Oracle of Light
By Cil Gregoire
A Log Cabin in the Woods
Leaf’s glorious miniature sled hill, preserved by temperatures just below freezing, supplied him with hours of delight. But after numerous joyous sled runs stretched over days, the snow hill became hard-packed and looked all the worse from wear. Leaf wanted to make more snow, but his mother wanted him to wait for it to snow naturally. Bored, he abandoned the sled and walked over to Melinda.
Melinda had been taking pictures of Leaf playing as a possible subject for her next painting, using the new digital camera she had received as a gift for her sixteenth birthday from Vince and Maggie. When she found a photo she wanted to express artistically, Vince printed it off for her on the computer. Rahlys had been an inspiring art teacher, and Melinda a patient, diligent student, making great strides in developing her own style. She used acrylics for color, combined with preserved bits of nature—sand, seeds, spruce needles, tiny twigs, curled slivers of birch bark, gravel, leaves, flower petals, etc., for creating texture. She wanted to do a piece using Leaf as a subject for Maggie and Vince.
“Let’s go to school,” Leaf suggested, tugging at her sleeve.
We can’t go to the schoolhouse now. It’s too far away, Melinda explained. She knew that by, ‘Let’s go to school,’ Leaf meant the log guest cabin near Rahlys’ home that served as a schoolhouse when Rahlys, Theon, and Ilene were there. Now Vince and Maggie were the only teachers she had left.
“It’s not too far,” Leaf said.
Before Melinda could debate the issue, the two of them were standing in the cold, lifeless schoolhouse with walls covered layers deep in art work, charts and graphs, posters, and compositions from lessons past. Wow, Leaf! Melinda cried silently, startled. You did it! She poked around. How she missed going to school here! How she missed Rahlys, Theon, Ilene…and Raven!
“Read to me,” Leaf said, holding up a favorite book he had almost forgotten about.
Leaf, we have to go back before Mom and Dad start looking for us. You remember how upset Mom was when you made it snow. Take us back now.
Leaf ignored the urgency in her appeal. “What’s that?” he asked, running up to the rustic birch slab table, pointing to the cold generator she and Theon had built. Seemingly knowledgeable about everything, Theon had been the greatest teacher of all, inspiring in her an interest in geology, astronomy, botany, and physics.
It’s a generator that runs on cold temperatures.
Leaf knew what a generator looked like because he had watched his dad change the oil once, but this didn’t look anything like his dad’s generator. He stepped up to take a closer look, his eyes about level with it, sitting there on the table.
When it gets cold, the moving parts contract, causing the crystal to spin and generate electricity.
“It’s cold,” Leaf said, and he hugged himself, shaking for dramatic effect.
Not cold enough. Come on, Leaf, let’s go back, she begged telepathically, gently grabbing him by the coat. She knelt down beside him, bringing her eyes to his level to better reason with him. If we go back before anyone discovers we left, this could be our secret place. Won’t that be fun, having a secret place? If she didn’t convince him to teleport them back home, she would have to walk the mile back by trail, dragging Leaf along. A flawed Plan B at best.
“Okay,” Leaf agreed, intrigued by her suggestion of a secret place. And in a blink of an eye, they were back home in the yard again.
Caleeza shivered, acclimating to the outdoor cold after the warmth of Stanley’s truck. It wasn’t as cold here as it had been on the other side of the mountain, probably just around freezing, but still too cold to be comfortable without drawing on the elemental forces to generate a little warmth. Traveling in what she assumed was a southerly direction based on the movements of the weak sun, she decided to stay away from the road, though she continued to use it as a landmark, and the pipeline too, spotting it from various vantage points along the way. It was best to refrain from further contact with the dominate life forms until she learned more about them, or was in desperate need, whichever came first. Her concern now was locating some kind of shelter for the night. Night and day rotated very quickly here and night seemed to be getting the upper hand with each rotation.
