This arose from improvised bedtime stories with my daughter, which I refined and adapted into an experiment with serialized storytelling on Facebook in February of 2018.
BRIAN THE LIAR
Brian was a liar. Everyone knew it.
“You’re such a liar, Brian, and so’s your old man!”
Brian thought it was strange that Thomas next door would say that. Brian knew he was a liar. He liked to “embellish,” as his mum would put it. At his young age, life just didn’t quite live up to what he thought it ought, didn’t have enough suspenseful turns of the page, or sudden twists of the tale. But his father would say, “Embellishment’s as false as any fib.”
Brian’s father wasn’t the other liar in his family. That had been his father, Brian’s Grum, Grum Rufus. Grum Rufus was what Brian’s father would often call “inveterate.”
It was after Grum’s funeral that Brian pulled down the folding ladder that led to the attic. He knew he wasn’t supposed to stand on the chairs with velvet bottoms, but he really wasn’t supposed to be in the attic, so he thought No sense in paying a penny for a lit match.
The space was short, a crawlspace for his father, who always wore dungarees to enter it, but perfect Brian size. Most things had been pushed in without his father entering, and various boxes formed a kind of ring-wall around the trap entrance. He wanted to get away, maybe play Quasimodo, and this was shaping up perfectly.
Brian hoisted himself up with some difficulty—he wasn’t what father called “the sporting type”—and once up, slipped into a fissure in the fortification of boxes.
The attic was almost as he’d imagined, only in different shapes and arrangements. Dust covered everything (except the Christmas decorations, most of which comprised the ring wall) and a dim, azure light oozed through painted vents in the walls at either end of the roof peak. Furniture napped under sheets. A few lone, fallen books lay about. More boxes squatted in arrangements lazily threatening collapse. There were crates, and trunks, and lumber. It was dull to excess.
Then Brian noticed, lying open in the light of the southerly vent, a book rather larger than the rest.
It was lying atop a similarly large trunk, and on drawing nearer he recognized the page’s scrawl right away as belonging to his Grum. Within reach at this end of the attic were several more things he thought must have belonged to Grum Rufus—a flag, a bat, a garment bag and several wooden boxes—all apparently pushed there years ago, when Grum had moved into the house.
Though open, the book was as dusty as most in the attic. Brian reached out to brush some away to better read the text. He was intrigued by the bold title, which announced itself even from under all that dust.
1917, Sinai Peninsula
This tale is one I’ve kept for myself. Perhaps I’ll share it someday, give someone the key to a very strange lock, and open up their minds to the true mysteries of this great, wide world.
I’d been warned not to go up that day. We had an amateur astronomer in the ranks, a Lieutenant, no less, who warned me off due to eclipse. A partial one he said, and I assured him a few moments of darkness didn’t put the Great War on hold. He tried to tell me it would be more than that, but I was a young man, and arrogant besides. So when the blindness struck I was even less prepared than I ought.
Looking on the wreckage of my Bristol, my good, stout “Scout,” I couldn’t help but marvel at how I could still be living, if not for much longer. Those old Araby deserts meant death to anyone alone in them, I was certain, and my canteen would not last more than a few miles. Still, I ventured North, in the spirit of Britain.
Chaps at the base were fond of discussing the optics of mirage. Thinking I saw my first before me, I marveled at how real it seemed, a shimmering on the far horizon. As the light left the sky—properly now—and the strange chill of a desert night followed, it shimmered on. And grew. And soon there were sounds, and smells.
I stumbled in among the foliage, amazed, half expecting the enemy beyond the tree line. I could hardly make a thing out, but knew any oasis to be found had been found literally ages before. Entire trade routes, stretching miles and miles, existed exactly to connect such spots. So I felt as much shock as gratitude to stumble splashing into a dark, empty lake beyond the trees.
I fell back to the bank, mouth in the water and slurping like some farm’s fool ass. Has ever there been such a baptism? I was saved. Not only would I not die of thirst, I might just live to fly another day. Not a soul stirred within the span of trees, nothing made a sound save my slurping salvation.
I was safe, safer than anyone I knew just then. I was away. I was alone.
So it seemed.
