Melee on the Meadow

A flock of birds and a swarm of insects attack each other above a mist-enshrouded meadow
“Melee on the Meadow”, 12in x 9in, acrylic on canvas

We were on the run, hoping the trees could conceal us. The sun was up, depriving us of the cover of night. And the birds were out — several followed us, watching, maybe tracking us, reporting on our position, we didn’t know. But they had raised the alarm earlier and had given us away, so we didn’t trust them.

I’d heard that birds aren’t real, that they’re mechanical drones devised to keep us all under surveillance. A sobering thought, though I’ve never seen little flying machines build nests and lay clutches of eggs. And if they’ve all been replaced with robots, why would birds still sing and wear bright plumage? Drones don’t need to attract mates.

No time for these musings. We were deep in a Colorado forest on the west side of the Rockies, and a half dozen armed men were after us.

The previous day, our client had engaged us to find and investigate a facility believed to be making some kind of a weapon or device for controlling the population.

“Whose population?” you had asked when we picked up our assignment. “Just in this country?” 

“No, they’re international,” the man behind the desk replied. We weren’t allowed to know names. His three-piece suit and dark blue tie suggested a government agency. “They want to control everyone.”

“Who doesn’t?” I said.

We had met our client in a sparsely-furnished office in the back of a nondescript strip mall on the outskirts of Denver. Low profile. He never said how he got our contact information and we didn’t ask. He paid cash.

“We’re not professional spies,” you reminded him. 

“No, no. We called you in because you’re woodsy types — you know the outdoors.” He said outdoors as if referring to a mysterious planet no one else had been to. “And you’re not affiliated with anyone. You’re a neutral party.” That last bit should have aroused our suspicions. We thought he meant it in a good way, like we were Switzerland.

He continued: “Our latest intel suggests the target is in a forest, somewhere between Glenwood Springs and South Fork.” 

“That’s a lot of territory,” I said. 

“But we’ll find it,” you added.

“Keep me apprised of your progress.” We never saw him after that.

We used our contacts in the forest — a network of trees whose underground connections covered hundreds of square miles — to find out where there had been unusual human activity recently. 

“What we’re looking for,” I had explained, “is someplace where people have moved to that’s not on a main road, probably hidden. They had to transport a lot of equipment, so there would have been trucks moving about. Maybe some building going on.”

The message that came back was this: Two moons ago, at the empty workplace of the tree-cutters, lights shone at night and big vehicles moved in and out. Two house-boxes appeared.

“They’re at that old logging camp,” you said. “That was shut down over eighty years ago.” Still recent in the memories of trees who live hundreds of years.

“And they put up a couple of buildings or barracks, it seems.”

You pulled out a map and we made our plan. We’d have to approach from the densely-wooded side, away from the road. That meant a full day’s hike through a forest of mostly piñon pine and juniper — over a few hills, down some gullies, across a meadow, over more hills. We’d leave in the morning and reach the camp in the dead of night. We called our client to let him know where we were heading. 

By evening of the next day, just before dark, we had crossed the meadow and were deep in the pines when we stopped for a quick dinner. A bird shot past and landed on a nearby tree. I thought it was a sparrow, but it looked too big.

“No,” you said, “that’s a swift. Not sure what type, but it even looks big for a swift.”

You tried some bird calls. It just tilted its head at you, looked around and scanned the surrounding trees, then gave us both another close look. 

When we moved on, it followed us farther through the woods and was joined by a few more swifts. Not quite a flock, but close. I thought it odd that they’d be out in the dark, then dismissed them from my mind as we got close to our destination — maybe they were hunting some kind of night-flying bug.

About two in the morning we saw a glow through the trees from the camp ahead.

“Well, somebody’s home,” I said.

We moved more cautiously, until we came to the edge of the woods, then crouched down to survey the scene.

A dirt road led to a clearing about half the size of a soccer field. New growth around the perimeter suggested that the old logging camp had once been much bigger, before the forest decided to start crowding back in. Outdoor security lamps on high poles provided enough light for us to get an idea of the layout: two mobile homes off to the left of the entrance, a long one-story building to the right, a pickup truck, and two bored-looking men with rifles strolling around.

“That’s it?” I said “Two trailers and a refurbished sawmill?” Hard to believe anyone could control the world from here. “And why in the middle of the woods? Nowhere to grab a cappuccino.”

“Maybe they just like to work in a natural setting.”

“Or they need to be out in the wilderness to test their device, whatever it is.”

As we moved around toward the large building, we came upon a pile of material — rolls of chain link and barbed wire, along with twelve-foot poles and bags of cement. They hadn’t finished the fence, which meant they were still moving in. I wondered if they’d picked out the curtains yet. No fence meant easier access, but more guards — we had already seen two of them. Our tree intel hadn’t mentioned dogs, so that was good.

“Let’s see what they’re up to,” you said.

That meant sneaking up to the main building. We convinced a couple of nearby fir trees to move in that direction and lend us some cover. We waited until the guards had passed, then crept up to the outside wall on the forest side.

“Hmm,” I said. “No fence, no dogs. And look, they didn’t even put shutters up.”

“I have a nagging feeling,” you said.

“Like this is too easy.”

We lifted ourselves up and peered through the narrow window, which gave us a limited view of the inside. A few night lights provided just enough illumination for us to see the layout.

It wasn’t a lab. On rows of long benches were hundreds of small devices in the process of being assembled. We couldn’t tell what they were. Each workstation had a stool, soldering iron, magnifier lamp, and several bins filled with parts, some of which seemed to be tiny transparent wings, the kind sported by flying pixies or wood sprites. It didn’t make sense.

