With my hand on the wheel and my brain in neutral . . .

Archive for the ‘My fiction’ Category

Finding the Phoenix

(This is an old piece, dusted off from my days working in a particular office otherwise known as The Sensory Deprivation Chamber. Can you relate to it?)

The sun was hot on my face, and I could feel the grit beneath my feet where I stood at the edge of the rock that jutted out high over the lake. As if the deep breath I took was all that was needed to relinquish my balance, I barely leaned forward and immediately felt the trillion hair-thin tentacles of gravity slither through the pores of my skin to gently wrap around my blood vessels and muscle fibers and together tug at me ever so lightly, like a weak magnet. I surrendered myself, and I slowly toppled from the rock.

My arms came up from my sides and rose up above me, my body and arms forming a wide Y. I arched the part of my backbone behind my breasts, pulled back my shoulders, and tilted my head to point my chin toward the water: the position of glory; swan dive!

I felt the rush of country air on my skin, and deep in my body I felt the increasing speed. Gravity is quick and sure, and I fell faster and faster, face first toward the lake. For a moment I closed my eyes, just and extended blink, and for that moment nothing existed except me and my speed, nothing but mass and movement, flawless.

It seemed sweet gravity did not pull me down into the lake but instead lifted the water up to me. I watched it draw closer in the same detached way signs seem to approach on an interstate highway. Then I straightened my back and neck and aimed my pointed arms directly down, and I accelerated like a jet fighter trimming its delta wings.

The water did not explode or resist me; it opened for me and traveled the length of my body like the morning breezes that always find the bedrooms in our summer cottage. It enveloped me, and I thought of those teenage summers with marijuana and swimming at twilight in the iced-velvet lake.

Deeper and deeper into the lake I went, and the green water became darker and heavier, and my ears began to hum. I still had momentum from my dive and although the water was slowing me, I held my arrow form, intent on going straight down as deeply as I could, straight down until the lake rejected me and nudged me back toward the surface, straight down into the complete darkness.

My ears were humming and began to itch, and the dark lake was above me, everywhere over me. I coasted downward in the blackness, slowed, and became still. I relaxed my body, trusting the black water to support me, to hold me from going further down. The noise in my ears became annoying, and I knew that I must return to the surface. When I tried to swim, though, I could not. I had become rock.

The noise invading my head became focused and sharp, and I recognized it for what it was. I slapped the Snooze Option button and pushed away my blankets to lie naked on my mattress. It was almost spring time, so my room wasn’t cold, but it was cool. It was still dark; I get up at five thirty. I talked myself onto my feet, turned off the clock, and like a blind man took the correct steps into the bathroom. The shower poured life into me, and I wondered if some science fiction world had a shower that coated you with a different flavor of the world depending on how you set the controls. It was Monday morning in the city. Damn! It was time to wake the hell up.

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Saturday Night

(This one comes from a daydream scratched out on bar napkins while waiting to rendezvous with a friend . . . )

He was different. He? It; you never know out here.

I had just turned away from the bar to put away a call bottle, and when I turned back, he was there. Now lots of guys can slip up to a bar unnoticed, but this one seemed too comfortable too soon. I thought there might be a name for the feeling I had, something like déjà vu.. Strange.

I wiped up in front of him. “Whatchya drinkin’?”

He turned his head deliberately, and he looked at my face before he looked at my eyes. I thought maybe he didn’t understand, ‘cause we get all kinds in here. I motioned tipping a glass into my mouth. “Whatchya drinking’?”

“Everything. Start me with something tall and cold and smooth.”

Everything. Right. A third class jerk amateur? Maybe, but maybe not: he’d delivered the words way too easily to have thought about them much. I poured him something tall and cold and smooth.

The crowd continually lost some and gained others, some going to rest and others coming in post flight. He stayed, and he sat, and he drank. He wasn’t big, and he didn’t look especially athletic, but somehow he still seemed powerful. His face was hard, but his eyes were alert and light over the crowd. I suspected that he was quick. He spoke only to order a drink, and he quit that when I started automatically filling his glass with whatever bottle was next on the rail.

This guy could drink like nothing I’ve ever seen. I got Maggie and Jakk to keep an eye on him too, and it wasn’t often that we’d catch him getting up to walk around the bar for relief. And when he did, his steps were always casual but firm and with steady aim. No sway, no shuffle, no slide. And like I said, he was mixing his poison, too. He was still there after my second break, and he was still counting out his coin precisely. Phenomenal.

I thought about calling attention to him to start some kind of a contest, you know, for business. I didn’t though, and not because he was too quiet: although he just sat there and looked around, he was way too intense.

The customers noticed it also, and most gave him plenty of room, but some slid up next to him to see what he was about. For half of these he’d buy them a drink and then turn away, and for the other half he’d just turn away. Always they would leave him alone. I’ve seen fights and deaths in this joint for absolutely no apparent reason, and this guy was getting away with quietly insulting some of the nastiest looking customers on this side of the galaxy. How? I don’t know.

