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Chapter 2: The Tale of Lightning Ben
Dreams and stories within stories to build out the scene.
After eating, the companions walked together to a small stream running through the baffles of a swale to drink their fill and top off their canteens. The water was cold and crisp, bubbling up from springs in the hillside, and the moon was high enough now that pale light rippled off the surface of the water. In the distance, they could hear the sound of guitar strums, the picking of banjos and mandolins, and harmonies on the breeze.
“Sounds like a possum band,” said Arrick.
“They have a knack for rhythm,” Bajo explained. “Possum bands are big out here.”
Eola gently bit her tongue. She was mostly eager for Bajo’s explanations of Bridge City and its varied cultures, but she already knew plenty about possum family bands because possum family bands toured all across Cascadia. The badger brushed off any offense, though, because the benefit of Bajo’s unfettered insight outweighed the satisfaction of proving what she knew.
The companions nodded along with the bass, and with their bellies full and thirsts quenched, returned to the fire to drowse against the logs and warm their walking paws near the flame. This was the time for stories.
“Have you ever heard of Lightning Ben?” Bajo asked, and Eola and Ophir shook their heads, so the raccoon started in.
“Well, before he was Lightning Ben, he was just Ben, a black-tailed jackrabbit who lived in the high and dry desert lands on the other side of Wy’East.”
“Ben was a rowdy and fairly obnoxious leveret1 born into a highland husk2 which roamed the Tygh Valley, but he was cast out upon turning a hare for pretty near constant misbehavior and a painfully unbreakable spirit which was unwelcome in a communal family which relied on cooperation and teamwork and stick-to-it-iveness and all those other buzzwords to get by.
“So after Ben’s ongoing hi-jinx frayed the last nerve of the drove3, the elders kicked him out, feeling some sadness at the abandonment one of their own, but also relief that Ben was finally the problem of other beasts besides them and, well, if he was eaten, that was just how life worked sometimes.
“Obviously, the open world wasn’t easy for a solo hare, even one of Ben’s unbeatable will. Yet Ben did survive, somehow. Over long ranges, across the dry sunrise swells of the Cascades—through speed unprecedented in black-tailed jackrabbits before or since—Lightning Ben learned the land and its inhabitants, even developing a reputation as a hare who helped those in need.
And then he befriended a coyote band4.
“This was in the years right after the prime mammals were gone, and all the species could communicate, but that discovery was only just taking root. Ben, in knowing about the fall of the language barrier, and by traveling far and wide among so many creatures, spread the word, and was one of the first to see how each species had its own traditions and songs. But for all he learned, Ben knew if he was gonna have real power, he’d need to team-up with deadlier creatures.
“That’s what Ben was thinking as he approached the coyotes one cool spring evening after the band had run down a wounded antelope: pitch his idea when their hunger was low.
“Ben’s idea was to help the band hunt groundhogs, because coyotes seemed to like eating groundhogs, and Ben didn’t like groundhogs at all. Despite a general affection for most living creatures, the groundhogs reminded Ben of all the tradition and exclusion which annoyed him about his own drove, with none of the pleasant qualities he loved and yearned to return to. Plus, he knew how groundhog burrows worked. A little dose of genocide in exchange for making powerful friends, that’s what Ben’s idea was.
Sometimes Bajo’s stories get dark, thought Eola.
“What Ben didn’t know is a coyote’s hunger is never sated, and this was not a band to pass up free meals. As the coyotes fanned out around Ben, betting on numbers and teamwork and size and shared experience, Ben made them pause with a voice clear as a bell, and a proposition they were obligated to consider.
“‘Hear this: I can team up with you, and you’ll get more groundhogs than you ever dreamed, or I can outrun you and you’ll never get this chance again.’”
“While it was true Ben could’ve outrun the coyotes, he didn’t realize one of the band was creeping up behind him, and that coyote snatched him up by his neck so quick Ben didn’t even twitch. He just fainted and hung there like a shop rag.”
“Well, the coyote band found this to be hilarious because they knew a little of Ben, and what a loudmouth he was, yet they still admired his audacity and were feeling full-bellied generosity from the aforementioned antelope, so they didn’t kill him right away, and when Ben woke up, bound in the corner of the band’s cavern, the foolhardy hare wasn’t sure what else to do so he started in on his pitch again. Well, the band liked the potential of a groundhog feast more than they liked the idea of splitting a single hare, so they decided to give Ben a chance.
“Ben’s plan was to divert a creek into one end of a burrow, cause a big commotion at another entrance, and flush the hogs into the jaws of the waiting coyotes. Well, this plan proved very efficient, wreaking tragedy on the groundhogs and fattening up the band. The coyotes were grateful and knew some of the plight of obnoxious survivors, so a friendship was forged, and over the seasons, Ben became a beloved member of the band. But the coyotes still laughed often about the time he talked all tough and then fainted and Ben would get all bent out of shape every time.”
