Monday, 27 August 2007

The Bush: Short Fiction

Flies hummed with aggravating persistence around Derek’s head as he pushed through the brambles and syrupy ground. His shirt clung to his back and his scalp itched. The hawthorn branches through which he had just come remained as rune-like scratches stinging along his bare arms and shins, and the oppressive perfume of late August pollen assaulted him. Holding his hand to his brow and glaring at the sun, he wished he had never suggested coming out here.

“Where do you think they’d be?” Julie asked.

“No idea,” he said. “They have a fort over in the corner that way.” He pointed to the north. “And one in another hawthorn grove over there.” He pointed south east. “There are lots of rusted trucks they like to look at over there.” East. “Or they could have gone home without us.” Southwest.

Derek looked to see if Julie was paying attention. Sweat trickled down her forehead as much as his, and the spiky branches had laced her calves with many more oozing scratches. Dogteeth and burrs nestled in her socks and running shoes. She never came in here anymore, likely not since grade four, three years ago, and would not know how to walk through it properly.

“Anywhere Lynn would want to go?”

Derek came back to the surface to think. “What would she like to do? There aren’t many flowers to pick around here . . .”

Julie laughed. “Us Gerbers don’t waste time picking flowers. Lynn would spend her time looking for fairies and leprechauns, or something.” She stopped smiling quickly. “If she asked Mark or Louis where to look for fairies, where would they take her?”

The van. Exploded foam and fabric. And coon prints all around it. “The junk in the end. They’d take her to the pine trees across the fence, and they always wind up at a van when they go out there.”

Straight brown hair flapping as she nodded, she began to pick her way in the direction of the van. Derek forced his way around the thistle patch she was headed toward, hoping she would take the hint and follow. She did.

The Bush, as everyone who lived in the area called it, was overgrown and sufficiently wild after the recent hurricane aftermath that Derek’s brother Louis and their neighbour Mark had been drawn to it like the flies haloing Derek’s head. They had spent two weeks clambering over rocks, wading out into the pond, trying to catch leopard frogs and making forts of fallen branches, and Derek had been surprised that they had not automatically come out here when Julie and Lynn came over. The Gerber’s parents had gone to some reunion thing, and Lynn and Julie had been shuttled between grandparents and friends. Today, however, no one would take them. Since Derek was the closest in age of the immediate neighbours, the girls had come over to his house. Not that Derek’s parents were home, either, but adults seemed to think that it was better if they were all together. So the lot of them had trekked back to The Bush at Derek’s suggestion. Lynn had been watching frogs wallow, and the boys had been sword fighting with branches they broke off the trees, while Derek and Julie gossiped about schoolmates. It always amazed Derek how quickly kids three or four years younger than him could be lured away from him in The Bush if he was paying attention to other things.

It took only a minute or two of forcing through the tangled weeds and grasses to reach the derelict barbed-wire fence snaking between Derek’s property and the neighbour’s. Here the ground was less covered, so they walked along the fence silently until they came to a place where it lay close to the ground, posts long rotted out, and they stepped over it. Half a minute later, they saw the pine grove where Lynn would have looked for her fairies.

Soft deep moss covered the rocks and bare earth in the sunny opening, just large enough for three people to share, in the midst of the tall evergreens packed tightly around. There were only about a dozen of the pines together, but the air in the shadowed places felt cooler, older, and somehow cleaner than that in the rest of The Bush, almost as though a sort of magical preservation was on it, allowing the few who found it to be isolated from time and be, however briefly, in what was left of an era when the world was fresh and innocent.

Derek went naturally to the sunny middle and Julie followed him, squeezing beside him into the dappled light. They looked silently around them. Despite the likelihood that the younger ones were here a moment ago, they felt very alone together.

“I see what you mean,” Julie eventually said. “A place for fairies, if there ever were any.”
“They’re not here now, though. Ghost stories of goblins and things in the car will call them.”
They stood looking over each other’s shoulders for a little while, reluctant to leave the isolation, but with a joint sigh, they left fairyland for darker glades.

On the other side of the grove ran triple rows of hawthorn trees, ailing and bare, but possessed of wicked spines nonetheless. The branches of the hunchbacked trees raked low, and the pair had to weave through and duck in places. Derek once knew the various ins and outs of this line; in fact, the second fort he had spoken of could only be accessed without scrapes by going down the heart of this row and among thicker spines, and he had founded it when he was Louis’ age, but he had grown several inches since then. He could no longer fit in the gaps he once could.

Had they stopped to look when they were halfway through the hawthorns, they would have seen the boys creeping toward the van at the end, and Lynn watching from behind the first rusted piece of farm equipment. But Derek was busy holding thorned arms back for Julie, and she was busy keeping her hands near her eyes so that the spikes could not gouge them, and neither saw anything until they were through. Then Lynn ran up to them, babbling all sorts of things about the boys.

