King and Country

I’m taking a creative writing class over the summer. We had an assignment recently to write a sort story of up to 1500 words. The following is my submission. I hope you enjoy.

PS. If my prof happens to google the story and finds this blog, note that I am in fact one of your students. You teach English to white people. 😉 (Note for readers: it’s a reference to something in class)

King and Country

I close my burning eyes as the shifting wind blows a cloud of smoke my way. Later tonight in my tent, I will go to sleep smiling at the smell of campfire and cool forest nights. The wind, really more of a breeze, shifts again and the smoke is gone.

There’s nothing actually silent about the forest at night. In the distance, frogs chirp in the hopes of attracting a mate. From time to time a barred owl barks out its strange call, while all around you is the rustling of leaves that could be anything from a little fieldmouse or a stalking cougar.  It’s full of life in a way that makes me feel connected to the world; A feeling I find difficult to recreate when I’m back in the city.

I like watching the fire. The way the flames dance to some secret song, the occasional sparks and cracks, and the feeling of warmth against my skin, all of it mesmerizes me.

It takes me a moment to realize that the glowing red orbs in front of me are not after-images from the fire but are in fact eyes. My heart nearly stops, when a raspy voice breaks the silence. “Greetings Traveller. May I impose upon your hospitality and share your fire tonight?”

“Oh! Um, sure. Welcome.” I answer back automatically, which takes me by surprise. I’m not usually one for being alone in the woods with strange men, no matter how formal and polite, and that’s even when they don’t have unnaturally red glowing eyes. “Can I offer you a drink or something?” I ask.

“I’ll take a smoke, if you’re offering.” He answers back, the shadow of his head nodding towards the small bad of pre-rolls lying next to me.

“It’s not tobacco. Hope that’s ok.”

“That’s just fine.”

Even as he approaches the fire his features stay shadowed, so that all I can see is a dark shape of a man and those eyes. As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s like my own head won’t let me fill in any of the details.

He takes the offered joint and flops over so that he’s reclining against a log. I watch the cherry flare up as he takes a long hit, and then after a short pause, exhales in a sigh of satisfaction. The smoke drifts out from where his mouth must be.

Feeling awkward and like I’m staring, I grab my little cast-iron kettle and fill it at the stream, and set it down by the fire to boil. That’s when I notice that the frogs and rustling in the leaves have gone completely quiet.

Between the sudden unnatural silence, and the uncanny way his eyes glow, I feel like I’ve suddenly stepped into the middle of some fairy tale. I think about the different stories I’ve heard and read over the years about encounters in the woods as I work on prepping the tea.

Once everything’s ready, the shadow man pulls out a tin cup out of somewhere. I pour us both a cup, serving him first, before sitting down on the log I’ve been using as a seat and lighting my own joint. I study his shape closely, looking for some clue as to who, or what I’m dealing with. There wasn’t much.

“Are you the devil?” I blurt out.

The Shadow Man, as I had taken to thinking of him in my head, sipped at his tea for a moment. I wondered if I had insulted him and was about to apologize when he spoke.

“I have been called that before, and there are perhaps those that would consider me so, but no. I am not the God of Abraham’s Lightbringer.” He shifted in his seat a little, before taking another sip and considering his cup for a moment.

“The name for what I am has been lost to time” he continued. “Perhaps the closest thing to your understanding would be the Arthurian Fisher King.”

“You’re an ancient decrepit king who can’t die?” I ask somewhat disbelievingly.

He makes a wheezing sound I take for laughter, “Not quite. More what he represents.”

I tilt my head to encourage him to keep talking. A part of me wonders if I fell asleep at some point, but my dreams are never this linear.

He sits up a bit straighter and clears his throat. I’m in for it now, I think to myself amused, recognizing the look of a man preparing to educate. At least this time I actually asked for it.

“The lesson of the Fisher King is the connection between the land and ruler. The king and the land are one in that the king represents the land, but also in the sense that the ruler’s responsibility is the health of the land. Removed from the natural order of things, the way he is, the Fisher King brings desolation to his kingdom. He represents a stagnant system and ideas whose time have passed, but who refuse to change. A ruler blinded by his own self-interest to the needs of the land and his people.”

“Is this that thing where people used to sacrifice the king in the event of a drought so that his blood could nourish the land?” I can’t explain why, but I get the sense that he smiles in response.

“Some generations tended to be pretty direct.” He wheezed that strange laugh again. “But I think you would be hard pressed to find people willing to lead if they knew they were going to be sacrificed every time there was a natural disaster.”

The Shadow Man stares into the fire, lost for a moment in his own thoughts. He picks up a small chunk of wood that was lying nearby and produces a small knife from the same incomprehensible place the cup came from. Flakes of wood fall around him as he starts to whittle something.

“At some point in time, humans started thinking of themselves as something apart from nature. Living alongside, perhaps, but not a part of it. As though you weren’t just apes who discovered that if you work together, you can hunt bigger prey and keep each other safer. That the more of you worked together, the more you could achieve and discover.”  He speaks in a way that makes it hard to tell if he’s talking to me, or just thinking out loud. He sounds sad, almost wistful, until suddenly he looks directly at me and his voice takes on a hint of anger.

“The smarter you became, the more you forgot. You learned to tame the beasts and forgot that you were one of them. You learned the secrets of growing things, and forgot that the earth is a living thing and your mother. You forgot you were connected to the world around you, and now bit by bit, you forget your connection to each other. And the world suffers for it.”

I think about how earlier this evening I had just been thinking about how being here in the middle of the woods I felt at my most connected to the world. I think about how disconnected I feel the rest of the time. I think about how much everything is a struggle these days and how often I find myself just wishing I could find a plot of land somewhere where I could gather all my friends and loved ones so we could support one another, and help make things just a little easier.

“I think I understand,” I venture. “You’re what the Fisher King would be if he were healed. You’re a manifestation of all that we’ve forgotten and the world that could be if we remembered it once more. The King and the Land as one, if you will.” This time I’m sure he smiles. “Must be lonely.”

His smile takes on a note of resigned sadness that I’m too familiar with personally. “You’re quick.”

I’m about to ask why he’s telling me all this when I remember something I had read years ago about the fey and the old gods. They were all powerful, except that they depended on mortal memory. If they were forgotten, they would fade and then finally disappear. As I’m thinking this, I notice that it’s as if my eyes have become somewhat accustomed to his darkness so that now I can just make out the faint suggestion of facial features.

As if following my thoughts, he repeats “You’re quick.”

We ease into a companiable silence, the frogs singing once more. I must have fallen asleep at some point because the next thing I know I’m waking up to the sun in my eyes. I look around for my companion from last night but he’s gone. Just as I’m wondering if I had dreamed it all after all, I notice something sitting on the log. As I pick it up, I recognize it as the Shadow Man’s carving: a little kingfisher bird.

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King and Country
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