by Kaas Baichtal
Chapter 1: April
In April, the sun shone longer. Though the nights were bitter cold, each day marked its progress by the retreat of snow, the revelation of the blackened land. It was a false thaw; a dangerous time, and a brutal test of those who had thus far survived the winter.
This day's dawn saw Widow Marl's tan milk cow left dead and mutilated in its yard, the snow and dark earth battered and bloody footprints circled around.
It was a small town, and news spread quickly. By midmorning Sheriff Lanower rode out looking for kids and the wildest of them disappeared between buildings and into the woods, making downtown safe for once.
Johehna's father collared her as she tried to slip in the back door. He was a tall, broad man who in youth had passed loutish beefiness on to all of his children. Age and drink had altered him now, though, and he looked scrawny and seamy and used like the rest of the adults at the edge of the Vale.
"Where do you think you're slinking off to?" he demanded. "Bel Lanower was just here looking for you."
Johehna was eighteen, no kid by anybody's standards - but she was dirty and scuffed from days of running outdoors, and wore a sullen scowl. Johehna hadn't been involved in the slaughter of the cow, but it wouldn't have made a difference if she had; she had nothing to say to the father who had once thrown her out of the house rather than risk her turning Sime at home.
Her expression must have shown her thoughts. Gevard's face hardened and he shouted back into the house, "Ma, get my belt." He jerked the pack and the bundled snowshoes off of her back, and then hauled Johehna into the house with him.
Narita was not Johehna's mother. She was Gevard's second wife, bony, misused, with a nervous pinched face. Narita tried to defend Johehna, but usually failed. She was weak. Johehna pretended Narita did not exist.
Narita came from the kitchen, wringing her hands. "Oh, please don't hurt her, Gev, she didn't do no harm, Gev, honey." But she had brought the belt anyway.
Afterward Johehna escaped into raw cold sunshine, her eyes stung by the inability to make tears. As she swung along the road, she made herself hard against the pain; her experience of it was less that of a rebuked child than that of a brute animal, senseless to the reasons for its condition.
Last year's grasses, yellow and snow-dampened, lined the road along with kinnikinik, juniper, and ninebark. Aspens and mountain maples encroached upon the shoulders, and stunted saplings grew down the road's center between the tracks, the maples from seed and the aspens from the gnarled runners of maturer trees. Branches, cold-seared and leafless, slashed into the aching blue sky.
"Jo! Jo! Talks so slow!"
Something hard stuck her shoulder painfully and tumbled to the earth past her: a half-rotted pine cone. Johehna swung about to face the woods, backing away.
More voices joined in, hard, derisive, the high unchanged voices of children. "Jo, Jo!" Sticks, cones and pebbles whizzed at her, some missing and some not. A clot of mud caught her on the side of the head. Dark shapes scurried between the trees.
If there had been outsiders near, house-raised or adult, the wild would treat her as one of their own. But here, now, unseen, she was a target. Her age, her adulthood, made her wrong. She should have either turned Sime or been killed by one long ago, and yet she had not; without knowing why, they sought to drive her off the way any wild things might fend off a diseased comrade.
These woods were riddled with crumbling walls and tree-choked foundations laid out in rows matching no existing road. The mix of organic and rectangular shapes confused the eye, making it impossible to track all of her tormentors. She made a move to dodge one missile, and was struck by another. She went down, caught herself on all fours -
- and there was Chep, leaning against a tree-trunk, arms crossed. He smiled. Johehna knew a deep humiliation, a more base and powerful emotion than her father had ever touched in her.
The others would not have dared come so near to her. She was big enough to defend herself decisively against any child - but not Chep. He sauntered closer, taller than her and and brawnier, the scraggling hair along his jawline a proud testament to his adulthood. She remained huddled on her hands and knees, listening to the wind whisper in the branches, half-watching the dark shapes of others standing silently in the woods. She did not look at him.
And when Chep began walking farther into town, Johehna climbed to her feet and followed. It was a matter of simple survival. Do as he wished; gain his protection. The others were left behind.
Each year, it seemed, the Vale grew subtly stronger, and the people of it lost ground. The end came on, relentless, rendering futile any act of creation or even preservation.
If those who lived in the Vale understood this it was only in subconsciousness, because with humanity death came swift and brutal. A woman died in childbirth, or beaten by her husband. A man died in a brawl, or injured at the plow or forge. Anyone could be killed by plague or exposure. And any child could turn Sime, just as any adult could be killed by one.
But in nature, things did not go so quickly, no. Without fanfare, without a sound, the Vale closed its fist on the village heart: downtown, aspen invaded the gap between pine forest and the street itself, along with twisted chokecherries and a prickly underbrush of snowberry, gooseberry and wild rose.
