The Mad Eyes of the Heron King
by Richard Dansky
There was a lake or something like one near Leonard’s office, and it was to that lake that Leonard occasionally took himself after work. He did so in order to relax, to avoid thinking about work, and generally to sidestep the possibility of doing anything he might later regret.
But mostly, he did it to watch the herons.
Leonard liked watching them, finding something soothing in their manner. He admired the way they moved, standing still for untold minutes before suddenly striking, or advancing robotically back and forth on some secret avian agenda that only they would ever know.
And thus it was that when his work day was done, Leonard would come to the lake, and watch the herons, and do nothing else because nothing else needed doing. At least, not until the day the Heron King spoke to him.
He had been watching this most impressive specimen of avian elegance for a while, through the course of several hourlong visits during which he would simply sit down in the mud, pull his knees up to his chin, and observe with a faint but palpable air of envious longing. Once or twice he thought he had seen this particular heron, a magnificent specimen of the great blue variety look back at him, with head cocked and beak angled and eye agleam with something that stood in for curiosity. Leonard had dismissed all such thoughts out of hand, of course. Herons, even great blues, were not curious creatures. They were placid, and they were predatory, and they soared above the still waters while giving their great calls of gronk, gronk, gronk that would not have sounded amiss in the epoch of the dinosaurs.
On the fourth visit of that week, however, or perhaps it was the fifth, the great blue heron abruptly changed its course when Leonard settled in, squelchily, for his customary period of observation and contemplation. Hardly had Leonard seated himself in his accustomed place in the grass, which, in truth, had become matted and pressed down under the repeated and weighty attentions of Leonard’s posterior before the heron, with great lanky strides, crossed the water to stand directly before him.
Leonard looked at the heron, a faint frisson of fear wafting deliciously through him. He had felt fear before, had felt it all day as a matter of fact. That had been small man’s fear, though, the fear of humiliation and of being yelled at, the fear of losing a job one hated but needed and the fear of being trapped in it forever. This was different, tantalizingly so. Even in the most civilized of deskbound men, the most thoroughly domesticated pusher of paper and pencils and long-tailed electronic mice, there remains the atavistic remnants of the hunter his forefather once was. It was this long-buried fragment that Leonard felt now, the fear of the lone man facing a wild creature whose habits and perils were unknown.
Carefully, Leonard counseled himself in the tactics he felt most conducive to an unscathed escape. He would make no sudden moves. He would not show fear. He would not make eye contact. He would —
“Have you come,” the heron said, “to pay homage, to make obeisance, to show the proper respect that is my due?” And it cocked its head to the side and stared at him through eyes that, even in the lowering twilight, he could see were golden and flecked with deepest black.
“Err,” Leonard heard himself saying, and then, “Umm.” He opened his mouth, closed it, and shuddered once, violently.
“Bah,” said the heron, and waggled its head in disapproval. “Stupid, speechless, dumb. Unworthy of our time, and thus guilty of a crime against our person.”
Suddenly, and without warning, the slender head came down and the stiletto beak stabbed forward, and Leonard found himself thinking most sincerely that he was about to die a most ridiculous and unbelievable death. Then, at the last second, the trajectory of the lunge changed, the beak lowered, and there was a sickening crunch as the heron instead impaled a moderate-sized frog of immodest ambition that had hopped up to a position near Leonard’s feet. Then, the heron lifted its head until its beak pointed directly toward the zenith, shook itself in quick fashion, and wolfed the remnants of the unfortunate amphibian down. It made a lump in the heron’s neck as it slid slowly down the bird’s gullet, until it disappeared from view and the predator once again lowered its gaze to meet Leonard’s.
“Next time, show respect, present yourself, be not a fool,” it said. Without a further word, it turned on its heel and stalked back across the submerged mudflats with imperial disdain.
Watching the retrograde advance of his erstwhile conversational partner, Leonard did not think, “I could have died.” Nor did he think, “I must be dreaming,” or “That’s impossible,” or even “It talked.”
Rather, he held one thought and one thought only to his feverish mind, and held it close with a secret glee: “It talked to me.”
For several days, Leonard did not return to the lake. Every day, he would walk out the front door of the office building where he worked, stride down the sidewalk to where his car sat in the immaculately paved lot, and then, hesitate and turn and get behind the wheel. He did not walk past, did not stride further toward the pond and the marvelous creature that dwelt within it. Instead, he heaved himself into his car and drove himself home, taking care to travel by an alternate route that would not provide temptation.
