The Strange Bird’s first thought was of a sky over an ocean she had never seen, in a place far from the fire-washed laboratory from which she emerged, cage smashed open but her wings, miraculous, unbroken. For a long time the Strange Bird did not know what sky really was as she flew down underground corridors in the dark, evading figures that shot at one another, did not even know that she sought a way out. There was just a door in a ceiling that opened and a scrabbling and scrambling with something ratlike after her, and in the end, she escaped, rose from the smoking remnants below. And even then she did not know that the sky was blue or what the sun was, because she had flown out into the cool night air and all her wonder resided in the points of light that blazed through the darkness above. But then the joy of flying overtook her and she went higher and higher and higher, and she did not care who saw or what awaited her in the bliss of the free fall and the glide and the limitless expanse.
Oh, for if this was life, then she had not yet been alive!
The sunrise that blazed out from the horizon across the desert, against a wall of searing blue, blinded her and in her surprise made the Strange Bird drop from her perch on an old dead tree to the sands below.
For a time, the Strange Bird kept low to the ground, wings spread out, frightened of the sun. She could feel the heat of the sand, the itch of it, and sensed the lizards and snakes and worms and mice that lived down below. She made her way in fits and starts across the desert floor that had once been the bed of a vast sea, uncertain if she should rise for fear of being turned into an ember.
Was it near or far? Was it a search light from the laboratory, trying to find her? And still the sun rose and still she was wary and the air rippled and scorpions rustled out and a lunging thing upon a distant dune caught a little creature that hopped not far enough away and the air smelled like cinders and salt.
Am I in a dream? What would happen if I leapt up into the sky now? Should I?
Even as under the burning of the sun her wings seemed to grow stronger, not weaker, and her trailing passage grew bold, less like a broken wing and more like a willful choice. The pattern of her wing against the sand like a message she was writing to herself. So she would remember. But remember what?
The sound of the patter of paws kicking up sand threw the Strange Bird into a panic and she forgot her fear of the burning orb and flew off into the air, almost straight up, up, and up, and no injury came to her and the blue enveloped her and held her close. Circling back over her passage, against the wind, taxing the strength of her wings, she spotted the two foxes that had been sniffing her trail.
They looked up at her and yipped and wagged their tails. But the Strange Bird wasn’t fooled. She dive-bombed them once, twice, for the fun of it, and watched them yelp and look up at her with an injured look in their eyes, even though behind it lay a cold gleam and ravenous smiles.
Then she wheeled high again and, taking care not to look directly into the sun, headed southeast. To the west lay the laboratory where they had done such beautiful, such terrible things.
Where was she headed, then?
Always to the east, always veering south, for there was a compass in her head, an insistent compass, pushing her forward.
What did she hope for?
To find a purpose, and for kindness, which had not yet been shown to her.
Where did she wish to come to rest?
A place she could call home, a place that was safe. A place where there might be others of her kind.
The Dark Wings
The next day a vision of a city quavered and quivered on the horizon alongside the sun. The heat was so intense that the city would not stop moving through waves of light. It resembled hundreds of laboratories stacked atop and alongside each other, about to fall over and break open.
With a shudder, the Strange Bird veered to the southwest, then east again, and in a little while the mighty city melted into bands and circles of darkness against the sand, and then it vanished. Had the sun destroyed it? Had it been a kind of ghost? The word ghost felt gritty in her head, something unfamiliar, but she knew it meant an end to things.
Was the laboratory a ghost now? Not to her.
On the seventh day after the intruders had dug their way up into the laboratory . . . on that day, the scientists, cut off from supplies, and under siege in the room that held the artificial island meant only for their creations, had begun to slaughter the animals they had created, for food.
The Strange Bird had perched for safety on a hook near the ceiling and watched, knowing she might be next. The badger that stared up, wishing for wings. The goat. The monkey. She stared back at them and did not look away, because to look away was to be a coward and she was not cowardly. Because she must offer them some comfort, no matter how useless.
Everything added to her and everything taken away had led to that moment and from her perch she had radiated love for every animal she could not help, with nothing left over for any human being.
Not even in the parts of her that were human.
