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A Discreet Music

And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
—W. B. Yeats

The dark bloodless taste of widowhood had coated Hiram’s mouth for three nights when he awoke alongside that cold gulf of bed. He knew at once some kind of change had visited as he slept. Two hard knots burned in his shoulder blades, and feathers were strewn like bleached leaves across the sheets. But he looked out the window, away from these things, bleary-eyed and trying to miss Sandra.

It had begun to snow in the night, the last of the Virginia winter. By late morning the flurries would turn thick and settle into blankets, bright against the pallbearers’ black suits. Bright against his own.

And he was glad it was Sandra he saw through the window and not that other. He drifted into thoughts of his wife, the kind a fresh widower should have, and the bed held him in its half-empty palm. This same oak frame had supported them every night of their forty-two years, the creaks of Sandra rising from it each day the only alarm clock he’d needed. This same shade of pale blue on the walls. Not much had changed their private architecture.

The phone chirred from the nightstand. Sandra’s pillow lay plump beside it, the shape of her head already gone. He reached across to answer the call but his hand fell inches short. Instead he made a fist and eased a dent into her pillow, almost pressed his face there to take in the smell of her hair. He couldn’t bring himself to give his guilt that satisfaction.

He looked back out the window and watched a handful of years melt from her, Sandra in her dirt-smeared apron, turning the soil around the hellebores with a spade. She climbed to her feet and dragged the back of her hand across her forehead, leaving a red-brown streak that stood out like a brand. And like a brand, it seemed to Hiram the one image of her that wanted to live on for him. Her hair was twisted into a tight silver bun, and he was able to savor, still after all this time, the thought of her undoing it before bed. Her one vanity freed and plunging down her back, anticipating the comb of his fingers. She was always so quick to gasp at his touch.

Now the front yard lined itself with pews, and somewhere close Hiram walked their daughter, Helen, down the aisle, but the window framed only Sandra in blue chiffon, the gold of her hair then only interrupted by subtle ribbons of gray, like guests she had not invited.

But the streak of dirt was on her forehead still, and he thought of her soon in the earth and turned his head away, squeezing his eyes shut. He’d been a smoker until his sixtieth birthday, while she was the one who used the treadmill he’d bought. How had her heart lurched with a fatal thunder while his crept on? A feather brushed his cheek, pulled a teardrop into itself. His shoulder blades ached like something missing.

Gravel crunched in the driveway. Helen had come to take him to the church. He lay there, for a last moment ignoring the dull pain in his back and the feathers scattered across the sheets. Helen had always had a key to the house. Sandra had never accepted that her little girl had long since left the nest, but since she’d only moved an hour away, maybe Sandra hadn’t quite been wrong.

The front door opened and Hiram swept the feathers down the bed, yanking the comforter up to his neck just as his daughter rapped on the bedroom door. “Daddy?” she said. “Are you decent?”

Decent. The word rang dull as a wrapped bell. He didn’t respond.

Helen came into the room already wearing a gentle exasperation on her face. She held a plastic cleaner’s bag, and Hiram didn’t want to see the stark black suit inside. He found himself angry that he saw more of himself than Sandra in that face. As if she, too, was not paying her mother the proper tribute. It was his upturned flare of the nose, his dirty blue eyes flecked with green like an algae-stained pond. He only found Sandra in his daughter’s cheekbones, the soft jut of the chin, something faint in the shape of her mouth.

“Daddy, I’m sorry but you can’t do this,” she said. “Not today.”

“I’m not feeling well,” Hiram whispered. “Maybe tomorrow.”

She sat down on the bed. “It’s okay that you didn’t go to the viewing, Daddy,” she said. “Everybody understands. But the funeral is now, not tomorrow. You know that. You have to come say goodbye to her.”

He looked out the window again. Only snow falling in vague lines. “Just give me a minute,” he told her.

When Helen had hung the suit on the closet door and left the room, Hiram forced himself out of bed. Three or four feathers were caught in his wake and swirled briefly to the floor.

