Headed ever southeast across the vast desert, the Strange Bird thought the world below looked so very old and so very worn, and only when she climbed to the right altitude could she pretend that it was beautiful.
The Strange Bird tried not to think of her dreams as she flew, for she could make no sense of them, hardly knew what a dream was, for it did not fit her internal lexicon and she had trouble holding in her head the idea of real and not-real.
Any more than did the prowling holograms that swirled up across the dead desert surface from time to time, performing subroutines from times so remote that nothing about them could be said to contain sense. Human figures welled up to walk, yet were composed of nothing but light. Sometimes they wore special contamination suits or astronaut suits. They trudged or they ran across the sands as if real, and then dissipated, and then came back into existence in the position where they had started, to again trudge or run, over and over.
Yet in watching this, the Strange Bird was reminded of the dream, and also of how detritus fell from her to the desert floor. Tiny bits of herself she did not need, and that she did not understand, for the way in which this material left her was too regular to be an accident, and she knew the compass inside her guided its distribution. Each time she regenerated the microscopic part that was lost so she could lose it once more.
In the laboratory, the scientists had taken samples from her weekly. She had lost something of herself every day. It was worse when they added something on, and then the Strange Bird had felt awkward, as if adjusting to an extra weight, and lurched off-balance on her perch, flapped her wings for hours until she felt settled again.
On the fifth day, just as the Strange Bird had become comfortable with this process—and the sun, the holograms, the cities, the higher elevations where the wind was so cold—a cloud blotted out the edge of the world, coming fast at her. She had not encountered a storm yet, but knew of storms, something inside of her programmed for evasion. But the cloud came at her too swift, too all-encompassing, and only at the last second did she see why: for it wasn’t a cloud at all but a swarm of emerald beetles, and the chittering sound they made as they flew scared her.
She tried to dive for ground cover but misjudged the distance, and the swarm overtook her like a wall, and she slammed into it, lost control of her wings, fell through a thick squall of beetles, progress slowed by their carapaces, righted herself in time to—head down like a battering ram and eyes shut—push through them even as they tore at her feathers and ripped along her belly.
Breaking free of them on the other side meant a lightness that surprised, and she rose more quickly than expected, caught in a tidal pool of air created by their passage. Thought herself free—only to spy just ahead the reason for the beetles’ panic: a real storm, spanning the horizon, and closing fast.
Emergency systems not triggered by the beetles switched on. A transparent sheath slid over her eyes and echolocation switched off so that she might rely on tracers and infrared in the midst of maelstrom.
Then the storm hit and she had nowhere to hide, no plan, no defenses, just the compass pulsing inside of her, and a body pummeled by winds gusting in all directions, trying only not to crash or be ripped to pieces.
The Strange Bird’s strength failed her, and she tumbled, rose and fell only because the wind willed it. Perhaps she called out before something dark with weight spun toward her out of the maelstrom. Perhaps she made a sound that was a person’s name as it struck her broadside, smashed her into a well of turbulence, knocked the consciousness from her. The Strange Bird could not remember later.
But whom could she have called for help? There was no one to help her, was there?
When the Strange Bird regained consciousness, head ringing, she found herself in a converted prison cell in a building buried in the sand. Only the narrowest foot-long slit of window at the top near the ceiling revealed the presence of the sun. All was dark and all was hard—the bench set into the wall like a long, wide treasure chest was hard. The walls were hard. The black bars, reinforced with wire and planks of wood, so she could not slip out, were hard. No soft surface for relief. No hint of green or of any life to reassure her.
The smell that came to the Strange Bird was of death and decay and untold years of suffering, and the dim-lit view that spread out before her beyond the bars was of a long, low room filled with odd furniture. At the far end an arched doorway led into still more darkness.
The Strange Bird panicked, felt a formless dread. She was back in the laboratory. She could not find her way out. She would never truly see the sky again. Thrashed her wings and screeched and fell off the bench and onto the bare dirt floor and lay there beak open, wings spread out, trying to appear large and fearsome.
Then a light turned on and the gloom lifted and the Strange Bird saw her captor. The one she would come to think of as the Old Man.
He sat atop an overturned bucket next to a rotting desk and watched her, the rest of the long room still murky behind him.
“Beautiful,” the Old Man said. “It is nice to have something beautiful here, in this place.”
The Strange Bird remained silent, for she did not want her captor to know that she understood, nor that she could, when she wished, form human words, even if she did not understand all of those words. Instead, she squawked like a bird and flapped her wings like a bird, while the Old Man admired her. In all ways, she decided to be a bird in front of him. But always, too, she watched him.
The Old Man had become folded in on himself over time. He had brown skin but pink-white splotches on his arms and face, as if something had burned him long ago, tried to strip him away from himself. He had but one eye and this was why when he stared it was with such purpose and intensity. His beard had turned white and so he looked always as if drowning, a froth of sea foam roiling across his chin, and with flecks of white across his burned nose and gaunt cheekbones. He wore thin robes or rags—who could tell which—and a belt to cinch from which hung tools and a long, flat rusted knife.