“After that, though, Ben became known across the high desert as a fierce fighter with an antlered helm and who, legend said, could outrun the pronghorns in a sprint. Fastest creature east of the Cascades, they claim.”
“For the record,” Arrick added. “No one claimed these feats as loudly as Ben himself.”
“This is true. He almost certainly coined his own nickname, which everyone knows is a shameful act,” Bajo nodded, then continued. “Whoever the source was, that was around the time Ben started going by ‘Lightning.’ And when Lightning Ben was mighty enough in name, he returned to the highlands where he’d grown, and bested three of the drove’s champions, back-to-back-to-back, so they made him chief. Within another two seasons, he’d forged a peace between the drove and the band, the first prey and predator team-up east of the Cascades.”
“What happened to Ben in the end?” asked Eola.
Arrick snorted, and Bajo smiled.
“That’s an excellent question, Eola, and before I tell the rest of the story, you should know Lightning Ben is revered as a saint by many on the other side of the mountains, and Ben’s jackrabbit descendants claim his spirit still guides them along. Almost all of them believe Ben was carried up to Paradise by angels of the Great Spirit.
“But the other, far more likely story is Ben got nabbed by two peregrines. It’s a whole legend among the raptors, the heroic couple who sniped Braggin’ Ben. The raptors claim his pelt was strung up on an old phone wire.”
“No one’s faster than a peregrine,” added Arrick. “And they don’t take kindly to animals who claim otherwise.”
“So that’s what happened with Lightning Ben, but you gotta be careful with the end of the story, especially when you’re talking to hares from the other side of the mountain.”
After the story, the mammals grew quiet for a while, thinking about how they might mix up the tale if they were to retell it. In the quiet; the weariness of the day’s travel set into their resting muscles, the creek was trickling through the swales, and the faint strains of a possum ballad were soft on the wind, sounding to them like a lullaby.
Eola took the first watch in part because her mind raced far into the night, and she sometimes had a hard time sleeping. She watched as the fire died down, as all three of her fellow travelers rolled up, cozy in their cloaks, and drifted to sleep.
This was the third day of their travels, so the badger’s body felt adapted to the journey. She admired her companions and thrilled at the chance to see new lands, and Eola felt giddy at what the next day would bring, the sites and sounds and scents of a real city.
Then the high tide of anticipation swept back out, and a low longing for home returned, for the warmth of the hearth on an early fall night at the abbey. She remembered the late season harvest, the crisp apples and bursting grapes; her friends, the squirrels, and moles, and mice; her badger family.
Eola didn’t dwell in the sadness long. Instead, she began to worry, about what she was doing here, about what would happen after Ophir was delivered safely to the Capitol, and what she even wanted to make of her life now that she’d traveled so far.
To break this anxious mood, Eola steered her attention to the sky, counting stars outward from the Northstar. With each tallied bit of light, she sunk deeper into the peace and quiet of the night.
Her eyes began to wink, slowly.
You’re on watch! she snapped at herself, holding them open.
But then Eola figured she’d rest just one eyelid for a while…
Next she knew, Eola was floating up through the overhanging alders and high above the meadow, higher than the blinking blue Beacon, until the whole land stretched out around her. The snow capped mountains were like white spires of stone and she could see the desert lands where Lightning Ben once ran and got picked off by peregrines, and all the rivers flowing down off those mountains and on into the Great Western River, which rolled down toward the ocean, which stretched so far Eola couldn’t see the edge of the water.
Then a creature she’d never seen before, like an otter but larger and with whiskers like a broom, floated near until it was by her side, glowing a little and holding a flat gray stone. A sea otter, Eola realized.
Then the whiskery and ethereal beast spoke except Eola heard the words like they were already inside her mind instead of filtered through her ears.
Eola, a word: the world is wide. Don’t worry. Walk the Way.
She felt an ease inside her, a warmth.
“What Way? Are you the Great Spirit?” she asked.
The sea otter laughed slowly and the warmth she felt rippled.
The Way is how you’re going already, and the Spirit is much more than me.
Then the otter held out the stone for her to see and Eola realized it wasn’t a stone at all but the shell of a sea creature. The inside of the lid was lined with shimmering white, and the lower half held the oyster itself, a briny gray and black bivalve, and nestled near the oyster was a sphere, seemingly white and gold and every color in the spectrum depending on where she looked.
The otter plucked out the pearl, slurped the oyster in one gulp, and tossed the little orb to Eola, who caught it in her paws and looked into its shining surface, her eyes drawing inward, downward, into the swirling white.
And then Eola woke. The embers still glowed in the fire and the moon sat higher in the sky, casting the meadow in soft light. Eola felt relieved to be up before her watch was over, relieved that nothing happened. She remembered the dream, turning it over like a stone, and soon Bajo woke and took over the midnight shift and Eola curled in her brown wool cloak and fell into a slumber undisturbed by memorable dreams.
A young hare.
A group of hares
Another name for a group of hares.
Coyotes gather in bands.