October 18, 2010

I submit the following story to an informal “Scary Story With No Word Limit” contest last week. The tale had been tumbling about my head ever since Lara and I moved east and (temporarily) settled in a very peculiar state. The title of the story is, admittedly, the worst I could think of. I wanted a silly title and a silly subtitle to match the rather fanciful nature of the story. I count the whole thing as a minor success. But enough blather. Welcome to…

“Schmermont (Or, The Geological Horror of Late Capitalism)”

They sat her near the fire, ancient Millicent Edgewater, as if her withered frame could no longer sustain the warmth of life on its own. And they buzzed about her, her children now swollen with middle-age, their children, old enough to be married themselves, all of them youthful and fashionable and attempting to avoid the gaze of the corpse in the corner, as if to look at her, really look, might speed up their own aging, might call the reaper down upon them that much sooner. But their children, the great grandchildren… they saw in Millicent something their elders missed. They began to collect about her knobby knees and ankles like some many seeds borne on the wind. They crowded around her because of her stories, which were all really one story.

“Tell us about the Hole in the Map, Nonnie,” a tow-headed boy child pleaded. The others murmured the same. They pawed at each other’s shoulders and legs, merging as one, so much flotsam strung together. A raft lost at sea.

“Hole in the Map?,” Millicent would at first pretend, “Why Matthew,” she knew each of their names, “There are no such things. Not in this day and age of satellites and cellular phones. Everything has been explored, assigned a value, sifted through for anything worth a dollar,” Millicent cooed, her voice surprisingly clear, not the crinkled rotting-leaves-on-a-dirt-road sound their parents heard.

“Then why don’t we go up into the mountains any more? What’s up there?,” Kristin chirped. Her eyes were slightly crossed, her dress rumpled, a hand-me-down.

“What’s up there? Why how should I know? Nobody’s been up there for fifty years or more. Not after…,” she paused, the eyes of the most ADD riddled youngster now locked on her own. The fire chose that moment to seize a pine knot and explode it with the sound of a gunshot. Shrieks and cries. They all crept in closer.

“Is it true there are monsters up there? That the trees have blood in them, like people? That roads go in and don’t come out?,” Carrie asked. The older girl had heard this story before as most of them had. But someone was supposed to ask this question. Her older sister had done so two years back, but now Melanie stood in the hallway with her phone in her hands, fingers picking and plucking and texting.

“Monsters? Wouldn’t know anything about any monsters. All I know is that it was people who changed things up there. People who made that place go bad. People who couldn’t handle what they brought down and people who ran away and left the Hole…”

“The Hole in the Map!,” several of the kids yelled. Adults looked over with half open eyes, vaguely concerned about their kids but not really. How much harm could that crusty old crackpot do? Their attention returned to the drinks in their hands, their conversations about lawn maintenance and insurance premiums, the difficulty in securing a good babysitter, the stock market, liquidity and weapons futures.

Millicent recognized the glazed expressions on the faces of the adults without even glancing up and wondered when it happened. When in life did that sheen of boredom settle down upon their brows? Crystallizing their childish hopes and fears into so many coupons redeemable at Megamarts everywhere. They were beyond her, these older relations, so she bent forward to try and save what she might.

She began one of her stories, which were all really one story.

“I left the sea and scaled the mountains when I was even younger than you are, leaving behind the salt smell and the diamond shine for the dark forests of rock and snow. We were tougher then, grew up faster, had to or else someone else would do it in our place. My brothers and sisters and I moved up there, where the hole is now, there’s an entire state up there though not so big as you’d imagine. A tiny sliver a thing back then, with a mountain range for a backbone and rushing rivers for blood. Not many folks lived there, on account of the cold, some winters it would grip us like a fist and just wear the weakest of us down to dust. You couldn’t grow much on rocks, so we took what we could get, logging, mining, always taking, but there wasn’t many of us, so it wasn’t a problem. Believe you me in those days that land took just as much from us in return.

Pretty soon the surrounding states and their gold meadows and lush valleys, their bustling ports and mild winters grew more populous. The cities there overflowed with people and in the summers they simply stunk of them. To imagine, our backwater wilderness began to look appealing! Gradually we became a destination for those seeking to get away. Because that is where we had settled. Away. A way to what, well…

The cityfolk didn’t care where or to what. Just so long as it wasn’t filled with curbside garbage bins, factory chimneys or angry motorists and their exhaust belching cars. The wilderness became worthwhile for being different, for being difficult, not that many stayed for the real trying times, for the winters. Over time the logging stopped, because forests were more attractive than stumps and fallen timbers. Mines were shut down, filled in, forgotten. What we locals had been looking for down there was cheaper and easier to get from Africa or wherever anyhow. Point is we stopped taking our livelihoods from the land and started giving the land over to the tourists, and that was our first mistake.

