A short story
She sat there on the bluff rock about forty feet above the first bench below. One slip and she would be dead or seriously injured. Even if I could get to her, I wouldn’t be able to help.
When I was a young boy we used to climb down those rocks.
Why are you sitting there? I’ve sat there myself, maybe thinking what you’re thinking right now. If you decide to do it, there’s no turning around. You can’t change your mind and go back home.
I’ve dug ginseng roots near the base of those bluffs, in the shade where snow remains after it has melted everywhere else. Giant icicles hang there in winter time, standing guard until warm weather. When Native Americans walked these woods, they found relief from summer heat in the shade of those bluffs. Under overhanging rocks, ghost imprints of ancient smoke remain on the ceilings, above the places where fires were used for cooking. I’ve dug around those areas and found pieces of flint, arrowheads and pottery.
The girl stood and the wind started to blow. Her long hair shimmered in the light and moved in the air like a living thing fighting the wind. It danced with shadows that appeared as frenzied Maenadic women, their own long hair flying wildly.
She stared straight ahead, over the tree tops, as if contemplating flight. I recall believing at that moment—she can fly.
For some reason, I also thought of poetry, of Emily Dickinson. A fly buzzed near my left ear. I started to wave it away, but the sound of the buzzing combined with the sound of the wind seemed to be whispering—jump—jump.
Lyrical words flashed through my mind. Some song I heard long ago, about words flying across the universe, played in whispers in the background of my thoughts.
Fly—fly across the universe.
I wanted to run, but I was spellbound. I could move only my eyes and my mind, and my mind wasn’t going anywhere. It was already there—waiting.
I thought about the sound a tree makes. They are like people, you know. They talk to each other and they have answers to questions people have never thought about asking.
She’s standing there. Maybe she will turn and walk back home before it’s too late.
My mind began behaving erratically, violently, flailing like a drowning man grasping for something solid to grab onto. My thoughts ran wild into the past.
We walked into the barber shop, me and my younger brother. I hated going there. The place was usually filled with old men sitting around talking about politics or baseball. They were always angry.
“Hey, boys. What can I do for you?” the barber asked.
“Haircuts,” my younger brother mumbled.
“Imagine that,” said an old man who was always in the barber shop. “We figured you boys wanting to wash them dirty clothes you’re wearing. I was gonna direct you down the street to the laundry mat.”
“Shut up, Seymour,” another man replied. “Leave them alone.”
“Aw, I was only kidding and having a little fun, Ralph. Ain’t nothing wrong with that is there?”
“You know there is. Now stop it,” the barber said.
“Well now, Mr. High and Mighty Barber Man, I might take my business some place else.”
"Do that and do us all a favor,” Ralph said.
The angry old man called Seymour got up and walked out the door mumbling.
“Don’t pay him any mind, boys,” the barber said. “His brain is so small it overloads and causes his mouth to malfunction. How’s your sister doing?”
“She’s better,” I replied. “The doctor said she’s getting stronger and might get to go back to school this fall if she keeps improving.”
“That was a horrible accident,” he replied.
I didn’t like talking about my sister. I didn’t like talking about anything and I didn’t like that place. Even today, I still dislike barber shops.
I sure didn’t like those angry old men talking about my sister. They couldn’t know she had injuries that would never heal. No one knew.
Why didn’t I know?
I saw an eagle once and then another. They circled in the sky as I watched. Higher and higher they soared out over the big hollow. It was unusual to see them up here. I’d seen them before, down in the valley, close to the lake.
Twin black dots were set against a sky the color of someone’s eyes. They fell back toward earth until they became birds again, wings folded back and not stopping until they disappeared below the tree tops.
I never saw them here again. It seemed odd. The hollow swallowed them, like it swallows people—sometimes. They might not have been eagles at all but a different kind of bird, the kind resurrected from the spirits of lost people.
I’ve sat on the bluff rocks and wondered how many people were down there, lost and dead. I’ve even thought about looking for them, but I won’t go down there, not anymore. Not even to look for my sister. I know she’s not there. Right after she disappeared, someone said they had seen her walking toward the big hollow, but I don’t believe it. Even if she did, I don’t think she’s there now, but gone to some place else; somewhere I can’t go. She was always going to places where no one else could go.
She might be one of those eagles. That would mean she had found a friend. She didn’t have many while she was here.
I heard him singing, loud and close-by, but I couldn’t spot him. The sound came from everywhere, sweet like fine music, but warning of death. He finally moved a little and my eyes caught the movement. I didn’t think he was close enough to strike me. Stepping back a couple of slow steps, I looked for a killing stick. Usually I would have had one in my hand. Sticks are like other things. When you need them the most, they are not around. I don’t like killing, but I disliked rattlesnakes more than I did angry old men.
