Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Or Underneath the Stairs

OhNo! It's still Sci-fi Tuesday! More opportunities to post some of my favorite childhood stories--this one by Carwin Edgarson--taken from his 1954 collection of stories called The Collected Stories of Jerome Silfermann by Carwin Edgarson. Enjoy if you dare!

Once, long ago—long before time started running backwards—there was a terrible war. All that anyone remembers now is that there was quite a bit of mud and digging involved (which is of course the case with any conflict, human or otherwise).

Let me explain: Little boys crouched in troughs, their faces covered in machines that smelled of glycerine and water: they dared not breath the Xylyl Bromide and Phosgene the grew in cottony tufts all about them. The whole land smelled like a public swimming pool--including the faint scent of warm urine (I never liked the swimming pool).

Bits of other boys who had not jumped dramatically out of the way of large metal canisters of nastiness were cast about haphazardly. It all seemed so natural.

One young boy--who we shall make the subject of our discussion--was very scared. This made him in no way unusual or unique--but what could? Honesty is my style and we admit that unlike most heros of most unlikely stories--heros that are brave or at least hold hidden reserves of brawny manhoon--our young subject was a not just scared, but a coward and had a touch of the dullard to him. Unhandsom, but by no means blessed with ugliness; he was bland, cream, vanilla, slow, and his conversational skills were the equivilant of licking a spoon with nothing on it.

This young man, his troop had been fighting in or near a town or what used to be a town or what was going to be a town someday—he didn’t know—and he was separated from the others. Or they left him because on the battlefield, if you can't count on your brother for interesting conversation and wit, what do you have? Nothing. Lay down your guns. You have nothing.

It had been night for three days. The only light came in sporadic blotches and waves. Hundreds of small, short suns that couldn’t keep him warm. For bird calls there was rat-a-tat-tatting and swelling wails. He remembered leaning down amidst a rumble because he thought he saw something flash in the muck at his feet. Suddenly he noticed he didn’t know where anyone else was.

When he pulled himself up, he started running. Slogging slowly. Time passed. He realized he hadn’t seen any of the other boys in his company for at least a day. He had tried to find them, sludging through the watery culvert but he could only find parts of people—some he knew, some he didn’t—not a whole person. Sometimes as he crawled past them, the parts grasped or kicked or tried to inch along behind, but the pieces of those boys couldn’t keep up. He may have been dull in the head, bland looking and somewhat weak, but he was faster than body parts! He met a few large rats that wore fine clothes—waist coats and shoes that gleamed through the mud. The rats sat back comfortably in the mess and watched him with amusement. There were also some very nice louses that joined him for support.

But he could find no-one all whole, that is, not in a "blown-up" state. In the crisp flash of one of the brief suns he saw crouched off to his left—approximatley a hundred and twenty three yards off—a small cottage. Thatchy and pink. All about jagged slabs of wall stood like pickets to a fence that made no sense, but this little cottage stood whole and very inviting.

The boy scrambled over the rotten edge of the hole—though the result more closely resembled a guppy trying to swim up a leaky faucet. The ground shook and beat with each bright punctuation. The louses got scared and hoofed it back to the saftey of the ditch.

After many hours of crawling, the boy acheived the door to the cottage. Doors are special--we should kiss them more. Leaning up against it, he knocked, modestly at first then louder when there was no answer. When still no one opened the it for him he tried the knob, dismissing what his mother had always taught him about going into the homes of people he didn't know uninvited. This was an emergency--mother be damned.

Inside: The first thing he noticed was the massive lack of mud. The floor was clean and cool. A small fire swam on the hearth. It popped and sparked so quietly, the boy couldn’t hear it. There was a table in front of the fire with a few chairs and a large ceramic bowl of pale brown pears. The walls were bare mostly, though pegs by the door held a heavy blue coat. There was cabinet in the corner and a narrow stair that lead up. There was also a small fir. A few bows and feathers hung from it. Eggs balanced on some of the thin branches. They had been dyed pink, purple, brown and blue. The boy thought “My birthday must be soon.” He had no idea what day it was.

In the quiet he could take stock of himself. His legs were vibrating with exhaustion. His eyes, green, were dry. His skin hurt. His nose hurt. The air he exhaled hurt.

He removed as much of his clothing as propriety would allow so as to not track mud all over the fine room. The chair he pulled out from the table slid silently. He sat. The fire, the pears, sitting, no mud. Tears began to saunter down his face. On the table next to the bowl was a small thimble and a mirror that he had not noticed. He was going to pick up the mirror to look at himself—something that he hadn’t done in so long that he wished he had paid more attention to how he looked before the war so he would have a better memory of it now—when he felt a shuffle behind him. Turning, he saw a small girl standing on the bottom step.

“Who are you?” she said.

The boy didn't answer. He hadn’t said anything in so long.

“If my father catches you in here in your underclothes he will be very angry.”

“I’m sorry. Please excuse me," the boy's presumptive voice squeeked. "I have been outside for so long. I saw your cottage and knocked but I thought that it was abandoned. I shouldn’t have, but I am very tired and hungry." More gobbling garble than words.

