In The Blink of an Eye
A mysterious woman, a simple man, and a life in small pieces
The blade swung through the air in a high arc, its polished and razor-sharp edge crested high above his shoulder then swiftly brought down, splitting the timber with crisp crack.
"Allison." The name of a college crush came to John's mind as he reached for another bucked section of the tree to set upon the chopping block. Sitting on the block, the wood awaited its fate, but John paused. Leaning on the ax handle, the old man looked up and gazed through the trees of his acreage, searching through the woods to a place left behind long ago.
He remembered now. Out of nowhere, Allison had appeared in his mind. Why was he thinking of her now? In decades, John hadn't thought of the young, blonde girl with the vibrant smile. "How many years ago was that?" he asked himself, "Forty years? Forty-five?"
"Hah!" John said to no one, "and how long did that last? Five minutes? A blink. That's what it was, a blink of an eye."
The ax swung through the air again. CRACK!
As with so many memories, John pushed aside the fleeting recollection of the bright-eyed girl with the long platinum-blonde ponytail and dazzling smile given so many years ago in the checkout line of a grocery store.
John got back to work.
He didn't think any more of Allison. He didn't think of Sarah at the Mill who'd doted on him so tenderly or Gwen who'd been so happy to be his until she wasn't.
He didn't think of Audrey or the day at the train station waiting for her to arrive. That day with the ring burning a hole in his pocket. The day the train never came. The day the conductor, still drunk from the night before, went into the turn at the canyon too fast.
After that day, John didn't think of any woman ever again.
Winter was coming, and there was work to do. But, of course, there was always work to do.
It was Friday, which meant a trip to town, groceries, the liquor store, and the library. The town had become almost unrecognizable from the small village tucked into the valley it had been when he'd first arrived. Now, it seemed that a new subdivision was pushing its way further out on each trip John made in. The population had quadrupled during his time on the acreage situated beyond the municipal limits. Still with the same narrow roads, the same buildings but many more people the town swelled.
But, change was inevitable, even here. A town where industry had left long ago. Now it served as a quiet place to live far enough away from the big city to feel safe but close enough for a commute.
There was one change John did appreciate; the new library. The architect had done an excellent job of keeping the spirit of the original, small heavy timbered library intact while the new building, three times the original size made room for the growing population.
Bowed along the turn of the river behind it, from the outside, it looked expansive and bold. Yet, paneled in dark browns and greys, it still felt quaint and cozy inside. The large bay windows with built-in benches for reading under natural light beckoned to John on each of his visits, and the coffee bar inside didn't hurt either.
On these library trips, John would peruse the rows upon rows of shelves. Gathering one book after another, then finding his place at a window with a fresh Americano. He would read from afternoon until the horizon summoned back the sun.
As per his routine, John would start reading from Mark Twain; a favorite from childhood. He would select Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn and read a few chapters feeling the days of his carefree youth return. Days filled with trips to the river and the lure of big trout swimming beneath the surface. Then, with his sense of adventure rekindled, John would walk the aisles of books, allowing one book or another to choose him. The spine of a hardcover jutting out from an otherwise neat row. Or a book set on the shelf haphazardly; a story rejected. Those books called out to John.
At the top row corner, a hardcover of canary yellow sat perched atop the end of the stacked books. Without reading the title or author, John knew this would be his book for the day. He moved to reach for it when he became distracted at the very moment he raised his arm to grasp it.
Between the gaps of shelves from row to row, a blur of color floated by. Another bibliophile, no doubt, drifting between the columns of literature much like he was doing only moments ago.
Yet, something struck him as odd about this person.
John reached up again, grabbed the yellow book then stepped around the aisle. Empty. Nothing but books on either side, between them only the vacant row of the carpeted floor.
"Your mind is playing tricks on you, old man," John said to himself.
