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A Conversation in the Woods

A Conversation in the Woods
Blas Pedro Uberuaga
October 31, 2020

“Can you feel that?”

“Hrm? Huh? Feel what?”

“I… I’m not sure… something is different. Something has changed.”

“Well, it’s getting colder, and I’m starting to turn color, if that’s what you mean.”

“Yeah, you’ll be naked soon! Tee hee!”

Lisa suggested I enter a local writing contest. I didn’t win. But, I thought I’d post my story anyways.

“No, not that. Something bigger. Something… I’ve never felt before. I don’t know what it is…”

“Will you two keep it down? I’m trying to rest over here.”

“You! You’ve been here forever. Do you know what is happening?”

“Do I know what is happening? Of course I do. The weather’s changing. It’s getting colder.”

“Sigh. It’s not that. Something else is going on. It seems more… I don’t know, peaceful, maybe?”

“Oh, that. Yeah, now that you mention it, I feel it too. It reminds me of the good old days.”

“What do you mean, old timer?”

“Well, this is a while back, before you three were even saplings. I wasn’t that old myself. Things were just different back then. The air was cleaner. The water was fresher. These stupid pests weren’t biting me all the time.”

“I don’t think they’ve been biting you, exactly.”

“Whatever the hell they are doing, it sure gets under my skin. They’re always leaving their marks. ‘B loves L.’ ‘Class of 2019.’ Don’t they have anything better to do than leave their mark all over the place? If they want to carve up their own skin, that’s one thing, but to carve up mine…”

“Anyways… you were saying, about how much better it was back then.”

“Yeah, yeah, sorry. There just weren’t so many of these things running around. They’re like a fungus, you know, spreading, finding every last nook and cranny to fill. Killing more of us than I dare remember. But the worst is the air and water. Everything got dirty when they came. Everything they do makes us sick. It used to be that you could take in the air and drink the water without thinking about it. It was always fresh and clean. But, that changed when they came.”

“I think that’s it! That’s what I’m feeling. The air is fresher. The water is cleaner. I feel better than I have since… since as far as I can remember.”

“I haven’t seen as many of those damn pests around here lately. I guess they stopped doing whatever it is they do that makes everything dirty.”

“Maybe it got too dirty even for them?”

“I doubt it. They are almost as bad as cockroaches. They find a way to live with everything. Once, I heard from a passing glider that had traveled a great distance that they live in the coldest places on the planet, on the pinnacle of the highest mountains, and even on the ocean. They are everywhere. You can’t stop them.”

“I don’t mind cockroaches. At least they help clean this place up.”

“Well, something stopped them. They aren’t coming around here anymore.”

“Whatever it was, I’m sure glad they aren’t.”

“I know! I remember a few years ago, I saw a few of them up the hill. I watched in horror as they cut one of my friends up into tiny pieces.”

“Bah! I’ve seen that happen to more of us than you can imagine. They are vicious. They have no regard for anything but themselves. Marching around, destroying everything in their path. Look around. See that stream? See all of the garbage they left behind?”

“At least the water is cleaner.”

“For now. What if they come back?”

“What do you think happened to them?”

“Who knows? Who cares? As long as they are gone.”

“Maybe something else got to them, like they get to us?”

“Like, maybe they were poisoned somehow?”

“What could hurt them? They seem to be immune to everything.”

“But, what if something did get to them? Or something at least scared them, made them stay away, made them stop making everything dirty.”

“I can’t imagine anything that would make them change. When there were just a few of them around here, they would come and go, taking some of us with them or looking for food. But, as more and more of them appeared, things just kept getting worse. None of you are nearly as big and tall as your forebears were. You’re all stunted. And I think it’s the dirty water and dirty air that did it.”

“Who are you calling stunted, you cranky old snag?”

“I don’t mean anything by it, but just look at you. Look at everything around you. It all used to be so lush, so green. We were majestic, reaching for the stars. Now, the few of you that make it past more than a few lustre don’t measure up. You simply aren’t as grand as we once were. I remember my…”

“Give it a rest boomer. We know we aren’t quite as magnificent as you old hardwoods. It’s not like it’s our fault.”

“Yeah! It’s their fault! They dirtied our water and our air.”

“I know, I know. Sorry. I just got carried away.”

“Anyways, whatever made them change, it really made a difference for us. I hope it stays this way.”