Brian found another chance to escape to his attic sanctuary after the long, agonizing wait of a day-and-a-half. He’d left Grum Rufus there on the side of the oasis lake when the dinner bell had rung, and down the rungs of the attic ladder he’d dutifully clambered. And for a day-and-a-half, he’d had to swallow anticipation because his parents just wouldn’t leave him be.
He knew they were worried. Well: He knew his mother was worried. It was she who kept him by her hem all day, until he was so tired of her attention that he fell asleep even without a story or song (and she had the most beautiful voice).
On the Tuesday afternoon, though, following Grum’s funeral he found his way back to the velvet-upholstered chair, the folding ladder, the book above. And he read on…
When in the morning—or some morning, further along—I awoke, my hair was wet with the ebb of the miraculous lake. I was fortunate not to have drowned. In spite of painfully burned skin where it was exposed, I was fortunate, in every way.
With the sun blazing down I had the opportunity I hadn’t before to properly survey the oasis. The whole thing seemed a miracle, defined by its limitations, its borders, the bizarre juxtaposition of life within vast, harsh nothingness. Yet I knew how such geographic features worked, how natural they were, unavoidable springs in the midst of the desert which, in turn, nurtured animal life, who brought seeds and fertilization, and so on, and so on. An oasis was more than chance or coincidence, yet nothing like fate. It was there simply because it was possible.
The plants surrounding the miracle lake included date palms, fruited cacti, and two coconut palms. I even had an astonishing seasoning for my meals, for the thyme that grew amongst the outer fringes of the oasis was incomparable to any I had ever known, aromatic as though it were steamed even as it grew fresh. Given the lush surroundings I knew I was likely to see a bird or two were I there for any significant time, but I also knew I had to save my sidearm for other worries.
Then too, there was the strange lake, and its stranger phenomena.
The water was largely rimmed with flint; mostly a jagged, greenish jasper, I thought—a useful feature. When combined with the steel of my belt buckle it could help me light a fire. As most oases lakes were, the thing was crystal clear such that I could see the silt basin yards out from the shore. Where it sank out of sight the water seemed to become its own deepening, blue shadow. The center of the lake was an umbra, unknowable, and probably the source of its spring, so seeing the stones float up in the middle almost seemed perfectly explicable.
They weren’t stones, of course. Even on first sight, I must have intuited them to be eggs. I tried to rationalize that they might be seed pods of some kind. But then I saw one in the process of surfacing, and what seed pods ever looked like these? Almost a perfect sphere each seemed, some circumference between a golf and a baseball, and gleaming as though always wet, or perhaps coated in some kind of mucous.
I kept my eye on them (even as I kept my distance) over several days. I still bathed in the lake—too rare a privilege in those days to surrender—but swam less, and kept well-clear of the center. Of course I hoped to protect the eggs from my thrashing about but, moreover, I couldn’t stop wondering what had laid them … and where it might be hiding.
A proper soldier, even an upstart airman such as I have been, is on constant guard from the enemy without and within. Astonished with each passing day that my sanctuary was invaded by neither migratory man nor beast, I took the extra precaution of slinging an improvised hammock high above, practically in the foliage of two date palms. From this vantage, swathed in parachute silk, I could not only avoid trouble but survey nearly all, especially the some half-dozen translucent orbs glommed together at the lake’s eye.
One morning I emerged from my chrysalis to find the eggs had sunk again. Or so I assumed, for they were nowhere to be seen.
I clambered down one of the trunks to investigate closer. There was no sign of them at the center, and the lake seemed as still as the sky above. I had overslept, I realized upon finding the sun, and decided to bathe before it reached too close to midday to safely bare my skin.
Before I set a toe in the water, I saw movement. My eyes drawn to it, a liquid-quick curl out in the darker water, they nearly missed the nearer spectacle. When I did glance down again, I saw one of the seven for the first time, conducting its wriggling, erratic swimming just there before my bare feet.
I leapt back, probably even shouted, and the creature darted back to the darker waters. After a few moments sitting bare cheeks in the sand, I managed a mental image. It had been not like a fish, but more an eel, with a long, almost fin-like tail trailing out from a featureless head.
I did not stay out of the water forever. After a little cautious testing I found the little not-fish, though significantly larger, had more in common with minnows or tadpoles than eels. They seemed playful with one another, and it wasn’t too long before they allowed their curiosity to overcome their trepidation during my twice daily baths.