Just before my shift was finally over, he did fight. Well, sort of. A young and drunken Sarkian came over, and when my customer turned away, the hulking Sarkian gave him a spinning blow to the back of the head. I’ve seen smacks like that knock customers completely over the bar. Not just into the well, but over the whole bar, both sides! My guy just flinched, bent his head way down as if he wanted to look at his own neck, and then pushed his almost empty glass toward my side of the bar. Every set of eyes that saw him take the hit was watching him, and the slimy Sarkian just stood there in disbelief. My guy didn’t even look to aim his backhand. Hardly turning or getting out of his seat, he lashed into his attacker. Sarkian blood speckled the crowd and my new white shirt. With his bony face shattered, the Sarkian balanced himself for a moment before he fell backwards across a table and then slid to the floor. No weapon, one hit, and my guy was done. What planet did he come from?

I poured him a shooter. “On the house. Try not to do that too often, OK? It’s bad for business.”

No real response. He looked at me blankly, as calm as he was before his first drink.

I couldn’t resist. “Hey, Buddy, where you from? What’s your story, what’s your game?” I hoped I was smiling the right kind of smile.

He looked at my face again, and then into my eyes. “You ever heard stories about Death? Maybe you know him as The Grim Reaper?”

I haven’t been scared in a long time, but this guy was more than just a bit spooky. Was I having a bad dream? “Ya, I heard stories.”

Just before he tossed back the shooter, he said, “Well, I’m not him.” He actually smiled, even grinned.

I realized that I had been holding my breath, so I let it go in a chuckle. He chuckled, too, as he pushed the shot glass toward me. I swept it up in my hand and turned to put it in the sink. When I turned back he was gone, leaving behind only a big tip and that same funny feeling I had when he’d first come in.

Ya, he was different.

A Note to My Wife

I took an evening with my girlfriend at a dinner party, changed the setting and many details, and daydreamed what I thought would be a romantic love letter.  She liked it.  A lot.

 

I can’t sleep tonight: I‘ve too much on my mind. Yes, your kisses did calm me, and afterwards I did fall asleep like a baby in your arms, but I’m awake again. But what’s on my mind now is not this business trip; we’ve been through that. I lay there in our bed, thinking of you and how good you feel and how much you mean to me, and I just want to tell you again, and I don’t want to wake you. Too soon the red-eye flight will take me away from you for a long, long week, so tonight, while you sleep in the other room, I sit here in my underwear at the kitchen table and write about how I feel about you and our future. I want just to give you a good life, just to give you what you have given me.

. . .

In one of my daydreams about what our lives will be like, I see us at a party at an estate by the ocean. The house is high above the beach, and between the beach and house is a series of gentle hills covered with tall, blowing grass. It is late afternoon, and I am standing on the long, white stucco veranda in front of the house. I’m wearing a summer sport coat and a loose tie, and I’m sipping wine as I look out over the endless blue water to watch the soaring gulls.

I hear a car approaching, and I walk to the side of the house to wait for the car to be parked. The driveway curves away for a quarter mile or so, finally squeezing between two staggered hills, two overlapping hills carpeted in tall wild grass, and along its length the driveway is generously shaded by Spanish oaks. The first car parks near the house, and another enters the driveway.

This is our house; it is our home and our party, and our guests have begun to arrive. I greet them outside, and I bring them in to you.

Just as I’m ushering our first guests through the double doors, you come out into the foyer. You’ve been inside getting yourself ready, and this is the first time this evening that I see you. You’re wearing a slim white dress that we had made for you, and your blonde hair is done up in a French braid the way you sometimes do it, a few delicate strands trailing on the nape of your neck. You look beautiful, and immediately our friends tell you so. I cannot contain my smile because I cannot contain my enjoyment of you, and I decide that we will need privacy for me to tell you exactly how beautiful you are tonight. I am immediately filled with a desire to have you behind closed doors.

Soon the house is full, but it is not loud. Other nights were meant for wildness, but this night was meant for easy relaxation. We’ve hired a pair of gentlemen to take turns playing gentle classical music on your grand piano, and in the background of their music there is the lull of the distant surf wafting through our open house. There is the tinkling of glasses, the melody of blended voices, and, from other rooms, occasional choruses of mild laughter.

At one point in the evening I’m in my study, sitting with just one thigh on top of my huge cherrywood desk in the middle of the vaulted room. I’m talking with a friend, and he standing by the shelf that holds the wooden sculpture you gave to me this past Christmas. His back is to the floor-length and wall-wide paned window that faces the garden, and as I casually look past him through the window to the garden, without intention my eyes find you. There are other people out there admiring the roses and sitting by the fountain, but my eyes find you. You are at the end of the garden, back where the lawn begins, too far away for me to see your face clearly, but my eyes find you. You and my brother are strolling arm in arm along a bricked walkway, and as he raises his head in a triumphant chuckle I see you touch your head against his shoulder. I watch you and the way you move, and I think that you are like a brilliant actress in a movie: you are, in my eyes, the epitome of feminine grace.

My friend in my study with me suggests that we join the others, and when I stand to leave I move the tall crystal vase of irises on my desk about a quarter of inch to the right. That’s what you did that very morning, after we had made  love on my desk.