The buildings passed through seamless stages of decay almost unrealized by those who used them. What mattered a sagging spine, when the floor felt solid underfoot? What danger in the gray gnarled wood, when it remained heavy and immobile in its joints? Among the buildings of downtown, some had fallen finally to ruin, yet even this seemed a dreamed and timeless fact; the use of those had ebbed slowly, coincident with the yearly downward sink of wooden frame. The children who ran feral might find here and there some box or possession still stored with care under a fallen roof, through a slanting door. It was hard to say how long any one thing had been left somewhere, or whose it might be. It was safer not to touch them.
On the other side of town, Chep and Johehna climbed the road until they reached the ridge that marked the edge of the Vale, where old Farmer Levin turned his plow-horses and the road seemed to end forever under a trampled bank of snow.
From the top of the ridge, a tremendous vista: mountains upon mountains rising ever higher, clad first in black forest, then in icy white, biting into the great blue bowl of the sky. From there, Johehna had watched the canadian geese come home, and great white tundra swans passing through on their migration.
Chep and Johehna stopped and put on their snowshoes. There were no words.
At first, the path was well-broken. Firewood gathered in autumn would be nearly exhausted, as would dried venison and emu, flour, root crops and withered fruit. Searchers would trod this path with their bundles of sticks, or on their way to hunt moose or elk and check beaver traps. Some, those desperately hungry and possessed of no weapons, would come this way to dig camas and cattail roots on the edges of half-thawed swamps.
But nobody dared stray too far, and so the marks of human snowshoes were replaced increasingly by the crisscrossed trails of beasts: coyotes, pine squirrels, martens with their bunched tracks resembling the toeprints of yeti, the forked footprints of sparrows and crows, and once a lynx's mysterious single print.
Chep stepped directly on the lynx's mark, not even seeming to notice he had done so.
When the road finally did end, they turned onto a winding trail further down into the woods, following a single remaining set of human prints. A child's house-shoes, small, and it was obvious the child had been running. Johehna shivered, and glanced at Chep; he either hadn't seen or wasn't going to say so.
A Sime's prints would have been farther apart, and a Sime could have vaulted a fallen tree even in deep snow. This child had clambered over one. Still, it seemed a bad omen. It could be someone trying to flee his own changeover.
They were still a hundred yards upslope of it when they first smelled the cherry-blooms.
In all of Johehna's life, nobody had ever left the Vale, and only one family of strangers had ever arrived as new. Neidham had been their name, a powerful young father and his wife and children. They brought two teams of oxen and two great wagons filled with everything they planned to begin a new life with. It was an extravagance, an unbelievable spectacle. Even the beloved, the well-clothed and well-housed, were awed and mystified by Neidham's plan.
Neidham announced that he would build a new house and barn, here where no house or barn had stood perhaps any time in all of human history. Even in the heart of the Vale, no one had built anew in many years. It seemed inconceivable, even to the housed, that anyone could put so terrible an effort into something as impermanent as a life.
And so the town watched, as Neidham spent two years in clearing the land and another year to build his house and barn on this ground. During those years the family lived on, and farmed, one of the haunting old homesteads over by the lake, that had been abandoned longer than Johehna had been alive.
Finally, after the third harvest, they moved the household and the animals and all of their tools and furniture up into the new house, and lived there through the winter.
The next spring a heavy rainfall brought the mountain slope down upon Neidham's work and swept it away with an impatient hand. Neidham's wife and children died in that storm, and within two months Neidham was dead too, by his own hand.
Now that place was shorn of human things, a great swath where landslide and meltwater had had their way with the clearcut ground. All that remained of Neidham's works were his fine barn, now some three miles downhill at the crux of a deep ravine, and this one small orchard that had been set aside from the rest.
For the moment, for this day, the branches shivered pink, delicate, their fragrance heady and alien and alluring. Disturbing.
It was a place for temporary things, for death, for mistakes that had already happened and were too late to reverse.
In the coming days, cold would turn the blossoms black and the trees would die, mute sticks upthrust against the backdrop of the forest, the landslide they had survived spread out beneath them.
Then, grasses and lush pink-and-green fireweed would flourish between the tumbled stones. Raspberry, elderberry, and wild rose would spring up in a tangle, pierced through by sapling aspens and by lodgepole pines, trees that could not grow from seed anywhere else but burnt or exposed land. The land would be rebirthed, whole, savage.
This seemed to her a place of feral truth, the Vale at its most primitive.
Into the silence came the sound of a child's sob, from somewhere nearby.
Johehna jerked her head up, straining to listen. She turned wide-eyed to look at Chep, but he hadn't heard.