Hubert, Albert, Egbert, Norbert, Schubert, Halbert and Berta. At first the names were so I could call them all “Bertie,” but it wasn’t too long before I started noticing little distinctions between one another. Eggie’s narrower snout, Hughie’s somewhat paler flesh that made him easier to spot farther out in the lake, the way Berta would always swim a tight circumference a few times in any visit to me.
I was lucky to have them. After two moon cycles, I had given up protecting myself from wolves and Turks, lighting signal fires every three days with what fuel I could spare from the dwindling kindling of the oasis. Setting the fires close to the waters, I hoped the surface would help to reflect it farther into the desolate desert sky. Whenever I did, the Berties would swim up, almost as though in formation to salute the fire.
I set myself certain puzzles to keep my mind occupied, playing the scientist with the task of classifying my unexpected companions. I pondered what sustained them, theorizing that the silt of the lake basin probably contained some form of algae or the like. I noticed them spending more time toward the surface, and thought perhaps I noted them growing paler. I knew they’d grown larger. And one day, I became certain of something I’d come to suspect about the Berties’ transformation.
As their color lightened, differences in their hue and patterning also became more distinct. At the same time, I thought I noticed them widening, specifically just below where their little gills protruded, at the gradually more-distinct boundary between their heads and the rest of their forms.
Before much longer—less than another month—I had given up on the signal fires, and the polywogs were swimming more with their new pair of legs than their still-substantial, finned tails.
It could mean only one thing. The barrier between their world and mine would soon be crossed in the opposite direction. Rather than visiting them in their aquatic home, they would soon be walking into mine.
Brian started at the sound of his father’s voice at the foot of the stairs. He wasn’t meant to be home for at least another hour! The ladder was even still down!
He would have to be quick, but he also couldn’t bear to stop Grum’s story again, not where it was, not when he didn’t know when he might be back in the attic. So Brian clutched the large book with both hands and pulled it to his chest.
Or he tried, anyway. But all that happened was that he pulled himself down toward the dusty tome. He couldn’t even jiggle the thing. Brian took a closer look.
It was attached to the trunk beneath—bolted by both covers. Now that he looked, he could see that the book was in fact exactly the width and breadth of the lid. And he saw, too, that the trunk bore on its facing panel a large lock, knitting its lid to its box with a rusty, iron will.
Brian knew the best way to make his parents believe he was ill: It was to believe himself he was ill. That way, his face would be a little green when he told them. That way, he’d feel warm to the touch, and his breathing would sound off. That was the way that he managed to be back in the attic with Grum Rufus’ grandiose journal the very next morning.
It was the jasper that brought the little Berties out of the water. It rimmed the lake in plentiful, jagged pieces, and they were drawn to it like frogs to flies. Halbie was the first of them to go for it.
I could tell by the twin, narrow stripes of emerald green that had begun showing down his length. He’d been the first to approach me during one of my baths as well, always forging ahead while his siblings held back. I nearly cried laughing. The little fellow could hardly find his webbed feet, much less use them under his body. It was more like flopping than even scooting, but there Halbie was, so determined, so serious, so focused on his prize.
And he had it. He found a jasper stone half the size of his head and swallowed it whole. Then it no longer was funny, suddenly. Not a laughing matter, at any rate. Some will still find me funny, in all this. I’d seen such atrocity by that time, such violence, but here I was, fraught that one of my polywogs was going to expire from plain idiocy.
He didn’t. Halbie managed to swallow the huge chip of stone, then flopped his way back to the waters. And a couple of days on, I saw it happen again. And the rest followed. And as this went on and on, this tide of intrusion, theft, and return, the Berties found their feet, and thensome.
I waited for forelegs to join their hind, and for their tails to shorten, recede, disappear. Neither occurred. Rather, somehow my subjects found a kind of balance between their ever-stronger legs and their substantial tails. At first, it was the drag of the tail, the pull of the legs. But eventually Eggie managed to lift her tail and lower that snout just a bit, and in almost the same breath leapt into a sprint. And once that was won, all of them had to be about it.
Their balance was never perfect. A sprint would always end in a scramble, and sometimes tumble, ass-over-fore. Yet other changes were afoot (pun intended) that helped with all the spills and rolls.
