By the time I get to the treeline, all I can see is Pierre’s hindquarters poking out of the bushes.
“Nice morning for it,” I call.
He jumps about a foot, and his angry beetroot face looks out at me.
“Nice morning for what, exactly?”
“Whatever it is you’re doing.”
Pierre stands upright and holds out a fist in my direction. I’m surprised. For all his bluster, Pierre is too sweet a lad to go threatening anyone, let alone an old man like myself. When I look closer, I realise he’s offering me the contents of his closed hand.
“Take it,” he says.
I hold out my own hand and he obligingly drops the rotten potato he’d been holding into mine. I poke at it a moment, run a dirty fingernail around the greasy blackened flesh. “Yep, that’s definitely gone bad.”
“It’s not the only thing that’s gone,” Pierre says, cryptically. Then he points behind me. I turn to see whole rows of soil, tilled in the night. An entire crop of potatoes, gone in a flash. No wonder that boy is upset.
I sip at my double-double. Sweet coffee, always there in a crisis.
“Tell me, Ben, who you think is responsible for this,” Pierre says.
“Aliens,” I reply.
Pierre mutters something unbecoming of a man his tender age under his breath. “Aliens. Aliens came to earth in the middle of the night and stole my potatoes.”
I brush foam out of my moustache while he goes back to rustling in the undergrowth. When he stands up a second time, he has two more squelchy-looking tubers in his hands.
“Aliens who came in the night, stole my potatoes and,” he waves the offending veg at me, “and they stopped to take the ones that had gone bad out of the harvest?”
I sip at my coffee again. It’s already looking like I’m going to have to head back to Timmy’s before the morning is out.
“Does that seem even remotely likely to you?” Pierre says.
“Well, think of it this way. If you’re going to travel intergalactically, you’re going to have all sorts of aerodynamic and weight considerations-“
“Ben, let it go, okay? We both know who’s responsible for this.”
“Now, you can’t go saying that for sure,” I say, but Pierre was already heading back to the farmhouse. When he reappears, marching round the edge of the field, he has Macie on her lead and a shotgun under his arm.
“Okay,” he says. “I’m going to track those bastards down.”
“Pierre,” I say, “You don’t have to do this. Your father worked this land for forty years and I never once saw him go wandering into the woods with a gun. Besides which, just imagine that I’m right. You go threatening an alien with that thing, they’re gonna have all sorts of fancy weapons of their own. You’re going to end up probed every which way.”
“You can come along, old man, or you can stay here, but Macie and me are doing this.” Macie, a handsome mastiff with a build that could knock down walls, looks only too eager to head out into the wilderness. Sighing, I step into line behind them.
The trees rustle as we walk. Macie takes the lead, nose sometimes to the ground, sometimes to the sky. Pierre follows her, determined expression on his face, and I follow him because he’s a good boy really, and when this whole thing turns out to be a wild goose chase, someone is going to have to boost his spirits and help him get his head straight.
I should probably say that the loss of one field’s worth of potatoes was a sad thing indeed, but it wasn’t going to break the bank for Pierre. He’d followed his father into farming, and that was a thankless profession if ever there was one, but his mother was a romance novelist of no small repute. After his father’s death, she’d received proposals daily from elderly fans all across North America. The American ones sent scented missives suggesting illicit liaisons. The Canadian ones sent polite letters complimenting her hair and offering to take her out for brunch.
Annie Gaultier was a fine woman indeed, but she preferred to be at home looking after her son, and when her time came she left him a nest egg that was more handsome than he himself. In addition to the money he inherited from his mother, Pierre had inherited his swiftly receding hairline and a pair of admirable Gaultier ears from his daddy. His tendency towards moodiness was all his own, and that was what led us to where we are now, tramping through a thick forest in search of potato poachers. I’m not gonna lie to you, this isn’t something I’d been expecting to do when I got out of bed this morning.
So imagine how surprised I am when Macie catches wind of something, and suddenly we’re all rushing through the brush. Pierre has her by the lead, so he’s taking the worst of what we’re running into, but I’m trying to follow and the branches are snapping back into my face. Also, I may have pointed out that I’m a year or two past my prime, and sometimes my knees don’t exactly do the things that I want them to. Right now, that’s fine, because they’re working faster than the rest of me.
