In the lightless depths of a warm summer night, the woodsman came awake with a start, his whole body jerking with life as his left hand came slapping up to take hold of his shoulder.
Something had just poked him, something hard and flat and feeling a good deal like a cane. But as he groaned like an old door and massaged his tender arm, he struggled to imagine who his attacker might be.
“Ain’t got no coin,” he muttered sleepily, sitting up on his arms and directing his sleep-crusted eyes in the direction of the poker, expecting bandits or lunatics or one of the two troublesome drunks with which he was acquainted.
Instead, he saw a huge black shape squatting motionless at his side.
It could have been the silhouette of a man, he supposed, but only if it were a man fourteen-hands tall and four-hands across the shoulders, a man capable of blocking out the moon and wiping away the stars.
It could have been a titan, too, he guessed, except it clearly had no hair along its frictionless frame, or the floppy round ears on its head, or the enormous bushy mane around its neck.
The only other creature that might grow so large was an ugling, but since the thing wasn’t trying to tear out his throat and feed on his guts, he guessed it wasn’t one of those either.
Which meant it was his shadow, that ubiquitous and omnipotent pest that had just outdone itself in the realm of the annoying.
It wasn’t his real shadow, of course. His real shadow dissolved after nightfall, and if his real shadow had tried to poke him, he’d have felt only his finger as it dug into his flesh, not the chisel-like digit attached to this bruiser’s hand.
In summation, this was his other shadow, the one that stood at the edges of his gaze and watched him with those huge blue eyes. Huge, blue, and empty eyes, he added, searching the blackness of the shadow’s face and finding it obscured by the gloom.
The shadow reached for him, intending to poke him a second time.
“I’m up,” the woodsman grunted, rubbing at his eyes. “I’m up.”
As if brought to life by some magical incantation, both the shadow’s arms lifted from its trunk and all ten digits spread wide from its hands. It began sweeping them through the darkness in a smooth and steady rhythm, forming signs and symbols in the cool night air.
To the woodsman, this had always reminded him of a craftsman whittling shapes on the surface of a tree. Only the shadow was using its hands instead of tools and, in lieu of a tree or a fine block of wood, it was whittling its shapes on the emptiness of the night.
Over time, of course, the woodsman came to realize this wild commotion was some sort of communication—had even learned a handful of the symbols as well—but for the most part the hand-speak meant nothing to him, just some strange barbarian dance with a few rude gestures thrown in for good measure.
Like this business with the fingers, he thought, watching the shadow point at him and then bring both index fingers towards one another, stopping with a fistful of air hanging between them.
The gesture as a whole involved stabbing its fingers twice in quick succession, as if it had a stain on its shirt and was so upset that it had to point twice. But since it didn’t wear a shirt, and since there wasn’t a dye made that could stain its exterior, the woodsman was at a loss.
In a way, it made him think the shadow had been impaled through the middle and was now pointing at the object protruding from its chest. But this, too, was utterly preposterous.
Yeh could skewer the walls of Castle Arn ‘fore yeh could skewer that thing, he thought, and yet the insinuation towards its midsection was undeniable.
“Somethin there?” he asked, searching the dark space at its chest.
The shadow stopped gesturing with arms and hands and did something the woodsman never failed to understand. It shook its massive head, swinging it like an old bull chasing away the flies, swinging it once to the left, then once to the right.
The woodsman frowned.
“Nothin there, huh,” he said, leaning back on his elbows and watching the display.
The shadow leapt back into gesture-mode, clearly adopting the quantity over quality model of education. For rather than stray from this flawed method of delivery, it simply repeated the motions ad nausea. This proved as effective as driving a nail with a feather duster and eventually forced the woodsman to shake his head in confusion.
“Did sump’in happen?” he asked. “Sump’in while I’s asleep?”
The shadow swung its head to either side.
“Did I do sump’in?”
The shadow gave a nod, tipping its head forward like an oak tree in a gale.
The woodsman leaned back further, a wave of mixed emotions flooding his core. Actually, mixed was the wrong word, at least in the sense of an even mixture. Without question, he felt a wave moving through him, but it consisted mainly of fear, with maybe a plank-sized section of relief riding along the surface.
Sure, he was relieved to hear that the shadow wasn’t just poking him at random, but that relief was greatly overshadowed by the assertion that the woodsman had been doing something in his sleep, something so menial that it hadn’t woke him, but something so disturbing—at least to the shadow’s way of thinking—that it had caused his voiceless watcher to wake him in the night.
