Some Days

“Daddy! Daddy! Look!”

“You’re doing great, baby!”

What else was I supposed to say? Being a single dad was both the scariest and most rewarding thing I’d ever done in my life, and that was counting three tours in Afghanistan and getting shot twice. I was proud of my little girl riding Blanca on her own, but it terrified me she might fall off.

“Don’t grip the reins too tight, baby. You wouldn’t want someone yanking hard on your mouth. Hold them firm, but not tight. She only needs a little of a tug for direction.”

“I know, Daddy!”

Ten-year-old exasperation crept into her voice, but it just made me smile. I think we’re all like that at that age. Truth be told, the aging mare didn’t need the reins at all, but not all horses were trained to respond to neck taps or voice commands. Better for Liv to learn the regular way before teaching her anything more advanced.

My wife didn’t want Liv riding alone until she was at least ten, but riding with me was okay. Today was Liv’s tenth birthday, so I’m sure you can imagine her delight. I mean, what little girl doesn’t want a horse at some point? The fact we had several only made it better.

My government disability helped, but it wasn’t enough to make all the ends meet. I still needed to make a living, so boarding and hosting trail rides covered the difference. Blanca was my horse — a beautiful white Appaloosa with just a smattering of black on her flanks and hindquarters. She had been all sorts of spirited when she was younger, and her and I had numerous discussions and arguments about that fact, but she was in her late teens now and had settled into a middle-aged comfort zone. Every once in a while we’d play the game when it was just us, but she was very careful with Liv.

“Watch, Daddy!”

Liv urged Blanca into a trot and stood up in the stirrups. Her legs bent with the changed rhythm of the gait, but I could tell by how far Blanca’s head was angled down that Liv was pulling too hard on the reins to try and keep her balance.

“Put your butt back in that saddle, young lady!”

To her credit, she sat down quick and I motioned for her to come over. I continued leaning against the top split rail of the fence with one forearm and rubbed Blanca’s nose with the other hand when Liv pulled her up.

“You can’t pull on the reins that hard, baby. Blanca’s not going to throw you for doing it, but that hurts her mouth. Her mouth is just as sensitive as yours and that bit in her mouth is made of metal. You have to use your legs to keep your balance when you stand up, not the reins. Understand?”

She had her eyes downcast and a slight pout to her lips, playing up the look of chastisement and hurt feelings to the hilt. She knew she was doing it, too. I swear, girls seem to become ever more self-aware at a younger and younger age. I don’t recall them being like that when I was that age, but then again, us guys seem to be pretty clueless around then, and later, so I probably just never noticed.

“Don’t even. I’m not upset and you know it, so quit with the puppy dog.”

Liv giggled a little and raised her eyes to meet mine. Hers were so brilliantly blue that there was no doubt she had gotten them from her mother. The sudden pain of the gut punch caught me off guard when I met those eyes. My heart felt like it skipped a beat and it was all I could do to not gasp for air as my wife’s face filled my vision.

I covered by ducking through the rails and rubbing Blanca’s neck with one hand and resting the other on Liv’s leg.

“Look, I just want you to learn how to ride her right so you’ll both enjoy it. You’ll be amazed at what she can do when she trusts you to ride her right. You’ve seen me ride her without you. She can do all that with you, too, once she trusts you not to hurt her.”

Liv showed every indication of understanding when she nodded. “I know, but it’s hard!”

Of course, she had a ten-year-old whine at the end — always impatient. I did my best not to chuckle at her, but couldn’t keep from smiling.

“I know. It just means you’ll have to practice. I guess that means you’ll have to ride her a lot.”

I’m not sure there is anything better in the world than seeing your daughter full of happiness and love, but when it’s directed at you, well, words cannot describe it. It’s something you have to experience to understand. She damn near leaped out of the saddle and into my arms, then started kissing me all over my face.

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, Daddy! I love you! Thank you!” Liv pulled back her head and looked in my eyes again with a wide grin. “Did I say thank you? Thank you!”

