I recently wrote a short story of about 13,000 words right here on the blog. It was in serial format, spread over 20 or so posts. I’ve collected and edited it (it didn’t really need that much tweaking, to my surprise) and since this is a holiday weekend here in the US and a lot of you may want some reading material, I thought I would post the completed version here. Click “continue reading” to well, continue reading.
This story is called Spider Time, and it is about summer in Kekionga.
© 2015 Pam Bliss
epigraph and fragments of an introduction
“Au milieu de l’hiver, j’apprenais enfin qu’il y avait en moi un été invincible.”
Albert Camus “Rétour à Tipasa” 1952
The working title of this story has as much to do with the circumstances under which it was written as it does with the subject matter. It will soon become clear that this is simply a Kekionga story, the “origin story” of an already familiar member of the cast. It isn’t really about spiders. At least it’s not planned to be about spiders at this point.
But it’s definitely a story about summer itself, and about how summer adventures shimmer when recalled in the sober, golden, spidery harvest light of September. Summer may be an inspiration, but then you have to sit down and write.
And don’t worry—this is the last you’ll hear from any great French existentialist writers of the mid Twentieth Century. But why not start a September story with a reminder that no summer is more invincible than a summer in Kekionga?
Its September is pretty good too.
“In the middle of winter, I learned at last that I have within me an invincible summer.”
Albert Camus “Return to Tipasa” 1952
A composition book, quad ruled, red marble patterned cardboard cover.
In the label field and on a strip of blue tape, in decreasing sizes of Sharpie marker: MOOSE /PRIVATE! PRIVATE!/ PRIVATE NOTEBOOK #3
That means PRIVATE. THAT MEANS YOU. REALLY.
Inside, on the first page:
Back to school, and back to school writing. Can you believe Ms. (X) gave us “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”? She probably gave my mom the same assignment. Some old-time teacher probably gave it to my grandmother. My great grandmother, even. What they get back today is probably less crops and making jam and more soccer and computer camp, but it can’t be that much more interesting. Just a list.
I’m not stupid. I’m going to write a list too: acing the public library reading program, Pioneer day camp at the Rutherford Homestead, going with Murphy to visit our other cousins and seeing the ocean: swimming and taking rides on the ferry and eating boiled shrimp. It’s not a bad list.
But I’m glad I have a notebook like this to so I can tell the real stuff. Lots of things happened that can’t go on the school list, like exploring the so-called haunted house, the day we got lost in the swamp, and the major redesign we did on the Fort. You can’t write about your secret headquarters in a school paper. (And that new secondary supersecret emergency backup headquarters we’re building in the old bus Bud gave us in the remotest part of the Junkyard probably shouldn’t be mentioned at all.) And then there’s what happened at the County Fair. That was the major thing. The story that we’ll always remember about this particular summer.
Isn’t it weird that it should be the Fair? That’s something out of every school essay, something even your great grandmother could have written about. What happened could even have happened to her. But it didn’t. It waited a hundred years until it could happen to us.
The Fair. You go there every year and it’s always basically the same, but you always look forward to it. It’s the most summer thing about summer, with the animals, root beer and rides, and that special Fair smell of hay and manure and, mostly, food frying. I made a list one year and there were sixty two different fried things to eat, from deep fried cheesecake to deep fried cheeseburgers to deep fried sweet potato pie.
We always go to the Fair together, the six of us. We may go at other times, with our families or with other people, but that one day, when it’s just the gang, that’s the real Fair.
We start out with a couple things that everybody likes. We share a bucket of onion rings from Doctor Vegetable and go visit all the animals from the barns to the petting zoo. Then we take turns doing our personal favorites.
Mr. Spit, of course, likes the rides on the midway, the faster, noisier, cruder and more dangerous the better. Nina likes the contests for pies and quilts and growing vegetables, and she’ll go with Mr. Spit on some of the rides. Pounce buys a new cheap straw hat every year and visits all the animals again while she eats a bunch of walking tacos. I like the antique cars and tractors and writing down all the cool things I see. Lee goes to the commercial buildings and gets all the free yardsticks he can find for his collection, and waits for the lights to go on as it gets dark. He likes the fireworks best of all.
And Murphy eats his weight in Blue Moon ice cream and sketches the painted banners that flap over the crummy little sideshow way off at the edge of the Fairgrounds. It’s been there every year since “before the War”, whatever that exactly means. None of us have ever gone in, because we know it’s corny, exploitative and a ripoff, and maybe even a little bit evil.
But looking at the banners you can see why Murphy wants to meet the Amazon Witch Doctor, and the Snake Charmer, see the Eight Legged Horse and the Live Chupacabra, and of course, the Frozen Cave Girl in her block of ice, who has been in the sideshow since forever.
This year, as the afternoon wore on, we’d wandered off into the fields around the Fairgrounds. It was hot, but not just hot. The afternoon was thick. Nothing seemed more interesting than just sitting in the tall grass and doing nothing much. Some of us were dozing off all the junk food. Some us were looking for grasshoppers and butterflies and praying mantises, the usual summer bug stuff, but looking, not chasing or hunting. I was writing, and watching the Fair, which seemed to be much further away than it actually was.
In fact, everything felt far away. There wasn’t any wind and the whole atmosphere was just sitting on us, holding us in what seemed like the only real place left.. There was a great big noisy fairload of great stuff right there a few hundred yards down the hill, and none of us felt like going there or moving at all.
We knew there was going to be a storm. I mean, we’re Hoosiers. We’ve lived in Kekionga all our lives (except for Pounce, who moved here when we were in kindergarten, and possibly Mr. Spit who no one seems to remember before first or maybe second grade) and believe me, we know storms. Thunder rolls in the Midwest, all summer, every summer, and it always starts with a heavy quiet. When they teach you the word “oppressive”, they use Indiana before a summer storm for their example.
We knew, and we should have hustled down to within running distance of a building because if it was this quiet beforehand it was going to be bad. We all knew, but nobody mentioned it. We just sat there.
The sky turned green. It turned slate blue and purple. Then it turned black, literally black, nightfall in three minutes in the middle of the afternoon. If it wasn’t for all the lightning we wouldn’t have been able to see at all. The thunder didn’t roll in, it didn’t approach. It was just there, following the lightning right on its tail—no pause to count to find out how far away it was because it was on top of us, and the wind blew all the hot heaviness away and suddenly, surprise, surprise, we felt motivated. We felt plenty motivated to run for it.
Before we got halfway down the hill the power cut off and the Fair went silent. I’d say it disappeared, too, except that every time the lightning flashed we caught a glimpse of rides shutting down and tilting in the wind, banners flapping loose and bags, barrels and all kinds of cheap stuff rolling and blowing away. And people: people running, running for the buildings, running for the parking lots, just running. It seemed like all of them were screaming.
Then the Ferris wheel was struck by lightning. It lit up for second, then all the little light bulbs exploded. That’s when it started to rain.
Sheets. Torrents. So much rain. The wind could barely move it from vertical—it fell at a weird angle that always seemed to be right in your face. The lightning had moved on after its spectacular strike on the Ferris wheel (though there was still plenty of thunder) and it was pretty much pitch dark.
What should we do? There was a kind of yelly, fighty discussion. We were all soaked through, and you know how people screaming at you always makes you mad even if you know they are just doing it so you can hear. Pounce and Mr. Spit were in favor of running for our bikes and making our escape, while Lee, Nina, and, I will admit, me thought the only smart thing to do was to find shelter close by, in the Fair itself. Buildings, you know. Actual dry buildings. With roofs.
