Monday, July 2, 2018

Sloopy

Prompt: Cats and Dogs | Word Count: 300 Words Exactly | Genre: Fiction


Thunder rumbled overhead. Trees swayed in the wind and rain. My little brother and I reveled in the wildness of this summer storm raging beyond the covered deck where we stood. Beside us, Sloopy’s head lifted, nostrils flared. Hackles raised. Then the little white beagle jumped to his feet, tearing madly across the deck, braying and barking as if he’d seen a cat. 
 
 Jim’s quizzical blue eyes met mine before we ran to peer over the handrail. Lightning flashed, and we could just see Sloopy nosing around in the wet brush, where something was moving down by the creek. 
 
“What is that?” Jim’s voice cracked, high pitched with excitement.
 
“I can’t tell. Kittens, maybe?”

Sloopy was snuffling and wagging his tail, unconcerned by the storm; now surrounded by small fuzzy critters making odd chirping noises.
 
Then another slightly larger creature came out of the brush, growling fiercely. It stood on its back paws, dark stripe across white face, beady yellow eyes flashing. Abruptly it let out a vicious snarl and attacked our little unsuspecting dog. 
 
Wild shrieks of pain and violence echoed across the night. It just about broke my thirteen-year-old heart. Not thinking of our own safety, we ran as fast as we could, barefoot across the deck and down the stairs, trying not to slip or fall as we made our way towards the commotion.
 
“Don’t let your dog hurt those poor raccoons.” The stupid old lady that lived on the other side of the creek appeared, beaming her flashlight on the animals scurrying off into the brush. But our beloved beagle lay shredded in a pool of blood and rain, whimpering in shock and pain. And Sloopy died while Jim and I held him in our arms and cried, oblivious now to the storm raging around us.

Rain Rain Go Away

Prompt: Cats and Dogs | Word Count: 300 Words Exactly | Genre: Fiction

Mama used to like to say it was raining cats and dogs whenever it stormed like this when I was small. When the wind and rain came down so hard it near blowed the trailer apart, lightning revealing Mama setting buckets out to collect rainwater leaking from the roof. I remember me and Timmy making faces and giggling at the saying, cause we never did see no cats or dogs in those storms.

The storm tonight put me in mind of that old trailer, making me wish for the security that Mama gave us, no matter how false that security turned out to be. I wished I had one of them old buckets, too, to collect some of the rainwater pouring in sheets off the bridge. It’d be good to clean the mud off myself after slipping down the embankment while going to my shanty. At least under the bridge I was dry. The canvas covering the cardboard blocked most of the wind; but I worried about the risin’ river.

I hadn’t seen the man following me when I’d left the bar at closing time. Too wasted to care, I guess. Either the river was gonna rise and claim me, or the stranger would. Did it matter? I was alone in the world with nothin’ and no one to care for. Just shame and regret, and I'd gladly leave those behind.

Lightning streaked across the sky. There he was, standing before me as if I’d conjured him from my musings. “Holy shit! Timmy?! Oh my God! I thought you were dead.” Like Mama.

“Marilyn. I’ve been looking for you. What are you doing out here? It’s raining cats and dogs.”

At that I made a face at him, like I’d done when we were small, and then began giggling hysterically.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Hide and Seek

Prompt: Forbidden Places | Word Count: 1800 Words Exactly | Genre: Fantasy


The image came clearly into Etha’s mind. An Elbrus crystal, set into a niche in a cave wall, illuminating a portion of the sleeping chamber that Agua shared with his half-brother Pyre, and the other unattached young men of the Kuran tribe.

Too easy!” Etha sent the thought back through the mindlink, glancing over at Pyre to see if he had recognized the image as well. Her cousin, seated across from her, had his eyes closed and seemingly hadn’t heard her through the link. That was fine with her, Etha thought, triumphantly. Rising quietly, she left Pyre behind as she set off to claim the victory by being the first to find Agua at the location he’d projected.

It was a new game they’d invented to practice their skills of imagery and mindspeak. A game similar to one they’d played as children, hiding from the chosen one who would then seek them out. Back when they were children, they hadn’t known they had these gifts that allowed them to see out of the other’s eyes. In this new game, the chosen one would hide, sending images of their location for the others to find.

But Agua wasn’t in the room when Etha arrived at his bedchamber.

No fair!” She communicated her indignation through the link, annoyed with Agua’s mirth at having deceived her. He projected a new image to her, of Pyre sitting beside him in the meal room, sharing a mid-morning snack together. “You cheated!

It’s not cheating,” she could hear the smugness in Pyre’s thought. “You just didn’t use any of your other senses to confirm that the image was true. Otherwise, you would have smelled the aurochs roasting on the spit and known Agua wasn’t really in the bedchamber. You should come get some, it’s quite good.

