The olive green pigment spread as Callum’s expert hand swiped the paintbrush in a half-circle across the canvas. A few more brushstrokes revealed a sea turtle’s shell, then the head and limbs. Using a series of smaller brushes, Callum coaxed the animal until he was perfect – for the tourists – and then turned with a satisfied sigh to the larger canvas behind him. Shades of viridian, with swirls of lime. He added a few bright swipes of orange, and then crimson. Callum’s eyes shone as he caught his breath. Was he at the point where one more stroke would ruin it? He would leave it and look at it again later to decide.
Callum washed his long, slender hands and brushes, breathing in the smell of acrylic and oil paints. It was a smell he never tired of. Paints, any paints. Linseed oil. The sea. The mangrove swamps behind his house. Callum glanced at the clock. Only 11:00. He would sit in the backyard for half an hour before lunch. Sitting in the sun always gave him inspiration for his paintings – his “real” paintings, that is. The abstracts he truly loved, not the basic, but very lifelike, beach and wildlife-themed paintings he sold in the local souvenir shops.
He walked outside and folded his tall body into a lawn chair, looked up at the sun, and closed his eyes, waiting for the colors to flood in behind his eyelids. As a band of iridescent circles floated across, Callum felt a presence next to him and, opening his eyes, saw a raccoon staring at him from about five feet away. The animal was not afraid. It was Callum’s unique gift. “Hello friend,” Callum thought, then closed his eyes again.
Ever since he was a child, Callum had had a special connection with animals. It was something between telepathy and empathy, and it had grown stronger over time. He could understand their thoughts – if they could be called “thoughts.” It was really more like a collection of abstract ideas and primal emotions from the animal’s mind: danger, fear, hunger, contentment, distress, “keep away” signals, a savage urgency during mating season. The more intelligent the animal, the stronger the connection. Callum had not experienced much success with insects or small reptiles or rodents. And the animals… well, they understood him, in their animal way. They seemed to know his intentions toward them and, as a result, did not fear him. Along with his considerable talent in painting, Callum’s gift was one of the secrets of his success, as he was able to approach animals in their own habitats and sketch them.
Callum couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t known that he was different from his peers, and a combination of natural caution and his sixth sense had warned him against speaking too much about it, so he had avoided being labeled “crazy.” People noticed, of course, that he had a “way” with animals – that couldn’t be hidden. Family and friends had eventually nudged, pushed, and prodded him into veterinary school, which he had finished with difficulty. Working in close proximity to distressed animals, day after day, was mentally exhausting for Callum. He never even kept a pet, because of the strain of having one animal’s mind with him every day. Luckily, his paintings were more than good enough for him to support himself.
“D-da-da-daaah-dum, D-da-da-daaah-dum, D-da-da-DAAAH-dum –” Callum leapt six inches into the air and scrambled in his pocket for the offensive device, which jumped from his hands and landed in the bushes. Callum shook the swirling colors out of his head and lunged for the phone, which was still blaring “Ride of the Valkyries.” Reaching under the greenery, he heard a hiss and a low roar that propelled him backwards. “Something is really ‘off’ with me today,” Callum thought, rubbing his sore backside. He had never had unpleasant encounters with alligators because he could always sense their presence – they gave off strong “keep away” signals, as well as a cold, murky “swamp monster” vibe that was impossible to mistake. He blamed his ex-girlfriend, Carrie, for the glitch. That was her ringtone, after all. What did she want this time?
Callum and Carrie had met six months before at one of his exhibitions. She was funny, charming, and needed him. Callum had made an idiot of himself over her, and it had taken three months for the spell to break, when he realized that she didn’t care for him nearly as much as he cared for her. In fact, she only called when she needed something: an impromptu therapy session, advice about money or her landlord, a new facebook photo, a good-looking and reasonably successful date for an office party. She never asked how he was doing or listened when he talked about himself. They had remained friends, and nothing had changed – except that Callum’s heart was out of the picture. Callum decided not to call back – she’d call again if it was important and he needed the daylight hours for work – and went inside to have lunch.
