A little more of a strange journey. Follow along if you like it.
The freeway backed up and clogged like some great drain of life into the city. Penn sat in traffic thicker than anything he’d experienced before; rush hour in the Mid-Hills was Sal Coony’s sheep herd trying to cross the river bridge unattended. Sal usually passed out around two in the afternoon, after tending the morning with spiked coffee, waking in time to gather the herd before dinner. But Penn was in the city now, and all thoughts of the Mid-Hills and sheep herding were lost in honking horns and brake lights.
The traffic moved in sputters, burning the clutch in the old wagon, making the pedal sloppy to his foot. The day was hot for September, only a few days before the season’s shift, promising an Indian summer. The Volvo lurched forward, almost in pain, and died in the shadow of a tall, glass black skyscraper. Penn turned the key, getting a scream and whimper from the car. It wanted to start, but didn’t seem to know how, all of a sudden; gasping for breath, coughing black smoke from it’s lung’s. He let her roll backward into the breakdown lane, into the sun and out of the skyscrapers shadow.
Turning the key again and the old wagon roared to life, but faltered once more as Penn tried to push his car through the dark towers shadow. Penn clutched his heart as the wagon lurched, almost staggered, from the gloom of the skyscraper. Together they found their way from the confusion of cars, slipping into the tangle of streets, winding endlessly between aging brownstones, occasionally glimpsing the dark tower. His tired girl ran down at the end of a cobbled street, a remnant alley of another century, shaded with maple and fir, hidden from the blank, black, stare of the tower.
He breathed easier now, and reached for the glove box, searching for his map. Folded wrong, ripped and worn, thin now as tissue paper, he spread it across his lap. He didn’t really need the map; he knew he was here. It gave him comfort to trace the line drawn long ago by his grandfather. The line he followed meandered like a river from far off beyond the city, for in fact it followed a mighty confluence some distance before it swerved away in a great arc of farms, turning into asphalt, and was lost in the sudden jumble of black lines representing streets and highways. They had looked at the map often before Seth died, weighing the possibilities of routes, the pros and cons of highways opposed to byways, and the hazards of rush hour traffic.
His mouth was dry and he was breathing hard, sweating, and Penn was scared almost to the point of pissing himself; He had only felt that once before.
Tom stuck his hand into a pocket, which one of the many of the huge coat he didn’t notice, and pulled out a bit of nothing, lint, or fuzz perhaps. Hell, maybe it was fairy dust. He kissed it to his lips and tossed it from the hilltop into the bright day.
It floated away like a dandelion puff, tentatively looking, finding its way over the world. His brown eyes followed it as it bounced along, meandering, skirting unseen obstacles, steered or guided by unseen powers.
Around and through the autumn trees, searching for direction, until finally the puff, or fuzz, or fairy dust, caught a current favorable, and disappeared from Tom’s sight.
He closed his eyes and saw it still floating across the city, enjoying its journey, until suddenly the puff was caught by a wild wind up and away to the Hill. It climbed quickly, as if it had Purpose, Tom thought.
The very thought caused him to open his eyes and sit up on the carpet of grass. With his eyes open he knew the little puff was still there, floating. His last image of it before opening his eyes, it danced in the eddy of tall chimney somewhere in the neighborhoods of the Hill. It seemed to be waiting.
“Waiting for what?” Tom asked of no one.
He closed his eyes and the puff darted from the eddy. Tom felt it almost was impatient with him. Could it have a Purpose? Tom had a Purpose, so a little puff could too?
“Why not,” Tom exclaimed, once again to no one. Why not, indeed, he thought, pulling on the endless pint of gold that lived in his coat.
He left the puff to its own devices. He didn’t have time right now to follow some silly puff, fairy dust, and least of all, lint. Another pull on the bottle and Tom was off on the Search. He eyed the puff one last time, thinking to follow, and decided against it. It wasn’t going where he needed to go anyway, he concluded.
