High School Stories 3: Soot
I based “Soot” off several dreams. My journal dates the central dream to 28 August 2013. Most of the story I typed while sitting in the corner at Thanksgiving in 2014 while my kin screamed around me. Unlike the previous two High School Stories, I shared “Soot” with many people at the time, including adults and fellow teenagers. Most liked my work, but almost none noticed the details I hoped they would, or at least only one (my sister) remarked on them.
Three teachers generously read “Soot.” One, an English teacher, was the only and also first person to offer me constructive criticism. An open-ended story was fine, she told me, but there had to be a resolution for at least one mystery. She also criticized some odd changes in tense on the part of the narrator. This is fair and a mark of unprofessionalism, but I leave this awkwardness in to better simulate the sense that the narrator wrote the story in some kind of undated journal. At times, the narrator writes while in the midst of the action, and at others afterwards.
Since the reception was warm, I told myself there was no shame that I could not entirely explain what “Soot” means. Kafka wrote gibberish, I thought, and people call him a genius for some reason. Art, to some degree, was mystical. The art lies in what one does not wholly understand. “Soot” involved generating a certain mental space, not delivering plot details. After several journals rejected “Soot,” one of their editors wrote slightly more detailed feedback: “I never was quite sure what was really happening, even allowing for misperception by the narrator. The prose was a bit stiff.” I agree about the prose. At the time, I was not used to writing with emotion. That high school English teacher had been right all along. She judged, at another time, that, more broadly, my fiction was all too cliché and incoherent. Was she right about that too?
Today I am too disenchanted to believe art is worth anything, especially mine. In 2014, I felt proud of “Soot.” In 2021, I am embarrassed that I created such corny and pretentious fantasy. No publisher will take “Soot,” nor should they. So, on this webpage, I leave the words of my teenage self, a passionate and optimistic self now dead.
I am alone now, but I was alone even when they lived here by the thousands, so I am used to the experience. Initially I tried to track of the days and weeks and months, but eventually I learned not to care. That is why I record no dates, days, or hours. Only day and night concern me.
However, by claiming I am alone, I do my friend a serious discredit, one that would anger a lesser person. He is Caine, the bough I whittled into a walking stick. In my darkest hours, Caine is always here for me. I love Caine. Why I deserve Caine’s patience I do not know. Here with me also are my bed, the blessed bed soft and dusty and free of bugs, and my treasures, the soot, the Head Tree, and that which hunts me.
The monster does not appear during the day, so until the sun sinks over the horizon, I am safe from it. Because of the monster, Caine and I are unable to venture far from the valley. Before I found the mansion in which I now live, I slept in open areas in the light of a torch. In retrospect, I wonder how I sleep was possible with that thing encircling my curled body, stalking through the foliage, so near I could hear it breathing. That I survived living that way astonishes me!
I write now on the hill of the smiling Head Tree, who never opens her eyes or mouth and grows like all other plants. Around me are the hills with rippling grass, and the mountains, the closest of which the mansion abuts upon. The mansion is cavernous, largely built vein-like into this mountain. As of yet, Caine and I have not probed very deep inside. We do not know the extent of our own home. Neither do we have a clear understanding of the soot there.
In one of the deeper recesses of the mansion we have yet reached extend several narrow corridors filled with soot. When first I opened the door to one of these passages, Caine mistook the wall of blackness for darkness, for shadow, and urged me back. Perhaps the whole mansion was forfeit, and I should live in the wilderness again. Stepping forward, I saw the darkness shift. In the air around us the soot fluttered in gentle clouds. We fled. Initially, we feared them, and they us. Floating, the soot spirits are beautiful, flickering golden light. When I wonder why I continue setting out every day to search for food and treasures, I sit down with Caine in the sooty corridors and let their ethereal bodies envelop me. We are part of a mechanism far vaster than any individual. I always had this sense, and that is why they rejected me in the old days.
The mansion, like the wrecked vehicles and other remnants, wastes away uneasily on the valley’s rippling flesh. Sometimes Caine almost convinces me this valley is better off without us, and, when I am gone, that this place will enjoy peace again, the mansion vanishing into the soil with the bones. But I remind Caine that, without at least one of us here, no one will exist to appreciate the valley. If no one exists, then the valley may as well not exist, for without an intelligence to perceive the soot, the sunset, the flowers, none have meaning. We all labor under this curse.
