by M. J. Pettit
“Please stay.” Alaide starred at me unblinking and repeated her request. All night, she kept repeating those words like they offered me a choice I could make.
I shook my head. “We cannot.”
Alaide shrunk at the sharpness of my voice. I wanted to sound kind yet firm, but my voice sounded shrill. I carried no anger. Impatience maybe. I simply wanted her to understand. Already the city pulled me northward.
“I need to speak with you,” the scrawny bird said, looking me in the eye when she spoke.
I cast a glance at my daughter. The stranger carried no tribute.
“There’s something you must see,” she continued.
Oso trilled at the stranger’s presumptuous airs. I silenced my daughter with a sharp look. Something in Alaide’s confidence intrigued me.
“How can I help?” I asked.
Alaide spoke more tentatively now, casting nervous glances in Oso’s direction. “I’ve heard you are a most careful observer.”
“And how does a stranger expect to pay for an observer?” Oso asked.
Alaide turned to me for guidance. Oso’s question had clearly caught her off guard.
“Maybe you possess information of interest to a naturalist,” I suggested.
Alaide bobbed her head. “Yes, precisely. Information. I have discovered another city on the outskirts of this one.”
Despite myself, I joined Oso in trilling at the stranger. I couldn’t give credence to such a bizarre claim. Looking at Alaide again, I saw in her quick and jittery speech the demeanor of a berry-drunkard, a common enough vice among her kind. Follow her and she’d have me chasing down dreams and shadows.
Alaide persisted. “Listen. I saw it myself. A clutch of rodents have organized themselves into a city.”
“That’s impossible,” Oso said. “Everyone knows mammals return to a solitary life after they mate. They’re primitives, having lost the capacity for civilization.”
“I know what I saw.”
Oso raised her tail at the stranger’s challenge, but I hushed my daughter with a feigned peck. “Tell us again, stranger. Start from the beginning.”
Alaide described a clutch of tawny creatures living on the settlement’s outskirts. She observed the adults cooperating with another long after the reproductive season. Their city extended deep into the earth, having carved a honeycomb of burrows specialized for different forms of living. “You must see it for yourself,” she concluded.
Rodents this far south and organized into something of a city. I was intrigued. If nothing else, disproving the stranger’s story sounded like an adventure. It could be fun. We could become anything in the languid heat of the south. Why not naturalists in pursuit of mammals?
So I followed the stranger, even though the journey took longer than the night on her injured wing.
Alaide brought me to a sparse plain beyond the perimeter of the city’s protection. A cold, desolate place without a neighboring body to keep you warm as the day’s heat dissipated into the night air. Seedless shrubs clung close to the ground, blending into the desert. No guardians soared above to warn us of oncoming dangers. I pitied those consigned to the defensive line, but everyone had their purpose to serve.
Alaide hopped about the place without fear or reservation. “Why are you so nervous?” she asked. “Nothing out here will hurt you. This is my home.”
I shadowed her but kept my eyes on the horizon. Emptiness always left me unsure of what to expect.
“Watch.” Alaide disgorged the grain she insisted on carrying from the harvest. She stepped back and waited. Sure enough, the creatures soon approached. They moved tentatively. Their small, tawny bodies slung close to the ground, they circled close. The voles gathered around the meagre feast she provided. Tiny things, smaller than Alaide. Their speckled fur sagged loose off the bone as they scraped a life from the unwelcoming desert. The largest one plucked the individual grains her mouth and distributed them to the others. Her obsidian eyes were too large for the furry face, but the voles charmed me as they tumbled about and shared the grain Alaide had brought them. I counted a dozen scurry underground as the eternal sun rose.
“A promising sign–” I gave Alaide a gentle peck. “–but you err in calling this simple troop a city.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “They live cooperatively.”
“You might be right,” I said. “But I expect circumstances force these arrangements. We must wait and see. Only time will tell if they are capable of choosing fealty beyond necessity.”
“I’ve watched them for days. Haven’t seen any sign of a quarrel.”
“Then maybe friendship grows beyond the city limits,” I said. “Thank you for this gift.”
“What gift?” Alaide asked.
“Seeing this gives me hope. Maybe someday we won’t be alone.”
Alaide asked me to stay, but a prior obligation drew me back to the roost. As promised, I returned at dusk with a pair of my writing instruments so we could record of the colony’s movements. My crop carried seed from my family’s trove to share with the voles and the too thin Alaide. I made a quick flight from my burrow to the border. My excitement grew as I neared the site. I sang to Alaide when I saw her.
