From the Desk of the Editor
Hello and welcome to Issue Ten, Volume Two of Larks Fiction Magazine. In this issue we are featuring two works of science fantasy. One is another chilling tale by Heikki and the other is a story of love in the multiverse by a new author to Larks, Tony.
We are slowly catching up on our Inbox of submissions. If you are still waiting on a reply from us we will hopefully be in contact this week.
Daniel J. Pool
By Tony Burnett
Added November 29th, 2011
Added November 29th, 2011
In less than a millisecond the rays emanate from the glowing pumpkin on the horizon. They pierce the atmosphere, ooze through the smog, dance off the bronze mirrored skyscrapers and slam to their death against the gray concrete three story supporting Hans and his companion. From the street below dissonant electric guitar chords tangle the various genres, volumes and keys into an aural sewage stream assaulting the ears of any music aficionado.
The growing crowd of revelers down on Sixth Street don't seem to care. Instead they are gyrating as one amorphous body to a pair of barefoot street drummers pounding out aboriginal rhythms on an assortment of overturned plastic buckets. Even Hans taps his alligator boot. He can see well beyond the Capitol building to the north. His attention, however, is fixed on the street below, especially the southwest entrance to the Driskill Hotel. He lets another raw oyster slide down his throat offering the shell to his thick-jowled companion who licks the salty phlegm from the object and drops it at his feet. Hans raises two fingers and points at his table. The waitress brings another cognac. It is Fat Tuesday celebration and he is enjoying it as best he can.
Six years as roommates has all but eliminated the language barrier between Hans and Artemis. As Hans strokes his friend’s forehead, Artemis turns his eyes imploringly toward Hans and licks his massive chops asking for another oyster shell. The bulldog’s request is granted.
“It’s almost time,” Hans says to Artemis. Together they stare toward the entrance to the Driskill. Hans checks his Rolex. At exactly 6:08 pm she emerges. It is not so much her stunning beauty that draws his attention but that she is so misplaced. She walks erectly, dressed in a starched white blouse and tan mid-length skirt, her blonde hair pulled behind her ears with a white band. Beside her on a silver ribbon of leash walks a trim Afgan hound with the same honey blond hair. Artemis throws back his head. A quiet high pitched moan rises from somewhere within as his left paw pounds uncontrollably against the railing. Hans is transfixed. The woman walks east down Sixth. The drunken masses seem to part like waves. She walks with her grand dog two blocks east, across the street and back up the south sidewalk, stopping only long enough to drop four crisp bills into the street drummer’s kitty. Back at Congress Avenue, she crosses Sixth again and re-enters the Driskill, at which point Hans resumes breathing.
“She appears like clockwork at exactly eight minutes past the hour. That was the third time she did it. Intriguing isn’t it?” Hans wonders aloud. His companion is leaning against the railing, his head resting on his paws, eyes closed, lost in a dream.
“I must know!” Hans shouts, startling Artemis back to reality. “No, it’s not lust. It’s more curiosity. If I don’t at least try to find the answer it may drive me to drink!”
Artemis snorts, shaking his head, and regains his footing on the rooftop. He knows it is a short drive. Having almost an hour to kill, Hans calls the waitress. “I’ll have one more cognac and a bowl of water for my buddy then you can close out my tab. We’re going to take a walk for awhile."
"I’ll get your drinks and your check.” She reaches down and gives Artemis a pat on the head. “I’ll be right back.”
Hans realizes that he will lose his observation post but is determined to solve this mystery. As Hans sips his final drink he thinks of his long, happy marriage and how the years have slowed and thickened his once athletic body. “It’s been a good run,” he says, “and it ain’t over yet!” He slaps the table with a new energy.
After paying his tab, Hans attaches the unnecessary leash to the leather harness surrounding Artemis. They enter the elevator. The musty cube is decorated with the dark walnut, burgundy velour and brass trim popular in the days of yore. It even has piped in elevator music, a sterilized version of a melody he and his young wife sang together years before while driving through the hill country. He can't quite remember the words. The ride ends too soon at street level where he will face the raucous throngs of drunken revelers. He looks at his watch. “We have a few minutes. Let’s check out the scene.” Hans adjusts his stature, infused with the energy of a new quest.
The evening is warm for a February, not uncommon for central Texas. The air is heavy with the smell of spilled beer and sweat. Otherwise intelligent college men are ejaculating strings of colored beads toward any glassy-eyed maiden who will reveal her mammary glands. Fueled by alcohol, hormones and drumming, the party is reminiscent of some medieval Pagan fertility festival. It is infectious if you are young. For men like Hans it is both silly and sad. For dogs like Artemis it is downright confusing. As they pass Sixth and Neches a tall cowboy is hurling verbal insults at a thick Middle Eastern male. The cowboy’s drunken girlfriend hangs on him like a loose sweater. As the Middle Eastern man turns away she lacks the coordination to effectively flip him off.
