The Hopeful Wanderer – Ancient Advice

I stood at the foot of a giant, neck craned back to gaze up. Up past the treetops, up past the hilltop, up to the amethyst evening sky. Three vast arms stretched away from the top of the wind turbine, stars outlining the shapes of wide fan blades. These remained still in the evening quiet, no wind to spin them.

“Wanderer.” The arms creaked above. “What has brought you here?”

I could not imagine such a giant capable of hearing me so far down here, but I cleared my throat anyway. “I’ve been on this world a long time. I want to know what to expect if my life goes on longer.”

As evening fell into night, a red light appeared at the tower’s peak. Flicking on and off, a warning signal. To me the light appeared like an eye, blinking in thought.

“Few have lived as long as you, Wanderer,” the turbine intoned. “Yet I have stood here for time forgotten, long since all my sisters fell.”

The scent of pine needles rose. I knew from my trek up here that several turbines lay crashed to the forest floor, in varying states of decay. I’d been forced to walk all the way around one of them, bloody with rust and lichen. Eyeing the base of this turbine, I wondered how much longer it would last. The rust didn’t look too bad yet.

“You won’t notice too much after awhile,” the turbine finished.

Glancing back up, I said, “Really?”

“Nah. The older you get, the faster time moves, until it all becomes a blur.” The blinking red eye seemed to slow in reflection. “Though at that speed, whirling around and around the year, the changing of seasons looks really pretty.”

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The Hopeful Wanderer – A Short Break

All at once, my senses came crashing in. Leaving behind the bubble where my mind had floated, separate from sensation. I took a breath, surprised at this return to wakefulness.

I was seated on the floor, leaning against the wall in the low-ceilinged outbuilding where I had gone to ground. Long enough for my legs to have fallen asleep. Cold seeped in through through seams in the walls, a reminder of the chill afternoon outside. I ran my palms over the rough, thin carpet at my sides.

Clutter kept me company in the small space. Tires stacked in tiers, their rubbery scent mixing with dry dust on my tongue. Old rags, paint cans, a single folding chair. This might have been a home once, the way the narrow hall teed off to my right. Valence curtains hung over a short window, undisturbed by any breeze.

I let my head thump gently against the wall. My thoughts had wandered off into a place my senses could not follow. I was lucky to have found this safe place while that happened.

Outside, voices rose, accompanying the crunch of footsteps on frosty grass. I froze at their approach, scrambling to recall whether, in my dissociative state, I had managed to lock the door while stumbling in here.

The doorknob rattled. But the squeak of hinges did not follow. Unable to stop myself, I peaked around the corner. The silhouettes of two legs crept across the floor beneath the door. Someone outside said, “Huh.”

Then the voices and the footsteps retreated. Heading back to get a key, no doubt. I gathered myself and my bag, slipping out the door once my visitors had gone.

I made sure to twist the lock before letting the door close. Time to wander on again.

A humble offering for posting stunningly late this week.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Sleepers One by One

One by one, a crowd drew close in the dreary, oncoming night around the lights from a single carousel, burning gold. No one, children or adults, rode the platform, but many stood about, watching as a world of sleepers spun around and around. Horses, tigers, dragons, and giant birds. Jeweled fur and feathers and scales glimmering against the dark.

I observed from somewhere in the middle of the crowd, ignorant of the motive behind this gathering. Drizzling rain dripped down my temples and my breath puffed in the cold. Words did not pass between those around me. Eavesdropping a useless effort.

One by one, the sleeping animals opened their eyes. As well, the gloom deepened, erasing the crowd, magnifying the bright majesty radiating from the carousel creatures. They stretched and shook, snorted and stamped, slowly crawled off the platform as it ground to a halt.

We held still, held our breaths, as the animals crept among us, through our ranks. A dragon the height of my hips slunk close by me. Close enough that I reached out to brush its scales with my fingertips. Light trailed off the dragon like cobwebs, glittering around my fingernails. Yet I had touched mere plastic, its scales smooth and painted.

One by one, the carousel bulbs above us burned out, snuffed like torches. Faster and faster, plunging us into darkness, until none remained. Animated artificial animals, radiating light that faded by the moment, slipped past the last of the crowd and out into the world.

Some energy or electricity or just the reviving quality of light had woken these sleepers. Yet they had not transformed into true animals. I wondered what machination could inject in them this half life, what endless ideal called them away.

