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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 woods?

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 Ranch.

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

Henry Gee

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 where he

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 Dixie Cups.

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 the gaps.

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 feet.

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 as possible.

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 many words.

My Grandma told your Grandma, I'm gonna set your flag on fire.



Copyright © by Henry Gee . All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.

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