“These are our leaders of tomorrow,” Hans states.
He checks his watch, adjusts his tie and cufflinks, polishing them against the breast of his Brooks Brothers suit. “It’s time to head over to the Driskill,” he informs Artemis. He feels the blood in his ears and his pulse begins to race as the minutes tick away. His timing is impeccable. He reaches the corner of Sixth and Congress at exactly 7:08 just as the woman steps from the entrance.
“What a beautiful Afgan!” Hans recites his practiced line.
“Thank you. Her name is Sasha.” The woman glances down at Artemis. “He’s, um, quite a specimen also.” She hesitates at “beautiful” which would be grossly inaccurate.
“This is my best buddy, Artemis. We have been partners for six years. Unfortunately, the old adage is true. I’m afraid we have grown to resemble each other as pets and their owners are prone to do.”
The tall woman beams a genuine smile. “Well you both look very regal.”
“I’m Hans, Hans Schickel.”
“Lorraine Stewart.” She extends her graceful hand which Hans takes gently in his.
“Very pleased to meet you. Would you walk with me?” They head east into the crowd. As they walk quietly for more than a block, Hans notices that Lorraine is not the young woman she appears to be from a distance. The years have lighted on her like a butterfly, however, and a life of ease and privilege is obvious in her soft features.
“So what brings you to this decadent bacchanalia?” Hans eventually asks.
“I promised to meet someone,” Lorraine replied. A brief cloud wafted across her countenance. Hans decides to just enjoy the walk. As they approach the drummers, a girl of not more than 14 is slapping a tambourine. Two dark-skinned women in long gauzy skirts and tube tops are dancing teasingly around a tanned young man with long golden locks. He dances in a tantric trance, oblivious to his surroundings. A small crowd has gathered on the corner, fixated, their pulses attuned to the beat. Lorraine hands Sasha’s leash to Hans. Pulling a five dollar bill from her small pocketbook, she steps through the throbbing crowd and deposits it in the tip jar. “That’s for a friend who couldn’t be here,” she explains, noticing Hans’ questioning stare. Hans is even more intrigued. Lorraine takes Sasha’s leash and starts across the street, the same pattern as before.
Hans can’t take it anymore. “I have to ask you something. I hope you don’t think I’m out of line.” Lorraine raises an eyebrow. “I was observing you from the top of that building earlier and I noticed that exactly the same time every hour, all afternoon, you walk this same loop.”
“Really?” She looks surprised. “I didn’t realize. I’m just trying to get Sasha used to the crowd. I have a room at the Driskill above the street and I want to leave my balcony door open tonight. I don’t want her to be bothered by the noise. I find it stimulating.”
“But exactly eight past the hour?”
“Seriously, it’s coincidence. I’m surprised you noticed.” She switches Sasha's leash to the hand nearest Han's and moves a slight distance away.
“Well, to be honest, you don’t exactly fit in with this crowd. Not that that’s a bad thing.”
“Nor do you, sir. I don’t see a lot of cuff links and Rolexes down here.”
“I meant no offense. I tend to be more of an observer at these types of events. I’m afraid my days of lunacy are long passed,” Hans says.
“I know what you mean, though I can’t ever remember a time when I would have disrobed for a string of plastic beads.” She exhales a gentle laugh.
Both humans simultaneously notice their canine companions making introductions in the dog appropriate head to tail position. “They seem to be getting on well,” Lorraine mentions.
“Easy Arty!” Hans exclaims as Artemis places a meaty paw in the middle of Sasha’s haunches.
“Oh, let them play. I’m surprised it took this long. Sasha is a bit of a flirt!” Lorraine is sizing up Hans, ignoring the frisky dogs. They pull the dogs apart and continue the short walk. Just before the final leg of the pre-ordained route Lorraine turns to Hans. “Would you like to come up? As I said, I have a balcony overlooking Sixth. It’s only two floors up, an excellent observation point.”
Hans extends his hands as if they are the scales of justice. “Well let’s see, I could go home and rattle around my empty house or spend the evening with an intriguing woman. It seems obvious.”
“Okay, then,” Lorraine blushes ever so slightly at his boldness. She leads the way through the Romanesque entrance.
Once inside the room they unleash their companions who immediately lounge, noses almost touching, on the cool tile floor near the bathroom.
“Would you like a drink?” Lorraine asks.
“What do you have?”
“I have some very good tequila and, well ---I guess tequila is about it but I would be happy to call down for something else.”
“Tequila is fine, although I’m not well versed on the customs surrounding it.”
