The Illustrated Queenfisher by Matt Poll05 Feb 2018, Posted by Short Fiction in
Art: Beyond the Plains of Eternity by Jolanda Richter, @jolandarichter
THE ILLUSTRATED QUEENFISHER
Headmistress Nielsen ripped the offending page from the book, then held it close to the girl’s face.
Rather than flinching, the intended reaction, Pia grabbed the page and squealed with delight. She traced the red legs and arms she had scrawled onto the illustration of a Kingfisher in the encyclopedia.
“She’s Dronnisfugle, the queen. Pretty wings, pretty arms. Pretty Mama.”
Headmistress Nielsen’s hand clenched tight, her veins and bones visible through her thin skin as she reached for the yardstick.
Carsten lumbered through the door of the schoolhouse with a grunt. The unshaven man stood there, glared at his daughter, then held out his hand.
“Mr. Thorgesen, your daughter—“
“Come on, Pia. Home. I don’t care what she did this time,” he grumbled.
Headmistress Nielsen bristled as Carsten led his daughter towards the door, and spoke to his back.
“I know your family used to be something in Skagen, but there’s no place in today’s Denmark for drunk, foolish painters like you, hmm? Take your crazy half-German girl and go back to that shack in the dunes and drink away the rest of your sad life. You smell of a distillery; it’s a disgrace, at this hour. Good day.”
Carsten stopped, squared his shoulders, then let them drop and walked out without turning around. The loss of his wife to the Spanish flu the previous year had drained any remaining fight he’d once had. The headmistress grimaced as she watched Pia happily chewing on her unkempt locks on her way out.
“Color plates aren’t cheap, you’ll have to replace the whole book. Maybe the whole 1920 set,” the headmistress screeched after him.
Carsten straightened his rumpled jacket, which showed frayed wisps at the cuffs. Similar wisps adorned the edges of the canvases he was setting up, the result of numerous uncratings and recratings after unsuccessful bids at selling them along the boardwalk. Skagen had served as unlikely nexus for a vibrant art scene that flourished for several decades, until just before the First World War. His paintings were mostly choppy imitations of the iconic landscapes produced by that movement, with some more inspired wildlife portraits thrown in. On a good weekend he’d manage one or two sales.
A woman hid her head behind her male companion’s back, in a belated effort to stifle a surprised snicker. They were clearly affluent weekenders from Copenhagen, from the cut of their togs.
The man scoffed: “What’s this then? Seeing angels and fairies, is it? Looks like that bloody Picasso garbage.”
“Huh? No, birds. You—” Carsten stammered, his thin smile fading.
“Really, looks like a child did it. Goblins?”
“No. They’re Kingfishers—” Akvavit seeped from the pores on his forehead. Carsten had been drinking past dawn.
Finally he turned to look at his paintings and dry-heaved once. Daubed over his life-like portrayals of Kingfishers were clumsy recent additions, rendered in gaudy brush-strokes — indeed, the work of a child. Carsten struggled to loosen his tie, pawing at it weakly as the blood drained from his head.
Stick-like green human hands and blocky legs jutted out from the belly of his largest Kingfisher. A primitively-rendered female face with squiggly orange medusa locks smiled over top of the Kingfisher’s head.
“Oh… my God. What has… Pia!”
Carsten dropped the paintings with a clatter.
“Pia, this has to stop!”
Pia looked up at her father and beamed. She proudly held up a picture of her mother. She had drawn a pair of colorful wings directly onto the photo with her father’s pastels.
“Pretty wings on Mama,” she gushed.
Carsten snatched the photo away. He clutched it to his chest and backed away until he slid down the wall and onto the floor.
“This is too much, Pia, please. I have only two pictures of your mother left,” he whimpered through hands that were cupped over his face.
Pia smiled and grabbed her father’s limp thumb.
“Papa it’s ok, Mama didn’t leave, I told you. She showed me her wings and I drew them, like this.”
“Pia, shhhh, please, stop—“
“Mama lives in the pond out back, but only in winter. In summer she has to fly far away, where—”
“No,” Carsten whispered.
“She’s Dronnisfugle, the Queenfisher. Come on, I’ll show you now.”
She pulled her father out the door towards a windblown dunescape, with impressive force for a six-year-old.
The tears continued to burn down Carsten’s cheeks, but the sobbing stopped when he saw something appear over the pond’s inky surface. His mind went grey, and the only sound was the gentle shushing of flaxen reeds.
A small bird flashed past, a streak of deep green and turquoise. It suspended itself at eye level, like a disembodied flame. It shimmered until Carsten was blinded by a fire-bright orange glow. When he opened his eyes, a woman stood in the pond.
“Minna,” he managed to squeak out.
“I’m not called Minna.”
“And you’re not German, are you?”
“No, my dear,” she laughed, “I’m Dronnisfugle, Queen of these birds. Didn’t Pia show you?”
“No. Yes,” Carsten’s eyes dulled, dazed. “…it wasn’t the influenza that took you.”
“No, you knew that.”
Carsten winced and took in the phantasm before him. Pia pranced and splished through the water.
“Why did you paint so many Kingfishers? You knew.”
Carsten wept quietly.
“Pia’s time has come, she must join me here. She is also Dronnisfugle.”
“See my pretty wings, Papa!” Pia danced in circles, taking long leaps, followed by clumsy glides on the small wings that glowed on her back like swarmed fireflies.
“No, please, Minna, don’t take her from me, I—“
“She’s not yours to keep, Car, and neither was I. You can visit us here any winter. We have somewhere to go in the summer.”
Hundreds of birds appeared and spun themselves around Pia and her mother in a trilling, blurred dervish, until they were no longer visible. Seconds later, all was quiet. A ripple on the pond faded, the surface resettled, unbroken again.
About the author:
Matt Poll, an avid reader, writer, and birder, has spent most of the past decade living in South Korea, and has written a memoir about the challenging life of a foreign birder there. A long time fan of Stephen King, Twilight Zone, and The X-Files, Poll has also started writing a series of supernatural stories about birding.
Art: Beyond the plains of eternity by Jolanda Richter, @jolandarichter
In the artist’s words:
Jolanda Richter was born in 1971 in Almelo, Netherlands. At the age of three, the family moved to Hamburg – later, at the age of six, to Vienna. She soon engaged in art and music and was subsequently admitted into the prestigious ‘University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna‘, where she studied cello for five years. Since childhood, Jolanda also displayed remarkable rendering skills, but music and performances consumed her time. Longing to paint, she enrolled at the ‘University of Applied Arts Vienna‘ in 1994, in the master-class for painting and graphics, from which she graduated in 1999. Since 1993, Jolanda partook in numerous exhibitions in group shows and individual shows throughout Europe and the USA. Currently, Jolanda Richter lives and works as freelance-artist near Vienna, Austria.
Her awards include: First Prize winner in the ‘American Art Awards, Religious or Spiritual’, 2016. First Prize winner in the ’8. Salon de l’Art Fantastique Européen 2013‘. Le Mont-Dore, France. 2013. First Prize winner in the ‘International Art Contest 2005‘, Realism, Australia. 2005. First Prize winner in the ‘17th Intern. Exhibition of Animals in Art‘, Louisiana State University, USA. 2004. First Prize winner in ‘Access to Active Art Competition 2003‘, United Kingdom. 2003.