Everyone in the village thought it was ridiculous, the way Laurent was pretending not to notice the bear that had become attached to his coattails. To be fair, it was a reasonably subtle bear, as bears go. It didn’t grunt or growl, just padded along quietly, holding the stumpy little man’s extravagant coattails gently in its snout. In fact, so subtle was the bear that Laurent was not even sure at exactly what point during his long walk home from the Archeduc’s Court that the bear had appeared.
Laurent was weary. It had been a long week at Court, during which he’d been expected to cater to the Royal Astronomer’s every whim. (Royal service almost always went to a scholar’s head.) Laurent had looked forward to his quiet cottage, and to resting his feet after taking off the tight black pointed shoes that the Archeduc favored for his staff this season.
Laurent was concentrating so hard on not noticing the bear — which, as he could now see out of the corner of his eye, was rather larger than he’d initially thought, and really more of a black bear than a brown bear — that he truly did not notice the Widow Vuitton until he nearly overturned her wash basket.
“Monsieur LeClaire, you have a b–”
“Oui, bonsoir, Madame Vuitton, a very fine evening, and a pleasant rest day to you on the morrow,” Laurent said briskly.
“A fine evening indeed,” said Laurent, and walked past the Widow, or rather trudged, for he felt that to quicken his pace would be to acknowledge the bear, and thus defeat.
When Laurent reached his cottage, however, the bear planted its feet and held fast to his coattails. It even growled, although in a manner that was not at all threatening.
Laurent sighed and turned around.
“Very well, Monsieur Bear….”
The bear shook its head whilst maintaining its hold on the coattails.
The bear nodded, her mouth still full of thick, embroidered cloth. Laurent shuddered to think what the Archeduc would say if Laurent returned to Court with holes in his best frockcoat.
“Very well, Mademoiselle Bear, how may I be of service?” Laurent asked.
The bear looked sadly at the door, then at Laurent.
“I hadn’t actually planned on entertaining this evening…” said Laurent, trailing off as the bear’s eyes began to glisten, “…but perhaps a short visit….” The bear brightened and dropped the coattails, which did not appear to have any holes in them. Laurent went inside. The bear had to wiggle to get her shoulders through the door, and once inside her bulk made the roof seem too low, but she seemed perfectly happy. She settled in front of the fireplace and looked expectantly at Laurent.
“May I get you some tea?” Laurent asked. The bear shook her head, her eyes never leaving Laurent’s face. “Or perhaps some porridge?” A vigorous nod, and Laurent turned to the kitchen to prepare a light supper of porridge and cheese.
Once they had finished, Laurent sat down in his armchair with an obscure volume of astronomy that the Archeduc’s Librarian had loaned him. Astronomy was not best perused after porridge and cheese, however, and before long, Laurent sighed in his sleep with an emotion almost entirely unfamiliar to him. The bear gently nudged her head under his hand before releasing a sigh of her own.
In the morning, Laurent woke with the word “contentment” inexplicably on the tip of his tongue.
Now that she was obviously welcome, the bear seemed willing to let Laurent go about his necessary business. When the time came for Laurent to return to Court, she made no attempt to delay him, but simply rubbed her nose along his sleeve in an affectionate farewell.
“I shall leave the door ajar so you may come and go as you please,” said Laurent. “It’s a pity you cannot come with me, but the Archeduc takes himself very seriously and I’m afraid he would find the idea of a bear at Court rather ridiculous.”
The bear chuffed softly.
“Oui,” Laurent smiled. “He dresses himself and his staff in the silliest of costumes, and makes us stand on elaborate ceremony, but there it is. Now, do you need anything before I go? I shall be back at the end of the week. You will be here when I return?
The bear nodded and rubbed her snout on his arm once again.
The villagers were nothing short of astonished to see Laurent’s manner that morning. He was dressed as before, but for once his heavy-lidded eyes were open and smiling. It was far more astonishing than the bear itself had been, two days before.
“Bonjour!” Laurent said, smiling and nodding at those he passed.
“Bonjour, Monsieur LeClair,” said Éric, who was the blacksmith’s son and the boldest of the village children. “How is your bear this morning?”
“Very well, young sir,” said Laurent. “Perhaps you could look in on her while I’m gone, so she won’t be lonely, you know. There’s a franc in it for you, if you would be so kind.”
“Oui, Monsieur! I shall take good care of her! Merci!”
