1. Ms. Dorothy Adams
It is December 10, 2012, and Ms. Dorothy Adams is lost in a magical land.
On the ground at her feet is the vegetable boy. He could be dying, she thinks. He could be dead.
There are at least ten and perhaps fifteen of the tiger-things closing in on her position. She does not recognize them. They are no earthly beast. Their claws and fangs testify regardless to a tangible and certain prowess.
She holds a makeshift club—a stripped-down fallen branch—in her hands.
“This is the measure of a life,” she thinks: “What you’ll risk it for.”
2. The Spry Old Man
Her story properly begins with the rendition. She was in the process of returning home from Europe to her parents’ Virginia estate when an irregularity in her documentation incited the agents on the scene to draw her aside. In security she languished, for a short period of time, before the Agency came to speak to her; and when they found her intransigent in her unwillingness to profess false crimes—as one could only expect from a woman, no, more, a Virginian! of the United States Armed Forces—they handcuffed her and placed her on an outgoing flight.
Her guard, an old man in the Agency’s dark uniform, was so spry he could barely sit still in his seat. He was alive with a fierce and radiant energy; he was smiling, he laughed when the pilot made intercom jokes, and when his partner came back into the cabin to bring them their meals, he came very close to cheering.
From time to time during the flight, he would pat her shoulder and smile to her—an intimacy that she, naturally, rebuffed.
“You’re so lucky,” he said.
She gave him a frosty look.
“You’ll see!” he assured her.
The plane shook a little in the wind and there was the soft pitter-pat of weather on the hull.
“They told me that in certain places in the world,” said Ms. Adams, “it was legitimate, no, standard practice to employ torture. So I expect that is my situation; and I would not call it lucky; but I will not break.”
“Oh, there’s torture,” said the spry old man. “There’s plenty of torture in the world. There’s all kinds of horror. But not where you’re going.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Then I don’t see the point,” she said.
“The elimination of potential difficulties,” he said, and his smile was so brilliant that in any other circumstance Ms. Adams would have smiled back; but as things were, and expecting as she did rendition not to a magical land but to Syria or Guantanamo, his smile struck her as evidence of intense sociopathic bent.
She turned her eyes away towards the window. She frowned.
“It’s hailing fucking marshmallows,” she said.
“Language, young lady,” he said, “Language!”
She was forty-five.
At a certain point in time and space, in response to an unknown signal, the spry old man seized her from her seat. She did not struggle, not at first, because he had a gun and the circumstances were poor; but when he began to force her towards the door, and with the plane still in flight, she fought for her very life.
“Quiet!” he said, and struck her on the head. Her vision went white. Her ears rang. Then she could hear the opening of the door; and while she desperately tried to remember how her arms and legs worked, he released her from her restraints and flung her from the plane.
“Cheerio!” he cried, and “Godspeed!”
Ms. Dorothy Adams, Private First Class, passed through a layer of clouds, the soft springy substance of them parting only reluctantly as she hit. She disturbed a flock of stairstep birds in flight, her fall broken awkwardly and embarrassingly by first one then the other as she caromed through the sky. Then there was nothing beneath her but a spreading green land, and she said, “I shall, at least, have a story to tell in Heaven.”
Then, with a grace in tragedy and a grim resolve to—if at all possible—survive the impact that would follow, she closed her eyes, made her body limp, and thought of distant lands.
It was the sun that woke her: the rising sun, over the hills. She mumbled and she whined, for a moment not Ms. Dorothy Adams but the small child she had once been, tossing in her bed at the Virginia estate, resenting fiercely such early awakenings. Then the cold realization of her situation struck. She was at once on her feet and staring about.
“I am unbruised,” she thought, and a dizzying wave of confusion passed over her. “I am in a forest and I am still dressed in my clothes from three days ago and I am unbruised.”
In the distance she could hear bird calls, so many bird calls, and an occasional, terrible throaty roar.
To her credit, Ms. Dorothy Adams wasted no time on her confusion. She was a woman, no, more, a Virginian! of the United States Armed Forces. Her first priority was not to understand but to survive. She tuned her senses to their fullest and their most alert. She seized a fallen branch from the ground and stripped it of its twigs and bark. She placed her back against a tree.
Slowly, because of the low priority and reliability of this sensory data, she came to realize that from the branches of the trees around her hung not nuts or flowers but roast turkey; saving, of course, for those from which hung clumps of potatoes or bowls of stuffing, and where the birds had cracked them open, she saw that the potatoes were mashed and buttered inside their skin.
“Gracious me,” she swore, her gutter mouth forsaking her. “It’s a proper feast!”
5. The Vegetable Boy
This magical scene would no doubt have ended with a fine repast or a psychotic break, save that a certain other event intervened; that being that the vegetable boy, fleeing the pursuit of a pack of Kazimajars, burst at that very moment into the clearing.
He was handsome, for a vegetable boy: his hair was green, his skin a fine nut-color, and his eyes as warm as the spry old man’s were bright. He wore fine purple raiment with a white silk undershirt. He was tired, panting, his clothing torn and the leaves in his hair half-wilted; but nevertheless he had some energy left to him.
