The Work of Many Hands

By Steve Spaulding

The long-awaited conclusion to the story that began in Issue 5.


"I feel all hoopy this evening," proclaimed Cindy with all the gravity she could muster. And with that she dangled one bare leg out of the hammock she was lying in and began kicking it to set herself swinging.

Winslow stood at the mirror fussing with the knot in his necktie. "I don't think 'hoopy' is a word," he said from across the close. "Unless you feel all round on the outside and hollow on the in," he added.

"No, no," said Cindy, "'hoopy' is a kind of loopy, only not as loony. A much more quiet-tired sort of loopy."

"Are you dizzy at all?" Winslow asked. He ran a hand through his tangled blond dreadlocks, trying to get out the last few bits of autumn leaves. He and Cindy had joined a large leaf-fight earlier that day. The quick pulsing he had done before getting dressed hadn't gotten rid of the smallest pieces.

"No," said Cindy. "Not dizzy at all. Just hoopy. Far, far too hoopy to get out of bed."

"You're in a hammock."

"Yes," she said, swinging, "and here I shall remain until my hoopiness passes." To emphasize the point she made dramatic arm gestures as she spoke, a smallish South American dictator addressing her people from an imaginary balcony.

Winslow smiled. He rolled up the mirror and turned to face her. "All day long with you it's been run around run around. 'Let's go biking the orange trail, let's go play in the Barn, let's go keen out by the rapids.' Tonight's the last night of your first Farm and all you want to do is just lie there?"

"No, no, 'course not," Cindy said. She stopped her kicking and said in a voice less playful, more thoughtful, "It's just...this funny feeling I'm having."

"There's no reason to be afraid, if that's what you're feeling," said Winslow. "It isn't any sort of trial or test. The path I'll be showing you can be pretty intense, but I'll be with you every step."

"Oh, I'm not scared at all," she said. "I've read Asahara's tone-poem about it in the archives. After this you'll have shown me the last of the old paths, right?"

Winslow shrugged, not wanting to admit that he probably had. "Most people say there are five old paths, others say six or eight. My uncle always told me there was only ever one path, but I'm pretty sure that was a Zen thing."

As he spoke, Cindy swung both legs over the side of the hammock and gripped the ground with her toes. The small of her back still supported, she leaned back, reaching her arms up over her head and stretching the length of her naked body in a smooth, catlike motion. Winslow watched her, his head gone light.

"I am curious, though," Cindy said as she stood. "Why did you choose this particular path to show me tonight? Did you save it for last?"

Winslow crossed the close to put his arms around her. "I chose it because...because the moon is going to look beautiful tonight in the arms of the sugar maple."

Cindy knitted her eyebrows and searched carefully in Winslow's face. "Is that just bland, romantic bullshit, or is there something you're trying to tell me?"

Winslow gave her a half-smile and stayed silent.

Cindy gave a small, exasperated grunt and rested her head on his chest. "Fat lot of a good-for-nothing mentor you are."

Winslow wrapped his arms around her more tightly. "Now, you know that if it were the sort of thing that could be put into words you might just as well have stayed at home and had your mom, mom, and dad tell you about it. But that wasn't what you wanted, was it?"

She sat silent. Pouting. Presently she said, "No."

"Well all right then," said Winslow. He gave her a quick kiss on the mouth and Cindy scaled back her pout, not letting it drop completely. "Why don't you get dressed," he said. "The moon will be rising in a little while."

* * *

Cindy, wearing fire-engine red, and Winslow, dapper in black, spent a moment admiring one another before stepping out into the night. "We're leaving, Bob," said Winslow over his shoulder. With a small convulsion of photons, the Bob turned off the light, sealed the close, and settled into a light sleep mode.

Cindy's and Winslow's eyes began dialing up to take in the failing light. The sky stretched indigo over them, a few stars coming out, a few clouds scudding by as they set off walking.

As they got closer to the Barn they began to see other shapes, other people still indistinct in the oncoming night, moving between the rocks and trees. Here and there a source of light moved and flickered. They began to hear snippets of conversation-different people discussing the day, anticipating the evening. Each on different paths, bound for different places, some calling out in surprise or recognition.

Winslow noticed that Cindy was breathing more deeply. Looking closely, he saw her body temperature had elevated a degree or two. She was sweating in the cool evening air, and her scent had an unfamiliar, sweet tint to it.