“Those don’t look like weapons,” I whispered, “more like toys. Are we sure this isn’t one of Santa’s local workshops?” 

“Guarded by men with rifles?”

“He’s not taking chances. Christmas is only five months away.”

We took a few pictures for our client. Now for the next piece of information: How big of an operation was it? We got a rough estimate from the size of the manufacturing facility — anywhere from twenty to forty workers — but felt we should narrow that down.

“Where do they all sleep?” you asked. The trailers were too small to hold that many people. “Or do they commute?”

“We’ll have to wait till they show up.”

It was almost dawn, so we crept back to the woods and found a place where we could watch the front door.

Around six o’clock a school bus painted steel gray rumbled down the road and pulled up in front of the building. Things started early here. We counted twenty-eight workers stepping off the bus, all clad in identical white jumpsuits and carrying lunchpails. They waited while the supervisor came out of the nearby trailer and unlocked the door, then they filed in and he locked the door behind them. He stood there to exchange a few words with one of the guards. The bus drove back up the road.

I wrote down everything we observed. “That’s all we can get. Let’s go.”

Just as we started to leave, a chorus of squawking erupted in the trees around us. We froze.

“Those damned birds!” you said. 

“What are they doing?”

About a dozen of the swifts that had followed us in the night were calling and flapping their wings, making as much racket as they could. I thought it might be a morning ritual, since the sun had now risen. But they had waited until the exact moment we were leaving, as if they wanted to call attention to us.

It worked. The supervisor and the guard looked in our direction and started to walk over. Two more guards headed toward us, unslinging their rifles. There was no choice but to make a run for it — we were going to be spotted anyway. We moved.

“Hey!” one of the guards shouted. “Someone’s there.”

“Go! Get them!”

Two shots rang out. Tree bark splintered to our right. We ducked and weaved through the trees, back the way we had come. We didn’t hear immediate pursuit and assumed the guards were gathering, waking up the others, making a plan. We slowed a bit, quietly pushing aside branches and undergrowth instead of plowing through them, but still keeping a brisk pace.

“Were those birds part of their security?” I asked. “Maybe that’s why they didn’t need dogs.”

“I don’t think so. Why would they let us get so close? And how do you train wild birds to do that?”

“Maybe they aren’t so wild.”

We heard the growling of a truck engine a few hundred yards off. Probably some of the guards expecting to catch us on the road, but we were headed deep into the woods in the opposite direction. If they wanted to chase us, they’d have to do it on foot, unless they had a helicopter handy. We hadn’t seen one.

Still, we didn’t linger, but moved as quickly as we could, jogging where the forest thinned out, occasionally stopping to listen for our pursuers. 

After an hour we hadn’t heard anyone, though a few birds fluttered about. I frowned at them, suspicious now of their presence. And there was something far behind in the forest, a sound I wasn’t familiar with, like a low hum. Maybe it was the truck. I didn’t bother mentioning it to you.

We came to the meadow and paused. Crossing it meant we’d be out in the open, but a mist hung in the air, thick enough to obscure the trees on the opposite side, so we decided to risk it. Better than taking extra time to go the long way round. We took a few cautious steps and listened.

“No one’s here,” you said. “Let’s go.” We quickened our pace, taking long strides through the damp grass.

When we were almost halfway across, the sound I had noticed earlier became louder. “Do you hear that?” I asked. “It’s like…”

“Buzzing. Like bees… or mosquitoes.” You turned to look back. “There!”

Through the fog we saw a large, gray form emerge from the trees. It skimmed like a hovercraft across the open space, flying straight toward us. Soon we could make out the individual shapes of insects, a swarm of many different types — hundreds of wasps, bees, mosquitoes, dragonflies, locusts, beetles — all with a seemingly evil intent. 

The humming mass surrounded us and began its attack.

This is the time when advanced training in the art of fighting a villainous insect swarm would be useful. For example, is it a superior tactic to keep one’s coat on for protection against biting and stinging, or take it off and use it as a weapon? I took mine off and started swinging it wildly. You kept yours on but grabbed a handful of long grass to swat at the vile things. Both methods were equally futile.

I knocked a few biting dragonflies into the grass and crushed them under my boot. They crumpled with a metallic crunch rather than the expected squish. I took a quick look, saw delicate metal parts flattened in the grass, and recognized the mechanical wings — same as those on the workbenches.

“This is what they’re making back there?” I said. “Are you kidding me? This is their great weapon?” 

You had already crushed a few yourself and had seen what I was talking about. “Insect drones. Seem like a pretty effective weapon to me right now.”

We spent the next few minutes swatting, slapping, and crushing. The drone swarm displayed intelligence. It tried different moves, gauged our response, then adjusted its strategy, like a fencing master testing an opponent. It clearly didn’t like to lose any soldiers — each one probably represented thousands of dollars of technology — which is why it didn’t throw everything at us at once.

But the swarm was learning how to penetrate our feeble defenses.

While I was busy swinging at some bees, a mosquito the size of a brooch landed on my shoulder. I could see its two-inch metal proboscis poking at my shirt, looking for a place to jab. I yanked it off and clutched it in my fist. The thin tube was squirting out a clear liquid. It didn’t want to suck my blood, it was trying to inject me with something. I hurled the device against a rock.

“Watch out for the mosquitoes! Their needle things may have poison. Or a drug.”

