Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 5
Before the story, a confession: I am mildly obsessed with flashlights. They qualify as one of the things of which one can never have too many, in my world. It’s light in a tube. What’s not to love? Anyway, on with this week’s short story.
by H. M. Snow
Julius Singleton hung up his phone with a sigh that ruffled the open magazine in front of him. He tapped a pen against the page in a monotonous staccato. Then he flung the pen irritably across the room. Julius got up and crossed his small apartment with restless strides to retrieve a coat and a bulky black telescope case from the closet.
Setting out afoot, Julius burned off his restless energy walking east toward the hills outside of town. From time to time he had to switch the case from right hand to left until he reached the tangled wooded slopes. Then he kept the case in his left as he used his right to grab handholds in aid of his ascent. The gaps between the saplings were often filled by thorny shrubs, so it took Julius some time to reach the bald summit. There he opened the case and began assembling the telescope. Although sunset was more than an hour away, Julius set up the telescope for a view of the only celestial body that would be visible that night: the almost full moon, anemic now in the light of day.
A loud sonar ping! sounded from inside his coat. Julius pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Hey. Yeah, I heard back today from the last one. No, a call– the director herself. Same as all the rest: not enough experience.” Julius exhaled in frustration. “No, Dad, we’ve been over this. I don’t want to hang around here all my life. I want to be where the firsthand research is, not grading papers in some high school.” He uttered a weary laugh. “Astrophysics and elementary school, Dad? Be serious.” After an extended period of listening, Julius responded, “I’ll keep trying for now. Yeah, I’ll keep you posted. Mm. Tell her I love her too. Later.” He put his phone back in his pocket and stared at the sky.
The sunset flamed a smoky orange and magenta in streaks across the sky, but the sun’s last colorful display faded to night. Julius scowled at the amount of light pollution from town. “This is as good as it’ll get,” he grumbled. Standing, he bent his long body a few degrees and put his eye to the finderscope to begin his night’s viewing.
He had studied the full moon many times, in textbooks as well as through a telescope, but still he drank in the sight. When his back grew tired, Julius sat down on the grass with a sketch pad on his knee, drawing the lunar terrain from memory and rising only at rare intervals to refresh the image in his mind’s eye. This exercise scarcely demanded a tithe of his attention, which sank inward so deeply that he often went quite motionless with tip of his pencil resting on the paper.
It was during one of these periods of contemplation that Julius became aware of a quick tug at the back of his coat. His first startled thought was that a squirrel had attacked him from behind, because the tugs ascended his back with agility. Then little claws dug into his scalp. The weight of a small furry body landed atop his head before launching from there to his telescope, triggering true alarm in Julius. He jumped up and swatted the creature down to the ground with the unconsciously illogical shout, “Don’t touch that!”
A shrill wail went up as the furry shape hurtled downward. All around, an answering wail arose from many more shrill voices. Julius took a step backward. At his feet, a thin chatter of syllables made him fumble for his keyring, where he kept a miniature flashlight. Its narrow beam showed him two creatures that were certainly not squirrels. The foremost was a lean, scarred little primate not quite as high as Julius’ knee. Its greenish-gray fur bristled, and its moth-eaten tail flicked back and forth in an angry rhythm. Its yellowish eyes with their slit pupils glared at Julius. It was obviously trying to shield the plumper, smaller primate huddled on the ground behind it.
They remained in this pose for several seconds as though mesmerized, Julius by the sight of the strange creatures and the creatures by the beam of his flashlight. The foremost creature’s tail stopped its angry lashing and lowered little by little. Then the elder creature turned reluctantly and herded its young kin away from Julius.
Julius used the flashlight to follow the creatures to the edge of the hilltop clearing, where the light illuminated dozens of pairs of yellowish eyes for just an instant. Then they vanished. A minute or so passed before Julius dared to avert his attention, but the hilltop remained quiet. He collected his telescope and used the flashlight to pick out a safe path down the hill back to town.
