A short Story by Chris Roughsedge
Once, a small creature found she was alone in the valley of a forest, near the edge of a continent. A dramatic event had occurred in the valley. The air became a hot and and acrid miasma circling among the trees. The inhabitants of the forest had become alert and jittery and then vacated the valley, leaving her behind. It was a week later when she realised her own potential; a branch fell, frightening her. Her wings spread spontaneously, causing her to fly a short distance. She believed she was not capable of flight. When she was younger, she had tried, watching other fledglings running, skipping and launching from the valley floor. This skill, for which she was supposedly born, failed to eventuate. Her wings refused to emerge, yet she felt their presence.
So it was with some amazement, she peripherally watched them twitch beyond her shoulders. She performed further experimental movements, to see what would happen. It seemed her brain had providentially comprehended her true nature. She concluded if she fluttered the wings rapidly, she rose off the ground. One day she reached the low branches of a tree and the next she was flying between the branches, and between trees. By the time the sunlight had retreated over the distant mountains in the west and the forest floor had become a dim variegation of shadows, she had flown to the top branch of the tallest tree. Although the others had achieved this, she had not considered it was ever a possibility for her.
However, what she saw from this high vantage point sent a chill down her spine. As far as she could see in every direction, the forest had become a black carpet of exposed boulders and dirt, decapitated tufts of shrubs, bracken and grasses and the smoking remains of trees. She feared her kind had perished, in their frantic bid to escape. The sky had changed colour from white and blue to a sickening yellow. Her tree was the tallest in a group of perhaps twenty perched on a hill, having escaped the flames. She realized the only sound she had heard for days was the reticent trickle of the stream, nourishing the thick stemmed trees, fire thorn bushes, the unfurling bracken stems and the earth. The familiar chimes and liquid warbles of the other winged creatures had disappeared, along with her own kind. She understood from what she had seen above the canopy, why all the other creatures of the valley had fled. She spent the time of the fire keeping wet in the stream. She swam down to a cave she had discovered beneath dead branches and pebbles; staying there for an hour at a time, converting oxygen through the thin cavities between her ribs; she caught a crustacean for later.
One day, whilst foraging for fire thorn berries, she heard a hissing sound above the tree-line. A black clad figure appeared on the valley floor, moving amongst the undergrowth. A boot scattered berries as it brushed past the fire thorn. Suddenly, the creature shot like an arrow to its vehicle, high above the canopy; the forest was once again silent. That time she hid under a large fern leaf and shivered, her feet drilling into the mud with the vibration of her fear.
She knew she was considered defective by the others. Her colouring was the wrong side of the tawny iridescence characterizing the females of her species. Her skin was brown and drab, the gradual change of pigment at her extremities, which should have ended in a dark lustre at her fingers and toes, failed to appear. Even the maroon spots which trailed down the backs of the females seemed faded and vague on her body. She was shapely; her breasts were small but ample, the curve of her buttocks was defined and her pubis became inflamed at the appropriate times. Her female contemporaries, in their various ways, were far more alluring to the large black, shiny skinned males who made homes from the node bowls at the junction of branch and trunk. The mating call the males sang often overwhelmed her with yearning, but she knew she would be rejected if she responded. This meant she would have no mate and therefore not produce others for the clan. This knowledge made her sad and sometimes the desire for her own death ran through her, alluring and cold.
Her kind trembled at the edge of extinction; they were small, they were few and they had many predators. Almost all other species were predators. Immense porcine creatures sometimes crashed about in the forest, crushing the flowers and causing mayhem wherever they went. They fed on the most succulent of new leaves and young grass blades and occasionally snatched a careless clan member. Sometimes, she didn’t know what kind of creature she was; if she wasn’t healthy and physically capable like the others, perhaps she was not the same. Those who had birthed her told her stories of their ancient origins and the grand places they once inhabited. As she grew and did not thrive, there were many things meeting with their disappointment.
When she was of age, she found a quiet place between the roots of a Ghost Tree, and carefully constructed her own dwelling without the assistance of a male. She had learnt much from observing them, with their easy self-assurance. The building of her own home would have been enough to ostracize her; a discernible weight of sadness was built into its fabric. It seemed to her an immutable fact; all things brought to fruition by the hand of living beings, carried with it a particle of despair, when you transformed one element of the world into another.