No thanks. I’d rather see if Dar will let me go out to look for Sasha instead.

But her father would have none of that.

Sasha was an orphaned wolf pup she’d found and named on her way home from Riana Valley at the end of summer, four moons before. It was deep winter now, and Etha hadn’t seen Sasha for over two moons, not since First Storm had driven the tribe into winter sanctuary within the caves at Eagle Peak.

“Why can’t I just go check the traps, and see if he’s around?” Etha argued with her father when he denied her request. “I’m worried about him, Dar. He’s just a cub. Sasha can’t be more than six moons old, and he’s got no one to teach him how to hunt. How will he survive the winter?”


“Etha. I said no. It’s a wild beast. It’s instincts are to hunt and to kill. Just because it seemed friendly and followed you home, doesn’t change the nature of what it is. It could hurt you. I’ll not have you continue this attachment. It’s not safe.”

Angry and disappointed, Etha went to her bedchamber, rebelliously thinking of seeking out the wolf in her mind instead, thinking to use her link with Gaea.

Etha had discovered that she could bond with Gaea during her last training session at Riana, at the end of summer. By matching and melding her own rhythm and pulse with Earth’s vibrations, and imagining her spirit sinking down into the earth, she’d discovered a thriving labyrinth of interconnected roots and undergrowth. Tracing these up through earth’s crust and into living plants, she acquired a rare sight and awareness into the life that abounded in Gaea’s realm. She’d only done it the one time, and didn’t understand how this bond was to be used. The gift was so rare that neither Madra, the Rianan Leader, nor Madra’s sister, Celynn, had any idea how to aid in Etha’s training. Elder Celynn had strictly forbidden Etha to attempt to use this skill unless someone was present with her.

Even so, Etha was going to try it now.

She lay upon her bedroll, stilling her rebellious thoughts and opening her mind to Gaea, as she had learned to do. It took but moments to send her psyche down through the layers of earth, merging into the rhythm that she found pulsing through the undergrowth. Roots branched off into many directions, and Etha chose one that led westward, as that was the direction she’d last seen Sasha. She traced the vibrations up through earth’s crust and into the branches and the bushes not yet weighed down below the last two moons of snowfall.

Etha imagined the wolf curled up under a copse of trees, lying upon a soft bed of needles; away from the snow and the ice and the freezing wind. She imagined herself sitting beside him, stroking his soft fur with his head in her lap, though this was not a thing that had ever occurred before. Not in her lifetime, nor that of any living tribesperson, nor any ancestor that had come before.

She found him in a small cave at the far west of Eagle Peak. The mountain was riddled with such openings, though only eight entrances were large enough for the people to traverse, connecting to the inner pathways leading to the many chambers and caverns that gave home to the twenty-two families of the Kuran tribe.

“Sasha.” Etha excitedly whispered his name in her mind, filling her presence into the space surrounding the wolf; knowing herself connected to Gaea, and thus to the earth upon which he lay. The wolf’s pale green eyes opened, as if sensing her presence. His tail wagged, and she could hear the soft exhalation of his breath. She couldn’t touch him, but Etha could see him in her mind’s eye, his small body curled in a ball, head resting on crossed paws. His white fur gleamed in the thin light penetrating the den.

Scraps of fur and bone lay in the space beside him, the remains of some small animal he’d recently fed upon. Etha rejoiced in this triumph, evidence that he was learning the skills a young wolf would need to survive alone and hoping it would be enough to get him through the winter.

It had taken mere moments to find the wolf cub in her trance. Having satisfied herself that Sasha was safe and that she now knew where to find him, and that should could trace him at will, Etha rashly decided to see how far she could extend her reach.

Where ever bush or branch or leaf touched, there she could roam. Etha thought this must be what a bird might feel, soaring among the tops of the trees. Or she imagined a leopard, leaping from branch to branch. Etha had never felt such exhilaration before. She laughed in sheer joy, exalting in the freedom of movement and the expanse of Gaea’s world.

Finally, the forest tapered off to rock and boulder and ice, and she had to stop to assess her position. Etha hadn’t realized she’d gone so far east, nor climbed so high, so fast. She saw that she was near the South-eastern border of Kakaesia. Above her loomed the colossal ice wall that amassed over and between the mountain peaks, effectively closing off Kakaesia from the lands and the people that existed to the south. Etha knew she would find a similar border to the north as well, where the mountains were higher and the ice wall even thicker than it was here in the south.

Etha felt infinitesimal in comparison to the huge mountain towering above her, especially as she surveyed the ice and the snow that seemed to reach out beyond the bounds of the ridge in ominous proportion. Thick clouds had begun to close in around her, along with a heavy snowfall that impeded her sight.