The more time they spent out of the lake, the more the blazing sun seemed to change them from dark to pale. Further, their slippery skin started to ash, looking for the world like a turn to a wicked sunburn. Bumps swelled and flakes fell, and I took to trying to draw them back to the water. When it was clear they could no longer be enticed that way, I pulled the other, coaxing their scaling skins away into the shade of the foliage.
They just took it for a game; good practice for their jog and turn-about.
I was particularly worried about Berta. Her flesh had blanched almost to an aquamarine, and was swollen in a quilt of scaling all over, but nowhere so rough as two lengths on her back that stretched from just below the nape of her neck nearly to her hips. These were raised and irritated, and they seemed to irritate her. She would snap her cartilaginous mouth at her back, twisting her stubby neck to the best of her ability, and drop to her haunches to try and reach with her hind claws.
I’d stopped counting the moons. I’d stopped roasting my dates. I had terrible bowels, to be perfectly frank, but I still cared enough to drag myself beyond the borders of the oasis to handle that business. Every time I did, I looked out over the vastness and pondered which way hope lay.
I don’t know what I would have done without my little Berties.
My worries over Berta seemed justified one morning, when I awoke to a strange noise. It was one of their cries—which sounded like nothing so much as baby geese—but neither hungry nor triumphant. Nor was it coming from the water, nor under my hammock, where the Berties had taken to sleeping on nights not too windy.
When I had shimmied down one of the supporting trees, I spotted her on the beach, and each and every of her siblings looking on. She was writhing in the sand on her poor back, and reminding me of how her brother Halbie had squirmed onto land for the first time. With retching horror I saw her blood mixing with the sand and jasper. I covered my mouth. I confess: I wept to see my little friend convulsing.
I shouted, too, startling all of us watching (though me worst of all). From under Berta’s tormented back had shot out what looked like a long wad of bloodied skin and bones. I thought that must be the beginning of the end, a forceful expulsion of something crucial. And, I was not wrong. But the end was not the sort I anticipated.
A moment later, another wad extended out from her other side. She gave two more twitching honks, black eyes wide as trouser buttons, then closed her eyes and rested. Yet Berta still breathed, and easier. She seemed quite asleep there in a thin nest of her own blood and flesh.
The others lost interest, and wandered off to the scrub, or water, or stony breakfast. I crept closer, wondering if I should move her out of the sun, which is when I finally saw what Berta had been working so hard to sprout.
The long, thin bones were not bare, merly evident from under subtle muscle and bloody, paper-thin skin. The assemblages were spreading and drying on either side of her resting form, their punctuations of bone fanning as they did so. It was so obvious, once the digits spread sufficiently to show the translucent webbing between them.
They were wings.
They all went through the metamorphosis, each in his (or her?) own time. And the wings seemed to correct their balance, to offer the counterweight and subtle adjustments they required to avoid moving like awkward toddlers. My Berties, in fact, were animals. They had gone from sea to land and—it seemed inevitable—would soon flee beyond both, to the sky.
I was due to flee, too. If only I knew where, which direction wouldn’t condemn me.
Before I could see my subjects, my friends, my children fly, however, there was another eclipse. Once more the sun was blotted out in the middle of the day, inexplicably. Hot winds blew straight down, it seemed, in rhythmic gusts. A truly bizarre sensation, unlike any weather I’d ever known.
When I looked up, my body bolted of its own accord to and up the trees on which hung my hammock. I wrapped myself in that ultra thin, silken protection, just peeking out from a slit in the fabric. My mind could not grasp what I saw, even as I looked on. My bladder released, and I felt no shame. Only fear.
The oasis lake sloshed out its bounds, and the children honked ecstatic, as their mother finally descended.
Brian held his hands down on the book, blocking the words and buoying his knees. He had to read on. He had to. It was the greatest experience he had ever known, reading Grum’s journal, with its undefined possibilities, its impossible reality. He also had to speak to his father. He had to.
What Brian knew was that the attic, his own chilly, dusty oasis, was coming to an end. No matter the result of the story, no matter how many more might be hiding in the rest of the big book, soon he would be done with his little sanctuary. Or it would be done with him. One way or another, a goodbye was coming.
And Brian knew he had to speak to his father.
The dragon—what else to call it? To whom would we make concession, or feign comfort? The Berties’ mother was incredible, the vey fulfillment of all I had seen of their metamorphoses and more. She was at least as large as a bloody Riesenflugzeug, just about filling the lake, the wings threatening to knock down every tree should she open them to their full extent. She was the color of sand itself, etched all about with a pale azure amidst her myriad scales.