In no hurry I meander from room to room, making sure our guests are comfortable. You’ve come in from the garden, and while I’m listening to a friend in the foyer you pass behind my back. You inconspicuously trace three fingertips just above my beltline; I recognize your touch.

Soon, near a potted palm we find ourselves beside each other, each of us engaged in separate conversations with others.  We’re each holding a wine glass with one hand, and without a cue our free hand reaches for the other’s, and our warm fingers mesh comfortably. Neither of us misses a beat in our separate conversations, but through our hands we do secretly share an almost imperceptible squeeze of assurance.

Eventually I find myself again on the long veranda, this time in the company of most of our guests. We’ve informally gathered there to watch the sun set into the sea, and the sun’s rays slanting in under the veranda roof are painting everyone’s face in warm, buttery shades of light. I see you talking with a friend, and from where I stand your face is in three-quarter profile, part of your face shaded but not shadowed, most of your face lit by the warm setting sun. The gold dangling from your ears and laced around your neck is absorbing the sunlight, looking like beaded liquid lying on your tanned skin. The hairs loose from your braid and trailing on your neck are backlit: they’ve caught and diffused the light, so on the sunset side of your head there is just the slightest suggestion of a thin, golden blonde fog. Your face, your lusty hair, your elegant neck . . . you are such a vision, and like so many other times, I find myself looking at you the way I did when I first discovered you and every time after that when I discovered a new dimension to your personality. Once again I hear myself thinking, “What a wonderful woman I’ve found!” I find myself wishing that you were not my wife only so that I could court you all over again.

I walk over to you, reach for your empty wine glass, and kiss you on the cheek. You understand that I am on my way to bring you more wine, and you look at me briefly, eye to eye, and casually say, Thank you, Honey.” I know that always your thanks are more than habit and politeness, and that is why I serve you your wine. You are my friend.

Later, we’re inside the house, and I see you on the other side of the parlor, listening to our friends. I’m involved in a conversation on my side of the room, but I continue to glance your way. You say something, and our friends smile, and one of the women gives you a hug. They’re all so fond of you.

So, from across the room, unknown to you, I watch you as you speak. Your eyes, the curve of your cheek, your perfect lips, your familiar expressions . . . if ever I were blinded, these are the sights I would miss the most. I love, I enjoy your face.

Later, we and several of our guests return to the veranda to lounge in the ocean’s cool evening air. Beneath a window of partially turned thin blinds I am sitting beside you on an overstuffed rattan sofa. I have my arm around your shoulder, and your hand is resting on my leg just above my knee. In the interplay between slats of light streaming through the window blinds, shadows cast by people moving inside the window, and the soft glow of the veranda’s dim gas lamps, you’re feeding a few hors d’oeuvres to our dogs, two Russian wolfhounds – big but narrow dogs, like greyhounds but with very long and dazzling-white wavy hair. I glance up at the faces of our friends around us: the women are smiling and watching the dogs; most of the men are holding slightly stiff smiles while looking at your long fingers being licked, at your amused, playful face and the line of your jawbone, at your exposed collarbones, at the curve of your hip pressed against mine, at your calves, and at your slender feet in your pretty white shoes. One man glances at me, and after he and I share one of those fleeting moments of unspoken recognition, although I smile slightly at him, his eyes hurry away to someplace socially safe.

At midnight the caterers leave, and at one a.m. I dismiss the pianists. Most of our guests leave also, but the party is not meant to be over, and our closest friends know that. You put some of our favorite old- time saxophone jazz on the stereo, Coltrane ballads, and soon all of our lingering friends have been magnetized into one room.

In the parlor, we’ve sunk into our leather couches, and the comfortable conversation ebbs and flows as people began to gaze longer and longer into the flames behind the etched glass fireplace. You’re sitting beside me, your body touching mine, and we’re holding hands again, your thumb absently waving back and fort in a small arc on the back of my hand.

Around two a.m. our friends thank us for the very easy evening. We stand near the cars, receiving thank-you’s and wishing our friends safe trips home. Both the men and the women give you tiny kisses good night, and when they hug you I watch your white dress be pulled tight and I can’t help but imagine your body nude under your dress and lingerie. Suddenly I want everyone to leave very soon, and I make my good night’s as short as possible. Finally everyone is gone, and we stand together by the driveway, holding hands and watching the last taillights flash down the curving aisle of oaks. Finally I have you to myself.

I turn to you, and you turn to me. We kiss lightly, and then you lay your head on my shoulder. You step out of your shoes into the night grass, so your face slides down on my shoulder, just a little bit. We stand and hold each other, taking a few steps of a slow dance, and we begin to talk quietly about the party. You want to compare notes about whether or not all the guests enjoyed themselves, but I have something else on my mind.