However, she dove into the exposed roots of a stump upon my approach. Her reaction puzzled me. Had she not welcomed me to this place the night before? I landed near her make-shift burrow and peered inside. Alaide cowered under a pile of plucked grasses, her pink comb poking through the darkness.
“Why are you hiding, silly? We’ve got work to do.”
“Why did you come bearing weapons?” the trembling comb replied. “You said we were friends.”
Weapons? What weapons? Then I remembered my instruments. They ended in the sharp points. How little I knew about Alaide. During our long flight together, she hadn’t sung of her kin as is our want. Why had she sought refuge among us? I was curious, but it had seemed impolite to ask.
I backed out of her burrow. I lay the instruments on the ground and stepped away from them to assure Alaide they posed no threat. “These aren’t weapons, friend. They’re tools to assist in our observations. Come out and I’ll show you how to use them.”
A tentative head poked from the burrow.
Alaide circled around my writing sticks, ducking down for a careful inspection. She tentatively poked at one with her foot then leapt back, half expecting it to leap at her like an awakened serpent. I laughed. She darted for her burrow, but stopped herself.
I apologized when I realized how my sudden movement startled her. “Best start with the wooden one. It’s easier to handle.”
Alaide found it difficult to balance, given her mending wing, but she soon learned how to grasp the stick with her foot. She dug its point into the soil and began recording the flow of relationships we witnessed: a father’s nudge, the nips of friendship, the city-like circle they formed at dawn. Despite a tendency towards fancy, Alaide had the potential to become an excellent observer. It didn’t take her long to perceive how the rodents operated within circuits of debts incurred and redeemed. Together we etched diagrams of the colony’s social patterns into the hard dirt, mapping the lines of cooperation among families.
“The sun is getting tall,” I said. “I should return to my burrow.”
I could already feel the heat peeling through my feathers. I needed the shade of my family’s roost.
“You could spend the day in mine.”
Alaide recoiled at my laugh, shrinking like she had when she thought I brought weapons. What to say? I could hardly tell her such a modest dwelling insulted my rank. “You’ve much to learn. I can’t spend my days here. I have certain obligations. My place is at the center.”
Alaide seemed unpersuaded, but I kept my promise and returned with my writing instruments the next evening.
I found her eager to restart the work. This time she did not hide at my approach. She dove into the vole tunnels, reporting back on the state of the pups. Six little ones nestled together in the deepest reaches of their colony.
And so began my double life in those final southern days. In the cool of the evening, I traveled to the outskirts to observe and record the vole’s complex sociometry. At dawn, I returned to the central roost to doze as the buzz of the city’s latest news enveloped me. Before I went to sleep, I took my instrument and added that night’s observations into the soil of the city’s library. Although some looked askance, I must confess I loved my double southern life, indebted at once to the city and the stranger.
* * *
“Please, Alaide, don’t ask me again.”
I wanted to sound firm, but my voice waivered. It always waivered in her presence. Alaide had a talent for coaxing me out of my old habits, of making my city life feel incomplete.
We had been observing the voles for three months when Oso brought word of my cousin’s death. When she first landed, I was delighted to see one of own choose to visit my observatory. I welcomed her, wrapping my wing around her neck and gave her under-feathers a motherly preen. I chattered about the day’s latest observations. The infant voles had begun venturing beyond their tunnels. Oso remained silent, patiently waiting for a break in my speech. Somehow, I failed to notice her grave expression.
Oso spoke without affectation. She related the facts as a good observer does. She loved her cousin, but she loved the city more. I had raised a good citizen. The news delivered, Oso returned to the air and flew to the city center. She did not wait for me to answer. There was no need. My response was already given.
I told Alaide we must finalize our observations and prepare for the city’s departure. A choice apparent to all. All but a stranger. Alaide failed to understand how Oso carried my decision with her, delivering it as part of her horrible news.
* * *
“How can you abandon this place?” she asked. “It’s our home.”
I had cast my vote that morning, but Alaide kept pestering me all evening, my second to last in the south. I wanted her to change the subject. All I wanted was to retain the traces of this place’s simple elegance. Was that too much ask? Apparently as Alaide kept betraying the memory by airing our disagreement.
“The city is my home,” I said. “This is mere settlement.”
“Then why do you waste my time writing our observations into the soil?”
“Writing etches both the soil and the mind,” I assured her. “How else could we prepare to carry the memories with us?”
“Please stay,” she said.
Her thinking remained as confused as before. I tried again. A city isn’t its territory. We can spread thin, extending ourselves a day’s flight or more, but a city has limits. Stretched too far and the peck order will break. Welcomed because of her injuring, Alaide continued to reside outside the order which protected and sustained her. She hadn’t been raised on songs commemorating the horrors of peck-right. The city must endure.
“Haven’t I taught you anything?” I gestured towards a vole returning to her tunnel. The grain I’d provided from my family’s store filled her cheeks as she disappeared to share it with the others. “Even this primitive colony survives on debts accrued and repaid.”
“And I suppose you owe me nothing.”
“There’s no way I could stay. You wouldn’t recognize me shed of the city.”
“Then become someone else, Xero.”
Easy words for a bird born without a flock. I imagined myself performing the entire course of the city’s labors: surveying the grasslands for the best feed; gathering the stores in case of disaster; defending the perimeter from violent strangers. The list left me weary.
“We could scatter,” Alaide said. “Graze for what we need. Together we could live free of all the cities.”
I shook my head. Scatter? If only it were so easy. On my many travels, I had flown over the wind-picked bones of those who esteemed themselves above the city. They died nameless. No one carried their memory. “You should travel with us to the north.”
Alaide simply flapped her not quite mended wing.
But more than her break bound her to this place. She came from a kind which refused to roam, content to breed in small clutches and to stick to this unchanging land. They never knew the fullness of the north. A failing strategy. Did the poor child still expect her family to return from the dead?
I was better off free of her.
Except a half-spoken debt lay between us. A debt which she refused to dissolve. That evening, I learned something new about Alaide and her kin. When they elected to pair, they did so for life.
* * *
The next evening as the day cooled into night, Alaide and I strutted through what remained of the central market. Having failed to dissuade her from staying, I could at least provision her for life after our departure.
“You don’t have to do this,” Alaide said. “I’ll be fine on my own. I was before. The seed will recover after the city leaves.”
“It is the least I can do,” I said. “Besides, I possess an excess of favors I need to spend.”
The ease with which we moved through the exchange surprised me. It had become as deserted as Alaide’s home on the perimeter. Little remained of the market’s former storefronts, the great clans having already gorged themselves for travel. Maps betraying long held family secrets were scrawled about the place for anyone to read. I pushed through samples of unripened grain and piles of discarded and broken instruments. A few unfamilied traders continued their barter, but most stalls lay abandoned. Some had etched into the soil the directions to semi-plundered fields. Once prized hordes; departure rendered the information near valueless. Outsiders, some winged and others not, scavenged through the remnants.
We paused before a jeweler, delighting in how her array of gizzard stones captured the fading daylight. A necessary digestive among other species, the stones had become desirable as tokens of esteem during our long time in the south. Alaide noticed me starring at a rosy gem. The pinkish stone mirrored the color of her crest. I pressed my peak against its cool smoothness.
“How much?” she asked.
I started. What would Alaide do with a gizzard stone? The time for accumulation had passed.
“Take it,” said the jeweler. “I’ll have to move on soon enough.”
Alaide lunged at the stone.
“We can’t,” I said, shuffling her away from the stall.
She looked back at her lost prize.
“Why didn’t you let me get you the stone?” she asked. “You obviously liked it.”
“A city cannot travel burdened by such wealth.”
Alaide shook her head. She did not understand.
I shared with her the lesson of the family who carried too much. My mother first shared this story with me when I insisted on taking our nest on my first journey to the south. Mother laughed and gave me a gentle preen. She traced these words into my downy feathers. There once was a clan near the very summit of the peck. They used their position to acquire unimaginable wealth. They held the tallest roosts, the deepest stores, brightest jewels, the sharpest weapons. Every richness one could imagine. When the southern call came their mother refused to abandon all she accumulated in the north. She persuaded her daughters and sons, sisters and brothers to carry their seed and stones and weapons into the southlands. She thought herself wiser than her aunt-of-us all. Once the city arrived at its destination, she would be ready. A quick coup and the old peck would fall. However, the riches they carried proved an unexpected burden. The wealth weighed down her family, forcing them to fly low to ground. She lost most of hers as the city scaled the mountains sheltering the northlands from the barren south. She alone survived but wished herself dead. By the time the city roosted, she had fallen so far down the peck that no other clan could see her. She shrunk and shrunk until she became a nameless speck of dusk swept out to sea by one of the north’s autumn storms.
“So you see, the city travels with its order. Nothing else,” I concluded. “All acquired wealth must settle in one place.”
The city could only afford to travel with its most sacred debts.
One look told me Alaide only wanted to argue again. That was a memory I did not want to carry so I flew off, abandoning my friend to navigate the scraps of the exchange on her own.
