Up the Fire Road (part one), fiction by Eileen Gunn

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“If life seems slow and meaningless, go somewhere where you depend on Christy to get you back.”

(“Up the Fire Road” originally appeared in Eclipse One.)

Up the Fire Road, illstration of fiction by Eileen Gunn for See the Elephant Magazine

Up the Fire Road, collage by Sophia Hermes

Andrea

The main thing to understand about Christy O’Hare is he hates being bored. Complicated is interesting, simple is dull, so he likes to make things complicated.

Used to be the complications were more under his control. Like one time he went down to Broadway for coffee, but the coffee place was closed. So he hitched a ride downtown, but the driver was headed for Olympia on I-5, so Christy figured he’ll go along for the ride and get his coffee at that place in Oly that has the great huevos. He ended up thumbing to San Francisco and coming back a week later with a tattoo and a hundred bucks he didn’t have when he left home. I think he was more interested in doing something that would make a good story than he was in getting a cup of coffee. But I did wonder where the hell he was.

He’s not a bad guy. I don’t agree with what my mother said about him being a selfish son-of-a-bitch. But Christy is the star of his own movie, and it’s an action flick. If life is dull, just hook up with him for a while. And if life seems slow and meaningless, go somewhere where you depend on him to get you back.

Like the ski trip. It’s not that he wanted us to get lost on Mt. Baker, where we could have died of exposure, but ordinary cross-country skiing, on groomed trails, with parking lots and everything, is just so crowded and boring. Starting out way too late makes things more interesting. Drinking a pint of Hennessey and smoking a couple joints makes things much more interesting and gives the Universe a head start.

That’s how we found ourselves, last year, four miles up a fire road as the sun was setting. Early March: warm days, cold nights. Slushy snow, pitted with snowshoe tracks, turning to ice as the temperature dropped. Did we bring climbing skins for our skis? Of course not. Did we bring a headlamp, or even a flashlight? Nope.

“We’ve got an hour of visibility,” I said. “Let’s get back.”

“It’s all downhill. Won’t take long. There’s a trail that cuts off to the hot-spring loop about half a mile ahead. We can go back that way, and stop by the hot spring.” He extended the flask to me. “Here, babe, take a drink of this.”

I pushed it away. “It’ll be dark by then,” I said. “How will we find our way out?”

“The hot spring is just off the main road, the paved one that we drove up. We can walk back down the road to our truck in the dark. No problem.”

As it turned out, the hot spring was a lot farther away than that, but it was a natural enough mistake, because we didn’t have a map. We didn’t have much food, either, just a couple of power bars, and we didn’t have a tent or even a tarp, and we didn’t have dry clothes. Oh, yeah—we had the cellphone, but its battery needed a charge.

By the time we found the hot spring, it was dark. There was a moon, but it was just a crescent, and it wasn’t going to last more than an hour or two before dipping below the trees. I was starting to shiver.

“We got plenty of time,” Christy said. “Let’s warm up in the hot spring, then we can take our time getting back to the road, ’cause you’ll be warmer.”

Well, it made a certain amount of sense. Of course, we didn’t have any towels or anything, but our clothes were wool, so they’d keep us pretty warm, even though they were wet with sweat from climbing up the fire road. All I had to do was get my body temperature up a bit, and I’d be fine for a couple of hours.

It was slippery and cold getting down to the hot spring. It wasn’t anything fancy, like Scenic or Bagby. No decking, no little hand-hewn log seats, just a couple of dug-out pools near a stream, with flat stones at one side, so you don’t have to walk in the mud.

We took off our skis, took off our clothes, put our boots back on without tying the laces, and moving gingerly and quickly, in the cold air and the snow, climbed down to the spring, shed our boots, and started to get into the water.

Hotter than a Japanese bath. We dumped some snow in, tested again. Still hot, but tolerable. Soon we were settled in and accustomed to the heat. It sure felt good—I was so tired—but adrenalin kept me alert. We still had a ways to go to get back to the truck.