As darkness encroached, Caleeza found herself in a scenic valley with a flowing ice-edged stream, denser forest growth, most of which appeared to be either dormant or dead, and a stony mountain backdrop topped with snow. The forest was a mix of bare skeletons of trees with long thin leafless branches, and thicker taller trees with dark green pin-like foliage. The stouter trees with pointy foliage offered some protection from the wind, and she hunkered down to rest, sheltered by the aromatic branches. I’ll use some of these thick dark green branches to make a bed and cover for the night, she decided, and there are enough dry brittle branches to build a fire.
Anxiously, Caleeza looked up at the darkening sky, a blanket of low gray clouds hiding the setting sun. It was getting dark quickly; she needed to get to work.
While scouting out the best location with the most resources to set up camp, Caleeza spotted something that stopped her in her tracks. A low, dark unnatural structure nearly camouflaged in the surrounding trees…and seemingly constructed of trees itself…stood sentinel in the darkening forest. She darted back under cover, hoping her presence hadn’t been detected. Biding her time, she waited quietly, listening and watching; there was no sound or movement. Carefully, she reached out mentally, probing for life form signatures. She found none; the structure and its surroundings were completely deserted.
Stepping out from her cover, Caleeza proceeded with caution, approaching the structure with wonder. Although rectangular in shape, it didn’t really resemble any of the structures she had seen from Stanley’s truck. For one thing, the walls were composed entirely of dark gray trees stacked horizontally, one on top of another. A sagging triangular roof, extending over the top of the structure, sheltered it against the elements. A tall black cylinder, reaching skyward, perched on the slope of the roof.
Upon reaching the shelter, she tried to open what looked like it could be the way in, but her entrance was barred. Walking around the perimeter of the structure, she brought her face up close to a small transparent square on one wall and peered inside.
The light was dim, but she could see strange furnishings and objects that filled much of the interior space, leading her to surmise that the building had served as living quarters once, though she doubted it had been lived in for some time. Caleeza focused on an empty area in the center of the room and teleported herself inside.
It was murkily dark inside the structure, the tiny window letting in far too little of the dwindling daylight. Drawing on the abundant molecular energy around her, Caleeza created a glow globe to light the dim room, sending it hovering high enough overhead to light the whole area…and looked around.
On one side of the room, wooden frames covered with dusty cushions, no doubt intended for sitting and sleeping, lined the walls, along with shelves and a small corner table burdened with dusty piles of clutter. On the opposite end, dark metallic vessels and utensils she assumed were used for cooking hung on the wall over a rough wooden counter. Another table, larger than the first, but with little on it, was wedged into one corner next to what still looked like it could be a door leading out.
But the dominate feature of the room…and nearly centrally located…was a large dark metallic box. A long black cylinder, also metal Caleeza discovered by tapping it, rose out of the back of the heavy black box. She followed the black cylinder with her eyes upward to where it went through the triangular roof above her head.
Caleeza examined the massive black box with interest and found a lever that unhooked the heavy hinged door, inadvertently releasing a sprinkling of ash that drifted down onto the ash-stained wooden floor. Opening the door wide, she found ash and charred bits of wood inside. The heavy metal box had obviously been used to contain a fire, a fire that could be used for heating and cooking. That wasn’t the greatest discovery though, for on the counter, large tightly sealed see-through jars containing what looked like dried grains stood in a row against the wall. Food…Caleeza’s spirits soared. Grains could be cooked in water to soften them enough to eat!
She had shelter and, with fire and water, she would have food. Recalling a stack of short lengths of chopped up trees against the outside wall of the dwelling, she conjured a few pieces into the box, sprinkling the floor again with a dusting of ash, and proceeded to light a fire. Drawing deeply on the elemental forces, she superheated the outer molecules of the pieces of wood inside the box, along with the air around it, until the wood began to smoke, and then burst into crackling flames. Quickly, Caleeza closed the heavy metal door to the black box.
But there was a problem. Smoke seeped into the room from numerous seams instead of up the dark, rusty cylinder as she had expected. She examined the apparatus closer looking for a solution to the smoke problem and found two controls with movable parts, one on the cylinder leading up to the sky and the other on the door to the box of fire. She adjusted them until she could hear a flow of air feeding the fire and sending the smoke up the cylinder.
