It was now 0700, and I would have liked nothing better than to just hang out at my place with Mari, a girl I've been seeing for a while. We have fun together, and she understands my situation well enough not to ask too much of me, romantically. This is ideal. I am happy right now, but I don't know if it will last because yesterday I'd agreed to meet with a person I'd been avoiding for many, many years.
His name was Sy Cross.
At one time he'd been a very close friend of mine. He was the only one who's attitude toward me didn't change when my boxing career took off. Success changes how others treat you, but it didn't change Sy. He was consistent in that way.
When I'd known him he was a risk taker, callous, wild, with little ambition, but he always did have a taste for trouble. But then something happened to him. He disappeared. I was worried, because whatever could take someone like Sy, could take anyone. There was a general sense of unease in Montore during that time, groups of people walked close together like schools of fish. Every space between spaces was a threat, anytime you weren't under the protective glow of a lamp light at night your life was in danger. This was the start of the dreaded trophic cascade I thought, the top predators were dying and I was next.
Sy returned to town a few months later. My brother Orion saw him standing in the middle of Centennial park staring up at a monument in silent worship. Something bad had happened to Sy. The whole idea of meeting him made me very nervous. I wanted to stay happy, and if I wanted to stay happy then I certainly couldn't help Sy with his problems, not right now.
I received a letter from him, a handwritten letter—not something I'm used to getting anymore. In it he asked to meet me, here at this street corner, corner of Sedanga and Oneindo. I was surprised. In the letter, he asked that I tell no one. Fine with me. I'm not eager to let others know of my relationship with Sy, I think my sponsors would agree. It is shitty to say, but at least I agreed to come meet him, didn't I?
Shit, there he is.
"You look well."
Sy can smell sarcasm, he can taste lies.
"Okay, um. You look like shit?
"And I feel like it too."
Sy really did look like shit, wearing ratty, tattered clothes, and he smelled like grass, and wet dirt. He chose a restaurant. Good, good. This place doesnt look too dodgy, it's well-lit, and they've got clean, fabric tablecloths. Actually, that is suspicious for other reasons. I've never seen Sy eat out, or in any normal human setting. Come to think of it, I've never seen Sy drink water... beer maybe, but never water. I am beginning to suspect that he asked me here so I would feel safe, with other people. Sy would never come here of his own will.
"Buy me coffee."
That was a command, it ought to have been a question. Any normal person would have waited for me to propose but Sy didn't, because he knows that I know that he doesn't work, and never has money. He doesn't have a cellphone, a car, and as far as i know, he's got no bank account either. I bet that if you looked at the tags at his shirt, that you'd find them blank. Sy, without ties or tags.
"Yea yea, it's on me."
We walked inside. Sy took a seat at the nearest table to the entrance. I knew why Sy had picked this place now, it was big, and empty.
"Was wondering if you'd come," Sy said to me, a crooked smile dancing on his lips. He had some dirt on his chin, and under his finger nails. He left his mark on everything. His eyes were on me then. They were a light, piercing blue. His pupils appeared dilated, I wondered then if he was on something... but I didn't dare ask.
"Yes, well I'm here. Two coffees, one black, the other with a side of oat milk. Thanks."
I waited till the waiter left to continue our conversation, I never like to talk in front of waiters. They always hear parts of conversations, striped of their contexts and I'd rather they not make assumptions on my life.
"For my tar-soaked heart." Sy said aloud, to no one in particular. He then picked up a packet of mustard. He squeezed the yellow blob from one end of the packet to the other end, right, left, right left it went.
"Well I got your letter, so... I'm here. What's up. What's going on with you?"
"Bet you'd rather know why I asked you here."
Sy had kind, honest eyes. I hated to have them on me, I felt exposed. It appeared as though he could read me, like I had my thoughts and life story etched in my skin. Sy fed on my self-doubt and fear.
"Sorry, I forgot you hate social niceties. Please don't say not to say sorry." I said then.
"Don't say please either."
Sy paused, his gaze wandering around the room for a moment, as if he was trying to remember how to behave indoors.