Ms. Adams had been, during her native country’s unfortunately prolonged excursion in Iraq, reckoned the second-best sword in all the Middle East; though, of course, her skill with the gun was far more relevant. Thus she did not hesitate in considering herself the vegetable boy’s superior in personal combat, and, reasoning that he should have information of value to her, she confronted him. With a lithe step and a fierce demeanor she stepped out and brought her makeshift club to his throat; or so, at least, she had intended.
“Foul!” cried the vegetable boy, stepping back; and from the back of his hand grew a great long thorn, which he brought across to parry her club. “Treachery!”
As she did not know how much time there was to waste, Ms. Adams wasted none; she disengaged her weapon and attempted to strike him on the head. In this she would have succeeded, save that the thorn was amazingly swift in motion. Each blow she attempted he parried or reversed, and as she fenced with her opponent she realized that here was a boy, albeit a boy apparently made principally of vegetable matter, who could easily have ranked as one of the top five swords in the Middle East. After three more exchanges, she found herself admiring him, not so much for his skill but for his style; and after a passata-sotto lunge had failed her, forcing her into an awkward, stumbling retreat while the thorn stabbed about her face, the innate courtesy of her birth overcame her dedication and she exclaimed, “Such a waste that you should be an enemy!”
“The same,” he said, and stepped back a moment to salute. “For I had scarcely expected to encounter a princess of such beauty and such skill in this Kazimajar-infested region, much less find myself wood-to-wood with her.”
“I am not a princess,” she said.
“Then what are you?” asked the vegetable boy.
“Ms. Dorothy Adams,” she said, “Private First Class of the United States Armed Forces.”
“Well,” he said. “It seems to me that a Private First Class is much the same as a princess, only perhaps a bit fiercer; so you must pardon my misunderstanding.”
“What are you?” she said. “What am I doing here? Where is this place?”
“I am the hope of the vegetable tribe,” he said. “When I am ready to plant myself, I will tame this region, and make it habitable for my kind. As for what you are doing here, I cannot say; and as for this place, well, it is the Peapod Forest of Gillikin, as its unusual green color should indicate.”
Then she is staggered; then she says, “I have taken rather a journey—”
But the vegetable boy’s hand goes to his side; he clutches at a tear in his clothing, where his flesh has started of a sudden to leak a dark purple ichor.
“Oh, dear,” he said. He smiled at her. “I guess those beasts back there were more accurate than I’d thought.”
“It’s all the activity,” he said. He stares at his hand, which is purple. “I’m sorry. I’m going to pass out now, and here I’ve hardly just met you.”
And she could hear the beasts that hunted him approach.
6. The Tiger-Things
They are everywhere: the hunting Kazimajars, great cats of a sort but with patches of serpent-scale and bear-fur and the voices of men.
“He is our prey,” whines one of them.
“Tasty, tasty vegetable boy.”
And Ms. Adams, with the stern strength accordant to a woman of the United States Armed Forces, denies them. She stands over his fallen body and says, “Find something else.”
Some of them are circling around behind her. She can hear them.
“A turkey. Or mashed potatoes,” Ms. Adams says.
“He’s tastier,” whispers one of the beasts.
She has no time; the position is rapidly becoming untenable. She steps forward and whirls her club and cracks that beast upon its face. It reels back, stunned and whimpering: “You hit me!” it declares.
“I’ll beat all of you to a pulp,” she says. “I’ll show you what it is to fight a woman of Virginia!”
She clubs another sideways. It staggers into a tree. Spinning to drive back another, she unleashes a war cry: an unearthly yell, terrifying, the cry of a goddess come down to make war among men. And there is fear in them, and the will of the pack is breaking, and the Kazimajars are scattering, but there is one, the largest of them, the savage beast named Groth, who does not succumb to fear. He remains where the others have fled. He leaps upon her; she is borne down to the ground under his weight; his teeth bite out her throat, his claws score her sides. Her arms are numb and she cannot feel the club in her hand and she is only thinking, “I must throw him off and drive him back before I die.”
And as a last act to give credit to her name, a moment of heroism to prove that even in these troubled lands the life of a woman—no, more, a Virginian!—was not without account, she woke her arm to life and placed the club under his neck and thrust it upwards; and gagging, wretching, in great misery, the Kazimajar staggered away.
She lay there, soft and quiet, waiting to die.
But in this magical land of childhood, there is no heroism; there is no accounting; there is no virtue to such deeds. Death is unsacred here, and she realizes, when the moon rises and the blood that flows from her and the vegetable boy fades to a trickle, that there is not even any pain.
A tide of hopeless rises in her.
She tastes a sick horror in the back of her throat: for these are the lands of childhood.
Then she sets the matter aside and sits up slowly and turns her thoughts to the south, where if there is an airport it most likely resides; for it is not meet for a woman—no, more, a Virginian!—of the United States Armed Forces to surrender easily to those who find death unsacred.