PseudoPod 663: Birds of Passage

Show Notes


From the Author:

“This story draws a lot from my relationship with my late father, as well as an actual canoe trip we took when I was young. Since my father passed away, I’ve thought a lot about how encounters with the Weird or strange need not necessarily invoke horror, but how the revelation of infinite possibility could — once the immediate shock fades — be a source of hope or comfort, even in the face of loss.

My father was a fantastic storyteller and had a great talent for repurposing classic tales. As a result, while several readers have mentioned finding echoes of Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” in this story, my only previous exposure to Blackwood’s tale had been through my dad’s retelling of it. I’ve since read “The Willows” and can see where my dad took liberties with his version, but then again I’ve done the same here. In a way, that seems fitting. I like to think that he would have enjoyed this one.”

From Alasdair:

Twice Told
The Mist
The Fog Horn


Birds of Passage

by Gordon B. White

If I didn’t inherit my father’s natural instinct for adventure, it was drummed into me steadily enough by the time I was a young man that you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.  If you don’t go looking for adventure, he would say, adventure will come looking for you.  Over the years, I got so used to the counter-programming against my inborn tendency towards the comfort of safety that I wonder – if left to my own natural limits – would I have turned out differently?  Are there other dimensions with less driven, but perhaps more content, versions of me?  I’ve thought about that a lot since my father died.

My father and I had plenty of what he would call “adventures,” even though we sometimes disagreed on what qualified. Road trip to the mountains and across state lines?  Sure, that counted.  Pushing his broken car to the dealership and walking home?  Not in my book.  Nowadays, although I would not trade any of them for the world, the years have smudged away most of our individual adventures.  However, I will never forget Cotner’s Creek.

I was ten years old and it was Labor Day weekend.  I remember that clearly because there are only two real sections of my life:  before that trip and after.  If I ever were to return, I wonder if there would be a third fork, or if this is it?  My father would have known, of course, but he’s not likely to tell me now.  It’s not impossible – nothing truly is – but it’s very unlikely.

We’d spent the week before preparing for the trip.  In retrospect, I realize now how much of it had been planned in advance, but the way that my father involved me made it seem like as much my trip as his; it was as if we were equal partners stocking up for the expedition.  From the way he consulted me about which canoe to rent, to the excursions up and down the supermarket aisles shopping for two days of river rations to fill the cooler that would sit between us, I seemed to have a say in every part.  Finally, I thought, I was a man and my opinion mattered.

We excavated my mother’s garage until we re-discovered the musty relics of sleeping bags, poncho liners, and other accouterments for camping.  These were leftover things that had been squirreled away after he’d gotten married and stayed buried after he’d gotten divorced, but even their stale smells were akin to the yellowed pages of an old atlas – a reminder of adventures past and the empty spaces where still more hid.  Although we had a tent, too, we agreed that we wouldn’t bring it because the forecast was clear and we wanted to sleep beneath the stars.  What was the point of two men heading out into the wild only to hide from it all?  We wanted to experience everything.

Because I was an equal partner in name and spirit, if not in stakes and logistics, a brackish current of trepidation and excitement swept me along.  What if we got lost?  What if we capsized?  Where would we go to the bathroom?  Were there wild animals?  Would it be cold?  My father laughed at all of these questions but gave me straight answers, although most of those scenarios never came to pass.  What did happen, though, was something that I could never have understood how to ask.  Even after we went down Cotner’s Creek, I’m still not sure I can.

My mother drove us down to the bridge over Cotner’s Creek, out off the interstate between Statesville and Wallace, which is near where my father grew up.  The highway crosses through long fields of cash crops slit by the occasional meandering river and further hemmed in by fingers of undeveloped forests. In the summer those fields are heavy and green, swaying under fleshy tobacco leaves or tight-lipped bolls of cotton.  By the fall, however, they’re in the process of being stripped bare and harrowed through for the next year’s planting.  It was Saturday, and she planned to pick us up further down the river the next afternoon.