On the following evening, the night of the true full moon, Julius returned to the hilltop just before sunset. This time, along with his telescope, he brought a small battery-operated camping lantern. He found the hilltop just as he had left it. His sketch pad lay in a rumpled heap on the ground near the marks of his telescope’s tripod; his drawing of the full moon had been torn out. On the page behind it were three small smudgy handprints and a footprint to match. Julius set up his telescope as usual and waited for the sky to darken.
The sky was remarkably clear that night. The creamy yellow moon looked enormous above the horizon. Julius turned on the camping lantern and set it on the ground several feet away from his station. The darker the night sky, the brighter the lantern appeared. Julius busied himself with his finderscope, pretending not to hear the whispers around the edge of the hilltop clearing. Peripheral vision showed him weaving shadows that vanished as soon as he looked directly at them. It seemed at first that his presence would deter them. But as the moon rose, so did the whispers, as if the little creatures could not contain themselves. Before long, dancing figures between a foot and eighteen inches tall surrounded Julius so that he had difficulty pretending not to notice them. Whenever he turned his head, they would scatter, but the moonlight drew them back out into the clearing time and again. The vocalizations he had heard during the previous night’s encounter were nothing compared to the high-pitched chanting and laughing that rose from the hilltop in the dark.
As Julius had hypothesized, his lantern attracted them. Because it was strange to them, they would not stay near it for long, but they darted forward to touch it and retreat from it in almost the same movement. They seemed to realize after a time that it was not dangerous. Then they danced around it, the young amongst them especially.
Julius struggled to maintain his facade of indifference. He gave it up as a loss when a tiny clawed hand tugged at the knee of his trouser leg. Between the radiance of the full moon and the light of the distant lantern, he gazed at the creature standing beside him. In its hand was his drawing of the full moon. Its yellowish eyes gazed up at him with equal curiosity. It pointed to the picture and up to the sky.
Julius pointed from the moon in the sky to that on the page.
The creature offered up the paper to him.
Julius accepted it and, after a moment’s thought, returned it to the creature. He observed how the creature’s gaze kept drifting away from him toward the moon, so he acted on impulse and pointed to his telescope. He stood up to put his eye to the eyepiece. Then, meeting the creature’s gaze, he pointed from the eyepiece to the moon above.
The creature ventured closer to the telescope but would not touch it. It took a little persistence and ingenuity on Julius’ side to realize that it had taken his meaning, if not his words, from the night before and would not touch the telescope until Julius gave his permission. It disdained the offer of a hand to lift it up to the eyepiece. Deftly and delicately the creature climbed the tripod on its own, only to waver and nearly fall back to the ground upon its first view through the telescope. For nearly a full minute the creature stared at the moon through the telescope as if entranced. Then it gave a piercing cry that brought all the others near. One by one, they looked to Julius for permission before climbing up for a look at the moon. The littlest ones, still unable to climb, rode on the backs of their elders. They were so nimble and lightweight that the tripod never shook. When the last of them had had their view, they broke into a celebratory dance all around Julius’ feet.
The next few days were busy as he returned to his job hunt. Then it rained without ceasing for two days. He was unable to return to the hilltop until more than a week later. He brought the lantern again, since it was useful to him as well as interesting to the creatures. This time they did not hesitate in coming out of the shadows, but there were fewer of them. As Julius watched them, he noted that the little ones were not with them. The only ones who appeared were the elders, those with the scars and the ragged plumed tails. Their demeanor was different as well. They clustered around the lantern and groomed one another by its light. The moonlight sparkled on their fur as on water. Some of them had new scars, and others bound up fresh wounds with leaves and grass. Those who were not injured brought with them slabs of bark that they scraped with edged rocks. Julius, observing this, caught the gaze of the elder creature who had confronted him on the first occasion.
