Across the lake the curlews blew in on a late south wind, inscribing an invisible arc against the sky; their calls a high, thin outreach. The chill bit through jacket and shirt, raised the hairs on Sam's neck as he thrust his hands deeper into his pockets. At the edge of the lake grew thick brushed reeds, heavy as they bent over the silent waters, roots thrust so deep into the earth that it seemed as though they would endure forever. The water spilled into the distance, blended with the blue and misty grey of the far off horizon, a shadowed merging between sky and water. The breeze shivered the water and shattered the dim reflection, endless ripples, fainter and fainter until they faded into stillness as Sam watched them spread and dissipate until they were as good as gone and only the faintest tremor remained to mark their passing.
When he turned back and gazed at where he'd walked, he saw the boggy ground had swallowed up his footsteps as though he'd never been, a silent passage, no mark left in memory of his path, the grass tough and resilient, not bent by him. Somewhere behind him there sounded the low ss-ssh of an insect crying its lonely, empty call, joined after a little as his ears sharpened and grew accustomed to the stillness by three or four fellows. He inscribed his own, vast, empty circle around the lake now, wading through the saturated ground, watching the water fill up the space left behind, a slow flow, erasing him again. Out of the dimness of the slowly encroaching sunset, he heard the inimitable croak of the heron and shivered, the cold suddenly striking.
He had reached the portion of the lake he was the most familiar with, the flat, heavy rock in the ground set though as though by some ancient hand amongst the reeds, worn smooth by the wind and rain, grey and battered, and still warm to the touch as though it had swallowed the sunlight and now yielded it slowly. The lichen stretched across one side, a deft embrace that clung with sombre discreetness to its support. Sam let himself down slowly, shrugged his jacket closer and looked out across the calmness of the water to the grassy ledge just a little out in the lake where a heron gazed back. It was as still as any bird could be, not a blink of an eye, not the twitch of a feather, the round orange eye glaring at him in frozen stillness, the firm sweep of its wings against its body, folded tight as though in reprimand, the neck bent back in a graceful arch. Only the ragged plumage moved as the breeze swept in again, a cool grey touch of a thing that stirred Sam's hair and rustled the reeds. When it faded it left no trace of movement, a fickle transience.
Sam could not so much hear the blood in his veins and the heart in his chest as feel them, an unwilling intractable concession on his part to life, an impermanent fragile necessity that overwhelmed him. He focused instead on the heron, on the essential imperfect broken curve of its legs, bent and bowed and yet supporting its weight with ease. The heron was not waiting, was not anticipating nor eager for the breaking of its peace. It merely endured, a moment encapsulated. He felt his heart calm, the exertion of his walk fading as he looked at the bird and felt for a moment the world slow.
The ragged demon thump in his veins that still existed, uncleansed, now tainted more by the introduction of unwanted grace, ate at his peace, leaving him shaken and unsure and doubting, an empty vessel, filled only by the stillness of the air and the undisturbed peace around him. The heron turned its head, a neat flick, an angle seemingly impossible in the moment, a swift preciseness as though it had spotted something it wanted, and on seeing no fruition to its desires, was still again. The tell-tale water surface remained undisturbed, perhaps some restless current had imitated for a moment the movement of a fish beneath the surface.
Sam stretched his fingers against the rock, broke unceasing stillness to feel the solid dying warmth beneath his hands as he gazed at the bird, aloof and still, a natural congruent part to its surroundings and yet alone, master of itself and nothing else. The clamour in his head quieted for long moments, the hard lump of distress in his throat that didn't seem to go no matter how long he waited softened a little. Here, he could imagine an end, or even that there was something else after the end. That whether he broke, whatever happened - even the hollowing and emptying of himself for the pleasure and whim of something else - that something would go on outside of him, untouched by evil, not subject to the whims of others, not a plaything in others games. He was allowed entrance for these quiet minutes into a precious peace.
The eventual movement was swift, the heron darted its blue-dark head into the lake in pursuit of its prey, a lethal strike that yielded no fruit. Disappointed, it raised its head back again, bared its breast to the wind and brooded. There was a hauteur now to it that Sam traced with watchful gaze, a hope thwarted in the moment but still extant, a return to the wait, to the long stillness as it perched still on elegant dark legs. It did not notice or at least did not mind him, a cool watchful presence entirely remote from his concerns, which under the bright orange-yellow of its fierce absent gaze seemed to grow smaller for the moment.
The fragile equilibrium maintained between them, held, a dependable silence. The beginning tinge of night crept closer, rested cold fingers on his neck, tickled down his spine, as the sun faded, and threw its last beaming halo across the thin mist of the water, a red tinge to the water now, dusk falling, darkening the sky. There was an answering thrum in his veins, the quickening pulsing of the blood, the inevitable response to darkness encroaching, yet he remained, watching, immobile, unwilling to surrender the surety of the instant, even as the rock lost the last vestiges of warmth and his bones,memory of false-healing quickening through them, ached.
He stood and waited for the heron to startle, to move now in sudden swiftness, flee from his presence and the looming dark to the safeness of a tree-bound nest, but with stone serenity it remained, a fading figure in the gloaming, as he turned to leave. He saw with no surprise, Castiel emerge, as though he had been merely waiting for Sam’s acknowledgement. He was too tired, too heart-sick to wonder why, merely brushed past, aware of the heavy intentness of Cas’s gaze. He wondered how he had not felt it, if this was what the heron had felt like, observed and stripped beneath his gaze.
As they left, Castiel a half step behind, mimicking his pace as though following in his footsteps would yield a reason, a rhythm to his actions, Sam cast back one look, and then, Orpheus in the underworld, fixed his gaze ahead, and tried not to anticipate now, the small peace of tomorrow.
The lake remained, and with a harsh ripping hideous sound torn from its throat, the heron flew.