Monday, February 12, 2007

A Piece of the Missing Novel (Napier's Bones Visits the Forest)

For reasons I can't go into here, my novel Napier's Bones has disappeared into a black pit. I may yet pull it from said pit and try to find another home for it, but in the meantime my friend Bill Shunn has given me a good kick in the butt by working with (and over) me to finish a novella that we had been writing, off and on, for something like three years. It's called "Cast a Cold Eye," and I hope I'll be able to spread good news about its imminent release to the wild very soon. In the meantime, I thought I'd throw a piece of Napier up here for your perusal. The reason for doing so is in hope that it will be included in the upcoming Festival of Trees, something I first heard about via Roundrock Journal. What I've written here comes out of the trip Jo and I took to Scotland in 2003. Leading up to the trip, which was primarily for research for the book, I had emailed a whole spectrum of experts on an equally wide variety of topics. One thing I was looking for was a location where trees displayed flagging, caused by an essentially constant wind pushing the branches so that they face one direction. The tree ends up looking like it's pointing inland, away from the source of the wind. One response that came did not lead me to anything like that, but was of the serendipitous variety that insisted on thrusting itself into the book. The location is the Ballachuan Hazelwood on Seil Island, and everything written is how it appeared to us. Getting there was something of a minor adventure, seeing how not even the girl at the tourist booth just on the other side of the bridge knew about the place; we eventually found a small shop that had a cheaply-made brochure about the place. Getting out was something of an adventure, too, since as soon as you leave the hazelwood it becomes a tad more confused, and we ended up wandering aimlessly for some time. Mind you, wandering aimlessly is many times the best way to see and discover. So, to set you up: two numerates (think of them as magicians who use numbers instead of "magic"), Dom (who is currently carrying another personality - an adjunct - inside him, named Billy) and Jenna, have run from North America to Scotland, trying to get away from another numerate who carries two adjuncts. They are currently accompanied by Arithmos, a sentient mass of numbers. All of which doesn't really tell you much about the book, of course. Eventually it'll see the light of day. Anyhow, onwards:

Dom and Jenna followed the road down, passed one driveway into one farm, kept going until they were near to another. "We turn right here,” said Arithmos.

Dom looked. To their right was a barbed wire fence, several cows standing on the other side, watching them with the mild disinterest of domestic farm animals.

He turned around and looked to their approach. The car sat below the bluff, the three stained glass windows of the church sparkling, the sun finally having broken through completely. Sheep sat further up the hill, behind a fence towards the car, most of them calmly grazing, but one big ram, with immense curled horns and testicles hanging down practically to the ground, stood on a rock and watched them, keen eyes seeming to study every move Dom made. "I don't like the way he's watching me," said Dom, staring back.

"It's not you," said Arithmos. "It's me. The old fellow isn’t like what most folk expect of domestic sheep; he can sense my presence, and wants to protect his harem. Let's move on before he gets so anxious he keels over from a heart attack."

Dom and Jenna walked over to the fence. There were small wooden steps built into a fencepost to make passage over the wire easier. "Aren't we trespassing?"

As soon as they'd crossed into the pasture the cows had spooked and run to the most distant point they could find. "Private property is a little different here than you might be used to, Dom. And we have had an agreement with the landholders for centuries, now. I also understand that this place has become something like a park, although the amount of visitors is kept down, numbers that stay and help make it a little less visible. Even if you have a map, those that are laid out here mean it's an easy place to get lost in."

“Numbers have an agreement with the people who live here?” asked Jenna.

The mass of numbers shifted, a shrug. “We work through others when needed.”

They crossed the pasture, then over another fence where they followed a path, the road still in view to the right. It wasn't too hardscrabble, but there were a few rocks and holes to avoid. By now the clouds had been banished from horizon to horizon, and Dom paused for a moment, took off his jacket and tied it around his waist. Jenna did the same.

"No traffic," said Jenna, as she pulled the knot tight. She was right; the road had been without a single car since they had gotten past the bridge.

"There are other reasons tourists come here besides the bridge," said Arithmos. "But that's the main one. Perhaps today the storm and the numbers that accompanied it convinced many to do other things. Here," it said, thrusting an appendage to the left. "Follow the path into these trees."

The change was almost immediate. Where they had been in a farmer's field that could have passed for one almost anywhere in
North America, now they were in a woods that looked like every magical forest from fairy tales. It was old, so very old, and it seemed to breathe on its own. The numbers here were flat and low to the ground, dwellers of the forest floor that somehow couldn't reach up and escape from the branches of the trees that bent over to look down on them.

"Welcome to the Ballachuan Hazelwood," said Arithmos, voice barely a whisper.

The trees were low, stunted, and gnarled, branches spreading out like slender fingers of an arthritic, many-handed giant. Branches and trunks alike were covered by mosses and lichens, and it seemed to Dom's eye to be a different species not only for each tree but even for each branch. Like elderly spinsters at a society ball, each tree wore its jacket of lichen proudly, unashamed of the tattered look of their coats, each fiercely proud of the latest fashion it could muster and acutely aware that its glory days had long since passed.

Billy gently cleared his throat, then spoke:

“Hear the voice of the Bard!

“Who Present, Past, & Future sees;

“Whose ears have heard

“The Holy Word

“That walk’d among the ancient trees!”

“That’s a poem,” whispered Dom, feeling the meter as Billy spoke it. “What’s it from?”

His shoulders shrugged. “I don’t know. A distant memory, one that somehow felt right for the moment.”

“Well, if we get a chance, when we’re all done we’ll try and find it. Maybe it’s a clue as to who you really are.”