He did not need to frame the question with gestures and facial expressions. The creature seemed to sense what he wanted to say. It took up the bark that it was shaping and held it up like a breastplate. Then it returned to its work, scraping the rough side smooth and drilling holes in the corners with a fine-pointed stone. Lastly the creature threaded the holes with woven cords of grass and tied the breastplate onto its own chest with the aid of a companion.
A change came over the assembled creatures. No more did they bind wounds or work on their primitive armor. Now they were armed, ready for something. The one Julius was watching rose up to its full eighteen inches of height. It pointed at Julius, pointed then to the lantern and lastly pointed toward the city lights spread out at the base of the steep hill. There was a stern glint in its yellowish eyes that caused Julius to pack up his things at once. His last view of the creatures revealed a battle formation as they charged into the darkness.
Their attitude unsettled him, though he was accustomed to wandering alone in the dark nights, telescope case in hand. As he picked his path through the brambles and the young growth forest that clung to the hillside, he flinched at the smallest rustle of the undergrowth. The night seemed unusually dark, darker than it ought. Worst of all was the moment when Julius stopped to catch his breath and heard the undergrowth hissing without the aid of wind or his own passage. Then something prickly stabbed his ankle, like a nettle caught in his sock. Julius yelped in pain.
A shrill cry answered him as a few of the creatures from the hilltop sprang out from cover, their wild yellowish eyes all that could be seen of them. They dove at Julius’ feet. The stabbing pain withdrew, but the undergrowth rattled with the noises of a skirmish. Julius swung the lantern around just in time to see a clump of black needles explode into powder. Three moonlight creatures, one of them Julius’ particular acquaintance, stood panting with spears at the ready. The powder left behind by their enemy hissed through the leaf debris in a downhill trickle. Julius’ friend among the creatures again fixed him with a commanding stare and pointed to the city lights with heightened urgency. Then it and its comrades vanished into the undergrowth.
Julius retreated in swift obedience, or as swift as his throbbing ankle allowed. By the time he reached his apartment, he had stopped trembling but his limp had grown more pronounced. He pried off his shoes and socks to find a raw, swollen patch of skin spreading across his ankle. Its surface was rough as though torn by multiple tiny hooks. Julius cleaned it as best he could, applied some antibiotic ointment and a large adhesive bandage, and went to bed for the rest of the sleepless night. By midmorning, his injury hurt worse than originally, so he limped out to his car and drove to the nearest urgent care clinic.
Some days passed before Julius was able to walk unhindered again, at which point his first action was to go shopping. He picked up a pair of sturdy work boots at the first store, coveralls and a pair of Kevlar®-reinforced gloves at the next. At the local home improvement store he picked up a large clublike LED flashlight, an assortment of smaller flashlights and a headlamp. He drove rather than walked to the outskirts. Leaving his car parked at the bottom of the hill, Julius climbed through the tangle to the hilltop and scanned the ground with an idea to find tracks. Astrophysics graduates are not known for their woodcraft skills, however, and Julius soon gave up on that plan in favor of a general search along the wooded slopes. He noticed without immediately noticing the scent of smoke drifting on the breeze. When the scent at last registered in his mind, Julius searched until he saw a thin tendril rising from the undergrowth. It came through a crack in a massive old fallen tree that must have rested in that same place for decades, long before the current woods had been seeded.
He climbed astride the mossy trunk until he could stretch far enough to peer through the crack that ran half the length of the tree. The smoke stung his eyes until the breeze shifted. Then Julius saw the fire’s source. A flat stone had been dragged into the hollowed trunk. On it smoldered four parallel mounds, each one about eighteen inches long. One of the creatures, thin and white with age, crouched beside the pyre and murmured soft chants while fanning the embers. Tears matted the coarse fur around its eyes.Three others sat a little apart from the pyre. One shredded leaves into thin strips, while another spun the strips into thread and the third wound the thread into skeins. All around them, the remainder of the creatures slept deeply. Julius noted that few among them were uninjured.
