The Mother Ship
The Mother Ship
Copyright 2016 by Wolfstuff
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“You don’t really exist, do you?”
“Well,” he said, pulling at his long beard with a gnarled little hand, his booted little feet barely reaching the edge of the seat and showing dark leather soles scratched and patterned by years and miles, “that depends on who’s looking.”
He didn’t exist, of course. Couldn’t.
Still, as if to humor the hallucination, I asked, “Can I touch you?”
He hesitated, but after a heartbeat or two answered as if he had not, “Of course.”
So, surprised and not a little fascinated that my hallucination insisted on being real, I stood up and walked across to where he sat in my reading chair. What was it we called the gnomes back home in Sweden? Tomte. Yeah, that’s right. Tomte. Yes, and this one looked exactly like that. And so lifelike.
I’ve had them before, these hallucinations, but not for a while, and never this strong. And now to make him vanish.
I took him in as I approached. His long, gray beard slithered down his chest like a frosty river all the way to his knees where it came to curly rest. He was probably all of three feet, if that. And look at those little hands, back in his lap now, keeping each other company. They struck me as miniature carpenter hands, tawny, knotted, strong, able. Far too vivid to be true.
I almost giggled at how real he seemed, a little nervously.
I should have been terrified, and would have been had I been new to this, but I had seen them before, and I knew that this one would, just like the others, vanish before I could reach him. Just like the one on the boulder, back in Sweden. The first one. All those years ago.
Atop the large boulder near the marsh.
The spring sunshine made the gray of stone and the gray and black of lichen blend and shimmer. And there he was, sitting on the boulder, still as anything. Just like this one right now, he just sat there watching me approach. Not friendly, not unfriendly, just an old gnome: pointed cap, white hair, and so very small. The wind played with his long, gray beard and tried to rob him of his cap. At one point he grabbed it with one hand to make sure the wind didn’t get away with it, all the while watching me. So very, very real.
This first time I was too young (or too dumb) to be scared and I made straight for the boulder to take a closer look. What I actually meant to do was to talk to him (to hear my mother tell it, I would talk to anyone and—apparently—anything). I waded through the marshy grass and soon reached the foot of boulder and the gnome was still there, watching me.
I glanced down at the lower part of the boulder to locate the crevice I had used many times for foothold in order to scale the big rock. I found it easily enough and then looked up for the usual hand-hold to grasp and now there was only air where the gnome had been. A fast and bright April cloud shot out over the edge of the rock—so very white against so very blue that gnomes couldn’t possibly exist.
I’ve always been told that I had fantasy to spare—a vivid imagination, that’s what I had, and that’s how my parents explained me and my tales to others (especially teachers).
Just imagination. And the air was so fresh and the trees were just budding and you could smell the entire world as the wood rustled and sighed and the last of the snow, gray now instead of white, lingered in the shadows.
It was a wonderful, gnome-less spring-world.
I then scaled the boulder and took my seat on top of it. From there, as a king views his lands, I viewed the marsh benevolently.
I was the ruler of forests.
I’ve thought about that morning on and off over the years, and there are times I’m certain the little guy had actually been there, on top of the stone, looking down at me. Impossible of course, but you have to go with your senses. I know what I saw, and I don’t think the wind can play with hallucinations, can it? He had been as real as trees, just as there and just as alive. At other times, of course, I shake my head at the sheer power of my imagination.
That was forty years ago now, and half a world away.
And here he was again, even talking.
As real as trees, I thought, although trees were not so real anymore, not so anything anymore, not in this city of hype and freeway shootings. So, more real than trees then, this little guy, with his dark eyes, his big nose, his long ears, his gold earrings, his white hair, and thick little lips. And now to make him vanish.
He had not moved, had not taken his eyes off mine during my short journey across the floor. He was watching and waiting for me to arrive. And then I did, and looked down. He now had to bend his head back to maintain eye contact—what hallucination does that?
Then, to make him vanish, I slowly kneeled by the armchair and placed my right hand on his left knee, expecting—no, knowing—that all I would feel would be: first air, and then, beneath it the smooth fabric of the chair cushion.
Not so. What I touched was coarse (like homespun) cloth covering a sharp little knee tensing under my touch, otherwise still. He kept looking straight at me.
