Roots · Story Series

Roots: Part Ten

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

I woke up at sunrise the next day in a disoriented muddle. Not only because I’d awoken in a tiny tent in the middle of the woods, but because I didn’t remember setting up the tent. Well, I guess in a sense I did, but only in the strange dream I’d had.

My rabbit sat on its haunches at the mouth of my tent, watching me. It had gotten out of its hutch. Which was really just as well, since it was now twice its original size, so the hutch would be a bit cramped now. I knew that should have seemed odd to me, but it didn’t. Not only was the rabbit larger, but it was leaner now, less bunny-shaped. It’s limbs were longer too, its front paws proportionally larger, and there was something different about its wrists. They seemed more mobile, like those on an animal that used its front paws to manipulate objects rather than only for locomotion.

I sat up, scooched forward, and gathered my rabbit into my lap. Her fur was warm and soft under my fingers.

Why didn’t this seem strange? I did remember why my rabbit looked like this, really, in the same way I remembered set up the tent after Marie left: in a dream. But that didn’t seem reasonable. Did I care what was reasonable? No, not really.

I tried to sort out the events in my head. Marie, my great-aunt, had left me in a small clearing with my tent, my pack and the rabbit. It was dark by then. Not too dark to pitch the tent, but dark enough that I felt highly motivated to be inside the tent before it got much darker. Thanks to my pack, I was equipped with both flashlight and lantern, so that helped, but only so much.

I immediately began to set up the tent, only to quickly realize I had drunk far too much lemonade, and urgently needed to use the facilities. However, my survival instincts were telling me that striking out along the path to the outhouse, flashlight notwithstanding, was a terrible idea and would almost certainly get me eaten by monsters or murdered by strange townspeople. Clearly, the best course of action was to pitch the tent, and then quickly fall asleep so I wouldn’t realize how badly I had to pee before sunrise.

It was sunrise now. Did I still have to pee? I did not. Not as much as last night anyway.

Ultimately, I wasted a ridiculous amount of time alternating between trying to pitch the tent, and standing still thinking about how much more pleasant things would be if I quickly popped out to the outhouse and scurried back again. By the time I finally made up my mind, it was almost totally dark and the tent was barely half-finished. But in the end, I had to go.

I left the lantern, lit, at my campsite so I could find it again, and set off down the path with the flashlight. And the rabbit. I didn’t want to leave it behind in case a bobcat or wolf visited the campsite for a bedtime snack in my absence.

The outhouse was an uncomfortably long way from my campsite, but I found it eventually, and soon emerged, much relieved. Several paths led away into the dark woods, each equally unfamiliar. After circling the outhouse a few times, and possibly getting more mixed up than ever, I spotted the light from my campsite and headed towards it.

Or anyway, that’s what I thought it was. Because when I pushed through the trees towards the light, I found Marie standing in front of a pond. The light was her lantern, not mine. Then I realized I must be dreaming, because Marie’s eyes were glowing and a long cougar-like tail descended from her skirt and curled around her ankles.

“You can let the rabbit out of the hutch now,” she said.

Roots · Story Series

Roots: Part Nine

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight

Despite my misgivings I found myself enjoying the festivities that evening. Anna and I, as well as several others, made sure the entire backyard was strewn, festooned, bedizened, decked, and otherwise decorated with the ribbons. I found that several of my distant relations, at the least the ones who had shown up to help with decorating, were lively and interesting people. We were well-supplied with lemonade and cookies, which didn’t hurt either.

Decorating transitioned into the festival itself without any noticeable increase in creepiness; the last of those who showed up to help decorate became the first proper attendees as we finished putting up the ribbons, and somebody started playing lively guitar music near a giant stack of wood that would later become a bonfire.

The folk music they played a bit quirky, but I liked it. Anna and I attempted to do some of the folk dances the older people were performing. The results were at least entertaining, if not very graceful.

We had dinner afterward, which mostly consisted of hearty salads and mashed root vegetables, but I didn’t mind. It was good and there was lots of it. During dinner the sun went down and somebody lit the bonfire. The music continued, with more subdued tempos more suited to eating.