One by one, the creatures vanished, swallowed by the seductive night.

Inspired by A World of Sleepers by Carbon Based Lifeforms.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – A Turning of Seasons

By way of a leaf-strewn country path, I accompanied Fall home. At least, we had begun as companions traveling the same way. But now he sagged against me and I hauled him along as best I could. Golden days had turned sharp and brittle, crunchy leaves growing damp and moldy underfoot. Low gray clouds raced overhead.

“I waited too long,” he muttered, again and again. His glorious crown of golden leaves, sheaves of wheat, rosy apples, orange gourds, and brittle twigs lay somewhere far behind. Discarded when the weight grew too heavy. His cheeks sunken. His gaze hollow, distant.

We arrived at a house nestled on a rise between trees whose leaves only just clung to their branches. Frost glittered along window sills and bloomed in bursts over glass panes. At the foot of the stairs, Fall waved me off and straightened up, taking the stone stairs one labored step at a time.

A shuffle happened just within the doorway as he collapsed inside and a woman exited. She paused on the front step, breathing in a huge breath, the frost abandoning the house to cling to her lashes and her fingertips. The door swung shut with a blast of frigid air.

I wrapped my arms around myself at the sudden chill. When she caught sight of me, Winter smiled in a hungry way, revealing gleaming, sharp teeth.

As she descended the steps, I backed away to let her pass. She headed back the way I had come, a blanket of frost spreading over the ground at her feet. In her absence, on the window sills of the house, pink blossoms began to bloom, readying for the emergence of spring.

Pulling my coat from my pack with shivering hands, I decided not to accompany Winter home when the time came.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Tread Not Here

As I trekked down a back alley, the memory of rained dripped from the sky in the wake of a thunderstorm, plopping into big puddles filling up numerous potholes. I splashed through these, heedless of the water soaking my socks, as I had no way to avoid the many of them.

Yet I pulled up short as a pair of shoes walked out in front of me. Patterned with flames and lacking a wearer. They stopped in the puddle just before me. When the water calmed, the reflection of a boy wearing a yellow jacket appeared, feet matching the soles of the empty shoes.

His voice came through watery, as if he spoke through a mouthful of liquid. “Watch out for this puddle,” he said. “It’ll take you.”

Peering down at his murky shape, I said, “Did it take you?”

The boy’s reflection nodded. I couldn’t make out his shadowy expression. “I watch over it now. So no one falls in, like me.”

Frowning, I glanced around. Not much foot traffic through this back way, but a warning should be set up here. “You can’t get back?”

A shrug. “Haven’t figured out how. But…” he glanced off into some unseen distance. “I have time. I’m not aging here.”

I wondered if he would ever get the chance to age, but I kept that to myself. “What do you need?”

“Well…” He turned his chin into his shoulder in thought. “If I didn’t have to guard this puddle, I could search for another one to bring me back.”

I straightened. “Say no more.”

A local sign shop received a peculiar commission from me. An A-frame sign to be set out next to a specific puddle on rainy days and to read:

This puddle will take you away. Tread not here.

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Natural Growth – A Halloween Special

I had the rain to thank for my recent growth. Days and days of cool moisture, seeping through the roof and the walls. Water stains spreading outward the way I spread my fuzzy gray-green tendrils along the ceiling corner I called home.

Not ready to send my spores spiraling throughout the house. My children to seek new homes in bathrooms, in closets, in the attic where raindrops echoed. Not yet. But soon.

I was born in the load of damp laundry left in the washing machine. Left for so long that I and my siblings dried out into dusty spores, ready to explode into the air the second the lid opened. The old man coughed his usual, rattling cough when he shook out his forgotten pants, shook us loose, breathed in my siblings. Restarted the wash when he smelled the must. Forgot his laundry again.

I myself drifted to my corner of the ceiling. One little spore latched onto crumbling plaster, farthest from the windows. Farthest from sunlight. Closest to a single leaky shingle.

Growing.

After the rain stopped, I grew flaky. Dusty. My spores drifted downward in twos and threes, gentle and graceful. Below, the old man sat at a peeling dining table, coffee mug within reach. A handful of my children landed in his drink. He took a sip. Sighed.

Soon after, the old man died. No one found him for a long time, and when they took him away, his body carried a few of us as passengers. Expatriates to a new country. Colonists.

