*The six books in the Legend of Alm series are currently undergoing a rewrite. Some parts of the books are being cut to streamline the story, and these parts, which I still am fond of, will be published here on the website as supplemental material. Today's short story comes from the original publication of The Incandescents.
Nolan Bhaktou ducked low to the ground to hide his presence from the group of jynx he was stalking. Beads of sweat fell down his face as he reached into the quiver on his back. He selected an arrow and drew it back in his bow.
The crunch of the string going taught sounded loud and clear in the otherwise silent woods. One of the jynx perked up at the noise and twitched its ears, but eventually disregarded what it had heard and went back to eating.
Nolan fought the throbbing urge to swallow the saliva collecting in the back of his throat, scared to make another noise that might scare the hynx off. He took a deep breath through his nose and tried to become one with his heartbeat and the wind.
Just before he made his move, Nolan cried out, as was the custom of his people. Two of the jynx were quick to dash away, but a third wasn’t so keen. The animal’s front half sprung up and spun around in a confused leap forward before its back side could catch up. Nolan rose up off the ground and let his arrow fly. It coursed through the air for only a moment before lodging firmly into the jynx’s back side. It wasn’t the worst shot Nolan could have taken, but the wound wasn’t going to be enough to bring the animal down.
“Damn,” he cursed. “Lousy shot, Nolan,” he muttered under his breath, as he barreled through the low brush after the fleeing jynx.
Nolan saw the creature leap over a fallen tree. He made a quick right, and ducked through a caved-in section of the felled tree. Coming out the other side, he could still see the jynx, though barely.
Ahead, an outcropping of rock barred passage and forced the jynx to change its course. It turned to the right, which brought it back towards Nolan and gave him the opportunity for a second shot. He skidded over the leafy ground as he threaded and then loosed another arrow, which whipped through the sparse woodland with a whispering hum. This second shot hit the jynx directly behind its front, right leg. The creature dropped to the ground.
Nolan slit the animal’s neck to end its suffering, then carried the carcass on his shoulders to his vehicle, which was parked just outside the confines of the game reserve. As he was strapping the jynx into the bed of his truck, Nolan saw other hunters going into the reserve, though nearly all of them were carrying flash sticks or some other kind of quickshot. Nolan never understood the sport in blasting an animal out of existence with such an artless weapon. At least most of the new hunting crowd still had the respect to give a fair warning cry, though it did little to even the field between the hunted and the hunter when twenty rounds could be squeezed off in as many seconds.
As Nolan pulled out of the reserve, he turned on his truck’s radio. The volume on his transmitter was still up from that morning, when he had been so excited to get out into the country, but now, at the end of the day, it was painful. Nolan dove for the volume dial, wincing at the torment the blaring speakers were inflicting on his ears. His father would have torn the speakers out. Probably would have walked home, too. The older folks never liked the new technologies that had transformed life so drastically over the past fifty years. “Works of evil."
Days off to himself were a rarity for Colis lately, what with work, his family, and his duties to the army. Somehow, though, the planets aligned and blessed the corporal with an entire day to himself. He had fulfilled his only wish for that day and bagged a jynx, an old hobby that he hadn’t been able to enjoy in years. The meat would feed his family while he was away on deployment. His son, the only of his children to be old enough to understand what deployment was, didn’t know he was leaving yet, though Nolan was going to tell him that night, after he showed him how to skin and prepare the jynx. Right after Nolan had handed down the bow and arrow that his father had once given to him.
Nolan’s truck bounced along the rugged dirt roads running through the back-woods, those few roads left in Wellon that hadn’t been paved over for incorporation into a new shopping center or suburban development project. The Virvi Archipelago had changed so much from how Nolan remembered it, both for good and for bad. The islands had exchanged military occupation for corporate sprawl, but it was really just one kind of subservience for another. His father would be sick to know it, Nolan thought, as his truck drove up a small tornado when it took a curve too fast.
Military enlistment was compulsory in the Virvi Archipelago. Nolan wouldn’t have joined otherwise. He didn’t have much in common with the other men in his division, who all seemed eager to take up the new way of life foisted on them by the more “civilized” nations, those that had been dictating how to live to the citizens in the Archipelago for as long as their history remembered. The new way of life was certainly easier, no one could argue otherwise, but a certain vitality had been lost.