“Assassin bugs,” you said, as you flung your arm up and sent a few dragonflies tumbling back. “Like those mechanical hornets from Japan. They kill people with their stings.”

I had heard of murder hornets, but didn’t realize they’d been designed for the job. What kind of a world have we created?

The swarm was tiring us out and we were slowing down. More insects were able to get past our flailing arms and land on us. It was no use — there were too many of them. We couldn’t defeat them all. 

“Can we make a run for the trees?” I asked, out of breath.

“They’d just follow us.”

“We can’t hold them off much longer.”

The devices, and whoever controlled them, would soon win. I looked at you and you shook your head. Drones were crawling all over your legs. I could feel several on my back. Five more deadly mosquitoes hovered just beyond swinging range, waiting for their chance. The swarm was about to envelop us.

I heard a flutter by my ear and ducked aside. A bird flew past — one of the swifts that had followed us earlier. It grabbed a mosquito in its beak with a crunch, dropped the mangled parts, then banked around to grab another. Screaming cries of swee-swee filled the air as the rest of the flock swooped in and attacked the insects all around us. 

I looked up with hope, but the tiny drones fought back. The buzzing intensified and the swarm went into a frenzy of motion. Every insect joined the fray — including those that had been crawling on us — wielding stingers, mandibles, and lacerating feet against their feathered opponents.

It was a melee, and we were in the middle of it.

Leaving the meadow wasn’t an option — the insects still surrounded us. Whenever we took a step, the swarm followed, as if we were the center of a moving whirlwind. At least the swifts were keeping more of the drones occupied, so we didn’t have to fight off as many as before.

But the mechanical insects formed up into groups and mounted counterattacks, with several ganging up on one bird at a time. We saw one flapping madly as a dozen beetle-like drones latched onto its wings and dragged it tumbling to the ground. The drones rose back up, the bird didn’t.

“Look at this,” you said. The downed bird was partially torn open at the neck. Instead of blood and bones we saw the unmistakable sheen of finely-crafted metal parts and a cluster of thin wires in the wound hole.

“It’s another damned robot! Or drone. Or whatever.” I crouched down to prod it with a finger.

“Anyway, it’s not real. Just like some people say.” You looked up at the rest of the swifts still engaged in the battle, then swatted away a beetle that tried to land on your face. “What do you think is going on here?”

I grabbed the bird’s head and yanked out an eye — a camera lens with markings stamped on the copper backing. “This looks specially made,” I said, handing it to you before sweeping a couple of bee-drones off my arm.

“These are NSA parts.” I’m not sure how you knew that, but okay. You pointed at the insect swarm. “So who makes those? Get one for me.”

I found one that had been dropped on the ground by a bird. It was a mosquito, so I had to be careful with the needle, but managed to pull a few pieces off. Most were too small to read any part numbers, but the wings provided the answer.

You examined it while waving your hand in front of your face to scatter a formation of wasps. “This is CIA. They make their own parts too.” Again, you knew that… how?

“I thought they were all on the same side,” I said. “Our side. National Security, Central Intelligence — they’re both agencies of the U.S.”

“I suppose they have their domestic troubles like anybody else.”

“So what does the FBI use — mechanical rodents? Squirrel drones?”

“Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.”

The battle was winding down, the agencies were pulling back their forces. It seemed to be a draw.

A few of the birds swooped to the ground and picked up some incapacitated insects, then flew off with them across the meadow and into the trees, no doubt to deliver the rival technology, which would be scrutinized in some lab. At the same time, a coordinated group of stout beetles picked up one of the broken birds and carried it off in the other direction, back toward the camp.

“They set us up,” you said. “Our client controls those birds.”

I shook my head in disbelief as the scenario played out in my mind. “They had the birds follow us, then they made sure we were discovered, so the other agency would send their drones out after us, so our client could get their hands on the technology. Never mind that we could have been killed.”

“And the insect assembly line we saw?” you said. “They wanted us — or someone — to find them so they could… I don’t know, send their devices out against the other drones? To test them?”

“Or so they could grab a bird after the battle?” Our theory still had a few gaps. 

We never let our client know we took a disabled bird for our own scrutinizing. Not that we were in the business of stealing advanced technology, just that a bird-drone in the living room — stripped of its skin and mounted in a dramatic pose — would make a great conversation starter, we assumed. Unfortunately, most of our friends prefer to talk about the arts. “Is this a Jean Tinguely?” they’d ask, admiring the artistry of the kinetic sculpture.

But that was for later. For now, the meadow was quiet again. We gathered our stuff and headed into the trees.

We heard shrill calls and birdsongs and buzzing and humming — the usual sounds of the forest as its inhabitants go about their day. But what was that to us? Not only are the birds not real, we had learned that insects aren’t either. Everything has been replicated and turned into a spying device as part of a web of conspiracy where we’re all under observation. 

Maybe nothing is really what we think. Every creature, whether equipped with natural senses or mechanical sensors, is just part of the vast surveillance system of consciousness devised by the universe — a way for nature to keep an eye on us, just as we keep an eye on it, and on each other.

“Well,” I said, brushing my fingers on the bark of a pine, “we can always count on the trees.”

You looked back at me. “Are you sure?”

No. I wasn’t sure about anything anymore.

Encounter in the Cave

Cave entrances in red rock cliffs above some scraggly trees
“Encounter in the Cave”, 16in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

The warning was unmistakable, but came too late for us to turn back. “This doesn’t look good,” I said, slowing the car.

