For our latest exercise, each member of my local writing group created a montage. The goal was to clip anything that appealed to you from the available magazines and then paste the images onto a sheet of construction paper in whatever manner you wanted. Some of our writers were amazingly artistic with their blend of imagery and color.
My montage wasn’t artistic (see photo at right), but I did find images that I liked. After all, it was a writing exercise, not an art exercise (thank goodness). Our homework was to write a story based on our montage. My story ended up using nearly every image, although that wasn’t a requirement.
This was the first time I’ve tried using imagery as creative inspiration for a story. The process was a lot more interesting than I guessed it would be when I first heard about what we’d be doing. I did not select the photos with a story in mind, I simply wrote the story that the images suggested. I had so much fun that I intend to use images for inspiration more often!
The Obelisk Portal
by Daniel R. Marvello (2,668 words)
After a long drive up the steep, winding mountain road with my old truck clattering and grinding the whole way, I parked near the lakeshore and got out to stretch my legs.
My two Labrador retrievers, Pete and Bob, jumped out joyfully to water the nearest tree. They returned from their task with tongues lolling and tails wagging. My two goofy canines were the definition of “lab happy.”
I sucked in a deep breath of fresh air, taking a moment to appreciate the tall evergreens that towered above me. But the trailhead beckoned and the dogs were looking expectant, so I quit dawdling and put my hiking boots on.
Up the trail we went, answering the call of the trees and reveling in the scents of the forest. Sometimes, beauty is in the absence of something, and out on the trail, the lack of constant human racket was the blessing I’d been seeking.
A loud rustle of leaves in the branches above us was followed by the thumping wing flaps of a majestic owl with dramatic black and white stripes all over his wings and body. Bright yellow eyes glared at us as he flew to a new perch further away from the trail.
Pete, my yellow lab, barked at the large bird and tried to follow it, but I called him back with a short whistle. Bob, my black lab, never left my side, as was his habit. He just looked up at me, waiting for my command.
The trail took us around half the lake, giving us brief glimpses of a rippling surface that sparkled with reflected sunlight. Distracted by the views, I didn’t see the overgrown trail that angled toward the rocky slope to our right. But Pete rarely missed anything; his nose was his guide.
Pete followed his sensitive sniffer down the narrow side trail. I almost called him back, but then I shrugged and decided to indulge my own inclination to explore. I figured the trail couldn’t go too far before it ended at the hillside, and we could always turn around.
We barely got a tenth of a mile before the vegetation grew so thick that Pete’s rotund yellow form started to fade into the tangle. Fortunately, stealth had never been his strong suit, so I could easily follow the noise he made as he progressed down what had devolved into a deer path.
I caught up to Pete at the base of a cliff and Bob eagerly joined him in an intense sniffing fest. Both dogs started digging enthusiastically at the ground, certain of hidden treasure.
Thinking they might be after something unpleasant, I was about to stop them when their excavation revealed the top of an object that was clearly man-made. As I watched, the dirt fell away from a small obelisk about the size of a soda can with odd symbols etched into it. The markings were reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics. I knelt between the dogs and brushed away some of the dirt for a better look at the markings while they continued to dig soil away from the bottom.
Our handling of the obelisk must have triggered something, for it suddenly made a loud click. Both dogs stopped digging and tilted their heads quizzically. When my peripheral vision caught a flicker of light, I sat back on my heels. A thin strip of bluish light outlined an arched doorway in the rock wall just behind the obelisk. I got to my feet and stepped backward, unsure of what we’d discovered.
Pete woofed once and bounded forward before I could think to stop him. He disappeared through the wall as if the stone were made of fog. “Pete,” I called. “Come back here! Come on, boy.”
I heard a faint bark, but Pete didn’t return. Bob heard Pete too and woofed in response. I grabbed for his collar as he leaped forward, but my fingers missed the collar and slid along the shiny black fur on his back. Bob vanished through the wall just as Pete had.
If I’d given the situation much thought, I might have balked at the idea of charging through that mystical doorway, but my boys were gone and I couldn’t just leave them behind.
Stepping through the rock was the strangest thing I’d ever experienced. All sensation and all sound stopped for a brief moment as I moved through utter darkness toward I knew not what.