“Leave it to me,” Lorraine states and removes two tiny shot glasses and a crystal salt shaker from her luggage. She steps over to the counter and dices a lime into eighths. She places it all on a tray and carries it to the balcony. “Tequila lessons,” she says. She pours two shots, licks, then salts the back of her left hand, swallows the drink, flinging her head back dramatically, lashes the salt from her hand with a quick tongue and bites firmly into the lime, her eyes glowing. She indicates the remaining shot. “Your turn!”
Hans does his best to emulate her action. He decides that tequila was probably the worst tasting liquor he has ever experienced but the primal heat explains the glow in Lorraine’s eyes.
They observe the street below. The drumming has intensified. The pulsating crowd is an organic rainbow of sparkling color. Primitive noises, punctuated by screams and grunts, echo down the concrete chasm as a spell is being cast over the city.
As Lorraine is refilling the shot glasses, Hans notes a pale circle around her ring finger. “Are you married?” He blurts.
“Widowed, just last month.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s terrible!” Hans tastes foot.
“Sad, yes, it was very unexpected, but ironic, really.”
“What happened?” Hans asks, sensing she wants to talk about it.
“Arnold, that was my husband’s name, was terrified of flying. He was an engineer so he realized it wasn’t a rational fear. Still, anytime he had to board a plane he was certain it would be his demise. He would always tell me how much he loved me and what he would like me to do if he died. It became almost a morbid joke for us. January fourth, as I drove him to Love field to catch a charter flight, he started with the death thing again. I wasn’t in the mood and I told him so." Lorraine drinks her shot sans salt and lime. She pours another shot. "The plane went down in the Ozarks. There were no survivors, at least not by the time help arrived. Anyway, that’s why I’m here. We came down every year for Fat Tuesday and we already had reservations. One of the things he made me promise was to come here without him should he not return.” She pauses for a moment and surveys the scene below. Setting free a reserved chuckle she picks up her glass and threw back the shot, forcefully. “So what about you?”
“I lost my wife six years ago. She had a long fight with breast cancer. Her name was Vena. She was a tiny woman with sparkling green eyes, curly red hair and more energy than any six toddlers you can imagine. She always seemed happy. I remember when she first found the lump. We were about to make a buying run through the mid-west. She owned an antique shop over on South Congress. I still have it. We were going to be gone for about three weeks. It was right after Christmas. I tried to get her to see a doctor. She said, ‘There ain’t enough titties here for cancer to bother with.’ When we returned she was busy with inventory and taxes. She didn’t get around to seeing the doctor for a couple of months. By that time it was too late. She fought hard, radical mastectomies, chemo, alternative therapies, the works. She lost all her hair and quit eating. That’s when we bought Artemis. She had always wanted an English Bulldog but I had put her off. She had always wanted children, too, but I kept saying ‘eventually’. At least she got the bulldog. She lasted about seven more months, four of them on Hospice. She might have lasted longer but I couldn’t stand to see her in so much pain. I encouraged the Hospice nurse to give her maximum doses of her pain meds. One day, after the nurse left, we finished off a bottle of her favorite wine and she just went to sleep. I sold my company to pay off the house and medical bills. I still run the shop she owned. I guess it’s just a way to keep her memory fresh.”
“I see you still wear your wedding ring,” Lorraine observes.
“It won’t come off. I was fairly lean when we were married. Age, I’m afraid, has thickened me. I guess I could have it cut off but I could never see the point.”
They look out at the crowd again. Lorraine spots a young shirtless man, his body heavily inked in tribal tattoos. He dances wildly, his oily bronze curls slapping against his shoulders as he throws back his head. Dangling from his left arm are several dozen strands of colored beads. On his chest is stenciled a large crescent moon.
“Hey, moonchild,” Lorraine yells down at him, waving the bottle in the air. “Would you like a shot of tequila?”
“Cool, Babe, I’ll be right up!” The prancing boy replies.
“No need, just tilt your head back and keep your mouth and eyes open. I’m a pretty good shot with this thing but I may need some help from your end,” she yells.
The young man plants his feet firmly on the ground and arches his back as if he is preparing to balance a billiard stick on his nose. “Give her a go!” He cries. Lorraine fills a shot glass and pours with flair. Except for the first tentative drops it is a direct hit.
“Awesome, darlin’,” the boy hollers after swallowing the cactus juice. He takes a string of maroon beads from his wrist and slings it toward her like a lasso. She catches it on the bottleneck then slips it over her head. The boy dances away.
“Now everyone is going to think I’ve been running around half naked.”
“Isn’t it about time to walk the dog?” Hans asks, noticing it is approaching nine.
“They don’t look like they want to go anywhere soon," Lorraine says, seeing both animals stretched out on the tile floor, sleeping peacefully.
"I wish I could sleep like that," Lorraine says. "Since Arnold died I just go through the motions. I don't even know why. I'm not sure there's a 'me' in here anymore, even if it matters."