“Satisfied?” he said.
My hand jerked back of its own accord—independently afraid.
Somehow I wrestled it back under my control and made to touch him again.
“Hey, once is enough.”
With that he squirmed aside and over onto his stomach, then slid down from the chair. He retrieved his hat, which must have fallen off climbing onto the chair, and put it on. “We don’t have much time,” he said.
“What the hell? Are you actually…”
“Come on,” he interrupted. “Get your car keys, we have a long drive.”
“We can talk in the car.”
From outside and above—yes, it was as if somebody had kicked me right out of my skull, and now I was floating midair, taking things in—I watched myself collect my key ring from its hook by the door, grab my jacked, wait a second while the little one reached up on tip toe to open the door, and finally head out of my apartment after my three-foot (barely) guide. The door slammed shut behind me, echoing down the stairwell. I turned and locked the door while the little one ran down the stairs ahead of me.
“Hey, wait up,” I heard myself say.
He neither turned nor slowed down, he just kept running—no, jumping is more the word—down each stair, cap bopping and bouncing and threatening to fall off again at any moment. Me, I had to take the stairs two at a time to catch up.
At the bottom, by the front gate, he stopped, looked up, expecting to be let out. Just like a dog, I thought, an intelligent, determined, and not exactly friendly dog, unable to handle the locked gate by himself but expecting you to get on with it, and to get on with it now.
I did, and now we’re out on the street, three feet of green and gray and red ahead of me darting between and around legs and feet heading for my car by the curb farther down. Does he actually know which car is mine? I wondered, and sure enough, he headed for the right one.
No one else can see him, that’s obvious. Not a soul. Even the old lady he collided with didn’t see him. She looked down, confused, slowed and looked behind her then set off again with a frown. Clearly, I’m dreaming some crazy three-dimensional dream with amazing clarity, tactile, everything.
But the dog saw him though. He’s a big gray thing, all hair and teeth, and maybe twenty feet away, barking up a storm. On a leash, luckily—taut.
Shut up said the owner, a trim looking guy in a sweat suit, straining to keep the dog in check, barking like something from dog hell. Be quiet, said the guy, louder now. He yanked the leash and the dog yelped—a little pathetically for his size—but immediately resumed his barking. He barked like Can’t you see him? Look, look, there he is, look, look. See? He strained the leash again as he lunged for the little one.
At this point my guide turned to the dog and apparently said something to him, something the dog must have understood, for it stopped mid-bark and just stared with its mouth open, pink tongue to one side. The by now not only annoyed but perplexed owner yanked the leash again and the dog yelped correspondingly. The little one looked back at me, Hurry up! said his face, but he didn’t speak that I could hear. Avoiding other blind and ignorant legs, he reached what was definitely my car.
I unlocked and opened the passenger side door for him and he jumped in and made himself comfortable. He removed his cap and put it in his lap, all ready to go.
Clearly, reality had not caught up with my imagination yet for I was still playing along. And by that I mean: following, opening doors, both front and car, and now I was going for a ride with an apparition, a dog-shutting-up apparition in a hurry. But as I walked around the back of the car to the driver’s side I lost sight of him and then, as if some unworldly connection had finally been severed, I knew, I just knew that when I opened the driver’s side door I would look in and see nothing but passenger seat, he would be gone.
That certainty came as a great relief.
Not so. The three foot bundle of impatience was firmly planted in the passenger seat, arms akimbo. Waiting.
“We don’t have all day,” he said the moment I opened the door.
I climbed in and shut it behind me. I looked over and down at him. Would he need the seat belt? I wondered. And then reality finally caught up. I could feel the hair stand on my arms, my mouth suddenly went dry: I returned to my head;
This was. In fact. Happening.
“What are you waiting for, start the car,” he said.
“Start the car, take the five north.”
I must have looked at him with eyes wider by far than normal for he tilted his head a bit, sympathetically almost, patted me softly on my thigh and said, “It’s okay, don’t worry.”
But I was worried.
I had a very hard time finding neutral. Then I remembered the clutch. Much better. I turned the ignition key. Then again. The engine sprung to life, if a little bit tentatively, as if out of practice.
That’s right, I told myself, do the normal, what you always do. Find first gear, there it is, turn the blinker on, check the rear view, look over your shoulder. The routine was actually soothing, a cool glass of mental water: awake and alive, I could feel myself doing these things.
