On a Summer's Day
The August sky hung cloudless, and the sun blazed high above the cliffs and wooded hills. The day would turn into a rip-snorting scorcher, I could tell. So could my Appaloosa. Stamping at flies, Thistle stood grazing in the shade of a cottonwood tree at the far end of the pasture. The arrival of noonday had stopped the cool, pine-scented breeze dead in its tracks. Not a blade of grass stirred, and the sunflowers growing among the boulders in the meadow beyond the pasture sat rigid, as if drawn there with crayons.
"C'mon, Kate," I said to myself, "enough lallygagging." I blew a straggle of squirrel-red hair from my eyes and chomped down on what was left of my apple. Wiping my chin on my shirt sleeve, I tossed the core and jumped off the log fence, where I'd been lazing for the past twenty minutes.
As I ambled toward my two-storied white clapboard, something on the nearest hill caught my eyea billow of grey dust, and ahead of the dust, a blue pickup truck barreling like hell's afire down the corkscrew road.
"Moron." I shook my head and kept walking. When I reached the front porch, I plopped down on a step and pulled off one of my boots to shake out the clods. Pulling off the other, I looked up and saw the blue truck, enveloped in dust, roar up and screech to a halt in the driveway.
A lanky cowboy climbed out and strode toward me.
"Beg pardon, ma'am," he drawled, removing his hat. His silver-blond hair glistened with sweat. "Is the mister to home?"
I hoisted myself to my feet. "There is no mister."
"I see. Uh, nice place you got here. Seen your Appaloosy while driving in. Fine piece of horse flesh." He extended his hand. "Name's Eugene Cain. I got a spread over yonder, at the foot of them cliffs."
"Kate Terrell," I said, clasping his palm. "Are you looking for Ben?"
I batted a fly. "My ex."
"Nope. I stopped by to see if whoever lived here owned one of them computer contraptions, and if so, could they do me a favor and look something up." He frowned. "Thing is, miz Terrell, I got a situation on my hands."
"Ever hear of folks who drop in from the future?"
I thought for a moment. "You mean people who travel through time? Time travelers?"
"Bull's eye. Like in The Time Machine, that story by Wells. Lots of ten-dollar words, but when I was a boy, I ate the book up." He hooked his thumbs on his belt. "Time hoppers, I call 'em. They get a kick out of that."
Oh, brother, I thought. "They're causing you problems. Is that what you're saying?"
"It is. My oak tree's chock full of 'em."
I stifled a chuckle. "Why don't you just tell them to scram?"
"They can't scram. It's like they're part of the tree. On top of that, when I try to fish them out, my hands go right through 'em like they're doggone mirages. It's mighty peculiar, but the tree's that way too."
I studied his eyes. "Holy cow. You're serious."
"Fed up is what I am. It's gone on for three days. Every time I turn around, there's another time hopper stuck in that tree. Whenever I look, there's less treeness to it. There's fingers, knees, faces and what-not where bark used to be."
"I'm speechless." I meant it.
"Their contraptions hop right along with 'em, strapped on their wrists." He heaved a sigh. "It goes without saying they wish they'd commenced their hoppin' adventures on a patch of ground where a tree wasn't now. Shame they didn't know it was there."
He dug in his shirt pocket, pulled out a folded paper, and gave it to me.
"What's this?" I opened the paper. Inside was scribbled a web site address:
"Mary told me what to write. She hopped in early this morning. She said it's how to get a hold of the feller who invented the granddaddy of all time hoppin' startin' contraptions. She wants me to get one."
"But how would you use it? You said the tree, like the folks, acts like it's not even there."
"I'll stick my hand in and put the contraption on the ground. Being as how they ain't solid, I doubt they can start it. So I don't hop away too, I'll wrap some twine on the switch and step back when I yank it to turn the thing on."
"Wow, do you think it work? Will it send the folks back and firm up the tree?" What am I saying? I thought. This is nuts.
"Won't hurt to try it."
I gave a hesitant nod toward the door. "Come on inside. The 'puter's in the kitchen." I managed a smile. "Oh, and call me Kate."
"Okey dokey, Kate, and thanks," he said, smiling back. "Folks call me Eugene."
