E ven approaching evening, the heat was the kind one’s body didn’t believe, where people suffered strokes because it couldn’t bake them that fast. It was the kind in which folk made YouTube videos about cooking eggs on their dashboard, swimming pools felt like a baby’s bathwater where swimmers sweated with their heads submerged, and the sun slapped one at the front door.
Despite this, Edward crouched by the pond, digging stones, looking for smooth, flat ones. Sweat poured from his armpits, down the back of his neck, his inner thighs. It was so humid that another couple percentage points would allow him to swim off into the sky. A tightening in his throat did set off a couple warnings in the back of his mind since he’d already drank the whole bottle of water he’d brought, but he’d rather push himself to a physical brink than deal with the mental misery entailed in going home.
His parents were in the middle of a divorce but had yet to suss out the living situation, so mom slept in the bedroom, dad in the basement. They met in the middle to fight and lecture Edward. His mom had found God through her husband’s affair, and she pressed Edward to be a better believer whenever possible. His dad pressed him to believe in going to college because “the sooner you get into the world the better.” Rick, his younger brother, believed that Edward interrupted his live-streams and impeded his ascent into an internet sensation.
For his part, Edward struggled to believe in anything. Seventeen, living in a household burning itself down, failing half his classes, and lacking relationships he might consider meaningful, it followed that he hadn’t developed a meaningful relationship with the universe.
Perhaps that was why he spent so much time by the pond anticipating the plicks of a well- skipped stone, watching ducks leave little deltas, whacking skunk cabbage with sticks like he was teeing off. Little lizards rustled among the dried grass around the rocks. Hawks circled overhead. Frogs croaked at the sun and plopped into the water among reeds.
That day, such a plop, an unusually large one among a bank of cattails, drew him to the water’s edge. There, among erosion exposed roots and submerged water grasses, amid the scattering tadpoles was a great, white feather, long as his forearm. Near the shaft, silvery gray chevrons streaked the vale. It was the base of the hollow shaft, however, that fixed Edward’s eye.
It was bright crimson, and from it a drop of blood fell. The drop hit the water and dissipated among the disturbed silt in which tadpoles hid.
Edward picked up the feather between thumb and forefinger and held it to the light. What kind of bird was it from? A huge white eagle or something. Edward looked about, scanning the skies and the trees. For the feather to still have blood in it, it must be fresh, but he’d been there an hour at least. He wasn’t that observant, but he couldn’t have missed a bird large enough for this feather. Another couple drops of blood fell to the grass.
Edward smiled and said, “That’s so cool.”
Then, he realized how badly the sun was beating down on him, and he set off home, the feather continuing its drip, drip, drip like an old faucet.
When Edward reached his house, he headed straight for the back door, halting just before the back stoop. The feather was still dripping (how, he wondered), and while he didn’t have a problem with blood, both his parents would have a problem with him dripping a trail of blood across the house.
He headed to the old lawn shed and rummaged about until he found an old plastic mop-bucket. It was full of spiderwebs and dirt which he shook out, and then he slipped the feather inside. He then slipped himself inside his house and slipped off his shoes, careful to make sure his mom wasn’t home yet, watchful of the basement door lest his father, who worked from home, might pop up to ‘say hey’. He crept in his sweat drenched socks around all the linoleum patches and floorboards that were known creakers.
At the top of the stairs, he approached his brother’s door. He really wanted to show the feather to someone. It was, after all, weird. Maybe magical. Unfortunately, the torrent of gunfire and obscenities muffled by the door indicated that interruptions would be unwise. If Rick thought he’d lose a viewer or get a negative tag in the comment section, it was the apocalypse.
Instead, Edward entered his own room and went straight to his closet. He pulled an old box of toys and put the bucket in its place. He changed into clothes that weren’t drenched and didn’t smell like a gym bag. Then, he sat at his desk, queued up some dubstep, and tried to research bleeding feathers on his laptop with little success. The best he found were stories of statues crying blood and bleeding chimneys. All of them had natural explanations.
No doubt, the feather had one too.
