Fortune, Flower & Falcon

Submitted into Contest #29 in response to: Write a story about someone discovering something new about themselves. ... view prompt

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A flower is burning within my mind. It is – was – a rose, soft and white as a dove on its stem. Now it runs coal-black all the way to the base, its edges alive with angry gold embers. The phantom scents of floral and ash fill my breath, spinning my vision off into a stomach-churning dance. This has happened before, and I cannot even state a preference on whether it means something as an omen or merely that I am going mad. Yet the rose is still there, and it is dying, and I can do nothing to save it. Instead I must watch it slowly burn away, until the voices of ghosts and shadows close in and call to me.

Ava. Go home.

I blink, the shadows shifting into daylight, the ghostly words taking on my sister’s voice. Under a veil of dizziness, the meadow comes back into view. The weight in my body returns as well, my balance wavering like water on a scale. 

“Ava,” says Risa softly, with just enough edge in her voice to break the spell. She is standing before me, tall as a mare and freckled as a ripe piece of fruit under a halo of sunlit sky. Her dark brown curls and eyes contradict our relationship – I inherited the same black hair and blue eyes that our brother did – but speaking for our personalities, we are nearly twins. Beside Risa is her hunting partner, old Anrai Murphy, the best shot in the village, bearing concern in his green-eyed gaze. More than anything, that is what pulls me awkwardly into consciousness.  Meanwhile, my sister’s face wears the words I myself cannot speak.

Not this, again.

Rule number one for being the island freak: Never draw unwanted attention. 

The other men and women in our party are six feet away, gossiping in Irish. With the flavor of their language heartier than Inis Mor’s best beer, my English ears only pick up bits of dialogue out of their puzzling conversation.

I glance at Risa and mouth, What are they going on about?

“Vendors coming in sighted a ship off the coast of Scotland,” she mutters. “Black paint on the masts.”

Well, there’s the week’s forecast for us: Misty with a chance of pirates. I know I make light of it, but we get reports like these every year and I have only seen one raid in the past five.

A sudden grunt swiftly kicks the conversation silent.

“McCaleigh! We can’t expect the birds to drop dead on account of one girl’s mind being stolen by the Little People, can we?”

Meet my former schoolmaster, Ed Breathnach. Rules two through ten of being the island freak:  Never draw unwanted attention from people who hate you.

Oh, and best not make them wait on you, either.

Risa is glaring daggers at the man who addressed her. Although slighting me in front of my sister is begging to be pushed into a long dark hole, I am not much offended. This belittlement was, after all, delivered by a man who has deemed himself king of the island just for the special family stitch on his jumper.

I sign to Risa my apologies. Passing them on to the rest of the party, she adds, “It’s alright, go on ahead. We’ll be but a moment.”

With Risa’s invitation to mull ahead carrying the effectiveness of wild horses, Breathnach leads his group down the hill. The white-gold sun above is working like a broken mirror, casting two filters over the scene; in one of them, the hills of Inis Mor shine like peridot carpet. Small buds of new wildflowers are sprouting from between the blades of grass. There are small rabbits abounding – I can hear them rustle from a short distance. And in the other perspective, Breathnach and his lot are there, moving with the shadows.

“But for Lord’s sake, you should go home.”

Risa’s tone of exasperation snaps my eyes out of following Breathnach’s gang. Then the hunting rifle nearly falls out of my arms again. Gingerly, I set it down on the grass before signing to my sister, If I leave now, you might end the day on attempted murder.

“Huh.” Risa turns to Anrai, flaunting an eyeroll. “Old Ed is sour as a lemon today.”

“And why do you think that is?” he hushes her, a sideways glance at me answering his own question.

But I shrug innocently and pull out my notepad for Anrai’s benefit. Likely because Ed rinses his mouth with his wife’s lemonade?

Risa and Anrai share a scoff at my scribble. Some of the lining in the clouds above is beginning to glow, threatening our hunt with more sunshine before it’s even midway through. It’s been a promising start – the gun I’ve been carrying for Risa has dropped two pheasants already.

But now the weather is transcending again, thanks to a dance between sunlight and the afternoon fog. Within moments the sky will fill with the startling snaps and pops of the sport – with a lock, load, and click of the trigger, the smallest game on Inis Mor won’t stand a chance.

Staring blankly on your feet must disqualify you from participation, I suppose. Anrai raises his hand at me, fending off a protest before it comes. “You should listen to your sister, miss. You won’t do yourself or others any good fainting out here. Get some food and rest.”