He followed me to the kitchen, and I flipped on the PC. "Grab a chair by the computer, Eugene. Be back in a jif. I'll go make us some lunch."
"That's right kind of you. I am a mite hungry, and living alone like I do, it ain't often I sit down to vittles with folks."
We were soon involved in leftover goulash, ginger ale, and Steven L. Gibbs's Hyper Dimensional Resonator startin' contraption.
An hour passed. I looked at Eugene. "What do you think?"
He leaned back and raked his hands through his hair. "This Gibbs feller lives way out in eastern Nebraska. It would take a month of Sundays to get the fool thing. Heck, you know what, Kate? I'll bet I can make one."
"Yep," said Eugene. He pushed back his chair. "And I'd better get to it."
I walked him to the door. "Much obliged," he said, and gave my hand a good, hefty squeeze. "So long, gal."
"So long, and good luck." I stood in the doorway and watched him make his way down the walk. Then, slamming the screen door behind me, I ran across the porch and snatched up my boots. "Hey, Eugene! Wait for me!"
Donning his cowboy hat, he flashed me a smile and opened the door of his pickup truck. "Well, jump in and let's get."
"I'll follow you in my Jeep," I said, as I bent over and pulled on my boots. "It'll save you having to take me home."
"Truth is, Kate, I'd just as soon you rode with me. There are things I ought to tell you so when you get to my place, you'll know what's what and won't keel over from shock."
I threw back my head and laughed. "Okay, but nothing could shock me now."
He cocked an eyebrow. "You might change your tune when you meet my Aunt Aggie. She's down for a visit from the city. I went and got her last night."
I scooted under the steering wheel and slid across the seat. Eugene climbed in and started the engine. "She means no harm," he said. "Aunt Aggie's just a mite different."
Dust puffed out behind us as we rattled down the bumpy road. "Different?" I said.
"Fancies herself a conjurer." He scratched at his chin. "Matter of fact, she is one. Always hocus-pocusing. Trouble is, she don't do it right." The truck lurched as he shifted gears. "As soon as we clear this hill, you'll see what I mean."
I left my stomach at the top. When we reached the bottom, he pulled off on the shoulder. "See them cows in the pasture yonder?" He squealed the truck to a halt.
I rolled down my window and peered out. "What cows?"
Eugene jumped from the truck and walked to the fence. "Well, if that don't beat all."
"Maybe they're down in a draw."
"There ain't no draw," said Eugene. He walked back and climbed in the truck. "Dadburn it! What'd she go and do now?"
"You think your aunt moved the cows?"
He pulled the truck off the shoulder, and we continued down the road. "Them cows weren't cows," he said. "They were ladies. At least they were till Aunt Aggie changed them."
"I beg your pardon?"
"She didn't mean to." He glanced at me, then looked back at the road. "When she's in her garden, she likes to chant out nature spells. If people mosey by, sometimes they get whammied."
"She turns people into cattle?"
"Yep, if they're wearing leather. Sheep, if they're wearing wool. When it happens, I fetch the critters and haul them to the ranch. Don't know what else to do. Can't seem to make her stop."
"What if someone's wearing both?"
"It ain't a pretty sight."
Tell me I'm not hearing this, I thought, and stared at the dashboard.
Six hills later, we pulled up in front of a sprawling log house encircled by pines, at the foot of a cliff. "This here's my place," said Eugene.
Near the lawn stood a barn, and beyond the barn lay corrals. A herd of palominos, a few Hereford bulls, and a handful of sheep grazed in a pasture close by. "The horses are real," said Eugene, setting the hand brake. "The rams and bulls ain't. Neither are them ewes in that farthest corral."
"Where are the others? You knowthe others." My toes curled in my boots.
"Wish I didn't have to, but I keep 'em in the barn."
Skin crawling, I looked at the house. "Is that your aunt in the doorway?"
"Yep." Eugene climbed from the truck and waited for me to slide out. He chuckled. "Some folks say she's a dead ringer for Andy's Aunt Bea."
"Sure is. She looks very sweet." I jumped down from the truck. "Um, is that a chicken she's holding?"