Uncertain of a better way to proceed, Edward emailed Mr. Eddlestein, the high school biology teacher. Edward wasn’t the best student, but he liked biology and hoped he had some of Mr. Eddlestein’s goodwill, especially since it was summer break.
He’d just hit send when he heard the garage door open. Because spending so much time out in the sun had worked up both an appetite and thirst, he headed downstairs.
In the morning, the first thing Edward did was check on the feather. He’d had a dream that he found the feather all over again. It was incredibly vivid; walking the pond’s edge, he came upon that same thicket of reeds and cattails. The only difference was that he could feel his feet crushing tadpoles with every step even though they weren’t in the water, and the feather wasn’t just sitting there. Instead, it was attached to the eight foot, severed wing of some titan-bird that had never graced zoology books. Cicada and frog songs rose to a deafening crescendo, and, as he closed his hand upon the feather, it gushed blood.
He’d woken up sitting bolt upright.
To his relief, only a couple inches of blood stewed in the bucket, though it felt odd to feel relieved to find a bucket with a couple inches of blood inside his closet.
He was also relieved when he checked his email afterwards and found that Mr. Eddlestein had replied:
I appreciate that even in summer you take a keen interest in science, and I thank you for thinking of me as your first recourse upon finding such a fascinating item.
I must admit that this might be outside my expertise. However, Dr. Elsa Foster at State is an old friend of mine, and I feel you might be able to garner her interest. I will forward you an email with her contact information and office number.
The forwarded email was in Edward’s spam folder, but it was there. He took a short video of the feather dripping blood into the bucket and sent it to the professor as an attachment to as polite an email as he could muster, concluding it with both his phone number and Twitter handle. Then, he closed his laptop.
He was about to get up, but he hesitated. On the window above his desk were what appeared to be a set of muddy handprints. The prints were oddly misshapen. The fingers were longer than his and all wrong. There were only three and a thumb. Or were there really four fingers, with two just pressed together?
His ringtone, a snippet of a song he’d loved before he set it as his ringtone just about stopped his heart. To his amazement, it was the professor, and within minutes he’d made an appointment for later in the morning. A quick Google said it would take over forty minutes to get there, not leaving Edward a whole lot of time.
Downstairs, his mom found it off-putting that he’d meet with a professor at a school during the summer, especially one of the opposite sex, but his dad was like a Baptist at the rapture. The last thing he heard as he headed out the door was his dad telling his mom that he told her so.
Dr. Foster’s office was a small office on the bottom floor of a red brick building that could easily have been transplanted from any number of universities. She was a petite woman who carried a silver travel mug and wore a plain green t-shirt and blue jeans. Her hair was pulled in a ponytail, and she wore yellow plastic glasses. A tattoo peaked out from under her sleeve, but Edward couldn’t tell of what it was.
Edward himself wore black slacks with the only button-up shirt in his closet because he figured that’s the kind of thing one wore to talk to a college professor. If he weren’t holding a bucket with a bleeding feather inside it, he would have felt out of place. To be fair, he wasn’t convinced that the feather belonged anywhere, but by not belonging anywhere, it kind of belonged everywhere.
Unfortunately, Dr. Foster’s immediate response was that she wanted to send the feather off to a colleague’s laboratory at Vanderbilt to have tests run.
Though no thought of its kind had struck Edward before, he immediately felt possessive of the feather and couldn’t consider relinquishing it. The feather might well be the only special thing he’d ever found, the only special thing he would ever find. After all, it really was kind of magical. Magical enough that a university professor wanted it studied.
Dr. Foster wasn’t happy at how quickly Edward dismissed himself, but Edward figured at worst he could just not apply to that university.
Outside in the parking lot, Edward pulled the feather from the bucket and emptied the bucket into the nearest storm drain. He felt weird pouring a bucket of blood into the sewer, but it had to be organic and biodegradable. After all, wasn’t blood kind of like life itself? That’s what the vampire movies said.
At his car, key in hand, Edward cocked his head. There were large blotches of mud all around the car. Of course, Edward wouldn’t have expected the parking lot to be clean, but the mud seemed fresh and wet despite the morning heat already beginning to rise.
