by C. D. Lee
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"A region of repose it seems,
A place of slumber and of dreams.
Remote among the wooded hills!
For there no noisy railway speeds,
Its torch-race scattering smoke
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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For a long time I lay awake in bed, preoccupied. The only sound to disturb the night was my own restless breathing, punctuated occasionally by the soft noises of wildlife outside the cabin. Even so, despite the quiet, I couldn't seem to drift off to sleep. Eventually yielding to impulse, I got up and ten seconds later stood quietly over Gus's bunk.
It had grown very dark; we had lost the moon behind the silhouette of a nearby peak and so I conjured up my own light, courtesy of Mantra's magic -- a faint plasmic glow imbued with just enough candlepower to illuminate the face of my sleeping son.
I had a son. Yes, it was true. What a mind-boggling thought!
But wasn't this the first time that I had thought of Gus as my own son without adding a qualifier? Early-on, Evie had evoked a response in me -- something new to my experience and which I had instinctively fought against. Actually, it was nothing more awful than tenderness, though I couldn't have put a name on it during those first few months. It made me worry that I was going soft, that such feelings would change me disastrously somehow. Most of all I feared to forge any bond that would hold me captive in the Blakes' house, cut me off forever from the kind of life that I had always lived up till then. That was a rough time for both me and the kids; I honestly didn't want to break their hearts, but I also wanted them out of my life -- a dilemma that ultimately had no solution. My resistant attitude changed gradually after Eden returned from the oblivion that Archimage had dispatched her to, and it changed even more powerfully following her sudden death. Maybe it had been bereavement which made me turn decisively toward the children. All I really know is that from that point on I'd drawn indescribable pleasure from having a daughter like Evie. And now, for the first time, I was beginning to feel something of the same emotion in connection with Gus.
Why? What was so lovable about Gus?
But Gus Jr. looked kind of cute just then with his eyes shut and one arm tucked under the blanket, while the other rested on his forehead.
Was he really my son?
That's a sensitive subject, one that I've tried to avoid thinking about for a long time -- and "a long time" with me means a very looonnnnng time.
However one cuts it, the man who'd been born before the fall of the Roman Empire and named Lukasz never sired a physical son. He had died childless in the year 452 A.D. Many of the men whose bodies I've stolen since have had children -- and that's something else I don't like to think about. We knights of Archimage had to remain mobile; we couldn't settle down long enough to rear families. The wizard provided us with continuing life, it is true, but, in retrospect, he also denied us many of the things that would have made life on earth worth living.
Besides the children I'd abandoned, I'd made more than a few new offspring myself in the course of fifteen hundred years of soldiery carousing -- some of whom I actually knew about. Even so, it had never been in the hand I was dealt to act the father for very long. It didn't have to be that way, of course. Occasionally, a knight of Archimage would call it quits and drop out of the band, usually to wed and settle down. I couldn't follow suit; I couldn't accept age, sickness, and death even in exchange for love and home. I wanted to live, even at the terrible price which Archimage exacted. The strange thing is that I never stopped to think exactly why I wanted to live so much. Maybe it was simply gamesmanship. I'd cheated Death for so long that I couldn't bring myself to let the stubborn old codger win, no matter what. I didn't want to die; not then, not now.
Least of all now.
Not now that I finally have something to live for.
Why should I suddenly feel this way? It can't be because I'm finally happy; whatever I'm experiencing it doesn't exactly fit my definition of happiness. Can it be that women feel things differently than men do? I refuse to accept that; I don't believe I've changed at all on the inside. Of course, I may be too close to the subject to judge it objectively.
All I know is that somewhere along the way I'd become restless. Lukasz had stopped liking himself for some reason. Why? Up to the end nothing much had changed. Could it be that doing the same thing in the same way, ad infinum, is the surest way to lose oneself? Was that logical, was it even possible? If not, what, then, exactly, made the difference? Is it because this present life is the first since my original one which wasn't stolen by force from another person? Did the fact that it came as a gift from one who loved me somehow make it truly mine, along with everything that comprised it?
One component of Eden's life was, of course, a son. There's something gratifying in that idea, but it's no bed of roses either. For one thing, I'd always supposed that if I ever had a son he'd like me a good deal better than Gus seems to. Why is he so cold when I speak to him? Am I so unlovable, despite everything I try? Or is it that for some reason I've failed to tune into this particular boy's emotional wavelength? God knows he doesn't make it easy for me. Maybe I came along just too late to understand him like a parent should. Maybe everything would have been different had he been as young as Evie. . . .
