If you go down to the woods today, you'll be in
for a big surprise.
by Henry Gee
By Henry Gee
Anyway, whatever the boojums were, Old Ike Mercer thought they were a right
royal pain in the ass, especially since he'd been on the wagon, more or
less. And he wasn't really all that old. Okay, at sixty-four, he certainly
looked his age, and he was a lot older than a lot of the other woodsmen,
but what with the Plague the Company needed all the muscle it could get,
and paid well to get it. It was just that, by complete chance, another
crewman turned up on the job one day, who just happened to be called Ike
Mercer, and he was younger than sixty-four. Or at least, he looked it.
`Young' Ike was as different from `Old' Ike as it was possible to get. Old
Ike - whip thin, pale; receding gingery hair and wispy moustaches, all
weasel-faced sinew. `Young' Ike - six feet eight; more muscle than a whole
line of linebackers; incredible mane of hair that just seemed to get
everywhere, as black as his skin, and that was blacker than the pits of
hell. Not chocolatey, not yellowy, not browney-khaki, but blacker than
black, blacker than Dylan-Thomas-Bible-black-sloe-black, like nothing
you'd ever seen outside a few computer-game demons. Young Ike didn't look
like a footballer, neither - not quite what you'd think of as Afro. Not
quite Native. And not quite anything in between.
The fact was, nobody really knew much about Young Ike. He said nothing
about where he came from. Despite his nickname, nobody really knew how old
he was. He just turned up one day with a chainsaw looking like Conan the
Barbarian would have looked like after rolling around in an oil slick. He
was as strong as an ox, indestructible as an armor-plated mule, worked
very, very hard, and said almost
nothing - the ideal Company Man. And with the Company desperate for anybody
after the Plague, he fitted right in. What with the general depopulation,
woodsmen were as scarce as anybody, and logging opportunities great. The
pressure of people had eased on the great forests, which had received an
added boost from a half-century of acute warming. Temperate-forest
hardwoods had spread north: taiga further north still, conquering the ice
barrens. Timber was there for the taking. Which is why the Company was
grateful for (almost) anyone.
Now, Old Ike was a loner, used to working for days at a time - weeks - in
the mountain forests, on his own, seeing no-one. He liked it that way.
Self-sufficient. No explanations, no apologies, no women moaning about
snotty kids or if you'd put out the trash. Sunday-best behaviour not
required, you could pee up any tree you like, curse as much as you liked,
hell, you could wipe your nose on your sleeve. Hell, do bears shit in the
Leastways, he used to like it. Nowadays it was beginning to get to him and
he drank too much, even for him. Drink led to accidents - accidents with
chain saws, power winches, trucks, hydride and gasoline. If the Company
needed every man it could get, it also looked after them - whatever it
took. So the last time they had to airlift Old Ike to the Emergency Room,
with half a leg hanging off but not seeming to notice, they decided that
he was never going to work alone again, at least, not on their health
plan. So the Company paired up the Ikes, Young and Old, and sent them out
together. Some Company wag called them Iko-Iko, you know, like the song
from old N'awlins, that the Dixie Cups did in, oh, 1964 or `65 (one of Old
Ike's favourites). It was a match made in some crazy kind of Heaven, but
it worked. For a while, at least.
It took five days by truck from Dawson's Creek to Camp Iko-Iko, in the
foothills of the Mackenzies. They took turns at the wheel (which, Old Ike
had to admit, was a relief), six hours at a time. They slept in back, with
the gear - yet even so, in relative comfort, as Company trucks were
designed, to an extent, as temporary quarters. After the second day they
left the last bars and fuel stations behind. At a branch of Yukon Home and
Ranch Supplies at Johnson's Crossing they topped up the hydride cells in
the truck, filled up the jerries with gas (even after all this time, only
gasoline had enough whack for big chainsaws) and turned off the Alaska
Highway and into the wilderness.
After Ross River - now a deserted ruin of collapsing storefronts, even the
robot vendors defunct and unserviced - the increasingly crumbled pavement
gave up any pretence of smooth surface, and they took off onto forest
trails, the big balloon tires of the truck absorbing every bump and jolt.
Young Ike was unreadable, but Old Ike had the impression that he eased up
a little on the flinty-imperturbable-monolith act after they left
civilization behind. No more funny looks from those few folks they met at
stores and roadhouses. No more damn-fool questions from over-eager
waitresses in diners, even the recognizably human ones.
They came to Old Ike's cabin at dusk - and this was the High Northern
Summer dusk, just a touch of dimness around two a.m. They were too tired
to get out of the truck, or even move into the pods below the truck's
roof. They just slept where they sat.
"Well, we're here", said Old Ike, the first words said since Yukon Home and
Young Ike said nothing. He didn't even turn, even acknowledge Old Ike. That
wasn't being unfriendly or impolite. That's just the way he was. You get a
lot of guys like that, thought Old Ike. It meant nothing.
The cabin was Company-issue and proof against virtually anything. As far as
it was possible to get from the quaint but primitive log cabins of lore,
it was a hemispherical geodesic dome (the Timurlaine-brand yurt design
bought up from some particularly tech-toting Kalmyk herdsmen) five metres
in diameter - enough for several substantially large and antisocial
woodsmen and all their gear. For just the two of them, it was a palace.
The dome contained self-contained sleep pods that could be entirely sealed
in an emergency (but which the Ikes left open, the sealed pods being too
claustrophobic); a similarly sealable kitchen unit with a microwave,
dry-laundry and larder still tolerably well-stocked with almost
imperishable but nutritious foodstuffs - and, best of all, an internal
latrine. The floor itself was raised clear of the ground, but
space-filling heat came from a borehole drilled a hundred metres
underground. The Old Girl still gave up plenty of energy, enough for the
cabin's parsimonious needs, even up here.
The dome itself was not exposed to the elements, but concealed, like a
pearl within an oyster, beneath a swooping, wing-like composite canopy,
now largely covered with turf and moss. The greened canopy made the cabin
almost impossible to see unless you were right up close, but could deflect
the impact of all but the most determined tree-trunk. The extensive eaves
beneath canopy yet outside the central dome were loosely occupied with
equipment pods, bear-proof lockers and rain-barrels.
Or so a Company cabin might look in the brochure. The fact was, this had
been Ike's home, on and off, for two decades, and with only a few Company
servitors making their way here for inspection and cleanup every few
years, it looked rather drab, untidy and sad. It took a day or so to refit
Camp Iko-Iko for human occupation, even to Old Ike's poignantly
undemanding standards (Young Ike's standards, like everything else about
Young Ike, remained unknown).
What with the accident, it had been six months since Old Ike had last been
there - six months of northern winter. Thankfully, the canopy had remained
in place, but a few saplings and weeds that had seeded in the roof would
have to be removed: time, and the slow progress of roots, could do far
more damage to a structure than any number of sudden impacts. Rain, snow
and débris had blown in through the door and windows carelessly left open
at Ike's enforced departure (the air-ambulance crew having other things to
worry about). A few scattered objects, ripped cartons and mouldy food were
strewn haphazardly, necessitating a thorough hose-down and disinfection.
More worrying was a pervasive odour of bear - and something else Old Ike
couldn't immediately identify. Something had been here, an uninvited
house-sitter. But whatever it was, it wasn't there now. After another
night in the truck the Ikes hauled in their bedrolls and gear and made
themselves at home. For the next three or four weeks, they worked hard,
slept hard, their only obligation work, and a routine daily call from the
truck phone to the Company.
The work itself was hard, but routine - felling the trees already marked by
satpix according to the Company manifest (checked against the Company's
logging contract with the Government), and hauling them with winches and
electro-loaders onto big, pre-marked palettes by the trackside. These
would be shipped out later by
robotrains, the immense drone freighters that plied the northern wastes.
Truckers and teamsters had gone the way of the Plague: that the logging
itself was not an entirely automated affair was testament to the fact that
no amount of mechanization could replace the skill, judgement and
experience of a human woodsman.
And after work, their leisure, spent utterly quiet, on the porch, a veranda
before the open door but beneath the canopy's overhang. Old Ike read
books. Lots of books.
As with so many people unlettered in youth, he overcompensated later.
Finding drugstore pulps and westerns ultimately unsustaining (although he
retained a healthy interest in Playboy), he discovered Dickens and his
passion lit up. Long, light nights in the wilderness left plenty of time
for long, heavy novels. His kit bag was full of battered paperbacks, each
read many times and carefully repaired - Moby Dick, the Russians (War and
Peace was a favourite), David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, the complete
Sherlock Holmes, Don Quixote. He would have liked Hemingway except that
his tales took too little time to finish. Besides, there's a hunger in
Hemingway, a loneliness impossible to assuage, that didn't lend itself to
backwoods remoteness. What Ike wanted most was a good story, so the he
tended to lose patience with the modernistic meditations of Henry James or
James Joyce, which he found incomprehensible.