Laurent’s lighthearted mood lasted all the way to the Archeduc’s gate, and even the sight of that imposing iron could not quench his gaiety completely. He greeted the guards and made his way through the formal gardens, toward the terrace upon which the Archeduc always breakfasted. The Archeduc required his staff to report to him immediately upon their return, to ensure that they recovered as quickly as possible from the sinful leisureliness of the rest day.
As he came around a row of the Archeduc’s prize rosebushes, Laurent stopped short, but only for a moment.
“Bonjour, Archeduc Cachette! I see you have a very fine zebra with you this morning. I wonder whether you might permit me to introduce her to my bear some day soon?”
Amy Sisson is a writer, book reviewer, crazy cat lady, and former librarian. Her fiction ranges from Star Trek work for Pocket Books to the short stories in her Unlikely Patron Saints series, which have appeared in Strange Horizons, Lady Churchill?s Rosebud Wristlet, and the Toasted Cake podcast site. She enjoys making artist trading cards, studying German and Japanese, attending Houston Ballet performances, and traveling with her husband, Paul Abell.
The bird crept into the cathedral in the darkness of night along with so many other lost souls. Tired and cold, it flew up high into the great rafters. There it set about preening and preparing itself for a much needed rest.
Father James saw it in the morning, and didn’t pay much attention. Birds often flew in and flew back out just as quickly.
Sister Constance saw it, however, and paid it quite a bit of attention.
“Father James, you can’t intend to let that bird stay here,” she snapped.
Father James indulged in a quiet prayer for patience before responding. “It’s just a bird, one of God’s creations, Sister. It will fly out of the cathedral by itself.”
“And until it does, the cleaning crew will be scrubbing bird droppings off of the seats and out of the carpet,” Constance replied.
“What do you suggest, Sister?” the father asked.
“Call an exterminator, of course,” she replied. “Father Fairweather never needed anyone to tell him what to do, you know.”
“Yes, thank you for your input,” Father James said, and even managed to muster a warm smile. “Oh, and Sister, you run the choir, right?”
“I do,” Sister Constance said.
“How would you feel about teaching a chorus class for some underprivileged children in the area?”
“About the same as I feel about that filthy bird up in the rafters,” Constance replied. “Those kids are constantly spraying graffiti and dropping cigarette butts on the church steps. I’m not inclined to invite them in.”
And before Father James could reply, Sister Constance had marched off to prepare herself for choir practice.
The sisters had collected in the cathedral on the choir steps behind the pulpit. They talked and giggled among themselves, but as soon as Sister Constance came into view they stopped and stood up tall. Every one of them was younger, with less seniority than Constance, and they knew she tolerated no foolishness.
Constance stood before them, and said, “Let’s warm up with our scales, Sisters. After me; do re, me, fa, so, la, ti, do.” She used her hand to guide them, and sang along, delighting in the music if nothing else.
The bird, hearing the music, flew down and perched on the pulpit. As the sisters went through their scales the bird was charmed. It joined them, chirping in time with them.
The sisters giggled and Constance glared at them. She waved her hand at the bird, saying, “Get out of here, filthy thing.”
The bird hopped away, and tilted its head to look at her.
Constance turned back to the sisters, and said, “Let’s concentrate, please.”
Again they started with their scales, and the bird sang along with them.
Afterwards, no one believed the sisters who were there, but they all said it. Constance cracked a smile.
The bird joined chorus practice all week. It sat at the back of their stand on Sunday, and chirped with them as they sang. Father James, of course, couldn’t help but notice the addition to his congregation. After service he went to Constance, and said, “I called the exterminator. She should be here Tuesday.”
“Oh,” Constance said, waving her hand at the father. “Why waste church resources on that? It’s a bird. It’ll fly out on its own.”
“That’s true,” Father James said, trying not to laugh. “I’ll cancel the exterminator.”
“And about that chorus of yours,” Constance added, “maybe if we give those kids something to do, they won’t wreak up the place. I’ll set it up. If you do it, you’ll just over-complicate things.”
“Good idea,” Father James said.
Above them, the bird swooped through the high cathedral ceiling, singing.
Nicole C. Ford is a fantasy and crime novel writer, flash fiction lover, and maker of the best pasta salad ever.
