As birds do (2)
By Stephen Thom
This bird hath made his pendant bed
Turk tasted blood. He crawled through brush. He stumbled over maggot roots. Torchlight strafed. Dogs barked. He snapped twigs. He moaned. He cried. He dragged his aching body.
He stumbled into a clearing. A grove of trees. He spun around. Light streams cut the dark. Rustles. He knelt and crawled. His pulse raced. He pawed through bracken and dirt. He bumped into something. A mass of leaves and twigs. He reached out.
A tiny old man looked round. He was sitting on the forest floor. His face was wizened. He was covered in leaves and twigs. Turk flinched. He scrambled up. He drew his gun.
'Hello', said the old man. He looked Turk up and down and returned to his task. He held a small knife. He appeared to be whittling sticks.
Turk shivered. Torchlight flowered amongst the trees. He lowered his gun. He ducked down.
'I thought you were a fucking plant,' he whispered.
The old man paused. He placed his knife to the side.
'I am not a plant!' He snapped.
Turk bit his lip. He watched the lights. He huddled close.
'Listen. Listen. I need to - is there anywhere safe here, anywhere to hide? I need to - '
'Pass me a twig,' the old man muttered.
Turk frowned. He fingered his gun. He sighed and grabbed a twig. He passed it to the old man.
The old man nodded. He bent and snapped the twig. He whittled with his knife. He produced a little wrap made of leaves. He squeezed a gluey fluid from it. He dabbed this onto the twig and attached it onto a circular clump. Turk watched. The clump seemed to consist of hundreds of small twigs, intricately twisted and bound together.
The old man whittled. Wood dust flew. He dabbed glue. He twisted and pulled. He held his hand out.
It was a perfect little wooden bird. Hollow. Bound together from twigs. The old man laughed.
'Isn't it marvellous!'
Turk blinked. He felt confused.
'Great. Look, I have to be honest with you - I'm in a lot of fucking danger. Is there somewhere here - is there some kind of safe place? Do you fucking live here, or something?'
The man's eyes narrowed. His face was a nest of wrinkles. He stared at Turk for a long time, then nodded. They both stood. Turk blinked again. Standing up, the old man reached his knees.
They crossed the clearing. There was a hollow at the base of one of the trees. The old man burrowed inside. Turk swallowed. He hunkered down and slipped in. His hands clasped a ladder. He swung into black emptiness and climbed down.
His feet touched soft earth. He turned. It was a homely room: a stove. Musty furniture. Faded floral wallpaper.
Strange: Rows and rows of shelves. Thousands of intricate wooden birds.
Stranger still: curious hollows in the walls, holes of different sizes. An odd device - much like a periscope, but made from branches and mirrors - running up and out of a hole in the ceiling.
Turk floundered momentarily. He looked back up the ladder. It disappeared into a black void overhead. He felt numb. He was worried for Bobby and Charlie. Charlie was out his depth as it was. He was just a kid. His first job. His first run.
And this shit. Maybe he'd fucked his head up in the crash. Maybe he was still in the fucking jeep.
He shook his head. The old man bustled over to a chest of drawers. He withdrew a small box.
He unclipped the lid and removed a handful of small marbles. He took these over to a table in the centre of the room. The table was ringed with large stones. The old man carefully placed the marbles into grooves set within each stone. He placed the bird he and Turk had made in the centre of the table.
He rummaged in his pockets. He whistled. He pulled out a piece of black chalk. He leaned down and etched little symbols into each stone around the table. Turk mooched over. He peered in close. Weird runes - jagged scrawls.
The old man stepped back. He rubbed his hands. One by one, the marbles in the stones lit up. They rattled in their grooves. They lifted into the air. They hovered and glowed.
Turk gulped. He backed off.
The little wooden bird in the centre of the table cheeped. It bobbed forward. It cracked its twiggy wings. It fluttered up.
They sat round the table. Turk was pale.
'What's the matter?' The old man shouted. Turk flinched. He looked round.
'I'm just... I'm fucked. Do you have any food?'
The old man glanced at his shelves.
'I have lots of leaves,' he said.
Turk sighed. He sat up. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. He clasped his hands.
'I don't know where my friends are.'
The old man nodded solemnly. He sprang up and grabbed a wooden bird from the shelf. It chirped and hopped in his hand. The old man rooted in his pocket again. He withdrew his leafy glue pouch and a small circle of glass. He placed the bird on the table. Turk watched it duck and bob.
