By Patrick Firth
Gus struck a match and dipped it into the end of his pipe. He sent the first puff through the tattered screen door. The same wind that ruffled Deb’s salt and pepper hair carried the sweet smelling smoke beyond the forested hill and into the purple sky. She sat at the crown of their hill, on her Adirondack throne, the soft hum of her chant only audible between the rhythmic hiss of leaves sliding against one another. The chant was familiar to Gus though, and he mouthed the words around the pipe stem. He only opened the door with its inevitable creak when the chant was done.
“Hear anything tonight?” Gus placed her pipe on the arm of her chair.
“No.” Deb rested a whittling knife on her lap and flexed her fingers. Her other hand held a rough human shape in wood, antlers sprouting from its head like twin trees on a mound.
“Not last night neither.” Gus took the smoke into himself. “Nor before that. Or before that.”
Deb struck a match as the wind settled. Her smoke joined his, blowing east.
“They come and go, Gus,” she said. “You could never set your watch by them.”
“Without them the animals may not stay either. Somehow they know to follow the spirits. So if they’ve gone …” His words trailed off with another puff of smoke.
Deb put down her pipe and picked up the knife, touching it to the wooden figure again. “They know we are acknowledging them. All you can do is sing and work.” She began the chant again, but Gus continued.
“They’ve been silent since that started,” he said, jabbing the pipe stem skyward. “You can’t tell what’s a shooting star anymore, not from a flying car.
The chant and the snick, snick, snick, of wood chips continued.
“They must be confused. Like they’re living under a different sky.” Gus shook his head, realizing his pipe had gone cold and that the pipe stem would do nothing against the fCar Stream that arced from south to northeast. Their lights painted the bottom of the clouds that hung like a pod of whales in the evening sky. “Where are they even going? We chose this spot because this part of the world leads nowhere.”
The chant came to a close and fingers flexed again. A new match dipped into Deb’s pipe.
“Everything is linked, Gus. Everywhere leads to somewhere, especially as they get better.” She nodded her head to the Stream. “The world’s been small for a long time.”
“But that was the point,” an edge had crept into his voice.
Deb looked over, a small frown on her lips.
“It was supposed to get smaller for them, where they lived. For us, for this,” he indicated the stretch of trees and hills around them, “it was supposed to be, bigger.”
Deb’s frown disappeared. “We,” she laughed, “are not supposed to be here.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Sometimes better than you.” She held the matches out to him.
Gus was about to strike the second match when a noise stopped him. A pop. A sort of metallic burst he had never heard before.
“What?” he managed before Deb hushed him.
“The sky,” she said.
“The sky doesn’t …” Then he saw it. A light, brighter that the rest, broke away from the Stream. It wrenched itself from its path in a desperate attempt to maintain altitude. It almost seemed to right itself once or twice, like a fish caught on a lure. It would flip up and then drop more in a violent spiral and then stop.
“Joyriding?” offered Gus.
“I don’t think so,” said Deb.
The light lurched forward into a dramatic arch. In the space of their indrawn breath it plunged, disappearing with a tearing crash beyond the next hill to the north.
Gus pushed himself up, plucking glasses from his shirt pocket. He balanced them on his nose and searched the silhouetted tree line.
Deb stood beside him with a pair of binoculars. “I don’t think fCars smoke.”
“Even if they crash?”
“Probably off near Silver Pond. North side of Hunter’s Hill.”
“Yep,” said Deb. “There’s a new break in the trees over there.”
“So?” Gus said.
“We go find it.”
Gus shrugged and turned towards the house to retrieve their hunting rifles and a flashlight. The cabin, once so familiar, looked alien in the glow of the fCar Stream.
“Let’s go see what we can see.”
* * *
By the time they made it to the top of Hunter’s Hill, the sun had disappeared, though it left traces in the deep blue of twilight. The flashlight hung off of Gus’s belt, its bulb dark, as their familiarity with the path, and its obstacles, illuminated their way. The wind had died down and the birds were hushed.
It was the sound of whimpering that led them to the crash site.
“Still alive anyway,” Gus said as he picked his way down the path to Silver Pond. He felt Deb nod behind him.
