It’s Not a Jungle Out There

I decided to enter a writing contest. The idea was to write a story based on a picture. The picture definitely inspired me. I looked it up and found another picture that inspired me that was by the same artist. I immediately wrote this story. It was too long for the competition so I wrote a new one for the contest. The story follows below.

It’s Not a Jungle Out There

Uncle Bast says to me “No one buys chist anymore. Not the tree grown chist, anyway.”

I say, “It’s our tree.”

He takes a handful of my hair in hand. I hate it when he does that. “Trees die. The leaves are thinning boy. We gotta take what we can while we can. It is no damn good living without money.”

“Dad said, ‘The tree would be fine if we still sold our lant.’ ”

Uncle Bast kneels and says, “I’m surprised you even remember him. In any case, what is done is done. Lant doesn’t make a lot of money and the trees were sold to make ships.

I say, “Gollum.”

Uncle Bast says, “No call for cussing, Brat. You won’t fix anything that way.”

***

At the base of my tree, a group of men call to me.

A man with a sword says, “This one looks strong enough. Boy, have you ever considered working for the circus?”

I say, “I thought you were lumberjacks.”

He says, “In the winter. In the summer we travel the world in ships that sail the seven skys. A boy who can climb the way you do could make good money in the circus.”

If the village is going to cut down, I need to find something to do, but I don’t want to work with the men who are going to cut down my home. I don’t say anything to them. I don’t trust them.

***

In the middle of the night, Aunt Kare wakes me and hands me a pack. “We gotta run. No questions and no noise.”

We are half wading, half swimming, downstream pulling the loaded coracles behind us. We stop and listen when things get still. Aunt Kare and Aunt Beetle have all of us stop dead still when we get far enough from rapids and falls to hear anything. They wait until we are close to the Deep Falls before we take a break. Us boys want to eat on the rocks beside the falls. Our aunts insist we carry the coracles into the woods and cover tracks.

Aunt Beetle has us gather around as Aunt Kare distributes bread.

Aunt Beetle says, “The men thought they had a sure thing and gambled what they got sellin’ out the village. If we’d stayed, we’d’ve left in irons. They sold us, too, thinking they had a way to turn their losses around.”

Tiny June asks, “Where are we going?”

Aunt Kare says, “The old village.”

Tiny June says, “Ghosts and Fairies.”

Aunt Kare says, “Better what ghosts do to you than what will happen to you when you get sold at the market.”

I turn my head to listen and hold my hand up. We all listen. Men coming from upstream. I get up to warn them of the falls, Aunt Kare puts her hand on my arm. I look in her eyes.

I handspeak to her, “That’s mean.”

Aunt Kare handspeaks back, “Murder is milder than enslavement.”

I don’t think it’s murder. It could wreck their boats, though. The pools at the bottom of the falls are too deep to kill someone.

***

We watch from the trees as two men come back up from the bottom of the falls. I am pretty sure there were more that went over. We hold still though. The men look mad and strong. They have swords. These men where among the group that was trying to have me join the circus.

“You think the Gollum kids came this way?”

“Never know, they would have died in the falls if they did.”

“Think we’ll catch them?”

“Lot of money just slipped our fingers if we don’t.”

***

We wait until their voices are distant before we continue down to the bottom of the falls. In the calm deep water below us, fish are trying to nibble on the bodies of crazy men who didn’t know to give up boots, buckles and swords.

Aunt Kare says, “They didn’t know how to swim.”

I look down into the water in disbelief. These men were scared to climb trees. If they can’t swim, how can they do anything?

Tom says, “There!”

Downstream, we can see Uncle Bast’s boat.

Tom says, “We can dive for purses and metal and carry it in the boat.”

Aunt Beetle and Aunt Kare exchange glances.

Aunt Kare says, “We should keep downstream ’til the junction of Green River. Then we can slow down.”

Tom says, “Just us boys. We will dive for swords and coins. No more falls until Green River. We can catch up.”

Aunt Beetle gives me her beetle stare. She wants me to say with the rest of the boys and catch up with them later. Great, now I am responsible for the rest of the boys. That never ends well.

Fif is staying with us, too. With Fif it might work out. The other boys listen to her.

***

Uncle Bast’s boat survived the falls and was caught in the roots of a bank side tree. There was a body lodged with it. I think the rider hit his head on the side. We put all the stuff we robbed on the boat and take turns staying in water to guide it. The paddles are gone. Not all of us will fit in the boat anyway. I offer to take Fif’s turn in the water, but she refuses it. The body seems to be slowly following us, so I stay in the water with her and we backstroke with two ropes to pull the boat behind us.

***

We can still see the body in the distance when we start heading upstream. The Green River is mostly wide and shallow with a deep and fast gully winding down the middle of it. The little kids are in Uncle Bast’s boat. The rest of us are pulling it and the coracles upstream while slipping on the slick rocks. We get close to the old ford and the Aunts send Tom and me up to scout. No one is there. We pass it quickly and then after a few bends, we stop.