Murphy was staring off into the distance and not paying attention. (I was going to say “as usual”, but that would be mean.) It was Lee who first bothered to try to figure out what he was looking at, and it took him a while to get us all to stop with the high volume bickering and notice what Murphy’d noticed. It was a light. A nice, warm, yellowy orange light, like a campfire. It looked warm, even though you could barely see it through the rain.
“That’s gotta be the sideshow,” said Pounce, who never gets confused about directions. “But we don’t want to go there, remember?” Because we had agreed on this before. Sideshows are exploitative and fake and a ripoff. Everybody knows that.
“So what,” said Murphy. “They’ve got lights. We know they have tents.” This made sense to some of us, so there was more yelly discussion. Even Pounce ended up thinking a light we could see was better than a whole fairgrounds in the dark, basically chaos with everything blown over and people and maybe animals panicking and loose power lines and who knows what. I looked at Lee, who was the only other holdout. I knew his reasons for wanting to stay away were sensible. The sideshow was isolated, and there were bound to be strange grownups there—strange in the sense that we didn’t know them, and maybe strange in other ways, too
.Me? I wasn’t sensible. I was just scared. The sideshow, even the banners for it, always gave me the creeps, and I was always glad to hide behind people with reasonable objections to going in so I didn’t have to admit it. I’m Moose, right? I’m brave, and if nobody ever figures out that I really, really don’t want to look at a two headed calf, that’s just fine with me.
But majority rules, or at least Lee and I really didn’t want to be stuck on that hill all by ourselves in the storm. We followed close behind Pounce until we could see that the yellowy orange lights were coming from clusters of kerosene lanterns hanging from the poles of the sideshow booths and banners, which were arranged in most of a circle around a tramped down area. As we approached the lantern light we noticed (for the first time?) that there was a light tent over the whole sideshow, and when we stepped inside the circle, it was dry.
And we were alone. In spite of all the people running around out there on the downhill side, we were the only ones there.
We stood there, just us in the dry circle. Steam began to rise off Pounce’s new hat, and it slowly returned to its original sort-of cowboy shape. All around, it was still spooky dark and the wind was blowing hard, but in the middle of the sideshow it was lamplit and mostly still, as if electricity had never been invented. I say “mostly still” because there was a little breeze going, enough to flap the banners over the tents where the exhibits are and make them even more spooky. (Or are they performers instead of exhibits? Maybe it’s easier if you think of them as performers.)
Have you ever been to a sideshow? It’s actually a bunch of little shows, each one in its own tent or booth, all in a row or in a circle. Each one has a painted canvas banner hanging over the door advertising what’s inside.
Artistic people like Murphy, and anyone who likes folk art, will tell you that really good sideshow banners can be kitsch masterpieces. And even I think they’re sort of cool. But of course they’re one of the things that make the sideshow a ripoff: people who’ve actually bought a ticket will tell you that the stuff inside the tent is never as colorful or interesting as it looks on the banner. But as long as I didn’t have to go inside and look at whatever it is, I didn’t mind treating the outside of it like another crazy art exhibit for Murphy to go nuts for. Nina joined him because of the local history thing (apparently her grandfather remembers some of these same performers from when he was a boy) and Mr. Spit, of course, loves anything weird.
At this sideshow we had The Two Headed Calf (obviously), and also The Five Legged Horse, which I bet really didn’t run in horse races as shown on the banner. And The Giant Fly, which was supposed to weigh 27 pounds. (If true, gross.) Plus the Pincushion Boy, and the Intelligent Ape who would play chess with anybody for 10 dollars, which Lee was sure would be a person in a suit. The Buffalo Man and Spidora the Spider Woman, and The Wild Child, raised by wolves. And right in the center, the famous Frozen Cave Girl, who’d been in the sideshow at the fair for more than a hundred years, if you trust Nina’s grandfather, and the stories his grandmother used to tell him.
Then, somewhere behind the banners, music started to play, thin, crackly music, like a thick old record playing on one of those windup Victrolas with the big horns. A waltz, I thought, Strauss. The perfect creepy music for a creepy sideshow lit by lanterns when it’s dark and stormy in the middle of the day.
Then a lady stepped out of the shadows between the tents, a tall lady with white skin and hair, wearing a top hat and a tailcoat and a long black skirt that stretched out behind her like she was part snake. And there was a man with her, dressed in work clothes like a carnival roustabout, a man with red skin and little horns and what looked like a tail.
I know. Corny. But it didn’t seem corny at the time.
Lee was shaking and Pounce took a little step back and even Mr. Spit was breathing hard. Nina looked fine on the outside; but Nina would never let a grownup, especially a stranger, see her lose her cool. And Murphy, of course, looked like he was watching every creepy-wonderful story he’d ever read come to life for his personal amusement.
Me? As I said before, scared. I like Ray Bradbury just fine, but he’s safer in a book.
The scratchy waltz went on and on, more music, maybe, than one of those old records could hold. When it finally ended the lady slid forward, almost as if she really was part snake. Her voice was deeper than you might have expected and she didn’t quite hiss.
“Welcome, O young and curious, to the Strangeness of the World—All the Strangeness of All the World, Gathered Together for the Edification of All the People” (Yes, you could hear the capital letters.) “Look around, see all the wonders that we have for you to see … what’s your pleasure? Where will you go, what will you learn?” From what I knew about sideshows from seeing them in old movies, this was the time when she would start introducing the acts, pointing at the banners and saying a few words about each one as a come on. But she just stopped, hands spread. She wore white gloves– and how many hands did she have? It looked like at least six gloves. She was pointing at most of the circle at once.
There was a long pause. The music started up again, still just as scratchy. This time it was a slow dance with a lot of rhythm that sort of sounded Spanish. A tango, maybe? Pounce spoke up first, followed by Lee and Nina, tripping over each other to explain about the storm, about the rest of the fair being out of power, about finding a dry place with lights on and about being sorry but we weren’t planning on seeing the show.
The snake slash top hat lady did not like that at all. And really, why should she? The Strangeness of the World might definitely be creepy and possibly be crooked, but it was her business (somehow I was sure that she was the boss) and of course she needed people to buy tickets. “Oh my,” she said. “I’m afraid the Strangeness of the World is not a mere shelter from the storm. Not entirely … look up, my friends.” We did, and the big tent over the whole show was gone. Had there even been a tent? I couldn’t quite remember. The show was dry; there had to be a tent, didn’t there?
“The show is dry, that’s true, but only the show—the performers, the staff, and of course, the audience.” The suggestion was clear: we could stay, but only if we played our part.
“You gotta buy one ticket apiece” growled the man, and if the lady’s voice was deep, his was a growl from the bottom of the sea. “Pick six for one, pick six for six, but in you gotta go, or else go out.” The thunder started again, drowning out the tango.
We huddled up. Murph wanted to see everything; I wanted to see nothing. Lee wanted to play chess with the Intelligent Ape; Mr. Spit wanted to hang out with the Wild Child. There were votes for Spidora, and votes for the Five Legged Horse.
Then Nina spoke up. The Frozen Cave Girl was traditional. She was part of Kekionga history. I looked at her banner. Maybe she wouldn’t be as pretty as the artist made her look, but at least she wouldn’t have three noses or something. I hoped.
“Probably just a wax dummy in a freezer,” whispered Lee, and I was so glad he was standing there in his summer sweater vest and his muddy saddle shoes. Sometimes it’s great to have a friend who doesn’t have much imagination.
So it was settled. Pounce collected the money. But it was Nina who walked up to the little stage and said to the snake lady in the top hat: “Six for the Frozen Cave Girl, please”.
