The Not-Bird

 

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The Not-Bird

Aurelia has never in all her nine years seen such a thing as the not-bird—it hovers before her like a mechanical hummingbird, its wings oscillating madly. Its glowing eyes project an aura of benevolence and the beat of its wings makes a sound so faint and high-pitched it is forever on the verge of vanishing.

The not-bird does not speak, but seems wordlessly to await her. Perhaps it wants Aurelia to leave the walk-in robe where she has cowered for hours since those men took her parents away, leaving her alone and terrified in this ramshackle cliffside house. In her mind, the sounds of violence loop endlessly: her father's cry, her mother's pleas, the gruff voices of the men, the boom of a single gunshot. But now the not-bird gives Aurelia the courage she needs to stand and push the door fully open. The not-bird does not lead or follow; it is simply there at her side as she takes a packet of stale crackers from the bare pantry cupboard. Her stomach is a knot of dull hunger, the crackers too dry to masticate, so she pours herself a mug of water from the filter and sits on the frayed edge of the couch. It isn't safe for Aurelia to stay here. This isn't even their house, not that they have a real home any more. But how can she go out with just a stray piece of hardware to protect her? On the other hand, how can she stay?

It is overcast outside, the wind swirling with salty spray. Vista of the ocean roiling below. Cracks in the house's foundations where lichen grows. Spiky bushes cling, like Aurelia herself, to the edge of an abyss. She is afraid of heights and has no great love of this place. She is not too young to remember the solace, the quietude, of their real home. Long since taken from them.

The sun emerges for an instant, illuminating all before her: the foaming breakers, the horizon’s curve, the not-bird a blob of mercury. Then the world darkens once more. Aurelia sits down, running her palm over the coarse rock face. 'Can you help find my parents, little one?' she asks.

The not-bird does not speak, but in response it commences a hoppity fluttering. More than a phantasm but less than a flesh-and-blood thing, its erratic flight fills her with an alien warmth. It hops over the threshold of the chasm, returning presently as if to reassure her. Aurelia creeps closer to see what the not-bird wishes for her to see. There is a crude staircase carved from the rock, zigzagging down. The steps are slippery and slimy with moss, the rush of air invigorating. The not-bird's hopping serves to allay her fears. It would be far too dangerous to walk down these steps, but she can do it sliding on her bottom.

It's surprisingly tiring, this undignified progress. Salt fills her nostrils and stings her eyes. There's a bright orange door in the cliffside, down near the tide line. 'Is that where we're headed?' Aurelia asks, the only answer a howling tempest. The ocean is malevolent—it will dash her, devour her. Each boomquakes her core.

Point of no return: the cliff rising dizzily, her clothes saturated. And she shivers, chatters, her pied-piper seemingly impervious to wind and splash and spray. A king wave looms, its crest almost level with her.

Reaching the door, Aurelia sees that there's no handle or keyhole, just a smooth surface. She pounds the door with puny fists, her cries clamouring for entry. She curses the not-bird as it begins to tweet in a peculiar manner and—

the door clicks open

she tumbles within

clad in darkness

a distant roar

and

silence

For long seconds she merelyis.Sheisalive. Sheisbreathing.

Sheisscared. Itisdark.

That sound again: the high-pitched whine of the not-bird's wings. And, from the not-bird's eyes—light.

Aurelia is in a humid, dripping tunnel which ascends and curves to the left. A warm wind rushes toward her, bringing an earthy smell like ancient peat. As she follows the tunnel, it curves back around to the right, never allowing her to see farther than a few steps ahead. There's a distant, intermittent hissing, like an inhalation and exhalation of breath. The smell grows ever more pungent, filling her nostrils with the scent of carrion. Perhaps she approaches the lair of some subterranean beast. Perhaps she is to slay this monster, or herself be slain.

Her forehead beads with perspiration, but still she persists. The tunnel branches out, first giving her alternate pathways which she ignores, relentlessly forging ahead, and then opening into a vast, dank grotto. She is thirsty but the pools are fetid and she dare not drink from them. The not-bird cavorts, searching for a way out of this lair, but Aurelia too exhausted to follow the flickering dance of light across the walls.

Presently the not-bird returns, harrying her to her feet. The colour of its eyes is almost imperceptibly shifting through an iridian spectrum: first magenta, now vermilion. Aurelia thinks she sees a spark of sentience behind them. 'What's your name, little one?' she asks, not anticipating a response.

'Yettobe,' it says in a tinny voice, but no matter what further questions she poses—about its purpose, her parents, their present plight—it will not speak again, and she begins to question whether it ever spoke at all. Now she perceives a crack in the rock above, a shaft of sunlight. Seeking it, something crunches underfoot. She's standing in a bed of bone fragments, a tangle of torn fabric nearby. The hissing has returned, but louder, closer.

