Cover
Title
ISBN: 978-1-54390-885-5 (Print)
For Fireflies
Table of Contents
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
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It was an immeasurable dive to the bottom of a deep, deep pool where tiny detonations filled the inside of his skull. Where the enveloping darkness lasted longer than forever as the earth rotated from night to endless night. But eternity did end, and when it finally did, the insistent popping noise within his head grew louder and louder until it became the roar of a storm. Then the hum of the tempest abruptly stopped, and sound coalesced into the shrill cry of distant birds.
Benton awakened back to consciousness.
Am I dead? he wondered. Disquiet twisted his stomach into a meandering pretzel.
Benton eased his eyes open, expecting to be greeted with the interior view of an anaconda’s belly. Instead, he was met with two black eyes set in a small, green head, staring at him from only inches away.
“Hola.”
“Ahhh!” Benton yelped, and rolled over onto his hands and knees, unceremoniously dumping his gawker off in the process. As he scrambled to his feet, he realized it was Hermando who had been crowding his face.
“¿Por qué? Why did you do that?” Hermando asked with a somewhat indignant tone.
Benton’s mind began to spin like an out-of-control Ferris wheel ride at the county fair as he recalled what had transpired. How could this be? Last he knew, he was being served as the main course at the dinner of an overgrown snake. Remembering the steel-banded coils that had been wrapped around him, Benton ran his hands along his sides; the contact elicited a sharp intake of breath. His ribs felt tender to the touch but he viewed that as a good thing, since he was pretty sure pain was a reliable indicator he was still in the land of the living.
But what had happened?
“How did we get away from Machiri? I thought I was snake food for sure—where’s Tennyson? Tennyson! Tennyson! Where are you?” Benton shouted. There was no reply.
Hermando shook his head with a cheerless expression.
Oh no
“Tennyson, he… just as Machiri was falling down on you like a twisted tree, he rushed up her body and jumped into her mouth in your stead. Machiri reared straight back, then began to flail her great body about, and as she did, her contortions hurled you and me far away.”
Benton trembled with emotion; it was all his fault.
He had killed Tennyson by pushing his luck with Machiri, and now the brave porcupine rested in the belly of the giant serpent. “Tennyson!” Benton futilely called out once more, the mounting guilt cracking his voice.
Hermando crept closer and laid his clawed hand on Benton’s bare foot. “Do not let your thoughts be troubled, mi amigo. Mourn not the courage of Tennyson, for he gave his life so that you may live and in doing so, all others may live as well.”
“But it’s my fault he is dead! How am I supposed to feel good about that?”
“There is no blame. The river flows as it will. We are merely caught in its current and carried to our destinations—our endings are beyond our control.”
“Pardon my French, but that sounds like a load of horse manure to me. Seems like Tennyson could have controlled jumping into that snake’s mouth.”
“Would you rather Machiri had eaten you instead?”
Benton hung his head low and replied with a whispered, “No.”
“We do not always understand the actions of others. Often we do not understand what we ourselves do. But whatever occurs is meant to occur; such is the flow of the river. You must accept and continue.”
“Okay, I guess. I’ll continue—but I’m not accepting that it was preordained by a river, a snake eating its own tail, or some other mystical razzamatazz. And I’m not forgetting that I was the reason that Tennyson had to sacrifice himself.” Benton picked up a rock and chucked it from his side. “So, Machiri … where is she now?”
“That I do not know. I landed on mi cabeza when she tossed us like fleas. When the world stopped going round and round before me, I did not see her vastness anywhere,” said Hermando, looking furtively around as he did. “But we must certainly leave this place before she decides to return.”
“Do you know how to get to the bay that Machiri was talking about?”
“Of course,” he replied. “The animals of the forest do not get lost, we just decide where we want to go and the way calls out to us. Is it not the same for humans?”
“I don’t think so, at least not for me,” said Benton. “Every time my family has taken a trip, it seems like my dad only knows the right direction after we are lost, so it must not run in my family.”
“Then I shall lead. But we must hurry, and pray to Pachamama that we are not already too late—though I’m not quite sure what good just the two of us can do …” Hermando’s words trailed off.
“Well, let’s do like a banana and split then.”
“Did you say ba… ba… banan…?”
“Oh, for goodness’ sakes, just never mind and go.”
With that they set off in a trot away from the swamp, in search of a ship that could not be seen. Hermando loped along in his side-to-side gait, muttering to himself about bananas while Benton followed close, if not a little stiffly, behind. Benton kept glancing over his shoulder to make sure that a vengeful serpent was not slinking up on them wanting to collect its pound of flesh.
