Distance

Sometimes, there’s a place where the grass and the sage, pine and cottonwood, rocks and scrub and a cactus or two — maybe piñon and mesquite and yucca and so forth — they all get together and make up this kind of mildly intoxicating existence.

Little breezes ruffle and shift the scents around, or the wind really kicks up and does its best to rearrange your day. 

Mostly these areas aren’t burdened with an overabundance of trees or houses.
You can see the horizon. You can breathe in deep and feel your mind flatten out.
Memory and time stop fighting each other. Your worst enemy might be a fence or two. 

I don’t generally have anything against concentrations of trees or houses — or people, for that matter — but I need to be out in the wide angle, out in the open kind of wild. 

You can see the storms coming. Hear the wind searching. Feel the thunder roll.
See the lightning crack. You can see the sun breaking in yellow through the mist or dying red in the clouds, and you can look at it all coming and get ready.

You can give yourself to it. It’s like getting ready for church or mass. Like a wedding or a funeral. 

Things in the land and things in us consummate and die all the time.
Out there you can see it, know it for what it is.

You can see it all coming, and see it all going.

Coyote

You know how headlights,
when you’re near a desert highway,
pan across material like a searchlight,
casting incoherent shadows
past whatever they happen to catch –

sage, cactus green and praying to the rain,
hitchhiker’s drugstore cowpuncher boots,
corrugated lean-to slumped up against the wire?

Well that isn’t happening just yet.

Coyote isn’t on the wander right now.

The sun is still walking, heading west,
knowing exactly where to go.

Daylight melts over dust and hardpan,
yellow, umber, ochre, neon hot pink.

Memory melts like daylight.

Those clouds, see. That’s what I mean.
Cirro… cumulo… cirronimbulus?

It rises, dark and thick in the gloaming.
It drinks the melted daylight.

A rush of cool air. Scattering of sand.
Silent stab of arced lightning.
One million volts in a terawatt cycle.

Thunderstorms drink memory like daylight.
They amplify.
They make ready for the night.

You should come tell me what you think.

Silence. Rumbling over the distance of the earth.

Silence.

Cumulonimbus. That’s it.

You’d have gotten that quicker.

Silence.

Scent of the dry before the wet.

Burning gold at the end of the sunwalk
underneath the dark tower.

There. Coyote’s on the wander. Hungry.

The semi-truck moves past
and headlights cast no shadows beyond a ghost.

Thirst.

Thunder.

Hunger.

Arclight.

Silence.

No Land Beyond: Preludes III

New Mexico

2035

Havoc sat next to Cordell on the edge of the high hill. The whisperings of a storm gathered in the distance; one that would miss them this far beyond the mountains. It was a dry season this far south on the plateau; only patches of trees thrived near groundwater in between the bromegrass and prickly pear and scattered chaparral. The stars and the arm of the galaxy were ripe and apparent.

Remy had hunched down a short distance off, building a fire and cursing to herself.

The dog broke the silence.

“Woman angry.”

Cordell chewed on some leaves from his pouch as he checked his ammunition. “Yeah. Wearing these… these things,” he said, nudging his Rig, “hurts. Sometimes.”

“Woman not care pain.”

Cordell chuckled. “Seems like you know what’s up.”

Havoc cocked his head. “Up? No. Sense only.”

“Yeah, well…” Cordell rocked back and sat on the ground. “We just had to deal with a… you say ‘dark thing’? Not easy to… uh, understand. You follow?”

“Many of…” Havoc snorted “… many things not follow.”

“But you sense things better than me.”

Havoc glanced at Remy’s fire. “Anger. Old.”

Cordell plucked a blade of grass. “Might not be wrong about that.”

The wind moved in little eddies over the waves of the field.

“Human-Prime. You all worry. Anger. Why?”

Cordell looked at Havoc. “Huh?”

“Odd. Other dog, sometimes hurting, beaten, have bad. Many times. I see this. But human, bigger thinking. Build. Command. Rule. Try to sense…” he shook his head “…hard to. Take pain, carry around, carry on back. You. Her. Why?”

Cordell sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t have a good answer, boy.”

“You worry of before? Or later?”