I begin to kiss you, and then you begin to kiss me. I tell you how I’ve been feeling about you all evening, how eight hours earlier I was overcome by your beauty exactly as I was on the day we met, how for eight hours I watched you and rediscovered your sensuality, how for eight hours I was distracted from everything and everybody in a house full of partying people by a hunger for your tender caress, how for eight hours I wished that we were alone so that we could kiss and kiss and kiss. In the distance is the sound of the surf rhythmically pounding the beach, and in my ear is the sound of your whispering breath, to me an empowering incantation. I half-step to your side, slide my arm behind your thighs, and with your arms cradled loosely about my neck, I pick you up. I do not even consider taking you into the house or our bedroom: I pick you up so that I can lower you to the lawn. I cannot wait.

. . .

Yes, Honey, I know that the seaside mansion and party is quite a daydream, but it is not so unrealistic. In our tiny apartment I have to imagine only the sea: the luxury and elegance I already have, because I have you. You have been, you are, and you will always be my heroine and the object of my desire. Your charms are the kind that never fade, and you will always have what it takes to incite my passion and to intrigue me. You are my woman, my friend, my lady, my wife.

Forever yours,

Your husband and your lover

PS – I’ll see you next week. Pick up the dry cleaning, will ya?

The Third Summer

In time, the third summer at our new home became known as the summer. The settlement had unexpected visitors then, and when they first appeared we had no idea of what they were going to do. For that matter, we never dreamed of what they were capable of becoming. And they were everywhere.

Everyone was looking forward to our third year here as a time of relative ease and rest. In just over two hectic years we planted the farms, built houses and a small village, and salvaged what we could from the transport ship. One night early in the third spring, all the families gathered to watch the decrepit Eden fall from her orbit like a shooting star. It was a happy sight, actually: for ninety-seven generations theEden had carried our civilization across the galaxy in search of a habitable planet, and although she was our home and our heritage, we were as weary of her as she was of us (her damaged life support and eco-regeneration systems were very nearly tapped out and beyond further repair, essentially coughing and wheezing up to the end.) Yes, we were stranded on this planet, but we were very probably stranded in the nick of time. So the death of Eden marked the beginning of a new life for us and our children, a life without steel decks and processed air, a life with distant horizons and sunshine on our faces. The ship was gone, our basic survival was firmly established, and it was time to enjoy our lives.

Far to the west of the settlement there’s the snow-capped, purplish Skyrakers Mountain Range with foothills that like hurricane swells in an ocean of stone; above us there’s a huge sky that comes all the way down to the horizon of the Great Lake to our east; and in between, all the way to the north and south for days and weeks, there’s land lush and green, land growing fragrant meadows and open forests, land that gently rolls up and down like the rise and fall of sighs on a sleeping giant’s chest. Even if we had not come from living in outer space, it was easy to love our new home.

Of course our scout teams had investigated the planet, but they weren’t expected to be able to discover everything. No analysis prepared us for our third summer.

Summer began just like it had the two previous years: with the emergence of the grass bubbles. They begin life as very small slug-like creatures that crawl up from tiny holes in the ground, but once in the grasses and sunlight they soon metamorphose. They inflate themselves into small translucent spheres, and beneath them they trail a half-dozen wispy, ghost-hair streamers. They float up through the grasses, and like soap bubbles they refract the wavelengths of light. They appear only early in the season, and the hungry black birds with the long, yellow split-tails swoop them up immediately. Their appearance this year was no surprise; what no one expected was their number.

In every ecosystem there are creatures with unusual cycles of population, patterns that have no apparent explanation. The Eden’s biology library referenced several examples of these, the most documented being the cicada, a large, rasping insect that was always present but flourished only every seventeen years. An unusual cycle like this was our explanation of the hordes of little bubble bugs that appeared the third summer.

An insignificant few thousand grass bubbles rose from the tilled farms, but the bulk of them came from the undisturbed land to the west. They came to our farms borne on the afternoon breezes. They were harmless but annoying; they left a film on your skin after they blew against you, and the ones that expired or were not completely eaten by the birds were slippery underfoot. We were worried that they would somehow affect our crops, but the children loved them – all they saw were millions of rainbowed bubbles rising from the ground and filling the sky.

Probably because of the extraordinary food supply there was a much larger than usual population of birds, but still, the birds just could not eat all of the bubble bugs. Those that escaped the hungry beaks continued to grow, and when they were about the size of a man’s fist their trailing tentacles were strong enough to wrap around a stem of grass and anchor them against the winds. The birds would still attack them, but one bubble bug would now preoccupy a small number of birds, and this enabled the surviving bubbles to grow even larger.

Only three weeks after they appeared, many had grown to the size of a man’s head. By then they had developed into more than just a bubble with prehensile tentacles. Although they still looked like a hollow glob of clear jelly, they did develop some kind of muscular ability in their spherical bodies. They grew an internal skin, a bubble inside a bubble. The shell was filled with organic gasses heated by the sun, and the internal bubble was filled with air and used for both buoyancy control and propulsion: they inflated and deflated it like a balloon. Contractions would ripple in concentric rings from top to bottom or vice versa, visible but very faint, like the shadow of passing cloud on a hazy day. Air was pulled inside slowly and forced out quickly to propel them in the opposite direction. The bubbles would usually move very slowly, almost lethargically, but they were observed to suddenly spurt a few meters to avoid the dive of a split-tail (we don’t know how they sensed the bird’s approach.) They didn’t always escape, but they were now able to try.

