Grub stage is the third in a trilogy of novelettes by Ima Erthwitch. Set in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas. Progress has been undeniably slow, but I am hoping to keep the words flowing this year so I can get this book finished. You can find the other two books in paperback at Amazon, and ebooks anywhere ebooks are sold. The titles are First Hunt and Second Hit.
Life on the Other Side
In those shadows, completely hidden behind thick underbrush, was a wooden door. Ledeir opened it and walked through into a little cottage warm and glowing with ambient light from a source I couldn’t identify. The floors were hard packed dirt, but they didn’t look dirty at all. In fact, they shone with a brilliance I couldn’t help but stare at. A comfortable overstuffed chair sat to the right, in front of a large fireplace with a pot hanging on iron hooks over a small fire. A little table stood beside the chair.
Amazement must have shown on my face because when Ledeir looked back at me, she smiled.
“Welcome to my humble abode,” she said, with a flourish of her arm to indicate the rest of the space. A kitchen table and counter with cabinets were on the far side. And coming full circle back towards the door, there was a small bed with book shelves surrounding it to make a comfortable nook.
Ledeir nodded. “In my previous life, I knew a thing or two about building things like tiny houses. With some adaptations for materials, I’ve managed to make a tolerable place to live here.”
“This is amazing,” I told her. Having spent a good portion of my childhood alone with nature, the thought of being here alone didn’t fill me with the dread it might have done to some. “Is Ada going with you, or will she stay here with me?”
A tiny voice replied from my shoulder. “I’ll stay with Treya. Wouldn’t want to miss my ride out of here when the time comes,” she said.
Ledeir and I both laughed.
“Okay then, I guess that’s settled,” said Ledeir. When she took a bag from beneath her bed and started putting things into it, the reality of what I had done hit me.
“Wait, though. What do I need to do in your absence? I mean, do I patrol the perimeter of the tree, or what? Where do I find food and water? What do I do if someone shows up here, and how do I know if they are friend or foe?” The unspoken part of that last question hung in the air. What do I do if they turned out to be unfriendly? And how? I had no curare and hadn’t even brought my blowgun with me. When I set out to come here this morning, I had no idea I’d be at the task more than a few hours. I hoped my Jeep would still be there when I finally could go back to the other side.
Ledeir plopped her bag by the door and put her hands on her hips. “Those are good questions. Ada, will you help her?” From my shoulder, Ada nodded. “Good. Then I will say to just trust your instinct. Ada’s been with me for some time and she knows my routine. She can advise you on the day-to-day.” Her face grew serious. “And she will help you prepare for the unexpected and unwelcome intruders.” And with that, she put the strap of her bag over her shoulder and exited the door. I watched as she walked off in a direction away from the tunnel, passed the maidenwood tree, and disappeared from sight when the trail turned.
“Well, okay, then.” I closed the door and put my hand to the table to make a sort of exit ramp for Ada. She skittered down my arm to stand on the table top. “Okay, then,” I repeated. “I guess I’ll familiarize myself here before I do anything else.”
The first thing I wanted to know was where she kept the food. Cabinet door after door revealed nothing edible at all. In the first, a cup and saucer. A blue jar with a few dried purple flowers inside. The next cabinet door had nothing at all behind it other than an empty shelf. Inside the third, there were some drawstring bags made from very supple moleskin. I pulled one of those out and showed it to Ada, who was squatting on the countertop with her head in her hands looking bored as she watched.
“What’s the purpose of these?”
“Oh,” Ada exclaimed as she jumped to upright with excitement. “You’ll need those.”
She had my attention. Ada scrambled to her feet.
“We need to gather more bloodroot,” she said. “Now.”
I couldn’t imagine why that should be an urgent priority. “Like now, now?” I asked. Surely that could wait until I became more familiar with my new temporary surroundings.
“Now, now.” She climbed up the hand holding the bag on the counter, and onto my shoulder.
I cranked my neck to look at her, with more than a little skepticism. “Alright. So is one bag full enough, or do I need to fill them all?”
“At least one. But best to fill them all,” Aada said. “Let’s go now. But we have to hurry, so might only have time for one, at first.”
I began pulling the other three moleskins from the shelf. All were empty. If something so important as warranting her reaction, I wondered why they hadn’t been filled.
“Okay, what do we fill them with, and where do we get it?”
Aada shooed me towards the door, from her shoulder perch. “Back through the portal. But hurry.”
I stopped in my tracks.
“If I go out and come back again, will I return to the same place?” That was a genuine concern. I’d only traveled through one portal intentionally before, and that was back at the compound I’d gone to with my mentor. The asshole. And at that time, I didn’t even realize it was a portal. Who knew what happened in those spaces, and whether everything would be the same twice.
But Aada reassured me we’d return here, and off we went. I closed the door to Ledier’s little hideaway and pulled the branches back down over the doorway to hide it even better.
The tunnel entrance was only a few strides away. It was just like it was coming to this side. At first, the tunnel seemed just like the tunnel that ran under the road and should have exited on the other side so hikers could avoid the traffic. I could even see the light on the other end.
But the farther into it I went, the tighter the space began to feel, until every step forward was one that took a lot of effort. It was as if the walls were closing in, and yet it didn’t feel like concrete at all. It felt warm. Silky, even. Not uncomfortable, but the sensation was definitely disconcerting. It reminded me of something, but I couldn’t place a name on the feeling.
And suddenly, we were free of the constriction and stepping out to the other side. Immediately, Aada scrambled down my body, hand over hand went down my leg and started kicking around in the leaves like she’d gone mad.
“Aada, what are you doing?” I shook my head in disbelief. She became excited and motioned for me to come closer. Pointing excitedly, she showed me the red growth bud of a plant just barely buried beneath the surface.
“That’s what I’m looking for?” I asked her.
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “Hurry. I’ll find more. You dig. And don’t break it!”
“Okay, okay, got it. Dig but don’t break. Got it.” I glanced around and found a stick that wasn’t too rotten, and used it to dig around the root. The whole thing was red, not just the bud. It was a rizome, with small roots coming off of it. Not big, just about the size of one of my pinky fingers. I shook off the residual soil and put it in the bag. She’d found another by this time, so I went over to where she stood pointing and started on that one.
We did this for about five minutes before she scrambled back up on to my shoulder and said we needed to return.
“But we’ve only gotten one bag filled,” I said. And then I understood why so many bags were empty if a person only had that long to look for the roots. But what I really wondered, was why?