Monday, December 29, 2008

SoML: Silent snow (Pt. I)

Note: This is the first episode of a fictional story I've been percolating for a while. Future episodes will appear on this blog under the label "The Sons of Magda Lane." No set schedule, just as it occurs to me. Feedback is welcome.

Pompeii, Whistler Lane thought. He stood with his hands on his hips, sucking in cold, thin mountain air, getting his wind back. His eyes, gray and alert, stung from the cold. His high cheekbones and the bridge of his narrow, sharp nose peeked out over the snow mask that covered the lower half of his face.

The way the snow blanketed everything to either side of the track, every fallen tree, every stone, every bramble, evoked images of a burned-out world, buried in falling white ash. Much as Pompeii must have looked when Vesuvius snuffed it out of existence all those years ago. In the fading light, as the weak winter sun withdrew, the shapes buried under the snow recalled the human forms Whistler had seen in the unearthed ruins in Italy. It was as if, all at once, those people in that doomed city had recognized their predicament and simply laid down, letting the ash cover them, erase them.

"Hard to imagine worse conditions," Stone Gray growled. As he spoke, his breath issued forth like steam from a venting volcano. His broad forehead and square face were red from exertion. Frost formed in his beard and moustaches. He pushed his hood off his head, testing. Steam rose from his tangled, black mop. "It's bitter cold."

They had paused at a level place along the path. Every instant, the forest shadows grew stronger underneath the towering Douglas firs. The falling snow was dry and fine and came down so fast that, unless they kept moving, the track they were following might be lost before they made it to the cabin. Old Man Grissom's cabin.

There were two paths to the cabin. Each had a trailhead at a different point on the mountain highway. Whistler had chosen the shorter, steeper trail. It was a tough climb from the highway up to the mountain lake and the site of the old man's cabin. But time was of the essence. Whatever secret the old man was keeping, it was important that Whistler learn it first... before Stormy.

Now, standing on a frozen trail in the falling snow, the thought of brother Stormcloud spurred him on. "It's not going to get any warmer," he murmured. "Let's move."

They pushed on. The trail rose steeply in a series of switchbacks. It had been years since Whistler had made the climb, and never before in conditions like this, but he sensed that they were close. When they had parked at the trailhead in the mid-afternoon, there were no other cars. Stormy would have had to leave Portland at least two hours ahead of them if he were to have reached the alternate trailhead and made the longer trek to the cabin. Whistler was hopeful.

Whistler had long legs and a lean body, and he kept up a purposeful stride, rounding each pivot of the switchback, eyes fixed on the ground three feet in front of him without even a glance up the slope. He heard Stone behind him, breath heaving like an angry bull. Stone was short and wide and thick as a tree stump. He was strong, but not swift. Keep up, Stone. Keep up, Stone.

The climb was exhausting, but Whistler kept his mind on what he might find at the cabin. Old Man Grissom would have a fire going in the pot-bellied stove. It would be unbearably hot inside. The old coffee pot would be sitting on the stove, half full of that viscous tar that the old man passed off as coffee. If they were lucky, and the old man felt hospitable, he'd toss some bacon into the cast-iron skillet that was always on the stove. Whistler was hungry and the thought of the plain food, the bacon and the eggs poached in the grease, was heavenly.

But there was still the matter of worming information out of the old man. To get anything of value from him, Whistler would have to endure an interminable stream of wry and demeaning insults, decidedly unfunny jokes, and stories that went nowhere. Whistler had learned over the years that there was no prodding the old man. He'd say what he was going to say and he would say it in his own way.

Old Man Grissom never changed. He had lived in that cabin in the Cascade Mountains for more years than anyone could remember. If he had ever had another home, no one knew it. He had always lived alone, up there in the woods, laughing at the world below him. In the summer months he would sit out in front of his cabin, cackling wickedly, enormous paunch filling his bib overalls, his clear blue eyes twinkling cruelly. He wore his wispy, white beard and stringy hair, long and unkempt. Whistler's earliest memories were of himself, hiding behind Magda as she stood before Old Man Grissom, seeking some answer or piece of advice. Whistler would peek out from behind her hand and invariably find the old man watching him, shaking with silent laughter.

Magda had never let on the exact nature of her connection with the old man. When she spoke to him directly, she called him "Uncle," but Whistler sensed that their relationship was something else, something sordid and unseemly.

"Why do we come up here?" Whistler had asked her once, on their return hike back to the highway. It was when Whistler was close to finishing high school, when he was beginning to question everything.

Magda had kept walking. She was thin and reedy in those days and could walk for hours without pausing. "Can you really not see him?" she asked. "Can you really not see what he is?"

It was quite dark now. Whistler had been so lost in thought he had not noticed that they had made the top of the ridge. The tree trunks seemed pillars of black stone.

"There it is," Stone said, suddenly. Then Whistler saw a yellow light, a beacon glimmering between the trunks of the huge fir trees... lantern light. Whistler's stomach knotted at the sight. "Do you think we got here first?" he whispered. But Stone was not listening. He pushed past Whistler with renewed vigor.

They went forward now with their eyes on the light, ignoring the path, which had mostly vanished anyway. As they approached they entered an open area where the trees had been cleared away. They espied the low, squat structure, and the dark shape of the outhouse off to the side. Light glowed through the smoky glass of the single paned window that looked out on them. A canvass sheet hung inside the glass, obscuring the view within. They made their way to the left side of the cabin where there was a sturdy wooden door that led in to the porch area.

"Look there," Stone said. He pointed to a patch of snow lit by the window. A pair of boot prints were there, leading toward the cabin door.

Whistler stopped short. The snow was falling fast and hard. "They're new," he said.

"Grissom could've made 'em coming back from the outer," Stone said.

"One set, coming in. Nothing going out," Whistler said. They glanced at each other.

"We're here now," Stone said, finally. They slogged through the snow to the door, pushed it in and entered the cabin.

It was hot inside, sure enough. The porch was separated from the main room of the cabin by a divider of thin plywood. "It is I, Uncle," Whistler called. "Magda sent me." He pulled off his gloves, mask and parka, then sat on a low bench to get his boots off. Stone did the same.

There was no reply from beyond.

Whistler got his boots off, then ducked under the low opening into the main area of the cabin. Old Man Grissom was sitting in his rocking chair next to the pot-bellied stove, a dark wool blanket pulled halfway up his chest. He was leering in that way he had when he laughed, mouth half open, eyes glimmering.

Stone came in behind Whistler, spotted the old man. "What're you cackling about, you old devil?" he scowled.

Whistler put his hand out and stopped Stone from going in any further. The wool blanket draped across the old man's body was dark and wet. A pool of blood had gathered on the floor planking beneath the rocking chair.

Out of the corner of his eye, Whistler caught a flutter of movement, turned his head slowly toward the area where the old man slept. The bunk was screened off from the main room by a hanging blanket. A hand lifted one corner of the blanket. A dark figure, lithe and lean, with a roll to the shoulders and a slight crouch at the knees. Long dark hair pulled back. Eyes of obsidian. A narrow face with thin lips pulled back into the slightest of smiles.

"Stormcloud," Whistler gasped. His mind reeled, as if he had suddenly been hit in the face by a sharp, brief gust of wind. "What did you do, Stormy?" Whistler stammered. "What could he have said?" Whistler stood absolutely still, resisting the urge to run out into the frozen night, bootless, coatless, to flee back to the highway. Beside Whistler, Stone stood still as his namesake, eyes fixed on the old man's corpse.

They stood that way for a time, a small eternity. Then, slowly, slowly, slowly, Stormy pressed a finger to his thin lips.

To be continued...

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