The Whole Picture, by Ray Dean
“End of the line!” The train car shuddered a bit as it slowed and Simon grabbed the armrests of his chair and waited for the faint bump. Others in the adjoining car had already gained their feet and were headed for the stairs when the train connected to the brace at the end of the track. A young man nearly toppled from the doorway as an elegantly dressed man was forced back into his seat with the abrupt motion. A rather large gentleman, with his kerchief pressed against his sweltering brow barely registered the movement of the car and was the first to step outside into the heat of an Arizona afternoon.
The porter assigned to his private car stepped up beside him and offered an arm. “Mr. Desislav, may I be of some assistance?”
The offer rankled.
The locomotive was one of the best money could buy, the newest technology, some of it in part to his own ‘genius,’ had swayed the car almost effortlessly over the heavy rails. Having remained stationary for the majority of the voyage had allowed his muscles to set in place and now that he was finally at his destination and he needed to disembark.
Warding off the man’s assistance with a curt shake of his head, Simon grasped the ornately carved arms of his chair and stood, one aching inch at a time. His army escort met him at the door of his car and, as was his custom, stood in an overly-erect stance that befitted his assignment.
“If I give you my valise and portfolio, Captain Moser, will that be sufficient to keep your hands to yourself?”
As usual, the soldier’s eyes revealed nothing of his thoughts. “Sir, yes, sir.”
Simon’s sigh of relief was cut short by a cough. The sudden cessation of movement brought the captain to his side.
Rather than address the younger man’s mistake, Simon thrust his bags into the man’s arms and made his way down the steps onto the platform.
The nearest edge was empty of any travelers, they had both time and the inclination to move away. Simon’s escort had arrived before the train and were waiting patiently for him to join them. “Captain Moser, our horses?”
“Unloaded and ready for travel, sir.”
“Good, bring them along after you’ve secured my things.” He didn’t wait for an affirmative answer. Captain Moser was a man used to taking orders and carrying them out. In the few months that he’d been under the captain’s watchful eye, he’d never once had to repeat a request.
When he stepped up to the edge of the platform, he was greeted with a few familiar faces, so familiar, that he felt some glimmer of hope rise up above the gorge in his throat. Narrowing his clouding eyes at the center of the group he found enough facial features to bring a name to the tip of his tongue. “Two Feathers. I am glad you were able to come.”
The horse at the center stepped forward, seemingly without any prompting from his rider. The man sitting elegantly on his mount’s back leaned forward to peer at Simon, copying his own curious posture. “I have come, but I am confused, Simon.” There was a twinge of laughter in his voice. “It seemed to me that we have lost nearly two years since we last met, but you…” he looked down one side of his escort and then the other, “have lost more time than we.” Leaning forward again he narrowed his eyes. This time it was not in a friendly mocking tone, instead, he found the changes in his friend disturbing. “What has happened to you, old friend?”
Simon nearly barked out a laugh. Two feathers had called him ‘old friend’ and he knew that to those seeing him again, it must have been a shock for the ‘old’ now carried a more pointed meaning. Reaching up, Simon drew his fingers over his beard and held the ends between his fingers. “You have seen me in my better days, old friend. I have changed much since our first meeting and you have not at all. Perhaps,” he looked up at the sun. Squinting as its heavy rays felt heavy against his flesh, “we might journey to your village and speak of it there.”
Two Feathers nodded. “The sun seems to weigh heavily on you more than ever. Come,” he gestured to his son who led the column of horses, “there may be another trail worth exploring”. While Captain Moser helped Simon into his own saddle, Two feathers glanced down at the other end of the railroad platform and held up his hand in greeting. An elegantly dressed older couple standing on the far edge with ramrod straight postures in spite of their wrinkled garments, moved toward the steps with startling speed and disappeared into the gathered crowd of fearful onlookers.
Simon saw the sardonic twist to the other man’s smile and shook his head. He did not need the sharper eyes of his youth to see such an expression, it was one he’d worn many times. Certain things would be hard to change, especially the deep-seated prejudices of others.
# # #
As they travelled, Simon did his best to explain his altered appearance and tried to ignore the number of times that he dozed off only to be awakened by a gentle nudge from Captain Moser. “As I was saying,” he tried to gather his thoughts, “we’ve already lost two of the men in my laboratory. Jack Compton and Ford Hoffman had planned to come with me, but Jack was buried over a week before I boarded the train and Ford,” Simon rasped out a cough behind his hand, “will be dead before I return.”