* * *
She found me again later that day as I sorted through my burrow, the one carved high in the rockface I’d called home. I counted out the remains of my earthly wealth. A heap of near forgotten scraps, shimmery rocks, and dulled writing tools at the rear of my private trove. I dug through these treasures, taking time to select what items my crop might carry to our new territory. The great discard pleased me as I freed myself form the weight of too much accumulation. I savored the memory as each object passed out my door and landed with a crash on the ground far below.
Her jagged flight squelched any hope that Alaide would be strong enough to migrate. She came only to say farewell. As she approached, I noticed it wasn’t her injury which hampered her movements. No, she clutched the stone from the market. She deposited it at my feet before landing.
“Something to remember our time together.” She looked pleased with herself.
Alaide’s head swiveled between me and the untouched stone. Only a stationary bird would be foolish enough to give such a parting gift. I grasped the stone with my beak. It felt lighter than expected. A manageable burden. I swallowed it without mentioning the unwanted weight. I could always part with it far from the settlement. Alaide would never have to know.
Alaide down in the discard accumulating below the burrows. “Why are you abandoning all your treasures?”
“We don’t need them,” I said. “The north replenishes. I only bring what is needed for the journey.”
“But it is all your possessions,” she said.
“A city’s wealth does not travel,” I explained curtly, eager to return to the discard. “We carry only the memories.”
Alaide’s arrival reminded me of our unsettled debt. I eyed what remained of my belongings. None suggested an adequate gift.
The answer was obvious. “You should stay in my burrow,” I said, unable to contain my excitement. “No one will bother you this high off the ground. You’ll be safer here.”
“I like my home,” she said.
Having refused the gift of my burrow, I bequeathed to her my finest instrument for writing in clay.
“You discard things too easily,” she said. “Besides, I prefer my own.”
Alaide turned her head from every gift offered. Whether due to stubbornness or ignorance, I could not say. It didn’t matter. The result was the same. She departed my burrow having refused to annul the debt she held.
* * *
I awoke to the sound of thunder and heavy rain. An ocean of a storm, the kind only known in the north. It wrenched me out of my uneasy slumber. My bones reverberated with its thrum. I tilted my head upward and opened my beak, thirsty for the release of those first drops. Time for a good drink before the torrent accumulated below into a regenerative floodwater.
I held my mouth open, but my tongue remained parched. The storm left it unkissed even though thick clouds dulled out the sun.
Then I remembered. Half asleep, I’d mistaken our shared wingbeat for the start of a downpour. The swirling swarms of the gathering clans filled the sky with their clacks and their caws, heralding the arrival of moving day. The shared wingbeat drowned out the songs of any one clan. Womp, womp, womp. The city was one. The thrum knotted us together. Time to release my hold. I teetered towards the tip of my branch to get a better look. The city crested overhead and dove towards my roost. I stretched my wings in preparation for the long flight then launched myself into the heart of the swarm. As I entered the city, the synchrony of wings sent a cool breeze over me. It passed through my feathers, soothing muscles tense with anticipation. As I twisted and darted through the swarm, I greeted distant cousins, cast aspersions at former rivals, and flirted with newly remembered lovers. I pushed through my beloved city until I found my rightful place, tucked between my siblings and my children.
Our wings turned the southlands into dustbowls. The earth mushroomed below us. Our departure wiped away the symbols we’d etched into the dry soil. The storm erased our settlement from the earth. Gone were the histories of this settlement, the funerary records, our calculations of air currents, the once guarded maps to now raided stores. The city flew as one, bonded by our most primitive debt, the one carried not in song but our shared movement.
I flew in pride of place, assuming my late mother’s position near the flock-head. Oso flew beside me on her first return to the land of her birth. My kin fanned around us, daughters and sons guiding their own daughters and sons. The richness of my fold gave me lift.
I soared through that first evening.
But amid all my reacquainted, each one beloved, I caught not a glimpse of Alaide’s familiar pink plume. She somehow resisted the city’s northern call. Alaide had made her choice. She elected to remain in the southlands. Had I ever truly known her? No, she came to me as a stranger and that was how we parted. I’d only known the illusion of familiarity. What kind of creature refuses to forgive the debts of settlement? Perhaps she was some kind of miser, forever hoarding more and more debt. Our songs told of such tricksters haunting the desert, lying in wait to ensnare the unwary and feast on their stranded bones.
Oso screeched as my wingtip struck hers. I apologized for this slip. Somehow, I’d glided out of formation as my mind wandered. The city demanded I keep to the course. The journey required my focus. Deserved it. I could not let my imagination get the better of me. I was hardly some fledging fresh from the nest.
