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The Thing in the Stone And Other Stories The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Twelve
Introduction by David W. Wixon
Introduction Clifford D. Simak: Seeker After the Truth by David W. Wixon
“‘His world sounds like a dismal one,’ she said. ‘Dismal and holy. The two so often go together.’”Most people who have read a fair amount of Clifford D. Simak’s fiction will, if asked to give a succinct description of it, resort to mentioning robots, talking dogs, or pastoralism; few will speak of religion. Probably that is because the term “religion,” when Simak uses it at all (and he does not actually use the very word all that often), may encompass a wide variety of subjects—from theology and philosophy, on the one hand, through ecclesiastical organizations to the most primitive of superstition. Sometimes one of those concepts will be front-and-center in a Simak story (for example Project Pope or “The Spaceman’s Van Gogh,” The Fellowship of the Talisman or “The Voice in the Void”), but often the “religious” concept is merely a part of the background, almost a sort of throwaway line. However, when viewed in the aggregate, it becomes obvious that all of those lines are there because they came to the mind of the author as he was writing. And the number of those occasions makes it clear in turn that the subject of religion was seldom far from Simak’s mind. Perhaps strangely, this happened even though Simak was never a member of any organized religion or sect. (Occasionally one may find “biographical” essays about the author which state that he was a Roman Catholic; that is incorrect. Although Simak’s Czech ancestors almost certainly were Catholic—in fact, one of his prize possessions was an ancient rosary that, he told me, came down through the family from a very devout female ancestor—the family story had it that Cliff’s paternal grandfather had cut all ties with the Church following a loud disagreement with a parish priest. And they apparently never picked an alternative.) But the Simak family had the habit of thoughtfulness, and Cliff’s parents, John and Maggie, engaged in a great deal of reading and discussion—including their two sons from an early age. And it seems clear that if the Simak family had given up the Church, they never gave up most of the principles, the underlying values, which they had learned. (Although it seems a mere detail, I have always been intrigued by the fact that the family’s stone, in the old Wisconsin country graveyard in which Cliff’s parents lie, is topped by a carved representation of an open book; almost certainly the book, a not-uncommon feature of grave markers of that era, represented a Bible, but I have a suspicion that to the family it had a more generalized meaning, too.) As I said, Cliff Simak was not a churchgoer. But he was not blind to the concepts we associate with religion (in the most general sense of that word), such as spirituality. In general, readers and critics seem to conclude that the sense of morality so strong in Simak stories is a “traditional” one; and while I will agree that Cliff was aware of and influenced by the mores of his time, I would suggest that his sense of morality did not so much result from traditional religion as from the application of the author’s common sense to the need of sentient beings to live with each other in the Universe. He used his mind to explore such concepts all through his life, and several times seemed to suggest that there might exist some sort of “universal” code of ethics that all intelligent beings could subscribe to. (Indeed, even in his last days, when writing was beyond him, one of the works he kept by his chair, to “dip into,” as he said—was the collected works of Thoreau … I suspect the two men, as writers and thinkers, had a lot in common.) In light of the frequency with which “religious” ideas would appear in Clifford D. Simak’s stories, it is hardly surprising that the very first of his stories to see print, “The World of the Red Sun” (1931), revolved around an alien being who came to the Earth of the far future to find the human race fallen into a primitive state and who used his superior powers to set himself up as a god for humankind. And in “The Voice in the Void,” appearing the very next year, Simak gave an ugly portrayal of the religion of the Martians civilization. The concept of repulsive primitive religions was, of course, hardly unique to Simak; it fact, it was a frequent feature of adventure fiction in his time. But in 1935, Simak raised a stir among science fiction fans with his story “The Creator,” which was seen as violating publishing taboos by portraying humans battling—and defeating—the being who had created our Universe. It would lead to the sardonic labeling of some of Cliff’s stories as his “sacrilegious” stories. In the following years of his career, Simak used religion, or religious ideas, dozens of times: In “Rule 18” (1938), his protagonist, marooned in North America’s past, ends the story resolving to head south to become a god for the Aztecs; and in his first novel, Cosmic Engineers (1939), his time traveling Earthmen have to struggle with an godlike alien who is actually insane. And in one way or another, religion would appear, if only momentarily, in many other of his books and stories, including Project Pope, A Choice of Gods, Time and Again, Time Is the Simplest Thing, Way Station, Mastodonia, “Gleaners”—the list is long. (And yet, perhaps strangely, there seems to be no trace of such religious notions or influences in the well-known story-cycle known by its collective title, City.) It should be made clear, however, that Clifford D. Simak, in his mentions of various “religious” ideas or practices, never really put forward any particular set of religious tenets beyond the suggestion, to which I referred earlier, that there might exist a universally applicable ethical code—indeed, Cliff, in his writing, is best described as agnostic. But there was an idea that underlay most of Simak’s mentions of religion, and it was an idea that went beyond religion, and indeed beyond his science fiction: It was an iconoclasm that also condemned such societal institutions as law enforcement, politicians, banking, and business: the idea that humans have a tendency to cheat their fellows, to use positions of power to tyrannize them. Cliff’s cynical view of religion, then, was not so much about the ideals of religion, of theology—as it was about the way humankind seems to always show a tendency to create “religious” organizations that are used to gain power or wealth for those “running” the organizations; he was unsparing in his depictions of churchmen supporting the rights of humans to take the land of nonhumans (Enchanted Pilgrimage); of “Bible Belt fanatics (The Werewolf Principle); of religious groups who sought to control time travel so as to be able to prevent others from learning the truth about the founding of Christianity (Mastodonia, “Gleaners”); of a “group of selfish, scheming leeches who fastened on the people” by creating a fraudulent religion during a time of societal privation (Enchanted Pilgrimage); of a monastery whose monks were “fat, lazy, and spongers off their neighbors (Fellowship of the Talisman);” of “professional religionists” who tried to manipulate a world-threatening crisis (Our Children’s Children); or “churchmen … inclined to shoot off their mouths in all directions