Make sure all is clear, then pull out, into traffic. Now what?
The little guy couldn’t see out the window where he sat, so he clambered onto his feet and stood upright in the seat.
“Careful,” I said.
He cast me a glance, what did I mean?
I reached over and strapped the seat belt across him.
Suddenly I was back again, forty years earlier at the boulder by the marsh. He had sat so clearly atop the big stone, watching me approach. That, I knew now, had not been my imagination. It, like this, had actually happened. Yes, he had been there, but must have slipped away as I looked for footing.
And what about my other gnomes, my other hallucinations (as I’ve come to think of them), had they been real, too? Something said yes, and was quite certain about that. No, not hallucinations at all.
I braked suddenly for a pedestrian who should not be crossing the street here, apparently oblivious to cars, mine included.
The seatbelt caught the gnome before the windscreen did. He gave the heedless pedestrian a long, dark look. Then said, “Take the five north.”
I looked over at him. He was intent on the street in front of us, a bearded thing willing me on. Two blocks farther down I stopped at the light. I looked over at him again, and again he didn’t seem to notice. The light turned green and I swung left toward the on-ramp.
Heading up the ramp I wondered idly whether his company made us eligible for the car pool lane, and I decided Yes, it does as I sped past the line of single-occupant cars waiting for their individual greens.
I eased my way over and into the car pool lane.
“Ansgar,” he said then.
He remained standing, strapped tightly against the back of the seat, looking more like an ancient child on a wild amusement park ride than something out of my past. He would not reconcile. Not in the least. My only grip on reality was the wheel in front of me. And I hung on to it, knuckles turning white. I was sweating.
Seventy miles per hour, then seventy-five, flirting with eighty. North through Burbank, through San Fernando.
“We have about two hours,” he said.
“Two hours for what?” I said, not looking at him.
“You need to do something for us. In two hours, a bit less than. At seven o’clock, precisely.”
Us? But instead I asked, “What? What do you need me to do?”
“It’s not hard. You’ll manage.”
“Yes, but what?” I said.
“A signal,” he said, but did not elaborate.
I looked over at him again, a good question mark impersonation.
But he did not elaborate.
Approaching the fourteen north I wondered, Do we stay on the five?
As if reading my mind (which I would not put past him, hallucinations are good at that) he said, “Head for Palmdale.”
I eased over to the right hand lane and merged onto the fourteen. We were heading for the high desert.
“What kind of signal?” I asked, verbally this time.
His eyes were on mine as I turned to him. They struck me as, if not sinister, then at least calculating, but perhaps this was me misreading his face. In fact, I could not read his face at all.
Now, I have always thought myself a pretty good judge of character, but how do you read a gnome’s face? I glanced back at the road ahead, then back at him. He was still looking at me.
Then he said, “A very important signal,” as if that would answer my question. Then he faced forward again, taking in the road ahead.
“Very important,” he added, more to himself.
After a long silence (awkward for me, but not for him would be my guess) and about twenty miles: “Next exit,” he said.
“I thought you said we were going to Palmdale.”
“I didn’t say to Palmdale, I said heading for Palmdale.”
“Okay. True enough.” So I complied and got off at the next exit. It led to a stop sign by a tarmacked road leading either east to the right or west to the left.
“Right,” he said. “Turn right.” He even pointed.
Again, I complied. More awkward (or not so awkward) silence. This road was climbing quite steeply. My old car felt the strain but seemed game enough. And we climbed some more.
“Have you ever been to Sweden?” I asked him.
I could sense him looking over at me. Me, I kept my eyes on the now narrow and winding road, climbing still. “Yes,” he said. “That’s where I come from.”
“So, what are you doing here?”
“You were supposed to stay put,” he said. It was an accusation.
“What the hell do you mean by that, I was supposed to?”
I had to look over at him. “Supposed to by whom? Who supposed I’d stay put? And where?”
Questions he ignored. “Watch where you’re going,” he said.
“Have we met?” I said.
“By a big rock? You were sitting on a boulder by the marsh.”
“Forty years ago?”
Strange to say, but his confirmation of this gave me strength. It told me I was not crazy, had not hallucinated: that April moment, him sitting there in the sunshine looking at me looking at him really had taken place.
