On the first day of spring, the child emerges from a warm cave on a boat. The river cuts past the frozen cedar faces of his family, and in this way, he stays safe from the cold churn of the water. Inside the boat, the child sits atop a mat of green grass and fresh berries. The colors are beautiful: bright red, shiny black, marbled blue. He reaches for the most exciting berry of them all, the red. It feels soft and spongy between his fingers. He closes his small hand and squeezes. Sticky red juice runs down his arm. He mashes the mangled flesh into his mouth and licks his fingers clean.
At the end of the summer, the river narrows to a thin creek choked with sharp rocks. Gripping the tiller firmly, the back of his hand baked red by the sun, the boy steers his boat carefully down the creek. Soon he sees a young woman picking wildflowers on the shore up ahead. Thin white robes cling to the curves of her body; a cool summer breeze ruffles her ebony hair. She’s the most beautiful thing the boy has ever seen, so he waves his free hand above his head and calls out to her. She glances at the boy for a moment and then turns her attention back to the flowers. His face burns with blood and he tries to look away, but he can’t. His body doesn’t let him. The young woman’s beauty is an elemental force as powerful as gravity’s pull. The boy’s boat slips down the creek. He loosens his grasp on the tiller. A black crag scrapes across the bow, gouging away the curves of his father’s mouth, the pits of his mother’s eyes.
By autumn, the man sees many more women on the shore. One sits in the grass and offers breadcrumbs to the starlings and the cardinals and the sparrows and the crows. Another strums an acoustic guitar and sings a beautiful song in a language the man doesn’t understand. Yet another writes in a small book and watches a gold leaf spiral to the ground. Stranded in his boat on the creek, the man falls in love with all of the women on the shore. To win their affection, he offers them the freshest, most delicious berries in his boat. He compliments their songs, their beauty, their creativity, their kindness. But the man’s efforts are clumsy and transparent. Some of the women glance at him for a moment and look away, but most don’t acknowledge his existence. After weeks of failure, the man lays in his boat and stares at the gray slab of the sky. Soon his boat slams into a rock. Then another. And a third. Instead of patching the hull, the man crosses his arms and listens to the splintering crunch of the bow. He draws a deep breath. The prickly smell of snow hangs in the chilly air.
On the coldest day of the winter, the old man’s boat gets stuck in a lake of ice. There are no strawberries left, so he no longer has a choice of what to eat. Bitter and angry, the old man sucks on a frozen blueberry and curses everything and everyone in the entire wretched world. By the next morning, the old man can no longer feel the cold. Soon the young woman he saw at the end of the summer appears beside his boat. She’s more beautiful than he remembers. Her ebony hair hangs to her waist; her white robes glow with a soft pink light; a pair of skin-sheathed wings lay folded on her back. The young woman smiles at the old man and offers her hand, but the old man’s poisonous resentment takes hold of him, and he severs her arm with a blade of splintered wood. Pink light explodes from the stump of the young woman’s shoulder; she disappears without a sound. When she reappears the next day, her body made whole again, the old man is as cold and stiff as the keel of his trapped boat.
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner from Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Cleaver Magazine, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. He tweets @GergleySteve. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/