and endlessly and without thought on any given subject” (The Visitors). Do not make the mistake of thinking that Cliff Simak was against all religion; rather, he was concerned to point out how easy it was—and how usual—for people to corrupt religious impulses and ideals. It is notable, for instance, that his most sympathetic portrayal of religious ideas, in “The Spaceman’s Van Gogh,” involved a wandering artist who was pursuing a search for his religious ideal—that story, that search, had nothing to do with any ecclesiastical organization. (And if I may go out on a limb, I would suggest that “The Thing in the Stone” seems to hint at an alien version of Christianity’s Good Shepherd story.) Humans, Cliff Simak said a number of times, seem to have a strong need for faith. But they do not seem to know how to find it, or how to use it if they do. This, he suggested in A Heritage of Stars, resulted in great danger to humans—as an alien character said in that book: “you have always been susceptible to gods.” And let me close by noting that Cliff occasionally portrayed both aliens and robots as wanting to have souls, as humans do—in fact, those beings seemed to care more about having souls than did humans—almost as if humans, having souls, did not really appreciate them. In particular, it is notable that in many of Cliff’s stories featuring robots, his robots carried names that seem Biblical to us—was that to illustrate that robots, unlike humans, were religiously innocent? (The only religious person in “All the Traps of Earth,” a minister approached by the robot protagonist for advice, was depicted as ineffectual, confused, and unwilling to commit on a moral issue.) Humans, in Simak stories, usually seem to resent it when robots want to explore religious notions—in Shakespeare’s Planet, for instance, the three human brains who are running an interstellar ship resent the desire of the robot Nicodemus to offer prayers for humans who died on the journey. Nicodemus was likely named after a figure in the New Testament, a Pharisee and a leader of the Jewish people in the time of Jesus Christ, who was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the high court in Israel—according to the Gospel of John, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to try to learn if Jesus was the Messiah … in short, Nicodemus was a seeker after the truth.—Clifford D. Simak, in Special Deliverance
David W. Wixon
The Thing in the Stone
Arguably the quintessential Simak story, “The Thing in the Stone,” which first appeared in the March 1970 issue of If: Worlds of Science Fiction, is exactly the sort a Simak fan of the author’s time would want to see in any new work that came bearing Simak’s name … for it is clear that most who treasured Cliff’s works did not mind if he returned to themes he’d dealt with before; the readers came to see how Cliff phrased it, how he told the story—the next time. Simak’s mind, like that of Daniels, spent much of his life simply looking at, or remembering, the land he loved. Cliff let that land come alive in his imagination, but Daniels could do more than that. So, a mind that lived plainly and simply in a quiet, backwater place was able to listen to the emanations from other worlds … from the stars. But he also listened to his heart—and, somehow, he may have caught an echo of divine love.—dww
IHe walked the hills and knew what the hills had seen through geologic time. He listened to the stars and spelled out what the stars were saying. He had found the creature that lay imprisoned in the stone. He had climbed the tree that in other days had been climbed by homing wildcats to reach the den gouged by time and weather out of the cliff’s sheer face. He lived alone on a worn-out farm perched on a high and narrow ridge that overlooked the confluence of two rivers. And his next-door neighbor, a most ill-favored man, drove to the county seat, thirty miles away, to tell the sheriff that this reader of the hills, this listener to the stars was a chicken thief. The sheriff dropped by within a week or so and walked across the yard to where the man was sitting in a rocking chair on a porch that faced the river hills. The sheriff came to a halt at the foot of the stairs that ran up to the porch. “I’m Sheriff Harley Shepherd,” he said. “I was just driving by. Been some years since I been out in this neck of the woods. You are new here, aren’t you?” The man rose to his feet and gestured at another chair. “Been here three years or so,” he said. “The name is Wallace Daniels. Come up and sit with me.” The sheriff climbed the stairs and the two shook hands, then sat down in the chairs. “You don’t farm the place,” the sheriff said. The weed-grown fields came up to the fence that hemmed in the yard. Daniels shook his head. “Subsistence farming, if you can call it that. A few chickens for eggs. A couple of cows for milk and butter. Some hogs for meat—the neighbors help me butcher. A garden, of course, but that’s about the story.” “Just as well,” the sheriff said. “The place is all played out. Old Amos Williams, he let it go to ruin. He never was no farmer.” “The land is resting now,” said Daniels. “Give it ten years—twenty might be better—and it will be ready once again. The only things it’s good for now are the rabbits and the woodchucks and the meadow mice. A lot of birds, of course. I’ve got the finest covey of quail a man has ever seen.” “Used to be good squirrel country,” said the sheriff. “Coon, too. I suppose you still have coon. You a hunter, Mr. Daniels?” “I don’t own a gun,” said Daniels. The sheriff settled deeply into the chair, rocking gently. “Pretty country out here,” he declared. “Especially with the leaves turning colors. A lot of hardwood and they are colorful. Rough as all hell, of course, this land of yours. Straight up and down, the most of it. But pretty.” “It’s old country,” Daniels said. “The last sea retreated from this area more than four hundred million years ago. It has stood as dry land since the end of the Silurian. Unless you go up north, onto the Canadian Shield, there aren’t many places in this country you can find as old as this.” “You a geologist, Mr. Daniels?” “Not really. Interested, is all. The rankest amateur. I need something to fill in my time and I do a lot of hiking, scrambling up and down these hills. And you can’t do that without coming face to face with a lot of geology. I got interested. Found some fossil brachiopods and got to wondering about them. Sent off for some books and read up on them. One thing led to another and—” “Brachiopods? Would they be dinosaurs, or what? I never knew there were dinosaurs out this way.” “Not dinosaurs,” said Daniels. “Earlier than dinosaurs, at least the ones I found. They’re small. Something like clams or oysters. But the shells are hinged in a different sort of way. These were old ones, extinct millions of years ago. But we still have a few brachiopods living now. Not too many of them.” “It must be interesting.” “I find it so,” said Daniels. “You knew old Amos Williams?” “No. He was dead before I came here. Bought the land from the bank that was settling his estate.” “Queer old coot,” the sheriff said. “Fought with all his neighbors. Especially with Ben Adams. Him and Ben had a line fence feud going on for years. Ben said Amos refused to keep up the fence. Amos claimed Ben knocked it down and then sort of, careless-like, hazed his cattle over into Amos’s hayfield. How you get along with Ben?” “All