She watched as my father and I off-loaded the rental canoe, our camping gear, and the Igloo chest filled with provisions.  It was only years later, when she was moving in with her next husband that I came across a snapshot she had taken that day when I wasn’t looking.  There I was in a bright red cap and bright orange life preserver, a figurehead on the bow of the canoe like a little ornamental torchbearer.  Behind me, my father is caught in just the slightest profile, forever frozen in the act of pushing off along the winding path of water and toward the veil of trees beyond.  I’ve looked at it many times, but I still can’t read in that sliver of his face if he knew what was going to happen.

As we set out, though, in the full of morning’s light, it was a grand adventure.  Paddling with the river gave the sensation not so much leaving the world behind, but as if were pushing further inside it.  Our surroundings changed along each bend of the river, as if the banks were contorting themselves to show off every aspect as we moved deeper into its coils.  Open fields gave way to trees, but then a broken-ankle turn would reveal a fenced in yard.  At times, the creek thinned out to barely a stream, but then another turn opened up to cataracts of near-whitewater rapids.  No matter how many stories I’d heard from my father, watching the world switch from inhabited to primeval, from narrow and cultivated to wide and bursting with wild energy, it was seeing the shift with my own eyes that brought an understanding no story ever could.  As we moved through these unfolding aspects, all united by the almost arbitrary cut of the creek through their disparate dimensions, it was as if I was moving backwards past my father’s stories and into a deeper, stranger imagination.

There is one part, in particular, that sticks out to me more than any other.  We had just come through a peculiarly narrow pinch of the creek and opened up into a wide, glassy pool.  The water was brown but transparent for about a foot down before it clouded over, resisting the sun that punched through the grasping branches and into the shallows.  Beneath us, as if the shade of our canoe was obfuscation from a higher plane, long-bodied gar swam up from the clouded depths and followed beneath us.  In our shadow a new layer of their world was presented and so they rose up, their needle-noses and armored flanks primitive and unintelligible in this thin layer.  I wondered if they knew that my father and I could have held gig hooks to spear them or nets to ensnare them, but that to us, in particular, they were curiosities.  They had lived for decades in this river and their ancestors had for millennia been kings of this simple cut of water through the deep red banks, but even though they knew nothing of us, we could have – had we wanted – been a danger.  Still, they swam and basked. They dove back deep into the blackness, and if they saw us – if our canoe and our unused armaments registered to them at all – it only gave them more freedom, allowing them to rise higher in our shadow before descending back into their depths, unable to ever properly describe to their fish wives and fish children what marvels they’d seen.

Is it any wonder, then, that as the whole world of the creek grew so gradually stranger and stranger the further we travelled – as new creatures swam up and the banks bleached from red to gray, as the trees grew crooked and vines hung like witch’s hair – that I failed to appreciate the full extent of how different things truly had become?

As the day ended and the palimpsest of sunset colors and evening sounds settled around us, we found a bend in the river with a wide-open field next to it.  Because it was so vast and clearly unused by other people, we set up camp further off the bank, up on a little rise.  The canoe stayed below, wedged into the grey clay at the waterline and lashed to a few saplings.  We spread our tarps and bedding over the dead leaves and gnarled roots, but the ground’s chill still permeated up through the layers.

The night was cool and a thin film of clouds swept back and forth across the wide, hungry sky.  We were just at the point where the ground opened up into the field and the trees overhead still clung to the modesty of a few leaves, but beyond them the silver teeth of stars were starting to nibble through the bruise of the evening.  Looking up, the night felt cooler to be that bright with distant fire.

We made our own fire of the thick branches already littering the ground.  Although it hadn’t rained in days, those long arms of wood had soaked up the moisture from the cool ground and the water below.  Their bark hung like damp skin, hissing and whistling before taking the flame.  Still, once we had the fire going, the cocoon of light it wove was enough to make me feel safe within its embrace.