I could laugh now and did. “Yeah, okay already. You’re welcome. Happy birthday, baby. One rule, though. You can only ride when I’m around to watch. I know you’re smart and all, but no riding on your own until I say you’re good enough. Deal?”

“Awww, really? Yeah, okay.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

I let her down to the ground and leaned down to kiss the top of her head. “Now go unsaddle Blanca and rub her down. I’ll come hang up the tack and turn her out when you’re done.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

I watched her pick up the reins and lead Blanca off to the stable. I needed a few minutes to collect myself after the gut punch. I was still feeling it.

It had been over two years since my wife had died of cancer. I had reached a point where I could go without thinking about it some days. Not most days, but some days. It had happened quick — six months from start to finish. She didn’t know anything was wrong, then it was, and by then the doctors said it was too late to reverse the damage. They could try all the standards, but it would only delay things and make her miserable in the meantime. We went with the painkillers and that was it. We made the most of that six months until she became too weak, and then she was gone.

Twenty-plus years gone, but they were wonderful years. Our love of horses brought us together while I was in the military, and the love of horses was what helped me and Liv get through the loss of her mother. It wasn’t always easy, and we certainly had our bad days, but riding Blanca together had helped us bond and find joy amidst the pain and anger. I missed her, but I could endure the sadness now without breaking down or falling into a depression.

It only took a few minutes to feel solid again, passing through shock and sadness to remembered joys and a daughter with her mother’s eyes. I headed towards the main stable, but cast a glance towards one of its side doors, knowing what I would see.

My wife had bought a pink pail with polka dots while pregnant with Liv. She used it to feed her horse, Char, but she would never tell me why. She told me the reason shortly before she died and then I understood.

“Char isn’t much older than Liv, so when she’s old enough to ride him, he will still be a fire-blooded Arabian. He will be a handful for her. He needs to trust her and the best way to get a horse to trust you is familiarity. Besides riding it, the best way to do that is feed it. I use the same pail to feed Char every day, and only Char. And when I’m not strong enough to do it anymore, Liv will do the same. You’ll teach her to ride and when she’s old enough, her and Char will be ready for each other.”

The pail hung on the side door, where it had always been put since my wife had gotten it. It had been repainted a couple of times to renew the paint, but it always hung in the same place. Char’s stall was the first one inside that door. My wife, always thinking of the future. Char was always going to be Liv’s.

Just the sight of it made me smile again. “Not yet, love, but we’re getting there.”

As I approached the stable., I yelled, “Liv! Don’t forget to feed Char!”

I grinned as Liv yell-whined back at me, “I know, Dad!”

Sometimes Daddy, sometimes Dad. Still about equal, but she was growing up. That was tomorrow’s terror. Today was not one of the bad days.

Copyright © 2019 DJ Blackford. All Rights Reserved.

The Hollow

You seldom think about the end of something when it is at its beginning. It is something new, perhaps a symbol or an advancement of what came before. It has its entire future ahead of it and may endure long after your own existence has ended. Yes, you may think about that part of the end — your own, but seldom a thought towards the end of the creation you leave behind.

I remember when it was built. I saw it when it was new. I walked its hallowed halls. I spoke in its main chamber. I also recall burying its architect, one friend among countless others I have bid goodbye over the centuries. Time lays low all things, eventually. Like water, it is persistent and patient and cares not one whit about your opinion of it. It is inevitable.

It was built from stones carved from the same moors in which it stood. A great swath of The Highlands that had known nothing but clan wars for centuries surrounded it in all directions. The Bloody Moors, they had once been called. I had shed more than my share of blood on them, my own and others. If all the dead here rose at once, there would be a considerable population problem. There was no end to it, until High Church.

There had been churches built before, spreading the word of the Christian God and converting many of my people from their pagan worship. It did not stop the warring between clans. It only gave them more reasons and excuses to prove they were more “righteous” than the other clans. If anything, it made things worse. In my many centuries of life, I have witnessed more people killed in the name of religion than any other reason.