Jake clutched the tablet under his arm as he got out of the taxi, struggling to keep his balance on the crutch he still had to use. Pedestrians rushed past; phones in hand, earplugs blaring, cams switched on to record every detail. His right hand throbbed where it pressed on the crutch. He held the tablet tighter. He needed to be here. Not at home, not speaking to some shrink who thought he shouldn’t be “so private about his pain”. This was private. His. Not everyone found it freeing to upload every memory as creative commons videos to be changed and shared again and again. He didn’t care what they thought. He just wanted his memories. Without tampering and without comments. He had to live it again. To see where it went wrong.
He reached the intersection and leaned against the wall of the corner shop to catch his breath. He placed the crutch against the wall and waited for the pain in his hand to subside. Around him glass-encased buildings towered above the exhaust fumes and rushing people. The tablet blinked and beeped as a notification popped up. His brother had posted the memory of his wedding vows on a cc site. The divorce must be final, then. Jake closed the notification and let the SharedMemories app sync with his GPS coordinates to make it easier to find the files. He swiped through them until he reached the last one he’d saved. Until two months ago he’d passed here every day. Sometimes his cam picked up the same people and faces, the same cars. He never bothered to watch them.
Now it was as if he was reliving that day. The picture shifted and bumped as they made their way across the street. The recorded cacophony of rush hour mixed with the reality around him. Every few steps his daughter’s smiling face came into view as he looked down at her. He stopped the playback when they reached the other side of the road.
Watch again? the app asked.
His finger lingered over the buttons.
He touched the screen. Yes.
They walked across the street, the picture shifting. Amy’s face, smiling. Stop.
Across the street, Amy smiling. Stopping in front of the sweet shop. Amy laughing. Stop.
Jake took a deep breath. Okay, he could make it to the sweet shop on the corner.
Share with friends?
Are you sure? Yes? No?
Thumbnails of video memories his friends and family had shared showed on the screen, making him feel foolish for not wanting to do the same. One was of him in the hospital, taken by his sister. He looked back at the button.
Are you sure? Yes? No?
His parents would love to see Amy like this. He wiped clammy hands on his shirt, shifting the tablet from one hand to the other. No, this one was his alone. It was bad enough the police had a copy. The screen blinked, insisting he make a quick decision.
Are you sure? Yes? No?
Add music? Yes? No?
The app returned to the home screen. Thumbnails of videos and snippets of posts loaded automatically.
Watch “Amy’s birthday, age 9”
Watch “Amy’s first day of school”
Watch “Family picnic”
Watch “Amy’s funeral”
Girl (9) killed in hit and run
Girl (9) dies of injuries, father in a coma
Community holds vigil for “Angel Amy”
Community: “We want justice for Angel Amy”
Like page “Justice for Angel Amy”
A new notification popped up, hiding the content beneath. The thumbnail showed a blurry shot of a hand holding a cocktail.
Lindy shared “Wild night at club”. Watch now? Yes? No?
“No!” he shouted at the screen, causing a few pedestrians to scowl at him.
Watch “Taking Amy to Work”?
Jake slid to the ground, sending the crutch clattering to the cement. People rushed past, oblivious to the crying man. A few cams caught glimpses of him as they passed, adding him to the background of other’s memories. The wall stung cold against his back. Pain throbbed down his leg. He cradled the tablet as he drew his knees to his chest.
Gareth shared “Crap day at work (with music) FUNNY!!!” Watch now? Yes? No?
The screen remained static for a few seconds before the notification disappeared.
Watch “Taking Amy to Work”?
Watch “Taking Amy to Sweet Shop”?
Jake paused. Yes.
The playback stops when they step out of the shop. In the background is the red car. Tinted windows. A mud-splattered number plate. Stolen and later abandoned in an alley. He didn’t see it coming. But the cam did. He should have seen it. It was right there. He should have seen it.
The rest of the recording was erased. He didn’t need the reminder. The police could keep it.
Tears blurred the screen until he blinked. He swiped back and forth between files before choosing a thumbnail.
Watch “Amy’s birthday, age 9”?
Someone dropped a few coins next to him. He didn’t look up. On the screen Amy was smiling. A silver plastic tiara was in her hair. He smiled.
He paused. This was what they should remember. Not the red car. Not the blood. This must be the memory.
Carin Marais is a South African living in what have been called the largest man-made urban forest and the City of Gold. A language practitioner by trade, she blames exposure to too many books from an early age, a motley of interests and a stationery addiction as the catalysts that led to some thoughts escaping and turning into stories, articles and even poetry. Visit her blog at www.hersenskim.blogspot.com and her tweets @CarinMarais.
