The man’s children are being held captive, which is why he writes the stories in the first place. He sends in the story about the children and waits and waits to hear back. He is impatient, takes up various sports—horse shoes, backgammon, online poker. Sometimes he has a drink, but just two, the ice in his glass goes clink, clink.
Eventually, the stories are returned by mail. The board says he needs to change a lot of things to make them more appealing. So he works for solitary hours, solitary weeks, solitary months, shooing away the mice in the walls and the birds who sing lovingly from the branches of a scraggy elm, visible through the dirty apartment window. He labors over the stories, feels immensely lonely but calls no one.
When he turns the stories back in, the editorial board says they miss a lot of the details he took out. What happened to the child’s toes curling into sand on that first aching trip to the sea, the way he held her tiny pink fingers intertwined with his own as the foam washed over them? What about the part where his grandmother takes out her false teeth and the children spend the next week huddled next to him in bed as though it were a burrow, convinced she’s a skeleton?
Further work is needed. If he gets it right this time, the board says he can have his children back. He hates this particular fairy tale where his children are gone. He lies awake in the dark and his mind passes over memories of his childhood, a silk tree scored by the beak of a woodpecker, the round cheeks of his now dead mother. He gets up to sit in the living room with whiskey and listen to the wind howling in the streets as sadness howls in his soul.
In the morning, as coffee swirls round his cup, he writes a new story, totally unlike anything he’s written before. In this story, his children grow feathers and long, powerful wings. No one notices the changes in the children, the way their bones become light as air. Once, the wicked mother leaves the window open, and the children jump through it, letting the wind lift them into the piercing blue sky. Their bodies are filled with a riot of light, with joy. They fly over valleys of lilies, daisies, and flowers he can’t name, over silver streams, filled with salmon, screaming with delight.
Finally, they reach his small little apartment at the edge of the city, where he is asleep. He knows when he wakes in the morning, he’ll find them perched on the window sill, their tiny yellow beaks tapping the glass, clink, clink, waiting to be let back into his life.
Andrew Bertaina’s short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, Redivider, Orion, The Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC.