This is a work of fiction.
The bird flew through the clear air, and I looked far into the distance, and could see nothing but evergreens, snow, and blue sky. A frigid wind blew all around me, and I thought how good it was that the children and the young bird were tucked up safely in warm blankets in the bags hanging from the wooden seat upon which I sat. I’d had to tie my hat under my chin in order to keep it on my head. I’d doubled the straps that kept the bag containing my daughter’s sketches pinned to my breast. We’d already been aloft for three days, and I couldn’t take much more of the loneliness. The bird was right underneath the wooden seat, but we could not even look at each other as she flew, and the wind made conversation with the children impossible. I couldn’t hear them if they cried out, but the bird could, and she would land us and the children would emerge from the bag and I would tend to them. I longed to stop for a few hours and converse with them, but the threat of another storm made that unwise, and I would not risk all of our lives merely for a few minutes of companionship. Instead, I sat on the wooden seat and imagined every one of my daughter’s beautiful drawings, and when I came to the last one, I started from the beginning.
At night, I lit a fire and warmed preserved food, but soon we would run out, and I didn’t sleep well, worried as I was that we would be overtaken by a blinding white expanse of falling snow.
What I feared most happened on the morning of the fourth day out from the mountain top. We’d just taken off, when I saw a dark mass of clouds moving quickly across the sky. Blue turned to gray, and the clear air became dark and murky with impending doom. My heart thumped against the bag of sketches and I began to shiver deep inside my winter clothes. It wasn’t extremely cold, but there wasn’t enough shelter, and I wouldn’t be able to keep a fire going for very long. A few flakes began to fall, and I wondered how long the bird would wait before landing.
A few minutes later, I felt her slowing, and I gripped the sides of the wooden seat in preparation for a very wind-buffeted landing. Instead of making a descent, she launched herself upward, and I cried out in surprise. The wind tore my voice from me, and I coughed and then let out a strange laugh. My heart beat with stunning force against my sternum, and I was overcome with heat and dizziness as I looked down at the ground that was now disappearing. I leaned back in the wooden seat and tried to school my breathing into something resembling calm. The bird flew faster than she ever had, and the wind gusted ever more fiercely around me, snow began to pelt me, and I longed for the solid earth and the warmth of a bed by a fire in a well-built home.
The bird’s wild flight lasted for what seemed like an eternity, with the snow falling more thickly, and the wind trying harder and harder to unseat me. I gripped the wooden arms as tightly as I could, and hoped with all my soul and breath that she would land, but perhaps the storm had frightened her so badly that all she could do was fly until she ran out of energy, and then she would crash-land us all. It would be a quick death, but the plunge through the stormy air would be an endless torment of seconds turned to centuries by the fear of the deadly impact. Of the children and her young, I could hear nothing, and I willed the straps to hold out against the tearing force of the wind.
Suddenly, the bird began to descend, and I sighed with relief, even though I knew we would not be completely safe on the ground.
As we neared it, I saw that there was a cleft in the mountain side, and I could see several bicycle carts heading into it. As I watched, one pitched and struggled up over the precarious terrain, and I looked on in horror as it overturned. A few seconds later, a man got up and tried to right his vehicle. We were still descending, and the wind died down for a few moments, and I clearly heard the sound of a woman screaming for help.
I called to the bird, “Please, take us down so I can help them.” She made a mournful sound, and I saw the man finally lift the cart up. The bird likely knew, as I feared, that the woman lying where it had been had already been crushed beyond saving. The bird did move faster, and soon we were on the ground. It took me several seconds before I could pry my hands free of their grip on the wooden arms, but finally, I stepped down and stood on firm ground beside the bicycle cart. The children and young bird were safe for the time being, so I approached the woman, but the man moved in front of me. His chest was heaving from the exertion of righting the overturned bicycle cart, and his brow was beaded with perspiration. His eyes blazed with hatred and his expression was distorted by fear. He jabbed a thick, work-rough finger at me.
“Sir, is there anything I can do?” I asked, even though I was quite certain that there wasn’t, and even more sure that he would not want my help, but I had to offer.
He stood there for a moment, and then he said, “Curse you. Death to all yours. And you, live forever. In the names of all the gods!” His voice was rough, but his words were clear, and there was nothing I could do except back away.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something grayish brown, and realized that the bird had taken off. I looked around desparately, hoping I’d see the children, but they were still in the bag strapped to the wooden seat, which in turn was strapped to the bird who was now disappearing into the terrible sky.
A blow struck hard in my left side, and I fell to the snow. I lay and listened to the man groaning with grief and exhaustion as he lifted his wife into the bicycle cart. Once he’d gone, I got up and checked myself over. My side ached, but I still had my warm clothes, and most important of all, my daughter’s sketches. What I lacked were food and shelter, but the cleft in the mountain was near, and I began to walk toward it.
The hollow in the mountain was full of people, bags, and bicycle carts. There were also shelters that although hastily constructed, would see us through the storm. I saw cooking fires, and families were sitting together eating preserved food. I, on the other hand, had no food, and I was unwilling to ask anyone to share what little they had left.
I wandered around until I came to the other side of the hollow in the rock, where I stood at the edge of a precipice. I felt dizzy looking down into it, so I turned my head to the right, and saw my daughter. She was standing there looking down into the void. She saw me, and her face lit up with a smile that was more life-giving than a thousand wholesome meals, and more beautiful than all 319 of her sketches.
“My father,” she said. “I thought you . . . I thought . . . the dark tide . . .”
“It doesn’t exist. I was delayed, but I’m here now, and ever so happy to see you. Is your mother here?” She shook her head, and her smile dwindled.
“I was offered a ride in a bicycle cart, but there was no room for my mother. She kept going on foot. The storms have been so bad. I hope she found shelter.”
I heard a bicycle cart coming, and wondered if I was about to meet whomever had offered her a ride.
“That man. He was flying!” It was the man whose bicycle cart had overturned.
“Flying?” my daughter said. “Who’s that?” The bicycle cart came to a stop beside my daugher. In it sat the man who’d cursed me and the male Leader of Worship. The latter smiled at my daughter, who smiled uncertainly back.
“Is he your father?” he asked in a friendly voice. She nodded. “Shall I pay him then?”
“Pay me?” I said, my gaze moving from my daughter to the men in the bicycle cart.
“Your daughter draws very well,” the male Leader of Worship said, “and she’s also great company. I owe her a . . . debt of gratitude.” He smirked at me. What was he really saying?
“He flies,” the man who cursed me said. “He brings bad luck.”
“He won’t be flying anymore,” the male Leader of Worship said. He grinned broadly at me. “Look carefully at the cart.”
I did, my stomach knotted with dread of what I’d see. At the back, there was a storage area that was closed, but there was an object on the floor between the front and back seats. It was covered by a sheet, and I had no idea what it was at first, but then I saw a grayish brown feather at the bottom of the cart.
The male Leader of Worship looked me in the eye, nodded, and gave my daughter a violent shove, which sent her lurching sideways. She struggled for balance, but ran out of ground, and fell off the cliff.