He pulled his t-shirt off. In the mirror his bloodshot eyes regarded him, the skin sagging below them into little troughs. He stalled the moment as long as he could— knowing Helen wouldn’t hesitate to knock on this door too—and turned around, twisted his chin back onto his shoulder. Feathers, a dozen or more matching the strange snowfall in the bed, were stuck to his upper back. He plucked one off and a sharp tugging pain brought a hiss through his teeth. It had come out, not off. A trickle of blood ran down from the new wound.

He backed a step closer to the sink. Ignoring the feathers, he saw what was more worrisome: something, a growth or tumor, stretched the skin high on each of his shoulder blades. They leaned away from one another, two inches or so wide and half as long, the skin around them pulled taut. He reached, old muscles complaining at the unnatural angle, and touched the one on the left, baring his teeth against a surge of pain that didn’t come. It kept the same low ache and was both cool and hot to the touch.

Hiram caught his gaze in the mirror again—wings? The idea felt as foreign as tree roots under his skin, or motor oil in his veins. He denied it, shut it all from his mind. This brought Sandra back into it where she belonged, but just behind her, drawing closer in his return to the foreground, was Jim. He most of all did not want to think of Jim, not today, this ghost that had only now demanded that Hiram admit he was still haunted.

He whispered into the casket. Its cherry wood was polished to an unnatural shine, but mercifully the undertaker had been sparing with Sandra. She lay muted and worn and beautiful against the pale satin.

“I’m so sorry, love.” Hiram stood there and seemed to feel all those stages of grief upon him, cycling away, each seeking purchase. There was a great weight pressed against him, that she could die when he was the less defensible. Her hands were folded across her chest, and he cupped one of his own over the dry cool skin. He would have felt blessed to crawl into the coffin with her, reach up and pull the lid down over the both of them. He drew his hand away and traced the back of a finger along her jawline. A small white feather slipped from his cuff and into the hair behind her ear. He wondered whether to leave it there.

The mutter of the church built slowly behind him. He turned, his shoulders giving a throb beneath the tight seams of his suit coat. For a moment he didn’t see the cousins and the friends gathered there, Helen comforting someone whose head bowed under a cloud of white hair. He saw 1981, the last year they had before Hiram quietly doomed himself with Jim Hudson. He saw one summer night, in a canoe he and Sandra had taken out on Parson Black Lake, the moon a bloated joy hanging up there just for them. He heard the cicadas filling the world, and Sandra whispering, “Let’s jump in.”

Hiram looked back to his wife. She’d been such a smiler. He closed his eyes and reminded himself it was the funeral, not 1981 and not the viewing, either. He had avoided seeing her like this, and now here he was. He felt Helen’s presence as she reached him, and before she could grasp his shoulder, the swollen knot there, he turned and took her warm, thriving hand. Let her lead him to the front pew. He sat and thought of that canoe, set adrift by an oar braced against the tree-crowded bank. He thought of how young his hands had been that night, holding the oar, how clean they had been.

“The eye is the first circle.” Jim had told him that beside the Missouri River, in the early hours of Hiram’s second night in St. Louis. It had always sounded like a quote to Hiram, but in the moment he’d been too embarrassed to ask. The words wouldn’t leave his head these past days, so he typed them into Google and learned they were from an Emerson essay. Jim spoke to him all over again as he read. About how the second circle is the horizon seen by the first, and how this shape comes to be repeated through nature and the world, on and on.

He thought about that repetition, outward from the circle of his own vision, first glimpsing the tall black-haired man reaching up to staple a Xeroxed paper to a less-cluttered height of a telephone pole, denim shirt riding up three tanned inches above the thick belt. All those razor-straight horizon lines. The man’s sign offered a reward for a lost miniature Pinscher named Otis. Hiram had thought it a kindness, to not cover up the flyers already there. It was the first and last time he ever felt this heat-flash reaction toward anyone. That it was a man disoriented and thrilled him.

