Flash fiction by R Alexander, a relatively new author on Shunya's Notes; see his bio line at the end of this piece.
Conscious of the dust his shuffling feet raised, a man moved slowly up the rutted incline of the arroyo. His brown hand clutched a gnarled knob of a walking stick. A shadow moved beside the road. The old man looked around to see who might be watching him, but his cataracts hazed the light which stabbed at the back of his eyes. It may have been that he had learned to tilt and angle his head like this to gain the purchase of sound as much as for the sake of the light. In any case, his head tilting, his arms pulling roughly, and his head turning and shifting gave him the look of someone intently focused and supernally aware of his surroundings, as though he commanded the physical landscape but chose, out of wisdom, to allow it its recalcitrance.
A boy, six or eight judging by his thin frame, curious about the old man's serape, tugged his sway-backed grey towards the old man. The boy's knees stuck out beneath blue shorts, and his shoeless feet felt warmth and comfort in the dust.
“Your burro has more sense than you,” the old man muttered without humor.
“He’s in no hurry, old man.” The boy's burro pulled away, its worn hooves scraping the dirt.
The old man snorted. "What makes you think I'm old?" He wanted to keep walking but the effort of talking had stopped him. “I'm younger than you,” he said, his voice coughing the last few syllables. Dust and dry air scraped the back of the man's throat, so between his toothless gums he formed up enough spittle to spit without dribbling on himself. From between his lips passed a spray of slime and grit.
The boy stopped tugging the rope and watched as the old man wiped his chin, to assure himself that it was dry.
The old man looked at the boy and frowned. “You'll never convince him to do what you want,” he said. “You may force him, but he'll never believe a word you tell him.” The old man spoke with some foreign-sounding accent, using the same word for belief as the boy's grandmother had.
High overhead wisps of cirrus stitched the fontanelle of the sky. The boy raised a finger and pointed past the huddle of village huts. “The cemetery is that way.”
The man brushed the accumulated dust off the image of the Calavera Catrina embroidered into his serape in gold and crimson and blue, the color of the sky. "Go away, pest," he said. “I have no sugar for you.”
“Do you know where you are headed?” The boy's palms ached from rope burns.
The old man turned to move away, making his way cautiously through the baleful greyness before him.
The plumed death's head came into view. “Why are you leaving that way?” the boy shouted. "All the dead are over there." He pointed again past the lonely huts. His feet moved in the silty, red dust, his fists tightened involuntarily.
Turning towards the boy, the old man angled his head, squinted, and spoke. “Am I a man witch? Is that what you think?” He smiled wickedly, a small orange tongue darted in that dark, rancid mouth.
The burro landed its bony haunches into a patch of grass and nettles and poked its nose into a discarded styrofoam sandwich box. The rope pulled the boy a step back. He had been about to say he didn’t know, but he thought again of his grandmother. “If a man insists on asking you who he is, then there is no doubt,” she told him once. The boy dropped the rope. He shouted, “Are you the one who took my father?”
The black brogans scraped as the man turned and began away. “Go,” the old man mumbled over his shoulder. The back of the serape came again into view. The feathered head of death stared blankly out at anyone who would meet her eyes.
The boy bent and picked up a stone. It had been resting in the sun all day, and the warmth of it soothed the boy's cramped and bent fingers. He raised his arm to throw.
The old man saw the boy cock his arm. Startled, he stumbled and fell, landing on his right, outstretched arm. The walking stick clattered away down the incline of the arroyo. “Stupid boy,” he shouted as he turned and gathered himself up. He looked at the boy. “Do you believe everything they tell you? It's all lies.” He was still shouting. “And as for your father ….” He did not finish the sentence but turned and sat in the dust and stared at the ground between his boots. “Your father,” he muttered again, and his voice trailed off.
Now the boy hesitated. His burro was picking itself up to wander off. The boy's eyes began to burn, the muscles of his face contracted, as if in a spasm of inner ache. Wildly, he flung the stone, missing his mark by a wide measure. The curled fingers had been too stiff to release the stone with any skill. The boy's bony shoulders heaved up and down as he sobbed.
“Maybe some day, you will see,” the old man muttered under his breath. Then he added, “I for one gave up that search so long ago.” He wished he could spit again and wondered whether he should try to stand first. Soon the sun would descend, and the town would be lit with candles, a light too dim for his eyes. When will all this be over? he wondered.
R Alexander writes fiction, poetry, and essays and lives in the Pacific Northwest.