"A Hole In Texas" A Novel. Herman Wouk. Settled in a window bench, a fresh coffee perched on the sill, John looked at the cover. A cowboy hat sat centered inside the diagram of an atomic particle. On one side is a Chinese dragon; on the opposite, a cat below the author's first name near the top left, and a small imprint of a Capital building with the American flag above. Running his finger across the cover, the flag, building, dragon, and cat rose slightly from the dust jacket, as did the lettering of the author and title. John liked the book already. It paid attention to the small details, and John's life was nothing more than a compilation of small pieces.
At about a minute a page, John was twenty pages in and sank fast. This was a talented author. Drawing his finger at the corner of page 24, John was about to finish chapter 3. The page opposite began chapter 4. In bold text with a wide gap between the header and text lay two words; The Congresswoman.
"This is where it will get sticky," John announced to no one.
He reached for his coffee from the sill where it sat cold and only half-drunk when John's eyes caught the same wisp of color he'd seen in the aisle. Looking over the rim of the cardboard coffee cup, John saw the slim figure of a woman wearing a pale blue dress before she swept behind the column and disappeared again. John kept his eyes aimed at the end of the row for a moment longer, but the woman had vanished from view.
The sun was sinking lower now, its amber beams cutting lazily through the bows of pine and the thick branches of the birch trees that lined the banks of the river. John decided he'd read to the end of "The Congresswoman" before packing up and checking out "The Hole in Texas" and several others that would sustain his reading needs until his next visit.
It was a short chapter, and chapter 5 titled "The Omelet" made his stomach rumble. Then, finally, it was time to head home with a pit stop at Mr. Ducks for Fish n' Chips to-go platter.
When John stood and stretched, dropping a hand over his mouth to stifle a yawn, he saw her again. The woman in blue. At a book carousel near the front doors, her dainty fingers turned the display of paperbacks. If it wasn't for a library filled with books of imaginary characters, she'd look almost out of place.
Seeming fairy-like, wearing a dress that seemed more gossamer than fabric in nature, and the sunlight filtering through delicate material, it looked as though she was hardly there at all. Yet, she was there. And she was looking at John.
Arching his eyebrows, John dipped his chin and offered a silent "hello with a slight smile." Then dropping his coffee cup in the composting receptacle, he gathered his books and walked towards the librarian's counter, but his eyes stayed on the lady behind the carousel.
She was young, much younger than him, but her hair, held in braids that were more ashen than blonde and more white than gray, but it also held shades of dark and light brown, swept across one side of her head. With her bangs tied back in the braids, the woman's face was exposed to its full beauty.
"A delicate flower," were the words that came to John with his gaze transfixed. Feathery soft, light brown eyebrows rested on a face of porcelain skin. A petite nose, smooth and short, centered above scarlet painted lips. Beneath the braids, her hair hung loose and free over her ears and swept to her shoulders. Looking at her, John thought of the fine sand beaches of the Pacific and the driftwood scattered along its shores.
Stepping into the checkout line, John retrieved his wallet and, from it, his library card. Usually sure-handed, John fumbled with the books at the counter when the woman brushed by his side. When John raised his eyes to hers, he reflexively pulled back. Beneath thick and long, slow blinking eyelashes, the woman in blue had eyes a darker black than John had ever seen. The brief hypnotic gaze was broken as the woman stepped silently past him and out the doors. John watched as she turned to the left, moving away from the library and him without a backward glance.
Quickly shoving the books into a cloth sack, John rushed down the stairs and out the doors onto the street. Then, following the woman's route, John turned left and hurried down the sidewalk with quick steps. It hadn't been a minute since she'd stepped outside, but the woman was nowhere to be seen.
The sun was setting now, and the last of the daylight began to fade. For a moment, John stood still and wondered first at the direction he should go, then he caught himself wondering why he was so enamored with this girl.
"Look at yourself, you old fool. One look from a pretty girl, and you've lost your senses," he chided himself. "And what are you going to say if you find her?" John asked no one with a shake of his head. "Stupid old fool," he repeated. John gave up his search with a final glance through the parking lot and up the street. Heading to the rear of the building where he'd parked his old pick-up, John meant to forget about the mysterious girl. His stomach rumbled again. Mr. Ducks was calling.
