After being flushed with the early success (as small as it was), I began building my pile of electronic rejections slips. Stephen king once kept all his rejection slips and looked upon as them as a badge of honour. I wasn't so pragmatic and began to wonder what the heck I was doing.
I read stories I thought were rubbish, I saw other new writers gaining publication with stories I believed were less than good - I became somewhat green.
To this point, I had published something in the sci-fi genre, fantasy, and had dabbled in horror. My circle of online friends had grown and writing had taken over my life.
I began to target better, more acknowledged markets and competitions.
Triangulation run an annual comp which looked good. PARSEC is something all emerging writers should probably have a go at. A friend of mine scored an acceptance (actually two), and now another friend is a regular contributor. I wanted in.
So I wrote The Winged Shepherd. I received positive feedback from the editor of Triangulation but no acceptance. I took her advice on board and reworked it. I began subbing it around to my list of target markets.
As it bounced back, I edited somemore and resent. Eventually, it made it's way to Fear & Trembling where they asked for the removal of some nudity and one swear word. Changes made, they accepted it and threw it upon their website. I could now include Christian writing as a feather in my cap - and I'm no Christian.
Thanks to Pharo for the poem at the beginning - I'm also no poet!
As babies sleep, she circles home,
So white of skin and frail of bone.
By Death’s black side, her steps are light;
She helps new souls find rest each night.
God’s special few are gently taken,
Their grieving parents left forsaken.
Broken hearts and questions why,
Pursue the darkened path she flies.
She reaps what others planted well,
And in her wake there sounds the knell.
Upon His right hand they will sit,
Delivered from the burning pit.
So parents guard your charges well;
Protect them from the gates of Hell.
But Death will choose without regard,
For Satan or for Holy Lord.
Forked lightning struck the sea, its passage turning the black roiling cloud of its birth a sickly dark green. Only two or three times each winter would a storm of this magnitude rise out of the Great Southern Ocean.
“You’re an idiot! You never should’ve brought a woman and child out here. What were you thinking?” Kevin mumbled to himself.
“I’m going inside!” Susan yelled, as she shielded their three-month-old son Neville from the rising wind.
Kevin nodded, one hand holding his hat in place while the other steadied the expensive camera on its lightweight aluminium tripod. He raised his own voice so she could hear over the wind. “I think that’s best. I’ll join you soon. I just want to get a few more pictures of this front as it rolls in.”
He watched her walk back to the two-story rental cottage. It was the original lighthouse keeper’s residence. The National Trust had restored it to its former glory and now allowed the public to rent it. Susan didn’t look back as she took their son inside.
He continued to snap pictures as the storm cell gathered momentum. Wind gusts increased in strength, whipping sand from the nearby beach against his cheeks. Mother Nature’s invisible fingers ripped the cap from his head as he used both hands to steady the tripod.
The storm’s vanguard spread across the horizon and loomed over the island like a cobra preparing to strike an unwary victim. The green-black clouds blotted out the last rays of sunlight, bringing an early nightfall to the isolated outpost. Lightning flashes came more quickly, tracing vivid white lines across the churning cloud front.
The stern voice of his long-dead mother echoed through his mind. “Get inside, you naughty boy! Don’t you know lightning like that could set off a seizure?”
He didn’t care; he never had. He’d been drawn to big storms all his life. His passion was to catch the powerful images on film, and he made decent money from it, with sales to magazines all over the world.
But that was before the arrival of his son. For the last few months, getting out into the field to capture his images had been difficult. Pushing his glasses firmly back onto the bridge of his nose, he hoisted the camera and tripod under his arm and ran the two hundred metres to the cottage.
The strong southerly winds ripped the door handle from his grasp as he opened it, slamming it against the sturdy oak doorstop. He stepped into the entrance alcove and shouldered the door shut before carefully stowing his gear in the corner.
After he’d ensured the latch was firmly in place, he opened the interior door. On their first day, Susan had made the mistake of leaving both doors open. It had taken them a couple of hours to tidy up the house after a whirling dervish had ripped through it. The gale outside today was probably ten times stronger.
The smells coming from the quaint kitchen stopped him in his tracks. Homemade bread and biscuits! His mouth was watering as he made a beeline for the tray of fresh-baked goodies he spied on the rustic timber dining table.
“Don’t you dare, Kevin Waters! I’ve been baking them all afternoon.” Susan warned with a glare and a pointed finger as she entered from the kitchen.
“I wasn’t--honestly,” he replied meekly. The use of his full name vanquished any thought of a pre-dinner snack.
He must have looked like a sullen schoolboy, with hands thrust into his pockets as he stared mournfully at his boot tops, because Susan’s stern tone softened. “Okay, just one, but then I want you to go up and check on Neville before we start preparing for dinner.”
With a mouthful of delicious biscuit he mumbled, “You’d better break out the extra candles and lanterns, hon. I don’t think we’ll have power for much longer.”
She held up a box of candles and a lantern with the “already ahead of you” look on her face. He shrugged his shoulders and spread his palms outward, as if calling on higher powers to help him win occasionally.
“It’s not safe out here for you and Neville. If the storm has blown over by tomorrow morning, why don’t you two head back to the mainland? I’ll only be out here for another week, and then I’ll be home.”
“You can’t keep doing this, Kevin. You have a family to think about now.”
“And how do you think I get the money to for this family to enjoy the things it does, Susan? I’m a freelance photographer. It’s either environmental stuff like this; wildlife stuff like sharks and seals; or chase celebrities around. I know you don’t want me going anywhere near animals that consider me part of the menu, and you think the paparazzi are parasites. That doesn’t leave me a lot of choice.”
Kevin cut her off. “I am not accepting money from your dad! We’ve talked about this already. Taking photos of stuffy individuals and their snot-nosed brats is not art. It would barely pay the bills, with very little left over for the nice things we like. It’s not happening.”
To end the discussion, Kevin went upstairs to check on his son. The clatter of plates on the table and the slamming of cupboard doors from the kitchen told him this was only a temporary reprieve.
Quietly he opened the door to his son’s room. He could hear Neville cooing in his crib. The sliver of light from the hallway fell across his son, allowing Kevin to see he was still awake. A distant clap of thunder caused Kevin to jump, but his son never flinched. “You all right, buddy? You should be asleep.”
His son tried to roll toward his voice, but the tightly tucked blankets kept him on his back. Kevin quickly checked to ensure they were still snug. He wound up the mobile which hung over the crib. Dulcet notes filled the room as colourful moons and stars twirled above his son’s head. Within minutes, Neville’s eyes were struggling to stay open.
Kevin quietly closed the door and headed for the stairs. A thunderclap announced its presence directly overhead. The old structure shook, as if it, too, shared the fear racing through Kevin at that moment. He sneezed. Dust and soot shaken loose from the exposed rafters now swirled through the air. From years of open fires, the fine particles had worked into every nook and cranny throughout the house. The occasional renters’ mistake of leaving both front doors open only helped it spread.
Kevin waved a hand in front of his face, batting away the dust particles that swirled around him, making a mental note to tell the National Trust the cottage was overdue a good cleaning.
Suddenly the lights flickered and went out, replaced by a flash of dazzling brilliance from a lightning bolt touching down somewhere close by. The sound of breaking glass drew him to the top of the stairs. “Susan? Are you okay?”
He descended carefully and entered the combined lounge, dining and kitchen area, guided by the naked flame of the lantern sitting next to the tray of fresh biscuits.
Susan’s head popped up from the other side of the table. “Sorry. I dropped the lantern cover. That flash of lightning scared the bejesus out of me.”
Kevin circled the table, cuddling up behind his wife. Slowly, he massaged her shoulders in an effort to calm her. “I’ll get a fire started so we can save on candles.”
“Okay. I’ll finish getting dinner ready. Your tablets are on the shelf next to the oregano.”
Kevin gave her shoulders a final squeeze and accompanied it with nuzzling and a soft kiss to her neck. He smiled at Susan’s involuntary sigh. He playfully swatted her backside as he moved to the huge fireplace. Maybe they could just enjoy an evening together instead of fighting all the time.
