Totem, Part 3

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Part 1 | Part 2

She’s coming!

The birds watched the girl with the bracelet make her way outside.

What do we do now?

A collective telepathic murmur followed, and no one ventured to answer.

For hundreds of years they’d searched, six men immortally bound by their former master to a cruel parody of life out of revenge for a transgression committed long ago. They’d crossed mountains and deserts, countries and oceans, all in the vain hope of at long last discovering the key to their prison: the totem that bound them to their blackbird bodies. Now, here they were, and here it was, and the discovery was not nearly as satisfying as they’d imagined.

Their search had sustained them with the hope, however small, that they could undo their old master’s curse, that they would finally be able to die. Immortality as men would have been bad enough, but immortality as birds? The first few decades had almost driven them mad. Now they were reminded that locating the bracelet was only the first step of a longer journey. Now that they knew where it was, how would they take possession of it? And when they did, how would they destroy it?

The girl pulled a thick garment over her head, wrapped it around her waist, and had just passed by the window where they were standing when she stopped suddenly to stare at them, eyes wide and wondering.

She knows we’re watching her.

Impossible.

Should we address her?

It’s been a long time since we encountered a human capable of speaking with us, said their leader. The memory was not a pleasant one, and he pulled away from it like a child whose hand has passed too near an open fire.

They were not afraid of the humans that populated a modern city like this one, but neither did they trust them. They were all too aware both of how they’d been treated as birds and of how they themselves had treated other creatures as humans.

Still, that look in the girl’s eyes, a look that was surely mirrored in their own gaze: one of recognition, one that suggested a connection might be made.

When she shook her head and started to back away, they panicked. No, they thought, she couldn’t leave them now. They had so much to say to one another, if only they could figure out how to communicate. A questioning chirp escaped their leader’s beak, and a moment later, side by side, they followed after her.

Stop, you’re frightening her!

How else can we get her attention?

Too soon. We need to plan first.

But she’s already getting away.

No, this was not at all how they’d imagined their search for the bracelet would end. What should they do now? At any rate, it seemed their efforts to reach the girl were in vain. She was clearly spooked, and while it was likely she could sense something about them beyond their exterior blackbird façades, she would not be open to an encounter just yet.

Stop her!

Let her go, their leader sighed.

But she has the bracelet!

Yes, he replied, and of what use is that if she’s too afraid to speak with us? We need to give her time.

So they watched her back into the parking lot, imploring her with their eyes not to go. Watched her throw open the door of a dark blue Prius. Watched her slam the door behind her and start the car.

For now, said their leader, we follow. Find out where she lives, get to know her interests and her schedule, see if we can learn anything that will help us reach her. Maybe, we can even get a hold of the bracelet without her.

Yes, they decided, he was right. And when the car pulled out, they shot into the sky to follow. All was not yet lost. They would watch, and they would wait, and when the time was right, then they would act.

Read part 4 here.

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Blue

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Because I attended the ConDFW in Texas this past week, I didn’t have time to prepare a new piece of flash fiction. Instead, I’ve reposted one of my Patreon shorts from last year. It should be new for most of you. I’ll have an original story for you guys next week 🙂

The stone had always been blue. Since time unremembered it had sat, polished and round, mounted in the center of the city. The people would go out in the middle of the night when it shone most brightly, and in the presence of that otherworldly glow, they would kneel and pay it homage.

It was their bedrock, the binding force that kept them civilized. A covenant between man and the infinite. So when the stone stopped giving its light, when the city’s streets went dark for the first time in recorded history, chaos loomed.

“It’s the end of the world!” they wailed. “The Gods have abandoned us.”

The priests tried to maintain order.

“Calm yourselves,” they said, taking up defensive positions around the stone. “It is only a test. We must be steadfast in our faith. Then the Gods will show us their favor once more.”

The people grumbled, restless and uneasy, but, one by one, they returned to their homes, some to pray, others to brood in silent worry.

The following night, they approached the center of the city. Once more, they saw the stone was dark.

They turned to the priests and asked, “What explanation will you offer us now?” They were wild-eyed, terrified, and half out of their minds.

Once more, the priests tried to maintain order.

“Calm yourselves,” they said. “The test has not ended. Be strong and keep the faith of our ancestors.”

“The Gods have abandoned us!” they cried. “What use are you now?”

“Be still,” the priests admonished. “The Gods have done no such thing. Return tomorrow, and you will see for yourselves that the stone gives light once more.”

Again the people grumbled. Some challenged them further, some even threatened violence if the stone was not restored to its former state as had been promised.

The priests watched them turn back, watched them disappear like apparitions, and, inwardly, they trembled. They had not a clue why the stone went dark, nor when it would share its light again.

“Please,” they implored together through a formal rite of prayer that hadn’t been invoked for more than a thousand years. “We beseech thee, the Gods of our ancestors, return to us thy divine light so that order might be restored.”

Exhausted and afraid, they retired to their quarters to sleep.