At night, like the split-tails the grass bubbles would become inactive, anchoring themselves to the grass as the hot air and natural gases inside them would cool with the evening temperature. Because they were heavier at night they were not nearly as mobile, but if unanchored, breezes would blow them out onto the lake. Their tentacles, about three-quarters as long as the balloons were high, held them stationary above the ground, but since we humans are gravity-bound creatures, we were inclined to think that the tentacles like spindly supports, not tethers.

Before we would put the kids to bed, Jenny and I would sit with them on the porch steps. Suzanne, Paul, and Joe would be in their pajamas, between our knees and in our laps, and together we would watch the bubbles settle in for the night. Attracted to porch and house lights, the bubbles would flock to our backyard and our neighbors’. We would sit quietly, and they would hover their way in to the yard, silently puffing until they found a suitable anchor in the grass. Five year-old Suzanne would whisper encouragements to them, pretending to distinguish between them and calling them by name. Jenny and I were very glad of the bubbles: we’ve never found a better way to hypnotize our children to sleep.

Their rate of body growth slowed, but only for a week. We presumed that before they could get any bigger they had to develop their tentacles, because during this week these doubled in length and thickness. Also, each tentacle grew soft hair, like peach fuzz.

At the end of this stage, the bubbles sprouted a second growth of tentacles, fifty to two hundred and fifty per bubble. The original group of a half-dozen tentacles was used for tethering, but the new tentacles only dangled and swayed in wafts of summer air. They were of varying lengths, but only a few were as long as the original tethers. Their function was to generate small pulses and sparkles of light to attract night insects. Now they could vacuum food directly inside them, day and night, constantly. The pulses of gold light, when seen by the thousands, were pretty, but having the silver sparkles blanketing our backyard on a clear night was to be able to walk and to kiss both below and above twinkling stars.

Our bubble bugs had become too big, too mysterious, and too beautiful to be called bugs any longer. No one on the planet had officially named them yet, so we followed the lead of our biologist and began calling them air nettles.

The big black-and-yellow split-tails were still attacking the nettles, but now one bird alone could only bite and leave a quickly healed scar; it took a squad of birds to puncture and completely kill a nettle. Nobody liked to see the birds gang up on a nettle, but in our neighborhood it was our daughter Suzanne who was the first to refuse to watch it.

We were sitting on the porch after dinner, watching the sunset and the nettles bed down, when a nettle was attacked just a few meters from us. When the first bird swooped down and slashed the nettle, Suzanne screamed and then buried her face against my chest to cry. More birds came at the call of the first attack, and when Suzanne heard the beat of many wings she bolted out of my arms and into the yard. She was rescuing the nettle, and followed to rescue her. Jenny and the boys were immediately with us to help swat, punch, and shoo away a swarm of split-tails.

The five of us got a few cuts and scrapes from the flurry of beaks and sharp bird claws, but the nettle had by far received the worst of it. Suzanne was still young enough to believe that her father could fix anything, so when she looked at the nettle collapsed on the ground and then at me, she wiping tears from her big round eyes with her tiny little hands, nothing had to be said.

The problem was this: cow could a man fix a living jelly bag of gas? I tried to stitch up the slashes, but Jenny was much more successful by using adhesive tape. The nettle did not die, but it was only barely alive. We kept it in the barn for a few days and lured insects in for it to eat, safe from the birds until it hopefully regained its strength.

Because we didn’t want Suzanne to develop an attachment to a ding pet, Jenny and I hoped that it would either recover quickly or die soon. I thought of taping a healthy nettle and switching them while Suzanne slept, but she was constantly looking through the damned thing to report on the healing process. When we realized that it was recovering its health, we suspected that it was just the beginning and that Suzanne would develop a strong affection for this strange creature she had saved. What we didn’t expect was the affection the nettle developed for Suzanne.

It followed her – or at least it attempted to follow her – around the barn, behind her, beside her, above her her, but always with her. Suzanne and Nancy the Nettle became inseparable. It became quite common to look at my five year old daughter and listen to her calmly talk as this strange creature floated above her, slowly caressing her hair with its fuzzy tentacles.

All of the nettles were soon out of danger from the birds. When they had grown to a meter across, their skin grew not rough but tough, and although it was still translucent and shiny it was (thankfully) no longer wet and slippery. The birds would still attack, but they would no longer take a bite and fly away: their sharp beaks could still puncture nettle skin, but they could not tear it. In essence then, a stationary nettle would use its skin to catch a swooping bird by its beak and break its neck. The birds quit attacking the nettles.

Nancy was too large to follow Suzanne into the house, but just like Mary’s little lamb, everywhere Suzanne went, Nancy was sure to go. At night she waited outside the door, and in the morning she would be there, floating on the porch, one of her tentacles on the latch, holding the screen door open. Suzanne and Nancy had their photos taken by village weekly publication.

By mid-summer our farms were covered with nettles, but we were glad of it. Yes, they did damage some of crops when they anchored themselves at night, but as a natural pest control they were phenomenal. Virtually unhindered by insects, we were looking at a bumper crop. The Eden was gone, and we were going to survive quite comfortably. We felt just a bit complacent about the air nettles and the coming winter.