It was, he admitted to himself, an act of fear. The memory of the Heron King speaking to him was one he treasured. He turned it over in his mind at night, searching it for meaning. He found himself pondering it during the day, when the numbers that lined up in serried ranks on the spreadsheets before him should have occupied his entire attention. But mostly he found himself terrified that it had all been a hallucination, a fever dream of wonder that a return visit to the lake would strip bare. He dreaded the possibility of returning to the lake, of seeing the majestic heron and hearing it intone nothing but that familiar gronk. In short, he did not wish to put his memory to the test, for fear that it be found wanting, and illusory, and less than true.
But the lure of the lake was strong, and the thought of another conversation with the Heron King was strong as well, and not too many nights had passed before Leonard stopped at the place where his car was parked and then, after an endless, agonizing hesitation with his foot suspended in mid-step, kept moving.
The sun had commenced scraping the tops of the trees when he reached the lakeside, and the fat red light washed low over everything. Leonard’s eyes strained against the unnerving light as he strove to pick out the wading birds from the red-reflected waters in hopes of spotting the Heron King. At first he could see nothing except a blinding glare off the still surface of the lake, but then gradually and by increments, his eyes adjusted. There was one shape, standing motionless amongst cattails at the water’s edge. There, further on, was a slight and slender bird, picking its way through the shallows. There, in the distance was a delicate and predatory creature standing on one leg, its beak stabbing down suddenly to pierce the waters.
And there, gliding slowly across the face of the waters, blue-grey wings turned black by the sun’s red light, was the Heron King.
He circled the lake once, silently. Leonard crouched down, feeling as if he ought to make some gesture of recognition that he was in the presence of royalty and yet paralyzed between a bow and a kneel and a simple stance to show respect. The bird made no sound as it flew, nor did it speak, nor did it give any sign that it recognized Leonard and acknowledged his presence here. Leonard watched it fly and his heart sank, and he imagined he could already hear the sound of the edifice of his imagination crumbling. He had imagined it after all, had dreamed or wished the conversation, and the one special thing that had happened in his life had not, in fact, happened at all.
And then the heron turned, wheeling toward him in a great silent arc. He watched in wonder as it glided toward him, its legs skimming the surface of the water before finally settling to rest a scant five feet away.
“You have returned, rethought, reconsidered,” it said to him without preamble. “We would know why.”
Leonard licked his lips, which were dry and chapped despite the humid summer heat. He knew that these words would be perhaps the most important ones he would utter. He knew that, despite the fact that his heart was doing leaps of joy in his hollow cave of chest, what he said now could not be light-hearted, or flippant, or ill-considered.
He was, after all, in the presence of royalty.
“Your majesty,” he began, and flicked a glance at those impassive, golden eyes before continuing. They remained golden and utterly impassive, and gave no clue as to what the Heron King might be thinking. “I wished to make an apology for my previous rudeness, and to see if it might please you to converse with me further.” It was a tidy speech, and one that he had spent much time writing and re-writing in various templates and formats in those too-lucid moments when he thought that his encounter had not been a dream.
“Ah,” said the Heron King. “We will think on your words, ponder, consider. You will return and know our decision.” Two stilt-legged steps backwards he took, and then leapt into the air with an ear-splitting call of gronk that left little uncertainty that the interview was indeed over, at least for the nonce.
Leonard watched him go, and his fingers scraped up a little mud from the lakeside. Without taking his eyes from the retreating silhouette of the magnificent bird in flight, he rolled it into a tiny ball, and then placed it in his pocket, a tangible memento of the moment that had just passed. No more would he doubt. No more would he question. He would remember, and in due time he would return, and in the meantime a tiny ball of clay and mud would serve to sustain him.
He slipped the ball into his pocket, lifted himself to his feet, and then walked away.
“You see them, do you not?” asked the Heron King, gesturing in the direction of the other wading birds stalking the shallows of the lake. One by one his beak pointed them out, near or far or hidden by reeds and cattails, and as he identified each he bobbed his head and quirked his neck, as if to see if Leonard were paying attention.
He had been waiting for Leonard when Leonard returned, and had wasted no time in pleasantries or preambles before speaking.
Leonard, privately, was quite thrilled, and hung on the Heron King’s every word.
“I do,” he said. “Are they your subjects?”
The Heron King wheeled to face him, eyes blinking twice in incredulous confusion. “Subjects? Servitors, lessors, vassals? You are more of a fool than you look.”
“But…but…” Leonard scrambled back a foot or two, muddying the palms of his hands. “But if you are the Heron King, and they’re herons, you’re their kind, right?”
A violent shake of the head was his first response, followed by an angry, bellowed gronk.
“You are hopeless, stupid, ignorant of our ways! How dare you insult my brothers by calling them lesser? The heron raised itself up to its full height and spread its wings, the great arc of which cast a shadow over Leonard where he sat. “How can one such as I be less than a king?”