"What's that you're keen to?" he asked.

"It's called 'Infinite Frangibility.' It's a new Pan-African mix Judy formed for me," she said.

"What's it like?"

"Sort of like falling down a warm mineshaft. It's soothing."

"Can I try?"

"Help yourself."

Winslow keyed to the private cycle they shared and in a few minutes the synthites in his hippocampus began churning out the mix. He found himself walking on the balls of his feet as the smooth sense of acceleration grabbed him.

"So, semiotic landscapes," said Cindy, out of the blue.

"What about them?" said Winslow, breathing hard.

"Events occur in places. Some places resonate with the events that have occurred there. The Alamo. Graceland. Ellis Island. Mom's kitchen. Mecca."

"Yes, I suppose they do," said Winslow. The ground they walked was becoming steeper, the people around them more numerous, easier to make out.

"Over time," continued Cindy, "places become charged with complex emotional aggregates-"

"You sound like you're reading out of a textbook."

"-these aggregates," she pushed on, unfazed, "can be strung together to form still more complex narratives. The Stations of the Cross, the plaques embedded in the streets of Dublin commemorating Harold Bloom's day, the Enochian Hypertext."

Winslow began to scale back his keening until his mind felt nearly baseline. "And your point is?"

"Well, I mean," said Cindy, off guard, "that's what this is all about, right? The Farm, I mean."

"The Farm is all about a bunch of friends hanging out and having a good time."


"Winslow, is that you?" came a voice out of the night.

They both turned. "Hartmut? Bist du da?" Winslow called.

A smiling, angular man dressed in wool and denim walked up. "Hello there," he said, "Been farming long?"

He and Winslow hugged. "Na ja," Winslow said. "Wir sind alle Baueren."

"Ah-HEM," Cindy interrupted. "Auf Englisch, bitte? Some of us are a little rusty on our German."

"Hartmut," Winslow said, "this is Cindy Clay-Donner-Fahyed. Cindy, Hartmut Wegmann."

"I'm thinking of shortening it to just Cindy Fay," she said as the two of them shook hands.

"And what's wrong with a good German name like Donner?" Hartmut said with a laugh. "I'm glad to meet you. But Winslow, I've exciting news. Jim 35 is here."

"He came?" Winslow nearly shouted. "You mean he actually made the trip?"

"Well, after a manner of speaking. He's up in the Barn."

They continued together up the slope until they came to a flat, empty area, open to the sky. Inscribed on the ground, glowing faintly in the dark, were lines that marked where the walls of the Barn once stood. Small clusters of people moved inside or outside the lines-but almost no one passed into the space anywhere except where the main doors had been. Some shared pictures or vids of the Barn as it used to be. Many shared stories. Several carried lights, but no one carried fire.

Off in a far corner, surrounded by a knot of the friendly and the curious, was a gray box about three feet tall, from which eight spindly metal legs projected. Attached to the top, on an armature that suggested nothing so much as an old desk lamp, was a small high-end vidcam. Painted on the side in large white stencils was "35-C."

The trio moved into the machine's small circle of people. Winslow stooped a bit so the camera could see him clearly. The armature pulled back suddenly and the lens irised wide with an audible whir, taking the whole of him in. "Winslow my boy," came a thin, electronic voice with a light Southern accent. "It's good to see you. Been farming long?"

"It's good to see you at last, Jim," Winslow replied, unable to keep the amazement out of his voice. "I can't believe you actually made it here."

"Oh, this isn't really my presence," the gray metal box said. "I'm far too corpulent an old pile of data for that. No, this is only a node of mine. I am, however, refreshing every two hours with the one-and-only original Jim 35, who is sitting safe and sound in his banks back in Austin."

"Well," Cindy said, "I don't much see the point then."

Winslow tried to shoot her the "ixnay" look-Jim wasn't the type to take offense, but it still seemed rude somehow, after he had gone to all the trouble to make the trip.

But Jim took things in stride. "Why, so much of this place is being here! To wander where you will, explore your own angles and perspectives. For all that I've been told of the Farm, for all the cameras of mine that have been tromped around here, it's still not the same as being here myself. And who are you, young lady, if you don't mind my asking?"

"I'm Cindy Fay," she decided.

"It is very nice to meet you, Cindy Fay. See? Hard to walk up to someone and say 'nice to meet you' over a static terminal. Have you been farming long?"

