Ta-da! Today is the second Monday of August, which means today is the deadline for the Flash Fiction Draw challenge that Jeffrey Ricker drew a week ago. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can catch up here, but the short version is he uses a deck of cards to randomly select three variables (in this case, historical as the genre, a marsh as the setting, and a pendant and necklace as the object) and anyone who wants to take part has a week to come up with a thousand-word flash fiction piece. I’m well over the word count limit here, and though I’d intended to trim, I’m on three days of headache and it’s been months since I took part in this prompt, so I decided to heck with it (much like Clark, who you’ll meet below). Historical is so not my bag, but when I looked up marshes in Canada, I found a place and point in time to explore, and then decided to go the spec-fic route anyway. I know, I know, you’re surprised.
Thaddeus believed windy days were presents bestowed on people like him. The waves sent through the hay granted air itself physical form, dancing across the growing crops, and more importantly—at least to Thaddeus—blew the wretched insects away from exposed skin while he worked.
By the time he was done the work of the day, the sun drew low to the horizon, but the beautiful wind still kept him company, so Thaddeus decided on a walkabout before he returned to his family.
Climbing the slope, he walked atop the dike, glancing one way, then the other. To his left, “the largest hayfield in the world.” To his right, marshlands. Further still, Aulac, which might as well be on the other end of forever given how liekly he’d be invited to visit. His elder brothers vied for the opportunity more than he, and Thaddeus knew how unlikely he’d find success if he threw his own name into consideration with his father.
The wind’s endless rushing voice vied with the geese, losing ground as the number of birds settled the longer he walked. Between the two sounds, Thaddeus could lose his own thoughts, descending into breath and step and sensation. The low sun warmed his skin, and nothing else disturbed him.
The birds fell silent.
Thaddeus physically stumbled, as if the silence itself were given form before his feet. He turned to the birds, confused and alarmed in equal measure, and saw all their heads swivel at once.
They looked at him.
As far as his eye could see on the marsh, every black face was aimed in his direction. And deathly silent.
The wind did not feel like a companion offering pleasing susurrus now, but rather someone crying in alarm, too far away to understand clearly.
Still the birds stared.
A pressure grew in Thaddeus’s ears, and the sensation of release—they popped—came so swiftly as to be painful. He grimaced, raising his hands to his ears and opening and closing his mouth like a fish dragged into a boat to die.
“Shit!” The voice—not his nor geese nor wind—shocked Thaddeus, who whirled on the spot just in time to see a young man not much older than himself vanish over the side of the dike, skidding and slipping and, finally losing the battle to balance himself, falling. He hit the edge of the marsh with a sodden splash.
The chorus of geese began again in the distance. The wind rushed on.
Thaddeus crossed to where the man had fallen, leaning out. How had the man snuck up on him like that? And why was he here? Had he come to visit Thaddeus’s family farmlands?
The man had managed to rise, but his clothes struck Thaddeus as strange: not their form, but their quality was off in some way he couldn’t quantify at a glance, certainly even moreso now they were also drenched with marsh water. The man’s hair, too, was curious: so uniformly short…
“Shit!” the man said again, looking up and pressing a hand to his chest, which left a handprint of mucky water on his shirt. After, he grinned. “Ah,” he said, as though something had been explained.
Thaddeus couldn’t imagine what, instead now caught by familiarity in the man’s face. “Do I know you?” Then Thaddeus remembered his manners. “Do you need help?”
“I’ll manage.” The stranger climbed up the side of the dike. “And no, I don’t think you do.” This latter he said with a chuckle. Once on level ground to each other atop the dike, he held out a passably clean hand. “Clark Lochhead.”
Thaddeus shook. “Thaddeus Clark.” He tilted his head. “We share a name.”
“We do.” Clark smiled, and Thaddeus was shocked at how perfectly formed the man’s teeth were. Had he ever seen a smile so bright? He didn’t think so.
“Where did you come from?” Thaddeus asked.
“Aulac,” Clark said, after a hesitation a breath too long.
“On foot?” Thaddeus didn’t bother to hide his skepticism.
Clark bit his bottom lip. “No. Not on foot.” He offered the smile again. Thaddeus imagined Clark’s smile often excused inquiry. He shifted his stance, and rubbed the back of his head with one hand, revealing a necklace Clark wore. It had come free from his simple—but odd—shirt, and Thaddeus would have recognized the form of it anywhere. A bird. One of the very birds growing all the louder around them, in fact. A goose, carved from wood in intricate detail though barely as long as the first two knuckles of Thaddeus’s pinky finger. It hung from a fine chain, though.