After a day of paddling, our provisions of box juice, peel-top soup cans, and King’s Hawaiian Rolls was practically a feast.  As usual, we talked about small things – my school, our plans for a tree house once he found a new place – but all of it took on a grave importance there by the river.  It was as if we were discussing ancient things; as if our lives outside the woods had become myths that occurred centuries ago or perhaps that wouldn’t occur for centuries yet.  Maybe it was that dislocation that unmoored my father, which sent him back down that silver thread of memory outside the firelight.  Whatever the reason, he then told me a story I’d never heard before.

“When I was a boy,” he began, “I grew up about fifteen miles from the bridge where we set off.  You know how I’ve told you before about my best friend Gary? Well, he and I did this same trip that you and I are doing.  Gary and I put in at the same spot – although it was a different bridge back then, an old one made of bricks that they tore down when the highway came through.”

The thing about his stories, I’ve come to realize, is that I never could quite tell when they were true and when they just felt that way.  They all felt real enough then and, in time, all of the past takes on that same grain that blurs true and untrue, so the only thing I guess that really matters is who remembers it and how it felt to hear it.

He went on:  “When Gary and I made this trip, though, it was summer.  It was so humid that year, so damp in the air, that do you remember that little waterfall in the rapids we took after lunch?  Well, he and I did the same thing, but we got a good foot further past the edge before we tipped over because the canoe was paddling through that steamy air.”

“Was it the same as it is now, though?” I asked.  “Because it feels, maybe, strange?”

I couldn’t quite put what I felt into words, but from the slight drip of a frown that escaped him, I could tell he knew what I meant, but that he hadn’t been planning on taking his story down this path. At least, not yet.

“Yes.”  He swallowed hard and looked at me with the steel glint that meant that this was man talk.  No anger, no fear, but still deathly serious.  “I think that’s why I brought you here.”

“This place is,” he fluttered his hand for a moment, trying conjure the right word out of the fire.  “It’s a soft place, I think.  It isn’t quite here, and isn’t quite there.  There aren’t people and there aren’t roads, but you can feel that something more surrounds us.”

It took me a moment to respond.  I held a paper towel napkin in my hands, which I balled and unrolled to an unheard rhythm.  He was right, or at least it felt like he was right.  Because there I could also feel something under that black dome of sky and all the million fly specks of distant light above us that peered through and then were swept away in the current of clouds.  Some enormousness that seemed to both pull me up and press me down at the same time.  Out in the distance, the soft yellow bruise of light pollution over far-off cities seemed like dapples of light on the river bottom, obscured by layers of some other medium that my father and I were now suspended in, just like gar in the river.

“I feel it,” I said, although the description of it wouldn’t come to me for years.  But the way I said it, my dad knew.  He nodded.

“I don’t know what you’d call it,” he finally said.  With a slender stick, he prodded the embers on our low fire and sent the shadows skipping like water bugs.  “Maybe the bigness of nature, or a great spirituality.  Something, though, you don’t feel at home.”

He looked out for a moment at the darkness, at the stars above.  “Sometimes,” he said, “I think about all the possible worlds we could have lived in, but that we’re in the one that makes you my son and me your father and brings us here.  It sounds stupid,” he paused, “but sometimes I look at you and I think, ‘Are you real?’”

“Yeah,” I said.  He laughed and I smiled, even though I don’t know if he saw me do it, there in the shadow just beyond the fire’s light.  For a while, we just sat and listened to the world.

“Do you feel it everywhere?” I eventually asked, meaning the thing he had talked about and meaning everywhere outdoors, but even though I didn’t clarify, my father knew.  He and I shared a wavelength like that.

“Maybe if you try real hard, but I’ve never felt it quite like I feel it here.”  He leaned back, caught between the orange light below and the silver light above.  “Just think,” he went on, “that outside of our fire light, it’s miles to the nearest town.  Straight up and out above us, for millions of miles is nothing but empty space.  Beneath our skin, hidden from sight, run rivers of blood and cells and atoms and, deeper still, the empty space between them.  You and I and everything else are just thin layers between space and distances, just skins between mysteries we could never know.”

