Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Short story: The Cliffs

The picnic that goes wrong
(Maxwell Zaleski/ Daily Collegian)

I went to the cliffs for a picnic of sorts, you see. I thought it might be nice to clear the mind—to sit on a comforting old blanket, eat a few perfect strawberries, perhaps sip on a glass of wine and gaze out at the water below. It all sounded very romantic.

When I arrived, I laid out my blanket (blue and green afghan, knitted by my late grandmother), set a container of strawberries on top of it (plastic, store-bought, holding dark red, bruised, less-than-perfect berries) and sat down rather carelessly. The afghan, thin and deteriorating with age, was not much of a cushion. The rocks beneath me were unkind. And I had forgotten the wine.

After a few moments of staring at the choppy waters below and feeling the brisk ocean air against my unprotected arms, I laid on my back and gathered the afghan around me. The sky was almost clear, scattered here and there with a sad gray cloud. I was suddenly very bored.

Already weighed down by the disappointment of a failed expedition, I lit up a cigarette. I don’t do this often. I always have a pack on me (blue American Spirits—which remind me of an old friend, of the image of him sitting to my left in a taxi, broken cigarette hanging at a 90-degree angle from behind his ear—crumpled at the bottom of my purse), but I reserve them for special occasions. After a few drags I tapped the pathetic thing with my index finger, intending to drop the ashes on the rocks. Instead, they landed on a small ant crawling beside me. The ant slowed to a stop, its little legs moving feebly beneath its body. Laying on my back with my head turned to the side, cheek against warm stone, I watched the ant until it gave up. The pile of ash was too much for it. I turned my head back to the sky, feeling a brief surge of guilt. I told myself it wasn’t my fault; I didn’t know the ant was there. What could I have done? My fingers, picking off the ash, likely would have crushed it just as well. It’s just an ant, anyway.

A gust of wind hit me and my cigarette in the face, momentarily stealing my breath and sending a few burning embers flying toward my face. After dodging them and patting a few out on the blanket, I put the cigarette out for good. I dropped it on the rocks next to me, beside the body of the ant. I whispered a sympathetic sorry in its direction, knowing it couldn’t hear but hoping maybe some spiritual being would, and forgive my carelessness. As the wind took my whisper and distributed it in particles across the rocks, a seagull landed not a foot away and, before I could shoo it off, snapped up the half-smoked cigarette. I looked at the bird in disbelief. “You stupid thing,” I muttered, and it blinked. We stared at one another for several tense seconds before I realized it seemed to be staring not at me, but near me, and I smelled something burning. Turning my head slightly, I saw that the ends of my hair were on fire.

Letting out an automatic screech, I rolled onto my side, desperately smothering my hair with the afghan. The fire quickly disappeared, leaving behind a slightly charred and mostly missing portion of hair. I breathed a sigh of relief but felt a puddle of dread forming in my heart. Fingering the burned strands, I thought, I’ll have to get bangs to fix this. I frowned. My forehead is much too small to attractively accommodate bangs.

I rose to a seated position, letting the afghan, now littered with freshly burned holes, fall to the ground. Looking over to gaze again at the sea, I saw that the bird was still there. Only now it was lying on its side, eyes unblinking, its glazed stare mocking me. Apologetically, I placed one bruised strawberry in its beak as an offer of condolences. It swallowed it whole. I checked its pulse—nothing.

Unsettled, I stood and nudged it aside with my bare foot before walking closer to the edge of the cliff. Before I had made it very far, I heard a scuffling behind me. It was the bird. Its stick-like legs clawed at the ground, trying to get a grip. I stared, dumbfounded. I was sure it had died. Once on its feet, it hopped a few steps toward me, flapping its wings.

A passing cyclist, witnessing the bird’s resurrection, stared, too. Only, his head was looking east while his body, and of course his bike, were moving south. He came right for me, and in my haste to get out of the way, I kicked the container of strawberries into the front tire’s path. The plastic shattered, and the man sailed smoothly off the edge of the cliff. The prevailing strawberries, those which did not get swept along with him, were smeared against the rock, wet and red. I scooped one’s remains onto my finger and sucked on it as I peered over the edge. It tasted of summer.

Meghan Clark can be reached at [email protected].

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