While Nina and the snaky boss lady were settling up. I looked at the banner for the Frozen Cave Girl. The artist painted her sleeping peacefully in her ice block, holding a spear with a stone point. It was pretty obvious that she was supposed to be a cave girl, since beside the spear, she had a bone in her hairdo and she was wearing a tiger skin wrapped around her for a dress. Her skirt was short, but not too short, and her hair looked awfully combed for somebody who had been frozen in ice since 10,000 BC. Solid ice, at that.
The only thing that seemed sort of realistic were her feet. They were pretty big, bigger than a modern girl would like to admit to, but that made sense. A real cave girl would have had to walk everywhere. Is this the sort of detail a sideshow operator would think up?
(The best part of the painting was the little cartoon mammoth in the corner. Of course, I’ve seen a real mammoth so I know what they look like.)
Nina turned back with a handful of tickets, and we automatically lined up so she could hand them out. They were small, pink, and just said “Admit one”— the kind of tickets that you can buy at the stationary store any day of the week. I was expecting something else: parchment, maybe, and beautiful old fashioned lettering with scrolls and spirals. Something you could put in your best cigar box as a souvenir of your visit to the Strangeness of the World. I put mine in my pocket anyway, after I showed it to the top hat lady and she waved us inside.
Inside the tent it was small and a little musty. You couldn’t hear the rain. The Victrola stood on a metal folding chair off to one side. And there were lights– lots of little white Christmas lights strung all around.. A faint chugging noise in the background explained it before Lee whispered “emergency generator”. In the middle of the tent was a large, shiny black box, sitting on a stand covered a piece of slightly ratty looking black velvet. It looked like a cheap sarcophagus.
The man with the horns and tail (they looked so real) followed us in and shut the tent flap. He started the Victrola with a little remote attached to his belt. (Didn’t they have cranks?) Anyway, more old fashioned music started to play, full of authentic crackles—sad music, this time, with accordions and clarinets and mandolins in it. Then he left the tent. We were alone with the sarcophagus and we all turned to look at it sort of automatically.
Smoke or vapor started to rise. The wooden sides of the box dropped down, and a spotlight came on, a cold bluish light. There, in a cloud of pale blue mist, was what looked like a giant ice cube, and inside it was the Frozen Cave Girl.
My first thought was that the banner wasn’t a bad likeness. She was a tall girl—a young grownup really, like Nina’s cousin Shelley and our friend Iowa. She could have been a college girl like them if she wasn’t wearing a tiger skin for a dress. (The bone you could probably get away with, considering the styles.) Her hair was black and wavy and she had the remains of a tan. And yeah, her feet were big, and calloused like she’d spent a lot of time walking barefooted. I took a deep breath. She wasn’t scary at all, maybe even a little sad. And she didn’t look like she was wax. I tried, I really tried to see all the ways that she was fake.
We were standing around the block of ice like we were at a funeral. Nina said that she wasn’t exactly beautiful, and that made it more realistic. Pounce said the tiger skin was really a skin. Mr. Spit touched the ice and came away with his hand wet. Lee didn’t want to look at her at all; he lifted up one side of the box (just wood padded with insulation, painted gloss black) and the velvet drape and showed us a cart with wheels, and a pretty ordinary refrigeration unit, and a tray of dry ice with a lid that opened when the box did. I stepped back and started writing all of this in my notebook.
Murphy just stared and stared and didn’t say a word. Until he saw her eyes open.
“She’s real,” he whispered. “I knew it, I knew it all the time. She’s real. And she’s alive.”
“What do you mean, she’s alive?” shouted Mr. Spit, a little louder than maybe he should have, but you couldn’t blame him for being somewhat excited. Pounce stepped on his foot anyway, hissing at him to keep his voice down if he didn’t want to get thrown out. Spit’s dirty looks don’t bother Pounce that much.
“Her eyes were shut when the box opened,” Lee said, looking thoughtful. That slowed down the rest of those who were going to jump on Murph for saying anything so wild.
That’d be Nina and Pounce, mostly. Sensible and knows a lot about nature, respectively—neither of them is likely to believe somebody could be alive after being frozen in ice for more than a couple minutes, much less since the last Ice Age. Mr. Spit, of course, is always pretty sure that anything that looks like a fake probably is. But Lee is scientific, and trusts his own observations.
And me, well, I trust Murphy. For all we aren’t that alike for as closely as we’re related, we have a lot of the same instincts, and when he says something simple like that you can believe him every time. No matter how crazy it sounds. (If you’re nosy enough to be reading this without actually knowing us, Murph and I are first cousins, but since our moms are identical twins, it’s more like being half-brother and –sister.)
What did I think? I was pretty sure I didn’t care right then whether the Cave Girl was alive or not. I just wanted to get out of there, Because if the sideshow was creepy before, standing there in the spooky blue light and all the mist swirling around, listening to the sad old fashioned music and looking down at her with her blue eyes open in the ice was a new quantum level of creepiness.
Then Mr. Spit took a deep breath, and said what I should have been thinking. “Then we have to rescue her.” Murph said yeah, yeah, and Pounce nodded, and Lee said that it didn’t make scientific sense, but if it was indeed true he was inclined to agree. And I got over myself fast. If the Cave Girl was real, if she was alive, then she was in trouble and it was up to us to help her.
Nina opened her mouth to start what I was pretty sure was going to be a debate on the subject, when the Cave Girl shut her eyes just as fast as she had opened them. And all of a sudden she looked just as much like a wax dummy as she had when we first saw her.
Then the tent flap opened and the man with the horns came in and told us if we wanted to look any more we had to buy another ticket because the next show was about to start. He opened the back flap of the tent and shooed us out.
Out into the sunshine on the wet grass at the edge of the fairgrounds. The storm was over like it had never happened, and it was going to get hot and start to steam, just like it did after any ordinary summer thunderstorm. I was the last one out, and when I looked back I saw the snake lady in the top hat lead a little crowd into the tent, and start a lecture about the world famous Frozen Cave Girl and how she’d been found in Siberia in the days of the Czars, which I would have liked to hear more of except the man shut the tent flap and stood in front of it watching us until we left.
It was time to regroup anyway. We had a rescue mission to plan.
The steam rose (and so did the smell) as the puddles dried up as suddenly as they’d filled up. The fairground crowd was more excited, having much more fun, than was usual on even the second to last day of the Fair. (Which it was. Did I mention that?) They milled around, stuffing themselves and looking at the sights and throwing balls at bottles and darts at balloons to win even more giant prizes that were both cheap and spooky.
Cheap and spooky. Like the sideshow, like The Strangeness of the World. What a cheap and spooky place to be held prisoner … Luckily the super-happy crowds weren’t paying any attention to us, six kids in a different kind of mood. Of course, that didn’t stop us from spending what was left of our Fair money on some serious discussion food. Deep fried oreos mostly, and another bucket of rings, and some egg rolls and spring rolls. Pounce had another walking taco. Murphy, Nina, Lee and I had remembered our half-price refill Zane Farm Market souvenir root beer mugs, and Pounce and Mr. Spit got some straws from somewhere so we could share. If there’s anything in the world that tastes better than onion rings and root beer I don’t know what it is.
We found a picnic table out on the edge of the grounds, behind the horse barns on the other side of the Midway from the sideshow, where nobody was likely to walk by and we could see them if they did. And we hashed it out.
It’s hard to write about a discussion. I’ve got a pretty good memory and I wrote a lot of notes in my journal right afterward, but I’m still sure I couldn’t write down what everybody said in the order they said it in and get it all exactly right. And even then, I’m not sure you’d want to read it. You’d start skipping ahead to the more exciting part of the story, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did.
