Saturday Short: A Swim of Cormorants

photograph of cormorant on a rock

“Cormorant” by Kerry Helmer on Flickr CC-BY-ND

Ashleigh never trusted the cormorants that sunned themselves on the rocks outside the window of his office. His office overlooked the bay and every morning there was a group of cormorants on the rocks, wings spread like ragged capes, eyes closed against the glare of the sun or open under the weak light of cloud cover.

They weren’t raucous like the scrub jays or numerous like the pigeons, but the cormorants bothered him. He glared out his window at them even as they stood like silent winged statuary someone had forgotten to take in with the tide.

If he had ever been pressed to put into words why he disliked the cormorants, he wouldn’t have known what to say.

He took his lunchtime walk by the rocks, usually the cormorants had left the rocks by that time, and he was relieved. But today there was one cormorant still on the rocks and a girl, in a black slicker, sitting on the bench closest to the rocks. It didn’t smell like rain.

Ashleigh walked by, watching the bird out of the corner of his eye.

“They know you don’t like them.”

He started and found the girl staring up at him. Her eyes had an interesting halo around the irises. He’d seen it before but couldn’t place it.

“Excuse me?” He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

She gestured to the one cormorant still on the rock who looked like it was listening. “The swim, they know you don’t like them.”

“The swim?”

“The group of cormorants.”

“Oh.” He wondered why she knew such an odd piece of vocabulary. Most people he knew didn’t even know they were called cormorants.

“But they don’t mind you. They think it’s because you’re jealous.”

“Jealous? Of what?” He was not jealous, but annoyed his carefully planned routine had been upset. First by the bird and now by the girl.

“Because they can swim and fly, but you can’t. Also, we like the rain.”

He scoffed. “That is ridiculous. Good day.” He resumed walking without looking back when she called,

“Yes, it looks like rain.”

He turned around, but the girl was gone. And there were now two cormorants on the rock. The second shook out its feathers and droplets splattered the rock face. When he turned around to head back into his office, the first drops of rain hit his head and he could have sworn he heard laughter but there was no one around but the birds.

Saturday Short: Sidewalk Shadows

photograph of blurry shadows on a sidewalk

Come find me.

That’s all that was written on the blurry photo dropped through the mail slot in her front door on Sunday morning.

While most people’s first thought would be, “Who sent this to me?” or perhaps, “Who needs finding?” or even, “There’s no post on Sunday.”, Laura’s first thought was how much she hated that mail slot. She should have boarded it up as soon as she bought the house. It was drafty and now apparently a target for pranksters.

She stomped down to the basement and rummaged through boxes until she found her hammer and some nails. She ripped a wooden slat from a crate she hadn’t bothered to move when she moved in six months ago. One struck thumb later, she had the mail slot boarded up and had forgotten about the photo.

But the photo hadn’t forgotten about her.

It appeared stuck into the frame of her bathroom mirror when she got out of the shower the next morning. She threw it in the wastebin.

She opened her lunchbox to work through her break and found the photo on top of her sandwich and it went through the shredder. The photo, not her sandwich.

After a week of having the photograph show up in her shoe, in the egg carton, on her dashboard, and in her book, Laura threw her hands up and screamed,

“How do I find you?”

She looked down at the photograph and the writing swirled like oil on top of a puddle after the first autumn rain.

Follow the shadows on the sidewalk.

“Great,” Laura muttered. “Now I’m taking directions from a haunted photograph. I must be mad.”

But she picked up her coat and walked out her front door, photograph in hand.

Saturday Short: Endings and Beginnings

photograph of sunset over the ocean

“Wherever there is an ending, there is also a beginning,” Teacher said with that half-smile that made us know she was testing us with some private joke.

“That is obvious,” Jessica said with a sniff. As if she couldn’t care less about the matter, but actually was determined to sound the smartest and get the answer the quickest.

It was the last day of school for the year and I knew that we wouldn’t be allowed to leave for the Festival until one of us got to whatever point Teacher was making. The sounds of hammers and flutes could already be heard over the wind in the eaves and I jiggled my knee under the desk.

Teacher was still smiling and waiting for us to get to the answer. Mother said Teacher could have been a mystic in a cave, just a bit removed than the rest of us. On a different wavelength, she’d say, but not without fondness.