The nettles had grown quite large, two to three meters across and with tentacles one and half times al long, when they began to use two shapes. When they were mobile the would be the usual contracting and expanding spherical bubble, but when they were resting during the day and while they were tethered at night they flattened themselves, shaping their balloons like the cap of a toadstool. When they were in this form their internal systems took on color, traces of pinks, purples, and blues in vague shapes and thin lines. Far from being ugly or scary, many nettle photographs were hung in homes all over the village. All of our fields and the air above them were was full of painted parachutes in soft focus.

What the purpose of the new form was we didn’t know. Obviously the nettles were maturing, but no one felt them to be a danger. So far no one had ever witnessed or seen any evidence of a nettle harming anything larger than an insect, and when one was in your way you just ushered it aside. Hell, old man Lustine was easily convincing them to carry one end of his paint ladder, and all of the kids were using them like giant yard pillows. And I must confess, out in the fields I’ve napped on them a couple of times.

It was a surprise when they left us. In the middle of a particularly hot morning we noticed that they were floating higher than ever before, a hundred meters in the air, all together, jetting air not in unison but in rhythm. The whole sky was nothing but three-meter bubbles pulsating in a random pattern, like the visual equivalent of a soft rain’s music. The late starters were rising alone and in small clusters, and when the majority of them were high in the air, the entire sky began to move east, out over the Great Lake.

For the first time we realized just how many nettles had survived the birds. They were living not just on and near our homesteads but on all the land all the way to the stone foothills of the Skyrakers Mountains. From what we could tell, a cloud of nettles covered the plains and the forest far to the north and the south, maybe seventy-five percent of the continent.

Nancy the Nettle went with them, too, and Jenny took Suzanne down to the lakeshore to wave goodbye. The rest of the village was there, too. All work stopped, and the beach was lined with families lying on blankets as they watched the nettles fly overhead. Near nightfall people began to barbecue, wine was poured, and blankets were moved closer together. We did not know if we would ever again see the nettles in our lifetime. The entire settlement stayed up all through the night, looking at the moon and stars through the nettles as across the sky they glowed gold and sparkled silver.

Three days later the first nettle washed up on the shore. Mr. Kimble dissected it and preserved some tissue, but the rest of us avoided it. In the next few days several more appeared, all of which were promptly buried. People decided not to take evening walks on the beach, and Jenny made up reasons to forbid Suzanne to leave the yard.

The nettles were not forgotten, but as the days passed they were no longer in the foreground of our thoughts. On the tenth day of their absence I was reminded of them at dawn as I left the house to begin my work. I opened the back door, but I did not have to push open the screen: Nancy was holding it open!

I didn’t see her at first because she was not on the porch; she was floating above it, anchored to the porch roof post but reaching underneath to hold open the door. I followed her tentacle to the porch steps, took one look at her, and ran back into the house.

I scared Jenny as I ran past her and up the stairs, and I woke up Suzanne as I carried her from her bedroom. I yelled at the boys to wake up, and as they sleepily followed, the five of us went outside.

Suzanne’s big eyes exploded. In just ten days Nancy had grown to the size of a small house! A tentacle reached for Suzanne, wrapping its fuzzy, tender tip around her shoulders and incidentally brushing hair away from her eyes.

Hundreds of meters in the air more house-sized nettles were working their way back from the lake, but these were the stragglers. During the night the nettles had come home. They had left us only to visit some place beyond the lake, and those that had earlier washed up on the shore must have been too weak or ill to make the journey.

Those that survived the journey had not only grew larger, they had also learned a new trick. Somewhere out on the lake or maybe in a marsh on the other side they picked up some kind of phosphor because their insect-luring tentacles would now glow green or orange if disturbed. Much more powerfully mobile, the nettles no longer needed to anchor themselves at night; some dangled their tentacles onto the fields and some floated high in the sky, pulsing gently, and in the darkness their own slow breath showed itself by the tell-tale green and orange phosphorescence below them.

The kids stayed up late every night, running through the tentacles and chasing each other down paths of green or orange light. They played with the pulses of gold and sparkles of silver, making up countless silly games the way we adults once did not all that long ago.

After we put the kids to bed – and by put I mean dragged – Jenny and I would crawl out the window and onto the roof. We would lie on top of our house and literally watch night breezes pour across the fields and splash through the bioluminescent sky. The nettles were stronger than ever before, so the sparkles were much brighter now, appearing like small camera strobes randomly suspended from millions of strings hung in the sky. We were covered and surrounded by silent fireworks all night, every night. Jenny and had loved each other for many years in our little iron compartment on the Eden, but never before did we share kisses like we did during those nights on the roof.

The nettles continued to grow. Whether or not the insect supply was decreasing or the demand was increasing we could not tell, but it was soon apparent that there was not enough food for the vast number of huge air nettles. There was not any noticeable direct competition between them, but some nettles were more successful than others. The hungry would become weak and eventually drape themselves over the land, immediately becoming a mecca for hungry insects. Other nettles would hover nearby to harvest the feeding bugs, and in this way the weak were strengthening the survivors. Balloon canopies were now averaging fifty meters across.