If you know us at all, you know that Mr. Spit was just the first one to say it out loud. We were going try to rescue the Frozen Cave Girl. But, yes, we gave all the important points a fair hearing.
Could somebody really be alive in a block of ice? Pounce and Lee were especially skeptical, but even they had to admit that her eyes had been open and tracking, so maybe.
So what if the whole thing was a fake, not in the sense of a wax dummy, but in the sense of an actress in some kind of ice covered prop? Nina came up with that one, and it made a lot of sense to me. (And everyone else, except maybe Murphy, who by this time was a dedicated believer.) We decided there wasn’t much we could do about that if it was true: if we came back and found the Frozen Cave Girl playing cards and drinking beers with the rest of the cast, we’d just have to sneak away again and admit we’d been bamboozled.
We even went around the circle once with the idea that taking the block of ice would be stealing, but we all agreed that if there was a person in it, the Constitution definitely took care of that one.
Then it was just a matter of making a few plans: the time would be late at night when everyone from the show would either be asleep or busy with their own stuff. And it would have to be tonight, because tomorrow was the last day, and the sideshow would be packing up as soon as the Fair closed for the last time.
We brainstormed a few ideas for sneaking a giant block of ice into the woods to thaw, finished our root beers, and headed home to take a nap.
I didn’t get much sleep that afternoon and evening, and though we never talked about it later, I bet I wasn’t the only one. I won’t go into details about fudging the truth and sneaking out. All adventurers do that, if they want to keep on having adventures, and if there’s something slightly wrong about it, you just have to do your best to minimize it and make sure it’s always for a good cause.
This cause was definitely good, assuming a) the Frozen Cave Girl wasn’t an actress acting, as Nina suggested, and b) if she was actually real she was also actually alive, like Murphy insisted she was. Because if she turned out to be a wax dummy like everyone has always assumed since our grandparents’ time, then it really would be stealing and we were heading into a world of trouble. But like I said above, trouble in a good cause, and if we had to sacrifice about sixteen years of allowances (each!) to make it right, then that’s what we’d have to do.
Apparently all of us had come to the same conclusion and not talked ourselves out it, because at the appointed time we all turned up at the Fort, with dark clothes and rope and tools and well oiled bikes. Riding bikes at night on secret paths through woods and along the edges of service roads is part of any good adventure, and I admit I enjoy it. So does Mr. Spit—this is one of the few times when I feel sure I’m as brave as he is. We always take the lead.
It’s a pretty long way from the Fort to the Fairgrounds and we still weren’t sure how we would get back. Lee, Nina and Pounce (all good at math ) had each tried to figure out how much a block of ice big enough to hold a tall grown up girl must weigh. Their estimates were too different to be helpful except to say that the right answer was probably “a lot”. We didn’t have a car or a truck, obviously, so we were depending on getting her into the thick woods close by the Fairgrounds first, then taking it by stages until we got her back to the Fort.
As the ice melted, the block would get lighter, and maybe we could knock parts of it off. I’d brought a big chisel. Moving would have to be by rope hauling and bike towing, although we were planning to bring in our big six wheeled wagon later in the process. But mostly our plan, such as it was, involved safe hiding places and a certain amount of waiting. How long the ice would take to melt was another unknown (meaning another math failure) but it would probably be days, not hours. We’d take turns staying with her. She was never going to be alone. Waking up from being frozen for at least a hundred years, maybe more (maybe many, many more) would definitely confuse a person.
That’s what I was thinking while we rode our bikes thought the warm summer night, too fast for mosquitoes. Then the Fairgrounds was there, still pretty well lit up, although all the neon lights on the rides and the little white ones lining almost everything else were all turned off. And even though the crowds were gone, the carnival workers and the people staying in the barns with their animals were still walking around or sitting talking at the picnic tables, the grownups anyway.
But the sideshow seemed to be deserted. And at the back of the Frozen Cave Girl’s tent, hanging from one of the ropes, was a turned-off battery lantern.
This was the decision point. Up till then, all we’d done is sneak out and ride our bikes around in the dark for a while. I don’t know if you can “break and enter” a tent, but if we went in it would be trespassing at least. Lee and I unhooked the lantern and started fiddling with it, and Pounce and Mr. Spit looked at each other and nodded. One went left and once went right – reconnaissance. We’d all see the Frozen Cave Girl open her eyes and look straight at us. We were doing this.
Lee and I got the lantern set up—just bright enough to see. That plus a couple of dim flashlights would let us work without anyone noticing. Or so I very sincerely hoped. Murphy was a million miles away, no doubt thinking about all the questions he was going to ask the Cave Girl when we got her unfrozen. But Nina was looking around like she was paying serious attention. This bugged me a bit—that’s Nina using her Sensible Powers. Which means she was extreme likely to be noticing something obvious and important the rest of us were missing.
Pounce came back first, reporting in a whisper that the sideshow was dark and completely deserted as far as she could tell. Then Mr. Spit came in, running low in his dirt colored T-shirt and old camo pants, his hair looking like a bunch of dried weeds, and he told us he’d run all the way down to the Midway and there was a big party going on, probably for the last night of the Fair. (We’d guessed that from the far away noise of course.) And even better, the snake lady in the top hat and the man with the horns were both there, playing in a big poker game with a people watching and it didn’t look like they’d be going anywhere soon.
Mr. Spit and I were ready to grab the back flap of the tent when Nina whispered “Wait. Listen.” We did. (Always listen to Nina when she uses Nina tone of voice.) We listened. Party in the distance: music and lots grownups talking at once. Close by, nothing.
Nothing. No generator clanking and buzzing, like we’d heard before. Right, the lights had come back on, so maybe they didn’t need the generator, but no refrigerator or freezer humming, no compressor turning on and off to keep a block of ice frozen on a hot summer night. I opened my mouth to comment and Nina put her hand on my arm, and then a heard it.
Drip. Long pause. Drip. Drip. Water dripping, slowly, landing on grass that was already wet. She was thawing. The Unfrozen Cave Girl was thawing and she had been for a while.
We all crammed through the tent flap so fast it was lucky we didn’t knock the tent down. As it was, Lee and Murphy got tangled up just inside, knocking over the chair with the Victrola on it. There was quite a crash. We all held still—if anyone was lurking around the sideshow, they would have heard that for sure. Just when we started to breath again, a spring broke inside the Victrola with a loud sproing, a musical metal sound, bright and sad and funny at the same time.
And then there was another sound, a crack of ice. We turned the lantern and the flashlights on the center of the tent. The box was open and the block of ice was dripping there, blue and silver in the lantern light, and we could see the Frozen Cave Girl inside, like a shadow. And I was positive, just positive for a long second: the ice is going to crack open and the Cave Girl is going to sit up like the Bride of Frankenstein in an old horror movie and we are all toast.
Nina screamed a little, and Lee sort of gasped. Spit stepped in front of them and Pounce. Murphy, next to me, was grinning like an idiot. Nothing happened. We took one more step forward, enough to see that there was a crack in the ice, right across the top, but not deep enough to let anybody out. The whole block was shiny with water. Drip. Drip. Drip.
We knew that after the crash and sproing episode (and yes we owed somebody a Victrola and we’d have to figure that out later) that our time was limited. Somebody had to have heard that. Some of us started checking out the box and the stand the ice block was on, while the rest of us looked around for anything useful. The Frozen Cave Girl was just lying there in the ice, looking cold and asleep. Murphy’d stationed himself by her head, watching her with way more attention than he usually gave anything. You could hear him wishing that she’d open her eyes, that she’d maybe help.
