by Michael Grant Smith
In my sixteenth year I bore the last of my offspring. At the age of twenty there’s nothing left for me to do except volunteer for suicide missions. It’s been a fine score of years but my part must end. Scabbed landscapes and gateless skies reopen a hole I strive to fill with words and wishes, yet responsibilities claim priority. I’m a renowned finder of ways; it’s said my cats and I could render a path through hell itself.
We left the color green behind us on the hardlands’ far side. Our seventh march began this morning before dawn. Julie mumbles to herself, sometimes crying out answers to unasked questions. Scolding her would drain my own waning strength. After climbing gradually but steadily for hours, all at once the ground falls away beneath our punished feet.
At the bottom of a dry basin resides a furnishing from the older time. Stained and faded covering, corners quilted in by juniper needles, wide enough to seat three women. Four days’ journey from the closest decayed city-fort, yet here it is. No food, water, or any other valuable resources are evident, only spiny shrubs and stunted weeds. Why did the cats lead us to this place? Biscuit stretches to his full length and pierces the upholstery with his talons. Magda circles one of the collapsed cushions thrice and finishes in a coil, almond eyes peering at us through the puff of her tail.
My team: Larissa, Julie, me, and our drone, #3855.
My cats: Biscuit, Magda, Jezebel, Robert Plant, Enterprise, and Sonny.
Evening’s onset suffuses this gray landscape of ravines and shattered trees, so for our campsite the basin is as good as any. The drone heaves his burden of provisions upon the grit and collects larger stones with which to create a fire ring. I smell no rain in the air, but as a precaution we roll out our bedding halfway up the slope. Safeguarding ourselves against being drowned in our sleep also maintains a prudent distance from the ancient furnishing. It’s best to avoid relics from the past, but if the cats want to involve themselves, well, that’s their affair.
Julie, restored somewhat by the prospect of a break, kneels at the ring of stones and tosses scraps of withered bracken into the blaze, probably hoping the fragrance will cheer us. Shadows chase each other across a gap-toothed perimeter of overhanging branch and scant leaf: juniper, eucalyptus, bay laurel. Convicted of engaging in a sexual liaison not related to producing offspring—our law, but seldom enforced—Julie at the age of nineteen is banished from our clan and sentenced early to the fate of the aged. Her facial tattoos and rope-locked hair convey ferocity but it’s a disguise. She’s soft of flesh, voice, and demeanor. My cats shun her, as should I.
A wraith-like figure approaches, somber and colorless until tinted ruddy by the campfire. Old Larissa, esteemed bodyguard and assassin—she of nearly twenty-one years and ripe for her own ending. Tall, slim, unyielding as my hickory staff; long silver braided hair looped in a necklace as if for combat. Scars trace her face as do veins of a leaf. Did fame and prowess postpone her doom and mine? She warms her hands before gliding away wordlessly with bow and lance to patrol our perimeter.
The flames hiss and crackle their lullaby but rest eludes me. Into this near-quiet the finer details of my assignment dissolve, intangible as smoke, yet I know my cats and I will unriddle a passage that is swift, secret, and assured. I cast aside my covers and wander about our campsite. At the light’s limit and facing the void sits our male companion, cross-legged on the basin’s rim. Pale radiance dances on his shorn head and hunched shoulders.
In our clan it’s forbidden to speak with a drone unless giving him orders or demanding sexual service. The latter isn’t an option with this one: his creased skin and silver stubble mark him as being long past that sort of utility. His scalp tattoos, if I were to study them, record his chain of servitude, principal skills, and expiration date. It’s clear his time has passed—why else would he be attached to our group?
#3855 doesn’t stir when popping twigs announce my presence. The tracker who walks with cats! Without turning, he acknowledges me:
“What is your bidding, Ma’am?”
“There are no orders, drone. I roam the darkness because I cannot find repose.”
He remains as before, a totem carved from weathered wood. Despite his semi-nakedness he appears unbothered by the encroaching cold. Deeper in the surrounding gloom and beyond any hint of Julie’s fire, a nightjar calls. I squat next to #3855 and ask myself if I can still smell the burnt bracken or is it simply stuck in my nostrils. Although barely illuminated, the man’s profile reveals a hawk’s nose, sunken cheeks, and prominent jaw.
My fingers, without a conscious command, scrub my close-cropped hair and rally it into spikes. I stink, but all of us reek.
My time is due to be over soon, so I break some rules.