After dessert (which was not carrot cake, mind you; it was some kind of cream tart with rose petal jam on top. I thought it tasted a bit like soap) all of the out-of-town people gathered in front of the bonfire to receive an overnight pack, containing a lantern, a tent, a sleeping bag, and some snacks. And a rabbit.

“What’s the rabbit for?” I asked my great-aunt Marie.

She smiled as she handed me the little hutch. The rabbit inside was a peachy-tan color with a white underbelly and white socks on its front feet.

“A little companion for your overnight stay in the forest. You’ll have a party together.”

“A what?”

“It’ll become clear at the time.”

“Alright.”

I wandered off to stand next to the two participants who’d already gotten their packs and their rabbits. Anna was next in line and she scooted next to me to wait for the last three.

“So,” she said. “Do you think this was what your uncle Echart meant? About what happens to the rabbits?”

“That we all go on a sleepover in the woods? Maybe.”

“But there’s more than six rabbits in the hutch.”

“Maybe some of the rabbits just live here, and don’t go on the sleepovers.”

Anna’s rabbit was mostly black with white patches on its face and ears. The rabbits had ribbons tied around their necks, the same black, orange, and yellow ribbons me and Anna had brought from the store earlier that day. The black ribbon nearly blended in with the rabbit’s fur but the others stood out like fire. The peachy fur of my rabbit didn’t match the ribbons nearly so well, but I thought it was cuter anyway.

When we’d all received our rabbits, Marie and Echart beamed at the us, the light from the lanterns they carried illuminating their faces. They didn’t look scary, exactly, but it was a fairly eerie effect.

“Well then. Let’s be off.”

With that, they set off down the ribbon-lined path into the forest, with the six of us in tow. I tried not to wonder how many of us would be returning in the morning.

Roots · Story Series

Roots: Part Eight

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3| Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

The trip into town to get the ribbons was…interesting, to say the least. We got a lot of stares and people whispered to each other, and otherwise acted weird. But it wasn’t the sort of attention you’d expect to get wheeling an ungodly amount of black, yellow, and red ribbons in a handcart down mainstreet.

People seemed excited to see the preparations, for what I didn’t know yet. A few even came up to us and asked to touch the ribbons. We said yes; I couldn’t what harm that would do. Some even tried to inconspicuously follow us for a while, pretending they happened to be on their own errands in the same direction we were headed. Thankfully, they gave up on that once we turned onto a residential road.

“So, what do you think are the options of where this could be going?” said Anna. “Say this was a movie, what would you expect would happen?”

“Oh boy, nowhere good.” I said. “There’s definitely a monster in the forest.”

“For sure. And this event tonight doesn’t bode well.”

“No, not at all. I usually don’t watch movies with culty things in them.”

“You’re thinking about Midsommar, aren’t you?”

“Trying not to,” I said. “But regardless of the ribbons, we know this really isn’t a cult. Even though if it was a movie it totally would be anyway. And we know that the participants don’t die. They don’t even warn other people against going. At least not the ones I’ve talked to.”

“They could be imposters.”

“Yeah, but in a movie though. I don’t think that’s what really happened.”

“That would be a little far-fetched.”

“Another thing, though. When I asked about the rabbits, Echart said that what happens to them happens to all of us. But I don’t think that means death, because we know the participants in this don’t die.”

“Unless he meant all of us, eventually.”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t seem like that’s what they’re for. I don’t think the adults would encourage the kids to be playing with them and getting attached to them if that was the case.”

“Then what does it mean?”

“I have no idea.”

We trundled along in silence for a while, and I stared at the ribbons. This conversation had not made me feel any better about what was going on.

“Well, what if it wasn’t a horror movie?”

I shrugged. “Then it’s a weird artsy flick and we’re going to get married to the thing in the forest. Or the rabbits.”

Roots · Story Series

Roots: Part Five

Click for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, or Part 4 if you missed them

“What happens to the rabbits?” I asked.

“The same thing that happens to us all,” said my great uncle Echart.

“Right,” I said.

For the rest of the buggy ride, I avoided looking at the rabbits in their little cages. The inhabitants of Innswale put them out by their mailboxes, apparently for Echart to collect, because they still followed the “old ways.” What old ways? And why did they all ban cars for a whole month?