Despite myself, I continued dwelling on my memories of Alaide. She presented a greater puzzle than any I’d found in nature. How was I to reconcile the gruesome descriptions of the debt hoarders with the kindness she showed? She intended no malice. She only wanted the best for me. Yet, there I was flying northward saddled with her final gift. Though the gizzard stone weighed against my crop, I must confess the added burden wasn’t entirely unwanted.
The route taken soon silenced those who accused my aunt of directing the city for too long. Throughout our time in the south, she had pushed her children to their limit, but the map they provided proved true. Indeed, she remained the city’s miracle worker. She used the cover of night to shield us from harshest desert heat. Just as the rising heat tired even our youngest, we arrived at the first oasis seen since our departure. From there, we would follow the course of a now vanished river. The map-makers who had flown ahead returned with promises of steady rains within two weeks’ flight.
Wading into the cooling waters loosened my seized muscles. I immersed myself in children’s gossip as they imagined their future lives in the north. The half-remembered green hills carried promises of abundant rains, termite feasts, and a returning interest in mates. I caught myself reminiscing again about my abandoned lovers, men who passed unnoticed in the south despite living as neighbors.
The next evening, when my aunt gave the command to lift, I found myself still tired from a day’s fitful sleep. Something made my body refuse the wind’s lift. My wings ached and lagged. I teetered like a fledging. My struggle sullied the symmetry of my family’s formation. My kin did not hold their tongues. The source of my sickness was apparent to all. I carried a debt on the journey. It weighed against my conscience like the gizzard stone against my crop. Its weight lured me southward.
At our next landfall, Oso approached me. “Promise me you’ll discard that ugly thing.” She gestured towards my swollen gullet.
By then, I knew I did not want to settle accounts with the stranger Alaide. To cancel our debt would mean forgetting about her and our time in the south. Someday the city would return. “We are all allowed to choose what we bring on the journey. I don’t judge your choices. The least a daughter could do is respect mine.”
“Fair enough.” A reluctant emissary, Oso avoided looking me in the eye. “But I fear my mother has been enchanted by the stranger.”
I extended myself to my full height. “Don’t be superstitious.”
Oso met my stare. “Last landfall, I heard you speaking to it. In your sleep, you still speak to your southern wife.”
“A bad dream.”
“Then promise me you’ll get rid of that stone,” she said. “We cannot afford to carry your excess debts.”
And yet when the evening call to the air came and we again took to the air, I did not dispose of it. The stone remained safely cradled in my crop.
My great-aunt, eager to erase the old settlement from our memories, pushed the city through the next day’s heat. We traveled on wing-power alone as the stagnant airs provided little help.
Though my body knew the determination these long flights required, my mind kept wandering far from the flock. I pictured Alaide unable to secure food for herself or attacked by some creature emerging from the desert depths. The more I pushed these thoughts to the side, the stronger they became. These intrusions mangled my navigation, pulling me lopsided, even though no currents pushed us off course.
I wobbled and careened. Oso wordlessly assumed my position and I eased back. When my aunt finally called for the flock to descend into a canopy of trees, it came as a relief. I followed my daughter to a roosting spot near the top.
As soon as my feet touched the agreed upon branch, the rest of my family retook to the air. They gathered further up the tree.
This game was familiar to me. I was blessed with good children and caring sisters. By teasing me, my entire family conspired to lift my spirits, distracting me from the day’s terrible flight. I chased after them. They scattered again. They reassembled as an inward-looking circle at an even further reach. As I drew near, their backs arched. Only silence met my welcoming.
I approached Oso, my eldest, my dearest, only to find her coiled and ready for an attack. She was near unrecognizable with anger. Best attempt a calming preen. I swooped in to praise her on a good day’s travel, to thank her for supporting the city when I could not.
My daughter would not listen. She launched into the air, her ever-sharp beak upturned.
I refused to pull away.
Her blow struck between my ribs. It carried an accusation. Careless one.
She struck the same spot again. Egoist.
And again. Traitor.
The third blow knocked me off the branch. It dropped me like a rock released on high intended to crack open a stubborn shell.
The eyes of the city fixated on me as I tumbled through the branches, my body refusing to respond and defend myself. I hit the earth hard.
Crumpled, unable to move wing or foot, I waited for Oso to descend and finish the job. I waited, but she just left me. Feeling returned in the form of tiny muscular twitches. I tucked my wings close to my body to protect my tender underside. Those on the lower branches kept hushed and pretended not to stare, but their eyes fixed upon me.