Not that he hadn't tried. When they cleaned out the shack there was a
crumbling copy of Ulysses under a pile of rotting porn. Playboy's Girl of
the Month had somehow gotten welded to the cover, her abundant and roseate
charms peeking through between damp rents and scuts of mould - her face
gone, replaced, by the weird arts of random collage, with that of Molly
Bloom. Ike couldn't remember
having seen that particular tantalizing torso before, and then he saw the
date at the bottom of the page. Goodness, how long ago? That girl would
now be in her worn and less-than-roaring forties, maybe with a peck of
children and a husband driven thousands of miles away in search of peace
and quiet. Hell, for all he knew, she could have been that dead-eyed
slattern in Yukon Home and Ranch - the last human being the Ikes had seen,
in fact -- who gave Old Ike oily coffee and Young Ike a funny, unreadable
look. Yesterday's girls are best left in yesterday. Especially those who
looked as lonely and desperate as she had.
If Ulysses is one extreme of fantasy, Ike didn't go much for the heavy
dungeons-and dragons kind, either. He'd tried Peake and Tolkien, but the
elaborate gothic of the former didn't really strike home - and, although
the straightforward adventure of The Lord of the Rings appealed to the
explorer in him, Tolkien's menacing forests full of talking trees gave him
the creeps, given his line of work. They only brought the boojums back to
mind. And, on this trip, the boojums needed no further encouragement.
Now, Young Ike was company of a sort, so much so that Old Ike hadn't felt
too much inclined to pack more than a few bottles of his favourite Wild
Antler moonshine, but - the hell with it - the boojums kept on coming back
anyway. Nightly noises. Creakings. Things that you always get in forests,
but which hadn't bothered him so much before. Too many nights he'd sit up
with a start, woken by something just beyond the edge of mind, a thought
disappearing like a mouse into the mental wainscot. The first thing he'd
see on turning his head was Young Ike, back towards him and curled up like
a brawny black beast, as quiet in sleep as he was awake, if that
was possible. So that was okay. The two worked independently, led
independent existences, more or less, lives conditioned by solitude sought
and cherished. But Old Ike was beginning to rely on the presence of Young
Ike - not his active participation, just the fact that he was there. He
was grateful that Young Ike was sharing his space - and he hated himself
for his gratitude. But Old Ike was (or so he told himself) not usually
given to self-analysis, not least in the middle of the night when you
couldn't do anything about it. And so reassured, he went back to sleep.
Until one night when Old Ike awoke, turned, and saw the bosky haze of
half-night through the circular port on the other side of the cabin, no
longer shielded by Young Ike's intervening bulk. Ike froze in his sleeping
bag. Sweat pricked his nape. Not like Young Ike to disappear without him
noticing. But heck, perhaps he just hadn't noticed. Young Ike had probably
crept out for a slash against a tree. Even though night-time excursions
were strongly discouraged, for fear of bears and whatnot - and the fact
that in this cabin, the plumbing was indoors - a guy had a right to walk
the privies in the open air, if he wanted. But Ike could hear no
scuffling, no noise of bears or anything much else, so he went back to
sleep. Young Ike presumably knew what he was about. And sure enough, there
he was, next day. Old Ike knew better than to ask where Young Ike had
been, so he didn't. Young Ike volunteered nothing, his face as impassive
as ever it was.
And if that had been the only nocturnal omission, then Old Ike would have
thought no more of it, except that two more things happened. First was
that Young Ike's disappearances became more frequent, and lasted longer,
even though he always seemed to be back, and in bed, by sun-up. Second was
that, one night, when the air was getting chill, about a week before they
were due to seal up Camp Iko-Iko for the
winter, Old Ike noticed that he was missing his last, emergency bottle of
Wild Antler. Now, it was quite characteristic of Old Ike to mislay bottles
of moonshine, but this was his last one, so he said, for dire straits -
and he'd been dry (almost) for this whole trip.