But then, maybe it was, if it had Purpose. And maybe it was part of the Search. A Tinkerbell, yet Tom was no Peter Pan.
The inspiration left him like a burp. It was a tequila burp, short and pungent; he had been drinking since dawn. A wheezing metro pulled to the curb, and Tom hopped aboard. He was given the usual sneer of contempt from the driver as he handed over his fare, and then shuffled to the back of the bus. He sat next to a girl, the bus was almost full, when he would have preferred to sit alone, or at least figured other riders would prefer he sit by himself.
She smiled at him brightly, happy of his company. She was thin and pale, almost hummingbird-like, Tom mused. And he had seen her before, but couldn’t remember where, or when. Or why he might remember her, not having remembered much of anything except the Search, and his Purpose.
Tom smiled back at her, settled into the vinyl seat, and pulled his battered cap down over his eyes. He almost always dozed when he rode the metro through the city, the side-to-side movement of the bus lulling him into short naps between destinations. Tom found himself following the little bit of fairy dust once again. As Tom bounced his way downtown the puff flew in the same direction, toward the towers that made up the city, into the shadows Tom always tried to avoid.
At a snail's pace, though with ease, the metro transported the passengers along their route, picking up and dropping off without hesitation throughout the surface streets. Tom loved and hated the metro, lurching about in two block sections, until finally with whiplash you arrived where you needed to be, free. Well, for Tom, mostly free, he easily warranted the seniors discount and usually traveled only in the free-ride zone.
The girl departed, and a couple of blocks later replaced by another, paler if possible than the previous. She didn’t smile, though looked at him long, with thoughtful pale eyes, decided he was harmless, or at least that she wasn’t too worried about him. She departed a few blocks after arriving, disappearing in the crowd.
Tom closed his eyes, catching the puff briefly before it was lost in the shadow of giants. His eyes shot open, suddenly aware of where he was. He was where he should be, of course, but far to close to being caught in the shadows before he should be. Tom pulled the cord, dinging the bell, pissing off those that wished they were riding the express. He rolled out the rear exit, angling his way through the crowds to clear ground. Tom felt he needed clear ground. There were times, he remembered, times when clear ground taught him things.
He found it on the north of a lower building, in light shadow, but not under the Shadow. People were few and Tom turned around and found himself Elsewhere.
Tom had been careless. Tom was never careless. At least he couldn’t really remember being careless. But then, suddenly he could remember if only a snippet, a bit of the past.
Careless and shortsighted he had been, along with others. He was a different person then, forty years younger and dumber, and he was called Thomas. He remembered being part of a family, teaching at the university, being somebody. It was a rush, then it was gone and Tom found himself in the Forest.
He looked around himself and discovered he was very far from where he remembered being, and accepted the fact, just as he accepted the fact he had no idea how he had gotten to where he was.
It happened to him on occasion, after his visits with Jose’ Cuervo, and his kin, that Tom would wake in entirely different parts of the city than he passed out in. Sometimes Tom could just think himself elsewhere, on open ground turn and be gone, like he just had.
Tom thought he had done more of that lately, finding the spots that sent him about his path, choosing the when’s of his travels, if not the where’s.
Wherever he found himself, he figured it was simply Purpose that put him there, and he carried on with the Search. He passed through some sort of door, he thought, as he slept, and stepped across blocks of city, or miles of country, without being conscious (literally) of changing locations until he woke. At first it was disconcerting, but he came to welcome the trips. On more than a few occasions, Tom felt he had possibly even traveled through time.
The forest he found himself in was different though. In the Forest, he had been here before, he had no hangover, and the search of his coat for tequila was fruitless. The Forest was green and shadowed, with a mossy carpet for Tom’s feet. Lilies grew at the edge of the stream teaming with fat speckled trout. Tom could lounge against a huge cedar while dipping his toes in the bubbling water; forget about the Search, and dream of other streams, and other trout, recalling a life forgotten.