On the shoulder of the two-lane highway was one of those temporary signs the Department of Transportation puts up to caution passing motorists about road conditions, using a six-by-ten-foot array of lights that can spell out any message, as long as the message fits in three lines of eight letters each.

This one flashed:

Then after a few seconds it changed to:

We considered that for a moment as we drove past the sign.

“In the first place,” you said, “they misspelled ‘orc’.”

“Maybe it’s a local variant,” I suggested, “like how British and American words are slightly different. Or they’re using an old-style spelling, for that Gothic effect.”

“In the second place,” you continued, “orcs usually live in the hills, or in caves. Sometimes in hollow trees…”

“And we let one stay in our basement for a week that time his hole got flooded.”

“Right. But I’ve never heard of a road orc.”

“Well, bridge trolls live under bridges — that’s near roads. Maybe this orc sees a similar opportunity. We might have to pay him a toll to pass, which is why someone put up the sign — to warn drivers. Do we have any trinkets, or gold nuggets?”

You rummaged through your bag and shook your head. “Not even a souvenir spoon from Moqui Cave. Maybe he accepts cards.”

“Or maybe he’s just cleaning up a section of the road, participating in one of those Adopt-a-Highway things. He could be a civic-minded creature, picking up trash and stuff.”

“They don’t like to be called creatures.”

We discussed the entrepreneurial endeavors of orcs, trolls, and goblins, but couldn’t understand why anyone would set up shop on a poorly-traveled stretch of road like this. We hadn’t seen a single car, truck, or camper for miles. Hardly a profitable business location for someone who collects tolls for a living.

But we were especially worried about the elays, which are flying scavengers that follow orcs around and pick up the leavings after a hunt or battle. And if there’s a road orc about, we agreed, we should expect elays.

However, we didn’t see the road orc — ‘ork’ in the local spelling — just a lot of construction. The pavement in the opposite lane had been dug up and we drove slowly past a long line of orange reflective barrels that ran down the middle of the road.

“Perhaps we’re mistaken,” you said.

“No, look!” I hit the brakes and brought the car to a stop. 

In an excavated part of the road stood a damaged bulldozer, tipped at an awkward angle. Farther off, at the end of a freshly-made trench, lay a backhoe toppled on its side, as if it had been hurled with a mighty force that sent it plowing up the dirt until it came to rest thirty yards away. 

Nearby was a smaller piece of machinery, now just a mangled heap, one of those hand-held soil compactors that vibrate thousands of times a minute to tamp down dirt and pound material into the ground. Probably loud as hell with an engine that big, I thought. Other tools lay scattered near the road, apparently abandoned in haste.

There was not a soul about. An orange barrel rolled ominously across the pavement, like a tumbleweed in a Western movie, portending death in the desert.

I pulled onto the right shoulder and parked. We sat a moment in silence, then got out to have a look around.

“Someone had enough time to change that sign,” you said, “before…”

“Before the orc got him.”

“They’re usually not so violent. Unless he was upset by the construction.”

I pointed to the red rock cliffs rising above the hills about a mile from the road. “If he lives up there, I bet the noise disturbed him. They tend to sleep during the day.” He only did what a lot of us would like to do when heavy equipment is making a racket on our doorstep and we’re trying to nap.

I shrugged. “I’m sure the authorities will take care of—”

You spun to face me. “Do you think there’s anyone within a hundred miles that can talk to that orc? Besides us? You’d leave that poor cre— that gentle being in the hands of some yokels who’d try to arrest him?”

“They don’t like to be called yokels.”

“It’s Southern Utah,” you said. “And besides, there are small, struggling towns along here. If no one stops the orc, the road may have to be closed for good. Those communities will become ghost towns.”

It was my turn to act like a concerned, civic-minded creature. I walked over to where a worker’s yellow hard hat lay in the dirt and picked it up. A few other personal items were strewn in a trail that led toward the hills. “I guess we go this way,” I said. 

I put the hard hat on and adjusted it. You found a bright green safety vest, shook off the dust, and tried it on. We figured they made us look official so it wouldn’t hurt to wear them.

We headed across a grassy field, following a jumble of footprints left by the workers. We assumed they had been captured by the orc — dragged up to his cave as hostages or just to parley with. Not that they could understand his language, or vice versa.

Few humans know how to speak Rock, the primary language used by hill-dwelling citizens like orcs and trolls, and by those who live underground in close connection with the earth. You and I both had a fair grasp of Rock basics and could get along in situations that called for it, but I could never get the gravelly accent quite right, and it hurt my throat. 

“How do you say ‘peace’ in Rock?” I asked. “Is it this?” I uttered a sound like ho-ock.

“No. More like hah-och, I think.”

We reviewed some vocabulary and rehearsed a few things to say, like “Hello, friend” and “You have a lovely cave” and “Where can I park my horse and carriage?” That last one came from the least-useful phrasebook ever published.

We were making our way up a steep rise when we heard a piercing cry above. Three dark shapes swooped down on us.

“Elays!” you shouted. We ducked under a scraggly tree.

They had long scaly bodies with wide triangular wings that flapped and undulated like pectoral fins, flat and featherless. Their mouths were lined with sharp teeth. Deadly stingers on the tips of their snakelike tails whipped toward us as they flew in for the attack.

I broke off a dead branch and stood up to take a swing at an elay that came at me. I smacked it on its slick underbelly, making a squishy thwack. It tumbled briefly in the air, then regained its poise and hissed at me. All three of them backed away to hover a safe distance above, screeching to each other, probably planning their next assault.