They’d shared guilty food and their first guilty kiss under the Arch. Hiram had been sent to Missouri for a week to attend a tech convention, and he wondered how many of the other tourists craning their necks had wives back home. “If that wasn’t the gateway kiss, I don’t know what is,” Jim had told him when their lips pulled apart. They’d held hands through the sparse downtown and let the stares bounce off them. The week had seemed as long as a breath. At the end, the airport, glazed with the awe of what he’d done, he wondered where Otis was. If he’d be found.

Circles. Coming back, always. It was how he had thought about Jim all these years, he realized now, thirty-three of them, thirty-three loops back to the fourth night and a fifth of bourbon in a hotel room. Had the room been on the sixth floor? No, it had been far too dingy a place to stand that tall. There had been a thump and a shout through the thin wall, “Quiet the fuck down.” The rattled wheeze of the air conditioner on their sweat-slicked skin. Clenching and pulling, their soft animal sounds. He wondered where that Wild Turkey bottle was now, if it still had the ancient taste of their lips on its mouth, and why was his memory doing this to him?

Sandra had been arranging a bridal bouquet at work when her heart quit on her. She’d gone quickly, the florist blurted out when he called, that strange consolation everyone seemed to fumble for. Hiram had squeezed the phone until its plastic groaned, imagined her on the concrete floor among clipped gardenia stems, her hair come unraveled from its bun and silvering all the vivid color in the shop.

But his second thought, elbowing the first rudely aside, had been of Jim. What Jim might look like now, did he have grandchildren, did they brown in the sun the way he had. The thunderbolt of guilt at that had come, but it had taken a shameful long time.

He remembered all the nights he padded into the bathroom while Sandra slept in her bland peace. His left hand pretending the porcelain ridge of the sink was the corded muscles in Jim’s thigh while he thrust himself into the right. The grease spot from his forehead on the mirror as he finished, gritting his teeth against a week that kept falling further into the past. He would stand there so long the covers had cooled when he returned to bed, to stare at the ceiling. These acts had to lead him back somewhere. Surely they did.

And, now, he was thinking of Sandra less and less as the hours pooled in the empty house. He and Helen had argued. She’d wanted to stay another week, get him on his feet and into a routine. Hiram had made her go, just four days after they lowered her mother into the wound in the earth, the day the growths on his back split open and blood-smeared vines reached out. The pain grew teeth then and he knew he couldn’t have hidden it from his daughter for long. Advil, salve, nothing helped until he took a weary shower and felt an inexplicable relief once the water hit him.

He was beyond the point of denial—they were wings. Arcing out like snowy antennae from his shoulders, each smooth unfurling feather the length of a hand. They were soft enough for pillows once the blood was washed out and they dried. Another day or two, he sensed, and he could fold them beneath a coat. Afternoons were starting to touch fifty degrees, but still with a thread of ice in the air.

He sat at his desk and scrubbed his face with his hands. He typed “Jim Hudson” into the search bar, and his finger waited for some sign, fidgeting near the keyboard. There would be thousands of Jim Hudsons, his own hiding in their midst, somewhere. Even in an obituary, he warned himself.

“You should stay through the weekend, Hiram Newell,” Jim had said that faraway night, and curled his hand into a tube through which he watched him. Then Jim said it again, only this time it meant, You should stay longer than that. But Hiram knew he couldn’t. The closest he would get was writing one long, anguished letter two years later, then tearing it into smaller and smaller pieces until his fingers cramped.

Jim had reached across the bed for him, and their bodies made a circle. One that had never, for Hiram, gained any circumference. He wondered how he dared dream of protracting it now, in the wake of his wife’s death, when his anatomy was occupied with becoming an angel.

An angel—what gave a man the right? He loved Jim. He was surer than ever, now the bottle was uncorked. He tapped enter and began to sift.

The wings matured entering the second week. He admired them in his wife’s standing mirror, reflecting that he’d never had any particular grace in his life. Sandra had always carried enough for the both of them.

