The gray jays and squirrels should have tipped me off sooner. I’ve never figured out how critters with a brain the size of a peanut could tell when guests were coming. But they can, and if you pay attention, they’ll tell you.
I’d had plenty of time to learn their lingo. I pretty much lived in the high country any more, and wandered from campsite to campsite. Not the regular Forest Service sites — they’re expensive, and packed with people all the time. But there’s lots of remote areas around the country where no one ever goes, except maybe during hunting season, and I’d been to most of them on my annual circuit. I’d just found this one, and it was big, open, and best of all, completely deserted.
I sat in my camp chair and enjoyed the afternoon thunderstorms as they rolled in, snug under the awning of my pop-up camper. I always love the smell of rain in the pines. The wind picked up, and I heard the patter of raindrops as the front rushed over me. That’s when I noticed all the squirrels and camp robbers. There were lots of them around.
I’ve only seen two things that will fill up a deserted site like that. One is a natural disaster, like a fire. But then, you know, they’re all sort of passing through in a big hurry. These critters were settling in. That could only mean one thing: dinner’s on the way. With jays and squirrels, that meant people coming. Lots of them.
I cursed and dashed out into the pouring rain to break camp. I had just rounded the back of my camper, crank handle in hand, when a Dryad stepped out of her tree and planted a big kiss on my lips.
Never been kissed by a Dryad? Think back to that year your hormones took over and girls suddenly went from creepy to enthralling. Think of that special girl you had in your sights — you know, the nice one who treated you halfway like a human being and maybe even liked you a little bit: the girl you desperately wanted to ask to the Saturday matinee. You’d buy the popcorn, and your fingers would touch when you reached into the bucket, and then your eyes would meet shyly under the flickering light of the big screen, and she’d give you a Mona Lisa smile and close her eyes, her lips just ever-so-slightly puckered, waiting; you’d lean toward her, feel her soft breath on your lips.
Remember that kiss? No, no, not the real one — that one turned into a crawling-away-on-your-knees disaster, which first kisses have a way of doing. No, I’m talking about that perfect kiss you imagined over and over as you lay in bed under a thin sheet on hot summer nights while the crickets sang love songs to each other. That kiss.
Well, a Dryad’s kiss is a lot like that. Only better.
Of course, then you get sucked into her tree, never to be seen again in the mortal world.
So I growled and bit her tongue, hard, and she jerked away immediately with a squawk.
“Wah wath thah foah?” she shrieked as I spat out the taste of pine tar and turpentine.
“No offense lady, but I really don’t have the time for this.”
She stomped back into her tree, which shook and dumped several dozen pine cones on me. The tree was tall — they stung when they hit. Dryads can get a bit touchy when you turn them down.
I had the camper top cranked down and was working on the hitch when the first RV pulled into sight. The rain fell in buckets, so all I saw were the headlamps and a shadowy square bulk behind it, like the glowing eyes of the fabled Questing Beast struggling to drag itself out of a giant cracker box. Another pair of glowing eyes appeared behind it, and another behind that. A whole bloody goddamned caravan.
My feet went icy cold, and the hitch pulled free from my hands. I looked down. Water covered my feet: a miniature torrent raced at a strange angle across the hillside, through my campsite and under my truck, which slipped sideways as soil and gravel washed out from under the tires. I heard a grinding thunk as the rear axle high-centered on a big rock that had been buried deep beneath soil a moment ago.
I glared at the river, which had been diverted by a swarm — or do they call it a nuisance? — of Naiads, who grinned maliciously over their shoulders with their pointed little teeth bared, and waggled their shapely naked little tushes at me. Mischief done, they let the water return to its normal course.
I glanced back at the Dryad’s tree; she stood with her fists on her hips and a satisfied smirk on her pretty face. She stuck out her tongue at me. I noticed she’d sprouted two tiny branches on either side of her tongue where I’d bitten her. I stuck out my own tongue and with my fingers pantomimed two branches sticking out of it.
She glared and shrieked and ran back into her tree. Two more pine cones fell on my camper.
I didn’t need to see the pentacle decals on the RVs, or the bumper-stickers that read, “My other car is a broom,” to know that a passel of nature-worshipping Pagans had invaded my campsite.