Not a proper month, really. The last two weeks of June and the first of July, because that’s when I said I could come visit. A chill came over me.

No it couldn’t be. Surely, they did this every June. It had nothing to do with me.

Instead of the rabbits, I focused on the rear end of the horse pulling the buggy. It was round and speckled white, and as pleasant as could be expected. It was also puzzling. Nobody said anything about this before I came here. I mean, we all knew Echart’s side of the family was weird. They don’t like technology. They spend too much time in the woods. Blah blah blah.

Too me, all this seemed beyond the pale, and probably something I should have been told about before coming here. For this, and I still didn’t know what “this” was, I’d given up my full yearly allotment of vacation time. I decided I was far too much of a people pleaser, and really needed to learn to say no.

The front yard of Echart’s home was as large as most lots in my neighborhood, and a plethora of my distant relations milled about under the great umbrellas of trees. Packs of children ran around the shrubberies.

As we meandered up the drive towards the house, they were drawn to us as if by magnetic attraction. Older children fetched the rabbits from the back seat of the buggy, cooing an exclaiming over them. Others grabbed my bags. Me carrying them myself was out of the question.

A crowd of cousins of various kinds escorted me to the front door, our procession led by an eager older lady puffing under the weight of my bags. Voices gabbled around me as I was introduced to more names and faces than I could possibly remember.

The house was sprawling and old. The hardwood floors protested with the weight of feet upon it, but thankfully people had started to drift away from the procession, and back to whatever they were doing as the novelty of my arrival lost its luster.

Once we arrived at my room everyone cleared out and left me alone for a bit so I could freshen up and what not. I didn’t stay up there long. Everything was poufy and flower-print, and I felt if I stayed there too long the vines on the wallpaper would come to life and strangle me.

I went downstairs, and then out into the backyard where everyone seemed to be hanging out. Echart’s wife, Maria, found me a chair in the shade and plied me with sugar cookies and lemonade.

Large rabbit hutches were stacked up against the house, which at least solved the mystery of where the rabbits had gone for the time being. The hutches were decorated with ribbons and the children fed the rabbits flowers through the wire mesh.

A petite woman with a shoulder-length bob sat down in the wicker chair next to me. “Hi, I’m Anna,” she said. “I’m one of the other…visitors.”

“Oh. So this is a thing, then,” I said.

“I’m pretty sure everything is a thing.” Anna giggled.

“But you know what I mean. An event. It’s not just me visiting, for reasons.”

“Yeah. I think there’s about five of us.”

“So are you on Echart’s side of the family, or…”

“I’m not. Actually I think maybe one of my uncle’s married Echart’s cousin. But no, I’m from one of the other Innswale ‘old families’.”

“Oh, okay. I guess this is more of a thing than I thought.”

“I know, right? The secrecy is crazy. I tell you though, if we’re being inducted into a cult or something, I’m out of here.”

“Yup, I’ll be right behind you.” I took a sip of my lemonade. “Hey, do you know what’s with the rabbits?”

“No. There’s something with the rabbits?”

“People just left them by their mailboxes for us to pick up.”

“Oh, weird.”

Anna had opted for the pink lemonade, spiked with raspberry cordial.

“The car thing is a pain, though,” she said.

“Oh yeah. Do they do that every June?”

“Different times. Depending on when it works for people to come.”

“It’s for us? It can’t be for us. That’s crazy.”

“It is, but it’s true.”

“Why?”

Anna shrugged and nibbled on a sugar cookie. “I guess we’ll find out.”

Roots · Story Series

Roots: Part Four

Click for Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3 if you missed them.

The coffee was a mistake. They didn’t have half-caf, but I felt like I should at least get some credit for having asked. Nevertheless, I was fully wired and in no way able to cope with what I found when I finally arrived in Innswale. At first I thought I had gone the wrong way, that it was some kind of mistake.

A metal gate stretched across the road, bearing the sign “no motorized vehicles beyond this point.” Clearly, I had wandered onto the access road for a park, or private property. But no, another sign stood to the side of the road, next to the metal gate. A squat obelisk built of stones proudly bore a large copper sign that said “Welcome to Innswale.”