Nonetheless, Edward hopped in the car, set the bucket on the passenger floorboard, and started the engine. What next? Should he call the newspaper? A TV station?
Instead, he sat back as the air conditioner started to blow slightly cooler air out and did what any teenager would do in this situation, what he should have done from the beginning: he crowdsourced solutions by asking on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram.
Within minutes, several of his friends had responded. The first said, “WTF dude.” The second, “I want one.” The third called him an attention whore, the fourth that his blood CGI needed work. The fifth said he was cursed, and the sixth offered him a hundred bucks.
Edward closed his phone and pinched the bridge of his nose. Then, he saw the billboard: an advertisement for Heavenly Ale. Heavenly Ale was one of those microbrews made by monks in a monastery. If the feather really was magical, monks would surely know.
The monastery was a short drive along the highway that ran parallel to the river. Edward half-expected to turn on a dirt road and see windmills and people on horseback, but the building was nestled on a good-sized plot between a factory that produced cheese crackers and another that produced tile cleaner. The parking lot was large and set behind a barbed wire fence, and the sign at the lot’s entrance had a corporate logo that Edward associated with the big beers like Bud and Miller, though he was not sure to which. Nevertheless, Edward parked his car at the edge of the lot overlooking the river.
He sat a moment, looking at the riverbank, at the thickets of bushes and rocks and cattails that grew there, and he thought again about the moment he’d found the feather. Had it been some sort of destiny? Was he meant to have it?
He crossed the parking lot to the entrance. By the front doors, a ticket booth like one might find at an old-fashioned theater was built into the wall, and a bored looking attendant in a blue hat and vest sat chewing gum and painting her nails.
“Um, hey,” Edward said. “I want to talk to the monks.”
The attendant clicked her tongue. Her name tag said Helen.
“Wow. This place hasn’t been an actual monastery for years.”
“Nope, monks got bought out almost ten years ago.”
Edward kicked the sidewalk. The blood in the bucket plopped.
“But I’ve seen ads-“
“Yeah, they bought the rights to the story,” she said. Then, she furrowed her brow and tried to lean forward. The plexiglass stopped her from being able to see down in the bucket. As she sat back, she asked “Whatcha got there?”
Edward considered saying nothing because he couldn’t come up with a good reason to be carrying a bucket around, but he answered, “A bucket of blood and a feather.”
“Cool,” Helen said, rolling her eyes. “I get that.”
Edward sighed. He turned to walk towards his car, but Helen called out. He looked back. Had she realized that he really was carrying a bucket of blood?
“You know,” she said, looking mildly concerned. “There’s a fella in accounting named Murray; Pretty sure he actually WAS a monk here way back. If you want, I can let you in to talk to him for half price cash.”
Edward sighed again and continued towards the car. He wouldn’t speak with Murray in accounting, not for free let alone half price. He’d been so convinced that there must be some larger purpose to this, but what if he was like those yahoos who saw Jesus in their cornflakes? What if it was some fluke and all the tests in the world said life was a pointless misfire? Maybe he should just dump the bucket in the river, he thought, or take up that kid for a hundred bucks or go back to that professor at the university. Maybe-
The thought broke off as something hot and wet lashed around Edward, locking his arms to his sides with a wet slap. Edward looked down to see some sort of glistening, pink rope. The rope, taut as tent wire, stretched away and up, to the roof of Edward’s car.
There, it disappeared into the mouth of a massive frog. It was so large that the roof of the car had collapsed under its weight. Its skin was a pebbled olive green and deep brown, and its enormous yellow eyes had black, cross shaped pupils. Its webbed feet clung to the car frame, and its powerful hind legs flexed and tensed, ready to leap at the slightest provocation.
Edward struggled against the tongue, but its grip was like a titan’s fist.
The voice came inside his head, and it wasn’t in words, but rather an impression intermingled with the buzz of flies.
No point fighting me. I can pull you down my gullet before you blink.
“Have I lost my shit?” was Edward’s response. It felt like a good response, like the only response he could give at this point.
I am Amphimorian, The God Frog.
“Yeah, heat stroke,” Edward said. “Do I know what hospital I’m at?”
