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Uncle Joshua and the Grooglemen


by


Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald



In the First Year came the Plague, and in the Tenth Year the Burning, and afterwards came the Grooglemen out of the Dead Lands....

A History of the New World From the Beginning to the Present Day, by Absolom Steerforth, Speaker of the Amity Crossroads Assembly.


Groogleman, groogleman,
Take one in three.
Groogleman, groogleman,
Don't take me.

-- Children's counting-out rhyme, Foothills District.


Daniel Henchard was sixteen and a bit, and Leezie Johnson was almost fourteen, when the grooglemen came down out of the mountains into the new-settled country.

The grooglemen came between hay-making and harvest-time, on a moonless night when the lightning flashed and the thunder boomed across the hills. In the dawn, a column of smoke rose from the Johnson homestead off to the east. Those of the Henchards who were eating breakfast in the kitchen saw the smoke, and made up their minds to go have a look. They would see the trouble and help if they could, for the Henchards and the Johnsons were kin as well as neighbors.

The Johnson place was more than an hour away to run, and longer at a walk. It was mid-morning before the farmhouse came into view, and what the Henchards saw then was as bad as could be. The whole house was burnt, and the ashes gone white from burning out without being quenched -- the outbuildings too, and never a sight of living man or beast.

The farmyard told the rest of the story: nine burned patches in a straight row, nine tidy black rectangles on the hard-packed earth, and in each rectangle, a lump of burnt bone and blackened meat. Dan Henchard said later that you could tell which one was which, almost -- the big one would have been Rafe, who was tall, and at the end of the row, the little patch no more than two feet long and half that wide, that one would have been the baby. Its bones were gone entirely.

"The grooglemen," said Aunt Min Henchard.

"There's only nine here," Sam Henchard said. He was the oldest of the Henchard brothers, and Dan's father. "There were ten Johnsons."

"Sometimes the grooglemen take one back with them to their castle," said Bartolmy Henchard -- Aunt Min's husband, and Sam's brother. "There's worse things than being dead, and that's one of them. I hear sometimes the grooglemen get hungry."

"Who is it that's missing?" asked young Dan Henchard."Leezie," said Uncle Joshua. He'd been standing by, saying nothing, for that was his way. "None of her size here," he said, nodding at the row.

Uncle Joshua wasn't anyone's blood uncle, but a wanderer who'd come by the Henchard farm one day two winters gone, traveling on foot from some place farther north. He wasn't much of a farmer, but when he went off into the woods for a day or a week at a time with his long flintlock rifle, he always came back with meat. He brought in more than enough food to earn his keep, and in the evenings by the fireside he told marvelous stories of distant lands.

So he stayed on, and became a part of the family by courtesy if not in fact. Aunt Min said he was only waiting for Leezie Johnson to grow old enough for a husband, and then they'd both be off to whatever foreign place it was whose accent still marked Joshua's speech. Dan Henchard had always hoped that Min was wrong, because Leezie had been like a sister to him while they were young, and he would miss her sorely if she grew up to marry an outlander and leave the settlement. But even that was better than being dead, or a prisoner of the grooglemen.

"We have to bury them," Sam Henchard said.

"You bury them," said Uncle Joshua. "I'm off to find the girl."

"You can't," Aunt Min told him. "You're a hunter, but the grooglemen leave no footprints to trace: they fly through the air by night."

"Min's right," said Bartolmy. "The grooglemen see in the dark and you can't hide from them. No one has ever been to their castle and come back down again."

"That's where you're wrong," said Uncle Joshua. The outlands accent was strong in his words. "One man at least has been to their stronghold and come back, for I've done it."

"Then there's never a man done it twice!" Bartolmy said. "And when he finds where you've come from he'll follow you back and kill us too."

Uncle Joshua shook his head. "He'll not trace me."

"How can you say that?" said Aunt Min. "Everybody knows that when a groogleman asks you a question, you have to tell him the truth. Can't help yourself."

