The evening began simply enough. With the welcome heaviness of a cold bottle of beer in her hand, the farmer made her way to her sweet spot on the back porch: the spot where she could see part of every one of her fields, where she could see almost all the way to The Edge. It had been a good day, full of the satisfying work of sowing seed. She loved that work most of all, the expectation of good things to come, that stretch of hope into next week and the next and the next. She loved the smell of the grain dust on her clothes, the newly turned soil, even the smell of her own sweat mixed in with it all. It smelt like honesty, like a life well spent. It was a smell worth a whole bottle of beer.
She turned the corner of her porch on her way to her sweet spot when a cool breeze hit her face. It was like a blessing, a soft caress. She stopped to enjoy the feel of it and decided to sit right there on the corner, one foot one either side, the porch post behind her. The first swig went down so beautifully. The brew was her own so of course it was perfect. Then she saw it, a skyweed shimmer. It was just above the crest of a distant small hill, the one just off her property, nearest The Edge. It was skyweed all right. Looked like a fucking big bunch of it. Fuck skyweed. Fucking skyweed.
She hated skyweed. It was a cursed thing. It ruined her last harvester. Not that she used any machines these days because of the dearth of fuel, but when she did she had to factor in the constant clean down of skyweed crap. It made everything more difficult, more dirty, more stressful. Then there were the days she would get distracted by collecting sky weed. It was a kind of weeding-fever that would hit her. She would tread the edges of her fields with her slingshot, firing widely into shimmers she saw here and there above. Plucking down anything that drifted near her. Half a day would be gone before she knew it.
This area of the Hamlesville Hills seemed to be a quite ordinary hilly type area, full of smallish farms and smaller villages but for some reason they got more skyweeds than most other places. Perhaps it was the proximity of the Hills to The Edge, certainly a few fields were perilously close to The Edge with all of its dangers and uncertainties. But this particular spot of The Edge seemed to be retreating, getting further and further away from the settled areas neatly tucked in the middle valleys. However the receding seemed to make little difference to the great flow of skyweeds. Maybe the Hamlesville folk were just better at seeing the weeds and quicker at plucking them out of the air than people from other parts. Perhaps it was the way the hills were sitting, nestled closely together with high small valleys between, that attracted the skyweed flow.
Often all that could seen of a skyweed was a shimmer in the wind. Sometimes they would only be visible if they passed close by, almost directly overhead. Other times they could be glimpsed floating in misty, hardly there, clumps, high in the sky, looking like tiny see-through almost green or yellowish clouds. Sometimes, not often, if you could see one drifting towards the earth and if you were quick enough, you could grab it by a spindly root, or get in a spinner throw hard and lucky enough to hit it through the roots, and then you could see it instantly. It was like giving it a shot of weedkiller. It soon became dead, grey and stick-like, dry and crusty, hanging there, drifting slowly down, waiting to be pulled down and burnt. The trick was to get the roots. Some of the skyweed was so small getting a hit in the roots was tricky.
Of course solar panels, switched on machinery or any active power source would attract its own pile of skyweed. The dead and wilting weed would build up until someone cleared it away, or the machine spluttered off, powered down or died, smothered in dying weed.
Not many folk in the Hills could afford much machinery of any type these days, and because of the skyweed, the few solar panels that remained were increasingly useless. They needed to be cleared and cleaned too often. The wealthy and connected had long ago left the Hamlesville Hills area, and taken their machines, panels and generators with them.
It all wouldn’t be too bad if the dead weed was useful in some way. It burned well if you lit it soon after it wilted but it could not be stored. After a few hours of wilting it simply turned to ash-like dust: grey, sour and done.
That evening the farmer sat silently on her porch corner and drank her beer in angry gulps. She returned with another bottle to the same spot, then another. She watched as the shimmer of the skyweed disappeared into the shimmer of the sun setting in the misty skies over The Edge. She watched the birds cawing their way into the trees, well under that shimmer, to roost for the night.She saw the black smudge of bats lifting off from hills to the north. None of the birds coming home flew through the spot where she had sighted the skyweed shimmer. A sure sign it was a big skyweed cloud. Birds and bats would fly around skyweed. They could surely see it clearly in their bird and bat brains when humans mostly could not. The farmer sat thinking and drinking through the rose of evening and into the darkening flap of the day, where the night was still deciding whether to fill up with clouds or clear for the stars.
Had the farmer been better at thinking than at swigging, things might have ended differently. Other hill folk who witnessed what happening that night said they saw the fire-stick wobbling its way across the hillside. They knew the farmer well and that she must have had a big fill of beer to be wandering around at night. One good woman immediately sent her two eldest sons to fetch her in before she did herself, or someone’s crops, some damage or foolishly wandered too close to The Edge. Though that was difficult to do, especially when a mind was addled with beer.
But the farmer left her fields long before the youths could reach her. In truth they were not trying very hard to catch up with her. They thought they would give her time to plant the fire-stick and pass out before they would find her and carry her back, head and feet a-piece. She was a big woman.
The farmer had other ideas. She knew where she was going. It was one of the biggest stands of trees on the hill she could see from the corner of her porch, the newer part of The Edge. It was, she thought, directly under the skyweed cloud. She planted her fire-stick in the soft earth under the tallest tree while she gathered twigs and grass to make piles against its wide trunk. It didn’t take long.
