The stories of James Zahardis have appeared in The Phoenix Literary Art Magazine, Flashes in the Dark, and 365 Tomorrows. He holds a PhD from the University of Vermont in Chemistry (2008) where he is currently employed as a research scientist and lecturer. He is a fan of the literature of Joseph Conrad, Alexandre Dumas, H.P. Lovecraft, and Herman Melville. When he’s not in the laboratory, lecture hall, or library, James is most likely to be found bass fishing on Lake Champlain or taking an excursion to some woody patch to watch birds.
Phyllis discovered the trunk in the recesses of the basement beneath a moldering heap of meander-patterned throw rugs. It brimmed with conch, cockle, and scallop shells, desiccated starfish, sea gorgons, and sea fans. Beneath this sundry was a spyglass. She extended its brass tube, then burnished itwith her sleeve, and after wiping the salty dust off the lens and eyepiece, carried it upstairs to her bedroom.
It was a brilliant autumn morning. At dawn Phyllis had watched her father leave to tend his flock. He was passing over mountain’s summit—to the land where his flock roamed—when she heard the unseen children. Phyllis knew, but did not understand why she knew, that they were waiting for the school bus. She envisioned the children; she imagined them as permutations of herself and her father: some had black skin and blue eyes; others had blue skin and black eyes…. She tried to envision the school bus; she imagined it as a yak—her father encountered yaks while tending his flock—it was hollowed out. It remained hollow until the children crawled inside, which made it smile.
Phyllis recalled the voices of the unseen children as she raised the spyglass to her eye and gazed out of her bedroom window. Gold and crimson leaves encompassed her field-of-view. Each was like a triumphant banner, an oriflamme, fluttering proudly, hailing the season. She focused the spyglass on a tree in a fiery stand at the base of the mountain. It was not a cardboard cutout: it was turgid and real, with insects and spiders creeping in its bark.
There was a dilapidated barn midway to the mountain; Phyllis gazed upon the ornament, a weathercock, atop the apex of its roof. The weather-worn, well-patinaed cock rotated on its axis, pointing into the direction of the breeze. Phyllis followed the invisible trace extending from weathercock’s beak that led to a whitewash cottage on the mountainside; she had seen it before, unmagnified; she had thought it was a blemish. There was an elderly man outside of the cottage. He held clippers. Near a walkway was a bush with floppy leaves. Its leaves reminded her of the ears of a creature her father had described to her, the elephant; he sometimes saw elephants when he was tending his flock. She named the bush the ‘elephant bush’.
The elderly man approached the bush, clippers extended. He began trimming off wayward stems. Phyllis watched in horror: she imagined the stems were tiny necks….
The elderly man picked a ladder off of the ground, stood it by the bush and ascended. He extended his clippers toward a salient upright stem. Phyllis imagined the elephant bush was reaching skyward to some great, rescuing hand. She thought the man was cruel for denying the bush mercy. She wished that he would cease his cruelty; cease it eternally.
An apoplectic expression came upon the elderly man’s face. He dropped the clippers, winced painfully, and fell. He writhed briefly then became still.
Phyllis waited breathlessly, assuming the man would awaken, stand, and resume his attack on the bush. Instead Phyllis watched as an ambulance arrived (she thought it was a yak with flashing red lights). A woman and man in white placed the elderly man inside its hollow. She saw all the leaves drift to the ground only to be buried by snow, which, in turn, was broached by crocuses, before melting. During this time she spied incessantly on the weathercock—she thought it was a fateful bird—as it spun into the temporal wind. Phyllis never dared to follow its invisible trace and believed she knew its secret: the cock transformed living things into salty husks and shells, like those in the trunk.
It was during the time of crocuses when Phyllis’ father appeared in the vestibule on a fulgent morning. Phyllis smiled, but her façade wavered as she approached him.
“What troubles you, Phyllis?”
“Nothing… really,” Phyllis replied, looking upon her father. He appeared distinguished: a hood draped over his stately head, shadows accentuating his strong, angular features. His cloak seemed radiant with dew, and he held his staff upright and proud.
“Well, something actually—I found your spyglass.I’m sorry.”
“That is fine. I knew you would find it eventually. What did you see?”
“I saw falling leaves; they were burning bright—like banners of the great dynasties you told me about….”
“And I saw the ornament on the barn—a green-gray bird—”
“The weathercock; it is used by mankind to tell the direction of the ever-changing wind.”
“It is a vile, evil bird!”
“Vile and evil?”
“It pointed its beak at an old man—I didn’t like him because he was hurting a bush—the bird made him fall and not breath and….”
Phyllis’ father sighed and a grave expression came over his face, followed by a barely perceptible grin. “Oh, dear Phyllis, it was not the weathercock that took the breath from Sherman Randall McAllistar, born of Wilbur and Hildegard—”
“—You knew him, father?”
“I know all of my flock.”
“It is time you learn of the nature of our family—of yourself!” Phyllis’ father said. As an athlete palms a ball, he grasped his face with his free hand and removed it.
Phyllis looked at her father, finally seeing him in his true glory: the flesh of his face replaced by a skull; his pale hands replaced by bony digits, digits that held a scythe.
“Take great care when you gaze unto men, Phyllis,” he said, leaving the vestibule.
Phyllis imagined, imagined the unseen children whose shouts she heard on autumn mornings as they waited for the school bus. She now saw them as they were; she now knew their names. And she knew someday she would meet them all.