Directed by his internal GPS, Hermando turned to the side and headed toward a line of leatherwood trees that grew at the fringe of the swamp. But Benton barely paid heed to their surroundings as feelings of guilt from Tennyson’s demise flooded through him, choked him, made him gasp for air. It was his mother’s death all over again and the fault to which he laid claim. It was always others paying the price, the consequences of his thoughts and deeds. Benton wanted to moan the deep sorrow out from inside of him but he swallowed the pain and kept on moving. Lost in his thoughts, he bent to pass beneath the overhanging boughs of the leatherwoods when—
“Ahhh!” Benton jumped back, startled out of one of his nine lives, as a brown shape swung down from an outstretched limb to dangle directly in front of his face.
“Good day, sirs.”
It was Tennyson!
“You’re—you’re alive! You’re alive!” Benton was so overcome with joy that he jumped in the air and was about to give the porcupine a hug when he thought better of it.
“Why, so I am, and it’s a glorious thing for it.”
“But, but how?” Benton asked as he turned to the side and wiped at his eyes, feigning a bit of lodged debris. “The last I knew, Machiri was squeezing me as flat as a pancake and a mouth the size of a canyon was coming down to lick the batter. Then you—Hermando told me what you did. You jumped into the snake’s mouth!” Benton was almost tempted to hug the porcupine once more. “And now here you are. How is that possible?”
“Well,” Tennyson said as he released his tail from the branch and dropped to the ground with a grunt, “when I saw what she was doing I thought to myself, I said, ‘Tennyson, there are far too many human contraptions that will have to be dealt with on the boat that holds Tu’i, and if that boy is eaten, then all is lost.’ So, as Machiri went to gobble you up, I jumped in ahead of you and she gulped me whole in one bite. But on the way down I flicked out my quills and didn’t go any further in the old gal’s gullet. I believe it came as somewhat of a surprise to her.”
A smile spread from ear to ear across Tennyson’s face as he related the story. “The funny thing is, for all the wisdom and secret knowledge that great brute of a lass contained, she didn’t have the foresight to avoid swallowing a porcupine. Oh, you should have seen her thrash about as she choked on the bone that was me; the sound of an earthquake, her mighty body was! I was worried that she would crush you two with her convulsions but you must have escaped the worst of it; you do not appear too battered.”
“A little sore, but that’s about it,” said Benton as he rubbed his side.
“That is good news. After she realized I was not such a tasty delicacy she tried to spit me out, but it took her several attempts to dislodge me. When she finally succeeded, she spat me all the way to the top of these trees—but not before I left a number of quills stuck in her craw, a little something to remember me by. He, he, I believe next time she just might think twice with those two heads of hers before trying to collect payment when a porcupine is involved. I think I got my point across to her. He, he—point, get it?”
“Si, she’ll not want for toothpicks. Too bad Uncle Jorge had no quills,” Hermando chuckled.
“So you were inside the throat of a giant anaconda after having been eaten by it and you were worried about us getting squished by the snake?” Benton asked, more than a little amazed.
“Yeah, that about sums it up.”
“Wow… just, just… wow. I’m speechless. That’s the bravest, most selfless thing I’ve ever seen anybody, or any animal, as the case may be, do—and for me, nonetheless. I owe you much more, but please accept my words of sincerest thanks. It’s all I have at the moment. I would shake your paw but you know, the quill thing,” said Benton, affected by the extent of what this jungle creature that barely knew him had done for him.
“Ah, don’t mention it. Just dig up some fat grubs when you get the chance and we’ll call it even,” Tennyson replied with a wave of his hand. Then he squinted an eye and spoke once more, this time emphasizing each word with a finger jab in Benton’s direction. “But the next time an oversized, two-headed snake is letting you walk away from one of its dealings, you keep your mouth shut and keep on walking.”
“That, I can do.”
“Good then. Now that all of that has been settled, I believe we have a turtle to free.”
Benton took notice of how low the sun was sitting in the sky; the better part of the day had strode on by while they were engaged with Machiri. He was not sure just how far the beach lay from where they were but he doubted they would make it to the ship before another night was upon them, which meant Bellamy’s arrival would be that much closer. What if Bellamy appeared while they were onboard trying to save Tu’i? How would they stop him from adding them to his “collection”? Machiri said fire would stop his minions, but what about Bellamy himself? Could anything stop him? Benton’s stomach lurched like a freefalling elevator dropped from a hundred stories high.