If seen from above, The Bush would appear to be the approximate shape of a swollen horseshoe, with the prongs facing Derek’s house to the southwest. There were a few irregularities, one of which being the thin finger of trees reaching from the base of the east-most prong and running at a right angle to it. This finger was about ten metres wide at the thinnest and almost twice that at the widest. The trees were farther apart and generally smaller in this area, and the ground underneath was covered in tall grasses instead of bush. It was here that the farmer who owned this bit of The Bush had years ago dumped all of his wasted vehicles to build up rust and filth, and the van in which Louis’ goblin lived was at almost the very tip.

Julie sat on her haunches to be level with her younger sister, and asked her what was wrong. Lynn stared wide-eyed and pale, but not altogether unhappy, and scared them with her answer.

“I saw something inside the van. Something alive.”

“The coon,” Derek muttered. Louder, “What are Louis and Mark doing?”

“They’re going to look at it. Lew says it’s a gremlin. They have to sneak up on it.”

“They don’t have to sneak up on anything,” Derek glowered. “I told them to stay away from coons. It’ll bite them if they wake it up.”

Julie looked worried. “Do coons get rabies?”

“Sometimes,” Derek told her.

“It’s not a coon,” Lynn told them. “It’s a gremlin.”

“Yo, guys!” Derek shouted. “Get back here. Don’t go bothering coons!”

Louis and Mark shot glances back from the wounded plow they were hunkering behind, but quickly decided to ignore him.

Derek turned to Lynn. “Did Mark dare him to go back there?”

“No,” she said. “Louis won’t do dares. He knows better than that.”

“Why are they going back there?”

“I saw it, it was looking through the window at me. I came running back and told them. Mark said it’s an animal, and Louis said no, it’s a gremlin. Mark said gremlins aren’t real, and Louis said that gremlins are like goblins. Mark didn’t believe him, and said he was lying, and that he should go up to it and look at it, if it was a gremlin. Louis said that Mark should go with him, and he’d see it was a gremlin and not an animal. I didn’t go. It’s scary.”

“That’s the same as a dare, Lynn,” Julie explained.

“No . . .” Lynn began.

Derek had already started to follow the boys to the van. Unlike them, he had no need to hide behind the metal carcasses on his way, so he could catch up with them shortly. In the brief time between deciding where to look and finding the boys, a wind hidden from them by the screening trees had carried a thick blanket of clouds over the sky. As Derek moved into the finger, this wind played about his legs, and he already regretted wearing shorts. The coldness soothed the scratches, though, and they felt less itchy.

He came to the boys just as they started to tug on the corroding door of the van, which had warped within the frame. A fitful groan came from the hinges and overlaps, and something inside moved. Louis turned and nearly shrieked with fear and anticipation. Eyes burning with a fierce hunter’s instinct, their neighbour Mark stared eagerly at the door and beat on the side of the van with his hawthorn branch, like a warrior rattling his spear on his shield.

Anger washed over Derek. He had never really liked the violent, untamed Mark, stomping on caterpillars and stealing Louis’ toys. Now the little brat, mud smears and hawthorn slashes streaking over his face like war paint and scars, was going to get his brother bitten.

“Guys, cut it out.”

“Shhhhhhh!” Mark hissed. “The goblin will hear you!”

“He’s already heard you two pulling on the door . . . Stop it, Lew!”

A hiss and a squeal burst from the van. Louis quit pulling on the handle immediately, now that both his older brother and the thing inside told him not to. Mark, however, attacked the door with a fervour.

“Mark, I’m warning you . . .” Derek growled.

“Don’t,” moaned Julie, who had come with Lynn to the boys.

All but Mark seemed to feel the aura of blind terror flowing from the van. A hundred swords of wind cut through them, and the clouds grew steadily heavier. Muttering and stuttering came constantly from behind the door.

“You can’t tell me what to do,” Mark said, his usual war cry.

“I can when I’m supposed to be babysitting you,” Derek answered, grabbing his arm.

Mark’s pushing thumb finally depressed the button on the handle. With a grating protestation, the door opened. They all stared into the dark interior.

What looked like a small starving boy stared back.

He was thinner and shorter than the boys, and seemed younger by a few years. His eyes were set deep into his skull, nestled in a tangle of lines and wrinkles. Bunched and slack, his skin hung off his bones as though he had lost a lot of weight. Weak muscles and sinews moved visibly beneath his bare chest.

The children stared at the little boy crouching in the van, his bare feet curled under his dirty grey shorts and his skinny arms wrapped tightly around his torso. Derek looked over his sickly thinness and dirtiness, and wondered. Maybe it was all the talk of fairies and goblins, maybe it was the pent up fear of rabid coons, maybe it was an innate knowledge of the truth, but Derek felt that this was not a regular boy. There was something preternatural about this terrified little creature. What the others thought, Derek did not know or care. He knew that he was looking at something beyond any of them.