Pierre’s got a full twenty yards ahead of me and he and Macie burst into the clearing, gun at his shoulder. I hear him call out, “Stop right there, you hippie bastards!” Then it all goes quiet, just like I’d expected it would.
When I stumble into the grove, Pierre is standing there, mouth open, gun at his side. Macie is trotting back and forth, unsure what to make of the scene. Before them, four unimpressed centaurs are standing in a semi-circle, sacks full of potatoes roped over their equine backs. With my arrival, they begin whispering to one another and I catch a few words in French.
I raise my hands to show I’m not armed. “Gentlemen, this is all going to be easier if we stick to one language.”
They consult and then the eldest one says, “As you wish.”
“Thank you,” I say.
Instantly, Pierre turns to me. “Ben. There are centaurs. Actual centaurs. Here. In the forest.”
One of the younger males stomps an indignant hoof. “We’re not centaurs, you buffoon. We’re piaffhomme.” He nods his head, showing off a handsome, rounded set of horns.
Pierre looks at me. “Half-man, half caribou,” I say.
“I’m less concerned with what we call them than the fact they exist at all!” Pierre yells the last three words, startling the birds in the trees overhead.
I stare at the elder, who shakes his own bushy moustache and stares right back at me. The rest of the group canter round one another. “We didn’t steal these potatoes,” one says quickly.
“You just found ’em in the ground a few miles back that way,” I say calmly. The elder continues to stare at me in silence.
“You’ve got no proof of that,” says the haughty one that called Pierre a buffoon.
“That’s as maybe,” I reply, “but it’s one heck of a coincidence that you just happen to have found a big ol’ bunch of potatoes lying around the same day that we just happen to have lost one.”
The piaffhommes glance anxiously at one another, and for the first time I realise that the smaller one at the back of the group is a young woman. She has a pleasant, round face, topped off with smaller horns and mid-length hair the colour of straw. She doesn’t go meeting my eye, though. In fact, her own gaze is fixed on Pierre, standing dumb with his gun still in his hands.
“They’re Cariboutleggers,” I announce, for Pierre’s benefit. “They use the potatoes to make moonshine and then sell it to a middleman for market.”
The elder approaches me and bends his head so that only the two of us can hear one another.
“How long are you going to keep this up, Ben? You already made your point. But even if we leave the potatoes here, you’ve got no way to get them all home.”
“Claude, I’m not going to lie, it’s just fun watching you squirm.”
The old man-beast’s moustache twitches from side to side. “You know full well that if we all decided to run right now, we’d be in the next county before your boy here had even raised his gun.”
“My boy here may not look like much, but these are his potatoes, grown on his land, fair and square. What’s more, if you really thought you’d get away that quick, you’d already have gone.”
“His land!” Claude snorts. “His land indeed. You know there was a time when my people owned everything north of Virginia?”
“That was a long time ago,” I say.
Claude lifts his head and inclines it towards his own kind. “Human, it seems to me that we could probably make you an offer to sort out this misunderstanding. We’ll share our bounty with you. One bag of potatoes to take back to your people.”
Pierre just gapes at me. I look back to Claude. “Good sir, we accept your offer.”
With no small amount of effort, we take the heavy pack off the haughty one, and when it slides off, Pierre slaps him good and hard on the rump. The piaffhomme glares at him.
“Imbécile,” he says.
“Dick,” Pierre replies.
When we’re ready to head back the way we came, Macie bouncing cheerfully between us, the one I knew as Claude lifts his hands above his head.
“Let this generous gift be in recognition of the historic friendship between our peoples.”
I raise a hand myself in salute. The younger male piaffhommes roll their eyes and trot off into the forest. Claude follows them, the young female bringing up the rear. At the last minute, she steals another glance at Pierre. Then she too is gone, and we’re left there with Macie.
I motion at the bag of potatoes on the floor. “So. One at each end?”
Pierre doesn’t move. Instead he says, “There are centaurs in our forest.”
We’re both still standing there, letting him process that, when a green light appears overhead, trailing smoke behind it. Gathering speed, it accelerates over the treeline with an audible whoosh and disappears from view.
A few seconds pass and the birds began to sing again.
“What,” Pierre says, “was that?”
I sigh. It’s definitely going to be a two-coffee morning.
Photo Credits: Flickr