Two Feathers was more than curious. “You believe it is the rock that has caused your illness.”
“There is nothing else that we share in common.” Simon fought down the lump in his throat. “There are others, men that work with us, but in a limited capacity.” He looked over at the Captain, wondering if he was close to crossing the line of secrecy that the government felt was important. The younger man continued to ride on beside him, his gaze focused ahead. Simon continued. “We followed the instructions you gave me from those rock paintings, but you,” he felt bitterness twist in his throat, “you show no ill effects.” At the answering silence, Simon’s curiosity became suspicion. Remembering his visit to the village he wondered aloud. “You don’t use it as fuel?”
“Too much power for what we need.” Two Feathers lifted his hand, bringing his son to his side. Uttering a soft command to the younger man, he watched as rider and horse sprang forward from the group to scout ahead. “You were the one that wanted the rock that burned. We only gave you what you asked for.”
Simon’s flare of anger lapsed into a moody silence that the chief filled with his own curiosity.
“I wonder, ” the chief addressed him without turning to see his companion , “I have heard of your airships, but have yet to see one,” he swept his hand across the heavens in a smooth arc, “in our sky.” His voice was tinged with what seemed to pass for humor. “Perhaps it is nothing more than a story.”
“An entrepreneur tried to start a line of service to the west,” Simon began and wondered how much truth he should reveal to chief… And decided with it all, “once someone speculated about the reach of native arrows, the interest in such voyages waned.” It sounded thin and strange to his own ears and imagined what it sounded like to Two Feathers.
The chief did something wholly unexpected, he laughed. “No matter how much your people believe in this ‘science’ they also have little grasp of the truth.”
Simon couldn’t argue the logic. Reining his horse to a slow stop he squinted at the surrounding scenery. “Why did you bring me back here?”
Two Feathers slid from the back of his horse and waited for Simon to do the same. Captain Moser took the reins of Simon’s horse and guided him to the humble shade of what might pass for a tree.
Simon sat down on a camp stool and whisked out his kerchief to blot at the rivulets of sweat forming at his hairline. “I’m waiting to see the necessity of this journey.” He heard the bitter slice of his words but couldn’t seem to soften them, nor did he really want to. He waved a free hand at the wall behind Two Feathers. “I’ve seen these drawings the last time.”
Simon was a man used to action. He turned to Captain Moser, who hovered nearby with an expectant look on his sweat-beaded face. “You’ll have to forgive the chief, Captain. He enjoys twisting his words along with my patience. I think he enjoys seeing the veins on my forehead ebb and flow like the rivers that run through his land. I think he enjoys making me wait.”
The captain played his hand for all to see, turning to look at the chief with fear openly pulling at his features. It was a weakness and Simon couldn’t help the sour curl of his own lips.
A couple of grumbled statements cut through to his ears and he tried not to glare. Two Feathers’ son was not a man to suffer what he considered ‘insult’ and if truth be told, Simon had given him ample cause.
Two Feathers had reached his own limit. Hospitality had been given and not returned. “What is it you want of me? You came wanting to know if the legend was real. You took the rock you wanted so that your scientists could create your beasts of iron, your floating airships, your underwater boats. You took it and now… what more do you need of our lands or our history?”
Touching his face with his fingers, feeling the leathery wrinkles etched into his skin, even with the numbness invading his hands. He felt every inch a man of advanced age and weakening body, even though he was barely fifty five. He heard the subtle accusation in Two Feathers’ voice and knew he deserved them. “I came, and when you showed me the paintings… the cave where ancient souls had left their instructions… and I took what you said and left. I thought I knew what I was doing.” He saw the change in his friends eyes. The lessening of the dark judgement and the softness of something akin to respect dawning once again. “But there’s more, isn’t there? Things I didn’t see.”
It took a long moment, but Two Feathers lowered his chin in a dignified nod. With his left hand he gestured to the other side of the cave. When he had visited the cave on his last visit the sun had obscured the other wall in dark shadows. Now, in the other half of the day, the far was was nearly illuminated by the sun.
Unlike the first wall where they’d deciphered the drawings into instructions for distilling the minerals into a usable compound, the figures easily decipherable as that of humans , these images were taller, darker, and harder to distinguish.