Timorous, Aurelia attempts to climb and, seeing her poor progress, the not-bird assists her by scooting from one ledge to another, scouting out suitable hand and footholds. Then, when she can rise no further, the not-bird's eyes illuminate a black rope hitherto invisible against the obsidian wall. She grasps it and recoils—it's like a string of gristly meat. Dark shapes move through the gloom around her. Craning her neck back, she sees a tuft of green high above. She grabs hold of the rope again and attempts to scale the glassy surface, but the wall's so smooth that there's nowhere to gain leverage, her feet scrabbling uselessly. But then there's a new sensation, a tugging. Someone or something is hoisting her up, inch by precious inch. Could it be her parents come to save her from this place?

A patch of blue sky, green grass growing over the ragged edge of the fissure. Aurelia breaks the surface, flopping onto land. The gristly rope ends in a mechanical winch, but there's no one to greet her, no one to thank. It's quiet here. She's in a sheltered cove, cliffs rearing up around her. The nearby beach is strewn with rocks and the sea is relatively calm. A small tugboat is anchored at the end of a small jetty. In a primitive wooden shack she finds a ceramic jug filled with water, but nothing to eat. She drinks the water, finding it sweet and rejuvenating. It seems to have been hours since she left the house, but she has no way of telling the time except by the passage of the sun. She's no closer to finding her parents.

Now the not-bird wants her to climb aboard the tugboat, which looks damaged, its hull bent like a half-crushed can. Aurelia steps aboard and enters the wheelhouse. There's no one at the helm, no one on deck, no one anywhere at all. She dons a waterproof jacket, which is much too large for her. The not-bird lands next to a particular switch on the instrument panel and, when she flicks it, the tugboat's engines thrum to life. It will soon be dark. Aurelia goes out onto the deck and unhitches the rope. There's a stiff breeze blowing and a yellow moon rising over the water. When she re-enters the wheelhouse, the not-bird indicates to a button marked with a strange symbol,Ŏ. She presses the button and the tugboat begins to chug away from the shore.

Out on deck, Aurelia makes her way forward to the prow, taking care not to topple over the rail. She gazes at the moon, transfixed by its ghostly glamour. In the ethereal light she can see that the surface of the water is viscid, oily. Perhaps it is her imagination, but it seems that the tugboat is slowing down. The engines strain louder than ever, but the tugboat barely moves, slowed by the gelatinous gunk surrounding it. The water gleams in an unnatural manner, teeming with—she struggles to comprehend—a million bobbing globules, refracting the yellow light.

A toxic plume ofjellyfish.

The air congeals. Aurelia can no longer see the water through the cloud of coagulating jellies, like mammoth frogspawn. There's the smell of burning engine oil and smoke. A gunshot—

she throws herself down

to the slimy deck

pulse racing

the sobbing

her own

Time passes and Aurelia is not dead. It wasn't a gunshot she heard, but the sound of the tugboat's engine exploding. Now they drift on the tide, come what may. Onrushing night, the moon high, the clot of jellies starting to break up in the waves.

There's another light, winking in, winking out. A lighthouse. If she's lucky, the tugboat will wash right up on the shore.

Crash,cacophony, tearing metal. The deck lurches, Aurelia falls.

The tugboat has struck a reef and now it's sinking.

Scrambling to her feet, Aurelia unhooks a life-ring moments before a second impact propels her into the icy black. Surfacing, sea and sky intertwine and she's half-drowned by the time she washes up amidst the other flotsam. She's too weary to lift her head, but if she doesn't she'll drown. She's pinned beneath the life-ring, her legs leaden, her energy sapped.

A light shoots clear of the water, a meteorite ascending. It's the not-bird, beelining for Aurelia. Now it spotlights her, flooding her with its warmth and—

she rises in its invisible grip.

Aurelia levitates, weightless beneath the not-bird, its eyes molten. It is taking her, with infinite gentleness, to the lighthouse. Putting her down, warm and dry, on the doorstep. 'How can I ever repay you, little one?' she asks.

The not-bird zooms away into the night.

Alone, she turns to knock upon the heavy door, but finds it ajar. Aurelia climbs, beyond tiredness and hunger, on the edge of sleep. Light above, darkness within. Her steps ghostly, immaterial, her thoughts racing:my parents, my parents.

At the top of the stairs, beneath the rotating beacon, is Aurelia's unmade bed. She knows its her bed because of the familiar pillows and blankets. Her mother is sitting on the edge of the bed, her face crinkled with worry. 'My baby!' she cries. 'I couldn't find you!'

Aurelia buries herself in her mother's arms, her scent. 'I heard noises,' she says.

'Shhh, it's all right now,' her mother says, tucking her in. 'Go back to sleep.'

'Mum, where's Daddy?'

Her mother stiffens, her expression frozen in a rictus of alarm. She opens her mouth to speak, but no words emanate. Finally she says, 'It's all right, little one. Mummy will protect you. Now get some rest.'

Aurelia's mother closes the bedroom door, forgetting to turn on the night lamp. There's no beacon now.

Aurelia hears a tapping at the window. She sits up rubbing her eyes and sees—

the not-bird outside

her bedroom window

guiding her

toward

morning

light

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