“Tennyson’s right. We’ll have to celebrate our fortunate escape later on. Right now, our last and greatest task still looms before us. Every moment we delay allows Bellamy to get that much closer. Can we make it to the bay by nightfall? If not, we’ll need to be boarding that ship by the crack of dawn.”
“It is perhaps a two-hour journey as the crow flies… six hours as the porcupine walks.”
“Then let us walk like a porcupine before doom falls down upon us all,” croaked Hermando.
Tennyson stretched his arm to the side, pointing the way with his paw. “After you, my green and scaly friend,” he said. To which Hermando puffed the dewlap at his throat, bobbed his head, then took off once more in his S-shaped running motion. Benton and Tennyson stood and watched for a moment as the iguana started to disappear into the tall grass. They gave each other a quick look, then turned and ran off chasing after him.
After catching up to Hermando, the three soon left the swampland behind them and once again entered the densely foliaged forest. Traveling as fast as the vegetation would allow, they trekked along in a rhythm of heavy breaths toward the ocean. Benton could hear agitation in the murmurings of the animals they passed by; it was as if the creatures of the forest sensed a coming storm—and right they were. A troop of weeper capuchin monkeys, normally obnoxiously loud and gyrating through the treetops like trapeze artists, was huddled close together, talking as low-voiced conspirators. The simians ceased their whispering and bared their teeth when they spied the trio tramping across the jungle floor beneath them. One of the monkeys threw a pile of filth that landed beside Hermando; the iguana hissed with distaste and scooted quickly on by.
Benton cloaked himself within his thoughts as they journeyed along, reflecting on what had occurred during their monstrous encounter with Machiri. Something did not quite add up, and his mind worried at it like a festering splinter. It seemed odd to him that Machiri chose to attack them before she answered the question about his mother. Shouldn’t she have provided the answer first, and by doing so, make him owe her? If she was such a stickler for rules, why would she make you pay for something that you never received? She sure had tried to claim her part of the deal… There too, Machiri’s whole demeanor suddenly changed, as if Benton had asked something forbidden, and the words she had used, even were such understanding allowed; what did that mean?
Did the giant snake actually know what had happened to his mother?
Was Machiri hiding something?
He dared not go back, but… if he knew for sure that Machiri could tell him what had happened to his mother, then he would have no choice but to visit the snake once more. He had to know the truth as to what really befell his mom—no matter what the consequences might be. Benton paused and considered the words of his thoughts. No matter the consequences to myself, he corrected, not to others.
As if reading his hidden thoughts, Hermando called back to Benton, “Amigo, what in the name of Pachamama possessed you to tempt the fates so by asking Machiri another question? You know she does not answer freely.”
Benton cringed at the question, saying nothing as the nimble hands of guilt and grief tied his belly in their familiar knots. To be asked to speak on thoughts involving his mother, even if the others did not know what it was they were asking, made his body react as if he was being interrogated. Sure, he had already confessed his tangled feelings of fault to Eleazar, but that act was more than simply uncharacteristic, it was a breaking point. After what happened with Tennyson and Machiri, Benton knew that he needed to start acting above his own demons; but the mask he had placed over his emotions was hard to remove. He needed to explain it to the others, though. He owed them that much.
He opened his mouth but his voice was vacant. The only sound that came forth was the exertion from their brisk pace. Benton tried again, but still no words came. He pursed his lips and decided that after all that time of avoiding talking about his mom, he needed a little bit of a prod. So he slapped himself in the face.
The iguana and the porcupine turned a curious eye toward him.
“Um, a bug was on me,” Benton said, shrugging his shoulders. The small act of violence worked, though; his hesitancy lay broken. He gave a great sigh. “A year ago, my mother disappeared while she was out at sea researching the belching patterns of the colossus squid—or some other vitally important matter.” Benton paused and looked at the other two. “She disappeared in the area where Bellamy takes his victims. I thought that maybe since Machiri knew of Bellamy’s whereabouts, she might be able to tell me something about my mom. I just need to know what happened to her. Was she taken by Bellamy, or was she simply lost at sea? I’m really sorry for putting us all in danger. I know it was a dumb thing to do, but… I had to ask.” Benton lowered his eyes to the ground and kept them there.
“Ah, mi amigo, I never knew my mother. I am told that after placing the eggs that were my siblings and me into the hole she had dug, she was caught unawares by the marauding jaws of a black-collared hawk. But, if I thought for even a moment that Machiri could tell me where to find her alive”—Hermando looked straight at Benton—“I would have done the exact same thing as you.”
The iguana’s words were something that Benton had not heard in far too long a time; the voice of a friend.