There was a glow apparent through the breaks in the trees, outlining knots and branches. Gus placed his hands on them, clicking the wooden arms together, to ease the tightness in his knees. He usually avoided the steeper trails these days. Deb caught up to him and offered her shoulder. He switched the hunting rifle from right to left and smiled at her strength. That kind of strength was a silly thing to shrug off out there.
“There it is.” Deb pointed through the woods.
It was smaller than Gus had imagined, and not only because it’s smooth surface was now crumpled and fractured. I seemed barely big enough to hold a person, let alone contain the equipment needed to keep it aloft. Gus had to admit he had no idea how they did that anyways. Whatever had kept this one up, hadn’t worked. That was all he knew.
“The driver isn’t in there,” Gus said.
“Must’ve been thrown clear.” Deb unclipped the flashlight from Gus’s belt. A new set of whimpers and sobs came out of the dark and Deb aimed the flashlight at its source.
Gus saw a pair of eyes, bulging in a face slick with blood. The mouth worked like a fish in air, strangled gasps not quite matching the words the lips tried to form. Gus couldn’t make out the rest of the body, but guessed the odd angles of its limbs weren’t his imagination. This girl or guy was in a bad way.
“This may be beyond us, Deb.” Gus chewed a piece of his beard.
“Probably, but maybe not.”
The branches started to click again, like the hollow sound of wind chimes, but there was no wind.
“Oh.” Deb stopped midstride.
Click – click – click.
The forest moved. Branches curled, knots bulged and pushed away from trunks. The driver looked away from them, and into the shifting trees.
“They’re not gone after all I suppose,” Gus said. It was one thing to hear these noises from their cabin – the very ones he had missed when the fCar Stream had established itself in the sky. It was quite another to be out with the things that made the noises in the dark.
Click – click – click.
Little wooden bodies, antlered or horned, crept down from the trees and out of the dark of the forest floor. They were skinny and brittle looking, but at the same time grotesquely exaggerated. Noses and mouths drooped over their chins. Joints ballooned from thin arms and legs. Moss and bark hung heavy on some, while others appeared to have been carved and polished from heartwood. The Forest Spirits were larger versions of Deb’s figurine.
Their purpose was obvious. They converged on the broken body whose gasps and bestial cries renewed as the driver came to the same realization.
“Think we can drive them off?” Gus asked.
Deb shook her head.
“Even if we could, we shouldn’t. Even behind the Walls of the cities you aren’t separate,” Deb said.
The driver’s face turned back to the beam of light, eyes pleading.
“They picked to live in the cities so that the world could recover.”
“They’re going to kill her, Deb. Don’t know that a history lesson is what she needs right now.”
Deb went on. “Denying something, like nature, doesn’t mean that you are free from its demands.” She looked beyond the beam, beyond the driver and the gathering Forest Spirits.
Gus nodded. “The chants.”
“Yes,” Deb said. “We sacrifice a bit every day to it, to them.”
The Spirits were close enough to reach out to the driver. The screams almost drowned out Deb’s voice.
“City folk don’t sacrifice, so the forest will reach out every so often and remind them.”
“Hell of a reminder,” Gus said. There was a quiver at the end of his sentence. He brought his rifle up and cocked it. Deb reached over and placed her hand on his, though she did not try to move the barrel.
Gus aimed below the mouth and the screams. The crack of the gun turned shriek to gurgle, to nothing but the rattle of the Forest Spirits. They continued their work, placing their mouths on the person and dragging it into the dark.
Gus eyed the Spirits but they did not react. There was not even a flinch at the sudden report of the gun, nor did they seem upset that their sacrifice had grown still.
Gus let out a breath, and then Deb.
Everything flared red.
The dead eyes of the driver were red. The gnarled forms of the trees and Spirits were red – the rifle – the broken fCar.
One colour in one moment, then everything changed to blue: the driver, the trees, the spirits. Then in the next red, then blue again.
Gus lowered the rifle and Deb let go of his hand, his skin colder for a moment with the absence of her warmth. The reds and blues came from above and were descending.
It had been years since Deb and Gus had lived among buildings and roads, but they knew the flashing lights of police.