That night, the children of the city dreamed. They saw the pillars of their civilization crumble, saw their elders perish in an all-consuming fire that seemed to rise from the bowels of the Earth. An ancient cycle was nearing its end, and in that dream, a voice urged them to run if they would be a part of the next.

They each woke in a cold sweat, eyes lit with terror. But none spoke of the strange vision until much later.

The third night approached. The priests went out ahead of the crowd and observed with growing terror that the stone was still dark. They held the people back with exhortations of prayer, but, in the end, they could delay them no longer.

When the people beheld that infernal darkness, the priests tried once more to pacify them. But the citizens of the city were enraged. They were certain now the Gods had abandoned them, and all their priests could do was offer empty promises of salvation.

“The Gods have defied your predictions,” one man cried, “yet you would stand here and assure us all is well. We’re through with your lies!”

The people attacked.

The children, left behind by parents who’d already feared the streets would grow violent, heard a whisper ride in on the coattails of the wind.

Get out. Find safety outside the city walls and don’t return until the next full moon.

One by one, they filtered out into the dark.

Meanwhile, the people, having sacrificed their priests, turned on each other. A frantic, desperate bloodlust had filled their eyes and they were overtaken by an urgent need to destroy. They swept through the city like a plague, looting, murdering, burning buildings to the ground, so that in the end only a single person remained. In his final moments, he gazed up at the moon, mad with lunatic understanding, and ran himself through with his sword.

*               *               *

On the next full moon, the children crept back to the ruins of their city as the voice had told them. They passed the skeletal remains of their homes, the stinking, bloated bodies of their dead parents. The younger ones threw up. The older ones took them into their arms and led them away.

They found the stone, standing in the center as it always had. They gathered around it and lifted their voices in prayer. For a moment, there was only the wind, which whistled through broken archways and windows like a ghost. Then there was a flicker and a flash. They opened their eyes. The stone was blue once more. The children offered thanks.

In the morning, the older ones started to rebuild.

The land’s thirst for blood had been sated.

The new cycle had begun.

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Totem, Part 2

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Part 1

Sandy was pissed. Derrick, her co-worker, had called in sick just as she was preparing to leave—though he certainly hadn’t sounded sick when she answered the phone—and with only an hour’s notice, her manager had asked her to stay while she found a replacement. Well, she thought as she placed new racks of bread dough into the oven, at least she was getting paid overtime.

She fingered the ivory bracelet around her wrist. It had been a habit of hers, ever since she found it in a cardboard box filled with stuff that had once belonged to her grandfather.

They’d always been close, and his death four years ago from a stroke had hit her hard.

He didn’t die with much—there was no trust or will, nor were there any significant assets to disburse—and everything that had ever been his was packed into a single box and summarily forgotten.

Then Sandy, now twenty-one, came home from college for the summer and rediscovered it in a dusty corner of her mom’s house. It was like stepping back into the past, that box, like Sandy had gotten into a time machine and toured all the best years with her grandfather. There was the chessboard and accompanying silver pieces he said his own father had given him when he was eight. The faded tweed jacket he’d worn almost every day, even though it made him smell like mothballs.

And, of course, there was the bracelet.

She’d seen it once on a shelf when she was nine. It had looked so pretty, and she’d asked if she could have it. But then her grandfather had turned to her with a funny look she’d never seen before, and after a moment of prolonged silence, he’d said it was an important family heirloom and that she couldn’t have it until she was older. That was the last they spoke of it, and she forgot about the bracelet until the day she found it again inside the box.

It still looked pretty, she thought when she rediscovered it twelve years later. The craftsmanship was incredible, unparalleled by anything she’d encountered before, and wearing it made her think of happier times. So she began to put it on each morning, a ritual that became as important as showering or brushing her teeth.

Now, twiddling it back and forth between her fingers, Sandy pushed the empty cart into the storeroom and took up sentry behind the cash register. With the lunch hour over, she hoped there would be few customers left before her manager came to relieve her.

That was when a fluttering mass of black caught her eye.

She turned. There, on the concrete beside the window, a tiny flock of blackbirds staring at her through the glass.

Not at me, she corrected herself. Why would they be looking at me?

And yet.

She peered into their dark, shiny eyes like plastic beads and was sure she saw a spark of recognition.

No, she was imagining things. That was certainly something she was good at. It was the reason she’d chosen English for her major and why she retreated to her room each night to write.

Birds, she reminded herself, weren’t smart like humans. She didn’t know how she looked to them, or if they even noticed her at all, but she very much doubted they were looking on purpose.

And yet.

“Sandy?”

Her head whipped back like a bungee cord. There was a hollow smack as her hand hit something in front of her, and when she turned once more, it was just in time to witness a spray of cardboard cups showering the tiled floor.

“Sorry, Mona.” Sandy felt her face flush, and she ran around to the other side of the counter to pick them up.

“You all right?”

“I’m fine.” Sandy’s cheeks burned.

