Smith and Robinson sat on a dead log that stuck out from the river behind the mill, and had done so for as long as they could remember. Just before sunset was their time for sitting, after Robinson had finished work for the day. They would sit side by side looking west—sometimes there would be big grey clouds of birds flying north or south, sometimes it would rain, sometimes Robinson brought a fishing pole or a newspaper or something else to hold in his hands. And Smith talked.
“Well, Robinson,” he said one afternoon in late summer, “I caught a swallow earlier this morning, and held it in my palms. It spoke to me, Robinson, and I knew what it said.”
Robinson gave the fishing-pole a tug, although he knew that no fish lived in the river.
“I could understand what it said. It told me very clearly that rain will come this summer that’ll wash clear away my house. Wash me out of house and bed. Can you appreciate that, Robinson? Oughtn’t I be frightened? Well, I ain’t.”
Robinson shaded his eyes and gazed out to the sun, where it was sinking below the trees on the farthest hill.
“I ain’t frightened of much, I suppose. I let the bird go even though it’d brought me such awful news. Reminds me, Robinson, that I ain’t afraid of too much, but even so I suppose my house ain’t built on strong foundations. Been there for a while. Longer than me. And it’s drafty when the wind blows.”
Robinson turned to Smith. “How long’s it been there?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I met it so many years ago, and it was old then. Wasn’t it? Do you remember what it looked like when you were a boy? When your brothers were boys and your sister was sweet and wore red dresses? Can’t you remember how our clothes always got bark on them, after playing there? I do. It was old then, Robinson.”
It surprised Robinson to hear Smith talk in this way, for he had never before spoken of his hut, and Robinson had thought he’d been ashamed of it, so he’d always tolerated that Smith never spoke of it or of his clothes or much of what he did during the daytime. It was a tiny log-built place, on the hill out in the trees where the river went when it went past the mill, and each night except when summer was warm Robinson could see the small smoke trail rise from the tree-tops.
“It was old then,” Robinson repeated. “Yes, I remember.”
“Of course you remember, Robinson. The storm last night, Robinson: I believe that it frightened the swallow into lying to me about the things it said about my home washing away, and so I can’t blame the swallow. The rain, I’m not sure if you know this, made awful shapes outside my window, Robinson. Did it do the same around yours? Around my window, the raindrops were all buzzing and twisted into shapes and I saw what the shapes were by blowing out my candles so I could see outside the window. It made a shape first like a great big dog with foam around its mouth, and it wasn’t really a dog but an awful devil made up like a dog. Because devils can’t come up above the ground in their true shapes, Robinson, so they have to become other things.
“And then the dog went away and the rain made the shape of a whole bunch of fish on the ends of fishing poles, and the fish were of the unlikeliest shapes and colors. And then the rain made a hatchet, and then after the hatchet, it made a tree.”
Smith fell silent, and Robinson gave his fishing pole another tug.
“The rain did that, Smith?”
“Yes, Robinson, it did.”
“Weren’t you afraid?”
“No, I can’t say I was afraid. I don’t think I’m afraid of much. Maybe I ought to be, but I ain’t.”
The sun was asleep behind the hill, and Robinson rose and walked gingerly down the narrow log to the riverbank. He stuck the end of his pole in the soft mud and waved goodbye to Smith, and walked past the mill on the pathway that led back to his house. As he walked by the great wooden wheel that creaked softly as the water rolled by Robinson heard the singing of frogs. The frogs that lived where the water met the mud sang softly at this hour right until the snow and ice covered the river during the first weeks of winter, and then they were silent until spring. He looked over his shoulder before rounding the first bend in the path where it ran into the trees and saw Smith sitting there on the log, still as stone, watching the stars peek out of the dark sky.
Everything was in commotion when Robinson entered the kitchen through the back door: the boys were sliding crayons along the tiled floor and hollering with delight as they did; the baby was wailing in the high-chair, Theodore was barking wildly in his kennel, and Lily was coming down the stairs two at a time, shouting at the boys to quit.
Robinson reached down and pulled the crayons out of their hands.
“I wish you’d got home earlier,” Lily said, panting. “These three have been truly crazed all evening.”