"Nope." He shut the truck door, then tilted his head and peered at the cliff. "There, Kate. Up yonder's the time hopper tree."
Shielding my eyes, I followed his gaze. "Where? I don't see"
"It's back there a ways. In a bit, we'll head up there."
"Hello!" trilled Aunt Aggie, bustling down the walk. Under her arm jiggled a squawking white rooster.
When the rooster calmed down, Eugene introduced Aunt Aggie and me and let her know we'd found the startin' contraption he'd told her about.
Smiling, she squeezed my hand and looked at Eugene. "What fun! Did you bring it?"
"Nope, but I'm aiming to make one." He tipped his hat. "Now, ladies, excuse me."
"Will it take long?" she asked. "I'm itching to meet the folks in the tree."
"Ain't sure," said Eugene. "Never made one before."
I said, "Can I give you a hand?"
"You bet. But first let me round up the parts." He shifted his gaze to his aunt, who, still toting the rooster, was heading back toward the house. "Aunt Aggie! I danged near forgot. Where's all them cows?"
She whirled around. Eyes wide, she looked at Eugene, then at me.
"Kate knows about your whammies, if that's what you're frettin' about," he said. "I filled her in on the way here. Now, 'fess up. What'd you do with them cows?"
"I'll show you!" She scurried toward us, laughing. Merrily she plopped the rooster on the grass, in front of Eugene. "I know you don't like magic, but"
"Hold on," he said. "What are you fixing to do?"
"Change back the rooster, like I changed back the cows."
"Well, I'll be. You changed back the cows while I was to Kate's? You figured out how?"
"Yes," she said with a giggle, "and it was so easy! All I did was chant the spell backwards."
"Where's the gals now?" said Eugene. "I hope they ain't walking back to the city. It's too doggone hot."
"I told them they should wait for you, but without so much as farewell, half of them made off lickety-split toward the highway. I didn't even get their names. Holly, Ethel, Patty, Maude, and Connie waited and waited, then Patty used the phone and rang her beau, who has one of those new-fangled station wagon whatchmacallits."
"An SUV?" I said. "A van?"
"Yes, a van, that's it. Patty called it 'a rough-looking outfit,' but said it's nice and roomy. Darbo agreed to meet them at the junction and help them find the others, then take all the ladies home."
"Glad that's settled," said Eugene.
I looked at the rooster, who was pecking a beetle. "That's not a chicken?"
"No indeedy." Aunt Aggie leaned over and tickled its comb. "It's a young man."
"Poor feller got whammied," said Eugene. "Seems he had on a feather."
She rubbed her hands. "Shall we get started?"
Eugene chewed his lip. "Okey dokey. I guess."
She cleared her throat, then thrust her arms toward the rooster and wiggled her fingers. "Morfecneh htrof tsac eb secneulfni evitagen lla tel!"
The air churned and darkened.
Eugene and I backed up a few steps.
"Ria eht fo shplys dercas O!" she continued, her voice growing louder. "Htrae eht fo semong..."
We backed up some more.
Sprays of light burst from the rooster and shot up to the magic-darkened sky and exploded in a purple dazzle, and as the dazzle showered down, the air throbbed and crackled and the rooster crowed and glittered and flapped its wings, which turned into arms, and back into wings, and back into arms, and back into wings, and then the rooster vanished in a kaleidoscope of squirming shapes and colors which turned into a man.
The air stilled, and the sky returned to blue.
"There," said Aunt Aggie.
"Holy smokes!" said Eugene.
I couldn't say a word.
The young man sat up, grinned, and spat out a beetle, which staggered away. "Whoa," he said, and looked around. Then he grinned again and fainted.
We carried him into the house and laid him on the couch. "He'll be as good as new in no time," said Aunt Aggie, plucking at his spiky green hair with a feather in it. She tapped him lightly on the chin. "Won't you, dearie?"
"Well," said Eugene, "time's wasting. I need to get busy on that startin' contraption so I can clear them time hoppers out of that tree." He walked to the door.
"Wait," said Aunt Aggie. "Maybe I can get them out."
He turned and stared at her with a befuddled look on his face.