The past was still foggy at best, revealed to him only in scant flashes, like tracers on the edge of vision. He hoped one day all the hints and teases would become some answer to his Search. Until then, or until Purpose called him back, he would enjoy the peace of the place, and hope for enlightenment. And he hoped the girl, or fairy, he mused, would appear dancing through the trees.
She reminded him of his daughter.
“Damn!” Tom thought, “I’ve got a daughter!” He knew it all along, but had forgotten. But how could he forget her, she was his angel. He saw a vision of her so clearly, then it was gone with the breeze, and Tom was distracted from his thoughts by the sound of silver bells, faint but growing stronger. He knew the music of this set of silver bells, and smiled. He searched in the pockets of his coat, knowing eventually he would come across the proper treat for an old friend.
An apple still crisp he found quickly, and held it up in the air so the breeze could catch its odor.
The bells jingled closer, then faded and grew back again, stopping altogether just out of sight. Tom clicked his tongue through a smiling face.
“Bill!” Tom said almost in a whisper. It wasn’t a question. “Come out here and have your apple.”
The undergrowth parted and Bill the pony trotted out, bells belling and a pony smile across his face. Apples were his favorite, especially those provided by old Thomas. Bill knew the bald headed excuse for a troll as Thomas, not Tom. Not that it mattered, he had the same smell, and that was good enough for Bill.
He took the apple and chewed it up. He nudged the left bottom pocket of Tom’s coat for another.
Tom reached in and pulled out a granny smith, not surprised to find it there, and fed it to his old friend. “What are you doing here, Bill?”
Bill nudged again after the Granny, another pocket.
“You want another?” Tom reached in and pulled out not another apple, but a pair of old reading glasses.
Tom looked at the glasses for a long while, then inspired, slapped Bill on the ass, hooted something about seeing the light, turned on his booted heal, and headed for the Search. Tom had suddenly remembered his Purpose.
For hundreds of years his mind labored, searching for a way to escape, and failing miserably every time he thought he just might have it licked. The magic that held him there was just too strong, ancient as it was. Occasionally they would come to check on him, to see if he was happy, (which of course he wasn’t) or question him about the when’s and how’s, and where’s of the future. He knew the approximates and predictions of what could be, but didn’t put much faith in anything but the strength of his claws and the fire of his breath, and he certainly wasn’t about to say anything to the caretakers of his little subterranean chunk of real estate. They were always very patient with him, promising him fresh goats and the occasional hefty cow, if he would only answer some simple questions. He never answered, and his only fresh meat consisted of nothing more than the occasional lost rat, or cross-eyed bat; Not that it really mattered, he could live on hate.
The first time, and the last, and all the visits in between one of them had come calling, Naug had done his best to crisp the visitor like a dry autumn leaf in a burn barrel. In his hatred Naug missed entirely and melted one of his most coveted swords. It was only one of many swords, and other treasures besides. Naug had plundered countless castles and storehouses for their treasures when those things were common, when kings plundered other kings, and kingdoms were won in battle, long before his imprisonment.
He was tired of plotting anything more now than revenge; he lost interest in escape, figuring it impossible and no longer worth the mental effort. Now he could concentrate on hating, and seething, and raging.
The air this morning smelled different as it filtered down from the surface. The water that dripped about the cave tasted different also. It was sweet with spring, and it made the dragon nauseas. He always tried to forget any season but winter, with its death and quiet, and naked trees in the snow. Nothing could hide from his flying eyes as he hunted the barren winter lands, though he hadn’t been hunting in hundreds of years. It always angered him when the spring came again, with its new life and hope.
“And “They” will be making on of those damn visits,” he thought to himself; they came usually in the spring. He curled his black tail about his ancient black body and wished for something to toast. Perhaps he would look forward to this next visit.