What felt like several minutes passed before anything happened. Then, suddenly, Lynn screamed, and time switched on again. The thing in the van let off a wail and a string of language-like gibberish, and rushed for the depths of the van, behind the chairs. Julie held Lynn’s hands in one of her own, and covered her sister’s mouth with the other. Derek grabbed both Mark’s and Louis’ shoulders, and tried to pull them back. Louis complied. But Mark, with a focussing of his predatory gaze, shook free and leapt up into the van, wielding his hawthorn stick. The creature in the van tittered and cried and screamed, mouth and eyes stretched wide in its deeply etched face, dodging about the strewn stuffing and coils of the van’s back. Mark cautiously stalked his way in, reaching and prodding with his barbed club. The back doors of the van were closed, and the thick metal of the van had not rotted out enough to allow for escape.

The creature was trapped.

“Open the back doors!” Derek shrieked at his brother.

Louis ran trembling to the back doors and pulled with all of his strength, which hardly seemed enough.

“Do something, please,” Julie implored of Derek, still stifling the ongoing wail of Lynn.

Adrenaline flooding his veins, Derek strode to the edge of the van and reached in at the flailing boy. He caught hold of Mark’s left arm. The vicious little boy yelped and thrust the hawthorn branch at his captor. Derek held tight and swung his neighbour up out of the van and down to the ground on his back. He did not heed the crack as Mark’s arm hit the roof of the van.

The starved child saw daylight, and with a piercing exclamation, leapt from the van and off into the forest.

“Owwww,” Mark wailed petulantly, his face clutched up as though he were about to cry. “Why? Why’d you hurt me . . . ohhhh . . .”

“You deserved it,” Derek spewed. “What’s wrong with you? Why’d you do that? Why’d you try to hurt that boy?”

“Owww . . . ohhhh . . .”

“Stop whining,” Julie said, her voice harder and colder than it ever had been before. “You like hurting other things so much, you should put up with it when you get it back.”

Her mouth free, Lynn increased the level of her banshee’s wail, now accompanied by the hiccoughs of tears.

Mark realized he would not receive any sympathy. Struggling to his feet, he spit, “I was hunting the goblin! It shouldn’t have been there, and you shouldn’t have touched me! You can’t tell me what to do!” As though to prove his point, he swung his thorned branch at Derek’s face.

The branch landed across Derek’s cheek. Julie gasped, and Lynn suddenly stopped crying. Louis watched uncertainly from his place at the back doors of the van. With cold deliberateness, Derek wrenched the hawthorn stick from Mark’s hand, and smote him in the face three times. He then grabbed his shoulders and threw him to the ground. “That was not a goblin. That was a boy. You were trying to kill a boy. Never come to my house again. Never come to this Bush again. Leave. Now!”

Sniffing furiously, Mark got up, and set off for home, muttering to himself and shooting dark glances back at them. They followed him to the edge of The Bush and watched him disappear across the fields in the distance. None of them spoke until he was gone.

A week later, Derek heard a story on the news about a boy who had been missing for two weeks in the area. He had Autism and had gotten lost on a school trip. That evening, while his father was reading the paper, Derek asked what Autism was. His dad told him that it was a kind of learning disability or something. It made kids smart and stupid at the same time, he had said, not bothering to glance up from his newspaper. They talked kinda funny and made weird noises and did weird things. For a long time, Derek wondered if the thing they had seen had been that missing boy. But could two weeks scrounging in the forest make someone look that malnourished?

In the few days after the episode, he had followed the crashing trail the boy took through the forest. It was easy to make out for a while, as he must have run blindly through all the bushes and weeds. Once it got near the pond, though, the path suddenly disappeared. At the edge of the pond stood a pine tree, and it had a hole at its base. Small footprints littered the muddy ground around it, the same marks they had seen around the van earlier in the summer. Derek was not a good tracker, though, and did not trust his own judgment.

The interior of the van showed little sign of inhabitation. Something had torn up the seats, and many little nose and finger prints marked the windows. Derek wondered how the marks got so high up the windshield. The boy must have climbed around a lot. He also wondered how the boy got in. Had he come through the door? But if the doors were so hard to open, why would a starving Autistic child bother?

Louis told his brother that gremlins were small gnome-like spirits that had a magical knowledge of machines and technology. When asked if the boy in the van could have been a gremlin, Louis looked away and would only say that the pictures were different, but that the people who made the pictures might have gotten it wrong. He said nothing more all evening.

During the next summer, Derek and Julie came back to the fairy grove, as they called the pines. They picnicked a bit, but mostly talked about school. They noticed that Lynn and Louis were growing up and that Mark was getting more violent toward the two. More often they enjoyed the silence. Once Julie mentioned the boy they had seen, but they abandoned the subject before long. They had nothing new to say.

After a half dozen visits, they stopped going to The Bush. Their parents said that they had grown out of it, but it was more the other way around. The hawthorns crouched lower, and the pine trees cast greater shadows, and thistles sprung up as barbed wire fences. Mosses in the fairy grove were not as soft, the wind bit harder at the finger point, and the mud was deeper around the pond. The Bush gained a defensive hostility that seemed to begrudge the human children for the violence that had happened that day.

Derek never saw the boy, or anything like him, again.

This is an old one I dragged out of my computer. I do like it, though.

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