Past The Toothed Tunnel, a short story.
The summer had become a rot to the earth. Green leafs, yellow leafs, brown leafs… ash. The bare trees twitched in the horizon like the legs of a dying spider. A time when the world had been harsh and rough for the people. The first of snow melted just as it fell. And the earth became wet and sorrowful. The people looked no higher than their feet. Tireless days of making their homes strong for a ravaging winter. For food, they preserved the whole of shaved rodents in the bile of pickle jars. A man with a long face and whiskers looked out the window as he capped the last of his pickled fetus and saw two orphan boys walk through the muddy town. One boy in a black coat, the other in brown.
The mud in the roads had been so deep, it looked as if the boys kicked their way through. Blotches of mud spat up. The town folk looked on and grumbled and continued on to nowhere. The boys wondered what to do. They had played the games they knew far too much and their jokes grew tired and their toys become irrelevant. The black skies above offered no answers as they lay in grey foliage. The straw bent to their shape.
“What do you think we should do then?” Chad, the orphan in black said.
“You’ve been asking all day,” Lee, the brown coated one replied.
“We need to find something new to do,” Chad scoffed.
“I know what you mean.” Lee sighed softly. “It’s like I’m getting the itch to move or something. But I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Why?” Chad wondered.
“I’m starting to feel sad right now, that’s why.”
“Why are you sad?”
“I don’t know.” Lee’s face stirred in confusion. “And I feel angry for no reason.”
“Not at me, I hope.”
“No. Not at you, just, at everything I guess.”
They got up and went back to the town. White candles hanging from the twiggy houses glowed dimly like scattered full moons beyond the dispersed fog. A man with pointed shoulders and a dark face beneath a top hat crept from the shadows of an alley. His hunching stance towered over the orphans. Piano key-like teeth. His face shaped like the front of a train. He tapped his long fingers, all but his proud pinkies. Meticulously and symmetrically and pleasantly. Index finger, middle finger, ring finger… Again and again. His breath leaked between his long teeth like they had been glued shut. His tongue slithered between his grin, like a snake gasping for air, and he licked his purple lips.
“What are you boys doing out so late?” His voice tenor and wispy.
Chad swallowed his fear. “We were just looking for something to do. We are bored.”
The stranger put his sharpened fingernail below his pointy chin. “Hmm,” he looked to the darkness then instantly back to the boys with a clowning grin. “That is because you are homeless and sad and need something to do. To forget you are homeless and sad.”
The orphan boys looked to each and raised a brow then looked to the stranger.
“Perhaps,” the boys agreed reluctantly.
“Well then,” the stranger said, “you must do what has always been done.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“Go into the woods and keep warm. Or die out here.”
Lee’s eyes widened round like two moons. “Die?” he murmured in terror.
“Die,” the stranger hissed. “In the woods, you will be entertained and frightened, bored and courageous. There are many treasures and as many temptations.” The stranger looked to the moonlit hills below the black, starless sky. “Be wary, for one could still die in the woods. Where there is boredom, there is seldom a lesson. And without a lesson, winter will have you.”
The stranger pointed and they followed his finger to the scene of the hills where, in that patch of darkness, the woods awaited. When they turned back to the stranger, he had vanished and all that stood was the flickering round glow from the waxy lanterns.
An owl uttered and cooed its warning before the boys stepped a foot into the shadowy prongs. The wiry labyrinth of wood crooked and wrenching in its dim folly. As they went on, the moon filtered into halves, then to splinters, and then to nothing behind them. The vine-like hands of the trees gathered to swallow its glow. Creatures scampered in the trees. Hawks screeched like banshees or tormented souls, swooping from branch to branch above. The trees swelled until they could no longer stand side by side. Pricks and thorns scraped their cheeks. Large thorns stuck into their guarding forearms like a shield thwarting arrows in war.
In the pitch black ahead, a white orb formed. Its outline like a mill blade. They felt the thorns comb their hair from above as they followed the light. Soon the needles began to scrape. Getting lower and lower until they crawled through the narrowing, toothed tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, Chad stuck his head out and he looked about the moonlit woods. Quiet and still. He slithered out and gave Lee a hand afterwards.
