Short Story: Tales to Tell

Tales tell that the during the birth of the world, the all-mother and all-father gave equal parts of their vitality and strength, their burden and weakness, to the seed which would become all of creation. It was this seed, once sprouted, that became all that is, was, and ever shall be.

The sprouting, really, was the Big-Bang. The forces involved still indomitable, immutable. Mother and Father. Yin and Yang. Duality was a concept spanning not just species or time, but the Universe. It was universal.

If only those first Shaman could see us now…

He was Navajo. Native-born. Walking along a road deserted nearly a century, save to the occasional wanderer like himself. Heading East. From the place where the sun sets, seeking answers where it rises. Having found none in one, he would seek them elsewhere.

The sun gleamed off sweat-glistened skin. Deeply tanned, yet still burnt by the pounding sun. He had been in it days, looked it. Like a cactus after a particularly bad drought and a fresh sandstorm. He had survived, as all young Navajo boys learned to: off the land. He never had fears about crossing the Desert, only weariness and lack of need.

He was no fool though. His mother had raised him right after his father left: why, no-one knew–he suspected, not even his father. Like him, he now walked alone, though considerably wiser for his cautionary tale.

Kurt said it best: “See the cat? See the cradle?”

He walked on, unfazed. Desert roads were abandoned even before the fall of civilized man. What the locals had foreseen and called Teotwawki. It came and went. Out here, it was almost impossible to tell. Yet somehow, perhaps through his blood, he sensed the land’s unnatural emptiness.

Another tale tells of a Great Spirit whom came forth during a harsh drought. Prompted by the people’s offerings to bring rain upon the land so the crops might grow, it appeared to a Chieftain whom lamented his people’s dire need. Though none could corroborate him, he said it requested this:

That all people of the village come at nightfall to the grove where he then spoke. There, he proclaimed, he would come to bestow upon them the will of rain, but only on the proceeding night. All but one man went: an old warrior whose will had broken with his soul at the loss of both vitality and heart– his bodily strength, and his wife.

So the Great Spirit appeared to the Warrior, granting he alone the power of Rain.

Out here, the end of the world didn’t seem so bad. In a way, it had been the most prepared for the end of the world. Already the least surviving. The desert was a place of death, everyday survival. A perfect analogue for everything the world had suffered and seen.

Although he admitted, if only to himself, he wouldn’t have survived much else.

It was crucial to know one’s limits. As a boy, the Elders had been strict on this. It was, they said, the root of all Human downfall. His grandmother had said it more succinctly– usually slurring whiskey, “Great-Spirit blessed us with balls and brains and blood for one.”

In his heart, he knew both were saying the same thing: those whom did not proceed with caution most often suffereda final fall.

He made camp by an archway in an alcove of stone. Firelight threw shadows back in flickering riposte to reality’s light-play. They danced and grooved along striated sandstone witness to more death and decay than most of Human-kind could comprehend. It grooved right back.

He passed the night on warm sand, propped only a little uncomfortably against the alcove. Anywhere else in the world would’ve been too dangerous to do such a thing. Sleeping, randomly just off a highway: a good way to be robbed or worse.

But out here there was no-one, and it was for the best. He tended toward pacifism, if only because he had seen the damage the alternative would do. In the rest of the world, that was often interpreted as weakness. Too many predators. The last thing he’d want to do is harm someone.

Though he certainly could.

A third tale tells of a sickness that raged within the people of a village. The Shaman there could do no good. His traditional herbs and medicines had failed him. Worse, winter was growing thicker after a drought-thinned harvest. Resources through-out the village were stretched too thin. Thus, it fell upon he, as Shaman, to guide the Tribe from the brink of total-death.

Though none said it, the people of the village sought his guidance. Yet they also feared his inability to heal their ailing. He was, after all, one man and an old one at that. Though the people said none of this, he felt it all the same.

He worked tirelessly through the day and night to treat and stabilize the ill. With his medicinal stocks dwindling, he had no choice but to seek aid from a neighboring village. One which, by virtue of their adversarial history, might have easily led to his death.

Yet if he did not try, the village would perish.

At the rival village, he found the same sickness ravaging the people. Their Shaman, one of the eldest and wisest, had been first to fall ill. Due to his own, hidden infirmities, he succumbed. Without his guidance, the apprentice Shaman could do little save his best.