right,” Daniels said. “No trouble. I scarcely know the man.” “Ben don’t do much farming, either,” said the sheriff. “Hunts and fishes, hunts ginseng, does some trapping in the winter. Prospects for minerals now and then.” “There are minerals in these hills,” said Daniels. “Lead and zinc. But it would cost more to get it out than it would be worth. At present prices, that is.” “Ben always has some scheme cooking.” said the sheriff. “Always off on some wild goose chase. And he’s a pure pugnacious man. Always has his nose out of joint about something. Always on the prod for trouble. Bad man to have for an enemy. Was in the other day to say someone’s been lifting a hen or two of his. You haven’t been missing any, have you?” Daniels grinned. “There’s a fox that levies a sort of tribute on the coop every now and then. I don’t begrudge them to him.” “Funny thing,” the sheriff said. “There ain’t nothing can rile up a farmer like a little chicken stealing. It don’t amount to shucks, of course, but they get real hostile at it.” “If Ben has been losing chickens,” Daniels said, “more than likely the culprit is my fox.” “Your fox? You talk as if you own him.” “Of course I don’t. No one owns a fox. But he lives in these hills with me. I figure we are neighbors. I see him every now and then and watch him. Maybe that means I own a piece of him. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if he watches me more than I watch him. He moves quicker than I do.” The sheriff heaved himself out of the chair. “I hate to go,” he said. “I declare it has been restful sitting here and talking with you and looking at the hills. You look at them a lot, I take it.” “Quite a lot,” said Daniels. He sat on the porch and watched the sheriff’s car top the rise far down the ridge and disappear from sight. What had it all been about? he wondered. The sheriff hadn’t just happened to be passing by. He’d been on an errand. All this aimless, friendly talk had not been for nothing and in the course of it he’d managed to ask lots of questions. Something about Ben Adams, maybe? Except there wasn’t too much against Adams except he was bone-lazy. Lazy in a weasely sort of way. Maybe the sheriff had gotten wind of Adams’ off-and-on moonshining operation and was out to do some checking, hoping that some neighbor might misspeak himself. None of them would, of course, for it was none of their business, really, and the moonshining had built up no nuisance value. What little liquor Ben might make didn’t amount to much. He was too lazy for anything he did to amount to much. From far down the hill he heard the tinkle of a bell. The two cows were finally heading home. It must be much later, Daniels told himself, than he had thought. Not that he paid much attention to what time it was. He hadn’t for long months on end, ever since he’d smashed his watch when he’d fallen off the ledge. He had never bothered to have the watch fixed. He didn’t need a watch. There was a battered old alarm clock in the kitchen but it was an erratic piece of mechanism and not to be relied upon. He paid slight attention to it. In a little while, he thought, he’d have to rouse himself and go and do the chores—milk the cows, feed the hogs and chickens, gather up the eggs. Since the garden had been laid by there hadn’t been much to do. One of these days he’d have to bring in the squashes and store them in the cellar and there were those three or four big pumpkins he’d have to lug down the hollow to the Perkins kids, so they’d have them in time to make jack-o-lanterns for Hallowe’en. He wondered if he should carve out the faces himself or if the kids would rather do it on their own. But the cows were still quite a distance away and he still had time. He sat easy in his chair and stared across the hills. And they began to shift and change as he stared. When he had first seen it, the phenomenon had scared him silly. But now he was used to it. As he watched, the hills changed into different ones. Different vegetation and strange life stirred on them. He saw dinosaurs this time. A herd of them, not very big ones. Middle Triassic, more than likely. And this time it was only a distant view—he, himself, was not to become involved. He would only see, from a distance, what ancient time was like and would not be thrust into the middle of it as most often was the case. He was glad. There were chores to do. Watching, he wondered once again what more he could do. It was not the dinosaurs that concerned him, nor the earlier amphibians, or all the other creatures that moved in time about the hills. What disturbed him was that other being that lay buried deep beneath the Platteville limestone. Someone else should know about it. The knowledge of it should be kept alive so that in the days to come—perhaps in another hundred years—when man’s technology had reached the point where it was possible to cope with such a problem, something could be done to contact—and perhaps to free—the dweller in the stone. There would be a record, of course, a written record. He would see to that. Already that record was in progress—a week by week (at times a day to day) account of what he had seen, heard and learned. Three large record books now were filled with his careful writing and another one was well started. All written down as honestly and as carefully and as objectively as he could bring himself to do it. But who would believe what he had written? More to the point, who would bother to look at it? More than likely the books would gather dust on some hidden shelf until the end of time with no human hand ever laid upon them. And even if someone, in some future time, should take them down and read them, first blowing away the accumulated dust, would he or she be likely to believe? The answer lay clear. He must convince someone. Words written by a man long dead—and by a man of no reputation—could be easily dismissed as the product of a neurotic mind. But if some scientist of solid reputation could be made to listen, could be made to endorse the record, the events that paraded across the hills and lay within them could stand on solid ground, worthy of full investigation at some future date. A biologist? Or a neuropsychiatrist? Or a paleontologist? Perhaps it didn’t matter what branch of science the man was in. Just so he’d listen without laughter. It was most important that he listen without laughter. Sitting on the porch, staring at the hills dotted with grazing dinosaurs, the listener to the stars remembered the time he had gone to see the paleontologist. “Ben,” the sheriff said, “you’re way out in left field. That Daniels fellow wouldn’t steal no chickens. He’s got chickens of his own.” “The question is,” said Adams, “how did he get them chickens?” “That makes no sense,” the sheriff said. “He’s a gentleman. You can tell that just by talking with him. An educated gentleman.” “If he’s a gentleman,” asked Adams, “what’s he doing out here? This ain’t no place for gentlemen. He showed up two or three years ago and moved out to this place. Since that day he hasn’t done a tap of work. All he does is wander up and down the hills.” “He’s a geologist,” said the sheriff. “Or anyway interested in geology. A sort of hobby with him. He tells me he looks for fossils.” Adams assumed the alert look of a dog that has sighted a rabbit. “So that is it,” he said. “I bet you it ain’t fossils he is looking for.” “No,” the sheriff said. “He’s looking for minerals,” said Adams. “He’s