by Delman Kludar
Mars had been living
in the woods long enough now, that it felt like home. However, he had lost all
sense of time. If asked, he couldn't tell you if he'd been in these woods for
a few months, or a few years. He was completely indifferent about it though.
What difference would it make? For all intents, there were no real seasons here
at this latitude. One day is pretty much like the next. If it weren't for the
plants and animals, he wouldn't know what time of year is was. Still, it mattered
Though he kept the original campsite, which he and his missing friends had made, as a kind of base-camp, he wandered at will and slept wherever he tired. He rarely wore shoes anymore, and he cut off his pant legs because he spent so much time in the water, fishing. The rain and cold no long affected him. Though he liked to sit by a fire at night, he no longer needed it. His hair and beard had grown long. In addition to this he hadn't spoken a word since that night around the camp fire with the aliens. Aside from the fish he caught, the rest of his diet was vegetarian. He wandered in the wilderness like some kind of young Buddha seeking nothing more than oneness with his new world. He couldn't believe how easy it was living here. He always seemed to find just what he needed just when he needed it.
Mars was content to sit and watch the flowers open and unfold in the morning and to watch for hours as they follow the sun across the sky. He would stop and watch a spider weave it's web or watch a bird build a nest. In the rain, he would watch as bits of an exposed hillside eroded and when the rain was over, he'd watch the stones dry. He could read the water in a stream like it was a book. He would watch the whirlpools and eddies in a stream for hours at a time. There were times when he would sit on a ridge top and watch the big picture for a day at a time, feeling the earth beneath him, the wind and grass on his skin, the river below, the clouds above, the earth spinning around the Sun, dancing with the stars. In time he came to know every rock and tree and creature in the forest. He understood the whole valley and it's geologic history and climatic conditions. He understood how every creature fit into the scheme of life in this ecosystem. He was content in his own little Eden. Still, there were new discoveries and mysteries every day.
There were those weird sounds he heard, always around sunup or sundown. He first heard it back when he and Karl and John first came to this valley. They'd theorize about it around the camp fire but never got around to investigating it. It was a sort of soft howling moan. Like no animal he'd ever known but not really human either. It wasn't just a moan, it was more like a choir, softly 'whoo-ing', sometimes swelling into a wail. The thing is, they could never agree on where the sound was coming from. Some might have thought it a scary sound but Mars didn't. He merely thought it very queer, in an interesting way, attributing it to birds or animals, or more likely, to the wind blowing through the tree limbs or a hollow trunk.
There were other strange occurrences too, thought not weird enough to merit much thought. Like sometimes when he was meditating, these lightning bolts would shoot through his head, accompanied by bright flashes of light. It jarred his mind for a moment and quickly went away. No pain, just a jolt. Sometimes he'd just be walking along and it was like somebody hit him with a tazer-gun, like an electric shock. He always forgot about it right after the incident, until it happened again. Mars chalked it up to possible brain damage he might have received on his calamity-filled journey here. As if now that the madness had subsided he noticed these little temporary brain short-circuits.
One beautiful sunny morning, Mars was sitting cross-legged on a fallen log at one of his favorite spots in the forest. He found it quite by accident one day. It was in a lush green gorge halfway up the side of one of the ridges, completely hidden and difficult to get to from the valley below. He was basking in a spot of sunlight meditating with his eyes closed in the peaceful solitude. Something jerked him violently out of his trance, like one of those spasms he gets. He looked around and everything seemed normal. He uncrossed his legs, stretched his muscles and rolled his head. Something caught his eye. He noticed something he'd missed in all the times he'd been to this spot. The sunlight at that moment was just right to expose, almost hidden in the undergrowth on the side of the hill, what looked like a heavy timber frame of some kind. Mars hopped off the log and went closer to investigate. Pulling aside some vines, he exposed the what appeared to be a small entrance to an old mine. This one was hand-dug; there were no ore car tracks and Mars had to bend over to enter the tunnel. It looked safe enough from what he could see but he wasn't about to go any further without some kind of light. That would mean a trip back to the base camp and that was a half day walk, there and back. He wasn't that interested in seeing the inside of this mine. There couldn't possibly be anything in there he needed.
Mars went about making a temporary camp. This would be a good place to spend the night, he'd be up out of the valley fog and it would be warmer. He spent the rest of the day wandering around the nearby sides of the ridge, finding wonder at every turn. Occasionally, he'd stop and admire the view of his own private valley.