That was what all that pebbling of the Berties’ skin had been about, I realized. Actual scales, forged by the sun, sand, and wind-borne grit. That was not the only fully formed feature she possessed, however. Her neck was realized too, the fins on her tail also full and decorous. Most different, though, was her long, long tongue.
The Berties flocked to her, instinctively leaping in and out of the water before her impressive breast. She regarded them, yes, but I was at a loss to guess her feelings. If there is such a thing. I was petrified, and she was inscrutable, slowly turning her equine head this way and that. Then her tongue flicked, in-out, a yard long at least and lightning quick.
I once saw a man evaporate a pigeon with a bull whip, and could not help but think of it then.
The giant creature rolled its neck. Its abdomen lurched, and the babies’ honking became ecstatic. She jerked two more times, and suddenly the base of her neck swelled. I watched her whole throat stretch, something rising. In a burst of viscous saliva, out from between her jaws came a huge, hairless body. A horse, or perhaps camel, landed amidst the Berties with a wet thwump,and they were upon it in a trice.
My Berties. As they really were.
Brian knew it was exactly the wrong time. Exactly wrong, for approaching his father. He was in his study, in his leather-backed chair, with his silver lighter and his silver box of cigarettes. He had a brandy. He was reading a book. It was dead quiet. All the signs were there.
His mother had warned him off approaching his father in this very state. It was his time, his time to reflect, his time to consider, which Brian supposed must be very important to a man like his father. But he could not approach his father at a regular time, not about this, and he could not wait any longer. The book had hatched something in his head, and he needed a reckoning.
Brian walked into his father’s study as silently as a fugitive mouse, and cleared his throat with a high-pitched gagging. His father turned, and his brows knit in a dark tangle.
That tongue had me hypnotized. I watched it like an owl with its eye on a scampering mouse … or perhaps the mouse, with its eyes on the enormous owl.
As the children fed, ravenous and with teeth I hadn’t realized they now possessed, on the body below, the mother brought out her tongue slowly and ran it up and down their sides. She might have been cleaning them, or smelling them, as some snakes I believe do. They were oblivious. I was obsessed. Her tongue was like a silvery cord. Made of muscle, yes, but studded all over with seemingly metallic barbs. I imagined it must rasp, like a cat’s.
I thought, couldn’t help but think, that with its speed it could tear just about anything from anything.
After some time the Berties had had enough of their meals, and lolled off the corpse, their legs buckling slightly with all they had consumed. They spread themselves out on the sand, stretching their delicate wings lazily in the sun. Their mother, too, took the opportunity to rest. She stretched her neck long, shuddering and stretching her wings, and the one on my side rustled over several shrubs below and to my left. I held my breath, but she just relaxed, withdrawing her wings again and curling her neck as she brought her head down to rest on the sand amidst her babies.
I knew it to be my best chance to flee, but the question again arose, that which I had wondered over now for months of isolation: Where? Which way to go? Perhaps now I had sufficient motivation to flee, but then again too if the great beast woke I would not evade it even if I had a mile’s headstart across the endless flatness.
I had not lacked for decisiveness (to a fault, I must in my old age admit) at that age. My time in the oasis had changed me. But maybe it was merely the Berties. Maybe I wasn’t quite ready to run off on them.
I don’t know if I drowsed there in my cocoon, but I was made alert again by a strange sound from one of the children—Albert. He hiccuped, it seemed. Midway to a belch, and smacked his fishy beak. This did not escape his mother’s notice, and she roused.
She brought her snout near that burping, hiccuping baby dragon, and her steely tongue lashed forth. It kissed him. He flinched at the cracking lick, and she watched carefully, tongue once again retracted.
Albert smacked his mouth a few more times, and nosed the nearby jasper shards until another burp rose from his gullet. With this one, he snapped his mouth as it burst forth, and caught the air.
Caught it aflame.
A tiny burst of fire jet from his mouth, blue and yellow-orange. It seemed to spin in a brief ball at the end before dissipating. Albert peered at where the flames had been, then flexed his wings and puffed out his little breast.
