WEDNESDAY: A Thousand Herons Overhead

BY ALDOUS RICHARDS

Copyright is held by the author.

 

HE WAS sitting at the edge of the pond — where lime-green algae encroached on goose muck and feathers — when a thousand herons came up from the horizon like a storm cloud. As their leading edge approached, the air filled up with the slow and steady sound of their rowing wings. Then they were overhead and he could stare into their noise, at their shifting underbellies as they pulled themselves through the air, their legs hanging. Layer upon layer of them, moving to somewhere unknown, drawn implacably. He wished himself up there with them, seeing the way light sees, their sight thoughtlessly gulping infinite panoramas.

Ten seconds he counted and the heron cloud did not thin. And behind the sigh of their wings, nothing. He turned his head about, his ears prickling, but the world had been silenced. Their bodies moved like the slim boats he saw knifing through Fanshawe Lake, their motion seemingly eclipsed momentarily by rising oars, muscles in stasis, then plunging on as the oars dived and pulled.

The tail end of the multitude sailed by and away and he was left in utter quiet. A virgin time, for people reborn. Just heat remained, beating concentric from the sun, the atomic mass exploding through sultry air and past him. No cars moving, no birds yelling or crickets rasping, all the familiar sounds of summer and the city blotted out like colours wiped from a canvas.

He creaked upright through cracking knees, and began to retrace his steps, then pulled up. If the world had stopped, his first instinct, to return to his room, was absurd. Wasn’t it? What would he do there? Have a bite to eat? Say a prayer, or 10?

He scratched, musing. Now that the world had ended, he could indulge, spoil himself. He could eat a quart of ice cream, and a pizza, and drink a case of German beer, in any order. What a treat gluttony would be, after his Spartan regimen. The doctors said he was pre-pre-diabetic. They had instruments to measure it, charts to illustrate hypothetical collapse or death. A stilting obsession, it was, this need to fix oneself; to be healthy, slim, status-quo sane, armoured against wrinkled decay.

He imagined himself on the patio of Michel’s gourmet restaurant in this summer swelter. Not Paris, but as close as Southern Ontario could get to it. Patio, chilled beer, and an olive-skinned girl with black hair and eyes as dark as a bird’s smiling at him in that bemused, horny, summer romantic way that spoke of afternoons lying sultry, entangled on the beach. Not just an afternoon, but their afternoon. Grains of sand between the toes and tickling through the dew and pubic hair under their shorts.

That was what it used to be to be young.

If the world had ended, was there, somewhere in the cosmos, a space/time that collected all those acute moments, those milliseconds of distilled poetry? He wanted to go there, where he was forever young in the blissful, heightened angst that was love then.

He looked up the long hill that would take him back to the main roads and the supermarket. Maybe he’d settle for ice cream. He’d see who was up there, on the streets. Maybe there was rioting, and people had already raided the supermarket. He could easily snag a box of ice cream if they had. Who would arrest him over a quart of ice cream during the . . . During the what? Armageddon? Rapture? What?

Halfway up the hill, and the vegetation was thinning out in a way he didn’t remember. Sweet grass sprouted where there surely had been bushes. And the row of standing elms was gone. He stared at the pond to get his bearings. It looked the same, and a few yards of gravel looked the same, but the rest was . . . . His eyes told him next to nothing, but his intuition knew something. The ground he had crossed, right up to his feet, looked like the familiar crumbled asphalt, but it was changed. The world’s tension, its self-binding power, was slackening.

He spun around, driven by panic instinct. The hill crest ahead of him was rolling toward him like a miniature tsunami. Black asphalt and brown and grey gravel, clods of dirt and patches of grass tumbled together like clothes in a dryer. Fear pumped into his throat and drove him back toward the pond, his heart and legs quailing.

If he reached the pond, what then? His mind’s eye flashed an image — the pond rolling up, water and marsh and geese and muskrats all roiled together with him, smash, one giant diarrhoea mud-pie splashing into eternity and gone.