Aunt Kare says, “We can’t carry and we can’t hide your Uncle Bast’s boat. The rest of the trip is through the forest anyway.”

Fif says, “It’s getting dark and we are all getting hungry anyway. We need to find trees to sleep in.”

Aunt Kare says, “We shouldn’t risk a fire anyway so we’ll have to move around to dry out. We still want to hide our tracks. Don’t do anything that will leave signs you can’t hide.”

Peel says, “Let’s beach the boat on the inside of the next bend. If anyone searches, they will think we are on that bank anyway.”

Tom says, “Let’s flood it and wedge it into roots like we pulled it out of.”

Aunt Beetle gives me her beetle stare. Apparently, I am going to help them.

We take out and bury most of the swords and buckles in the dry sand. If we don’t retreive them before the next flood season, we will probably lose everything.

Fif says, “If you are going to keep the knives, then you better make them look different.”

I bury the one I was claiming.

Peel says, “I can scrape it smooth with sand and stone. If’n I wind a new wrapping, No one will recognize it.”

Tom sticks his blade into the bank and we take the boat upstream a short ways. We up end it in some tall grass by the edge of the bank. We go back downstream and join with the rest of the group. After eating we find trees to sleep in.

***

I am not sure how long I have slept when the tree starts moving. The wind has picked up and it’s cold. I climb down. Fif motions to me and I join her under a tarp. Tiny June grabs onto me for warmth. I am bundled up with Fif, Tiny June and five other kids. I don’t sleep. I have never been this close to Fif and I am not sure I could sleep. My heart races. Fif looks at me and my heart races more. Then the sky lights up and rain comes down in sheets. It gets really cold.

We huddle, shivering together as the rain makes streams at our feet.

When the first signs of morning light appear, Fif moves her head like her neck is sore. Her hair brushes my face.

Fif says, “The boat is probably long gone and good luck finding the swords.”

I have as many coins on me as I can swim with so I don’t really mind. “I did okay without a sword. I don’t see where I need one now.”

Aunt Kare comes over. Her hair is slicked down by the rain.

“Brat, we should get moving.”

I get up embarrassed that she saw me so close to Fif. I whistle a few bird calls to tell everyone to get up and get ready. We break bread on the trail but we don’t cover much ground until we take our next break at an icy stream. I don’t care about the cold and wet. I am filthy from last night. I clean off in the freezing water. Fif starts a splash fight with me. I thought we were getting along last night, but apparently not.

***

Tom is standing, waiting for Tiny June and me to catch up. The Aunts decided that I should take up the rear.

As we walk, Tom says, “Aunt Beetle says that we should be at the old village in a couple of hours. If it is just Peel, you and me, we could get back and check on the swords and make it back to the old village before dark.”

I says, “Aunt Kare will put us to work the moment we get there. We won’t be able to go back for the boat or swords for at least two days.”

Peel comes running back to us. He stops and lets us catch up to him. Ahead of us is the rest of the group. In front of them are glowing lights.

Little June says, “Fairies.”

I kneel beside her and say, “Don’t call them that again. At least not when they are around. Peel, ditch the dagger. You too, Tom.”

Tom says, “I’m not gonna. I figure there is a reason we didn’t stay in the old village. Without tools and trade, we are going to stay poor.”

Peel stabs his blade into a fallen tree and says, “At the very least, we can use these to carve things when we leave the old village.”

Tom stabs his blade into the fallen tree beside Peel’s and we join the rest of the group. Below us is a bright glen in the woods with old artifacts overgrown with moss and ferns. There are objects that are brightly painted but muted by the ages. some of the children have run ahead and are running among the shafts of light from holes in the leaf canopy above. Some are racing for what looks like large toys built for children to climb and swing on.

Aunt Beetle says, “Tom, Peele, if you can’t give up the tools and weapons of man, the folk will not let you dwell with them.”

Tom says, “We will keep them in the woods and not bring them into the village.”

Peel says, “We need to be able to defend ourselves.”

Aunt Kare says, “Brat, Tom, Peel, you won’t be able to stay here then. Go live in the world of men ’til you decide you can can return to us.”

I say, “I gave up the knife. I don’t have a problem.”

Aunt Kare says, “You are older. The other two need you to make sure they stay out of trouble. When you are ready to settle down, I am pretty sure Fif will be waiting for you.”

I turn around angry and start walking. I don’t think Fif will even spend a minute thinking about me. Peel catches up first.

Tom catches up and hands Peel his knife. “I am tired of being told what to do anyway. Let’s go see the world.”

***

The boat is gone, but we find the swords and buckles. We catch a few fish and have some spare meat cooked mostly dry. We don’t have any good way to pack food. I wake up and there are a couple of dogs eating the fish we saved. I climb down from the tree and yell at them before I realize that making wild dogs angry is probably not the best thing I can do. The dogs wag their tails. After petting them, I end up sleeping on the ground beside a pair of dogs.

***

Peel says, “They ate our breakfast.”