And some of that comfort bubbled up from the past and leaked into the present and into the car and I found that I could finally allow that this was actually taking place. That this event was occurring in the real world shared with others, and not simply as a result of some chemical imbalance on my part
By impulse I reached out to touch him again, just to make sure. He pulled back within his straps to avoid my hand.
“You don’t like being touched?”
“But you were fine with it, back in the apartment.”
“You had to be sure.”
Then he took my large hand in his two little ones and gave it back to me. Keep this to yourself, it what they said. But my purpose was served, I felt his rough and quite warm hands upon mine, felt his strength, ancient and rocklike, in the motion. I was assured. Years of knowing better simply evaporated and I was back by the rock, spring in the air and now I really wanted to talk to him.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Ansgar,” he said.
“Well, what are you then?” I said.
Well, that went without saying, I thought. “An original what?”
“Of the Earth.”
“The Earth? Earth as in dirt, or earth as in third planet from the sun?”
He looked at me as if this question had never occurred to him before. Either that or thought I must come from the Land of Stupid. “The Earth,” he said. “The Mother.”
He did not waste he breath on an answer. He was obviously talking about the planet.
I took in the oncoming pavement and drove on in silence. A long silence.
“Caretaker?” I said.
He said, “A left turn’s coming up.”
Yes, I could see it up ahead, a dirt road. No sign. I slowed, then reached and turned onto it. It looked barely serviceable to me. Frankly, I worried a little about my car. In fact, I stopped. “I’m not sure about this one,” I said. “My car is not in the best shape.”
“It’ll be fine,” he said. As if he knew.
I started up again and after a while (he was right) the road smoothed out a bit and my car grew less nervous.
This time I said it quite loudly: “What does a caretaker do?”
He didn’t answer right away, but I felt that he was weighing how best to tell me.
“We keep the Earth alive,” he said finally.
“What do you mean?”
“We keep the Earth alive,” he repeated.
I did not understand. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“Our job is to keep you from destroying the Earth.”
“You? You mean us, us people. Us humans?”
“Yes. Who else?”
Now, I have an irreverent streak in me which I can only suppress for so long, no matter what the circumstances, and this was when it resurfaced and joined the conversation. “Not doing too good a job of it, then, are you?” Is what I heard myself saying.
I cringed at what I had said, and I expected a very offended gnome to retaliate verbally.
But he didn’t. First he sighed. Then said, “You’re not an easy race.”
“So how do you actually do this caretaking?”
“We keep her strong. We help her endure you.”
Keeping her strong: I am back at the marsh, in the April sun, by the caretaker on top of the boulder. That Earth was stronger than our current one, and he now made perfect sense to me.
“They didn’t see you back there,” I said after a while. I meant outside my apartment.
He knew what I meant. “Of course not,” he said. “Can you imagine what would happen if they could?”
I could imagine.
“But the dog did.”
“Oh, they’re harmless.”
“That one didn’t look too harmless to me.”
“How about obedient, then?”
“So, what do you do to keep her strong?” I said.
He did not reply.
I looked over at him to find him intent on the road ahead. Perhaps he hadn’t even heard me.
I repeated my question. No reply. He had definitely tuned me out, and I let the question go for now
As the little car that could kept climbing, the silence stretched and stretched.
“Turn here,” he says. Pointing.
To a definitely narrower and in-worse-shape dirt road (more like a path) heading off to the right, up and into the higher hills. Then he adds, as if he reads my mind, no problem, “It’ll be fine.”
“How do you know?”
So I turn onto this narrower-still path.
It hasn’t rained for months and we’re stirring up a cloud of dust behind us. This road, not much traveled by the looks of it, is very uneven and it sounds like my worn suspension is about to give up. Ansgar, caretaker of the Earth and passenger mine, has grabbed hold of the seat belt to keep himself upright. He is intent on the road ahead. “You’ll be fine,” he says again. Whether to assure me or himself is not clear.
After another reckless bounce (I am now worried about my exhaust as well), “Where, exactly, are we going?”
“We follow this road till it ends.”
“I don’t think my car will make it.”
“It has to.”
“Well, you’d better tell it then. Perhaps it’ll listen to you,” suggested my irreverent self.
