Looking About, Is All
Daniel Hush was rightly walking along in the woods, his little nephew, Howard, running to catch up with him.
“Hey Uncle,” said Howard. “You think it’ll rain while we’re out here?”
“Certainly, certainly,” said Daniel Hush. “Ninety percent chance, I’d surmise.”
They were on a well-worn trail through all the pinestraw and rocks. They’d started at the park at the southern end of town and wandered into the trees, Uncle Daniel boasting of a new path he’d found. Howard recognized the path as the common byway that cut around town in a loop, a neverending road that offered anyone a safe passage among the pines without leading too far from civilization. It began and ended and began at Blumont Park. But Daniel Hush assured his nephew of the originality in which they treaded.
“Only b’ars and foxes and r’coons have traversed this path,” said Daniel, “and now us two rambling men.”
“Huh,” said Howard. “I really thought it was the pine loop trail.”
“Nah, nah,” said Daniel.
“If we walked that way,” said Howard, “we’d find Mr. Baker’s butcher shop and the rest of town. And if we walked that way,” he pointed in the opposing direction, upward where the pines and ground rose, “we’d find the White Rock.”
“It’s easy to mix up where you are and where you’ve been,” said Daniel Hush. “’Specially when it’s all the same pines and stones to your young eyes. That’s all right, you’re just a little inexperienced, my friend.”
“Guess so,” said Howard, blinking and nodding his head. “My friends and I play up that way sometimes though.”
They walked on, the path as clean and obvious as any hundreds of boots could cut it every year for fifty years since it’s conception. Crows were about that afternoon, and what could be seen of the sky was creamy gray. Crows, lots of them. Their squawks more present than their bodies, echoing among the pinecones, but Howard saw the black nightly bodies glide overhead every now and then.
“Crows are actually saying there’s rain coming when they croak like that,” said Daniel Hush. “They can sense it.”
“Wow, I never knew that,” said Howard. He picked up a stick in his way and skipped ahead, swatting it around.
“Yes,” said Daniel Hush. “Most people can’t tell, but it’s a slight throb in the articulatory of the middle of the caw, you see.”
“Gee,” said Howard.
They walked on. Howard, who was eight or nine or ten or something, Daniel couldn’t remember, was dressed a little over warm for the day. His mother had made him. Wore a jacket and everything. Uncle Daniel, however, was merely in his plaid button down and jeans; he was proud of his slim figure and his pure face, no smudgy beard or mustache on it, not that he had much capacity for hirsute endeavors. His hair on his scalp was finely combed backward and fixed with military-grade pomade, flashing and deep when visible, yet he wore a cap on top of it, as if to bear two crowns upon his head. He carried a folded knife in his pocket and a set of copper binoculars on his chest, a string around his neck.
Another half hour of crows and pines passed by, when Howard, who had still been walking ahead, turned around and said, “If we go that way we can see the lake. It leads to near where Mr. Oxx-Orx’s cabin is.” He observed a new path that went northward from the loop on which they were set.
Daniel Hush chuckled at the nephew. “Not quite, How. That way’d take us back to town.”
“Really?” asked Howard.
“As real as real,” said Daniel Hush.
“I thought it went to the lake,” said Howard.
“Well I’ll show you then,” said the uncle.
They trod the path, the needles growing scanter. Crows were multiplying, it seemed; dozens more caws as they made their way. Soon they crossed a gravel road; the forest picked up on the other side, and the path resumed. Daniel was sure they’d be back in town at any time, while Howard tried to make sense of his uncle’s wisdom and the fact that he could see the lake on the other side of the trees ahead. The gravel path they had cut across was one of many roads that led from Hickory-proper to the lake or to federal highways and private toll roads and on to the city and beyond.