“Maybe both? Jesus, I don’t know. Bigger thinking isn’t all it’s… isn’t good all the time, Havoc.”

“You worry death?”

Cordell’s gaze locked onto Havoc. Havoc continued staring at the distant storm, smelling the air.

“You don’t?”

“Not want to die. Same. But worse for you. Much why.”

Cordell sighed. “This is way too complicated… like… too much to explain. To tell. Too big… thinking? You follow?”

Havoc turned his head to meet Cordell’s. “Cordell, Human-Prime. Think. Me. I have… thing? Inside. Inside-rain? Wind… moving-on?”

Remy swore in triumph as the fire grew.

Cordell’s eyes narrowed. “What are you saying?”

Havoc sighed and snorted. “Inside. Inside me. Not-touch. No dying.”

“Are you… what…” Cordell turned towards Havoc “…are you asking if you have a soul?”

“Not sure. I die.” Havoc cocked his head again. “Then what? Humans speak worry. Odd.”

Miles away, the low thunder rumbled on.

“Havoc… there’s… I don’t even know the answer to that. I’m sorry. Look… I…”

“OK. Not sure?”

“Well, no. Does it matter? I think… whatever the case…” Cordell looked back at the storm. “… you’re like me.”

Havoc’s tail started wagging. “Yes?”

“Humans are animals too. Remember that. Just… bigger thinking.”

Havoc grinned and panted. “Too big!”

“Ha! Pretty much.”

“Not worry then?”

“Shit. I wouldn’t.”

“OK good.” Havoc looked towards Remy’s fire. She watched now as the storm skirted the mountains. “Work to do. Die later.”

No Land Beyond: Preludes II

Colorado Plateau

2035

Squaring off with the Flayer, Remy brought up her guns as the creature shook itself, spitting bright green droplets of acid from its pores. It growled low, fuming and expanding its torso in and out, the sensory bulb where its eyes should be locked on to her position.

Carried by the breezes, sand and dust wafted between them.

The Flayer’s growl changed into a hacking, guttural staccato of unnatural noise as its stance shifted, subtly. Its maw opened in a flash of sizzling drool and rows of shifting razor-teeth that seemed to burn in the setting blood-red desert sun.

Remy didn’t need a translator to understand being marked for death.

“Right.”

She released the safeties and emptied both SMGs into the beast, moving forward, concentrating the fire on its upper body. Knowing the bullets wouldn’t make a dent in the Flayer’s exoskeleton, she was merely buying a few seconds in order to gain the upper hand.

The beast hissed defiantly, spraying weak acid in front of it as it stood to absorb the shock of 900 rounds per minute. The acid arced through the air in little streams, splashing on Remy’s forcefield harmlessly.

It was the much stronger acid, inside the thing’s… stomach(?) …that worried her.

Close enough to close in, she dropped her guns right as they spent their clips, gathering forward momentum, hands dipping for the hip-sling that held her wakizashi & tomahawk.

The Flayer had other plans, it seemed.

Forcing the side of its right appendage to split open, the beast disconnected some of its own tendons. Remy’s lip curled to the sound of organic twisting and cracking as the tendons emerged and snaked into the air, weaving together and then apart. It, too, was buying time- trying to find a weakness. If it wrapped one around her tight enough, exo-forcefield or not, it could pull her in and attempt a killing bite, flooding her insides with caustic juices.

The crimson sunset deepened as a coyote’s howl pierced the desert gloaming.

A stuttering snarl escaped the Flayer’s seething maw as the tendons launched out towards her approach, splitting in disparate directions, searching for a hold.

Swiftly, abandoning caution, Remy exposed herself fully to the front, shifting all energy to her feet in a wave of centrifugal propulsion, bursting forward in a rising spin, using the momentum to help her draw her axe. Dust and rock kicked and spun out behind and to the sides in puffs of red.

Its prey having closed in much too quickly for the tendons to be effective, the Flayer shot its head forward to bite, bracing its frame for the fight.

Its head came in to meet the end of Remy’s dance perfectly. The axehead cracked exoskeleton just to the side and rear on the neck, biting through into the strange flesh below as she concentrated all the Rig’s energy into her blades. She could feel the shock- and purpose directed at her -from the Flayer’s sensory bulb as it fought between the opposing objectives of pulling free and sinking its razor-teeth deep into its prey.