Directing his attention back to the finger-tapping part of the gesture—which the shadow was now performing like a mindless drone—the woodsman noticed a twisting motion in its hands.
Due either to poor lighting or his own groggy consciousness, he’d missed this before. But the fingers were not only moving towards one another, they were turning ever-so-slightly, like the tiny knives of a miniature killer, thrusting into their victim and then twisting for effect.
For reasons the woodsman could not explain, the word gouge flashed in his mind and he found himself thinking about what day it was and, more importantly, what he did on this day.
“That mean dig?” he asked, hoisting his brows. “You talkin bout diggin worms?” But the shadow was not talking about diggin worms and told him so with a swing of its head. The woodsman’s brows drifted back down.
At this point, some might have continued to speculate about the meaning of the symbol—some like the woodsman’s good friend Iman—but not the woodsman. The woodsman knew it would do him no good. On occasions like this, he either identified the symbol right away or the symbol remained a mystery.
Like tree for instance, that had been simple enough. The shadow had pointed at a tree, had made a sign, and the woodsman had guessed tree. On another occasion, however, the shadow had pointed to the sky, had made a sign, and the woodsman’s guess of sky had not earned him a nod of the head.
The woodsman had then gone on to suggest cloud and star and anything else that might be hovering overhead, but none of these were correct. He didn’t know if the problem was his neglected vocabulary or the shadow’s difficult nature, but he did know that continuing to guess—as he was doing now—had never proven fruitful.
He leaned to the side and peaked around the creature—trying to assess the eastern sky—but the shadow stepped in his way and jabbed a finger at him. The woodsman shied back and saw that the creature was starting a new gesticulation, this one worse than the last. It had balled its hands into fists, lifted its fists to its chest, and was hammering at the air.
“Easy now,” the woodsman said, waving the creature back.
The shadow stopped signing and shook its head at him, as if to say he had it all wrong, but the woodsman wasn’t so sure. He’d like to think the creature would have killed him by now if that was its intention—like a moment ago when he was sound asleep and the thing settled for a poke in the arm—but there again, the creature had appeared from out of nowhere one day and started peeking at him from behind rocks and trees. A creature like that was capable of just about anything.
Oblivious to this negative evaluation, the shadow continued to point at him, interspersing the pointing with both the finger-stabbing gesture and the fist-pounding gesture.
The woodsman gave this an appraising look and then pulled a plum-sized leather pouch from his pant’s pocket and untied the drawstring. When the binding came loose, he dumped what looked like a tiny coiled snake into the palm of his hand.
To the woodsman, his sweet vine was one of those funny little patterns in life, one of those comforting What’s upon which he so desperately relied. He had long ago accepted the fact that, on the whole, he was not a very clever man and that, to be sure, no one would ever ask for his philosophy on life. But despite this lack of intelligence—or, possibly, because of it—he had forced himself to become a consummate watcher of the world and observer of the routine.
Take his vine for example. When he chewed it, he did not know why spit gathered in his cheeks or why the chewing calmed him down. He knew only that it did, and that it was one of those funny little patterns he’d observed over time: Vine in equals problems out. It was a pattern made true through observation, like the flocking of birds in the fall or the roaming of bears in the spring.
In fact, as far as he knew, the only creature to escape his powers of observation was the shadow. And that was because it didn’t do anything except hide behind bushes and lurk behind rocks and, more or less, observe the woodsman.
‘Ceptin fer t’night, the woodsman amended. After t’night, I can add, Pokes me while sleepin, to the list.
The woodsman stood and stretched, reaching his arms to the night and groaning like a floorboard. The vine was already kicking in. He could feel it moving out from his mouth and into his muscles, causing them to tingle and making them burn. They were chasing away his thoughts of the shadow and the many despairing things he could never understand.
T’day, he thought, arching his back with another trembling yawn, is a good day.
In truth, though, all of his days were good days. He’d systematically removed the bad ones, observing them over time and then discontinuing those that had either done nothing for him or had done him harm, like Peak Day for instance.
Peak Day had been eliminated after only a few brief attempts. It had begun after hearing a handful of trappers discuss the rush they received while scaling the mountains of the Blades or the ridges of the Kilashan and it had ended after the woodsman received no such rush. In his experience, the ravines made him dizzy and the precipices took his breath and, needless to say, by the end of the day he had a raging headache and an uneasy digestion.