Suddenly, she felt a tug upon her being. As though Gaea was trying to gain her attention, pulling upon her awareness and communicating some need that Etha failed to interpret. The pull intensified, an agitation that belied the odd quiescence that seemed also to have settled in the air around her, filling her with a heightened sense of immediacy that contrasted with the stillness.

In the next moment a tremor rocked the mountain, sharp and severe and violent. A rush of noise deafened her senses as a mass of snow and ice and rock dislodged from above, falling rapidly down from the ridge above and engulfing her in its wake.

Etha screamed in fear as her mind lost its hold upon Gaea and became submerged instead in the avalanche that she witnessed from afar. Having no experience with her gift, Etha didn’t know how to separate herself from the barrage that now pummeled her senses. She no longer remembered that she had a body, lying safe and warm upon a bed in a cave further west along this mountain range. Down and down and down she fell, tumbling and plunging down the mountainside until finally the avalanche lost its momentum and settled amidst a cloud of dust and dirt, and freshly falling snowflakes.

Stunned and disoriented, Etha struggled to gain back a sense of consciousness. Panic filled her mind, tricking her into thinking that she lay trapped under the snow and the ice. But through it all there was a sense of weightlessness, and she began to realize that if she truly was buried under the snow she would feel its weight. Should feel the cold.

But she did not feel these things.

She thought of Pyre, then, of what he had said about using all her senses to seek out the truth of an image; and as she thought of her cousin she regained an awareness of where she was. Of who she was. She forced herself to calm her racing heart, focusing and finding again the rhythm that was Gaea’s. Matching Earth’s vibrations to her own, Etha used it as a guide to return to her own body, lying in a bedchamber inside Eagle Peak.

She lay there for a while, deeply shaken and frightened by the experience. She thought of the joy she had felt, finding Sasha in the link, then soaring among the trees. But the memory of being violently dislodged from Gaea unnerved Etha, leaving her uncertain if she’d ever be brave enough to bond with Gaea again. Celynn would be furious with her.

After a time, Etha reached out to Pyre and Agua, seeking the familiarity of their presence in her mind. Surprisingly, she found them still in the meal room.

Etha! Were you hiding? We couldn’t find you.

No. Not hiding. But stay there, will you? I’m on my way and I’ll tell you all about it. Maybe see if Celynn can come, too. And slice me off a piece of that aurochs. I hear it’s quite good.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Crossing


Etha was the first to arrive at the clearing, a heavy deerhide bag slung over her shoulder, a long spear that doubled as a walking stick held lightly in her hand. She was dressed for travel, in fur-lined leggings under a heavy goatskin tunic, and hide boots with thick soles made for long distance trekking. She loved to journey, and hoped the others would arrive soon.

Etha had come to the Riana Valley with her cousins, Pyre and Agua, four moons before. Here they’d been trained in the Rianan arts of mindspeak and imagery. The young tribeswoman had enjoyed her summer away, but she missed her family and the familiar environs of her home beyond the Kuran River, and she was ready to return.

Eventually, the others joined her, eight travelers who would escort Etha and her cousins to their home at Eagle Peak. Thin fog obscured the sun, which peeked out occasionally as they trekked steadily down out of the higher elevation of Riana towards the Kuran Riverlands. The mist cleared just as the sun edged along the horizon, and Etha saw a flight of vultures circling ominously above the next hillcrest.

“Hold up,” Tulie called out, gesturing for the travelers to slow their pace. Tulie was the unofficial leader of the group; she was the Rianan Heir and highly respected for her experience in teaching survival skills to the youth of Kakaesia.

As they crested the hill, they were astonished to observe a small wolf cub snarling and snapping in fury at a vulture as it swooped down and tried to land next to the mother wolf, which lay in a pool of blood, seeping from a fatal head wound.

“Oh, the poor thing,” Etha exclaimed, as the others came up beside her.

“It looks like she’s been gored by a hoof,” Pyre suggested.

“Maybe she attacked a herd of deer and got struck,” said another.

“I wonder what she’s doing this far west,” Tulie mused, as the cub scampered into a nearby den of rocks. "Wolves are so rare in this part of Kakaesia. Be alert. There could be others nearby."

“Curious little thing, isn’t it.” Agua admired, seeing the pup peering at them from the relative safety of its shelter.

This close, Etha could see it had pale green eyes and whitish, grey fur, like its mother; except the cub had a patch of brown fur on its chest and front paws. The markings were quite distinctive, and Etha recognized him from an encounter she had had with the young animal just a handful of days before; when she’d first learned to touch the spirit of Gaea and had celebrated the bond.

The young wolf locked eyes with Etha for a long moment, as if it remembered her too. Then, turning his gaze upon his dead mother, he gave a soft whimper and scooted away deeper into the rocks.

“We’ll stop here for the night,” Tulie decided. “Petya, you and Misha gather firewood. Bring enough to burn overnight in case there are other predators nearby.”