Such was not the case with High Church. It was part church, part combat arena, part government, and all neutral. No weapons were allowed inside its walls. All disputes had two avenues of recourse — diplomacy or combat, sometimes both. All physical confrontations took place in the arena and were unarmed. The stakes and rules inside the arena were determined by the participants and no interference was allowed. Any infraction of any rule had one warning and one of two penalties. Many were banned from ever stepping foot within the walls again, and a few dozen were executed in the early years, but it became clear that it made more sense to just obey the rules.

No clan had any more authority or rights within High Church than any other. All were treated as equal, whether small clan or large. The Bishop of High Church was the ultimate authority within its walls, but held none over the clans themselves. That dubious honor belonged to the Lord or Lady of High Church, though I only recall one Lady. He, or she, was elected each equinox and could serve no more than two consecutive terms, so one full year.

I tell you this because it worked. The wars didn’t completely stop. Not immediately. It’s in our blood and we do not care much for change. How’s that for irony? Me, reluctant to change. Ha! In any case, it did reduce the warring between clans. In took some time, but they did stop. You had the occasional border skirmish, but no more all-out clan-against-clan wars that decimated our population. High Church became the central seat of government and we enjoyed a relatively peaceful and prosperous 150 years.

Then invasion came. Like the aforementioned water and time, it was inevitable. We had something others wanted. Too often, when someone wants something someone else has and they perceive themselves to be the stronger of the two, they try to take what they want. Such was the case, but they erred. As I said, war is in our blood. It was never far below the surface — just banked like a fire in the hearth. It kindled back to full flame in an instant.

Time destroys all things eventually, but humans usually get to it first. I lost everyone that was still important to me over those years. I have lost many more friends over the centuries since. There have been many more wars. There have been other creations as great as High Church, but they too have been laid low. Most recently, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris suffered that fate. Almost 200 years to finish its construction, then laid low in a single night.

I was born in the sixth century, though I can’t say exactly when. We used seasons to mark time. Calendars haven’t been around forever, and they have changed a few times since we started using them, plus I really don’t remember a precise year, much less a month and day. Why I still live, I cannot tell you for sure. The best I can figure is I upset or killed the wrong person in my youth and was cursed for it.

I don’t know if I can die. I have tried a few times, but I always wake up all in one piece. Sometimes years will have passed or I will find myself buried. I was buried for a long time once. Over 120 years had passed when I saw the sun again. Some would say, “Immortality! Give me some of that!” It is not an exhilarating existence. I have known a multitude of people, some famous, and I have seen some amazing things and places, some now forgotten, but I am tired. And empty.

War will always be in my blood, but I no longer have any passion. I care for nothing. Death no longer moves me or angers me. Life no longer amazes me. Beauty leaves no impression upon me. I have lost all faith in humanity. I have seen too much, but I cannot even remove my eyes to stop seeing it. They grow back. I only wish for it to end, but I have no idea how to end it.

And so, I sit here in The Bloody Moors, next to the last remains of High Church, waiting for I know not what. I can hear the vernal equinox celebration coming from the town bearing its name over and down the hill. All they know are mostly wrong stories about how their town got its name. High Church has become like me. We are both empty and irrelevant, echoes from the past with nothing but hollow shells to mark our existence in this age.

I sit and I wait. I am The Hollow.

Copyright © 2019 DJ Blackford. All Rights Reserved.

Storm Front

The storm sounded like a train over the house. It was just like sixteen years ago except that I was experiencing memories and feelings that I hadn’t had then. Well, not just like. Micah wasn’t with me this time. The storm made it difficult to remember what was past and what was present and keep them separate. All of the pain, anger, grief, guilt, and everything else that made me feel like shit made it harder still.

“It’s just a Cat 1, Maggie. We’ll be fine.”

I could hear his voice. I could almost smell his cologne — that slightly musky spice of Lagerfeld blended with undertones of the sandalwood incense he was so fond of having in the house. I was just as guilty as Micah. Living on the southeastern coast of the U.S., we had both been through hurricanes before. A Cat 1 or 2 weren’t really big deals. A Cat 3 deserved some serious consideration, and if it was stronger than that it meant getting the hell out and hoping you had something to come back to when it was done. His reassurance was all I had needed to decide to ride it out. After all, it was just a Cat 1.