The Elder Shaman arrived, but rather than take charge of his stores as a villain might, he taught the rival Shaman all he knew. Together, the pair healed both villages and re-forged their long addled bond.

He came upon a carcass on the side of the road. Decayed to dusty, tanned-human stretched over bone. Its shape and size still identified it: Young. Human. Female. Probably escaped from a den somewhere, held against her will. Looked decades, could’ve been days.

Humans were animals: beastial. Depraved.

He would have to be more careful here. The kinds of creatures that frightened others into choosing such deaths over theirs were true evil.

An Elder had taught him once of evil, that it was a realm of malevolent Spirits seeking to control man. The other Spirits, those to which they gave praise during certain acts or events, were the Benevolent ones. He believed in neither. Not the way he knew they had believed, but in the way they were meant to be. He understood them.

A final tale tells of an old warrior, spirit bleeding and body broken. Day and night he wept in private, soul ravaged by loss of body and love. When at last the Warrior cried to the Great Spirit to ask what evil he’d wrought to have such sorrow befall him, the Spirit appeared.

There, he alone was granted the power to bring rain to his drought-stricken village with tears.

The warrior, feeling this a final slight wept greater than ever. His cries were heard from the village’s outskirts as the rains suddenly began to fall. They found him weeping, kneeling amid the falling rain. There, they came to understand.

And comforted him.

He never again cried, but they never again felt drought either.

He’d heard them in the night from far off. In the desert, sound carried forever. Distinguishable from the dead stillness like needles in the spine. The vibration of something, not far enough off, disturbing the stillness.

He did not sleep, but rose as soon as the sun began to peer over the ancient stone and sand dominating the nearby world. He started off, having seen nor met no-one and almost certainly having retained his anonymity. He remained on guard until, at last, the vibrations trickled back into nothing and he was alone again.

He had never feared them. Not really. Fear was a thing for the unprepared. He was prepared. Alert even. He had one goal, and might not live to see it, but didn’t see any reason he wouldn’t, just accepted he might not. For now, he supposed that was enough.

He walked on.

Short Story: Even Fools

Cracked asphalt rose to plateaus, forming sheer drops to insects too malformed to see their repetition on the massive scales beyond. Humans were no different. Only their scale was. They did all the same foolish things, made all the same foolish mistakes.

Difference was, intellect had kept them alive long enough to thwart death’s equalizing grasp.

Insects didn’t have that advantage, but they were no more in control of that cascade of datum known as Time than Humans, either. Time was ever the dictator. This go-round, it dictated with age went grace.

The elderly were no longer the Olympians. It was the youth. Problem was, in a world of asphalt and suffocated atmo, even the most vibrant soul could not compete. Worst of all, the elder non-competitives were deluding themselves into believing things weren’t as bad as they’d made them.

But they were. And they were only getting worse.

An ant at the apex of one plateau peered over the edge to see another at its base. In deference to the similar scene playing out a hundred miles west, and one more elevated, the man at the base of the cliff wasn’t pumping his antennae in curiosity. He was dead.

Scale mattered, even if size didn’t.

The man that pushed him was staring into the distance, sun still beating on him from its late-noon arc as if nothing’d happened.

But it had.

He’d pushed him. That was supposed to be the end of it but the scream came. Piercing. Shrill. Echoing in the nothingness far longer than he’d have liked or expected. Then, the distant crack. Nothingness again.

Then it was over– supposed to be, anyhow. He slugged the rest of the beer, threw it into the gorge.

That was when it hit him. Later, the Sheriff guessed that was how it happened too. He explained it to a deputy, “Crime of passion.’ People don’t get what it means. Think passion’s all about fucking,” he as much as flopped down as a man with a rod in his spine could.

“What it really means is, ‘people too fuckin’ stupid to look at the bigger picture.’ History’s rife with it. Humans get caught up in the mob mentality, their momentary fury, and fuck things up. Only reason a group can do it’s ‘cause the individual’s capable. Just amplifies it from there.”

The Deputy then asked, “That why you became a Sheriff, Sheriff?”

“Nah, got tired of getting arrested,” He slugged back a shot of coffee. “The problem nowadays, everyone’s afraid to do anything for themselves. Right or wrong.”