What the living hell was going on?

His limbs flailed spastically. That had been called running a mere few minutes ago. Now it was an ungallantly hopeless fit, the bleating death throes of the gazelle munched by a crocodile mouth. Murder by centrifuge. He was scampering through air, getting nowhere, and behind him the rumbling earth gained ground implacably, with maddening calmness, as if it had absolutely nothing else to do, and nothing at all to do with him.

That was it then. Humans were, finally, completely inconsequential. Gasping, like this, through razor sharp chest pains, fighting off the need to vomit just for the sake of gaining a split second on death — it meant absolutely nothing.

“Oh God! Please God! If you are there, just . . .” He panted. “Ohfuckjustgivemeachance!” And he flailed past the slope where he had sat, where the geese used to step, ripping roots from the mud. There was his footprint, where he had planted his bare foot and squelched the mud through his long toes. There were the dead fireworks some idiot had set off on Victoria Day.
And there was the other edge of the world. He could run no further. It just ended. Crabgrass, dandelions, bits of goose shit peeking over into the abyss, that was as far as the future went. To his left, his foot at the edge of the drop off, summer sky ran on forever. To where? Where did the blackness of the universe begin? Somewhere out there in the blue, it changed, filtered from blue to black, from gravity to none. Maybe.

Maybe, though, everything was different entirely. Maybe the universe had rolled up too, turned itself inside out.

What the hell did he know, from his pathetic stay on earth? Maybe black holes were vaginas for the gods. Maybe all of man’s history had been just an accident during the gods’ foreplay. Now was the grand orgasm, the Big Death. Everything led up to this, the final ecstatic spurt into an indifferent cosmos.

Existence was nothing more than a failed masturbation on a lonely Sunday.

But the rest of the pond was still there. He stared dumbly at the water in a split second of challenge. The surface stared back, glassy coal green. The pond remained. Only the pond.

He noticed, just breaking the surface, what looked like a waterlogged twig in spasms. Around it, the water surface clicked, opening and closing. Everything living was down there, in the deep, in the mud. He stared skyward one more time, half expecting to see a lark or a swallow flit across the blue. Always, there was something in nature catching your peripheral attention, like the amoeba you saw on the surface of your eye if you stared into the sun through closed lids.

But not today. Not even a midge. Not at the end of the world.

It was all down there. He stared at the twig and realized it was not a twig. An ugly fish (and what fish wasn’t ugly? Except maybe a swordfish or a seahorse.) with its spine thrust, curving, out of the silt. It was feeding, ramming its ugly lips into the garbage, its prickly spine arching out of the water. He could feel it without so much as touching. Those olive-brown scales, laid one over the next down the length of that iron-hard spine. Rub it the wrong way and you soon found out how smooth a fish wasn’t.

He allowed himself to slip down the small slope until his shoes just kissed the water. Silver lips reverberated away, disintegrating and mingling across the pond. With the world’s last sun beating on it like this, the pond surface seemed to leap and contort, fooling with the light, turning it into coins and shreds and disappearing nothings. And then all back to prosaic, dun calm.

It was surely all down there. He didn’t know why he was so sure of it, but the idea was good enough for now. The world had rolled up like a cheap carpet, and this was all that was left. He snatched a breath and threw himself into a makeshift dive. He never had learned how. But it was good enough for the end of things.

Under water, silt and weeds churned, ran by his face, feeling like sand grains and limp pasta. He would puke if he had to eat that stuff to live.

He pushed himself down into the dark where things beat against him in flight like brown flexed muscles. He tried to give chase but his heart wasn’t in it and the scum foiled him all about. He could see next to nothing.