Needing air, Caleeza turned her attention to the door-like structure in the tree-wall opposite the fire box, and with some fumbling, found a latch release. Leaving the door wide open to let out the smoke, she rushed out into the fresh air…and falling snow!
Caleeza’s mouth opened wide in astonishment as soft white flakes dusted her hair and eyelashes. So this was how the snow fell and covered the ground! Fascinated, she put out her hands to catch the fluttering flakes that melted upon contact with her warm skin; then she tried catching them with her tongue. Tilting her head back, she gazed up into the dark gray sky filled with white snowflakes racing down toward her until her neck began to ache. Then easing the muscles in her neck, she looked all around at the thin dusting of white that was already transforming the landscape as darkness descended.
Regaining her focus, Caleeza reentered the dwelling, brightly lit by the light of the glow globe, and closed the door behind her. Warm heat radiated from the firebox, holding her attention for a moment as she basked in its comfort. But her work was not done. She still needed to collect water from the stream. Taking a large cooking vessel and the glow globe with her, she headed back out into the night.
It was still snowing as she carried the large metal container to the bank of the flowing stream not far from the dwelling. A jumble of ice along the edge of the stream made access to the water treacherous. The glow globe illuminated a thin downward sloping shelf of ice that hung over flowing water, slushy with ice crystals. Caleeza couldn’t safely reach the water to physically dip it out, but she did have a solution.
Placing the container she wanted to fill down on the bank above the sloping ice sheet, Caleeza drew the energy needed to pull a thin spout of water from the stream to the vessel, which she maintained until the container was full. She then teleported the full container from where she stood to the large table inside the dwelling.
The snow continued to fall, but Caleeza was not overly concerned. She had water, shelter, heat, light, and if she was right about the contents of the glass jars, she also had food. By the light of the glow globe, she harvested a bristly branch from one of the stout trees on her way back to the shelter that she would try boiling for tea. When she reentered the tree-walled dwelling, she found it pleasantly warm.
Without urgency, Caleeza returned the glow globe to its place under the peak, conjured more wood to the fire without even opening the door to the fire box, and dipped smaller amounts of water from the larger container on the table into what looked like smaller cooking pots. Then she set them on the flat surface of the now hot metal box containing fire.
While the water was heating, Caleeza reached for the fullest jar of grain on the counter and studied it carefully. Remembering the lesson on opening the bottle of water Stanley had given her, she grabbed the lid, much wider than the one on the water bottle, and tried to turn it. Meeting resistance, she gradually applied more force, until somewhat reluctantly, the lid gave up its resistance and turned. With the lid off, she reached inside for a handful of the small hard white pellets, and after examining them closely, dropped them into the pot of not yet boiling water, followed by a couple more handfuls. Using one of the utensils stored upright in a blue stone urn on the far end of the counter, she stirred the grains in the water. Hungrily impatient for it to start cooking, she drew energy from the elemental forces, hastening the movement of the water molecules in the cooking pot until the water boiled rapidly.
Then Caleeza tore off short sections of tree foliage from the branch she had harvested and dropped them into the second cooking pot, which by now was also starting to simmer. Soon the dwelling’s old musty scent was replaced by the life-sustaining aroma of cooking grain and the aromatic fragrance of brewing tea.
The boiling grain absorbed water quickly and expanded. Using her stirring utensil, Caleeza spooned some out, bringing the plump moist steaming white morsels to her lips. She blew on them softly to cool them off, and then scraped the still steaming grain off the flat wooden stirring implement with her teeth.
It was wonderful! It tasted a little bland, but it was wonderful, and there was plenty; she could feast. Quickly, Caleeza removed the pot of grain, now boiled dry, from the heat to the counter, and spooned cooked grain into a small bowl she found sitting on a shelf above the counter. Then she poured green tree tea into a small cup-like vessel with a handle and took a sip. It was delicious! Taking her delectable dinner to the little corner table across the room, she plopped herself down onto the dusty cushioned seat beside it.
Caleeza ate ravishingly, refilling her bowl and cup repeatedly until all was consumed. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been so pleasingly full. After a few moments of languid contentment, she roused herself enough to further explore the contents of the dwelling.
