I was thrilled to move into the second round of NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, “a competition that challenges writers around the world to create short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments in 48 hours.” For this third challenge I was given drama, a swimming pool and a voting ballot.
We first met by the pool. I had just dipped my feet in the water when he appeared; a sudden, silent intruder. He wasn’t much to look at: a dull khaki figure, with the shortest layer of down covering his head. His hands cupped something small and secret. I did not gaze at him directly. I knew he would come back to see me, and so I ignored the thing in his hand with which he was trying to lure me.
He was so different from me, but then again, I was repulsed by those who were like me. This was my problem, I was told. The fate of my previous suitors was no secret; even strangers called me “The Black Widow.” The gossip did not bother me. I preferred my solitude to an incompatible partner foisted upon me. I remembered my mother’s hands, and how close she carried me. Not all infants remember how their mother loved them, but I did, and I would accept nothing less.
We started that elaborate dance, the courting ritual, when the days were long and dry. One morning he came to the pool and watched me from the opposite edge, squatting low on his heels. I turned to regard him and bowed my head; an invitation. He was surprised by my boldness. He whispered to me, but I don’t remember the words now. They were unimportant. He bowed awkwardly in return, an approximation of my movement.
We went on like this for a while. He brought me little presents. I rejected some of them because their presentation seemed a false gesture. I found that I could not always trust my feelings for him. Sometimes I would get a flash of something, as if he were just going through the motions of courtship. But then he would speak, ever softly that blur of words, and stroke me, and I could think of nothing but his touch.
It was winter when I met her. I don’t know if she came before or after me, but she was also his. She showed up to the pool to see me, or to see him with me. She stood behind the gates watching us. I understood immediately that she and I would both have to consent to this arrangement. It is hard to understand how I could accept a competitor for my beloved’s affections. My jealousy was only kept at bay by how strikingly different my rival was. As if understanding the precariousness of the situation, she only visited once a season.
His woman at least had the decency to keep her distance, always maintaining the fence between us. One day my man brought a friend, another man, to the edge of my pool.
“I want to introduce you to someone,” he said. “Someone you might like.” I turned away without looking at them. I paced through the shifting sand, a guttural noise of distaste rising from deep within me. He never brought that man again. It was a week before I would let him touch me. This was our sacred space, and my beloved had breached it.
Today there was something different, something that everyone but me seemed to understand. I ventured out of the shallows, floating upon the obsidian surface of the pool. There was a buoyancy and release from the hum of energy I felt around me. My legs moved idly beneath the surface, and I could not see my reflection.
The man was different today; at once more tender, yet somehow distant. He squatted at the edge of the pool, as he did that first day. I bowed my head to him. His mouth smiled but his eyes did not, and they moistened as he nodded his head back.
His woman also came. She stood on her side of the gate, holding a piece of paper I had seen others carrying around that morning. My image was on it.
“I see you’ve got a ballot,” he said to her.
“Yes,” she replied. “Samson or Jambo, who should Mariko choose for her new mate? Funny, I don’t see your name as one of the options.” She said this with a smile, but he did not return it.
“It’s a mistake,” he said. “I don’t know why the zoo is doing this. She killed all of her past potential mates. Mariko will never accept another crane.”
“They’re doing this because you are moving. Because we’re moving. Maybe this time she will bond with another bird. They have to try, don’t they?”
“I just hope they take my advice and introduce another man once I’m gone. She must have been strongly imprinted to a human as a chick. Another person is the only thing that could make her happy. This vote for a new mate is a farce.” I had been circling the water, watching the tadpoles and minnows flash past my feet, but I looked at the man now. I saw his face, and with it the truth: it was I who he loved, but she he would go with.
He came to me one last time, when the visitors had left and the stars shone from the depths of my pool. There was something small in his hand: my favorite gift, a tiny, motionless mouse. But tonight I would not eat. He understood and did not try to touch me. He had something else: a book. The man opened it and began to speak, the words floating around me and settling like droplets on my feathers.
“This is one of my favorite books,” he said. “And I wanted to read you something, because it will always make me think of you. For the animal shall not be measured by man. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
He closed the book heavily, and I never saw him again.