I completed a screenplay this year entitled, “THUNDERHEAD.” It’s the story of a cowardly inventor who follows the legendary lumberjack, Paul Bunyan into a monster-infested region of North America to hunt down and kill Bigfoot. As a writer who loves to build worlds, I felt as though my journey through the land of Thunderhead wasn’t quite finished so I began outlining some short stories based on the characters inhabiting this strange place.
Here is the first of such stories…
THE FIVE STORKS
By David Parkin
There had been whispers, lots of them. The same story drifted through pubs, outfitter shops, and markets across Leviathan, the small community on the edge of the wooden curtain. News of the sighting nestled, as it always did, in the dark corners of the Five Storks Tavern, a pub built from the upturned hull of a wrecked tugboat on the lakeshore just outside of town.
In a strange way, rumors and stories were Arbuckle’s line of business. His pub always filled with customers when news needed discussing and the recent sighting was cause for more fervor than he recalled in all his years behind the bar.
Leviathan was a local outfitting community. It was a lonely outpost at the end of a lonely road where the hunting parties from the north came by obligation. If you weren’t in need of ammunition or didn’t have a dead beast to butcher, skin, and sell, then Leviathan held no meaning for you.
The village had always been far enough south to escape rumors like this, but then again, the same could be said for Slughorn and the Axman Trail in the years before they were claimed by the southern migration. If the sightings were real, Leviathan would be the next dot on the map swallowed by the ever-growing uninhabitable north and the monsters emerging from its shadows.
Arbuckle hated the talk. First, he didn’t believe it and second, he knew what kind of denizen a tide of hearsay could wash up and there were some out in those woods that he’d prefer to keep clear of his fire. The barman went along, however. If the hunters wanted to blow through his doors on a gust of rumors then he’d gladly sell them a stein, and a steak. He’d even listen to their boastful stories while pretending to be impressed.
Often, he felt as if they didn’t even notice the row of teeth impaled like a mowhawk across the top of his skull but the big-headed huntsmen weren’t concerned with Arbuckle’s lost days on the hunt and the betrayal of the one he hoped he’d never meet again. Their interests only came in making sure anyone and everyone within earshot knew of their intention to bag the prize.
Arbuckle would always tell them, “If you do shoot it, bring it here and I’ll give you a free steak,” then he’d add, “If you bring in two, that’s good for a basket of hoppers as well.”
The sightings had been rare. No one in the pub had actually come face to face with the beast, a fact often dismissed by the mumbling crowd. The only real evidence was the mauled carcass of a grizzly bear found past the farmer break, half a click from the edge of the wooden curtain. Of course, this could have been the result of a mating challenge from another larger bear, but discussing these observations would only slow the fistfuls of money slamming on the beachwood, so Arbuckle left it unmentioned.
The early evening was quiet at the Five Storks. He watched a blanket of mist settle across the distant lake until the clock stretched passed midnight and the vista dissolved with the early setting moon.
With the darkness a cold wind arrived, rattling through the dried slats in the hull of the ship now acting as the roof above him. Arbuckle knew a wind like that meant a storm would soon wake past the cutoff and begin its slow pilgrimage south. Before it delivered its freezing rain and wind, however, the cold front delivered something equally unpleasant…
The weathered hunters shifted in their boots as a howling gust threw open the tavern’s heavy door, revealing the silhouette of a crooked and battle-worn hunter, black and blue against the angry night. His name was “Ironsides.” He was the most ferocious and savage monster hunter on the plateau and as he entered, the moment Arbuckle had feared most since the rumors began revealed itself in lantern light.
Every eye in the pub watched in silence as the man with dark skin and a cage of steel welded around his torso clunked past the taxidermied heads mounted on the wall beside him. He passed a Blustercuss, a large frog-like beast from the western swamps and a Batterclaw, a flying mammal with a gaping jaw full of needle-sharp teeth.
Without a glance in Arbuckle’s direction, Ironsides clanked down on a hefty stump across the bar and knocked on the stained wood to order his drink. The barman poured but before setting down the stein, he paused and the shifting ale burped over the edge of the mug, splashing across the newcomer’s brawny forearm.
