Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Sixteen: Hunting and Gathering
My first thought, when Duc and I return to the clearing after a surprisingly fruitful foraging run, is that everyone is drunk.
Tristan is flailing around with a long bent stick, which has been inserted through the sleeves of Nate’s flannel shirt and then been looped around, making the whole contraption look either a bowl-shaped flag or a flag-shaped bowl but not a stellar example of either. Bradley is holding a dead branch as if it’s a hockey stick, though it looks more like a crumbling broom, spewing leaves in a tight little circle around him as he thrashes it around. Nate (who, to clarify, is not currently inside the flannel Tristan is brandishing) is crouching between two rocks. He’s got his arms out like he’s Wolverine or Clay Matthews, and his upper arms look ruddy and wind-reddened against the one-white sleeves of his undershirt. I wonder what he wears when it isn’t flannel season. I like to think it’s always flannel season for him.
But the scene at large has become so completely ridiculous that even Nate’s arms can’t hold my attention. Now Tristan is hopping wildly up and down, pointing and yelling in a high voice, and Bradley is thrusting the branch under a fallen log. Then I realize they’re moving in unison: all three of them dart to one side, then release a long, dramatic sigh before reassembling in a strangely specific organization of questionable woodland sanity. They freeze.
“Uh, guys? Wha—”
“Shh,” three voices hiss, and three hands chop my sentence off midair. Nate, however, adds a grin and a wink. “Rabbit,” he informs me in a stage whisper before turning back to his team of weirdos.
I watch for a moment longer, vaguely concerned, then shrug. Everyone processes things in their own way, and if three grown men (?) feel that catching a rabbit together will help them cope with reality, I’m not about to tell them not to. Far more graceful than what my coping mechanisms have turned out to be, depending on their plans for the rabbit.
Speaking of ungraceful coping mechanisms, I make a mental note to apologize to Tristan for snapping at him earlier. I’d just been at the end of my rope and he was the guy I happened to run into, literally, and I just hadn’t had the chance. Now, I have the distinct impression that he’s avoiding my surreptitious attempts to catch his eye, just as I’m avoiding Bradley’s.
Then Duc is at my elbow, sliding the bundle of mushrooms out from under my arm, where I’d immediately forgotten it during the rabbit spectacle. “They want to test the food,” he explains, noticing my dumbfounded look. “Before we eat it.”
I nod, although I’m not entirely sure what he’s talking about. I’m not entirely sure I care, either—he had me at “food” and I hadn’t really heard anything else. I’m lost in a reverie. If we were in the No Dragons Press building right now, we could head out the loading dock, take a quick right onto Madison, and be at the Eagle’s Nest in about three minutes, and we could be ordering a double order of fully loaded cheese fries in about six minutes. A pizza would be more satisfying, but the fries would come out way faster, even with an extra few minutes for the pork and jalapenos. But if we ordered a pizza at the same time…
Studiously ignoring the scent of pizza and garlic bread now filling my nose—would that be my mind’s nose?—I focus again on the proceedings with renewed interest as Duc heads off to get started on whatever strange wilderness feast he has in mind.
All three crouch now, moving as one toward a corner of the clearing they’re stalking. More frantic action and a collective uggh! as their prey escapes again, though there’s plenty of amusement in the air. “He’s sneaking by you, Tristan, look alive,” Bradley says good-naturedly, clapping Tristan on the shoulder.
This makes me laugh, which instantly annoys me. When Bradley sees me watching and raises a tentative hand in greeting, I scowl at him and turn away. Tristan does not look at me.
“Duc, grab a branch!” Nate waves him over, pointing at the fallen tree with his other hand. Duc shrugs, setting the neat bundle of handkerchief and mushroom down and passing me his fire-poking stick before trotting over to the tree in question.
And before anyone can suggest that I do anything that involves having to coordinate with Bradley, I hoof it toward the campfire so I can look busy.
It’s turned into quite the cooking station in our absence: flat surfaces have been assembled out of rock, balanced between other rocks or sturdy branches, piles of flat leaves stacked high. Someone’s been busy (doing something not involving rabbits).
On many of the surfaces, Duc has already arranged a number of plants he must have collected on his own while I was hunting for mushrooms. Some look like lettuce, others like weird root vegetables; a pile of fat acorns sits on a flat rock waiting to be shelled, though I have no idea how Duc plans to cook the bitterness out of them without a pot. Something I’d learned from my dad.
I smile at the mound of oyster mushrooms, ignoring another pang of hunger. That had been my contribution. My dad taught me to find them behind my house when I was a little girl—you could spot them from a mile away, they were easy to identify, and with no poisonous lookalikes to dole out lethal punishments for cases of mistaken identity, there was little chance that Professor Bruce MacAlister’s young daughter would harm herself.
Dad used these foraging hikes to teach me lessons about being frugal and self-sufficient—he loved to tell me how much people paid in the coops for the “stuff we just find laying around”—but what I really took away was how lucky we were to have this open wilderness right behind our house. Although, as I look out now at the thick trunks festooned with person-sized vines all around us, I have to laugh at the little girl who used to think wildflowers and tree frogs constituted “wilderness.”
I bend down to check out some of the lower leaves without disturbing their contents, frowning at the unfamiliar types of mushrooms Duc has collected. I hope he knows what he’s doing, because I sure don’t. But then I spot the stalks of cattail leaning up in the corner, roots and offshoots dangling in the air, and I can’t contain another growl. Duc really does know what he’s doing.
Oyster mushrooms may be infinitely more delicious when cooked, but I’m starting to get almost lightheaded with hunger. It turns out adrenaline-panics and dimensional travel aren’t awesome for the blood sugar.
