a short story by Barbara Anna Andreassen
He pours himself a drop of Irish whisky, leans back against a pebble on the riverbank, and starts rambling to his audience: “I’ve done everything I can for the Chimney Swifts, the very least they can do is give me a ride from time to time! Hmmph. So unreliable.” The otters, racoons, and owls in the small crowd chuckle knowingly. He glances at his watch. It’s almost time.
He’s small, an inch and a quarter tall—difficult to notice unless you’re actively looking for him or the little blue flame of his lantern. A crepuscular creature by nature, he’s busiest during the liminal hours of dusk and dawn and can often be found singing by the river’s edge around midnight every Thursday. He leaps to his feet, the tattered tails of his moleskin overcoat swinging around him, and he begins a low-pitched, mockingbird song of sound effects, bird calls, twigs snapping in the underbrush—snippets of local lore he’s collected over the previous week, woven into song to share with his fellow riverside revelers.
A guttural howl tears through the thick darkness of the forest on the other side of the river; a sound that silences all others. Everyone turns toward the scream—wide eyed, bodies stiff with fear and hyper-vigilance. Across the river, through a dense forest, is a meadow blanketed with white anemones glowing in the moonlight. The peaceful hum of activity in the meadow has been violently rended and replaced with a deafening silence, cold and metallic. All is bright, except for a small, dark patch with dark splatters on the flowers surrounding it. This patch reflects no light. A man stands at its edge, looking down at the small, prone figure at his feet and starts to cry.
He stands at a crossroads, as we all do at various times in our lives—unconscious of the weight of the decisions we are making until the culmination of our actions are revealed in the future. The universe folds itself over, tucking itself back in, including the man and his psyche—his dreams, loves, regrets, and the deepest desire to do right, to choose wisely … for purity of heart, and the shedding of old behaviors, cowardice, and half-heartedness. His hands—weathered and shaped by decades of use as a laborer, artist, musician, friend, and lover—hang spiritless at his sides. His once tall and proud frame is now shrunken and thin in an old linen coat of faded indigo, buttoned only in the middle. He smells faintly of gasoline. He kneels at the edge of darkness—a ghost of his former self.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, “I didn’t know who you were.”
“You are a liar,” the frail form replies, almost inaudibly, through an expression contorted with pain. “You’ve always known.”
This softly spoken truth, a familiar call and response between them, guts the man, tears him wide open—his body shakes with sobs; the bird bones of grief rise in his throat, choking him. This quiet place isn’t quiet, this still place is not still—textured in down and softly de-quilled … Chimney Swifts circle and twitter high above the man’s head. One breaks from the others, sweeps low near his face, and as the tip of its wing gently kisses his cheek a small, strange blue flame bounces wildly before his eyes. The broken form that lay before him starts to purr quietly; a soft and rich rumbling and crackling like a small bonfire. The man feels it reverberating within his own chest. He closes his eyes and folds inward.
A warm, gentle breeze carries the mingled scents of flowering trees and shrubs that line the edge of the meadow. White anemones sway gently in the moonlight. The man is losing his mind.
Art Academy of Milton will be featuring short stories written by the students of Michael Rash's Prose Writers' Workshop. To learn more about the next workshop and other events, visit our classes page!