But Uncle Joshua only slung his rifle over his shoulder and said, "What's worse -- being taken by the grooglemen, or knowing that nobody will ever come to win you back?"

No one answered. Dan Henchard said afterward that his father Sam looked sad and ashamed, but Bartolmy and Aunt Min never so much as blinked an eye.

So Dan said to Uncle Joshua, "I'll come with you," because he understood what the answer to the question was. It was worse, far worse, to be abandoned.

Uncle Joshua frowned at him. "You don't know what you're saying. Stay home with your father."

"Walk beside you or follow behind you," said Dan, "it makes no difference to me. I'm no safer at home than on the road."

"As you will."

Uncle Joshua turned without a further word and walked off to the north, and Dan walked beside him.

The two walked a long way, over hills and through a mountain gap, past where Dan had ever heard of anyone going, or anyone coming from. For eight days they walked.

"Whatever was going to happen to Leezie has happened by now," Dan said. "She's dead for sure."

Uncle Joshua looked at him with an angry expression. "If you want to go home, go now and never let me see your face again. Tomorrow, or the next day at the last, we'll pass beyond the living lands, and then it will be too late to turn back."They went on; but it was two more days, not one, before they crossed over the border into the dead lands.

Dan could see why the name was given. The ground here was jumbled and broken stone, and the trees were stunted and misshapen where they grew at all. The sounds of birds and tracks of beasts were left behind as well. The air itself smelled dead, like the taste of licking metal.

At the end of the first day, Dan asked, "Is it like this much longer?"

"Don't talk," Uncle Joshua said. "The grooglemen can hear you."

They didn't light a fire in the dark that night, nor was there food beyond what was in their pouches, gathered in the days when they'd been walking through fertile country. The next morning they journeyed onward -- but they walked warily, and if Uncle Joshua had moved like a hunter before, now he moved doubly so, and at times vanished from Dan's sight altogether.

And then, without warning, a vast rushing sound filled the air. Dan looked about wildly for help, but Uncle Joshua was nowhere to be seen. Dan cowered beside a rock which rose slab- sided out of the barren dirt, and when he lifted his head again, a groogleman stood before him.

The groogleman had a wrinkled skin all dirty white like fungus, and huge glistening eyes over a round and wrinkled mouth. It shuffled when it walked, and Dan could hear it breathing -- a loud hissing noise like a teakettle on the hearth. The creature took Dan and bound him and carried him over hard and blackened fields to the castle of the grooglemen, where the great gate shut behind them.

Then the groogleman laid its misshapen hands on Dan's shoulders, and looked him full in the face and spoke; and Dan couldn't understand a word of what it said.

The dungeon cells beneath the castle were carved each from a solid piece of stone, and the air was full of whispers of far- off voices speaking too low to be understood. The groogleman took Dan there, and left him. Though he was not bound, he felt no desire to escape, and in the small part of his mind which was still his own he knew that he was under a spell.

He didn't move, even when the groogleman put out a claw and tasted his blood; and he didn't try to run when the groogleman left him and the door stayed open. Nor did he move when the groogleman returned and -- in a voice that was harsh and strangely accented -- asked him from where he came and why.Dan tried to remain silent. But he answered every question that was put to him, and told of Leezie, of Uncle Joshua, of the Henchard farm, of his family and his friends. Nothing was secret, and the groogleman was quiet except for its hissing and gurgling breath as it listened.

But what wasn't asked, the spell couldn't force Dan to betray. So the groogleman never asked or learned that Dan expected Uncle Joshua to come to Leezie's rescue, and to his.

The dungeon of the grooglemen was never dark -- the light there was cold and unnatural, coming from torches which burned without smoke and never seemed to flicker or be diminished -- but at last Dan slept. When he awoke, Uncle Joshua was standing at his feet.

"You've come," Dan said.

Uncle Joshua put his finger to his lips and helped Dan to stand. They went out of the cell into a corridor lit by the weird pale fires, going past open doors and closed doors and colored lines and paintings of black and yellow flowers. The wind sighed around them and brought to their ears the muttering of far-off voices.