Alex climbed out and slammed the car door. The sound hung there, short and sharp, and they came. On wings of flame and long graceful necks they came, blazing in the sunset light, bending their heads as if their own beauty did not burn. They arched out of the water from the tips of their beaks to the ends of their long slender legs, their eyes winking.
They rose up from the water of the little lake, behind Alex’s long dark hair and her furious eyes. He raised an arm, and pointed. “Look,” he said, his voice wavering.
Alex’s eyes flashed, her cheeks reddened. “Mack,” she said.
“No,” he said. “Look!”
She turned automatically, to see them flying away. Her hands went to her hips, and she turned back to him. “Mack,” she said. “I can’t believe you would try to distract me!”
“But I — ” he said. He spread his hands. “I’m sorry.”
“The money, Mack,” Alex said. “The mortgage. What the hell do we do now?”
Behind her the herons were still on the wing, almost invisible. The sun had gone down, and they could hardly be seen in the dusk. He squinted his eyes to see them.
“They’re just birds,” Alex said. “They’re just goddamn birds.” Her stiletto heels crunched on the gravel. Her hands fumbled at the lock, and he followed her into the house.
Mack made veal parmigiana, thinking to soften her; it was one of her favorites. The meat-and-garlic scent spread through the kitchen. He set two places, hoping she would come. But Alex ignored the clinking of dishes and sat in the bay window, drinking glass after glass of red wine and looking out at the moon shining on the trees and the lake.
Mack took a bite, but the veal was tasteless and tough and his stomach stopped rumbling. She leaned against the window seat, drowsy with the wine and her fury. “I’m sorry,” he said, not knowing if she could hear. “I never meant to hurt you.”
Alex did not move. He walked to the window seat and picked her up. She stirred in his arms. “Why didn’t you tell me you had a problem?” she murmured, and slept.
That night he lay awake, the click of dice and shuffling of cards looping in his head. How could he have done this, all those years? Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. Toward dawn he dozed fitfully, and in the doze, he dreamed.
He swam naked in the lake, the water like silk against his skin. He breached for air, drawing in large lungfuls. Through his water-blurred eyes he saw them settle around him in a ring. Their legs drifting in the water. Their feathers a muted blue-gray like the sky at the first rays of dawn.
He hung there, treading water, drinking in the movements of their slender bodies. To his left one of them winked its little black eye. “Tell me,” he asked it, his voice choked from the water, “what can I do? How do I fix this?”
To his right one of them let out a croak, guttural and real. He reached out his hand to it, slowly. It did not move away, nor bite, but nudged his palm with its head. The feathers were sleek under his fingers. “Yes,” he said.
The sun was rising, and as he watched it touched their eyes and their black plumes with light, making their masked faces glow. The herons at his sides inclined their heads to rest on his shoulders. He stopped treading water, and floated, and queasiness overtook him. He retched, and the spasm rippled along the length of his entire body, compressing him.
His neck elongated, his face. His legs reached and reached. He stretched his arms and found that they were wings. Blue-feathered wings, jointed and tapering at the tips.
He woke, opened his wings, and flew.
Emily K. Iekel is a teacher and translator currently living in Galicia, Spain. She grew up on Rowling and Tolkien, as well as Garcia Marquez and Rimbaud, developing a healthy curiosity about the boundary between reality and fiction. She has had prose published by Gardy Loo, and nonfiction published by The Breeze, Sister Speak, and English Teaching Daily. Her poems have appeared in Fugue, Gardy Loo, Elfwood, Salome, Troubadour21, The Boiler Journal, and, most recently, The Voices Project.
Romo always had considered his afternoon nap a luxury, a perk of retirement. But one day that nap was more an escape, a means to knit a suddenly raveled sleeve of care. A doctor had told Romo that he would slowly decline over the next year or so. And then cease to exist.
On his way to the recliner, Romo stopped to rub away a smudge on the glass over a yellowing photograph hung on the wall. He in dress uniform, a few days before shipping out to Korea. Beside him, his late wife in her mother’s wedding gown.
Beside that photo, his son and daughter-in-law, also gone.
Beside them, a photo of Marilyn, Romo’s granddaughter. Tortoise-shell glasses and pink hair. He’d raised Marilyn, and she was the only relative he hadn’t outlived.