prospecting, that’s what he’s doing. These hills crawl with minerals. All you have to do is know where to look.” “You’ve spent a lot of time looking,” observed the sheriff. “I ain’t no geologist. A geologist would have a big advantage. He would know rocks and such.” “He didn’t talk as if he were doing any prospecting. Just interested in the geology, is all. He found some fossil clams.” “He might be looking for treasure caves,” said Adams. “He might have a map or something.” “You know damn well,” the sheriff said, “there are no treasure caves.” “There must be,” Adams insisted. “The French and Spanish were here in the early days. They were great ones for treasure, the French and Spanish. Always running after mines. Always hiding things in caves. There was that cave over across the river where they found a skeleton in Spanish armor and the skeleton of a bear beside him, with a rusty sword stuck into where the bear’s gizzard was.” “That was just a story,” said the sheriff, disgusted. “Some damn fool started it and there was nothing to it. Some people from the university came out and tried to run it down. It developed that there wasn’t a word of truth in it.” “But Daniels has been messing around with caves,” said Adams. “I’ve seen him. He spends a lot of time in that cave down on Cat Den Point. Got to climb a tree to get to it.” “You been watching him?” “Sure I been watching him. He’s up to something and I want to know what it is.” “Just be sure he doesn’t catch you doing it,” the sheriff said. Adams chose to let the matter pass. “Well, anyhow,” he said, “if there aren’t any treasure caves, there’s a lot of lead and zinc. The man who finds it is about to make a million.” “Not unless he can find the capital to back him,” the sheriff pointed out. Adams dug at the ground with his heel. “You think he’s all right, do you?” “He tells me he’s been losing some chickens to a fox. More than likely that’s what has been happening to yours.” “If a fox is taking his chickens,” Adams asked, “why don’t he shoot it?” “He isn’t sore about it. He seems to think the fox has got a right to. He hasn’t even got a gun.” “Well, if he hasn’t got a gun and doesn’t care to hunt himself—then why won’t he let other people hunt? He won’t let me and my boys on his place with a gun. He has his place all posted. That seems to me to be unneighborly. That’s one of the things that makes it so hard to get along with him. We’ve always hunted on that place. Old Amos wasn’t an easy man to get along with but he never cared if we did some hunting. We’ve always hunted all around here. No one ever minded. Seems to me hunting should be free. Seems right for a man to hunt wherever he’s a mind to.” Sitting on the bench on the hard-packed earth in front of the ramshackle house, the sheriff looked about him—at the listlessly scratching chickens, at the scrawny hound sleeping in the shade, its hide twitching against the few remaining flies, at the clothesline strung between two trees and loaded with drying clothes and dish towels, at the washtub balanced on its edge on a wash bench leaning against the side of the house. Christ, he thought, the man should be able to find the time to put up a decent clothesline and not just string a rope between two trees. “Ben,” he said, “you’re just trying to stir up trouble. You resent Daniels, a man living on a farm who doesn’t work at farming, and you’re sore because he won’t let you hunt his land. He’s got a right to live anywhere he wants to and he’s got a right not to let you hunt. I’d lay off him if I were you. You don’t have to like him, you don’t have to have anything to do with him—but don’t go around spreading fake accusations against the man. He could jerk you up in court for that.”
IIHe had walked into the paleontologist’s office and it had taken him a moment finally to see the man seated toward the back of the room at a cluttered desk. The entire place was cluttered. There were long tables covered with chunks of rock with embedded fossils. Scattered here and there were stacks of papers. The room was large and badly lighted. It was a dingy and depressing place. “Doctor?” Daniels had asked. “Are you Dr. Thorne?” The man rose and deposited a pipe in a cluttered ashtray. He was big, burly, with graying hair that had a wild look to it. His face was seamed and weather-beaten. When he moved he shuffled like a bear. “You must be Daniels,” he said. “Yes, I see you must be. I had you on my calendar for three o’clock. So glad you could come.” His great paw engulfed Daniels’ hand. He pointed to a chair beside the desk, sat down and retrieved his pipe from the overflowing tray, began packing it from a large canister that stood on the desk. “Your letter said you wanted to see me about something important,” he said. “But then that’s what they all say. But there must have been something about your letter—an urgency, a sincerity. I haven’t the time, you understand, to see everyone who writes. All of them have found something, you see. What is it, Mr. Daniels, that you have found?” Daniels said, “Doctor, I don’t quite know how to start what I have to say. Perhaps it would be best to tell you first that something had happened to my brain.” Thorne was lighting his pipe. He talked around the stem. “In such a case, perhaps I am not the man you should be talking to. There are other people—” “No, that’s not what I mean,” said Daniels. “I’m not seeking help. I am quite all right physically and mentally, too. About five years ago I was in a highway accident. My wife and daughter were killed and I was badly hurt and—” “I am sorry, Mr. Daniels.” “Thank you—but that is all in the past. It was rough for a time but I muddled through it. That’s not what I’m here for. I told you I was badly hurt—” “Brain damage?” “Only minor. Or so far as the medical findings are concerned. Very minor damage that seemed to clear up rather soon. The bad part was the crushed chest and punctured lung.” “But you’re all right now?” “As good as new,” said Daniels. “But since the accident my brain’s been different. As if I had new senses. I see things, understand things that seem impossible.” “You mean you have hallucinations?” “Not hallucinations. I am sure of that. I can see the past.” “How do you mean—see the past?” “Let me try to tell you,” Daniels said, “exactly how it started. Several years ago I bought an abandoned farm in southwestern Wisconsin. A place to hole up in, a place to hide away. With my wife and daughter gone I still was recoiling from the world. I had gotten through the first brutal shock but I needed a place where I could lick my wounds. If this sounds like self-pity—I don’t mean it that way. I am trying to be objective about why I acted as I did, why I bought the farm.” “Yes. I understand,” said Thorne. “But I’m not entirely sure hiding was the wisest thing to do.” “Perhaps not, but it seemed to me the answer. It has worked out rather well. I fell in love with the country. That part of Wisconsin is ancient land. It has stood uncovered by the sea for four hundred million years. For some reason it was not overridden by the Pleistocene glaciers. It has changed, of course, but only as the result of weathering. There have been no great geologic upheavals, no massive erosions—nothing to disturb it.” “Mr. Daniels,” said Thorne, somewhat testily, “I don’t quite see what all this has to do—” “I’m sorry. I am just trying to lay the background for what I came to tell you. It came on rather slowly at first and I thought that