As the Sun set, Mars was back at his camp eating a meal of things he'd gathered on his walk in the woods. He had a small fire going to roast some tubers and was feeding some sticks into it when he thought he heard something. Softly, almost imperceptibly at first, he thought he heard a soft 'woo-ing' sound swelling and dying. He raised his head and cocked his head from side to side to try to locate the sound. The sound grew louder, joined by other members but still swelling from soft to loud. There was a distinct breathy nature to the sound. It was that mysterious sound he'd heard from time to time, only this time he was much closer to it's source. The sound slowly grew in volume until it was quite loud; louder than any animal. Mars got up and walked around to better locate the source of the sound. By now it was almost as loud a factory horn, and as Mars stepped in front of the mine entrance he knew he'd found the source.
Venus sat on the ground,
her foot in her hands, rubbing her sore toe. It wasn't hurt that bad. She got
up and began to walk away but looking around as if she didn't know which direction
to go. Then she heard the choppers. Instinctively, she began running for the
oak trees at the other end of this meadow. Moments before she'd been hoping
they'd just come and get her and get it over with, now she was running, as if
for her life, from just what she'd hoped for. She didn't stop to think why she
was running, she just knew that it was the right thing to do. This was not the
way this thing was supposed to end. With Wohaka gone, she was now afraid of
these guys. Her brain could not rationalize now, it was operating on purely
animal instinct: Flee for your life! Her lungs burned as she ran as hard as
she could toward the trees. Maybe they wouldn't spot her, she hoped. They spotted
her all right. They had infrared scanners and they got her on their scopes just
as she got to the trees. Venus heard them closing and didn't stop running. Her
legs were beginning to ache but all she could think about was running away.
The choppers swarmed overhead as Venus ran among the oaks. The trees were spread out but not enough to allow the choppers to land close to Venus. As long as she kept moving, nobody could rappel out of the choppers down to the ground. In a moment it wouldn't matter, she was about to collapse from exhaustion. She somehow managed to push herself onward, leaning on trees for support as she passed them, clawing at the ground to keep from falling as she tripped. A voice came over a loudspeaker ordering her to surrender and once again, "Resistance is futile."
Venus saw the ground drop away in the trees ahead and ran in that direction. Her legs could barely carry her now and she was having a hard time breathing. She felt like she had to vomit. If she could only make it to that thicker wood and drop-off up ahead.
When she got to the edge she looked over her shoulder to see men sliding down ropes hanging from the choppers, right behind her. Turning, she ran down the hill through the trees. The hill got steeper, until Venus lost control, her legs could no longer keep up. She went sledding on her belly, riding a bed of leaves down that hill until she ran into a gnarly bush that stopped her. She got up and continued running down the hill jumping over fallen logs and large rocks. She could hear the soldiers somewhere behind her.
Up ahead she saw a small boulder big enough for her to hide behind. She planned to get to it and rest for a moment and try to look around for another route away from her pursuers. Here's what happened instead: When Venus got to the boulder, she vaulted over it with both hands on the rock, but there was a hole in the ground behind the boulder. Venus saw that she was going to land right in the hole, and since she could do nothing to alter her trajectory, she hung on to the stone. She looked over her shoulder down into a deep dark hole as she hung there, feet dangling in the air. She tried to pull herself up but she was too tired, she could barely hang on. As she struggled the boulder began to tip toward her sending a few pebbles and some dust into the black void of the hole. She stopped moving and the boulder settled. She had to do something though, she couldn't hold on much longer. She struggled one last time in a heroic effort to pull herself out of the hole. She could hear the soldiers very close by. She cried for help as she swung her right leg out to try to get a toe-hold on the edge of the hole. Just as the soldiers turned, the rock tipped over, dropping Venus into the hole and slamming shut on it like a giant trap door. The soldiers never saw a thing.
Venus fell screaming into the unknown darkness as the boulder cut off all light. She thought she was dead for sure this time and braced herself for a fatal landing. However, the fall wasn't as far as she thought it was going to be; only about 20 feet. It was a lot softer than she expected too. She'd landed on a cone of soft dirt that had formed directly below the hole, accumulating over time, as the ceiling caved in, little by little. She was stuck hip-deep in a pile of soft, cold dirt in complete darkness. It was utterly and impenetrably black and absolutely quiet. She cried for help in the desperate hope that the soldiers would hear her. Anything was better than this, she thought. Unfortunately, her cries were in vain.
Venus pulled her legs out of the dirt and tumbled the short distance down the side of the cone to the floor of the cave. There was nothing to do now but wait and see if her eyes could adjust to the darkness. Venus remained calm but it took all her effort. Her legs were cramping up, she was still catching her breath, it was so quiet that all she could hear was her breathing and her heart beat pounding in her ears. She closed her eyes and everything was the same; swirling clouds of brown and gray clouds with sparks in them. She tried to rub the pain out of her legs and then she lay back against the cone of dirt and rested. Eventually she fell asleep.
