Because I feel poorly about getting the give-away going so late, and because I feel guilty about missing my (self-imposed) deadline of Oct. 1st, and because I’m totally excited about the release of this book and want to share, I’m posting one of the stories, in its entirety, to the blog, below. I’d say it’s one of my favorites, except, I love this book. It sums up to me why I love this place, and I can’t help but love it. When I find stories I love, I want to share, and this includes my own. And so. There’s an excerpt of a different story on Lulu’s preview page, too, if you feel inclined to peek a that, as well. But, for my blog readers, I give you:
When The Hills Come Courting
I’m walking with my head down through the trees, so I don’t see the man sitting on the footbridge until I’m almost on top of him. The path up from Lincoln Street is clear and wide and easy for all that it’s up, and my mind is back at work. It was a horrible day, one of those days when every customer is super-needy and super-stupid and super-impatient, and they’ve never shopped before and have no idea how anything works. The holidays are coming, the mall is getting busier, and it’s only going to get worse. I know that, but it doesn’t help me deal with the idiots and it doesn’t help me deal with the winter rush that is coming, and it doesn’t help with my mood.
Which is why I don’t see him until I’m almost on top of him. He sits with his head resting against the single railing that spans the small bridge, his eyes closed. His feet touch the creek that runs down this side of the hill but he pays no heed to the water that must be soaking through his boots. He pays me no mind as I approach.
My feet falter for the span of a step before I resume my pace. Something about the man captures my attention despite my best intentions. I watch him from the corner of my eyes as I walk the rest of the way toward him. My path continues beyond him, up and to the west, but I’m reluctant to let him out of my sight.
He smiles, his eyes still closed, as if he can see my hesitation. He bumps his head gently against the railing, once, twice, three times, and then laughs. My hesitation becomes a spike of fear. We have plenty of vagrants and drifters that pass through these parts. This valley is mild in climate, with lots of open space still left, unlike the cities and town back East, pressed cheek-by-jowl next to one another. Fruit and nut trees grow in abundance. There is game if you know how to hunt or if you’re lucky, and there’s enough cast offs from the human population to get by. It’s a different lifestyle, and it’s not one that everyone chooses, and not everyone living that way chooses it, but enough do.
Not all the homeless people are harmful, but neither are they all harmless. Certainly they are not always stable, and a lack of stability can be dangerous. Is he dangerous? I don’t know, not yet, but I’m smart to be afraid. The spike of fear brings with it a rush of adrenaline and I know, in that second, that I can outrun him if I have to.
He doesn’t move, beyond bumping his head a few more times. He doesn’t open his eyes still, when he talks. “You aren’t going to run, because I’m not going to chase you. You’ve naught to fear from me.”
The fact that he so easily read my mind tells me that I do have something to fear from him. I open and close my mouth a few times, shocked into silence but wanting to say something. He pulls his head from the railing and turns his face toward me. His eyes finally open, piercing me with a steady gaze. I flinch despite myself, and for no reason I can name other than he looks too closely. “Sit a spell if you’d like. I’ve not had company in a while. Wouldn’t mind some conversation.”
“I need to get home,” I tell him. It’s not really a lie. Home is where I’m headed. He doesn’t have to know that there’s no one there waiting for me, no one there to miss me.
“As you like,” he says, turning his head back toward the vista before him.
I know what he sees. I’ve sat there often enough. Immediately, around him, there are oak trees, tall and thin, limbless spires that reach to the sky with meager canopies. Snowberry and blackberry and bittersweet nightshade and ivy crawl around the ground, sprouting up between and around grasses whose names I don’t know. Lemon balm lines the creek bed, latching on, thriving in spite of the gravel along the footpath. On the other side of the oaks, further down the hillside, grow the Douglas firs, taller and darker than their deciduous cousins. A break in these allows one to see the hills around us, to see the houses and roads that have been built up, the shopping plaza and the streetlights still further away. In the distance more hills rise up. This is a valley of hills and dips, of small buttes and larger buttes, until the mountains begin again. The gentle creek will become deeper, once the rains come in earnest. It will flood the bank and soak the ground and make this area a small mess, but for now it’s a shallow, happy gurgle over rocks and tree branches as it flows down the hillside.