I was crazy, that I was seeing things, that there had been more brain damage than had been apparent—or that I was finally cracking up. I did a lot of walking in the hills, you see. The country is wild and rugged and beautiful—a good place to be out in. The walking made me tired and I could sleep at night. But at times the hills changed. Only a little at first. Later on they changed more and finally they became places I had never seen before, that no one had ever seen before.” Thorne scowled. “You are trying to tell me they changed into the past.” Daniels nodded. “Strange vegetation, funny-looking trees. In the earlier times, of course, no grass at all. Underbrush of ferns and scouring rushes. Strange animals, strange things in the sky. Sabretooth cats and mastodons, pterosaurs and uintatheres and—” “All at the same time?” Thorne asked, interrupting. “All mixed up?” “Not at all. The time periods I see seem to be true time periods. Nothing out of place. I didn’t know at first—but when I was able to convince myself that I was not hallucinating I sent away for books. I studied. I’ll never be an expert, of course—never a geologist or paleontologist—but I learned enough to distinguish one period from another, to have some idea of what I was looking at.” Thorne took his pipe out of his mouth and perched it in the ash tray. He ran a massive hand through his wild hair. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It simply couldn’t happen. You said all this business came on rather slowly?” “To begin with it was hazy, the past foggily imposed upon the present, then the present would slowly fade and the past came in, real and solid. But it’s different now. Once in a while there’s a bit of flickering as the present gives way to the past—but mostly it simply changes, as if at the snap of a finger. The present goes away and I’m standing in the past. The past is all around me. Nothing of the present is left.” “But you aren’t really in the past? Physically, I mean.” “There are times when I’m not in it at all. I stand in the present and the distant hills or the river valley changes. But ordinarily it changes all around me, although the funny thing about it is that, as you say, I’m not really in it. I can see it and it seems real enough for me to walk around in it. I can walk over to a tree and put my hand out to feel it and the tree is there. But I seem to make no impact on the past. It’s as if I were not there at all. The animals do not see me. I’ve walked up to within a few feet of dinosaurs. They can’t see me or hear or smell me. If they had I’d have been dead a dozen times. It’s as if I were walking through a three-dimensional movie. At first I worried a lot about the surface differences that might exist. I’d wake up dreaming of going into the past and being buried up to my waist in a rise of ground that since has eroded away. But it doesn’t work that way. I’m walking along in the present and then I’m walking in the past. It’s as if a door were there and I stepped through it. I told you I don’t really seem to be in the past—but I’m not in the present, either. I tried to get some proof. I took a camera with me and shot a lot of pictures. When the films were developed there was nothing on them. Not the past—but what is more important, not the present, either. If I had been hallucinating, the camera should have caught pictures of the present. But apparently there was nothing there for the camera to take. I thought maybe the camera failed or I had the wrong kind of film. So I tried several cameras and different types of film and nothing happened. I got no pictures. I tried bringing something back. I picked flowers, after there were flowers. I had no trouble picking them but when I came back to the present I was empty-handed. I tried to bring back other things as well. I thought maybe it was only live things, like flowers, that I couldn’t bring, so I tried inorganic things—like rocks—but I never was able to bring anything back.” “How about a sketch pad?” “I thought of that but I never used one. I’m no good at sketching—besides, I figured, what was the use? The pad would come back blank.” “But you never tried.” “No,” said Daniels. “I never tried. Occasionally I do make sketches after I get back to the present. Not every time but sometimes. From memory. But, as I said, I’m not very good at sketching.” “I don’t know,” said Thorne. “I don’t really know. This all sounds incredible. But if there should be something to it—Tell me, were you ever frightened? You seem quite calm and matter-of-fact about it now, but at first you must have been frightened.” “At first,” said Daniels, “I was petrified. Not only was I scared, physically scared—frightened for my safety, frightened that I’d fallen into a place from which I never could escape—but also afraid that I’d gone insane. And there was the loneliness.” “What do you mean—loneliness?” “Maybe that’s not the right word. Out of place. I was where I had no right to be. Lost in a place where man had not as yet appeared and would not appear for millions of years. In a world so utterly alien that I wanted to hunker down and shiver. But I, not the place, was really the alien there. I still get some of that feeling every now and then. I know about it, of course, and am braced against it, but at times it still gets to me. I’m a stranger to the air and the light of that other time—it’s all imagination, of course.” “Not necessarily,” said Thorne. “But the greatest fear is gone now, entirely gone. The fear I was insane. I am convinced now.” “How are you convinced? How could a man be convinced?” “The animals. The creatures I see—” “You mean you recognize them from the illustrations in those books you have been reading.” “No, not that. Not entirely that. Of course the pictures helped. But actually it’s the other way around. Not the likenesses, but the differences. You see, none of the creatures are exactly like the pictures in the books. Some of them not at all like them. Not like the reconstruction the paleontologists put together. If they had been I might still have thought they were hallucinations, that what I was seeing was influenced by what I’d seen or read. I could have been feeding my imagination on prior knowledge. But since that was not the case, it seemed logical to assume that what I see is real. How could I imagine that Tyrannosaurus had dewlaps all the colors of the rainbow? How could I imagine that some of the sabretooths had tassels on their ears? How could anyone possibly imagine that the big thunder beasts of the Eocene had hides as colorful as giraffes?” “Mr. Daniels,” said Thorne, “I have great reservations about all that you have told me. Every fiber of my training rebels against it. I have a feeling that I should waste no time on it. Undoubtedly, you believe what you have told me. You have the look of an honest man about you. Have you talked to any other men about this? Any other paleontologists or geologists? Perhaps a neuropsychiatrist?” “No,” said Daniels. “You’re the only person, the only man I have talked with. And I haven’t told you all of it. This is really all just background.” “My God, man—just background?” “Yes, just background. You see, I also listen to the stars.” Thorne got up from his chair, began shuffling together a stack of papers. He retrieved the dead pipe from the ash tray and stuck it in his mouth. His voice, when he spoke, was noncommittal. “Thank you for coming in,” he said. “It’s been most interesting.”
