browsing category: Winter 2023

FictionWinter 2023

Prodigal — Hollis Meara

A little north of her campground and just west of the nearby stream, there is a low-branching tree that blooms like white tongues of fire in the first breaths of spring. The petals, lying on the ground, look like fallen flakes of the firmament slowly becoming earth. An entire mythology emerges in the arc of their blooming and decay.

Each morning, during the first two lunar cycles of the season, she hikes to the tree with the sunrise, approaching and bowing fully as the sun comes up behind her. She stands and she watches for a time; she stands feeling the day’s first warmth breathe across her skin, feeling it as the flowers’ fiery radiance.

The ritual repeats until, well into the season, she observes the blooms beginning to thin. Then her mornings return to their prior ways and, for three days, she makes her way to the tree each evening instead, just before the sun sets. Kneeling, she watches with a reflective heart as the sun falls behind the last blooms.

On the last of these three nights, she carries with her, sloshing, one of the pots from a covered hole near her camp. When the sun has gone down, she opens the lid and tilts back the rough brown mixture. The taste is not good, but, having fermented all year, soon enough it sweeps her up in lightness and levity. She starts to sing quietly to herself then, continuing far into the night, until she can no longer drink or sing.

Somehow, each time, she wakes beneath a large, gnarled tree, long fallen and growing along the ground. From where she lays, she can see the remaining blooms reaching up from the other side of a small hill, still bright with the morning’s warmth. They do look like tongues of fire, she reflects then, like the fires of the almighty rising against the night.

Had she a daughter, she muses as she lays there, she would tell her how, once, she had seen these blooms turn to fire, just so and how a fearsome deity had appeared in their midst, a deity appearing as light and a rupture in the world. Of course, she would explain, she had been frightened, terrified, at first—who would not be? But the deity, with the gentlest voice she had ever heard, had assured her, and, bidding her come closer, that likeness of light had taken her hands in its easy hands, which were also like tongues of fire.

Sometimes she wonders if she is filling in for her daughter, the daughter she does not have, attending to these stories, by interest or by obligation, of her own making and amusement, over and over, even as the years grow on.


She does, in a sense, have a daughter, she reminds herself. Winters, when foraging carries her further and further from camp, she often comes across this or that novel thing, which seems, to her senses strained by hunger and weariness, to hum with potential.

This past winter, a few miles to the south, at a craggy spot overlooking the river into which her camp’s little stream eventually runs, she had been captivated by a distinct chunk of wood, a piece lying apart. Without much of a thought, she secured it in her bag and brought it home.

Over the intervening time, she has been carving a likeness into that piece of wood, setting to it each day with no set purpose, as she has been compelled, so to speak. One day as she was carving, suddenly, a figure’s fate had stood out clearly there in the block. She had worked feverishly that day, each stroke suggesting itself before the previous one had finished, until the wood was no longer wood, but her daughter, her progeny and likeness.

The figure remains a bit vague still, as if the features are blurred in their state of becoming. But each day, she continues her craft, growing confident in the likeness and her hands’ ability to bring it into being.

Similarly, last year, she had carved a dog from a dark block she had found in the east, just across the stream, in early summer. The effort had been longer, almost a full year, before she had discerned the nature of her work, but the pattern had been the same. Each day, stroke by stroke, she had followed the emerging impressions, until the likeness of a dog had emerged, until the figure of a companion had become clear.

It had only been on the last day, at the end of an entranced effort to bring that figure fully into being, a name had occurred to her. Argus, she had said to herself. He had, indeed, become a loyal friend over the time she had been working on him and, though she could not recall where that name had come from, she felt that it fit him well.

Her daughter does not have a name yet, but she is confident one will come. She will pray, if it comes to that, she affirms to herself. She has observed, in fact, she often sings something like a prayer quietly to herself while she works, though she could not be sure what she was praying for or to whom she prayed.

The time, as far as she can remember, before settling a camp here had been one of wandering. She had been part of a small nomadic group which moved from place to place for reasons now lost on her. All that is left to her of that time are images of unsettledness—the setting of a camp, the learning of the land, the little respite, the moving on.

Those images seem now to her to make up the whole of the past, the entire content of antiquity. She cannot recall a time before; the days and lands between cloud the youth that might, she thinks, have otherwise lent her some certain proclivity or verve.