That was our first encounter with the elays — or ‘eelays’ in an alternate spelling, since some people believe the name is a combination of eel and stingray. Linguistic scholars claim that’s just folk etymology, but now that we’ve seen the creatures — long writhing bodies with leathery, finlike wings and stinging tails — I think the folk are on to something.

“Well,” I said, crouching down next to you, “the sign warned us about them.”

“We must be getting close. The orc probably has a cave just up there.” You pointed to a ledge below the cliff face. “We’ll have to make a run for it.”

Sure. Sprint fifty yards up a steep, crumbly slope in the blazing sun while being attacked by flying killer beasts. I nodded. You armed yourself with a dry branch and a handful of stones. We stepped from under the tree and started our sprint, which lasted only seconds.

As soon as we were in the open, two elays darted at me and tried to bite my head, unable to tear through the plastic hard hat. I swung my branch at them and immediately lost my footing as my boots slipped on the scree and I slid back down several feet. You weren’t having it any easier. The third elay had clamped its jaw on your branch and nearly ripped it out of your hands before you shook it free.

We ran again, turned, and fought — swinging our weapons, beating the elays back for a moment — then we scrambled a little farther up the hill, until we had to stand our ground again to keep from getting bitten or stung from behind. 

“I thought they only feed on dead things,” I said during a pause, “like buzzards do.”

“Can’t believe everything you hear.”

“But I heard it from you.” 

You gave me a look of apology, then wheeled around to land a blow on an elay that was making a dive for your face. These things could take a lot of abuse and still come back for more.

In a series of skirmishes we made our way up the rest of the slope and reached the base of the rock cliff. We pulled ourselves up onto the ledge, which was several feet wide, and saw a cave entrance off to the right.

“There it is!” you said. We ran for it.

The elays anticipated our move and flew ahead of us, then banked around as if to protect the entrance. We met our attackers head on — flailing at them, prodding them, pushing them away — then we ducked under them and tumbled into the cave. 

We got to our feet, spun around, and raised our weapons. We expected the elays to follow, but they just settled on the ground and curled up outside the entrance, like dogs who aren’t allowed in the house but know to wait on the doorstep. Relieved, we set down our branches.

That’s when the orc grabbed us from behind.

He yelled something as he picked us up, one in each hand, and pinned us against the wall with a force that squeezed the breath out. My borrowed hard hat fell off and the orc kicked it away, then sneered at your bright green vest, muttering something in a scornful tone.

I couldn’t breathe, but whispered, “He thinks we’re construction workers.” Understandably, he had a bad attitude toward them.

“Got to talk to him.” You had no breath either. This would be tricky. It’s no use knowing someone’s language if he crushes the life out of you before you can get a word in.

But the orc released his grip and took a step back while we slumped against the wall and sucked air back into our lungs. He seemed ready to dismiss us as just a couple more unintelligible trespassers, when you managed to say a few words in Rock. I’m translating here.

“Friends,” you said. “We want to talk.”

That stopped him. He took a closer look at us, suspicious, then he offered a brief smile. “Yes. Friends. Maybe. Why are you here?” He pointed out the cave entrance in the direction of the road. “Why so much noise?” Then he pointed inside the cave. “Are you in their tribe?”

We looked into the shadows. Six construction workers huddled in a corner, watching us with looks of worry and hope. They didn’t seem to be tied up or bound in any way, yet they sat without moving. I suppose the orc was intimidating enough to keep someone where he put them, without the need for restraints.

“No, not with them,” you said, stripping off the vest. You rolled it up and tossed it toward the workers. I picked up the hard hat, then went over and handed it to one of them. “Here,” I said in standard English.

That made the orc feel kindlier toward us.

He formally invited us in and led the way. We had only been in the foyer, as evidenced by the coat rack and umbrella stand, which also held a mean-looking axe. You told the workers to stay put while we negotiated their release. They couldn’t get past the elay sentries anyway.

We followed our host through a low archway and into a larger part of the cave — a domed, high-ceilinged chamber, well-furnished with an assortment of chairs, tables, light fixtures, and shelves filled with glazed pottery and fluorescent minerals. It seemed to be the living room. To the right, down an arched hallway, was a second entrance that opened onto the ledge. The kitchen was straight ahead, and a tunnel off to the left led to the bedroom. A charming cliffside apartment.

“Sit,” he said, with a wave of his enormous arm. 

He was bulky and a bit taller than me, with reddish ocher skin and yellow eyes that gleamed when he smiled. His nose was rather flat, but he had no horns or protruding fangs, as some tales claim, and his brown hair was neatly trimmed, though a bit tousled. He wore leather breeches and a dark green shirt that laced up the front. His feet were bare and dusty, his hands tough and calloused, his fingernails mostly clean.

We sat on a bench while he pulled up a rustic-looking chair whose wood had been artfully twisted to form a solid structure, ornamented all over with delicate carvings. 

Our limited vocabulary made everyday pleasantries difficult. Still, we said how much we liked the cave and thanked him for his ‘house-welcome’ — the closest thing we could come up with for hospitality. He nodded and smiled at that.

I leaned over to you and whispered, “Do we ask his name, or tell him ours?” You whispered back, “He’d think we’re being too familiar.” Cave dwellers tend to like their privacy.

We got down to business. I’ll condense the conversation here, and make our Rock grammar sound better than it was.

You began. “We want peace between you and the road workers.”