In response, Ironsides’ tempered brow shifted slowly toward him.
“Are you here for me or for the monster?” Arbuckle asked.
The question hung in the air like a hungry mosquito as each patron turned their full attention toward the bar. After a long silence, Ironsides’ answer came quick and simple as he stood and laid a punch across Arbuckle’s jaw that threw the stein from his hand and sent his shoulders colliding against the aging foeder behind him. Before the ale had a chance to spill, Ironsides caught the cask in the air and drank it down, quick and hearty.
“Who taught you to take a punch?” the newcomer grunted, wiping the amber from his chin.
“My father,” Arbuckle answered, wiping the blood from his lip.
A blaring guffaw filled the hull of the upturned tug as Ironsides threw back his head and laughed. “Not bad,” he said, “For a kid that didn’t even learn to shoot ‘til he was three years old.”
“How does anyone learn to shoot a gun before they’re three?” Arbuckle erupted, “You tell me, dad!”
“I’m just glad your mother wasn’t around to see you shame me like that,” Ironsides balked as he stretched his neck and sat back down, “Such a disgrace.”
Arbuckle threw up his hands. The sight of his father was bad enough but the fact that he wasted no time before the criticism began was too much. It was always too damn much.
Tension between a father with impossibly high standards and a son wanting nothing more than his approval wasn’t a new concept, but when the pressure finally released, it was never pretty. For Arbuckle, it happened eight years ago with his cranium firmly pressed between the jaws of an angry Western Firefang.
They encountered the twenty-foot beast on the trail, five clicks northwest of the Grey Mountain. They spotted her prints on a routine border watch and tracked them to the flood basin south of the valley. The exchange was a routine crop and drop clamor but as every hunter knows, when it comes to the beasts of the north, the only thing you could expect, was that nothing ever went to plan.
Ironsides had spent the morning criticizing the way his son wore his armor, taking issue with how he tied the topknot on his quarter pillar. So when the beast dodged through the green ferns of the Grey Mountain Wood and got the drop on them, Arbuckle was already distracted and the animal hit him with a spray of venomous barbs from its tail.
Once the toxin took hold, Arbuckle’s body seized. He was paralyzed and terrified. He begged his father to help him but all Ironsides did was rail on the boy for, “Napping on the job.”
Within moments, the beast had him in her mouth. Ironsides finally took down the animal and freed his son but not before leaving a permanent reminder of the experience lodged in his cranium. There was no fight, no yelling, he just walked away from his father and the hunt after that.
For the past six years the village of Leviathan had been far enough south to keep clear of Ironsides and his cage but when the rumors picked up and every stinking grub across the cutoff crawled out from under their rock, Arbuckle knew it was only a matter of time before pops made an appearance.
This is why he hated rumors like these. Each time the whispers turned anew, he began rehearsing the speech he’d deliver should his father show up. Now, as the bastard sat across his bar, Arbuckle opened his still stinging jaw but before he could speak, something loud and violent stole his thunder.
Just as he readied a symphony of biting and swearing, the roof of the Five Storks exploded above their heads, dumping splintered wood and stuffed beast heads over the patrons like a burst dam.
The shockwave swallowed the sounds of erupting screams and gunfire like an infection. There was cracking wood, cries of pain, and finally warm wet ale, cascading like a waterfall onto Arbuckle’s shoulders. For a moment, he thought he might be in heaven but as he caught a glimpse of his father’s gnarled face, he knew there was no way an ugly mug like that would make an appearance anywhere near paradise.
The impact in the tavern’s roof had cracked the immense barrel behind the bar, sending a wave of ale down on top of him. The river took Arbuckle off his feet and washed him into a stampede of heavy boots and bodies that crashed into the ground and flipped tables on their ends. The silence of shock came to a singing halt as the unmistakable howl of a beast erupted from the darkness outside and split the night with terror.
The memories of biting jaws and snapping tails careened through Arbuckle’s mind as he struggled to right himself in the bedlam. The panic bubbled and the sounds rippled through the ale flowing over his fingers until the sight of his father took form in the chaos, a foundation in which he couldn’t help but find comfort.