To explain to her daughter why she left the group and the others, settling out here by herself—although, in that case, she would not be by herself, would she—she thinks she would say that the spirit led her, showed her the way that she and her people were to live, a fact confirmed, she would add, by the deity who appeared to her from within the blossoms that had become tongues of fire.

But, for her own part, she was unsure. She still sometimes found herself longing for the company of others. Occasionally, she would dream of societies, of cities and masses of people, dreaming up vague faces and murmured conversations, vast networks of human images all held together by myriad inarticulate tensions.

In a way, though, she had not always been alone at her present campground. Not long after settling here, she had ventured to the northeast, testing her range. Walking an arid, rocky area about a day’s journey away, she had suddenly begun to hear a rhythmic bubbling over of sound and stopped cold, rooted to the spot.

She stood and listened for a time to what she soon gathered to be a group of maybe five adults and a couple of children. They were gathered on the other side of a large outcropping. A long while passed in this way, but then she had decided to sit down in the dirt, quietly, in a nook of the outcropping and continue to listen. A noisy bunch, she had thought, and rested her chin in her palm and her elbow on her knee.

Not long after returning to camp, she had begun to think of going back and see if the campers were still there. Her dreams had begun to be visited by the forms of those campers, at least as she had imagined them. The dreams were innocuous replications at first—near duplicates of conversations she had heard, modest appearances amid humble tents. She might appear there, too, but only ever as an observer on the fringe, a nod of agreement, nothing more.

But days went by, and the dreams grew more abstract and apocryphal. Conversations would turn to tyrannical hierarchies, half-notions of new modes of governance, appropriate medicine to return one’s feet to the ground once they had started upward. And there she was among them, the figure of the wise grandparent, quiet and kind, caring and cared for, sought for calm insight and an understanding ear.

Eventually, she made the trek back. She camped quietly on the same rocky outcropping, within earshot but out of sight lines. She avoided them assiduously, rising before the sun and descending again only when the last of the campers had done so.

Her supplies thinned after the second day, prompting her to return. But with her return she resolved to go back again. And she did. Each new moon, she packed and made the day’s journey to see the campers, staying for two or three days at a time. Each visit, she camped in the same place, spent her days similarly listening to the camper’s lives and picking through her supplies. On each return, she would dream the same kinds of dreams, starting grounded again, the campers back to their, mostly, natural forms, before degrading precipitously into abstraction by the time she set out again.

Then one new moon, toward the end of the summer in which she had started this habit of hers, she arrived to silence. Where only shortly before the campers’ liveliness had enlivened her, now she found a familiar desolation.

For the first time outside of her dreams, she walked through what had been the campers’ campground. Hardly a sign of their stayed had remained.

And with their corporeal moorings lost, the dreamed campers had only continued further into abstraction. A pantheon of sorts began to form in her imagination, a kind of oneiric mythology. The campers’ words and deeds took on the weight of grave portents and fabled histories. Not infrequently, the children’s crying would repeat there, too, like the torment of lost souls.

She has not, since then, seen or heard any others. The dreamed campers eventually faded as well, their mythic forms passing like vapor into the generic, vast, and vague societies more purely of her imagination, peopled by clouds and faces she had seen in trees.


Lately, near the end of winter, she found herself getting absorbed in the lives of the dark-eyed juncos. Spotting them in the course of her day, and having nothing else to do, she would quietly make a seat beneath a nearby oak or ash and watch them wend through the shrubbery, would listen to their casual chatter as they hopped along. Then she would stay just like that until the birds dispersed, or the sun fell, or a compelling need arose within her.

It was, she felt, about contingency rather than desire, although she also felt it had to it something more than that. She was reluctant to identify any predilections in the act, but, nonetheless, found herself drawn to the times she could listen to the birds singing against the setting sun, the space they shared with her becoming that of a single shadow.

Secretly, she would at such times hope to be right there, watching the juncos at sunset, when her time came. She would hope to hear their trilling calls as a hole opened just in front of her eyes. She would imagine their indecipherable conversations filling her mind and stretching on with her, indefinitely, even as every other figment faded, stretching on to the outermost edge of fading.


Hollis Meara holds a Master of Arts in English Literature, working with a Lacanian perspective to explore texts’ experiential dimensions. Meara lives and writes in Chicago and participates in The Rambler, an international creative writing collective.

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