Alone as we are out here, and despite how long I have been alone, I dream of finding company. Not Caine, although I love him, but one of my own kind.
Today, inspecting the remains of some vehicle near the feet of a transmission tower on the valley’s edge, I glanced up at the Head Tree to check on Caine and my beans beneath her. I had no reason to expect they would be taken. The monster would never creep into the light. Even if it would, it hunts for me, not my friend or my food.
When I climbed back to the top of the hill to eat my lunch beneath the Head Tree, I found my beans missing. I was not frightened, but confused. Caine had not seen the culprit. Of course he could not have eaten them, and the Head Tree receives all of her nutrients from the soil.
Although I lost some beans, I attained three more treasures from a shed: a wrench, canned vegetables, and a flashlight. Some treasures work together. For example, the can opener allowed me to open cans before it broke. Now I use the shears from the warehouse, which are sharp and heavy, and not half as elegant.
We reached the mansion when the sunset shone orange and red through the clouds. Shutting the door behind me, I could already hear the monster’s eager breath. As I write this, my bed warm around me, Caine already asleep, I wonder happened to those beans. Caine suggested somebody like me stole them—but how can I accept that?
I found what appeared to be my can of beans, now empty, and a popped swim ring near the transmission tower by the warehouse. Nearby were a fire’s sable remnants. None of these were there yesterday. With Caine’s support and the Head Tree’s reassurance, I have decided to search for whoever left them.
Now I write I hide with Caine in the bushes, awaiting the return of the crook. With the monster imminent, hiding in shadowy foliage may be perilous. Still, if I, at last, find a friend who is like me, I will not be able to convey my joy. I have not known such anticipation in a long, long time. On some level, though, I worry the soot spirits will value me less if they know I am not unique.
I whisper to Caine, I stare at a beam jutting from the transmission tower, I stare at the other side of the tattered fence. The grass there is the same feathery green as the grass on this side, yet so mysterious.
The day has worn on, and I have seen no activity at the site. I consider leaving, but a glance at the Head Tree’s pretty face reminds me that I must persist. Unlike the soot, the others used to remember when the Head Tree first sprouted. Children from the school beyond the prairie planted her. Blooming, budding out, she manifested the head of a student who had died. I do not believe the Head Tree is this student, however, for the students would not have shown me kindness. The Head Tree knows this place better than I. When she frowns, I will know I have misstepped.
I nodded off. When I awoke, still I saw no one but Caine. But behind me I heard the monster’s breath. I did not realize I could run so swiftly. The monster was so close, galloping, its breath so loud. By shining the flashlight at the curve of its front, Caine and I were able to gain some distance. This may be what saved us. We reached the mansion, I slammed the door shut, and Caine held the latches in place as I barricaded it with a table, a trunk, all empty furniture at hand. I could hear the monster rapping on the door until I went up to the warm and dark.
When was the last time I was so careless? On nights like these, I sink into the company of the soot more gladly than on any other. Peculiarly, I can no longer be so pure in my happiness as I once was. There is a questioning, a doubt, that gets in my way.
I cannot bring myself to abandon the hope that someone else is in the valley. In all likelihood, the monster has already killed whoever is responsible for the fire pits I continue to find. But I must persist. It is all I am capable of.
If I could see the smoke from one of the fires, I could follow it to the crook. I never have. These fires must be lit only at night, when I cannot leave the mansion. I suspect the flames keep the monster at bay. The soot of the fire pits is not alive like the soot spirits in the mansion. But the flint that kindles these fires has also kindled something within me.
This new mission has compelled Caine and I to venture further from the mansion and the soot spirits than we have dared since settling here. For the past few days, we have traveled across the prairie to the ivied school. Before the building, there is some type of blacktop, too bleached and cracked to determine for what they used it. Over half, a tangle of plastic tubes has collapsed. The sun beats down furiously on the school, and the air is thinner, closer to the sky.
Crawling through these tubes, I feel an odd mix of giddiness and sadness, perhaps the phantom of the fun that transpired there. The heat is heavy. Caine laughs at me, says I am imagining things, for this place was full of pain, not joy. I sometimes see the spirits of schoolchildren. One saucy girl has spoken with me, though not the girl who manifested the Head Tree. She did not appear today. From our conversations, I have gained no helpful information. I think she is knowledgeable of nothing that does not pertain immediately to her. She cannot hear me, and a ghost is not the same as another in the flesh.