I cut the rattles off and put them in my shirt pocket. There were nine rattles and a button. The skin of an eastern diamondback makes excellent belts, hat bands and such. I left that one for the buzzards, the possums or some lost spirit needing a fancy new belt.
The air stirred briskly. The earlier wind was almost out of the woods and was sucking whatever it could into the vacuum.
The girl turned her head and I saw her face for a second and my mind went blank. No more barber shop trips, rattlesnakes or lost spirits now. The wind had taken my thoughts with it and left a blank page, white like clean snow.
They came flooding back in as the girl looked back out over the big hollow. A fly buzzed by my ear again and this time I swatted it. Why wasn’t he swept away with my thoughts? They had returned now, but were headed back in time again.
My grandpa sat in his old rocker on the front porch of our house.
“Whatcha doing, Grandpa?”
“Sitting here watching the sun go down. You should try it sometimes. See how red it is and how it hangs there like a framed picture? See how those white clouds are transformed into big red balloons?”
“Yeah, that’s a pretty sight.”
“I used to sit in my boat and fish as the sun was setting. Now I just sit here and rock and imagine the wave action is what’s moving my chair. I make a cast out across the yard sometimes and watch huge bass leap for the lure before it hits the ground.”
“We should go fishing, Grandpa.”
“I’m too old, son. I tell you what though, pull up a chair and make a cast over by that rose bush. There’s a big one lurking there.”
My grandpa died not long after we did some imaginary fishing from the porch. A short time later, my sister was hurt in the auto accident. She lay unconscious for days. That was years ago.
Time is a strange animal. It eats everything in its path, leaving nothing but memories of what was there. When it sleeps and when you sleep it keeps right on eating. Yet it awakes hungry and thirsty. Everything and nothing reside within its endless circle. It’s traveling back to where it began. Nothing escapes it. Eventually it will devour itself.
The girl had seated herself again on the bluff rocks. She knew I was there, had probably known all along.
Who are you?
A coyote howled down in the hollow, answering my question. Maybe I’ll understand what he said one day. Coyotes come right up to the field behind the house sometimes now. They howl at the train when it comes through down in the valley. When I was younger there were no coyotes around here. They don’t belong. Maybe they do. Maybe we don’t belong here. They crossed the wide Mississippi to get here from the western states. Maybe they’ve returned home.
The girl was standing again. Falling leaves fluttered to the ground. She took a small step forward toward the edge and hesitated. I listened for some sound, but there was none. The world had grown silent, as if holding its breath. The air stirred slightly as the woods sighed in relief. A shrill whistle from overhead startled me and I looked up. A red-tailed hawk was circling. I looked back and the girl was gone.
The woods roared with laughter. The wind had returned. I walked to the edge of the bluff rock and searched below for a crumpled body. Nothing there looked out of the ordinary.
I could hear music playing and the wind moved the trees in rhythm, like dancers glued to the ground. I heard them whispering: Fly—fly. I didn’t realize then that they were talking to me.
I’ve had strange dreams before, dreams about flying and dying and dreams about talking with spirits that have resided here longer than they can recall. This wasn’t a dream. I know that. I saw my sister sitting there on the bluff rock. I missed her flying into the sky because I was distracted by the whistling hawk. It was likely a friend of hers. My memory of that face returned and I know it was her. It must have frightened her knowing she knew me.
I see hawks flying about. The red-tails come here in the winter months. I’d love to go where they go in the warm months.
Right now, I can’t leave this place. Too many voices call my name, beckon me to join them. Maybe I will some day, maybe not. Fear is an enemy that is hard to defeat, the fear of flying, the fear of leaving. I have little fear of dying. Why fear something that is a certainty? A fear of living is scarier, not knowing what is next.
I think that the girl on the bluff rock showed no fear. She hesitated out of curiosity. She wondered why someone was watching her.
At times, I walk along the edge of the bluff and imagine hearing voices singing. They sound ritualistic, like ancient poetry. I’ve sat at a desk and tried emulating the cadence with words on paper. It’s always wrong. It can’t be replicated is what I’ve come to believe. Those ancient songs and the voices of trees and the wind are too much to bear. I believe that’s why she left, why she won’t return except for the winter months when most of the songs and voices are hibernating, waiting for warmth and new life to emerge. Maybe it is something else altogether.
Other times I walk through these woods and hear nothing but the sound of my shoes on the dry leaves. It’s these times when my mind gets even more lost and wanders off course. I have emerged from the woods and couldn’t remember walking through them.
I lay in bed that night with my eyes closed and saw two black dots falling from a sky the color of someone’s eyes. Those dots and those eyes were both clear as a vivid memory. They’re not just friends, I thought, but twins, who have ways of communicating without speaking, who know things of each other without having to communicate.
I’m now sure I wasn’t dreaming. It was my sister sitting there. She will return. I know it. I’ll be waiting and if she beckons, I may join her.
Copyright©2008 Chuck Buckner