As John stepped to the back of the building, turning towards his truck, a sudden blur of wind and wings blew by his head. Ducking and dodging, John peered up from a bended knee to see a barn owl swooping by then disappearing into the darkening woods ahead. "What the bloody hell!" he exclaimed. John steadied his nerves with a long exhale, shook his head again, and climbed into his truck.
As the evening sky darkened, the small old man stepped out from the back of his small, old house. Wearing faded denim coveralls over a copper and white plaid shirt and a black-brown tweed fedora with a single white feather sticking out of the band, the old man moved slowly through the grass to the large, old barn. Once there, from his chest pocket, he pulled out a pipe and sack of sweet tobacco. In his solitude, the old man sat upon an old wooden bench near the front of the barn.
His short legs straightened in front of him; the old man crossed his ankles, resting one heavy boot over the other, and struck a match to his freshly packed pipe. Pulling long slow tokes on the pipe, the old man raised his head and blew rings of blue tobacco smoke that floated halos above the new moon. The sky was clear and cloudless. Star after star appeared in vast blackness above. The tall grass hissed with the evening breeze. The stream that ran not far behind the barn gurgled and spilled. Savoring the rich tobacco smoke rolling off his tongue, the old man puffed his checks then huffed out swirling cones of smoke into the air. As sure as the smoke would dissipate into the space above him, so to would the silence end.
Any moment now, the screeching would begin.
If the Devil had sisters, then the screeching is their tongue. Sounding like a room full of women thrown into a fire, the barn filled with the hellish yowls growing in volume and raising an alarm of terror.
The small, old man stood from the bench, knocked his pipe on the stones ringing the fire pit, and stepped to the large barn door. He pulled the door along its roller with hands on the weathered wooden handle and opened the barn. Dozens of barn owls burst through the opening and scattered into the night sky. The new moon would make it a busy night. The small, old man shuffled back along the grass and back into his small, old house.
It was Sunday afternoon, and John set his favorite fly rod into the thick willows above the riverbank. Resting against the trunk of an old pine, he opened his lunch sack, and from his thermos, poured himself a mug of rich black coffee. He extracted the small flask containing the scotch that was a third his age from his vest pocket. With a few splashes into his coffee and a slight pull over his lips, John sighed with deep satisfaction; not enough of others knew. With his tuna salad sandwich set beside him, John retrieved the yellow-backed book. He'd nearly finished the book now. Satisfied and surprised by the clever and imaginative plot and it's easy humor, the story had him laughing aloud throughout. It was a delightful and entertaining tale.
The morning had been a good one on the river. The wind had stayed down, and the trout rose with reckless abandon. So few things in this world touched John deeply. He didn't reach for big things. Not anymore. Not since that day. "Stay in the small details." That was his motto.
But a beautiful, thick-bellied, red-cheeked rainbow trout tricked by his fly and landed to his net was a thing that elevated beauty. For a moment he could hold that in his hands and connect to whatever entity created its marvelous existence. On this day, John had touched that mystery more times than any reasonable man should.
He would rest a while now. Finish reading the book in the tree's shade, then drop his cap over his eyes and take a nap. Then he'd rise, pack up and go a little further upstream because a trout river always gave one more bend to see.
John was fitful during the night. His legs were unusually sore, and he was still irritated by his afternoon on the river. The same waters he'd effortlessly glided across in the morning sent him tumbling and stumbling over boulders and roots in the afternoon. He'd been a fly fisherman for nearly fifty years, and in that span, it was with his boots on the riverbed where he'd felt most anchored. But today the rocks beneath the water felt foreign and loose. His feet blindly searching the way across.