I stared from one sign to the other. They couldn’t both be correct, could they? It didn’t seem possible, and yet they had both clearly been there for a long time, and couldn’t have been placed by accident.

A dirt road broke off to the right, and I wondered if maybe there was some way around this odd edict. But no, as my car crawled closer, I saw an array of parked cars through the thick tree canopy and underbrush. Some, judging by the quantity of dirt and forest debris collected on them, had evidently been there for a long time.

I was stuck. On the one hand, I had driven many miles to be here, and there were people expecting me. On the other, parking my car and continuing on foot was too bizarre to be the correct response. The sound of a horse-drawn buggy clip-clopping down the road interrupted my musing, though the quandary wasn’t resolved until I saw Echart lean out of the buggy’s cab and waved at me.

I waved back, and went to park my car, trying to normalize the situation in my mind. Innswale is not an Amish or Mennonite town, or anything like that. But I had heard that quite a few people there preferred a low-tech lifestyle. Had this segment of the population managed to make bylaws enforcing their preferences?

Echart hadn’t mentioned anything, but then I didn’t hear from him that often. Though one would think he’d have mentioned it after I said I would come visit.

After I parked, I lugged my suitcases towards the metal gate separating Innswale from the rest of the world. Echart greeted me warmly and threw my bags in the back of the buggy. He was a tall beanpole of a man with a wizened face, and a strength that belied his years. The sparse mop of grey on his head was always slightly disheveled, and the white stubble on his chin made it look like he’d dipped the lower half of his face in sugar.

“Is this a new bylaw? This no cars thing,” I said.

“Oh no,” he said. “We do this every year. Sort of a tradition.”

“How long does it last?”

“It’ll last the month.”

“Is there something special about this month?”

“Yes.” A conspiratorial grin crossed his face. “Oh yes. But we’ll get to that later.”

We exchanged small talked as the buggy rattled into town. He asked how the drive had been. Long, but not bad. I asked what the horse’s name was. Bitterberry. Which I thought was odd, but didn’t say so. Aren’t bitter berries usually poisonous?

We drew to a stop at maybe the second drive way we’d come to. I wondered if we’d arrived already.

“Hold on,” Echart said. “I won’t be a minute.”

As he walked up the drive I noticed a rabbit in a small cage, just beside the mailbox. Echart retreived the cage, and put it in the back of the buggy on top of my bags.

“What’s that about?” I asked.

“Some of the townspeople like to keep up the old ways,” he said.

I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t.

We picked up three more rabbits before the end.

“So, what happens to the rabbits?” I asked.

“The same thing that happens to all of us,” he said cheerfully.

“Right.”

Now unsettled on many levels, I held my hands in my lap and fiddled with my wedding ring. The coffee was most definitely a mistake. I had to pee so bad. I hoped indoor plumbing wasn’t verboten this month as well as cars.

Roots · Story Series

Roots: Part Three

Click for Part One or Part Two if you missed them

The town where Echart lived was tiny, and ridiculously out of the way. Just finding it was a challenge. After the turn off from the highway, I had to rely on the map he’d emailed to me. Inniswale literally was not on any map I could find, and even Google Earth apparently had never heard of it. In this day, and age, I found it hard to understand how that could happen, unless it was intentional.

The further I got from the highway, the more narrow and winding the road became, making my journey considerably longer than I anticipated. In this day of cars and airplanes whizzing around at hyperspeed, it’s hard to grasp the scale of places. But here it seemed, distance had begun to reassert itself, and I had the sensation of going back in time. Back to a time when the only relevant things that existed were me and the expanse of rolling hills and sagebrush around me, because whatever else existed couldn’t come save me if I needed it.

I was on my own in this strange knobby place, and if I couldn’t make it out here it would swallow me up without even really noticing I’d ever been there at all. So as the gas meter on my car began to run a bit low, I was rather relieved to start seeing signs of civilization. Including, eventually, a gas station.

It was a nowhere place, on the way to nowhere else, and so didn’t bother making the amenities accessible to anyone except the locals who already knew where everything was. I had to poke around a bit to find the gas station, and eventually came across it near what looked a like a hiking trailhead. In this case the convenience store seemed poorly named, and I decided against going in.