When they had stood straight, boulders pinched the back of their coats and they were carried off into the woods. Thunderous footsteps like fissures drowned out the orphans’ screams. They twisted and twirled and squirmed, bouncing against the rocky thing that hauled them away. The boys were tossed into a pile of rotting deadfall in a round clearing. The massive trees circling the border like witnesses. They looked to the fading quakes. The back of a haunch stone gianta sauntered like a lonely old man into the darkness in which they came.
“What was that?” the brown coat cried.
“Right you are indeed,” a queer voice spoke from trees. “A gentle one at that.”
The kid black coat looked around vigorously. “Who are you then?”
“I am Dr Finkleform.” Where the trees rattled, a pair of sharp, yellow eyes floated in the shadow. And its row of sharp teeth grinned. The teeth of a wolf. “So young, so brave. What brings you to the woods?”
“A man told us that we could learn how to keep warm in these woods, so we don’t die in winter.”
The eyes disappeared and the sound of whooshing wind and cracking twigs circled the opening and they reappeared elsewhere. “Aah, yes. One could. Many have. Many haven’t. Here you are, boys.”
Finkleform threw out two stones and then two more.
Chad picked up a set of stones and pondered them. “What are we to do with these?”
The hidden creature laughed. “Make a fire, of course. There are many ways to make a fire. One could use sticks, one could use stones. Others have fires before them their whole lives. I must go now, boys. For there are apparitions of my own to my calling. This coming winter will be the worst of them all, I fear.”
“Wait,” Lee said, “how do we use these?”
“Hit them together, why of course. Silly boy.” The creature ran in circles once again. “If I were to do it for you, what good would it do? All the best.”
The creature scurried away.
The boys looked at their stones, rough and heavy and sparkling, and they went about making a fire. The woods whispered a language long forgotten. They gathered a pile of grey old twigs laying about. Beneath the kindling, they set dry grass and, both at once, they scraped and plunked the course stone. The sparks erupting like waves of light, only to fade upon the strains of grass. They hit the stone slow, scraped it fast. Hit the stone fast, scraped it slow. The sparks died on the grass for hours without so much as a wisp of smoke.
“Crud,” Chad swore. “This is useless. We don’t need to do this. It’s not even that cold right now.”
They heard a rustle in the trees, louder and louder. A man came out of the dark borders and stumbled in the grass before them. He looked about the place in delirious fashion. His breath stunk of foul rot and lantern oil.
He saw the boys and bobbed his finger to them. “Boys, how are ye’?” he muttered.
“Fine, thanks,” they replied.
He looked at the pile of twigs. “What ye got there?”
“Making a fire, sir.”
He pounced to his feet and studied in awe. “A fire? You boys are making a fire?”
“Yes,” they said, hesitant.
“I admire a fire when my legs they tire,” he snickered. He saw the stones in their hands and nearly drooled in amazement. “Are those rare course stones?”
“Yes, a friend gave them to us.”
“Aye. Can I have a set then?”
The orphans gripped the stones and refused.
“I’ll trade you for them?”
They looked to each. “What you got then?”
The man went through his pockets and pulled them out. Like socks pinned to his attire. He had nothing. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll make you a fire, and if I do, I’ll get to have one of those sets. You’ll be nice and warm and toasty. Aye?”
Lee shook his head while the orphan in the black coat nodded.
Chad looked at the stones. “So you’ll build my fire then?”
“But of course, young ball of subtle flesh. Of course.” The man smacked his lips, slithered his tongue and reached out his hand.
Lee looked to the other orphan in uncertainty.
Chad handed over the stones.
The man grinned and not a few minutes later, after a perfect glide of the stones, the tinder lit and soon a small fire gave light to the small area. “There you have it. I shall be off now.” He looked to the orphan in black. “Good luck,” he said with a grin and left.