I haven’t fainted at all, and solitude in Kilmurvey feels like living a mere shadow of a life. Risa knows these thoughts are crossing through my head. And I know that she is forcing the measure of scorn into her tone when she says, “Stop being a stubborn banphrionsa. Just read a book for a few hours so that I can fill our table!”

I step back, my cheeks flushed from the sting of her scolding. Writing with a rapid jot, I tear off a paper from my notepad. This wasn’t my idea anyhow. Then I hand her the rifle and go, my feet kicking up clouds of dirt mixed in with the grass. I don’t know how she does it every time, but Risa will patronize me with the Irish word for “princess” and suddenly I am her humble servant. She calls this reverse psychology. She also received this skill as part of a package deal that includes a strong right hook and a compulsive need to recycle.

But she is right. I have been feeling very odd lately. It’s as though a profound wrongness has settled deep within, and only reminds me of its presence when I need it to lie dormant. And as much as I dislike sitting alone in the house and would rather stay by Risa’s side – even if just to carry that damn rifle – that would mean staying by Breathnach’s side as well. The irony is, he insists on treating me like a diseased potato because I’m different, but the muteness is the excuse and not the reason. Everyone else on this island has a heritage rooted into the soil itself, their ancestors a source of pride. When my family moved here in an attempt to shield its children from a civilization that was tearing itself apart, we brought along a modified Irish surname and no blood ties to the clans. To this day, the general sentiment of Inis Mor is that the McCaleigh family does not belong there.

You’d think people on this floating rock could prioritize at this point – the wars are over, our ancestors are dead. Alas, this community is still very Irish, while Risa and I are still very partly English. It’s one thing to be disliked because I can’t join an acapella group. But to be denied the small comfort of a friendship because I cannot change my own DNA is, I daresay, a mentality that probably brought down the world in the first place.

Fuming on this subject makes my walk seem faster. I am still far from making it out of the clearing when the thunder of a fired shot cracks through the sky. A piercing shriek sails by me, burning in my ears. Whatever it is, also knocks into my knees like a club. Although winded, I recover quickly to look at what has fallen in front of me – a large white bird, some kind of falcon, spattered with blood. It cries in distress, struggling to right itself and fly again. Stunned, I look more closely at the black eyes, the brown tips in its feathers. Whatever it is, it’s not native to the Aran Islands.

Don’t be afraid. With great care, I move to pick it up, which sends it into a panic. I am no veterinarian by any means, but the way the bird is moving indicates that it was grazed by a poor shot. My silent reassurances will be of little use to it, but I press a finger to my lips. It sees me and stills, long enough so that I can reach down and cradle it.  

There is shouting in the distance. Ol’ Lemon Breath is looking for his quarry. It’s okay, I will the falcon to understand. Breathnach will have you stuffed as a trophy over my rotting mute corpse.

My fingers trail along the feathers, familiarizing themselves with the stiff and soft textures. Why isn’t it fighting for its release? Is this normal bird behavior? I lift the falcon, now docile in comparison to its earlier temperament, and carry it home.

* * *

With the continents in shambles, places like London have been reduced to makeshift graveyards that host only the homeless, while cities of other, smaller countries are living underground, or on the cusp of the wilderness. The isles of Ireland, separate and far away enough from the ruined landscape, remain largely unchanged from their rustic origins. We are the cottages dotting an endless stretch of green, subject to pearl grey skies and the fresh wind in our faces. It is beautiful and vulnerable; it is home. For my brother and sister, it’s been a lingering ache to have seen the last hours of true civilization, and the last hours of our parents. All of that was gone by my third year, so I can’t miss the parents I never knew, any more than a voice I never had.

The falcon is silent in my arms as I stop in front of the cottage cellar. A motorcycle is resting against the door. My lips twitch in a half-smile; the seat has been freshly treated with leather polish. I use the same polish on my boots and jackets, and anything else I can use it for, because the musk remains on my father’s boots and my brother’s jackets, and it’s easy to picture one of them coming home for what they’d left behind.

The chunk of black chrome and tires that was Will’s beast before he left took me over a year of neglected home-based studies, and a hundred visits to baffled welders, to figure out how to put it together. (Post-apocalyptic reality has left us with the remaining odds and ends of the twenty-first century’s technology.) The punchline is that Risa, after revealing that she’d always known how to ride that blasted machine, had to be the one to train me. There may seem to be no point in it, yet it keeps the memory of Will close to me, and I’d like to think that by the time I see him again, I’ll be an accomplished motorist for pride’s sake.