He would stay still then. Up, once more, just one thrust of the arms and legs and he broke surface, gulped air, then sank within again and moved gently to the bottom, where he could feel roots and rocks against his shoes. Daring the filth, he opened one eye, then both. Not so bad. Now he could see. Cyclones of unsettled silt twirled and died. Vegetation shreds calmed and gathered. He could see fish bodies now. The lugubrious, unglamorous two-tone fish (silver and shit brown, no need for the exotic here) with their pouting mouths and half-mad stares. The brainless crustaceans fiddling about like idiots stocking Wal Mart shelves.

He saw his fingers reaching through churned smoke-squalls of pond bed mud. The eager backside of a muskrat kicking away from him. Endless acres of almost still water turning daylight to dusk in its furthest reaches where the submerged world was veiled by lily pad roots and other tubular still-life things. Roots gripping through thick, cold mud, sucking nourishment slowly up into leek-like bodies, pallid in the brackish, all-but-lightless water.

It looked like a sun fish, this thing staring him in the eyes. He recognized the sun fish from a childhood vacation in Vermont. At least, he thought so. Silvery scales, like a beaten aluminum cooking pot, and on the ridge of the back, brassy-copper burnishing. It stared into his eyes, held stationary in the water by shimmering fins, as thin as amoeba skin. He stared back, half afraid to see dead brainlessness, to feel the ancient fear of the reptilian world gripping the wide reaches of the brain. The deathly terrifying beginning of things in a fishes dead eyes. Reflecting that nullity, out of which, a quickening, a coupling of protoplasm, the fine hairline emergence of cells, creeping, pushing against a universe of death.

The fish stared into him and said, without expression, “So what are you going to do? Can you feel it yet?”

“Feel what?” He spoke, and didn’t choke on water. He tried another couple of words. “Do what?”

Surely it was supposed to feel strange, talking with a fish? And under water too.

But everything felt fine. He hadn’t been this comfortable in his skin for decades. The Great Reckoning was wonderful.

“You have to feel it, they say,” said the fish. “Kind of how a salmon feels when she surges upstream, or a swordfish when it lunges at the bait. Well, even as I feel when I go like this.” The fish darted about face and shot away through the murk, then flashed back, pushing a lifeless eye close to his.

He recoiled. “I don’t know how that feels, to be honest.”

“No matter,” mouthed the fish. “You do as you will. It will all flow. Maybe like lava and not like water, but it will all flow. Now it’s your turn, you know, to floooow.” The fish blew thick bubbles and cocked a bald eye at him. “Everyone gets one. It just happens by surprise, when you no longer expect it.”

“As if I could ever expect this.”

“You did. Search your life memory. You did expect it once. But time warped everything and you forgot.”

Forgetting. Yes, he’d done his share, and more.

“Go on,” said the fish.

He felt deathly shivers move through his body. His solitary, vulnerable body, naked under waterlogged clothes. Less muscular than a fish, with no tail to thrust him this way and that, only un-webbed hands on the ends of milk-white arms. Only a scrotum that shrank with fear, fear of loneliness and drowning and the utter end of things. Only small eyes that recognized so little, and saw even less in the turgid current he had churned up with his flailing legs.

Knowledge of his solitude brought convulsions. If he wasn’t careful fear would devour him; then pop, his end, like a fart reaching the pond’s surface.

He forced himself to tread water and ripped buttons from his leaden shirt. He wrestled the fake skin from his real flesh and pushed it aside and began to feel a creeping sense of liberation. Something golden, minute but golden, glowed in him for a second. He kicked down where he supposed his shoes still clung and felt them release and his toes curl and open, curl and open. Happiness. Dare he think it? Some kind of pure, simple happiness being born in his toes.

His hands had fumbled at his belt buckle and his pants were off before he had time to spin around. Then his underpants, and then the water enclosed his flesh, no longer chill but as warm as his own blood. His flesh and the flesh of water one and the same.