“What do you suggest we do with that?” Elder Celynn nodded towards the dead wolf. “It’s such a beautiful animal.”

“If we were on a hunt, it would go to whoever made the kill,” Tulie said, fidgeting in indecision.

“It would be a shame to damage such a beautiful pelt,” Pyre advised. “Davos, I hear you’re one of the best skinners in Kakaesia. Perhaps you would like it?”

It took quite a while for Davos to finish the job, and afterwards to move the carcass away from camp. They sat up late around the fire, admiring Davos’ stone and bone tools that he used so expertly; discussing the curing process that would render the pelt soft and pliable. It was quite late when the group settled down to sleep for the night.

Etha was awakened suddenly near dawn to the sound of a low, menacing growl emanating from a creature that crouched down by her leg, where it had slipped out from her bedroll. Small white teeth gleamed in the dark, beast eyes reflecting from the firelight. Etha’s heart beat erratically. She struggled to make sense of what was happening, when Pyre, in the bedroll next to Etha, used his gift to call fire and brought illumination to the scene.

Tulie was on her feet in the same moment, spear poised to throw at the creature. The wolf, however, was not growling at Etha, but at something on the ground near her exposed leg.

There, coiled and ready to strike was a large, poisonous viper.

“No!” Etha screamed, fearing the spear that flew past her head was meant for the wolf. Instead, it struck the viper dead on, causing the cub to jump back in shock, retreating quickly from the camp.

“That was close!” Agua exclaimed. “I thought the wolf was coming after you; but he may have saved your life!”

“I think so too,” Tulie sounded impressed. “I’ve never known a wild animal to protect a person before. That was amazing.”

Etha was pleased and captivated to see the cub still there in the morning, peering at her from its den. It looked hungry and forlorn. When she thought no one was watching, Etha approached the rock warren to leave a portion of her morning meal. The wolf didn’t even growl at her. She hoped the pup had been weaned off its mother’s milk and could eat the rabbit meat she’d shredded.

Agua tried to distract Etha when it was time to go, sensing her distress at leaving the cub behind, for it would not have occurred to her to try to capture or tame a wild animal. Not even one that had saved her life.


Tulie cautioned everyone to be on their guard against further wolves or predators, but aside from a herd of gazelle, there was no other sign of wildlife as they descended out of the forested hills and onto the open steppe that ran alongside the Kuran River.

Etha was enchanted when she noticed the cub following behind. Over the next few days, she found strategic places to leave bits of food for him, even though Tulie warned her not to do so. Tulie had even tried to chase the beast away when it came too near. The cub would run off to a place of safety, but Etha saw that it continued to follow them. Etha was no longer in a hurry to get home, for she had no idea what would become of the wolf when they arrived at Eagle Peak.

The river crossing ran fast and cold, but in the place of crossing it was only ankle deep and easily traversed. Etha was the last to cross, grieving to leave the cub behind, for she had grown attached to him. When she turned back, he was whimpering and howling at the river’s edge; clearly afraid of the water, and, Etha supposed, afraid of being left alone.

“Come on, Sasha,” She whispered the name, holding her breath with hope and desire. Then her heart leapt with joy when, at last, the wolf stepped boldly into the river and began a crossing of its own.



Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Hunger Pangs


Prompt: Buy or Sell


Word count: 750 Words exactly

Due 4/18

Hunger Pangs




Clarissa was starving. Hunger gnawed at her belly; long convulsive cramps that hurt as bad as labor and left her just as empty.

The last meal she’d eaten had been in the hospital, two nights ago, before checking herself out and disappearing into the cold March night. All she’d eaten since then were some saltine crackers at the local diner she’d dared enter yesterday afternoon, spending the few coins she possessed on a pot of boiling water and tea, which she’d used to transform ketchup into tomato soup.

The few bucks she’d stolen off a table on the way out had gone towards a six pack of beer, which she drank alone last night in her hidey hole, a few blocks from the hospital. She’d found a group of densely growing trees with space to burrow under for shelter, where she’d tried to ignore the cold and the pain and the frantic texts of those she sought to hide from.

Now it was late morning. She had a pounding headache and she was starving. She'd discovered the farmers market outside the hospital a little while ago; people in scrubs and business attire and clean clothes going about the business of buying or selling fruit and vegetables, honey and nuts, fresh baked muffins, and such.

It was a veritable feast, and none of it for her.

Clarissa sat on a bench on the periphery of the market, trying to pretend to be invisible, though she saw plenty of looks of disgust and disdain directed her way. She combed dirty fingers through long, scraggly hair, wiping the grease and grit on oversized pants, feeling gross and unworthy amongst this clean, well fed crowd.

She had no money. The only thing of any value she had was the baby stroller she used to haul her meager belongings around. Clarissa couldn’t bear to part with that, though, even if she’d never have a baby to stroll in it, now.

