Short Stories, Stories

A Swan Glides Past

3rd place at Writer’s Retreat Competition (October 2020)

Barry sat on a lichen ridden boulder on the shore of Dreamere lake. 

‘Another wasted day,’ he said to himself. 

He looked at his canvas bag, stained with acrylics and ink, round tipped brushes sticking out of it through tears in the fabric. 

‘No one buys paintings anymore. Or is it just my paintings?’ 

He stretched, his spine and legs cracking with relief all the way down to his blistered toes. Barry placed a greasy box of cod and chips gingerly in his lap. His stomach rumbled under his paisley shirt. His eyes squinted with the light of the setting sun as it descended behind blue mountain crests. Their cool hues sank into the depths of the lake as Barry’s thirsty gaze rolled over it.

He scooped some cod with a couple of groggy fingers. 

‘I should have asked for a fork,’ he thought. 

A duck glided past, with three ducklings close to her tail. Barry smiled and tried to remember if ducks liked fish. He was too hungry to share, however. 

‘Sorry mama duck,’ he pleaded, ‘this is for me.’ 

The ducklings nibbled at a small rock, covered in moss, at the brim of the lake. Their mother watched over them, keeping an eye on Barry as she swam around her babies.

‘What a gentle mother!’ Barry said with a teary eye. 

He remembered his own mother’s frown as his seven year old self stretched out a drawing of the neighbour’s cat. 

‘Anyone can draw a cat,’ she would say. ‘How is that going to get you any money?’ 

Barry bit a soggy chip. He sighed as if his whole body had been filled with air and was now deflating. It was quiet as the sun descended over the stillness of the lake. Contorted oak branches quenched their thirst on either side of the pebbled shore. 

Three yards away, a white swan glided past, as if pulled by a silk thread from one side of the lake to the other. Barry watched in awe as it swayed its neck with every gentle stroke of its webbed feet. 

‘Such beauty,’ Barry whispered, ‘look how it glides past, as life slips through my fingers.’ 

The swan stopped to look at the stars as dusk turned into night. Its eyes glistened with wonder. A pair of white wings stretched out to catch the moonlight as it seeped through the clouds. In haste, Barry wiped his oily fingers on his trousers. He rummaged through the bag, his eyes fixed on the swan. A spotted sketchbook and a soft tipped pencil emerged.

Barry managed a few strokes before the swan resumed its swim. It soon disappeared behind the oak tree branches on the side of the lake. Barry stretched to look beyond the trees, but only managed to knock over his dinner.

‘Oh no,’ he grumbled and jumped off the boulder to salvage what he could. The ducks came to the pebbly shore to investigate. 

‘It’s not for you,’ Barry dismissed them with a bitter grimace. Mama duck nibbled at the pencil, which was now oily like the hand holding it. Barry pushed the duck away.

‘Anyone can draw a duck,’ Barry scoffed. ‘You ducks all look the same anyway.’

The duck looked at Barry sideways, but didn’t seem to mind his comment. Her beak kept a subtle smile. She then waddled back towards the water, her ducklings close behind. The ducks sat in the lake, as small ripples rocked them from side to side. They watched Barry fumbling through the pebbles as he refilled his ‘Chippie’ box.

‘Come on,’ Barry sighed, ‘have some. It’s mostly muddy anyway.’ He then flung a chip in the water. The ducks rushed to peck at it. 

Barry sat on the pebbly stretch for the rest of the evening. He would fling a chip in the water from time to time and the ducks would nibble it joyfully. He looked up at the sky, his heart aflame with a silent, but desperate prayer. Doubt gnawed at him, but he kept his eyes towards the distant Heaven. The ducks came to rest at Barry’s feet as he laid a heavy head on the canvas bag. He remembered his trousers. ‘The stains will never come off,’ he grumbled. He closed his eyes and rest soon found him.