The fight paused for a moment. Just long enough.

Redirecting energy to her trailing foot, she slammed it into one of the creature’s lower appendages, throwing its balance forward.

Towards her.

Flowing the energy back to the blades, she pulled down hard with the axe, drawing her shortsword out and up in one fluid motion. Remy snarled in defiance as the blade pierced through the upper maw and straight inside the sensory bulb.

Her face came to within inches of the creature’s.

“F**k off.”

Its life brought to a sudden end, the Flayer stiffened in ancient reflex, falling backwards as Remy’s growl heightened to a piercing cry. She yanked the blades out to a spray of internal liquids, kicking her foe down violently as she did so. It smacked into the dust as the crown of the red sun descended below the distant mountaintops.

Remy stood over the body, watching the desert drink up green acid and dark purple fluid, wondering not for the first time what would happen if these things existed- or came through -in greater numbers.

Sensing eyes on her, she turned to see Cordell standing some distance off, his grip relaxing on his gunsword. He hadn’t figured on testing her patience again by butting in, but just in case…

Havoc came trotting up around a patch of scrub, back from running down a smaller scout-beast, and sat next to Cordell. His eyes darted from Remy to the body of the Flayer and back. Remy watched Cordell radio Hector’s backup perch, confirming a final sweep and cleanup.

Little eddies of dust moved between them in the coming dark, and in the last vestiges of clear light Cordell saw Remy silhouetted in burning crimson, her eyes afire from the kill, her body bathed in battle.

Never taking her eyes from Cordell, she distributed her energy evenly, shunting a light propulsive blast outwards in all directions, cleansing herself of acid and blood in a hellish mist that caught the long and final rays of the setting sun.

Cordell nodded, he and Havoc turning to walk the distance back to the truck.

Night came on quietly, slowly turning to a moonish twilight as Remy followed them. She stopped only to mark another small notch near the base of her axe handle.

No Land Beyond: Preludes

Oqwuaka, Illinois

2034

The hours of the night were approaching as the waters of the Mississippi crawled past the grassy river-edges west of town. All 70 lbs and 10 years of Chet Zalinsky sat barefoot on the bank, absentmindedly chucking rocks into the rolling and fluid maw.

His town was not rich enough in immediate land for regularly-hiring farms, nowhere near big enough for thriving business. Many men & women drove truck to get by, and they said Oqwuaka’s population had dwindled close to 700 this year. He had a rough idea this was a bad thing from the way the adults talked of it, but hadn’t the context to figure out exactly why – and didn’t want it. He’d just heard that his oldest sister had gone off to one of the Havens in Colorado with her boyfriend, and right now he had bigger fish to fry. Bigger rocks to throw.

“Y’know,” he sighed, flicking a pebble into the water, “I’ll probably never get a girlfriend with a name like Chet.”

Amberiah Martin squinted, shaking her head and looking up from the novel she’d been reading, partially assisted by flashlight. “What?”

“Like, it just stands to reason. ‘Specially if I stay here and take over the mechanic shop like Dad wants.”

Stands to reason?”

“What he says when something’s dumb… but it kinda makes sense. So ya just gotta swallow it. Anyway, like. Think about it. I gotta go to college, or Chicago or Des Moines or whatever. If you stay in a small town, ya gotta have a cool name. Like… Brock. Or… Magnus. Small town, dumb name, no girlfriend.”

Amberiah’s tone was scolding. “You were named after your grandpa!”

Chet scoffed. “Yeah, so? Probably a cool name back then. Grandma must’ve thought so.” He raised his voice to a feminine falsetto. “Oh, Chet! You’re so handsome, Chet! Let’s go for a drive in your pick-em-up truck… Chet.” He shuddered.

Amberiah rolled her eyes. Generally speaking, men were way harder on themselves than women were- a mystery she figured to spend the rest of her life puzzling over. If she decided to care that long.

She looked at his eyes, clear and bright in the twilight as he stared across the banks of the Mississippi towards Iowa. “Well I don’t think it’s a dumb name.” She stood up, tossing her book into her backpack. “I think your worrying is what’s dumb.”