She’d been seven months along. After four miscarriages, and the tubal pregnancy two years before, she’d finally allowed herself to hope. But then had come the premature labor, and the stillbirth. Placental abruption, they’d termed it, though she’d been in such a state of physical and mental agony that she’d not paid attention to the details. All she knew was that they’d left her in the maternity ward, where the wailing of newborn babies had shattered her heart, and perhaps a bit of her sanity as well.

The phone vibrated in her pocket, a beacon in the dark.

“Rissie, Please, Please Come Home!”

The use of his pet name for her and the plea of the text wrenched at Clarissa's bruised heart.

She pulled the thin jacket closed, crossing her arms and pulling them tight across her empty belly, where her baby should have been. How could she go home? With the scent of fresh paint a constant reminder, the new crib just set up and all the gifts from the baby shower lovingly placed in the spare room.

Clarissa squeezed her eyes shut against a new wave of fresh tears.

Just then an elderly Indian woman, dressed in brightly colored silks, sat beside her on the bench. She had kindly, compassionate eyes, and a paper plate with strawberries and a muffin outstretched in offer.

“Oh," Clarissa choked on the word, her throat constricted, palms raised up in denial. “No, I couldn’t.”

“Of course you can.” The woman set the plate on the bench beside her, then stood, sunlight glinting off a gold cross that hung at her neck. “Be welcome." She didn’t even look back to see if Clarissa would accept the gift.

She didn’t want to. She didn’t deserve this kindness. Not after deserting her husband, whom she realized now must be grieving as much as she. Clarissa had not been thinking of his pain, though, just her own. Suddenly, the thought of what he must have been going through when he discovered her absence filled her with shame and regret and remorse. She thought of the money she’d stolen, motivated by the need to drive away the demons of loss that had kept her out in the cold and the dark, filling her belly with cheap beer in an attempt to dull the pangs that consumed her even now.

Clarissa found herself starved for more than mere food, although that would be a good start. Choking down a bite of muffin, she picked up the phone. It was time to go home.



.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Earthsong

Word Count: 2500 Words exactly Genre: Fantasy

‪Etha felt an overwhelming desire to see the open sky. To breathe the fresh, cool air of the outside world, to be out from under the darkness and the crushing weight of the Riana Caves, and to feast her eyes upon the beauty of the Kakaesian landscape.

Instead, she followed the Riana Leader away from the cave entrance, down a narrow passage toward an unknown destiny that Etha sensed awaited her.

Madra had approached Etha, and a handful of others, during the morning meal, asked them to participate in one last session to mark the end of their training, before the final celebrations would be held and the Initiates released to their homes. To return to the lives they had left behind at the beginning of spring, five moons before.

The passage narrowed as they descended. Madra led them slowly to allow their eyes to adjust to the increasing darkness. Etha wondered why Madra didn’t just light their way with an Elbrus Crystal, but she didn’t question the Leaders action; for Etha was accustomed to obeying her Elders. The group progressed into the subterranean depths, where they eventually emerged into a large, open chamber. It had an ancient, hollow feel to the place and Etha was sure she’d never been here before. She could hear the others shuffling about nearby, could just barely make out their shapes. When she bumped into something solid and unmoving, her nerves jangled, relaxing only slightly as she identified the misshapen structure of a living column growing up from the cavern floor.

The initiates settled on the ground at Madra’s instruction, and Etha sought to still her nerves. Normally confident and self-assured, she had always enjoyed Madra’s lessons. But something seemed different to the young initiate, though she could not say what or why she felt that way. She just felt uneasy, filled with a sense of trepidation; and a sudden irritation at the incessant whispers of the other trainees around her.

"Let’s begin.” Madra’s voice stilled the others. “I chose you to participate in this session because you have each shown an affinity for Gaea; an awareness of Earth and her many aspects. I brought you here, to the heart of the Riana Caves, so that you might open yourself to Gaea, to see if you might tap into Earth’s essence and hear if she will speak to you.”

The Spirit Leader’s voice was soft and muted. To Etha it seemed as though her words were being swallowed by the cold, dark rock of Gaea herself.

“In your time here at Riana, you have learned to mind-speak with your fellow Initiates; and you‘ve done well with that skill.” The words came in a soothing tone, and Etha realized that Madra no longer spoke the words aloud. “This exercise will be somewhat different from the other lessons you have experienced during your season here, for now I will ask you to open your minds to Gaea, and to let her speech come to you.”

The small hairs on Etha’s arms and at the back of her neck quivered. Fear mingled with anticipation. For she had felt Earth’s pull upon her before, knew herself to be drawn to Gaea’s power, though she had no idea the extent of that power, or what to expect from it, and this frightened her.

“Lie back, now, and close your eyes. Set aside your fear.”

The words sounded only within the borders of her mind.