It looked like the kind of place you would find pine needles on the floor, and strange insects buzzing around the windows. Anyway, more coffee would only add to my nerves.

At least it seemed there was a cell tower around somewhere, as my phone finally showed a few bars. So I was able to call Chris and confirm that I hadn’t managed to accidentally drive off the face of the earth yet.

“Traffic wasn’t bad at all. I’m just filling up, I think I should get there in about two hours or so,” I said.

“Okay, call me when you get there. I’ve got to go before the twins start a reenactment of the Lord of the Flies.” Chris’s voice came to me muffled and staticky through the lousy connection.

I laughed. “Alright, talk to you soon.”

I turned to walk back to my car and saw that a small elderly lady in a paisley cardigan had snuck up behind me. I nearly jumped out of my skin but managed a “hello” that didn’t quite sound like I’d swallowed my tongue.

“Are you lost, dear?” she said.

“No, just passing through.”

Her brow furrowed. “Oh? Where you headed?”

I gave her the name of the town and her eyebrows nearly reached her receding hairline.

“Oh. I see.” She turned and began to shuffle away.

“This is the right way to go for Innswale, right?”

She glanced at me over her shoulder. “Yes, if Innswale is where you’re trying to get to.” She turned away, and mumbled the next words to herself. “Whether that’s the right way to go is another matter entirely.”

I decided I would go in to the convenience store and get a coffee. It would be my third that day, but I felt a little more fortification was necessary.

Roots · Story Series

Roots: Part Two

Click here for Part One if you missed it.

“Well I’m not going,” I said. “I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”

My husband, Chris, handed me a plate to dry. It was part of a set we’d been given as a wedding present, an ugly grey print with some sort of animal on it. Rabbits or squirrels, I couldn’t tell. I’d hoped by now we would have broken enough of them to justify buying new plates, but they had proven annoyingly resilient.

“I mean, I can’t take an extra month off work,” I said.

“True,” said Chris. “Unless we didn’t go camping this year.”

“Then there’s the kids. Lily has track meets, and twins have their archery tournament. I can’t miss those.”

“Yup, we’re pretty busy. Except for the last weeks of June, and the first weeks of July.”

I threw my towel at him. “Do you want me to go?”

“No, of course not.” He planted a kiss on my forehead. “Unless that’s what you want.”

“It’s not.”

“Well then.”

He handed me my towel back and we got on with the dishes. It wasn’t a prestigious task, but it did give us a chance to talk without the kids clamoring for our attention, since they all scattered after dinner lest they be roped into dish washing duty. We’d done dishes by hand by necessity after our dishwasher broke, and it had done so much for our communication we decided not to replace it.

“Do you think I should go?” I said.

“At this time, we can neither confirm nor deny…”

“Very funny.”

“I think if you really didn’t want to go we wouldn’t still be talking about it,” said Chris.

I sighed. What did it mean to want something?

I didn’t think I’d like visiting Echart and the others much. I remembered visiting with my parents as a child. It was awkward, the food was questionable, and their house smelled strange. It would be different as an adult, sure, but that didn’t mean it would be worth passing up our yearly camping trips.

And yet…

I had always been something of a historian. Not in any kind of official or professional way, academia didn’t offer the kind of job security I was looking for back when I was making those sorts of decisions. But the origins of things fascinated me. Especially with the rise of reality TV shows about people’s ancestors.

My father’s side of the family were steadfastly uninterested in that sort of thing, so I’d never gotten far in my attempts at intergenerational sleuthing.

“Well, all right then. I’m going,” I said. “Now come here and kiss me properly.”

Part Three

Roots · Story Series

Roots – Part One

“What do you mean, she’s different now?” asked Emily.

I sighed, this wasn’t how I wanted our coffee date to go. It was supposed to be a light catch-up, so we could talk about our jobs and our kids and just about anything but this.

But she’d asked me if I was planning on traveling anywhere, and it just came out.

“It’s hard to say. A lot of little things that maybe don’t add up to much,” I said, fiddling with the swizzle stick in my macchiato.

