By MICHAEL WUNDER, NEWS EDITOR
Alfred strolled solemnly through the shallow waters of the river. With every step, wet sand oozed between his toes. The sun was setting slowly, its reflection stretching across the river’s surface, a rippling semicircle of liquid heat.
He was looking for his wallet. It had fallen from the pocket of his jeans while he played with his grandchildren that afternoon. He had noticed its absence at the convenience store, attempting to buy a gallon of milk. He had ashamedly apologized to the clerk and hurried out the door, embarrassed and irritated with himself.
He had torn his house apart during his search. Only when he came to the garage and stumbled across a receipt for a park entry permit in his driver’s seat did he remember the strange plop he had heard playing in the river.
Of course it had fallen out then, on the sandbar. He had been lifting his grandchildren above his head and spinning them around. Amid their shrieks of pleasure, the splash of his wallet into the ankle-deep water seemed inconsequential—he had registered it as the lazy sound of a fish hunting for a water strider, or a pebble thrown by his daughter on the riverbank. It would be easy to find, he thought. The current wasn’t strong enough in the shallows to carry it downstream, and it would still be light out when he arrived at the park.
The river, though, had a subtle way of changing its geography. And when he made it to the river, where there was once a sandbar, Alfred found deep water. He had followed a new sandbar downstream, hoping to find his genuine pigskin leather wallet resting on the sand, but he found only an old sneaker and some empty, crushed beer cans, their labels faded from exposure to the sun.
Alfred, a wizened old soul, had shrugged off the loss and was enjoying the serenity of the river’s casual flow. The water rolled gently over his bare, wrinkled feet as he absentmindedly walked downstream. He felt wonderfully calm, at peace with the spontaneity of being.
Alfred had wandered so far that, at sunset, he found himself far downriver from the park and the lot where he had left his truck. He was standing at the cusp of an old island, overgrown with oaks and birches and tall grasses.
Alfred, assured the sun would set slowly, ventured into the grasses on the outskirts of the island. They were tall and, at times, when they rose over his head, he could not see a thing. The slight wind blew the tall stalks into one another, which in turn made the sound of waves landing aimlessly on a desolate beach. When he saw the last rays of the falling sun exhausting themselves over his head he hurriedly turned around, knowing his trip back would be tiresome and perhaps dangerous.
The grasses around him seemed taller than before, and, in an act of frustration, he pulled at their stalks and threw them aside, hoping to clear a path. The sky was getting dark now, and Alfred was having trouble regaining his sense of direction. He began stomping forward violently, sensing he was almost free.
When he began to see the glimmer of light reflecting on the river, he rushed forward, but fell into a crater. He caught himself with his hands, but when he brought them before his glasses, he saw they were covered in a heavy, mucous-like liquid. He looked down and found he had fallen into a large nest. At his feet were the remains of several eggs. He had crushed them all when he hit the ground and now his hands were covered in amniotic fluid and embryos.
He studied the nest for a moment and wiped his hands on his jeans, then, realizing the increasing danger of his situation, broke through the rest of the grasses and onto the sandbar. The sun had nearly vanished, only a small glimmer of hot orange light emanated on the horizon.
The water was cold on his legs when he entered the river. He stood still a moment to acclimate to the temperature. Behind him, he heard rustling in the grass. He could see the stalks moving in the fading light, pushed by some unknown being. He turned back toward the park and began walking. After he had taken a few steps the movement in the grasses became violent and a series of frenzied squawks echoed over the river.
Whatever’s nest I ruined over there is pissed, thought Alfred. He heard splashing now behind him, something running to the river’s edge. He turned and followed the sounds and saw something disappear into the woods along the river. He again heard the squawking, this time muffled by the dense brush of the forest.
The moon had begun rising. It was a clear night, and the river was illuminated by its glow. Alfred could see lights coming from the campgrounds. He was not far, but the river’s current had grown stronger. He had overheard a ranger warning some campers about night swimming earlier that afternoon. “The current gets swift,” he had said to the young campers. “And sinkholes will appear outta nowhere and you’ll find yourself underneath 12 feet of water. It’ll pull you downstream fast.”
Alfred, though, had found a recently submerged sandbar and was certain it would take him right up to the park’s river access. The water was barely to his knees and it wasn’t as swift as the ranger had warned. He was closing in on the campsite when he began hearing the squawks again. The bushes at the river’s edge began rustling violently and Alfred saw flashes of white between the trees. As he continued upstream, he felt as if whatever was on the riverbank was walking with him.
