by C. D. Lee
Table of Contents
"Hearest not the osprey from the belfry cry?
The hideous bird, that brings ill luck, we know! "
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(Click on image for larger version)
The bus just kept going and going, which wasn't too surprising since we had to cross the entire state. The sun was hanging low by six o'clock and I began to hope that we wouldn't need a lot of setting-up time when we finally reached camp. I could do the job with a sack over my head, of course, but this group. . . .
Can the snobbery, Lukasz, I told myself. PTA types and office workers are going to be your peers from now on. Get used to it and see if you can't help them learn something useful.
From all the muttering, I could tell that some of the other parents were growing restless. The kids were too, but they didn't count; they'd been restless since we'd gotten beyond the San Fernando Valley. At long last I espied a row of somberly-painted lodges through the dusty sun-glare on the windshield.
The bus pulled over and Storch assigned each family a lodge number as we stepped down to earth. I pried my young'un away from his pals and got him to help carry our baggage across the clearing to our one-room cabin.
I thought the lodge was a comfortable-looking, if simple, affair. "Are we going to stay here?" Gus asked with the same expression he normally awards to a plate of broccoli.
"What's wrong with it?"
"I thought we were going to have a tent!"
"Where's your logic, Sherlock? If we were going to sleep in tents, wouldn't we have packed sleeping bags?" When he didn't answer immediately, I glanced outside at the rapidly-dimming evergreen forest. "There's plenty of wide-open spaces out there if you really want to go camping."
"Did you bring a tent, Mom?" he asked dubiously, gazing down at the modest pile of baggage he'd helped me tote in.
"No, but I've got a hunting knife. It would only take us an hour to put up a shelter. It wouldn't keep out the mosquitoes, I'm afraid, but we wouldn't have to worry about rain. Not much, anyway."
"Oh, come on, Mom. What do you know anything about camping?!"
Ah, how my sandy-haired boy underrated me! I sat down on edge of the bed and rested back on my elbows. "I know plenty!"
"Yeah, since when did you get so smart?"
"You know that Aunt Lila and I used to go to lake camp every summer. Anyway, I've read a couple of Sierra Club books since then."
He laughed. "I just can't see you in the woods, Mom! What if a wolf sneaked up on us in the dark?" He made a Wolf Man howl.
"I hope he does," I answered lightly. "If any wolf is dumb enough to let me get my hands on him, we'll have him for breakfast and use his pelt for a blanket."
"Pecos Mom!" he guffawed.
"Don't laugh, Squirt. I'll show how much I know about woodcraft before we're out of here!"
"Oh, yeah? If you know so much, what kind of duck is that quacking outside?"
"That's no bird, Daniel Boone. That's a wood frog."
Just then I heard familiar call, cheeup, cheep, cheeup, which was immediately altered to chewk, chewk, chewk.
"...Listen! I bet you don't know what bird that is."
"A robin?" Gus ventured hesitantly.
I shook my head. "The bird outside could eat a robin in one gulp.” Then, seeing Gus’s disbelieving glance, I shrugged and said, “Well, okay, maybe three gulps. It's an osprey -- a hawk that catches fish."
"Sure. Lots of birds eat fish. Eagles eat fish, too. Did you know that?"
If I'd really thought I could get my city boy interested in nature study I was sadly mistaken. "Can I go see Bob's and Jim's cabins?" he suddenly asked, apparently unable to fix upon a single subject for longer than two minutes.
"Oh, go ahead!" I sighed. "I'll get things straightened up. That's what moms and khansamahs are for."
"Khansa-what?" he puzzled.
"Just go out and play!"
And so he was off again, having bailed out of the longest conversation we'd managed to have in at least a month. Kids! He'll miss me when I'm gone. I've always been sorry I didn't talk to my own mother more -- I mean Lukasz's, not Eden's -- before I got killed that first time. On the plus side, I hadn't wasted those our two minutes of quality time with Gus; they'd given me an idea. Maybe the youngster would respect his mom more if I showed him that I could handle myself outside the kitchen. What was I saying? I can't think of any place where I'm less able to handle myself than the kitchen! When I turn on the oven, innocent bystanders had better head for the bomb shelter if they know what's good for them!