"I'm not sure you ever lose that other part that comes with love," Hans states. "Myself, I've made a point to hold on. It was my best part but it is limiting. I guess we all handle it in our own way. If it makes you feel any better, it does get easier, -- slowly."
Lorraine studies Hans until he looks away from the street. When their eyes lock she doesn't turn away. "Why don't you guys stay the night?" She asks, pouring two more shots.
Hans again weighs his options, rattling around his Westlake villa or spending the night wrapped up with this fascinating woman. "I haven't been with a woman since Vena passed," he warns.
“Well it’s about time don’t you think?” Lorraine smiles.
“I guess it’s like riding a bicycle,” Hans offers.
“Let’s hope not, but I guess if you can tell the handlebars from the pedals you’ll be okay.” Lorraine licked her hand and threw back the shot. Hans followed suit.
“Just curious,” Hans queried, “what made you pick out that boy for the tequila drop?”
“He reminded me of my son.”
“You have a son?”
“Yeah, he’s married. He lives in north Dallas. His wife is a physics professor at UNT. He’s a professional photographer, pretty good at it, too. If you’ve read any national magazines, you have seen his work. You wouldn’t think a scientist and a photographer would hit it off but I guess it’s that they both have such a unique way of seeing things. He actually has an opening tonight at the 500X Gallery. He’s showing photos from the Malaysian tsunami recovery efforts.”
“Shouldn’t you be there?” Hans asks, puzzled.
“I’ll see them when I get home. He doesn’t need his mother cramping his style at his big soirée.”
Lorraine takes Hans’ meaty hand and holds it to her cheek. “Thanks for staying,” she says and looks closely into his eyes. The drumming has reached a frantic pace. Lorraine places the half full bottle of tequila in the refrigerator leaving the patio door open.
Hans is nervous, but only until he's encircled in Lorraine’s slender arms. He suddenly feels very much at home. Their lovemaking is passionate and energetic but comfortable. It's as if they have known each other since the beginning of time.
Hans falls asleep for the first time in years without longing for Vena’s touch. Lorraine prays, not to God, but to Arnold. “I fulfilled my promises. Thank you for bringing me to this place. Amen.”
“Reggie, you need to get ready. The cab is scheduled for 8:30."
“Just a minute, Viv, I’m having trouble with one of my clocks again. It keeps gaining time.” Reggie was fiddling with one of the dozens of antique clocks lining the walls of his studio. “You can’t gain time, at least not in this universe. It’s just inaccurate,” Vivian explained. She teased him with these subtle nuances.
“Spoken like a true physicist,” Reginald replied, “but this little clock has gained eight minutes in the last two weeks. That’s unacceptable."
“Can you worry about it later? You have at least two devices on your person directly connected to the world atomic clock at the Naval Observatory,” Vivian countered, though she knew her protestations were futile.
“It’s strange, though. It gains eight minutes quickly then remains eight minutes fast, like it’s on a different schedule. What could it mean?"
“Okay, which one is it?” Vivian chose to humor him for the sake of expediency “It’s the one with the Romanesque façade that has the door that the woman walks her dog through on the hour.”
“Isn’t that the one we picked up in New Orleans?”
“No, we got it in Austin a few years ago when we met mom and dad for Fat Tuesday. Remember the little bald-headed woman with the shop on Congress?”
“Oh yeah,” Vivian remembered. “I wonder how she’s doing. She was obviously sick with something. I remember she really wanted a good home for that clock. I thought it strange that she would have such an attachment to an object she was trying to sell.”
“I can’t figure it out. I guess I will have to find someone to repair it. In the meantime it will take a few minutes to recalibrate.” Reginald continued to tinker with the clock.
“Can you hurry? You’ll be late for your own opening!”
“Maybe, but we did request a cab for 8:30.”
“Please, Viv, just let me do this.”
Vivian spun and left the room in a huff. Reginald reset the clock and dressed for his night out. He joined Vivian in the front hall. “Do you ever regret marrying a photographer?” He asked.
“I never regret marrying you,” She said. “Sometimes I don’t understand what you do.”
“You know more about photography than I know about physics.”
“Just because I know how a camera works doesn’t make me a photographer. The camera has no more to do with photography than one of your clocks have to do with time. It’s your eye and how it connects to your heart. That’s what I love about you.”
They embraced. “Opposites attract,” Reggie smiled.
“See, you do know about physics.” Vivian pressed her cheek to his chest. The cab arrived exactly on time.
In less than a millisecond the rays emanate from the glowing pumpkin on the horizon. They pierce the atmosphere, ooze through the smog, dance off the bronze mirrored skyscrapers and slam to their death against the gray concrete three story supporting Hans and his companion" “It’s almost time.” Hans informs Artemis. The canine places his ample paws on the railing. Together they stare toward the entrance to the Driskill. Hans checks his Rolex. At exactly 6:00pm she emerges.