From down the path to his right a squirrel comes bounding, its mouth crammed full with the fruit of its labors. It stops just before it reaches the bridge, surprised, I guess, to see him sitting there. Its nose twitches and it cocks its head before continuing forward. It darts around him, races past me, and disappears into the woods.
He smiles again, his eyes still on the scenery before him.
I shift from one foot to the other, still hesitating. Do I go? Do I stay?
“Rain’s coming,” he says, and that settles my indecision. Without another word, I continue on my way.
I think about him the rest of the night. When the rain hits it hits hard, pounding against the roof of my apartment. The wind howls through the trees and the storm rages all night long. I worry about him, though it’s pointless. He’ll know how to find shelter, how to weather this storm. But I can’t stop worrying about him.
In the morning the land is scrubbed clean. The air smells thicker of the forest, damp and rich and loamy. It’s chill, as it is in September, so I dress warm in boots and warm pants and a sweater. I wrap a blanket like a shawl around my shoulders. It’s my day off and I’m exhausted from the week but I pack my bag with sandwiches and coffee and apples and I head into the woods.
This time he’s across the creek from me, propped against a tree with a book in hand. A wide-brimmed hat that should look old fashioned but doesn’t is beside him on the ground. When he sees me he tucks his pen away, tips his head in my direction, and says, “’Mornin’.”
Again, I find myself tongue-tied. It’s foolish. I work in retail. I’ve always worked in retail. I know how to talk to people, but I can’t talk to him.
He saves me the trouble by nodding at my sack. “Headed to work?”
“No, I was coming here. I’ve got some breakfast. Would you like some?”
The smile falters a moment and those eyes that feel like they’re seeing into my soul darken. The darkness doesn’t stay, but the mood does. “I eat just fine,” he tells me.
I shrug as if his rejection doesn’t sting. “Suit yourself,” I say as I spread my blanket out on the damp grass. I take out a sandwich, pour a cup of coffee from the Thermos, and proceed to ignore him as I watch and hear the morning pass.
The tension is heavy for a few moments. He clears his throat a few times, but I ignore him. I ignore him while he tucks his book way. I ignore him while he steps across the creek. I ignore him while he stands over me, hesitant and indecisive. It feels good, seeing him where I was yesterday, off-guard and unsure.
“Well, now, I suppose I’d not say no to some coffee, if you’ve got some to spare.”
I move over on the blanket so he has a dry place to sit, and pour him a cupful. I have to bite my tongue to keep from laughing at him. He takes the cup with a murmur thanks and turns his attention to it while he drinks. I eat my sandwich and try to study him without him realizing it.
This close he looks younger, despite the gruffy beard and the dirty hair and the well-worn clothes. His clothes are timeless: a heavy flannel shirt over plainer shirt, non-descript trousers, boots that have seen better days. I expect him to smell of earth and unwashed body, but he smells of the forest and its not unpleasant.
“Do you approve?” he asks his coffee. My face burns when I realize he’s caught me studying. I remember yesterday, when he virtually read my mind. I drop my eyes and look away. In my stomach my breakfast sits heavy. Embarrassment makes me angry. I shove the rest of my food back into the bag, dump my coffee onto the ground. I leave him with the blanket and the Thermos and storm off, my eyes tearing in humiliation. I shouldn’t. It’s childish. But I don’t respond well to being laughed at.
Serves me right for almost laughing at him, I tell myself on my way home, but that only makes me angrier.
I return a week later, once my anger can cool and my humiliation fades away. Inexplicably, he’s still there. This time he’s coming up the hill as I was the first time I saw him. My blanket is folded up on top of his sack, tied in place. I wonder if he’s been using it, if it’s helped him at night.
“There you are,” he says when he sees me, tipping that hat of his, somehow making it look proper. “Was wondering if I’d see you again. Thought this was your way to and fro.”
The thrill I feel at seeing him again makes no sense whatsoever, so I ignore it. “I’ve been going the long way ‘round,” I tell him.
“I didn’t mean to cause you any fuss,” he says, “the other mornin’. I was just teasing you a bit. Not any way to thank you for your hospitality.”
I find that talking about it brings back my embarrassment. I cough and look away, trying to shrug around the burning in my face. “Don’t worry about it,” I say, willing him to drop it.