“Where there is a beginning, there is also an ending,” Joselle said as she tried to imitate Teacher’s half-smile. On her it looked like a smirk and matched her personality.

“Often, yes,” Teacher said. But that was not the answer she was looking for.

There was always a lesson to learn and I stifled a sigh while I fought the impulse to fidget in the wooden chair. It would creak and I didn’t want to be called on. I just wanted to run outside while there was still light because the days were short. And I wanted to get a maple candy with the change that would jangle in my pocket when I ran. I didn’t care about riddles and wisdom, even if they were from Teacher.

My mind wandered and the answers of the others in my class were merely humming nonsense in the background as I strained to hear more of the Festival’s sounds of preparation. When my name was called, I bolted upright out of my dream.

“What do you think it means?” Teacher asked.

All eyes were on me. I hated that. I wasn’t clever or fast or witty. And I didn’t have the personality to pretend.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But it makes me think of the end of the year and the beginning of the Festival.”

Teacher said nothing but slightly, ever so slightly, nodded.

“And,” I continued, “I think someday I’ll care about beginnings and endings, but right now is more important to me…now.” I finished and felt my cheeks warming and no doubt they were now red. I wasn’t an elegant speaker either.

But Teacher smiled, a full smile. “Class dismissed.”

I smiled back and sprinted out of the door into the last sunlight of the last day of the year. A good beginning or ending, no matter how I looked at it.

Saturday Short: Portal Key

photograph of carved stone cornice on bridge pillar If you are ever in trouble, go to the portal key. It will know what to do.

Her mother said that every day on their walk to her elementary school. Every day when they crossed the bridge and passed the one, faded, carved stone pillar in the middle of the bridge. Her mother would touch it lightly with her fingertips, as if reassuring herself it was still there.

Still solid, she’d sometimes say so soft it was nothing more than a puff of breath.

When she was six, Flora never thought there could be trouble in the world. There was her, her mother, and her routine. There were always cookies on Tuesdays and singing on Sundays. Herbs in the summer and chestnuts in the winter. Nothing changed and no trouble could ever penetrate such a bubble.

But that was before today. Flora narrowly missed crashing headfirst into another commuter walking, head down against the wind. The sky overhead was grey, the color of the sidewalk, and smelled like rain wasn’t far off. Tears soaked the collar of her shirt as they skidded down her cheeks like the tires behind her.

She couldn’t look back. She wouldn’t look back. She only had to make it to the portal key. It would have to save her. The scene at her house, etched into her mind, told her no one else could.

Shooting out between two bicycles, Flora ran across the street, straight towards the portal key. Behind her a man shouted for someone to stop her, but she dodged the startled couple pushing their stroller. She slapped her hands on the stone, cutting her palms at the same moment she felt someone drive into her, not expecting her to stop and she fell with a scream over the bridge.

Screams from the couple with the child raised as someone tackled the man who had pushed Flora over the edge. But when the couple looked over the bridge, there was no sign of Flora, no ripple in the water, and while they would never admit it to the other, they both saw a scene for a brief flash that made no sense. But they were soon brought back by the crying of their baby and the sound of police sirens drawing near.

But sometimes late at night they would awake from a dream and remember they saw a tea shop floating in mid-air about the creek that day on the bridge advertising Flora’s cream in the plate glass window, before they fell asleep again.

Saturday Short: A Haunted House

photograph of a house at night that appears like it could be haunted

Everyone knew the house at the end of the block, the one with the peeling paint and dry-rotted steps, was haunted. Everyone knew this like they knew that rain came from the sky and Tuesday always followed Monday. No one ever questioned how everyone knew this fact, but everyone knew it.

The house stood empty for years, since the beginning of time a high school student said when daring his friend to run up and knock on the door as they stood on the sidewalk facing the house, the sun going down, down, down as it was wont to do daily. His friend didn’t take the dare and they both lived until a quite respectable old age. Neither questioned how a house could stand since the beginning of time, if one assumed houses didn’t grow like trees or cats or mountains. But then, it was never quite safe to assume.