That’s when I saw the old guy, watching us from behind a tree, the moonlight making his outline clear. Creepy, I thought.

I whispered to Christy, “There’s somebody watching us. Don’t look like you’re looking. Over to my left, past the big fir.”

Christy liked that, I could tell: it suddenly made things even more interesting. He liked danger. He liked the idea of someone watching us get naked. He sidled around for a better look, and tried not to look like he was looking.

Then he froze. “It’s not a guy,” he said. “It’s a bear.”

“What do we do?”

“Stay here and hope it goes away.”

“Do bears like hot springs?” I asked.

“Fuck if I know. I don’t think so.”

I kept my eye on the figure in the forest. It still looked a lot more like a guy than a bear to me. It came closer. It obviously could see us. It waved a mittened hand, and resolved into a guy with a big beard and a fur hat. “How you folks doing tonight,” it said.

“Whattaya know,” said Christy, “a talking bear.”

 

Christy

I met Andrea at Burning Man. She was welding together a giant sheet-metal goddess robot with glowing snakes for hair. She was wearing a skirt made of old silk ties, and nothing else. No shoes, no shirt. Great service, though.

I lost my heart to her. I would do whatever she wanted. It’s been that way ever since. She wanted a baby, and now she’s got one. Doesn’t need me any more. Neither of the women do—her or Mickey. The babies need me, though. I’ll stand by my kids, if their mothers will let me.

I’m not going to say that Andrea lies, but what happened on Mt Baker wasn’t my fault. I didn’t even want to go skiing that day. It was dark and rainy in the morning, and it was a long drive to Mt. Baker. That’s why we got there so late: she kept changing her mind about going. And if I hadn’t been stoned, I wouldn’t have misjudged the distance to the hot spring.

She’s always saying that it’s my fault when I screw up. Sure, I screw up, but why assign blame like that? Everybody screws up—even Andrea screws up sometimes. That’s why I like skiing cross-country: because, when you screw up, you can recover. Usually, anyway.

You can make more mistakes, going cross-country, like finding yourself in the middle of fucking nowhere without a sandwich. But sometimes you get a chance to see stuff that most people, in their safe little lives, never even dream of.

Like the sasquatch. Where would you ever see a sasquatch, if you didn’t go cross-country skiing? Or a talking bear, either. Whatever.

I figured it would calm Andrea down if she thought it was a talking bear, because that’s an idea she’s familiar with: ursus fabulans, the talking bear. We all know the talking bear. Even the Romans knew the talking bear. Ursus in tabernam introiit et cervesiam imperavit, as the book says. A bear goes into a bar and orders a beer.

But I knew it was a sasquatch—I’m not an idiot, Mt. Baker is crawling with them—and I wanted, naturally enough, to find out more. Besides, we were sitting there in the hot spring, facing a long, cold, dark walk back down the side of the mountain to the truck. The sasquatch asked us, real friendly, how we were doing. I saw no problem with partaking of his hospitality, you know? Maybe the sasquatch had a nice little cabin somewhere, or a warm cave with a fire already going. Maybe the sasquatch had a treasure and would bestow it upon us if he took a shine to us.

So I said, well, man, my sister’s not feeling so good, and we sure could use a place to sleep tonight. You know any place around here, any place warm? Andrea looked at me hard when I called her my sister, but she didn’t say anything. She’s cool, Andrea. We didn’t want to tell the sasquatch our whole story. Everybody needs to keep some truths to themselves. It’s the only way.

And the sasquatch invited us back to his place. Polite as can be. Seemed like a good man, this sasquatch.

We leaped out of the hot spring, and got dressed real fast. It was colder now. We were all warmed up, so the hot spring was not a dumb idea, no matter what Andrea thought.

Skiing behind the sasquatch, she gave me a what-the-fuck? look. It was so dark, I couldn’t see her face, but Andrea can do the what-the-fuck? look with her entire body.