“Like what?”

“She had a group of friends that would go to the movies every week, she barely goes now. She came to the family get-together two weeks ago, but she only stayed for about half an hour. She’s gotten into gardening and clean eating.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t sound like much.”

“I know, but she acts different, too. More reserved. I don’t know.”

An errant lock of hair had somehow escaped my messy bun, and the wind blew it into my face. I brushed it aside and tucked it behind my ear. Emily and I both felt more comfortable in the coffee shop’s outdoor area.

“Do you think you’ll go?” Emily took a sip of her chai latte.

“My branch of the family tree pretty much never does. My cousin was the first in a while. But Echart really wants me to come visit.”

“And Echart is your…dad’s cousin, right?”

“Second cousin, I think.”

“Well I’d say go if you want to,” Emily said. “The Interior is beautiful this time of year. I’d be worried if it seemed like your cousin joined a cult, but otherwise…”

I shook my head. “No, it’s nothing like that.”

“Have you asked your cousin what happened when she went to visit?”

“She just said if I wanted to know, I had to go there myself.”

“Huh. Weird.”


Part Two

Short Stories

A Hole in the Sky – Short Story

Image by Simon from Pixabay

“What do you mean, a hole?” Thon stumbled but caught himself, struggling to keep up with his longer-legged sibling on the steep grassy slope.

Dahlia slowed to a trot and then stopped to look back. “A hole. Or a window, or something.”

Thon caught up to her and stomped his front hoof. “You’re not making sense. The sky is empty. You can’t have a hole in something that isn’t there.”

Dahlia twitched her whiskers imperiously. “You’ll see when we get there.”

Thon’s ears flattened in annoyance. Everyone thought he couldn’t understand things because he was too young, but how could he when nobody would explain anything?

“I’m not going all the way up the hill if you won’t say what you mean.”

Dahlia continued up the slope, tossing her next words over her shoulder at him. “Well go back then, if you’re going to be such a kitten.”

Thon scrambled up the slope, grumbling to himself. He was not a kitten. He was almost ten years old, which she knew perfectly well. It wasn’t his fault his legs were so short.

Angrily crashing through a clump of poufy-flowered grasses, Thon was rewarded with a spray of pink pollen in his face. Thon sneezed and shook himself. He frowned and looked around in time to see Dahlia disappearing behind a stand of aspen trees.

With a mischievous grin, Thon bent down to grab the base of one of the grasses in his mouth, and yanked it out of the ground. He continued up towards the grove, holding his head high to keep his prize from dragging on the ground. The fluffy flower would lose some of its pollen on the way, but there should be enough left to make pelting Dahlia with it worthwhile.

When Thon passed the grove, he found Dahlia standing on a rock at the top of the hill. She stared quizzically at the sky.

“See?” she said.

Thon didn’t see. It looked perfectly normal. Except for one patch where the sky was a slightly different shade of blue, and the clouds didn’t match up. It was like looking at a wall painted to look like the sky, but there was a window you could see the actual sky through. Only they were both the real sky.

“That’s weird,” Thon said. Or at any rate, that’s what he would have said if his mouth wasn’t full of plant material.

Dahlia turned to look at him, to make sense of his garbled statement. Thon was about to pounce and attack her with the flower when a roar split the sky. It was the loudest sound either of them had ever heard.

Thon ducked his head down between his front legs to block his ears, but that didn’t do much good. It just kept going on and on, like an angry waterfall.

The two creatures ran for cover in the trees. They didn’t notice the small, bird-like object crossing the odd-looking patch of sky. If they had, they couldn’t have imagined the chaos going on above.

In the cockpit of the Boeing 787, the pilots were struggling to understand why they had made landfall several hours ahead of schedule, and why the coastline looked nothing like they had come to expect after several years of flying the route from Houston to Sydney. What was worse, they had completely lost all GPS navigation, and could not raise anyone on radio.

To the great relief of everyone involved, after about five minutes the 787 found itself flying over the Pacific Ocean once again, and the sky above the hill where Thon and Dahlia hid amongst the trees was once again quiet.

Want more? Check out:

Bridge: Part One

Green: Part One

Roots: Part One