Thankfully, the days that remained—five of them in total—left the woodsman feeling quite the opposite. There was Hunt Day with its heart-thumping excitement and god-like feeling of power. Scout Day with its mental engagement and, sometimes, puzzling revelations. Swim Day with its cardiovascular rewards and muscular stimulation—not to mention the occasional canon-ball off the cliffs. And, of course, Cave Day with its moments of terrifying uncertainty that had started out on the debilitating path of Peak Day, but had eventually proven themselves somewhat tolerable (Unlike Peak Day, Cave Day had provided the woodsman with just enough child-like terror to put an edge on life, but not so much that, afterwards, he wanted to curl into a ball and die).
Fish Day, however, was the woodsman’s favorite, the day by which all other days were measured, a day of timeless peace and enduring calm, a day where he flitted in and out of sleep while the sun baked his skin and the grass shushed his ears, a pole between his toes and Zeph purring…on his…
The woodsman stopped stretching and looked down, squinting at the darkness. Upon waking and finding this voiceless freak looming over him, he’d forgotten all about his furry four-legged friend, the one he could always count on to be curled upon his chest when he awoke.
He widened the scope of his search, mild panic setting in. What could have happened to drive his little friend from the warm bedding of—
He jerked his head at the shadow. “Where’d she go?” he demanded.
The shadow—hulking antithesis of speed and haste—shook its massive head.
The woodsman scowled in silence, but in his head he was thinking, All you do is stand around starin at stuff an’ now you’re gona squat there an’ tell me yeh ain’t seen nothin? Nothin dartin through the stones, or under the fence?
With his eyes still burning, the woodsman said, “J’ou scare her off, huh? J’ou come over here wavin your fool hands an’ scare her down yonder?”
The shadow lifted its arms and, for a moment, the woodsman actually thought it would come clean and admit to its role in the trespass, admit that it did, indeed, frighten the cat-thing and that it had seen the direction she fled. But instead, it pointed at the woodsman and began making its ridiculous signs.
The woodsman turned away, panning his head around the black face of the hillside and scanning the dark outlines of squares and pillars and other stony juts, searching them not for substance, but for movement.
He’d never find Zeph in the dark—not with her being coal-black and all—but he might see her move, he might catch a glimpse of her streaking between the stones and over the rises.
“D’jou see where she went?” he said, his voice only slightly calmer.
The shadow pointed north.
Seeing the gesture in the corner of his eye, the woodsman nodded. The Leresh was to the north, and ole Zeph knew what day it was as well as anyone, so that made sense. She’d seen the idiot shadow coming at her and made an early start of things.
“From now on,” the woodsman said, squatting over the place where he had left his gear, “I’ll thank yeh kindly to stay away from ‘er.” In the corner of his eye, he saw the shadow lower its head to show it understood. Then, before the woodsman could think to look away, it had lunged back into its finger-pointing and fist-pumping.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, reaching for his pack and quiver, “jus steer clear of er, ah’right. Cause the next time I wake up an’ she—”
The woodsman’s voice died in his throat as he realized something was wrong. He was moving his hand through the area beside his bedding—the area where he always kept his gear—and there was nothing there. Where his fingers should have met with leather and wooden, they met with blades of grass and dew-tinted soil.
He stopped sweeping his hands from side to side and began patting them on the ground, beating them in disbelief. His gear was always here—Always! He had a very simple plan—a pattern, if you will—and it was followed without fail. Each night, right before slumber, he came to the same section of ground, laid himself down, and placed his things to the left of his head. That way, when he woke the next morning, his arms would be folded, his ankles would be crossed, and his things would be right where he’d left them.
Only they weren’t.
He stopped searching and looked up. “I reckon you din’t have nothin to do with this neither.”
The shadow dipped its head.
An’ there’s your pattern, the woodsman thought. J’eh see it? Did j’eh? This thing shows up an’ now your gear an’ pet’s gone missin. Imagine that. Shaduh in equals possessions out.
Shaking his head in disbelief, the woodsman said, “Yeh see where it went to?”
The shadow pointed out into the grass and the woodsman followed its finger, crawling in that direction and padding the ground as he went, eventually coming to a lone moccasin and a single tin of fishhooks. He slipped the shoe on his foot, shoved the tin in his pocket, and continued across the lawn.