Not for the first time, I consider the granola bar stashed away in my bag. Then I consider the cornucopia in front of us—a veritable farmers-market feast for four people, by any standards, stuff people paid a lot for in coops. Call me crazy—you wouldn’t be the first—but something tells me to save the granola for direr straits than these.
But the cattails…mushrooms and acorns weren’t the only things my dad taught me. I swipe a few edible shoots from a few stalks just to tide me over until feasting time, stealing a look in Duc’s direction, but he’s well occupied with the rabbit proceedings. Anyway, I can always get more if we run out—it isn’t a far hike to the wet patch of ground the guys must have pulled them from, and though the shadows are long and low, I recognize them for what they are, what they signify: summer in the Midwest, where we cash in all our shortened days for the long, cold year for a couple of glorious months of endless summer days. There’s enough light left.
“Any luck?” I say, sidling up to Nate. He’s taking a break, watching Duc and Bradley have a go at the flannel hoop-bucket while Tristan takes his turn manhandling the broom.
He chuckles, running a hand over his tangle of hair with a flash of pale white skin. “Not so much,” he acknowledges. “Six misses, six different rabbits, although it may actually be the same rabbit, taunting us relentlessly. It’s starting to get personal.”
A grin creeps over my face, but it fades when Bradley saunters up. “It was my fault,” he says, his canines bared in a self-deprecating smile. “I kept letting the thing by me.” Then he winks at me. “I suppose my reaction times have always been a bit lacking.”
I can’t help but smile back at him. When it came to games of reflex, I beat him at pretty much everything: foosball, ping-pong, badminton . . .
“Maybe the rabbit knows something you don’t,” I tell them, popping another shoot in my mouth. Definitely not the most delicious thing I’ve ever had—but it tastes exactly like nostalgia and it’s going into my uncomfortably empty stomach, so I’m happy enough.
“Oh yeah? And what’s that?” I can hear the smile in Nate’s voice, and I laugh.
“That you don’t have a chance in the world,” I say cheerfully around my recent shoot. I lift my hand to pop another into my mouth.
But Nate catches my wrist on its way toward my face, his eyes suddenly intense on mine. “Addie, what are you eating?”
I blink away my momentary confusion, then give him a reassuring smile. “Nate, it’s okay. I saw a huge patch of them near the soggy part of the woods. There’s plenty of them to—”
“Jesus, Addie, how many of these did you eat?” He squeezes my hand in his, hard, and shakes it.
I’m bemused. “I don’t know, a few? Seriously, there’s a whole—”
“We don’t know what those are, Addie.” Nate looks worried, more worried than I’ve ever seen him before, more worried even than when those armed assholes broke into his house. “Mercy, what do you think the rabbit is for?”
I blink in surprise—but not because of the rabbit thing. Where had that come from?
But before I can think of a good comeback for this archaic and rather goofy turn of phrase, it occurs to me which “food” Duc was talking about. But I never thought it was this, this natural bounty I’d grown up eating with my dad in the woods behind my house. The worry evident in his tight face and urgent grip is all out of proportion to the absolute lack of danger present here.
“Nate,” I say, making my voice as calming as possible, “there’s nothing to worry about. I’ve—”
“You don’t know that,” Nate says. “We don’t know that.”
“Nate. I’ve eaten these a million times. They’re completely fine, they’re—”
“We have no idea whether they’re fine or not,” he says. “We don’t know what they are, or where here is. We—”
“Stop interrupting me,” I snap. His squeezing is starting to hurt, so I yank my arm away and a handful of crushed shoots fall to the ground between us. I scowl at them before lifting my eyes back to Nate. “And yes I do know they’re fine. They’re cattail shoots, for fuck’s sake. They’re totally edible.” I stare at him in disbelief. “I thought you said you grew up around here.”
Nate makes a noise in the back of his throat, and for the first time, he looks seriously annoyed with me. “Addie. None of us grew up here. We don’t know where here is.”
“Oh,” I say lamely. Because I hadn’t actually thought of that, and now that I have, I don’t have anything better to say.
But Nate isn’t finished. “Addie, what did you think the rabbit was for?”
All at once, I realize what he means. “What rabbit,” I mutter pointedly. But he’s right, of course—I was rash, and I should have been more careful. I really don’t know anything about this world; I guess I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that we’re really somewhere else, somewhere that doesn’t exist in the world we’ve spent our whole lives in.
But seriously, what does he think is going to happen? Cattails are suddenly going to grow thorns and spout poison in this dimension? (Universe? Whatever?)
“She would have had a reaction by now if there was a problem,” Duc points out, reasonably, as he approaches. He pats me on the shoulder. “I wouldn’t have left them unattended if I thought there was any danger.” He smiles at both of us. Trying to diffuse the situation, talking us down as if we’re two Tristans on the brink.
Bradley and Tristan, who had come to see what the commotion was about, now make themselves busy, studiously ignoring the uncomfortable silence thickening between us.
Quickly, before it has a chance to solidify, I step close enough to nudge Nate’s arm with my elbow. My plan is to do my own version of diffusing the situation, which is to give Nate a few lighthearted pokes about his old-lady lingo. Seriously, who says “mercy”? But before I can get the first words out, I begin to laugh. Nate’s self-conscious smile falters, and I do my best to explain: “No, Nate, it’s not—I’m not—”
But that’s all I can fit past the laughter bubbling out of my throat, and all I can do is jab my finger, over and over, until everyone finally turns to face the direction I’m facing.
The rabbit is sitting in the very center of the flannel hoop, which is lying right where Tristan left it. And—as if it intends to make sure everyone sees that it has no interest in any further engagements—it stands still for a second, gives its tormentors a final shake of the tail, and hops off to plan its revenge.
And—for a while—I forget about Nate’s funny turn of phrase entirely.