This piece was the flash fiction story that was rejected last weekend. It was an encouraging rejection so don’t feel bad for me, I’m actually proud of myself. But I didn’t feel like revising it and trying to submit it elsewhere. Sometimes I just don’t feel like looking back at my old short stories; I have too many new ideas. But I still wanted people to read it, so I am self-publishing it here. -DNR
by Denise Ruttan
Matthew’s father’s words stuck in his mind as he stared at the glassy expanse of the sea. The brisk wind ruffled his hair with a knife’s kiss. “It’s not worth it,” his father had told Matthew. “I’m just an old man. My secret dies with me.” But Matthew could not let it go.
All his life, Matthew thought his father was Hamash. Ray Benoit was a proud man. He talked of his days flying bombing missions in the war, fighting for his country. He rarely talked about the details, because Matthew knew the shadow of death still gripped the old man. But Matthew was certain his father was proud to serve his country.
Pride. Such an odd concept, when it was meant in the service of something bigger than oneself. Perhaps, in some ways, Matthew was jealous of his father’s time in the war. But that did not matter. His father was a hero. Even in death, he deserved a hero’s honors. Instead, only Matthew showed for the funeral. It was a modest affair, the priest rushing through a spare eulogy. Ray Benoit was buried in a simple coffin, with a basic headstone. Matthew wanted to pay for something grander, but the law would not allow it. He could not even place fresh yellow roses.
Because Ray Benoit was not, in fact, Hamash. He was Sulee. A secret he had managed to keep most of his life. Until he told Matthew the truth. He was not even Sulee, because the proof of his birth was stolen by a witch who had vanished between the worlds. He had died a man without a country. A man without a soul.
So now Matthew was on a mission to find the witch. The plan had seemed bizarre at first, but it was all he had left. A fairy story didn’t seem so far-fetched, after a life of lies.
He left the deck and entered the dining cabin. The smell of thick, warm stew and yeasty bread made his stomach growl. He took a bowl of stew to an empty table. Outside, the wind howled. He wondered how he would find this witch, when he reached the land of the Sulee.
“Papers, please,” a sailor said. Matthew retrieved his passport from his pocket. The sailor studied it a little too carefully. “Thank you, Mr. Benoit.”
“Is something the matter?”
“Just a routine check. Enjoy your lunch.” But some glint in the sailor’s eye betrayed him. The other passengers stared at them.
Matthew knew he was a target because he was a firstborn. His father came from somewhere else. The law of the land treated firstborns harshly. He had gained his citizenship by an accident of birth, not his ties to the land.
He finished his stew in a hurry. The hearty taste turned bland. He got up, still feeling the other passengers’ eyes crawling on him. He resisted the urge to rub his neck. He couldn’t show weakness, not now. Matthew returned to the deck. He knew his place. He understood what was coming.
Matthew gripped the railing. He wondered if this was how his father felt in the war. Not knowing which side was the right one. Back then, Matthew didn’t want to hear about the ugly side of war. He was a loyal Hamash. He wanted to believe in the nobility of his people.
The sailor waited until sunset. Matthew could hear him breathing nearby. Matthew tugged his coat closer around his shoulders, but it did not keep out the cold. Together, they watched the blazing suns sink lower in the sky. Normally, it would be a breathtaking sight. But Matthew’s breath trapped in his throat.
“Why are you going to Sulee country?”
Matthew thought about lying. But he told him the truth, instead.
The sailor laughed. “You really believe those fairy stories? Your father was nothing but a criminal.”
“My father was a war hero.” Matthew gritted his teeth. “He ran 50 bombing missions.”
“But he broke the first law,” the sailor said. “That’s not what a hero does.”
Matthew’s temper flared. His fist struck the man’s face. The sailor grinned.
“Firstborn,” the sailor said. “You know the law. You threw the first punch.”
From the sudden darkness, two other sailors emerged. They set upon Matthew, fists driving into his chest and face, blood spraying the deck. Rain pounded the deck and swam with the blood. Eventually Matthew stopped fighting back. The ghost of his father held his hand, and blackness filled his eyes.
Maybe there were no witches. Maybe there was no world between the worlds. Maybe his father wasn’t a hero.
He coughed blood, and the sailors ran when their captain called. Matthew turned over on his side. He tried to raise himself to a standing position, but every bruised rib protested. Instead he lay there on the deck, staring at the sky swirling with ominous ink. The suns had retreated beyond the horizon, replaced by the obsidian of night.
In the roar of the wind he thought he heard a voice speaking to him. A hand reached out that was not his father’s hand. It was a soft, gentle hand, covered in gold jewelry. He wanted to yell and run away, but he couldn’t move. The purr of a lullaby caressed the air.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” the music whispered, clear even in the storm.
Matthew knew, then, that he didn’t need to seek the witch.
In the morning, the storm passed. The crew had survived a rough night. A couple of the sailors stumbled on deck, blinded by the light of the sunrise. One of them stumbled upon a body.
It was Matthew Benoit. They checked for a pulse. His eyes were wide open, frozen in horror. His skin was cold, so cold.
Then one of the sailors scoffed. “That’s the firstborn,” he said. “Throw him overboard. He’s just dead weight.”
I offer my writing for free because I believe in the public domain, but if you want to encourage me to continue creating, donate $1 to my tip jars: http://www.venmo.com/denise-ruttan or http://www.ko.fi.com/fieldofstars