“Omens”: A New Haunted Passages Short Story by Andrew Bertaina

Haunted Passages:
Andrew Bertaina

Omens

When the moon appeared, a violent red sphere riding low on the prow of the sky, everyone in the village watched it with an admixture of wonder and terror. Children pointed at it with stubby fingers, asking their parents about the gigantic moon, trying to capture it by closing their hands. Parents whispered to their children, encouraged them to hold the moon.

Some of us pretended to be unmoved by the sight. Older folks searched fading memories to see if they could remember the same moon from long ago youth. Some older women claimed it was a sign of crop failure, of the end of days. The town drunk said he’d seen something like it in his past life. We all struggled to assimilate the strange omen into our days, to make some kind of sense of it, for such is all human desire, to make meaning.

Soon enough though, the moon was obscured by a bank of clouds, hidden from view, like the almighty, and whatever we thought about the moon was taken up in the worries of the evening, preparing dinner, caring for the needy children, needling our idle spouses. But after the children had been sang to and tucked snugly in bed, after we’d pushed around the embers of the fire, we lay in the dark and thought of the deep red light, wondered over its portents. Glanced over at our sleeping spouses and felt a slight disgust that we could sleep at such an hour. Even after we shut our eyes, the afterimage of the moon remained, burning brightly in the darkness.

By morning, the illness had already started to spread. Parents awoke with heavy eyes and pounding headaches, stumbling from bed, weak-kneed and bleary-eyed. The children were wrapped in blankets as even the exposure of an ankle caused them to be wracked by chills. We stumbled onto the porches, hallucinating fiery ribbons of light in the sky, half mad with fever. The town drunk swore he saw a dragon with glittering scales hovering over the entrance to the bar. No one was spared, and we all stumbled around the village, confirming our worst fears. No one remembers who said it first, but we understood that the moon had been a sign of the devil himself.

All of our houses were afflicted. Mothers climbed into their children’s beds, mopped sweat from brows and hugged their fiery bodies close, as though we were babies again, fresh from the womb. The children looked up at their parents with glassy eyes, locked in the feverish land between dreams and nightmares. Fires were stoked or extinguished, and everyone stared at the walls, seeing their own peculiar visions, which sent some of us screaming and others into fits of crying.

Within a day, a deathly silence fell over the village. Only flies buzzed around in the empty streets, zigging and zagging in the wide lanes. The horses neighed in the distance. Inside, we lay on our beds, only the dim light shining through the cracks beneath the door and at the edge of the curtains. These fragments of light played across the edges of the wall, a quiet entertainment, while we waited to see whether death would come.

Some of us prayed to God, even if we hadn’t thought of God in years. Some of us started into the darkness, knowing it might last forever, cursing the rotten luck in our lives, the petty disappointments that had consumed every last ounce of hope. In the next room, fathers were filled with lamentations, wishing we could go back in time, could share in all the childish games of tag, of hide and seeking that we’d said no to you for years, the brooding discontentment of mid-life arriving in a sudden wave. Young children, confused by the sickness, kept asking when it would end.

We wondered what the village would like after we were gone, a mass of spirits roaming through decrepit buildings, wondered if the forest of oak and beech would once again take over the space, push through our whitened rib cages. The hardiest among us pulled themselves from bed, shaking off their delirium, to erect a warning sign, telling people to avoid our small town filled with the plague.

Two weeks passed in pure delirium. All of us were on the verge of collapse and then something shifted, someone’s fever finally broke. And we listened to them from our beds, walking the streets, crying out in wonder at the exquisite symmetry of the world. And, as Jesus called Lazarus from his death into life, we too found ourselves in the street, marveling at the state of the world, the perfect curve of doorways, the dry, mud-cracked streets, the sound of the birds, a choir of angels raining down from overhead.

In our happiness, we didn’t quite see the change that the fever had made in us, the way a river carves through rock. We were too busy hugging our children, dancing in the streets. The revelry continued deep into the night, beer was shared and songs were sung, spouses were suddenly bright and airy again as they’d been in the bloom of early courtship.

In the morning, we lay in our beds, marveling at the play of sunlight across the ceiling, the way a shadow moved across the bottom of the room. We felt, deep in our hearts, the sort of gratitude for life described by saints. To be aware, for once, of the deep and fine-grained beauty of the world—the fine crease on a beloved grandmother’s face, the small tremble in the voice of a child, the stripe of color found in heather running through a field of brown. What an exquisite place we inhabited, the world, and we’d almost forgotten it.

Thus, without knowing, the aftereffects, or maybe the fever itself spread among us. All of us became deeply in love with the rich thrum of time. The small village, which we’d once yearned to leave, suddenly vibrated, as a spider’s web, with an allure, the small curvature of a door frame, the brass nob worn smooth by the pressure of a thousand palms. How could we have ever thought of leaving this place? Above us, a cardinal threaded through the boughs of an oak. At our feet, tendrils of moss climbed up the base of a tree, an industrious ant removed a crumb from the table, its antennae moving in a strange and wondrous rhythm.

Initially, we thought these changes were but a small movement, an appreciation of our lives brought on by the sweet arrival of health. What harm could there be in a teenager, who had once been sulky, sneaking out to admire the sliver of moon? What could be wrong with a grandfather, once cold and bored suddenly enraptured with the folds of skin on a child’s elbow.

And yet, the signs of what was to come were there in those early days. Lovers, so consumed with admiring a freckle below an eye, a ridge of cheekbone, would lose track of time and come home hours late. Sometimes a mother would get lost in thought while cooking dinner, admiring the way a copper pan shone in the soft light. Her husband would return home and have to shaker her from the reverie. At first, such mishaps were brushed off, mere trifles to be set aside as we all recovered from the edge of death.