Chet looked up, scowling a bit. “It’s not dumb if it’s true.”

“What’s in here,” she said, point the flashlight’s beam at his head, “isn’t true half the time.”

“Hey!” he protested, throwing a hand up to block the light.

“Well it’s not! That’s what my dad says. And I think your worries are just a bunch of bulls**t.”

Chet stood up quickly. “Jesus! Don’t swear!”

“Well don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!” she countered in a mocking tone.

They stared at each other for a moment as the river swept by, a force unimpeded.

She pointed the beam at his chest. “You should listen to what’s in there. Instead.”

Chet groaned, shutting his eyes and bouncing his arms against his sides. “Yeah. Ok. Sure.”

Amberiah clicked off her light and went for her bike. “Trust me,” she said, turning her head to glance at him before mounting, “I think the only people who ever left… that’s what they did. Not what you’re doing. Like a dummy.”

He flung a pebble at her backpack as she started to ride away. “See you tomorrow!” she called. “You can show me that dead deer!”

“OK!” he shouted after her. “IT’S PRETTY COOL!”

“DOUBT IT! SOUNDS GROSS!” she called back before disappearing down the dirt road into the approaching night.

Chet sighed again, glaring up at the early stars, daring fate for a sign.

His holowatch beeped at him. 8:00 PM. “Ah s**t.”

Throwing down his handful of rocks, he ran over to his own bike and mounted up, taking one last glance at the river.

He pedaled about a mile in the opposite direction his friend had taken, thinking to check on the deer carcass. If it was already gone, he’d have to think of something else cool to show her. 

Maybe we could go look for arrowheads or something.

His thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a long-unused mailbox, signaling his memory’s milestone for the unfortunate deer- a young buck, a four-pointer.

He’d already been toying with the notion of sneaking some of dad’s tools out here to remove the horns- of course, for what purpose, he wasn’t quite sure. Pretending to be a war chief with a hunting trophy was pretty much the beginning and end of Chet’s line of reasoning. He smiled at the thought of lashing them to his bike handles- a smile that was quickly erased at the thought of his mother’s potential reaction. Oh well. Worry about it later.

Night was upon the town now, having swallowed most of the daylight save for a thin, hazy line on the Iowan horizon. Cicadas sang incessantly alongside crickets and peepers, a bright but waning moon just starting to show as little breezes rustled the thickets and taller grasses.

Noticing the smeared trail leaving the main road from the deer’s impact site, its blood-remnants already disappearing to the dust and gravel, he dismounted.

Oh. Right.

The doomed buck had, somehow, staggered across the road to a smaller, overgrown path leading to a long-abandoned farmhouse. Treelines flanking the path- planted generations ago -now rose above the boy, their leaves and branches whispering in the dark.

Chet shuddered again, but for more immediate reasons. 

He steeled himself, pressing on. Just a quick look. Make sure. He hummed to himself as he crossed the road, pausing briefly next to the rusted and bent mailbox, its names long faded out. “Quick look. Then home.”

He was only about 100 feet in when he recognized the spot. Moonlight filtered down on the bloody patch of earth, giving it the appearance of a druidic altar. He’d read about druids in school. He let out the breath he’d been holding in, realizing the deer had fallen closer to the main road than he remembered.

His breath caught again as he approached.

There were no antlers.

Chet frowned, curious. Had it been a doe? This whole time? No. Come on. I know better than that.

He moved quietly, angling himself around so he could see the front of the carcass.

Suddenly, the summer night seemed noticeably colder. 

You needed to have a head to have antlers.

He quieted his breathing, feeling his pulse quicken against his will. The treelines seemed oppressive as he crouched, gazing down the path to the old farmhouse.

“Stop it,” he whispered to himself. “Animal got to it. Or older kids.”

Looking back down at the body, he squinted in the moonglow, leaning towards the neck. A thin trail of viscera ran out of it, fresher than the dried blood on the dirt.

The head had been cut clean. Chet was no expert, but he’d read enough books to know something didn’t add up. The line was too neat. A single, clean cut, with the hair all around the outer edge singed darkly. “Lightsaber,” he mused out loud.

Chet suddenly wished he’d followed Amberiah home.