"Eugene," she said quietly, "the tree's not a tree. It's dust motes dancing in the air atop the cliff on a summer's day long ago, and a little girl's daydreamand a poem she murmured as she watched them. The tree isn't real. It's magic. My magic. My very first magic."
I looked at Eugene. His mouth was agape. Finally he said, "Auntie, why didn't you tell me? All these years, I thought it was real."
"Goodness, why would I, as crabby as my magic makes you? You've been on the cliff hundreds of times, checking for storms. The tree was there. Did you ever wonder why its leaves didn't stir, didn't flutter in the breeze?"
"Never noticed they didn't," said Eugene. "They were green in summer and red in autumn. In winter, there weren't none, and sometimes there was snow on the branches. That's all I paid mind to."
"I wished for my tree to turn with the seasons, so it does," she said. "It simply goes poof, and changes." She gave a little sigh. "Years ago, early in June, I spied a bird nest halfway up in the branches. Of course, it wasn't real either. It tickles me when my tree takes after the poem. 'A tree that may in summer wear a nest of robins in her hair...' The poem also mentions snow, Eugene. Isn't it sweet?"
"You know, he said, "it always struck me as peculiar that there's never acorns and leaves scattered around the base. But leaves blow away, and critters eat 'corns, so I never fretted about it."
Aunt Aggie plunked down in an armchair. "Did you ever ask yourself why it doesn't grow or give shade?"
"It's been big ever since I was born," he said. "I never kept track of its size or paid mind to where it stood with the sun."
She brushed a wisp of grey hair from her forehead. "Until those folks hopped in, you'd never tried to touch it. If you had, you'd have known the oak had something to do with me."
Eugene chuckled. "I'd have known, all right. Sure as shootin'. Anyhow, I don't go around touching trees. As for you, miss lady, why didn't you 'fess up when I told you that my hands went through the tree whilst I was trying to pull the folks out? I thought it had to do with them being in it."
"Dearie, what good would it have done if I had? Until I spoke up a moment ago, it didn't dawn on me I might be able to undo the spell. I'm still not sure I can. It's a different kind of magic."
"Darn tootin' it is," he said. "The cows were solid, more real than the treeand so was the rooster. Not to mention the sheep, the bulls and the rest."
Aunt Aggie threw her hands to her face. "The sheep, the bulls and the rest!" She shrugged. "Piffle. I'll change them back later."
"Excuse me," I said, "but I'll bet the cows and rooster were no more real than the tree, and neither are the sheep, the bulls or the rest. Not a bit. Solid, yes, but no more real. The tree's just enchanted dust motes. How solid could it be?"
"Hmm," said Aunt Aggie, "I used a poem, not a genuine spell. Maybe that has something to do with it too." A dreamy look crept over her face. "I love the poem," she said. "I know it by heart. 'I think that I shall never see...'" She winked. "I could even say it backwards if I wanted to."
Eugene walked over and hugged her. He hugged me too. "I hope it works," he said. I thought I saw tears in his eyes.
I filled a jug with ice water while Eugene fueled the truck for our trip up the cliff. The young man had begun to stir, and Aunt Aggie sat on the edge of her chair, watching every wiggle. Before we left, she wrote a note telling him we'd take him home when we got back, and taped it to his shoe.
The truck clanked and sputtered as Eugene coaxed it up the zigzag road at the back of the cliff. Aunt Aggie sat between us. Out my window I saw nothing but sagebrush, horned toads, and sun.
Halfway up, Eugene pulled off on the side of the road and puttered the truck to a stop. "Our ride ends here," he said. "We'll have to hoof it the rest of the way. The engine's hot and is fixin' to croak." He let it idle a bit, then turned it off and pushed down the hand brake. Grabbing the water jug, he climbed out of the truck. Aunt Aggie and I did too.
Watching for snakes, we hiked up the dry, rutted road. When we reached the cliff top, my heart jumped. There, a stone's throw away, amid all the prickly pear cactus and ragweed, stood the tree.
I caught in my breath. The crown spread skyward more than a hundred feet. On the trunk I could see, separated by bark, several hands and faces and what looked like shoes. Nothing protruded; the trunk's outline was smooth. It was as if the folks had been pressed into it, like dolls into clay.