Romo plopped into his recliner, clicked on the TV, and tuned to C-SPAN — something about memory research. He was about to drift off when a woman on TV said, “Absent context, nuance — even facts, our minds tend to fill in the blanks with conjecture and speculation, assumption and presumption.”
Romo’s eyes shot open.
When he was gone, only Marilyn would remember him. But what would she remember? What might she guess at? Speculate, assume, presume?
Romo could write down some things about his life for his granddaughter. But he wasn’t good with words. On the other hand Marilyn, while for the moment employed as a Target cashier, had graduated that spring with a degree in creative writing.
He invited her to dinner that night.
After the meal Romo opened a package of windmill-shaped cookies, Marilyn’s favorite. He took one for himself, but only set it on his plate. When his granddaughter finished her cookie, Romo rose from his place across the table, sat next to her and explained what the doctor had told him.
Marilyn cried into his shoulder for a long while.
Then Romo smiled and said, “I still have some time, honey. I was thinking. Maybe it’s a silly conceit for a nobody like me. But if I told you about my life, do you think you might write about it? Then maybe I could look it over?”
Make sure Marilyn remembered him as he intended.
“Oh, Grandpa! That would be so cool.”
Marilyn interviewed Romo over the next several evenings. If one of Romo’s stories seemed to particularly interest her, he would explain the life lesson.
When he’d told his granddaughter everything he could remember, Marilyn began writing.
After a few months, Romo asked when he might read the first few chapters.
“Grandpa. This is a work-in-progress. It keeps changing, evolving. I want to show you my best writing, once it’s final.”
“Honey. Time is not my friend.”
Marilyn sniffled. After a long pause, she cleared her throat and said, “I’ll quit my job. Work on the manuscript full-time.”
Romo’s first impulse was to talk her out of quitting. But Marilyn would inherit the house and more than enough cash to get through even a very long bout of unemployment. Besides, who would make certain she remembered Romo as he had been if the manuscript wasn’t finished… before he was?
When Romo went into the hospital, Marilyn placed family pictures in the room where he could see them. She stayed in the room, sleeping in a chair and spending most of her waking hours pecking at a laptop computer.
One morning she said, “I’m finished, Grandpa!” and set the computer on his lap.
But Romo had trouble reading the screen.
Marilyn stuck a bit of plastic into the computer. A memory stick, she called it. She pulled the stick out and said she’d print a hard copy.
Marilyn came back and placed pages in Romo’s hands. She’d even thought to print in extra-large type.
“It makes me nervous to watch people read my stuff,” Marilyn said. “I’ll come back in a little while.”
Pushing through pain and fatigue, Romo skimmed the pages. The title, Ecce Romo, made him smile. Ecce, Latin for behold.
But the beep of his heart monitor quickened as he realized that Marilyn often reported conversations complete with dialog, gestures, even descriptions of rooms and furniture. Details Romo himself didn’t remember.
She’d attached a sticky note to the page with the first pseudo-conversation: “In my creative non-fiction course, we learned it’s okay to make up dialog and descriptions, stuff like that.”
Romo frowned at the smiley-face at the end of the note and inhaled more oxygen.
His granddaughter had gotten the gist of the conversations right and had included a few of the life-lessons he’d tried to explain.
But most of the glosses were her own. Interesting insights. Important ones. She really had grown. Still, Ecce Romo seemed more about Marilyn than himself.
He looked up.
Marilyn cleared her throat. Then cautiously, as when she used to ask Romo’s opinion of a new high school boyfriend, she said, “What do you think of what you’ve read so far?”
Before he could respond she said, “I know this was supposed to be about your life. But as I was writing, I learned so much about myself. Ecce Romo became a chronicle of my personal growth. In this manuscript, I’m the Romo being, you know, ecce’d. Are you mad?”
Romo closed his eyes tight and fell back against the pillows. He had been upset. But, late in the game as it was, Romo had figured something out. He wasn’t in control of what his granddaughter would remember.
Never had been.
But he might at least influence what Marilyn recalled of this moment, one of his last.
Romo removed his oxygen mask, smiled broadly, tapped the pages and said, “Super, honey. I’m so proud of you.”
Ted Lietz is a freelance writer and reformed marketer. His work also has been published in such places as Every Day Fiction, Bartleby Snopes and Flashquake. Everyone has to be somewhere. He happens to live near Detroit.