Volume 5 Number 4


Autumn 2007


by Bruce Stirling

For three days he'd suffered, alone on the island, nothing but a scratch of rock dotting the center of the lake, his cries for help dead before they'd reached the shore.

Desperate, he tried once more to free himself from the granite on which he lay, his strength failing, the pain in his gut pinning him down as if a spear had been driven through his side. He tore his clothes off, as if effort, no matter how feeble, would snap the spell and end the nightmare that had befallen him.

But it was no dream. The boat had capsized, the storm had passed and left him on the island. His screams, the pain, the pool of blood he lay in—it was all his, what was left of him.

Overhead, a bush plane appeared, pontoons glinting in the sun. The sight of it fanned his hopes. Surely his absence had raised suspicions at work. Surely by now somebody would've called the police. Surely they'd send out a search party and rescue him from the lake, the place he'd come as a kid, the place he wanted to visit alone, to reconnect one last time before the city had claimed him for good.

"Stupid," he panted, clutching his gut. "Go it alone. Stupid."

The thought made him laugh, made him damn his self-reliance, his cursing aimed at cutting the invisible cord that held him fast. All it did was enflame the pain in his gut, a piercing stab that burned like lava pouring from a fissure.

He clutched his shivering frame and screamed at the sky.

"Help! Help!"

The bush plane faded away while out on the water. He saw it again, there, a serpentine shape slicing through the water only to vanish into the deep as a racing fear fed his heart.

What was it? Why was it circling, always circling? Why?

"Why!" he screamed at a ripple in the reeds. "Why!"

In the city, he had all the answers, every angle figured out for optimum return and an avalanche of options. But out there, nailed to a speck of rock on a sliver of lake, no handshake could save him, no PowerPoint presentation, no tailor-made suit, no corner office dripping with dark wood and fancy degrees.

Eyes stung by the sun, he rolled his head over to look at the lake. And there it was again, coming straight at him, the black water cut by that same arrow wake, the beast circling once more only to veer off and vanish into the deep.

"Dreaming," he gasped, turning to the sky with terrified eyes. "Dreaming."

He closed his eyes and cried, the world below melting away as the past rose up in a pastel parade: his first birthday party, his first bike, winning a red ribbon for spelling, his first kiss, graduating from high school, university, the death of his mother, the promotions, the business trips, the affair, the divorce, the death of his father, the doctor warning him to "Take better care. You don't want to die young." It was all there, chapter and verse, the film of his life strung out across the sky, his belabored breathing shattered by a scream that tore open an inner seam, the beast growing out of his bowels without end. It slammed him against rock and reedy shore, his eyes opening in the dying light to find a serpent tasting him, its tail buried deep inside the root of his being.

With diamond eyes flashing, the serpent unhinged it jaws, grabbed him by the head and rolled him down into darkness wet and warm.


How long had he slept? A month? A year? The more he wondered, the more the light grew and hurt his eyes, so he turned away and searched for sleep within the enveloping warmth of his pitch-black world. But just when he felt safe, just when the caressing tide had lulled him to sleep, the light returned, riding the horizon like the Evening Star.

He didn't want to play, so he rolled away, but the light met his every move and drew him forward like an invisible hand until the light hung before him like a porthole on a ship. Through it he could see movement, a blur of shapes and shadows. Strange sounds frightened him, so he slid back into the inky depths that had always been his home. But the light would not be denied. It drew him forward once again, refused to let go until he was through the hole, and night burst into day.

Fingers dug in his nostrils and down his throat. He choked and gasped as gentle hands wiped his wrinkled body clean and wrapped him in a blanket.

Curious, he opened his eyes, and there were his parents, crying for being so blessed.


Bio: Bruce Stirling's short stories have been published by Eclectica, Bewildering Stories, Cautionary Tale, Defenestration and Thieves Jargon. Reach him by e-mail, or view his Web site.