Flash Fiction: The Bird in the Park

A guitar

It was the kiss that did it. It was as sweet as a cherry ice on a hot blue summer day, but it finished with the warm burn of cinnamon that made him flush with the promise of mysterious things becoming clear and present and pleasant.

Her name was Astlyn, and she was wearing the t-shirt of a band he really liked. Not that he noticed that first. First, it was her eyes, the shape more than the color — almond-shaped and slightly turned in a permanent kind of snarky amusement. She looked right at him, her head tilted, and didn’t look away as he walked by the bench she was sitting on in the park.

“You have a nice smile,” she said after him.

When he stopped and turned, she added, “Or were you smiling at someone else?” There was an lilt in her voice, a kind of Irish thing, that made his ears dance.

He opened his mouth to reply, but just looking at her tied his brain up in knots and he couldn’t get a word out.

“Ah, mute. That explains everything.”

“I’m on my way to a lesson. Um…piano…lesson.” He kind of fidgeted his fingers in the air in lieu of more words.

“I had a feeling you were an artist,” she said.

He laughed. “No, not really. My mom makes me.”

“So you’re not a musician? That’s a shame. They always get the girl.”

Her smile was magnetic, tugging at something at the back of his chest, and he stepped, almost fell, closer to her. His heart raced. He glanced at his watch and saw his heart rate; it was twice normal.

She looked away, over her left shoulder, smiling the smile of a fisherman about to grab the pole and start reeling.

“You,” he said, “Are different.”

She quirked an eyebrow. “Different, how?”

“Well,” he huffed, trying to put the feeling into words without putting her off. “Most girls don’t talk to strangers.”

“We were in the same Classical Lit class, before I transferred out. I can’t believe you don’t remember. You’d have noticed that if you weren’t always asleep in the back.”

He tried to picture the warm, yellow room, full of dust motes and the droning beat of Mr. Llewellyn’s nasally voice chanting out lines from the Iliad and the Odyssey. He couldn’t picture her there, but then he could barely remember it, so often were his eyes closed.

“So,” she said. “You don’t look like a piano player.”

He shrugged and held up his hands. “I actually wanted to play guitar…or maybe drums. But my mom said I had to learn music first.”

“You should always listen to your mom,” the girl said, her eyes twinkling. He wondered if she was making fun of him.

“What’s your name?” he asked her.

She told him.

“See. Astlyn’s…different.” He’d wanted to say exotic or unique or something, but it sounded like a come-on. Not that he didn’t want it to be a come-on, but…

“Seems pretty normal to me.” She looked up at him through a cage of eyelashes. “I hope I’m not making you late.”

“Oh, yeah, right. I’ve got to…” He gestured in the wrong direction, then the right one, then smiled.

“Next time, bring your guitar,” she said.

And she did see him there, every day for a week. And he did bring his guitar on the days when he didn’t have piano lessons.

“How did you know I had a guitar?” he asked.

“Calluses,” she explained, and grabbed his left hand and ran the soft edges of her fingers over the rough tips of his. Every single touch was like a spark plug firing.

He played her the songs he knew, made up of a total of about ten chords — with a couple of barre chords that were very, very rough. And he sang quietly. He knew he didn’t have a bad voice, but it wasn’t…manly, or something.

She sang along softly with him, sometimes finding the harmonies, and it was a feeling like they were rising up out of the park into the ocean of warm, sweet air and sunlight, just spinning around each other, giddy. She’d smile at him, the tiniest, encouraging smile, and he would look away and fumble on the strings, and just keep going, trying to hide from the feelings rushing through him, forgetting the words and just repeating the refrain.

It was Thursday, and the song was a ballad that band they both liked did. It was about pain and love and memory. She leaned forward on the last, ringing chord, her eyes half-lidded, her mouth slightly open, smoldering. He leaned forward over the guitar, awkward and anxious, hesitated, and then, kissed her.

They hung there in the moment in-between, faces close, just breathing.

“You should write your own songs,” Astlyn told him.

“What?” He wondered if the kiss was bad or something.

“You have a poetic soul.” Astlyn licked her lips. “I tasted it.”

She squeezed her eyes at him in that way that promised she was always right.

And he felt it, like a bird fluttering in his chest, wildly trying to escape. Not words, not music, just a feeling, like he would explode if he didn’t…say something.

“I want you to write a song for me.” She was looking off, into the trees, at something far off he couldn’t see. Then she turned, and smiled at him again, and the bird fluttered madly.

And he wrote a song for her, many songs in fact, over many years, even after the last time he saw her, he was still writing songs about her. He’d stop there on that bench with his notebook and sometimes the guitar, and the little bird would sing in the long, dying afternoon, about that moment, the kiss in the beautiful place. And his pencil would scratch out the barest sketches, ever-looking back, ever-reaching forwards.