Perhaps the girl was considering him. She gave no indication. Her face, an oval covered in pale spots which could have been any number of things in the faint flickering light, didn’t move. She had her lips pulled taught. Her hair was brown with strands of gray. He wanted to say, “You're awfully young to have grey hair,” but didn’t want to offend her. She was narrow and was wearing a simple dress and sock feet.

“A pear. You can have one of those.”

“Thank you.”

“I will fix you something more if you would like.”

“Yes, thank you.”

She looked at this clothes piled by the door. “Are you a soldier?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Have you ever fought in a war?”

“I am doing so right now.”

“Which one?”

The boy was very confused. Perhaps he needed to eat to get his senses back. The pear was soft. It gave way to his teeth—which hurt too. Juice wetted his chin. He didn’t notice. If only the rats could see me now, he thought.

The girl put a piece of bread and a small scoop of beans on a plate. The boy thanked her. She stood by the table and watched him eat. His mouth yawned like a hippopatamous; there were even birds in it.

The boy leaned back in the chair when he was done with his plate. He closed his eyes.

“What’s your name?” the girl asked.

The boy opened his eyes slightly. “Leslie.”

The girl snickered. “That’s my name too. You have a girl’s name.”

“I do not. You have a boy’s name.”

She leaned forward, put her elbows on the table and rested her chin in her hands. She had grey eyes too.
“When will your father be home?” the boy asked, suddenly very concious of the fact that he was in a stranger’s house in his underclothes alone with the stranger’s young daughter; though he seriously wondered where the father really could have gone.

“Soon, I hope. I’ve not been feeling well and he went to go get the doctor to see how I am doing. But he has been gone a while.”

“You don’t seem to bad off.” The spots were on her hands too. “Why haven’t you all evacuated?”

“Why would we?”

“The war.”

“What war?”

“Haven’t you been outside, or looked out the window?”

“Oh, I don’t go outside, nor look out the windows.”

“Why not?”

“Haven’t you heard the story of the girl and the dolls?

“No, I’m afraid I missed that one.”

“I’ll tell you: Once there was a girl who lived alone in the woods. She made dolls out of twigs and fallen branches that the trees gave him and sold them in town. She made just enough to have food to eat. One day a young prince was walking through the fair and saw her dolls. He liked them very much, but wanted her to make one special for him that was made not from twigs and branches from the ground but from fine wood. He would pay her very well for the doll. Well the girl was excited, because she had never had a lot of money and thought of all the things she could get for herself.”

“Where are this girl’s parents?” asked the boy.

“I don’t know. Dead I suppose. That’s not part of the story. Listen: She was very excited to have the money but she had never made a doll out of anything other than the bits she found on the ground that the trees gave her. She was nervous to cut a tree down because that might make the trees angry.

“She was walking through the wood, collecting, still trying to decide what to do when she came upon the finest tree she had ever seen. Its bark was so smooth and clean it looked like it was made out of silver. She knew that it would be the perfect tree to make the prince’s doll from so without another thought she cut it down.

“She made the most beautiful doll of her whole life from that wood and the next day took it to the market to sell it to the prince. He was thrilled and gave her even more than he had told her he would in the first place. She bought many nice things and live a long time.

“That is why I don’t go outside.”

The girl picked up the boy’s plate and took it to the cupboard.

“Is that it?” The boy asked. “That’s not a proper tale. The prince should have not come back and the trees should have stopped dropping branches to punish her for taking what wasn’t her’s to take and she should have died of starvation. Or there should have been a beast that came to her door and called her name. That would have been a good story with a moral.”

“I find it upsetting as it is.”

A cat of no small porportions leapt up onto the table.

The boy sighed and asked, “What’s your cat’s name?”


“You named your cat after yourself?”

“No, I’m named after the cat.”

Just then there was a muffled thud that caused the whole cottage to tremble.

“Sounds like a bad storm is coming,” the girl said. Her voice was flat.

“No, it is something worse than that.” He noticed a door underneath the stairs. “Leslie.”

“Rwwwwrrr?” the cat said.

“No, I’m sorry the other one. We need to get someplace safe. What’s under the stairs?”

“We can’t go under there. Father will be very angry. That is where he keeps all of his valuables and private papers. He has maps and great volumes of cryptography that he has worked his whole life on. When he finishes working it out it will tell him where a great secret treasure is hidden.”

“Well if we don’t go someplace we will lose something ourselves.” The boy tried the knob and found it unlocked. “Come on.” She wouldn’t move. The boy grabbed her upper arm and pulled hard, nearly bringing her to her knees. She wriggled free from him. She ran and grabbed the mirror off of the table. The thimble was gone. She ran back to him and they ducked through the door.

It was empty in the little room under the stairs. There was just enough room for the three of them (you can’t leave the cat can you?) to squeeze in. It was very dark.

“I’d like to sing a song,” Leslie said.

“Go ahead,” Leslie said. But there was no singing.

Leslie purred loudly. It got warmer. It was silent for a very long time. Then there was a crash the likes of which none of them had ever heard before.

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