None of my family came. Not to finish the job nor to see if I was alright. My family was ashamed of me, ashamed of the debt I forced us to carry. So ashamed they refused me even recognition and cast me out of our nightly roost. Oso’s final blow told me everything. I’d relieved myself of any debts still owed my family. We were nothing to each of other. I was forgotten. An orphan. A stranger.
* * *
At the bottom the tree, with no favor to give, I met Fiero.
Well, strictly speaking, Fiero’s family occupied the middling ranks, but my new journey began at the base.
With Oso’s blows still sending twinges throughout my body, I was determined to see the city reach the northlands. I needed to learn to climb. My survival required this. Climbing was an odd experience for one high born, but I wasn’t without hope. I wasn’t some sightless fledging fresh from my egg. If the voles managed to survive in the scarcity of the desert, I could make my way on the outskirts of a northbound city. Soon opportunities would grow as thick as the grasses of a northern meadow. By the time the city resettled, certainly everything would be forgiven. Plenty had a way of easing the burden of unpaid debts.
The family where I first landed rustled about their chosen branch, shifting their bodies and extending their wings just enough to deny me a steady foothold. Despite the cold welcome, I lingered. Surely at least excuses would be made, apologies sincerely expressed. They offered none. Instead, the matriarch struck. Her feigned blows hit my beak rather than my throat or my belly. Like Oso she did not wish to draw blood, but her blows made abundantly clear her pity, if not contempt, for my poor choices. She would not accept a fool unable to unburden herself from the debts of her southern life. The one unwilling to unsettle.
Darting from branch to branch, my reputation preceded me. After the fourth or fifth failed attempt at securing safe passage if not an undying familial bond, I realized the city remained entrenched in its southern ways. The hope carried by the northern rains had yet to reach us and our long exile left few willing to take a risk on one in the position I now found myself.
Maybe I could complete the journey on my own. An unpleasant thought, but not an impossible dream. This wasn’t my first migration. How difficult would it be to follow the flock? The asymmetry of solo flight displeased me, but at the bottom of the tree few other options presented themselves.
I rested on a gnarled twig of a branch, a spindly thing barely capable of holding my weight off the ground. A solo flight it would be.
There Fiero found me. “I didn’t think your kind could see this far down.”
I caught myself laughing at his stupid joke. For the first time, my situation felt absurd rather than unbearable. Mostly, I appreciated the small act of recognition. “Just passing through.”
“Mind if I join you?” he continued.
The branch creaked where he landed. He moved sure-footedly towards me. “You look like someone in need of a friend.”
“Careful,” I said. “You don’t want to get too close to an orphan.”
“I’m not worried,” Fiero said. “We’re northbound to the land of changes. Anything can happen there.”
“You’re a gambler then.”
“When you’re this far down the peck, it pays to be. Besides, I’ve a feeling you’re worth the risk. Come, join us.”
With a whistle, Fiero launched himself. I followed before he changed his mind or I lost him in the crowd of the city.
Fiero’s family welcomed me with wings spread open and bellies exposed. After brief introductions, we spent the day’s rest rehearsing a new formation. They repeated their favored movements until I memorized the new pattern. By dusk, we moved as one.
When my aunt gave the call to depart, my new family elected to linger. The city lifted and crested above us, wings beating northward.
Fiero waited until the last family departed. He then gave the call and my adopted kin took to the air. We flew a half day behind the main flock, defiantly stretching the city to its limits. I struggled to keep pace with my new clan. My ribs still ached where Oso had struck. I felt weak, barely alive.
Fiero left his position at the cone to come find me at the rear. His approach worried me. Perhaps he regretted his latest investment. A bet ill placed. If so, he hid it well. His voice gave no hint of disappointment. “Come with me. I’ve a secret to share with you.”
Fiero broke formation and I followed. We took an eastward breeze over a devasted landscape scrubbed of life. For the first time since the city’s migration began, I found myself enjoying flying. Fiero inspected the ground, clearly noting markers along some determined route. His map led to an oasis untouched by the flock. The pool looked deep. The grain succulent. This place puzzled me. Why hadn’t the aunt taken us along this route? Surely, the entire city would benefit from such a feast.
Fiero hovered about the feast, failing to exercise both his claim to discovery and his peck right. I waited for some cue. Was this some kind of test? His posture signaled no such thing. He seemed relaxed and unconcerned.
“Can you just tell me what you want?”
“We’re beyond the city’s reach. You’re free here. Eat, Xero. Drink.”
That was good enough for me. I gorged myself on the overripe grain.
“Looks like you enjoyed your meal.”