It was Nina who found the rolled up carpet in a pile of junk in the darkest part of the tent. The original idea had been to find a piece of canvas (hopefully a spare rather than a piece of the tent, though I had a pair of heavy shears with me, just in case) roll the ice block onto it, and drag it away into the woods. But as soon as Nina, with a little help from Lee and Pounce, got that carpet unrolled, you could see it was going to be a million times better.
It was a Persian rug like in an old fashioned book, really thick and covered with leaves and scrollwork and paisleys. Even in the light of the battery lantern you could tell it was really colorful, mostly red, green and gold with bits of pink, blue and cream color. Fancy, yeah, but Pounce whispered that the colors were pretty natural and broken up in little pieces almost like camouflage. And it was huge, big enough that even counting room for the Frozen Cave Girl and her ice cube and room for a team to grab it and pull, there was enough left over to cover everything up. Get it back the tall grass under the shadow of a tree, it’d be hard to see if we had to hide it during the day.
Plan made. The stand the block was on was kind of flimsy, so we pushed it onto the edge of the rug, and sort of collapsed it. It went faster than Lee had anticipated. To be honest, we sort of dumped her feet first onto the carpet. Kind of hard. There was another cracking sound and a whole big corner of the block chipped off and lay there melting. Murphy gasped and pointed. “Look,” he whispered. “Her toe.”
Spit looked at him like he was crazy. “Toe, schmo. Get up here and pull.” But the rest of us followed Murphy’s shaky point. And, yeah, it looked sure like if you got your finger right into one of the crevices in the cracked edge, you could just touch one of the Frozen Cave Girl’s toes. If you dared.
Who was the bravest? Who knew, or could guess, what a frozen person would feel like? Or, conversely, who dared to scratch or scrape that toe to see if it was wax or plastic? Everybody looked at everybody else. Nina put her hands behind her back. Pounce shook her head. Lee was one step away from being sick. Spit just wanted to get going and Murph looked like he’d been hit with his whole imagination at once like it was a big rock. It was up to Moose and her trusty pocket knife to do what needed to be done. As usual.
At least this way we’d be able to stop before we actually burgled anybody. I kept telling myself that and took a deep breath. Then I touched her toe, the piggy toe on her left foot. And it felt—frozen. Just plain frozen solid. Knife, then. I flipped out the smallest, sharpest blade and took the tiniest little scrape.
The Frozen Cave Girl’s eyes snapped open– bright blue. Did her mouth open a little bit, too? Like she was trying to talk?
Nina grabbed Murphy by the collar from behind and got her hand over his mouth just as he started to yell. Mr. Spit, with Pounce, and surprisingly, Lee, started pulling as hard as they could and thee block slid out of the tent like the rug was a sled. Nina followed, dragging Murphy.
I wiped my knife on my pants and put it away. Shut the tent flap and laced it up. Turned off the battery lantern and hung it back on its hook. The Frozen Cave Girl was already in the woods as the darkness closed behind me.
Things were going smoothly. Too smoothly. The grass and weeds went down easily under the heavy carpet, which was just light enough for Murphy and Mr. Spit, spelled by me and Pounce, to pull across the field at nearly a normal walking speed. Lee tends to get tangled up with other people when working in close quarters, as seen previously, and Nina’s not as big as her heart is, if you know what I mean. They kept watch behind us, trailing back to watch and listen. The party was still rocking down on the Midway, Nina whispered that it sounded even louder than it had been. We’d made plenty of noise, getting the Frozen Cave Girl out of her tent, but maybe nobody had been inclined to hear us.
Even when the open fields around the fairgrounds turned into the beginnings of The Woods, it still seemed pretty easy. We started moving in steps like we had planned. Pounce took point and planned each little bit of the route to avoid trees and rocks while keeping as many obstacles as possible between us and that empty tent. This was a good idea, if I said so myself, since it gave the people doing the pulling lots of chances to rest and we could go pretty fast when we did move.
When we got to the Red Rock (if you know the Woods you know where it is, and if you don’t, we’re not going to tell you), which was maybe halfway to where we’d planned to stop and a pretty safe place, we decided to take a longer break. We sat down around the block like it was a campfire, and Mr. Spit pulled back the flap of extra rug.
The Frozen Cave Girl looked extra mysterious in the moonlight. Her eyes were still open and she seemed to be looking at the sky, like she was trying to figure out the constellations or maybe navigate by the stars. I wonder if Orion had looked the same in the sky ten thousand years ago. I don’t know enough about astronomy to answer that question and I sort of wished I did. Everyone else looked like they were thinking weird thoughts, too: Nina with her chin on her hand, Pounce with her dark eyes reflecting almost like a cat’s, Lee all serious like he was doing math in his head, Mr. Spit looking tired but resolute. He’d been doing most of the pulling … but where was Murphy? Murphy who should have been staring at the Frozen Cave Girl like he had a crush on her, or at least a crush on her mystery.
Murphy was gone.
We waited a minute, just in case, but there was no sign of him coming back out of the brush in that slightly embarrassed way people sometimes do. Normally, when that didn’t happen we’d fan out and start yelling. Murphy is not exactly a woodsman and if he had just wandered off he’d either gotten lost or was sitting on a log somewhere with a twisted ankle. But yelling didn’t seem like a great idea just then.
Finally we decided to risk a flashlight turned way down, and Pounce, who is a woodswoman, started casting around. It didn’t take her long to find the trail– which was our trail, all the crunched up and knocked over bits that marked the passage of the heavy carpet and its escort. It was depressingly obvious. Even I could see Murphy’s sneaker prints when Pounce pointed them out. He had headed back to the Fair, and with that path to follow even Murphy was likely to get there.
At this point we were going to have to make some decisions, fast. It’d been after midnight before we’d arrived at the fairgrounds, and summer nights don’t last long. Already, the trees to the east were silhouetted, dark grey against a sky that wasn’t quite black. We’d wait for Murphy as long as we could, but some of us at least would be missed at home if we weren’t there for the morning routine. The discussion went around the circle, in whispers, as the ground around our feet got damper and damper from the melting ice.
Nina had to go home ASAP: her parents had schedules that ran like clockwork; she’d have French camp first thing in the morning and a piano lesson before supper no matter what she’d gotten up to overnight. Lee’s folks pretty much turn him over to his big sister in the summer when she was home from the Polytechnik; Shan’s cool, but she felt obligated to check up on him two or three times a day and one of them was before she went to work. Pounce? Just her grandmother this week and that could mean anything. If Noni had been stargazing or working in her night-blooming flowerbeds, she already knew her granddaughter was out and Pounce would either be in trouble or not, no matter when she got in. Or Noni might sleep till noon and never even notice. Mr. Spit, of course, was pretty much a free man; he could come back to his foster home whenever, as long as the police didn’t bring him.
Me? Square family, square life: two moms who are sisters and take turns taking care of the kids—that means I’m due at my house for cereal at 7:30 at the latest and Murphy was supposed to be chowing down on Cheerios at the breakfast bar right next to me. I didn’t relish the idea of being there alone, and had just about decided that if he didn’t turn up I wasn’t going to go home and face the music without him, when there was a familiar crunching in the bushes. It’s was either a sasquatch …
Or Murphy, staggering out of the woods, barefoot, muddy to his knees, covered with stratches and garlanded with tugged out weeds and vines, and pretty much soaking wet. He looked like a crazy fool, but we were awfully glad to see him. Mr. Spit spoke for all of us.