Mona regarded her through slitted eyes. “Good thing I wasn’t a customer.”

Sandy didn’t reply, only set the cups back down and wilted a little inside.

Mona could be kind and was always fair, but when she caught you doing something wrong, like daydreaming and not paying attention, she came down on you hard.

Sandy expected more, but the woman just placed her hands in her pockets and grunted.

“Just got off the phone with Charlie. We had to swap some things around, but he’s agreed to take over the rest of Derrick’s shift.”

Thank God.

Mona glanced up at the clock, then back down at Sandy with a weary smile. “The hour’s just about up. You go on and run home. I’ll take over until he gets here.”

“Thank you.”

After Mona checked the register, Sandy clocked out and charged into what little remained of the summer day. It was easy to forget just how hot it could get when you spent most of your time in an air conditioned building. She pulled off the sweatshirt that had saved her from freezing only minutes earlier and tied it around her waist.

The birds were still outside when she passed by the window, only now they’d turned and were staring up at her again.

I must have startled them by walking outside.

A perfectly reasonable explanation. All the same, a strange tingle crawled across her skin. There was just something about those eyes that bothered her, and there was nothing reason could do to convince her that these were ordinary birds going about their ordinary bird business.

There were six of them, standing side by side in front of the window. Like a prison line up, she thought. One of the birds in the middle chirped, a plaintive, questioning sound, and a moment later, the others took a couple of highly synchronized steps forward, never taking their eyes off her.

They clearly held more than a passing interested in her, and she found herself backing away, repelled by this sudden intrusion of the bizarre into what had otherwise been an ordinary day.

The other birds started to chirp, this time at each other, as if they were not birds at all but a group of bickering old men. Back and forth, back and forth. Then they seemed to reach an agreement, and a moment later they were marching toward her as one.

This is too weird.

Sandy continued to back away, heart stammering, palms clammy.

Wait, those birds seemed to say, come back.

But Sandy wasn’t interested in what they had to say, and she didn’t stop retreating until she stood in the parking lot beside her car. When her hand finally closed on the door handle, a spring in her heart uncoiled. She jammed her hands into her pockets. Yanked out her keys. Threw open the door. Slammed it shut behind her.

When at last she pulled out, she glanced through the passenger side window just in time to see them spread their wings and shoot into the sky.

Read part 3 here.

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Totem, Part 1

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Only after the humans left did the birds advance. It wasn’t that they were afraid—they’d lived among people for a while and had grown used to them long ago—only that it would be easier to find what they were looking for without having to dodge the many arms and legs in a crowd.

Now that the lunch hour was over, they fanned out, charging into the outdoor dining area of a nearby sandwich shop with a singularity of mind and purpose no mere birds would have been capable of.

It’s close, called one in a soundless thought that carried effortlessly across the intervening distance. I can feel it.

It’s companions chirped in reply.

Centuries of life bound to the cold blue sky, imprisoned in fragile yet frustratingly immortal bodies. Oh, how they longed for death. And because of their master’s cruelty, it was a luxury thus far denied them.

But no prison was foolproof. There were always ways to skirt the rules, if only one was willing to search hard enough and long enough for solutions.

Their leader, the one who’d first spoken, poked a tiny, jittering head between the legs of a shiny aluminum table.

Not here, it cried.

Not here either, said another, fluttering out of an open trash can.

They could all feel it, an irresistible pull toward the general area. Yet that was as far as their senses allowed, and all they could do now was continue to scour the city until they located the item they sought.

A totem. Every binding required one: a physical object linked by magic to another. It was a symbol of sorts, a contract that, once broken, released the binding. In their case, it was a bracelet, a deceptively simple piece of inlaid ivory with six avian figures carved into the surface, each corresponding to another of their number. Their human bodies and mortality were bound to the bracelet, leaving them trapped in their blackbird forms.

Strange, their leader thought, that such a relic of the past—a relic of magic and mysticism—would find its way here, to one of the many concrete jungles erected as a monument to modern, rationalistic ideals. Had their master passed it down through his ancestral line, or had it been lost to time, eventually washing up on the shores of the city by accident? Did it currently have an owner, and if so, did that person understand the nature of the object they possessed? Most importantly, what would happen if they retrieved it? How would they destroy it? They were only birds, without the ability to wield tools.

So many uncertainties, yet they all believed freedom was possible. They had to, because the alternative to belief was madness.

There!

One of the six had stopped with its head slanted forward, twittering left and right as it beheld with dark, glassy eyes a woman through one of the sandwich shop’s windows. It called out to its companions, and a moment later they were all fluttering over to meet him.

The woman stood behind a counter, stacking racks into a large metal box. And there, on her wrist, was an ivory bracelet with six masterfully crafted birds carved into the bone-white surface.

She wears it like jewelry! exclaimed one.

How did she come to possess it? asked another.

They regarded her with their pointed beaks and dark button eyes, pondering their next move.

Read part 2 here.

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