He seemed to be waiting for more, so I said, “What bothered you? Why did you break the digging machines?”

He leaned back and presented his side of things.

“I go out at night, roam the hills, hunt for food, tend the trees. I sleep in the day to avoid the sun. It’s hard on the skin and eyes. But I cannot sleep with the noise they make,” he pointed toward the foyer where the workers sat. “That thumper-pounder is the worst. My bed shakes. I had to stop it.”

We could see how tired he was. He had been living with the construction noise for weeks before finally doing something about it. And he must be quite sensitive, being able to feel vibrations from the tamping equipment this far away.

He continued. “I don’t want to break their machines, just make them quiet.”

We sat a moment in contemplation and I heard a ticking sound. On the wall hung a clock correctly set to Mountain Daylight Time. I guess even orcs tell time by the local conventions. You pointed to it and asked, “What time do you wake up?”

“Five or six.” He meant in the afternoon.

“Is noise at night okay?” I asked. “After you wake up?” 

“Yes. Nighttime road-making does not bother me. And it scares away oyi-ochi, so I have better hunting.” I think he meant coyotes. My transcription of his word is a guess.

We made a plan and negotiated a compromise. We’d convince the construction crew to start work in the evening, and the orc would agree to leave them alone.

He thanked us for helping out, though never said he was sorry for slamming us against the wall earlier. Maybe that’s just the usual way of greeting strangers in his culture. I was glad we were friends now, though I worried that saying goodbye might involve a bone-crushing hug.

We went out to the foyer and addressed the crew. I told them, “You have a choice. You can set up some lights and work at night, make as much noise as you need to, and get your job done without interference. Or…”

I paused for dramatic effect. You took over and spelled out the alternative scenario.

Or you can keep working during the day, in which case the orc will keep breaking your equipment. You can try to stop him, call out the police or national guard, but then dozens more orcs will join him” — you were exaggerating — “and you’ll have a fight on your hands. The local Native American tribes will take the side of the orcs” — probably true — “and they’ll be joined by every environmentalist group around” — definitely true — “who will organize protests and roadblocks so you won’t get your work done anyway.”

It wasn’t a difficult choice. They decided to have the Department of Transportation change the schedule.

Everyone gathered on the doorstep and apologies were exchanged, with us translating between the workers and the orc. He even offered to pick up trash along the highway as penance for having damaged the equipment.

Speaking in Rock I told him, “Please make the elays stay here. They attacked us when we came up the hill.”

“Not an attack,” he replied, surprised. “They like to play.”

“That was playing?” I said, unconsciously switching to English. “The whole way up here?” I almost felt bad for having whacked them so hard, then realized they must think it’s part of the fun.

“Not a deadly sting then?” you asked.

“Not much. Hurts a little.” But he agreed to keep them from following us back down the hill. We in turn agreed to keep in touch, maybe visit sometime, and left in a group with the road crew. We were spared a goodbye hug.

At the car I asked, “Should we have told him the idea about collecting tolls?”

You gazed up toward the cliff, then squinted at the sun. “No. A day job would cramp his lifestyle.”

In the Captivating Boughs

A tall majestic oak tree stands in the dense forest
“In the Captivating Boughs”, 16in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

The day we were captured by a rogue oak tree, it had been my turn to cook. I hunted down a few wild onions and a sprig of some herb — which I believed to be edible, mostly — and returned to camp without incident or injury. Unlike the previous day, when we had tangled with a wild boar the size of a box.

“That’s not very specific,” you say, interrupting my tale. “How big of a box?”

“Well… about the size of a boar.” 

“Now you’re being tautological.” You wait while I look that up.

“Okay. The boar was bigger than life, ruler of the forest, master of all it surveyed, ready to take on any interloper that crossed its path. Its cries shook the trees, its tusks could rip the flesh off a giant.”

“And yet…”

And yet, we had taken it down with only a crudely-made spear and a hunting knife between us. The desperation of hunger played a part. And I was furious when it made a lunge at you. After a brief tussle, the boar was panting its last breaths and you were binding up a gash on your—

“Just a scratch, really.”

“There was a lot of blood on your leg. Saying gash makes for better public relations anyway.” 

“Are you sending out press releases now?”

“No. I’m just trying to preempt any complaints from boar sympathizers. Stupid environmentalists.”

We’re environmentalists,” you remind me.

“Sure. But we don’t take the side of tusky beasts that attack weary travelers. Especially when we’re the weary travelers.”

The upshot was, our encounter with the boar was justified as self defense, and we decided to make a meal or two out of the brute. Otherwise, we might have perished of starvation deep in those woods. Hence, the need for the aforementioned flavorings, which I hunted down. A glass of Chianti would have been nice, to complement the nutty-tasting meat.

We had come to solve a mystery, in a part of Romania where people liked to talk about hauntings and myths and witches. That was for the benefit of the tourist trade, no doubt. Yet several locals had recently disappeared in this forest, rumored to have been abducted — by who or what, no one knew. 

A wide-eyed old man claimed he’d been out walking with some companions one evening when they saw a light from above and his friends were “taken up,” though he remembered little after that, until he was found wandering and incoherent near a farm. Not wishing to lose any more citizens, the officials had hired us — a couple of expendable foreigners — and sent us out to investigate.

For weeks we had traversed the woods — searching far off the beaten path, stumbling through dense thickets, scrutinizing every tree we passed, following every potential lead. Our food had run low, our spirits had sunk, and we had nothing to show for our efforts. But we weren’t about to return empty-handed.