I nodded. I realized then that I hadn’t been dwelling on the weight of the gizzard stone. It had been forgotten, if only momentarily. “Well, your map proved true. What do I owe you?”
“Nothing?” I didn’t believe him. The city ran on debts. Fiero could not afford such extravagant gifts. “Then my friendship will have to do for now.”
“A wonderful gift,” he replied, “if freely given.”
“You flatter me.”
Fiero shook his head. “I honor you, as one should.”
“One more favor then. Can I ask, how did you know about this place?”
My question pleased him. “Our aunt isn’t the only one capable of employing map-makers.” His words carried the right hints of scandal. “It could be our little secret, if you want.”
I did want. His trust made the grain taste that much sweeter.
“It makes one wonder about our aunt, doesn’t it?” he said. “What else does she withhold so that her peck right survives another year? Why must we all suffer to satisfy one old woman’s sense of order?”
His bluster did not fool me. I wasn’t a fledging fresh out of my mother’s nest. Fiero spoke a big game because he sought a mate. A powerful one capable of collecting certain debts. He welcomed me because he hoped my fortune would return with our arrival in the north. A cunning strategy, but a gamble which would fail to reward him. “Perhaps I should complete the rest of the journey on my own. I’m destined to disappoint you. My family will not forgive me. I won’t be able repay you. Not in the way you wish.”
“You should reassert your place.”
“And restart the peck?” I shook my head. My mother warned me of the path of pride. That one always led to war. “I couldn’t.”
Oso had exercised her right and would do my place proud. I did not begrudge her. When I showed weakness, Oso’s swift actions allowed the city to endure.
Fiero did his best to camouflage his disappointment in my answer. “Then don’t worry about it. We are in flight. This debt stays here. I won’t carry it into the north. You can start your life there free.”
With his crop loaded with enough grain to share with his family, Fiero took to the air and found us a swift current. Swift winds tickled my feathers. High above the scorched plains, Fiero darted and I dodged. Or I feigned at dodging. No animus hid behind our movements. We danced like we were already northern lovers.
Before we rejoined the city, Fiero swooped in close and whispered. “Today should remain our little secret. Promise?”
I gave Fiero my word. The one gift I could give. Such a small token considering all I had received.
* * *
The night passed quickly in the company of Fiero’s family. Their intricate formations came easily to me. My movements echoed theirs as if by instinct. Even with the strong headwinds coming off the flock’s peak, the journey proved less difficult than before. The youngsters’ excitement for the northlands — the abundance, the feasting, the first loves — was contagious. Each night brought a new landscape filled with the sway of novel grasses and the buzzing of meaty insects. Proud of the city’s progress, I found myself dwelling less and less on the weight of the gizzard stone. As the night winds grew cooler, the stone came to feel lighter and lighter.
I barely noticed the ground we covered. Each morning brought a richer landscape. A few sleeps from our final landing, I found the hint of a creek we’d been following expanded into an actual river. Excited by the journey, I elected to explore rather than sleep.
What critters might I discover along the shoreline? The riverbank pulsed with life. Insects which skittered and the fish who broke the waterline to trap them. All of nature’s drama on display in one place. Alaide strangely not there. It seemed I couldn’t leave behind my so-called southern wife.
Lost in my memories, I didn’t hear the rustling through the tall grass until it was too late. I froze, although I was certain the serpent sensed me.
A sharp pinch at the nape of my neck told me I was done. But it was a beak, not fangs. It tugged at me and I was airborne. My rescuer’s grip loosened as my wings beat for themselves.
Once again Fiero had saved me.
Below, where I had just stood, a serpent slithered back into the grasses after an unsatisfying lunge.
My newfound kin pursued the snake into the thick grasses. They plucked at its spine and pulled the beast into the open. They swooped from high, stabbing at the snake with their beaks. They went for its eyes first. Blinded the beast lurched to the spot where its attacker once was, only to receive a blow from the opposite direction. Their beaks made quick work of the once fearsome monster. It suspected nothing. It mistook our civility for weakness. My kin moved like an army.
My family struck with remarkable efficiency, the likes of which I only heard about in songs my mother sang. Those old wartime songs she loved but left her teary.
The battle only lasted a few minutes. It left the snake gouged and bleeding. I hoped the sorry thing wouldn’t live much longer. My newfound family dismembered the poor brute with military-like precision.
Fiero followed every strike, every tear like the movements had been well rehearsed. His chest swelled with pride.
I knew then. I had known earlier but had been too afraid to say the words. I still hesitated. Once the accusation was made, I couldn’t retract it. Saying the very words risked putting them into action. “You’re preparing for war.”