About the Author:
Tony Burnett is a member of the Writer's League of Texas and an award winning songwriter. He writes a science and nature column for a regional Texas newspaper. His fiction has been published in national literary journals.. Most recently his story, Bait, Appeared in Tidal basin Review Summer 2011.
Flash in the Pan
By Heikki Hietala
The winter of 1902-03 was bitterly cold in Oulu. Up here in the north of Finland, it was nothing new, but there was more snow than usual. The Gulf of Bothnia froze early, and by November it was already possible for horses and sleighs to cross to Sweden across thick ice. As I gazed out from a vantage point high above the squatting wooden town, from my classroom's fourth floor window, I could see snow-capped one-floor houses as far as the eye could reach and every one of them was spouting a thick plume of smoke.
When I stood there rigid in my starched collar, my pupils studying in silence behind me, I had not a worry in the world. Having toiled for four years in the Kajaani Teacher Seminary, I had graduated with very good marks, and even if there were twelve applicants for the biology and geography teacher at the Oulu Lyceum, I knew I would get it. I did, and my first year at the Lyceum was running very nicely. I had made myself a reputation as a stern but fair teacher in just a few months, and I had come to learn it was much to the liking of the Headmaster, the venerable A. E. Fromm. He was legendary for his focus on discipline, and I was only too happy to oblige.
I was after something more than just the favour of the Headmaster. It so happened he had a daughter, Annina, who was truly the flower of Oulu. All eligible bachelors within a hundred miles were after her, and I was facing some stern competition. A wealthy merchant, a well-known sea captain, even an Artillery Major of the garrison were all known to be on her dance card. Still, I had a plan, and I was about to put it into action.
During last summer, the male capercaillie we had in the biology class had gone rancid. Due to botched taxidermy, it had taken on a distinct smell of decay, and when school started, the Headmaster himself had sent it on its last flight, into the rubbish pile. It was his pride and joy, one of the largest ever shot and stuffed, and its plumage had been flawless. Nevertheless, the collection was now missing one key animal.
As a farm boy, I was a hunter through and through. My father gave me my first shotgun when I was twelve, and I brought home game from almost every trip I took to the woods. By fifteen I was shooting elk, and during my years in the Seminary, I even shot a wolverine that passed too close to me. So, now that Headmaster Fromm was pining for a new capercaillie to crown his immaculate collection, I had my sights on it already.
Early in January, I had begun to ask around for the mating grounds of the forest birds. The locals were not too eager to divulge their secrets to a newcomer. Still, with the trips I took into the forests surrounding the town, and information gained from a hunter who was very fond of beer, I had a fair idea where to go when the mating game commenced.
This Saturday in March I surprised Class VII C when I told them they could leave half an hour early, at 11.30, as I had something to do. As soon as they had sneaked out of the school, I did the same, and went home. I had lunch and then, gathering my gun, the backpack I had prepared beforehand, and skis, I slipped out into Church Street. Dodging the people on the sidewalk, I ventured north and crossed the Oulujoki River at the Tuira bridges. Then, following the river, I turned southeast and skied into the forest.
I had six hours of daylight left and I made the most of it. By nightfall, I had covered enough distance to be deep within the wilderness, where I no longer heard dogs bark or saw the smoke from hearths. This was how I liked to be, resolute and confident, on my own. I prepared to leave the big river, and I looked at it as it lay dormant, tamed by a thick crust of ice and snow, with the black, swirling water visible only in the strongest of eddies. I took a left turn and headed north through a wide marshland, which would be impassable in summer, but now provided a straight route to my destination.
At the other side of the open area I stopped to put up my lean-to. I collected firewood to last me the night and lit a fire. With my reindeer pelts on fir tree branches and extra woollen clothing, I was soon cosy and warm, and I had a lumberjack’s dinner in the deepening dark forest. I turned in at nine, intending to wake up at three in the morning.
I always had a strong internal clock, and at ten minutes past three, I woke up. I packed my things and set out east for the final leg of the journey. If my informant was correct, there’d be a small peat bog, almost circular in shape, and it would be packed with capercaillies mad with mating-fever. I skied slowly, and the thick soft snow enabled me to approach the site without sound, and I was careful not to touch the stunted pines whose brittle branches would have snapped off sounds like rifle shots.
As I made my way, I was well and truly amazed to come across a fresh ski trail. The other skier had come from my right and made his way straight towards my destination. This was a source of much irritation to me. I had thought I was far enough from anybody to have the entire show for myself. Not only had someone skied in, he had pulled a sleigh behind him. This probably meant he was aiming to stay in the bush for some time, and could well be a professional. Nevertheless, I pushed on. Maybe there’d be enough birds to share.
