Mere Happenstance

Joseph Paul Bernstein

Illustration by Dante Luiz

Weeds cracked through the red brick road. Rodger walked barefoot along the pathway, gazing across the stretch of wheat fields.

He reached the top of a hill. The path wound down and over the distant hill towards the pink clouds above.

Rodger grinned – he loved a good view – and continued forward. He buried his hands in his pockets and whistled. The sound came out breathy.

A finch with a yellow belly and black tail descended, and perched onto the tip of a wheat stalk.

‘What are you doing?’ the finch said.

‘Hullo!’ Rodger said with an amicable smile. ‘I’m trying to whistle.’

‘Not that. I mean to say, where are you going?’

‘Dunno.’ Rodger glanced down the road. ‘The end of the road, I suppose.’

‘It leads to nothing.’

‘Huh. I guess I’ll see so for myself, then.’

‘You waste your time.’ The finch bristled and flew off.

The fields of wheat drew sparse as he neared the spears of mountains. He travelled from night to dawn. The red brick road led him through it all, continued down a beach and into an expansive ocean.

‘Leads to nothing, eh, finch?’ he called out. He waded along the path into the waters until it drew too deep. He swam and soon lost sight of the red bricks below.

Panic struck. Every few strokes he swam down to find the road to make sure he still followed it. When the water drew too deep to check his fear mounted. For he did not know what he would do without his red brick road. Following many fretful minutes, he came to the unhappy conclusion that he’d aim himself forward and hope for the best.

He swam on. Nervousness clung to him and sapped all joy from the world around him.

Many days and nights later, he laughed as his feet pressed back into the hard brick. Water drained from his clothes as he waded to dry land. Back on his pathway, he walked up the beach and continued forward through a golden field of wheat. The sun’s warmth blanketed him. Little was as sweet.

‘Well?’ The yellow-bellied finch dipped and hovered before him.

‘How do you do, old friend?’ Rodger asked with great joy.

‘Now that you’re back where you started, what comes next?’

‘This?’ He gestured at the road. ‘How do I know this is the same road from before? There are many roads to travel.’ He grinned because the words sounded profound.

‘It’s the same path…Gah!’ The finch squawked, dropped to the ground. He skipped back a few steps. ‘Look at you, pleased to continue on without any question of where you go.’

‘Who are you?’ A frown wrinkled Rodger’s youthful features.

‘Don’t ask about me,’ the finch said. ‘Ask yourself why you’re here.’

‘That’s easy.’ Rodger laughed and gestured down the road. ‘There’s a clear pathway ahead.’

‘And where does it lead?’

‘You say back to the same spot, but…’ Rodger shrugged. ‘We’ll see.’

Angry chirps escaped the finch’s beak. ‘Have you heard anything? I—’ the finch took off from the ground. ‘Fine. Go, walk down your path. I’ll go the other way, cross the ocean and we’ll meet somewhere in the mountains. That will prove it’s all one circle.’

‘If you want,’ Rodger said with a shrug.

‘If I want? Gah! I’ll be punished for how much I’ve pressed my talons to the scales…the Boss is an exacting one.’ The finch set off in the opposite direction.

The man returned to his path, troubled. If the finch was right, if this whole path went round with no end, where would that leave him? He wanted to go forward, not in circles. The prospect scared him because that would mean he’d need to leave the comfort of his pathway, with no promises of a new one to come.

He stewed over the thought for many hours then stopped. His ruminations had sucked the beauty out of this lovely field. At that moment, he decided to stop his worries. When— if, he corrected himself, he saw the finch again, he’d re-evaluate his actions. But for now, he’d keep pushing on.

He enjoyed the rest of the golden wheat fields until the mountains drew near and the nervousness tumbled back in. The finch’s words filled his mind. As he traveled, he kept his head low, stared at the ground. No need to see the sky and whatever – whoever – it may contain.

When he stepped up to the ocean, a great weight released, for the finch had not reached him after all. But his joy was short-lived for the pathway dipped back into the waters and out of sight. With trepidation, he swam onwards and hoped that would be enough to keep to the path. He did not like this path-free swimming for the same reason he was relieved not to see the finch. For both threatened him, pushed him towards a life away from any roads. No matter how many oceans he crossed – and he’d crossed many oceans over his life – they always threatened him into the life free of pathways. While it always led him back to a golden field of wheat, tomorrow made no promises.

After swimming for two days he came across a yellow dot bobbing in the waters. He treaded to a stop and fished it out.

In his hands lay a dead finch.

A lump caught in his throat and his previous fears rocketed. If the finch died halfway through his trek, that would mean Rodger travelled in one grand circle. That all these efforts and strivings were for nothing, led nowhere. Moreover, there was something greater the finch urged him to find, something away from the pathway.

The still waters now felt empty. His heavy limbs thrashed. Salty waters splashed and soured his mouth. He hated this water, the taste of life without a pathway. A life which the finch had thrust him into when he never asked. Curse the little beast for wrenching him from the comfort of his home, of what he knew, leaving him no choice but to look beyond the—

‘Unless.’ A glimmering light popped into his head. His smile widened and his heart calmed. He returned to a peaceful tread and held up the dead finch once more.

‘This is a different finch!’ he said with glee. Though he’d only seen a single finch in his world, that did not preclude any others from existence. Surely his finch friend was still out there, somewhere, flying away in the opposite direction drawing further and further away.

The creature in his hands was mere happenstance, as much of a coincidence as how this world went through stretches of fields, mountains, and oceans – how his heart went through phases of joy, calm, and dread. All was exactly how it ought to be.

He swam to the beach, cheered at the sight of his beloved red brick road. He continued forth, altogether pleased that he lived a life with a clear pathway ahead for the time being.

Old ping pong tables, bird feces-stained storage balconies, bathroom closets, medicine balls, washing machines, splintering wood flooring, desert dunes, and cramped airplane seats all serve as Joseph Paul Bernstein‘s trusty workspace while writing his stories – to the benefit of his creativity and the detriment of his posture. The environmental effect on his vision remains to be seen, pun fully intended.

Dante Luiz is an illustrator, art director for Strange Horizons, and occasional writer from southern Brazil. He is the interior artist for Crema (comiXology/Dark Horse), and his work with comics has also appeared in anthologies, like Wayward Kindred, Mañana, and Shout Out, among others. Find him on Twitter or his website.

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