“Thank you,” he said, so softly he barely managed to get it out.
Tennyson stopped and sat back on his hind legs. He pointed his snout toward the sky, flaring and twitching his nostrils. “Do you smell that?” he asked.
“Smell what?” replied Benton as he too pointed his nose in the air, hoping to perceive the smell by imitating the porcupine.
“Salt in the air. We are getting very close.”
“Well then, maybe we should consider sleeping here for the night. I don’t know about you guys, but it’s getting harder for me to see where I’m walking, and in thirty more minutes it will be so dark that I’ll be on my hands and knees feeling my way along.”
“I agree, amigos. We certainly don’t want to camp too close to the beach and have Bellamy’s crew come stumble on us while we trod the halls of sleep.”
“Then this spot it is. Let’s get squared away for the evening while we can still see what we are doing. Hermando, go try and find us something to eat while Benton and I work on a place to sleep.”
“¡Voy!” Hermando exclaimed as he scampered off into the bush.
“And just how do you propose we construct a suitable shelter in which to sleep?” Benton asked. “We don’t have any sort of materials with which to build.”
“Don’t we?” Tennyson replied in an unmistakably rhetorical tone.
“Well, nothing that I can see. We need nails, and boards, and shingles…”
“As we were walking to Machiri’s abode earlier, did you not mention some type of rough-and-tumble gang that you were a member of, whose very function was to learn how to live in what you would call ‘the wilderness’?”
“What, the Junior Discoverers?” Benton’s memory pulled forth an image of Tobias and his gang at their weekly meetings, eating chocolate-covered french fries while watching old episodes of Psycho-Mania Wrestling. “Yeah, right, I think the only purpose of that bunch was to aggravate me, so no, we didn’t get much wilderness training. And when I say not much I mean zip, zero. And if we had any training, I’m sure we would have carried in tents and supplies, and a whole cafeteria worth of food—just for Mr. Byles,” Benton added.
“Ah, what a pity. I was only suggesting the shelter for your sake. Hermando and I will be just fine, but your hide’s a little more delicate than ours. It amazes me that humans are such the terrors that they are.” Tennyson sniffed the air once more. “Rain will be coming to see us tonight.”
“Crap,” Benton uttered. He eyed the sky with concern. “You know, maybe I could create some type of cover with palm fronds.”
Tennyson dropped back down to all fours. “Yes, I imagine it would be a most unpleasant experience to face Bellamy’s crew after a night of wet shivering.”
Benton turned to Tennyson. “Guess there is no time like the present to learn some wilderness skills. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.”
“Yes, I am familiar with that quote. I believe its author was the famous philosopher—”
“Wait, don’t tell me. Cletus the truth-seeking platypus, right?”
“Well, actually he was a badger and his name was Paco.”
“Ah, Paco. I should have known that. Did we humans write anything?” Benton asked.
“Doubtful,” Tennyson replied.
This brought a grin to Benton’s face.
He stopped thinking about what he could and could not do, then set to work. Using fibrous strands that he pulled from the stem of a cattail-looking plant as a crude but effective twine, he fastened a number of stout sticks together to shelter the entrance leading into a rotten but somewhat spacious hollow of a tree. He weaved several layers of enormous leaves into the roof and sides to help keep the rain out. Benton stood back and thought to himself, Well dang, guess I did learn a thing or two in spite of the Byleses.
Benton crawled within the makeshift shelter holding his flashlight before him, checking once again to make certain that there were no critters already claiming residence there. He spied a few nut hulls and a small bone, signs that animals had lived there before, but fortunately, the leavings all looked old and crusted over. Benton leaned back against the inside of the tree and stretched out his feet.
“Your castle awaits, Your Majesty!” Benton summoned (with maybe just a touch of sarcasm.)
“It’s about time someone recognized the regality of my nature,” Tennyson snuffled as he backed end first through the opening. He looked around and commented, “This is indeed a worthy abode.” Then he began to scratch his ear with his hind foot.
It was not long after that Hermando showed up dragging a fruit-laden branch in his mouth, and not a moment too soon, either, as the heavens opened their valves and poured forth a torrent of rain. Benton’s handcrafted structure tilted and swayed in the buffeting deluge but held true. The three of them settled within the hollow bole as best they might, with Hermando and Benton giving the porcupine as much elbow room as they could muster. Hermando used his snout to push several globes of the yellow fruit in Benton’s direction before he then proceeded to tear into one of the pieces of round fruit himself.
“Hey, I’ve seen these before in the grocery store, they’re um, um… passion fruit, that’s it.”