“Fuckin’ skyweeds, fuckin’, fuckin’,” she muttered as she scurried around and around the tree trunk lighting her little piles and helping the fire catch onto bark with her fire-stick.
“FUCKIN’ SKYWEEDS!” she yelled up into the night and the rising flames. She tottered and smiled with great drunken satisfaction when the fire caught the first low branches. Flames slowly licked and curled onto the next layer of branches, then steadily began to climb the trunk. The bark was flaky and fibrous and tickled alight easily. Straight and true the fire rose, like a lumberjack climbing to lop off the sweetest new wood from the uppermost parts. Birds screamed and few away into the night.
Embers dropped at the farmer’s feet but she did not notice. Nor did she notice the flames jumping outwards from the branches of her lit tree to others beside. She was just watching the flames rise vertically. It was as though she had been waiting for this moment all of her life. The flames shot up until they lit up the top branches then they sparked out from the top of the tree like a giant firecracker. For a moment red licks hung in the sky. Even the embers seemed to have snapped still. Then with a thump that could be heard in every village across the hills and out onto the slopes, a massive clump of skyweeds exploded in flames. It flashed and flared with flames peppering outwards and upwards as though the night sky was being punched by little fires in a hundred places. As the flames took hold, the massive bulk and shape of the skyweed patch became visible. It stretched far away from her lit tree out across the Edge like a colossal fiery bridge to nowhere. The farmer saw it and her addled brain could hardly comprehend what she was seeing. She had never seen so much skyweed in her whole life.
Everyone who was running towards the fire, and there were many, saw it. Most of them turned and ran away in terror, so their stories can be dismissed forever. But the good woman’s two sons kept running, their feet flying with guilt that they had dawdled before a fire was lit. A few other brave souls followed behind them.
As the burning skyweed fanned out above the tips of now many burning trees and out into The Edge, small balls of flames began to pop out, like spits from a bonfire. First one and two here and there, then a few more, then many from all around. The burning skyweed was spitting balls of fire to rain down through the trees and out across The Edge.
The farmer watched the first of them fall through the branches above her. Some were caught and seemed to crack open in a puff, others kept falling toward the ground. Even in her drunken state she knew enough to roll away as one hit the ground beside her.
Her back was scorched as the ball popped open. She turned to see a small clicker climb out of its burning skyweed shell. It was terrified and screaming. Then there were balls falling and popping all around. The world was full of burning trees, burning skyweed balls and screaming clickers.
The good woman’s young sons saw the clickers suddenly appear in the fiery chaos but their glimpses were fleeting. One clearly saw one of the balls of fire pop open when it hit the ground ahead of him as he ran. He saw the skyweed shell crack with a puff, but that was it. As he told everyone afterwards, it was empty, nothing came out of it. He was sure.
They both saw many clickers. Some seemed to be hurt. Certainly some were helping others. They both saw a fairly large female carrying a small screaming juvenile in her arms. Smoke and swirling embers engulfed the stand of trees but there was a keen, sweet smell in the air, lovely and awful at the same time. “As though a thousand rose bushes were burning,” one of the good woman’s sons described it later. “It made me giddy with a sort of terrible glee.”
The drunken farmer’s screams led them to her and they dragged her out of the flames into the hillside field, away from the burning trees and skyweed. She was heavy. The boys were gagging and gasping with the effort of it.
They plopped onto some muddy, freshly ploughed soil. They sat there with the farmer moaning between them, and looked back at the terrible thing she had done. The smell of the cool earth seeped around them and calmed them. The fire raged but there were no more clickers to be seen.
The fire burned all night and into the morning. Some of it so high up in the sky it seemed to meet with the sun. As the next evening came it was still glowing faintly above the blackened skeleton of the stand of trees and in a hardly there line out over The Edge.
Many hearts were full of grief and worry about the fire having injured the Othernpeeps, as the clickers had been fondly named by the Troms. The hill folk organized themselves into groups and rosters to systematically scour the hills all around. They found nothing. They set a volunteer watch on the burned out land and a few well meaning homemade signs were put up. FORGIVE US was probably the biggest one, but it was drawn on cardboard and tied to a stick with ribbon, so it was the first to be removed, sodden and unreadable, after the next storm.
Two weeks after the fire, the farmer’s Trom visited her while she lay heavily bandaged and barely conscious in her big wooden farmer’s bed. “She won’t survive,” the Trom said. She didn’t.
Lots of stories were made up, and are probably still being made up, about why the farmer lit the stand of trees. Many involve her obsessive and well-known hatred of skyweed. Most of them leave out the small detail of her love for beer. The size of the clump of skyweed seems to get bigger with every retelling of the story. One particularly well read message-sheet, so well read it eventually disintegrated, said the clump was wider than any field and taller than any of the Hamlesville Hills. Which is nonsense of course, as everyone across the hills and down over the slopes would have seen the fire that night if it had been so big. As it was only the people in the surrounding farms and on a few nearby hills actually saw the fire explode, though it is true the thump, as the weed caught alight, was indeed heard across the hills and down the slopes for many miles.
The worst thing, or best for those few who felt vindicated, about the Hamlesville Hills tragedy is that no-one could consequently dispute the connection between the Othernpeeps, known so disparagingly as the clickers, and skyweed. There was something going on there. They were definitely connected. Yes they were.
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