Don't go there, Lukasz!
In another minute I'd be feeling sorry for myself and blaming Eden for messing things up with Gus. It's not true; Eden Blake was as smart as any other parent when it came to child-rearing and she loved her son every bit as much as her daughter.
So here I was, a confused amateur in the nurturing game trying to do the world’s hardest job while beating myself up for every perceived shortcoming. Compared to parenting, fighting Boneyard seemed easy. What whimsy of fate had made me a parent? All I've known for centuries has been war and children don't fit into that kind of life. Offspring by definition make one think about the larger questions, like one's relation to time and space. They also make a person anticipate future generations and that those of us alive today must prepare their way. For whatever reason, looking inward is no longer enough for me; I'm compelled to face forward, too. If I can leave something good behind maybe Death won't win that last trick after all.
Of course, all that may be very well and fine, but still it begged the question, did I really love Gus?
That wasn't one question, it was five:
Did I really love Gus?
Did I really love Gus?
Did I really love Gus?
Did I really love Gus?
Did I really love Gus?
Or Evie for that matter? Might it only be guilt? Was I merely transferring my love for Eden to the children as passive receptacles? Or was this love which I believed I felt not my own but a thing inherited along with Eden's body, like her aversion to smoking and drinking, her problems with manual transmissions, her taste in clothes? Are my emotions and attachments really just poor, borrowed things? Is my own heart, in fact, empty?
I looked up at the beams of the roof, visualizing the sea of stars beyond it. Please don't let that be so, I thought. Let what I feel be the mirror of my own soul.
I lowered my gaze and drew in a soulful breath. Whatever the reason I felt what I felt, I felt it most keenly when I looked down at my slumbering boy. I've hurt many sons and daughters over time, but I can't bear to see Gus hurt, no matter what. And the best way to keep him from being hurt is to keep pretending for him that his real mother isn't really dead. That's the type of kindness that I can no longer do for Evie -- not since the day when she suspected the truth and asked me directly who I was.
I loved her -- and still love her -- too much to lie.
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I awoke to an excited rapping on my cabin door.
Getting up, I put on the green robe I'd brought along and undid the latch. There on the step stood the man who I'd sat next to on the bus, but this time he was accompanied by his red-haired wife. Both of them looked extremely distraught.
"Mrs. -- uh," the lady began.
"Blake," I volunteered.
"Excuse us; our name is Daschle," she said. "Our little girl Debbie is missing. She wasn't in her bunk when we woke up and nobody else has seen her. We're afraid that she's wandered off into the woods and gotten lost."
"I'm sorry," I said, "I haven't seen her either. I was asleep until you knocked. You'd best wake up Storch and get him to organize a search. A forest this size is a dangerous place even for an adult."
"Mr. Storch wasn't in his cabin," replied Mr. Daschle, his tone strained. "In fact, we haven't been able to find any of the teachers."
Now that sounded distinctly odd. "None of them?"
The Daschles shook their heads. I looked past my callers at the other parents and children milling about. There were, in fact, no school personnel in sight.
"What is it, Mom?" Gus asked sleepily from his bunk.
I spoke to him over my shoulder. "A little girl is missing. You stay within sight of the camp, Gus; I'm going to try to help these people find her."
"Maybe a maniac got her!" he gushed excitedly. "Did you see that movie where one of the campers is a crazy killer?"
"Gus!" I scolded, then looked back to the Daschles and apologized, promising to help them as soon as I could get my things on.
They accepted my offer distractedly and then continued their inquiries at the next cabin. Once dressed, I went out and found a troubled-looking Erica talking seriously to a couple of other parents.
"Eden, did you notice that the electricity is off?" she asked as I stepped up to her.
I frowned; now that I paused to listen it was true that I could hear no sound from the generator shack. "First things first," I told her. "We've got to start a search for Debbie Daschle."
One of Erica's companions added a complaint of his own, namely that the faucets weren't working either.
Some camp! I thought. Increasingly, there wasn't much to choose from between this place and the accommodations available to beaver-trappers on the Columbia in 1830.
"Erica," I urged, "try to organize the grownups into two or three search parties and get someone to keep the kids in line while the adults are away."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to check the utilities."
Frankly, I didn't care a lot about the electricity and water, not while a life was in danger, but they gave me an excuse to get out of sight. Whatever Eden Blake might do in this case, Mantra could do a lot more.