Close to evening, Callum visited the wildlife refuge with his sketchbook. Bird paintings had been selling well at the shops, and the herons, egrets, and ibises had been missing from his backyard lately – probably had something to do with the alligator in the bushes. Plus, Callum liked the refuge. It went without saying that they took the well-being of animals seriously there, but refuge staff had gone a step further a few years back by holding a funeral for the island’s only crocodile. Callum saluted their zeal. He found a cast of horseshoe crabs and started to sketch. There was a legend that horseshoe crabs were the reincarnated spirits of samurai warriors, and Callum wondered how to work the myth into a painting.
Hearing a rustling sound to his left, Callum turned. Then he saw the heron. A green heron. They were notoriously difficult to see in the wild. The heron stared through him with knowing eyes, and Callum knew that something was wrong. He came closer, and the bird let him run his hands over his feathers. Callum found the break – in the radius bone of the wing, and not serious. The bird would make a quick recovery. Callum would take him home. He should take the bird to Crow, the nearby wildlife hospital where he sometimes volunteered, but he would take it home.
He gently lifted the bird and settled him in the basket of his bicycle, covering him with a jacket. Would he stay that way? He would. It was probably illegal. No; scratch “probably” – he was sure it was illegal. But, Callum told himself, it was temporary and he knew what he was doing. And the bird wanted to go with him; he was sure of that. But why did he have such an overwhelming urge to treat the bird himself? Callum tried as hard as he could to avoid any uneven pavement on the way home. Back at the house, he found a wide but shallow box, set it on the table, which he pushed into the corner, added an old flannel sheet and some pieces of bark, and placed the heron inside. After digging out his first aid kit, Callum bound the bird’s wing.
Dinner. It wasn’t a question, but a command. Callum needed to buy fish, something he didn’t keep handy. He had been a vegetarian since the manifestation of his gift, and he had terrible nightmares if he ate meat or fish, even by accident. The heron looked comfortable enough, so Callum left to stock up on groceries. The bird ate a few sardines as Callum ate leftover pasta, his chin on his hand as he contemplated his houseguest. The phone rang just as he finished.
“Callum; where were you? I stopped by an hour ago. My brother’s with me and I need help with his homework. It’s algebra again!”
“Let him do it himself.”
“But he’s failing. He might have to repeat the seventh grade!”
“Let him. It wouldn’t be the end of the world.”
“Could you at least help him a bit? You’re good at explaining these things. Can we come over?”
“Well… it’s not really a good time.”
“Aren’t you done working for the day?”
“Yes. But I have company,” Callum said, eyeing the heron in the corner.
There was a silence. “Oh. So I suppose we’d be… in the way,” Carrie’s voice was cold. She rarely used that tone with Callum.
Callum, not knowing how to explain the situation, remained silent. Carrie continued, now with an unnaturally bright voice, “Well, maybe there are some tutorials on the internet. Bye!”
It wasn’t until Callum set the phone down that he understood – Carrie thought he had brought a date home. Callum wouldn’t have deceived her intentionally – that wasn’t his style – but he reflected that maybe it was a good thing if Carrie thought he’d moved on.
Callum examined the bird the next morning and found him content and healing well. He knew it was best not to change the gauze binding the wing yet, so he left it and set out some fish and fresh water, then sat next to him to eat breakfast. He enjoyed studying his quiet guest. Green herons are beautiful and intelligent, one of the few bird species that use tools to hunt. This bird was just under a foot and a half tall, with brilliant yellow eyes, a sharp, shiny black bill, a green-black cap and back, dark, glossy wings, and a reddish brown neck with a white stripe. Inspired, Callum set up a new canvas. He had his model for that day, and several days more. This heron was going to earn his fish.
The day passed quickly and productively, but later, Callum’s sleep was disturbed by sensations of crawling things around him, and by black and yellow eyes boring into him. He awoke nervous and a bit itchy. The heron stared at him as he staggered, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen and waited patiently for breakfast. Was it Callum’s imagination, or did the bird understand and sympathize with his sleepless night?
That day and the next were spent in caring for and feverishly painting the heron. The bird’s wing was on the mend and the owners of the souvenir shops were going to be thrilled with the likenesses. Callum had also worked on two abstracts. He was quite pleased with the latter – inspiration seemed to flow through him like water these days. The nights, however, brought him increasingly horrible visions of eyes and insects, and the desire to stalk through dark places and dart out his neck to hunt for slimy, cold creatures.