“There it is,” said Howard. They were free of pines and the sap breeze trapped between. They stood on a long grassy field that ended against the waters of Lake Lyssaleen. It was the treasure of Hickory, where many men made their living harvesting its green cold waters. Not large enough to attract boaters, not small enough to starve its human population. While the land around town rose and fell in its shaggy pine hills, Lake Lyssaleen glittered on a long flat plain, meeting grass meadows on some of its banks, and further north the foothills skirted its edges. From where Howard stood he could see every color available; the grass as bright as summer, though October was coming on, the foothills far off with their lumpy heads, and the one hill called Fox for its snouty outcropping. And there near the edge of the lake was a little wood cabin, its lumber a gritty black. Smoke puffed from its metal chimney.
“That’s where Mr. Oxx-Orx lives,” said Howard.
“Hmm,” said Uncle Daniel cuffing his chin slowly. “This really oughta be town.”
Howard rushed ahead, looking fat in his little coat. It was colder out in the open and the wind was plenty powerful near the lake. The colors of the present world may have been summer, but autumn was round the bend with a horde of conquering might. Daniel Hush shivered and followed his nephew along the grass. They left the sound of the crows behind.
At the water’s edge, Howard began skipping rocks. There seemed to be a little pile of flat stones built up for this very purpose, for the rest of the landscape was willowy grass and odd pines. The alien’s cabin was not far off.
“You know you get a better skip if you spit on the rock somewhat before hucking,” said Daniel Hush.
“Gee, I didn’t know,” said Howard. He gave a weak spray of salivary nonsense to his next rock, and it plopped into the water without one skip.
“Nah, you didn’t do it right,” said Daniel.
Suddenly they saw a head rising out of the water, about twenty feet offshore. Luckily the head was attached to a living body, and Howard stopped skipping rocks. It was Oxx-Orx. He came swimming smoothly toward them without showing his arms, a subtle breaststroke that whirled him toward shore quietly, his green scaled head and giant glasses making him look like an overgrown terrapin. He wore his glasses even when swimming, apparently.
“Hi, Mr. Oxx-Orx,” said Howard. “You might not remember me. I’m Howard Coffer, I live in Hickory. This is my Uncle Daniel.”
“I know Daniel well,” said Ox, almost to shore. “And I know famous Howard Coffer. How are you both?” He reached land and pulled himself on shore easy, though he was shivering fiercely. His glasses were perfectly dry and he wore long swim trunks as tight as his legs.
“Fine, fine, Mista Ox,” said Daniel Hush leaning into his funny little accent. “You dry off, don’t mind us. You look mighty cold.”
“I am mighty cold,” said Oxx-Orx. He carried a gray writing tablet with him and a pen that appeared as if carved out of diamond. On it he took his notes, when he sat at the bottom of the lake, and studied the fish there, and whatever else swam along its bottom. “Be right back, gentlemen.” He disappeared into his little cabin, where the smoke began rising thicker. He always kept a fire going to warm him when returning from his work in the lake. Howard resumed his rock skipping, still applying his Uncle’s spittle method to no discernable improvement.
Daniel just stared at the quiet waters, hands in his pockets, lanky as a stork. He was still a pretty young man, as far as it went. Only thirty-three. He surveyed the world calmly through half-lidded eyes.
“You know he’s writing a scientific book about water bugs,” said the uncle after a while.
“Oh,” said Howard. “Fish too?”
“Nah, just water bugs,” said Daniel Hush.
Oxx-Orx returned eventually with all kinds of hospitalities in tow. First of all he was dressed in winter clothing; long woolen pants, thick socks and jackboots, a double-breasted coat and a striped scarf around his neck. He wore a wide-brimmed hat too, something between a park ranger and private eye. He carried three folding chairs on one arm, and a little table with the other, and a box tucked in his armpit.
“You’ll stay for a while, yes?” he presumed.
“Certainly, certainly,” said Daniel Hush helping him with the chairs. “We’s just looking about, is all.”
Howard noticed they were setting up a little outdoor party, and his face became pale, his blinking quickened as he remembered a prior omen, “Didn’t you say it’d rain soon Uncle? Ninety-percent chance?”