Dogpaddling in the blackness. The fish were gone. All gone, the air above, the horizon reflecting just under the water surface; the crustaceans, goose feet, weeds . . . . He thrust himself upward to break the surface, to gasp one last cupful of earth air, to say goodbye. Upwards, he thought, or remembered.

But there was no upwards. No longer any sky or any water skin through which to break.

His brain, gone. Consciousness, almost gone.

All that was left, a shimmering, golden glee, fibrillating in him like an impatient amoeba, a world egg.

He gulped the universe around him hungrily, then leapt up, thrilled to laughter, his legs dolphin-kicking behind him.

It was his turn. His body shimmered with laughter. Now he would start remembering, feeding off memories of desire, untrammelled love, the searing, painful beauty of nostalgia, of life framed by history and death. He would remember, and he would go further, deeper into life than he had ever glimpsed. His life, his murdered desires, his aging, had all just been foreplay. Now was the orgasm. The infinite orgasm.

It was his turn. To make a world.

He was golden laughter, and the water’s surface rippled in key.

***

The stick halted the naked body’s ghastly pirouette in the pond scum. Face down. Beyond breathing then — far beyond struggle. The officer lifted one large boot free of the mud and plunged it into the water, then planted his other as firmly as the slick ground would let him. He leaned over the body, turned it face up and studied it in his shadow. A happy corpse this one. What you would call a beatific smile on his face. The sun was slamming down on the nape of the officer’s neck, ramming cancer into his pores. This one was beyond that. He straightened, pressing a twinge out of his back.

“Looks like I got him,” he shouted up the hill.

The officer dragged the spongy weight up the bank and waited for the doctors to come out of their ambulance and pick their way down the slope. Stark naked he was, no clothing to identify him. But the shrinks had seen so many of their patients naked, they could probably recognize this one, even bloated and discoloured.

Last week, it had been that woman; stripped naked in the clock tower at the university, dived like a swallow — in her insane mind. She had landed like a leather bag full of cow shit and marbles. Then the other two, girl and guy, naked too, dug themselves a grave and almost succeeded in completely burying themselves. Broad daylight, or they might have managed it.

And three homeless guys, soaked themselves in whisky and sang, like they were speaking in tongues, then struck their matches and poof. It was like the universe sucked in, hard, and then they were gone. That time, charred bones, black flesh, no real shape. Could have been roast pig, or snow monkeys.

The guys on the beat had said there was another girl, almost right away, a native who sat naked by their devoured corpses, singing, rocking. It was like she wanted to be with them, but didn’t dare. Or maybe she was waiting for the right time. They had locked her up for her own good.

The world was going more insane than usual, he thought. Now this drowning. Come to think of it, this had to be the first drowning in The Coves. So shallow, it was not easy to do if you were sober, which apparently this guy always was. He had to have worked at it.

The officer looked up, back the way he had come, his mind registering the lab-coat doctors schlepping down the hill. But then, they weren’t. They had vanished. The ambulance that used to be there simply wasn’t.

Had it ever been? He checked his watch. Twelve forty-five. He had got here at 12:45. His watch must have stopped. And he must have imagined he heard the engine, the scrunch of wheels on gravel.

He rearranged his crouch and swivelled to the pond again. The cadaver was back in the water, slowly inching, bobbing outward.

Sunlight slanted diagonally, soft, golden mauve. The sun was retiring for the day. Not 12:45 at all. The body rocked, its head glinting, on again, off again, in shadowed water, then in evening air. The officer laughed. It was a welcome sight, like something completely fresh, as innocent as infancy.

When he was nine, he would watch into the creek behind the house, where the suckers swung about in olive green tide, and tiny fish flitted like bullets. He was watching now into the pond. His eyes followed a massive shoal of minute arrowheads, swarming this way, that way, swift as the flight of swallows who hunted in the night sky. He laughed, and began untying his shoes. He would just dabble his feet while he waited. It was so quiet. It was good. It was nice not to be a cop for a second. It was good, so good, to be nine. He wanted to swim.

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