She encountered her first birds in the wild soon after she left the ghost city behind, before turning southeast again. Three large and dark that rode the slipstream far above her and, closer, a flock of tiny birds. She sang out her song to them, meant as friendly greeting, that recognized them as kin, that said although she did not know them, she loved them. But the little birds, with their dart-dots for eyes and the way they swarmed like a single living creature, rising up and falling down wavelike, or like a phantom shadow tumbling through the air, did not recognize her as kin. There was too much else inside her.
They treated the Strange Bird as foe, with a great raspy chirping, the beat of wings mighty as one, and raked at her with their beaks. She dropped and rolled, bewildered, to get below them, but they followed, pecking and making of their dislike a vast orchestral sound, and she wore a coat of them, felt their oily mottled feathers scraping against hers.
It was an unbearable sensation, and with a shriek the Strange Bird halted her dive and instead rose fast, tunneling up through a well of cold air, against the weight of her kin, until the little birds peeled off, could not follow that high and they became a cloud below, furious and gnatlike. While the cold wind brought her a metallic smell and the world opened up, so the Strange Bird could see on the curving edges that the desert did end, and on one corner at least turned green and wooded. A faint but sharp scent of sea salt tantalized, faded into nothing, but spoke to the compass within her, which came alive once again.
But now the three dark-winged monsters that had been above her drifted to either side, the feathers at the ends of wide wings like long fingers and their heads gray and bereft of feathers and their eyes tinged red.
They rode the wind in silence for several minutes, and the Strange Bird was content to recover in the dark wings’ company. But a prickling of her senses soon became an alert that the dark wings were probing the edges of her mind, the defenses the scientists had placed there. Walls the Strange Bird hadn’t known existed slid into place and, following certain protocols, a conduit opened while all else became a shield wall, sacrosanct.
Words that appeared in her head, placed there by the dark wings. She had no answer, but in approaching her, they had opened themselves up and because they were older, they had no sense yet of the danger, of how their own security had been breached by the complex mechanisms living inside the Strange Bird. Much of what was new in them, of their own making, had arisen solely to talk to each other with more autonomy, to become more like birds.
For the Strange Bird realized that, just like her, they were not strictly avian, and that unlike her, parts of them were not made of flesh at all. With a shock, she came to understand that, like living satellites, they had been circling the world for a vast amount of time, so many years she could barely hold them in her head. She saw that they were tasked with watching from above and transmitting information to a country that no longer existed, the receiving station destroyed long ago, for a war that had been over for even longer.
In their defenselessness, performing their old tasks, keeping data until full to bursting, erasing some of it, to begin again, the Strange Bird gleaned a view of the world that had been, saw cities cave in on themselves or explode outward like passionflower blooms opening, a tumbling and an expansion that was, at its heart, the same thing. Until there was just what observed from above, in the light and the dark, sentinel-silent and impartial, not inclined to judgment . . . for what would the judgment be? And how would a sentence be carried out now that all those responsible were dead and buried? But in these images, the Strange Bird knew that, perversely, the laboratory had functioned as sanctuary . . . just not for the animals kept there.
The dark wings needed no food. They needed no water. Ceaselessly they flew and ceaselessly they scanned the land beneath them, and never had their talons felt the firmness of a perch or their beaks food. The thought brought an almost human nausea to the Strange Bird.
Shall I set you free? she queried. And in a way, she meant to set the world within them free, too.
For she could see that this was possible, that with the right command, the dark wings would drop out of their orbits and think for themselves, in their way, and rejoin the landscape beneath them. What they would do then, she didn’t know, but surely this would be a comfort to them?
But the query alarmed the dark wings, tripped some internal security, lurching back online. All three gave out a mighty cry, and right there, beside her, they burst into specks of blackness that she could see were miniature versions of their larger selves and the specks dispersed into the thin air. The dark wings vanished as if never there and the Strange Bird’s heartbeat quickened and she flew higher still as if she could escape what she had seen.
Whether in a day or a week, the specks would find each other and bind together again, slipping into the old, familiar pattern, and once more three dark wings would glide across the invisible skin of the world on their preordained routes, performing functions for masters long dead. They might fly on for another century or two, dead-alive, until whatever powered them grew old or distant or the part of them that was flesh wore out.
Yet even as specks roiled by the buffeting wind, the dark wings communicated with one another. The Strange Bird could hear them, mote speaking to mote, sharing intel about her. Telling what must be lies.
From The Strange Bird. Used with permission of MCD x Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Jeff VanderMeer.