He hesitated rounding the Confederate monument in Forsyth Park, leaned against the freezing iron picket fence in front of the bust of native son, Colonel Barstow. Looked it squarely in the eye. Pulled his pea-jacket collar up to cover the multicolored woolen scarf against a biting wind driving the foreign snow. Turned his back to the man who’d led his great-grandfather to his senseless death. Shoved his bare hands into his coat pockets in a vain attempt to keep them warm.
Every tourist he’d ever known came to this city to avoid this kind of snowstorm and they’d be snuggled deep in guest beds under their down comforters in uninsulated historic homes. Or, maybe they were closing the bars with his friends down on River Street. He stared down the empty, broad live-oak thoroughfare to the most iconic sight in Georgia.
He walked toward that fountain, his tread careful and fixed like a ceremonial death march. The mix of snow and fallen live oak leaves sandblasted against his threadbare jeans. He stopped to huddle against one of the massive 250-year-old oak trunks leaving him standing in a windless, and bare section of the dull gray concrete walkway. He took his hands out of his pockets, laced them as in prayer, put his mouth to them, smiled, they smelled like last night’s BBQ sauce, and blew between them. He shoved them back into his pockets.
The walkway toward the fountain was a kaleidoscope pattern of whipping green snow as the St. Patrick’s Day fountain lighting turned the powerful, storm-driven night into a tourist-driven travesty of Irish celebration. He decided he’d brook no weather interference, gave up the scant protection, and marched to the edge of the fountain.
With a million people in town for the celebration, there was no room for his memories or private thoughts. And no freak storm, no amount of snow creating a green slush on the fountain’s lower level would stop tomorrow’s party. Stood silently watching the slush deepen by the minute. Forgot how to be cold as the lights flickered as the whipping winds and snow patterns played their brief lives out in front of the lights.
He’d forgotten his time up north before the storms came to his beloved South and how the snow built quickly when unexpected storms raged.
Shivered as he remembered.
Felt like he was being watched. Shivered again.
Water still splashed out of the white-painted gargoyle’s mouths to land in the slush below. He followed one stream of water up the fountain and was fascinated as it splashed down to land with a slurp into the fountain reservoir.
He stopped cold. It wasn’t the temperature this time; it was the unblinking eye of the gargoyle as their eyes met. The gargoyle blinked.
“Holy shit!” All thoughts of being cold, of numbing toes, of white fingertips, disappeared as he scanned the other gargoyles and angels on the fountain. Their eyes were alive, and they were looking at him. Unblinkingly staring at him. He took three steps backward, tripped on a crack in the pavement, and thumped down on his ass. He put his hands behind him to brace himself but didn’t notice the freezing concrete as his hands splashed through the slush in a vain attempt to stop himself from falling on his back. Never taking his eyes off the gargoyles, he jumped back to his feet pounded his hands on the side of his pants and front of his jacket to clear the slush, and tucked his hands under his armpits.
He heard a woman’s voice talking to him, asking him questions, but he couldn’t focus on the words. They were too far away, too soft, and in a language, he didn’t understand. They bounced around inside his head looking for a place to land so they could make sense. He knew this was happening, and he wondered if he was drunk somewhere and about to pass out. The cold convinced him otherwise.
“Ah, I think this will work.”
It was a soft voice, with a lilt of Ireland around the edges. It belonged to a woman, and he knew that voice.
“Hello there,” the voice said. And stopped, expectantly.
He had a heard all the fables, the stories, the legends, and the warnings. But none had mentioned this park, this place, this night. He took two steps backward and looked up at the woman on top. Her flowing robes had been scoured by the driving snow and all traces of the green dye had been blasted off. She stood in her white-painted splendor but instead of looking out over the park, she was looking directly at him.
I’d rather be shot for a lion than a lamb, he decided. “Hello back.” He stood and waited, and wondered if it was the beer, or his sanity leaving, that made him hear this voice tonight.
“It’s none of the above,” said the voice in his head. “It’s an invitation.”
“You are probably going to tell me it’s the best one I get all week,” he said.
“I think it’s the best one you’ll get in your entire life,” she said.
He took another two steps back. Looked at the other gargoyles and cherubs around the fountain to see they continued looking at him. Every eye he could see was looking back at him. He took another three steps backward. Got ready to turn and run. A fleeting thought went through his head, his great-grandfather should’ve run instead of standing and fighting against a hail of lead from those Gatling guns. I should run too, he thought. His feet never moved.
“Good. I see you decided to listen and not run.”
He forced himself to nod, to agree. Neither broke the unblinking stare they had created.
“We have an offer for you, it’s a unique offer, and is only given to a person most in need of it,” said the concrete woman.