It was such a peaceful, somber scene that Julius dozed off lying atop the mossy tree. When he woke, it was to a pair of yellowish eyes about an inch away from his face. Julius started upright. He recognized the creature as his acquaintance from before. It gave him a plainly exasperated stare and pointed downhill toward the town.
Julius shook his head. “You helped me; I want to help you.” He spread out his collection of small flashlights on the bark and showed the creature how they operated.
The creature observed this demonstration. Then it pointed at Julius. When this produced no reaction, it pointed again more emphatically. Still getting no sign of comprehension from Julius, it gave him a peculiar look, as if pitying his stupidity. It pointed to its own torso. “A-jats.” Then it pointed to Julius a third time.
“Oh!” Julius pointed to himself. “Julius.”
The creature Ajats jumped back down into the hideout. Among the shrill syllables that passed among the creatures, “Ju-ji-iss” occurred often. Ajats reappeared, collected one of the little flashlights, and disappeared into the tree trunk for another several seconds. Light flashed from inside. A long “ooooh” followed. Then Ajats and the rest of the most heavily-scarred creatures climbed up in their bark-and-grass armor. Julius watched, apparently forgotten, as Ajats distributed the remaining flashlights. Just before the creatures took off into the darkening dusk, Ajats patted the huge flashlight and pointed downward at the tree trunk.
This time Julius understood at once. He nodded and turned on his headlamp. After the fighting creatures vanished, he chuckled to himself. “I must look like a lighthouse to them.” He settled himself in to defend the hideout.
It was the night of the new moon and cloudy, so that even the stars were obscured. The wind plucked at Julius’ coverall. He perceived a hiss that had nothing to do with the wind. Flicking the switch on his flashlight, he scanned the undergrowth but only caught a hint of movement at the beam’s edge. Then he felt a scrape alongside his work boot. Alarmed, he looked down. His headlamp caught a mass of black needles before it could flee. The fist-sized attacker disintegrated to powder when the light hit it, but another peripheral flicker told Julius that it was not the only one. He searched the darkness with headlamp and flashlight, but the attackers were frighteningly fast. They moved like centipedes, using their hooked-needle appendages as legs when not attacking with them. More than once they snagged Julius’ coverall leg, but he got into the rhythm of clubbing them with his flashlight before they got a firm hold.
Barbed pain tore across his face without warning. Julius retained just enough presence of mind to turn the flashlight’s beam on himself. A spiny thing of monstrous proportions burst into sooty powder right before Julius’ eyes. He coughed, fanning away the dust. The soot settled on him in a thick layer rather than sifting away. Then he realized that other flashlights were shining into his face. The fighters had encircled him, weapons and flashlights poised and ready. Their enemy’s sudden disintegration appeared to have taken them by surprise. Then they raised a wild, piercing cry of triumph.
They crammed Julius inside the tree trunk hideout. Several of the creatures began dabbing at the blood that streamed from his cheek. Whatever ointment they dabbed on him stung like antiseptic and smelled green, like trees under the sun on a still summer day. The white-furred creature from earlier climbed up on Julius’ knee and offered him a drink from a shallow bowl. He accepted without much thought and then coughed so hard that the creature slid off his knee. “It burns,” he gasped.
A titter ran through the group of creatures.
Shortly afterward, Julius’ head began to sag forward. He blinked heavy eyelids at the half-dozen young creatures who danced in single-file, carrying his large flashlight on their shoulders. Then, as if someone had switched him off, Julius fell asleep.
When his eyes opened next, they blinked against the thin morning sunlight that shone through the crack in the tree trunk. He was alone. The creatures had gone while he slept, taking the little flashlights he had given them and leaving in exchange a rectangle of woven-leaf cloth covering the gash in his cheek and a small doll of twisted grass lying by his head. He took both items home with him and kept them as souvenirs, to look at whenever he was tempted to doubt that such strange events had really happened.