IIIAnd that was where he had made his mistake. Daniels told himself. He never should have mentioned listening to the stars. His interview had gone well until he had. Thorne had not believed him, of course, but he had been intrigued, would have listened further, might even have pursued the matter, although undoubtedly secretly and very cautiously. At fault, Daniels knew, had been his obsession with the creature in the stone. The past was nothing—it was the creature in the stone that was important and to tell of it, to explain it and how he knew that it was there, he must tell about his listening to the stars. He should have known better, he told himself. He should have held his tongue. But here had been a man who, while doubting, still had been willing to listen without laughter, and in his thankfulness Daniels had spoken too much. The wick of the oil lamp set upon the kitchen table guttered in the air currents that came in around the edges of the ill-fitting windows. A wind had risen after chores were done and now shook the house with gale-like blasts. On the far side of the room the fire in the wood-burning stove threw friendly, wavering flares of light across the floor and the stovepipe, in response to the wind that swept the chimney top, made gurgling, sucking sounds. Thorne had mentioned a neuropsychiatrist, Daniels remembered, and perhaps that was the kind of man he should have gone to see. Perhaps, before he attempted to interest anyone in what he could see or hear, he should make an effort to find out why and how he could hear and see these things. A man who studied the working of the brain and mind might come up with new answers—if answers were to be had. Had that blow upon his head so rearranged, so shifted some process in his brain that he had gained new capabilities? Was it possible that his brain had been so jarred, so disarranged as to bring into play certain latent talents that possibly, in millennia to come, might have developed naturally by evolutionary means? Had the brain damage short-circuited evolution and given him—and him alone—these capabilities, these senses, perhaps a million years ahead of time? It seemed—well, not reasonable but one possible explanation. Still, a trained man might have some other explanation. He pushed his chair back from the table and walked over to the stove. He used the lifter to raise the lid of the rickety old cook stove. The wood in the firebox had burned down to embers. Stooping, he picked up a stick of wood from the woodbox and fitted it in, added another smaller one and replaced the lid. One of these days soon, he told himself, he would have to get the furnace in shape for operation. He went out to stand on the porch, looking toward the river hills. The wind whooped out of the north, whistling around the corners of the building and booming in the deep hollows that ran down to the river, but the sky was clear—steely clear, wiped fresh by the wind and sprinkled with stars, their light shivering in the raging atmosphere. Looking up at the stars, he wondered what they might be saying but he didn’t try to listen. It took a lot of effort and concentration to listen to the stars. He had first listened to them on a night like this, standing out here on the porch and wondering what they might be saying, wondering if the stars did talk among themselves. A foolish, vagrant thought, a wild, daydreaming sort of notion, but, voicing it, he had tried to listen, knowing even as he did that it was foolishness but glorying in his foolishness, telling himself how fortunate he was that he could afford to be so inane as to try to listen to the stars—as a child might believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Rabbit. He’d listened and he’d heard and while he’d been astonished, there could be no doubt about it, no doubt at all that out there somewhere other beings were talking back and forth. He might have been listening in on a party line, he thought, but a party line that carried millions, perhaps billions, of long-distance conversations. Not words, of course, but something (thought, perhaps) that was as plain as words. Not all of it understandable—much of it, as a matter of fact, not understandable—possibly because his background and his learning gave him no basis for an understanding. He compared himself to an Australian aborigine listening to the conversation of a couple of nuclear physicists discussing a new theory. Shortly after that, when he had been exploring the shallow cave down on Cat Den Point, he had picked up his first indication of the creature buried in the stone. Perhaps, he thought, if he’d not listened to the stars, if he’d not known he could listen to the stars, if he’d not trained his mind by listening, he would not have heard the creature buried deep beneath the limestone. He stood looking at the stars and listening to the wind and, far across the river, on a road that wound over the distant hills, he caught the faint glimmer of headlights as a car made its way through the night. The wind let up for a moment, as if gathering its strength to blow yet even harder and, in the tiny lull that existed before the wind took up again, he heard another sound—the sound of an axe hitting wood. He listened carefully and the sound came again but so tossed about by the wind that he could not be sure of its direction. He must be mistaken, he thought. No one would be out and chopping on a night like this. Coon hunters might be the answer. Coon hunters at times chopped down a tree to dislodge a prey too well hidden to be spotted. The unsportsmanlike trick was one that Ben Adams and his overgrown, gangling sons might engage in. But this was no night for coon hunting. The wind would blow away scent and the dogs would be unable to track. Quiet nights were the best for hunting coon. And no one would be insane enough to cut down a tree on a night like this when a swirling wind might catch it and topple it back upon the cutters. He listened to catch the sound again but the wind, recovering from its lull, was blowing harder than ever now and there was no chance of hearing any sound smaller than the wind. The next day came in mild and gray, the wind no more than a whisper. Once in the night Daniels had awoken to hear it rattling the windows, pounding at the house and howling mournfully in the tangled hollows that lay above the river. But when he woke again all was quiet and faint light was graying the windows. Dressed and out of doors he found a land of peace—the sky so overcast that there was no hint of sun, the air fresh, as if newly washed but heavy with the moist grayness that overlay the land. The autumn foliage that clothed the hills had taken on a richer luster than it had worn in the flooding autumn sunlight. After chores and breakfast Daniels set out for the hills. As he went down the slope toward the head of the first hollow he found himself hoping that the geologic shift would not come about today. There were many times it didn’t and there seemed to be no reason to its taking place or its failure to take place. He had tried at times to find some reason for it, had made careful notes of how he felt or what he did, even the course he took when he went for his daily walk, but he had found no pattern. It lay, of course, somewhere in his brain—something triggered into operation his new capability. But the phenomenon was random and involuntary. He had no control of it, no conscious control, at least. At