"Did you ever wander into the Great Land?" He asked.
"The Great Land? That's um, way north isn't it? No roads there as far as I know. Very cold too."
"No roads, no people."
No people huh? I liked to think that Sy thought himself more beast than man.
"You went there. Really. How did you manage that?"
"Bummed a ride with hydroplant workers up to Rocky Point. Walked after, no roads beyond that."
"So you went to the woods. Why did you do that? Didn't peg you for the outdoorsy type."
Then my nose remembered the scent of grass and wet earth on him, and patches trapped in his nail beds and the crease of his chin. I always pictured Sy outside in a park with a few trees, never far from people. Like a racoon he hides in the day, emerges at night, his presence evident with any passing headlight, his eyes flashing round and bright.
"I woke up one day feeling real sick. Couldn't eat, or sleep. No matter what I did, this... this sick feeling was there, preying on me, day and night. It got to a point when I couldn't tell when I awake. I had these mad fever dreams. I felt like I was being devoured from the inside, like termites hollowing out wood. I got this crazy idea in my head then, to go north. Just, north. I got the idea, and I went. No one cared or asked what I was doing, no one paid any attention. Everyone's so wrapped up in their lives, commanded by their screens. Anyway, I went north until I got to a place with more trees than people. I hiked up part of the way with a local, said he was going hunting. He told me I was sick, because in the south the land was sick."
"Are you sick though?"
"We're all sick. Anyway, he said going north was a good idea. Not that it mattered at that point, I would have gone whether or not he'd said anything. So, we parted ways. I walked into the forest alone. I saw pines, spruces and balsam firs. These trees are amazing by the way. They've adapted to survive long and cold winters. If you look at a needle real close, you'll see they've got no sap, and because they don't they don't freeze. Brilliant. I realized then how terribly adapted we are to this world. We're soft, pink and juicy on the inside, we're made to freeze. The ground under my feet was permanently frozen. It felt hard under my feet. As I walked I stumbled into other places that felt different. My mind was focused on my steps, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I bent down and started digging in the earth, I saw a layer of bedrock just under the soil. Here when it rains the water just drains down into the earth, but because the ground there is either frozen, or made of rock, the water doesn't drain, it stays in the top layers of soil. I saw a lot of these shallow bogs that look like they're solid but they're covered in moss and shortgrass. If you walk on them, the ground feels spongy, and wet. And it's here, that I saw one."
"Saw... one what?" I asked, perplexed, and irritated at the fact he was being willfully vague so that I'd ask. "C'mon. What did you see?
Sy smirked, his lips parting, opening onto a row of teeth. I was a hungry fish in the water, and he was dangling a shiny lure. He knew I'd bite, and I knew it too. I let him tease me, and then I let him snag me up. Enjoy your win, you smug bastard.
"I walked up to a large recess in the ground, forming a pool of deep water. A thick branch was sticking out, it looked like a hand, covered in moss. Curious, I walked close to look at it. Then I slipped and slid halfway into the pool. The water was so cold it hurt. I pulled myself out in a damn hurry. Then, I looked up. The hand had receded into the water, and a head stood in its place. Like, a giant head. You know how in any public park in a city, there's always a bunch of statues of historical figures, but their proportions are stylized, bigger than ours, much bigger. The head in the water was crazy big, bigger than any statue. It was covered in moss and mud, but I could see bits of pale skin underneath. Its eyes were a deep black, like a shark. They were focused on me. I was like, shit, I'm not sure I want this thing's attention."
I was on the edge of my seat.
"What the fuck! What was it?"
"You know what, ain't just stories! Those ancient beings, the ones that were here long before the Europeans arrived. They exist. I saw one. Anyway, I couldn't move. I was frozen in place, literally. That water was damn cold, and I was tired and I felt sick from before. So i just looked at it, and said... hey."
"You look in the eyes of a being whose existence predates that of our own and you say hey."