Eugene set the jug by a rock and wiped off his brow. "Well, let's head on over there."
We headed on over there. Aunt Aggie scurried in front of us. "Auntie's got a burr in her britches," said Eugene. "Can't say I blame her none. She has a hankerin' to meet the folks, and I reckon it's been a 'coon's age since she laid eyes on her tree."
Our boots crunched in the dirt as we walked. "She'll miss knowing it's here," I said.
When we reached the tree, Aunt Aggie was standing beside it. She was looking straight ahead, talking to one of the faces. It had blue eyes, and slender cheeks with a few tiny wrinkles.. "...didn't expect it to work," Aunt Aggie was saying. "I was flabbergasted when"
"Howdy, folks. Howdy, Mary," said Eugene. "Beg pardon, Auntie. Didn't mean to butt in."
"It's all right, dearie. I was just telling Mary and her friends how the oak came to be."
Eugene grinned. "Now, ain't that fine you all got acquainted. Folks, this here is Kate."
We exchanged greetings, then Mary said, "Kate, would you mind stepping closer to Aggie? If I turn my head any farther, you'll see just one eye."
I stepped closer, then said, "Can you walk around in there?"
She shook her head sadly. "I'm afraid not. We're like moths in a web. We can move our heads and appendages a little, but that's it." She looked at Aunt Aggie. "Dear, I believe what you told us about the tree, but how could we be trapped in an illusion?"
"It's not an ordinary illusion," said Aunt Aggie. "No indeedy. It's"
"Whammied dust," said Eugene.
"Well," said Mary, "we fully materialize a fraction of a millisecond after we reach our destination. This time none of us did, and we couldn't understand why. Maybe the tree's supernatural properties prevented it. Maybe that's what is keeping us trapped in here too, in the same positions as when we arrived. Oh, did you get in touch with Steven L. Gibbs?"
"Yes, did you locate the resonator?" asked a face with a big chin and thick brown moustache. Other faces asked too. So did unseen folks who were inside the tree.
"Didn't get a hold of the feller," said Eugene, "but Kate and me used her computer and found the contraption. To save mailing off for it and waiting for it to get here, I was planning to have a go at making one. But then Auntie up and said the tree wasn't real." He shoved his hands into his hip pockets. "She's going to try to conjure some magic and whammy the spell to make the tree disappear. To do it, she'll say the poem backwards."
"Wonderful!" said Mary. "Oh, Aggie, you're a darling. We can't wait to go home. In fact, if your magic works, I think we should leave right away. Pressing our luck would be foolish."
"When are you from?" I said. "I mean, where in time do you live? How long did it take to get here? Why did you come?"
"Give or take a few years, we live two hundred years beyond now. Getting here took almost no time at all. We each arrived the second we left, and it will work the same way when we go home. Of course, we can't leave together. If we all left at once, our atoms could mix."
She laughed. "But I digress. We came because we're history buffs, and we like to explore it. Would you believe we use a dart board to pick what time-place to visit?"
Eugene said, "How's come you didn't notice the tree was there when you were looking for a place to take off from? You said the reason you ended up in it here is that you took off right on this spot."
"The tree wasn't there," said Mary.
"Now, just a gol'durned minute," said Eugene. "That don't make sense. Auntie ain't whammied the spell yet. Shucks, we don't know if it'll even work. But waitif the tree wasn't there, the whammy will work. Wait againthe hen lays the egg, not the other way around. It's our end that decides it, and it ain't decided yet. If the whammy don't work, what you didn't see, you saw. But heck, if you saw the tree, you wouldn't be in it. Oh, dang, I give up."
Aunt Aggie said, "Dearie, maybe the reason the folks didn't see my tree is that when I pass away, my magic will too. Of course, I don't know that it will, but it could."
Eugene bit his lip and looked at the ground. "Let's not talk about it no more."
"Yes, enough," said Mary. "It's time to bring out the magic!"
From the tree, voices murmured excitedly. One called, "Beam us up, Scotty!" and others laughed with glee.
"Are you ready, Auntie?" said Eugene.
