Ulgoter Plantarum

As you may have noticed, my blog looks a little different today. I grew tired of the green and brown color scheme and changed it up. I also added a new category called Fiction. You can search it for any stories I post exclusively here. Let me know what you think in the comments.

The following is a science fiction story I wrote around the time of the election. I probably won’t find a home for it, so here ya go. The title came from a captcha phrase I got while logging into something; I don’t recall what. I liked it, however, and I thought it would make a good title (mine usually blow).

Enjoy.

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Ulgoter Plantarum

© 2016 by Elizabeth West

Hello, friend. I see you’re traveling to the same station as myself. Yes, the transport will be quite crowded. Please, sit beside me. There is room. I will move my things, and my extra limbs — there. Apologies for the space they take up. Yes, there are several of us here, traveling. Traveling…

You are from Earth? Near Sol? How interesting. I have seen pictures of it from our information network, but I have never been so far. It is a lovely blue, is it not? My home is a bit less vibrant. Mostly grey, but with brilliant crystalline purple sections. Our museum once held a large stone from Earth called a geode. It was a popular exhibit because the interior resembled parts of our own world. Perhaps long ago, the two evolved from the same sort of matter.

Ah, well, you would know then. Exo-geology is a fascinating field of study. I see…yes, long assignments can be taxing. You must be excited to return home.

I have heard a great deal about the civilization of Earth. How some live in abject poverty while others waste far more than they could ever use. It’s quite the interesting subject in our schools.

No, no, we do not travel much. Why would we, when we had all we needed? Oh those are not tears; I have an eye condition. You need not worry about contagion. No, I am not crying.

Thank you for the eye-cloth. You are very kind. I have heard of the caring of Earth’s citizens for those in distress. You want to hear my story? Oh, I doubt if it will interest you.

Very well then. We have plenty of time before the transport arrives. Would you like to share my beverage? It is fresh pellacia juice. No? Ah, you have coffee. A quaint drink, but effective if one wishes to remain alert.

To begin…oh, where am I from? Why, Ulgoter Plantarum. It is some distance from here. We live on the surface of the planet, beneath a black sky, the dome above us arching in a graceful and benevolent bubble. It is a beautiful world of vast sparkling plains. Though somewhat inhospitable to oxygen-breathing organisms, millennia ago, our society colonized it after our own planet’s star began to die, and we made our home there. It lacks resources, but it has several moons from which we draw water, metals, and other materials we need to flourish. Our society has always been uniform, but we idolize those with a meld of citizens from many worlds, including those humans who originated on the exoplanets at the edge of your galaxy.

Oh yes, we have heard of the abductions. Those were not Ulgotan activity. Many others in the system would perpetrate such misdeeds, I am sad to say.

Governance. Yes. That is the issue. That is where my tale becomes one of woe.

On Ulgoter Plantarum, we elect a planetary leader. Our democratic process rises above all others in the galaxy. Fairness, community, and openness prevail. We revere all forms of humans, all races, all alignments, and all non-humans alike. Those born in our civilization can rise to greatness if they possess the necessary qualities. Because we appear alike, our society conditions us from birth to accept differences. We have little enmity. Our population lives in agreement; those who would divide and conquer find themselves subtly ostracized and usually decide to take employment on the largest of the neighboring moons, Devanon, where the roughest of construction and mining operations take place, and colonies of hateful dissenters flourish, burn, and die. Quite literally. One can see occasional flares of explosions as they destroy each other. But we examine behavior, not speech; the more promises a candidate puts forth, the deeper the scrutiny of past deeds, or misdeeds.

Only once did we make a mistake.

We had few who wished to lead at that time. Most citizens were content with the way things were, save Devanon’s inhabitants. They issued constant complaints, which most Ulgotans ignored. The Continental Plains presented a candidate who seemed promising, who had served as their advisor to the council and whose reasoned ideas seemed to take both Devanon and the home world into consideration. But no one seemed inclined to challenge him, and Ulgotan law specifies that no office can be filled without an election, to prevent supplanting citizens’ choice. An opponent had to be provided. We trusted the governmental moon to do this.

When the council announced the choice, Ulgotans were surprised, and many were pleased. They had chosen the Japer. We all knew this entity; however, it had never been a council member or advisor of any stripe. In fact, it had had run the most productive of the mining colonies on Devanon, where the majority of citizen complaints were loudest. It baffled us why the council would choose such a being.

Japer is an old word for trickster, beguiler. I use it here because we — meaning many of us who had misgivings–never called it by its actual name. Its acumen brought the promise of new economic projects. Though vague, they seemed legitimate, and its unorthodox proclamations kept us entertained. It was of unpleasant appearance and demeanor for an Ulgotan, yet it seemed to know what we needed. At first.