She hovered above the group of surviving trees, rising higher into the sky testing her limits, and with each metre she gained confidence. She spun around from the expanse of devastation below her, peering far out to the west. At first she thought she was seeing things but blinked and concentrated, and there emerged a glistening blue line meeting the sky. By the time she had made the long descent to the forest floor, she had made a decision.
After many days on the wing and nights trembling in blackened hollows, patches of green furtively reappeared. Finally she sailed over a high mountain range, and the new world of the sea leapt into sight as though millions of azure crystals had been dispersed to bedazzle her eyes. She wept with the beauty of it; the coastal thermals holding her wings spread, sweeping her down into the beckoning light. On the last leg towards the great blue expanse, she began to make out the rise of a vast dune. On its periphery she could see the green of low coastal vegetation, but a giant lay at its heart, his white hump a sand-blow elevated and imposing, until it dropped down to the sea. A sheer cliff in a multitude of ancient, coloured sands met the sparkling ocean.
She believed she had not seen anything more beautiful than the sea. How marvellous it was; an endlessly moving banquet for the senses; each rise capped by white foam, each trough a reflection of the sky. When the waves reached the shore they drenched the sand, dragging it into the depths. She believed she had found her natural home on the long crescent of the shore.
She looked at herself in the small pools inhabiting the wilderness of smooth stones that slid into the ocean. Sometimes, she thought to understand her purpose, but she saw only reflections of clouds far above and the creatures living within. The pools were her companions, microcosms of life. She hovered above them, circling away from them, the vast lichen covered boulders, the secret channels and crevices leading to the waves. A short distance from the shore, she alighted among deep green bushes laden with orange and yellow berries. The soil from which they sprung also housed sharp and fissured rocks pointing to an infinity further than the horizon. And further still than the strange black-clad visitors, ocassionally appearing from the stars above. She ate the fruit until she was sick but eventually became accustomed to their syrupy sweetness. In her language, she ceremoniously praised each bush, one by one. She praised their lustre of green and their generosity for affording her cover at night. Over many months, she moved among the spiny shrubs removing every red pearl from the complex tangle of branches. Until, they also were naked.
This was a better place from whence she had came. Open and forever dwindling over the dunes, the line of green to the east and the long placid sparkle of sea to the west. She felt unencumbered here. She could seek shade when needed but found herself embracing the bareness of the sands and sea; she regularly visited the broad expanse of the sand-blow, loving its simplicity; uncluttered by the complicated structure of trees. She hovered low, close to the ever moving surface, tumbling with joy in the constant gust of fine sand.
She did not forget the forests. She roamed the coastal plains and flew inland, where the trees were tall below the mountain range. The heady, brackish scents of the forest floor forever dwelled within her. She flew high towards the scant clouds, looking far to the east for fire and smoke. Occasionally she thought of the great journey she had taken to the sea, mile upon mile of forsaken black and smouldering devastation.
She sharpened a stick on a stone, dragging it in the sand to make the marks of her language. She drew the figures of her clan, of heroic winged males fashioning a home within the recesses of trees, of females laden with imminent birth, of children diving in cool forest pools. With the stick she also killed small mammals for food and fashioned their bones on the sand, describing her world to the shearwaters flying north, but they didn’t care. Although some tired of the endless expanse of sky and died on the wing exhausted, landing on the sand, frail and beaten by the cold arctic winds blowing up from the south. If they were fresh, she ate a small portion of them, if rotting she picked her way along the beach between them, noting them, sitting downwind of them in solemn silence until deciding when to continue. It was precise, or so it seemed, each one requiring a particular memory depending on the span of its wing or the sadness of its eyes or the closeness to its neighbour.
For a time she sickened with the strangeness of the diet. Often she had to quickly squat and expel the shit like a stream from her aching bowels. She buried her foul excrescent, furiously denying it purchase on the earth. She determined to survive, even when delirious with fever, crawling to the small trickle of fresh water she found beneath some ti-trees. She saw it as she circled in towards the sea on her long escape from the blackened world of her recent past. At the stream, white butterflies alighted on needle grass and dragonflies hovered above her, native mice sniffed her within the folds the variegated fern, sharing their small pool of hope. With the passing of many moons and the suns she gained strength and became wise to survival.