"I think so," she said, with a hint of a sigh. "Maybe it would be best if I sat alone over there, as I did all those years ago." After saying goodbye to Mary and the others, she walked to a spot near some rocks about thirty feet away.
Eugene said, "Well, Mary, if things go right, it looks like this is adios."
She smiled. "Let's keep our fingers crossed. Thank you for everything, Eugene. Take care, now. You too, Kate."
"Thanks, Mary," I said. "Meeting you was really something. I'm glad I did."
Eugene leaned forward and whispered to Mary, but I didn't hear what. We wished everyone a good journey home, and walked back to where he'd set the water jug. "I wonder if Aunt Aggie's started yet," I said.
"Don't know," said Eugene, "but the tree's the same. Hold onlook at that branch."
On one of the uppermost boughs, the leaves had turned a bright autumn red. "She has, and it's working!" I said. "Why else would the leaves"
Poof! In the blink of an eye, they turned back to green.
A minute crawled by. Eugene shook his head. "Reckon that's it, Kate. The tree ain't gone, and the folks are still in it. But bless her heart anyhow."
Poof! All the leaves on the tree were now red. Poof! The branches lay bare. Poof! Some were laden with magical snow. Poof! Buds had appeared. Poof! The buds were green leaves. Over and over, and faster and faster, the cycle repeated. Poof, poof, poof, poof, poof... Soon the tree was a blur.
"Holy cow, Eugene, what's happening?"
"Looks like the tree's winding down, flipping back through the years."
Poof! The tree vanished.
Goose bumps popped up on my arms. "It worked!"
"Hot dog! It sure enough did."
A handful of folks decked in western attire stood where the tree used to be. "They'd have fit in right fine," he said. "Heck, some's even got hats."
One after another, the folks touched their wrists, and in a series of flashes, they all disappeared.
"Wahoo!" said Eugene, with a big smile on his face.
"What a relief!" I said, laughing.
His smile faded. "You know, Kate, I feel awful bad about her losing the oak, but undoing the spell was the surest way to get the folks free."
I touched his arm. "It may have been the only way. Mary suspected they couldn't turn solid because of the tree. I have a hunch that since they weren't solid, the resonator wouldn't have worked."
We walked to where Aunt Aggie was sitting. Her head was bowed, and her hands were covering her eyes.
Eugene squatted down beside her and laid his hand on her shoulder. "You all right?" he said.
She peeked at us through her fingers. "Did it work?"
"It did," he said softly.
She took her hands from her eyes and stared at the spot where the tree had once stood. "I was afraid to look. My first try failedI think because I wasn't wishing enough."
Eugene stood up and helped her to her feet. "So that's why that one branch was fooling around and then nothing happened for a bit."
"Yes, and I was worried I'd fail the second time too. Are the folks around somewhere, or did they go right on home?"
I smiled at her. "They took off for home. From what Mary told us, they're already there."
She clapped her hands. "Hurrah!" All at once tears sprang from her eyes and slid down her cheeks. Quickly she brushed them away. "Fiddlesticks, here I am acting like a ninny over a silly old make-believe tree."
Eugene took a hold of her hand. "It was a mighty fine tree, Auntie. When you made it, you done yourself proud. Are you ready to conjure a new one? I put a bug in Mary's ear that you might want to put it where the other one stood."
She blinked. "Conjure a new one?"
"I figured you'd want to."
"When you're ready, Kate and me will go wait over there. As soon as you're through, I reckon we'd best head on back. I'm sure that young chicken feller wants to get home."
"Oh, the young man! I'll change back the sheep, the bulls and the rest, and we can take them home too. The tree can wait. Let's tend to them first."
"It'll be late when we're done," said Eugene. "How's about you conjuring the tree in the morning? Kate could stay the night with us and we could get back here before it's too hot. Sound good?"
Aunt Aggie squeezed my hand. "Will you stay, Kate? Oh, please say you will."
I gave her a hug. "I'd love to! I wouldn't want to miss seeing your new magical tree."
As we walked down the road to the truck, shadows were beginning to deepen. Soon night would fall, and in a few hours, the new day would creep in. Over my shoulder I could see the cliff top poised against the skyline, waiting.
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM