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Last Day of Summer

January 2, 2008

Would this be the last day of summer? There was certainly a bite in the air that hadn’t been there before. But still, the sun shone, and the sky was almost clear. Tobias stretched out and closed his eyes, listening. It was there again: that rattle. An odd sound, a little too delicate to be a baby’s toy, overhead, then to the side, away to his left and then right fading away and now coming back, louder and louder, overhead, close …

He opened his eyes; fluttering above him was an angel-insect — with sparkly transparent wings, a brightly beaded body and a long tail that bulged at the end.

He reached up but it swept away from him. It was large, larger than his hand (although his hand was quite small), and quite the most magnificent thing Tobias could remember seeing in the whole of his short life. He eased himself up slowly.

‘What are you?’ he murmured, but the creature didn’t answer. It swung its tail (which rattled softly) and darted away towards the bottom of the field. Tobias followed.

At the stile, the insect paused (beating its wings quickly to hover) and waited until Tobias had gingerly dropped onto the other side before flying on again. The rattling faded and the boy ran after it, anxious not to lose it. The sound had become rhythmical and compelling; setting off something that pulsed from his brain into his backbone and then twitched his arms and legs. His breath came in pants, and then his heart seemed to take up the beat. When the insect slowed, Tobias did too. They were linked, he realised, utterly and absolutely. Over the length of the field, they had come to depend on each other. If one stopped, the other one would too.

At the end of the field was a copse of widely spaced trees and then, in the middle of this, a small pond. The creature and the boy stopped. Tobias looked around, his head cranking in time on the pole of his neck as if controlled by gears. He had been in this wood many times but had never before encountered this water. A couple of ducks skimmed across the surface and quacked a greeting, while a single swan gave him a gentle hissy warning not to come close. In the middle of the pond was a small island with a grove of trees. The creature still rattled. It circled twice as if impatient, then darted forward over the water. Tobias stumbled over something in front of him. Hidden in the long grass was a small one-man boat, round and made of skins over a wooden frame. It was light to move and soon he had it floating in front of him on the water.

The creature was pleased. Colours rippled along its ridged back (pinks and then reds and purples). Tobias stepped in and the boat began to drift on its own. He picked up the oars and tried to paddle but he had never done such a thing before and for a few seconds, he struggled. The insect came closer and its rhythm louder and soon he dipped in the blades in time. Above him, the angel rattled its tail in applause and the boy smiled back. But a small cold breeze rippled the water and the sun hid briefly behind a cloud. Autumn soon, the boy thought, and his nose caught the transient whiff of a bonfire.

The island was quieter than the water. Someone had been clearing the scrub and the heavy scent of wood smoke still rose from the ground around him, although the place seemed deserted now. There was too little air; for a few seconds, Tobias struggled to breathe but the insect’s rattle soothed him. It was softer now, more like a whisper; take heart, it said, then: Follow me. So he picked his way between small patches of blackened undergrowth until he reached a broad flat rock. Sit. Was it talking now? He thought perhaps it was. Sit. No, there was no voice, just a thought that became his own desire. He sat and the beat of the rattle grew slower and closer. He couldn’t remember shutting his eyes but they were shut now. He couldn’t remember lying down but now he could feel the rock against his back, his arms and his head. The rock was hot, as if something had warmed it beneath. Even though his eyes were shut, he knew it had become darker. A light rain fell around him sizzling as it hit the rock around him. Something tickled the hairs of his arm. His eyes snapped open. There was the creature sitting on his forearm, its head bent.

‘What are you?’ Tobias asked drowsily and the insect looked up. Their eyes met. On the end of the insect’s body was a perfect human face. It was young, sad and dark-eyed. ‘Who are you?’ he cried out, but still the creature didn’t answer. She shook her head mournfully and minute tears sprang from her eyes and scattered in the air around her. ‘I need something from you,’ she said, then arched her head back, opened her mouth and bit down hard on his skin.

It stung like vinegar on a cut, and seared like a speck of boiling oil. Tobias screamed, flailed out and then leapt towards the water. He held his arm under the surface until the coldness made it numb, then brought it out and looked at it: there were two small holes and around them, the skin was red and swollen with poison.

The rain was coming down harder now. Tobias listened. The rattling was still there and once again he was drawn towards it. He came upon her quickly. He raised his foot to stamp on her but she turned her white face towards him and looked at him accusingly. Her wings were crushed and her body was black and bulging. ‘Pick me up.’ Her voice warbled like breath over pipes. ‘Over to the water.’

The wind was picking up now. He shivered. Why had he come so far without his coat? Reluctantly, he eased her onto his hand. The rattle was becoming fainter. At the water’s edge, he gently put her down. She leapt forward and lay on the surface of the pond, her tail still twitching. Then, slowly, the water began to creep over her and dissolve her, and her black body and silvery wings were swept away until they were just pin-pricks of light drifting over the surface and the rattling became the beating of the waves.

But then, as Tobias watched, the specks of light stopped and began to wriggle towards him. He gathered them up in his hands. The creature’s children, he thought, and, in some way, his, too. Then, as the wind churned up the water and howled through the trees behind him, he let them go and they buried themselves in the mud.

by Clare Dudman

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