Sure as our ultimate end, each of them received a kiss from mommy, and every one was soon belching fire every which way. They jumped about, hopping and flapping, and sprayed small fire in every direction. I was not surprised when the scrub of the oasis caught the flames. How could I be surprised by such a mundane development after all I had witnessed?
Before long, it was a great ring of fire surrounding the loving family. I was sweating all over already, and the heat of the flames beginning a slow advance up the two trunks holding my hammock aloft felt like a force, physically pushing me out of the silk. I was doomed either way. I dropped out, clutching the sweaty fabric with white knuckles to save myself from falling into the inferno below.
She swung her head to face me, and shook me with roaring.
“Father,” Brian began, intending to apologize for disturbing him. Yet at the last half-moment he realized his father wouldn’t respect that.
“I need to understand something, father,” he began again. “Something about Grum Rufus.”
Brian’s father held his eyes, and ground his jaw around his unfiltered Woodbine. Brian could now make out the title of the book he held closed on one finger to hold his place:Culture and the Coming Peril. His father grunted softly. Brian swallowed.
“Was Grum a liar, Father?”
Brian still held his father’s gaze, but he felt he might be stooping from the weight of it by then. He thought of his grandfather pissing himself in his hammock, a thing that probably hadn’t happened. Yet he could just feel how true the compulsion could be.
His father sighed, eyes still hard, but used his free hand to pinch the cigarette from out his mouth and grind it in the ashtray that always stood ready on the side table. That ashtray was the only thing in the room that didn’t look antique or bespoke in some way, a notched glass dish converted from an old green soda bottle. As his father scooped up his snifter for a sip of brandy, Brian thought about his mother coming into the study for her only permitted chore there—to empty that ashtray.
“Come around this way, son. Can’t speak to you properly if I’m all twisted up like a snake, and it seems you’d be spoken to.”
Brian made his way carefully to stand before the armchair. His father looked him up and down before speaking again, which made him itch under his shirt.
“You’re at that age where you grow overnight. It’s a dangerous time, and I want you to handle it with respect, do you mind? Respect not only for me, and your mother, your family, but yourself, most of all.”
Brian nodded. He didn’t really understand at all, but obviously he would nod. His father went on.
“Did you hear your grandfather was a liar? Did someone say it?”
“No,” Brian started, “No, sir. Well … no. But, I feel like, at some point, you said as much, Father.”
Brian’s father sighed again, and raced to draw another smoke from the silver box, but changed course and leaned forward, elbows on knees and book now held between both big hands. At this posture, he was at Brian’s height, and he could look him in the eye.
“Now, I never did, son. I never did call your grandfather a liar. And I know this, because that would have been disrespectful. What I’ve done, what I used to do … I used to question his veracity. And later, his acuity. But, listen…”
His father slid the book back and forth between his palms a bit, and looked to be chewing on something tough on one side of his mouth. It confused Brian. He hadn’t known his father to rely on nervous gesture, had known him in fact to disdain them. Then he could see those gray-green eyes, still hard, gleam. But he never saw his father shed a tear.
Rufus’ son went on, hardly a quaver in his baritone:
“Your grandfather, your ‘Grum’s’ stories were very important to him. He indulged in them, it’s true, as another man might indulge in a, a cigarette, or brandy, from time to time. I never believed them. They never made any sense to me, even as a boy, but as I grew older I also grew to resent them altogether. His insistence on them, like a bad joke told again and again, as though the repetition would build to good humor, a better reception. He seemed a fool in that way. A fool he seemed, and a fool I thought him.”
My father sniffed, let slip his finger from its place in the book, which closed with a quiet, yet satisfying thump. He pinched his temples in one hand, but turned back, and Brian did his best not to fidget.
“Grum built us, us all, a life. He was my father, and I a father to you, and you by the grace of God will go on to carry our line. We owe everything we have and are to him. So, no. No, son, your Grum was not a liar. Not ever. My God, he travelled the world, the entire world. Of course he had stories. And for being our foundation after all that adventure, well … I suppose we could have afforded him a little embellishment.
“Now, I think I can say I have answered your question sufficiently. Your Grum was not a liar, not now nor never. He and I were different. But there was … love, there. And perhaps our differences have been good for you, and that’s best. Oh! And before you go…”
Brian’s father had given him permission to depart, and hadn’t torn down the house with admonishment. It was a clear, if confusing in execution, victory. Now he engaged his cigarette box at last, and pulled a slim object from it, but what he withdrew was not an unfiltered Woodbine. It was a tarnished key on a tagged string, and he held it out to Brian.