Half an hour later I caught my first glimpse of the bog I'd aimed for. At the same moment I saw the other skier. He had taken down a couple of small fir trees and put together a blind for himself at the forest edge. Soon I was close enough to see his sleigh and the skis, but he hadn’t noticed me yet. I stopped to take in the big picture, and then I pulled out my field glasses.
About two hundred meters from me, dozens of capercaillies were involved in their fiery mating dance. Males competed by visual displays and head-on attacks at rival suitors, while the brown females circled the battlegrounds looking distinctly unimpressed. New birds flew in and landed straight in the foray, and wily young cocks tried their luck with females far enough from the old masters. They were too busy fighting for the top spot to notice anyway. I felt lucky having found the place, yet the presence of a competitor irked me. I inched closer to him.
I could see no guns. Instead, it appeared the man was lying prone with a wooden box in front of him, on a low tripod. As I went to his side, I could see it was actually a camera. I had never seen such a lens on any camera, though. It protruded from the front of the dark lacquered box, as long as a walking stick but thick as my arm, and it was made of brass. The man had his head under the canvas, but he heard me coming. He slowly backed out from his camera and signalled me to get down to him.
“Hello! Quite a show, eh?” he whispered to me.
“It is indeed,” I whispered back.
He held out his hand from the ground, and said with a low, resonant voice, “Van Helsing, Jacob Van Helsing, photographer. Nice to make your acquaintance. Here, let me give you my card.”
“Juho Koskela, teacher, glad to meet you too.” I pocketed the card. I had heard of him; people were talking about his talent and thronged to his studio.
The formalities thus out of the way, I started to prepare my gun, while he inched back to his camera. Then he motioned for me to kneel, and as I looked, he pulled up the canvas and showed me the view on the glass. I was completely amazed. His camera was able to show the birds as big as my fist on the matte glass, even if they were far away. I took my binoculars and had a look, and my image was not as detailed as his camera was able to show.
“What an instrument you have,” I hissed.
“It is quite good. Took me years to make, but now it gets me great pictures,” he answered.
“But surely you can’t catch the moving bird? You must find one that stays put and then hope it doesn’t take flight while you expose?”
“I’ve dabbled in the chemicals too. My pictures come out razor-sharp every time. I have the fastest camera in the world.”
I can’t tell whether it was my annoyance at him being there in the first place or his supreme confidence in the camera, but I snapped at him: “Still, you can’t go home and eat the bird.” I wanted to take a shot at the birds but they were very far away, much beyond my reliable range. I prepared to move around the bog to approach them from the side.
“I say! Your rifle looks mighty fine too, a Winchester isn’t it?” he said, taking me by surprise. Not many people would recognize my pride and joy.
“Well yes, this is a .22 Winchester. My uncle gave it to me when he decided he was too old to hunt. He only shot it a few times.”
“I bet you can hit any of those birds with a gun like that,” he said, squinting as if taking aim.
“Not from here I can’t, they’re too far. I’ll try from the side. Anyway, nice meeting you,” I whispered and began to leave.
Van Helsing signalled me to wait a second, moving his camera a bit. “Would that capercaillie cock be what you are looking for?” he said, and told me to take a peek. On the camera glass plate was the proudest bird I’d ever seen. Upside-down of course, but even so, I could tell it was truly a magnificent specimen. I took a look with my own eyes but could not see it. Van Helsing pointed at the glass again.
As I looked, the bird took flight and left the camera glass. I shrugged, but then Van Helsing pointed to a tree to our front left. There, sitting on a barren birch branch, was the capercaillie. It strutted its tail feathers and spread its wings, and acted as the king of the heap would in general. I let out a sigh. “To catch that bird would truly make my dreams come true,” I said, much more to myself than to Van Helsing.
“No, it is too far, and when I try to ski there, he’ll see me and fly away before I reach the range.”
“What would be your range?” he asked.
“A hundred meters, one-twenty at the utmost. There’s little wind now. But that bird is a good two hundred meters away.”
Van Helsing looked into his camera and pointed it to the bird. Then he moved the camera to point further left, and as I watched, the great bird took flight and fluttered to a closer tree. I watched as it circled a bit, then settled to the top of a fir, maybe a hundred and thirty meters from us. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but it was now at the extreme end of any shot I’d ever tried.
“Have a go.”
“I’m afraid I’d miss, or wing it from this distance. To kill it would take a perfect shot at this range.”
“I didn’t think you’d be a man to shy away from a challenge,” Van Helsing said.
“I am acting out of respect to the bird, not because I wouldn’t like a challenge,” I answered.
“What if we put on a little bet? If you kill that bird from this distance, I’ll take your portrait for free in my studio.”