"Only a week. Winslow has been mentoring me." She put her arm around Winslow's waist affectionately.

"Ah," Jim said, admiring the gesture, "isn't flesh lovely?"

Moving with spider-like grace, Jim continued his slow circuit of the Barn, his entourage of humans moving with him. The two grad students who had helped build the mobile node for Jim fielded questions for a while; servos, sensors, chaos engine architecture, and so on and so forth. While not the first celebrity at the Farm, Jim was easily one of the most unusual. It was a while before Winslow managed to get close enough to what he guessed was Jim's "ear" to ask, "So, now that you're here, what do you think of the Barn?"

"I find it more the sort of monument I would expect a machine intelligence to produce than a group of people. I'm still unclear on how it came to be-the archives focus mostly on the structure which used to stand here, and the things that were done in it. The Great Cleaning, the various pageants, and so forth."

"Well, when the Barn burned down, the space was cleared and kept clear in the hopes of one day rebuilding," Winslow said. "It had meant so much to the people who first came here. Keeping the space clear meant a lot to them."

"Funny thing, though," he continued. "Whenever people wanted to come here, to this place, they said they were going to the Barn. Whenever asked about where they had been, they said they had been in the Barn-even though there's nothing here to be 'in.' After the foundation had been established for a number of years, somebody realized there was more than enough money to rebuild."

"But then," said Cindy, picking the story up, "everyone realized that they still had a Barn. It may not store hay or keep the rain off, but that wasn't really what the people here wanted a Barn for, anyway."

Jim peered around the empty space, mathematically modeling walls, slats, and timbers. "I may need to refresh before I'm certain of this," he said, "but in that case it seems to me that rebuilding would have been..." he struggled, processing hard, "...wrong. A Barn has already been built here, and another, physical Barn would only displace it."

"Well," said Cindy, "some of us like to think of it as the old Barn, translated into a different form."

"Has Winslow been filling your head with all that neo-platonic dreck of his?" asked Hartmut, who just couldn't let the idea stand. "The Barn doesn't point forward towards some new, ideal abstract, it points backward. It's a monument to loss and things lost. It's our Atlantis, our World Trade Center, our Austro-Hungarian Empire. This isn't a castle in the sky, it's a great, gaping hole in the ground."

"Again with the pessimistic attitude," Winslow said, shaking his head. "I still say that anything which once existed, in some real sense, continues on forever."

"That imaginary universe of yours must be getting pretty crowded by now," Hartmut said with an arch note of sarcasm.

"My universe has more than enough space. You're just not thinking in four dimensions..."

With that, Winslow and Hartmut launched into a new installment of the long-running argument that was the cornerstone of their friendship. The other people in the circle, recognizing its private, extended nature began to tune them out and talk among themselves-except for Cindy. On the one hand she wanted to jump to Winslow's defense, but on the other she thought Hartmut was making a lot of good points.

It was Jim who finally interrupted them. "You will excuse me," he said, "but in 23 seconds this node is going to refresh, and after that I must really get these tired old fuel cells off to recharge. Winslow, I was hoping we could see each other for lunch tomorrow?"

"Of course," Winslow said. "Our close is the bright red one just by the bend of the river."

"Wonderful," Jim said. "And Cindy Fay, it was very nice meeting y-"

And with that, the little red light on Jim's camera began to blink with a slow, regular pulse, and his legs quietly folded up beneath him.

Later, as they were on the downward slope exiting the Barn, Hartmut pulled Winslow back by his arm, letting Cindy move on to just out of earshot. Indicating the girl with a slight tilt of his head Hartmut asked, "You are being, I hope, careful, yes?"

Winslow tried not to sound too defensive. "We had strong feelings for each other before I became her mentor. If you're worried about me taking advantage, in the first place, I'm not that kind of guy; and in the second place, she's a lot more mature than she looks. I mean, I know she can come off as kind of childish, but she's really got her act together."

"Ah, well that's fine, that's beautiful," said Hartmut. "Or it would be if I was asking her if she was being careful. But I was asking you."

Winslow frowned. "I'm not sure what you-"

"Hey, what's up?" said Cindy, who had just turned back. "You guys argue so hard you break something?"