This permanent camp setup wasn't exactly roughing it. The cabins all had electric lights -- the current being supplied by a generator in a nearby utility shed -- and running water. I was rather sorry to realize that it was a camp built for citified wimps. If I was ever going to give Gus the feel of being part of the wild, to get him in touch with the living, breathing world, I'd have to pry him away from electrical outlets, battery-operated laptops, lighting fluid, and all the other conveniences that negate the wilderness experience. Well, maybe not all conveniences; I sort of like insect repellant. Be that as it may, I hoped that the group leaders didn't intend to smother us with a lot of pre-planned activities; they could only get in the way of my spending time with the boy one-on-one.
After I'd made the bunks, I filled the small dresser with our clothes, then hung our larger things in the open alcove which served for a closet. By the time it was dark outside, the waft of a cooking meat served notice that somebody was roasting weanies in a big way. I glanced out the window; the picnic tables were lighted by battery-lamps and already some of the children were in line to receive their hot dogs. Gus would be drawn to the eats like a moth to a flame, I knew, so I decided to go and make sure he minded his manners.
Stepping out the door, I was met by a woman in her mid-thirties wearing a pin-striped shirt and blue jeans. She smiled amiably and extended an open palm. "Hi, I'm Erica Shelton." I took the hand and shook it. "That's my little girl Marci over there," she said, pointing at a tow-haired girl about a year older than Evie. "I've been hoping to run into you to tell you that I liked your song."
"I'm Eden Blake. Thanks for the compliment, but I can't take credit for writing it."
"I also liked when you said that people who don't work should have to buy their own gas. Most of us have been so brow-beaten by television news! I'm going to have to have more guts about speaking up about what I believe, just like you do."
I shrugged. "I know what you mean about having to be careful. I work for a government agency."
She nodded commiseratively. "And I'm in a newspaper office where everybody has just one mind-set. Who's laying down these rules anyway? It seems that if a person isn't a chop-em-up radical, everything he says is automatically too controversial too utter."
I smiled uneasily, knowing that I was a chop-em-up sort of guy myself. Some ultras manage to avoid large body counts, but old habits die hard with us Dark-Age barbarians. I am trying to taper off, though.
Erica was a fine-looking woman, the sort that I might have gotten interested in once upon a time. But she seemed to have a political bent and I knew from long -- long -- experience that too much political talk at the outset of an acquaintanceship isn't smart, so I changed the subject. "Isn't it odd, the children they picked to come up here?"
She looked askance. "Why do you say the children are odd?"
"I mean, the kids they invited come from the whole range of different ages, first-graders to sixth-graders. I get the idea that it's really the parents they're interested in, but so far I haven't gotten a straight answer as to why."
"Now that you mention it, you may be right," Erica nodded. "All the group activities I've attended up to now have always been for children from one class ranking."
"Maybe they've grouped the students together for equal reading skills," I quipped dryly.
"You may be right!" Mrs. Shelton laughed. "I haven't seen a book in a child's hand since the trip began, just those silly computer games. My little sister was able to read better at the end of first grade than Marci can read now at the end of her third year. My older girl is sub-par, too. Is it the same with your son?"
"He's struggling," I admitted, nodding. "I've got a good mind to have it out with his teacher, but I haven't gotten Gus to finger him yet."
She smiled tentatively. While Erica appeared to approve of my sentiment, her expression didn't convey a good deal of hope. "Be my guest, Eden. They always say you can't fight city hall, but it's even harder to try and get anywhere with a teacher who has tenure."
"I just can't figure it out!" I lamented. "Back in the Nineteenth Century, any kid able to walk a mile to school carrying a tin lunch pail could read and write better than his pioneer parents."