Fiero refused to acknowledge me. He took off for higher airs.
I chased after him, except this time we weren’t dancing. Fiero evaded me and I wanted answers.
“You plan on overthrowing the aunt,” I continued. I spoke in whispers, fearing the city might overhear me. “You want to establish a new peck order.”
Fiero dove deep into the grasses. He landed where their thickness might give him some cover.
“Or even maybe a flock free of peck right,” he finally answered. “Just imagine a life without debts.”
In the gleam of Fiero’s eye, I saw a world where no one owed anything to the city, where everyone lived free. Free to steal. Free to fight. Free to kill. In the gleam of his eye, I saw endless war, devouring first my siblings then my children then my grandchildren. His war would end my family, wipe every trace of us from the air and the earth. Inevitably the war would turn the city itself into dust. All our sacrifices for nothing.
“You want the city to end.”
“Maybe the time has come.”
We were entering the north where anything was possible.
“You could help,” Fiero said. “The aunt-of-us-all grows ashen. You still count among her nearest kin. Given time, she will welcome you back to the fold. You can get close.”
“Close enough to strike.”
Fiero nodded. “Would you do me that favor?”
What was I to do? Fiero was there when I needed him. His family welcomed me among his own when all the others met my approach with turned backs. They loved me, trusted me. They fed me when I was weak. They saved my life. I owed Fiero a tremendous debt.
A debt I must repay.
So I showed him mercy and went straight for the throat.
* * *
News of Fiero’s death sped through the city. The airy rumors spiraled higher and higher throughout the night. A lovers’ quarrel. An accident caused by a diseased mind. Everyone knew the northern rains awakened our passions, and I’d been unwell throughout the journey. Some said, it served Fiero right. He should have known better than to try and save a lost debtor like me.
My diseased constitution proved a convenient cover. My new family made no claim against their loss. Instead, Fiero’s kin generously promised to take care of their wayward sister. I knew better than to question my good fortune. Without their leader, my adopted family fell back into place. When the command came to take to the air, we no longer lingered at the rear of the flock to observe, to plan and plot. We rejoined the city like nothing had happened. Peck right would not dissolve.
Everyone seemed committed to the fiction of normality or at least the hope of the rich northlands repairing old wounds.
I was surprised when the aunt-of-us-all approached me with landfall. Reluctant to acknowledge one foolish enough to retain a summer wife, she sent Oso in her stead. The request was simple but imperative. We congressed high above the flock.
“You’re still with us, Xero,” my aunt said. A statement of fact. No, a possible question. “I’m surprised.”
Did she doubt my loyalty? After all, I had flown with a traitorous family for a number of weeks. I demurred. I loved the city. It was my home.
“Another puzzle to consider. Your new kin haven’t demanded payment for their loss. They seem eager to forget the whole unpleasant affair. Odd, don’t you think?”
How foolish to count myself the greatest observer while I dwelled in my aunt’s roost. My talents paled next to the one who discerned every pattern, heard every rumor. The city’s secrets unfolded before her. Had she orchestrated my fall? Sent me into a trap? I kept silent, waiting for my aunt to reveal her next move.
“Some might say you saved the city,” my aunt explained.
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“I would. As far as I’m concerned, your debt is paid. You could leave us.”
“Thank you for the offer, but I choose to remain.”
“You misunderstand, Xero.” My aunt’s voice tremored. It pained her to speak the words I forced her to say. “How do you expect to stay? You saved the city. The debt which bound us together no longer exists, yet you insist on carrying the one you owe another.”
Hers wasn’t a kindly suggestion. A possibility offered. My aunt presented me with no gift to renew my bond nor would she accept one in return. She issued a command and addressed me like I was a stranger, a guest tolerated only for so long. I was not of the city. Not anymore.
High above the city, as my aunt swooped away and left me alone, I learned its final lesson. A lesson my mother never taught me. One for which she likely didn’t have the words. An unspeakable lesson which coursed through our city and underwrote our constitution. To live free of debts is to live free of love.
* * *
I shed the city and the city shed me. We settled accounts a day’s flight from the great feast. When I departed the green hills of the north were within sight. I tried following the course that the aunt-of-us-all set but kept finding myself pulling away once airborne. A city made of strangers was no home for me.
I carried one remaining debt.
I elected to fly south. I flew southward because I loved the desert and I knew she loved me.
* * *
About the Author
M. J. Pettit is a full-time academic and occasional writer of short stories. His fiction has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Compelling Science Fiction, Nature, Toasted Cake, and Riddled with Arrows.