what it would be."
"Yeah, well, he needs more practice. I would've a-soon ran into something else."
"How do you think it would be, Leroy, to live like that? Separate and on your own but with lots of friends?"
"I think it would be great," Yancy exclaimed. "No more taking orders. No more sharing sleeping quarters with dozens of others. Taking care of yourself, having time to explore where you wanted when you wanted. To take naps when you felt like it. Being personal with everything and everybody."
"Sounds like you've given this some thought, Yancy," Dominic said.
"It would take a lot of will power to break from the tribe," Leroy commented. "Very few have ever done it, and no one knows if they succeeded. You'd have to prepare meals for yourself. Think about it." Leroy laughed.
"Yea, but I could drink that tea all the time."
"Oh, I see where this is coming from," Leroy said, his broad smile draining the remaining tension from the air. "Yancy just wants to celebrate all the time."
"That's right. What's wrong with that?" The three of them laughed; a magic balm that brought them back to normalcy, if you could call it that. Dom stood and scanned the area. "Do you think we're still invisible?" he wondered out loud.
"Well, you can always reverse it. He told you how."
Dom thought for a bit, then said, "Let's just let it run out naturally if it hasn't already." They nodded agreement, drank from their canteens, strapped on their belts, and walked out of the flower jungle onto the trail, much lighter in mood. Leroy teasing Yancy about living alone. Yancy firing back at the friends he could make and what he could do. And so it went as they strolled along, taking in the scenery, but not as before. The trauma visited upon them hadn't dampened their spirits, but it did alter their perception of their surroundings, which now had a sharp edge to it.
After a time, both the helpful effects of the tea and the adrenaline rush from their escape wore off. They fell into silence, the shuffling of their feet and the occasional buzzing of a bee the only sounds. Ahead Dominic could see the apple tree next to the fir that bracketed their colony. Barring unforeseen circumstances, they'd be home by dusk. Time to take a break for the final push. A patch of newborn moss covered a rock nearby, they climbed up and lay down. Leroy removed his hat and studied it. He brushed off the dirt and tried to reshape it to its former elegance. "Do you think we should keep these?" he asked, a mix of cockiness and embarrassment in his voice. "They are a little funny looking. And, they're not exactly standard issue."
Dominic sat up, removed his hat to straighten the brim, the front was crumpled, plucked broken pieces of straw from it, and announced, "They have character now." Yancy's had somehow escaped any serious damage. "Yea, I'm keeping mine. We're explorers of the outlands, this is what outlanders wear." He ran his hand over the side of the brim and took an intrepid pose. They chuckled, but then all the air went out of the room, had they been in one. The awareness of how close they'd come passed through all of them at once.
Dominic tossed a pebble out towards the trail. "I had a dream once," he began. "I was traveling through the woods, those woods," he gestured towards the high ground and the mountain. "Even though the sun was high it was dark with the heavy canopy. As I neared the upper boundary, I could see bright light glaring beyond the last of the trees. Eventually, the ground feeling very cold in spite of the boots I had on, I reached the end, where the tree line meets the snow.
"I've never been there, of course, and yet it seemed very real. You know, one of those dreams where it feels like you're really experiencing it. I could feel the chill coming off the snow. The air. There was cleanness and clarity to it. No one else was around. A meadow, not anywhere as big as this one, came between the forest and the snow, which curved up to the summit. Flowers and bright geen grasses grew. And there were bees and butterflies galore. It was marvelous and beautiful and awesome all at the same time. I walked into it, directly ahead as though I knew where I was going. I could feel the warmth from the sun. I went around a clump of grass and noticed a scent of a trail. I followed it. I saw a neat cone of dirt and approached. As I did, you two came out of the top. You, Leroy, said, 'It's about time.' and Yancy said, 'Yea, where you been, ole man?' I was surprised, stunned even. I didn't understand why you were there. I wasn't expecting to see you. Of course, it was a dream, so... Then I woke up."
"What do ya' think it means?" Leroy wondered. "Besides the fact that maybe we've been hanging out together too much." He snickered.