“It’s dropped,” he says. “Are you on your way?”
“I was just out walking.”
Sharp eyes pin me in place for a moment before he looks carefully away. “Is that so?”
I pull a container from my small bag and shake it. Liquid sloshes inside. “I brought coffee.” I’m not above bribing to get my way.
We drink in a companionable silence for some time. I keep my eyes to myself this time, with some effort, and we finish the coffee amiably. He smiles as though he knows the effort it cost me, but I can’t summon the will to be embarrassed. The passing week has helped.
“How long you plan on staying here?” I ask, as if it’s any of my business.
He doesn’t answer me. He looks around us and his whole mood changes. It doesn’t darken, not like when he thought I was pitying him, but it grows somber. Sad. Immediately I regret my question. “I’m sorry; that was rude,” I say.
He pulls back to our blanket, to the hillside, the woods around us. He swallows the rest of his coffee and, without a word, gets up and leaves. His time to storm off, I suppose, only he doesn’t storm. I watch him walk, moving without a hurry. He isn’t being rude, isn’t leaving in a huff like I did. It’s more like he’s forgotten all about me. I remind myself that this is foolish, that he’s obviously not stable, for what stable man lives in the woods, as he clearly does?
I pass the area for the next few days, to and from work, but I don’t see him again. October passes into November and the rains get colder and heavier. Night falls earlier and earlier, until I have to carry a flashlight with me so I can see my way. Winter hits, weeks of frost and cold, cold rain. I keep my vigil walks, but he doesn’t come back.
December rolls into January, and the air shifts, still cold, but winter’s bite passes. It doesn’t reign long in our valley, though the mountains that surround us tell a different tale. I’ve all but given up on seeing my drifter again when he crosses my path. Literally. I run into him before my eyes tell my brain what they’re seeing and we both bounce off the path. He whirls at the contact, crouching low as he rolls into his fall, and he looks so different I don’t really recognize him. His hair is longer, tied back from his face. His hat is gone, his features are broader. His skin, once a paler white, is almost bronze. Only his eyes are the same, that piercing, piercing brown that see far, far too much.
His snarl cuts off as quickly as it began. He regains his feet before I do and he offers me his hand. It’s the first time we touch and my heart flops a tiny bit inside my chest at the solidity of him. I’d half decided he was a ghost.
With his identity shifting, he very well may still be a ghost, for all I know, solid flesh or no.
That maddening smile touches his lips. I want to be angry, but my relief at seeing him, even if his face is different, is too intense for me to sustain any other emotion. “I didn’t think I’d see you again,” I tell him.
“The hills are fickle.” It sounds like an agreement, but makes no sense to me.
I touch his face. For a second the intimacy of my touch draws his expression inward, but then he leans into my hand. “You look different,” I say stupidly. It sounds stupid, but it’s also true, and I can’t get my head around it.
He catches my hand as I pull it away, trapping it back against his face. Laughter still sparks in his eyes, laughter and pure delight and something else, something darker and older. “I’m not a ghost,” he tells me and my hand is truly trapped when I would pull it away instead. He looks away from me, leaving me to deal with my embarrassment in private despite his close proximity, and looks instead at the woods around us. “I remember before these houses were built,” he says, his words a nonsense of sound over the blood in my ears and the heat in my cheeks, “before they put in those dog parks. People hunted here, my people first, then your people.”
I want to tell him that ‘my people’ never hunted here, that my people held farmland in the low, rolling mountains of Vermont. Europe, and later what became the United States was not one people, was not one culture, but I’d be splitting straws, and I know it, so I hold my tongue. How could he possibly remember that long ago, anyway?
“It has been some time since I’ve been seen,” he goes on. “You surprised me, that first day.”
My hand is hot under his hand, held against his face. My heart beats rapidly in my chest. Embarrassment mingles with panic and anxiety and curiosity. “You’re not a drifter,” I hear myself say.
That smile, warm and wondrous and such joy, such joy at simply being. He’s not laughing at me, he’s laughing in delight at everything. “I never leave this place,” he agrees.
“But I didn’t see you. For months, I came back, looking. This park isn’t all that big, isn’t so wild. If you were here, why didn’t I see you? Why didn’t you say anything? And how do you look different?”