“Passion indeed, a delight to the palate it is,” Tennyson exclaimed between bites. “But then again, all food is a delight to me!”
Benton joined in the feeding frenzy and ripped into the succulent fruit with an equally enthusiastic hunger, attempting to satisfy the black hole that masqueraded as his stomach. Quicker than you could say “lip-smacking,” he promptly devoured two whole passion fruits and began munching merrily away on a third piece as the sticky juice ran profusely down his chin. Benton belched with unabashed contentment as he felt vitality returning to his parched insides; he only wished he had five more pieces of the fruit to eat.
The rain continued its rant outside as the three compatriots finished their meager feast. Tennyson’s tongue darted out to wash the syrup from his paws. Between licks he mumbled, “Many thanks to the esteemed Mr. Hermando for providing such a tasty repast.”
“My pleasure,” the lizard replied with a dip of his head.
“Yeah, thanks, Hermando,” said Benton, belching once more. “That really hit the spot.”
“Perhaps as payment then you will tell a story before sleep takes us, eh?”
“Who, me? Sorry, but I’m not much of a storyteller,” Benton said.
“Not you, him, the pointy one. He’s full of stories… amongst other things.”
“If you insist, I suppose I can manage a tale to settle us down for the night. How about this one?” Tennyson said as he held forth his spiked appendage with both hands. “Get it? Tail?”
Benton booed.
“Ok, ok, how about this then… how about the story of Jacobo and the Thousand Thorns.”
“This isn’t about another furry philosopher, is it?” Benton asked.
“It is the story of how porcupines acquired their quills.”
“Si, si, that will do,” agreed Hermando with vigorous shakes of his head.
“Very well then, quit your yapping and listen.” Tennyson paused, then lowered his words. “That which came before sculpts that which comes after.”
Those last words left Benton somehow unsettled; they tickled him with a sense of foreboding. He sat back and laced his fingers behind his head, curious as to what sort of story an animal would tell. Benton shivered slightly.
Many, many, many years ago… the world was a much different thing than it is today. The land itself was still coming into its own and was a rugged place full of sharp stones that bit and fiery ash that choked. The creatures that dwelled upon that harsh expanse would be the very roots of every ancestral tree, though the faces that they wore were far removed from what we would call familiar. Their hides grew calloused and thick from the rough surroundings, as did their inner nature. They warred against each other for domination, and like petulant children. The animals quarreled with the world, cursing it for what it was, demanding of it what it was not. All of them, that is, except for one. There in the land of Li, west of the great ocean, lived Jacobo, the grandsire of porcupines.
Unlike the others, Jacobo’s skin and essence remained as soft as a parrot’s under-plumage. Resentful, the others said it was because of the salty breeze that blew in from the ocean, or the diet of soft fruit that grew near his burrow. But the wise would know it to be his conversations with Pachamama. Often she would stroll through her lands trying to enlighten her creations that the world was passing through a juncture, it was changing, growing, and the bleakness would soon pass. The animals would not listen to her, though; they were too caught up in their petty conquests. As soon as she would try to share comfort or instruct, they would turn their backs in contempt, offering only words of complaint. But not Jacobo. He listened, he believed, and through it, was content.
Pachamama lingered long in conversation with her faithful child and so Jacobo’s joy did grow. The others looked upon the texture of Jacobo’s skin and his happiness and grew jealous thereby, and in their wickedness, they drew great delight from the poking of his smooth flesh as they passed him by. The forceful prods were relentless, so much so that Jacobo walked around with a persistent patchwork of bruises for a body. But even so, he remained constant on the inside, and would not let their reckless resentment change him. He pitied them all, for none could see beyond their own barren thoughts.
And so it was that another watched these proceedings as well; coal-glow eyes that seethed within the coalescing of a shadow. Scheming with malevolent thought, it did not want the land to change. The desolation of the gnawing wind suited it just fine; so fine, in fact, because the shadow was the desert that filled the hearts of all the animals. Fire, discord, and all that is mean fed the shadow, sustained it, made it grow stronger. This was its age, and it would not let the triumph pass so easily. It brooded upon the fields of frosted rock until a black plot was hatched.
Within each creature there stirred the spark of life. A gift, the tiny glow that Pachamama had bestowed to her children, an actual piece of her being. It was a splinter of power. Carried within these sparks resided the potential to change the age, which was exactly what Pachamama had been trying to awaken in the walks among her children; cultivating the soil, making them fertile to change. This current callous age had its reason and purpose—one cannot know light without first knowing the dark. The lesson had been learned, though, and it was time to move on.