As Dawn Brightens

Paul Weidknecht Click to read more...

Paul Weidknecht’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Yale Angler’s Journal, The Raleigh Review, Outdoor Life, and elsewhere. He has been awarded a scholarship to The Norman Mailer Writers Colony. A member of the Bethlehem Writers Group, he lives in northwest New Jersey where he is at work on a collection of stories and a novel.

Morning was still gray with fog when the boy walked down to the harbor. A bigger boy had taken his favorite sleeping spot last night and he had not slept well, so he started this day early. He passed the closed shops and quiet rooms just above them, as yellow lights came on in some of the upstairs windows, silhouetting the rising people, stealing their mystery.

A rounded nub of black bread lay between the sea-misted cobblestones at his feet. He reached down. How had it lasted the whole night, he thought. Something or someone should have eaten it. In the past he had eaten pieces this small, but instead he closed his hand around it, and changed direction.

Soon he came to the pier where his father and mother had taken him before the war. He and his father would stand at the end and throw bread into the air for the seagulls, while his mother smiled, bundling herself against the breeze. The birds would dip in, snaring the pieces in flight.

The boy wondered why God had allowed his parents to go away. One evening during supper, men carrying rifles knocked roughly on their door and spoke to his father about joining the army. The boy was confused that they did not wear uniforms like regular soldiers. His father nodded to the men, his mother wept to herself. She filled a knapsack with clothes, cheese, and slices of dried meat, wiping the tears with the back of her wrist. Five months later his mother disappeared after one of her trips into the village to meet with the secret men. He did not like when his mother would leave, but he knew she had to meet with the secret agents because they had important information about where his father was to be found. Even though she brought home a burlap sack bulging with food, his mother was always sad because the agents never had any news. The boy thought that perhaps this last time his mother had received some special report and that she was still busy investigating. Sometimes he imagined his father and mother on a trail in the forest at night, hand in hand, working their way back to him, using the stars to guide them.

Only two gulls bobbed on the water below him, their wings neatly folded away. They did not take to the air, even when he used a trick his father had taught him by moving his arm up and down pretending to throw bread to get the birds to gather around them. He tossed the bread and one gull ate it off the water, the other too late.

As he walked back up the pier, he thought about miracles, the kind in which people got food from heaven. He wondered if things like that happened today. A wave slapped loudly against the pilings and he glanced down.

The silver fish foundered on its side in the shallows, mouth popping open for a gulp of water, flaps flaring on the exhale, dark red gills inside. It was longer than the boy’s leg, as thick as his thigh, perhaps injured or stunned; he was unsure. He ran until he found a spot low enough to jump into the water. The boy crashed through the shallows and grabbed the fish’s tail with both hands. The muscles along its flanks shivered. Hunched, he dragged the fish backwards, the sand running around his heels and back out to sea with the receding wash. The fish thrashed, its hard tail fin scraping into the boy’s palms, as he continued wading, step by step, back to land. The fish’s scales were hard, smooth, slick. The boy adjusted his grip, and fell.

Gone. When the fish escaped, it swam just beyond the boy’s reach and stopped, hovering there to rest. The boy stared at his palms, then balled them into fists. His arms shook as he slowly opened his hands and took a gentle step toward the fish. He stretched forward and touched the point of the tail fin. The fish kicked away with a shudder, disappearing into deeper water.

Climbing from the sea, the boy pulled off his shirt, wringing it out, splattering the cobblestones. He draped the shirt around his neck and began walking past the shops again, his pants heavy with saltwater.

“Kiro, have you fed my birds?”

The boy turned in the direction of the voice. He saw nothing.

“Kiro, up here.”

He looked up.

The woman leaned through the second story window, her forearms resting on the sill. She was pale and thin-faced, like nearly everyone had become during the war, wearing a faded blue kerchief that covered most of her short brown hair.

“You were out on the pier with my birds. I own them. Remember my paper from the Ministry saying so? So I ask again, have you fed my birds?”

He remembered his mother telling him how the war had made some people crazy, especially those who had lost loved ones. She also said they were to be pitied, but that he should say nothing to them. Over these years he had heard much strange talk, and this woman claiming she owned the seagulls did not scare him, so he answered.

“Yes.”

“Good, now come up and eat. Your breakfast is getting cold. And we will get you out of those wet clothes.”

As he walked to the shopfront door that led upstairs he wondered if this person Kiro had been her son, someone whom she had loved, then lost to the war. When he tried the door it was locked, but when he heard the woman coming down the wooden steps he smiled. She might know some things, he thought, like where to meet the secret agents. And she might know what forest his father and mother were in, what trail they were on, and what star was guiding them.

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