I remember when the first Store opened, a curious shack on the side of the highway just within our humble border. Inside there was little of value to the people who lived in town. But the tourists! They just couldn’t get enough. A mug with the state’s name on it, what a fanciful thing, a quilt with the state’s shape embroidered over and over, hypnotizing. Handmade wooden signs with inane slogans like

“You haven’t been there if you’ve never come here.”

The proprietor of the Store soon grew rich, richer than anyone in town ten times over. He opened another store, and a third, and other entrepreneurs quickly followed his lead. Soon there was a state Store in every parish, every town, on every major road. And far from canceling each other out, they all thrived.

Store owners began to one up each other in charm, in quaintness, in authenticity. Only their particular store was real, only their products were the genuine article. Each shack’s clapboard siding became more rustic than it’s neighbor, there could not be enough holes, rusty nails, birds nests in the eaves. If the shack canted to one side profits rose 12%, if the floors moaned when walked upon add another 4%. No working bathroom? Now you’re talking! To say nothing of faux-grouchy customer service, why us locals were so uncivilized, did you possibly think we could give correct change?

Tubs and jars of a sickly white syrup began to appear on Store shelves, rendered from the sap of a certain tree that only grew to such tremendous size up in the mountains. Nobody cared that it took an entire warehouse full of firewood to boil down the sticky treeblood, to render just a pint of it to be palatable to the tourists. As a result of all the labor the prices of the jugs and jars went up and up, but so did sales so the trees kept bleeding.

At the same time a particularly ingenious shopkeeper with some familiarity with a local woodland legend concocted a plan. A plan featuring an antlered monster twice as tall as a man, with eyes bright with cunning. A plan that ended up transforming the mythical creature into an entire line of hats, t-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, blankets, fine china, stuffed animals, figurines, toilet brushes, backpacks and bumperstickers. Each time the beast’s image was reproduced it was slightly different than the last since nobody had actually seen one of these animals, indeed if they even existed. The antlers grew larger, the teeth sharper, the fur bristlier, the eyes no longer shining but painted over in silhouette, the bright light extinguished down to a black unseen malevolence.

Local town transportation departments played along with the Stores. They made up signs and stuck them along roads to show visitors where they might spot the fabled beast, which most locals were fairly sure wasn’t real. Tourists’ sport utility vehicles and station wagons choked these backroads, drivers toting binoculars, children’s faces pressed up against foggy car windows, their noses running perpetually with mucous. All anyone ever saw was a deer or a skunk or once and a long while a bear embarrassed to have lost its way.

Lodges and retreats were built all over the state, the more remote and secluded the better. Each was more expensive and elaborate than the last. Wooden structures perched precariously on cliff faces, crowned mountain summits, straddled riverbeds, dangled in the branches of the trees themselves, or tunneled below, becoming opulent caverns carved out of the very earth itself. Each lodge was it’s own outpost into this savage land. Hiking and fishing, skiing, mountain biking and white water rafting, tourists milled up and down the mountains never satisfied after their weekend and holiday misadventures.

The ‘state-themed’ Stores were even more populous now, jostling with each other about the switchbacks and lakefronts. More and more trees were being bled, no longer just the old giants, but saplings as well. Of course the sap of these didn’t taste as good but nobody seemed to notice. Most tourists didn’t use the stuff anyhow, the jars were ornamental, what lay inside may as well have been badger droppings. Yet the townsfolk couldn’t produce enough syrup to meet demand, and the older trees began to die off. Other, shorter, sinister looking trees took their place, sprouted up out of the carcasses of their felled bretheren. Trees whose syrup ran eerily red like animal blood and tasted of rot. With bark like iron. Too much work to fell.

The papers began to report stories of missing persons lost up in the mountains. At first bad weather was to blame, blizzards and mudslides and fog so thick it would bully you off a bridge. Yes bad weather was to blame—that, and general incompetence. Had to be it. Locals would laugh. Just another arrogant cityslicker fallen in a crevasse or mauled by a panther. With the proper equipment that never would have happened, with the right bug spray none of those dragonflies would ever have torched that camp site. But when seasoned hikers started to disappear with some regularity, portions of the mountains were closed and barred.

