“Alas” is pleased to present the second of three short stories by Nisi Shawl.
Nisi Shawl is the co-editor of Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler (forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press) and the co-author of Writing the Other, a guide to developing characters of varying racial, ethnic, and sexual backgrounds. Her reviews and essays appear in the Seattle Times and Ms. Magazine. Shawl is a founding member of the Carl Brandon Society and serves on the Board of Directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, which she attended in 1992. These stories can be found in her collection, Filter House (Aqueduct Press) which won the James Tiptree Jr Award in 2008. Visit her on the web at her livejournal, Nisi-la.
(At the author’s request, comments are not activated.)
by Nisi Shawl
We sat in a circle on the side of the street. Some of us had lawn chairs, or folding chairs we’d brought out from our houses. Stepstools, even. We had a bunch of different kinds of seats we were sitting in.
This was the day to commune with birds. It was a beautiful, cool, early spring morning. The pavement smelled clean and damp.
I was wearing a warm, comfortable caftan, embroidered with silver and dark colors. There were a lot of interesting-looking birds flying around low and purposefully, looking for the person they had a message for. It wouldn(t do any good to get someone else(s message, or to worry too much whether or not one was ever coming. We relaxed and watched the birds, and talked with neighbors who stopped by our circle. There were a few empty chairs. Eventually, someone might sit in them.
Suddenly, a bird approached me. It was a sort of bird I’d never seen before, a large duck with a sheeny, blue back, the blue of a clear sky just before dawn. I’d never seen a bird like this before, but I knew it was mine. It hovered awkwardly in front of me and gripped my index fingers with its webbed feet, pulling me. My heart lifted and I stood up.
The duck flew backwards, its feet still wrapped around my fingers. I went with it. It let go and turned to fly forward, and I followed it out of the city.
I wasn’t about to let it get away from me. This was definitely my bird.
I saw a Great Auk from the corner of my eye, huge, black-and-white, with a broad, brightly-colored bill. It flew down a side road, but I stayed focused on my bird.
The paved road had turned into well-graded brown dirt, dark and wet. I saw houses that people were building: open, pleasing structures. I lost sight of my bird, but went on in the direction it had taken, out of the city. I stayed focused on it, even when I couldn(t see it anymore.
I heard the soft beating of its wings, and knew it flew on before me.
A stream joined me, running alongside the road. Daffodils joined the stream. Together, we left the houses behind.
I kept walking. I couldn’t see my bird anywhere. I closed my eyes. The stream murmured to itself. The only beating I heard was my heart.
How could I catch up? Without wings, how could I fly?
I opened my eyes again and looked around. Where was I? Maybe this was where my bird had been bringing me. Maybe it had left me where I was supposed to be.
Tall trees with their leaves just beginning arched over the road. It was really more a wide path than a road, now. It moved among the tall trees slowly, one way, then another, quite casually. As if it knew where it was going, but felt no rush to get there.
This didn’t seem like a place to stop at, an end.
Maybe my bird had left me because I would be able to figure out everything on my own from here.
I saw sky through the trees, beyond them. I went at the path(s pace till I came to their edge.
It was quite an edge. Only clouds beyond. Very beautiful clouds, with popcorn-colored crests, and sunken rifts full of shadows like grey milk.
It was evening already. I could tell by the light. I had been following my bird all day. How had that happened? I had lost track of the time.
That didn’t matter, though.
My bird did matter. And its message for me.
It had to be around here somewhere.
The clouds’ lighter parts changed and became the color of the insides of unripe peaches. Against them rose black flecks, the flocks of birds flying away from us. Away once more, until next year.
Silence stirred the hairs on the nape of my neck. Silence and a small wind fanned them so they extended upward. And outward. Up and out. Above my head, my bird flew forward, over the edge.
I went with it.