"I was making one final attempt to shatter Winslow's façade of self-deception before saying my good-byes," Hartmut said, grinning. "I'm off to meet my wife on the stone bridge in about half an hour. We're supposed to pretend we don't know each other. It's all sehr romantish."

"Well, have fun," Cindy said. "It was nice meeting you."

"Likewise," Hartmut returned. "Until we see each other again, then? Winslow?"

The two men shook hands. "We'll talk soon," Winslow said.

Hartmut smiled. "Trust we will," he said, and walked off into the dark.

"Weird guy," Cindy said as he was leaving. "Cool, but weird."

"Yeah," Winslow said, "He's good people. Sorry you had to listen to the two of us spout like that, but we find ourselves with some very different opinions sometimes."

"Some of the best friendships work like that. I really dug his take on the Barn. Dark, but honest."

"He's all about honesty, truth-die Wahrheit, das Recht. No one will call you on your bullshit faster. That's why the Barn is such a special place for him. For me too, I guess."

"Not sure I follow."

"Well, while you can argue yourself blue in the face about what, exactly, the Barn is, you can't argue that it is, absolutely and completely, itself."

"Humph," humphed Cindy. "I think Hartmut is right, you're just talking in circles."

"What I mean is that the Barn is a pure thing, in the way only things that don't exist in the actual, physical world can be pure, like numbers or ideals or emotions."

Cindy took his arm as they walked. A ways off, she could hear some sort of commotion. Winslow seemed to be taking her in that direction. "Is that why the old paths usually start out in the Barn?" she asked. "Is it to get your mindset out of this world and into the next?"

"Kind of. It also works to zero your brain, if that makes sense. Sort of clear out the cobwebs, the distractions of the world-this world-so you're focused on the path ahead."

"Well, now that my mental palette has been all cleansed, what's next on the menu?"

* * *
A thin thread of dark blood arced through the air to spatter on Winslow's lapel. He and Cindy stood just outside a length of rusted barbwire fence. The clouds had cleared off, leaving the stars bright and hard. The moon, just above the horizon, cast an orange glow through the nearby trees.

The fence squared off a section of clearing where wide, flat stretches of rock broke the surface of the ground like enormous flagstones. The stones were the projecting spine of the local anthracite, the only one for hundreds of miles around. A few pieces of ancient, decrepit farm machinery stood inside the square, all rusted and weathered and some half swallowed by the tougher plants that wound up between the rocks. Around-and sometimes on top of-the wreckage, some 30 or 40 people were dancing.

The dancers moved more or less in a large, counter-clockwise circle close to the fence, turning, stomping, roughly shoving and thrashing one another, all in time to the beat. Cindy, watching fascinated from behind the wire, keyed into the harsh, infectious music that was playing all across the lower cycles. Tonalities and complexities changed as she cycled up, but the beat remained the same all across the band-and the volume remained extremely loud. The bone conductors in her maxillaries were practically buzzing.

"Who's casting this?" she shouted to Winslow.

"DC Djemal Khan out of Peshwar," Winslow shouted back. "It's exclusive. Somebody knew somebody who knew him."

A crash brought Cindy's attention back to the dance. Some of the hardcore dancers were moving clockwise around the circle, against the flow of traffic. One of them had been grabbed and spun into what may have been an industrial seeding machine a hundred years before. A fragment of metal wheel spoke protruded through his bicep. With a bellow of rage the dancer stood up, tore the metal free, and, covered in blood and sweat, jumped back into the dance. The crowd behind the wire cheered. Winslow whistled with his pinkies in the corners of his mouth.

Blessed be, thought Cindy, they're all keening! She tugged at Winslow's sleeve, shouting, "What's in the mix? What are they keen to?"

"Most everything angry," said Winslow. "Biogenic amines, monoamine neurotransmitters, broadband oxyephedrine, and some of them just a lot of good old-fashioned Jack Daniels. Some of them dance like this all night." Every other word out of his mouth was swallowed up by the sound of the music and the noise of the dance. "Hey," he said, looking closely at her eyes, "go UV. You're missing half the show."

Cindy filtered her eyes and the scene exploded in color and light. UV transmitters concealed behind the posts at the four corners of the fence were pumping out a hidden light show in time with the music. Twisting abstracts carpeted the ground; highlights and holoforms made hulking beasts out of the abandoned farm equipment; traveling lights spiraled and disco-balled the crush of dancers.

