They strode towards the summit as generations apart. The last of the snow cover was almost gone and the dead leaves of the previous year had begun to retake the ground. The old man and the young girl had a short but steep hike to the overlook, where views across the valley and snow-capped hills awaited. The old man was breathing heavily.
“When I first moved to the area I absolutely hated the winters. They felt so bloody long. But that’s changed. Honestly, I can now say that I almost enjoy them,” he chuckled.
Agnes, a naturally shy girl, let the statement sit for a moment.
“What caused…” she misspoke, “I mean, what do you think caused the change?”
“Medication,” Pistorius asserted.
Agnes thought that this could have been a joke, but Pistorius was not smiling. The white puffs of his nose hairs shimmered in the breeze. He wore a tan cardigan with a large maroon stripe. Agnes found it a bit corny.
“Well now,” Pistorius laughed, “I’ve just realized that I’ve yet to congratulate you. What terrible manners! Congratulations, Agnes!”
Agnes nodded and smiled.
“That is quite a poem, young lady. I’m not sure if you know this, but I hand-picked the winner myself.”
“Yes, I knew that. Thank you.”
They glanced at each other. She dug her hands deeper into the pockets of her jacket. The gray sky peaked through the lifeless trees ahead of them. Farmlands blanketed the land behind. It actually was quite pleasant, Agnes told herself, to be here with him.
Garrison Pistorius, the man in the unfortunate sweater, was perhaps the most famous poet alive. His works had been translated into dozens of languages and he had won countless awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. An aura of greatness accompanied his presence. Agnes was understandably nervous for this walk.
“It is the illusions we create, as its creators, that gives our works the… gravitas. I’m sure someone once said that more eloquently.” He laughed. “Illusion gives one agency. Understand? It is the true magic. That’s the connection we have to the world around us. As their magicians. And them as our subjects.”
Agnes nodded but was unsure as to what, exactly, Pistorius was talking about. She wasn’t the first person to be in this position. His status had awarded his words an air of wisdom, no matter how precarious they were. Colleagues would often leave interactions confused. Those closest to him noticed a dramatic turn in his mental capacities. No one dared to share such thoughts out loud.
“Are you familiar with the works of Hesiod?”
“Oh, of course not. Why would you be? No, Hesiod is not the hottest new rapper.” Pistorius laughed. “Hesiod was an ancient Greek writer. It was he who wrote of the creation of the world and mythological gods. He gave origins to these things. People desperately need origin stories, you know? But the audacity of this! Don’t you see? Though, to me, the greatest thing Hesiod did was to insert the working class into his work. This is quite different from the epic poets like Homer and such. Just think, to give people both pictures of the gods and pictures of themselves! With neither subject greater than the other. On equal footing in equal pieces. Now that’s magic! What a monumental achievement. It truly breaks my heart to think of this.”
Pistorius looked down at the child. She was pure and innocent, but he felt her quite lost in his incessant babble.
“How old are you again?”
“I’m twelve. I’ll be thirteen in a month, though.”
They walked silently for a bit. Just the sounds of the birds and the nasal wheeze of the old man.
“Twelve,” he finally replied. “My goodness. So precious,” he laughed and shook his head. The condescending chuckle was not lost on Agnes. “And, do you have a boyfriend, Agnes?”
In both presentation and content, this question struck Agnes as horrific. Why should this matter? She thought. And why the peculiar emphasis on boyfriend? Agnes felt the need to reply, but didn’t quite know how.
“I’m not into them really, I’m…”
Agnes stopped herself. She felt a chill. She did not know why she almost told the old man this secret. She had known her entire life that she was a lesbian, at least as far back as she could remember. But she let no one, not her parents, nor her friends, in on this secret. Why she almost let this slip, to this man of all people, she would never know. A tremendous howl from Pistorious deepened this regret.
“Oh yes! Of course not, Agnes! Afterall, you are only twelve.”
“Ah yes, my mistake. You are almost thirteen. My mistake, indeed.”
Pistorius smiled. Agnes was cold and numb. She caught him glancing down at her, reading her every thought. He knew. Somehow, he did. He knew her secret. She was ashamed that she said anything. She was ashamed that she even wrote the damn poem. It all felt so corny. Yet, they continued on.
Ahead in the dead leaves, Agnes spotted an object moving. It was a bird. Its brown speckles were reddened by blood. Agnes gasped, unable to contain her adolescent shock.
“Oh no!” She rushed towards the bird. “But it’s still alive! You see? It’s still alive!”
The bird tried to escape the oncoming humans but could barely move. Its wings flapped pitifully. Panic filled its eyes. Death was coming from inside and out. Pistorius stood over the bird with contempt.
“A ruffed grouse. Pellet spray it appears. Bloody lousy shot too.”
“What should we do?” Agnes turned towards Pistorius with pleading eyes. They were the eyes of a desperate and weak child searching for the strength and guidance of an adult. Gone was the mysterious prodigy, wise beyond her years, and exposed was her true innocence. A chasm had occurred, noted Pistorius, and he found her to be lovely and vulnerable.
“But what can we do, Agnes? The creature is far beyond saving.”
“If we had taken our phones with us…”
“And what? Who would we call that could help? We are miles away from anyone who could even make an attempt at helping.”
“But we could at least try,” Agnes helplessly stared at the bird.
“In a best-case scenario, a nearby man will swoop in with assistance and miraculously save the bird from the brink of death, now forever disabled, at complete odds with practical survival in the wild, whose miserable existence is merely prolonged because you felt sorry for it. Does that sound better than leaving it here for a swift death by a hungry predator?”
Agnes began to feel that Pistorius had somehow planted the bird here. It served as some sort of lesson passed from elder to younger poet. It made little logistical sense, Agnes knew this, but she felt that, somehow, it must be true.
“No. The bird dies today,” Pistorius proclaimed and continued the ascent. “Come along now.”
Agnes looked down at the bird. It gulped air. Its eyes were glossier than before. She then looked at the old man as he strung along the path. He must be right, she assured herself. She started walking, leaving the bird behind.
“You know, Agnes,” Pistorius said as they approached the summit, “I can’t help but read what others write and question whether or not I would’ve come to a similar diction. It's a flaw in myself, I accept that, but I simply cannot help it. And so when I read your line, ‘The broad depression / Of youth and becoming’...’'
“Yes?” Agnes held her breath.
“It just felt so…so… leaden.”
Agnes felt a pit in her stomach. Leaden? She wanted to cry.
“But, alas, that’s just one man’s opinion. One is their own bard, I suppose.”
Agnes desperately wanted to get away from this man. It was a cheap dagger, but a dagger nonetheless. Agnes reminded herself that she was strong. She always had been. Criticism is one thing to easily brush off. Especially from this antique of a man. Especially from one who wears such a terrible sweater. Still, she could not rid that pit from her stomach.
The trees tapered off and the vast gray sky opened. They’d arrived. Farmlands were scattered like great patches on the blanket of earth. Those snow-capped hills framed the scene. A single wooden bench greeted the two. They sat. Pistorius inhaled deeply, consuming the air as if consuming the entirety of the world. Agnes was still. Her stomach tightened.
“Life is precious, don't you understand?” Pistorius said as he placed his hand on the girl’s knee.
The nausea consumed her.