He ignored that. “As high up as we can get,” he says. “And we don’t have much time.”
I checked the car clock. It says 6:28.
“We have thirty-two minutes until seven o’clock,” I say.
“I know,” he answers.
“What happens at seven?”
“You send a signal.”
This he does not hear or does not answer. “To whom?” I repeat.
Ansgar seems to have gone deaf by an act of will and I remain none the wiser.
We drive on. This so-called road demands more and more of my focus. The old strangeness to my right is intent on the road as well.
“Left here.” He points.
It’s another path-like road, rising. It’s not worse than the road we’re on, not that I can tell anyway.
My car begs to differ. It doesn’t like this at all. I scrape the bottom twice with a sickening sound that I fear must have drawn blood. Then we hit what sounded like a rock. And again. I can tell my car is hurting.
We’re rising steeply now. The engine works hard in low gear. The road seems a little bit better, though, no major obstacles for a while. But it’s getting darker. I’m about to turn on the headlights but his hand on my arm stops me. “No,” he says.
6:39. The road winds steeply upward. Then, to my left, in the half-light I think I see a face. That of another ancient one, brother of my passenger, perhaps. Then it’s gone, we’re past it or it was never there in the first place.
6:41. The path is cresting up ahead among boulders and small pines.
“That’s it,” he says, pointing again. “Up there.”
But at this point the path and my car agree: no farther. For suddenly, my poor car is caught on what I assume is a large stone. Whatever it is, I didn’t see it coming and this time, I’m sure, we’re going nowhere. Even so, I try to accelerate past this but the engine only moans and spins the wheels. No purchase. We’re resting on whatever it is, like on a pivot. We are going no farther.
Ansgar can also read writing on walls and is already scrambling out of the seatbelt and pushing his door open. Without a word he is outside, heading up the path on small quick legs, stirring up dust. He turns and says something to me which I can’t hear but which means that I’m to hurry up and follow.
I see another face, another set of eyes. At least I think so, but it’s hard to tell in the duskier by the minute.
The sky, orange and red to the west and streaked with high clouds casts deep shadows to the east of stones and rocks and trees, and I sense movement in those shadows, but I can’t be sure. I yank my car door open and rush out to follow Ansgar.
I catch up with him at the summit, where he stands, waiting, not even breathing hard. I am, however, and my heart is in my ears. I’m not used to exercise like this, besides we’ve reached quite an altitude.
The sun has set now. Orange is fading into brown into black and you can see the first stars out east.
I’m about to ask, Now what? when my doubts vanish: The shadows materialize and several—too many to easily count—Ansgars appear.
Someone says, “We have two minutes,” quite clearly, and Ansgar, my Ansgar, nods.
Then my Ansgar looks up at me with eyes that for the first time appear a little friendly—if I read them right in the falling light—and says, “I’m sorry.”
I mean to ask, Sorry about what? but I never get the chance, because next I know I’m fighting for my life.
Ansgar is not taking part in this, but he looks on as five, seven, eight, I don’t know how many of these guys literally jump me, and wrestle me to the ground. For their size they are incredibly strong, and unaccountably heavy.
The two that hold my legs in their vice grips are impossible to kick off—it’s like having a pair of lead boots, and after four or five attempts my legs give up, fatigued. I fall onto my knees and then they bring me on my back by pulling my arms and hair.
At this point I’m no match for them, if I ever were. The ground is hard and rocky against my back and someone says, “One minute now.”
Ansgar looks down on me, a dark giant now against the fading sky. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “But, you see, at this point it has to be you. You are our signal. It’s your pattern, your light, that’s what we must send.”
If I answer anything at this point I am not aware of it. I’m pinned to the ground and I know that something terrible is about to happen. That’s all I’m really aware of. And of Ansgar speaking again.
“They’ll be looking for a signal, and it is you we have to send.”
I finally manage, “What signal?”
“We need reinforcements.”
I have no idea what he’s talking about.
“Your light, your life-light,” he says.
Someone else says, “We have thirty seconds.” It’s a deep voice from somewhere behind me.
“You bear the light,” he says. “Your heart is both signal and message. It will tell them what they need to know.”
“Shine,” says a voice to my left.
Then I know that I have less than thirty seconds to live.