He knew Young Ike couldn't have taken it. Hell, he was as teetotal as ...
well, as Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen (honestly, it was the best
simile he could come up with under pressure). There was no more likelihood
of Young Ike making off with Old Ike's whiskey stash than the Pope being
black. Ah. Bad comparison, Pope Eusebius was black. Sort of. Now, don't
get me rattled. Okay, if the Pope after Pope Eusebius was black. And
Jewish. Like Sammy Davis Junior. Only gay. Better, a lesbian. Mind you,
things were a lot more ecumenical nowadays than they were in those
far-off-and-would-that-they-were-forgotten days when he had been an
altar-boy in Montréal, with Ike and his friends trying to avoid the
attentions of Father Horatio (or Father Fellatio, as they preferred to
call him). Ike could just imagine the Pope being someone like Whoopie
Goldberg in Sister Act, a feisty nightclub diva pretending to be a nun so
she could hide out from the hoods. Pope Eusebius was like that already,
only male, as far as one could tell, they all wear frocks anyway, even the
ones with beards. With horns and cloven hooves! Old Ike's laughter was
nervy and febrile, a feeble substitute for action and decision, lonely in
the cabin lost in the cooling wilderness air, his breath congealing in
scruffy clouds before his face in the moonlight from the window.
So what about it, then, eh? What else could have happened to that Wild
Antler? Sure, Ike's memory wasn't what it was, so he could have forgotten
put it, but there was only one possible place for it, the loosened mesh
floor-panel just under the fibre crate by his bedside, turned on its side
as a night stand. And it wasn't there. No Sir, he'd looked.
But what to do? It was a straight choice - and neither option was welcome.
In fact, either was damned terrifying. One was that his mind, so carefully
shored up against encroaching DT's by therapy, alcoholic moderation and
sheer willpower, was finally beginning to slip away. He needed Young Ike
more than ever, but he was out, AWOL, on the lam, on his own agenda. Two:
that Young Ike had stolen - stolen - something of his. And when trust
breaks down in a field camp, the field is lost. And when the field
consisted of something as huge, as strong and as frankly unfathomable as
Young Ike ... well, it didn't bear thinking about.
There was only one thing to do. Old Ike had to get out there in the woods.
Oh yeah, and what then? Find Young Ike? He could have been gone for hours.
Miles away by now. Well, no harm in getting some fresh air. And if he saw
Young Ike he could always engage him in conversation. Hey, Ike, Old Chap,
you don't happen to have seen my bottle of Wild Antler, you know, the one
the Company says I'm not supposed to have? No? Well, no need to rip off my
arms about it. Or my head. As if.
But there was nothing for it. Ike slid into his corduroys, boots and long
leather coat, packed his flashlight, and slipped out to the truck. It was
unlocked as usual (not even bears could break into a Company vehicle), the
satphone blinking on the dash. Ike checked the glove box, pulled out the
regulation piece and clip. For a moment he thought he saw his missing
bottle, but the glint was fey, from moonlight glancing off chrome trim.
Shame. He could've gone back to bed. But now what?
The forest was quite silent, the trees looming tall, seemingly without
limit. It was almost but not quite dark, at three a.m. a faint luminosity
round the horizon, and there was a full moon. Plenty good. Where had Young
Ike got to, then? There was no sign of a track, and no noise at all. Old
Ike had a notion he'd fire up the truck and drive a ways down the track,
but somehow the thought of all that noise gave him pause - even the cool
hum of a hydride engine would be enough to destroy the absolute yet
fragile peace of the ominous and gloom-shrouded forest. No, best to keep
quiet, so as not to breach that trust, or at least to shore it up for as
long as he could. He sidled across what passed for Camp Iko-Iko's front
yard, but no sign there, either. Even had Company rules allowed, Old Ike
was reluctant to venture very far into the woods, alone, at night,
certainly not out of direct sight of the cabin or the truck.
Then, under the outermost eaves of the wood, he heard it, or, rather, them.
Voices. More like low rumbles than voices, almost like the sighing of
trees in the wind, except there was no wind, and no sighing trees. Oh,
Holy Christ on a bike, the boojums had come again, and he wasn't even
tucked up in bed, safely dreaming about them. No, this time, they were
real, he was sure of it, and not a product of his addled mind. Not that
this was any comfort. But he couldn't let it lie now, he had to follow the
voices. So, as quietly and carefully as he could manage, and yearning for
Dutch courage, he crept beneath the deepest shade of the trees and
underbrush towards the source of the sound. Problem was, it kept moving.