He stopped, probably wondering if he’d gone too far or said too much.  Then he looked and me and asked, “Are you scared?”

“No,” I said, “but it is a little scary.”

“Yeah,” he nodded as he spoke, “but it’s also kind of awesome.”

As if to underscore the end of that thread, I threw my crumpled napkin into the fire. I watched, however, as the edges caught the ember, glowing and curling up at the tips like wings.  It must have been shaped just right by the chaotic worrying – a broken bird accidentally birthed through dirty origami – because the folds caught the warm air beneath them and it was buoyed up, burning, into flight.  Up over the fire, we watched it rise, catching feathers of flame as it rose, shrinking and consuming itself from the outside in as it drafted up towards the stars.  All told, it couldn’t have taken more than a few seconds, but it my mind there is a forever-playing slow motion shot of the paper phoenix, rising up into the blackness and fading from view – too far, too small, too burned – until it seemed to be swallowed into the night beyond us.

We sat in silence for a moment after it vanished, listening to the wood whisper in its combustion and the crickets sing along.  Behind us, the water chuckled softly and, on the other side, the great open field lay quiet in the starlight.  Everything just beyond the fire was bluer than the deepest water and, beyond that, only black.

As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloaming, however, a single point of light emerged in the distance.  Seeing it, too, my father stood up and pointed across the field.  Despite the stars above, the darkness was like a curtain of black wool pulled from the ground to the trees, but across from us, near where I remembered the opposite tree line being, there was a glow.  It was faint, but pushing through the cover like a hot vein beneath night’s scales.

“Is that a fire?” I asked, but I knew it was.  Immediately, I recalled the rising flame from our fire and had visions of a soft coal falling across the field, catching hold there on the ground.  “Did we do that?”

“I don’t think so,” my father replied.  “It looks too big, and it’s too damp for anything to catch from that little spark.”

“Is it other people?”  My imagination again went to the other side, now peering around at the possible figures surrounding that distant beacon.  I had thought that we were far from town and it seemed unlikely that anyone else would find the same adventure here that we did.  I didn’t have the capacity then to conjure up a full parade of horribles, but dim shapes around a greasy fire were enough to set my hairs on end.

As we watched, though, across the field a single flake of fire rose up into the air.  From our distant vantage, it was just a speck, like a star falling upwards in bad gravity, but I knew what it was.  The fragile paper wings of a crumpled bird, rising and vanishing in the air.  I knew that ours had looked the same at this distance.

My father moved from the fire’s edge to the border of the darkness.  Eyes ahead, he leaned down to probe the shadows, returning with a long, broken branch.  The branch’s tips were still clotted with leaves, which my father then dipped into our dwindling fire.  They smoked, but the flame caught hold and soon gripped the branch in full.  My father stood, holding the fiery flag before him like a bright red wing.  Then, turning to face our far-off friends, my father began to wave the burning branch – back and forth, back and forth, then pause.  Then again.

It felt like hours, but must have only been minutes, because my father’s makeshift torch had only just burned itself out when we received a response.  There it was, across the field as if in the black mirror of a river light years away.  The response, or the perfect mimicry, in flaming semaphore – back and forth, back and forth.  Then again.  Then nothing.

My father was many things over the course of his life, but what he was that night was calm. While images of monsters crowded my head, haunting visions of dark-eyed reflections of a black-eyed father and son waving their flaming lure across the no-man’s land between us, my father remained sanguine.

“Okay,” he finally said.  “Well, it must be people like us.  Probably just passing through.”  I wanted to believe him, but what gave him away was the stoic deadness to his voice.  He was a man of large passions and bold humors, so to hear him modulated was even worse than silence.