The day after the boar incident, we had hiked several hours from our camp when we came upon a stately oak more than fifty meters tall. It seemed innocent enough, but something near the trunk caught our eye — a pile of white round rocks and oddly-shaped sticks. We paused.

Not wishing to arouse the tree’s suspicion, we casually sidled up to it, then kicked aside the leaves for a closer inspection.

“Skeletons,” you said. “Human.”

“There must be four or five, uh… bodies here. Not much left in the way of clothing. Think these are the people who went missing?”

You poked about the base of the tree looking for anything that might identify the victims, being careful not to disturb the bones. “Hard to say who they are, or were.”

We stepped back — you with hands on hips, me with crossed arms — surveying the grisly discovery and considering what it meant. While we stood there, the area beneath the tree grew brighter and I thought the sun must have come out from behind a cloud, then remembered it wasn’t cloudy. We seemed to be in a spotlight.

“What’s going on?” you said, noticing the change. We both looked up, a mistake.

Above us shone a brilliant white light, tinged with bliss-inducing greens and joyous yellows, glorious and mesmerizing. It captivated our minds and we gazed at it, transfixed. A rustling movement closed in and enveloped us in a firm grasp. We felt ourselves being lifted up as consciousness slipped away.

The dreams I had, if you can call them that, were of cozy woods and rain and wind and sun. Which sounds pleasant, except for the nightmarish feeling of being solid and immobile, unable to roam or take shelter from the elements, roots jammed deep in the ground, upper limbs thrashed by storms, unable to avoid the pecking, scratching, burrowing creatures that constantly assaulted my bark—

I woke. Why was I thinking of bark? 

I tried to shake off the dream, then found I couldn’t move. I was flat on my back, arms pinned to my side, tightly bound from head to foot by thick, woody cords woven around my body. Above me I could make out the higher branches of the oak tree and a glowing light like the one that had dazzled us earlier. I saw you nearby, also bound and lying face up, still asleep. Then your eyes opened.

“Well, I guess we’ve been abducted,” I said, just to make conversation.

“What’s causing the light?” Your mind was already at work on our predicament. You wiggled in your trap, testing its strength. “What is this, a wicker basket?”

“Branches and twigs, all criss-crossed it seems. An effective way of binding someone. And we’re high up in the boughs. The breeze is nice, though. As for the light…”

Between us we figured out that the tree made its own light, possibly from a chemical reaction that allowed it to concentrate the location of the glow by moving sap around. A photometer would have been helpful, not that I could move my hands to use it.

“It’s different from that stained-glass tree we found. Was that last year? The time you blew up the rebels who were chasing us?”

“I only scared them away with that grenade,” you said. “But I think you’re right. That tree stored sunlight to power light-emitting cells. This one uses… what’s it called? Chemiluminescence.”

Okay, sure.

Then I remembered. “Like glow sticks, except here they actually are sticks, or rather twigs and leaves. Which are quite pretty if you look closely at—”

“Don’t get hypnotized again!”

I narrowed my eyes to a squint. Leaves rustled around us, then I heard creaking as something large moved in the tree.

“Do you see that?” you asked. I opened my eyelids a notch and peeked.

A branch swung over us — like a surgeon moving an array of instruments on a mechanical arm over an operating table — fully equipped with an assortment of twigs fitted with delicate stems and sensitive leaves. They flexed like eager fingers as the branch was lowered into place above us. A leaf tickled my nose. 

Then the tree began to run its green-tipped feelers over our bodies, poking and prodding as if examining us for vital signs. It loosened the entwining trap wherever it needed to get at us, then re-tightened the weave as it moved on.

“Not too bad so far,” I said. But the tree was just getting started.

It stuck thin twigs under clothing — up pants legs, down shirt collars, into boot tops — but seemed to be frustrated by the material we wore. It tried to tear off our clothing, but the soft feelers weren’t strong enough for the task, so we were spared that indignity.

A hard twig scraped some skin off my hands and neck, possibly collecting DNA samples. Then the tree pressed more forcefully with its fingers and jammed a stem in my ribs. “Ow!” I said.

“How do we get out of here?” you asked, as the probing intensified.

“Well, we have no weapons, we can’t move, we’re a hundred feet up, and there’s a pile of bones below.” That was my optimistic assessment.

“Right. Suppose we— Aahh!

The tree grabbed your head and affixed its twiggy fingers to both temples, then did the same to me. Microscopic growths penetrated the skin, clinging and burrowing, like the root hairs that ivy uses to attach itself to walls. I had the sensation of two dozen tiny needles piercing my scalp as the tree entered my brain and merged with my thoughts.

Then the psychological experiments began.

The oak projected images into our minds — animals, landscapes, flowers, clouds, insects — and observed our reactions. I rather liked the flowers, but grimaced when I saw a large wolf spider attacking a cute little mouse. We were getting a glimpse of the tree’s world.

“Maybe we can use this,” you said, through gritted teeth. “It can hear our thoughts, I assume.”

“Hear them, yeah. But can it understand your thoughts? I never do.”

More images flooded our minds. We saw hikers walk to the tree, look up, and get caught by the light. I shuddered at their fate. In the vision there were no skeletons — yet — at the base of the tree.

You spoke again. “We need to think like something undesirable. You should be good at that.”

“You mean undesirable to a tree — this tree — so it wants to get rid of us.”

“Something it’s afraid of.”