I gave her a shrug that said later. Of course, Andrea was gonna have to rethink what I told her, and she was gonna have to ask why, and she was gonna have to just fuck with me on it, but she knew enough not to do any of those things while we were following a sasquatch through a frigid forest in the middle of the night.

We skied in the dark for maybe a half hour or so: it was slow going. The sasquatch, I noticed, had furry webbed feet that worked like snowshoes. Obviously, sasquatches evolved in the snow, like yeti. That’s part of my theory. I’m just learning about this stuff. I found a couple of websites that have been helpful.

So, we were climbing on some kind of a narrow path. Climbing is relatively easy on my mountaineering skis, even without skins, but going down you don’t have the control you’d have with steel edges. It was steep and icy. I was hoping we could get out of there in the morning without having to side-step all the way down. When we came to the sasquatch’s cave, it didn’t look like anything was there at all — just a wall of granite with a row of doug firs in front of it. But somehow there was a gap in the rock, and the sasquatch gestured us in.

Inside, of course, it was bare ground, so we took off the skis and carried them in. No sense leaving them out there, risking that it would snow during the night and cover them up. I’ve done it, can you tell? Even if you know exactly where you put your skis, it’s scary, out in the middle of nowhere, you don’t see ’em.

The squatch struck a spark and lit a funny little oil lamp, and me and Andrea looked around inside the cave.

Back from the mouth of the cave, the ground sloped down and the roof was higher than I could see, in the dark. It seemed big inside, even though we couldn’t see. I wonder if humans have some kind of sonar, like bats or dolphins.

We followed the wall, and, not far from the entrance, we came to a house made of logs and rocks. We went by several sets of doors and windows, like some old tourist motel, right in the cave.

We went in one of the doors and entered a big room. The floor was covered with the skins of deer and mountain sheep. No bearskins, I noticed. There was a strong musky smell, like raccoon or bear. Sasquatch, I bet.

There was another lamp, and there were big piles of balsam boughs, which I knew were comfortable to sleep on, and they smelled good. The sasquatch had a pretty nice place. Cold, though.

The sasquatch soon had a little fire going in a firepot, and there must have been a way for the smoke to get out, because the room didn’t fill with smoke. There was a pot of water on the fire, and, criminey, the squatch even had a bunch of those heavy, handmade pottery mugs, like the kind you find cheap at the Goodwill. What, did he carry those things all the way into the woods? Sasquatches shop at thrift stores?

Soon we were drinking fir-tip tea, which was good, if somewhat redundant in the mountains.

After a couple cups of tea, Andrea went outside to take a leak, and I got the sasquatch alone. I dug in my pack and pulled out the Hennessey, of which there was still a little left, and offered the sasquatch some. He took a pull, I took a pull, and pretty soon I was breaking out the grass. While I was rolling a couple fat joints, I told the sasquatch that I thought my sister had the hots for him.

He took this a good bit cooler than I might have expected. I mean, Andrea is a good-looking woman. I wondered what sasquatch chicks looked like, that he was so unimpressed. Or maybe there was just no accounting for taste.

I told the sasquatch that when Andrea came back inside, I could set it up for him with her. I told him this all had to be aboveboard. But I could tell, I said, that he was a stable fellow — solid, responsible — and my sister was ready to settle down and have kids. This last part was true, actually: Andrea and I had had The Conversation, though we didn’t come to any conclusion, or at least not one that made her shut up about it.

The sasquatch just nodded at what I said, and I took this as agreement. We smoked a joint on it.

 

Andrea

When I came back into the room, the old guy was warming up some kind of a soup he’s got in a pot near the fire.

“You folks are probably pretty hungry, eh?”

He and Christy had been smoking that homegrown Christy carried with him. Pretty punk stuff.

“Yeah,” I said. “We didn’t bring much to eat.”

“Well, honey, let me tell you.” He patted my shoulder, left his hand there just a little too long, y’know? “You and your brother shouldn’t go off skiing like this without bringing some emergency rations. You’re lucky you ran into me. I’ll take care of you.”

Yeah, I thought, I’m sure.