Soon, it showed a disturbing preference for the least civilized and most poorly educated of our citizens, most of whom populated Devanon and a few outer moons, claiming their rights had been trampled not only by its opposition but also by the government itself, and they must rebel. No more appealing to the council and following due process. “You’re shoved aside!” it thundered. “You have to take it back! What’s theirs is yours! Rebel! Rebel! Choose me, and I’ll help you!” It painted an ugly picture of the council, that they were power-hungry dictatorial creatures who soothed us with lies and kept us divided. “Restore Ulgoter Plantarum and Devanon to one!” the Japer cried, and its followers rallied.

This platform disturbed us. Negotiations with the council had kept the home world in harmony with the industrial moon colonies for many years. To see this break down was the stuff of nightmares. The denizens of the moons had the same rights and privileges as did those on the planet; they worked in the mines by choice. They earned a decent wage and had their needs provided for. They were not slaves. They enjoyed freedom of movement between the moon and the main population centers, when they could afford it.

An astute observer on our daily informational broadcast pointed out that contentment can breed boredom, and perhaps this was the reason for their rebellion, spotted and encouraged by the Japer in order to draw attention to itself. For it seemed to thrive on scrutiny and adoration both. We had never before seen a candidate who did not care whether it was loved or hated. Or perhaps, a few suggested, things were not quite so fair after all.

This elicited a vast divide of opinion at first. Those who favored it were the most vociferous and eventually prevailed. Dissenters insisted they had given the matter careful thought and had finally accepted the rightness of the Japer’s supporters. Perhaps the moons did have a legitimate complaint. After all, things had not changed on Ulgoter Plantarum for centuries.

With suspicion came investigation. It revealed that several of the more long-lived council members –though hardly a majority– had been manipulating negotiations to ensure their own interests received more attention and less scrutiny. They had been quietly appropriating the benefits provided to the moons’ populations, and credits earned for work given had not increased as the council had told us. Our fair-minded civilization reeled in a state of shock. A segment of our citizenry had indeed been betrayed.

Punishment? Oh, yes, our charter contained legal remedies for just such a scenario. All citizens of the colony had to do was agree by crystal vote to follow the procedure and have the miscreants sanctioned. Indeed, they were. We assumed the matter would resolve and the planet would gradually settle back into its former state of genteel acceptance.

We could not have been more wrong.

Led by the vocal dissidents in the planetary colony, fed by endless streams of rhetoric from the Japer itself, and incited by the collapse of trust in the council following the recent scandal, the unthinkable happened. The divisive Japer won the election.

No, no; I am all right. Yes, I would like more pellacia juice, thank you. Please allow me to refill your coffee in turn. I insist. Simply indicate when you have finished.

On the day of the Japer’s induction, Ulgoter Plantarum went into a frenzy. From the moons came reports of wild celebrations that lasted throughout the eight-day week. One could observe pyrotechnics from several hundred leagues away. They lit up the stratosphere in a dazzling display, visible even from the outer moon colonies (indeed, that had been the intent, since many of the workers there did not have enough credits to travel to the capital or even to Devanon).

On the planet itself, the mood leaned toward a sober contemplation. How could one faction, far from the majority, have succeeded? Analysis of the crystal votes revealed that less than 64% of Ulgotans had bothered to submit their stones. When the still-unbiased information network took a poll, it found the majority of those who abstained had done so due to a lack of confidence that the remaining council members favored Ulgoter Plantarum’s interests over their own. “Why should we?” many of them said. “It doesn’t matter who’s in charge. First it was the moon; next it will be us.”

And things began to change.

Oh yes, I suppose it does make me angry to speak of it. I have never been able to control the blue flush. Everyone always knows when I am upset. I appreciate your willingness to listen, and your concern.

Yes, our resistance to change may seem difficult to understand. Earthlings thrive on upheaval. When things become static, you push them. Look at your science, your technology. You would not be here, sitting beside me, but for change.

Very well. I shall explain.

At first, the Japer had the most appalling ideas, ones that spoke to the very basest of our instincts, traits we had striven to eliminate over many generations. We despaired; our society showed signs of slipping backward. Debates raged furiously. The majority, I am thankful to say, exhibited much thoughtfulness and informed discourse. When the Japer, aided by the council, presented potential edicts, resistance happened swiftly but not without consideration. In this way, we managed to extract the best ideas and discard what did not work. We began to get used to it.