But not that afternoon. John found himself winded and unable to confidently navigate across the currents. He struggled to find his timing with casts and failed to find the river's rhythm. In the hours under the afternoon sun, he had managed to rise only yearling trout with sloppy presentations and poor drifts. By the time he'd made it back to the truck and home, John felt as though he had been out drinking all night and was now suffering the effects of an early hangover. Unable to sleep, John rose, set the kettle on the stove for some tea, then gathered his sweater and pipe to sit on the porch. Once there, he nursed his tea, smoked his pipe, and rubbed a throbbing shoulder.
The shrill scream cut through the still night and launched John from the porch chair in a panicked alarm. Unprepared for the call to action, his legs wobbled then gave out. John lay sprawled on his stomach against the broad, cedar planks of his deck. Cursing at having been startled and spitting dust from his lips, John brought himself to his hands and knees. When he raised his head to search for the source of the demon sound, he froze at what he saw coming towards him.
Gliding along the cobblestone path of his front yard walked the lady in blue. The same girl from the library, only this time she wore her hair differently. Pulled back tight and twisted into double Dutch braids down to the base of her neck before falling loose like the tails of a comet, the woman's face shone large and bare underneath the moon's bright light. Walking barefoot, the silhouette of her shapely legs swayed beneath a soft white gown that flowed around her form like a haze. Holding her delicate snow-white hands laced together in front of her chest, she approached as gingerly as a cat walking a fence.
Unable to comprehend this apparition coming towards him, John fell back to his buttocks, inching himself backward to his front door, unable to look away from the beautiful white woman with the large, pitch-black eyes.
"It's alright, John," the woman said as she came to the steps only a few feet from John. "Everything is going to be alright."
"How do you know my name?" A fearful John asked. "Who are you? How did you get here? What do you want?" John stammered out the questions in a quivering voice.
"Shh," the mystical woman raised a finger to her lips, "Shh, there's no reason to be afraid, John. Everything will be fine, you'll see." The woman's voice, light and melodic, calmed John's racing heart, and he no longer felt afraid. When the woman knelt beside him, placing her hand gently on his forearm, serenity washed over him. John forgot his fears and felt at ease.
"My name is Aisling, John." The fairy-like woman said in her hushed, musical tone. "I'm here to bring you along." Then raising her hand to John's face, her fingers unfurled against his cheek's as delicately as a fan made of feathers.
"I don't understand," John replied. "Bring me along where? Am I dreaming? I must have hit my head when I fell. None of this is making sense." John replied in confusion while running his fingers across his scalp, searching for a gash or bump to rationalize the events.
"John," repeated the woman, "I'm here for you. It's time for you to come along now. Your time here is ending, John, but your journey home is only beginning. Do you understand, John?"
"No, I don't understand anything. One minute I'm sitting having tea, minding my own business, and you show up wanting to take me somewhere." He replied, "To take me home. Well, lady, you don't know anything; I am home!" John declared, then backing away raised himself to his feet.
Standing in front of her, John could be sure now, there was no mistaking it. "You're the woman from the library, aren't you?" asked John. "I saw you watching me. I saw you hiding behind the books and looking at me. Then you ran away when I came out looking for you-Aisling? It was you, wasn't it?" John accused.
"Yes, John. It was me at the library." She answered, "But I didn't disappear. You saw me leave John, and I brushed your face as I said goodbye."
"What do you want with me? Why were you watching me?" John asked, still struggling to understand what was happening. "Get away from me!" John yelled, springing away from his door to get past the woman.
In a blur of movement, Aisling rose up and towered above John. Great white wings sprung free from beneath her gossamer gown as she cloaked John in a winged cage. The supernatural entity leaned her porcelain white face towards John's terrified eyes. Her voice, fair and gentle, was gone. The words uttered were deep, low and at a volume, John felt reverberate through to his very bones.
"There is no getting away! This journey has ended. You will see all you have been and done, and then you will cease to be! You are mine now, and I will take you. Look in my eyes, John and see all your days melt away. They are gone as you are gone."