The broken fCar seemed to come alive again within the beam of a spot light, every jagged ridge and fracture flaring to life beneath the scrutiny of the cruiser. The spotlight moved, tracing the clearing around the wreck, skipping over the Spirits and the corpse then landing on them. The light stayed as the cruiser continued its descent. Gus shaded his eyes.
Only a voice emerged at first.
“This is the Toronto Metro Police, Stream Division. Please identify yourself if you are able.”
Gus let the gun rest in the crook of his arm, but made no answer.
The cruiser’s seemingly seamless exterior slid apart and two silhouetted forms stepped out.
A woman’s voice – “Can you identify yourself? Have you been injured?”
“No,” Gus said.
“We have not been injured,” Deb added.
The other one spoke. He sounded young compared to Gus’s pipe smoke weathered voice – “Please identify yourself. First name, last name, and residence.”
“Deborah Hunter. And I live on the next hill over.”
Gus chuckled, though there had been no humour in Deb’s words.
“Sir,” came the young man’s voice again. Now he stepped forward and Gus could make out a shaved head and clean goatee on a thin face. “Lay down your firearm on the ground and step away from it.”
“Not in these woods, boy,” Gus returned.
“If you do not comply …”
The female officer placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Were you involved in this accident?”
“No,” Deb said.
“Where is your fCar?”
“It isn’t that far to the cabin. We don’t need to fly.”
Gus could see her squeeze the man’s shoulder. “These aren’t Citizens, Riley.”
It was as if they were a troupe of actors who had experienced an unexpected scene change mid-line.
“Wild Folk,” Riley hissed.
The Spirits still clicked and clattered in the silence of their halted exchange. Gus could hear, as well, the wet tear of their feeding. He shuddered.
“You have the right …” Riley began, but stopped, as if searching the trees for the lost words. “Never had to say this before.”
The woman said, “Under the Criminal Code of the Ministry of the Environment, Section 3, Article 4, you have the right to safe accompaniment back to Metropolitan Toronto.”
Gus shook his head.
“You have the right …”
“We have the right to wave goodbye as we go back to living our lives here, and you,” Gus coughed, “living your lives up there.”
“What are you thinking!” Riley shouted. “What the hell are you doing out here?”
“We have the right to live as we see fit,” Deb said.
“The only reason this is here,” he said gesturing to the trees, “is because we aren’t out here – shooting things, burning things down, dumping chemicals, mining, cutting down trees. This,” he gestured again, “needs time to heal. And you are killing it, just by being out here.”
“You don’t heal things by ignoring them. You heal by living better.”
“You still got guns,” Riley said.
“Riley,” the other officer said.
“How many trees did you cut down to make your place?”
“Where’s the driver?”
Riley glanced at the fCar. “Not in the vehicle?”
“No. And we registered a gun shot on the audio sensors.”
Riley placed his hand on the hilt of a bulky, gun-shaped objected holstered on his hip.
“Where,” he breathed, “is the driver of the vehicle?”
Gus nodded to the spot behind them. “Thrown clear.”
The woman turned and took a step towards the spot where the driver had disappeared.
“I wouldn’t go back there,” Deb said.
“And why the hell not?” Riley said.
“Listen,” said Gus. “Just listen.”
The rattle continued in the second pause, mixed in with the tearing and slurping of the Spirits’ feast.
“What is that?” the woman said.
“The reason why you should be leaving. And us,” Deb said.
“You will be coming with us,” Riley said.
“You can’t live separate,” Deb said. “It’ll reach out every so often to remind you. No one is free from that.”
Gus raised the hunting rifle again. “Don’t think you have time to be making us go with you. ‘Cause that’s what you’re gonna need to do.”
“Riley,” the woman said. “That really doesn’t sound good in there. We need backup.”
The man nodded.
Gus didn’t know whether they meant to leave them or not, but both officers slid back into the cruiser and it reassembled itself into its unbroken, seed-like shape.
“We had better leave, Gus. We’re not free from their world either.”
“No, I suppose not.”
Gus put his hand on Deb’s shoulder and they made their way back up Hunter’s Hill.