You see, this is the reason I avoid other people. Somehow, other people’s beliefs take on solid form around me. The sudden appearance of Dryads and Naiads told me everything I needed to know about my new human neighbors.
Don’t ask me how or why this happens. I have no idea. Back in the days before it got so bad it drove me out on my hermit’s pilgrimage, most people said it was just my imagination. They twirled their fingers and rolled their eyes when they thought I wasn’t looking.
Then one day these nice young Mormons came to my door, and right in the middle of our conversation the Angel of Death materialized on my doorstep — complete with wings, scythe, and gauzy black robe that fluttered in an invisible breeze. One of the Mormons fainted dead away, the other went white and peed his pants. Turned out the angel wasn’t there for any of us, he’d just lost his way and wanted directions. It made sense, in a way: streets were pretty tangled in that neighborhood, and we always had lost pizza delivery guys asking directions. I’d have thought a divine archetype like Death would at least have access to a good map, though. Maybe it’s some fine point of Mormon theology. At least their Angels stop to ask for directions — don’t get me started on the Catholic Angels.
At any rate, that incident put an end to the idea it was my imagination.
Things only got worse after that. I had UFO’s ruining my lawn and smashing the begonias, aliens with disgusting ideas of “fun” camped out in my bathroom, Communists under the bed who smoked those hideous little European cigars and demanded espresso during the day and vodka at night, black helicopters that buzzed my house at six in the morning — “stealth” my ass, they’re as noisy as a blender full of marbles — and I don’t even want to talk about what lived in the basement. Or what it cost to feed it. Fortunately, it liked dog food.
One day I got tired of it all and jumped in my car and drove away. As I got away from people, the UFOs veered off, the black helicopters took off after them, and the gremlins who had stowed away in my trunk pounded on the lid until I let them out. I had a completely normal weekend for the first time in years. Not long after that, I bought my little pop-up camper and became a solitary nomad.
Now I was suddenly and completely surrounded by Pagans, and Dryads were coming out of the woods. Literally.
The lead RV stopped, and the door swung open. The driver was a bear of a man, completely bald with an untidy blonde-gray beard that poured out over his enormous belly and covered most of the tie-died wife-beater he wore. He stayed inside the cab and out of the rain.
“Merry meet!” he bellowed over the roar of rain that pounded on his RV.
I growled back something, as I contemplated what irresistible force might get my immovable truck to move again.
His eyes grew wide when he saw my truck. “Bummer!” he exclaimed. “When this rain stops, we’ll help you get that thing unstuck.”
I sighed and resigned myself to fate. I was drenched, cold, and wasn’t going anywhere right now. I unfolded my camper and went inside to change out of my wet clothing.
The rain let up just after sunset, and the air warmed suddenly as it sometimes does after a rainfall in the high mountains. By the time the first stars showed, the weather was almost balmy. The campfires leapt high, and the drums started.
Pagans are fun to be around, I suppose, at least for ordinary people. They live at the wilder edge of urban society, and you can easily score some free booze or some ‘shrooms or even a hot night in the sack if you’re polite. But they have the weirdest beliefs. I hated running into Pagans in the woods.
As the drums got going, the whole place grew thick with fairies — so thick that some of them were forced into the updrafts from the fires and took off like bottle rockets with little fairy shrieks as their hair caught fire. They came back down bald and smoking and mad as hell, and tiny fistfights broke out.
Gods and goddesses wandered around — generally identifiable since they were nine feet tall and glowed in the dark — and they blessed people as they tried to pick up free booze, ‘shrooms, and women or men (or occasionally both); one of them handed out four-color brochures for time-share condo opportunities on the astral planes.
Strange shapes lurched in the dark forest around us, like this dude about eight feet tall with antlers, or the short pudgy guy who walked bent-over as he played an enormous flute about the size of a didgeridoo. Then I got a better look at the short guy, and I realized it wasn’t a flute at all…. Well! Maybe he’d keep my Dryad busy tonight. All in all, it seemed pretty innocuous, and since I was stuck here, I cadged some booze and relaxed into the spirit of the thing.