Barry dreamt the white swan had come to him. Its velvet feet pressed the pebbles into the earth as it stepped on land. It stretched out a pair of moonlit wings and flapped them with vigour. Barry felt the warmth of the swan’s breast against his cheeks. It then turned around to look at the sky, its wings still wide open. It bugled to the Heavens and other swans answered from across the lake. The waters trembled and the trees rustled with awe. With its body still facing the lake, the swan’s head turned to look at Barry. Starlight glimmered in its eyes. 

A strange hope grasped Barry’s heart as he awoke. The feeble light of the morning sun fought to open his glazed eyelids. Mama duck was just entering the water with her ducklings. Barry stretched his back and ruffled his hair, with a small smile. He then searched through his bag for the sketchbook and pencil.

‘The sunlight suits you,’ he smiled at the duck. ‘You really stayed here all night?’ The duck quaked soothingly. 

Barry lifted up the canvas bag to rummage through it better. A white feather lay on the pebbles underneath. He picked it up in wonder, but his heart was more composed than the night before. Barry sighed as if a burden had become lighter. 

‘One feather at a time,’ he whispered and started sketching the ducks. 

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Short Stories, Stories

The Weeping Mist

LaculRosu_small

Some of the people of Ash Forest could see the sky that day. The dark clouds had descended onto the tips of the birch trees and were now thinning away. These people had been waiting for years to see the sun. Wandering aimlessly amongst the thick grey trees, they had forgotten the feeling of warmth. Stretched arms, withered by the morning winds, reached for glimpses of light. 

Rarely did the ever wake mist lift its merciless veil from the Ash Forest people, for a tragic tale bound it to their ground. It was said that until a proud man shed a tear for another, the mist would not lift. Until then, the woodland dwellers were to roam half blind, never truly seeing each other. The tale was bound to a man, Lord Ashley Achton. Hundreds of years ago, he lived on the edge of the forest, in a grand manor house. He would often prowl among the trees, to shoot deer and meet women. 

One of the ladies he fancied at the time was a poor blind woman from Little Creek village. Her name was Dietrich Arietes and hadn’t a penny to her name. Despite her unfortunate circumstances, Dietrich was the jewel of her village. Her fair cheeks were like roses in the morning light and her long black hair swirled like wild horses in the desert. Her step was dainty and her gaze, although devoid of earthly light, would have made any young man blush with awe.   

Ablaze with infatuation, Ashley was determined to pursue Dietrich. His intentions were always pure, or so he thought, until new intentions came along. He had a way with words, so managed to seduce poor Dietrich into the forest. His promises poured into her ears, as their footsteps carried them deeper. Long after sunset, Lord Achton returned to his manor alone. 

Months passed and Ashley carried on in his usual manner. One cold november night, a loud knock echoed through his chambers. Dietrich had arrived in a state of great distress and demanded to speak with him. The maid whom had opened the door took pity on the girl and let her inside to wait by the fire. Achton agreed to see her briefly, remembering the beauty he once cherished. He was shocked, however, to see the frail frame and haunting eyes of his past idol. 

‘I’m six months pregnant,’ Dietrich cried caressing her belly. ‘I have nothing. I ask for nothing, except this. Please promise me you will take our child and raise it as your own.’

‘Foolish woman!’ Achton burst. ‘How am I to know this child is truly mine?’ 

Silence fell as Dietrich weeped. She slowly knelt on the stone floor.

‘Please, I have nothing,’ she repeated, her cry intensifying. ‘You know it is yours.’

Lord Achton watched her with steely eyes and pondered. His heart softened for a moment, remembering her past beauty. His brow struggled between anger and compassion. Finally he said, ‘I can not father the child of a woman whose class is so beneath me. You will make do as your family always has.’

‘They are ashamed of me,’ she whispered, ‘and so am I.’ 

For a moment her dark hair covered her face, as she raised back up. She then parted it, revealing her flaming eyes, staring straight at Ashley. He knew she could not see him, but still shook from their intensity. 

‘Then listen to this. Never shall you or your villagers see daylight. I may be blind, but not as blind as you are now. So you shall taste the bitter darkness until your blood will shed a tear for someone other than yourself.’