Hours later Venus woke with a start, confused at first, until she reminded herself where she was. What woke her was the same howling of the cave that Mars heard. There was absolutely no light in the cave and so there was nothing for her to see, no matter how accustomed her eyes became. Since she couldn't look for a place to hide, she decided to just lay flat against the dirt cone attempting to be as calm and quiet as possible. Maybe what ever was making that noise wouldn't find her. It sounded like it was in some far off part of the cave. Venus was frightened. She didn't know which would come first: insanity or death by starvation. Maybe even eaten alive by some large carnivorous creature. Any way she looked at it, the situation was terminally grim. In fact, there was no bright side to look at. This was about as hopeless as it gets, she thought. Storm clouds of hysteria were forming, whipping themselves into a frenzied vortex that could send a screaming Venus running madly through the labyrinth.
Venus was stronger than that. She saw it coming and headed it off, getting a grip on herself. "I can't just lay down here and die." She thought. No way, not her; if she was going to die, she was going to die trying. If there's some large animal in here, then there must be another way into the cave. That was her way out.
She began to feel her way around the base of the dirt cone for something that might have fallen into the hole; a stick of something that might aid her in exploring the cave. There was nothing but a few rocks and leaves. When she made her way back to her original position, she stood up and spoke out loud in order to try to determine the size of the space she was in and to find the location of the nearest wall. There seemed to be a wall close in front of and behind her. She couldn't place the other directions. On her hands and knees, she crawled to the wall in front of her and upon reaching it, followed it to her left. That was the direction the strange sounds were coming from. Slowly she made her way along the wall, feeling the wall and the ground in front of her as she went. She didn't want to walk off into a chasm or get a face full of bats. When she'd crawled fifty feet or so, it began to sound like she was in a passageway or tunnel. The wall here too was rough and not smooth leading her to believe this was a mine, not a cavern.
The more she listened to the mysterious sound the less Venus thought it sounded animal-like. It sounded more like a slow, far-off, uneven swelling and fading chorus of train or boat whistles. The sound ranged from a soft low ghostly moan, to a howling banshee-wail. She didn't believe in ghosts and if it wasn't an animal, what was it? Maybe it was just the way the wind blows through the entrance of the tunnel. Though she still thought it was weird, she was no longer afraid of it. It was a half an hour from the time the sound started to the time it ended.
As Venus felt her way along the tunnel she came to a bracing timber. Now she was sure she was in a mine. Further down the tunnel she found a discarded pick handle and took it with her. Finally, she came to a crossing tunnel. There she rested. She had a decision to make: which tunnel to take. She would've followed the sound but now it was gone. She'd wait here. The sound would come again.
It was cold in the mine. Venus curled up in a ball against the wall to stay warm, pick handle by her side. She found herself thinking; "Oh, if I could only get out of this one!", and she laughed to herself. She must've said that line once a week for the last year. She always came out of it unscathed too. This was different, she thought, and it truly frightened her. However, she reasoned that the mysterious sound probably had something to do with air movement through the tunnels. That, in turn, was probably dependent on air temperature differences between inside and outside of the mine. That happens at the beginning and the end of the day, usually. Therefore it will happen again and when it does, she could follow it again.
Mars had fashioned a
torch from a stick and some pine-knots and went into the mine to investigate
the unusual sound emanating from it. The tunnel sloped down, following a vein
in the rock. He could feel a breeze gently brushing past him carrying that sound
softly with it. The breathing of the tunnel faded away as he made his way further
into the mine. The sound had stopped with the breathing. His torch burned brighter
as well now that the wind had died but it was difficult to see. He came to a
place where the tunnel narrowed to about the width of a doorway. There was a
wooden crate containing bottles of assorted sizes on the floor, blocking the
way. Mars stepped over it and his foot went through a basket or something and
got stuck on his foot. He shook his leg to try to kick it off as he staggered
around the room. He was trying to look at the basket and look where he was going
at the same time and the torch wasn't much help. He was in a wide spot in the
tunnel big enough that it could be called a room. As he held his torch up to
look around the room, he bumped into a table. As he held his torch closer to
examine a heap of something on the table, he saw that it was the mummified remains
of a man slumped over, face down on the table. There was a balance scale on
the table along with some weights and some papers, documents of some kind. Then
he held the torch down near the basket stuck on his foot. It was no basket.
His foot was stuck in the rib cage of a clothed skeleton and he'd been dragging
it around the room with him, barefoot, yet! Mars kicked wildly, scattering parts,
until the skeleton came off.