Lee looked to his stones and set another pile of twig and tinder.
Chad stared at him baffled. “What are you doing?”
“Learning how to make a fire.”
“What for? There’s one here?”
“What’s going to happen when it goes out? Then what?”
“I’ll just keep adding to it. Simple.”
“You can’t stay here forever and keep adding to it. That will be boring.”
“Fine. Have at it then.”
The orphan in black sat warm and cozy by the fire as he watched the other struggle and grunt. Lee’s hands become scraped and cold. His fingers almost too exhausted to hold the stones. He looked as if he was about to sleep hovered over his knees. Chad smiled and laughed and teased. The thudding and scraping of rock. The orphan in black invited Lee to join him but he refused every request. Chad’s eyes were heavy and soon he fell asleep.
In the grey morning, Chad awoke in a shiver. His bones rattled beneath his skin. The fire before him had turned to a mound of ash. Lee plucked the stones together. He scraped and turned the flint at once and a discharge of red sparks bedded over the tinder and a small wisp of smoke arose and he blew gently and the tinder burnt beneath the twigs until it had become a fire. Chad saw the other boy’s gentle smile over the flames.
“F-f—finally,” he stuttered from being so cold, “t-t—took you all night.”
“Just needed a bit of practice is all,” Lee explained proudly.
In the woods, they looked to where a rustling noise escalated. The dark figure of a wolf approached, barring its teeth in a cynical grin. Finkleform’s stained yellow eyes. The figure was tall and thin. Like the creature had been starving. Finkleform’s chest, skeletal and ribbed, neared ten times the size of its waist. The hair on its back stood like the silhouette of tall grass in the night.
“Looks like you both done well,” Finkleform lauded, stopping at the clearing’s edge. “Why have you not made another fire, boy?” he asked Chad.
“I traded my flint in exchange to have my fire made.”
The wolf’s eyes sharpened like pins. “Pity. And you?” he looked to Lee.
“I just got mine done by myself.”
Finkleform laughed and ran. “So soon?” he shouted as his shadow circled the area. “Others have spent weeks before they saw so much as a plume. A drunk man walked these woods for most his life, wasting away. He gave his stones away a long time ago.”
“Can I get more stones then?” Chad inquired.
The wolf stopped but he was no longer a wolf. His body, the black figure, malnourished and thinly. His hands like giant claws of a night hawk. “No,” he growled. “I will not give any more stones to whom has traded them off so freely. You can get flint, yes. However, not from me. You have chosen, boy. You sold the very thing that could take you anywhere in this cold world. Places beyond where there is no winter or darkness cast in every corner. But, like so many, you have failed and such is the pity. You are done here. Get out of my woods and quit wasting my time.”
The stone giant rumbled through the woods and carried the boys by their collar and placed them at the toothed tunnel. They crawled through it and left the narrow woods and walked down the hills and arrived at the town where the people looked on and grumbled and continued on to nowhere. The ground was hard and soon snow fell but had not melted in its descent. Winter had arrived.
“I’m leaving for awhile,” Lee admitted to Chad.
“Somewhere far from here. I must leave.”
He kicked up muddy snow. “What will you do?”
“I don’t know. I simply must go.” Lee hugged the orphan in black. “Farewell, good friend.”
Chad stood in the centre of the gloomy town, surrounded by powdery snowfall, and he watched as the brown coated orphan walked into the darkness of the world. A red bindle swaying gently over his shoulder as if it waved a long goodbye.
In the days since Lee’s departure, Chad spent nights trading away his clothing and shoes for temporary shelter in sheds and barns. He begged for the townsfolk to build him a fire and even though they’d offer succour, some nights the boy laid shivering in bitter cold. The orphan in the brown coat was nowhere to be found for he had followed the sun to where the earth was always green and plentiful. Chad longed to find him but he looked to his naked feet, wiggled his blistered toes and knew he couldn’t. He opened a jar of pickled rodent that he traded for his black coat and he dug his skinny fingers to the bottom and pulled out pale flesh, nibbling so that it would last.