But he was nice enough, and the soup was okay, though lord knows what was in it. Roots and stuff. No meat. There was something potato-like, but it wasn’t a potato. I didn’t ask, because I didn’t want to make the old guy feel bad. I’ve eaten a lot of weird stuff—a little more wouldn’t hurt me.

He had these handmade wooden bowls to eat out of. I’d seen bowls like that before. Very rustic, kind of Zen, you know? I took some meditation classes in Berkeley, and the monks, they had bowls kind of like that.

The cave was warming up a bit from the fire, but I wouldn’t have called it warm. The old guy noticed I was shivering, and put an arm around me. Christy moved away. Bastard.

“What’s your name?” I asked. He said something, but I didn’t catch it. It came out kind of funny, like he was clearing his throat at the same time.

“What?” I said.

“Call me Mickey,” he said.

“Like the mouse?” I asked.

“Like the mouse,” he said.

After supper, I left Christy and the old man talking, and lay down on a pile of balsam branches. I was tired, and it was soft and kind of cozy.

In the middle of the night, I heard a noise in my sleep, and I opened my eyes. Was it a noise I dreamed, or a noise in the real world? It took me a while to wake up. The oil lamps were out, but the fire was still burning, and by its dim light, I could see the old man moving across the room. He was wearing some kind of a tall hat. Other people came up behind him. It was very dark and shadowy, and completely silent. I wondered a bit if I was dreaming, but it didn’t seem to be a dream.

Where was Christy? He wasn’t next to me. One of those people looked like him.

I got up from the pile of branches and slipped my boots back on. I stood there in the dark, very quietly, thinking they couldn’t see me.

The old man came closer to me, and the group moved with him. Yes, that was Christy there, in the tall hat.

The people moved so strangely, like they weren’t used to walking upright, and the cave was so dim, lit with a faint orange glow that seemed to come from within the people themselves, that I thought again that it was a dream. They were carrying ropes of twisty brown vines with yellow and orange berries on them, like swags of tinsel from a Christmas tree, and they encircled me, looping strands of vines over my head. It wasn’t scary, though, it was like an interesting slow-motion dream. I felt that I could duck out of the vines and run away if I wanted, or wake up from it, but I didn’t want to. The berries seemed to give off a dim light, and I was able to see better, like my eyes were getting used to the dark.

The people were all dressed in rags that looked like dead oak leaves. Their garments fluttered, although there was no movement of the air. I tried to talk to them, but they couldn’t seem to understand what I was saying. I’m not sure there was any sound coming out of my mouth. The visitors looped the vines around me and Christy and the old man and pulled them tight, bringing us closer and closer, until we were bound together as if we were sticks in a ball of twine.

Then, suddenly, as if a bubble had popped, the room was dark again. The visitors disappeared, and then the orange berries went out quietly, one by one, and the vines bound us less and less until they were gone. We sank onto the balsam boughs, Christy on one side of me, and Mickey on the other.

Christy fell asleep right away. I was feeling dizzy, but I wasn’t falling asleep. It was like being stoned, maybe because I’d been asleep already. Mickey was staring at me intently. He didn’t seem so much like an old man, just like another human being who was concerned about me.

“I’m okay,” I said. “I’m just a bit out of breath.”

He ran this hand down the center of my back to just below my waist, and pulled me towards him. He kissed me very lightly on the lips, and I could feel my whole body respond to those two points of contact, his hand and his lips. Now he didn’t seem like an old man at all.

 

Christy

I can tell you that nobody was more surprised than I was to find out that the squatch was a girl. How could I have thought the squatch was a bear or an old guy? It must have been some trick of the light. But she had looked like a guy— how was I to know?

And of course, when I found myself in bed with this beautiful girl, what could I do? I was putty in her hands, just like with Andrea. Obviously she had targeted me right from the beginning, there at the pool. She didn’t say anything about that, but she didn’t have to. I could tell.

So Mickey was there, she was willing, and I was certainly able. That was just how it goes sometimes: the right moment, the right two people. Andrea was asleep next to us, but I knew that this was okay, that she wouldn’t wake up. I mean, she was out cold.