As time went by, these disappearances into wonder became more frequent, and with them, cracks in the foundation of our village. A woman, so lost in admiration at the glistening of water on a blossoming daffodil in the window, forgot her baby, and a neighbor came by and helped the child from the floor, where it had fallen that morning and wailed all morning. The cries, which had very little to do with beauty, couldn’t pierce the veil of her attention.

A man who lived at the edge of our village let his cattle out, and then, lost in his contemplation of the limbs of an oak bisecting sky, he lost track of them, and they wandered through town unwatched, wandering through shops, grazing on food and smashing pottery. And though these quiet moments swept over everyone more often, no one wanted to speak of it. Secretly, the whole village loved being so taken with the world, which had become, before the sickness, cramped and tiresome. Now, we understood the whole of creation was singing.

Finally, when a man lost an arm in the saw mill, so entranced was he with the whirring of the blade, the council decided to intervene. We set a meeting for the following day. But by then the sickness had deepened. Not everyone arrived, lost as they were in the contemplation of the way tracks in the road attracted bits of water, which reflected acres of blued sky or the way leaves shimmered in a passing breeze.

But for those who did arrive, a plan was laid out, a gradual shift away from whatever was stopping us from attending to our lives. And then disaster struck, the sun moved beyond a stand of oaks, and a single shaft of light beamed through a distant window, making a small avenue of light across the fine grains of blond wood along the table. At first, the council tried to look away, but soon, we were all mesmerized, knowing that soon, the light would fade, that the beauty would not always remain. When the light faded, the council members all began crying as though we had lost again, our first love, a beloved child. The meeting ended in silence as we all trudged silently home.

Some people proposed leaving the town, but none of us could imagine finding a place so rich in aesthetic marvels. To leave would have felt like abandoning Paradise a second time. And so, without saying so, we quietly accepted what was to be our fate, to be consumed by beauty. In the weeks that followed, all hell broke loose as people immersed themselves in the marvels of the world. Animals starved, children begged parents to cook them meals. People wandered into the woods chasing the sounds of a woodpecker and never returned. People tried to resist, closing their eyes, but then we could hear more acutely, the lilting bird song, the tinkling bells, and we were lost just the same.

Houses were abandoned, and people stood in the fields at the edge of town and watched butterflies alight on milkweed, flexing wings, before lifting to sky. The dappled light mid-afternoon, falling through the trees. But then, the softening at dusk, the way a few deer bent their necks to clip dandelions, saw grass. And then, when we used to go home, used to settle down to dinner, to complaining of our days, our ornery children, we’d watch the way that even darkness had different tones, deepened over the course of an evening, from a small bruise into the depths of night, stars flickering overhead, pinpricks of light, vibrating overhead.

Some said, if you stayed out long enough, you could even hear the quiet voice of the trees, their voices passing from crown to crown. During these last weeks, people started to die in accidents, careless at the stove as we watched a flickering fire. Others never returned from the woods, too caught up in all the allure of the underbrush, the small white flowers of blackberries, bees hovering in the afternoon air.

Within a month, no matter what I tried, everyone had passed from this life into what lay beyond. And only I remained. I, who had never seen the elegance that was spoken of in fevered dreams. I, who had tried to tend to everything in those feverish weeks, jealous that I could not see the world they saw. The beauty never arrived and soon I understood that it was either a curse or a blessing, and I may never know. As I walked around the wasteland, the half-filled sacks of grain, the empty shops, I thought that perhaps the light in the sky had been the rapture, a call from God. The rapture. And only I had missed it, and so I was doomed to wander the earth.

After I’d buried the last of the dead, in a large field, now fallow, where once grain had grown, I watched the light pour through chestnut and beech, shaping itself around the small graves of those who had gone. I felt, for the first time, a stirring in my heart, as the slight pull of a string from a musician on the violin, birds skimming sky, wildflowers glistening. I stood there a long time, wondering if I should join them, lay down and be taken in by the rapturous glory of the world.

But something shook me from my reverie, a crow’s dissonant caw. I watched it hop awkwardly through the field, ungainly in its movements. And suddenly I was awakened again to the real world, the undulations in the dirt were not beautiful patterns in the field but lives extinguished too soon, spent as quickly as a match, as first love. And so I finished my work and left the village behind.

I went miles east and settled in a town nestled in the hills. For a while, I worked washing dishes and sometimes I’d hear rumors of the town that had been swallowed by the plague. Travelers talked of the signs they’d seen, of their tentative journeys into the outskirts, sapling trees now growing where once houses had been. Lives there abandoned. I didn’t say anything, just washed the dishes in silence, trying to avoid the slight tug on the bowstring of the heart.

I have lived in many places since I left the village of my home, but I have never been able to find a place to settle down. I remain vigilant. I have worked odd jobs, bar tender, thatcher, flour grinder, and then I drink late into the night. When I’ve had a lover, I keep them at a distance and never remain in their beds until morning. I do not lie next to them and trace the curve of collarbone, the bend of soft skin from waist to hip. I leave quickly and make my way home through the streets, careful to avoid the moonlight skimming on cobbles, seeing the vomit and dilapidation of the houses instead.

No matter where I’ve lived, eventually, something will strike me about it—the way the pigeons gather at the base of the church, minarets piercing sky, the way all the shops look like harbors of light, children laughing and playing in a dusty square, and I know that it’s time to move on. Time to move to another city, a darker one, somewhere far away from the sea, distant from the mountains, a place where the children never play, a place where the churches are dingy, and the people are ugly and sad. A place I can rest and call home.

Andrew Bertaina’s short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, The Normal School, The Open Bar at Tin House, and Best American Poetry. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC. His work is available at andrewbertaina.com.

Image: jenniferracioppi.com

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