Sunday, August 01, 2004

The Lostling

Birds filled the air with one song. The picnic-table was erected in the forest-clearing and the members of the family gathered to share the foodstuffs that one among them had given such love to prepare. The leaves on the trees were gummed together, as if a painter had smeared them rather than having picked each one out with his brush.

The family had travelled to the remote spot in their reliable motor and, later, upon their own legs - led by the father along paths only he, it seemed, could plumb. The mother dropped choice words of feminine intuition and recrimination. The two children laughed and whined, according to the pendulum of their moods, the boy with gruff asides, the girl with reflex giggles. Only yesterday had they planned this outing - from the very initial concept to such details as picking picnicky menus and requisite items of weather-gear. There had not been much argument - yet one of them at least had severe doubts as to the eventual repercussions. The premonition of tragedy was not to be budged - although there was no logical reason, and hence, eventually, no action taken, except a simple statement about the uncertainty of the otherwise reliable motor that would bear the brunt of the trip, bar unexpected failure of tyre, windscreen or engine-part. With such thoughts on her mind, the mother had tugged the hamper from beneath the bed, vowing not to appear negative. The hamper had been put away so long in the past, she had, of course, forgotten what was already stored in it - something that needed to be removed before stacking it up with Marmite sandwiches, Corona bottles, cardboard plates and plastic cutlery.

The mother was able to keep secrets, yet, somehow, they were often squeezed out by some force other than her own. Members of the family often read secrets in her face or inferred secrets from the various ways she tried to hide such secrets or, even, sensed secrets via a spiritual medium which none of them could explain, assuming they were aware of it in the first place. On the day of the picnic, the two children simply knew that she had discovered something secret in the hamper - something indefinable, perhaps, yet substantial to her. The father was so hung up negotiating the motor, which kept missing, he failed to realise that his wife was trying to withhold a secret. Looking in the rearview mirror to see what was following did not help him to unravel any mystery at all - it merely created a new mystery, since a rare make of vehicle had been on their tail from the very outset of the trip. All emotions remained gridlocked, ‘til they parked the motor in a lay-by. The other vehicle did not stop but continued towards the next town along.

The family, like most families, was constituted of rare breeds of individuals. Father was Derek, the only Derek in the world - since any person thinks of him-or-herself to be unique. Mother Brenda. Son Evan. Daughter Claudette. Derek thought the world centered on Derek. Brenda on Brenda. Evan Evan. Claudette Claudette. And with the world thus centered, the family unit became a secondary, if important, preoccupation. The walk through the forest was a mutual affair which, despite the backbiting that besets families of that ilk, evoked, in turn, their best points. Derek handed Brenda over deadfalls - watched out for unexpected puddly areas - strengthened the children’s spirits with a badinage fit only, in truth, for a stood-down comedian. Brenda, meanwhile, dabbed Claudette’s too-pretty-to-be-true face with an aromatic kleen-wipe - smiled almost too often for comfort - diverted the children’s attention from anything behind the trees which might have been following the family. Evan whistled, more carefree than his mother could give him credit for - while Claudette typically had her mind elsewhere. Like most children, they were ahead of themselves, always round the next corner of the forest, anticipation being preferable to the actual enjoyment of each passing moment.

“How much further?” Evan’s voice piped in exasperation. For his age, he had done more than his fair share of grappling with the hamper-handles. Whilst Derek lugged the folding-table on his back, as an artist would his easel, and concurrently hefted one side of the hamper, there was always a task for one of the other three in balancing the opposite side horizontally. Brenda carried, in her arms, like babies, the picnic’s extraneous items. Claudette, being a smallish girl, had few duties, but she did show concern for the balloons, already half-inflated, which would eventually be attached to each corner of the collapsible table - mainly for decoration, yet with a smidgen of something more important, an aspect intrinsic to their family tradition. Derek’s own father had instigated such a routine, when Derek was a child. But that was too long ago for any reconciliation of such rigmarole with practicality.

“I’m fed up,” announced Claudette, voice cracked with dry tears. It was currently her turn to lever the hamper - and the contents slopped in her direction.

“Nearly, there,” replied her mother, without worrying whether she told an untruth or not. Fibs or white lies were preferable to arguments - surely a pragmatic law of any family. She hardly expected punishment for these manoeuvres here on Earth, but alone, later, perhaps, in Heaven above. Although her mind was bereft of guilt, she felt a guilt of guiltlessness, a guilt that often gnaws away at such good souls. Yet why should she be the perfect mother - which of course she wasn’t (having married Derek).

“No, we’re not nearly there,” maintained Evan. His face was smudged with a cross between green and dirt.

“Here we are,” claimed Derek, who at least had the evidence working solidly on his behalf, for at that very moment, they had emerged into the clearing. Game, set and match.

Evan’s face had been smeared clean by yet another aromatic kleen-wipe. Brenda smiled - a frozen smile, yet truly meant. Her greatest pleasure in life was witnessing the smiles of others - and the other three were indeed smiling. And so, also, smiled the tiny figure behind the trees - except its smile was judgmental: a smile that reached deeper than the lips. The fuzzy-haired legs had toddled in close pursuit. It knew, somewhere deeper even than the smile, that it was not a human: simply a creature more faun-like than infantile: yet one that wanted some share in the people’s homely hamper.

The trees released the sun-sight’s shafting beams - through the imaginary stained glass windows of an even more imaginary cathedral. No member of the family blew the secret to the other three, although most of them were aware of it. Indeed, the child-sized creature now balanced precariously on the picnic-table, its shaggy legs bowed backwards, with an ugly beauty more in touch with soft-heartedness than the logic of beholding eyes.

Derek smiled in the direction of the creature on the table, as did the other three. Brenda’s frail voice showed she was really only talking to herself: “There’s not enough food. I’m afraid.” Yet, she had packed enough. The hamper should have been more than ample for a family of four.

The creature’s own parents were shadowed by trunks, like a courting couple caught in an embarrassing cuddle. They were more indistinguishable than their young one and, if this were an imaginary painting, they would have remained entirely unnoticed by a careless visitor to the even more imaginary Gallery.

Evan had the inadvertent misfortune to be the first to bite into the creature - its calf muscle, as it happened. Evan’s mouth was full of a furry substance - and he could not spit out the tufts. He gagged and Claudette sucked her cheeks. Brenda’s smile melted.

On the journey home, Derek recalled the secret of the creature. Its smile was the last remnant of its existence - until Claudette’s own teethful of mouth stumbled upon it. The motor had failed at the first stir of the ignition, but eventually coughed into a stubborn kangaroo-like motion. There was nothing in the rearview mirror the whole way home. Derek, Brenda, and Evan (and the balloons) had been needed together to tote the hamper back to the motor and, later, upstairs to its stowage under the bed. Foundlings played hide-and-seek with changelings for the rest of eternity, but never finding humanity in its glory-hole. And Evan did not, of course, possess enough tears for eyes to pipe when the secret, about his sister Claudette never having existed, was finally blown. Unadopted birds filled the air with one song.

(Published 'Rare Constellations' 1993)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is there an evil behind every good? Even behind every innocuous good?