“It won’t rain Mr. Howard,” said Ox. “Those aren’t storm clouds, just decorations.”
“Is that right Uncle?” asked Howard, losing confidence in himself and the world at large.
“We’ll just see, won’t we?” said Daniel Hush.
The chairs were set up, the table put in front of them. The box opened, where he stored his cigars. He offered one to Daniel who humbly accepted, and as a forethought he’d added something to the box for Howard. Ox took out a little glass-looking object.
“This is a toy from where I come from,” he held up the thing. It looked like a crystal pyramid and Howard watched. Ox tossed the toy up and it lit with a purple glow and hovered where it was. Suddenly the pyramid shape began changing, and little glass wings emerged, and the whole object had transformed into the shape of a bird of diamond, beaming with a purple hue, and began flapping about.
Howard was dumbfounded.
“It does a lot more than fly,” said Ox. “Go on, play with it as you like. You can’t break it.”
The toy flew about on the grassy bank, Howard chasing after it. Ox and Daniel Hush reclined in the folding chairs and lit their cigars, puffing and looking at the lake. The sky was full to the brim with scraggly clouds, no rain threatening as Ox had assured.
“I never saw that bear you mentioned,” said Ox.
“Must’ve moved on, then,” said Daniel Hush crossing his legs.
“These are special cigars Grover orders for me,” said Ox. “They come from a little island off the coast.”
“It’s a mighty good taste, Ox,” said Daniel.
“So you’re back in town for a while, I heard?”
“You know I’ve been all around,” said Daniel. “A rambling man, a pilgrimage of exploratory fashion. Worked on crab ships, went out west for a ranching job, been a deep sea diver, helped an inventor build the first robot what can speak. He needed my help with some of the programming, you know.”
Ox nodded and smoked, as he was accustomed to. He was a valuable listener, and only rarely contradicted people, by accident, typically by speaking his opinion without knowing their own diametric ideas. He had been quick to correct the weather prediction to the man’s nephew earlier only because the child’s anxiety set off a corrective measure of comfort that superseded his desire to not antagonize anyone. It wasn’t out of fear that Ox held his tongue, but pity, and perhaps a bit of arrogance.
“And now you’ve been back in Hickory for a month,” said Ox. “Are you staying?”
“I guess, for now,” said Daniel Hush. He could hear Howard laughing distantly at something the glass toy had done. “You never know, one day you might visit Grover and he’ll tell you ol’ Daniel Hush has gone off to change the world again. And he’ll be right. But you need a vacation sometimes.”
“Sure, sure,” said Ox.
“One day everyone’s gonna know my name,” said Daniel puffing. “For a dozen different reasons, you know. Can’t stay in Hickory forever.”
“There’s plenty to do here, though,” said Ox, walking the tight-rope of his disposition a little, testing the tautness of the thing.
“Certainly, certainly,” said Daniel Hush.
“Hickory’s an interesting place,” said Ox. “I say that with the purest form of objectivity.”
“How’s that, then?”
“Because I’m not from around here,” said Ox.
Daniel laughed a little, something he rarely did, as it damaged his reputation for knowledge, wounded his solemn bearing. “You got that right, Mista Ox.”
Howard had found another use for the alien object. The boy had stumbled toward the water, and the glass bird hovered above him shining a purple ray down upon him. The boy did not fall into the lake, nor did he get wet at all. The contraption lifted him above the water, and when Howard realized he was floating, he started to run. The invention carried him in the air, only an inch or two above the lake’s surface. He ran all along and above the water, laughing with fear and delight.
“Look at me Uncle Daniel!” he said.
“Yeah, I see you,” said Daniel shuffling his posture in the chair. “Kids, Mista Ox. Every little thing they do is a spectacle. Look at me. Always a new record for them. And you just have to smile and acknowledge their efforts.”
“Truest thing you’ve said, Mr. Hush,” said Ox smiling and biting his cigar.