A Wispy Chastening

D.A. Xiaolin Spires

Too many people dream,” he said, leaning against the door.

“What do you want them to do, stay awake?”

“Maybe.”

“I’ll play Linganian flute to keep you up.” I smiled, miming tooting.

“No thanks. I don’t dream,” he said, walking away. A trail of multicolored fumes followed him, dodging in and out of his spiky hair. Butterscotch and shoe polish scents wafted my way, making me dizzy.

So, he was a Shepherd. No wonder he didn’t dream. Had his beloved herd of creatures to care over, keeping him too busy to sleep.

When I told Nana I saw a Shepherd, she gasped.

“He’s a homeless and a rogue,” she said.

“He’s just living as simply as he can, protecting the Earth’s creatures as he always did,” I countered.

“He’s crazy. He has powers no one can understand.”

I thought that would be the end of it, but she nagged me about it, her voice trembling. Her warnings crescendoed in fearful passion.

She said he herded all of Earth’s creatures, even humans, to his vision of a perfect, but dystopic future. I told her that didn’t make sense. How could the Shepherd herd humans? We weren’t domesticated; we weren’t sheep.

She babbled on, ignoring my objections. Something in her voice told me that she wasn’t speaking figuratively. I’d hit a nerve. Her hands were shaking.

She made me bathe with linderbuds. Their floral scent clung to me. Old stereotypes die hard.

That night, lucid dreams invaded my sleep.

Ducks crossed the road in single file. All cars, even hearses, waited.

The ducks paid no heed, stopping entirely. I thought time itself halted. A cacophony of honking disabused me of this.

The ducks started to twirl, wings and feathers held up like martyrs as they rotated. Around their thin necks wrapped plastic loops of six-pack cans, swinging about as they turned.

Someone got out of their car and pulled the mother duck by the plastic, leading it to the grass. The duck squawked and the beautiful choreography fell apart, little ducklings flying about, some collapsing, flapping immature wings.

A knock at my car window. I rolled it down. I hadn’t realized I was driving, but then it made sense Bach’s symphony emanated from speakers. The man who’d assaulted the ducks threw them in. Wings flapped in protest.

“Take your pack,” he said. “You did this.”

I collected them into my backseat.

“Buckle up,” I said. They honked in unison, nodding green beaks.

I drove, stopping at another crossing.

Moose. A movement at their feet caught my eye, a fluttering of yellow plastic bags.

I caught scent of him on Thursday. This time it was spumoni, bourbon and the rustic musk of aged oak. From across the diner, Shepherd caught me staring. He walked over, inviting himself to an empty chair.

“Seat’s taken.”

“Very funny.” He scanned the menu, betraying no sign of laughter.

I pulled out a peach-colored feather. Twirled it in my fingers.

“You left this with me,” I said. His eyes lit up.

“Beautiful specimen of a quill. Short calamus, perhaps holding only a few drops of ink at a time, but glorious sapphire plumage. Wispy. You’ve taken up calligraphy?”

“Now it’s my turn to laugh,” I said. “I found it in my backseat.”

“Oh? Into transporting rare animals?”

“I see why you tagged me, why you unleashed your dream power to admonish me. I dropped litter at the party. Big deal. It wasn’t outside. The host picked it up later. I’m not one of your herd.”

“You’re right. Not my herd.” A deadpan look.

“This wasn’t your doing?”

“No. This must be your imagination at work. Perhaps you ingested a placebo of your own making?”

I shook my head. I didn’t know what he meant.

“Listen, it wasn’t me,” he said. “I had my hands busy with a multinational corporation dumping sewage into the seas.” He laughed. “I don’t deal with petty infractions like personal litter.” He passed me a cloth napkin.

“You want to know what I did to those perps?” His voice dropped to a low whisper.

“What?” I asked, my voice dropping to match his conspiratorial tone.

“I made them squirm in their sleep, conjure sensations of drinking fouled seawater while watching bloated-eye fish. They glistened with their leaked slurry, their fins caked in vile. The fish appeared right in front of their sublimated eyes, gills seeping, large like heaving giants. Their mouths fetid, they opened their gills and closed them, over and over, in gasping desperation, begging to breathe, but to no avail.”

“Quite graphic,” I said.

“Yeah, I was pretty proud of it. Let me order you a drink. Laced with no pollutants or particulates, I promise. That stuff only happens in dreams and to serious criminals who deserve it.”

I hesitated, and nodded.

As we waited for the drinks, I studied my feather. I knew I wasn’t one of his tagged offenders, but I thought of all the times I’d casually thrown a used straw or dirty napkin on the side of the road.

I had lied. It wasn’t just at the party. It was cumulative, mounds of stuff. Plastic bags, cola six-pack rings, beer bottles; all the flotsam that now surfaced, floating about in my mind, that I pitched at the border of the woods or into a neighbor’s yard, too indifferent to bag it up.

I twirled the feather, watching it spin, like the choked ducks in my midnight reverie. I imagined the ducks glaring at me, imploring.

I envisioned the feather writing. Guilty. For fouling the environment. It would follow me for my entire sentence, penning infractions in the air. A chimerical prison of my own design.

I held my hands up, disturbing letters. A redolence of dirt and grime. I wondered at the power of my own imagination. Was it as dynamic as the Shepherd’s?

“As charged,” I said, as the drinks arrived and the Shepherd shot me an enigmatic grin.

mm

Author: D.A. Xiaolin Spires

D.A. Xiaolin Spires stares at skies and wonders what there is to eat out there in the cosmos. Spires aspires to be a 3-D printing gourmand, but will happily concede with producing and consuming quixotic fiction and poetry. Spires lives in oscillation between Asia and the US, and currently resides in Hawai’i. You can find her sniffing tropical fruit at farmer’s markets, scouring lawns and beaches for fallen plumeria blossoms and boarding research vessels. Her work appears or is forthcoming in various publications such as Reckoning, Clarkesworld, Analog, Grievous Angel, Retro Future, LONTAR, Gathering Storm Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways, Star*line, Liminality, Eye to the Telescope and Story Seed Vault; as well as anthologies of the strange and delightful, such as Sharp & Sugar Tooth, Broad Knowledge and Ride the Star Wind. She can be found on her website daxiaolinspires.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @spireswriter.

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