He let my hand leave his face but he didn’t release me. Fingers intertwined with mine. “I never left, but there are things I do not share lightly. It is harder, some times more so than others, and I don’t control who can see me.”
“But you’re not a ghost?”
The smile is almost wolfish at times. He squeezes my hand as if to draw emphasis to the contact. “No,” he agrees.
“Even though you look different. And disappear without leaving.”
“What are you, then?”
I’m caught under that gaze and it’s a million times worse than the first time. He can see me, can see everything, and my skin crawls at the sensation. I’m transparent, my blood and bones and sinew and organs lain bare for his study. I’m hunted and caught, pierced through the lungs and heart by that gaze as surely as with an arrow. I’m bleeding out, life and soul pulled out, out of me, into him, and I can’t even kick, don’t even want to struggle. I feel his hands holding my hands, feel my feet rooting into place. I feel the woods around us surge and the ground under my rooted feet shake and tremble. The woods explode in sound, scrub jays and woodpeckers and pigeons and crows, hummingbirds that make no sense in January, and the creek so near to us suddenly a torrent of raging water, a river of rapids falling swiftly down a thickly wooded hill. There is a forest, not a wooded park, and there is the two of us, standing in a small clearing, smaller than it was before, dwarfed by the forest of ferns and Douglas firs and impossible redwoods that do not grow so thickly, so densely, so huge this far north.
I cry out, because I can’t help it, and I’m shocked that I can make a sound, that I can move, that my feet are not trapped, that I am not trapped. He moves with me as I stagger and my vision is filled with his face. Proud and bronze, blue-black hair braided and worked through with vines that I cannot name, with bones and feathers. His jaw is set in determination but his eyes, though they pierce me, though they trapped me and brought me here, are kind, ever kind. Those eyes anchor me. They call me back to myself, calm my heart, and hold me still while my brain returns to my head, while my senses return.
“I am something else entirely,” he says softly.
He releases my hands and it happens again, in reverse. With a sickening twist and snap the forest around us that stretches in all directions press in on us. I cry out again, falling to the ground, heedless of the cold, wet grass. He falls with me, steadying me with his touch as the trees morph from one type to another, as flora shudders and unfurls and changes. The vines leave his hair, as do the bones and the feathers. For a split second his coloring is European again, and then it returns to the newer face, the one that must be his older face.
My blanket is underneath me and my legs dry despite my having fallen. It’s starting to rain again, because it’s always raining here, but the rain doesn’t touch us. He offers me a cupful of steaming coffee from the Thermos I’d left with him months ago. “Drink,” he says, holding the cup to my lips as my teeth chatter in shock. I can barely breath.
I drink reflexively more than out of any desire to obey. The coffee hits me hard, strong and heavy and bitter, and I sputter on it, choking and laughing and crying.
He pulls the cup away. “I’m sorry; that was rude.”
My own words from his mouth help ground me. I clutch my hands into fists at my side but I don’t pull away from him because his touch, too, is helping to ground me. He’s not talking about forcing the liquid down my throat; he’s talking about what ever it was he just did to me.
“Is that supposed to be funny?” I ask. My voice shakes, but my tone is light, and against me, he laughs.
“I wasn’t sure,” he says. “I was hoping.”
My mind races with a million questions. I drink more of the coffee. What did you do to me, where did you take me, what was that? I hold my tongue, afraid to spook him, and then I bursting with hysterical laughter at the thought of my spooking him.
He says nothing as I laugh until I cry. He says nothing as my tears dry themselves out. I should be embarrassed, but I’m not. It’s a physical reaction to whatever just happened, and my body needs to process the intense awe. When I’m done, when the coffee is gone, he sits me up on my own and moves away. He doesn’t release my hand, even still. Around us the rain falls more heavily. I should be drenched, but instead I’m barely damp. I shiver, from the cold and from the shock.
“There will be sunlight tomorrow. Will you come back?” His tone is as light as mine was earlier, but I hear the hitch, his hesitance. For a moment, I consider: will I? When my shock fades and I’m left with, what, fear? Will I pack a lunch and return here, on my day off, in the middle of January, to picnic with a man I hardly know, who changes shapes and is not a ghost and is clearly no longer human?
I smile and squeeze his hand. “I’ll bring soup.”