This far from the mansion, we have a few hours less to scavenge. Even at this distance, Caine and I can still discern the windows and rooftop, a tiny rectangle against the mountain, like a tick dug deep into the slope.
I write having returned to my bed. At the school today we found these treasures: pencils, a straw hat, a pair of clean trousers, and three books. One of these, legible but missing many pages, is The Feynman Lectures on Physics Volume I: Mainly Mechanics, Radiation, and Heat. Although I understand few of the words and images, I commit to reading at least three pages each day, feeling, somehow, that I will discover more information about the soot spirits. I have shown them this treasure’s yellowed paper while they filled the corridor. As I have developed a closer acquaintanceship with the soot spirits, as I understand them a little better, they seem less magical, less raw. Still, it is funny, really, how little I know.
Wonderful, wonderful news! Near the school last week, I heard a terrible clanging. I went to inspect, fearing that, despite the sunlight that made the air quiver like water, I would find the monster waiting. Instead I beheld him, the crook, swinging a metal baseball bat against the steering wheel of a dead car!
I was overjoyed, even when I saw his peculiar leer. The crook made no effort to harm me and, in fact, could not stop laughing and grabbing at me. I could hardly wait to introduce him to Caine, but since he was intent on taking the steering wheel, I had to carry Caine to him.
The crook has not disclosed where he came from, only that he arrived in the valley recently. He is now living with us in the mansion, sleeping on a couch on the lower floor. I have shown him the jars, the books, the shears, the batteries, and the other marvelous treasures I have gathered. He appreciated them, the smoothness of the yellow pages and the clay, with the enthusiasm Caine can no longer summon for what has become everyday. The crook most appreciates the batteries and the appliances they operate. I told him he could have the radio, since there is only static in the valley.
The crook is spry and slick as a tongue, but his speech is confused and rarely expresses all he intends. He often curses himself for holding so many convictions but lacking names for them. Caine tells me this newcomer will steal my treasures from the mansion and leave us, knowing no beauty but only the surface of things. Even if the crook murders me, if there will be another to admire the valley, I will not regret my death, for then the curse on me is lifted. First, however, I must make him understand the valley.
The newcomer has not taken well to Caine, but does not bicker with him, only glares when I engage with Caine in what he considers too much idle chat. The newcomer expresses doubts about my health. Even so, he seems fond of me. Each is the only one the other has encountered in ages.
The two of us can cover significantly more ground each day than we could individually.
This morning, before I set out with Caine, the soot spirits seemed limp, their spark dull. I hope this is a slump and not any permanent decline. I shouldn’t suggest decline is possible for the avatars of the valley. But I worry this might be our fault. I saw that I earlier wrote I feared they would discern I am nothing special. How arrogant! They must have known already.
Despite our disagreements, the newcomer and I are attempting to study the soot. I suggested lighting a fire near them, but he said this would cause us to explode. When he dared bring some soot outside, however, it evaporated in the light. As our notes on them grow longer, the soot spirits seem more distant and more powerful. The soot issues from deep within the mountain. The newcomer sees the soot spirits differently than I do. He calls them dirt and mold and says they must be responsible for my confusion! But then he tries to explain the route to the airport he says is a few days from here, attempting to draw some kind of coherent path in his notebook, cursing confusion of his own.
I doubt we will ever fully understand the soot. Though I live within it, the mountain still frightens me. If I venture too deep, I worry I will awaken something and even home might become unsafe. Caine tells me that if we are too nosy, the soot spirits will be upset and no longer appear to us. Could I continue without them?
Our investigations have spread to the the valley. The newcomer suggested we take the pencils from my treasure heap and draw a map of the land. He carries his own notebook, its cover speckled black and white like the soot might appear against sunlight in the moment for their disintegration. Some notebooks of this type rot in the school. Caine and I tell the newcomer that there is no need to record anything but the main scavenging routes and the direction to the school and town, and these we know by memory. But the crook insists on mapping every stray fence and always busies himself trying to write, though the pencil tip stabs through his paper. Compare his shaky lines and smudges to the neat print and confident words of The Feynman Lectures on Physics, and there can be no doubt the crook’s maps are as the scribblings of a child. This should occupy him until he memorizes the locations of the warehouse and the old farms. Yet I admire his spirit all the same.
