A new recreation of Chris’ national prize-winning short story
When Chris was 18, he won a national short story prize for young writers with a story called ‘Prima Sings, the Autumn Falls’. The original typed manuscript was lost decades ago, but he has recreated it from memory, as ‘Miss Edie’, written in the voice of his younger self.
Summer had come late and the ground felt airy and clinging, neither soil nor leaf-mould, as if compounded of dust and bone meal and the dried husks of thunderclouds. Click ran homewards down the bluff, his soft bones proud in the flesh he would carry into the earth and give back to the land by sleeping.
The house was a grounded ship, its timbers powdered and ashen. When the sun was at full mast, you could hear them creaking above the porch swing, while his father tested the winds with his forgotten hands, naming the seasons Good Weather or Bad. Click shook his thatch of hair and ran into the house. He was slower than the other boys, for he had lived in this house – and the house in him – with its astrolabes, sextants, and bottles to trap wandering spirits.
Click spat then ran out back, accepting the summons like birdsong.
– Miss Edie? You there?
She lay on a daybed all sepia and windfallen. Click was sorry, sorry she had lost her bloom and fallen. Some days she wore daisies. Then, as morning swooned towards noontime, she added bluebells and violets and little seedling bells and Click would dance around her as if she was Winter disguised as Spring. From her bed, she put up her hands to feel him there, supposing he was her spirit come wandering back from the hills.
– Click, my Click? You chosen summer yet, my boy? Sucking her teeth with his name on her lips and her hair brushed pearly and beautiful.
– I’m here, Miss Edie. And I brought your Bible too.
It was a seamless, cloud-borne day; a glassy round where warm winds blew. Miss Edie was old and speaking freely all at once, and Click was a ghost at her bedside – an essence and the sum of all his parts, standing beside her in the clear-moving green afternoon. Entering, he thought: Who will be here in years to come to grieve for her that has gone before? And will storms form in these rafters, scaring birds away into all eternity, to rain on his father with the winter-cracked face and the dim white wings that failed behind his eyes?
– Read, motioned Miss Edie, knowing all this but still smiling. Tell me The Good Book.
– “Mother was like a grapevine, planted near a stream. Because there was plenty of water, the vine was clothed in leaves and fruits, and its branches were strong and grew to be royal sceptres…”
– Ezekiel! Nineteen.
– That was beautiful, Miss Edie, Click whispered.
– Memory often is, child, she preened. Come: let’s walk outside.
Summer winds held a pale moon aloft like air in the hollow of a wave. Father sat on the porch with his eyes closed, lost on some long voyage of thought. It was here they had said goodbye, he remembered, waving after him for as long as they could see his back. He had sailed on alone into the cold country, then; that isthmus between worlds where men are grounded and grow old.
– Speak, he thought. Speak if you can hear me, all my old friends…
Click heard his father cry out, once, and resume his sleep.
– Saturnus, Illyricum, Cloth of Gold… That’s a pretty one! Lutea, Zonatus, Maiden’s Blush!
Miss Edie knew the heart of the forest; knew that it might send a snake pricking at your heels; knew when to be quiet, as if she were in love; knew to name the flowers under her breath as she curtsied through the tangles, spangling her rusty parasol. She didn’t know what lay ahead, only that she must tend and collect and prod and fuss and, if she turned back at last with a sense of her place in things, that she would reveal not herself but the glory of the forest.
Click had come to the Place of Two Worlds. Down at the jetty – a sickly stream – the centre of the forest widened like an iris above the water. Miss Edie picked her way among grasses that might tease a sleeping lover. From here, thought Click, a bird might fly to all things – to river, sky and treasures of the sea – fly with drops of light in her wings to bathe herself and administer to her plumage.
– Now, he thought. Here. And, sucking a deep breath into his lungs, he threw back his head and cried out the one name that seemed perfect to him. But silently, so as not to disturb his father whose eyes were heavy and adorned with sleep. He called it secretly; inwardly.
Click could not summon her at first; it was as though the forest held too many ghosts for her. But as he held his breath the lone swift came in a shrieking black arc to scythe the treetops with a dry fluttering of wings and call Click deeper into the forest. One day Click had found her dazed and flightless on the loam, and he had laughed and thrown her back into the sky. He imagined that the swift he’d called out to ever since was that same bird, year after year, until he stood now, aged 12, summoning her from where she wheeled and screamed above the forest.
– That boy needs discipline, his father mumbled, now half awake, the dead land beneath his eyes. On the porch at his feet, a grey cat mewled about and stood up graceful.
Let him be, said Miss Edie, now at the old man’s shoulder. You’ve done what you can. Discipline? Discipline is fifty acres of barren land.
The stream ran wrinkled and sweet to breathe with a half-drowsy smile. Click ducked and jumped and hunted footprints smaller than a bird’s while the turning sky descended, hung with clouds and darkening. He said the words over and over to himself until he had them refined: “Mother was like a grapevine planted near a stream. Because there was plenty of water, the vine was clothed in leaves and fruits and its branches were strong and grew to be royal sceptres.”
And the dream was divided amongst the forest, for a moment that drew his arm like a child’s in sleep, and Click threw himself on the dry ground to weep for the father who rarely spoke, and the mother who had never said goodbye.
(For Miss Edith Skilton, who told me stories as a child.)
© Chris Middleton 1981, 2000, and 2015. All rights reserved.