This is real. The feather you possess belonged to the bird menace Aviallius. It is an incarnation of evil that has plagued my kind, eating entire family lines in a single meal with no respect for the natural balance of things.
Edward wanted to make some scoffing retort that conveyed he knew he was talking to himself, that talking to a hallucination was talking to yourself, but he felt irrationally threatened.
I tracked you by following the scent of the demon’s blood. I must devour the feather lest he return and continue to prey upon my people.
Edward felt the desire to bolt grow. It really bothered him that his hallucination seemed able to immobilize him. Hallucinations couldn’t physically restrain him, but what if his mind convinced his body that his arms were stuck? What if this was really a sign that his systems were failing and that he’d collapse like human shaped Jell-O? The power of suggestion was impressive, especially when it came to things people tried to convince themselves of. Could Helen see him from her booth? Was he standing with his arms pressed to his side like a penguin? Was she calling security to have him removed?
Your doubt is understandable. Doubt is the lantern your species sees by.
“I’m having a psychic conversation with a giant frog,” Edward said. However, he extended his right index finger so that it pointed into the bucket his other fingers still held. “But if you want the damn feather so much, take it.”
Immediately, the tongue released, retracted like a measuring tape, and lashed back out. The bucket vanished from beside Edward straight into the Frog’s massive mouth.
A gunshot barked. Edward jumped a full foot in the air. Like a frog, he thought.
A shudder ran through the frog’s body and a spray of grayish green blood blasted out the side of its head, one of its eyes obliterated in the exit wound. Edward craned his neck just in time to see a uniformed security guard running forward with a 9mm extended. The muzzle flashed. Edward crushed his eyes shut and slapped his hands over his ears as the deafening boom of five more shots jolted his bones.
When the sound had faded and the smell of gunsmoke wafted into his nostrils, Edward chanced opening his eyes.
The guard stood in a firing stance with his gun still aimed.
The giant frog wobbled on the roof, oozing sludge-like blood. It slumped to the side and rolled off the car, striking the lot pavement with a wet smack. Its tongue rolled out of its mouth towards Edward like a wet carpet.
“Are you okay?” The guard asked Edward. “What the hell is that thing?”
Edward didn’t have a chance to answer. The body bucked. Something sharp and yellow thrust through its abdomen and jerked side to side like someone shoving a knife through a bedsheet and cutting through. What had seemed to be a blade was a glistening beak, and a massive white heron’s head shoved itself out of the frog’s innards. Two powerful wings followed. Its legs followed, two dull orange, scaly things dripping with viscera, and it kicked the frog’s body away from its talons like a toddler kicking off a shoe.
When it stretched its wings, they were themselves the lengths of cars. Edward breathed shallow, and his heart pounded. The security guard seemed to have forgotten he was holding a gun, and his hands just fell away from it and dangled while the weapon clattered to the cement.
The bird jolted the frame of its wings, snapping off the remaining moisture that still clung to it from inside the frog. It spattered across the agog faces of the onlookers.
Then, it gave its wings a tremendous flap that nearly knocked both Edward and the guard off their feet with the wind created. It flapped again, faster, and, as its feet left the ground, Edward leaned into the resulting gale.
All at once, the heron-beast Aviallius let loose a shrieking cry and took off in straight flight like a rising bullet. Within seconds, it had vanished over the curve of the horizon.
Edward gasped and swallowed, gasped and swallowed. He patted himself all over his torso and head to make sure that he was real and intact, and he knew without doubt that he would never doubt again.
Astronomers have long said that our solar system is ideally situated in a tucked away corner of the galaxy to allow us to observe the universe around us. The skies above and the ocean below swim with the fantastical; life we barely understand, phenomenon we can hardly conceive even with all we know. Life leaves us a simple choice, then: to accept or to inquire. “Something to Believe In” presents the central character with that choice in the form of a bleeding feather. Despite his youth, he finds himself on the path of inquiry and, just as in real life, the answers frustrate or seem to seek their own ends rather than any greater understanding. However, when finally confronted with an answer that is simultaneously rational and irrational, he comes to understand that knowing there is an answer at all is often the point.