“And if I lose?”
“You buy me dinner at the Temperance Society House.”
That sounded like a challenge worth trying. Portraits would cost five times more than a dinner. Besides, I’d sometimes got lucky with a long shot. I weighed the issue for a moment, then said, “Done.” And at the same time I wondered about the bird I was about to shoot – why did it come closer?
Van Helsing looked on as I loaded a single round in my rifle chamber and prepared the shot. I lined up the bird in my sights, then lifted the barrel to accommodate for the drop. At this range, the drop would be something like 25 cm. I breathed slow and deep allowing my aim to set. I said a little prayer in my mind, but right at that moment the bird fluttered its wings and moved sideways on its perch. I put down my rifle.
“That won’t help you this time, believe me,” my new friend said. I had to lower the gun when I heard his soft voice. Was he as religious as myself, and would he have said a prayer in his head in such a situation – or what was he doing with my thoughts?
I took aim again, just as carefully as before. I could feel Van Helsing’s gaze in my face when I slowly squeezed the trigger. The shot rang out and echoed from the frozen forest. All the capercaillie fled in terror, and the bog seemed to come alive with wings and lift itself off the frozen ground. The only bird that stayed put was the majestic old cock I’d shot at. It turned its head, opened its wings as if to fly away, then folded them, and fell from the tree top, bouncing off it as it dropped to the ground.
“Bravooooo!” said Van Helsing. “Ein Meisterschuss!”
I was transfixed with surprise. I never thought I’d pull this off. I put on my skis and began to ski to the bird, snow bursting into the air in white clouds from my rush. It only took me a minute to get to the fir at which the bird lay motionless. I looked at him and saw the last of life leave its eyes. It opened and closed its beak once, and then it was dead. I picked him up from the snow and began to turn back, but something made me look over my shoulder.
The snow was pristine except for one black feather in the dent he made when he fell; there was not a single drop of blood.
I returned to Van Helsing. “Congratulations,” he said. “Pop into the studio any time and I’ll make good on my bet. Oh, do bring something for props – the gun maybe?” I shook his outstretched hand. It was so cold out the bird was already beginning to freeze, and by the time I was ready to turn back to go home, it was solid. I had no need to prepare it like I would have in warmer times. I hung it on my backpack and took my leave from Van Helsing, who remained for a few more images. He waved to me when I turned back to look at him, and then I put on full steam to reach home.
I was back in eight and a half hours. It’s always quicker when you’re coming home, but I put in quite an effort, because I wanted to get the bird to the taxidermist as soon as possible. I wasn’t going to a second-rate hack – this bird would be in the capable hands of Johan Kronblom, who stuffed the magnificent moose in Oulu’s City Museum, and the twenty-kilo salmon sent to the Czar for his birthday as a gift from the Oulu Chamber of Commerce. It’d cost me an arm and a leg, but I was hoping for a great reward.
As I took off my skis and walked down Church Street, I happened to go by Van Helsing’s studio. When I’d passed the window, I had to turn around and go back. I was surprised to see Van Helsing inside the shop, in the process of taking a picture of three children and their mother. He was dressed in his Sunday clothes, hard collar and the works, nothing like the grey serge we both wore in the forest. I shook my head – a master skier as well, and I thought I’d taken the straight route.
I delivered the bird to Kronblom’s workshop, and we agreed on the stance. Full mating dance strut it’d be, and he was to be mounted on a sizable piece of wood. I arranged to pay him at pickup. Then, I went home, very tired, but very enthusiastic. Even with my triumphant shot, Van Helsing’s quick return was my last thought before falling asleep.
Three weeks later, when I collected the capercaillie from the taxidermist, I was very impressed with the result. The bird had been restored, nay, brought back to life perfectly. I looked him in the eye and could see him as he was when he ruled the bog. He looked as if he was poised to pick off my eye.
“Magnificent bird. It was a real honour to prepare him. I must also congratulate you – not many cocks have such plumage. There is one odd thing, though,” Mr Kronblom said, holding the bird in the air. “I could not find the entry wound, or exit wound for that matter.”
I tried to laugh it off. “I must have hit the tree and he died of fright!”
Mr Kronblom did not smile. “I do not believe I’d miss an entry wound. Besides, I did find the bullet, inside the heart.” He presented me with a .22 bullet which looked like it had left the factory yesterday. I shivered.
“It’s getting late, must be off.” I paid Mr Kronblom, thanked him profusely, and left. Once in the street I thought again of Van Helsing. Surely the bird was the best possible prop for my portrait, before I delivered it to the household of Headmaster Fromm. I almost ran home, collected my Winchester and a bandolier of cartridges, and hurried out to the studio.