Clark frowned, glanced down, then tucked the necklace back into his shirt.
“Where did you get that?” Thaddeus said.
“Birthday present,” Clark said. “From my grandmother.” He had to raise his voice to be heard over wind and geese, both now completely regaining their cacophony. Clark bit his bottom lip, then shivered.
“We should get you somewhere dry,” Thaddeus said.
“I can dry off when I get home.”
“To Aulac?” Thaddeus raised a dry eyebrow of clear skepticism.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, and waved both hands in the air as though trying to shoo Thaddeus away. “You go on ahead. I have to…” He trailed off.
“I have something to do.” Another smile.
“You are sodden and we are a half-hour’s walk from nearest shelter,” Thaddeus said.
“It’s fine. You go ahead.”
“I’ll not going to leave you here in such a state.”
“I really need you to.”
“I beg your pardon?” Thaddeus stared.
“Look, I’ve got, like, ten more minutes, tops, before I have to go, and I need you not to be here.” This time there was no smile.
“Have I offended?” Thaddeus felt the hot knot of shame in his belly.
“Oh shit. No.” Clark pressed a hand to his forehead. “I’m just a bit off my target—probably you, given the whole Clark thing—and there’s a timer and I don’t want you to end up being considered strange or something—that could screw up… well, everything—so it’s best if you go. And maybe don’t talk about this.”
“I don’t understand you,” Thaddeus said.
Clark stopped, and faced him directly. He reached out with both arms and took Thaddeus by the shoulders, squeezing just enough to hold Thaddeus’s attention firm. “You don’t have to. I promise it won’t matter a bit. You won’t see me again. I’m just here to get some photographs for a museum.”
“You have no camera!” Thaddeus near shouted.
Clark blew out a breath. “I wonder if this is how my professors feel talking to me.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Nothing. Nature nurture, right?”
“Nature nurture?” Clark made less sense with every phrase he spoke.
A sound interrupted them. A series of chimes, it was sonorous, and would have been lovely had there been any obvious source. Instead, Thaddeus pulled free from Clark’s grasp and looked left and right. “Did you hear that?”
“It’s my five-minute warning,” Clark said. “Well, I officially give up. Smile.”
“Pardon?” Thaddeus said, but Clark paid no mind, having pulled from his pocket a small flat rectangle of… was it glass?
Clark held it up in front of Thaddeus, and touched it with one finger. Then he smiled. “I’m going to be in so much trouble,” he said, but with seeming cheerfulness. Then he started to pivot, turning in a small circle and Thaddeus watched him turn until he could see the other side of the small glass the man was carrying and…
It was lit. It glowed brightly, in fact, and on the surface were the very fields around them, sunset gold and glorious, somehow captured and illuminated.
“What…?” Thaddeus’s voice ran dry with the single word.
“That’ll have to do,” Clarke said, sliding the glass back into his pocket. He turned to face Thaddeus. “So, this is going to get strange, but I promise you, there’s nothing bad happening.” Clark’s oddly familiar face broke into another smile, this one intended to be comforting, Thaddeus supposed. “Though I still wouldn’t tell anyone about it.”
“About what?” Thaddeus said, but then, almost as if he’d conjured it with his question, as one the geese fell silent again.
Both men turned to face them.
“Huh,” Clarke said. “Probably the peri-electromagnetic lead effect. I wonder if we can fix that.”
“The…?” Thaddeus said, frowning and turning back to Clarke just in time to see the man vanish.
Once again, pressure released painfully from his ears.
One by one, the geese regained their chorus.
Thaddeus Clark took a breath. Then another. He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a piece of wood. He’d begun the carving it the night before, and it was clear it would be a goose even now. It was a gift, planned for his sister’s birthday, and he intended to string it up as a simple pendant. For the briefest moment, he considered abandoning the project, and doing something—anything—else, but…
He swallowed. He’d lose the sun soon, and he had a long way to walk. His family would be worried about him, and his odd habit of wandering off without thinking through the consequences of his acts on others was a long-held discourse around their table. His father said his uncle had been the same way, dashing off where his fancy took him.
Thaddeus looked down at his feet. Wet footprints remained where Clark had stood. He hadn’t imagined any moment of the strange encounter.
The geese were loud again, louder than the wind. Thaddeus started his walk back, letting the two voices take all the space in his thoughts, allowing the encounter to slip away from the forefront of his mind, and thinking, perhaps, that was for the best, really.