We try to catch more fish, but with the dogs bounding through the water we have no chance. I sit quietly for an hour in a deep hole waiting for a fish to get close enough for me to gently stroke and then grab or throw on the bank. The moment I get get close to catching one, the dogs run through the water and the fish darts off.

Tom says, “Brat, make them go away.”

***

The sun is overhead before the dogs decide to wander off. Tom has found some large leaves to wrap food in and I have found some green walnuts. As I beat green walnut husks into a paste, Brat and Tom start moving rocks and building a bit of a dam. My shirt and I are stained from all the walnut husks but we have managed to use the husks to paralyze enough fish to keep us going for a few days. We cook them down and wrap them. This time we take the fish up into the trees with us. I am not sure if the dogs came by or not. For once, I slept well.

***

We work our way back to the village. The bodies of the two men who were hunting us are hanging in trees. We sneak into the village but there is no point. No one is there. We count and between the bodies downstream and the bodies in the village, none of the circus workers and lumberjacks managed to get away from the village. Our village is still intact, but we are the only ones here. Tom is crying and that sets Peel off crying. I am too angry. If my dad was still alive I suspect that none of this would have happened. I hear bird calls. I walk out to the woods to where Uncle Bast is waiting.

“Where is everyone else?”

I stare at Uncle Bast, “If I told you, I would be as bad as the man that sold our village as slaves.”

“They cheated us.”

I don’t have an answer. Two more of my uncles appear from the woods.

“We can build a new village, where are the children?”

I don’t answer. There are dead men hanging in the trees I love. What is left of my family has joined the Fairies and cast me out to take care of the next two oldest boys.

***

I go back into the village. I can feel the eyes of my uncles watching me as I go up to my house. I get my water bottle. I get my blowgun. Peel sees me and goes back for his stuff. Tom joins me. We take a cart and start heading down the old broken roadway. Maybe we can return to our village someday. Right now there is nothing for us there.

***

As we travel, we find trees by the road where all of the low fruit have been picked. The three of us fill the cart with fruit.

***

We sit with a tinker and his daughter. They share bread and we share fish and fruit.

The tinker says, “Best you not carry swords around. Someone might decide you belong in one of their armies. You are jungle boys. You are best off traveling light and being ready to disappear into the woods. Everyone else is afraid of the jungle. As the jungles slowly grows over the old scars of the cities that once threatened them, this world is turning into a place were you can thrive and the rest of us fear.”

The tinker’s daughter asks, “Are there really Fairies in the jungle?”

Tom says, “We were kicked out by them.”

I don’t say anything. He and Peel were kicked out by them. I was kicked out by my aunts. I didn’t even do anything to deserve it.

I ask, “Can you use the swords?”

Peel asks, “Are you just going to give them everything?”

The tinker smiles at us, “I don’t want them. I have worked steel, but I prefer not to. Down in the next village is a blacksmith that you could do trade with. I am not sure what you could want in exchange though. You know how to live in the jungle and you can find fish and fruit. Seems like a nearly perfect life.”

***

The next morning we continue our journey. After a few hours we can hear the town ahead of us. We can smell the smoke. After we round another bend, we can hear people. Our village is only this loud during a festival. This village is apparently loud like this every day.

In the village, they have bright clothing like I have only rarely seen.

“Where is the blacksmith?”

A man in a shirt that looks practically new points and says, “Follow the sound of the hammer and anvil.”

***

The smith says, “I can use it or sell it, depends on who wants what first.”

He looks at me, “Are you sure you don’t even want a knife?”

I say, “Fairies don’t like them.”

He says, “They might not mind copper. I can make you a few small copper knives. It will be a couple of weeks though. I have quite a few orders to fill before I can get to making them.”

I ask, “Copper knives?”

He says, “That might be a bit weak. How about aluminum and copper alloy, bronze.”

Peel asks, “Aluminum and copper?”

The smith says, “It’s hard to work, but I have a bar of scrap I can grind down.

Tom says, “Bronze, like the tinker’s candle holder.”

The smith says, “Probably a bit stronger than the candle holder.”

Peel smiles and nods.

Some of the people in the village are nice, but we are not comfortable here. We don’t feel entirely welcome in places. We continue down the road to the next village. It is much bigger. Frightening and noisy.

***

On the water’s edge are ancient ruins of buildings taller than any tree ever grew. At night torches light up these buildings. Buildings larger than any villages needs to be. The torches and flares burn bright with the smell of destruction. This is no place for people to live.

***

We come to another village where huge boats that would not even fit in the river are being made and worked on. We walk through the busy and loud places where craft bigger than villages are being made. I point to a large sheet of paper on a wall with markings that match some of the markings that the circus people had.

I say, “We have money, we might be able to see the circus.”

Peel says, “Let’s go home.”

I say, “The knives won’t be ready yet and home isn’t what it once was.”

Tom says, “We can make it our home again. Let’s go home.”

I say, “We still have the knives to pick up and we have quite a bit of money. We can get things we will never see at home.”

Tom says, “Forget the knives. Forget the money. I want to go home.”

FINIS

 

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