FP470 – Beneath: a Thomas Blackhall Chronicle, Part 1 of 2
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and seventy.
Tonight we present Beneath: a Thomas Blackhall Chronicle, Part 1 of 2
This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Weekly Podioplex!
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight we visit with old friends, both human and otherwise.
Beneath: a Thomas Blackhall Chronicle, Part 1 of 2
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
It’d been two years since Thomas Blackhall had worn a pair of snowshoes. Not coincidentally, it had also been two years since he’d departed the frontier of the Canadian north and set up a house whose study window overlooked the Lethe, and whose grounds received only enough snow each year to remind him to tell his child some tale of his wilder days.
These indications of time’s passage were important to Thomas largely because he had so little of it left.
Blackhall’s lungs were burning, his back slick with sweat beneath the thick black beaver coat he wore, and yet the great rackets upon his feet continued their rise and fall, and the smile upon his face refused to give out.
He missed the solitude, the sense of focus, the clarity of the dangers at hand. His days and nights were now filled with planning, politics, and grasping what few moments he still had with his Mairi. Yet, though it might be argued he was losing time to his slow progress even now, all of these things fell away to the simple and immediate necessities of surviving in the wilderness: Raise your left foot, put it down. Now do the same with your right. Ignore that rising pain in your calves, as you’ll only lose heat pausing to rest – and is that a wolf shadowing your progress some twenty yards to the rear?
The cabin, when he finally came to it, was of the simplest log construction. The roof was tall, but only because such had been necessitated by its lack of chimney.
There was but a single hole, high above, through which the smoke of the fire within rose.
It wasn’t that his host had no concept of grandeur, it was that she did not care for the rough constructions of men: The valley no doubt pleased her aesthetics, but the lodgings, fit for his frail human form, had likely been – to her mind – the equivalent of equipping a natural palace with an outhouse. Necessary for her guest, perhaps, but not worth dwelling upon.
As Thomas tromped down the valley’s slope his question regarding a possible companion was finally answered. A wolf, the coat along her spine a steely gray but her belly as white as the snow through which she trotted, made herself known by taking a seated position upon his tracks and issuing a single low howl that rolled across the vale.
A brace of fishers shuffled from beneath low-slung pine branches and burrows within the powder. Blackhall counted twenty among the honour guard as he approached, and, though the four legged beasts might have been manageable by boot alone if taken one at a time – and if his boots were perhaps not strapped into the caribou leather and ash pine platforms that currently kept him afloat – he knew there was little he could have done against twenty of the gnawing beasts, especially without a rifle or even the saber he once wore at his side.
Within the shack he found two blankets laid out by the fire, and upon the furthest, hunkered low on her haunches and watching the door through the flames, sat the Lady of the Woods.
“Welcome,” she said, her words delivered through fangs still decorated with the red remains of the mourning dove whose bones and feathers sat neatly collected to her left. “You are late.”
Blackhall smiled. “Yes, I’ve gotten slow in my time away, and as it happens they’ve yet to run a train this far north.”
“Oh,” she answered, “let them try. Your fellow perambulating picnics will learn the folly of sullying my view if they attempt to lay down one of their metal ribbons and drive a smoking behemoth into my domain.”
“You speak as if you’ve considered the subject before, and yet I thought you’d retreated to a quiet life of reflection?”
“Yes, and I have reflected on how much fuller I would be, and how better fertilized my grasses would find themselves, were I to encounter a team of axe-wielders and pick-swingers within the shade of my pines.”
Thomas, still grinning, slipped off the beaver coat and laid it out opposite the former dove to dry, then he lowered himself to the waiting quilt.
From beyond the breach in the roof a parade of black-eyed raccoons soon followed, peering briefly into the hole, then delivering a thick, well-chewed tree limb onto the fire below. The impacts sent sparks dancing, and, though the timber had been stripped of the snow under which it’d rested, the smoke increased briefly as the outermost layer of frost was sent into sizzling fits at the flame’s heat.
“Do you hunger?” asked the Queen of the Northlands, but Blackhall gave a polite shake of his head. Though he had eaten wild game for the vast majority of his time stomping across Upper and Lower Canada, it still unnerved him to watch his friend summon meat to her table in order to be sacrificed. The apparent joy with which most of the victims – be they quail, buck, or salmon – offered themselves up only further upset his appetite.
“No,” he answered, “though I would not, admittedly, turn away a hot beverage with which to fight back the cold. I had forgotten the taste of jerky, and the salt I’ve consumed since stepping from the comfort of my study, and Mairi’s company, will likely carry me through till I return across the border.”
Sour Thistle snorted once, and he thought it likely that she smelled the lie on his words, but was too gracious a host to say otherwise.
“So to the matter at hand then?”
“- and you insist on carrying out your mad plan?”
“What other option do I have?”
“Cut your losses.”
“Cut my losses? Do you not see that my losses are everything? I’ve damned a planet to death.”
The smoke settled and the flame grew. A row of squirrels, nimble despite their winter coats, came streaming through the rooftop hole and along the ceiling in a display of natural acrobatics. At the lead was a gray-furred beast with a small tin cup hanging from one cocked arm, and the half dozen who followed each carried a ball of snow as they scaled the knots and moss-filled gaps. Setting the dishware at the fire’s edge, the head of the parade stopped to watch its followers place their collected flakes within. Once complete the apparent leader chattered twice and the posse scattered.
Even as the frizz-haired cooks clambered again onto the ceiling, the tumult gathering in the trees reached Blackhall’s ears.
“You must look at the greater whole,” said Sour Thistle, and Thomas was not quite sure if it was meant as rejoinder to their conversation or simply a delay as the next step of her hospitality was implemented.
A single crow touched down, negotiating the hole and the flame’s heat with a sloping angle of approach and tight wing control that Blackhall’s history as a huntsman could not help but note with an approving eye – if only because he was not currently attempting to eat the newcomer.
The bird placed a single twig of pine in the cup, then it took to the air, two cracking strokes carrying it into the wind above the shack. A second avian of equal skill set down, dispensing another twig, and then another and another.
As Blackhall’s cup of pine tea came to a boil he considered his words.
“I find it funny that you, above all, are counseling peace.”
Though her friend smiled through his delivery, Sour Thistle’s eyes narrowed as she replied.
“I kill, yes, but I do it out of need. The need of my kingdom, or simply the need for food.”
“Technically I’m not killing anyone.”
“No, you set your sights on a greater crime: Politics.”
He took a long sip, his mug lingering on his lips.
Finally he set it in his lap, holding it with both palms, and said “let me tell you a story.”
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Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.
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