If you like a good chuckle, dim-witted heroes, and larger-than-life villains, then you'll love this fascinating series. On Wednesdays and Sundays, I’m blogging nibble-sized chunks of new ‘Life in the Clouds’ stories. You can check in regularly and read them for free, or wait to buy the entire story when published.
#4: Evil Portent ® James Field.
Previously from posts 07 - 10…
It occurred to Bert the woman might be a loony, escaped from an asylum somewhere. Time to phone Florence for help; she possessed almost as much gumption as his best friend, Alf. "When did you last eat?" he asked as he plucked his smartphone from his back pocket.
The woman flinched and drew her children to her breast. "Don't shoot," she whimpered. "We're so small, there’s hardly any meat on us."
Bert scratched his head. No doubt. Loony. "This is a phone," he explained, drawing the words out and holding it to his ear to demonstrate. "I'm going to call for help."
A wave of relief washed over the woman’s face, but only enough to give her the courage to speak calmer. "A phone. Can I see it?"
"Yeah. Take a look. It's harmless." He held it at arm's length and the woman snatched it from his hand. "Hey," he said, "Don't do that." But it was too late. She tore the back cover from the phone, ripped out the battery, prodded at its workings with what resembled a crochet hook until her palm contained a jumble of fragments.
"It weren't a gun," said Bert, dejectedly. "You didn't have to ruin it, and if you didn't want me to call for help, all you had to do was to say."
The woman didn't answer. Instead, she sifted through the bits as if hunting for lice. Then she pinched up one black piece, dumped the rest of his ruined phone on the carpet, and picked up the doodad. With the doodad in one hand and the part from his phone in the other, she slipped the part into the doodad. Immediately, the gadget's harsh light stopped throbbing.
All held their breath and stared at the doodad. Pricks of various coloured pinpoint lights danced and ticked. Then it peeped and the purple goo settled into a soft, faint, glow.
With a jubilant cheer, the woman bounced to her feet and clapped her hands. "It works," she said.
"Can't you see? The doodad. We can go home to our own world."
The children danced and pranced with as much boisterousness as a pack of excited Billy Goats.
"Wait and watch," said the woman. Bouncing from foot to foot, eyes gleaming, she placed the gadget back on the floor.
Without warning, the air above it warped, like a heat haze, even though the room was freezing. Looking into the haze was like peering into a fire while daydreaming. Only there were no flames, just the vague impression of a black hole.
Bert stared at the patch of distorted air. It grew larger and more distinct, and he spotted odd translucent shapes eddying within it. A dull pressure made his ears ache, and a drop of sweat slid down the hollow of his throat, leaving a cold track.
The hazy hole had no outer boundary; it simply hung in midair, the entrance to a tunnel leading to an unearthly distance. Every muscle in Bert's body seized, pressure built in his ears, and the hiss of piercing static made his teeth cringe. The tunnel's depth pulsed like a black gulping throat, and the static hiss grew louder, wavering in pitch.
"Come," said the woman, suddenly by his side and tugging on his hand. "Come with us."
"To our world."
Bert, still hypnotised by the tunnel and fascinated by the notion of other worlds, staggered along beside her. They stepped inside, its depths shrinking and widening like the gullet of a black snake.
Ahead of him, he saw the woman and her twelve children melt into clouds of powder and the tunnel inhale them. It was the weirdest sensation Bert had ever experienced. The front edge of his bulk crumbled into dust and vanished into the tunnel as if dragged along by a tornado. Instinctively, he held his head back, watching, but in the same instant his vision blurred and a wall of soft foam in his back drove him forward. There was a sharp sting of pain as if blunt needles stabbed every nerve in his body. Before he had time to cry out, his flesh and bones gained substance again, as if he'd just woken from a nightmare and realised all was right with the world.
Except he wasn't lying in bed, but wobbling on his feet on the top of a green hill.
Below the hilltop, a village of flimsy huts and cabins nestled beside a rushing river. In every direction, Bert noted forests and fields of bamboo. A warm breeze, laden with the scent of tobacco, chafed their feathery leaves, wavering between rest and motion.
"What's that?" asked Bert, pointing to a distant hill higher than the others. A black tower dominated its summit. It looked alien and out of place.
"Can you see the Citadel from here?"
Both the woman's eyes focused in that direction. "No, it is too far away."
"And what's that?" Bert pointed to another construction of grey stone on a ridge on the village's other side."
"That is the abbey where the terror-stricken monks live."
“Where are we?” asked Bert.
The woman’s two eyes swivelled in all directions, as if uneasy. “I think we’re safe for the moment.”
“Yeah, that’s good, but where are we?”
“I must take you to the Elder’s house. He’ll explain everything.” Without further word, the woman bent to pick up a doodad similar to the one they'd left behind and set off down the hill, heading for the village on her dumpy little legs.
Bert tagged along beside her, taking advantage of the sluggish pace to absorb his new surroundings. Temple bells chimed through the mystic, potent sunlight; frogs croaked in muddy ditches; dwarf-sized women came from the fields, with a song on their thin red lips and wicker baskets laden with bamboo tips on their heads.
They glared at Bert as if he were a monster, taking a wide berth or darting into their hovels.