“Listen to my voice and tune out the stray thoughts that distract you from your purpose. Slow the rhythm of your breathing, and listen.”

Etha heard the rustling of someone nearby. Forced herself to concentrate on Madra’s voice instead.

“Breathe in... Hear the sound it makes within you.”

Etha took a long inhalation through her nose. It sounded loud in her ears.

“Breathe out, now; slowly. Slowly”

Etha felt as if she were floating in air and darkness, as she focused on the cadence of Madra’s speech.

“Breathe in... Breathe out. Extend your awareness towards Gaea. Feel for the rhythm of Earth’s pulse and match it to the rhythm of your own.”

Madra's words quieted, and Etha did as the leader suggested.

She felt the cold touch of the stone floor radiating upwards, through the deerskin tunic and leggings she wore, seeping into her skin. She felt the pressure of earth weighing down upon her, and Etha willed her consciousness to move beyond the boundaries of the cave.

Down. Down into the depths she sank, allowing her spirit to become immersed and absorbed within the earth, though she knew her body remained behind, safe and guarded by Madra. Gradually, she became aware of another presence and Etha knew the exact moment her psyche merged and melded with Gaea's, and she fought back panic. For this was a power far greater and more infinite than Etha had ever imagined.

She lost all sense of self and time as she traced Earth’s lifeblood along its course. Its movement was slow and ponderous, pulsing and beating with a rhythm that flowed, sluggishly, ever outward. It pulsed with a steady beat. Pushing. Seeking. Burrowing outwards through a dark heaviness and slowly reaching upwards. Searching and seeking until, at last, Etha’s senses found and infused a network of roots and tendrils and life.

Her consciousness expanded. Twisting and twining. Pulsing and surging. Outwards, upwards, further and further, until Etha felt herself stretched beyond her capacity to comprehend and she feared she might lose herself within the immeasurable being that was Gaea. She sensed power calling to her, welcoming her, nourishing her own lifeblood as surely as she knew her spirit had infused a network of living plants.

Etha hungered for this power in the same way her body hungered for food.

This hunger frightened the girl, for she did not understand it. This was so far beyond her scope of understanding, and the more she tried, the more panicked she became. In alarm, Etha began to struggle against the weight and the presence of Gaea, closing off her senses to all but her panic and her need for self. Forcing her thoughts back into the confines of her own body, which lay on the cold, hard floor at the heart of the Riana Caves.

Consciousness returned and Etha’s eyes snapped open, and though they filled with the darkness of the cave, it was not nearly as dark as Earth’s depths had been.

Movement stirred beside her. A dim, warm light pulsed into being from a crystal that Madra held in her hand, illuminating the Elder and giving detail to their surroundings.

“Where… where are the others?" Etha asked, as awareness settled around her and she saw that she was alone with the Spiritual Leader.

"I sent them away," Madra answered. "They weren’t able to reach a trance state like you did.”

Etha nodded, disoriented, and unsettled. "How long have we been here?”

“Quite a while. The meal bell has chimed twice since we began. Are you able to speak of your experience? Did Gaea speak to you?”

"I... I don’t know." Etha shivered as her sense of self slowly returned, even as she yearned to return to that state of selflessness; so at odds with the fear of being consumed. She found she was not ready to share the experience just yet. Needed time to absorb what had happened. "No. I’m sorry”

Madra nodded, and Etha could tell by her expression that she was curious about Etha’s experience, and therefore disappointed. Perhaps troubled as well.

For the barest of moments, Etha saw herself through Madra’s eyes; light brown hair falling out of its braid, tangled and matted against a pale, angular face. Her eyes wide and wild. Blue eyes, so unlike everyone else’s. Except Agua's.

But Etha did not want to think about Agua just now.

Madra's lips twitched slightly, as though she had heard the thought; which was entirely possible, Etha knew, at that moment of joining.

“Has Gaea ever spoken to you?” Etha asked, impudently; and was not expecting the response when the Spiritual Leader shook her head.

“No. She has not.” Etha heard rueful frustration in Madra’s response. “Though not for lack of trying. My Mother, Terrell, was the only person I’ve ever known to tap into Gaea’s power, and she did it rarely. She died before passing on her knowledge to me, and as far as I know, she never trained anyone else to use the ability.”

“So, you knew of this power? And that’s why you had us try, today?”

“I test each group of initiates, at some point in their training. When I touch your spirit, Etha, I sense something beyond the normal gifts that we teach. Something I felt in my Mother, once, when I was young and she was training me. Much like I sense in your cousins, Pyre and Agua. You all have such unique abilities.”

“But… Why did you wait until now? We’ll be going home at the next full moon.” Was it anger she felt, or betrayal? “How will we learn to use these abilities if no one has any knowledge or experience with it? Who will train us to use these gifts?”

“We will give you guidance, Etha; and you will find your way.”