"Neidham was a fool," he said. His voice was loud and crude. He was only repeating what he'd heard others say, others who had come of age in houses and knew something of farming and building.
He turned around and faced Johehna, slapping at a branch that was in his way. "Let's go to the barn." Delicate pink petals fell in a silent shower behind him. He didn't notice that either.
Johehna stared past him, past the trees, to where that one muffled sob had come from. Did you hear it? she wanted to ask - but the first "d" stuck on the tip of her tongue, unspeakable.
"What are you gawking at? Come on." Chep was bored, impatient, and her slow words made him uncomfortable.
Jo, Jo, talks so slow.
He grabbed her roughly by the shoulder and turned her to go in the direction he wanted to go. When they arrived at the barn, he would take what he wanted of her. That was the purpose of his getting her away from the town.
If there was a child out there in the forest, it made no further sound.
They left the orchard and snowshoed downward through a darkened wood. This was mature lodgepole pine forest, its floor clear of brush and, under the snow, covered thickly with dropped needles. Its height was enormous, the branches bare all the way up to the canopy; intolerant of shade, the trees could not even reproduce in their own shadow. This forest would grow older and older, until eventually shade-tolerant Douglas fir grew up from below to replace the oldest, and a new cycle began, to a different beat. Or, if fire came, lodgepole seeds held close for many years might burst forth in the heat to reinvigorate the ravaged land.
Johehna and Chep forced their way along narrow animal paths and picked their way across ridges where they could. The deep snow, up to their chests, would remain long into summer, protected by the intensity of the shade.
Eventually they passed out of the darkness into a younger forest - the tail of the land bared by Neidham's slide. Already the reign of the wild rose had been ended by the proliferation of young trees growing up in impenetrably thick stands. Aspen had spawned self-replicas to form island-clones, fighting for surface area of land, while lodgepole pine shot upward at a rate of a foot a month, seeking dominance of light supply through height.
Johehna had been the one to find the barn. It lay wedged into a stony gorge, nearly buried on its upslope side by stone, mud, and a mountain of deadwood the floods had left. Limber pine, another opportunist, grew in its immediate wake, saplings twisted into fantastic shapes by the winds that had scoured the bare slope.
It was too far away from the town for any of the others to have seen it. Only a child, or the feral remnant of a child, would have any use for a place where no food grew and no survival could be obtained. And there was safety in numbers, after all; it took recklessness or immunity to come this far unarmed or alone. Neither Chep or Johehna was immune to attack. They had outlived their parents' fears, and grown to adult as human.
A fresh landslide had left stone in a smooth slope from the top of the opposite cliff, down nearly to the door. A few stray stones lay within the barn itself.
Chep started to go forward, but Johehna caught his arm, pointing at the slide. He had not been one of the ones who tumbled banks on purpose, but anyone could see what she meant. The hiding-place had become too dangerous to dare.
"Looks like Neidham's folly is almost erased," he said, with mindless satisfaction. "A second winter, maybe, and it'll be buried all. Unless - want to bury it now? You've done it, haven't you? Sent dirt sliding?"
Johehna shook her head, breath caught in her throat; she wished she had not shown this place to Chep last fall, when she had first desperately sought his protection.
"No?" Chep turned to her and grasped her arm, clumsy and too-hard. "Okay then."
Johehna gasped involuntarily when he grabbed her, but now she went stiff and hard and neither truly resisting or in any way cooperating. Resistance would have been stupid and useless and there was nothing in her that could have conceived of cooperation. She hardly felt the bites of Gevard's lash as Chep shoved her down onto her back. Rather, she felt the wet of the leaves, the texture of the stones. She didn't look at him at all. His free hand yanked up her skirts, then paused to twist free his own fastenings. The first, crude, penetration brought a stab of pain and then that too, was distanced.
But a moment later, Chep's singleminded grunting broke off in surprise. She opened her eyes to see him staring wildly past her.
Then he lunged clumsily upward and galumphed away, holding his britches up with his hands, abandoning Johehna. Johehna's confusion lasted only a moment, but that was long was long enough. In the next instant, a seemingly human figure flashed past her in pursuit of Chep, its bloodied tentacles outstretched.
Johehna spun over onto her belly and hid low behind a clump of rotted grass, panic rising in her throat. Chep floundered down into the barn's low entryway and turned to put his shoulder to the door. That's when he saw the Sime was close behind. Abandoning the door half-closed, he fled into the darkness. The Sime followed.
After a frozen moment, Johehna leaped to her feet and plunged recklessly down after them, sliding on mats of wadded leaves and plowing a furrow in the black clay. The snowshoes were a perilous hindrance. Stumbling over the loose rocks at the bottom, she slammed into the door with all her weight, and it boomed the rest of the way home. She snatched up a dead branch and wedged it into the bar-brackets to hold the door, then looked quickly around to see what other openings might exist.