Flash Fiction: The Fire in Song

“Your daughter’s a natural at smithing,” old Bart told Samantha, “Just like her mother.”
The girl was barely in her teens, her sweaty read hair glowing in the light of the forge like strands of fire as her arms, wiry and taut, held a glowing red filigree of ornate ironwork in the blazing, dancing flame.
Samantha smiled at Bart, who was well-known to be a gossip and the general font from which all stories flowed in the village. He knew every tale, whether one wanted him to know it or not. Samantha decided to repay the content with his customary currency.
“Gregor’s illness forced my hand,” Samantha said, thinking of her deceased husband, a bear of a man who started as the town smith. “I learned all I know about fire and metal under his guiding hand. But you’re right, Elle’s talents are a bit…unusual.”
“Elle was your typical young girl, all flowers and bows, until she was about five. Gregor took her to Thunder Spring caves, figuring she’d enjoy looking for sparklies, what she used to call the fancy minerals he’d bring back from an expedition looking for exotic metals.”
“I noticed one day after that she was unusually quiet. She was always singing before that. Songs we used to sing to her as she was growing up, songs she learned at the town feasts, even songs she just made up. I tried to get her to sing something and she just…didn’t notice. I asked Gregor if he noticed anything different, but he just grunted at me and shook his head. We had a lot of work back then, and his illness had already started so he tended to get lost in his work when he wasn’t sleeping.”
Bart said, “You took her to see Meg, didn’t you?”
“If anyone would have a cure, the old lady would. Or so I thought. She looked at her, ran some trinkets around in front of her, but couldn’t even get her to smile. And she said, this isn’t your daughter, and she tapped her on the head and it was like knocking on the wall of the church. And she scratched her face with an awl and rock dust fell from it. She was a changeling.”
“I brought her home. Or it, I guess. What was I to do with this thing? How was I supposed to raise something that barely knew me.”
“I asked Bart again, one night before he collapsed into sleep again, and he swore nothing special happened. I thought about explaining to him what I knew, what Meg had told me, but had no faith in the old beliefs, just iron. When I asked him enough times, he did own up to being separated for a bit, when Elle wandered off on her own, but it was just for a few moments. And that’s when I knew it was true, that my beautiful daughter had been dragged off into Faerie and I had been left with this…this scarecrow.”
“You taught her to work with iron?” Bart asked.
Samantha laughed. “I could not have taught her much. She spent most of her day staring into space, or piling rocks in the yard. But I couldn’t live like that. I talked to Meg again, and tried the various spells of location she provided, to no avail. I even went to the caves, called for her, but nothing. Then I had an inspiration.”
“I spent weeks working with Gregor, more than I ever had before, learning the secrets of taming fine metal, turning it like a spider turns silk. And I took the thing…”
And here she felt the tiny, hot pin-pricks of tears in the corner of her eyes. “I spun her the most beautiful hair, more beautiful than Elle’s right now in the light of the flame. I sprinkled it with dust from the shinies Gregor had found. I made her gems for eyes, all opal and sapphire, and I created the most beautiful creature that my horrible new talents could stand to create. She was beautiful and sparkling and almost not of this world.”
“I took her back to the caves, as deep as I could, always going down, deeper, deeper, into the red hot guts of the world. And in the deepest, hottest cave I could find, in the red-hot light of the earth on fire, I had her sing. I had taught her the most beautiful song I knew. And she sang it with the voice I had given her, carved from a stone that was like the bones of the earth. And it rang out into the cave and shook the world.”
“It worked. From the walls all around stepped tiny men, no bigger than human babes, but made of brown and black and grey stone, some pure, some mottled. They had beards of iron filings and eyes of the darkest gems.”
“What is this?” They looked on my creation with delight. “We must have this beautiful thing.”
“And I stepped out of the shadows, my pickax on my shoulder, and I demanded to see my daughter.”
“The darkest of them, a little man with a beard down to his toes, came forward, frowning.”
“What is it yer doing in the land of the Gnomes,” he asked, with a voice like a rock slide.
“You took my daughter, and you gave me this. And I made it better. I want to trade.”
“Yer daughter is one of us now,” the Gnome said.
“And he took my hand and led me straight up to the wall and through it. It was the most marvelous, fearsome thing. Like the first time my mother took me into the ocean and she held me with her under the waves. I could see stones and bones and worms and the trapped shapes of iron and copper and sparkling gems like stars across the sky. And he led me out into another room with a pit of fire in the center, surrounded by humans, boys and girls, men and women, all working metal into ornate shapes and careful jewelry studded with gems.”
“We owe much to the Fey King, so we sometimes need to employ help.”
“He gestured to the scene before me, and then I saw her, my daughter, working iron just like her father, with hammer and tong, her eyes burning in the reflection of the fire. And I saw the beauty of the thing she had created, an ornately turned metal glove, speckled with the stardust of gems.”
“You have made her better,” I conceded, “As I have made this one better.”
“And I gestured, and the metal girl next to me began to sing.”
“You gave her the breath of life,” I said to the Gnome, “But I have made the breath of life useful.”
“And his eyes turned upwards in a smile at the beauty of the song, and the workers began to beat along with it.”
“It has been too long since there has been song here,” the Gnome agreed.
“And that’s how you got her back,” Bart watched the girl take the filigree of iron from the fire in a hand covered in a gauntlet speckled in stardust and carefully bend and form the thing in her bare hands.
“Remarkable,” the old man breathed softly.