She shifted her stance, suppressing a sigh. "Tin lunch pails have been banned; we have to use plastic ones now. The old kind is supposed to be dangerous in the hands of kids. Schools can't keep guns out, but metal dinner pails are absolutely verboten."
"When did kids become so wild?" I asked, not really expecting an answer. "Every country boy used to have a rabbit gun, but they didn't shoot their friends; and everybody carried a jackknife, but nobody stabbed anybody in those one-room school houses."
Mrs. Shelton regarded me with lively, ironic eyes. "That tone you take -- it's almost like you're remembering the good old days."
Watch it, Lukasz!
"Do I look that old?" I grinned.
"I only wish I looked so svelte ten years ago! But when I was Marci's age I had a hundred children's books and wanted to read them all over and over again. All Marci wants to do is watch television. The kids can't have changed that much. It must be the schools."
"I think you're near the mark," I said. "I honestly don't know what to do sometimes."
Careful, you're beginning to sound a lot like a care-worn mom, Lukasz!
Suddenly her eyes gleamed like glassy volcanic rock. "There's a way to get in a punch or two," Erica said. "I belong to a South-California parents' group trying to get schools back to basics and cut out the nonsense and the political agendas."
I meet a lot of put-upon mothers at work, but there was something about Erica Shelton that I liked right from the start. People with lively ideas are always more interesting than those with just cow-like stares. "Is your group getting anywhere?" I asked, slightly interested but hesitant since I'm by no means the joiner type. Maybe my fifteen hundred years with Archimage's band has something to do with that. I didn't even sign on with UltraForce when Prime invited me in last fall. It's true that I've fought ten thousand battles, but since my war with Boneyard ended I haven't gone around looking for trouble. I find plenty of it while just trying to make it from dawn to dusk. When one gets involved with sorcery he can really get blind-sided by danger. A whammy once came at Evie and me right out of my trusty old magical cloak! And disinfecting it was a tough job, let me tell you!
"It's hard going," Erica admitted with a wince. "The teachers' union is against us, the school administrators just bury their heads, and then there's the stunts that the Department of Education in Washington pulls."
"The more things change the more they stay the same," I reflected out loud. To tell the truth, I've known a lot of bad governments in my time, though I never had to live under any particular one of them for very long.
Now that Erica thought she had me primed, she struck: "Maybe you should join our group?"
Even though I'd been expecting the invitation, I still didn't have a ready answer. "I don't know. . ." I hedged, drawing out my words to give myself more time to think. Join a parents' group? Me?
"We've got to band together and fight for our kids. If we don't, they'll drop out of school and leave home by the time they're sixteen."
Sixteen? That was just five years for Gus, and only nine for Evie. A decade is just a blink of an eye to a person who's lived as long as I have. "Maybe I should do something," I said carefully, "...but I'm just so darned busy."
"We're all busy, Eden. But trying to turn our responsibilities over to professional educators always causes more trouble than it's worth."
Probably, but Erica didn't appreciate exactly how busy was busy when I say "busy." I didn't just have home and office to worry about, but home, office, and super hero. True, except for a little exercise to keep my magical energy in tone, I don't set aside any special time for Mantra. But even so, things happen on their own. One minute I might be at the zoo with the kids, and the some super-being snatches me away to some alien planet for a battle royale. It makes things impossible to plan.
Just then the bus's ignition churned noisily and the orange vehicle withdrew down the pebbly road.
"Where's the bus going?" I asked.
Erica frowned. "I don't know. Maybe the driver is going to stay in the nearest town, or maybe the bus needs servicing."
"I didn't notice a service garage since we left the 'burbs. This is back-road city. I'd almost forgotten that California still has so much empty land."
"Well, let's get something to eat," Mrs. Shelton suggested. "We won't save the world tonight, no matter how much we want to."
I fought down an ironic grin when I should have knocked on wood instead. . . .