"I don't know." He stared off at the mountain, its face veiled in pale shadow. The sun was dipping below the peak, flooding the meadow with vermillion and shades of yellow. It was a beautiful sight. "How long do you think it would take to get there? Do you think?"
Leroy leaned on an elbow and looked in that direction. "Weeks. It'd take a couple of weeks at least, barring any unforeseen monsters, to get to the forest. It's all uphill. Not so much across the meadow, but once we get to the forest, the incline steepens as we go. Coming back, though, should be easy going, comparatively. So, I'm thinking months. Several maybe. There's no telling what you'd run into in those woods. Besides, even if we left tomorrow, we might not get there until the cold season. It'd be snowing. Snow. On the ground. Lots of it. We'd have to dig in inside the forest, near the edge, say. And wait for the warm season. We'd need supplies and water. Snow would make it through the canopy in splotches, so we'd have to gather food. Should be plenty that time of year. And then wait till after the snow melted."
"Or," Dom offered, "if we got lucky, we might make it before the end of the warm season, at its height, in fact. Time to explore around, gather food, and when it started to get cold, we could retreat to the forest, like you said, and dig in."
"Yea, if we got lucky with no obstacles like waterways to cross over and things we had to go around that might take days. That's what I'm thinking."
They were all feeling more than a little exhausted. It'd been a long day, especially as it was the first of the season. They were out of shape for hiking and climbing and, most definitely, running. They'd be good and sore tomorrow, they knew. In fact, when they got to their feet, stiffness was already settling in. The tea had given them a false vigor their bodies weren't ready for. What they wouldn't give for a cup of it now, however, was the general consensus. With a languid pace, they strolled down the road towards home, discussing it as they went. Yancy talked about what an adventure it would be, just to go. All the things they'd run into along the way. They'd camp out under the moon and the stars, a night vista he'd only seen when on guard duty. If they didn't like it, they could always come back. Although timing would have to be reversed. Leave up there near the end of the cold season so that by the time they got to the meadow it would be warming up. Or, knowing the trail and the fact that it was all downhill, they could wait until the beginning of the warm season and make it back by the end. They'd be gone a long time, but that wouldn't hurt either. They could stand to be on their own for a while, away from the crowd. The experience would be worth it; how it would change them.
Leroy said, "We'd need full packs and supplies, as much as we could carry, plus a covering for sleeping at night."
"Yea," Yancy said. "We could stop by Nathan's on the way and pick up some of that tea." Leroy laughed but Dominic thought it would be useful, especially when they got down in the mouth, which they knew they would from time and time.
They stopped and turned to look up at the mountain with its perennial snow and ice face and swath of forest below. The sun was halfway down behind it. "Months," Leroy repeated. They resumed sauntering along, Leroy on the right, Yancy on the left. The apple tree was close. Dominic was staring at the ground, lost in thought. Leroy appraised him, knew all his moods, but there was something different now. He could feel him wrestling with his spirit. After a time, he said, "Okay,...," feigning surrender to the inescapble, "when do you want to leave?"
Yancy chimed in quickly as though he'd already made up his mind, "Yea. It'll take a couple of days to get things together. My backpack needs work, new sticks and some pieces of dried skin need to be replaced. I don't remember the last time I used it."
Dominic said, "Let's not get hasty, boys. It's just a dream of mine. A fantasy."
"We know, Dom." He smiled. "Where the tree line meets the snow. Imagine what a view that'll be. We could see the whole, entire world."
Dominic grinned from ear to ear and raised his head. "Yea," he said, "we could stop by Nathan's on the way, talk to him about it. Maybe he could look into our future, see what might happen. If he sees something awful, like dying, for instance, we could change our minds."
"Good idea," pronounced Leroy, nodding his head.
They picked up the pace, striding towards the pile of dirt that surrounded the main portal, waving to others taking in the first day of the season, enjoying the glorious sunset.
"The whole, entire world," Dominic said, trying to sound like Leroy. They glanced at one another and laughed, their strides matching.