When I emerged on the other side, I stopped to get my bearings. I was at the bottom of a rocky ravine about ten feet deep and six feet wide. Trees rimmed the top and their leafy branches filled the sky. At the far end of the ravine, the walls narrowed to a crag draped with lush vines. A set of worn, moss-covered stairs ascended to the forest beyond.
A couple of short barks drew me forward. I called to the dogs, but all I got were more barks in response. Clambering up the stairs, I jogged down an overgrown path shoving branches aside as I went. I followed the sounds of Pete and Bob “rurring” at each other in play.
The trail dumped me into a clearing at the edge of a pond littered with rotting tree parts. Pete and Bob were playing tug-of-war with a branch they’d apparently extracted from the pond. Except it wasn’t a branch. When I got closer, I realized that they were tugging on a long bone. It looked disturbingly like a human arm bone.
When I reached the pond’s edge, I saw the source of their prize. The empty sockets of a skull glared at me from the bottom of the shallows. Greenish sediment swirled around the skeleton from the disturbance the boys had caused in violating its resting place.
My initial revulsion turned to a shocked gasp as my eyes scanned the shallows. The boys’ bony victim was not alone. Most of what I had mistaken for tree parts around the pond weren’t of plant origin at all. Skeletons in various states of decay and dismemberment ringed the shore, some animal and some human.
Pete won the tugging contest and splashed into the pond to keep his trophy away from Bob, who jumped in after him. Recovering my wits, I yelled at them to get out of the water and come to me. Bob turned immediately and started paddling for shore. Pete kept going further out until he realized that his playmate had given up pursuit. To my relief, he too started back, his head tilting from the weight of the bone that dragged in the water.
Right about the time Pete turned around, water started bubbling near the center of the pond behind him. The bubbles turned to froth and then to a roiling upwelling of muddy current. Something in the pond was awakening.
I encouraged Pete to hurry, but he was already paddling for all he was worth. “Drop it, Pete!” I yelled, thinking he’d make better time without the bone. Bob stood next to me on the shore and barked his support.
The disturbance in the water started moving. It angled into an intercept course with Pete’s position, and it was going faster than he was. Bob barked furiously at the new distraction.
“Come on, Pete!” I yelled with panic in my voice. He seemed to recognize my urgency and finally let the bone sink back into its dark watery grave. He started making better progress, but I wasn’t sure he would be fast enough.
Looking around for some kind of weapon that didn’t involve the remains of the dead, I ran to a tree and broke off a thick branch to use as a club. I wasn’t sure what we were dealing with, but fish, alligator, or whatever, I figured a good smack on the head would slow it down.
Pete had nearly made it to shore when the swell in the water caught up. He yelped and cried as his forward motion came to a sudden halt. Wading in next to him, I saw that something had hold of his tail. I swung the stick with both hands and clubbed the dark shape. I nearly fell backward when the stick unexpectedly rebounded off something hard and my shoes slipped on the slimy detritus of the pond bottom.
My effort was not in vain. Pete got his tail free and rocketed out of the water. But the thing that had attacked him wasn’t far behind.
I stared in horror as a pair of pincers with foot-long claws emerged from the water. Behind them came the chitinous head and body of an impossibly large crayfish. The creature scuttled toward the dogs, water streaming down its exoskeleton as it rose from its domain. The dogs barked and jumped evasively. I doubted their teeth would be any match for the thing’s hard shell, and those pincers could probably have chopped them in half.
Getting a good grip on my club, I followed the massive shellfish toward the shoreline, repeatedly whacking it for all I was worth. My strikes mostly bounced off its natural armor with little effect; however, my attempt to distract it was successful.
The creature swept a pincer toward me, knocking me off my feet right at the water’s edge. I dropped the stick trying to break my fall. Quicker than I’d have thought possible, the creature caught my waving leg with a pincer and started pulling me into the pond.
My jeans protected my skin from the serrated claws, but the pressure of the pincer was agonizing. I screamed as I reached for the club, but my grasping fingers fell inches short. Changing tactics, I scrabbled for a grip on the slippery shoreline rocks. Everything either came free in my hand or slipped through my wet fingers.
The dogs went crazy when the thing grabbed me. Foamy spittle flew from their mouths, and their snarling barks were the most vicious sounds I’d ever heard them make. Pete leaped into the water past the second grasping pincer and bit savagely at the creature’s head. He managed to latch onto something, and with a sickening crunch, came away with a stubby eye stalk in his teeth.