"Hey yo, little help over here," called a voice close to Cindy. A blond girl, her clothing mostly in tatters, her naked feet leaving red prints across the rocks, was helping a boy with a shaved head and dragon tattoos to the wire. He was holding his wrist, which was flopping at an angle that was obviously wrong. Winslow and Cindy helped raise the wire to let them through. The exhausted couple made their way through the crowd and slowly moved towards a large dark close that had been set up several yards away from the action to treat the injured.

"Wow," Cindy said, watching them, "some of these people are going to be hours-maybe days-getting themselves healed up."

"And some never will," Winslow said. "A lot of people like to keep the scars they get here."

Suddenly the music, already at a fever pitch, amped up another notch. DC Kahn had started sampling "Colonel Doolittle" by the Yokuska Cavaliers, a huge hit from the late '30s. The crowd went apeshit. A small group of five or six abandoned any pretense of dancing, charged the nearly empty center of the square, and started beating the hell out of one another.

Cindy slipped out of her shoes and pulled up the top wire. She was halfway through the fence when Winslow grabbed her by the arm. "Whoa! What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"I feel like dancing," she said, the synthites in her working like mad to get her chemistry up to speed.

"No way. Not tonight. You come back out here."

"Let go of me NOW, Winslow," she said, her heart hammering, her skin growing hot, imagining how Winslow would look with blood streaming down his face.

"First off, your parents would kill me if they knew you went in there," he said. She struggled, trying to pull away. "Second, you'll wreck that dress, and you really love that dress." She stopped for a moment, thinking. "And most important, I'm your mentor, and I say 'no.'"

She looked at him hard, the light and the sound and the flesh surging all around them.

"It isn't the path we're on. Not tonight. Now baseline yourself and let's go."

Reluctantly, she came back to his side of the wire. She unfiltered her eyes, tuned out the music, and had the synthites start breaking down the angry, angry mix they had just begun to form. She was still pissed. As she put her shoes back on she asked, "What's the point in watching something like that and not joining in?"

"That is the point. To watch it and not join in. You join in, well and good, but if you do that's where the path ends for the night. There or the medical close." Winslow began moving off towards the trees.

Cindy followed, but turned her head as she did to catch one last look at the dance. In the center, where the fighting was hardest and the moonlight brightest, a beefy, grizzled old man, spattered with blood, was taking on all comers. A huge, savage smile played across his face.

"Who's that old guy back there?" she asked as the tree line gathered them into the dark.

"That's Carlos," Winslow said, not needing to look back. "He's been farming a while."

* * *

They had been walking long enough that the sounds of the dance were distant and muffled. Cindy couldn't make out any path under her feet, but Winslow moved with confidence. No one else seemed to be around. She could smell water, pine, and the deep, rich decay of the autumn woods.

Cindy hadn't spoken a word since entering the woods. More to break the silence than anything else, Winslow asked, "What do you think Jim 35 would have made of things back there on the rocks?"

Cindy stayed silent in a silent-treatment sort of way. She kept her right hand in a fist so that Winslow wouldn't smell the blood. She had cut her palm grabbing the barbwire fence. She hoped the wound got infected. She hoped it would scar.

Winslow stopped and turned around to face her. They stood there in the near dark, the sound of gurgling water close by. "Are you here to have fun, or to be a part of this place?" he asked.

Cindy rolled her eyes, but she answered. "To be a part of the Farm, of course."

"And you know that involves mentoring until you reach the point you can use this place to learn and experience on your own. Which means respect for the mentor-pupil relationship. It's not like we're on a date here."

"You stop talking to me like I'm a child right the fuck now," Cindy said. She'd only been pissed and disappointed before, and was surprised to find herself suddenly furious. Did he think she wasn't serious about what they were doing?

"I've done like you've told me to do," she went on. "I'm not back there dancing right now, am I? No. I'm here with you putting up with your shit. You want me to be happy putting up with your shit too?"

Winslow thought hard. His chest felt tight. Something that Hartmut had been trying to tell him echoed faintly through his mind. In the moment before he spoke, there was a small fracture in the time-space continuum.

In one reality, Winslow said this: "You're right. You know, you're absolutely right and I'm sorry. My job is just to show you the path, and as long as you keep on it, however you feel or respond is okay. I just...I guess I just didn't want you angry with me. It kills me to have you angry with me. I tried to pull a Yoda on you, and you deserve better than that. I apologize. Really."