First, she examined the pile of dusty clutter within easy reach from where she sat. Still too full to move, she picked up a volume of bound paper sheets off the top of the stack on the little table. Opening it, she found it was filled with writing and pictures. Settled comfortably in her chair, Caleeza grabbed an armload of these, and one by one, she leafed through them. She couldn’t decipher the writing, but there were pictures of oceans and forests, deserts and grasslands, mountains and swamps, and frozen lands of ice and snow like the one she was currently experiencing. According to the pictures, all these environments supported a wondrous variety of life forms, large and small, even birds and insects, things that can fly. There were pictures of places that looked warm and tropical with people wearing skimpy clothing. Other pictures showed tall structures built close together with lines of mechanical conveyances and throngs of people filling in all the spaces in between.
After some time, Caleeza got up, stretched, and walked to the counter. Stored underneath the counter were two boxes made of a thick brown paper-like material. She pulled one out and opened it. The box was nearly full of items of clothing that released a musty odor into the room as she rummaged through them. Checking the contents of the second box, she found more of the same. Searching through the boxes, she looked for clothing to wear over her own to blend in with the natives and keep her warm outdoors. Most of the stuff was way too large, or too worn, but she found a long-sleeved top garment of blue and brown crisscrossing stripes and breeches made from a tough dark blue cloth with long legs she had to roll up to prevent walking on them. She even found a heavy black outer garment with a hood that crackled when she unfolded it, but would help keep her warm outdoors.
Her feet did not fare quite as well. On the floor behind the boxes, she found an old pair of heavy footwear, sort of like what Stanley had been wearing, but so crushed and bent over she feared they would tear apart as she worked at straightening them out. Still she tried them on and discovered that if she wore her own footwear inside, she could make them fit. Of course, she didn’t intend stealing all these items, but the laws of survival allowed her to borrow them for a time. When it was possible, she would teleport them back to their rightful owner.
Donning these clothes over her own, she stepped outside, summoning the glow globe to follow. It was still snowing steadily, a thick layer of snow already covering the ground, but Caleeza wasn’t concerned. Breathing in the fresh snow-scented air, comfortable in her warm clothing, Caleeza smiled. Let it snow! She had food, water, warmth, and shelter, everything necessary for survival; she could wait out the storm, at least for a while. Filled with contentment, she gazed with fascination at the falling snow. Gradually, her thoughts turned to the expedition, her life before falling snow. What had become of Sarus? She and Sarus had gone through so much together, the misfortunes, the disappearances, the hardships…until they were the last two standing. She ached to tell him what happened to her, to relieve his pain of wondering. And what about the other members of the team, Selyzar, Caponya, and Traevus who had disappeared before her? Where were they now? Had they also been whisked off to another world?
Finding no answers in the falling snow, Caleeza eventually stepped back inside the shelter, the glow globe following her, and shut the door against the storm.
“Bye, thanks, come again,” Elaine called out to the retreating back of the last customer. Desolate, Elaine turned to the task of closing up. She hated this time of day when the shop closed and she was left alone with her thoughts.
It used to be her favorite time of day. She and Ilene would lock up the shop, tally the sales, and close the register, then climb up the stairs together to rest and relaxation. They would enjoy a cool drink, a simple dinner prepared and eaten together, followed by a movie or a good book. Now there was only loneliness to go home to, and anxiety over Ilene’s safety and well-being.
Locking the shop door securely behind her, Elaine trudged up the stairs and unlocked her deserted apartment. Even when she was home, the apartment remained deserted, she thought to herself, for her lonely soul no longer filled it. Dropping the keys onto the coffee table, she plopped down onto the sofa, took off her shoes, and wiggled her toes. Then she listened to the silence. She could hear voices passing by down on the street below, a dog barking halfheartedly in the distance, laughter nearby, but none of this was part of her world; her world was empty.
Darkness was already creeping in through the windows when Elaine finally stirred. Slowly, she strolled hesitantly to Ilene’s bedroom door, kept closed since her departure…and opened it. Walking in, she stared at Ilene’s untouched bed, seeing through it in her mind to the floor underneath where she had fearfully re-stashed the frightful painting.
