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.

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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Star Light, Star Bright

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Star light, star bright,
The first star I see tonight;
I wish I am, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.

It was a nursery rhyme his grandmother had taught him when he was five, and he remembered it tonight, when the celestial canvas above spread itself before him like gold dust, when she, his beloved star, beamed down from the sky, a glistening pearl against a backdrop of jewel-encrusted black. So much larger than the other stars, she dominated the heavens, a goddess among angels.

“My love,” he called out after reciting his grandmother’s poem like an incantation, “come back for me.”

“Then you wish to return home?” came her reply.

Sam thought of where he’d come from; of the songs he and his siblings would sing, rippling through space and time without beginning or end; of the way the lights from colliding galaxies and stars would caper and dance against the looming silver spires and golden streets of his city in the sky; and, most importantly, of his queen, the star who addressed him now, garbed in shimmering robes so white, so bright that no earthly dye could reproduce them.

“Yes, I do.”

Long ago, he’d asked to become human. He’d wanted to be different, to experience the sort of corporeal life that was inaccessible to his kind. But as his earthly brethren were so fond of saying, the grass was always greener on the other side, and only after the ethereal wonders of his former life were far behind him had he realized his mistake.

“It’s lonely here,” he continued, choking back a sob. “Our minds are closed to each other. A person might say one thing and mean something else entirely. People are tiny islands of private thought surrounded by endless dark.”

“But do you not know,” said the star, “that what we are, so too shall they become? Were I not to bring you home now, you would still return to us at the end of your life, and by that time you would have learned much.”

“No,” he whispered, and he could hold back his tears no longer. “Please, don’t make me wait.”

Her light grew so intense, so bright that Sam had to squint his eyes to narrow slits. She was descending now, becoming part of his world.

“This is not a punishment,” she sang, and he could feel her inside of him now, warming his heart, imparting love and life and light. “It is a journey. Take the good with the bad. Savor your brokenness and your imperfections, your sadness and your despair, for they will teach you far more than we ever could. There’s a reason you longed to be human. Your nature demanded it, and I would not rob you of it now.”

Sam wept like a child, tears pattering the grass beneath his feet like rain.

“Live your life, and when your time on Earth is complete, you will take your place beside me once more.”

“Yes, my love. I understand.” It came out a hoarse whisper.

She shot out of him then, and as her light receded into the distance, as his beloved star faded until she was indistinguishable from the rest of his brothers and sisters, he pondered the mysteries of time and death and wondered when he would be whole once more.

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Tethered

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A world of infinite blue. A world of freedom, of endless possibilities. I stare into the sky, squint against the light of the sun, and think that if I could, I would spread my wings and fly.

But that isn’t possible, not anymore. Once I could have gone anywhere, could have been anyone I wanted. But now my wings have been clipped, and all I can do is flutter with these useless stubs, tethered to the ground, and dream about how life might have turned out different.

It’s during one of these futile daydreams that I first feel it, an electric tingle at the tips of my fingers. Soon it spreads, shoots up my arms and shoulders, crawls up my spine, accumulates inside my head.

The world around me grows dark, and another world behind my eyes unfolds.

My master, sitting in a high-backed chair behind a heavy oak desk. His hands are held to his temples as he concentrates, compiling the very message I’m viewing now.

Michael, I need you.

I feel the urgency of his call, the wild-eyed fear as his enemies close in around him. How have they found him, he wonders. He’s been careful. He’s never stayed in the same place twice. Yet here they are.

I am his only hope, the only one who can save him.

Michael, remember our arrangement.

The vision dissolves, and the world before my eyes brightens once more. I return my gaze to the sky and ponder my next move.

My master is cruel, a dark being of incredible power. I never wanted to serve him. Indeed, I was coerced. A binding was placed upon my heart, and I was told that if I did not obey, I would die.

I have served my master well, and in return, I have outlived my great grandchildren by more than thirty generations. But what good is life so far removed from one’s own time, from all the people and places and things one once loved?

Another sending, more forceful than the first.

My master, no longer sitting in the chair in his study, but running through a labyrinthine tangle of corridors deep beneath the Earth.

Michael, come!

In the end, I am little more than a faithful hound—and, at times, when my master’s mood is easygoing, an object of fleeting superficial affection.

“When I die,” he once warned me, wagging his finger as if scolding a child, “so will you.” It was his insurance that I would do as he said, that I would defend him to the last. Now, I wonder if my life has any remaining value, or if it might be better to let him pass, to let the world be rid of him as well as myself.

One last sending. No images this time, only a single word.

MICHAEL!

I imagine his enemies cornering him, defenseless without my help, and then I consider what it will feel like to finally be free.

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