The Deputy’s face was small, “Mind if I ask why you kept gettin’ arrested, Sheriff?”

He sparked a joint, “Possession.”

The Deputy laughed.

The night would be quiet, as with all others. Nothing happened at night in the desert. Night was for the warm-blooded, those forced to warm their own for the better of all such as the Sheriff. The next few hours would be spent processing paper-work, filling in forms.

“He ever admit why he did it?” The Deputy’s wife later asked,

Her husband sat beside him on the porch as they puffed their own reefer, “Nope.”

She passed it to him, held her breath. Fireflies floated past in the haze of heat and smoke, drifting upward together with as they puffed deep, let their thoughts drift.

She wasn’t sure how she knew, but she guessed a woman caused it. Nothing turned men against one another faster than women. Usually too, the more the woman, the worse the effect.

“Must’ve been a helluva woman.”

That ponderous introspection had caught her in line at the grocery store. Had it not, she’d never have drifted off, never seen them.

It wasn’t difficult to sniff out the small town three-lane grocer if you were a crook. It was even easier to sniff out the crooks when you used to be one. The place was small, convenient: a path of least resistance for dregs seeking ground.

Marriage to a Deputy had instilled some instincts in her, for instance the ability to spot the two, out of place men in one-oh-four-degree heat wearing flannel over-shirts, rolled caps, and leaning into themselves rather peculiarly. They were loitering. Waiting for badness, she wagered. Lucky really, if they’d been smarter, she might never have seen them.

But she did. They were waiting and by now, so was she. She angled at the cashier, leaned forward as if to set items on the belt. She spoke fast and low, “The two men over there may be about to rob the store. Press the silent alarm and alert your manager. Now. Go!

Her body stiffened. She was instantly feeling under the register. Then, with a terrified attempt at nonchalance, she stiffly speed-walked for the manager’s office. Careful not to appear too out of place she knocked, but forced her way in. A thought to decry the intrusion was waived at the woman’s terrified stiffness.

“I think we’re being robbed!”

“What?”

The shouts came then.

The alert had gone out from the store and the Deputy’s wife’s phone near enough together the threat was obvious. The Sheriff himself had been nearby, and the Deputy not far from him. They were first on-scene, caught the guys mid-draw. The guns went up. Before a minute had passed, it was over.

The confusion never had a chance to give way to chaos.

Later, after taking statements and returning to the station, Sheriff asked the Deputy the cause of the robbery attempt.

“Crime of passion, Sheriff,” the Deputy said. “Couple out-of-towners needed cash to fix the car.”

“Uh-huh. Anything else?”

“Sure. I asked ‘em, “Why not ask someone for help?”

“They say anything?”

“Yeah, sure. “Where we come from you don’t ask, ‘cause you know the answer.”

“Hmm…” The Sheriff retorted.

Later on, the Sheriff relayed the conversation to the two men in holding, adding, “I get it. You’re drifters. Prob’ly running from a past no man can begrudge. So I’m gonna’ give you a choice: leave now, never look back and never come back. Or stay on as deputies, and learn to be real, proper men. Flaws and all.”

“Catch is,” the Sheriff admitted forthrightly, “You show signs of regression, I put you down. Clean from here-on. S’all that matters.”
They eyed one another, shrugged. It was the best deal they’d find– especially given no-one else was offering. They took to it, too– even fools know change is good.

Short Story: Desert Man

How he survived no-one was sure. They only knew that he emerged onto a stretch of I-40 just south of the Mojave National Preserve. He was a ratty, shell of a man, emaciated and parched to bleeding from an indeterminate amount of time in the sun without water. One of Nevada’s National Park Rangers had found him wandering the highway a few miles from his shack. Richard Powell, the Ranger, found the John Doe just before dawn.

“There’s obvious signs of dehydration,” Powell explained to a doctor over the phone.

The John Doe sat in the tiny, air-conditioned Ranger’s shack across the room from Powell. His eyes were focused straight ahead, his shoulders and back slumped in a hunch atop the leather couch. He wore a suit, clearly tattered from his tenure in the Mojave. He’d yet to say a word, and a small trickle of blood still leaked from the cracked skin in the center of his bottom-lip. Every few moments, almost mechanically, he would lift the chilly, tin cup in his hand to soothe his sandy throat with cold water. As if autonomous, only his arm, mouth and throat moved. His eyes stayed focused ahead. His body never flinched but for the occasional shallow breath.