“Me too. I’ve never felt better. Just look at my colors. I’m literally glowing red, orange, and yellow. I’ve never been so vibrant!”

“I admit, I feel better too. Those creaks in my joints aren’t as sharp as they used to be. My old snags aren’t quite as brittle as they used to be either.”

“And, have you noticed, there’s a lot more of those small creatures running and flying around? I’ve sure noticed a lot more of the flying ones making their home in my branches.”

“I just love the way they fill the air with music. I think their songs have become richer too.”

“When those pests went away, the rest of the creatures started coming back. It’s almost like they were waiting for them to leave.”

“I agree. Whatever the reason, these little ones are now flourishing.”

“It makes sense. You take away the dirty ones and the rest start coming back. Everything is better with them gone.”

“I’m just scared they’ll come back and make everything dirty again.”

“And they will come back. They always do. I guarantee it.”

“Maybe they’ll change? Maybe they’ll stop making everything dirty?”

“I wish that could happen, but I’m not holding my breath.”

“You don’t actually breathe, you know.”

“Fine, I ‘respire’. It’s a figure of speech. Give me a break.”

“Do you hear that?”

“My hearing ain’t what it used to be. What is it?”

“I think…”

“No! They’re back!”

“So soon? Couldn’t they have given us a longer rest, at least?”

“What are we going to do?”

“What we always do: we endure. We will outlast them, at least some of us will.”

“Easy for you to say. You’ve already been here like forever. There is so much I haven’t seen! I can’t go now!”

“Wait! What is it doing?”

“It’s taking off that thing on its face. What is that?”

“I think it’s some kind of mask…”

“Don’t you dare drop it on my floor!”

“It seems to just be standing there, just breathing.”

“It seems so peaceful.”

“What’s it doing now? No, stay away from me!”

“It’s… it’s…”

“It’s giving you a hug! Ah, isn’t that sweet!”

“Harumph!”

“Maybe, maybe they can change.”

“I sure hope so, for all of our sakes!”

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

It’s the 1860s. The East India Company is facing an epidemic of malaria in India. They recruit their former smuggler, Merrick Tremayne, to go to Peru to try to get some cuttings of cinchona trees, from which quinine, one of the only medicines effective against malaria, is derived. To protect their economy and monopoly on quinine, local Peruvian bosses pretty much shoot anyone who tries to take these cuttings. So, Merrick has a daunting task ahead of him, never mind the bum leg he got during a shelling on a previous mission to China.

It turns out the Merrick has a long, if to him unknown, history with New Bethlehem, or Bedlam as it is called, a town near the cinchona forests. Better said, his father and grandfather had a history with Bedlam. As Merrick makes his way to Bedlam, accompanied by Clem Markham, an archeologist, and his wife Minna, he learns a lot about not only Bedlam and its strange inhabitants but also his own connection to the place.

He meets Raphael, a priest, who has a mysterious connection with his grandfather. Raphael is prone to sometimes long bouts of catalepsy, in which he enters essentially a catatonic state. What this means for Merrick and his mission, Merrick must find out.

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley is an interesting story. The plot is pretty straight forward — Merrick and Clem must get to Bedlam and get some cuttings of cinchona trees and get them back to India — however, the real wonder comes from the world that Pulley creates. The people of Bedlam have ancient connections to the Inca that once lived there. These connections still inform their lives, particularly Raphael’s. An enigmatic character, we learn the truth about his connections to the Inca as the plot moves along. Pulley has created an interesting world in which the mysterious coexists with the modern, a place where the unknown can still fascinate science-minded characters such as Merrick. Sometimes, Clem and Merrick’s scientific bent blinds them to the reality that is right in front of them. Merrick, in narrating his adventure, describes his skepticism: “More things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy — except there aren’t.”

Some of my other favorite quotes from the book include:

  • Getting annoyed about it was like blaming a butterfly for not being able to spin a web.
  • It would be like burning rupees if you never intended to go to India again and didn’t know anyone else who would.
  • Clem thought that marriage was something that happened naturally to a person, like starting to like olives.
  • In his observations of the people of Bedlam, Merrick says: There must have been minds just like Sing’s [his employer], people who could have been flint-hearted trader millionaires, but would never make a difference to anything because they were too occupied weaving the idiotic read boats.
  • It’s hard to trust a man in his thirties who still loses his temper.