“I’m listening.” In his head, he was wondering what in hell he was doing talking to a concrete statue in the middle of St. Patrick’s day weekend.
“We have a very long life here in the in the fountain. But every now and again, one of us moves on. And when that person decides to move on, we need a replacement. It’s that simple, we’re asking you if you’d like to join us here on the fountain?” said the woman.
“So you want me to become a cherub or a gargoyle,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“We can see year lifespan, and it’s shorter than you think you’d like,” said the woman.
“So if I understand correctly, you’re magical, and you can see that I’m not going to live as long as I’d like. And I’m not drunk,” he said. He never took his eyes off hers. He tried not to blink but had to. She never did.
“You understand,” she said.
“How long do I have?” he asked.
“That is not for mortals to know,” she said.
“Well, I see no upside to becoming a statue,” he said. His mind roiled with the thoughts that cascaded as fast as the water came down from the fountain. He looked at his options for life. He was healthy. There was nothing wrong with him, and he expected another 60 years of life. He surely didn’t want to spend it frozen on top of the fountain, only coming to life every now and again.
“I think you sincerely for the offer,” he said. He used his most courteous voice, there was no point in annoying something as powerfully magical as a living fountain. There was enough Irish blood left in him to understand this very basic point.
“I understand,” she said. “It’s a limited time offer and will expire very shortly. Should you change your mind, simply say the words, “Fountain Lady I accept.”
He bobbed his head in acknowledgment. Turned and hurried away towards River Street, the bars, and his friends. He didn’t look to see if the eyes followed him.
Crossed Monterey Square and noted that even tonight, the night for raging parties, the lineups to get into Mercer House were long. The dimmed lights in the mansion windows weren’t comforting or welcoming; it’s as if they expected a visitor back from an early grave.
Lost in an almost-terror thought of being entombed in a statue, he stumbled on a large crack in the pavement crossing Madison Square right beside the massive statue of Sergeant Jasper. Immortalized for saving the regimental flag in the Battle of Fort Moultrie, Jasper died trying to replicate the feat a few years later at the Battle of Savannah. He glanced sideways and up to the statue’s face, the eyes remained fixed in bronze and immobile.
He relaxed. Perhaps it had been the beer talking to him. Perhaps … hell, he didn’t know. But talking statues weren’t the strangest thing he’d ever seen in this haunted town.
Approaching Liberty Street, the sidewalk turned icy. He shortened his steps, watched where he placed his feet and extended his arms to balance himself. Concentrated on staying upright against the driving wind. Stepped off the curb like a true city resident knowing drivers would stop. Felt, rather than saw something coming at him and looked up to see a pickup truck sliding sideways down the road towards him. The Southern driver, unused to the icy road, had obviously braked normally. The driver didn’t expect the truck to lock up its wheels on the ice and turn to skid uncontrollably down the street towards the intersection.
He knew he’d be hit. His eyes opened wide. Tried to backpedal to get out of the way of the truck. Slipped and did a 360-degree spin before crashing to the street. He felt time slow. Looked over his shoulder to see the truck was only twenty feet away. Tried to wriggle backward out of its way. He couldn’t get any traction. Heard a person on the sidewalk gasp, glanced that way and met her eyes. Stared into a pair of deep brown, almost black, large, warm eyes opening wider in anticipation and shock.
He knew this was why the statue talked to him. He knew deep in his soul the woman was sending him a message. “Lady, I accept,” he said out loud.
Two seconds later, he stared out over the park towards that hated statue of Colonel Barstow. He was riding a fish spitting water out of its mouth and he was cold, so cold. He couldn’t move anything except his eyes. He couldn’t even shiver. Turned his eyes as far as he could to the left and right. All he could see close to himself was green-frozen ice and slush blanketing everything around him.
“It also gets hot in the summer,” said the woman’s voice in his ear. “But you’ll get used to it.”
He couldn’t turn his head to see her, couldn’t speak, couldn’t move his hands or any other part of his body other than his eyes attached to this stupid fish. This is it, he thought. This is all we get?
“Welcome to the park,” she said. “Let me know when you want to leave and go on to the dark.”
“Fred, your coroner’s report said there was no cause of death in James Eastwood’s death,” said the mayor.
“Yessir, that boy just picked up and died of shock and fright,” replied the Coroner. “Too bad too, that truck hit the dry pavement a few feet in front of him and whipped off to the left. Would’ve missed him. Bounced off the curb there at the historic plaque. That young man should still be alive and well; should have lived for another 60 years.”
“Pity. Well, he’s in a happier place now,” said the mayor. “I said I’d call that reporter back about it, so I’ll see you next week at our regular card night. I’ll meet you at the north end and we can walk together through the Park down to the Legion as usual.”