He eventually caught a glimpse of the creature’s head. It was comprised of red, blistered skin and rested upon a long, slender white neck. Its eyes were large and black and set deep within its skull. It turned and displayed its orange beak to Alfred, who could not believe his eyes, for the bird was holding his wallet! “Hey! You big bag of bones! Gimme that back!” The bird hissed loudly at Alfred, dropping his wallet on the riverbank. It spread its wings wide and took flight over his head, hissing and squawking loudly at the aging man. Alfred watched as the bird flew across the river and shouted loudly, “Go deliver some babies, ya dumb fleshbag!”
He started hurriedly toward the wallet, each step a testament to his victory over nature. The euphoria populating his soul was so overpowering he hadn’t even noticed he had fallen face first into the water and was being pulled downward nine feet. Only when he surfaced and gasped for air did he realize what exactly had occurred. He turned and struggled to swim against the current, but the swift black water soon overpowered him. He resigned his efforts to swim upstream and began calling for help. Through the dark woods on his left he could see campfires. He shouted louder, but he soon found that every time he called for help, a deafening squawk sounded from the shore.
The bird was walking along the shore, squawking loudly. Although Alfred was shouting at the top of his lungs, all the campers heard was a disgruntled stork. They shouted at the bird to shut up, oblivious to Alfred’s pleas. The stork kept its large black eyes on Alfred as it stalked him down river. When he had been carried far past the campsite, Alfred noticed the bird was no longer on the shore. He swore loudly but his voice was drowned by the sudden hissing of the stork, now walking on a sandbar about 20 feet from him.
The bird held its beak open, never allowing for more than a quick gasp of air between hisses. Its large black eyes were always there to meet Alfred’s, even after he had looked away for long periods of time. “What do you want?” Alfred was splashing violently at the bird, now silent. “What in the hell do you want? I’m sorry about your nest and all, but it was a stupid place to leave your eggs! Survival of the fittest!”
The bird flew away and Alfred came to rest on a sandbar. He was closer to shore than before, but he had no idea where he found himself. He stumbled across the sand and into the forest at the river’s edge. The moon was high and Alfred could see a path a few feet ahead of him, he followed it until it brought him to a clearing.
He crossed the clearing and found a gravel road and followed it to a large white house. Thank god, Alfred thought, an end to this horrible night.
He knocked on the door and a young girl, 12 or 13 years old, answered. Alfred asked if he could come in for a moment and the girl said of course he could and to make himself at home. “I’m just going to go upstairs and get you something dry to wear,” she said. “I’m sure my daddy’s got something that’ll fit you.”
Alfred walked into the kitchen in search of a drink of water, but found himself up a creek again.
“Excuse me, sir, but why don’t you have a seat,” demanded a voice from behind Alfred, who nearly jumped out of his clothes when he turned around and saw a police officer standing in the doorway. “Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m Officer Hansen with the Parlour County Sheriff’s Department. Do you have your identification, sir?”
“Of course…Well, no, a stork took my wallet.”
“Yes, a stork. A big white stork with a red head.”
“You mean a Sandhill Crane?”
“It was a stork. Of African descent,” Alfred said, irritated by the officer’s skepticism. “Tell me, officer, why are you here?”
“This is a child molestation sting. Do you have any other form of identification on you?”
“Child molestation? I’m no pervert!”
“Sir, until we see some identification, you are a suspect. A man, about your age, said he would meet our decoy at this house tonight at…” the officer looked at his watch, “…1:00 a.m.”
“I’m not a sexual predator! The stork has my I.D.”
“You mean the crane, sir.”
Alfred was about to say something, but the officer received a call on his radio and walked into the living room. After a minute, the officer returned with a pair of handcuffs. “I’m going to take you down to the station now. Do you need me to read you your rights?”
Alfred argued with the Officer Hansen, but it was no use, and as he was getting into the back of the police cruiser he saw a flash of white at the edge of the trees surrounding the house. While the officer reported into his radio, Alfred heard the familiar squawk.
“That’s it! There’s the stork,” he shouted, but when Officer Hansen turned to look, the bird was gone. “It was just there! Let’s just go over there and look! That stork has my identification!”
“Sir, there’s no crane. Watch your head and buckle up, please.”