John shuddered. He could not raise his head to the horrific black eyes. They were more than a blackness. They were nothingness. No soul, no spirit, and not human.
The bird creature roared, "LOOK AT ME!"
Shaking from head to toe, John forced himself to raise his head. His eyes swam in the eternal blackness of this hellish fairy, and then John saw. John saw everything.
John saw his brother's panicked face as he slipped beneath the ice. He saw the blame in his mother's eyes, the grief his father wore until the day he died.
He saw the young boy who'd come to buy his truck. The boy who'd needed a truck he couldn't afford and his desperate story to strike out on his own. He watched the boy driving off in the truck John had sold him at less than half the price advertised. He saw the boy, years later, proud and successful, the head of a large construction company.
Falling deeper into the black well of the owl's bottomless eyes, John saw Gwen. There, in her apartment she stood bawling into her phone, leaving her heartbroken pleas on John's answering machine. Begging John not to give up on her. But he did. He'd thrown her away for no good reason, like something disagreeable and used up. John saw her married to the wrong kind of man. He saw the anguish on her face, the hurt, and helplessness.
John saw the widower Beth. The wife of his late friend who'd died so stupidly. Crossing a river that was running too high and too fast. He saw her cry at John's insistence to accept his money. The home he'd sold that saw Beth pay for the years of college for their two children. He saw a family pull together and live a good life without a father there to care for them.
And then John saw Audrey. In her pale yellow dress and large, wide-brimmed brown hat. She looked so radiant and alive, like a sunflower come to life.
Giddy and nervous, kissing her parents goodbye as she boarded the train. Then John saw the mountain and the turn. The cars at the bottom of the canyon, twisted, broken, and crushed. In the river that flowed beneath the wreckage, a brown, wide-brimmed hat floated away.
Floating up, John no longer felt connected to his porch, home, or earth. He was somewhere else now. Spinning and tumbling in a place that had no form, no feel, and no life. John was nowhere but in the black. In the clutches of the lady in blue, John floated through every meaningful moment in his life. He saw them all. All the small things.
John had nothing left with which to fight. Weightless, he hung his head from the sylph that flew him away. Resolved to his fate, John surrendered. It was then that he felt the whip of pine boughs and branches comb across his drooping legs. Summoning the last of his courage to open his eyes, John looked.
Holding him wasn't a girl, fairy, angel, or woman. It was an owl with a face that rested on the inside curve of flat with great big black eyes and its beak, hooked and sharp.
Suddenly the owl dove from the sky. Down, down, down they dove, the owl, her wings tucked into her sides hurtling them towards the fields below. Then, with her wings opened to their enormous span, they floated, suspended like the dewy mist hung above the river on cool fall mornings. Beneath the fog, John saw a great old and weathered barn appear.
The owl looked to John, gave two long, slow blinks of her eyelids over her luminous black eyes. John watched as her feathers melted away, and once more, John saw the beautiful lady in blue. As soft and sweet as a lullaby, her voice sang her melodic words to him.
"It's time for you to go home, John. What you lost is now found. What never came to you in life waits for you now in death."
At the doors of the great barn, John saw a small old man sitting on a small old bench smoking a pipe. The rings of blue tobacco floating up and rolling into the barn.
In the embrace of the lady in blue, John was ushered along the soft, hay-covered floor. A hush of wings and wisps of figures fell to the ground all around him and John looked at the dozens of other men, women, and children carried and released by fairy-like figures with hair braided and blonde.
At the end of the barn, the wall was pure white, a white brighter than John could have ever imagined. From the center of the radiant blaze stepped a slim-figured young woman wearing a pale yellow dress and large, wide-brimmed brown hat.
As John walked towards Audrey, he saw the wrinkles in his hands fade. He felt his head heavy with the rich, wavy brown hair of his youth and the strength of his body at its prime return.
John's eyes met Audrey's, and with a smile on his face and love in his heart, he spoke. "You look like a sunflower come to life."
"Welcome home, John. I've been waiting for you."
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