In the other reality, Winslow said this: "It isn't shit, and it isn't even mine, either. Trails become paths because enough people walk them. Is your hand okay?"

"It's fine," Cindy said, utterly exasperated. "Can we please get going? Or do we just stand here all night?"

They kept walking, crossing a small brook, getting a little muddy around the ankles in the process. "What do you think Jim 35 would have made of the dance?" Jim asked again.

"I don't know," Cindy snipped. "He would have probably thought it was pointless and stupid. And speaking of pointless, why does Jim have an accent anyway?"

"Well, he is from Texas."

A short ways off a large cluster of boulders-some the size of coffee tables, some the size of dump trucks-fought for space with the trees. Atop the most prominent was a light. From the shifting shadows and quiet conversation, several people seemed to be gathered up there. Winslow listened carefully to the quiet voices. When he was sure they hadn't begun yet, he called out, "Room up there for two more?"

"Only just," came a female voice. "Hurry on up, we're about to start."

The boulder was steep-sided with no steps and precious few handholds. In the semi-dark, Cindy and Winslow had to scramble for purchase. Hands came down the sides to help them up. On top, the boulder was flat enough for the eight people already there to sit in a circle with their legs folded underneath them on the damp, mossy stone. In the center of the circle was a small cluster of animal bones, not enough to have been from an entire carcass. Cindy couldn't tell if they had been deliberately arranged in some way or another. The whole scene was lit by a yellow and blue paper lantern on the overhanging branch of an oak.

There was no time for introductions. Cindy and Winslow found a place to sit. A woman with long gray hair wearing a puffy white nylon coat started speaking and everyone quieted down.

"We will be keening together in the thirty-five hundred cycle," she began. "Mostly hallucinogenic, but there will be some opiate effects to direct imagery. The upper end of the cycle can be extremely challenging and is definitely not recommended for people who have emotional or psychological difficulties, or who have gone through any recent trauma. If your synthites are fourth generation or lower, you may miss out on some nuances, but you should still have an interesting time. Please be supportive of your fellow travelers-we're all farming here. Now, if everyone's comfortable?"

Winslow looked over at Cindy. He could tell by the determined set of her small, red mouth that she was keyed to the highest end of the cycle she could receive. It seemed she always had to. It shouldn't be so easy to surrender control of your brain chemistry to someone you just met, Winslow thought. He tried to remember if he had ever been so reckless at her age-or at any age. He keyed into a lower range of the cycle and tried to convinced himself it was only out of his responsibilities to her.

The group keening began with the all-body shiver, that jumbled-up sense of rush and excitement that signaled stronger things to come. Thoughts began racing, curiosities and apprehensions slowly increased. People smiled nervously at one another.

Then suddenly came the first tone, the sense of there being many more people up there than actually were present. It was as if the rock they were on couldn't possibly hold them all. With that came distortions in scale. Perhaps the rock was much larger than first supposed-perhaps everyone was somehow shrinking?

The second tone was sensory. It seemed possible to pick out the rustles of individual leaves in the surrounding trees. The light from the lantern became warmer and richer, seemed to invade every nook and cranny and color every shadow. Textures and surfaces-the rocks, the moss, the skin and hair of other people-became fascinating. Gradually, patterns and shapes began to resolve themselves and ever so slowly began to move and flow. Things were starting to come unhinged as the world around them writhed and breathed.

A wave of paranoia swept the group. The circle-never mind exactly how large it was or how many members comprised it-was a tiny island of light lost in a stormy sea of black and night and wild. The ground could easily have been a thousand miles below, lost in the trackless depths of outer space. The darkness became The Darkness, a palpable thing of awesome power and evil intent that pressed down upon their small bubble of light with planetary weight.

But wait! The outer dark had somehow made its way here-into the circle! Everyone, it seemed, remembered it all at once. The small pile of bones, the dead thing at the center of the group, was dancing, reforming, trying desperately to take on flesh and substance as it arced archetypal among them all. Several people were muttering to themselves. One woman began crying. Panic and isolation fed the ohgodohgods and the makeitstopmakeitstops. How had they even dared to come here?

There, at what seemed the final, worst moment, Winslow reached out for Cindy-who pulled her hand away and screamed. Everyone screamed with her. It was all over. It was all ruin and horror and night and The Darkness forever and ever.