Carrying steaming hot dogs and plates of banked beans, I looked around for Gus, but he had apparently run off to somewhere with his pals, so I just followed Erica. She found us places at a table with some of the other parents, a couple of whom already knew her. It took her only minutes to steer the conversation around to the latest educational fads, seemingly a pet subject of hers. Despite the way she soft-peddled it, I don't think Mrs. Shelton had ever had much trouble saying exactly what she thought. Some few diners seemed not to like the topic, and so excused themselves after wolfing down their dogs on the double-quick. On the other hand, just as many folks were drawn over from other tables to join in the lively chat.
One thread of discussion led to another, patriotism, for instance. This evolved into a critique of the movie The Patriot, which most of us had liked. I put in my two cents, saying, "I just don't see what the critics are fussing about. That's how it was in those days. If enemy troops murder your brother and torch your home, you were within your rights to shoot them down like dogs when you get the chance. In some places in Asia and Africa that's still the only way that families can get justice."
For some reason this opinion raised the eyebrows of some of our companions who had never seen a tribal war. I suppose they'd never heard a suburban mother of two speaking in favor of vendetta before. Maybe if the same words had come through the rotten teeth of a Viking warrior with a broadsword slung over his shoulder they could have taken it more in stride. It's a shame that modern people always try to pigeonhole folks into comfortable little stereotypes, and then do a double-take if just one person turns out to be an individual.
"Eden is an ardent admirer of the past," Erica volunteered grinningly.
I was beginning to like the way that my frankness never put her into a tizzy, as it did a lot of my co-workers back home. I liked that trait in my friend Lila, too, even though the latter had acted surprised to discover sudden changes in Eden Blake's attitudes. Of course, it hadn't been any attitude that changed; it was the soul that occupied her best friend's body.
"You must read a lot, Mrs. Blake," someone observed, and that brought the conversation around to, "Has anyone ready any good books lately." I felt a little at sea once the topic had shifted away from killing enemies to reading books. I'm a dunce when it comes to modern novels, particularly the women's romances which my companions seemed to know best. So, just like the men, I resigned myself to occasional nods and a benign smile or two when the ladies looked my way for input or support. Of course, when Diana Gabaldon's Outlander came up I was able to illuminate certain points of interest in respect to clan life in early Eighteenth-Century Scotland.
The night was already well-advanced and the mosquitoes had come out in force by the time we stifled the gab and retreated inside our cabins. I had intended to tell Gus an exciting bedtime story about Lew Case, the Colorado gunslinger I'd been at the time of the Pike's Peak Gold Rush, but he'd dragged himself in from supper tired and cranky. When he gave me the familiar, "Oh, Mom, bedtime stories are for kids," I put him to bed and changed into my own pajamas once the lights were out.
Obviously Operation Relationship still hadn't found its sea legs. Lying awake, I mulled over how much of Gus's behavior might stem from the boy's refusal to think of himself as a kid. Admittedly, Osgood's book, The School-Aged Child, warned that parents often had to face this sort of problem once a youngster got fired up with pubescent hormones, but Gus was only eleven.
I sifted over all that I knew about Gus's early days, most of the information having come from the real Eden Blake before I'd tragically lost her. It seems that the lad had gone into depression when his folks separated. After he had emerged from that ordeal, he was no longer the same warm and friendly boy. As far as Eden could make out, Gus had come up with the idea that everyone in the world was out for himself and that nobody cared about other people. Nobody seemed able to get close to Gus anymore and I suspected that he had become a good candidate for leaving home at an early age. Even though I have problems relating to Gus, I have to ask myself what the hell use is it being a parent if it doesn't last as long as you live?
An hour must have crawled by and, though I probably could have put myself to sleep with magic, I preferred to lie quietly in the moonlight and think. I didn't mind the night sounds and even enjoyed the cool, clean mountain air wafting in. Many times I'd fallen asleep fanned by an alpine breeze with only a bedroll or less under my shoulders, and it carried me back though the long years. I had a few good memories of woodland retreats like this one, but what would I have thought a century ago had someone accurately predicted where I would be, what I would be, and what sort of problems I'd be facing in the Twenty-First Century?
Table of Contents