Still, through his strength and my own dogged impersonation, we managed to ignore our sister camp for the rest of the evening.  We let our fire dwindle and die, and then waited as the one across the field similarly faded from sight.  As the night wore on, though, if I borrowed my father’s strength to set up camp and eventually crawl into the sleeping bag, then actually falling into sleep was my own weakness.  I’m fairly certain that even though he lay down, too, my father never truly slept because otherwise he wouldn’t have been awake when it happened.

“Are you awake,” he asked, but loud enough that it was a question that contained its own answer. It was still thin night, not yet tipping towards morning, and if the sky was a war between black and silver, black was still the clear victor.  In fact, as he shook me gently and I first opened my eyes, I wasn’t sure it wasn’t a dream.

“Are you awake,” he asked again, but he saw that I was because he put his rough palm over my eyes.  “Just stay like that,” he said, “but you remember where the boat is.”  It wasn’t a question.  “If I say so, you go and push off and don’t stop, understand?”  I nodded by instinct more than awareness, but he must have known, because he said again:  “Even if I’m not there, you go alone to the bridge. Do you understand?”

There, beneath the clasp of his hand, I knew that he was serious.  I took a moment to let it sink in and visualize myself running from whatever unknown horror lay in the space beyond my father’s protection.  I could do that, I thought.  It would be an adventure.

I nodded.

“Okay,” he whispered, and drew his hand away.  I rose up, though whether on my own or under his power, I can’t quite say.  I looked out into the distance across the field, expecting to see the neighboring fire rekindled, but instead of illumination all I saw was the roiling dark.

The night itself moved, and the earth itself unrolled.

What at first I had thought to be distant trees moved and swayed, revealing themselves as great long appendages slick with the faint starlight.  They towered above us, falling and rising in time to a rhythm that we could not hear.  Neither my father nor I could speak to interrupt that moment.

High above, the clouds parted and the bright yellow moon, now full, gazed down us.  Then it rolled its pupil around and the sheer gravity of the thing’s attention pinned me to the ground, then slid off me like a wave.

“Does it see us?” I meant to ask, although I don’t know if I did or if the way I gripped my father’s hand asked for me.  But he just shook his head as the giant eye looked away.  He hugged me close.

What we saw was awesome, in the truest sense.  It was gorgeous and grand and terrible all at once.

It was like the Northern Lights, but of darkest black on a layer of black.  It writhed like the coils of giant snakes in the hands of boundless night.

In the distance behind, a mountain shrugged its shoulders and began to move.

And then it was dark again, as if a veil woven of a new kind of darkness had fallen.  One that wasn’t the absence of things, but rather the richest depths of possibility.  A darkness from which anything could emerge.

In the years that followed, I’ve theorized but abandoned all theories on what we saw.  Something ancient from beneath the earth that sunk away again without a trace?  An echo of a form on a different dimension, cast like a shadow onto our world?  A god?  A demon?  In the end, I don’t know what to call it, but seeing it made me – joyful?  In a flash, I had been gifted indisputable proof that there is strangeness in the world that we may never know, but that this universe is an amazing and infinite place.  Even if our roles are smaller than we could have ever imagined, to be a part of such a grand machine made me ecstatic.

But even in the twists and turns as my mind re-shaped to accommodate the possibilities of what could be born from the fertile dark, something more tangible emerged.  Across the field, two globes of light rose up from the ground.  Steadily, they began to move, bobbing and undulating like nodding Cyclopes across the field.  My father and I both looked down at our hands to make sure we weren’t doing anything that these lights were now mirroring, but no.  They were moving on their own.

“Shit,” my father said.  It was a rare curse that slipped past his lips, as least when I was around.  What he did when I wasn’t around, however, is something that no one but the dead can answer.

At some point, I suppose, he must have planned what he did next, but I don’t know when he could have.  Maybe, as you get older, you have a store of actual or imagined experiences to draw from as needed, some stock built up in worries or dreams.  Maybe when he thought his son was in danger there was suddenly a bloom of possibilities that he had seen all once as if in a giant knot and, from that, he picked the thread that ran out our cord for the rest of our days.  All I truly know is that he moved without hesitation.