But already they felt an organic part of his body. A bunching of the muscles in his back gave the wings a powerful flex and bloom, as if in warning, mating, or yearning for flight, all of which he was trying to ignore. They spanned six feet at this reach, until the elbowed joints bent and he collapsed them down against his back. Thin, hollow rails of bone extended along the outer edge of each. The feathers stank but he didn’t mind, as he now bathed every few hours. His pores thirsted for the comfort of water.

There were moments in which he reveled in the wings. There were moments in which he despaired of them. And in those various moments, either Sandra or Jim. He was delaying both. He’d stopped searching for Jim two days after he’d begun, unable to see how he fit into this new mythology. His wife, or someone of import, wanted him to join her, in heaven, he supposed. Hiram would have to find his own grace now, for angels did great works, lithely, purely.

At last he climbed up on the roof in the tenth night and jumped off. Both wings caught the air but couldn’t come close to holding it. He dropped like a stone and heard bones snapping, dry and brittle, the pain red then black. Sometime later he woke shivering on the grass, wet with frost in the building dawn light.

His left wing and arm healed with strange speed. The mild flu he picked up in the damp and the cold faded. The feathers began to spread over his skin just as quickly, emerging down his back and around onto his abdomen. The flightless wings seemed less grand to him now, after the failed attempt at the sky.

And there were other changes to consider. The full head of hair he’d managed to hold onto began to turn white and stiff. A bridge of skin grew between each of his toes. He lay in bed and stared at them, slowly realizing. Slowly accepting. Slowly coming to a decision.

He started hearing music while he lay mending. Distant strains of something circling in on itself, simple melodies that he could almost place. It had the quality of a shy transistor radio in the next room. Later, in spring, he might have assumed it was an ice cream truck, trawling some near neighborhood and carrying through the warming air. But this was more discreet, warm and synthesized, and it both calmed and drove him mad from wishing he could turn the volume up, to climb inside its notes.

Three weeks after the funeral, he resolved at last to find Jim. He swung his legs—which were thinning to the bone, the skin shading a charcoal gray—out of the bed. In the gloom of the hall a shape retreated from him, the twirl of a blue skirt as the figure turned into the kitchen. He followed but the room was empty. Sandra’s mother’s cast-iron skillet swung gently over the stove, as if it had been hung from its hook a moment ago, or touched in passing.

Sandra kept her distance from him. He woke the next few mornings to sense her pressed into a corner of the bedroom, away from the curtains, and when he stood or even looked toward her, she was gone. “What is it you want, love?” he asked. But her old force of personality had departed, or was slow to return.

He checked the mirror with an obsession. No angel he’d heard of was covered in feathers, as he might soon be. A swan, then. He felt certain that his neck would begin to stretch, the feathers continue to flower, and this old ugly duckling would transcend into something more beautiful. Because the symbolism of it—the very thought of it all told him he was meant to be with Jim.

His days settled into the routine Helen had wanted for him. He ate buttered toast at the dining room table and, from the corner of his eye, watched Sandra in her garden. She would only stand and look down at her flowers, hating them or waiting for spring, it was hard to tell. Her hair fell as golden as it had the afternoon he’d coaxed her virginity from her in her grandfather’s apple orchard. And, always just behind this image, he thought of that night on the lake, how she’d tried to talk him into the water.

He stopped wearing shirts so the wings could breathe, so the plumage could have its way with him. When his daughter called, she remarked on the brightness in his voice. He sat at the computer through the afternoon into dark. From his home in Charlottesville he placed a virtual pushpin in St. Louis and worked outward, scanning various links and social media accounts for pictures of Jim.

Sandra crept closer during his hours online, until at last she would stand behind him, still only a hint in his peripheral vision watching him work. “I always knew something wasn’t right,” was the first thing she whispered to him. “When you’d push into me. When I could even get you to.”

“Now that’s not true, Sandra.” He held his face in his hands. “We had forty-two good years.”