The old man smeared a line of glue around the glass circle. He placed it just above the bird's beak. He patted it down. The bird's wings creaked as they flapped.
The old man picked it up. He ferried it over to one of the holes in the wall. He held it up. The wooden bird dipped its beak. It hop-skipped. It flew into the hole.
The old man gestured to Turk. He scuttled over to the corner and swivelled the periscope running up the wall. He peered into the lens. Turk ambled across. The old man gave up the lens. Turk knelt and squinted.
A soaring viewpoint filled the frame: the wooden bird's progress. Turk followed it, astounded. It dipped over the forest. It crossed the poppy fields. It passed the compound. The labs. It landed on a windowsill. Turk shuffled and peered. He could see Bobby inside, tied to a chair. Beaten. Bloodied. He swore and stood up. The old man looked into the lens.
'Your friend is with those funny people,' he said, sadly. He rose and mimicked a gun with his fingers. He made 'bang bang' noises. Turk sighed.
Wooden birds creaked and cheeped on the shelves.
Our monuments / shall be the maws of kites
Two moons strobed a colour-sapped sky. Charlie shivered. The winged people had built him a small hut. He sat in it and watched them circle, scavenge and sleep in their strange hoops. There was nothing here. Trains arrived at intervals. Suited men left food packages. It was never enough. They were dying.
His train companion visited him. They sat on the mattress in his little hut and talked. Holes gaped in her wings. Bone glinted.
She told him that in ancient times there were many people like her. Before there were civilisations. When the world was still benighted. She told him there was evidence of this in lost places. Dark places. Caves. Buried ruins. Ancient wall-carvings, drawings and statues, depicting humans as creatures with wings.
She said they were the last of their kind; that the world was regressing in terms of what it was collectively able to absorb. Structures were in place. Ways of being. What you see is what you are made to see, whether you are aware of it or not.
They were hunted. Rounded up. Brought here.
He asked her about the purple sand. The dual moons. She told him that her ancestors were not restricted to flying through the sky. They traversed dimensions. They adjusted their wingbeat cycles and frequencies. They calculated rates specific to alternate planes of existence.
She said this was the sixth dimension. Their final resting place.
His hut floor was strewn with feathers every time she left. He watched her fly up to her purple hoop-nest.
Charlie lost track of time. He watched tattered wings beat across a vast grey sky. He watched ragged figures slump over fields of purple sand. Everything seemed desolate and broken.
He lost the thread of his own life. He remembered doing things he didn't particularly enjoy. He remembered a need for money. He saw a garden he could never return to and a mother who was scared of him. He felt his thoughts slipping. Muddying. He saw purple sand and waxy moons in his dreams. He tried to simplify. Compartmentalise. Sleep. Eat.
He came to see this world as a place he was supposed to be. An end. The end of all things.
He awoke one morning to find his backpack torn open. The dope bricks were gone. He felt a chill. He walked out of the hut.
The moons were bright. The hills were empty. The metal hoops had fallen from the sky. They lay at various angles across the sand. Some were partially sunken. Purple sand blew through them.
There were feathers everywhere. Feathers and bones.
Charlie's eyes welled up. He padded across the sand. He cut through monolithic metal hoops. He reached the small station. He sat and waited.
A train pulled in. He saw strange tremors in its carriages. Adjustments to its frequencies. Calculated rates carrying it through doorways, planes and levels of existence.
A man in a suit stepped onto the platform. He muttered into his radio. He turned to look at the hills. He stopped. He dropped his radio. He looked at Charlie and shook his head.
They sat in silence on the journey back. Charlie scrubbed a clear spot in the carriage window.
He watched dimensions slip by. Purple hills stretched and collapsed. Moons divided and crumbled. Stars exploded and left trails of neon light streaming in their wake. Worlds, beings and ways of existing tore past. Snowy mountains dotted with glass domes. Enormous steel orbs; interlinked, floating above a white sea. Tiny, elastic men seated on shifting jigsaw-puzzle panels; breaking, rotating and locking around a gaping black hole.
Everything he had ever known felt tiny and pointless. There were too many mistakes. The weight was unbearable. This is how things used to be, he thought. Anything was possible. We made our world smaller and smaller. I made my own world smaller and smaller.
The train pulled into a little station. A shabby hut beneath a forest. The suited man guided Charlie off. He rustled in his pocket and handed him a small card with a bird emblem.
'You mustn't give up hope,' he said.
He left Charlie shivering on the platform and boarded the train.