Powell hung up the phone, lifted his wooden chair from behind the desk, then set it down before Doe on the dusty rug in the center of the room. He sat slowly, considering his words with care and taking a long, droll look at his charge. He shook his head with confusion.

“I dunno’ how you done it, son,” Powell said. “But you clearly got your feathers ruffled over sumthin’ and I’m not sure how to go ’bout fixin’ that.”

The Doe’s eyes shifted to stare into Powell’s, but he remained silent. His eerie stillness was only normalized in the few, human movements that comprised his drinking. Either oblivious, or altogether too concerned to address it, Powell steered the conversation with glances here and there that gave more humanity to his charge than he may have possessed.

“Now I called the Doc, ‘n he’ll be here soon, but ’til then I’mma need you to tell me whatever you can remember, alright?”

Doe looked straight through Powell, a gaze that froze the desert-man’s blood. It wasn’t an easy thing to do– like most desert people, Powell was used to the two extremes of the desert; the smothering heat and the unbearable cold. Doe’s piercing look though? Even antifreeze couldn’t have kept his blood flowing. There was something alien about him, inhuman– like he’d come from another planet and could see everything inside, outside, and through a man just by looking in his eyes.

Powell’s discomfort began to rise, but he powered through it for the sake of his charge, “Look, I understand you’re prolly not in the talkin’ mood. I ‘magine your throat’s mighty soar, but you gotta’ tell me what happened to you, else I’m not gonna’ know what to tell the Doc.”

Still Doe sat there, eyes fixed ahead, mechanically drinking. Powell scratched his five-o’clock shadow with a grating of stubble on nails. He pushed himself up from the chair with both hands on his thighs, began to step away when Doe’s mouth opened with a rasp. Powell stopped in his tracks, looked at the man in anticipation.

Doe’s mouth was slacked like he’d stopped mid-speech, a word still ready to roll from his tongue, but all of his movements had ceased. Even his breath seemed to stop, likely to help muster this bizarre state of being. Suddenly the hand that held the water dropped its cup, seized Powell’s wrist.

There was a flash like a mortar’s exploded, but Powell was unharmed. He recoiled from a blinding light, suddenly found himself standing beside the man in the middle of the desert. It was near dusk, the sun swollen on the horizon as though the Earth ended somewhere in its direction and it began there. For a moment Powell swore he saw the dividing line where Sol and Earth were separate entities. He shook off the thoughts in favor of a rubbernecking back-step that included a full-circle of his feet.

He came to a rest on the face of Doe. It stared at him, more animate and human than he’d seen it yet. Powell was awestruck, ready to accuse the man of sorcery, but he raised a hand slowly to halt him from speaking. For some reason, it worked. A trickle of complacency coursed through the Park Ranger all the way from his chest to his brain. Something flooded his body from its presence, and he felt content.

For the first time, Doe spoke; his voice was old, hoarse, as though it came from a man hundreds of years older than the vessel that possessed it. “I… do not know my name. It has been… far too long since I began my journey.”

Powell’s breath weighed on his chest, “Wh-what’s going on ‘ere?” He whipped his head left to right, “We’re… Where are we? Where’s the shack? What’ve you–”

Doe’s hand went up again, and Powell felt endorphins leak from his brain, “You… don’t worry. I… won’t harm you. Something… wonderful. I wish to show you.”

He presented his hand to Powell, as if to take it to be led somewhere. Indeed, once more compelled by the curious force, Powell took Doe’s hand. The land around them began to morph, by the looks of it, to a late-prohibition era town. The distant sunset disappeared to form brick and mortar buildings. Trees and freshly-paved street intermingled with the fanciful colors of painted homes in the distance. Long, hand-molded steel fenders and chrome bumpers appeared on exquisitely manufactured Fords and Chevys along the streets’ edges.

Doe’s voice sounded over the change in scenery, “It began here, when I was a young man. Though my appearance does not reflect it…. I have been here a long time. On this Earth.”