“Who is Sandra?” Her cold breath soft on his neck. “All I wanted was a man. I wish I’d known that was what you wanted, too.” She was gone when he turned.

Jim lived west of Philadelphia. Hiram broke down into sobs when he found him, first at the proof that he was alive, and then again just to see him, tall and hale in a crisp blazer. Hiram zoomed in on the photo and touched one pixelated cheek. Beautiful, still beautiful.

Below the picture were two thin paragraphs about Jim’s retirement last year as principal of a middle school. Hiram had only stopped working three months before that, and it seemed yet another thing to draw them closer. The article mentioned Jim’s eighteen years of service to the children of West Chester, Pennsylvania, his community service work, and that he was looking forward to time with his family. Hiram stared at the word family, whispered at it, but it would not give up its secrets.

A few more minutes and he had Jim’s phone number and address. Nearly two hundred and fifty miles separated them. Hiram stood and went to the window of the living room. Forsyth Street was a sunshone silence through the half-open blinds. He let his wings unfold to their full span. The feathers had now claimed him from thighs to collarbones, covered him in layers of warm white. His hands ran up and down his body as the empty street aged past noon.

He wept again, with an elaborate, scared joy. Out at the edge of his hearing was that music. It carried the same elegant distance, and he thought it must be the music of the angel he wasn’t going to become. Somewhere in the house Sandra was crying, too.

812 Goshen Road. The address was full of harsh consonants, but Hiram relished each one as he tried to decide how to contact him. A letter or email would be the sensible thing after all the years, but even a phone call wasn’t enough. Not for this. He already knew he’d drive every one of those five hours in taut electrical suspense, just to see Jim’s eyes widen into circles of reunion.

“Did you want both of us?” He felt her murmur in his hair.

“I should have told you all those years ago, love, I should have. But you know, swans mate for life. And I did that. We did that.”

“You’re a creature now.” But she fell silent after these words. Hiram packed an overnight bag, sent Helen an email saying he was going on a little trip and she shouldn’t worry. He dressed in his best jeans and loosest shirt, buttoning it to the top to hide his feathers, the wings folded tight inside against his back. Sandra kept her quiet even as he eased himself into the old station wagon.

He bought a pack of cigarettes before he turned onto I-66, and the first one tasted like coming home at the end of a long dark trip, not this lustrous beginning. Every cough that scraped out of him was an old enemy making amends.

“Is this your swan song, Hiram?” Sandra whispered as the car passed north out of Virginia. He could see the suggestion of her in the rearview, in the middle of the backseat with her hands folded on her lap. She might have been smiling with her old half-mirth.

“Just let me have this,” he said, and stopped checking the mirror. He’d known her for more than two-thirds of his life, and though her humor could bite, her scorn never had. Pictures of how to approach Jim slid through his mind, but he couldn’t seize any of them for scrutiny. When he saw him he would know. He lit his fourth cigarette and rasped at its smoke. His throat was raw.

Just over the Pennsylvania line, he pulled into a rest stop. Sandra stood behind him in the narrow stall as he sat there, his spindly blackening legs cocked out to each side. She chuckled soundlessly. From the stall next to him came the staccato clicking of a cell phone.

“You’re a creature now,” she whispered again, “a thing for cold water.”

“You could be just my guilt,” he told her. The clicking of the phone stopped at this pronouncement. “Because why would you haunt me? I loved you. We had a good life.” Hiram decided his business couldn’t be done here with all this attention. He should just go, get past these last few miles.

“I don’t know how I got here.” And she was gone, in a way that felt different, like the air had sewn itself back together around his words, where she couldn’t fit. The toilet to his right flushed and bright white sneakers passed under the door in front of him. Hiram was left in perhaps true peace.

Jim’s house was warm and attractive, a brick split-level with a cavernous garage, openmouthed with invitation. The driveway sloped up briefly, so that Hiram couldn’t see inside. He rolled the station wagon a half-block forward and parked. His hands trembled. He held them up. They and his face had been spared this transformation, had gotten him here, ostensibly whole. But he sensed the rest of this would come soon.