"How did you find me?" Dan asked as they went.

"You've not been here long," Uncle Joshua whispered back. "Finding you was easy. It's Leezie will be hard to find. Did you see her -- or did the groogleman tell of her?"

"No," said Dan.

"Then it's up to us to find her. Can you walk faster?"Dan nodded.

"Come on, then," Uncle Joshua told him. "We'll live as long as we're not seen."

"Are we going home without Leezie?"

"No," said Uncle Joshua.

They went on deeper into the castle, with Uncle Joshua walking a little way ahead, watching in all directions. He carried his rifle in both hands across his chest, with the hammer back and the flint poised above the pan like a wild animal's sharp fang.

"Can grooglemen be killed?" Dan asked.

"We may yet find out," Uncle Joshua said. "Now hush and help me search for Leezie. If she lives it will be our doing."

And so they walked for a long time, silent, through the maze of rooms and corridors and halls, up stairs and down ramps, in the castle of the grooglemen. Some doors were open, some were locked, and at last they came to a place where they heard a girl's voice weeping.

Uncle Joshua held up his hand to call a halt, and began to step carefully forward. Slowly he looked around the corner of the passageway, then gestured for Dan to come join him. He'd found a door, and the weeping voice was on the other side. But the door was locked, and it had neither latch nor keyhole."What now?" Dan asked.

We'll see," said Uncle Joshua, and cried out in a loud voice, "Leezie, is that you?"

The weeping stopped. "Who is it?" came a girl's voice from the other side of the door.

"It's us!" Dan called. "Dan Henchard and Uncle Joshua. We're here to bring you home."

"Get away!" Leezie shouted back. "Get away before it's too late for you. It's too late for me already. The groogleman can see me here. He'll see you, too, if you stay."

"Open the door!"

"I can't. There's a spell on it. Only the groogleman can pass through."

"The groogleman," Uncle Joshua muttered. "He'll let me in and you out. Leezie -- call the groogleman! Call him loud. Call him now."

"No!"

"Yes! He gave you words to say to bring him. Say them now."

"How do you know what the groogleman did?" Dan asked.

"I know," Uncle Joshua replied. "Come now."

He walked back to the corner, and sat against the wall where he could look in both directions. There he waited, and Dan Henchard waited with him, until at length a shuffling noise sounded in the corridor.

Then the groogleman appeared, walking its slow and clumsy walk, its feet barely clearing the floor and its head moving from side to side as it looked about.

Uncle Joshua stood and raised his rifle to his shoulder. "Stand where you are!"

The groogleman seemed to see Uncle Joshua for the first time. It halted, and its massive head shook slowly from side to side. There was no expression in its blank eyes, and its tight, wrinkled mouth never moved. But the hissing of its breath stopped, and its hands, with their fat white fingers extended, rose up to the level of the groogleman's thick waist as if to push Uncle Joshua away.

Uncle Joshua jerked his head in the direction of the closed door. "Open it."

The groogleman shook its head again.

The rifle fired. A flash of white smoke rose up from the pan and a cloud of smoke came out of the barrel, and a noise like a thunderclap echoed in the cold stone hall. Uncle Joshua didn't pause. He slung the rifle back on his shoulder and dashed forward, even as the gunsmoke thinned and cleared, torn away by the castle's undying wind.

The groogleman lay splayed out on the floor, with a huge red stain all over the white hide of its torso. Uncle Joshua reached out and grabbed the groogleman under the shoulders to pull it upright.

"Help me!" he yelled at Dan.

Dan took the groogleman by the arm. The dead skin was cold and slimy to his touch, and loose upon the bones beneath. He and Uncle Joshua carried the groogleman to Leezie's cell, and Uncle Joshua threw the body forward against the closed door. Whatever spell had let the groogleman in and out still worked, and the door opened as the carcass touched it. The groogleman fell into the open doorway, and Dan saw that more blood ran from a hole in its grey-white, wrinkled back.

"Wait here," Uncle Joshua said, and entered the room. A moment later he reappeared carrying Leezie Johnson in his arms. Her eyes were closed and she was trembling.

"Run," he said.

"But the groogleman is dead," said Dan.

"Run!"

A distant voice began to chant, echoing through the corridor, speaking words Dan couldn't understand. He ran, and Uncle Joshua ran with him, moving lightly in spite of Leezie's extra weight. Together they headed back the way they had come, through passages and rooms, while a keening sound echoed about them, as of inhuman things mourning, and the chanting voice never stopped.

Another groogleman appeared, coming around a corner and shambling toward them. Uncle Joshua did not slow, but instead swung Leezie to the floor and in the same movement unslung his rifle and slammed the butt of the weapon into the side of the groogleman's head. The groogleman fell.

"They can't see much of anything to either side," Uncle Joshua muttered to Dan, but he didn't explain how he knew. "You take Leezie on ahead -- a hundred paces, no more. Wait for me there."

"What will you do?"

Uncle Joshua had his knife out. "A hunter wears the skin of his prey to get closer to the herd. Now go."

He put the knife to the groogleman's throat and pushed it up until the red blood came.

"Go!"

Dan helped Leezie to her feet and supported her as they walked on, while the voices in the air mourned and chanted, and wet sounds came from behind them where Uncle Joshua worked.

Before they had gone the hundred paces, Uncle Joshua joined them again. As he had promised, he was dressed in the skin of the groogleman -- with nothing to show he wasn't real except his face poking out of the wrinkled white neck, and a dribble of blood running along the loathsome hide. He carried the skin of the groogleman's head, still dripping, in his hand.

"Now we go," Uncle Joshua said. They walked on. Later he brought them to a halt again and said "Don't look."

He moved out of sight behind them, and in a moment his breath began to hiss and bubble. Dan could guess what he had done: he'd pulled on the skin of the groogleman's head like a mask, enduring the blood and the foulness for the sake of the disguise. Dan and Leezie walked on, with Uncle Joshua shuffling clumsily behind them inside his stolen skin, until they came to the castle door.

Yet a third groogleman stood there, and the door was closed. Uncle Joshua called aloud, speaking a strange language in a harsh and hissing voice, and the groogleman turned away.

The door opened when Uncle Joshua touched it. Together, he and Dan and Leezie walked out of the grooglemen's castle into the night.

The three of them never went back to the Henchard farm. They buried the skin of the dead groogleman under a rock at the edge of the dead lands, and journeyed onward to the south, where there were towns and fishing villages all along the coast.

Aunt Min had been right about one thing, at least: when Leezie grew a few years older she married Uncle Joshua, and the two of them started their own clan.

Dan lived with them, and in time he brought home a wife from among the fisher folk. Later, when he was very old, he would sometimes tell children about his adventures in the castle of the grooglemen, and how Uncle Joshua won back Leezie Johnson after she had been stolen out of the living lands.

But one thing he never did tell, that he'd learned by looking back over his shoulder when he should have been helping Leezie walk away: when you take the skin off a groogleman, what you see isn't blood and meat and pale blue bone.

What you see looks as human as you or me.

        


5. (TS) Implementation. Biologic Sampling and Sterilization Command [BSSC] is hereby established under direction of SECEC. Existence of this command shall be close-hold to avoid alarming of civilian population. Full biologic safety is a priority. Assigned personnel shall wear full anti-contamination suits, to include boots, gloves, gas masks and self-contained breathing apparatus at all times when in contact with non-approved environments.


-- Annex K to ORDGEN 4B, TOP SECRET NOFORN WINTEL,

  distribution list Alfa only.



       THE END


Copyright 1993 by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald

This story first appeared in Bruce Coville's Book of Monsters, Bruce Coville, ed.

Bruce Coville's Book of Monsters


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