No longer oppressed with cleaning solutions — not that we were much to begin with — we spread. Grew. Overtook every damp corner and dark crevice. Made the leaky house our own. I remained near the ceiling, bloated, oversized. Satisfied with my place and position.

Until two women entered the house.

One looked a little like the old man, just younger. Scraggly hair. Short. Clean. To the other woman, she pointed out my siblings, my children, their homes. Me.

The second woman wore a white jumpsuit that covered her from head to toe. Blue latex gloves on her hands. An industrial mask dangling around her neck. To the first woman she said, “It’ll be several days before anyone can come in here. I’ll let you know when I’m done.”

The scraggly-haired woman dismissed, jumpsuit woman donned her mask, large filter disc on the front, straps gripping her head. She hefted a heavy, blue plastic jug from the floor. In her other hand, she wielded a long metal rod at the end of a rubber hose attached to the jug. A squeeze of the trigger and harsh chemicals sprayed across my family clustered beneath the ancient dishwasher. Their screams curled my edges.

The monster murdered most of my family living in the kitchen and dining room before she reached me.

As she stretched the rod to reach me, the dark nozzle tip filled up my vision. I shrank back, quivering. This was it, only… I stretched as well, peeling myself from the ceiling and the walls in one swift motion. Leaping downward, I wrapped my fuzzy, misshapen tendrils around the nozzle, squirming past the end just as the spray released.

A muffled noise of surprise sounded behind the mask. The rod swing and shook beneath me as I scrambled down its length, bringing myself within jumping distance of her face. She dropped the rod just as I launched myself.

A scream to match those of my family tore from the woman. I had my feathery tendrils dug into her filter, but this held me at bay. She wrapped both hands around me, rubbery latex scraping at my mass, as I snagged the edge of her mask. Pushing against the soft skin of her cheek, I wriggled behind her defenses. Her fingertips clawed away a chunk of me just as I vanished from sight.

More muffled screaming. Rolling around on the dining room carpet. The woman tore off her mask, gasping for air, but by then I had already crawled into her mouth. Down her throat. She got up onto hands and knees, hacking and coughing, clutching her neck where I writhed around inside. Getting comfortable.

With a long, unraveling rip, the carpet beneath her split open. My family living beneath stretched for the woman above. She slumped over, gasping. Unresistant. Spongy clumps of mold hooked into her jumpsuit, dragging her down. Beneath the carpet. Into the damp wooden floor. Below even that to the rotting foundation.

The disturbed carpet flopped back into place. Beside the inexplicable gash lay the dropped chemical container. No other trace of the woman remained.

Now no one enters the house. Abandoned to the vagaries of nature, it belongs to us and we flourish here. I nestle in the throat of a corpse, pleased with my new location in this deep, damp darkness. Ready to grow.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – The Toll

Old boards creaked beneath my boots as I meandered across a rotting footbridge. In the entrenchment it crossed lay the mere memory of running water in the layer of mud at the bottom. Leaf loam littered the ground beneath wide-spaced trees. I had my gaze upward, regarding the rustling branches above, when a hand grasped my ankle and yanked.

Pain shot through my hip as I slammed into the damp wood. My full length slithered over the edge, beneath the handrail that I couldn’t reach, despite my outstretched hands. Flung forward, the muddy creek bottom rose up to meet me. I landed with a squelch, muck packing into my nose and mouth and eyes as I flew backward.

I vanished beneath the dark overhang.

At my first attempt to sit up, I smacked my head against the spongy underside of the bridge. Feeling around revealed brittle twigs, damp leaves, goopy ground. A bumpy hand holding my ankle.

I sucked in a sharp breath.

At the same time, a voice full of gravel said, “You must pay the price to cross.”

My eyes adjusting to the darkness revealed the outline of a hulking figure. Hair sticking out everywhere. Knobby ears. Stooped posture. Lengthy arms.

My voice shook. “With what?”

A creaking, as of stretching skin. Rancid meat smell wafted over me. “One skill. The ability to forage.”

My jaw clenched. I carried little food with me, surviving on edible plants. So if I gave up this skill now, I could starve.

The grip on my ankle tightened. “That, or I eat you.”

When later I scrambled from beneath the bridge, I found every plant looked the same. While the bridge troll safely chowed down on berries, I would have to pick up a foraging guidebook to relearn all over again.

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