“Murph! What the heck?”
“I did it,” said Murphy. “I went back and I did it. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was going but it’s a super complicated idea that I just sort of had and no way was there time to explain it and have a big discussion and still get it done before it gets light. And I think it’ll work. I know it will work.”
Murphy was so tired and proud and muddy and flustered that it took a while to get it out of him. And yes, it was getting lighter, but we were all so interested in what he had to say that we sort of forgot about it. Because Murphy, Mr. Head in the Clouds, had actually had a good idea. Maybe even a genuine Cunning Plan.
Basically, he had gone back down to Fairgrounds, grabbed a bucket he’d remembered seeing backstage at the sideshow, found a water tap, and dumped about seven or eight buckets of water all over the floor of the Frozen Cave Girl’s tent. As if her block of ice had completely melted. And then he’d taken off his sneakers and walked out, barefoot, through the water and the mud and the wet grass, leaving the tent open. As if she had gotten up and walked away.
“Her feet are about is big as mine. It’s gonna work. It’s an excuse,” said Murphy. “It’s an excuse, and a story they can tell, and something people might believe, at least people who hang around at sideshows, at least a little.”
We looked at Murphy’s feet, and the Frozen Cave Girl’s feet still (mostly) inside her slowly shrinking block of ice, and yeah, it was a pretty good story.
“That was actually a pretty good plan, Murphy. Very suitable and, in context, logical.” Lee sounded a bit surprised, and no one could blame him. He doesn’t get to say stuff like that to Murphy very often.
“Covering your tracks with real tracks,” said Pounce admiringly, coming back from checking out Murphy’s trail. “Somebody who was just waking up from being frozen would be clumsy, too.” Murphy went hey, in a mild way, and Pounce had to backtrack (pun, ha ha) by pointing out that a cave girl would probably have very good woodcraft. Because for her it will be just, well, craft. It’d be her everyday knowledge.
“And that’s why it works,” I told everyone. “Like Murphy said, it’s a good story. And a story is what’s going to save us here. If everybody tells the cops that a sideshow attraction, which everyone thinks is fake anyway, just got up and walked away, they aren’t going to go looking for a live person.” I stopped short. We all did. Even Murphy, who had been pretty pleased by our reaction to his best crazy idea ever.
We stopped and turned and looked back at the reason for it all, the Frozen Cave Girl. It was getting light fast and it was easy to see her, lying there in her giant ice cube, in her tiger skin for a dress, with her bone in her hair and her spear beside her and two more toes sticking out of the thinnest place in the ice beside the one that I’d jabbed with my knife. Her eyes were closed again, making her look like a strange sideshow Sleeping Beauty, but on that one toe, there was a single drop of blood. She was real, and we’d rescued her, and she was melting fast.
“I agree,” someone said. A deep voice. A grownup voice. “It’s a really good story. But maybe you need to tell me the rest of it.” A shadow stepped out of the shadow of the trees, a shadow that solidified into the shape of a person. The shadow went grey, then spiralled away into the deeper part of the fading darkness. Leaving a man, a broad shouldered young man in a grey hoodie, navy blue army pants and black boots. His hair was black with one white piece over his forehead and he was wearing goggles and an expression that told us our luck had run out.
Foursquare! It was Foursquare, who is a real actual superhero just like in comic books—the superhero who protects Kekionga and stands up for truth and justice in general. He gets his name from his four super powers (one of them is his Overcast, sort of a cloaking power, which we’d just seen) and also from how honest and reliable he is. We might lie to other grownups right and left—all kids do. We have to, if we want to be able to work on our projects in peace. But there are a few people you just don’t lie to. Lee’s sister Shan is one, because she can see right through it. Pounce’s grandmother is another, because she already knows everything. And then there’s Foursquare, because he’s just that impressive, standing there looking at you in that marble statue way. He makes you want to be just as honest as he is. Mr. Spit says lying to him might even make you a villain, and while we may not be exactly perfect, nobody wants to be a villain.
So we told him the truth, starting with the storm at the Fair.. He listened carefully to the whole thing. That’s the most heroic thing about Foursquare: he treats everybody fairly and doesn’t take you any less seriously just because you’re a kid. Then he squatted down to look at the Frozen Cave Girl. She opened her eyes again and it was easy to imagine that she almost smiled at him.
Sometimes things are just easier with a grownup around. At least, it’s easier if that grownup is Foursquare. Superheroes are a lot like kids, really, the way they care more about right and wrong than they do about doing what grownups are supposed to do.
Foursquare agreed with us that the Frozen Cave Girl seemed to be alive in there, in her ice block, and that what we’d done was definitely a rescue, not a theft. (Not that he’s a cop or anything official, but it made us feel better.) He listened respectfully to our plans for what to do next, and agreed with them too.
It was Nina’s idea at first, based on how her mom and grandmother got the turkey ready for Thanksgiving dinner. When you get a big turkey and it’s frozen solid, you thaw it in the sink in cold water. If the water’s moving, it goes even faster. Have you ever put an ice cube under the tap? It melts almost instantly, even if the water is cold. Of course, it would be huge waste of water to thaw a whole turkey with the faucet running. But then Pounce pointed out that the creek was always running anyway.
We were planning to thaw the Frozen Cave Girl in the creek down by the Fort. We were already more than halfway there, but the sky was distinctly grey now and we were starting to see colors. (Foursquare was wearing a red T-shirt under his hoodie.) Time was running out. It was easy to let Foursquare take charge.
He was pretty efficient. He sent Nina, Lee, Murphy and me home right away before we’d be missed. (Not that we went, not until we heard the whole plan, Foursquare revision.) Then he decided that Mr. Spit should run on ahead to make sure everything was quiet around the Fort and clear a big enough space in the creek for the ice block in a place that was under some kind of cover, since there was no guarantee Foursquare would be able to stick around and use his Overcast on her all day.
Then Foursquare would carry the Frozen Cave Girl, block and all, wrapped in the rug (he’s super strong, of course) and Pounce would guide him to the Fort. Even though it is a top secret location we trusted Foursquare. If you can’t trust a hero, who can you trust?
(Of course, we also know the location of his Secret Headquarters, so it’d be a standoff anyway . But that’s another story.)
Lee, Murphy and me would come straight back to the Fort as soon as we’d let our families get a look at us. (Murphy would try to change his clothes first). We’d bring breakfast for everyone else and probably lunch, too. Nobody knew how long the Frozen Cave Girl would take to thaw.
Nina would go to French camp because she had to, but try to get out of her piano lesson (if she could think of a way to do it wouldn’t make her parents suspicious) so she could join us in the middle of the afternoon. Hopefully she wouldn’t miss the big event.
Because, really, we’d been thinking so hard about how to get the Frozen Cave Girl out of the sideshow and out of the ice, that it was only now that we were starting to wonder what would happen when she was out.
This is where my version of the story takes a small break. Nina, Lee, Murphy and I took off for home. We made it back to the neighborhood before it got all the way light.
Nina split off first, to her unlatched window and a repeat performance of her “coming into breakfast neatly dressed after a good night’s sleep” act. She’s surprisingly sneaky for a nice girl.
Lee didn’t have to sneak. Shan treats him as a rational person. All she wants is to be able to tell their folks she saw him and he was fine, and to not actually be lying.
And Murph got back to his house and changed in time for us both to eat breakfast at mine in more or less the normal way. Ordinary grownups see what they expect to see, in this case two kid cousins fueling up for another day of wholesome outdoor play. My mom sent us out again with some oatmeal cookies and a can of cocktail peanuts. (Lee beat us back, though, with some leftovers from the Happy Buddha.)