“The Ancient Ones,” Two Feathers began, “they were the teachers of my people. They gave us knowledge of this land they had created.”
The figures were fascinating to Simon and he crossed the cave to study the long, hunch-shouldered bodies with no discernable feet beneath them. A host of figures spread across the flat surface of the wall, grouping together as the flat surface narrowed beneath a rough patch of limestone.
Bright sunlight flared along the limestone features and Simon’s eyes suffered the longer he tried to look at the images. A hand on his arm, turned his gaze away into the merciful shade. Two Feathers pointed at a cluster of images. “A cleansing.” When he was sure that Simon was focused he continued. “A part of our own culture. We use this cleansing for body and spirit. Perhaps,” his smile was a soft ghost on his lips, “you require both.” He gestured back to the horses. “Come, we have one more ride.”
# # #
The fire blazing nearby seemed to dry his flesh like jerky, but Simon could no more walk to save himself from the heat than he could look away from the flames. Two Feathers’ son began to transfer stones from the heart of the fire into a corner of the nearby mud-covered structure. Simon stood watching the process with rapt attention, barely aware of the voices he was surrounded with. His body had suffered much, the last few months had been the worst for him as he’d realized how quickly he was losing his health and soon his hope.
With his youngest holding the blanket away from the entrance, Two Feathers shed his clothing and crawled into the rounded hut. Other elders followed until there were only four left. With a gesture Captain Moser was invited to follow, but the younger man shook his head and backed away, pulling his coat tightly around his body. His eyes were curious but fear was the darkest emotion staring back at them.
Simon shook slightly, but it was hardly cold that affected him now. Reaching for his coat, he slipped the brass buttons free and laid the garment on a patch of grass. The rest of his garments followed suit and when he finished he met another man’s eyes with no shame or fear. He found, in another man’s eyes something he had in short supply, hope. He preceded the brave into the hut fighting down any last remnant of fear.
The only thing he could see within was the glow of rocks from the fire, a dull red warming the darkness as he settled on the floor, his hands and bare backside soaking up the chill from the ground beneath him. The heat rising from the glowing rocks pulled sweat from his pores, but there was a strange tightness in the air that promised more.
A voice from the darkness began to chant and beside him, Two Feathers’ steady voice gave the words meaning in Simon’s ears, a mix of legend and guidance for both body and spirit. Simon shifted uneasily where he sat, a tightness growing in his chest. He felt his skin flare with heat as if it had caught on fire, but when he opened his mouth to ask for relief no voice passed his lips.
The dark hut had gone silent and from that emptiness it came. A crash of sound as water poured over the rocks. He smelled pinon and pine in the air, felt the wash of steam as it buffeted him like a rush of water, filling his mouth and nose where air had failed to penetrate. It was the last thing he remembered.
# # #
Simon awoke as the train lurched forward. Looking about, he realized he was back in his private car. Turning in his chair he caught at the arms to keep himself from falling to the floor. Seated in his customary chair, Captain Moser avoided his eyes, keeping his gaze on the barren landscape slowly crawling by.
The man’s dismissive posture riled Simon and he stood to take the officer to task, but he found no words once he was on his feet. The mirror attached to the forward wall, pristine in its gilt frame, showed him an unexpected sight.
The man staring back at him was a man years younger than the man that had arrived at the station. He felt new vigor in his limbs, new vitality building within his body. He had not regained all of what he had lost, but there was more a man needed than youth. He was returning home with a new outlook on his ambitions and a new perspective on science.
As the train rolled down the tracks toward his laboratory and his future, the gilt mirror added a new focus to the whole picture.
Ray Dean was born and raised in Hawaii where she spent many a quiet hour reading and writing stories. Performing in theater and working backstage lead her into the delights of Living History, creating her own worlds through writing seemed the next logical step. Historical settings are her first love, but there is something heady about twisting the threads of time into little knots and creating new timelines to explore. There are endless possibilities that she is just beginning to discover. Her Website: My Ethereality www.raydean.net; Her Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RayDeanAuthor She also contributes to this blog twice a month: www.ageofsteam.wordpress.com .
Posted on October 9, 2014, in Issue 15: Elves & Spacerockets and tagged alternate history, e-zine, fantasy, genre blender, legends, legends of the new, magical realism, myths, native american, native american myths, new legends, short stories, The Were-Traveler. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.