Powell glanced around to see a couple step from a nearby speakeasy. The woman was clad in a fur stole. Enormous diamonds glittered around her neck above a flashy, red dress. Beside her, Doe was unmistakable, truly unchanged since the era. Powell watched as Doe maneuvered to the vehicle to open the door for his mistress, his gray fedora and suit freshly-pressed. The angle of his head, and the loud laughter of the woman covered the sound of a slowly approaching vehicle.

Doe opened the door, and the car’s engine revved up. It skidded to a halt just as two men popped out the passenger windows. A hail of Thompson machine-gun fire exploded through the night. The sounds were so loud and near that Powell jumped in fright. One of the men yelled something about Timmy the Fish “sending his regards” as Doe and his mistress were gunned down.

The scene suddenly changed to Doe once more in the desert. This time, he wandered through the Mojave alone. As if Powell followed him with each breath, he kept pace with Doe’s past-self in real-time.

The man’s now-disembodied voice spoke to him over his aimless wandering, “I’m not sure how I survived…. alas, I did.” The walking Doe fell to his knees, exhausted and panting while the elder one continued to speak, “I had been shot four dozen times by Timmy the Fish’s wise-guys. They murdered my beautiful Mary, but I survived… I didn’t even bother going to the hospital. I … I think that was why I wandered out into the desert. I wanted to know if I could die.” He seemed partially amused by his next thoughts, “I left because there was nothing left to stay for. My Mary was gone, and Timmy didn’t trust me anymore. If he’d known I was alive, he’d’ve tried again. If I didn’t die then, he’d’ve just exchanged my shoes for cement ones and I’d be stuck at the bottom of the ocean– maybe for eternity.”

The images morphed back to Doe standing before Powell. The sun sat once more on the horizon. Doe was now animated in response to Powell’s insane look of scrutiny. The former managed a weak smile, his eyes tired and glassy with tears and cataracts from the desert sun.

“I’ve not aged a day in almost a hundred years,” he said with a heavy heart. “And I think on the day my Mary died, I did too… or a part of me did.” He heaved a dreadful sigh infected with grief, “Problem is, the rest’a me’s never quite gone with it.” He took a step toward Powell with the sadness of a man long-past his expiration date, “I started walking the day she died. First, to escape the police, then Timmy. Then, ’cause I didn’t know what else to do. I hadn’t stopped… not really anyhow, ’til you picked me today. Somehow, I’d managed to wander for ages, never dying, never stopping. I like to think that… now, I’m more desert than man. Like a dune in the wind that’s just carried between locations, but never really leaves the desert.”

Doe went quiet. Powell was flabbergasted. He wanted to call the man a crook, a liar, but he couldn’t. He had a peculiar effect on the Park Ranger, reminded him of something from home. It was as though he was part of the desert, somehow had managed to embody it in all those years he’d supposedly wandered it. Being a desert-man himself, the Park Ranger felt at home, couldn’t help but be placate the bit of that Doe embodied.

He shook his head again, focused on the task at-hand, “I dunno’ what’s goin’ on here, but I’d appreciate it if we could return to the shack now. Otherwise, we’re gonna’ miss the Doc.”

Doe gave a few, solitary nods– they were small, presided over by a sad smile. In a blink, the Ranger’s shack re-materialized around them. Powell found himself standing just as he’d been, ready to return to his desk. Doe’s arm retracted back to his body.

He cleared his throat with a slosh of water, then rasped out a few words, “I just wanted you to know my story, Sir.” Powell turned to eye the man as he continued, “All those years I been searching for death, but it still ain’t come. I dunno why. After today, I almost glad it didn’t, ’cause now you know my story.” He took a long, slow drink from his water, then smiled with teary eyes, “She sure was somethin’, my Mary, wasn’t she?”

Powell couldn’t help but be affected by Doe’s sorrow, be it from one man to another, or one desert-man to another.

Powell gave a small nod, his voice quiet, “Sure was.”

Doe nodded back, relaxed on the couch and closed his eyes. Powell sighed, stepped for his desk to lift the phone. He gave Doe one last look, and as if he were a dune, a wind kicked up and the man blew away like grains of sand. What was left of his body after the gust dissolved into sand-grains.

Powell lunged for the couch, felt around it. He drew his hand up with a pile of sand that leaked through his fingers. Powell’s eyes were wild, but somehow he knew: the desert-man had returned home.