Trying his best to remain cognizant of all his angles of visibility, he stepped as quickly as he could across the gravel while remaining as quiet as possible back down to the main road.

A staccato clicking and alternate deep thrumming emanated from the darkened grove of trees to his left. Chet stopped in mid-stride even as instinct pushed him to run.

His pulse quickened further, and a slight ringing tinged the edge of his hearing as his senses sharpened. He found himself involuntarily breathing through his mouth, not daring to make a single unnecessary noise.

It’s a bird. It’s an insect. It’s night. It’s normal.

One of the thrums changed to a reverse-sucking noise that ended in three drawn-out organic clicks.

It’s night.

It’s normal.

Click-Click. Something thumped in the dark. Click.

It’s night.

Click. Behind him.

In the center of the sputtering, pounding, ungodly terror building inside him, Chet sensed a tiny point of calm. Well, he thought, forget college. No girls when you’re dead.

He forced his eyes open and spun around. Gravel crunched under his sneakers.

Nothing was there.

He could see his bike across the main road, past the mailbox. He swore through clenched teeth.

Run? Creep?

Three quick, queitish steps were all Chet made before the loud thumps behind him, towards the house, made him stop again. He felt a residual anger building as the adrenaline coursed through him.

He spun around in a fighting stance, ready to speak or scream.

His mouth dropped open.

The creature was unnatural.

A looming, darkened bulk of organic mass balanced between two thick appendages that seemed to serve as both arms and legs. It had no other limbs, standing on knuckles as big as Chet’s head underneath its backwards-jointed trunks. Rivulets of bone-shaded exoskeleton ran up and down the limbs and across its body, to a smaller mass- where a head, by all rights, should have been. Three bulbous growths joined together there, angling towards Chet. Three large slits reminiscent of gills ran down either side of the creature’s body on its lower sides, expanding and contracting slowly and rhythmically.

It was twice as tall as Chet’s oldest brother.

Chet said the only thing that came to mind after years of American television.

“Come. In peace. I-c-come-in-p-peace,” he said, managing to squeeze the words out of his panic. He turned his hands over and opened his palms. 

The creature’s bulbs followed the movement.

Chet held his ground. Maybe this was his Iron Giant moment.

A vertical line suddenly appeared at the top of the creature’s chest, running down slowly to the bottom of its front mass. It took a couple lumbering steps forward, body swaying in balance, a massive and logic-defying aberration. Gills hissed as its chest split open.

Chet’s mouth dropped open again as lines of pulsing purple bioluminescence ran along the ridges of its exoskeleton.

Numerous, smaller snakelike appendages shot out of its chest, making more organic sucking sounds as they wrapped around the sides of the chest cavity, forcing it to open wider.

Two larger tentacles terminating in hard, edged structures as large as his dad’s arms emerged, slowly.

One was wrapped around the antlers of a deer’s head. 

Presenting the head to Chet’s trembling form, the creature waved the other tentacle close to it. The blade-edge of the free appendage glowed a fierce orange, and it swiped it back and forth underneath the deer’s head.

Holding the head steady and pulling it back a bit, the creature opened a small hole underneath its head-bulbs. A thin, singular, darker tentacle snaked out, heading for the bottom of the deer’s neck. The creature paused for a moment, trying to find purchase on the spinal chord.

It jacked in and the deer’s head came to life, eyes rolling and tongue flashing out of its mouth.

The creature’s microphone was working.

“HNURRRGGGGHHHHHH! HNNNNNNNGUH! NNNGUH! NNNGUH! MMMMRRAAAAAG!”

To Chet’s credit, he didn’t go from insanely terrified to scared f**kall s**tless until that moment. His mind blank, he ran for his bike, not looking back; just hoping to make it home.

No one would believe him.

Well. Maybe Amberiah.

Chet wondered if there were monsters in Seattle. Or Canada. Or Antarctica.

Or the Haven his sister had gone to.

The creature waited until the sounds of Chet’s bike stopped making patterns in the atmosphere before lumbering back to the deer’s carcass. Leaning forward, it analyzed the body again, then leaned back and held the severed head up to its bulbs. It shifted, turning in the direction of the road again. Its bioluminescence faded in the dark.

Click.

Sucking its tentacles- and microphone -back into its body, it sealed up its chest before thundering off through the thickets into the grove. 

There was a deep hum, a sound somewhere between a whoosh and a large tearing, followed a second later by an immense, localized gravitational pull. Thickets cracked and trees bent, only to reassert themselves an instant later as spacefabric normalized.

And then there was nothing but crickets and owls and a late summer breeze drifting over the Mississippi river.

There was nothing but the night.

Anathema

20 years into this century
and the West burns,

the land inflamed, unceasing.

It burns in the forests
and the fields,
it burns in the streets,
with fires small and great
all stretching out for the same air,
all feasting upon the same oxygen.

But empires thus
are built of bone
and of sweat,

and within the elements
of things closest to our hearts,
from the private
to the pestilent,
we wait
and we watch
with dilated eyes
the assault and decay.

To breathe! Only to breathe…

The body has a finite amount of blood.
The mind can only take so much.

They will not stop, you see.
They will never

stop.

This is the desolation.

Oh rise now the midnight daughter,
oh rise now the twilight son;
keep your blades sharp,
your torches dry,
your eyes up.

Under the roaming haze
under a descending sun;
late now, the domain of summer,
and the long dark
approaches.

There is but one bastion,
one shield,
one bulwark,
one fire in the night:

hold fast thy memory,
thy faith,
thy hope
and thy love.

You know
in your deep-heart
what is right.

All else is anathema,
all else is so much dust,
for there are no spells
with which to resurrect the dead.

In Memoriam: Patrick H Lee

artist: https://www.deviantart.com/pe-travers/art/Desolation-120816158

92%

had to wait a while,
didn’t we?

for the stars to fall in supernova
and the far trails
to be formed and tread
and for the long night
to descend upon us?

and so we did.

be then ignited with me,
you inviolate wonder;

for tears are sacred things
that flow
through the mountain-field
and through the desert
into the ocean,

only so they might be carried up,
and by desperado winds
returned to the earth
as a storm over the sage,

where grace as rain comes down
around the lightning we make
in this love like thunder.

artist: https://deviantart.com/viconbecon

Geology

Your skin is of alabaster,
and your heart, rose quartz.

Your mind is diamond.
Your hair flows down like tiger’s eye.

And residing within granitic bones
of cooled lava,
your soul is formed
of topaz and citrine;

your eyes of obsidian,
of dragon’s blood,
of labradorite.

And your mouth
speaks in rivers
and your touch
laps as waves on the shore
and your dreams
are snow gathering on the high peaks;

for you were forged in stars,
and born of fire,
and a wonder,

never simply on display;

but forever that of beauty,
wild in the earth.

Before Dawn

Gently now,
as I draw you in the core of my mind.

Softly now,
as your soul sings
in the depths of the dark.

Sweetly now,
as we drink
deep from the overflowing cup.

The ceiling fan spins light kaleidoscopic
in the late evening,
and the sheets smell like you,
and my shirt is scented
with dust and musk,
and we trace each other’s tattoos
and taste of each other’s wine
and speak our stories into the air.

So
lightly,
as my fingers brush
the back
of your neck.

Elegantly,
as your hand rests
upon the rising of my
chest.

Slowly,
as thunderclouds growl and gather
in the distance.

The hours after midnight
are only for the nameless,
the forgotten,
the secrets,
the lovers,
the ascendant.

Carefully now,
as I carve your name
into the side of my heart.

Theory

What makes a wild heart beat?

(no, i mean really beat)

Does it fly full-out and free
under the sun?
Does it hide and whisper
its dreamings in the dark?
Does it drift
in fitful slumber beneath the sea?

What voices, still, are carried on the horizon’s wind?

Where do they go?

And why,
why is all this insanity
very much like a coming home?

(does it even matter?)

Here,
I’ll tell you a secret:

I have no idea.

But I think it’s very close

to whatever makes a horse
dig its hooves hard into the ground,
playing with the earth
at the scent of rain,
throwing out ripened patches
of green grass
to an evening blanket-sky
burgeoned with pillars of midnight
as the final spears of sunlight
slip past the edges of thunderwaves
forged in hearts of lightning.

artist: https://www.deviantart.com/temiree/art/Rising-Thunder-606707595