It’s Storytelling day, and so here’s a story for you, the kids at home. It’s the first of my short Gossamer Reflections stories.
The laws of Gossamer Commons are universal ones, and they’re harsh. Here’s a brief story on that theme.
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It was getting on towards dinnertime, and Caleb was pretty hungry. The sun was setting late these days, though, which meant it was still high overhead. Summertime didn’t want to be interrupted by dinner bells, and neither did Caleb. Especially since dinner would also mean washing dishes and taking out the garbage and it’d probably take an hour just to eat what with Grace and Millie talking everyone’s ear off about swim lessons and Dad telling one of his stories about work.
No, on the whole Caleb decided that he could do without it. And that meant being far from the house. If he couldn’t hear his mother call, he couldn’t very well be expected to get home for dinner, could he? It’s not like he owned a watch.
They called the woods out back of the house the swamp, but it wasn’t all that wet. it was overgrown, with some marshy bits, but for the most part it was thick woods and brambles, cattails and tall grasses. There were well worn paths through it, made by generations of eleven year olds just like Caleb. Each and every summer they ran through the swamp over the same ground their parents did, digging their way through brush and hacking at it with pen knives or the hatchets they weren’t supposed to borrow. The swamp belonged to kids. Everyone knew it. And each generation knew it was theirs.
Still, everyone knew there were old places in the swamp. Secrets. Broken remains of treehouses now fallen to the ground, with wrinkled and faded posters of Farrah Fawcett-Majors or Christie Brinkley from another era. Caleb, Tommy and Anne had found a shack in good shape the year before — old, with Playboys from the early seventies in it in good condition. Tommy thought that they were the first people to find the porn stash, but Caleb didn’t think so. There was a Watchamacallit candy bar wrapper in there, and that had to be from the eighties at the oldest.
This year, they’d gone looking, but the shack was nowhere to be found. Anne said they just couldn’t remember how to get there, but Caleb wasn’t sure. Maybe the swamp swallowed it up, until the next group of kids comes to the swamp.
Caleb made his way around the bend over the hill that overlooked the evergreens. There were twenty or thirty fir trees in that grove, which they could run around. The needles underneath their feet crinkled as they walked on them, a red-orange color, with none of the green from the trees, and no grass or shrubs grew down there. Tommy said the light couldn’t get down there, but Caleb thought the needles just choked everything. He skidded through them at a full run. They liked to play Lost down here, but that wasn’t as fun when you were by yourself. Besides, Caleb didn’t really like that show much.
In the background, the birds were calling out a storm, and the mosquitoes were trying to have a field day. They were swarmed as he walked but the liberal coating of Off Caleb’s mom had sprayed on him before letting him go out was keeping them back. If he ran, he could feel them bouncing off his skin, trying to get away from him. It was like a force field surrounding him, keeping the bugs off.
And then the birds stopped singing.
Caleb frowned. He didn’t usually notice birds, but when they went from loud to silent it was like someone had turned off the radio. There was just the wind blowing through the poplars to one side. He was standing on the broader path, red dirt instead of brown, that went up the hill and over to the Roys’ farm in one direction and down to the pond in the other, and suddenly there were no birds.
Caleb looked to either side. There were no mosquitos either, and that was weird. This close to the pond was usually full of them.
Down the path, around the bend, Caleb heard… something. Like a bird singing, but too regular. Like pipes, or Anne’s recorder, but played better. But so soft.
Caleb smiled, and began to creep down the path. Sometimes, teenagers liked to sneak out to the pond to make out. It was fun to watch them and sometimes throw pebbles at them. He bet one of them had a boombox and was putting the moves on some girl. Caleb caught his older cousin Jennie once with this boy from her high school. It was great.
Caleb turned the corner, but ducked off the path to the left. He cut through the undergrowth, going lower beneath the bramble patch, and came around to the side of the old dead tree. The old dead tree was huge, with a limb that reached out over the water. There was a rope for a swing attached to it, and kids would swing on it over the water, though there was a thick green layer of scum on the edges of the pond so no one swam in it. He slowly pushed his head out of the brush, looking to either side for the teenagers….
But there weren’t any. And the music sounded more like some kind of whistling or singing. It was… calming. Soothing. Like nothing he’d heard, though it reminded him of his mother singing him to sleep when he was little. Really little. Caleb couldn’t believe he even remembered it. Hushalittle baby now don’t you cry… Momma’s gonna sing you a lullabye….
Caleb shook his head, looking around. He didn’t see where the music was coming from. There was just the pond with some mist hanging over it like bits of… smoke….
The smoke was moving.
The smoke wasn’t smoke.
It was a girl. A little tiny girl, thin, made of smoke and mist, and she was dancing. Dancing on the water. A wisp. A whisper.
Caleb’s eyes grew wider as he saw a second, and then a third wisp join her. Dancing and darting to the music. He didn’t know what they were, but they were beautiful. Soft, fragile things, like if he breathed on one they’d break. He winced as what felt like hickory smoke touched his eyes, but he wiped them and they were fine. He blinked to see if the dancers were still there. To see if he were seeing things.
No. They were there. He wasn’t seeing things. They were right there.
The wisps darted and danced, the music faster now as they sported over the surface of the water like skitterbugs the kids would trap. They hopped and they skipped and they spun, two girls, two guys, now holding hands, now separating to the banks of the pond. One came within six feet of Caleb as it danced — one of the boys, looking like a little smoke skeleton or an alien with blue eyes bigger than its soft looking skull, but pretty, not creepy. Not creepy at all.
It spun and danced right next to the bank, and Caleb shivered. He held his breath. He didn’t dare make a sound. He wanted to reach out and touch it or coax it closer but he was afraid that if he moved so much as a muscle it would dart away — they were so fast.
The call was far away but clearly audible, and the wisps froze, turning to look. Caleb bit his lip. Go away, Mom! he thought with all his might. Go away before you scare them!
But it was too late for that. The four darted together, bunching in the middle of the pond and looking all around. It’s okay, Caleb wanted to shout to them. It’s just my Mom! She won’t hurt you! Don’t stop dancing! Please don’t stop! Don’t ever stop–
There was a sudden loud crack, loud like a gunshot. Loud like a cannon. Caleb whirled to face it. The old dead tree was shaking, one of its limbs falling. There was another crack and it fell towards him maybe three feet. It was coming down! Caleb tried to jump back out of the way but the underbrush had hold and he couldn’t get untangled and the tree was coming down–
It hurt. It hurt badly. It hurt worse than anything, and he couldn’t move or breathe. When he tried it was like there was glass in his chest and the tree was on top of him. He managed to turn his head, ever so slightly….
The four wisps were standing, not three feet away. They were watching him.
They looked sad. They looked sorry.
Caleb wanted to comfort them. To tell them it wasn’t their fault. To tell them that it was the old tree and it had been dead probably longer than Caleb had been alive. But he had no air to speak. And then everything was dark.