times he had tried to use it, to bring the geologic shift about—in each case had failed. Either he did not know how to go about it or it was truly random. Today, he hoped, his capability would not exercise its option, for he wanted to walk in the hills when they had assumed one of their most attractive moods, filled with gentle melancholy, all their harshness softened by the grayness of the atmosphere, the trees standing silently like old and patient friends waiting for one’s coming, the fallen leaves and forest mold so hushed footfalls made no sound. He went down to the head of the hollow and sat on a fallen log beside a gushing spring that sent a stream of water tinkling down the boulder-strewn creek bed. Here, in May, in the pool below the spring, the marsh marigolds had bloomed and the sloping hillsides had been covered with the pastel of hepaticas. But now he saw no sign of either. The woods had battened down for winter. The summer and the autumn plants were either dead or dying, the drifting leaves interlocking on the forest floor to form cover against the ice and snow. In this place, thought Daniels, a man walked with a season’s ghosts. This was the way it had been for a million years or more, although not always. During many millions of years, in a time long gone, these hills and all the world had basked in an eternal summertime. And perhaps not a great deal more than ten thousand years before a mile-high wall of ice had reared up not too far to the north, perhaps close enough for a man who stood where his house now sat to have seen the faint line of blueness that would have been the top of that glacial barrier. But even then, although the mean temperature would have been lower, there had still been seasons. Leaving the log, Daniels went on down the hollow, following the narrow path that looped along the hillside, a cow path beaten down at a time when there had been more cows at pasture in these woods than the two that Daniels owned. Following it, Daniels noted, as he had many times before, the excellent engineering sense of a cow. Cows always chose the easiest grade in stamping out their paths. He stopped barely beyond the huge white oak that stood at a bend in the path, to have a look at the outsize jack-in-the-pulpit plant he had observed throughout the years. Its green-purple hood had withered away completely, leaving only the scarlet fruit cluster which in the bitter months ahead would serve as food for birds. As the path continued, it plunged deeper between the hills and here the silence deepened and the grayness thickened until one’s world became private. There, across the stream bed, was the den. Its yellow maw gaped beneath a crippled, twisted cedar. There, in the spring, he had watched baby foxes play. From far down the hollow came the distant quacking of ducks upon the pond in the river valley. And up on the steep hillside loomed Cat Den Point, the den carved by slow-working wind and weather out of the sheer rock of the cliff. But something was wrong. Standing on the path and looking up the hill, he could sense the wrongness, although he could not at first tell exactly what it was. More of the cliff face was visible and something was missing. Suddenly he knew that the tree was no longer there—the tree that for years had been climbed by homing wildcats heading for the den after a night of prowling and later by humans like himself who wished to seek out the wildcat’s den. The cats, of course, were no longer there—had not been there for many years. In the pioneer days they had been hunted almost to extermination because at times they had exhibited the poor judgment of bringing down a lamb. But the evidence of their occupancy of the cave could still be found by anyone who looked. Far back in the narrow recesses of the shallow cave tiny bones and the fragmented skulls of small mammals gave notice of food brought home by the wildcats for their young. The tree had been old and gnarled and had stood, perhaps, for several centuries and there would have been no sense of anyone’s cutting it down, for it had no value as lumber, twisted as it was. And in any case to get it out of the woods would have been impossible. Yet, last night, when he had stepped out on the porch, he had seemed to hear in a lull in the wind the sound of chopping—and today the tree was gone. Unbelieving, he scrambled up the slope as swiftly as he could. In places the slope of the wild hillside slanted at an angle so close to forty-five degrees that he went on hands and knees, clawing himself upward, driven by an illogical fear that had to do with more than simply a missing tree. For it was in the cat den that one could hear the creature buried in the stone. He could recall the day he first had heard the creature and on that day he had not believed his senses. For he had been sure the sound came from his own imagination, was born of his walking with the dinosaurs and eavesdropping on the stars. It had not come the first time he had climbed the tree to reach the cave-that-was-a-den. He had been there several times before, finding a perverse satisfaction at discovering so unlikely a retreat. He would sit on the ledge that ran before the cave and stare over the froth of treetop foliage that clothed the plunging hillside, but afforded a glimpse of the pond that lay in the flood plain of the river. He could not see the river itself—one must stand on higher ground to see the river. He liked the cave and the ledge because it gave him seclusion, a place cut off from the world, where he still might see this restricted corner of the world but no one could see him. This same sense of being shut out from the world had appealed to the wildcats, he had told himself. And here, for them, not only was seclusion but safety—and especially safety for their young. There was no way the den could be approached other than by climbing the tree. He had first heard the creature when he had crawled into the deepest part of the shallow cave to marvel at the little heaps of bones and small shattered skulls where the wildcat kittens, perhaps a century before, had crouched and snarled at feast. Crouching where the baby wildcats once had crouched, he had felt the presence welling up at him, coming up to him from the depth of stone that lay far beneath him. Only the presence at first, only the knowing that something was down there. He had been skeptical at first, later on believing. In time belief had become solid certainty. He could record no words, of course, for he had never heard any actual sound. But the intelligence and the knowing came creeping through his body, through his fingers spread flat upon the stone floor of the cave, through his knees, which also pressed the stone. He absorbed it without hearing and the more he absorbed the more he was convinced that deep in the limestone, buried in one of the strata, an intelligence was trapped. And finally the time came when he could catch fragments of thoughts—the edges of the living in the sentience encysted in the rock. What he heard he did not understand. This very lack of understanding was significant. If he had understood he would have put his discovery down to his imagination. As matters stood he had no knowledge that could possibly have served as a springboard to imagine the thing of which he was made aware. He caught an awareness of tangled life relationships which made no sense at all—none of which could be understood, but which lay in