No one thought that anyone would ever live in the house again, assuming that someone once had. No one at city hall could say for certain who owned it. Perhaps it was now a ward of the town, like other abandoned property. But not even the mayor wanted to set foot in the house, not that he’d admit he was a bit afraid of it.

So the house stood empty except for the pigeons that roosted in its attic, coming in through a broken window, the baseball that broke it long since forgotten, lying under a shroud of dust. And a fox who lived quite happily under the porch steps, hauntings meant no never mind to foxes who have more important worries.

That was, of course, until a jaunty sold sign appeared in front of the house one day. It was the talk of the town. No one knew who bought the house and everyone wanted to be the first to know. Such a storm of gossip hadn’t whirled through the town since the cows escaped at the fairgrounds and ate the flower showcase. Everyone thought someone else was to blame.

No one saw anyone move into the house, no moving vans, no contractors, no sound of hammers or drills or saws, no movement inside, though everyone seemed to find a reason to saunter by the house. There was no change until one day the town awoke and the house looked brand new. It was like someone waved a magic wand. The sold sign now announced an open house at midnight the next day.

It was the talk of the town and everyone came. They lined up on the sidewalk and at midnight the front door opened and strains of music, sweet and slow, came wafting down the steps. And everyone moved forward as one towards the house.

But not the fox, he watched from across the road, in the moonlit shadow of a box hedge. The house now longer was home, but haunted and he was clever enough to know when it was time to move on. He faded into the night as the first person stepped into the house, crossing the threshold of the world.

 

Saturday Short: A Confusion of Chiffchaffs

photograph of chiffchaff on branch

Chiffchaff by hedera.baltica on Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

There was always someone who was more brilliant or faster or more clever, always. At least, that’s how Sharyn always felt. She kicked a rock out of her way as she walked home from school and dragged her backpack behind her. The rock skittered off into the bushes and startled a bird into flight. It was some kind of warbler. She wasn’t sure which kind.

The bird flew up to the lowest branch of the nearest tree and cocked its head to the side, considering her. “Why are you glum, human?”

Sharyn stopped so suddenly that her backpack hit her calves, but she didn’t notice the sharp pain. Her eyes went wide as her mouth dropped open.

“It’s rude not to answer. What’s wrong, human?” the bird asked again.

“Birds don’t talk.” Sharyn squeezed her shut and was sure when she opened them the bird would be gone.

It wasn’t.

Instead, it was closer, sitting on the top of the bush it had flushed out of only a minute before.

“Well, I don’t know about all birds. But I am a chiffchaff.”

“A what?”

“A chiffchaff.” The bird drew itself up to its full, small height and puffed its dull-yellow feathered chest. “The most noble of birds. And you still haven’t answered my question, human.”

“Oh, yes.” She scratched the back of her neck. “I’m not as fast or clever as the rest of the kids in my class.”

“And that’s why you are sad?”

“I’m not sad.” Her words sounded like a lie even to her.

“Of course not.” The chiffchaff, whose name was George, but they weren’t friendly enough yet for first names. “But they can’t be that clever.”

“Why?” Sharyn screwed up her face in question.

“Well, they’re not talking to me, now are they?”

“No, but how does that make them not clever?” Her head began hurting her like when she was trying to solve a long division problem with a remainder.

“Think harder.” The chiffchaff seemed to smile.

Sharyn started gnawing on her bottom lip. “Oh, I don’t know. I’m confused.”

George laughed and it came out as a rolling twitter. “Oh, no. A confusion is a bunch of us. You haven’t experienced that…yet.”

And she forgot all about feeling dull or unhappy as she smiled. And George chatted with her entire way home before he took off and joined his flock in the tree in her front yard. She knew then if she remembered nothing else, she’d remember it the chiffchaff and its flock, a confusion.

Saturday Short: The Community Bookstore

photograph of two polaroids of bookstores

It used to be, back when your mother and father were young and there were still such things as penny candy and magic, there was a bookstore in every town and every one was different. Some were so small that you would have sworn it could have fit inside a shoebox.

Yet the proprietor always managed to find the exact book you needed, when you needed it, even if you had no idea that particular book was going to make your heart sing.

Others were so large that you could lose whole gaggles of children amongst the stacks. Some did, only to be found at closing time by the store cat, asleep with picture books open in their laps.