The creature bucked up out of the water and let out a breathy shrieking whistle that made me shudder from head to toe. It let go of my leg, waving both pincers in spasmodic agony. I scrambled backward and wrapped my fingers around the stick as soon as my hand fell upon it. Standing up, I took a swing at the other eye stalk, silently thanking Pete for finding its weakness.
I didn’t hit my target, but my heavy blows to the creature’s head forced it backward. With one last crunching strike, I turned and high-stepped out of the shallows. The enormous pincers slammed into the water just behind me.
“Let’s go boys!” I yelled as I ran past the dogs, waving the stick toward the trail like a general leading the charge. To my relief, they needed no additional encouragement and streaked ahead of me. I wasn’t sure if the giant crayfish would leave the pond, but I didn’t care to hang around and find out.
Pete bounded ahead, a red spot of blood on his wet yellow tail where the creature had grabbed him. Bob stopped a few times and looked down our back trail with his ears perked. When I’d catch up, he’d run ahead again.
I limped behind them on my damaged leg, trying to focus on moving forward and keeping the dogs going the right direction. Before long, we were back at the craggy defile where we’d appeared in this strange and dangerous place.
Pete waited for Bob and me at the rock wall in the back of the ravine. “Go ahead, boy. Go on through,” I told him, waving toward the rock.
Pete just wagged and whined. When I got to the wall, I understood his conundrum. I pressed my hand against the stone, but nothing gave. We were trapped.
Panic briefly froze my mind, but the sound of distant branches cracking snapped me out of it. I dropped my club and bent down, hissing at the pain in my leg. Boot prints showed where I had exited. I chose that spot to start digging at the base of the rock wall. The dogs started digging with me and I let them take over, not sure if they thought we were playing some kind of game or if they actually understood what I was thinking.
The disturbance in the forest grew closer. I listened, trying to gauge its distance. The sound of branches being swept aside and broken was accompanied by a rapid scuttling through fallen leaves and the scraping of hard shell against tree trunks. So much for hoping the creature would stay at the pond.
I checked the dogs’ progress. They had uncovered an obelisk just like the one on the other side. “Good boys!” I enthused. They had cleared away most of the dirt, but when I pressed my hand to the stone where the doorway should have been, it remained impenetrable. Was the gateway on this side broken?
A loud clack came from behind me. I turned to see our nemesis at the top of the stairway. Pete and Bob growled and bared their teeth as it started toward us, their hackles rising along their backs. “No. Stay,” I commanded.
I looked closely at the obelisk, but could see no damage. Why wasn’t it working? What had we done to trigger the other one?
I checked the creature’s progress over my shoulder. It had started down the stairs, but it was struggling to squeeze through. It wiggled toward us a few inches at a time, scraping its sides along the protruding rocks of the stairwell and clacking its pincers menacingly. Pete and Bob started toward it, but I stopped them and made them sit.
Racking my brain for an answer to our dilemma, I thought back over our initial find on the other side. Something was different. I reached down and brushed away the remaining dirt, rubbing my hands up and down the obelisk as I had done originally.
The obelisk clicked, and an electric blue light framed a doorway, just as it had before. A breeze blew across my face from the direction of the rock. The gateway was open! I pushed the dogs toward the portal and yelled at them to go through. Pete stumbled through first with Bob and me close behind.
Back on our own side, I could still hear the clacking and scraping of our pursuer. Bob and Pete started growling, so I grabbed their collars to make sure they wouldn’t try to go back.
I had to close the portal somehow.
Trusting Bob to obey more than Pete, I made him be down to free up a hand. I reached out to touch the wall and my hand disappeared into it. I snatched it back at the sound of a particularly loud clack. I considered just running, but I didn’t want that thing taking up residence in the lake on this side.
Reasoning that uncovering the obelisk had opened the gateway, perhaps covering it back up would have the reverse effect. I scooped dirt back over the obelisk until it was completely buried. The scuttling and clacking noises coming from the other side suddenly stopped. When I tentatively reached toward the wall, my hand pressed against solid rock.
With a sigh of relief, I sat on the ground and hugged my soggy dogs close. My affection was returned with wiggling bodies, wagging tails, and sloppy kisses.
Our strange adventure over, we wearily trudged back to the truck. Bob curled up on the floor of the cab, and Pete took the seat next to me. They were asleep within minutes. While I drove us home, I swore to myself that I’d never eat shellfish again.
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