by V. Hughes
The wind’s desperate grasp strips the frail leaves from the silver maple but the giant looks as if it still wears its finery, a borrowed dress perhaps, with the murder of crows gathered within its branches. The girl listens to the soft flutter of wings, stretches out her hand to catch a single black feather as it drifts down in a slow spiral. When the stiff plume makes contact with her skin the birds alight and she gasps, even though she has already seen their departure.
The girl watches the murder grow smaller. She watches the empty leaden skies for a long time, until the shadows of the night form and Morgan comes for her.
Morgan follows her gaze into nothing. “Just like you said.”
The girl tucks the feather into the breast pocket of her heavy flannel work shirt. “Is Sirin okay?”
Morgan looks down at the girl. “I haven’t seen her since breakfast.”
Hand in hand they walk back to the compound.
Stubborn, the old tree: the last one that still unfurled its leaves long after the others died. Their skeletons dot the landscape like matchsticks. The crows were the last birds to nest so near them, although once in a while the girl would see something high in the sky and imagine there were still others, somewhere.
But now the murder has left.
And Sirin lay dying.
As they approach the compound in almost total dark the girl takes a fearful glance around and Morgan, who notices, tightens her grip. Even on quiet nights, which were never truly quiet, some horror lurks outside: a creature sick from radiation poison, or one of the biological weapons unleashed from the labs as the onslaught took hold and spilled secrets into the oceans, soil, and air.
Tara greets them at the entrance, solemn.
“Morgan hurry. It’s Sirin.”
The girl gazes up at Morgan who looks back at her for an instant before she helps Tara shut and lock the steel door of the heavy gate that encircles the compound with a loud clang. She follows the women past the Gathering House, where most everyone will be right now, before they retire to their smaller, private quarters. Morgan keeps the one they share neat despite the collection of trinkets she makes out of scrap material to occupy her mind and because she loves to make art.
They stop when they reach the center of the compound and the infirmary, where now only a single patient lay: Sirin, the bird woman, who whispers a poem to the girl each night before bed.
Even in their small community there exist families of sorts, cobbled together from the wreckage.
“Sirin.” Morgan grasps Sirin’s hands in her own. “The crows are gone. The girl watched them leave.”
“I know.” Sirin turns her head and looks into the girl’s eyes. “I saw.”
A steady stream of visitors pours in and out of the infirmary for long after the girl leaves, before Morgan can tell her to. Right before dawn, as they wrap Sirin for burial, the girl stands at one of the windows and watches the shadows of the night as they weave in and out of the compound’s vicinity.
She searches the sky but sees only blackness.
The girl returns to her quarters and places some clothes, a supply of food, matches, a water purifier, her knife, her field guide of edible wild plants, and the book of poems, which she steals from Sirin’s rooms, in her pack, straps her bedroll on the bottom. Watches unnoticed as the women carry Sirin into the garden that flourishes all along the inner back wall of the compound. The girl hears the dull thud as they settle Sirin’s shrouded body into the ground over the final clash of the door closing behind her.
Each night, sleepless under dubious shelter, the girl thinks she will turn back. Each morning, she presses on. She follows the stream that flows near the compound at first, builds her cook fire and a lean-to well before dark, when the things at night become more active. Not sure, anymore, why she left, what she seeks. And then one day she finds it: a single black feather in the middle of the warped road. As she bends over to pick it up she hears a rustle of wings above her and cocks her head just in time to see a solitary bird alight into the empty sky.
V. Hughes is a writer and librarian living in upstate New York and dreaming of drifting back West. She is currently revising a collection of short stories and trying to pen a haiku a day. Read her haiku and get to know her a bit on Twitter @_Veee_ or at her blog V. Hughes.