Searching the room, he found a couple of lanterns but there was no fuel for them. Further searching turned up some candles which he lit and placed around the room. It appeared that somebody had been living in this part of the mine while he worked on it, probably alone. On one side of the room there were a lot of mining tools along the wall and on this side of the room there was a bed, a trunk, a table and two chairs and some shelves attached to the wall. The guy at the table was definitely not a miner, not in those clothes. Too good for a miner. The other guy, now scattered about the room, was dressed more like a miner. Does the fact that these guys are dead together mean anything? The answer might be in those papers on the table. What ever happened here happened a long time ago. Mars wasn't very interested in that mystery, he was more interested in the one about the weird sound that came out of this mine. He had all the time in the world, so he decided to wait.
After determining that there was an ample draft to draw the smoke out of the tunnel, Mars built a small fire to light the room and blew out the candles to save them. Then he went over and sat on the bed. It was soft and inviting even though he was used to sleeping on the ground. He pulled down the dusty top blanket exposing a clean one and laid back on the mattress. It was heavenly. He propped his feet up on the end of the bed facing the fire to warm them. Mars smiled inwardly. A couple of years ago, if someone had told him that one day he'd be curled up cozy and content in front of a fire with a couple of dead guys in an abandoned mine all by himself and liking it, . . . well, he wouldn't thought they were crazy. Yet, here he was. He would've been lying down to sleep right about now anyway. Here was a bed, why not take advantage of it?
Mars felt good about life. He was perfectly happy with the way things had turned out. He never would've dreamed he'd like living like this. He could live out here like this forever. He was finally free of the curse of that woman. Nothing had happened to him since he had that last dream and he believe the curse was broken. He hadn't had any more dreams about here. She was completely out of his mind. His thoughts now were of a higher plane. With no job and mortgage and traffic and shopping and all the other stuff that makes up civilization to consume valuable time and energy, he could devote his to thinking and learning. This ability he could thank Karl and John for. Without the curse of Venus, he could do it with peace of mind.
Venus woke again, picked
up her pick handle and looked around. It seemed she could almost make out her
surroundings in the tunnel. Then she noticed a crackling sound. A fire?
Squinting into one of the tunnels, she saw the faint, throbbing red glow. She started for it on her knees, then she got to her feet as the light got better. Finally, she saw the light in the middle of a wide spot in the tunnel. She went straight for it to warm herself, looking around the room as she approached the fire. She saw no one. She rubbed her arms and held her hands out to the fire to warm them. Venus cleared her throat and in a loud, clear voice, bellowed, "Hello-oh?!"
Mars woke with a start, sitting bolt upright in the bed, hitting his head on a shelf above it and sending a shower of tin cups, cans and bottles into the air and scaring the bejeezis out of Venus, who jumped with a scream. Mars sat on the edge of the bed trying to see through a haze of stars dancing about his head as he rubbed the spot where it hit the shelf.
"I'm sorry." Venus offered, squinting in the direction of the bed. "I was lost in the mine. I fell through a hole and couldn't get out. I thought I was going to die in there." She was nervous and talking a mile-a-minute. At the moment, for some reason, she felt like she'd just broken into somebody's house. At least now she was relieved that she wasn't going to die alone in the dark, helpless and starving.
Mars hadn't seen where she came from and he would've been surprised to see anyone here anyway. That whack on the head really hurt. He was still woozy from it. Why is that woman talking so fast?
Venus noticed Mars pain and so approached the grizzled looking man to offer her help. As she approached the bed she almost tripped over what was left of the miner's skeleton and when she saw what it was, let out another scream. She scooted backwards away from it and ended up in the lap of the other skeleton sitting at the table, generating another, louder shriek as she ran around the room bumping into more things and being frightened by them.
While that was going on, Mars simply got up and put some more wood on the fire. Then he went to the bed, got a blanket and brought it to Venus standing in the middle of the room shaking. He motioned for her to sit by the fire. He took another blanket from the bed and sat across the fire from her and looked at her for the first time. His jaw almost fell off into his lap. It was her! No, it couldn't be. Yes, it's definitely her! He was stunned.
Venus, a little embarrassed, smiled at Mars and then noticed the expression on his face. She didn't recognize him. He looked to her like some kind of wild man of the woods, barefoot and dirty, long, tangled hair and beard. She shrugged her shoulders, "What?", she asked. "You look like you just saw a pig fly."
Mars made the word, 'Venus', with his lips but nothing came out. It had been such a long time since he used his voice, it didn't quite work. He tried again, managing finally to get out a squeaky "Venus!".
She was taken aback by this stranger living in a hole in the ground knowing her name. "How did you know . . . ?
Mars touched both hands to his breast and said, "Mars!"
(to be continued.)
Way Out West ©1993 Martin Scherer. Venus & Mars © 1995 Martin Scherer. E-mail: Scherer@tesserak.net