The lower windows were all gone, buried. The upper walls of the barn rose smooth and unbroken; only the twice-bent roof showed a window, a small square hatch. She knew the loft had fallen; surely not even a Sime could climb to that hatch?
A despairing scream echoed through planked walls, ending suddenly as the Sime covered Chep's mouth with its own.
The wild are no different in death than the beloved.
Johehna's eyes went to the cliff opposite. Weakened by the thaw, the escarpment could slide at any time. An ugly grin broke out on her face, became a grimace of effort as she broke into an urgent gallop back up the slope. The snowshoes were impossibly awkward at this speed, on these surfaces. She threw herself down and kicked them off, smashed them, leaving only the laces frozen around her feet. Then she continued upward, scrabbling to gain hold on branches, rocks, anything she could lay hand to. When she gained higher ground she ran again, plunged through a silent forest of bare trunks and gray leafless underbrush, heedless of ice and cones underfoot. The sun stabbed at her, dodging from gap to gap between the branches as if in pursuit.
When she reached the place she went down on her belly, breathing hard, using the earth as a shield. She peeked down at the barn; there was no sign of a breakout, but now the great door shuddered, as the Sime tested its superhuman strength against the weight.
There was no time to catch her breath. She climbed over the edge, clinging to the roots of a great tree. She clawed up hand-sized stones, throwing them backward down the slope to skitter and bounce over the others. Below, the barn door shook, its rattle accompanied by a harsh crack as the makeshift bar weakened. Johehna's scrabbling efforts intensified. Desperate, she jumped up and down, trying to drive the land down upon the doorway by sheer physical force.
Then she felt a subtle movement beneath her and instinct took over. In a wild leap, she landed on her stomach on the earth held by roots, clinging with her hands; the section of rock she'd been standing on slid away and downward, with a rumble and clatter. The ground shook, and a larger section gave way, exposing quivering mud underneath. Johehna humped herself up farther and clutched the tree's trunk, eyes closed, feeling the Vale's hungry snarl through the earth under her belly.
It seemed to take forever to end.
Afterward, she pulled herself the rest of the way up and got behind the tree, on solid ground. Of the barn, only a section of the face and part of the roof still showed. There was no sound or movement.
After a time, she crouched down to wait, watching and listening for any sign of the Sime.
When morning wore into afternoon and the creature did not reappear, Johehna's mouth twitched into a crooked smile. She spoke, for the first time in many days.
"Like the cherries, you chose the wrong place and time to bloom, Sime."
But of course, a child didn't choose to become Sime. That just happened, like fire, like falling snow. Nature followed its savage course, heedless of human conceits.
Avoiding the fresh new slope and staying to undisturbed snow, Johehna made her way carefully down the side of the ravine, then climbed the other side. From there it was an awkward but straightforward matter to clamber through the debris mounded against the barn's back and down onto the roof itself.
Easing down against the roof's surface, Johehna put her eye to a crack and peered in.
The barn was even huger inside than she had remembered. It seemed to stretch down forever, its width shadowy and hard to estimate, its floor picked out by narrow slivers of light. And there on the steep slope, dwarfed by the piles of wood and stone rubble, the Sime stood looking up at her.
A shock; she jerked back away from the opening for a moment, then knowing the creature was well and truly trapped, she looked back.
There it stood still, a child's shape wearing child's clothes, the face framed by its palms as it arms reached upward toward her, seeking.
Johehna's entire body tingled, and her scalp itched; she could not bring her eye away from the peephole again, but only stared.
What child had it been? Not a wild one, that was sure. The flesh was too rounded, the clothes - not outdoor clothes - too fine. This was one of the home-raised. Desirey, the daughter of the miller. Desirey had once been cruel to Johehna, in the days when all the children of the Vale had attended the same school together. But it was not the Sime's lost humanity that intrigued Johehna, no.
This beast had killed a man. It could kill again, if it could get its tentacles onto another victim - but it could not escape. It was a killer leashed, its deadly force restrained at Johehna's will. While the Sime yet lived, anything was possible. Anything.
"Jo..." began the Sime, in Desirey's voice.
Johehna's eyes glowed savagely, and her heart beat hard. And then she leaped up suddenly to race back across the roof, to bound fleetly over the fallen limbs and the stones. Within seconds she was on the path again, leading not up toward town but across, deeper into forest, a thing wilder than the elk, than the eagles. It would be a long time before she went home.
[View/Leave Feedback about this story]
Chapter 2: May | The Secret Pens | Vale Index | Kaas Index