This one had started as a Cat 1, too. It was well past that now, but not yet where it needed to be. Not long now. I just needed to stay focused. Keep the memories foremost in my mind, but be mindful of the present. It wasn’t nearly as easy as it sounded. Master Fetch’s words passed through my mind.

“You can observe your past, but you cannot physically travel there. Memory is a window, but only for the mind. You must always keep in your mind that you are not physically there or you risk becoming unstuck and adrift. Your body is your anchor. Let its weight keep you in the present.”

I reaffirmed my resolve and determination and settled into a more comfortable position on the bare floor. The cold hardness of the tiles helped ground me. The only other things on the floor were the mattress I had bought for the house’s sole furnishing, and an obelisk of crystal in the room’s center. I couldn’t afford distractions, and I didn’t expect to be needing anything else. I climbed back inside my memories and worked toward getting the storm in my mind synced to the one outside.

We had gone to bed, not worried about the storm that was due about two in the morning. We heard the wind and rain when it came onshore, but we just rolled over and went back to sleep. No big deal. We knew it was going to be a stormy Saturday, so we slept in till almost eight. When we got up, the storm was raging. It should have mostly passed by then, but no, it was raining so hard that I could barely see the car in the driveway.

“What the hell?”

I turned from the window at Micah’s voice, then looked at the TV as he took it off mute.

“All we can tell you right now is that the storm has stalled just offshore and is increasing in strength. At this time, meteorologists are investigating what is feeding it and what has caused the stall. The latest satellite imagery indicates there is a massive well of heat rising through the storm’s center, but we are unable to determine its source. A hurricane hunter is in the air and en route to acquire more data.”

I looked from the TV back towards Micah and asked, “That’s not normal, is it?” I had seen a couple of storms stall and get stronger before, but this one seemed … different. A well of hot air they couldn’t determine? What was that about? Micah did not get upset easily, but I could tell he was now.

“Damn.”

Just the one word, then Micah looked at me with tears in his eyes. I stood there stunned. I was getting worried now and unsure what to think.

“Current measurements estimate the storm’s strength at 147 mph sustained winds and increasing. The stall has most of the damaging winds located offshore, but this is a solid Cat 4 storm, folks. The storm is still pushing a powerful surge, so please take immediate action and evacuate. We will have continuing coverage and will let you know the moment we have new or updated information.”

Click.

The turning off of the TV was like breaking a spell and I sat down next to Micah on the couch.

“What’s wrong, baby? We can just grab some things and leave. The worst is still offshore, so the causeways should still be open.”

Micah let out a long sigh and looked down as he took hold of my hands.

“It doesn’t matter. If we tried to run, they would follow us inland and countless lives would be lost.”

Now I was confused. “They? They who?”

Micah leaned back on the couch and closed his eyes for a moment, a frown creasing his face. I wasn’t sure if the frown was because he was trying to think of an answer or if he was worried about the situation.

“I should have told you, but I never thought they would find me. I really didn’t.”

I couldn’t feel one of my feet and remembered when and where I was. It was so easy to get lost in the memory. I ran Master Fetch’s words over in my mind while getting up to stretch.

“Nature cannot abide a paradox. That is why you cannot travel into your own past, or the past of your past. Your own time line cannot be accessed in the past except through memory. That is not to say you cannot travel into the past at all, but when you travel into the past, no matter how far back you go, it is to a different time line than the one that produced the unique you sitting here now.”

“I think I understand, but that isn’t much help.”

“But it is, child. You simply fail to see it from the right perspective. You have but one true past, thus it is inaccessible because your past cannot alter your present self. On the other hand of time, your future has not yet been experienced by your present self, thus all possible futures are available to you.”

I had thought long and hard on that one, weeks and months. I had already been studying The Ways for three years by that point, but I didn’t get it and I finally told him so.

“Master, you have taught me much, but I still don’t understand how not being able to travel into my past, yet being able to access any future is helpful towards my goal.”

“That is because you think of time only from your now. You wish to find the love from your past, but you only think of how to get to then from now. You fail to realize that then is now. All time exists in a single moment and that moment is unique to every living and nonliving thing. The now of now is a future of then, which means the then can connect to the now.”

