Wherever I was, it was night, and too dark to see anything. Unlike the lab, though, I was really there, all the way. The ground beneath my cheap winter boots was hard and uneven, like natural stone. Wind was blowing noisily somewhere nearby, but it wasn't reaching me. This was lucky, because wherever I was, it was winter-cold, Syracuse cold. I still had on a couple of layers of clothing - a Wings T-shirt and a navy S.U. sweatshirt - but my down jacket was back in the lab. Well, I'd just have to do without it. Maybe forever. As angry as Professor Grayson had looked, the lab didn't exactly seem like a safe place to go back to, even if I figured out how to do it. And anyway, I wasn't at all sure I could generate any weird electromagnetic effects to get me home, not from this damp, dark place.
The wind was coming from the same direction as a slight lessening of the darkness, somewhere off to my left. It probably wouldn't hurt to explore a little, as long as I mostly stayed out of the wind. I felt my way along wet, lichen-covered walls of stone, running my fingers and my feet over bumps and indentations, dripping grottos and sharp bits of crystal. I thought about a family trip to Howe Caverns, many years before, and about Injun Joe's cave in Tom Sawyer. The passage I was in wasn't especially narrow, though, and it didn't seem terribly dangerous. No yawning chasms opened beneath my feet; no cave-ins blocked my way. Soon I was at the mouth of the cave - a mouth of it, anyway. The opening was about seven feet high. A wall of rock extended another twenty feet or so on my left, blocking the worst of the wind. Loking up into the night sky, I couldn't see the moon, but there were hundreds of stars, obscured in places by fast-moving clouds.
It was the sky I knew, and yet not quite the same. I found Orion, and the Big Dipper, and Cassiopeia; but there were far too many stars in them, and in between them. Every tiny star that was normally dimmed by city lights shone for me that night. There were no city lights. Ahead of me was countryside: grassy hills, a field that might be post-harvest stalks of corn, a small forest, or possibly an orchard, and a few buildings in the distance: a farmhouse, maybe, and a barn or a stable. Clean snow lay on the ground in crusty, half-melted patches. The way to the buildings was marked by what looked like a dirt road. There were no street lights, no manmade lights of any kind.
Option one: I could wait in the cave until morning. It was cold, but not so cold that I couldn't manage for a few hours. In the morning I could scout things out properly, and use the daylight to practice my new abilities, to defend myself if necessary, or to try to travel again to some other time or place or world. Option two: I could venture out now, take shelter in the barn or stable, or even knock at the door if I saw evidence that the people here spoke English, or even French or Spanish. I'd struggled in my foreign language classes, but I did know enough to get by in an emergency--which this was.
I decided to get a better look around, so I could make an informed decision. If this was somewhere in the modern world, I might find a street sign or a mailbox, something to tell me whether it was possible to get home from here. If I was in the past, or someplace even stranger, there ought to be evidence of that instead.
The wind picked up as I stepped out of the cave. I crossed my arms inside my sweatshirt for warmth and started walking. The nearby road was grassy and full of rocks, a pair of muddy tracks too narrow for a truck or even a large car. It was utterly deserted. The moon rose behind the cave as I got far enough away. It was half full. The barn, when I got to it, had a thatched roof. That settled it. This wasn't New York State as I knew it. Was I in the past, or in England, or someplace else entirely?
Now that I was within a few feet of the barn, it seemed silly to retreat to the cave, regardless or where and when I was overall. I found the large iron ring that served as a handle on the wooden door, and pulled it open. It was as dark inside as out, if not darker, but it was warmer, and filled with the smell of hay and animals.
"Close the door!" said a voice. I stepped inside and pulled the door shut. "It gets cold enough as it is, without you standing around gawking with the door open," the voice said. I wasn't quite sure whether the words had been spoken aloud, or inside my head. There was also a whiny, whinnying, snuffling quality to them, more animal than human.
"Sorry," I said. "I didn't know anyone was in here."
The sound I heard next--and this was definitely a sound--was halfway between neighing and laughter. This was quickly followed by the equally extraordinary mooing chuckle of a laughing cow. So help me, a laughing cow. La Vache Qui Rit.
"What did you think a barn was for, just storing hay?" asked the voice. "We live here."
"Am I speaking to a horse?" I asked. "A talking horse?" Childhood memories of Mr. Ed almost made me choke on my words.
"No, just a telepathic one. Make yourself comfortable, wizard. Your coming was foretold to us."
"A wizard? You think I'm a wizard?"
The horse snorted, apparently in amusement. "Maybe not yet," it said, "but you will be."
"What makes you think I'm going to be a wizard?" I asked. It occurred to me that, in a world of telepathic livestock, my electromagnetic manipulations might well be seen as magic.
"The prophecy, of course," said the horse. "Look, human, I don't know what it's like where you come from, but around here we like to sleep at night. Morning will be soon enough for your questions."
"Okay, but where do I sleep? I can't see a thing in here, and I don't want to be in your way." I also didn't want to be stepped on in the middle of the night.
"There's a ladder about ten steps in front of you," said the cow. Her "voice" was melodic and motherly. "It leads up to the hayloft. That should be comfortable enough, and you definitely won't get stepped on." The cow laughed again. I wondered whether the animals were "hearing" even the words I left unspoken.
"Thank you," I said. I stepped forward, feeling my way in the dark. The cow's stall was on my left, judging from the sounds and the smells. The horse's stall was on my right. Beyond them I found the ladder: not quite vertical, made of sturdy wood and bolted in place. It hardly moved as I climbed to the top and felt my way onto the loft. The ladder came up through a small hole in the middle of it. I crawled well away from the hole and from the railing at the end of the loft, back against the wall. The hay was soft and sweet-smelling, more strewn than stacked or bailed. I lay down and burrowed in. To my own surprise, I was soon asleep.
The Real Joshua Wander
Joshua Wander: Two Fragments
Joshua Wander Lives (the history of the character)
Meet Joshua Wander, Part One
Meet Joshua Wander, Part Two
Meet Joshua Wander, Part Four