All I can say is we had a blast. Mickey was hot, she was juicy, she was gorgeous, and boy did she give good head.

Afterward, when all the other people appeared, it was strange but familiar to get up and join them. Mickey gave me a tall hat. It was a sort of a wedding, I think, but I was not a one-hundred-percent cooperative bridegroom. I just walked around in a fog, and then Andrea woke up and she walked around, too, with me and with Mickey, and I thought that made everything okay. The three of us being together like that, I mean Andrea must have known, when she woke up and saw us. But I thought, what would Andrea do, now that Mickey and I had this thing going?

The other people, they had ropes of bittersweet, which I thought was odd. I’d never seen real bittersweet in the Northwest. They have something else here that they call bittersweet, the stuff with the little purple flowers and the red fruit, but I call it nightshade. Where I grew up, the bittersweet has orange berries with little yellow shells that cover them. Beautiful, but it strangles everything that comes near it. My mom used to have me busting my butt out there in the back field, cutting bittersweet away from the trees, because it would just take over, climb all the trees and overwhelm them. It was real pretty in the wintertime, though, with the yellow and orange berries sticking up in the snow. So I loved seeing those people with the bittersweet vines, even though I knew that if it took hold, they’d never get rid of it.

Andrea was dancing faster and faster, sort of pulling us along in this frenzy. The visitors roped her in with the bittersweet, her and me and Mickey, all together, until we fell on the bed of balsam branches, all hot and sweaty, and I had a brief thought that maybe we could get a threesome going, and I was getting a hard-on, and then I was coming and falling into a deep sleep at the same time. You know, a lot of that night is just a blur to me. That was some weed, I’ll tell you. I don’t remember any more.

The next morning, the three of us were like old married people, chewing on roots around the fire, eating some kind of a porridge of seeds. Andrea and Mickey, they seemed pretty friendly, in spite of what went on last night. So things were okay in that area. I didn’t notice the musky smell any more. Probably that was what I smelled like myself at this point.

There was a thing about caves that I actually hadn’t thought through: they’re dark. If you stay in your cave, the sun might as well never have come up. I needed to get out of the dark, get outside, take a dump, and prepare for a long ski out, maybe through the woods, the way we’d come up. I hoped there was a forest road nearby, but my guess was the sasquatch was a deep-woods guy, as far from civilization as he could get.

And we needed to get going pretty soon too.

So I put on my parka, and went out to the mouth of the cave, and you know what? It was raining, raining hard. Water was flowing in the snow, down the slots of our tracks, down the slope of the mountain, down through the trees, down to the hot spring, down to the road, which was, by my guess, a couple thousand feet below us. Staying over had not been a very good idea, if getting home soon was our goal.

But I’ll tell you what I do when something doesn’t work out: I go with the flow. I let life keep happening. I keep an eye out for opportunity.

And, to my mind, the opportunity at this point was to find out about the treasure. Easiest thing would be to get the info directly from Mickey, not poke around in acres of rock. Might involve smoking a few more joints, a bit more bonding. I could handle that. Andrea would find something to keep her busy.

Tune in next week for the second half of “Up the Fire Road” by Eileen Gunn and find out what happens when you combine a lost couple, a hermaphrodite sasquatch, an unstable time-space continuum and a talk show!

 

© Eileen Gunn, 2007. “Up the Fire Road” originally appeared in Eclipse One, edited by Jonathan Strahan. Reprinted by permission of author.

 

by Francesca Myman for Locus 2014 copyright Locus

by Francesca Myman for Locus 2014 ©Locus

Eileen Gunn is a short-story writer and editor. Her most recent collection, Questionable Practices, was published in March 2014 by Small Beer Press. Her fiction has received the Nebula Award in the US and the Sense of Gender Award in Japan, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy awards and short-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. award. Gunn was editor/publisher of the influential Infinite Matrix webzine from 2001-2008 and was for 22 years a member of the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop.

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