He picked up a stick and shoved our remaining roll of toilet paper on it.  He handed it to me and grabbed another stick, repeating the process with the roll of paper towels.  Two sprays of lighter fluid and a light-anywhere match stuck against a rock, and suddenly we both held torches.  Although the burst of light blinded me, washing out the rest of the world beyond that blast of illumination, in the distance could I make out giant shadows crawling across the empty fields toward us.  The bulbs of their illumination still gleamed even in my swollen eyes, but I wonder what possible horrors or beauties the glare had spared me.

“Wave your torch up and down with me,” my father said.  We did, like the beating of a bird’s broken wings out of unison.  Out across the field, although still drawing closer, the iridescent spheres held aloft by the long, dark things did the same.

“Run out ten steps, wave it, then run back to me.”

I ran, every step away from my father pushing deeper into the viscous night.  I waved my flaming beacon and saw him do the same with his.

Across the field, the appendages – for what else could they have been other than some intelligent part of that great mass? – mimicked our motion.  I ran back to my father, the torch swaying up and down as my distant double did the same.

Reunited by the ashes of our dead fire, in our makeshift torchlight, I saw a look in my father’s eyes that I had never seen before.  I knew love and I knew dedication, but until that moment, I did not know sacrifice.

He grabbed my torch from me and swung them both up and down, up and down.  Across the field and drawing closer, the two lights did the same.

“Stay here,” Dad whispered.  “Close your eyes and count to one hundred.  If I’m not back by then,” he nodded towards the river, “you take the canoe.  Got it?”

“Yeah,” I managed to say.

He smiled.  “It’s an adventure, isn’t it?”

Then he ran, out into the empty field and away from me, swinging the branches of fire like a bird flapping its wings, drawing a path across the dark sky.  Across the field, the two lights did the same.  They followed him out into the void, towards the wall of the woods on the far side of the field.

I closed my eyes and started counting.  Surrounded by the silence, every number in my head was an explosion.  At ten I was brave, by twenty I was frightened, I was sucking back tears by thirty. But the night seemed to swallow my sobbing and by sixty I had stopped.  I made it to one hundred, because that’s what my father would have done.  In part, though, I think I wanted to give it as long as I could, to see what might happen.

Most of what occurred next, I can remember; but all the details are so wound together that even now I lack the perseverance to fully untangle them, so I instead decisively cut through it with only a glance at the pieces.  How I opened my eyes in darkness and stumbled over roots back to the banks. How I shoved the canoe out into the black road of the river.  How blobs of light seemed to follow me along the shore even as the current pulled me away, fading in the growing dawn until I realized that I was starting at patches of the rising sun coming through branches over the smoking silver ribbon of water.

Hours passed.  When I finally got to the bridge, I leapt from the canoe.  Feet sucking into the red clay bank, I wrestled the boat up into the switch-thin reeds to wait beneath the very literal and mundane crossroads.  Over the hours from grey dawn to robin’s egg blue morning and on to golden noon, my terror ebbed.  In its wake, however, I could feel there was a new high-water mark drawn onto my soul – a place where the fantastic had reached up to and left its thin, but indelible line.  I didn’t know then that I might always be searching for that level again, but in the bright light of day – and later, too, even in the darkest night – I knew that there was nothing in this world, or any other, for me to truly fear.

As a result, when the forest wall down beyond the bend began to creak, I again felt that equal mixture of excitement and trepidation.  As the skin of the woods trembled, as the knots of branches began to spread, as something emerged, I was open to the full possibility of what might be emerging.

But, still, I was surprised to see my father stumble out of the brambles.

My father, his face ash grey and his beard much longer than it should have been.  My father, staggering beneath some unseen weight, looking gaunt and haunted and as if he was surprised to find himself in the space that he now occupied.  He must have seen the canoe or the movement of the weeds, though, because even before I could call out to him, he broke into the closest thing he could manage to a run, bending and tripping through the deep mud and the high grass.