The generator shed was locked, I discovered, but since I was a witch, that didn’t present much of a barrier -- I simply went around back and stepped through the rear wall unseen. It took me less than thirty seconds to ascertain that the fuel tank was bone dry. If there wasn't more gas available somewhere, the electricity couldn't be restored -- nor could the running water, since the latter's pump ran electrically.
My frustrations were mounting. What a way to manage a parents-teachers get-together! If this was how credentialed educators fulfilled their responsibilities, no wonder California's schools were failing down academically. It was a wonder that they weren't also falling down physically!
With effort, I put such trivial annoyances out of my mind, switched into my Mantra costume, and exited through the floor.
As Mantra I emerged down-slope from the shed, just short of the water table, and set out skimming the treetops, guessing that a bird's-eye view would serve me best. But I'm still fairly new to flying over woodlands and so I found out to my consternation that springtime foliage makes it hard to see the ground. Also, there was a light morning fog which added to my problems. Having failed as a spotter-plane, I decided to use "radar." That is, I evoked my life-sensing powers and buzzed the main trail, the one that followed the lakeshore. My hunch was that even if I didn't turn up the vanished child immediately, I might at least locate the absent teachers, who -- presumably -- would be found as a group. That might pay double-dividends, since Debbie might have tagged along with them and would be found safe in their company.
To my perplexity, I sensed nothing at first, except for small life-forms which I supposed to be squirrels, chipmunks, and such. Before long I broadened my search pattern, circling the woods in daisy-petal loops. It was about that time that I noticed that the other campers were moving out in search parties. Some of the folks below might be wondering what had happened to Eden, but at the risk of making my alter-ego look bad I continued my solo-survey -- betting on my ultra powers to get quicker results.
A minute later, an inner tingle alerted me to some yet-unseen source of life-energy larger than a raccoon. There was something deuced strange about that vibration, but I was in too much of a hurry to think about non-essentials as I descended below the treetops for a better look. Almost immediately I spotted a patch of pink and blonde moving blithely along a forest path. Debbie!
I noted that the path she was following would take her to one group of searchers in just a few minutes. In fact, she was walking so confidently it seemed like she knew exactly where she was going. Rather than wait for the others to come along, I dropped down behind a dense stand of jack pines and changed back to my civilian outfit. If I let Eden Blake find the tyke rather than Mantra, the ultra's presence wouldn't have to be explained away.
I waited where I was until the little girl passed just opposite me, and then stepped out saying, "Debbie! Where have you been? Your parents have been frantic!"
The youngster glanced up. Though she must have been surprised to see me lurch out of the bushes, her expression seemed calm and indifferent -- coldly thoughtful, like a mask. But a second later she opened her mouth wide and started to bawl.
"I got lost! Where's mommy? Where's daddy?"
I went to her, knelt, and hugged her. Yet something bothered me about that fleeting, mask-like look on her face. It put me off somehow and made my embrace careful and tentative.
"You're folks are coming," I assured the youngster. "Listen. You can hear their voices now."
A minute later the search party came into view and they saw me and Debbie standing side-by-side in the middle of the path. Mrs. Daschle ran forward, seemingly out of her mind with relief. I didn't notice Mr. Daschle, though; he was apparently with another group.
I stepped deftly aside, letting mother sweep child up into her arms and swing her around, but, not really meaning to, I kept my eye on Debbie's face. The girl's tearful excitement seemed natural enough for one of her tender years and nothing seemed in the least amiss. Before I knew it, I was telling myself that my instincts were all wet.
"Debbie," I asked carefully when Mrs. Daschle's effusive endearments and stern scoldings had subsided, "have you seen any of the teachers?"
The little girl turned my way with red eyes and a runny nose. "I didn't see anybody. I was all alone!"
Scratch one theory.
We all trekked back to the camp after that, relieved to know that the most immediate of our problems had been happily resolved.
"Mom, I'm hungry," Gus told me when I returned. I looked askance at his thin face, wondering when he was going to ask about the lost girl, but he never did. Amazing! Sometimes I wonder whether the real Gus Blake hadn't been spirited away to fairyland while a cold-hearted Grinch had been left sucking his thumb in Eden's cradle. And I used to think of myself as a hard case!
"So you're hungry. What's new about that?"
"Who's going to make breakfast?" he pressed.
I didn't know anything about the food supply and so I poked my head out the door, hoping that some of the teachers had strayed back. They hadn't. The pedagogues' absence from our fun-in-Nature group was becoming more baffling by the minute. As I've said, I hadn't seen any sign of Storch and Company during my aerial reconnaissance, even though the troop of them should have been a good deal easier to pinpoint than one little girl.