“What in the name of God possessed you two to draw on the floors? Don’t you know that you’ll be the ones to clean it up?”
“Budgy died,” said the smaller boy, hanging his head. The elder boy rose and with a sudden wail of grief ran up the stairs, and slammed the bedroom door. The smaller boy only hung his head, and even Theodore was silent.
“Budgy is the bird that your class keeps at school, isn’t it?” asked Lily. The smaller boy nodded.
“I left the cage open after school yesterday, and he ate up all the glue that was in the pots, and he died.”
Robinson picked the smaller boy up from the crayon-covered floor, and sat him down on the kitchen table.
“He died when he ate the glue?”
The boy nodded.
“It frightens you that he died?”
Lily left and went up to the elder boy’s room; Robinson picked the smaller boy up once more and brought him to the window. He clicked off the kitchen light so they could see outside into the night.
“Do you see those little things in the sky?”
“Yes, you see them?”
The boy nodded.
“How old do you think they are?”
“I don’t know. Infinity.”
“Not infinity. Very, very old, but not infinity. Did you know that each star will someday puff out, and die? But they have to, to make room for the new ones. It’s lucky to die, when you think about it. More luck than you’d suppose.”
“Will you die too?”
Robinson said nothing for a moment, and nodded.
“But you’ll be old when I finally go out, and then you will be the new Mr. Robinson. And your brother and your sister will be old too, and there will be three of you where there was only me and Mama. See? It’s lucky.”
“I don’t want to die.”
The boy began to cry.
Robinson said nothing, and held the boy until he fell asleep.
A week passed. Robinson had been sitting on the log alone for several evenings, watching the smoke rise from Smith’s cabin and wondering.
And then, it happened.
Lily met him on the road coming home from work, her arms crossed. Her eyes were red.
“Theodore is dead,” she said when Robinson approached. “Smith killed him with a hatchet. I found him on the front lawn, the hatchet sticking right out of him. God, Charles, what are we going to tell the boys?”
“How do you know it was Smith?”
“I saw him walking back into the woods. He was swaggering and stumbling and cursing. Charles, they’ll be home any minute. What will we say? What will we say to them?”
“Where did you put Theo?”
“In the shed. Listen to me, Charles Robinson, here’s what you’re going to do this very moment: you are going to go to Smith, take him into town, and give him to the police chief. The police chief is going to send him to the hospital. He is out of his mind, Robinson. It’s been coming for a long time and now it’s come.”
Robinson knew it. He strode off into the woods without protest and when he reached the cabin the first stars were coming out. There was no light inside, and Robinson gingerly went to the window and looked in: on a bed in the corner lay the feeble outline of Smith, and his breath rose and fell in a horrid wheeze.
“Robinson, is that you?” came a weak, stringy voice. Robinson went around to the door and let himself inside. He found a candle and lit it with a match that lay next to it, and gasped when he beheld Smith: in the few days that he had been absent from the log by the mill, Smith had nearly wasted away. He could not have been a hundred pounds, his breathing was labored and his brow sweaty.
“That’s you, Robinson?”
“It’s me, Smith.”
“Robinson, I have something to tell you. The swallow was right: a storm came and nearly got me, but I won out. This morning the demon came, in the shape of a dog. It came right up to my window and barked at me, and I chased it all the way out of the woods, and I killed it, Robinson. I won.”
“That’s right,” Robinson said quietly. “It’s dead now, Smith.”
Smith was silent for some time, his breathing slow and weak.
“Dead?” he asked finally, so quiet that Robinson had to bend close to hear.
“I oughtn’t have done that, Robinson. Dead. What a scary thing. Are we going to die, Robinson?”
Robinson looked out of the window, where the first fireflies were floating lazily. The children would be home now.
“No, Smith. I don’t believe we will ever die.”
“That’s good.” Smith smiled.
Robinson listened to the singing of the frogs through the window, singing through the darkness and the fireflies as they had always done, and would always do.
ERIC DOVIGI lives and writes in Northern Arizona. His short story "Abigail the Winged" was published by the University of Madrid in January 2016. He has two more pieces due to be published this month, including: a short story in UCLA's Westwind Journal, and a poem on Two Cities Review's blog.