Cars pulled into other driveways, home from work, and the sun already touched the top of the tree line, pointing shadows across the asphalt toward where Hiram waited. “Get to him while he’ll still know it’s you,” he said to no one, and got out of the car, the old door creaking. His bones creaked with it. His body cried out to be wet.

He stood at Jim’s mailbox and heard that same elusive music drifting out of the open garage. His feathers ruffled at it. His heart thrilled along a scale of breathless emotions. All the warmth folded inside the cold evening air seemed to settle upon him.

Hiram walked up to the garage and there Jim stood, reaching to hang a hammer on a wall peg. The sight of Jim’s back, his chambray shirt sliding above worn jeans, overwhelmed him. Here was the great circle, of course it was, and at his gasp, Jim turned. Hiram saw all those years pass across his face, furrows deepening along his forehead and around his eyes.

“Hiram?” His voice even richer than the memory of it. The eyes a hue lighter, perhaps. “How in—is that you?”

“It is.” Hiram swallowed, tried not to flex his wings inside his shirt, where they itched to escape. “I just came by to see if you ever found Otis.” His smile hurt. He touched his lips and they felt stiff and prominent. There wasn’t much time, then. The wonderful music played on, from somewhere in the house.

“Otis? My dog?” Finally Jim stepped toward him, still taller than Hiram by a head, that head as gray as his own had been a month ago. “No, I never found Otis. He just ran off, I guess.”

“Like I ran off,” Hiram said, and wouldn’t let himself look down at the oil stain on the concrete.

Jim grinned. “Yeah, at about the same time, too.”

“Well, I came to apologize, Jim. And to tell you things.”

“Tell me what things? Wait,” he said, and looked past Hiram down to the street with a sigh. “I guess you should come in and have a coffee.”

Hiram followed him into the kitchen. He leaned against a counter and watched Jim take two cups down from a cabinet. Still the music was a room away, its tones washing with a kind of mournful hope. “I never was raised with God,” he said, a tremor in his voice, “but I had to stay with my wife. I loved her. I don’t know how I could love you like I did, the almost terror of it, and still love her. But I found a way, I suppose.”

Jim paused with the steel pot over a bright red mug. “Now, Hiram, look.” There was a tremor there, too. Hiram heard it shimmer in the middle, in his name.

“When Sandra died I felt—I don’t know, but there was a freedom there. And I thought of your circles. You saying the eye is a circle, the first one. I had to—I just had to see you.” His fingers fidgeted with his shirt buttons, setting each one loose.

“Hiram.” Jim set the pot down on the counter, and the sound it made on the granite was a stark punctuation. “We had something a long time ago, and I still think about you now and again. That’s more than I can say about most of the men I’ve known. But half our lives have passed. I’ve been with someone for twenty years. He’ll be home in half an hour. He’s got a fine son who’s given us two beautiful granddaughters.”

The music hadn’t stopped exactly, but Hiram could no longer hear it. “But we’re a circle,” he said. His fingers opened the next to last button on his shirt.

“You show up after thirty-odd years and expect what from me?” Jim said, looking down toward Hiram’s waist. “I asked you to stay, and you didn’t. We might’ve done great things together, but we didn’t. It’s okay. Not everything circles back. It can’t.”

Hiram’s shirt fell away to reveal his thick vest of feathers. He shrugged it off and the wings burst up toward the low ceiling. “I love you,” he said. “I love you,” and he stepped toward Jim, cupped a hand on his cheek, and kissed him. He felt the rigid cold of his own lips against the pinched withdrawal of the other man’s.

Jim shoved him away and began to speak, but Hiram couldn’t hear that either. There was pain in his ears and constricting his face. He saw the white tips of feathers creeping into his field of vision. The room blurred and he ran from the kitchen, through the garage, out of the broken circle.