"Maybe some of the other parents know where the food is cached," I ventured absently, not yet very hungry myself.
I led Gus outside and started asking around. A helpful suggestion led us to Mrs. Stern's cabin, a logical place to start the search since she had been Storch's assistant. There was nothing in her room, though, save for one last can of beans, a stub from a mostly-used-up bread loaf, and about two wieners in a broken package. No further exploration there or elsewhere turned up additional grub. What was this? Had some fool left most of the food on the also-vanished bus?
"I can't figure," Erica remarked when she came up to join us. "What are the teachers playing at? Is this some sort of egghead experiment in stress and survival?"
"It's beginning to look that way," I replied with a nod, myself having had pondered the situation with little success.
"No food, no power, no running water. This is frightening," Erica said with a sober grimace. "Is it just incompetence, or is it sabotage?"
"We won't die of thirst, at least," I reassured my companion. "There's a whole lake full of water and, as far as I can see, that's where the camp's water comes from in the first place."
"But if someone's deliberately trying to inconvenience and upset us, what's the purpose? I think we ought to consult the authorities. I checked with the rest of the people, asking if anyone had a cell-phone. Three families did."
"Which authorities did you call?"
She shook her head. "None. All three phones were missing!"
That was food for thought, even if it didn't do anything for the belly. I realized now that I'd been naive. The coincidences were layering themselves on too thickly. The situation no longer seemed so much the result of honest idiocy as of enemy action. But to what end?
"Let's take stock," I recommended with a voice calculated not to alarm. "First, the people who are supposed to be managing this outfit disappear sometime in the night. The generator runs out of fuel about same time simply because its fuel supply was too meager to last longer. We should have found sufficient stocks of food to feed fifty people for several meals, but as far as we know the school only sent enough for one lunch. Worse, somebody stole three cell-phones -- and they did it as slickly as a professional burglar. The only reason to steal phones would be to keep us from communicating with the outside. Why would anyone want that?"
"And the only transportation we had took off last night," my companion reminded me unnecessarily.
"It all seems like some elaborate practical joke," I mused, "but this whole outing was meant to promote parent/child understanding, not upset everybody."
"Well," Erica sighed, "whoever started this fiasco, and for whatever reason, we have to get ourselves organized. Let's call a meeting and count heads."
I don't know who elected me leader, but before I knew it I was the one everybody was turning to for advice and direction. Maybe my being a troop-leader for so long still shines through, even though I've tried to hide my light under a bushel. Anyway, having become the camp's de facto captain, I made Erica my lieutenant and then called the whole group together, making sure that every parent and every child was accounted for. Minus the driver and the teachers, there appeared to be forty-three of us.
Subsequent to roll-call, a free-for-all discussion sprang up and the first few minutes of it were wasted in a raucous venting of spleen against the absconded teachers. I'd seen a lot of people under stress in my time and so it wasn't hard to recognize this kind of anger as a veneer hiding confusion and anxiety. Since recriminations against absent people weren't getting us anywhere, I cut them off short:
"I'm open to suggestions, but as I see it we have two reasonable options. We can either wait until the teachers or the bus comes back -- and they actually might, since we don't know why they left in the first place. Or we can walk to someplace with a phone and telephone the state patrol."
"There's nothing to eat?" someone reminded me yet again.
"The human body can survive for days without food," I reassured them with a wane smile.
Starvation was something which I know about; I've starved to death several different times during a long and checkered career. God, but I've lived a hard life! Sometimes I wonder why I'm still sane -- if "sane" is what I am.
"Anyway," I continued, "this experience will be a good reminder to us all, about what our ancestors went through to settle this part of the country."
That particular history lesson didn't go over too well with so many hungry, upset people and I had to speak loudly to restore order:
"That lake must be full of fish," I pointed out, "and the woods will provide plenty of wood for our cook-fires. There isn't much in the way of kitchenware, I'll admit, but we can improvise with sticks and food tins and such."
"You sound like you expect us to stay up here a long time!" Mr. Daschle observed irascibly, his good mood at finding his lost daughter having dissipated just about as quickly as the morning fog.
"Most of us will have to stay here at least until dark, unless the bus comes back." I advised. "This could all be just a terrible joke, but we don't dare take chances. We have to have another course of action. I say we send somebody on foot to the nearest town. We may all end up looking silly if the teachers come back with a logical explanation, but at this point I think it's better to appear silly than to be sorry."
Wise words, these -- from a person who's been feeling awfully silly and awfully sorry of late.
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