“Gary?” he called out as he approached.

“No,” I managed to say.  At the sound of my voice, even though every movement was already falling over the top of every other, he moved even faster.  He crashed through the last few feet, almost collapsing on top of me, but then wrapping me up in arms that felt thinner than I’d remembered from the night before.

“Is it you?” he asked, pulling me close.  “Are you real?”

“Yeah,” was all I could say.

He hugged me then, hard, and I’m not ashamed to say I cried.  With my face buried in his chest, I could smell the river, but also his sweat and the fire’s smoke and something that tingled like if magnets had a smell and you spun them north to south beneath your nose.  I never loved anyone more.

“Let’s not tell your mom, okay?” he said.

At the time, I thought it was the standard seal of the adventure – that we keep it to ourselves.  It was only much later that I realized we wouldn’t have been able to adequately describe it.  It was better, I now understand, to hold the knowledge of an unlimited world in silence than to make it smaller by trying to explain it.

We only spoke of it once afterwards, years later, when he was in the hospital for the last time.  His wife and my sisters were outside talking to a doctor and the whole coterie of aunts and cousins were waiting in the lounge like a conspiracy of ravens, so I was the only one by his bedside when he opened his eyes.  I leaned in close, because his throat was parched and his voice was breaking.

“I’m not afraid,” he said.  He hadn’t said what about, but there was really only the one thing – the big Other that hovers over most of us.

“That’s good,” I said.  “Because I might be.”  I was used to his trailing of by then and was glad of the silence that bubbled up, but then he spoke again.  His eyes got suddenly clear and his voice was strong, like we were back on the river and talking serious man talk again.

“Do you remember Cotner’s Creek?”

I nodded.

“I’m glad we were together to see it,” he said.  “Now, though, there’s something else.”

“I know.”

“I’m not afraid,” he said again.  The way he looked at me but beyond me, I don’t know what he was seeing or if he was fully with me, but it’s the only thing that I would give anything not to truly know.  Then he said it:  “It’s an adventure, isn’t it?”

He squeezed my hand, his taut sinews closing in like a bird’s talons or the long mouths of a school of gar.  Then he closed his eyes and fell back into something like sleep.  Beneath his thin covering, deep blue rivers of veins pumped slowly along and I could hear his breath rattling beneath the paper of his skin and in the great empty space behind his ribs.

I never spoke with him again.

As I myself grow older, I often think back to that night on the river.  About how there’s a world around us, but beyond us, too.  A world that takes things, changes them, but sometimes gives them back.  All of it – all of it is ripples.

I think back to the flaming wings of paper, rising up and vanishing into the darkness before the thing came to us. Even though my father has since passed on and I, too, am getting old, I have no fear, because I know that in the sky above, in the water below, past that thin thread of night, there are mysteries that we can never know.  There is more to it all than you or I could ever fully comprehend and, while that terrifies me, it also brings me comfort.

I know that even if the universe has no thought or regard for our existence, we can give it meaning through our own actions and our love for one another.  Instead of hiding in the darkness, we take to wings of flame that bear us on like birds of passage, beating bravely out into the great unknown.

About the Author

Gordon B. White

Gordon B. White

Gordon B. White has lived in North Carolina, New York, and the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the collection As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions (Trepidatio Publishing 2020).  A graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, Gordon’s stories have appeared in dozens of venues, including the upcoming The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 12 and the Bram Stoker Award® winning anthology Borderlands 6.  He regularly contributes reviews and interviews to outlets including Nightmare, Lightspeed, and The Outer Dark podcast. You can find him online at

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Gordon B. White

About the Narrator

Steve Anderson 

Steve Anderson has lost track of just how many stories he’s narrated for Escape Pod, PodCastle, and PseudoPod (which includes a Parsec Award-winning story for PseudoPod). When he’s not behind the microphone, he produces animated explainer videos at, and he performs original live storytelling programs at

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