Then one day, the blow fell. Six cycles into its incumbency, the Japer announced a new development, an astonishing reimagining of the planet’s societal structure, and one that would forever alter the way we lived. There had been a breakthrough, it said, in the understanding of our planet. An exploration we knew nothing about had discovered new sources of raw materials. No longer would we confine a third of the populace to the moons; no longer would we strip them of their resources. Though hardly limited, they took time to replenish, time in which the workers lay idle and did not earn credits. This had been a subject of exhaustive debate in times past and various solutions were proposed; it was the main reason Devanon colonists could not afford to visit the planet. Many had originated on the moons and had never seen the beautiful sparkling plains of Ulgoter Plantarum for themselves.

No more, declared the Japer. The entire population of the moons could now join us. The first to come would be the construction workers. They would begin assembly of living quarters and section centers, and do the heavy work involved in opening the refineries. “To refine what?” we asked.

Yes, I hear that. I am sorry I cannot speak over it. Let us retire to this seat, further back. It seems to be coming from the front of the station. Our transport will soon be here; I will finish as quickly as I can.

Our purple crystals had always functioned as nothing more than scenery. As fate would have it, researchers at an industrial operation hired by the council at the Japer’s behest had discovered they contained a substance that would provide energy of a sort we had not seen before. It would power our cities, and we would no longer need to depend on the expensive moon operations. Our society could be one at last.

And so the work began. Much sooner than anticipated, which pleased the Japer to no end, the refineries were operational. The council and the Japer began to make plans regarding a changeover of energy.

Before they could do so, our scientists rushed to inform them of a dreadful complication. The threads of substance within the crystals that formed the basis of this restructuring contained a dangerous element. If released, as it would be during refining, it would slowly decimate the planet.

First, airborne particles would lower the temperature. Then, the remaining crystals would react. They would break down, lose their sparkle, turn as grey as their surroundings. In turn, they would release more of the element, poisoning the soil and liquid. Contamination would spread. As if this were not bad enough, the element would cause disease within the populace. Slowly but surely, it would destroy us.

To the scientists’ alarm and the chagrin of the population, careful examination of Ulgoter Plantarum’s records found that no one had ever performed a study on the planet before it was terraformed. Blame flew; information streams deteriorated into a cacophony of argument and supposition.

We seem to be attracting attention. I doubt this station sees many Ulgotans. I must hurry.

The Japer, as you might imagine, completely disregarded the warnings, even when the populace near the refineries began to show premature signs of the poison’s effects. It merely stated the situation would pass. Several of the scientists disagreed. They went underground. They made plans to stop the Japer, woefully unformed and even unbalanced plans. We–they needed a catalyst.

It came when an unfounded rumor surfaced. The Japer was building a ship. An escape ship. Only large enough for itself, its closest advisors and the cronies who ran the refineries, and its young. It meant to leave us to the ravages of the refineries, which continued to exude their poison. Nothing we tried could stop it. The refinery bosses bribed their workers with credits and promises of many more glorious things to come if they would not dissent.

The plan was laid.

Excuse me? One moment, friend; the station operative needs information. My transport card, yes yes. I have it here. Let me search…ah, here we are. All should be in order, for my colleagues as well. We are going to Dalion IV. No, this human is returning to Earth, to family. Ah, I see. Thank you for informing us.

I am sorry, my friend, for the interruption. Let us hope the transport delay does not take much longer.

What was the plan? It was a simple one, really. It started with a subversive attempt to stop the refining. When that failed, as we suspected it would, we engineered the definitive solution.

Oh, you are back. Yes, Operative. Yes, that is my name. I see there is no reason to resist. You have found us. My colleagues are not well. Please treat them kindly. The poison spread too deeply into their systems. They will not survive long after reaching K-6.

I am sorry, dear friend. Please, do not try to interfere. No, Operative, the Earthling had nothing to do with it.

What? Yes, I said Dalion IV, but we are not going there now. Our escape has been thwarted. K-6 is a prison planet, friend. The plan I spoke of? The only way to stop the Japer from leaving, and to cut short the awful suffering it inflicted on our beautiful world, was to destroy it.

When our first conflagrations at the refineries distracted the council, we infiltrated the Japer’s section. The ship, now completed, was loaded with credits. All the credits its cronies had promised to the workers. In fact, the entire treasury. You see, we had no choice. We stole the ship and passed the outer binary star just as the chemical reaction we instigated removed Ulgoter Plantarum from existence.

Could you please give me the eye-cloth? I cannot reach, as I am confined. Thank you. Thank you, friend. Please, do not weep for me. All that I told you took place over many of your generations. I am old, and I am tired. We accept our sentence knowing that we have liberated our planet from great suffering, not with vengeance, but with compassion. If you take nothing else from my story, take this: care for your world. Protect it. We are the last of our kind, but the Japer was not the last of its ilk.

Ah, here is your transport. And I see ours has arrived also. Farewell, my friend. Farewell.

 

Happy Christmas and a Story

Happy Christmas (Eve), everybody!