tiny, tangled fragments of outrageous (yet simple) information no human mind could quite accept. And he was made to know the empty hollowness of distances so vast that the mind reeled at the very hint of them and of the naked emptiness in which those distances must lie. Even in his eavesdropping on the stars he had never experienced such devastating concepts of the other-where-and-when. There was other information, scraps and bits he sensed faintly that might fit into mankind’s knowledge. But he never found enough to discover the proper slots for their insertion into the mass of mankind’s knowledge. The greater part of what he sensed, however, was simply beyond his grasp and perhaps beyond the grasp of any human. But even so his mind would catch and hold it in all its incomprehensibility and it would lie there festering amid his human thoughts. They were or it was, he knew, not trying to talk with him—undoubtedly they (or it) did not know that such a thing as a man existed, let alone himself. But whether the creature (or creatures—he found the collective singular easier) simply was thinking or might, in its loneliness, be talking to itself—or whether it might be trying to communicate with something other than himself, he could not determine. Thinking about it, sitting on the ledge before the cave, he had tried to make some logic of his find, had tried to find a way in which the creature’s presence might be best explained. And while he could not be sure of it—in fact, had no data whatsoever to bolster his belief—he came to think that in some far geologic day when a shallow sea had lain upon this land, a ship from space had fallen into the sea to be buried deeply in the mud that in later millennia had hardened into limestone. In this manner the ship had become entrapped and so remained to this very day. He realized his reasoning held flaws—for one thing, the pressure involved in the fashioning of the stone must have been so great as to have crushed and flattened any ship unless it should be made of some material far beyond the range of man’s technology. Accident, he wondered, or a way of hiding? Trapped or planned? He had no way of knowing and further speculation was ridiculous, based as it necessarily must be upon earlier assumptions that were entirely without support. Scrambling up the hillside, he finally reached the point where he could see that, in all truth, the tree had been cut down. It had fallen downhill and slid for thirty feet or so before it came to rest, its branches entangled with the trunks of other trees which had slowed its plunge. The stump stood raw, the whiteness of its wood shining in the grayness of the day. A deep cut had been made in the downhill side of it and the final felling had been accomplished by a saw. Little piles of brownish sawdust lay beside the stump. A two-man saw, he thought. From where Daniels stood the hill slanted down at an abrupt angle but just ahead of him, just beyond the stump, was a curious mound that broke the hillside slope, In some earlier day, more than likely, great masses of stone had broken from the cliff face and piled up at its base, to be masked in time by the soil that came about from the forest litter. Atop the mound grew a clump of birch, their powdery white trunks looking like huddled ghosts against the darkness of the other trees. The cutting of the tree, he told himself once again, had been a senseless piece of business. The tree was worthless and had served no particular purpose except as a road to reach the den, Had someone, he wondered, known that he used it to reach the den and cut it out of malice? Or had someone, perhaps, hidden something in the cave and then cut down the tree so there would be no way in which to reach it? But who would hold him so much malice as to come out on a night raging with wind, working by lantern light, risking his life, to cut down the tree? Ben Adams? Ben was sore because Daniels would not permit hunting on his land but surely that was no sufficient reason for this rather laborious piece of petty spite. The other alternative—that something hidden in the cave had caused the tree’s destruction—seemed more likely, although the very cutting of the tree would serve to advertise the strangeness of the place. Daniels stood puzzled, shaking his head. Then he thought of a way to find out some answers. The day still was young and he had nothing else to do. He started climbing up the hill, heading for his barn to pick up some rope.
IVThere was nothing in the cave. It was exactly as it had been before. A few autumn leaves had blown into the far corners. Chips of weathered stone had fallen from the rocky overhang, tiny evidences of the endless process of erosion which had formed the cave and in a few thousand years from now might wipe it out. Standing on the narrow ledge in front of the cave, Daniels stared out across the valley and was surprised at the change of view that had resulted from the cutting of the tree. The angles of vision seemed somehow different and the hillside itself seemed changed. Startled, he examined the sweep of the slope closely and finally satisfied himself that all that had changed was his way of seeing it. He was seeing trees and contours that earlier had been masked. His rope hung from the outcurving rock face that formed the roof of the cave. It was swaying gently in the wind and, watching it, Daniels recalled that earlier in the day he had felt no wind. But now one had sprung up from the west. Below him the treetops were bending to it. He turned toward the west and felt the wind on his face and a breath of chill. The feel of the wind faintly disturbed him, rousing some atavistic warning that came down from the days when naked, roaming bands of proto-men had turned, as he turned now, to sniff the coming weather. The wind might mean that a change in weather could be coming and perhaps he should clamber up the rope and head back for the farm. But he felt a strange reluctance to leave. It had been often so, he recalled. For here was a wild sort of refuge which barred out the world and the little world that it let in was a different kind—a more primal and more basic and less complicated world than the one he’d fled from. A flight of mallards came winging up from the pond in the river valley, arrowing above the treetops, banking and slanting up the long curve of the bluff and then, having cleared the bluff top, wheeling gracefully back toward the flyer. He watched them until they dipped down behind the trees that fringed the unseen river. Now it was time to go. There was no use of waiting longer. It had been a fool’s errand in the first place; he had been wrong to let himself think something might be hidden in the cave. He turned back to the rope and the rope was gone. For a moment he stared stupidly at the point along the cliff face where the rope had hung, swaying in the breeze. Then he searched for some sign of it, although there was little area to search. The rope could have slid, perhaps, for a short distance along the edge of the overhanging mass of rock but it seemed incredible that it could have slid far enough to have vanished from his sight. The rope was new, strong, and he had tied it securely to the oak tree on the bluff above the cliff, snugging it tightly around the trunk and testing the knot to make certain that it would not slip. ...
All rights belong to the author: Clifford D Simak.
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