Van Helsing was present - I could tell by the lights in his house - and when I was just about to knock on his door, it flung open. “Ah! Teacher Koskela, and the vanquished king of the bog! I was hoping you’d get the idea of bringing the bird, and I do admire your rifle – they make for a good portrait. Please step down this corridor and into my studio! I’ll join you in a moment.”
I walked down the long and dim corridor towards a room with a velvet canvas as its door. Van Helsing had put up framed pictures along the walls, and I could tell he was good. Children, adults, families, weddings, funerals – he had shot everything with great skill. One picture in particular caught my eye in the corridor. It was one of Mr. Berg, a local celebrity. He was a master accordionist and bandleader, and he’d been missing for six months. Police had no idea what had come over him.
In the picture Mr Berg sat on a stool with his accordion in his lap, playing it. He appeared to be smiling, but something in his expression was wrong. I looked at the image for a long time, and at last I got it: he looked surprised. I went on down the corridor into the sizable, dimly-lit studio. It was well equipped to say the least, many cameras, lenses on tables, stacks of photographic paper, and again, walls full of finished portraits.
I looked at Van Helsing’s luggage, which was arranged alongside the back wall. This man had been everywhere, judging by the stickers – Berlin, London, Paris, Rome, even New York and Chicago. I wondered briefly why would such a cosmopolitan figure descend into such a backwoods town as Oulu, but then thought, maybe he wanted to be incognito and work his craft without publicity.
There were also lots of objects to use as props in pictures, such as a piano, skis and poles, a bicycle etcetera, as well as a set of backdrops hanging from the ceiling. I had a feeling Van Helsing anticipated my arrival as the one showing was a wintery landscape. In the corner was an accordion, very much like the one I’d seen in Mr. Berg’s portrait.
“Right! Let’s get down to business, shall we,” said Van Helsing who’d arrived behind me while I wondered. I shivered for no apparent reason. Van Helsing put my bird on a table and took my rifle, and settled me down on a high stool in front of the backdrop canvas. “Put your leg like this... and then, turn your shoulders towards the camera, like so... very good! Now, let me put the bird on this support here so it’s beside you... perfect. Then the rifle...”
I knew I was in the hands of a professional and let him handle it all. Besides, I was still mighty proud of my capercaillie and the gun as well, and was looking forward to a print of the image I could offer to my heart’s delight. As soon as I had delivered the bird to Headmaster Fromm, I was going to ask Annina out on a proper date and at the same time hand her a signed picture. Oh, how she’d love it!
Van Helsing set up his biggest camera a couple of meters in front of me. Then he prepared it, adjusting the focus with a tape measure and so on. He muttered to himself all the time, but I was unable to understand what he said. Van Helsing picked up a tray and poured some powdery substance in it. He attached the tray to a handle above the camera. When everything was ready, he went behind the camera and said, “Let’s see the huntsman’s best pose!”
I straightened myself just one more inch and looked at the camera. Van Helsing framed the picture with his outstretched hands once more, and then disappeared under the canvas. As soon as he did, I was amazed to see a bulge, a definite protrusion, appear in the canvas. It was as if his forehead wasn’t smooth. A surprised sound emerged from my lips, and Van Helsing appeared again.
“Yes?” he said. His bald head was smooth as a billiard ball.
I shook my head and said, “Nothing, sorry. I thought I was about to sneeze.”
Van Helsing smiled and went back in. “Let’s pose again, shall we?”
I did, but as soon as I thought I was at my handsomest, I saw not one but two bulges appear, like horns. I started to open my mouth, but before I could, the flash went off. A god almighty white-hot flood of light, a veritable lightning appeared, and as soon as its image embedded itself in my retina, I saw the camera dissolve and the very image of the Devil standing behind it. The cloud of gas from the explosion reached me, and before my mind went blank and I ceased to be, I smelled sulphur.
When I came to, the first thing I sensed was a flat, oppressive weight on me. I could not breathe. I was on my back, looking at the ceiling, and something was pinning me down. Almost right away after that I felt myself lifted off the table and moving in the air. I was happy to see Van Helsing at first, but then, in a second, I understood. I was framed under a glass, and in the process of being hung on the wall, right next to Mr. Berg. As I watched helplessly, Van Helsing took my beautiful capercaillie and settled it on top of a wardrobe so it faced me across the room. Then he took my Winchester and hung it on the wall above the accordion on the floor.
Van Helsing turned, admired his prize, and switched off the lights.
About the Author:
HeikkiHietala, a native Finn, learned to read at four but is still trying to learn to write. His novel, "Tulagi Hotel", was published in 2010 by Pfoxmoor Publishing. His flash piece "Lord Stanton's Horse" won the Flash500 competition in September 2010. Heikki Hietala is a member of Year Zero Writers and the BookShed writers' conclave. He has also been published previously here at Larks Fiction Magazine.
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