I am hanging with the fam today and tomorrow.  We did presents tonight and will do the rest with my brother’s family on Christmas Day.  So far, I’m a bit gobsmacked–I actually liked all the presents I got so far.  Usually my family miss the mark, but this time they did pretty well.

I got three varieties of THEEEEEEEEEEESE

I got three varieties of THEEEEEEEEEEESE!!!

Image: williams-sonoma.com 

Didn’t know Williams-Sonoma carried F&M tea, though now that I do, I’m in really big trouble.  It’s cheaper than buying it in London (no airfare)–but not nearly as much fun.

For Christmas, I have decided to share a slightly spooky story with you.  It was written some time ago and I can’t seem to find a home for it, but this is as good as any.  In ye olde England, there used to be a tradition of telling ghostly or spooky stories round the fire at Christmas.  (This undoubtedly is why A Christmas Carol is so damn scary.)

"I'd get up and offer you tea, old Marley, but I think I've peed myself, thanks."

“I’d get up and offer you tea, Marley old bean, but I do believe I’ve pissed myself.”

Image:  E. A. Abbey, “What do you want with me?” A Christmas Carol (1876)

My story is not a patch on Charles Dickens’, but I hope you like it anyway.  It’s called The Shiny Folk.  When most  people think of fairies, they picture Tinkerbell, Peter Pan’s tiny companion, or the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio who made the titular puppet into a real boy.  But traditional fair folk were not minuscule mascots or angelic wish-granters.  People feared them, and they held much power.  In this story, a man named Jed finds that out the hard way.

Seriously, Rose’s Hostage is one of the only things I’ve ever written that doesn’t have something weird in it.  :P

I have posted it below.  Have a safe and happy Christmas, and if you’re not celebrating the holiday, have a wonderful weekend!

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The Shiny Folk

© 2011 By Elizabeth West

Telling about what happened is sort of like living it all over again.  I don’t like it much, ‘cause as far as I’m concerned, it’s over with.  I don’t know if you’ll believe me or not.

It was last spring, about early May I think.  Me and my daddy were out driving his cattle from one pasture to another when I seen something lying on the ground, right about where the old oak tree used to be, before it kicked the bucket the year before and had to be turned into kindling.  It sort of sparkled and I made a little detour to pick it up, thinking someone had lost something that might be valuable.  I was gonna look at it but just then one of the cows made a break for it, and I stuck it in my pocket and forgot it.

Later on that night, while watching TV with my wife in the living room, I remembered it. I stuck my hand in my pocket and fished it out.

“What’s that?” my wife asked, busy with her knitting.  She was always sewing or stitching or something.  She made all four of our kid’s clothes, ‘cept the last one, who liked to dress like some gang thug, the way kids do nowadays.  Seemed like she got some kind of solace out of keeping her hands busy, since our last kid had just scooted off to college (on a scholarship, mind you–working in a wire factory don’t allow for much in the way of savings).

“Not sure,” I answered, looking at the thing.  She kept on knitting without looking up, one ear cocked toward the TV.

I looked at it, expecting to see some kind of cheap gewgaw that fell off some woman’s church hat or something.  Instead I saw a jewel, red as blood, stuck in a gold setting, oval like a cameo brooch but with no pin.  It looked old, too.  I remember thinking maybe the snowplow dug it up after that last March storm and it’d been buried there for a while.  The gold part around it was all filigreed like my grandma’s wedding ring.  I didn’t know what to make of it, so I tossed it into my wife’s lap.

“Just a little thing I picked up in the ditch,” I told her.  She stopped knitting long enough to look at it in the light of the reading lamp.

“Honey, this looks old,” she said.  “Don’t you think we ought to try and find out who it belongs to?  It might be an heirloom or something.”

“Nah,” I said, and it was the thing I most regret saying in my entire life.  “Finders keepers, losers weepers.  Make a necklace out of it.  Wear it to church.  Make all those old biddies jealous.”  I winked at my wife, and she smiled back at me.  It was well known that even after four kids and near thirty years of marriage, my wife was still as pretty as she was when I met her at the county fair the year we were both twenty.  Maybe a little grey had crept into her dark hair, but her skin was smooth and white and she was as fit as a fiddle.  She sure didn’t look her age like some of her church cronies.

She was smart as a whip too.  Could of gone to college and what’s more, had sense, but she only wanted to get married and have babies, a job I stepped up to gladly.  Her name was Alison but I always called her Sugar, ‘cause she was so sweet.

We went to bed that night and she put that thing in her jewelry box, and we forgot about it.

About a week later, I was out with my brush hog trying to keep the woods from taking over the hay field when the walkie-talkie beeped in my pocket.  Twelve years ago, my uncle James had rolled a tractor on himself and lay there for hours before anyone thought to look for him.  He damn near left us; ever since then, everybody in the family took a walkie-talkie with them out into the field, just in case.  It was my youngest’s idea.  He was a smart one like his mother.