At first, he was worried that he wouldn’t find his gear, but this worry was quickly replaced with the worry that he wouldn’t be able to fix his gear. Even in the dark, he could discern the elongated shape of a skinning knife and the rounded edges of his water skin. They appeared to have been flung with some ferocity, as had the other contents of the bag.
Padding the ground, he managed to find several sacks of rice, a bag of nuts, a chunk of dried meat, his keepers salve and cauva root, a clutch of polished creek rocks he’d been collecting—cause they was purty—some grimy roots he’d dug from the Shun, a handful of rags he’d saved from old shirts, a few strands of frayed rope, and a necklace of claws that Gariel had given him (and which he’d never gotten around to wearing).
Scraping all of these things back inside his pack, he noticed what looked to be a pile of kindling stacked beside what looked to be a hollow log.
“How in the blue…!”
He crawled to his discarded arrows and held them to the moon, twirling them carefully between his thumb and forefinger and checking for damage. Those that were not broken or warped, he slid back inside the quiver. Those that were, he stacked at the base of a jutting stone for the next time he needed a fire.
Slinging the pack and quiver over his shoulder, he stood and adjusted the bindings, his eyes staring an ugly hole in the black bulge that served as the shadow’s face. He stared for a long time, the crickets chirping, the cicadas buzzing.
“I din’t find my stick no wheres,” he said, turning his head and jettisoning a stream of saliva at the ground. “Spent the better part of Hunt Day lookin fer that stick.”
The shadow held out its hand and the woodsman jumped back, relaxing only when he spied the long and twisted object clutched therein.
He took the stick from the shadow’s pie-plate hand and held it to the sky, turning it over and over as he had the arrows. When it had passed the inspection, he gave the shadow another spiteful glare and sat down on one of the many rock stumps decorating the hill, doing so with his back to the creature.
He dug out a ball of string from his pocket and began the arduous chore of detangling it.
Behind him, something poked him in the back, something that felt not like a cane, but like the handle of a spear.
“Yeah,” he said, tugging at the string.
The hard jolt of the shadow’s finger came again and this time the woodsman turned to face it, leery of a third blow.
The creature was signing at him again, but not with gestures. This time, it was signing letters. The woodsman knew this because the shadow had once signed them and then drawn the corresponding symbol in the dirt, quite possibly the only nine letters the woodsman remembered from his elementary studies.
“That ain’t my name,” he snapped. “Yeh call me Jaysh or doan’ call me.”
Without a pause—and certainly without regard for the woodsman’s warning—the shadow pointed at Jaysh and made the finger-pointing gesture, then the fist-pumping gesture. Then it paused for the woodsman to respond and, when he did not, repeated the gestures again.
Jaysh groaned and came very close to screaming at the thing. This was never going to end, it just wasn’t. He was going to insist that he didn’t understand, the shadow was going to insist that he did, and together they would spend all of Fish Day arguing the matter.
Jaysh had an idea, one he had picked up from his dear old friend, Iman. And yes, the fact that it was Iman’s idea usually meant there was a strong possibility it would fail, but since the woodsman was failing at this already, he decided to give it a chance.
He began to nod at the shadow, then to soften his bearded cheeks and to lift his bushy brows. Then, once he had these effects in place, he said, “Okay.”
The shadow, clearly taken aback by this new turn of events, hesitated in mid-gesture.
Still nodding and feigning interest, Jaysh said, “Ah’right,” and pulled a small tin from his pants pocket.
The shadow resumed his motions.
“Uh-huh,” Jaysh said, extracting a hook from the tin and lowering his head to his lap, busying himself with the meticulous task of tying the hook to the string and the string to the stick. A couple of times thereafter he nodded and, once or twice, he said, “Uh-huh,” but not once did he raise his head or stop his work.
Heedless to this, the shadow went right on signing, making its arcane semaphore as though it had the woodsman’s complete attention. Then, once it had finished with its signs, it dropped its hands at its sides and stood like a statue.
Jaysh, who had tied his hook to his stick long ago and was simply killing time until the creature went still, peeked up at the thing from under the cover of his brows. The shadow only stood there, lifeless, shadowy, staring…
Jaysh rose to his feet, spat a streamer at the stones, then set off in the direction of the Leresh. When he’d reached the bottom of the next hill, he could hear the shadow following after.