She began to understand the simple nature of survival on the coast. She relinquished the now faint memory of demands and inclination of others. She sensed a need in this place, of which she was only a part. She had come from solitude, and this place was another step towards a determination she may not have otherwise survived, among the dense undertow in her former life. She had taught herself to fly to the very top of her world and, in so doing, found another.
When the creatures in black came, she hid in a ravine between two stones, out of reach of the lurking crabs. It was the same as before, they glided down in their machines and fell like arrows, glistening suits and helmets, so dark and shiny they seemed like night. Fear returned to her; with their sudden appearance, descending like gods in silent apparatus, disturbing the sand and causing the pools to tremble. They mumbled with unearthly voices, they made strange watery sounds as their suits gave to every seamless motion. They measured with bright purple beams, pointing out towards the dark and distant reef, looking into the sky for signs or perhaps it was a form of communication. They collected phials of sea, shells, sand and the thick, juice-filled leaves of dune shrubs, and then they left. As they departed inland aboard their bird, she looked again in a pool for her own reflection and for a sign. All she saw was a black, indeterminate shape with a flash like a jewel caught in moonlight.
A crab did catch her once, its claw clamping hard onto her leg. She dragged it above the watery crevice, to where she had abandoned her stick. She shoved the point deep into its jittering mandible until it released her and died. A kingfisher slapped it against the rock until its shell broke. The wound from the crab seemed never to heal until she thought to rub it with the glutinous sap of the berry shrub. Birds never attacked her. She assumed they believed her one of their own and she wondered if, indeed she was. A seagull, skittering along the beach came close to her once and stopped its urgent progress. The creature was almost the same colour as the sand. It appraised her carefully for a few seconds, beckoning her to join it on its endless search for food and its frenzied alarm at the slightest things. For a while she followed, but the stark animal needs of it frightened her, and she left it to its own pursuits.
When the sun descended on the ocean, she lay out and looked down at her body, she thought it could be considered pretty in this new world of bright suns and the ever moving ocean; after all, there were no others to compare. Her feet and hands were long and delicate; the down springing from her brown spotted skin was even and soft. Her wings emerged into the high colours of her now extinguished cohort; blue, flecks of brown and the white bordering them when stretched for flight. She was lithe and healthy; the environment had relented and taught her its ways. There was not one of her species left to contradict her on this planet; she was the essence and final iteration of diversity. She felt for the delicate aperture between her legs, rubbing the node enclosed within, until all she felt was a rolling wave of pleasure, ebbing and receding until a shroud of radiant dreams fell over her. The longing for companionship made her shiver with grief and caused water to spring from her eyes.
There came long months when the climate became cold and her hair began the process of shedding, her speckled skin turning drab and flat. Sometimes she felt parched like the vast dune, when rain failed to nourish it and the wind drew it inexorably towards the coloured cliff. Other times there was pain, an ineffable, unreasoning ache in her limbs; a tightness of her skin. The sun had made her its creature and when it fell away, seeming not to rise at all on some bleak days, she waited within the stony fissures, trembling deep within the berry shrubs embrace. The cloud scowled at her when she picked the meat from crustaceans on the beach. There were no quick sounds in the undergrowth or the ripple of skater’s on the surface of the drinking hole.
This change was not merely the turning screw of seasons, a thing she knew from the forest time; when her kind settled in the boles of trees and waited for it to pass. There had been more visits from the creatures in black with their huge humming birds. This time, hovering monsters sucked the air from the bay, disappearing into the clouds and returning for more. Even the tides of the sea became fodder for these beings. They brought vast reflective plates and faced them out to the reef and the sea boiled, tortured into an unfamiliar state, leaping at the plates and disappearing. When they left nothing was the same. They only knew to tame and use and contain and then leave a place bereft of its essence.
Soon all the coast began to sink into decline. Creatures of the sea washed onto the shore, the great coral reef turned white, grieving for its companions dying in the shallows. The stand of tea trees faded, already serving a penance for the arrogance of their natural fortitude; leaves littering and then polluting the stream with their brackish essence. The lichens transformed into dust and the ocean pools turned blood red. To the east, the once safe coastal forest also felt the thunder of the black beasts above them and they too began to die.
She hovered above the dragon’s hump of the sand-blow to say farewell. She no longer had the luxury of wasting her own essence through the effort of sorrow. She was done with youthful tears, withdrawing so much from her and leaving her with so little. She leapt far into the cloudless grey sky and what remained of her was a silver, blue stream, sailing towards the north.