Their tentacles were not seventy to ninety meters long, thick as a tree trunk at the top but still just a fuzzy baby-finger at the bottom. As the nettles would drift across the sky, sometimes their tentacles would be dragged along the ground, but they gingerly felt their way across every thing they touched, never knocking over so much as a flower vase or a glass of iced water. Their brushing against our bodies was given the same concern as our being touched by a dry summer breeze.

In the evenings teenagers would go to a nettle in a field, pick up the end of a tether tentacle as if were a leash, and with the huge nettle in tow overhead they would walk (slowly) to the lake. They would position the nettle beyond the end of the dock, and using the tentacle like a rope hanging from a tall tree they would swing out over the water. Not only did the nettles not mind this, but after the first few swings they would reach a tentacle back to the dock and offer it to the next swimmer. If he swung from the dock’s highest piling, a seventy-meter tentacle would carry a swimmer maybe fifty meters away from shore. Riders would swing straight through the lower part of the loose mop of tentacles used for luring insects with gold pulses and bright star sparkles, and their passage would disturb the orange or green phosphorescence. So, from the dock, the riders would seem to disappear into a blur of softly colored lights. No sound but the whoosh of wind in his ears, a mostly naked body essentially flying through a peach-fuzz forest of throbbing light – what a ride! (No, teenagers weren’t the only ones to try this!)

Summer was more than half over before the nettles left us again. Like the first time, with the heat of the morning sun together they rose to form a cloud that covered the entire sky. Like before they went out over the lake, and like before we lay on the beach and watched them fly overhead. Like before we waved goodbye to Nancy, but this time we expected to see her again: we suspected that the nettles would be back at least once more before autumn turned into winter.

While the nettles were away we brought in the season’s first harvest. We processed and stored it for the winter, and then we rested. It was between harvests, it was late summer, and so it was time for picnics with the kids, afternoon naps, and slow walks in the night air. And it was time for spitting watermelon seeds in sticky battle with my giggling boys, swimming way out into the lake with Jenny, and rocking Suzanne to sleep on the porch swing. Our world was ripe.

Our engineers and mechanics were working steadily on a long-range airplane to follow the nettles for observation, but it wasn’t completed in time. The nights became cooler and smelled faintly of autumn, and when that huge breath of warm air called false summer came down from the northern latitudes, it was time for the nettles to return to us. In the six week absence many must have died if only to make room in the sky for mature nettles. They were massive. In toadstool shape the smallest were a hundred meters across, and most were twice that, and a few were two hundred fifty meters wide. The tethers were still proportioned an average of one and half times as long as the canopy was wide, so to accommodate their tentacle the nettles now inhabited a much higher plane in the sky. No; they werethe sky.

Nancy was one hundred seventy five meters wide and her tethers no longer wrapped around the back porch roof post; they wrapped around the entire house. Still, though, the fuzzy little tip of one tether would hold open the screen door. I was afraid that a gust of wind cause her to inadvertently rip our home from its foundation and carry it p high into the sky with our children tumbling out the doors and windows, so I, as did the neighbors, suggested that we all camp out in the backyard “to enjoy the air nettles.”

They now spent very little time in their bubble form, preferring to spread almost flat in their toadstool shape. They moved very little, sunning themselves in the sky the way sleepy lizards sun themselves on rocks. They had returned from the lake with more color, and it brightened with every day. Swashes of bright pinks and oranges behind sketchy lines of blues and purples in the patterns of bare trees: they were like a winter sunrise that covered the entire sky and lasted all day long.

They were not feeding, but we didn’t think it was because the insect population had tapered off with the end of summer. They had returned from the lake with less tentacles, and many of their remaining tentacles were dry and brittle. As the nettles sunned themselves over our fields, discarded tentacles would drop to the ground and on impact disintegrate into many small pieces and plumes of dust. We presumed that they were approaching the final stage of their life.

No longer wanting or needing to attract insect food, at night they no longer pulsed orbs of gold or strobes of silver. And the phosphorescence was gone. But they still put on a show. In the early evening they were inactive, but after midnight each nettle would generate an umbrella network of thin, sharp, jagged lines of blue and purple light, and it came not from somewhere in their tentacles but from the “bare trees” inside their canopies. It would flicker and then flash, the light fading into the pinks and oranges of the nettle canopy exactly the way electric lightening flashes and then fades into blue-gray thunderclouds. Like shooting stars, the flashes were over almost before you could point to them.

Everyone slept in backyards or on rooftops. Every night Jenny would pull back her hair into a pony tail and rest her head on the crook of my shoulder, and when we would wake up in the middle of the night, we would lie there together and whisper to each other under an electric sky. Nights like those, life was a wonderland.

Early autumn’s first cold nights accelerated the changes in the nettles. They each kept two of their tethering tentacles, but all the rest dried up and were discarded. Their undersides were now completely exposed, and with binoculars we could see that the bottom surfaces were folding into many thin ridges that emanated from the center like spokes from the hub of a wheel. We watched and waited.

