Story-A-Day May #21: Beneath the Surface

Today’s challenge prompt from storyaday.org is to “Write about the boy you see on either side of the reflection”. And for inspiration there’s a picture of a dark silhouette reflected in a pond, which you can see on the official site.

This time, my story is a completely unfaithful re-telling of the Narcissus myth.

***

Beneath the Surface

Atticus carried a fishing pole on his shoulder as he strode through the sun-dappled forest, with his grandfather at his side. This was his very favorite pastime, not only because nature was beautiful, the days were peaceful, and fish were plenty, but because his grandfather never tried to teach him letters or the arts of war. Atticus didn’t care for his stern tutors back home. Meanwhile, all the old man expected was an ear for his stories.

They emerged from the treeline beside a still and quiet pond, whose surface was speckled with lily pads, blooming flowers of pink and white and gold.

A boy knelt among the reeds, his downturned face hovering over a featureless, mirror-like patch of water.

Atticus tugged the old man’s sleeve. “Grandfather, who is that?”

“Narcissus.” He snorted as though he’d told a joke. “The boy spends every day staring at his own reflection. Mark my words, he’ll come to a bad end. I don’t want to see you hanging around with his sort, do you understand?”

“Yes, grandfather.” Of course, Atticus didn’t understand at all, but he knew this answer would lead to his advantage. His tutors had taught him many unintended lessons, as he developed new methods of evading their tyranny and shirking hard work.

They sat on the end of a short dock, dipped their feet in the water, and cast their lines out into the pond. Every time they caught a fish, his grandfather would take a celebratory swig from a flagon he always carried, which Atticus was not permitted to touch on threat of whipping. There were very few things his grandfather was serious about; this was one of them. The fish were hungry today, and soon their basket was filling up, while all the celebrations made his grandfather sleepy. Before long, he laid down on the dock and snored like a saw.

Without supervision, Atticus behaved himself for at least five minutes. Then he laid his pole down and took a stroll around the pond. Acting obedient and winning trust always paid off in the long run.

Coincidentally, his meandering course brought him over to where Narcissus knelt, still staring at the surface of the pond, which clearly reflected his image.

Atticus cleared his throat a few times, without reaction, so as not to startle the boy. Then ran out of patience and marched straight up to him. “Hello, I’m Atticus.” He held his hand out. It went ignored. “Um, I come here often to fish. Perhaps we could be friends.”

The boy’s straight-ahead gaze didn’t waver. “I have no interest in friends. Or anyone at all.”

Atticus didn’t care for that superior attitude — no one ever took that tone with him. A bit peevishly, he said, “Except for your reflection.”

For the first time, Narcissus looked at him squarely, his eyes gold upon a pool of white. “You are mistaken. I have no reflection.” Without further warning, he stalked off into the forest.

Puzzled, and still a little annoyed, Atticus returned to the dock. Eventually, his grandfather stirred from his nap and resumed fishing, as though he’d never stopped.

After a long while of stewing in his thoughts, Atticus asked, “Do you suppose Narcissus is addled?”

His grandfather’s eyes narrowed. “He’s smarter than you, who neglects study. Don’t think your mother and father haven’t given me an earful about that. And he may be smarter than I, as well. But I’d wager it’s better to be an old fool than a boy who’s too smart. Err, don’t tell your parents I said that. You, uh, keep listening to your tutors.”

Little chance of that, since Atticus was already barely listening to his grandfather, who he actually cared for. What did Narcissus mean, that he had no reflection? Hadn’t Atticus seen it with his own eyes? Was that meant to be some lofty, philosophical statement, like the ones his tutors tried to make him memorize?

For the rest of the day, the mystery troubled Atticus. And into the next, as he returned to the pond with his grandfather. Once again, Narcissus knelt over the waters, staring at his reflection. Once again, the fish, and celebratory sips, abounded.

When his grandfather fell asleep again, Atticus took another stroll.

Narcissus must have noticed his approach, but he failed to react. With an evil grin, Atticus briefly considered pushing the pretentious boy headfirst into the pond. But his better nature — or at least curiosity — won out.

Atticus leaned over the boy’s shoulder, trying to see what was so fascinating about his reflection.

Glimpsed upon the waters, Narcissus’ face was somewhat murky and expressionless. His golden eyes didn’t blink, ever, though now and then a ripple made them appear to. Atticus also saw himself, more brightly, though his hair and eyes were dark. He became self-conscious about his look of puzzlement.

“I don’t see what’s so appealing about staring at oneself all day long. I’d say I’m more handsome, and you don’t see me-”

Narcissus growled, and his face contorted with anger. His reflection, however, remained perfectly placid and motionless.

“Hold on,” said Atticus, backpedaling. “What’s going on here?”

But Narcissus was already swinging his fists.

Atticus wrapped his arms around his head, and they were soon covered in welts from the other boy’s fierce assault. “Stop! I’m sorry, for whatever I said. I yield!”

Fatigue, rather than his pleas, seemed to slow Narcissus’ onslaught at last. Chest heaving, he glared at Atticus.

Atticus risked a sideways glance at the pond, where the reflection remained, absent its original. Or was it no reflection at all? With one eye on Narcissus, he crouched low and reached beneath the surface of the pond. His hand brushed soft, cold flesh. Perfectly preserved.

He was startled to find Narcissus looming over his shoulder. The boy truly had no reflection of his own.

“My twin brother,” said Narcissus, still out of breath. “He was drowned. Murdered.”

“I’m sorry,” said Atticus, even more mystified. “By who? Why?”

“Someone powerful. For my sake. If you learned more, it might lead you to a bad end.” Narcissus lifted his eyes. “Your grandfather is stirring. Return to him. I sometimes think it is best in life to be an old fool, but that I can never be.” Narcissus turned toward the forest.

“Wait!” Though Atticus called after him, Narcissus did not look back. He cared only for himself, and his reflection.

Atticus reluctantly returned to his grandfather, who had woken up in time to witness his disobedience.

For many months afterwards, Atticus endured the tyranny of his tutors without being allowed any further fishing trips. When finally he returned to the pond, he found neither the boy nor his reflection. Only a flower of white and gold, hanging facedown over the waters. What it saw there, Atticus could not say.

***

Thanks for reading!

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