“You don’t have radio or something?” I suggest.
“I’m afraid not,” he said.
“Shine,” says another voice.
“Shine,” several additional deep voices.
Their grips on my limbs tighten as Ansgar reaches down for my heart.
“Shine,” he says as steel fingers enter my chest, separate my ribs and seize the beating light.
I rose in pain, floated up and over the little scene below, over the little person holding up my surprised heart to the heavens. And as it ceased to beat it turned to light, the brightest light I have ever seen. It was day again, a small brilliant sun drowning the darkness for miles around.
Had I had hands I would have shielded my eyes, had I had eyes.
Moving out briefly from the cover of the moon, and exactly on time, the mother ship saw the signal and its message. It was as they had feared. More caretakers were indeed needed. They eased onto a course for Earth and the Utah desert.
About the Author
Raised in Northern Sweden (by trolls), Ulf Wolf now makes California’s Pacific North his home.
To date he has written five novels, six novellas, as well as a host of stories, poems, and songs. More is always underway.
For more about this particular wolf, please visit .
Also, you can contact him at .
Other stories by Ulf Wolf (and also available on Shakespir):
Harriet and I — a novel
Miss Buddha — a novel
Perilous Memories — a novel
Turbulence — a novel
Yama’s Upanishad — a novel
Final Path — a novella
Lander — a novella
Slash-And-Burn — a novella
To Catch a Man Child — a novella
Ursa Lupus — a novella
Written on Oak — a novella
Many of his short stories are also available on Shakespir.
“You don’t really exist, do you?” “Well,” he said, pulling at his long beard with a gnarled little hand, his booted little feet barely reaching the edge of the seat and showing dark leather soles scratched and patterned by years and miles, “that depends on who’s looking.” He didn’t exist, of course. Couldn’t. Still, as if to humor the hallucination, I asked, “Can I touch you?” He hesitated, but after a heartbeat or two answered as if he had not, “Of course.” So, surprised and not a little fascinated that my hallucination insisted on being real, I stood up and walked across to where he sat in my reading chair. What was it we called the gnomes back home in Sweden? Tomte. Yeah, that’s right. Tomte. Yes, and this one looked exactly like that. And so lifelike. I’ve had them before, these hallucinations, but not for a while, and never this strong. And now to make him vanish. I took him in as I approached. His long, gray beard slithered down his chest like a frosty river all the way to his knees where it came to curly rest. He was probably all of three feet, if that. And look at those little hands, back in his lap now, keeping each other company. They struck me as miniature carpenter hands, tawny, knotted, strong, able. Far too vivid to be true. I almost giggled at how real he seemed, a little nervously. I should have been terrified, and would have been had I been new to this, but I had seen them before, and I knew that this one would, just like the others, vanish before I could reach him. Just like the one on the boulder, back in Sweden. The first one. All those years ago. Atop the large boulder near the marsh. : The spring sunshine made the gray of stone and the gray and black of lichen blend and shimmer. And there he was, sitting on the boulder, still as anything. Just like this one right now, he just sat there watching me approach. Not friendly, not unfriendly, just an old gnome: pointed cap, white hair, and so very small. The wind played with his long, gray beard and tried to rob him of his cap. At one point he grabbed it with one hand to make sure the wind didn’t get away with it, all the while watching me. So very, very real. This first time I was too young (or too dumb) to be scared and I made straight for the boulder to take a closer look. What I actually meant to do was to talk to him (to hear my mother tell it, I would talk to anyone and—apparently—anything). I waded through the marshy grass and soon reached the foot of boulder and the gnome was still there, watching me. I glanced down at the lower part of the boulder to locate the crevice I had used many times for foothold in order to scale the big rock. I found it easily enough and then looked up for the usual hand-hold to grasp and now there was only air where the gnome had been. A fast and bright April cloud shot out over the edge of the rock—so very white against so very blue that gnomes couldn’t possibly exist. I’ve always been told that I had fantasy to spare—a vivid imagination, that’s what I had, and that’s how my parents explained me and my tales to others (especially teachers). Just imagination. And the air was so fresh and the trees were just budding and you could smell the entire world as the wood rustled and sighed and the last of the snow, gray now instead of white, lingered in the shadows. It was a wonderful, gnome-less spring-world.