I thought of all the bad things that can happen to oak trees — being orphaned at an early age… bullied by beeches… abused by cults… sickened by disease… hmm. “There’s oak wilt, but that mostly attacks trees back in the states. And I don’t know how to impersonate oak wilt.”

“That’s from a fungus, right? Might work. We’ll think like a generic fungus. Make the tree believe we’re a deadly parasite.”

“Saying ‘generic fungus’ is like saying ‘an ordinary cat’ — I don’t think there is such a thing.”

“Just the tree-destroying types then,” you said, “like Dutch elm disease, or wood-rotting fungi, or the one you mentioned.”

Of all the living things I’ve imagined being, fungus has never made the list. Why couldn’t the tree be deathly afraid of eagles, or sea lions? 

And I had only ever taken one class in mycology. All I remember learning was how amazing mushrooms are. When I told you that, you started to brief me on what you knew. As I listened, clear images of everything you were saying appeared in my head, even before you said it.

I stopped you. “Wait. I can see your thoughts. We must be connected through the tree.”

The mind-probing stems attached to our temples were not only reading our thoughts, they were acting like a two-way transmitter between us. I could sense you, feel your presence. We hadn’t noticed it till now.

“This will make it quicker,” you said. “We’ll mentally share what we know about fungi. And don’t think about mushrooms.” Darn.

It wasn’t exactly a Vulcan mind meld, but we transferred knowledge of a sort back and forth, while the oak continued its probing. Turns out I knew more than I realized, such as the way some fungi are spread by windborne spores. And obscure facts, like how the word mycology is derived from the Greek—

“That’s not helping!” you said aloud. Well, I found it interesting anyway.

The tree was running its feelers over our faces now. It wrapped a soft cord around my chin and poked at your lips. Time to put our plan in action.

I still didn’t know enough to convincingly mimic a fungus, but figured I could depend on you. We both began to visualize being a tiny organism… not animal, not plant… attaching to decaying wood… secreting enzymes to digest the organic matter… absorbing nutrients through thread-like filaments—

A burst of anxiety hit me like an electric shock. Through our tree-mind connection I felt you panic for a second. We lost our train of thought.

“What’s happening?” I asked. You didn’t answer. I sensed annoyance with an undertone of fear.

The oak was trying to examine your mouth. You bit off the twigs and spit them out. That didn’t stop it. A pair of sturdier twigs pried your lips apart and wiggled between your teeth, forcing them open. You jerked your head aside but the tree was relentless. It thrust in a larger stem to hold down your tongue while another crept back toward your throat. 

Your air was cut off. My heart was pounding.

As you were choking for breath, memories arose unbidden in my thoughts — your smile, your laugh, the way you silently mouth lyrics to songs when you’re too embarrassed to sing along, the way you clench your teeth when faced with a challenge, like opening a stubborn jar of relish or getting a jammed rocket launcher to fire. The tree was going to take that away.

Concentrate! I told myself. Think like the fungus, be the fungus. But my mind was a jumble of images.

I pictured the final outcome — our bodies torn apart and tossed to the ground, animals eating our flesh, clothes decomposing on the damp forest floor, bones heaped in a pile with the others. An unworthy end to our adventures. Worse, the locals would still be endangered by this forest terror if we didn’t survive to warn them. More innocent people could die.

I let those thoughts go, then relaxed and filled my mind with fungal intent. My purpose — to spread through the forest and attack the tree by slipping into its sapwood through bore holes or open wounds. I imagined myself as a sack of ten billion spores, ready to burst and cover the leaves and branches. Still the oak kept probing your throat.

I felt your presence dim, fading to darkness. You were losing consciousness. I had only seconds.

In desperation I conjured up an image of a diseased tree in its final stages of blight, weakened by a fungus — by me — its leaves mottled and gray, bark sloughing off, roots rotting away, speech slurring, a crippled oak dying in pain…

Crack! Twigs split and slid away. The woven trap around me loosened. The stems attached to my temples jerked back and ripped themselves out of my skin, disconnecting from my menacing thoughts. I heard you suck in a breath and cough as the oak pulled its woody finger out of your throat and started to unwind the branches holding you. 

“It worked,” I whispered. “It thinks we’re a threat.”

“Yes.” Another cough. You were hoarse. “Get ready. If it lets us go—”

Too late. The bottom fell out and we both dropped out of our cages. 

We were still over thirty meters up and the tree had removed our support. I grabbed on to the nearest branch and my feet swung down. Sharp twigs batted my hands away and I lost my grip. You grasped at anything you could while slipping through the branches.

And so we made our way down — clambering, falling, clutching — as the tree shook us off, pushed us away, and got rid of us as quickly as possible. Unable to hold on to the trunk, we tumbled the last few meters to the ground, landing with a bony crunch. I winced at the sound. We scrambled away from the roots, then sat a moment in the nearby bushes to catch our breaths.

After a while you looked at me and said, “You make a pretty good fungus.”

“All my friends say so.”

We got up to collect our packs, keeping a wary eye on the tree. We found some items of ours it had discarded — belts, knives, bracelet, watch. It didn’t like metal things.

“We need to report this tree right away,” you said. “It can’t just go around abducting people.”

“Not if it’s going to leave their bones lying about like that.”

You gave me a sharp look, then shrugged at my insensitive remark. “No, you’re right. It’s untidy.”

I didn’t care. We had discovered the cause of the mysterious disappearances. And I was hungry, exhausted, and sore. I assumed you were too. 

“Before we report anything, let’s go back to camp and have another helping of that boar.”