The Great Blue Heron
by David H Fears
A white woman stood upon a footbridge in northern Oregon, looking down into the swift water thirty feet below. She gripped a rosary; her face a frozen mask of terror. Running away at the far end of the bridge, her young daughter turned, a mass of blonde hair catching the sun. Closing in on the woman from the other end, painted red and yellow, were four warriors.
The bridge undulated as one brave neared her, speaking low in his own tongue. She faced him, heels hung over the edges of rough wooden planks; her eyes searched the horizon. A half step back, clinging to the edge by the balls of her feet, she watched her child’s escape.
Fright melted into calm, a knowing smile. Slowly, she undid the front of her dress until it fell around her feet. The others stopped, looking to their leader, fixed upon the woman’s placid bearing.
She lifted her gauzy undergarment and stood naked, defiant, her breasts chalky in the hot sun.
Stopping beyond the bridge, the child turned again, then ran on into a wooded thicket.
The woman kissed the silver oval on the rosary, lifted her eyes to the bend in the river and began reciting the rosary.
A blue heron skimmed the water and caught the eye of the brave closest to the woman. The followers were transfixed upon the great bird. They recoiled and covered their faces, falling prostrate upon the bridge. Only the leader stood firm. The bird swooped up toward the woman; the brave hesitated and lurched forward.
Just ahead of his eager hands, the woman stepped back. She seemed suspended in mid-air for a moment before she dropped.
Her feet cut into the surface of the gray-green water; her erect shoulders slid into the deep. Filaments of her blonde hair spread upon the water and then disappeared. The great bird circled over the spot then flew off downstream.
* * *
One hundred years later, the river flowed under a new bridge that carried cars and people to a park. On a day when the sun seemed twice its normal size, the sky swollen with light, the Hansen family picnicked near the banks of the river.
Robert and Molly’s only child, three-year-old Tess, babbled and played with her pail in the shallow river sand. Robert sunned himself. Molly held a Cosmopolitan magazine between the sun and her face; she lowered the page every few moments to monitor Tess, who dug intently in the sand.
The child tugged on something half buried, falling back onto her bottom when her pail slipped from her hands. She looked over at her mother and cried.
“Go see what she’s doing, Bob. Maybe she should play on the grass.”
“She likes the sand.”
“Go see, Bob. She’s unhappy.”
“We can’t run to her every time she gets frustrated.”
“Only children are supposed to be self-reliant.”
Molly strode the few feet to the water’s edge. Tess stopped crying and looked up into her mother’s face. Her chubby finger pointed to where she’d been digging.
Next to Tessie’s plastic shovel lay a chain of rosary beads.
“Yes, beads, Tessie. Let mommy get them.”
The beads were stuck in the sand. Molly scooped with the shovel until it was apparent that the rosary was tangled on a buried limb.
“Bob, get off your butt and help me.”
Bob rolled over onto his stomach. “You’re an only child, too, Mol.”
“Oh, all right. Can’t have both my girls crying.”
“They’re tangled on a branch,” Molly said. “I don’t want to break them.”
“What is it?”
“A rosary, dummy, can’t you tell?”
“It was your ancestors founded the state’s first Catholic school, remember? Us Baptists don’t count beads.”
“Oh, hush! Help me get it untangled.”
“Beads, daddy. Daddy, my beads.”
Bob felt down through the sand and gripped the limb. It snapped free, and he pulled out the rosary. “It looks old,” he said, dangling the magenta beads up to the light. “Is it valuable?”
“I think it’s a chaplet. Looks different than the ones mother had. The silverwork’s very intricate.”
“Much shorter than a rosary. For praying.”
“So who’s the saint on the end here? It looks like a bird with giant wings.”
Molly rubbed sand off of the oval end piece. “I don’t know. It’s pretty worn. Gabriel or some angel, maybe, but I’ve never seen a bird on a rosary before.”
“I’m sure glad we aren’t raising Tess Catholic. So many saints, how do you guys keep track of them without a program?”
“Listen, Bob, don’t start -”
A splash came from behind them and they turned to see a pail and shovel where Tess had been playing. The shallow water extended from the shore several feet and then dropped to a ledge of swift current that was over six feet deep. A blur of white moved just under water, quickly moving toward the middle of the river.
“TESS!” Molly screamed. “My God! She fell in the water!”
Tess’s small blonde head surfaced and twisted, as if swept by an eddy, then sank under. Molly dove out into the water, fighting the current to reach the spot. Bob froze, frantically searching the swirling river’s surface. He ran into the shallow water and threw off his shirt.
“Don’t come in, Bob! You can’t swim — the current! Can you see her?”
Bob looked again. “No!”
Molly plunged under the cold current. Bob ran down the riverbank. “Please, God! Save my baby!”
Molly came up and dove again. Bob saw the sun glint from the rosary that she still clutched in her hand. She lifted the beads up and said something that Bob didn’t hear.
The sun went behind a cloud and a cold breeze came up over the water. A shadow passed over the bank.
Coming straight toward them above the river was a Great Blue heron, its trailing feet skimming the surface.
The enormous bird circled close to shore, then landed in the water just upstream of Molly.
The heron made jerky head movements in Molly’s direction. The unblinking scrutiny of the bird’s yellow eyes held Molly still, and she floated in one place, holding out the beads, her fright seemingly gone.
“Molly! What are you doing? You’ve got to find Tess!”
Molly drifted to the bird extending its wingspan in a great umbrella of blue. All along the underside of the enormous wings dangled magenta beads on knotted leather strips. The sun glinted off the beads.
Water churned around Molly’s head. She cried out in anguish, “Save my baby! Oh, Lord, save my baby!”
“Molly!” shouted Bob, “Molly!”
Molly stretched out the rosary to the bird. A pulsing laser threaded between the bird’s magenta beads and those in the rosary.
Molly closed her eyes and uttered strange words in a language Bob did not know.
Molly rose up in the water as if a platform under her was rising. A small struggling form popped up in the shallows near Bob. He scooped up Tess and carried her to the grass. She shook convulsively, spit out water and began to cry.
Bob looked back to the river just as Molly dropped in front of the heron’s outstretched wings. Her shoulders cut into the gray-green surface; her erect body slid into the deep. Filaments of her blonde hair floated on the water and then were pulled under. The great bird took flight, turned, and circled over the spot before making its way downstream.
Copyright © 2006 by David H. Fears