He was still looking up the chimney when he heard Susan place dinner on the table. The wind channelled down the flue, blowing out each match he tried to light.
“I think you’ll need to close the damper first,” Susan said. “Let the flame get a hold before the wind can blow it out.”
Kevin looked back at her. “Do you happen to know how we close the damper?”
Squeezing into the space next to him, Susan reached up into the chimney. She grunted as she pulled back on an old iron ring. Somewhere above they heard the clang as a metal plate closed over the opening. She kissed him on the cheek and playfully patted his rump. “Don’t be too long, baby. Your dinner will get cold.”
Shaking his head at his continued demonstration of ineptitude, he lit a match and started the kindling. Slowly he added bigger pieces until he could see Susan beginning to squint as she sat at the table. He figured enough smoke was inside the house, and now would probably be a good time to open the damper again. He reached up and pulled on another, higher, iron ring. The ingenious old pulley system inside the ancient chimney levered the damper open.
Susan rewarded him with a big smile as he passed her on the way to wash his hands.
After dinner they rested comfortably before the fire, listening to the raging sounds of the storm outside. An even brighter flash of lightning than the earlier near miss followed another house-shaking clap of thunder. They could smell the ozone over the faint reminder of dinner. The hair on Kevin’s arms stood to attention as testament to the over-charged atmosphere.
Susan extricated herself from his embrace. “I’ll go check on Neville. I’m surprised we haven’t heard a peep from him through all this.”
Kevin watched the gentle sway of Susan’s hips as she moved toward the stairs. She grabbed a candle off the dining table to light her way. As she placed her hand on the banister, a powerful gust of wind slammed into the house. It forced its way down the chimney, extinguishing the candles in the living area, and the one in Susan’s hand, leaving the weakened fire as their only source of light.
The icy winds of the Antarctic instantly removed all warmth from the room. Their breaths plumed in little misty clouds before them. “Holy shit, that was cold!” Kevin said, briskly rubbing his arms.
“Quick, narrow the damper in case it happens again,” Susan said as she retrieved a match to relight her candle.
Kevin leaned over the fire pit as Susan headed upstairs. The heat of the flames warmed his skin and clothing. “Now which ring did what?” he mumbled to himself.
Susan’s scream caused him to jerk upright. Pain exploded behind his eyes as he smashed his head against the underside of the quarried mantle.
Taking the steps two and three at a time, he rushed to his son’s room.
Susan stood beside the crib with Neville cradled in one arm. Her other hand pushed furiously against his chest. She bent her head and blew gently into his mouth, trying to force air into his lungs. Finally noticing Kevin in the doorway, she looked up, her eyes pleading. “He isn’t breathing!”
Tears flowed freely down her cheeks, mixing with the soot on Neville’s face to leave long gray streaks.
After what seemed like an eternity, she hugged Neville’s little body to her breast. “When I came in, he’d managed to roll over. There’s dust and soot all over the place. He’s like ice. He’s like that wind! He’s gone. Our little boy’s gone! Why did we ever have to come to this godforsaken place?”
Kevin reached out a tentative hand toward his son, but Susan turned away. “He’s dead, Kevin, and it’s your fault. You’re the one who made us come out to this shit-hole. You’re the one who was too proud to take a helping hand from Daddy.”
“Susan, please, let me see.”
Reluctantly she allowed him to caress Neville’s forehead. His fingers left a trail in the soot. His little boy was cold.
He stepped back into the doorway, watching his wife cradle their dead son. She seemed determined not to let her sobs exit her lean frame without a struggle.
Her beautiful features and cold words left no doubt whom she blamed.
He wiped his hands across his face and was surprised at the moisture he found on them. He hadn’t realised he’d begun crying.
‘Useless as a husband and a father,’ he thought. He knew Susan’s blame was well placed. The fine dust and soot was layered over his son’s crib. He remembered the earlier thunderclap, the sneeze. All that crap falling on Neville’s face. He must have rolled over to try and get away from it. And he’d not gone back in to check on him. The breaking lantern cover had distracted him, but he knew that was a flimsy excuse. He’d just not put two and two together. He’d failed as a father. He’d failed when his son needed him most.
A loud crash came from downstairs. The sound of the wind roaring through the downstairs area was clearly audible. Icy fingers brushed past him as it howled up the stairs. The latches on both front doors must have failed.
Torn between the unsolvable situation of his wife and son, and the solvable maelstrom downstairs, he chose to fix the only thing he could.
Kevin raced down the stairs to close the outer door before the wind tore apart everything inside the house. He pulled up short on the bottom step and stared in horror at the translucent figure walking away from him, as if it had just alighted from the same step he still stood on. With lightning flashes glinting from its ebony scythe, it glided toward the open doorway.
A nearby strike lit up the scene, allowing Kevin to see the Reaper wasn’t alone. Walking in front of him, huddling against the force of the wind, was a woman dressed in a similar long black cloak. The wind whipped her blonde hair wildly about her head but she kept her gaze bent before her. As she cleared the outer door, the cloak’s real nature was revealed as she expanded giant wings. Her naked white back and buttocks contrasted sharply against the black of her feathers. She leaped into the teeth of the tempest, beating her wings furiously to rise toward the black clouds overhead.
She turned against the onslaught of the storm, and Kevin saw the babe she protected in her arms.
Kevin forced himself through the doorway on the heels of the Reaper. He had failed his son once. This might be his last chance. He lunged for the hem of the Reaper’s black cloak. His hand passed through the material, instantly blackening his fingers, and filling him with a coldness that felt like a thousand ice shards driven directly into his soul.
Mindless fear raced through him as the Reaper turned a faceless cowl in his direction, regarding him as he lay in the freezing mud.
Cradling his injured hand against his chest, Kevin knelt before death personified. “Please, take me instead,” he croaked. “Allow my son to live. I beg you, please. Please!”
No movement indicated whether the Reaper understood. It turned and rose in the direction of the winged female. Kevin could still make out her naked white form getting further and further away.
He looked around in desperation, trying to find something that would allow him to stop these phantoms from taking his son. Susan stood in the open doorway holding the mortal remains of their child, her hair streaming out behind her as she watched him grovel in the mud.
With increasing frequency, the bolts struck the island and the surrounding sea, the strobe effect creating stark contrasts. The nerve synapses in Kevin’s body began to fire erratically. He’d forgotten to take his pills; they were still beside his wife’s favourite spice. As he fell, he turned his head to plead for help. The doorway was empty.
Fighting against the onset of his seizure, he nodded his acceptance of her actions. She must think him mad. Kevin could imagine what he looked like: a grieving father wailing his sorrow against Mother Nature at her worst. In her grief, she had overlooked what effect the increasing strobe of the lightning would have on his epilepsy.
Kevin looked in the direction his son’s spirit had been taken. The rain against his glasses made it difficult to see clearly and the constant flicks of light from the overhead electricity show confused his already overloaded senses. Was the Reaper getting closer?
There was a moment of blackness, of ripping and separation, and Kevin realised he was being raised toward the storm clouds overhead. The reaper’s bony hand circled his wrist and led him quickly up to the winged creature carrying his son.
A gap in the clouds began to appear and Kevin stared in wonder at the vista before him, before turning to look at the weather beaten cottage far below. He could just make out the image of Susan bent over his body, pushing against his chest.
He could feel the pressure on his ribs, on his sternum, the wetness of her lips as she forced air into his lungs. The Reaper turned to face him. It was now he realised they were no longer ascending, no longer following his son and the Winged Shepherd.
The Reaper’s dark cowl looked down at the scene on the isolated island and then back at Kevin.
Tears mixed with the freezing rain as Kevin realised he had been given a choice. He looked up at the powerful back of the woman carrying his son, the wings beating steadily as they approached the gap in the clouds, and then down to the woman he loved.
Kevin took a deep breath before peering into the depths of blackness inside the Reapers hood and smiled. “Take care of my son.”