Nowadays, when people live next door to each other for years, yet still can’t rightly tell each other’s name, there are fewer bookstores and less magic, too.

But if you’re lucky enough to find one in the town where you hang your coat at the end of the day, go in and say hi. Put your phone in your pocket and gaze around in wonder as you step over the threshold into a place of joy and welcome.

Find that book you’d forgotten, which made you brave when you were young. Pick up a slim tome, on the recommendation of a handwritten sign stuck precariously between the spines, that may just save your soul. Buy the fat novel with a title that tickles like déjà vu at the base of your neck on the advice of the bookseller whose smile crinkles the corner of her eyes when you say yes and who whispers that the book is one of her favorite friends.

There’s still magic in the world, though it’s hidden more often than not. But you can find it wrapped up in the pages found in bookstores owned by people whose veins flow with prose and poetry. Don’t be shy, come on in, and if you listen closely, you’ll hear the books call your name, too.

~~~

Dedicated to Renee on the occasion of the Grand Opening of Books on B. Thank you for bringing back magic, warmth, and community into our downtown through your bookstore. May all the pages of your days be blessed.

Saturday Short: A Run of Chickens

photograph of a flock of chickens

“Chickens” by E Gregory on Flickr CC-BY-NC

The thunder rumbled across the valley and rattled the bottles in Ani’s shop. She glared at the grey clouds blotting out the afternoon sun, making the world look flat and grey. A crack of lightning looked like it would split the mountain in two. She hated the thunderstorms at the border between the seasons.

“As if the gods themselves were fighting over the change of the tide.”

A rumble of a different sort caught her attention as a gaggle of her neighbor’s children came rushing in the back door of her store as the next wave of thunder shook stifled yells from them.

“Careful! Careful! You’ll break your necks running like that through my stock!”

They came skidding to a halt, their tracks across her floor a study in mud. They fanned out around her like chicks, looking up with their wide eyes.

“Auntie Ani, tell us the story,” the eldest cried as he jumped with the next burst of lightning. The storm drew closer. He would soon be too old to not pretend the storms didn’t scare him.

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh, what story would that be?”

The sudden downpour of rain, pounding on the roof almost drown out their reply.

“Oh, that story! Well, I suppose we could do that, but clean your feet and the mud on the floor first.”

They scurried away and her floor was clean before she was able to shutter her windows and draw enough cushions around. The older children dragged the rest and plopped down.

Then Auntie Ani began her tale about the real reason for the storms. She wove her tale for an entire hour until the storm had ran dry and moved on and the sun wiped away the last of the clouds from the sky and the children were smiling with their storm fears forgotten.

“And,” she concluded wagging a finger that would soon be gnarled with age, but not today. “That is why one must always be kind to a run of chickens.”

A rooster crowed from across the square as if to signal his agreement.

“Or else the great goddess, Thunder Chicken, will send her fury after you and you’ll never be rid of the storm again.”

The children nodded sagely and Auntie Ani smiled before she shooed them away. She watched them as they scattered to their houses and hoped she would die before she ever saw the great goddess bird again.

Saturday Short: A Mural of Buntings

photograph of two painted buntings

“Painted Buntings” by shell game on Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND

“You must make your paintings come alive!” my teacher said as she shook her paintbrush at my canvas. “What’s this? This is not alive. Feel your painting!”

I stifled what I wanted to say by biting the inside of my cheek. The last thing I wanted was for my painting to come alive. I looked over at my teacher staring at me, along with the twenty other sets of eyes in my two o’clock intermediate oil painting class, as if waiting for me to speak and felt my cheeks get hot no doubt as red as the chest of the bird I was beginning to feather into being.

“I don’t think paintings come to life is such a good thing,” I mumbled.

“Not a good thing?” My teacher snorted as if my words were somehow offensive smelling. “To paint is to be alive. To not show movement, the feeling, the essence of life, what is it worth then?” She threw up her hands and turned her attention to the student next to me.

My shoulders sank with relief and I went back to carefully daubing crimson onto my canvas, assiduously ignoring those who still stared at me. My teacher and I were not talking about the same thing. I knew this, but hoped she never would.