"What the fuck was I supposed to say? Call me Ishmael? Apologize for the agricultural revolution? What am I a novelist? I was freezing, and near mad, so that's all I could think of saying. I sat there, struck dumb, dumbstruck... whichever, then it rose out of the water, like a pillar. It twisted its neck to look down at me, and it began to speak. What came out instead was an awful gurgle, its throat had a large bulge in it, then it opened its mouth and green water came out, unending, like city sewage in the ocean after a big rain. It cleared its throat of water, algae, fish, leaves, whatever the hell was in there. It coughed, licked its lips clean of mud, and said in a clear voice..."English". Its voice was cavernous. It closed its eyes, taking a moment, as if it was trying to recall something important. Then its eyes shot open, and it smiled broadly at me. Its teeth and gums were black, caked with mud. Its mouth was like a gaping nightmare hole. I wasn't really scared up until that point. Like shit, its gonna eat me. It's going to happen. I'm going to be food. It's funny how we think that we, humans, somehow lie outside the food chain, that we've won, we've conquered wildnerness. We're apex predators. Being eaten is something that happens to rabbits and birds, not us. We're too smart, we've cloaked ourselves with walls and tech, we build fences, we've got firearms, and we can split atoms. We could never be someone else's lunch. I felt real small then, I was prey. Then, the giant just... laughed, a dry, muted sort of life, like it still had its last meal stuck in its throat. I could see myself trapped in its esophagus, like in the digestive system of a giant snake, its strong throat muscles squeezing me into the stomach to be digested. Entombed, I'd lay there for days, helpless, my flesh and bones slowly broken down by acids and enzymes. I felt weak, so fucking weak, and afraid..."
Sy paused then. His nails had pierced the packet of mustard, exposing its entrails. He licked his fingers clean, and squeezed the last of the mustard straight into his mouth. He recoiled at the taste, but then continued the story...
"The giant spoke up again, it said, 'The ones who move rivers, who have no respect for the trees, nor the birds, nor any other.' I was like... wait up, I'm not the ambadassor to all humans. As horrifying as it is to be eaten, I'd prefer that than dying to atone for humanity's sins. It looked at me, smiling still. 'You came here to die,' it said. It ought to have been a question, it scared me that it wasn't. I thought about it for a second, time slowing to a stop as I processed that statement. I came here to die. Did I now? Maybe I did come here for that, maybe that's what I wanted, why else would anyone run into the wild and cold, alone, without supplies. As you pointed out before Pen, I like being outside, but I know jack shit about surviving there. I'm a scavenger, not a hunter. The giant moved forward, towards me. My heart was beating so hard it hurt my ribs, like it was ready to burst out, grow legs and run far, far away. The creature slapped it's hand over me, hard. I shit you not, it was as large as my chest. I was pinned down, back wet with moss and sinking into the mud. It neared its face toward me, its breath was warm, it smelled like all the trees in the Taiga, like algae and plants unknown to me. Its body housed its own forest, it had captured and catalogued all the smells of the Old World. It didn't reek or anything, it made me long for something I've never had. I thirsted for club moss, bog rosemary, fireweed, and jack pines. 'We are dust and shadow. Live. There is plenty of time to be dead.' It stared at me long after that, looking tired, then it let go and went to lie back down into the pool, closing its eyes. I got up, half forgetting I was frozen, and walked away. I thought I was gonna die then too, my hands and feet were numb, but next thing I knew, I was wrapped in a heavy coat in the back seat of a car, speeding down the road."
"How is any of that true..."
"Why would I lie."
"So, what, you still feeling sick?"
"Yea, but I'm gonna cultivate it. Like a garden herb."
Saying this, Sy was drawing patterns on the table with some of the spilled mustard.
"That is vague enough to be inoffensive, but knowing you."
Sy smirked then. Turning his attention to his cup of coffee.
We spent an hour talking about regular happenings, but all the while my mind was set on that story, that beautiful lie. In fact, it stayed with me for days. I was infected. At night I found I could only sleep with my head pointing north. My superstition was healthy in the day, but seemed to amplify at night. I'm not certain if I can ever get this out of my mind. Like all who live in the south, I am sick, but I've only just noticed it.