Just as he thought he was getting close, the noises appeared to move off,
several hundred feet away each time, in unpredictable directions. Not that
he really wanted to get too close. The voices
weren't animal noises, not bears, not... wolves. Like nothing he'd ever
heard in his long years as a woodsman. He had the distinct impression that
the voices weren't simply coincident, occupying the same sound space, as
it were: they were, like, talking to one another. Not quite conversations,
though. They seemed to be... there was no other word for it: chanting.
And all of a sudden, Ike found himself looking down into a treeless dell
from a low wooded ridge, a hollow concealed from all around until you were
right on top of it. And, well, there they were. He stood stock-still,
wishing like anything for some liquid fortification, trying with his
fading might to stop his heart hammering clear out of his chest, or at
least, to stop himself shitting his pants.
When he had worked alone in the woods, tunes came unbidden into his head.
No need for a radio, he had his own internal juke-box playing the
soundtrack of his life. Music came to him for no reason, music he'd
forgotten for years, and yet in the fullest detail. Most of the time the
wayward roadhouse juke made its selection without any special reference to
anything in the outer world of his senses. Some of the time it seemed
cruelly appropriate. Like now.
My grandma and your grandma were sittin' by the fire, chanted the long-dead
Iko-Iko an day. Jockymo fe no nan-nan-nay, they said.
Jockymo fe nan-nay.
The cajun chants, airbrushed from dark and ancient voodoo, the santeriac
and imperfect melding with French and English of an immeasurably ancient
tradition whose pregnant symbols had been worn by time into idiot carnival
repetition -- seemed to merge with the rhythms coming from below, a
bonfire around which perhaps a dozen huge black figures were dancing and
swaying, magnified and blurred by the immense shadows they cast on the
ground and against the backdrop of trees.
It was then Old Ike realized he never seen Young Ike less than fully
clothed. And so he was here, in his check woodsman's shirt, brown
corduroys and standard-issue boots. But other figures, just like Ike, wore
other things. He saw a couple of woodsmen, some homespun, and a ski suit.
But most were naked, surprisingly furred, decorated with bone and metal
objects bent out of shape. There were females, with flappy, dangling dugs.
There were juveniles, infants. All swaying around in unison and chanting,
but Old Ike couldn't make out the words, his mind trying vainly to fill in
Not to go on All-Fours, That is the Law.
When Old Ike had calmed down enough to decide he'd better creep back to the
hut, pack quickly and squirt the truck out of there as quickly as ever he
could, he suddenly realized what the chanting was all about. Some of the
words came from Young Ike, and they were the only ones in English - the
first complete sentences he'd ever heard him speak, or sing, and they were
all about him, yes, Old Ike.
But not Old Ike the Broken-Down Has-Been, the Wreck, the Faithless Husband,
the Feeble Father, the Feckless Employee. It was Old Ike the Bringer of
the Sweet Fire Water, Liberator of the Forests, Herald of the Chosen One.
Old Ike, the Holy One, the Father of God.
Just then, Old Ike remembered his literature, and what always happened to
the fathers of Gods when their sons came into their own.
Old Ike, with love and tenderness, Iko-Iko an day: we will rip out your
spine and sup on your brain, Jockymo fe nan-nay.
Clearly, it was time to go.
With joy and with reverence, Old Ike, we will suck your eyes out, Jockymo
fe nan-nay, we will offer your liver to the All High.
No, he couldn't hang around here.
Old Ike, Blessed One, your sacrifice will be our transfiguration, our
apotheosis, our destiny.
And then he saw his own whiskey bottle, half-drunk, at Young Ike's dancing
He wished he had it now as madly down the highway he raced, one hand on the
wheel, when he swung the truck into the path of a leviathantine robotrain
fully loaded with Douglas fir trunks, as effective a battering ram as one
could wish for. Which explains why, when the Company had scraped him off
the blacktop and had shipped him to hospital (again), he was missing his
front teeth. Not to mention an eye, several ribs, much of his insides, and
both legs, one lost at the scene; the other as a
result of gangrene. Poignantly, he counted himself lucky. He was as
cheerful as ever he was, and wanted most of all to talk about Dickens. His
only worry was Young Ike, where he was, and hoping that he was as far away
And so he was, for a while. Until a few weeks later, after Old Ike died, a
group of Young Ike's people moseyed into a bar in Telegraph Creek, British
Columbia, scaring off the tourists and demanding whiskey, but not in so
My Grandma told your Grandma, I'm gonna set your flag on fire.
Copyright © by Henry Gee
All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.