Getting down on her hands and knees, she tremulously reached for the portrait of the crystal and pulled it out. Immediately, the crystalline image began to glow in the fading daylight. Elaine jumped up and back as though she had been burned.
Don’t be afraid, she told herself. It can’t hurt you. Gathering her courage, Elaine stooped, picked up the painting…and holding it as far away from her body as she could…rushed it back to its rightful place on the living room wall by the door. As she stepped back, the crystal emerged from the painting as a hologram and floated toward her like a giant glowing insect. Reflexively, she emitted a short scream, batting it away with her hands. Then a sudden unexpected knock on the door startled her further, eliciting yet another yelp as her heart jumped into her throat.
“Elaine, are you all right?” she heard through the door.
The crystal returned instantly to the painting, appearing totally free of any thaumaturgic powers. And you better stay there, Elaine glared at the painting as she cautiously opened the door.
“Hi, Elsie, nice to see you,” Elaine greeted her, trying to sound relaxed and causal.
“I was on my way to the store and I heard you scream. Is something wrong?” Elsie’s plump, round face looked up at her with genuine concern, her gray curls bobbing. Elaine and Elsie had known each other most of their lives, but never visited, even though Elsie’s daughter Angela and Ilene were best friends, or had been until Angela moved to Anchorage, and Ilene took up with that bunch living up the tracks.
“Oh! Everything’s fine,” Elaine even managed to chuckle. “I was just mad at myself for forgetting something I shouldn’t have.” It was the best she could come up with at the spur of the moment. “Come in.”
“Oh, no, I don’t really have the time right now. I was cooking dinner when I realized I didn’t have any eggs for the cornbread. So I need to get back quickly. Have you heard from Ilene?”
“Yes, she’s doing fine,” Elaine knew she didn’t sound convincing, but Elsie didn’t press her; she had exciting news of her own to tell.
“I’m not supposed to let the cat out the bag just yet,” Elsie’s plump round body shook with unconcealed joy, “but Angela and Steve are going to have a baby!” she announced, shrieking the word ‘baby’ at the end.
Elaine couldn’t help being jealous of Elsie. Her daughter Angela had married a nice hardworking young man last spring, and now Elsie was going to be a grandmother.
“Congratulations,” she managed to say calmly, even sweetly, with a smile.
“Well, if you are sure you are all right, I’d best be going. It must be lonely for you with Ilene away at college. You should come by and visit some time.”
“I will,” Elaine said, knowing in her heart she never would. “And thanks for stopping by.”
“Of course, no problem,” Elsie turned from the door to leave. “Take care of yourself now,” she added jovially, holding on tightly to the hand railings as she carefully double footed the stairs on the way down in an effort to spare her chubby knees. Elaine watched her descend to the street, and then quietly closed the door. Taking a deep breath, she went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine.
After taking a couple of sips to calm her nerves, Elaine went back into the living room and confronted the crystal. In response to her glare, the crystal drifted out of the painting, glowing and spinning in the air before her. At least it had remained dormant while Elsie was here.
I have a question to ask, Elaine said silently, directing her thoughts to the holographic crystal while bracing herself for the answer.
Is Ilene all right?
The crystal zoomed across the room.
Elaine almost passed out with relief. The answer blazed in burning light, sizzling and sparkling, before winking out. Elaine wanted to jump for joy over the glitteringly positive response.
Is she happy? Is she well?
Well, maybe more than just one question, she corrected herself. ‘Yes’ or ‘no’ questions went by fast.
Is she safe? Elaine decided to ask.
How do you know?
The room blazed with light as the crystal wrote.
THE ORACLE OF LIGHT.
Elaine wasn’t sure what that meant, but she could feel some of the tension she had been storing leave her body. Ilene was safe; well, alive anyway. Theon said she could trust the crystal’s answers. One more question then.
Where is Ilene?
Again, the room lit up as the crystal blazed out a response.
ON ANTHYA’S WORLD.
So far away! With wobbly legs, Elaine stumbled to the sofa and collapsed in tears of both relief and longing.