“Your grandfather wanted you to have this. It was among his papers in the safety deposit box, and you’ll find your name on it. The corresponding lock is most likely lost to time, but … it is always nice to have a thing by which to remember someone gone. So. I hope when you are gone from my study, it will be my last interruption for the evening. Goodnight son.”
Brian walked back to the door, staring at the old key. He stopped before the door, and could not stop himself from what he knew amounted to ritual suicide: A further question.
“Father, I already miss Grum. I missed him immediately, so much, more than I ever imagined a person could. Do you, Daddy…?”
Brian’s Father half turned toward him from his chair, looking just at the floor a few feet away.
“Yes. We mustn’t wallow in our grief, Brian. It’s selfish, and near-sighted. But, yes. I miss him. I miss most the stories, and all those things that were most irritating to me about him.”
Brian’s father chuckled. It was a very, very strange noise to Brian’s ear.
“What I would not give to hear again, just once again, one of his ‘Bertie’s. I can’t recall a time I didn’t hate that nickname. What has it even to do with the name Reginald? Absurd. Yet here we are. Goodnight son.”
With that, Brian’s Father was back to his book, and his brandy, and Brian was back to the attic one more time. He shut his father’s door as gently as he possibly could.
I hung there suspended, my bare toes slowly blistering with the heat of the brush fire below, yet I could feel the heat of their mother’s breath even through that. I was transfixed by the huge orbs that were her eyes, their narrow black pupils suspended in gray-gold webs of iris, interrupted rarely and swiftly by nictitating membranes.
She reared back, ancient neck shuffling its scales as it formed an S shape and she opened her jaws wide. I cranked my own neck to see the abyss of her maw, about to descend upon me.
Hughie, bless his heart (or: what you will), hopping from foot to foot before me. Moments after, the rest joined him, doing their meager best to make themselves heard, positioned between the mother and … well, me.
And she did pause. Her jaw found its hinge once more, and she twisted her huge horsey head this way and that at her emphatic children. I was in awe, I tell you, and that must have amounted to something, because I was also finally losing my grip, and surrendering to the flames.
Her wing felt exactly like a loose trampoline. It carried me carefully, twisting, over the flames and to the water. She dropped me rather roughly (though, I think, without malice) at the shore, and I immediately plunged my feet into the lake. I was so close to her, I could feel the rhythm of her breathing through a reverberation in the waters, yet I was too shocked and exhausted to do much else.
And then, a wave washed over me, nearly knocking me flat as she rose. The wind from her wings pushed at me and, between that and the wave, everything seemed to be telling me to lay flat. Still, I managed to raise my head to see them leaving.
My little friends hopped and bobbled and even flew a bit in the surrounding flames, apparently unbothered by them. They honked at one another, and at me, and slowly processed in the direction in which their mother had flown. Eggie was the last I saw before he was swallowed up in fire, flapping his wings and making a rather impressive ascension for a one-year-old.
Looking higher and farther, I saw their mother swoop and turn. She cried one, long roar that shook the hot air. At the time, I took it for a thank you. Now I think it had to have been a warning not to follow.
But she needn’t have worried. Her parting gift was to give me at last a sense of direction—humanity and my exodus would be in the precise opposite direction of theirs. I waited in what was left of the oasis lake for the fires to die down and the cool of night, and then I set back across the lonely desert for home.
There before the book Brian stood once more. Instead of turning a page, however, he knelt.
Grum’s key did not slide into the lock easily, and for a moment or three Brian thought to himself that it would have been just too perfect. But the lock had been old, and the key even older, and they just needed some time to be reacquainted. The latch released with a loud ratchet that would have made Brian cautious, had he not been so eager.
The lid was heavy to lift with the large book atop it, but a clever lever within kept it upright once opened. Within, Brian saw from the blue light of the attic vent, was a bed of loose cushions draped in velvet. And nestled in the center of it was a large jar.
Brian hefted it out. It was filled with dark water and so quite heavy. He held it up to the dim light, and could make out something floating just off the bottom of the jar. It was like a round stone, midway between a golf and a baseball.
Brian had to work quickly. He needed to find out when the next eclipse was due...