And then the bones were speaking. Speaking in an ancient, terrible language of suggestion and symbol and emotion that wrote in the air and behind the eyelids. It was the story of the world and how it came to be, warm and alive spinning around the sun and beneath their bodies. And at the same time the story was the story of the Farm, and how it had come to be and to gather all of them to it. And the story was the story of all of them, of that night, there on that rock. And the story was also the story of each of them, and how they had individually come to be there. Each person in the circle understood that the voice the bones were speaking in was their own voice-that the voice was their own life.

At long last a great sigh of peace and pleasure came over the circle. The crisis was past. All their fears had been out of ignorance. They hadn't understood the goodness, the benevolence of...well, everything, really. Everybody was cool. Everything was cool. People began to talk quietly to one another, no one really listening to anything anyone else said. A few people smoked cigarettes and tried writing across the night with the glowing tips. The illusion of shifting patterns and forms in the objects around them persisted, but they were no more than that-illusions, entertainments conjured up to amuse.

As the visuals died down, the keening ended with a warm, mellow sense of well-being. People felt drunk or stoned or maybe something purer in-between, but the world was all right. The world was itself again. Cindy and Winslow looked at each other. She smiled shyly at him, a little embarrassed with herself, and took his hand.

One by one, people began to clap. The woman in white smiled and stood up to acknowledge their praise for her art.

The circle disbanded, its members saying good-night or wishing good journey to one another as they climbed down. At the base, a new group of people were patiently, quietly waiting their turn.

Winslow helped lower Cindy to the ground, then made a jump that brought him beside her. They stood facing each other for a beat, not sure of what to say. Then Winslow said, "This way," and led her off in a new direction.

* * *

"Why are the trees all lined up like this?" Cindy asked.

Pine needles carpeted the ground with brown and orange, softening every footstep. The bare trees stood in ranks and files, like soldiers on parade. "Before the foundation purchased this land," Winslow said, "this entire area used to be owned by a lumber mill. This was how they planted."

"It's weird. It all seems artificial because of how it's laid out."

Winslow nodded. "You can't see the trees for the forest."

"What do you mean?" Cindy said. "I can see them just fine."

"It's just an expression. I mean the way the trees are organized is like this layer between you and them."

"Kind of," she agreed.

"That's what farmers do. That's what the very first farmers did-find ways to organize the living world around them."

They were walking hand-in-hand between the trees. They found themselves very tender with each other since leaving the rock. Some unknown number of fellow farmers were scattered amid the rows between the trees, either going to or coming from.

"That's where the whole split happened," Cindy said, out of the blue.

"What split?" asked Winslow.

"You know, with farming. People settled down, cultivated a particular plot of land. Planted in the spring, harvested in the fall. Instead of each place being like any other, you got this place versus that place. Instead of each day being like any other, you got this day versus that day. People had to invent time and space just to keep track of it all."

Winslow chuckled and put his arm around her. It was getting colder as the night went on. He thought he might say something about grace or the fall of man, but decided Cindy was already making all the connections by herself. She really wouldn't need a mentor anymore.

As they passed the last row of pines, Cindy looked up and said, "Oh."

Since they had been walking diagonally through the grid of the forest, the bare trees had acted like Venetian blinds. The long, regular rows seen from Cindy's and Winslow's angle screened what was just beyond them. So it seemed to Cindy as if the gigantic sugar maple had been suddenly magicked out of empty air.

It stood a good two hundred feet tall, but seemed even larger owing to its massive bulk. Although it was the middle of autumn, the tree had only just begun to drop its broad yellow leaves, like book pages in the moonlight. The moon hung just over the maple's left shoulder, making sharp the outline of the tree against her pale face.

Without so much a movement as a relaxation of her body, Cindy settled against Winslow. "You were right," she said. "It's really beautiful."

Winslow waited, trying his best not to betray his suspense. If there was ever a time for it, he thought, it would be now.

And sure enough, after a short wait, Cindy said, "You know, Winslow, I'm really going to miss this when I get back home."

She let the "this" hang. She might have meant the tree, or the Farm, or even the break she had been able to take from school and work. But actually the thing she was planning on missing was Winslow's arm around her shoulder.

"Yeah," Winslow said, holding her just a tiny, fractional bit tighter. "Yeah, I know how that can be."

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Copyright©2002 by Steve Spaulding.

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