Late at night tourists snug in their blankets and comforters, bellies full of riverfish and smores, would hear ominous noises in the dark, things snuffling about the trash too large to be bears. Curtains were drawn, better this than a chance to see the ambiguous shapes looming in close and blotting out the stars. In the morning trucks and other automobiles were found overturned and battered as if by horns, tusks and hooves. Lodges went on the market and only those closest to town found renters.

The townsfolk’s children, fresh out of swanky East Coast colleges, put through on their Store-owner parent’s new wealth, never returned home, found jobs in the very same big cities whose inhabitants filled their parent’s bank accounts. The local populace grew older but none the wiser as cynicism and greed replaced good sense and whatever hospitality they might have had. Their children had forgotten them and at least moved on, the future was dimming but darn if they wouldn’t squeeze every last cent from each and every visitor.

Although some dispute this fact to this very day, the state itself had grown. No longer a sliver, it puffed and crept and shouldered the surrounding states off, swelling over ten times it’s original size in those it’s last days in the union. Interstate highways that once took only a few hours to drive across it’s width now took days. Towns spread further and further apart and continued to lose residents. That Hole you’ll see in your schoolbooks wasn’t always so big. Oh, I know, they don’t teach this stuff anymore. You won’t find the hole in the map in any books, not anymore. The lost state, the one you haven’t heard of, originally the third smallest, was for a time the second biggest. A dark and brutal wilderness which people began to shun and with good reason.

Walls and fences were erected not long after my brother made me move back to the sea. The waves sparkled so fiercely I nearly went blind. Seems the things moving about in the night back in the mountains were no longer content to stay where they belonged, where they had been forged and birthed and baptized. People assumed that if they no longer paid any attention to the state, that things might calm down, go back to normal. It was a good plan but it would take time to implement. Guard towers were installed and manned 24 hours a day to keep what lurked within from escaping.

Today most of those towers stand empty, some have even toppled over. Historians confuse them with the forts of the original colonists, but a few like me know the truth. The walls have all crumbled or been wrapped in the earth, indistinguishable from the mountains themselves. Your parents will tell you that nobody lives on the other side of these peaks anymore, but that can’t be true. They never got everyone out, especially those who worked in the lodges high in the mountains.”

“But what about the Hole?,” Matthew asked, holding his hands up in a fudge-sticky big ‘O’ for emphasis.

“Oh, I suppose it slowly filled in as people stopped paying it any mind,” Millicent said, casting a calculated glance off to the distance. The children followed her eyes, craning their necks to see the unseen.

“But some say,” Millicent said loudly with a sudden strength they did not expect, “that pockets of that dark place still remain, just south of the St Lawrence, just east of lake Champlain. That maybe, before the walls went up it bled over into the swamps of central New York and the less traveled highlands of southern Pennsylvania and West Virgina. Pockets all over New England and down into the Appalachians.

Places where the road bends funny, where all the houses are abandoned to this day, where the guide books and hiking manuals skip over. Which is for the best, really. What’s there shouldn’t be and what’s there’ll only be upset if people come back. There are just certain places you shouldn’t go after all.”

“But you lived there,” Kristin said, her mother looming near thrusting unwanted boots and mittens, jacketscarfandhat into the curious girl’s hands.

Millicent just gave her a knowing look as the children began to disperse, each to it’s own parents, each to it’s family sedan. Within moments her story would be embattled by portable DVD players and the pranks of older siblings, the threat of an Early Bedtime.

Millicent’s brother stood next to her, the embers of the fire still warm and good. She looked up at him and he back at her and what they shared was something like a smile.

*         *         *         *         *

May 01, 2020

Opening Paragraph From the Short Story “Mountain Lord”

I was eleven when I cobbled together my first golem. It was so small it fit in the palm of my hand. I built it out of red toy bricks that clicked when pressed together. When a tiny green brick in its forehead lit up, I set it down on the musty living room carpet. The golem managed two infantile steps before my seven-year-old brother broke off its right leg and made it the chimney of the house he was building. My golem let out a meek scream, barely audible over the low murmur of the television. As the cry faded away I noticed the freezing rain snapping against the window panes. Even though it was early afternoon, dark skies gave the illusion of evening.

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