The dirt road turned to pavement as the sun was setting over the green hills to the west. Wellon smelled wonderful this time of year, on account of the honeymarrot trees. Their rich perfume put an easy smile on Nolan’s face as he neared his home. It wasn’t as if he didn’t get to enjoy the smell of the ubiquitous tree all the time, rather, it that he so rarely got to leave it, and so he only really noticed it once it went away. The same could be said for his family, who were all gathered out in the front yard of their modest home when Nolan pulled his truck into the driveway.
“Daddy!” cried Bunty, Nolan’s four-year old daughter.
“Hey there, darlin’,” Nolan said as he hopped down from his truck and scooped his daughter up. “What’re you all doing out here so late, now?”
“It’s the comet, dad,” Nolan’s ten-year-old son, Cid, said. “Kessels comet is tonight!”
“Oh, is that right?” Nolan asked, searching the sky.
“I thought it’d be okay, what with there being the holiday tomorrow and all,” Nolan’s wife Joen said. “If they stay up late?”
“It’s fine darlin’, of course,” Nolan said. He bounced Bunty on his hip. “What time are the fireworks supposed to happen anyways?” he asked his wife.
“Not fireworks, daddy, a comet,” Bunty said, correcting her father.
“Oh, that’s what I meant, the comet. Sorry about that,” Nolan said, giving Bunty’s nose a squeeze.
“It only comes every one hundred years and it burns as bright as the sun,” Cid recited.
“Did you learn that in school?” Nolan asked.
“He sure did,” Joen said. “And teacher says he doesn’t cry for us at all anymore.”
“Well, I’m not sure if I should be happy or sad about that,” Nolan said.
“Be happy, daddy,” Bunty said.
“I will, darlin’, long as I’ve got all of you,” Nolan said. He felt a pang of guilt. “You still sure I should be going, honey?” he asked his wife. “I was thinking about it today. It’ll be a long time, for the k-i-d-s.”
“I want you to do what you want, I always have,” Joen answered. “But, it’s an official order, isn’t it?”
“It is,” Nolan said with a sigh. “I could claim my andoral is acting up, if I wanted to. You’re not going to resent me if I go, are you?”
“You’re my favorite person in the whole world, how could I resent you?” Joen asked. “I’ll have help from your Mom, anyhow. We’ll be fine.”
“You said I’m your favorite person in the whole world, Mommy,” Bunty interrupted.
“Well, you are too,” Joen laughed.
“What about meee?” Cid begged.
“Oh, you are all three my favorites,” Joen said.
“Don’t whine now, Cid,” Nolan said, chiding his son. “No one likes a whiner.”
“Yes, dad,” Cid apologized.
“So how much time we got before the show?” Nolan asked his wife, pointing up to the sky.
“A few hours still. Three or so,” Joen answered.
“Alright then. Cid, you’re coming with me!” Nolan said, setting his daughter down and taking the boy by his hand. “I’ve got to teach you something.”
Nolan pushed open the garage door and laid out a blue tarp on the floor inside. He carried the jynx carcass from his truck into the garage, and set it down onto the tarp.
“Whoa!” Cid cried. “Did you kill this, daddy?”
“That’s right! Just today, Ciddy. What do you think?”
“It’s covered in blood...” Cid said, scrunching his face up.
“You want to help me gut it?” Nolan asked.
“Uh-huh!” Cid cried, his eyes going wide.
“Alright then,” Nolan said. He patted his son on the head and then went into a cabinet along the garage wall, where he found a sheathed knife. “First of all,” he said to his son, “You’ve got to have a sharp knife. Like this one. It’ll make your job a lot easier. Always use a sharp knife, it’s less dangerous than a blunt knife. And you want to take your time, because a mistake with a knife this sharp can put you in the hospital.”
“Okay,” Cid said.
“Here, hold the knife,” Nolan instructed his son.
“But... What if I drop it?”
“Well, don’t drop it.”
Nolan adjusted the jynx so that it was lying on its back. “Here,” he said, pointing to the area just above the animal’s genitals. “I need you to cut right here.”
“You want me to cut it? But Dad.”
“You can do it, come on.”
The boy stuck the point of the knife into the flesh, and then leaned against it to press through the jynx’s tough musculature.
“Not too deep,” Nolan cautioned. “We don’t want to hit the intestines. Good. Now drag the sharp end up, all the way to the rib cage.”
The boy pulled the knife slowly up the animal’s belly, wearing a look of stern focus. “Like that?” he asked as he went.