The scene for the day was set when we got there: the carpet looking like a rectangular jewel, spread out to dry on the grassy bank, and a little bit downstream, under the big willow tree, the ice block sat in the middle of the creek, the brown-green water flowing a little faster on either side. It already looked somewhat smaller. On one bank Pounce and Lee were watching, on the other side, Foursquare and Mr. Spit. Everybody was eating apples from Bone Joan’s orchard.
Foursquare had taken off his goggles and hoodie. He was wearing that Foursquare T shirt everyone was wearing this summer, red with the Foursquare symbol on it in white. Mr. Spit, sitting next to him, was wearing a black one. Apparently, we were pretending again, pretending that Foursquare the superhero wasn’t really our friend Jack from the Junkyard, hiding in plain sight in an improvised costume, and maybe pretending about Mr. Spit a little too, like we didn’t know he was heading in the same direction.
But we didn’t have to pretend about the real adventure that was happening very slowly around us. The advance party had put the ice block in the creek so that her face was above water, and I swear she was looking up and smiling. Was she enjoying the flowing water and the sunlight on her face, dappled by the green and golden leaves of the big willow?
Lee finished his apple and waded out to put a floating thermometer in the water next to the ice block. He moved to the other side with Spit and Jack (I mean Foursquare) and sat there holding the string.
The day passed, slowly but not in a boring way. Six watchers, three on each bank. The ice block in the water. The Frozen Cave Girl inside. The big willow hanging over everything, and the cicadas shrilling in the brush all around.
The Frozen Cave Girl’s spear fell to the bottom of the Creek, rolling across the pebbles.
It got hotter.
Nina came trotting up with three big bunches of green grapes and we sat with our feet in the cold water to eat them.
Then the ice cracked, finally, mightily, and the block split in half and zipped away downstream, one piece to the right and the other to the left.
The ice block was gone and for a second it looked like the Frozen Cave Girl was going to float downstream after it. Either that or sink, and maybe drown. That’d be a pretty bad character development: getting thawed out after being frozen for ten thousand years, then drowning in two feet of water before you were even properly alive again.
Mr. Spit was in the water first, followed immediately by Foursquare and Pounce. But before she could be rescued for the second time, the Cave Girl got her feet under her, tried to stand up, fell over, and ended up sitting down in the middle of the Creek. The water was only about up to her waist and her knees stuck up out of it. Since she didn’t look like she was in any danger, everybody sort of froze and stared at her. Neither Spit or Foursquare, who were both reaching out to grab her, dared to finish the gesture.
The Cave Girl (we can’t really call her “Frozen” any more) looked around her, at the sky, at the trees, at the water. She looked at the carpet, which seemed to confuse her, then at the Fort, which seemed to confuse her more. (Understandable, since it’s made of scrap lumber plus a bunch of packing crates and old doors and windows, and while Lee’s a passable engineer and Spit and I are decent rough carpenters, none of us is exactly an architect.) Then she looked at each of us, right in the face, like she was trying to figure us out. She ended up with me.
“You, girl!” Being frozen didn’t seem to have hurt her lungs. She could holler with the best of them. I was so surprised it didn’t even occur to me to wonder why she was speaking English. I made a “who, me?” gesture, and she seemed to understand that too.
“Yes, you, you Toestabber girl!” Oh, yeah. She was alive all right, and trust her to remember who it was who’d conducted that little forensic investigation. I sure hoped Foursquare and Spit could hold her if she went for me, because she looked pretty ferocious. But then she smiled, with big white teeth. “You wake me up with little knife! Much thanks to you, to all boys and girls your tribe who lives in woods. You strong and clever carry me away, and have good hearts to want to do. Much thanks see the sky again, much thanks talk and breathe.” She stood up, brushing off Pounce and Mr. Spit who tried to help her.
“Not so nice be cold and wet, but is way of ice when melts. Is hot day, will dry. I put my dress with many color blanket in drying place.” And, well she did exactly that, unwinding her “tiger” skin. (I could see that the stripes were paint, running down what was probably a cowhide.) There was general squeaking and fussing, and the boys making a show of being gentlemen and not looking. I noticed that Foursquare was just as flustered, turning his back and putting on his Overcast for good measure.
Nina, of course, was completely in her element, finding an old hot pink T-shirt of Mr. Spit’s and a piece of red denim we were saving for a project and, in about three minutes, improvising a stylish crop top and wrap skirt outfit that went really well with her bone-in ponytail hairdo. It took a little longer to convince her that she needed to wear them. When Foursquare finally turned around his eyes just about fell out of his head—the Cave Girl was about four inches taller than he was and her T-shirt was about four sizes too small.
She liked looking at him too. “Good see boys and girls not live in woods all alone. Men your tribe very handsome! You my hero!” Then she kissed him. The crowd, as they say, went wild.
Foursquare’s reaction to being kissed was sort of hysterical. He was glad to be kissed by a pretty girl, a little intimidated by being kissed by a pretty girl who was taller and probably stronger than he was, and mostly worried about what his girlfriend was going to say when she found out about the whole thing. Foursquare seems to get kissed by girls quite a bit (and sometimes boys: it’s part of the job for a superhero who is always rescuing people) and although Iowa is a smart and cool person who understands this, it still gets on her nerves sometimes.
But we managed to convince the Cave Girl that Foursquare was taken. She called it “having a lovemate”, which sounds close enough to going steady, which Jack and Iowa absolutely are in spite of the occasional superhero stuff. She seemed to take it pretty well, especially after he promised to help her adjust to being unfrozen and learn how to get along in the modern world. That would include introducing her to a bunch of new people, some of whom would definitely be single guys.
The Cave Girl was amazingly calm for somebody who was having an extremely strange experience. Part of it was probably her personality—Pounce said she was sort of Zen, while Lee thought she was simply extremely practical, more so than most people. I think she was just glad, so glad to be breathing and talking and eating grapes and cold moo shu pork, that anything else was just a detail.
Of course we wanted to know how she’d ended up in the sideshow in the first place. This is what she told us, written down as quick as I could in my notebook:
“So Toestabber and her friends want hear story? Is simple, but strange. Am hunter. Not often woman hunt, but I big and strong, not have babies, so can go. Men not like to hunt with woman, say she bad luck. So I go by myself. Is winter, much cold, but I set traps, catch small things with good fur. If leave too long, wolf steal, or coyote, or fox. Bad idea go out, sky look like much snow, but am fast, home before storm.
“You make guess. Am not fast enough. Lost in blizzard, hide under bush, fall asleep in snow. When that happen you die.” She shrugged, like this was an ordinary thing that just happened sometimes, which I suppose for her it was. This made us sort of sad, and she smiled at us. “Not bad way to die. Not hurt, not scary. Everybody die sometime.
“But not everybody wake up in strange place! Not move, not see, just light and dark, ice cold, strange sounds. This scary. Much, much scary. I glad fall asleep again. Happen over and over, many times. Less scary, begin watch and listen. Some sounds words. Some sounds music—learn word for that. Learn words many things. Each time wake, understand more words. Learn am in tent. Learn days long, nights short. Each time wake in summer. People walk, people talk, say strange things. Say am in ice. Am frozen. I frozen girl live in cave. How they know we live in cave? We did, in winter, cave in hill where strange thing happen.”
Mystery Hill! We looked at each other, completely amazed. It had to be—there are lots of caves up there that’d be decent to live in. Could the name be that old? But the Cave Girl (she really was a cave girl!) was finishing her story.
