Congratulations to John Burridge of Eugene, Oregon, June’s recipient for the Penn Cove Literary Arts Award.
Before the Last Bloom Falls
The wicker weave of Henry’s wheelchair creaked as he shifted his weight in a fruitless quest to find comfort. A pile of flaccid birthday balloons sat on the kitchen table before him. He still had thirty more to inflate. These days, he needed to save his breath, and used a balloon pump.
At least Cassandra, his granddaughter, was visiting from school and could help him. She’d just gone to tie inflated balloons with twine. It was good that she was here.
After the mess with his son, she would have to be the one to continue the family’s magical tradition, but he had postponed testing her. It was almost too late; his mind was beginning the inexorable
slide through the cracks that age continually put into his body. The pump reminded Henry of a syringe. He fit a balloon over its tip, but after three strokes the balloon slipped off and raspberried
around the kitchen.
His tired hands ached and he put the pump aside. He shifted again, straightening his spine in the game of tag with Algos, the Greek goddess of pain, as if he could contort enough to avoid her reach. The sound of hummingbirds’ wings through the open kitchen window decided him. He wouldn’t let Algos imprison him within her magic circle of glass shards. He wheeled back from the table, grasped its edge, and pulled himself up.
Swaying, he made himself take tiny steps across the kitchen to the window. The joints in his feet crackled like snapped twigs, and each step pinched the tendons running over the tops of his feet, but he wasn’t going to let them force him back to that rolling throne of disability.
Then his hip locked. He stumbled and clutched at the sill to keep himself from the fall that would send him to a hospice. Knives of ice pricked his knuckles as he pulled himself straight. He sucked air through clenched teeth.
By heaven, he had made it.
The garden view rewarded him. Foxgloves curtsied in a gentle breeze, their green spikes topped with pennants of lavender, yellow and white. Darting hummingbirds, ruby and emerald, hovered on blurred wings and slipped their needle beaks into the blooms.
Then clouds cast the garden into shadow and the birds scattered. Heavy rain knocked loose blossoms, then slackened to a drizzle. Water tick-tick-tocked down gutters, like some watch winding down.
“Grandfather, where’s your chair?” Cassandra asked. “You’ll fall.” He hadn’t heard her come in, even with the dull bumping of inflated balloons strung behind her. She snatched up the escaped balloon from the floor.
Good. She was back and they had the house to themselves.
“My dear, would you help me over to the pantry?”
She escorted him to the cabinetry lining the wall. He took down an ancient cylindrical bottle of marble, white as moonlight shining on snow. The clouds drew a thicker veil over the sun and the kitchen plunged into twilight, within which the bottle gleamed. Henry ignored his knuckles as he twisted the cap off. Soap scented the air. From the bottle, he drew out a wand, a golden wire with a loop crimped into the shape of the sun’s corona. “Now watch what I do,” he said, and licked the the sun’s outline.
Her nose and brow crinkled together. “Eeew, gross. What are you doing?”
“This is magic,” he said. “I’ve been saving my breath.”
He inhaled, dipped the wand into the soap solution, brought the wand to his lips, and blew. The iridescent film wobbled as his raspy breath forced it away from the gold wire. A subtle twist, and a bubble
floated in the dark room. It glowed softly, an undulating net of rose, amethyst, and copper green. Her gasp vindicated his choice to reveal the magic to her.
“Look deep inside,” he said.
Within the bubble, he saw a line of dancing figures. The dancers’ line broke and snaked from circles into spirals, then joined into a lemniscate and back again to zero. The bubble grew ghostly
silver and thin.Three women left the dance and approached him. A veil of golden thread smudged the farthest features like the sun filtered through fog. An inky blue veil, edged with strands of silver, hid the second closest dancer as if she were surrounded by the rising cobalt smoke of myrrh–save for the thin white hand offering him a poppy. The third one, the closest, appeared the most clearly: Algos. A fillet of twisted iron nails netted her red hair. Her russet smile was as barbed as a jape that bursts innocence. She spread her arms wide, the skin about her wrists rouged from rusted bracelets. Henry flinched away.
The bubble dispersed into a nebula’s afterimage of fine mist.
“Oh,” Cassandra sighed.
Henry shook away the vision of Life, Death and Pain. “Tell me what you saw.”
The clouds drew away, and color crept back over the windowsill. Her eyes gleamed like the marble bottle he still clutched.
“At first, I just saw the bubble, glowing with all those colors. And then I looked again and I saw a tree with green leaves and black bark. Along the twisting roots there was a a snake with rainbow scales, like the bubble. The snake rubbed its nose along the roots and its skin split open. It slithered through the roots, leaving its old skin behind. And a wind came and the cast-off skin scattered like glitter.”
She would do.
“Congratulations, my dear. The magic skipped your father, but not you.”
She gave him a puzzled look. “But, what does seeing a snake in a rainbow have to do with anything?”
The front door banged open. The cousins had returned with cake.
He capped the bottle. “I’ll tell you more after my birthday party.”
She guided him to the wheelchair.
“Will I start having visions if I blow up balloons?” she asked.
“Only if you hyperventilate,” he said, and picked up the pump.