“You didn’t piss yourself did you?” Ironsides asked with a sour face.
“It’s ale, dad!” Arbuckle answered as he got to his feet.
“All of it?” Ironsides questioned, “When you were young, you pissed your pants all the time so I wouldn’t be surprised if–”
“I was a baby, dad!” Arbuckle protested, “All babies piss themselves!”
“You cried every time you did it, too,” Ironsides continued as they jumped back behind the bar and he readied his bolt gun, “It was enough to make a man die of shame.”
“Babies cry!” Arbuckle shouted, “I can’t believe you don’t understand these things!”
The sound of the animal’s grunt shifted beyond the bar, signaling an attack. Like clockwork, a three-fingered claw the size of an angry goat slashed toward them. Arbuckle pulled his father to safety, flat against the floorboards, as a spray of splinters and broken glass fell across their backs.
“Ha!” Arbuckle gloated, “How’s that for ‘napping on the job?’”
Ironsides glanced to the spot his head had just been, now torn to splinters. “You crapped yourself too,” he added, “Every single day.”
The roaring from the darkness above their heads swallowed the rebuttal as the beast’s quaking footsteps circled around for another blow. As far as he was concerned, Arbuckle’s two least favorite things in the world were his father and the monsters. Without a gun in his hand, he’d find no relief from either burden.
This particular beast was a Ringtailed Bandaloot, from the shores past the lower lights, exactly as the rumors had said.
It was true, all of it.
The animals had pushed their frontier past the lakes and now, all they could hope for was a man or woman in the village to survive long enough and warn the larger cities to the south.
“The Firefang,” Ironsides said as dust and splinters rained down on his shoulders, “Do you know why it paralyzed you all those years ago?”
“Now’s not the time for a biology lesson, dad!” Arbuckle shouted.
“It’s young can’t hunt, the Firefang,” Ironsides continued, “The adults paralyze the kill and protect it from scavengers for their children. That’s why it didn’t swallow you. It put you in its mouth and gave you those souvenirs,” he signaled to the teeth in Arbuckle’s head, “Because it thought it was protecting you from me. In a funny way, it was.”
The chaos around them faded as the image from all those years ago returned to Arbuckle; Light pouring in through the monster’s teeth as his father forced its jaw open and reached in through the darkness like the hand of God. “You knew I was safe the whole time?” Arbuckle asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You never gave me the chance,” his father answered, “Besides, to become a man, every boy needs to take time away from his dad. Arbuckle looked to his father, mystified. “It looks like you didn’t totally fail at that,” Ironsides continued with a wink and a nod of approval, “So I call it a win for both of us.”
“You do love me,” Arbuckle said.
Ironsides flinched at the word, putting a finger to his lips and checking to see if anyone heard. “’Pride,’ son,” he whispered, “A man feels, ‘pride.’ Now stay here. You don’t have a bolt gun and I wouldn’t want you wetting your nappy again.”
The old hunter smiled, racked a bolt into the chamber of his weapon, and leaped over the bar, firing into the night. There was shouting, gnashing, more splintered wood, and a final silence followed by a massive body groaning and thundering to the ground. The sounds were so familiar to Arbuckle they felt like a lullaby.
“Do I get a free ale?” Ironsides asked as Arbuckle stood and examined the heap of fur and blood pouring in through the hole in the tavern ceiling, “ I know it’s only one beast but maybe you can throw in a basket of hoppers for dear ol’ dad?”
“You’ve been keeping tabs on me?” Arbuckle asked.
“Of course I have,” Ironsides answered, “I’m proud of you, son.”
“I love you too,” Arbuckle said as his father’s powerful hand closed around his fingers and pulled him from danger once again.
The two men walked together into the darkness, away from the thunder that would never stop biting at their heels. Arbuckle didn’t know what the future held, but as the approaching sun warmed the horizon to the east, he took comfort in the fact that he’d never have to worry about rumors again.
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The Five Storks –COPYRIGHT © 2016 David Parkin