“But if you’re the king — “
“Silence! We are all the Heron King! Each of us born ineffably noble, royal, of ancient and proper lineage!”
“Oh,” Leonard said. His mouth hung open. “So you’re all kings?”
“King,” the Heron King corrected him. “Each of us is in fact and deed and word, in right and privilege and in honor, the Heron King.”
“How can that be?”
The Heron King stamped one muddy foot onto the grass. “Where I stand, I am absolute ruler, king and unquestioned. Where he stands,” and its head whipped around suddenly so that its beak could point out another, particularly impressive specimen of mature heron. This one stood, one leg in the air at the edge of a clump of rushes, and even from halfway across the lake Leonard could feel the jagged weight of its stare. “Where he stands, he is king and monarch, unquestioned sovereign. At any time any of us lay absolute right and proper claim to the ground beneath us.” It turned back to look at Leonard, its head canted at a forty-five degree angle. “If the particulars of that land change, it is nothing to us. Our rule remains.”
Solemnly, Leonard nodded. “But what happens if two of you are together? I mean, which one is king?”
“We are all king,” the Heron King said, and his voice was soft and dangerous. “And we are all jealous, as is our right, our duty, our honor, of our role as king. You would do well to remember that.”
“I will,” said Leonard, thinking that under no circumstances would he ever try to bring two herons together. His mind briefly put forward some awkward possibilities dealing with mating, but he quickly tamped the thoughts down, to focus on the here and now. ”I speak to you because you are nothing, worthless, base-born. You are not a king. As such, you may be in our presence without fear or worry.”
And with that, the Heron King turned and walked away, pausing only to give an admonition over his bony shoulder that Leonard should return another day.
Return Leonard did, again and again. He learned much of the ways of the Heron King, who seemed almost appreciative of the opportunity to unburden himself to another thinking being. Leonard even flattered himself to think that the Heron King liked him, enjoyed his company and his presence, and thus had told him more than was strictly necessary.
And so he had learned that no creatures of the lake dared strike at the Heron King, for fear of upsetting the divine, righteous, and proper order of things. Neither snake nor turtle nor great toothy fish would tempt fate or the heavens by daring to bite at a single heron’s foot placed in muddy water. Alligators might, but alligators were uncouth beasts unworthy of discussion, and besides, their foul presence did not sully this lake.
At work, some noticed that Leonard was…different. He was no longer the last one out of the office every night, for one thing. Indeed, he was rarely seen in the office after sunset, and gossip ran wild that he had at last found a lover, or a hobby, or at least a favorite restaurant with early dinner specials.
They noticed, too, that his behavior had changed. His speech, for one thing, was now more formal, and he was fond of stating things in triplicate for effect. His posture had also changed, his usual shuffle giving way to a long-legged tiptoe that could only be described as stalking down the carpeted hallways and tiled floors of his place of employment. As for his eyes, few now cared to meet them, as they seemed too bright, too fierce, and all together too unblinking to be quite comforting. Or perhaps it was the way he held his head now, always cocked at a slight angle when he thought no one was watching.
But since they had never said anything to Leonard before, they did not say anything to him now. Besides, it was not as if he were any less efficient, or useful, or productive. He was simply odd in a different way, and to most of them, that made as much difference in their daily lives as would the vast bulk of the planet Jupiter suddenly turning purple.
Leonard, for his part, did not particularly care what they thought of him at work. Instead, he did his work and daydreamed of the evenings when the secrets of the Heron King would be imparted to him. He thought of hours spent sitting on the cool grass, and imagined what it would be like to do as the Heron King did, to stalk across muddy bottoms in bare feet and feel no fear.
Once he even slipped his shoes off at work, but only for a moment, and without anyone noticing. Then he put them back on, and carried with himself a secret smile the rest of the day.
It was not that day, nor the day after, nor even the day after that, but some time as much as two weeks later when Leonard arrived at the lake to find that the Heron King was not waiting for him. This was in and of itself unusual, in that not since their second conversation had there been a time when Leonard had not reached their appointed rendezvous second. Anxious, he walked down to the water’s edge. The sun, he noticed, was lower in the sky than it had been even one week before. Summer was going, and with it the long evenings of discussion that he treasured so dearly. Soon enough it would be fall, with its leafsmoke smell and early nightfall, and the migration of the herons southward.
Soon enough, he realized, it would be over. Perhaps the Heron King would return in the spring, perhaps not, but one way or another this magical summer of clandestine wisdom and blue-feathered magic was winding down.
There were, he noticed, no herons near him. A few, unfamiliar shapes in silhouette, were visible in the distance, but nowhere did he see the Heron King, nor any other shape that he recognized.
