by Louis Shalako
Blanchard slept all afternoon and spent the evening preparing his gear. He left town in his old blue pickup in the wee hours of the morning, when most other people were asleep.
He mentally rehearsed what he had to do in order to avoid spooking the subjects. By prior arrangement with a gentleman named Stan Fuller, a farmer near the village of Rosedale, all he had to do was pull up the lane and park by the barn. Fuller had a regular quad-runner trail going back into the sugar-bush, although Blanchard was on foot. Fuller had a small creek crossing his land and the cataract plunged over a dozen ledges of various heights. At low water the flat ledges along the right bank should be mostly exposed. Blanchard had been all up and down this valley and this was one of his favorite spots. He’d known about it forever.
Over the hills and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.
It was a full moon and the faint trail along Fuller’s side-creek would hopefully be visible. In amongst the trees it would be all dry leaves and dead twigs. He’d make a lot of noise. The night was warm and foggy in the valleys, which tended to muffle sound, but he would be making his way into a slightly gusting breeze. Walking with care, it might mask the sounds of his approach. Anything he had that could rattle, accidentally beep, or clunk was wrapped in cotton rags, bagged separately, or safely stowed in pockets and pouches.
The subjects knew what vehicles and roads and buildings were, and could probably track him by sound alone.
He closed the truck door in a natural fashion as Fuller’s dogs barked inside of the house. Sound travelled for miles, at night, out in the country. A shape appeared at a lit window, the curtains parted and a portion of Fuller’s face appeared in silhouette. He sure was up late. Blanchard waved awkwardly in the rancid yellow glare of the light over the pole barn’s side door and Fuller went away again. As agreed, he didn’t come outside. He just wanted to reassure himself who it was. Blanchard dragged his heavy bag from the passenger side floor and left the keys in the ignition rather than lose them in the woods. The left strap of the pack-sack snagged on his watch and then the weight settled on him.
Three-quarter inch granular limestone grated underfoot. He used a pocket flash to pick his way through tractors, abandoned implements rusting in the long grass, and a couple of good used cars, according to Stan. The thought brought a small grin. Behind the barn it was much darker.
He paused and adjusted the straps of the knapsack, settling it properly on shoulders and across his upper hips. The knees felt good. He had toilet paper with him, but didn’t think he’d need it. He had plenty of water and juice. He blinked in the darkness, listening. A dog down the road barked a while, and then settled down again. Darting, fluttering black shapes in the glare of the moon revealed that the night was still warm enough for bats. The woods dripped, and trickled, and snapped a little, the anonymous noises of the night coming from here and there, nearby and far away.
He was used to it by now. He was more predator than prey. Still, there was an odd flutter in his guts.
Blanchard looked at his watch. The moon was up and it was three-seventeen a.m. The well of silence all around was gone again as the crickets decided collectively that he was all right. Somewhere off in the eastern blackness an owl screeched, raising the hair on the back of his neck momentarily. It was an eerie sound and the sort of thing that had originally attracted him here in the first place. That and the waterfalls, their sound muffled to just a background hiss with a couple of intervening ridges in the way. He’d spent half his life taking pictures of animals, but this was different. He’d always wanted to buy this land. Stan didn’t know that and Blanchard would never tell him. In some strange way, it was his refuge—a home away from home.
His heart settled down. The key thing was to take his time and avoid tripping hazards. Blanchard’s mind dropped into gear. He could see well enough now. The way in was a good two and a half kilometres. If he saw nothing or otherwise blew it, there were other photographs he could take in the area. Sunrise was always good in this kind of terrain.
Its remoteness was what saved it from commercialization, that and the fact that the valley was so small. It was tucked away in the back of beyond, just one small tributary in a much larger river system. It was a rural part of the county where the really big hills took over and brooding dark firs cloaked the hillsides along the highway, the monotony broken only by crossroads, or the occasional peeling billboards advertising this or that fishing-camp.
He would never know how good of a job he was doing, unless he saw something.
As a boy, when he read about wild Indians and woodsmen stalking through the forest as silent as wraiths, he had always taken it for granted that the author knew what he was talking about.
It wasn’t so easy, but the centre of the trail was clear and he had learned to walk by now, a curious rolling off the toes and heels that was pretty quiet in the damp forest after three full days of soaking rain. His clothing rubbed against itself, making small noises, but hopefully the sound was lost in the bigger picture as there wasn’t much he could do about it. It was the pack and the jacket mostly.
Having found his perch, previously scouted and mapped, marked in red pencil on a bigger topographical sheet of the area, he pushed four steel rods into the ground and erected his blind. The collapsible chair had been selected for light weight but with an eye to quietness as well. The tripod was in its own soft bag, and he took care not to let the legs clank together as he set it up.