“I want talk, say words I learn. Want walk in word outside, see how strange. I sleep long, long time. Before I just want not wake up. Now I want be free. But nothing I can do. Then girls and boys come, Toestabber and her tribe, drag me away on blanket. Little knife makes small hurt. I feel. First thing I feel, long, long time. I hear more and more, see a little, then wake up in cold water! Is big surprise!
“But is still woods. Still smell same, still look same. Girls and boys wear strange clothes, give me strange clothes, but clothes are clothes. Food taste strange, but taste good. Strange words, but still mean tree, water, clothes. Handsome man still handsome, still want to kiss. World not same world, but still world. You understand?”
We sure did. We’ve all read plenty of science fiction. But apparently you can understand time travel perfectly well without it.
After the Cave Girl finished her story, we were all quiet for a while. It was a lot to think about. The next thing that happened was Jack digging a phone out from a waterproof pocket in his Foursquare pants and stepping aside to make a call. We spent the next few minutes explaining phones to the Cave Girl, who decided pretty quickly that she wanted a “small stone, talk far” for herself.
“Don’t worry, Miss, “said Jack when we came back. “We’ll get you a phone, and some clothes, and … things.” He made a gesture that suggested some kind of unspecified feminine mystery, which made the boys nod wisely and me, Pounce and Nina crack up laughing. “I just talked to my girlfriend and she’ll meet us at the Junkyard—that’s where I work and it isn’t far from here— with some stuff to start with and she says you can stay with her and her roommate for a while until you figure out what you want to do.”
“Two questions, handsome. Where money to pay, and why say “Miss”? Am not woman guard children.” The first one was easy —Bud, Jack’s boss at the Junkyard has a special “rainy day” fund that he uses to help people who’ve had stories happen to them. He says that the stories usually end right after the dramatic rescue part, but afterwards the people need to either get home or start over, and that takes practical resources. Bud has a lot of contacts and we knew he’d find the Cave Girl some kind of job or something and she’d pay him back so he could help somebody else.
The second question was harder to answer. We figured out pretty quickly that she thought “Miss” was specifically a term for teachers. (That raises the question of what kind of teacher took kids to carnival sideshow, which sounds really irresponsible. But it seemed like it was something that happened all the time.) Jack explained that it was a respectful title for unmarried women, so of course we had to point it out that it was also pretty old fashioned and most women now just use Ms. and their last names whether they are married or not. And then we had to talk about first names and last names and tell her our names and the Cave Girl got sort of mad at us.
“That strange. Not make sense. Why have two, three names? Why have name not like, make people call other name, but not allowed change?” She pointed at Mr. Spit, who hates his real name like poison and won’t answer to it except under protest, but of course the school won’t call him Mr. Spit no matter how much he insists. “Why have two names different people for fun?” She pointed at Pounce and me, who used nicknames sometimes and our real names sometimes. “You have two friend name now, Moose girl. You Toestabber Moose.” We all laughed. My new name is awesome.
“Me have one name take for myself when become woman. Good name, strong name, everybody call me.” Then she made a long sound that sounded something like Ooolaroshooonokosha It was a weird, haunting kind of sound like wind blowing hard far away, but my first thought was that it was going to be really hard to spell. We all kind of looked at each other, and I could tell the others were thinking more or less the same thing: great name, authentic ancient cave person name, but not very practical for day to day use. Nina was the first person to speak up, with the exactly the right thing to say.
“What a beautiful name. What does it mean?”
“Big storm, “ said the Cave Girl. “Wind that carry leaves along, big wind with small rain.”
“Windy”, said Lee but the Cave Girl was so not a Windy. (Also, there’s that old song.) Pounce said “Storm”, but Murphy pointed out that she was already a character in a comic. I was trying out names for different kind of storms, Tornado and Cyclone and Typhoon, and then the answer was obvious.
“How about Gale? It means a storm with a lot of wind and not necessarily a lot of rain, and it sounds like a woman’s name people already use, so it will be unusual but not weird.”
“Is short, but me like. Matches other short name this-time people have.” We do have short names, mostly. I’d never really noticed that before. Then Jack’s phone rang, and we could hear Iowa telling him she was at the Junkyard and where was he and his latest new friend, and all of a sudden things were moving fast. After a few quick see you laters and lots more thank-yous, they were running through the woods down to the main road. Jack may be a superhero, but Gale is a fast runner. She could go out for a cross country track team.
And then the adventure was over, except for the cleaning up. We tidied up the food (we love raccoons, but not in our Fort) and rolled up the carpet, which had dried in the sun while everything else was going on. We’d return it to the Fairgrounds when we went back to collect our bikes. Remember the bikes? Like Bud says, the story ends with the big rescue, but there’s always stuff left to do. We may have stolen a Frozen Cave Girl, but we weren’t going to steal a rug.
As we crossed over Old Fox Road, we saw Iowa driving by in her red MG roadster, with Gale riding shotgun and laughing. We waved, and they waved back, and Gale shouted “Bye-bye, Toestabber!”
Bye-bye, Frozen Cave Girl. Bye-bye, summer.
From Moose’s Private notebook:
So that is my own “What I Did This Summer” story. You can see why I’m keeping it in my private files and didn’t hand it in as a school essay. It’s not something that would be easy for most people to believe, even here in Kekionga where weird things happen every day. But if you happen to be one of the people those things happen to, like me and the rest of Kids, or Jack being Foursquare, or Iowa and the Professor at the Library or Bud at the Junkyard, you learn to get along with the stories happening around you.
It turned out that Gale is probably the best at it of all us at getting along with Kekionga. Bud and the Professor got her into Sauk Trail State as a “visiting student” (which explains her pretty well if you don’t look at the details too closely) and she’s sharing a big apartment off campus with Iowa and Nina’s cousin Shelley. She’s the star of the anthropology department (how many undergrads know how to make stone tools?) and the women’s sports teams too. She sometimes says mysterious things about living here in the distant past that have everybody from Bud to the local historians really excited, but mostly she’s just having fun.
That was the biggest loose end, but with help from the grownups the rest of them got tied up too. When the Fair closed and the Midway moved on to the next county, the Strangeness of the World went with it. Iowa and Jack drove over the following week (without telling Gale) to see the show, and they reported there was no sign of the Frozen Cave Girl or her tent and banner. They did see the oriental carpet under the Intelligent Ape’s chess table. (Iowa played him to a draw, but she’d never tell us whether he was a person in a suit or not. ) Bud had found a wonderful Victrola at the junkyard to replace the one we broke, and they left it behind one of the tents with a stack of records, so that was off our consciences, too.
Of course, we’ll be helping at the Junkyard for a few Saturdays to pay off the debt, but that’s all right. We’d be going there anyway to hang out in our cool old bus before it gets too cold. It’s fall now, and the spiders are spinning big webs as the leaves begin to turn colors and we start to think about our Halloween costumes. Summer adventures are great adventures, but anything can happen the rest of the year. And it probably will.
This story took a long time to tell, much longer than I took to see it happen in that Indiana of the mind.
In the real Indiana, it is November now, still warm but soft with the softness of frostbitten stalks and the worn edges of the last few yellow leaves on the path that everyone has walked on. The spiders are gone, mostly, except for that one tattered web connecting the last thorny red rose to the trellis where the morning glories used to be. Summer is well and truly over, except that it never will be over. Not really.
Maybe this summer was the invincible summer that we will always find inside us. Or maybe that summer is one already long past, or the one that’s waiting on the other side of the winter that’s about to begin. Next year I’m definitely going to the fair.