The thought chilled him. The Heron King was not here. Perhaps he had forgotten. Perhaps he had grown bored with Leonard, and would not be returning. Perhaps there had been — and he shuddered at the very notion — an accident of some sort, and the Heron King was wounded or struck down, assassinated by a hunter or a passing car.
It was all terribly confusing, and so he sat himself down on the lakeshore to think. The water lapped against the mixed bank of sand and grass and mud, mere inches from his loafer-encased toes. The sound was soothing, wave upon tiny wave, and it gave him an idea.
The Heron King was not here, after all. Nor were any of the other herons nearby. Surely, Leonard told himself, this was a golden opportunity, a chance to walk as the Heron King did. It was his moment, his turn to feel the muddy bottom between his toes and understand all the things he had been told.
After all, the Heron King had left him here alone.
Quickly, he shucked off his shoes. His socks he slipped out of and rolled up neatly, each tucked into one loafer for later use. His pants, slacks he’d bought some six years prior and husbanded fiercely, he rolled up to nearly his bony knees. Barefoot, shivering with excitement and the first touch of cold water against the tips of his toes, he stood on the brink transformation. One last look around for the Heron King, whose regal figure he did not see, and Leonard set one tremulous foot in the water.
It was, as he’d previously discerned, cold. The mud of the bottom gave slightly under the pressure of his weight, but maintained a spongy strength that kept him from sinking. A tickle at his ankle told of a passing brush with a small fish. He looked down, and could see the wavering outline of his pale flesh, the edges blurred by mud and silt stirred up by his footfall.
Nothing else happened.
After a minute, he put his other foot in the water.
Again, nothing happened, and that was indescribable joy. Minnows darted through the water around him. Grass waved in the slow shallow current, beckoning him to step into deeper water. A dim shape in the near distance could only be a turtle, paddling in best ungainly fashion. And there he was, in the middle of it. Observing it, feeling it, ever so much a part of it. At last, he understood what the Heron King had told him, comprehended the sheer ineffable power of it all. As if of their own accord, his feet rose and fell, and he moved away from the shoreline. Mud between his toes, water licking at the now-sagging cuffs of his pant legs, a trail of silt billowing behind him, Leonard laughed. Truly, he understood now. He could share in what the Heron King had told him, could give back his comprehension as a gift equal to the knowledge he had been bequeathed. At long last, he could show his respect properly, his thanks definitively, his delight emphatically. He threw up his arms, in imitation of the raised wings of the one who had led him to this place, and let out a shout of pure joy. Echoes followed it, startled frogs splashing into the water and surprised birds leaping from the trees.
And behind him, a solitary, quiet susurrus, the pressure of air against the nape of his neck, the hint of a wave washing against his muddy calves.
“Your Majesty.” Leonard knew what that portended, could barely wait to greet his blue-feathered magister. Trembling with excitement — how the Heron King would be pleased to see he understood — he turned and bowed, then lifted his eyes to meet the royal gaze.
For indeed, the Heron King was staring at him, intently and unblinkingly. Those golden eyes that had seemed so strange at their first meeting were stranger still now, flecked with black and hazel and slivers of bloody red. Through them the Heron King regarded Leonard, his head once canted at an angle both quizzical and alarming.
“Your Majesty?” Leonard asked, or at least intended to. For no sooner had he opened his mouth to speak than the Heron King stepped forward, and drove his great stiletto of a beak into the soft hollow of Leonard’s throat.
Leonard’s eyes widened in shock, and in horror and pain. The hands that had so recently been upthrust in imitation of wings clutched at his punctured flesh, the blood leaking through the gaps between his fingers. “I don’t…understand,” he started, and then collapsed to his knees. He looked up in supplication, and in return the Heron King placed one clawed foot flush against the center of his chest.
“You _do_ understand,” the Heron King said, and pushed.
“Oh,” said Leonard, and went over backwards so that the waters might close over him.
“Impostors, traitors, fools,” the Heron King said, “We do not suffer them gladly”. His royal judgment thus having been rendered, he turned and walked away, having spotted a fish perhaps, or a particularly succulent amphibian in the nearby shallows.
About the Author
Richard Dansky is 20+ year veteran of the video game industry, where he has written for games like The Division, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, and numerous others. He’s published seven novels and one short fiction collection, and was a contributor to White Wolf Game Studios’ World of Darkness games. He lives in North Carolina with a cat named Goblin, whom he swears was named that when he got her.
About the Narrator
Kris is a cartoonist, podcaster, and author of the short story Candle Cove Yeah, that Candle Cove which was adapted for TV as season one of SyFy’s Channel Zero. He recently launched the third chapter of his horror adventure comic Broodhollow on Patreon.