Totem, Part 4

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Sandy hovered over a brown leather notebook, the faint smells of ink and paper setting her imagination on fire and fueling the pen in her hand as it skittered and scratched across the surface of an empty page. It was late afternoon going on early evening, and Sandy had arrived home from work less than an hour ago.

A primal force surged back and forth between Ava and the bird, and each stared resolutely at the other, unsure how to proceed—unsure how to break down the barriers that prevented them from understanding one another. A stalemate, she thought in the dank, moldering darkness of the cave, an impasse that would not be breached until she gathered the courage necessary to break the silence.

A story, one that had come to Sandy after her own close encounter of the avian kind. A young woman, not much older than herself, chosen by her village to venture into the mountains, where it was said a wizard watched over them from a distance and protected them from harm.

Was this, then, the one whom Ava had been sent to find? Surely not a creature so small and lowly as this solitary blackbird. Yet it gazed up at her with its ink black eyes, whose immense weight bore down on her with all the regal stylings of a king, and she knew there was something there beyond the fleeting awareness of a mere animal, an uncanny stillness and depth that belied ageless wisdom and incalculable strength.

By tradition, the story went, a strong woman from the village was sent into the mountains every twenty years to seek out their unknown benefactor and renew their pact of protection for another generation. It had gone on for so long that nobody could remember why such a journey was necessary. All they knew for sure was that someone would go, and then they would be safe for another twenty years.

A sacrifice of some kind, for not one of the women sent into the mountains ever returned.

Stories were how Sandy related to the world. They were how she dealt with the things she didn’t understand, how she made sense of a universe that, at times, seemed chaotic and irrational. In a way, it was like dreaming, an opportunity for her to pick apart and reassemble the building blocks of reality in strange and exotic configurations—a way for her mind to process and organize information as it attempted to solve problems, as it attempted to form a more complete picture of the world and how it worked.

It was no surprise that Ava, Sandy’s protagonist, would soon come to discover their mysterious wizard was a bird. Birds had been on her mind the entire afternoon, ever since her strange meeting with the blackbirds at the sandwich shop. They were where the idea for her story had come from.

“Are you—” Ava paused, unable to speak further.

I can’t believe I’m talking to a bird, she thought, knees trembling. This isn’t how the world works.

And yet.

The bird was waiting for her to finish, waiting for her to acknowledge its presence. Only then would it deign to speak with her. The idea was crazy, but a growing part of her had come to believe it was the truth.

And was her reluctance to communicate truly the consequence of a skeptical mind, or was she perhaps afraid to learn that the world did, in fact, harbor secrets that defied every logical system she’d been taught, that the world made no more sense now than it had to her distant ancestors, who’d discerned the handiwork of unseen gods at the heart of every interaction between man and nature?

Ava swallowed. Opened her mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. At last, after a pregnant pause, she spoke again.

Sandy’s story had taken hold of her and swept her away on the coattails of a powerful wind that carried her farther and farther into the depths of her imagination—into a realm where she was never quite sure how much of the story was her own.

“Are you the wizard?” Ava finished. A simple enough question, yet she’d had to move mountains inside herself to push it out.

Sandy was no longer aware of the pen in her hands, or the notebook on her desk. She was in another world, the story before her pouring into her head like some exotic form of telepathy.

“Yes,” came the bird’s reply. “I am he.”

Ava took an involuntary step back. No, she thought. This can’t be. Then, out loud: “You are not the wizard.”

The bird followed after her, a mischievous gleam burning in its eyes like coals. “Oh,” it asked, “and why not?”

A pause. Then the bird spoke again.

“Help us.”

Sandy snagged on that last line of dialog like a fish caught by a sharp hook. Where did that come from? It was so jarring, so unexpected and out of place in the story she was writing, that Sandy tried to disengage. But she was so deeply entrenched in the tale that the image in her mind refused to leave her right away, and her pen, almost of its own volition, scribbled out three more words before the dream finally burst around her like a popped bubble.

“Please, help us.”

Rattled, Sandy slapped her pen down on the desk and took a deep, shuddering breath. A story had never taken such complete control of her before. Sure, she was more than casually acquainted with the feeling of a story bursting to life inside her head, blossoming into something entirely novel and unexpected. But she’d always been in control, and had always known what was coming in the instant before the pen kissed the paper. But this time, it had hit her so fast, almost like a vision, startlingly lucid, and when she’d tried to pull away—to get a hold of herself again—the story had pulled her back in.

No, thought Sandy, viewing the notebook before her for the first time with suspicion and fear. She was probably just tired. Maybe she’d dozed, and that jarring pause between when she’d told herself to stop and when she’d pulled away had simply been her transition back into a fully wakeful state.

Sandy’s mind went reeling back to the blackbirds, to their strangely intelligent eyes, intense in their silent questioning.

Spooked, Sandy snapped the notebook closed. She bolted from her desk, threw open the curtains to let what remained of the outdoor light inside—a bright burnished copper—and squinted. Though the light hurt her eyes, it also felt good, felt right. It was the blinding visage of reality slapping her in the face, yanking her away from a fantasy that felt as if it had almost drowned her.

When her eyes at last adjusted to the brightness, she let her gaze wander over the familiar contours of the neighbors’s houses—over the backyard she’d grown up in what seemed a lifetime ago, over the towering oak tree she’d once climbed when she was nine.

Sandy drank in the familiar view, relishing its tangible realness. She never noticed the six blackbirds perched in the oak’s branches, shrouded in the deepening shadows.

Read part 5 here.

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Author: Jeff Coleman

Jeff Coleman is a writer who finds himself drawn to the dark and the mysterious, and to all the extraordinary things that regularly hide in the shadow of ordinary life.

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