Jenna grabbed Dom's arm and pointed. A small animal was walking through the undergrowth, but at best Dom could only see a dim shadow as it moved, more aware of its progress by how the trees seemed to defer to it than by its actual presence. The last two trees seemed to bow down, blocking Dom's and Jenna's view of whatever was approaching them, and then they slowly stood, swept their weathered branches out of the way. "Jesus," whispered Dom.

In front of them stood a badger, staring calmly into Dom’s eyes. Leaves on the trees trembled for a moment, even without a breeze, and then settled.

“This animal is a familiar for this part of your journey while in the land of Napier,” said Arithmos. “The numbers that live here are old, senile, and therefore ill-equipped to carry the memory of what has been placed here. And before we were placed in the package that went to America, we were given only enough information to take you to your first stop.”

“So this badger is to help us?” asked Billy.

“The numbers here may be ancient and tired,” replied Arithmos. “But they are more than enough to hide something if needed, completely unable to be enticed or forced to reveal that same item, or to work in any way with a numerate.”

“Ancient and tired?” Jenna knelt down and touched some numbers poking out from beneath the undergrowth. They made a feeble effort to slide away from her, but unlike other numbers couldn’t get away, although all bent and warped in odd fashions.

As she did this, Dom again found himself looking through her eyes. Just as quickly, he was back in his own body, but before he could say anything, Arithmos spoke again.

“You might say they’re senile. A good numerate can still call upon them, but we doubt even Napier would be able to compel them to do what he wants.”

“So how does the badger fit in?” asked Dom.

As if in answer, the animal walked past them and, with one glance over its shoulder to make sure they followed, picked a path through the raggedy ancient forest. Dom and Jenna both had to duck low many times, dodging limbs and lichens and pale numbers all.

After only two or three minutes they arrived at a copse of trees that, if anything, looked older than all the others. The badger nosed at the base of one tree, then sat back on its haunches.

“Your turn now, Dom,” said Arithmos.

Dom raised an eyebrow. “What? I’m supposed to sniff the tree?”

“Just touch it.” Arithmos said this with a hint of impatience. “That’s the tree the badger has picked out, so the next move is yours.”

Dom stepped around the unmoving badger and reached down, touched the same spot where the animal’s nose had touched. The trees all around shifted at contact, and now as Dom looked up he saw the last shred of blue sky covered by green. The trees were no longer shrunken and low, instead stretched as high as they possibly could, creating a green vault with reaching, arthritic limbs. He could hear their groans as they did so, could see numbers the likes of which he'd never seen drifting from the branches and falling to the ground like a gentle shower of leaves in an autumn breeze.

The ground spoke then, a chorus from the roots of every tree around them, a cacophony of voices climbing into the air, most of them speaking languages or dialects unrecognizable to Dom. He jumped back and looked at Jenna, but she shrugged and shook her head, and in response Billy shook his head as well. Even the scraps of words he could make out as English did nothing to tell him what was happening, what was being said.

After no more than a minute, the voices quieted. Everything was still and silent for another few seconds, and then the tree Dom and the badger had both touched creaked and groaned, and then with a grinding and popping noise, its trunk split in two, from the ground or below, reaching up almost four feet high. The bark peeled back first, followed by the rest of the tree, and Dom instantly jumped back with a yelp, landed on his butt with Jenna’s hand suddenly and painfully clutching his shoulder. Inside the darkness of the tree several pairs of eyes peered back out at him, curious, insistent and unblinking, reflecting green from the surrounding light, with just a hint of yellow flashing through the green for the briefest of moments. The weight of their gaze was heavy, but he couldn't turn his eyes away, scared as he was right now.

The badger stepped forward then, burrowed its way into the open tree and came out with something in its jaws. The trunk stood open for a moment more, and then the attention of the eyes turned from Dom and were cast downward, and with more noise, rustling of leaves and snapping and clacking of wood, the tree sealed itself whole again. Dom felt himself relax, tense shoulders finally easing down, and sensed the entire forest do the same. Sunlight returned to dapple the leaves and ground, and the branches of the trees no longer seemed bent into unnatural positions.

The badger shuffled across fallen leaves and dropped the item from its jaws to the ground in front of Dom, and with one last glance back, turned and disappeared back into the forest. With a look up at Jenna and Arithmos, Dom reached down and delicately picked it up, thumb and one finger only.

Whatever it was, it was covered in dirt and the detritus of generations worth of forest floor, even though it had quite plainly been stored inside the tree. Inside, something long and thin rattled. Dom went to wipe away the gunk as best he could, but Arithmos stopped him with a soft but firm touch of numerical limb.

“It stays safe from Napier’s eye as long as it remains covered, so don’t clean or open it yet,” said the numbers. “Pocket it safely and keep it until we gather the other two parts.”

Dom tucked the cloth away as he stood up, and then he wiped off the seat of his pants. Jenna reached out and stopped him, then proceeded to slap the dirt off his rear. He smiled at her and said, “We have to do this two more times?”

“One is close by, one a little further. We’ll leave the wood now.”

Dom and Jenna stood still for a moment longer, just listening to the quiet of the wood. Finally, Billy said, "I suppose we should go."

Jenna nodded her head, reached over and took Dom's hand, and they walked back the way they'd come. Back on the road, Arithmos pointed up above their car. “Your next stop is the kirk.”


“Church,” said Billy. “Is that where the next package is?”

The numbers nodded. “We can’t go in; it’s consecrated territory, and we would dissipate before we set foot in the door, completely unable to retain this form. But there will be another familiar waiting for you inside.”

“Consecrated?” asked Dom.

“Not like you’d imagine. It’s a rite that uses numbers in order to keep certain types of numbers out. Numbers that once upon a time were considered demons.”

“Like yourself?”

“Like myself.” With that, Arithmos faded from sight.

(ps: here's a photo of the ram and the church)

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