He had expected a visit from someone or something, but what he felt coming down through the narrow
passage surprised even Naug. He hadn’t smelled troll in over a thousand years. He remembered its taste rather fondly, only wishing he had been able to slow roast it with rosemary over a fire of alders.
Something about this troll was different though, he knew before he even saw it, and when it rounded the last corner into view Naug almost choked on his own indignation. It was a troll to be certain, by the smell of it, but most certainly not by the look. This thing was hairy. Trolls Naug had eaten were totally hairless, which made them a delicacy. Naug hated hairballs. His appetite suddenly left him. His rage however, was at full strength.
“Well?” seethed Naug, spewing a putrid steam throughout the cavern. He was an evil dragon with equally evil breath.
“Well,” answered the hairy thing in the shadows, “What?”
“What do you want, Troll?” Naug asked in bored, venomous hisses.
The shape in the shadows considered this. Troll. He had been called that before, and only just recently, if he remembered correctly, and it seemed to fit him.
“I don’t want anything,” answered the troll, “Other than to pass quietly by.” He was not too concerned about the beast; each of its legs was short chained to the floor of the vast cavern. No entrance could be seen that would have admitted the creature, his size was enormous, and the cave was deep. Around the serpent lay his hoard, enough gold, silver and gems to make the greediest of dragons satisfied. He knew the dragon somehow, but could not remember why, but felt he shouldn’t linger.
“No pestering questions?” Naug spit. They always had questions. Most of the time he knew the answers, but sometimes he didn’t. Not that it mattered, he never told them anything anyway. But then again, they had never sent a troll.
“No news of the World to entice me?” Naug inquired, confused, his breath puffing out smoke and subdued flames.
“Sorry,” answered the troll, “Just looking to continue on my way.”
“Not a plump goat, or even a chicken to bribe bits of things from me?” This was not at all going the way it should. He almost looked forward to the visits. All he had to do was listen to their questions, deny them any meaningful information, and wait for them to give up, leaving behind a dinner treat. Naug was perplexed unlike ever before. Well, he thought, if I can’t enjoy a few minutes of informative conversation I’ll just smoke him. “There have always been questions”, Naug insisted, his tongue flicking and drool spraying across the cave. “And enticements.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” the troll replied, “But I’ve important business, and I don’t have time to spend visiting with a stinky dragon.” The troll remembered something about dragons, and this one had an especially memorable stench, and something in the silken gravel of its voice caused a slight pause. He knew him but couldn’t place him, his memory being less than perfect, as usual.
Naug was not insulted, knowing he stunk and proud of it. Dragon smell was as potent as tooth and claw in the hunt of prey, overwhelming with cloying stench, like the rot of decay.
“Do you have a name?” asked Naug, as politely as he possibly could.
“Of course, you dull lizard,” the troll returned, “But it’s certainly none of your damn business.” He was getting irritated now with the insistent worm, and he was beginning to get nauseas from the stench of Naug. “Perhaps if you tell me yours?”
“You know of me, Troll,” he said troll with more emphasis this time, and more hissing.. “I do not give my name.”
“Ashamed of it, I suppose.” The troll said, continuing through the cavern.
“Ashamed?” the dragon roared, “Of my name? Never!” Fire puffed from Naug’s mouth.
Beyond a pile of gold in chests and piles of black pearls, he saw the way of his path and the exit from the dragon’s lair. From the glitter of wealth he snatched up without really noticing a prize, something heavy and small, a tiny orb of quicksilver. It slipped into one of the pockets of his coat, forgotten.
Naug sensed something about this troll. He smelled the part, this hairy troll, of course, but there was a faint whisper of a scent to his scaled and exacting nose. It was old yet familiar, and suddenly Naug knew that particular smell.
“Places to be,” muttered the troll, “People to see.”
“Stop!, commanded Naug, “I know your scent.”
The troll paused at that, and turned back to the dragon, standing just inside the exit passage. “I suppose you do. Is the taste of it any less foul to you now than it was when we first met?”