When he first suggested we split up to scout around, I was wary. I feared he would leave me. However, when I saw the Head Tree smiling, so robust, her hair thicker, her ribbons greener than since I last saw her, I agreed. My partner gave Caine and I no cause for regret. He was at the Head Tree at noon, as promised, writing the names of the valley with a pencil: Army Warehouse 2B, 2A, Strawberry Field, Farmhouse with Food. The strangest name he uses is Quercus, for the newcomer hesitates to call her the Head Tree, though she herself will tell you that this is her name.
Inspecting the grasses and insects and Head Tree and stones, we are learning to recognize the valley’s systems, how the valley fits together. I collect notes in my other journal. There are insects that eat specific ivies that would otherwise overspread the trees, and there are birds that eat these insects, lest the insects eat all of the ivy. Everything is like this. In this way, the newcomer has come to respect the valley, the web of causality in which he and I are no more important than the grass. This respect is at least as deep as Caine’s and my own, although it arises from the touch and not the soul. Nothing is unnecessary.
The newcomer is attempting to construct a vehicle like the ones whose skeletons dot the area. Parts from around the valley are his supplies, remains from around the valley his instructions. He is putting the wrench I found, as well as his personal toolkit, to good use. Already he has built a car’s bones, two seats on four wheels. He wants to travel to the town to find an engine, though I tell him any engine forsaken there was left precisely because it worked no longer.
I realize now that by having a surer grasp on the soot spirits and their influence on the valley, they are more beautiful than ever. To think I once believed they would grow dull if I learned too much of them! True, they do not swarm me anymore, but they are more beautiful for their distance, and I am stronger for harboring no illusions that they love me in particular. The truth must be superior to an illusion.
Investigation continues. The area around the mansion is now totally mapped out.
One phenomenon we have been unable to investigate is the monster. The crook says it should be a low priority, but I insist on action. In my opinion, nothing is more important. At Caine’s suggestion, I have been urging the newcomer to put his industry towards constructing a trap to ensnare the monster. The newcomer warns me that, though “I insist” the monster has hunted me since they evacuated this district, he doubts anything we build could contain it. The thing may be uncatchable, he claims, or there is more than one, or we will be sorry if we catch it. Nonetheless, the last several days, I scavenge and the newcomer sets snares and cages. On his map, I marked the places where I have seen the monster, dark and shadowy spots. Tying shears to a broom, he created a spear to bring with him. Fortunately he has not needed it.
The crook has given up on his car for the time being. The only way we can get it to move is by pushing it, and it is too cumbersome for use as a wagon. However, he has grown closer to me and has developed an interest in stroking my skin. Though the soot spirits, however they spark, will not caress me as they used to, the newcomer is warm to the touch. Still, he cannot be like the soot. When we lie together and when we eat, he becomes more willing to reveal his secrets.
There are many places, he claims, that would accept me into their high towers. His looting, gathering, surviving is, for him, merely a long diversion from life in these places. He says he comes from Samarkand. Caine does not believe him.
Why should I want to return to a city? I was alone no matter how many voices surrounded me, and those voices were alone, too. They were not like the soot. They were all of themselves, apart, like eggs in a nest.
The newcomer has also shown me a book he found, at the airport he claims exists, containing instructions on how to build a bicycle. He plans to repurpose some of the sticks in his car skeleton to construct two bicycles. Envisioning how far we may one day reach with bicycles and their rotating wheels is almost overwhelming. I am confident that even if we rode out of her immediate eyesight, the Head Tree would be able to see and support us. Sometimes I forget how long I lived where she could not see me and before she sprouted.
The crook wants to name everything. Though his words are feeble, reading The Feynman Lectures on Physics, seeing how little I know, I too have been galvanized to seek to know world around me in clearer terms. I have been galvanized to dispel my ignorance.
We will name every stem and every insect. The rocks are harder to sort, for there are so many. The crook speaks unclearly, but I think he meant to tell me that naming the avatars and beings of the valley is how one understands. This is the nature of the curse on we who can speak, the curse of seeing beauty. But what if I misname one of the valley’s avatars? When I first spoke this name before her, the Head Tree whispered her approval, so I have no worry that she is not “the Head Tree” but something else.