As confusing as it had sounded, it made perfect sense.

The Ways taught about matter and energy; how they were different and how they were the same. It provided instruction about leylines and the paths of power. It included lessons regarding movement in space and time. It honed one’s mind into a tool and weapon of focus and will. It had taken me fifteen years to graduate, but it had been worth it. At least, I hoped it had been worth it. I would know soon enough.

The storm felt right. I took a stance over the focus crystal and called forth my memories once more. Summoning a storm of this size wasn’t the easiest thing, but it was essentially just elemental magic and like called to like. What I was about to do was magnitudes more difficult and I would only get the one chance.

“I have to go, Maggie.”

“Go? What do you mean, go?! Go where? And who the hell are you talking about with they?”

I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was confused and getting scared and my natural reaction to that was to get pissed. I could see that Micah recognized the signs. He had gotten up from the couch, but he reached down and took my hands, then knelt in front of me.

“There’s no easy way to say this, which is partly why I never said anything. That, and there was no need and you wouldn’t have believed me anyway.”

That had me more worried than confused, but the shift was just enough to calm my rising temper.

“Just tell me, Micah. I’m a big girl.”

“I’m not from here. I mean, I’m not from this world.”

How does a person deal with something like that? Laughter at the absurdity of it? Worry for the other person’s sanity? Fear for your own safety? I didn’t know how to respond, so I just sat there.

Micah continued. “This is no ordinary storm. That’s pretty self-evident, I suppose. At its center lies what you could call a gateway. On the other side of that gateway is where I am from. Some might call that place Hell. Others might call it Heaven. Depends on your perspective, but either way, escaping it is not supposed to be possible. I did and now the gatekeepers have found me and are here to take me back.”

This was what going into shock felt like. No, that’s not right. Insane, that’s it. I was losing my mind. He couldn’t be serious, which meant he had lost his mind. But he seemed serious, which meant I must be losing mine and I was scrabbling for the edges to hold on with my fingernails.

“No.”

Micah screwed up his face in puzzlement. “No?”

“I didn’t stutter. No. You’re not some alien or whatever from another world. You’re my husband. Why are you saying these things?”

I was ready to cry now. The most solid part of my life was crumbling and I didn’t know what to do. What was I supposed to do? To say?

Micah stood back up and began glowing. I watched in stunned silence and disbelief as he seemed to grow horns, then have them disappear. Monstrous feathered wings stretched out to his sides from behind him, then they took on a leathery bat-like appearance before also disappearing. What was most disconcerting, though not the weirdest, were his eyes. There were his, then completely silver, then completely black, then his again. It felt like reality was slipping away.

“I’m sorry, Maggie. I love you.”

Reality was slipping away! I jerked back to my present and broke the focus crystal on the floor as Micah closed the door in my memory. I went to the door after Micah in my memory, but the wind and rain forced me back inside. In my present, I stepped out into the storm.

The Ways had taught me how to speak to the elements. The wind and rain flowed over and around me, but did not grab hold. The storm of my past was now intertwined with the one in my present. My now was a future of my past. I could not go to then, but I could bring part of it to now. My memory ended at that door, but the storm’s memory was here now. I followed the Micah of then as quickly as I could. With the breaking of the focus crystal, the storm would soon die.

I had not believed Micah then, and I was not sure I believed him now, but I had learned many things that I would have thought were fantasy sixteen years ago. I needed to find him, so this is where I had to start. The storm’s memory was taking me to the heart of the storm, just as Micah had told me. When I reached it, my doubts left me. At least this part had been true. Spinning in front of me was a swirling vortex of darkness and light fighting for dominance. It was like one of those wormholes you see in science fiction shows, or a powerful whirlpool, but made of some kind of energy instead of water.

“Okay then. If I have to go to Hell to get you back, then that’s where I’m going. Maybe you’re a demon or a devil or an angel or whatever. I don’t know, but you’re still my demon.”

I stepped through.

Copyright © 2019 DJ Blackford. All Rights Reserved.