“I rescued you from the sands. You were buried there—just your head above. The storm had smashed you out of the sky. You are lucky I found you. The foxes and the weasels would have gotten to you. You would be in something’s belly by now. A special meal.”
The Old Man did not resemble a lab scientist to the Strange Bird and did not talk like a scientist, and his home was no laboratory the more she saw of it. She settled down, relaxed enough to search for injury, discovered soreness and strain but no broken bones. Feathers that had been lost but would grow back. She preened, checked for parasites, split two against the edge of her beak, while the man talked.
“My name is Abidugun. I was a carpenter like my father before me and his father. But now I have been many things. Now I am also a writer.” He gestured to a typewriter, ancient, atop the rickety desk. To the Strange Bird it resembled a metal tortoise with its insides on the outside. “Now I am trying to get it all down. Everything must be put down on the paper. Everything. No exceptions.”
The Old Man stared at the Strange Bird as if expecting a response but she had no response.
“I sleep in the cell when I don’t have guests,” the Old Man said. “The prison is all around us and below us—many levels. I was once a prisoner here, long ago, so I know. But that is ancient history. You don’t want to know about that. No one does.”
Although the prison was vast and the wind echoed through its many chambers during sandstorms, the Strange Bird would learn that all the Old Man’s possessions existed in this long room, for it was where he chose to live and the rest was nothing but hauntings to him.
“I am the only one here,” the Old Man said, “and I like it that way. But sometimes having guests is a good idea. You are my guest. Someday I will show you around the grounds here, if you are good. There are rules to being good that I will share.”
Yet he never shared the rules, and the Strange Bird had already seen the three crosses that stood in the sand outside, which she thought were perches for other birds now long dead. She had seen the tiny garden and well next to the crosses, for she turned echolocation back on and cast out her senses like a dark net across a glittering sea to capture whatever lay outside her cell. The well and garden were both a risk, even disguised as abandoned, derelict, overgrown.
“I am Abidugun,” he said again. “You I will call Isadora, for you are the most dazzling bird I have ever seen and you need a dazzling name.”
So, for a time, the Strange Bird became Isadora and responded to the name as best she could—when the Old Man fed her scraps, when he decided to read her stories from books, tales incomprehensible to her. She decided that even as she plotted to escape, she would pretend to be a good pet.
But in the lab, the scientists had kept her in a special sort of light that mimicked sunlight and fed her in its way, and now that she had only the barest hint of any light, she felt the lack.
“You should eat more,” the Old Man said, but the kind of food he brought often disgusted her.
“Life is difficult,” the Old Man said. “Everyone says it is. But death is worse.”
And he would laugh, for this was a common refrain, and the Strange Bird believed someone had said it to him and now he was under the spell of those words. Death is worse. Except she did not know anything of death but what she had seen in the laboratory. So she did not know if death was worse. She wished only that she might be that remote from the Earth and the humans who lived upon it. To glide above, to go where she wished without fear because she was too high up. To reduce humans again to the size she preferred: distant ghosts trudging and winking out to reappear again, looped and unimportant.
Beyond the dune that hid the Old Man lay a ruined city, vast and confusing and dangerous. Within that city moved the ghostly outlines of monstrous figures the Strange Bird could not interpret from afar, some that lived below the surface and some that strode across the broken places and still others that flew above.
Closer by, etched in the crosshairs of her extra perception . . . a fox, atop the dune, curious and compact and almost like a sentry watching the Old Man’s position. Soon, others joined the fox and she glimpsed the edges of their intent and, intrigued, she would follow them using echolocation whenever she sensed them near, when there was nothing else to do, and for the first time she experienced the sensation of boredom, a word that had meant nothing in the laboratory for there had been nothing to test boredom against. But now she had the blue limitless sky to test it against, and she was already restless.
Her senses also quested down the many tunnels and levels of the prison when the Old Man went hunting, so she might test the bars, the planks of the wood, the wire in his absence. The Old Man often disappeared into the maze down below, with his machete, and hunted long, black weasel-like creatures that lived there. She listened to the distant squeals as he found them and murdered them, and she saw in her mind the bubbles and burrows that were their lives become smaller and smaller until they were not there at all.
How in their evasion and their chittering one to another did the Old Man not realize their intelligence? On the mornings when the Strange Bird woke to find the thin, limp bodies of the black weasels lying half-in, half-out of a massive pot on a table halfway across the room, she felt a sense of loss the Old Man could not share.
The Strange Bird knew, too, that the Old Man might find her beautiful, but should he ever be starving, he would murder her and pluck her dazzling feathers and cook her and eat her, like he would any animal.
She would lie half-in, half-out of the pot, limp and thoughtless, and she would no longer be Isadora but just a strange dead bird.
Excerpted from The Strange Bird: A Borne Story by Jeff VanderMeer
e-book original to be published by MCD x FSG on August 1st, 2017