The villagers had built most of their huts from thick bamboo canes. There were no vehicles and only hard-packed dirt paths. It reminded him of pictures he’d seen of undiscovered tribes in South America’s rain forests, except here it looked as though they’d cleared most of the forest to cultivate fields of bamboo.
A handful of stone-built constructions, twice as large as the huts, were sprinkled haphazardly throughout the village. They headed for one of these.
Bert ducked inside and wiped his feet on a mat made of fibres. Doors and windows were simple open gaps with cloth hanging across the doors. Bamboo shutters in the windows did little to keep the sun out. After the sweltering heat outdoors, the cool cave-like room made Bert shove his hands in his pockets.
A little prune of a man sat cross-legged on the dirt floor. When he caught sight of Bert, squeezing through the door and standing with his head and shoulders bent beneath the low ceiling, he leapt effortlessly to his feet and backed into a corner.
Apart from his widespread eyes, the Elder had squished his facial features into tight knot, making him look like an amazed chipmunk. “What are you?” he asked.
“Me name’s Bert. Pleased to meet you.” He held his hand out and the little man cringed even further into the corner. “I ain’t going to hurt you.” Tired of bending his head, Bert flopped to the floor and leant back on his arms.
The alien woman stepped from behind Bert’s back. When the Elder saw her, his expression flitted between relief, joy, confusion, and anger. “Troublemaker. What have you done?”
“I bring you a Bert. He witnessed the tunnel, so I kidnapped him.”
“Is a Bert safe?”
“The Berts are violent meat-eaters, but I believe this one is peaceful.”
“Why do you keep saying we’re meat eaters,” said Bert. “Some of us are vegans. They only eat leaves and seeds and stuff.”
“I say you are meat eaters,” said the woman, “because your eyes are close together and focused to judge distance. All hunters of meat share that trait. Our eyes move independently of each other. A common trait of all hunted animals, forever on the watch for the hunters.”
“Vegans must be the superior species on your planet,” said the Elder. “Do Vegans have the wide-spread eyes of the hunted?”
Bert shook his head. “No, but they fart a lot.”
“Go then!” said the Elder, his finger jabbing at the woman. “Leave the doodad here. I will talk with this Bert and reprimand you later.”
The woman bowed and hurried away.
In this post: Bert eats disgusting porridge…
“Sit!” said the Elder.
“I am sitting,” said Bert.
The Elder’s eyes swivelled this way and that as if wondering how he could squeeze around Bert if needed to escape. Bert felt sorry for the timid little wise man and placed his friendliest smile.
“You are confused?”
Bert wasn’t sure if it was a statement or a question. “I don’t know where I am if that’s what you mean.”
“You are on a planet called Ewepiter, in a village called Lambdon.”
Careful to keep the smirk on his face, Bert shook his head. “Never heard of them.”
A slow grin softened the Elder’s panic, and his posture slumped. “Are you hungry, thirsty?”
“I’m starving and me throat’s parched.”
The Elder lifted the lid of a large saucepan that balanced on a flat metal box. “I’ll make some porridge for you.” He scooped a handful of dry bamboo tips from a sack and tossed them into the pan. Then he added another handful, turned to glance at Bert, and added two more. After filling water and a handful of white powder Bert assumed was salt, he put the lid back on and tapped the side of the metal box with a finger. “Two minutes,” he said.
All the while, the Elder kept one eye on Bert, the other on the pan. “There’s water in the barrel by your right elbow,” he said.
A ladle hung on the barrel with cups of various sizes stacked neatly on a low table by its side. Bert chose the largest and gulped four cupfuls before his tongue came unstuck from the roof of his mouth. The metal box peeped, and when the Elder lifted the saucepan lid, steam belched out.
“Blimey, mate, how did you cook that?” Bert scratched his bald head. He didn’t see any flames beneath the pan or electric wires anywhere.
“It is part of the remnants of our technology, like the translator you wear on your T-shirt, and this cooker, and those doodads. Only a few of us retain the wisdom of how these contrivances work. I am not one, so I cannot explain.”
“Got any cream and sugar?” asked Bert as the Elder nudged a bowl of porridge in his direction and edged away again.
Bert blew on his spoon and, careful not to burn his tongue, took a nibble. He shuddered and gagged. The porridge was the most disgusting he’d tasted in his life: earthy, woody, like mild water chestnuts but with a bitter tang. “Blimey, mate, you’ve got to be joking. Ain’t you got nothing else?”
“What do you mean, no? Is this all you eat?”
“No wonder you’re all so small. Sorry, but I can’t eat this.”
Terror filled the Elder’s face. “You’re just like the Guardians. You crave meat. You prefer to eat us.”
“No,” said Bert, and hurriedly spooned porridge into his gob. “Look, I’m eating this yummy stuff.” He found it almost impossible to swallow and spat globs of the creamy sludge as he spoke, but he kept spooning it in. “Mmm! lovely.”
To be continued…
The real world:
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A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
At long last I got around to reading about Ove, pronounced Oover. Brilliant story: amusing, heartbreaking, and so true to life. My main problem with the book is that I think they modelled Ove on me! When my wife read it, I heard repeatedly, "That's just like you."
Minus half a star for shoddy translation in places (from Swedish).
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