“Perfect,” Nolan said. “Now, put the knife down somewhere smart… is the floor smart, where you could step on it? Good, that’s better. Now, help me, grab onto his front leg... other one... good. Now, we’re going to turn it,” Nolan said, seizing the deer’s back leg. “One, two, turn!”
The deer rolled onto its side and some gore leaked out onto the floor.
“Ugh,” Cid said, holding his hand to his mouth.
“You okay?” Nolan asked his son.
“Sure,” Cid said, swallowing his nausea hard.
“Here, watch closely,” Nolan said. He took the knife from where his son had set it and started to cut away the fat that was still holding the jynx’s intestines in. When he was done, the guts slid out onto the floor. Cid shrieked.
“We have to get the diaphragm next,” Nolan said, moving up the creature’s body. He cut the diaphragm loose so that the rest of the intestines could spill out. “I need your help again,” he said to Cid. “You’ve got to reach up into there and grab its esophagus.”
“Reach into there?” Cid said. “But, Dad...”
“No, you can do it, son. This is how you grow up, this is how you get to be a man. I thought you were ready for that.”
“I am, Dad.”
“Good then. Reach up in there and grab it... not that... not that... there you go! Now careful, I have to get the knife real close... to cut it out... don’t move… and there it is!” Nolan said proudly as Cid pulled the organ out of the jynx’s neck. “Now stand back, time for the big reveal!” Nolan said.
He dug both hands into the pink mess and pulled at the heart and lungs. The rest of the intestines came out easily.
“Whoa!” Cid cried.
“Easy now,” Nolan said. “Gotta respect that jynx. It’s not just for your fun.”
“It is pretty neat though, huh?” Nolan asked as he wiped his hands on a dirty cloth he found on the garage floor. “Killing and gutting is nasty, but it’s the chain of life, see. Everything eats something. Even plants, they eat from the dirt that used to be other living things. Kinda neat, when you think about it. How tied together everything is.”
“It sure is,” Cid agreed.
“You think you could handle that without me here?” Nolan asked, as he knelt down in front of his son. “What we just did?”
The boy knew what his father was really asking.
“Oh… You have to leave again, don’t you daddy?” he asked.
“I do, but just for a few months,” Nolan said. “While I’m gone you’re going to have to take care of your sister and your Mom, okay?”
“Okay,” Cid said, trying to be strong like his father. “Where do you have to go this time?”
“To the Undiscovered Lands.”
“But, Daddy! No! They are haunted!”
“You know better than that Cid. I promise that nothing will happen to me. I’ll be back, sure as the sun rises. Just like every other time I’ve had to leave.”
“And then we can go hunting? Together? Like you promised?”
“You’d better believe it. Now come on, boy. We’ve just started here, we’ve still got to skin it.”
“Can I do it?” Cid asked.
“Sure you can,” Nolan answered with a smile. He was proud of his boy, so eager and brave. He knew his own father would have been proud of Cid, too.
Later that night, once the gory work was through and the meat was in the ice chest, Nolan and Cid rejoined Bunty and Joen in the front yard. They had phosphorescent sparkstix, which they were using to write their names in the air and trace the constellations in the sky.
“Did we miss it?” Nolan asked his wife.
“Nope,” she said as she tossed him a cold bottle of cider. “And there are some sandwiches on the grill, too. Still hot.”
“Hand me one of them sparkstix,” Nolan called to Bunty.
“Catch!” his daughter said, as she threw an entire handful of them through the air.
Nolan leaped out of the way of the oncoming barrage. “What are you trying to do,” he started to ask, but the rest of his family found his reaction absolutely hysterical, and so he had to relent.
As the Bhaktous waited for the comet to appear in the sky, Nolan thought about how he would be seeing the same sky in the Undiscovered Lands. He was going to miss his family so much. Miss Bunty starting to ride a bike, miss Cid’s competitions. But one day, not soon enough though still not too far away, Nolan would retire, and then he would be able to spend all his days with his family, and in the back country. If there was any left at that point.
“Daddy, look!” Bandy called out, pointing to the east.
“Would you look at that,” Joen marveled. The comet appeared, burning bright, and then brighter still, until by the time it was nearly over the family’s property, it was casting lumens enough to light the whole neighborhood brighter than day.
“It’s another morning!” Bunty cried, throwing her arms up. “It’s another morning, Daddy!”
Read all about Nolan's adventures this fall when The Incandescents arrives in its ultimate form. Look for more cut scenes here until then!