“Did you ever imagine an adventure such as this—at the dregs of your life, rambling through rough terrain with three old women and a squad of tracker cats?” I intend to sound lighter than how I feel inside. Instead, my voice squawks and rasps like a crow’s.
At last he stirs, but merely to shrug his shoulders.
“I’ve never been instructed to imagine anything, Ma’am.”
I recall my own ambitions—some of which were realized, others never to be—and wonder how I’d learned or dared to aspire. What did I ever want that was beyond hope of attainment? My two daughters would be raised to take responsibility and fulfill whatever task our clan delegates to them. I spied the eldest once, two years after her birth. Oh, I knew her. There’s no mistaking these things.
#3855 and I linger without words. I suspect our illicit conversation might be over almost as quickly as it’d begun. My face burns with its own internal heat. I get up and stamp my feet in order to beat the numbness out of them. Better to fret alone on rocks and roots than to pass the night in this way. I turn toward the camp.
“When I sleep, I dream,” the drone says suddenly. His face tilts upward in my direction. He’s older than I’d assumed—possibly reaching his third decade. Far older than any human I’ve known. One of his eyes picks up the flicker of our campfire. That single spark burns a hole through me as if my heart were a blanket.
“Do you?” I ask. “About what?”
He stares straight ahead again and speaks softly the way partners, strangers though they may be, embrace each other after physical relations, and whisper all the truth or falsehoods they think the other should hear. Deserves to hear, needs to hear.
“I’m within one of the old ruins where the two rivers join, yet the great hall is whole and filled with people and light. Everyone—women, men, children—is seated along an endless table laden with meats and vegetables and drink, and the feast’s bounty flows beyond my sight. A music of horns and drums pushes against the throng. I raise a huge roasted shank to my mouth but before I taste it the room turns dark. There is wailing and commotion until I wake up in the dream as I do in life. Then I awaken again but in this world.”
I wait but there is no more.
“How many occurrences of this vision?”
“This night and every one before, Ma’am. You roused me from it when you approached.”
“Claudia. My name’s Claudia.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I know your name.”
“What binds you to us? You’re not shackled or tethered. Why not go elsewhere?”
Now standing alongside me, he looks outward into the pitch. In that direction marches a row of mountains ignited by the failing sun but invisible at this hour. The moon will rise late and greet sunrise.
“Go? To what purpose?” He shakes his head and glances at me; we hold each other’s gaze, if briefly. “What would be my prize? I could meet my freedom whenever I choose to see it. An ending. While in that cold slumber, I hope to taste the feast of which I spoke.”
The back of my neck prickles as if the cats had howled.
“I want only to be a finder of ways,” I whisper. “I don’t care about the destinations.”
The drone lapses back into silence. Why did I speak with him? If Julie or Larissa had overheard us, my authority would bleed into the dust. I consider striking the wretch, scolding his insolence, holding out his words as evidence of feeble, crippled intent. But there are no witnesses to my weakness, no judges to approve or disapprove my prosecutions.
Then, with a sigh, he says:
“Perhaps I’ll follow the path divined by you and your cats. Perhaps that’s the way I mean to go for a while.”
I flinch from soft contact on my shin and nearly kick out. Jezebel turns around and rubs past me again; she has napped and is on her way to hunt. The others will be skulking nigh but in the dimness I see black Jezebel at my feet, Magda the calico, and Magda’s yellow-tabby son Robert Plant. I remember my life and duty.
“Well, no matter what you decide, stay for breakfast at least,” I say to the drone. “Let’s hope my assassins pull in a few young rabbits or something even finer.”
“Whatever they bring I’ll prepare it for you,” he replies, and pauses. “I do prefer rabbit to mole.” A flash of teeth—maybe he grinned?
I leave him there and return to my bedding. As I struggle once again to wrap myself in forgetfulness, I hear Larissa whistle. Julie startles back to awareness, stirs the embers, and sets off to relieve the thin wraith.
In the refreshed flame’s glow and as my eyelids sink, I glimpse the drone on the ridge. I resolve to track the man’s dream, dream it, and awaken to his subsequent departure.
Michael Grant Smith is at various times a musician, writer, live sound engineer, marketing associate, carpenter, automobile mechanic, and rancher. He wears sleeveless T-shirts, weather permitting. His writing has appeared in elimae, Literally Stories, The Zodiac Review, Dime Show Review, and Ghost Parachute, and is forthcoming in The Airgonaut. Michael resides in Ohio. He has traveled to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Cincinnati.