Caine tells me the crook cannot see beauty. I wonder whether this is true. When I asked the newcomer about my treasures, he did not speak of their place in the system of the valley, but said that the books contained useful hints about the herbs here and how to build structures like the school, and said the pottery is nice for the strength of its clay, not the vegetable images on its skin. He said he has seen hundreds of these sorts of things. Their quantity, I think, makes none of them treasures to him, if he speaks truth. The batteries can power gadgets, and for that utility he likes them, not the mysterious energy filling their forms.
I carry the newcomer’s spear with me now. The trap in the west grove was triggered, but, by the time we investigated, the monster was gone, along with the mushroom bait. Caine was frustrated, but the newcomer just laughed. Failure is common, and I do not despair.
We have built the bicycles. These treasures are more awkward than the one in the newcomer’s manual. This morning, after we visited the soot spirits, he wanted to put them to use. I had a terrible feeling I may not be able to see the Head Tree up close again. I delayed our departure several minutes to climb the grassy hill and hug her. The bark felt cold, like the air. No matter the distance, I know she will see us. The newcomer tells me this is nonsense, but I know her power, though I cannot name it.
We rode the bicycles past the school to a desiccated concrete riverbed down whose banks the black ivy carries relics. These objects are fascinating, bottles to hold spirits and terrible plastic rings woven like necklaces I remember holding soft drink bottles, but few are treasures.
Since Caine and I settled in the mansion, we have never been this far away. There was no need until I could find no more food at the warehouse and farms. A shame, considering the variety of treasures here. No, Caine is right, but not for the reasons he thinks. I should be glad I did not come here before. We were able to survive well enough before returning to town, and breathing new air adds all the more to the exhilaration of discovery. The crook is telling me now the school is called Saint Basil. He read the sign I have spent years ignoring from familiarity, but it is true that they named everything before they were gone.
Catastrophe. Near an empty building in the town beyond the school, Caine reached out and tapped a rusted dumpster, and then the impossible occurred. When the world seemed to be opening up to us, the monster burst from the dumpster and, in daylight, galloped at us. I thought this nightmare impossible. I grabbed Caine, and the newcomer and I mounted our bicycles. With all my strength, I stabbed the spear at the monster, aiming for what I supposed was its neck. I still hear it outside. It will not be silent! The blade struck, but I could not pull it out, so hastily we fled.
The newcomer displayed incredible terror. I wonder whether I appeared that afraid. I have never seen the curve of the monster so clearly. One mistake, one tumble, would mean the end, I only glanced back at it once or twice, but I saw, in its shambling and bent back, how desperate it really is. No wonder it avoided light.
Pedaling like mad, we finally reached the mansion and got inside before the monster overtook us. Without the bikes and the time bought from wounding the beast, we wouldn’t have stood a chance. Once we were inside, fleeing from the barricaded door, the newcomer said that this was the consequence of attempting to catch it. He said he had seen monsters like this, always seeking an opening to writhe through. He said that whenever we grow cocky and lower our guard, it seizes the opportunity to attack.
From the stairway, we could hear the thing hammering at the door. Even from this upper floor, our dusty haven with the warm bed and our treasures and supplies, we can hear it! All these years, the monster could talk. It is pleading, imploring: “Let me inside. I want to come inside. Let me inside.” Its voice is so calm, yet so loud.
Later. The words it spoke devolved into incoherent screaming. The walls shake from its beating. It will be inside soon. The newcomer and I have talked. The mansion is not safe anymore. Caine does not want to accept this and insists we remain. Sitting in silence, our expressions imperceptibly changed, we know we must flee into the depths of the mansion that lace into the mountain caves. Somewhere up there must be another exit.
Leaving the valley, my greatest regret will not be the loss of my treasures or sacred bed, but my distance from the soot spirits. The Head Tree will always be with us, but I fear we will forget the soot spirits’ power and beauty, or that, rather, we will remember only their power and beauty, but not the truth behind it. Then we would revere them hollowly, not comprehending.
The world is vast. Perhaps I should not have stayed here, resigned to perpetual solitude. But we must persist, because there is no one else to appreciate the valley’s marvels. In some way, I suspect that, if we died, the Head Tree would too. Without us, there would be no soot spirits, only soot. That is our curse. So we will flee into the uncharted reaches of the mansion, into the caves. But we will find the exit, we will find the light.