At the end of the hour, everyone packed up their oils and moved their easels to the perimeter of the room to dry. I was the last one in the room even though I didn’t want to be, but my painting was beginning to worry me. If I just stayed away for a few days, everything would be fine.

“You know,” my teacher called over her shoulder as she opened the door to leave. “If you don’t start showing life in your paintings, you won’t do well in the class. I know you can.”

I looked back at my canvas, half-covered in paint and felt the pull I always did. I should never have taken out my brushes, should never have come back, but I didn’t know anything else. All I’d ever wanted was to paint.

The sun was on the other side of the building when the screams woke me the next morning, my paintbrush clutched in my hand. I watched the coffee spread across the floor, my teacher heedless of it staining the hem of her skirt as her eyes flitted about almost as fast as the birds that had torn ragged holes in my canvas.

I smiled, half with wonder and half with worry at the birds whose feathers rained fine droplets of paint whenever they flew. At least this time I’d known to paint something small.

“A flock of buntings is called a mural, you know,” I said and my teacher’s still-shocked gaze came to rest on me. “How’s that for alive?”

Saturday Short: A Bellowing of Bullfinches

photograph of a male bullfinch

“Male bullfinch” by Nick Goodrum on Flickr (CC-BY)

“You’re nothing but a birdbrain!” Sam yelled. The boys behind him laughed as they all ran away.

Their cackling reminded Tami of grackles. “That’s not an insult!” she shouted at their fleeing backs. They didn’t turn around. “It’s not,” she said to herself. The tears in her eyes said otherwise.

She turned and walked the other way, away from the boys, the broken blacktop, and the walls where their taunts echoed. There were no birds ever on campus except for the occasional turkey vulture circling lazily overhead or seagulls lining the flat roofs of the buildings before the storms rolled in.

It wasn’t her fault. The birds had called to her since she could follow them, toddling along behind them. They waited for her and, if she was quiet and very still, one would sometimes alight on her shoulder and chatter in her ear. They told her stories and tried to teach her songs. She remembered the stories, but could never get the songs correct. The birds said it was because humans’ throats weren’t made right, but they still loved her.

“Why are you crying?” the bullfinch flitted by her ear asked as Tami turned up the street towards home.

“Not crying.” She wiped the back of her hand over her eyes.

“Of course, but why are you sad? Are you sad your flock is gone?”

Tami looked up at the bullfinch and frowned. “I don’t have a flock.”

“Not those boys?”

She snorted. “No, they were making fun of me.”

“Birdbrain is not an insult. We are quite intelligent.”

She nodded. “But humans use it as an insult.”

The bullfinch didn’t answer, but didn’t fly away either. It stayed until Tami reached her house. “I must go talk to the others.”

“Stay safe,” Tami said and watched until the bullfinch was not even a speck in the sky.

The next day after school, the taunts began, again.

“Birdbrain!” they yelled. The other students in the yard hurried away.

The group of boys didn’t run away laughing, but began following Tami and her heart sped faster as their footsteps grew closer.

“Leave me alone,” she said to her feet and hurried down the street, pulling the straps of her backpack tighter.

“Come back, birdbrain!”

Just as she pushed off to begin her desperate sprint away, she heard a cry behind her. No, not a cry. A deafening roar of hundreds of bullfinches, their chirps and songs combining into a mighty bellow. Tami turned around and saw the boys stopped in their tracks like frozen deer as the bellowing of bullfinches circled overhead, casting a shadow of a roiling raincloud.

The first bird dove and struck its stocky beak against the crown of Sam’s head. He cried out and tried to hit the bird, but he was too slow. Another bird dove down and struck another boy on the head, pulling out a strand of brown hair as if it were straw for a nest. Then the bullfinches called as one and a wave descended on the boys, who cried out and began running away.

And Tami laughed, tears running down her face, hands white from clenching her backpack straps so tight. She watched the bellowing of bullfinches chase the boys until she could no longer see either group. When she got home, there was a bullfinch waiting for her in the yard.

“Thank you,” she said. She’d have liked to say more, but would have ended up crying, which always seemed to confuse the birds.

The bird seemed to smile, but that was of course just her imagination. “You never have to thank your flock. We are a flock.” Then the bullfinch flew away and Tami waved until at last she was waving only to the sky.