Blanchard screwed his camera into place. Marvelling at his own efficiency, he hadn’t even used a light yet. The moon was almost due south, high in the sky over his right shoulder, and sunrise in late June came early. He was surprised how well he could see, as he ever so slowly zipped up the fabric. He had an old juice can in the corner and the fly sheet closed over his head. There was just room enough to kneel if he had to relieve himself and it was light enough inside to move around a bit in there.
With the beeper turned off and the camera warmed up, Blanchard settled in for a wait, savouring the tang of cedar in the air, watching the ford and the only really sandy beach along this stretch of the Sapphire River. He listened to the crows and the blue-jays. There were a half a dozen or so species of bird identifiable by their calls, notably the robins and their cheerful morning song. Not even a squirrel moved about. There was only the sighing of the breeze in the tops of the trees and the sound of rushing water.
There was a glimmer of that indescribable creamy, golden incandescence along the eastern horizon and the world was waking up. The crowing of a rooster back at Stan’s place was faintly heard off behind him and there was a solitary tractor making its way along the highway which suddenly changed pitch and then faded away somewhere beyond the northern ridges.
It was them. At first, he didn’t believe it. He didn’t even comprehend what he was looking at.
Heart in his throat, he put his eye up to the viewfinder and focused carefully. He pulled in on the telephoto lens and gently panned the tripod to centralize the largest group for study.
They leapt into focus. He’d only glimpsed them twice before, although he had found their footprints on a few occasions.
Well, well, well. What have we here?
The white faces, the unaffected walk of youth, the big, dark almond eyes, the pale, attenuated, well-formed limbs, their manes of long and uncombed hair hanging down their backs, all combined to give them an air of otherworldliness. Their shapeless, off-white linen shifts, bare feet and general lassitude set them apart from any other race and he wondered how they had gotten here, how they remained yet undiscovered, even in this forgotten part of the state. There were twelve or fourteen of them, but he didn’t have much time to count.
He watched as they came down out of the gorge just downstream. There were trails on both sides of the river, and more side-creeks along each bank. They bunched up and crossed from his side of the river. They paused in the middle and drank from cupped hands, some filling up leathern bags from the crystalline waters. The light was growing stronger and they wouldn’t stay long. He’d never seen them in the broad light of day, only at dusk and dawn. This was his first night foray.
Blanchard breathed as quietly as he could. A few had crossed to the other side and stood looking back at the group. The rest began moving again, as the last one tied off the top of her water bag.
Who in the hell were these people? The sight of all those young girls, none of them much over twelve or thirteen years of age by his guess, was bizarre in the extreme. They were so pallid of feature, with those big dark circles under their eyes, and the pathetically vulnerable feet, considering the terrain and the brush. They were all one of a kind.
He’d had a hawthorn come right up through the bottom of his shoe once. It came all the way up through his big toe as well, until it hit the inner side of his toenail and stopped.
They lived like hermits. That was all he could figure. It seemed unlikely on so many levels. Simple poverty didn’t look like this.
Blanchard framed a shot while he still had some of them in the water and a sufficient number of them facing more or less into the camera.
He locked the tripod, and pulled his eye away, satisfied with what he had, and found the remote switch hanging by his right hand.
The camera tripped with its faint click and then light appeared in the viewfinder again. He took another look.
They were all staring straight back at him.
Hurriedly, heart racing in guilt and shock, for they were all staring straight at him with that God-awful look on their faces, he re-focused and zoomed in even tighter on one of the taller ones.
His trembling hand found the switch and he hit it again. The camera snapped.
The young lady was frozen in the frame, almost filling it, with a pair of smaller girls in front and mostly in the frame. The faces were thin but clean, and their hair wild and ragged. Their eyes were blue, not black as he’d originally thought. The linen was shapeless and fringed, unfinished or roughly sewn. It was the expressionless eyes that got him. Three pairs of them were locked right on his position. It was uncanny.
By the time the camera was ready again they were gone and Blanchard sat there with his mouth open and a strange look on his face.
Thoughtfully, he reached down and pulled out a bag of trail mix. All of that effort and he had gotten just two pictures. It was exciting—that was all that he could think. It was exciting.
He’d have a little snack and then go up to the house and show old Stan what he had found, no—what he had proven after all. Still observing silence or at least being as quiet as possible, he unscrewed the cap from a small bottle of apple juice.
He’d first glimpsed the strange girls last spring, hundreds of metres away in the evening gloom. The second time, he thought, but could never be sure, that he had caught sight of an arm, just an arm but full length, and a bit of the dress through a gap in the brush, last autumn before the rains came.
They were real after all. The question was what to do about it. The truth was, he had no idea.
It’s not like anyone would really care. It's not like anyone would ever believe it...
Feeling slightly foolish about the whole thing, he abruptly drained the juice and put the garbage away.
It was time to get out of there and go home.
Here is Shape-Shifters, a fantasy novel on iTunes.