At first I didn’t hear it, the tractor made so much noise, but when I slowed down a little to turn around, I heard it real faint.  I stopped the tractor and keyed the Talk button, my heart in my mouth.

“Honey? Honey?” I could hear Sugar saying.

“Yeah!” I hollered back.  “What is it?”

“Sweetheart, you better come on back to the house,” she crackled over the speaker.  “I don’t know what’s going on.”

You can bet I hightailed it back to the house just as fast as I could.  She hadn’t ever bothered me in the field without a damn good reason before.  I was worried she might be sick or something.  I know it sounds foolish after I just got done telling you how healthy she was and all, but I lived in constant fear of losing her to some calamity or other.

When I got there, she sat on the couch, the jewel on the coffee table in front of her, along with a big brown package.  She stared at them like they were gonna bite her.  I asked her what the sam hill was wrong, if she was all right, did she know she scared me half to death.  She said she was all right and just to keep looking and pointed to the jewel there on the table.

I looked, but I didn’t see a thing.  Now I was beginning to really get worried; I was thinking she was off her nut like my Aunt Trudy, who got the Alzheimer’s when she was only forty-five.

“What–“ I started to say, but just then that jewel flashed bright as the sun, filled the whole room with red light.  I cried out, but Sugar just clapped her hands and laughed like a little kid.

“It did that before!” she said happily, “right when I wished!  And look!  It’s done it again!”  I looked and there was a second package next to the first.

I did not get it.  Even when she explained to me about how she’d been looking at the jewel, and thinking it was probably some old piece of costume jewelry that no one remembered losing, and how she wished it was valuable and we had the money what it would be worth, then it flashed as bright as anything and that package just appeared.

“Did you open it?” I asked.  She shook her head and reached for one.  I pushed her hand away.  I sure didn’t know what the heck was happening, but I knew I didn’t want her to touch it. Not just yet.

I picked it up.  It was kind of heavy for its size and felt like it was made out of thick leather, but soft.  I unwrapped it and there in my hand lay more money than I had ever seen in my life.  Stacks of hundred dollar bills, all bound up together with string.  I dropped it on the table and grabbed the other package.  Same thing; money, all wrapped up neat like some kind of a present.

“See? I told you! I wished for it and it appeared!  Oh, Honey, this must be magic!” Sugar said, and she grabbed the jewel.

“Wait, now, let’s not jump to no conclusions,” I warned, but God, I was bewildered.  I didn’t believe in any such thing as magic.  There just had to be an explanation for this.  “Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but I’m thinking we better keep this between us,” I said hastily, seeing her eyes dart toward the telephone.  If she called everyone we knew and told them I found a magic jewel that granted wishes, they’d have the county people out here so fast we’d be in a home before we knew it.  So she pouted a little, but she agreed.

In the days that followed, we tried not to think about the jewel too much, but I knew it was on both our minds.  The other guys at work kept looking at me funny, and one asked me if something was wrong.  I made up a story about being tired, extra field work and all, and they didn’t bother me after that.  We were afraid to put the thing back in the jewelry box, for fear someone’d break in and steal whatever was there, so I made a little nest in an old cigar box and buried it out behind the hay barn.  Many times I found Sugar looking out the kitchen window in the direction of that barn, her face all dreamy, and I knew she was thinking of that little jewel and the power it seemed to have.

We put the money in the bank, a little at a time.  What they might have thought had we just shown up with a big old pile of hundred dollar bills I can’t tell you, but they accepted a couple hundred a week with my explanation of picking up some extra work here and there tinkering with cars.  Everyone knew I could keep a car running –learned it from my daddy.  We sent some money to the kids, the ones that were married and out on their own and the one in college, but we were careful not to send too much.

Sugar used a little to fix up the house.  We hadn’t had new carpet in a long time, on account of all the kids running in and out, and the old rug was just about on its last legs.  I used some of it to put a down payment on a good used truck.  In spite of my skills as a mechanic, the old one was just about finished.  A few months later, the money was almost used up.  Those leather bags were close to being empty when Sugar suggested we dig up the jewel and make another wish.

“Baby, I don’t know about that,” I told her.  “This whole thing seems like a dream come true, but I got a funny feeling about it.  Let’s not get too greedy.”

“But honey,” she pleaded. “Just think of all the things we could wish for!  Anything we wanted!  We could finally pay off the mortgage.  We could have a brand new house if we wanted.  Or even a trip to Mexico!”  She’d always wanted to go to Mexico, ever since her grade school teacher brought in some stuff from her own trip.  She loved Mexican food and always watched those travel shows on TV.  I had hoped to take her someday, but until the Magic Jewel, as she now called it, I couldn’t save up the money.

“Sugar, I don’t think we ought to push this, whatever it is.  Besides, you already wished twice–what if there’s only three wishes, and we wanna save the last one for something important?” I said.

“Oh, that’s just in fairy tales!” she scoffed.  “This is real life, and besides, there isn’t any reason to think that we can’t make as many wishes as we want to.  After all, it came to us,” she said quietly.

I looked at her then and I didn’t like what I saw.  Her eyes were all narrow, and she looked like she did when the stray cat got into the henhouse among her prized Arucanas.  “I’m gonna get that cat,” she’d said and soon enough, the chickens were safe.  Sugar wasn’t half bad with a .22 as well as a sewing machine.  I was proud of her that day, but now that look worried me.

“Sugar, promise me you won’t do anything ‘til we get a chance to think things through,” I said.  She didn’t want to listen to me, but eventually I coaxed her into a promise.  I didn’t believe her though.  I fully intended to dig up the cigar box that very night and move it before she could get out there again.  It hurt me to mistrust my wife.  We’d been together for many years and she was my best friend, but this situation was getting out of hand.  All her native sense seemed to have deserted her.  I could tell now that she thought of nothing else besides that jewel.  I watched her the rest of the day, but she didn’t say any more about it.

My worry kept me up ‘til well after she had conked out.  I got out of bed and changed into some jeans and a dark colored T-shirt in the laundry room and went outside to fetch a shovel.  It was cloudy and dark that night.  I thought maybe it might be fixing to rain.  I just wanted to move the thing and go back to bed.  When I got to the hay barn, though, I found a great big hole where the cigar box had been.

My first thought was that Sugar had been pulling my chain that afternoon — she’d already dug up the jewel and hid it, and boy was I mad.  I stopped to think what she could have done with it.  That’s when I looked up and noticed the light by the old oak, or rather, where the old oak used to be. I lit out for the fence line like a jack rabbit on a spring.  If Sugar is doing what I think she’s doing, I’m gonna turn her over my knee for the first time ever.

When I got a little closer, I stopped.  Something about that light didn’t look quite right.  It didn’t look like a flashlight or a lantern.  It glowed sort of a gold color, and little blue sparks were flying around it.  A great big shrub some ways away gave enough cover for me to take a look.  I crept up behind the shrub and crouched down.

What I saw was more of those little sparks, and three figures standing by the fence line, not digging or even moving. Just dark shapes.  For some reason, I felt scared, and I crouched down even further, hoping they hadn’t seen me come dashing across the pasture.  The shapes started waving their arms like they were doing some kind of dance, and the little sparks flashed brighter and whooshed around the heads of the figures.  I shifted position to get a better look and froze as a stick snapped under my foot.

Right away the lights went out.  Nothing but flat dark.  I cussed myself for being scared and stood up and went toward the fence.  I still didn’t see a thing, but my teeth were chattering and I had to clench my jaw to make them stop.

I got up to the fence and used the light on my keychain to look where the shapes had been standing.  I found a little place where the ground had been dug up, and I thought Aha, I got her.  I squatted down and cussed again.  I’d left the shovel back at the barn.  So I started to dig with my hands.  The ground seemed sort of warm.  I kept digging but didn’t find no cigar box.

No, what I found instead was an acorn.  Planted near the same place where we ground down that old oak stump after the tree came down.  It puzzled me; who would be out in the middle of the damn night, planting an acorn out by the fence?  It couldn’t be Sugar, she wouldn’t do something like that, not when the jewel was there waiting to be wished on.  I picked up the acorn, and as I did, the light came back, and all of a sudden the shapes were standing over me.

I dropped the acorn and fell over backwards.  There I was, sitting on my butt by the fence, looking up at the most amazing people.  There were two men and a woman, dressed in some kind of green flowing hippie outfits, with long hair and shining with this gold light that came right off them.  They were beautiful; I’d never seen anything like them, but they scared me. The little blue sparks were back too, and they swarmed around the people like bees but didn’t make no sound.  I’m dead for sure, I thought and I tried to say something, but nothing would come out.

“Please do not disturb the acorn,” the woman said in the prettiest voice I’d ever heard.  It sounded like a brook in the forest and for just a second, I forgot all about Sugar and near thirty years of marriage; I wanted to run off with her and make babies till the sun came up.  “It was put there to replace the old tree, and it must remain.”

“What-what the hell you planting trees on my property for?” I managed to say, and one of the men laughed.

“It is only yours by default,” he said, in a voice not as sexy but at least as rippling as the woman’s.  “We have been here longer than you, longer than anyone.  The tree was ours, and lately it was cut down.”

“That tree died,” I said, getting up and brushing off the seat of my pants. “We cut it down before it fell down, my daddy and me.”  The man started to say something, but the woman cut him off with a wave of her hand.

“You did what you are here to do, to steward the land,” she said in that fabulous voice. “The tree was dying…its time had come.  As the time for the new tree will come, and your time, and your kin’s, on and on, until the end of the world.”  I looked at her, and she had such a kind face, I felt better already.

“Uh, I think maybe I found something that belongs to you,” I said, hesitating.  “There was this jewel thing-–“

“We know,” the other man said.  “We found your hiding place.”

“We were looking for it,” said the woman.  “It dwelled in the heart of the tree.  It is a Wishing Stone.  Your lady used it.”  She frowned a little bit and I got scared again.

“She didn’t mean no harm,” I said frantically, “she didn’t know that.  It was an accident! But she got greedy, and I hid it so we wouldn’t use it too much.  We weren’t gonna wish for anything bad, really!”

“It does not matter,” said the woman.  “We must have it back.  It belongs to us.  As for your lady, it is our custom to punish those who trifle with our possessions.”

“No!” I cried.  “Don’t you hurt her!”

“We have no wish to hurt your lady,” said the first man.   “But there must be some price paid for the theft of our jewel.  Does anything occur to you?”

I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t want to give them anything.  How I was gonna explain this to Sugar I didn’t know.  We had to give it back.

“I dunno,” I said slowly.  “I guess you could have some of my cattle.”  I waved my hand toward the cows standing at the other end of the pasture, chewing away like nothing was happening.

The people laughed.

“We have no use for cattle,” the woman said.  “Where we live the beasts of field and forest are plentiful.  We do not eat them as your barbarous people do.  No, it must be something of equal value.”

When she said that, all of them got darker.  I mean their faces got darker, like the gold light turned bad.  It scared me so much, I damn near wet my britches and I backed away from them.  They took a step toward me and I turned and ran like the wind, back up to the house.

When I got there the house was dark and everything was just like I left it.  I ran inside, ignoring the stitch in my side and the cow crap on my boots and took the stairs two at a time up to the bedroom.  I meant to wake Sugar up and show her, ask her what to do, tell her we’d have to give the money back somehow.  When I got into the bedroom, I saw her sound asleep in the bed, and she looked so peaceful I just couldn’t do it.

It all began to seem sort of crazy then, and I thought maybe I had walked in my sleep.  I went back down to the laundry room and took off my dirty clothes and washed up at the sink and put my pjs back on.  Then I went upstairs to bed and fell asleep in a minute.

The next morning, I got up and went to work as though nothing happened.  Sugar didn’t mention the jewel and I didn’t either.  I thought about the hole by the barn all day, and I figured if she went out there, she’d think that I had dug it up myself.  I meant to explain it to her when I got home.

After work, I went out to the barn and looked for the hole.  It wasn’t there.  The ground was filled in and grass grew over the spot like there had never been a hole.  I couldn’t understand it, then I remembered the people the night before.  Sugar was back to her old self again; she almost seemed happy.  We ate dinner together like always.  I could hardly swallow for thinking about the damn jewel.  After we’d ate, and went into the living room and sat there a while, I reached for the clicker and turned off the TV.

“Jed! I was watching that!” she said.

“Listen, baby.” I told her about the night before, how I’d gone outside to dig up the jewel, the disappearing hole, the shiny folk, all of it.  She listened without saying anything.  By the time I’d finished, that look stole back on her face, the one that had worried me.

“I think you just had a nightmare, dear,” she said.  “Perhaps you need to take a couple of days off work and get some rest.  You look a little peaked.”

“Dammit, Alison, I’m not kidding!” I grabbed her arm and dragged her protesting out of the house.  She screamed at me, saying she was in her slippers, to stop and let her put on some shoes, but I kept pulling her toward the pasture.  We struggled across it toward the fence and stopped where I’d been the night before.  I looked for the disturbed ground where they put the acorn, but I couldn’t find it.

“It was right here,” I muttered.  Sugar folded her arms and glared at me.

“Have you lost your mind?  Do you expect me to believe that you came out here in the middle of the night and saw fairies?  And what’s all this nonsense about a jewel?”  I stared at her, my mouth hanging open like a barn door.

“What do you mean what jewel?” I yelled.  “The damn red jewel I gave you, the one that you wished on, the one all the money came from!”

She looked at me, and I knew then what “equal value” meant.  I had lost her.  This was my punishment.  She thought I had gone crazy, and she was edging away from me like I had the plague or something.  The look she had on her face, the henhouse look, determined and tough, her look for when she had to do something that wasn’t pleasant but had to be done, that look I’d seen more and more over the last month or so, the look that made me bury the jewel.

She turned away from me and walked back toward the house, her slippers flapping in the grass.  I stood there, watching her, unable to move.  When she was out of sight, I started digging frantically along the fence, looking for the damn acorn and the damn jewel, knowing I wouldn’t find it.  I started screaming then, I guess, and by the time the sheriff got there my hands were bleeding and my throat was raw but I still didn’t find a damn thing.

***

 That was a year and a half ago, I guess, reckon time flies when you’re having fun.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I saw in the field that night, or the way Sugar looked at me.  It came on me that she’d looked at me a lot like that, I just didn’t know for how long.  I thought of my Aunt Trudy and how she just kept getting worse and worse, and I guess I know what I might be in for.

The kids come and see me sometimes and the youngest told me there’s a new tree sprouted by the fence line.  I yelled at him to leave it the hell alone.  I think I scared him because he hasn’t come much lately.  Sugar visits a couple times a week.  She had a new boughten dress on last time, and new shoes.

I wonder just where she got the money.

Cattle Crazing

Here’s a little flash fiction for you, inspired by a typo Redjack Ryan made in chat. Don’t ask me where this came from, because I have NO idea. Sometimes my brain farts out the weirdest stuff.

“Dad!” Terri said, and I slammed on the brakes. “What are those cows doing?”

The afternoon sunlight slanted into the car, and I slipped my sunglasses up on my head and squinted, following her pointing finger.

It was only a herd of cattle in a field, a serenely blue pond some distance behind them. But something very wrong had caught my daughter’s attention. Instead of standing or lying peaceably in the bright green grass, they ran back and forth behind the fence, shaking their heads and bawling so loud I could hear them over the car’s air conditioner.

“I don’t know, but—hey!” I reached out to stop her but she was out of the car and to the fence. Animal lover, couldn’t stand to watch anything in pain. At twelve, she already knew she wanted to be a vet when she grew up. She had more pets than I was comfortable with, but Anne encouraged her. She always let the kids pursue their interests, saying it wasn’t good to stifle them.

The cows kept jerking back and forth. They had begun to shiver. It was the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen. The calves followed their mothers, blatting pitifully. Their knobby legs shook. I was scared they’d all bust through the fence and run Terri down. I got out and went to her side.

“Honey, come on. It’s dangerous to stand here when they’re acting like that,” I said. I tugged at her elbow, but she clung to the fence, fingers laced between the barbed wire.

“Dad, maybe we ought to tell someone.” Big blue eyes, flooded with concerned tears, softened my heart. I patted her shoulder.

“We’ll drive up the road and see if the owner’s home,” I told her. Reluctantly she started back to the car. I looked for just a few seconds more. The cows had stopped leaping and now stood frozen, still shivering.

I became aware of a high-pitched hum, like power lines. It grew more intense, and I wondered if that wasn’t the cause of the cows’ behavior. The hum deepened and my teeth clenched as it threatened to shake my skull apart.

Terri cried out. Her hands were clamped over her ears and she fell to her knees. Before I could get to her, a huge shadow fell over us. The air temperature dropped like before a storm; must have been ten or fifteen degrees in just a few seconds. I looked up and nearly peed myself.

An enormous…thing filled the sky. It stretched as far as I could see, in all directions, shifting blackly over my head. White lights stuttered, blinking, all over it. A patch of night had come alive. It spread out like a hovering oil slick.

A bone-chilling silence descended. Even the locusts stopped buzzing. That scared me more than the patch. When the bugs stop talking, there’s something going down.

The lights brightened, and beams shot out of them, straight down. Each one hit an animal, and they vanished, inexplicably. One minute there, the next gone. Just the calves.

“Terri!” I yelled. “Get in the car! NOW!”

The mother cows bawled louder. I thought, If a cow could scream…

“Daddy, it hurrrts!” she shrieked, and rolled over on her side, still clutching her ears. I ran toward her but before I got two steps, a beam flashed in front of me, blinding me. I covered my eyes, rubbed them and gradually the blue-white cleared. Blinking, I looked at the spot where my daughter lay.

She was gone. Hollow terror drained every ounce of strength from me. My guts were water and my throat exploded at the sky.

“TERRI! OH GOD, GIVE HER BACK!”

The starlit patch shimmied, a ripple passing through it, and then it contracted swiftly, becoming impossibly small in an instant. I could only watch as it hurtled upward. My legs gave way and I fell bawling on the shadow-cooled ground. The sunlight hit my eyes like a blow. All the cows ran, following it, and stood, confused, at the other end of the pasture.

I sat for several hours, crying and muddy, but neither she nor the calves came back. The farmer called the sheriff. I think they’ll drag the pond even though I told them they’d never find her. They don’t believe me. How could they not believe me?

Just the calves.