Just before we were to begin the fall harvest, the nettles left us again. We expected them to leave in the morning sun the way they had before, but this time they started late in the afternoon. And they didn’t go out over the lake: they went westward, into the sunset and toward the Skyrakers Mountain Range.

That evening the entire village walked to the end of the road to watch the nettles pass overhead for what very well might have been, as far as we knew then, the last time in our lives. We roasted a pig, we danced in the grass, the kids built fires in the cool autumn night, and the adults got drunk.

The next day the slow end of the nettle cloud was still visible with the help of low-level optics. The low altitude, long distance airplane had been wrecked during testing, so Mr. Kimble took a rover and all the video equipment he could get his hands on and headed west, and he had no shortage of volunteer assistants.

We were busy with the autumn harvest, but we were all constantly glancing westward in hopes of one last glimpse of the nettles. Nights were spent not sleeping but sitting on the peaks of roofs with family and friends. Although we saw only darkness, we persisted in staring through binoculars and telescopes. All our lives we had known only the inside of a spaceship; it would have been unthinkable and unbearable to waste one bit of the nettle phenomena.

By the sixth night after they had left us, the mountains were reflecting the nettles’ blue-purple lightening. They were not flashing constantly; roughly every fifteen minutes one would flash, and then those around it would follow, and like a ripple across a pond the light would spread in a circle through the nettle cloud near the mountains. Sometimes it would start in the center, sometimes near an edge, and sometimes in several places at once. It would peter out less than half the way across the tremendous cloud of nettles, or it would echo back and forth, up and down the entire mountain range. Obviously this was some kind of communication between the nettles.

On their seventh night in the mountains the nettles’ ripples had strengthened into waves. They rested more between each flash, but each flash was increasingly brighter and longer. We were over three thousand clicks away, but when the nettles flashed I could see the eyebrows on my children’s faces.

On the eighth night, the entire village was gathered in groups in back yards, on rooftops, and by the lake, but many had drifted off to sleep. Everyone was shaken awake, though, just after midnight.

A flash started in the center of the cloud, beyond the mountains, and in a thin ring it spread outwards, toward us and to the north and south. It passed out of our sight beyond the northwestern and southwestern horizons, and then it echoed back toward the center, no longer a thin ring but now a thin band. The passed in and out seven times, and each time it rapidly grew thicker. The last time the wave started out from the center, it never left the center: the flash just expanded all the way to the nettle cloud’s rim, three thousand clicks in every direction. The entire western night sky from north to south was glowing a very bright purple-tinted white.

We squinted and shielded our eyes, and those standing just fell back to the ground in amazement. All of this from a field of tiny bubbles? But it wasn’t over yet.

The light became more purely white, and the nettle cloud held its flash constant. Four seconds, five seconds, six seconds, brighter and brighter. And then, from the center, the white light became orange and blue and red. Above and below the nettle cloud, the colors rolled outward at a steady but quick pace. The sky was on fire, and the fire was being chased by an engulfing black hole in the night.

Among the adults nothing had to be said; to our children we would someday explain about he combustible organic gases held inside the nettles’ umbrella shells.

In less than two minutes the entire nettle cloud of light had been replaced by a moonless, starless night. We stared westward into the blackness, some of us utterly devoid of thought, some of us crying, none of us detached enough to anticipate the advancing army of sound.

For a moment it was only a grumble, but in another moment it tumbled over us like a storm’s heavy surf. Suzanne screamed into Jenny’s neck, and the boys looked at me as if I could stop it. We huddled together in our backyard, awash in the roar of a sky exploding and burning, caught in a rip tide of thunder.

Before it was over I had a terrible thought, and I dragged my family to the young tree beside our house. I had barely positioned them flat on the ground behind the western side of the tree trunk when the wind started. That immense, half-continent covering fire burned plenty of oxygen, so what had been consumed three thousand clicks west was being replaced partially by vacuuming it from the east.

It lasted for at least three minutes, sucking the windows and draperies out of our house and temporarily pulling the lake a couple of meters up the shore. It stared quickly but died down gradually, and it was a full half hour before the night was still except for the sounds of calling voices.

The next day our spirits were not good. Yes, our crops were in, and yes, the total wind damage to our arms and village was relatively minor. Our major disappointment was with the air nettles. Although the final display was spectacular, we did not expect the nettles to set themselves on fire. It wasn’t only our children who would have enjoyed a happier ending.

The evening after the fire we were sitting at our dinner table when we heard it began to rain softly. We didn’t pay much attention to it until after dinner when the boys and I walked out to the barn. As I said before, the wonderfully fertile land stretches from the Great Lake in the east all the way to the foothills of the Skyrakers Mountain Range in the west, and on the evening after the fire all of my land, and my neighbors’ land, and all of the land on our continent was being sprinkled not with raindrops but with tiny white pellets the size of cookie crumbs. Only five year-old Suzanne didn’t guess that they were air nettle eggs.

It’s been ten years since the summer, and we don’t know how many more years it will be before we’re visited by another good crop of air nettles, but we can wait. After all, this is our home, and we love it here.

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