Dietrich left alone and made her way with a crooked stick into Ash Forest. She was never seen again. Soon after that night, a thick mist fell from Little Creek Village, all the way to the mountains beyond the forest. The villagers were forced to move into the woods, for the mist was slightly more forgiving there. They could not tell arm from leg where their homes used to be. 

The swirls of fine rain would grow moss on their thatched roofs and put out the fires in their hearths. And sometimes, when the nights were silent and the winds grew weary, a quiet weep could be heard in the distance. It was not desperate, but a gentle reminder of whom had brought the watery burden upon them all and what was to be done to lift it.

*

Will Achton was a scrawny little lad, no more than sixteen. His father, Michael Achton was a fire maker. With all the humidity in the woods, necessity crafted fire making into a profession. As most fathers in the Ash Forest settlement, Michael had high hopes for his son, but always ended up disappointed. Generations had passed, but people were still hoping for a redeemer from their sorrows. Their sole thought was that one day a strong man would come and lift their burden, for it had grown heavier over the years. 

“Only a strong hand can wring a tear out of a proud heart,” they would say.

‘Today you come with me, lad,’ Michael said one morning to his son. ‘I’ll show you where to find dry wood.’

Will smiled and followed his father deep into the forest. Michael’s axe crunched through the hollow birches and crooked maples. Will carried as much as his feeble arms could hold. His father then smirked and picked up ten times more with one arm. As they walked slowly back to the settlement, they reached Amber lake, in the heart of the woods. 

‘Don’t walk too close to the water,’ Michael said, ‘there are strange creatures lurking about.’

The mist lifted slightly and Will saw a deer grazing on the other side of the lake. Its silhouette shimmered in the dim morning light, as dew gently rested on its dark fur. Its head suddenly sprang up and looked at him with haunting grey eyes. 

‘It’s blind,’ Will whispered in awe. 

Michael slowly bent and discarded his load of firewood on a patch of fairly dry ground. His son placed the few branches he had carried on the wood mount his father had built. The man took out his dagger and nodded towards Will. The boy shivered at the sight of his reflection in the silver blade. 

‘Lunch,’ Michael finally uttered. He stepped with confidence, resembling a wild cat on the prowl. 

The wind blew gently towards them, sheltering their footsteps from the alert ears of the creature. Will followed his father with trembling feet. His brow furled and unfurled as beads of sweat crawled on his skin. 

‘Father, we should let it go,’ he begged. ‘It cannot see!’

‘Then there is nothing for it to fear,’ his father grunted. ‘Quiet, for it is blind, not deaf.’ 

Michael hastened his steps towards the deer. The mist thickened and swallowed the two in its depth. They heard the earth shaking and then mud splattered their lips as the deer sprang from their reach. 

‘It knows,’ Will cried, ‘let it be!’

‘Shut up,’ Michael demanded, wiping the mud from his mouth. He then added, in a softer tone, ‘son, you are too weak. We must have food for tonight.’ 

‘It’s scared dad and helpless. We can eat something else tonight!’

‘I’m sick of mushrooms,’ his father growled.

He then hurried into the fog, listening intently. The damp earth squelched under his feet and it smelt of shadows. He strained his ears to hear the whisper of footsteps and the gentle rustle of leaves. Michael licked his lips and prepared his blade. A soft shadow moved among the streaks of grey trees. The man stopped for a moment, watching the shape shift and turn with dainty movements. He waited until the figure sharpened through the droplets of fog. Michael charged with a wild yell towards the beast and thrust the knife at its head. 

‘Father!’ the beast uttered. The mist swirled, revealing the closing eyes of Will. The blade stopped just in time, an inch from the boy’s face. Michael dropped his knife in the mud and his knees followed. He grabbed his son and thrust him to his chest. A moment of eternal silence. Will could hear his father’s heart trembling. A deep sob emerged from the roots of Michael’s soul. He cried bitterly, holding his son, on the shore of Amber lake.

The cloud of dew rolled over the still water, slowly lifting its veil. Will opened his eyes once more, still in his father’s embrace. The mist over the lake had cleared as the figure of a dark haired maiden stepped gracefully into the forest.

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