He sat behind the wheel of the station wagon and wept as night thickened around him, a great urgency rising through the shame and lust. His body throbbed with change. He managed thirty miles south on the highway, until the wings shifted forward and began to take his arms into them, bone knitting into bone. An exit sign loomed and he turned right, coasting down the ramp and grinding the car to a stop on the rutted shoulder.

His neck elongated as he staggered out. His torso bunched into itself, down and back onto his legs. He felt his lips peel outward, fuse together with his nose, and he let the resulting protuberance, a creamy red-orange, point him along the exit.

The surf of traffic noise continued behind him. Lights winked from a gas station down the road. Trees swallowed the rest. At last spring was returning to earth, even this far north. An irrepressible warmth moistened the dark. Time receded from him and he was compelled after it, into the wood full of black oaks and cedars and white pines. Sound came back to him, but the machinery and murmur of the world had somehow fallen away here. There was only the crackle of his shifting bones.

Hiram ached for his two great loves. He longed for Jim but wept more for his wife. She was the one who had kept him. He wished he could resign himself to her all over again. What Jim had told him back in that kitchen was right, but then where was the circle Hiram had spent half his life tracing? What did this transformation ask of him?

He was still endlessly in the forest when dawn threaded through the canopy of crosshatched branches, and the same muted hush coated the world like dew. At last he broke through into a wide and round clearing, within which was held a pond, a nearly perfect circle, its circumference marred only by a tongue of shore penetrating the water. Sandra sat on this tongue, or someone did. Thick bands of dirty light fell upon her there, and her hair shone gold inside of them. A spade jutted from the earth at her feet.

He walked over to the rim of water and looked down at what he had become. Wondrous and graceful and hideous, the long curved neck drooping to witness his culmination. He stood perhaps four feet high with his head bowed. The feathers had long finished colonizing him. Black pebble eyes regarded the beaked head cocking to the left. He reached to touch his face and realized again that his arms had gone. In their place the wings gave an undecided jerk before settling back along his sides.

“Let’s jump in,” a voice said. A strong dawn voice. He turned and it was not Sandra, had never been, but a young woman, her fine hair falling around her face. No longer a trick of the eye, she grew more firm and full the longer he looked at her.

Hiram worked his way out of what little of his clothes remained. His feet were black fans stretched around his toes. He leaned over and dipped his head into the water, cold as heaven and clearer than heaven could have been. The urge to ride this still mirror rose fierce in his gullet, but he withdrew his head and shook the droplets free. Dozens of circles radiated on the pond’s surface.

He turned to her again. “Who are you?” His voice had grown reedy and flat, vibrations traveling along a papery membrane. But they were words he spoke.

“I don’t know how I got here,” the young woman said, turning to him. “But the water looks so nice, doesn’t it?”

He moved toward her. Behind, the sun began to spill more generously into the bowl of trees, and the crooking shape of Hiram fell over the woman. Pictures of Sandra and Jim clenched his stomach in dark hunger, but soon their faces began to drift apart and become the one he now looked upon. He thought of his daughter, and his dismay at Helen fading in his mind likewise faded after her. The circles were getting smaller. The ripples were calming.

“Yes,” he answered the woman, this buxom thing that had recently stepped fresh out of girlhood. The supple face flushed with life, the streak of dirt on her forehead, all darkened beneath him. She wore a green, crimped smock and a sheer night-blue skirt, which to Hiram appeared to be tented with a man’s swollen desire. He stared at the erection and said, “Is this place where the music comes from?”

“It’s there.” She looked across the water. “You just don’t hear it now. You are a god of want.”

“What is your name?” His new heart beat in his new breast upon her coming response. Her milk thighs unclasped. She looked delicious inside his shadow, and he shifted closer, as though to taste her.

She half-smiled up at him from her perch, a quiver in her soft wet lips as she answered.

Originally published in Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Stranzas.

About the Author

Michael Wehunt’s short fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Electric Literature, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, among others. His debut fiction collection, Greener Pastures, was published in 2016. He lives in Atlanta with his partner and their pup.