*******

Etha fled, driven by the need to put distance between herself and the yearning desire to connect with Gaea that yet consumed her soul. Up the narrow passage she ran, scraping and bruising legs and arms against rough walls, as loose dirt and debris crumbled to the hard packed ground as she passed.

Finally, she made it to the cave entrance, where she had expected to find bright sunlight and blue sky. Instead she found day fading to dusk behind a low layer of clouds, heavy with the scent of fallen rain and the promise of more to come. She barely slowed her pace as she burst past the entrance, sucking in large gusts of air into her lungs as she went, not paying attention to the path at her feet until she tripped upon an upthrust root and fell, sprawling among the brush.

Momentarily stunned with dizziness and disorientation, she stared up at rapidly moving clouds while the ground remained solid and unmoving beneath her trembling body. She felt bereft; disconnected. As though she had lost something precious and was just realizing its full worth.

A fierce longing for her family suddenly rose up in her heart. Etha realized she hadn’t given much thought to her family or tribe since she’d come to Riana. Too busy learning to fit in with her new surroundings, she supposed, and embracing the lessons and the skills she’d come here to learn. It had helped that Pyre and Agua had come as well, for they were of her tribe, and blood-kin; though Agua was three springs the elder, Pyre had been born the same summer as she. Having them near had kept the loneliness at bay, while they learned the intricacies and intimacy of mind-speech and imagery. She had excelled at the training, pushing herself to learn more, to open herself to each lesson and embrace the experiences as they came. But now, alone, feeling strange and empty, Etha sought comfort in the memories of her mother, and she let the images flow into her mind.

Memories of Ariel calming her young daughter when Etha’s first moon-blood had come, four winters past, and she’d been frightened by the change to her body and her position in the tribe.

Of Ariel’s compassion, last summer, when Etha thought herself in love with Agua and been told that cousins were not allowed to mate; though Agua was not true blood-kin like Pyre was.

Of Ariel’s pride, just five moons before, at the start of spring, when she’d bid her young daughter farewell, and Etha set off with Pyre and Agua on this journey to Riana, to learn the arts of the Rianan Initiate, and discover what hidden talents might lie within.

A small wolf cub scampered out from beneath a bush, made eye contact with the girl and froze in place, before scooting back into the dense brush. The action brought Etha back into the moment, connecting her again to the here and now.

Gray, shifting clouds contrasted with the greens that surrounded her, where Etha sat under a spreading canopy of low hanging branches, embraced by leafy ferns and sharp, prickly brush. Sweeping hills and snow-capped mountains graced the horizon, a sliver of light reflecting off the Riana River, snaking its way through a distant valley below.

The sound of a stream, swollen from recent rain, teased her senses; gurgling and swishing its way down a rock strewn bed. The ground cover was wet, the earth soft and spongy under Etha's hands, and as she focused upon these sensations she remembered what it felt to be merged with Gaea’s lifeblood. And with that simple contact she found herself attuning again to the network and the nature that was Gaea.

Expanding her awareness, Etha knew that she could choose to merge her spirit into the splashing waters of the nearby creek and trace Gaea's lifeblood upstream, far to the North and the East, where the glacial walls formed the borders of her homeland of Kakaesia; or follow its winding course down to the Riana River, where eventually it would flow into the Black Sea, where she’d traveled once with her family when she’d been a child.

She knew that she could allow her spirit to sink down again into earth’s soil, to find and meld with the network of plant-life that existed below ground. For some inexplicable reason, this knowledge didn’t bring the same sense of fear that Etha had felt under the crushing weight of the cave, where her spirit had been enmeshed in the soil and her lifeblood forced to seek out the network of life that existed at the border between earth and air. Because here, in the open air, Etha was surrounded by Gaea’s bounty, and her soul did not need to seek out that bounty, to touch it and feel it and know it.

Earthsong erupted around and within her, a celebration of Etha's awakening awareness to Gaea’s presence and this new found bond they now shared between them. Once again she was known and no longer alone. Gaea rejoiced at the joining, and Etha felt the trembling of Earth’s joy rumbling deep underground, where her lifeblood pulsed and sang. And Etha trembled as well.

A flock of birds took wing in wild abandon and a herd of gazelle bounded out of the woods and into the clearing, full of grace and beauty. Trees swayed in rhythm to the dancing wind, rustling the leaves and swirling among the waters of the stream, where crickets and frogs lifted their voices, and a wolf cub sang out in unison, a grand chorus that echoed Gaea’s celebration.

She was known and no longer alone!

The Deadline

The Deadline



The phone rang, shrill and startling in the silence of her home. It took three rings to find the phone, while she forced her mind back from the far distant past, and the desperate people she’d been writing about.

Reading the number on caller ID, she clicked the speaker button. “David, how many times do I have to tell you not to call me after eight? You’re lucky I even answered."