After a while, I wandered over to the biffy to relieve myself. It was an old outhouse that went back — according to the carving on the wooden seat that I’d seen earlier today — to the Works Project Administration under Franklin Roosevelt. It certainly smelled that old. I opened the door, and immediately slammed it shut again, my heart racing. Very carefully, I opened it a crack, and shone my flashlight in, pointed up to reflect off the ceiling. It had not been my imagination.
Seated on the WPA seat was the biggest damned fly I’d ever seen. No, that isn’t right. That conjures an image of a really big fly, maybe an inch or two across. This one sat upright on the seat, and it brushed the ceiling. Its wings were all scrunched against the walls, but it managed a loud buzz nonetheless. I slammed the door again and looked around frantically for a big rock to wedge it shut.
As I listened to the aircraft drone inside the biffy, I could make out words. I listened harder. “Commmmmm innnnnn, zzzhooommmmannnnn,” it buzzed. “Worzzzzzhip mmmmmeeee.”
“Who the Hell are you?” I asked as I pounded a rock into place with my foot. Not the best way to phrase things around a bunch of Pagan deities, I suppose, but my heart still raced. I wasn’t in the mood for polite.
“Beellzzzzhebuuub, looorrrd uvvv zheee fliiezzh,” it buzzed. Beelzebub? Wait a minute, wasn’t he some kind of Demon Lord from Hell? What kind of Pagans…?
Oh, crap and double-crap.
Sure enough, more RV’s crawled up the road. I’d bet good money these would be emblazoned with crosses and Bible verse bumper stickers. I was not disappointed. The only thing I hate to encounter in the woods more than Pagans is Born-Again Christians.
The Christians pulled into the next clearing over, and soon had their awnings up and campfires burning. In short order, they had four Guardian Angels who faced outward at the corners of their site — mean-looking bastards with enormous wings and big hands that rested on the hilts of the nasty Roman-style short swords that hung from their belts — and a soft golden glow rose up from the center of their camp as the Christians started to sing hymns. Several of them cast scowls at the Pagan group, no doubt irritated by the drums and the theology over here.
The drums petered out, then started again in a slower rhythm. I could see that the whole Pagan group had formed a circle, surrounded by a glow of mystical blue light like a gas ring on a propane stove. The Pagan drums picked up speed, and the Christian hymns picked up volume.
I heard a howl from the forest followed by a string of some of the vilest language I’ve ever heard. It was hard to see in the firelight, but I thought I saw the short guy with the … ahem, didgeridoo up in the low branches of one of the big pines, screaming at something dark and sinuous and very large on the ground. He threw pine cones at it. A Dryad popped out of the tree to scold him, saw his target, and ran straight back into the tree with a squeak.
A blood-curdling shriek rose from the center of the Pagan circle and the dark form of a banshee drifted through the blue flames into the woods where it put up an absolutely awful racket. The hymns faltered, and most of the Christians fell to their knees to pray.
I decided then and there to make for the top of my camper, despite the little sticker that cited a maximum load of seventy-five pounds. It held my weight just fine.
I saw a light appear in the sky, and wondered if someone in this crowd had brought the black helicopters or UFOs into the mix, but it turned out to be an Archangel: Gabriel, I think, the one with the horn. He cut loose with a doomsday riff — damn, he was good — and three or four of the Christians vanished simultaneously with a muffled pop, leaving their clothing behind.
A cheer went up from the Pagans, and they began to chant, “RAP-ture, RAP-ture, TAKE ‘em ALL, TAKE ‘em ALL…” in time to their drums. No more Christians vanished, but I could see that those left behind were sorely vexed. They stood and belted out “Onward, Christian Soldiers” at the top of their lungs, so fiercely that even their Guardian Angels glanced nervously at each other.
They’d picked a martial tempo for their song that happened to match the beat of the Pagan drums, and next thing I knew, the banshee had drifted into the Christian camp and joined the singing with a fairly tuneful descant, despite the fact that a banshee sounds mostly like someone torturing a rusty hinge. The guy with the big flute settled back on his branch and picked up the melody. Gabriel flew down into the tree and jammed with the flute guy: the two of them together were hot. The four Guardian Angels abandoned their posts and started a Morris Dance with their swords, and the Eden Serpent — maybe it was the Midgard Serpent, I can’t really tell the difference — rose up like a cobra and swayed in time to the beat. The big guy with the antlers minced a minuet in the moonlight — now, that was bizarre. The fairies spread out and swarmed and swooped and swerved like glowing whirlwinds.