Recursion by Blake Crouch

Ack! Been too long since I read this and I don’t remember the details. This is basically a time travel story, but with memories being the vehicle of time travel. What if you could relive the moment of memories and change their course? That is the premise of Blake Crouch’s Recursion. The title refers to the way that time lines can keep changing as memories change.

The protagonist, Barry Sutton, has a NYPD detective who has hit a rough patch. His daughter was killed in a hit-and-run and his marriage falls apart in the aftermath. Barry has certainly seen better days. But, what if he could go back and save his daughter? How would things have changed?

The power to go back and change events is the underlying sub context. What happens to the people that develop this power? How do they use it to further their own ends?

There are some interesting plot devices that Crouch uses to both add suspense as well as wrinkles to the plot. The way time travel is used here is, to me, pretty novel. Not that I’ve read a lot of time travel stories, but as opposed to say the Back to the Future view where you directly change your future by meddling in your past, or the Marvel view in which going back splits the time line into two, Crouch takes an alternative view in which, in some ways, events overlap.

As with Dark Matter, Crouch has a way of taking interesting scientific concepts and develop a compelling plot around the idea. The idea is the core, but the plot and characters flesh it out to make it a compelling story.

At its heart, Recursion is a story about loss. Crouch explores themes of loss, what if, and second chances. At his low, Barry is wallowing in his loss, his lost chances, his what ifs. “He has wondered lately if that’s all living really is — one long goodbye to those we love.”

The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

The City of Brass, by S. A. Chakraborty, is the first installment in the Daevabad Trilogy. It follows Nahri, a young woman with a secret even she doesn’t know, and Dara, a Daeva (or djinn, though this is viewed as an insult to the Daeva). Dara has his own dark past from when he lived with his own kind, before he was banished. Nahri meets Dara after meddling in some magic that was beyond her understanding and, as a consequence, gets tangled up in centuries-old intrigue between the Daeva and other supernatural beings.

The city of brass in the title is Daevabad, where Dara originally comes from and where he and his kind once ruled. It is now ruled over by a different caste of djinn, ones that Dara views as inferior. Dara is a throwback to a previous time of warriors and blood-thirsty war. Whether he finds a place for himself in the modern Daevabad is always a question.

Nahri, on the other hand, because of her secret, is of great interest to the current rulers of Daevabad. They alternately welcome her and treat her as a prisoner, unsure if she is a threat or the key to bringing peace. The political intrigue between all of these supernatural beings is really well developed, with the reader never quite sure who has the upper hand or who is in control of events. They are in many ways, despite their immense power, more petty and more frivolous than humans. They are more capricious, and have a very rigid view of place. It is an interesting, if somewhat distorted, reflection of our own world and the way we all treat one another.

The third main character is Ali, the son of the current ruler of Daevabad. He isn’t sure he wants to be part of the royal family. A strict religious fellow, he looks askance at the wayward ways of his older brother and heir to the throne. He is torn by his duty and his beliefs. And, ultimately, he gets tangled with Nahri and Dara.

My favorite line in this novel comes when Nahri’s mentor is discussing the political turmoil rising out of Nahri’s presence in Daevabad. The other woman, Ghassan, asks her:

“In what world do men and women pay the same price for passion?”

Vicious by V. E. Schwab

Vicious, by V.E. Schwab, is another super hero book, another world where people are able to obtain super powers. They aren’t born with them, and the manner in which they get their powers, and what those powers are, is pretty unique. The book centers around Eli and Victor, two college roommates who figure out how people get powers and find a way to get themselves powers. But, their collaboration soon falls apart and they become bitter enemies.

One thing I really liked about Vicious is that there are no heroes. There are no good guys. There aren’t any really evil people either, just regular people suddenly with super powers and their own selfish and egotistical motivations for using them. Eli and Victor are opposite sides of the same coin, both believing in the righteousness of their cause. There is no super villain wishing to control the world. These characters can be petty, they certainly are vindictive, and they can be vicious.

The world Schwab has created leads to an interesting set of super powers, some of which are pretty different compared to other super hero worlds. These characters don’t fit the typical super hero tropes. Their powers are different and their motivations are different.

This is the first book in the Villains series. I enjoyed it enough to come back for book 2.

My favorite line from the book occurs during an encounter between Victor and Eli. Victor has Eli on the ropes, calling him out for his, in Victor’s mind, misguided mission. Eli argues that Victor simply doesn’t understand, to which Victor replies

“When no one understands, that’s usually a good sign that you’re wrong.”