“Maggie, sweetheart! I hope I didn’t disturb you?”

“Of course you did! I told you my inspiration had returned and that I’d be writing. What do you want?”

“Ah, Mags, don’t be so harsh. You won’t believe it, but the History Channel wants your story. They loved your outline and are intrigued by the premise. I’ve scheduled a time for you to meet with them in the morning.”

“You're kidding?” she squealed, a rush of adrenaline pushing her to her feet. “That’s fantastic! Aren’t they like the eighth network you’ve been to!”

“Indeed it was, and believe me, this was not an easy sell.”

“Yeah?” She forced a deep breath, grounded in reality. “So, what’s the catch?”

“Well…” His voice cracked, and she heard nerves behind his hesitation.

“What? David! What have you done?”

“Well, they have a slot to fill next season, and they need to start filming right away. I told them you could have the pilot to them by Monday.”

“You did what!? Are you crazy? It’s Thursday. I’ve barely written ten pages.”

“That’s great, Maggie! And you’ve got your muse back, you said so yourself. I don’t see the problem?”

“David, one episode can be up to sixty pages; most pilots are two episodes. You expect that by Monday?”

“But you already have ten pages! You know you work best under pressure; especially when your inspiration is back.”


*****

Maggie's thoughts were flowing faster than she could type, her fingers flying over the keyboard at a furious rate. She’d been working practically non-stop for the last three days, alternating between feelings of elation that her screenplay was going to be aired on TV, despair that she would never finish in time, and self-doubt that it wouldn’t be good enough.

The phone rang; a disturbance completely at odds with the scene she was writing, and scattering it into the ether.

She should have silenced the phone, Maggie thought despondently, even as she turned the device over to read the caller id.

"Hey Mom," she sighed, answering the phone and pushing back from the desk.

"Hi sweetie. I thought I should check in with you. How are you coming along with your deadline?"

"Oh, God, I don't know," she lamented, at once glad for the opportunity to vent, while mourning the lost time. "I've got about twenty pages left to go, and it won’t be accepted it if I don’t have it, in person, at the Network by 8’oclock tomorrow morning. I’m not sure I’m gonna make it."

"Of course you will! Where’s your faith?”

“I left it behind in the last scene, when my characters started acting up and refused to go where I needed them to.”

“Haha, that’s funny, dear. Just give them a stern talking to and get them back in line.” She snickered at her own joke. "Have you eaten?"

"I'm too amped to eat. What time is it, anyway?"

"It's just after 7:00; you must be engrossed in your story."

"I am! I just finished writing the earthquake scene, killing off most of the tribal leaders who were holding a meeting inside the caves of their homeland, and destroyed tons of people in tents gathered outside. It's getting desperate for these people, because their whole way of life is coming to an end, and they're panicking, because they don't yet know what they're going to do."

"Ah, but you know what's going to happen?"

"Yeah, I've got it pretty well outlined, and I'm not too far off where I need to be, but I still have twenty pages more to go, and my characters aren’t cooperating.”

“You sound as desperate as your characters.”

“You’re telling me!”

*****

“Maggie? Maggie, wake up!” A warm hand on her back gave her an insistent shake.

“Hmm? What?” She found her eyelids heavy and crusted with sleep, her neck stiff, and her cheek pressed into the keyboard.

“Darlin, you’ve got to wake up. It’s Six-Thirty, sweetheart; we need to be downtown at Eight. Wake up, damnit!”

“David? What are you doing here?” She couldn’t shake off the fog in her head. The last thing she remembered, it’d been 4:30 and she’d sent the finished episode to the printer. Her brain finally engaged, and she came upright with a jolt, her eyes focusing on the clock. 6:33. “Oh, crap!”

“Please tell me you’re finished?” Her agent, and, incidentally, her best friend, asked in a tone that brooked no argument.

“It’s on the printer,” Maggie yawned and stretched, reaching over to collect the work.

There were only about ten pages there.

“Oh shit! No! No, no!!!”

David, ever calm, peered at the readout on the printer. “It’s jammed.” He looked at his watch, then at her disheveled, panicked state. “No, settle down. Listen, Mags, I’ll get this printed while you take a shower. As long as we’re on the road by Seven, we should be ok.”

Ten minutes later Maggie returned, stylishly outfitted and running a comb through wet, curly hair.

The printer was still jammed.

She pushed David aside, investigated the inner workings of the printer and finally found a tiny sliver of paper jammed in a place it should not be.

“There,” she sighed with relief as the machine whirred to life. “Thank God it’s high speed.”

Traffic was backed up when they arrived at the interstate at 7:35, no way they could make the deadline by that route.

Chancing surface streets instead, they encountered a string of green and yellow traffic lights, like an omen of goodwill, and arrived with just five minutes to spar