On the fourth day, Callum found himself overcome with a strange desire to consume one of the fish he had bought for the heron. He felt horrified and disgusted at the idea, but nevertheless the intensity of the craving increased until he couldn’t stand it anymore. He took a sardine from the tin and swallowed it raw and whole. Callum shuddered as it slipped down his throat, and then bolted a second one, and a third. He abruptly stood up and lurched to the sink, sure he was about to be sick, but instead a profound contentment spread through his body as his bewildered stomach settled itself.
Over the next few days, Callum began to worry about his health. He was losing weight, even though when he looked in the mirror he couldn’t tell where it was dropping from. His skin seemed thinner, with larger pores, and he had a slight fever. He didn’t feel unwell, but his mind felt fuzzy. His reflexes, however, had become abnormally quick. One morning, he bumped into his work table and knocked a bottle of paint thinner off the edge, and managed to catch it just before it could shatter on the floor.
Callum never lost his ardor for painting during his indisposition, and continued to accumulate more material to sell and to exhibit. If anything, the herons on his canvasses became more and more lifelike, like the one in the corner who was almost completely healed now. Callum had changed the bandages and found that the heron would only need a couple more days of his care. He imagined he could feel something of his own essence slipping through his fingers into the bird’s bones.
One night, he dreamed of hollow needles pushing through his skin from the inside out, sprouting and then erupting in a spray of black-green. Callum discovered that he was eighteen inches tall and surrounded by yellow eyes. He tried to scream, but all that came out was a hoarse “kyow.” He tried to cover his mouth and found his hand impaled on a sharp, heavy bill. Callum woke in a cold sweat, frantically clawing at his skin. He lay gasping on the bed, heart racing. After a few minutes, he got up and took a shower to calm down, then pulled out a battered Kafka novel to keep him occupied until morning.
Callum examined the heron before breakfast and decided it was time to take him back to the refuge. But as he was getting ready, the doorbell rang. Callum swore under his breath. He’d forgotten that his friend Greg was coming over to borrow his camera. Callum knew he had neglected his friends these last two weeks when he had been so busy with the heron, and hoped he wasn’t about to get a piece of Greg’s mind. After a few seconds’ deliberation, he decided not to hide the bird from Greg and opened the door.
“Bad night? You look like hell!”
“Thanks a lot. I couldn’t sleep.”
“Carrie again? Is that why I haven’t seen you around?”
“No, no. I must have eaten something wrong.”
“Whoa! What do you have here? Is that a night heron?”
“Green heron. He had an injured wing, but he’s ok now. I was just about to release him.”
“Cool.” Greg turned to Callum’s latest canvas. “Self-portrait?”
“It’s the heron,” said Callum, flustered.
“I can see that. But it also looks like you!”
“I don’t know. There’s just something about it. Maybe in the eyes.”
“My eyes are brown, not yellow.”
“Well, there’s something; I don’t know. I just know it looks like you too.” Greg picked up the camera. “I’d better get started while the light is good. Do you want to come over tomorrow? We’re having a cookout. There are a couple Boca Burgers with your name on them in the freezer.”
“Sure, sounds good.”
“Great. Come by around six.”
After Greg left, Callum packed up the heron and started for the refuge. The ride went smoothly and Callum found a deserted area and uncovered the heron. The bird stared into Callum’s eyes for a few long seconds, then flew away. Callum shivered and put on the green jacket that had covered the heron. He took a few steps toward the mangroves, trying to catch a glimpse of his recent houseguest, but saw no sign of him. Callum sat down by the side of the road and wrapped his arms around his knees, confused by the sudden burning behind his eyes and the ache in his chest. He rested his head on his hands and took a few deep breaths. Finally, he got on his bike and started for home.
He felt strangely empty as he walked in the door. Callum crossed the room in a dreamlike state and moved the box from the table to the floor. He stepped inside and lowered himself gingerly into a sitting position, tucked his head under his wing, and went to sleep.
* Photo courtesy of E.J. Peiker, http://www.ejphoto.com/green_heron_page.htm