Budging Will’s old chrome-and-oil beast aside, I creak open the cellar door and walk into a dim threshold. Lately, I’ve turned its primary function into a place of refuge; that way Risa won’t bother me when I start to have my momentary hallucinations. One could question the comfort of this plan, but life on a farm can affect the perception of scents, and make the ones in the cellar pleasant to hide among. Now it will hide another in need. But the falcon still hasn’t made a noise, and I hope fervently that it isn’t dead. I cradle it to and fro, waiting for signs of life from a delicate beating heart. There’s hardly any rationale about why this is so important to me. It may be satisfying on a petty level, as retribution towards Ed Breathnach. But perhaps it’s more about needing to be important to something else. To not be helpless, useless, soundless –

The falcon’s head turns. Its wings flap weakly, testing the injuries. Setting it in a bed of hay, I stare into one of its fierce black eyes and imagine that it can understand me. For one second, I almost believe it can. I had the cat kill all the mice. Would you eat some fish?

The bird does not answer, of course, but doesn’t seem to be going anywhere either. Promising mentally to be back in a minute, I step out of the cellar and begin towards the main house.

It’s a typical two-bedroom cottage, painted white with a blue door. The color is all chipping away – if it has paint on it, it will undoubtedly have spots without paint on it. As an infant I’d slept in a bassinet, with my parents in a bed nearby. After they were gone, Risa eventually took their room, and Will and I shared the other one. Other than that, the main room serves as parlor, kitchen, dining area, and workshop as needed. On my way to the icebox for scraps of leftover fish meat to feed the falcon, I find Poker’s latest nest. And, stooping to pick the cross I’d started weaving yesterday out of the blanket, I find Poker too.

Close to three years ago, Risa had been looking to kill some rats – she’d been swearing up and down that she’d seen one below the floorboards that just kept getting away. It turned out to be a dirty, grey longhaired cat that had been taking care of the rats for us. Carrying a watchful behavior akin to a gambler’s bluff, along with a tendency of being found next to the woodstove, he has earned himself both a name and a place in the family in Will’s absence.

And now, Poker is awake, glaring up at me with what I could swear are Risa’s eye daggers. My gaze drifts away from his face – something is sticking out between his belly and the floor; I pick it up and frown. Card stock from Penny Hill.

The self-proclaimed Knights of Penny Hill have been making a name for themselves for the past six months, recruiting from the islands for their shining gated community. Every now and again, we’ll hear of some charitable deed they’ve performed to encourage their ranks. On Inis Mor, their reputation is torn as a modern-day legend and a source of hilarity meant to knock one off his barstool. And now they’re writing personally to my sister.

Why are they writing to my sister?

Marisa J. McCaleigh

The Knights appreciate your response and will do what they can for you.

We offer various education options and a generous healthcare plan as part of our post-acceptance services. Unfortunately, it is our regret that we have limited openings and can only take one from your household.

For our campaign, the Knights intend to visit your location in the near future. Please present this identifying message for further inquiries.

Until our next correspondence, may you thrive in your wait for better days.

Respectfully,

Connor Emerson

Apprenticeship Division

Penny Hill

That was all of it, the epitome of English manners. Brief. Polite.

Polarizing.

Risa would never abandon me. It had been terrible enough to say goodbye to our brother; it would be against her very nature to break our trio into lonely souls. She’s probably dropped any further inquiries since receiving this note. Is that fair, though? I am technically an adult, able to care for myself, so what right do I have to hold her back from her chances at anything better?

Looking at the card is nevertheless a drain on my spirits. To be dragged along on a hunting excursion, only to come down ill with a disturbing case of omens, sent away, assaulted by a crashing bird, and to finally find a note from the Knights of Pretentious Hill saying they’d be happy to take my sister away from me?

And now some noise from the top as well – a deep, roaring rumble in the heavens. The thunder and the following crackle on the roof reminds me of the vapor I smelled earlier, which had seemed to merely be from mist in the air at the time. But when I reach our chipped blue door and push it open, I meet a warm rainstorm. 

It’s been such a day. When I was born, it was to a storm like this one. Risa rarely speaks of the stranger anymore, the one who appeared at the door in the old London house. She whispered once, while we were waiting out the last pirate raid, that she remembered Mum and Dad being told that my first word would be my last. Imagine what the town would say to that destiny? Ava McCaleigh, too mute to be pretty and too English to have a family stitch.

I want that on my headstone.

With each raindrop that hits the house, I realize more strongly that maybe, just maybe, I’ve never seen a day that wasn’t odd in my life. There’s nothing to be done about it yet, so I sit on the porch and wait for lightning to strike.



February 14, 2020 20:38

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1 comment

Zilla Babbitt
22:10 Feb 26, 2020

I can see how much effort you put into every detail of your story. There are so many excellent aspects of Irish mysticism and wit in here. Well done, keep it up!

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