I’d forgotten entirely about Beelzebub. The fly in the ointment, so to speak.
The outhouse exploded in a flash of dull red fire and the most awful stink — truly a Smell from Hell — and dozens, hundreds, thousands of dark shapes crawled out over the WPA seat and swarmed the surprised Guardian Angels, taking them down before they could untangle their swords. Gabriel blew a raucous blue note and leaped from the branch to assist his angelic brothers: his baldric caught, and he ended up swinging upside-down over the Serpent, who seemed hypnotized by the motion. I wondered what would happen when he stopped swinging. The Lord of the Flies Himself stalked toward the Christians on his skinny hind legs, buzzing ominously, and the swarming black shapes swirled around both groups and pressed hard against the golden and the blue light. The Christians screamed. The Pagans screamed. I think I screamed.
And then Beelzebub’s eye popped off.
It hit the ground and rolled a bit and then wobbled around like a metal colander. It was a metal colander: you could see the little handles on the rim. The other eye popped off, and a scared human face looked out through the enormous eye-holes, white against the dark fabric of the costume. Beelzebub turned tail and ran. One wire-and-gauze wing fell off.
The rising moon cleared the shoulder of the great peak to the east, and the swarm of black-footed ferrets that circled both camps, now clearly visible in the moonlight, scampered off into the woods as the whirlwinds of iridescent dragonflies dispersed. The eight-foot guy tripped over his platform shoes with a muffled curse and left his antlers caught in the branches of a tree, chin-strings dangling. I heard the didgeridoo deflate with a flabby sound, Gabriel’s baldric ripped and he landed on his horn with a sound like a beer can being crushed, and the giant Eden Serpent ripped in two and disgorged a bunch of Chinese guys with sparklers, who ran screaming incoherently into the woods.
What on earth?
Another vehicle crunched its way up the gravel road. It stopped in the center of the camp area, and a slender, athletic, very pretty young woman stepped out. She glared at the shocked Christians, who stood in the dirty yellow glow of their Coleman lantern. She glared at the stunned Pagans inside the ring of blue glow-sticks scattered on the ground around them. She scowled at the smoldering remains of the outhouse with its wooden seat that dated from the Roosevelt administration. She sniffed, and her nose wrinkled. She tapped her foot.
“That’s it!” she shouted. “Everyone out. Site’s closed. Douse your fires, pack up and move out. NOW!” Her Park Ranger badge flashed in the moonlight. Both groups moved slowly, like rusty wind-up toys, but they doused the fires and took down their tents and awnings and started back down the mountain road.
“That means you, too, Mister!” She glared up at me where I sat on top of my pop-up camper. I gestured to my truck, which remained high-centered on a rock. She frowned.
“How on earth did you manage that?” she asked as she examined the truck.
I stared at her, enthralled. “If I told you it all started when I turned down a kiss from a tree spirit, you wouldn’t believe me, would you?”
She made a rude sound. “No,” she said.
“What do you believe?” I asked.
“Damned little,” she replied, and looked me straight in the eye with her level gray gaze. I’ve always loved gray eyes.
“So you’re a skeptic.”
She grinned. “My mama once told me I wouldn’t even suckle ‘till I checked out both nipples to make sure I wasn’t getting cheated. Yeah, I’m a skeptic.”
A skeptic with enough Disbelief to completely mute two camps of warring True Believers. How interesting. How … wonderful.
“Look,” she continued, “you’re going nowhere in your truck tonight, but you can’t stay here — health hazard.” She gestured toward the smoking outhouse. “There’s a couch at the ranger station. We’ll come back in the morning and get you out of that hole.”
A nice girl who treats me like a human being. My heart raced.
“Do you believe in love at first sight?” I blurted out. She stared at me in silence for a long time.
“It’s probably the only thing I do believe in,” she answered with a Mona Lisa smile.
Around me, other people’s beliefs become real.
“Then I think,” I said, carefully, my heart in my throat, “that you and I were made for each other.”
And by the way, I was wrong. A Dryad’s kiss is not one bit better than the real thing.