Edition 17: Hunting the Sky Gods by Meryl Stenhouse
It’s do or die for Endless Jones: she’s taken a last chance at finding her past and left the only home she’s ever known. This delightful piece by Meryl Stenhouse should ring a true note with any of us that ever felt that we didn’t belong. SY
Endless Jones shifted her grip on the brickwork and very carefully did not look down. The wind tugged at her woollen tunic with icy fingers and whipped dark hair into her eyes, bringing with it the sharp tang of the ocean. She glanced over her left shoulder, towards the east and the high, cold mountains where the Sky Gods came from. Moonlight shone on the bars of the cage she carried on her back.
“Can’t we discuss this in a logical manner?” said the canary from his cage. “Possibly somewhere closer to the ground?”
“No,” said Endless. The howl of marauding wolves and the frantic bleating of sheep drifted up the valley. Endless felt a pang of guilt for abandoning the sheep. But tomorrow was the first day of spring, the day when the Sky Gods would sweep over the valley on their annual cycle, as regular as the seasons. It had to be tonight.
“I mean, I’m all for someone chasing their dreams, but I’m not sure you’ve considered all the consequences—”
“I know what I’m doing, bird. I’ve got a plan.”
“Oh, well, if you’ve got a plan we’re all fine then, aren’t we?”
Endless heard the click and whirr of the silver bird as it shifted in its cage. It was a brass cage, light and ancient and finely made, and getting heavier by the minute.
“I’m sure that if you just climb down and hand me back, people will be very forgiving. Because we are, you know, very high. Very high indeed.”
Endless smiled in the darkness. “Never met a bird who was afraid of heights before.”
“Ah, well. See, the problem there is this cage. I can’t fly in a cage.”
“You won’t need to fly. And stop moving about, or I might lose my grip.”
The bird relapsed into silence and Endless checked for another handhold.
“I don’t see why we couldn’t take the stairs.”
“The stairs are rotten.” She shifted her weight, brought a twisted foot up and found a gap with searching toes. “I tried that already. And the inner wall is too smooth to climb.”
But the outer wall, though as well-made as all the buildings from before the Unwinding, was pocked and cracked with age. The mortar crumbled between the bricks, offering a multitude of handholds to an experienced climber.
Endless shifted her grip again, and made another painful advancement with fingers scratched and bleeding from the stone. The muscles of her twisted right leg ached from the climb. Worse than that, her nose itched, and had for the last five minutes.
She looked up at her objective, the railing around what might have been an observation deck, long ago.
“If the stairs are rotten, how are we going to get back down?” said the canary.
Endless sighed and focused her attention back on the bricks. “We’re not. We’re going to get to the top, then fly.”
There was silence again and Endless made good headway.
“What, exactly, do you mean by fly? Not to be critical but you, ah, lack the fundamental tools for flying.”
“Don’t you think I can fly, bird?” She thrust upwards suddenly and grabbed a handhold just out of reach. The canary squawked and flapped its wings and she grinned.
The railing was definitely closer. Above the wind and the roar of the surf below, she could hear the chatter of the roosting Kittiwakes.
“I think they’ve noticed that you’ve gone.”
Endless turned her head without thinking and her hand slipped. She grabbed frantically at the wall. Sharp pain shot up her finger as something pierced her under a nail, but she was too busy pressing herself to the bricks, heart hammering in her chest as the world spun around her.
“There are a lot of lights down there now and—”
“Bird. If you don’t shut up, I am going to cut this rope and let you fall. Do you hear me? One more word!” She shivered, half with the chill of the pre-dawn air and half with the shock of almost falling.
“Really? Why did you drag me all the way up here, then, if you don’t need me?”
Endless opened her eyes, and felt weariness creep over her. She did need him, and he was smart enough to know it.
“Fine. I need you. But if you distract me and we fall, then we’re both going to die. So please be quiet until we get to the top. Please?”
She took a deep breath and stretched up for another handhold. Her arms and legs shook. Just a little further, she told herself.
“All right. I’ll be quiet.”
Endless gripped the bricks and gritted her teeth. He’d had the last word now. Maybe he would shut up for the rest of the climb.
Her arms and legs felt like waterbags, not limbs, by the time Endless gripped the edge of the rail and pulled herself over. She lay for a moment on the metal grating, feeling the sweat between her shoulders turn to ice.
Through the grating she could see the tower stretch away below her. Sometimes she caught the flash of moonlight on spray as the waves pounded at the rocks below. Up here the roar of the sea was muted, but the smell was just as strong.
The kittiwakes nesting on the cornices above her chattered and screamed. She slipped out of the rope holding the cage and pushed it in towards the stone wall, then rolled over on her back.
Above her, the stars shone in a clear sky. She turned her head to look down the valley at the little cluster of huts that had been her home for as long as she could remember. Torches flickered in the darkness, many more than there should have been at this hour. The bird was right, she had been missed. The lights moved about the little village, but none came up the narrow path to the tower. And even if they thought to look for her here, who would climb the sheer stone walls for an ugly foundling girl with a twisted leg?
She looked away then, up at the dark glass of the dome which rose above them. Added to the theft of the silver bird there was now the delinquency of leaving the sheep to the mercy of marauding wolves. No, there was no home for her there now. It was the dome, or the sea.
She pushed herself up on hands and knees and crawled across the grating to the wall. The metal groaned and she froze for a moment in terror. But it held, and she forced herself to move again.
She sat down beside the bird with her back to the stone, and looked out over the hills.
“Yap, yap, yap. Do you never shut up?” said the canary.
Endless turned to him in surprise, but he wasn’t talking to her.
The little bird’s head was cocked to one side as he stared up at the mass of white birds nesting in the dome above them. “It’s enough to drive anyone crazy. Fish fish feed the chick ride the wind danger danger.” The canary clicked its beak in annoyance. “A vocabulary of 10 words, if that.” He raised his wings and then squawked and chattered at them in a perfect imitation. The kittiwakes fell silent, and a hundred dark eyes watched them from above.
“What did you say to them?” she asked.
The canary shuffled his wings back into place with a noise like knives rattling in a drawer. “I told them you were a big land seal and you would eat them up if they didn’t be quiet. Luckily they aren’t very bright.”
Endless laughed. “Not like you, then.”
“Of course not.” She felt that he would have sniffed, if he could.
“You’re very old, aren’t you?”
The canary turned his head to regard her. “Very old. Impossibly old.”
“As old as the tower?”
“Well, no. Not that old.” He shifted on his perch. “Actually I’m only a few hundred years old.” The canary dipped its head in a bow. “My name is Bikak Takimi kus Sarkisi.”
“That’s a mouthful.”
“And you are?”
She grimaced, though Bikak wouldn’t see it in the dark. “Endless Jones.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t name myself.” The silence stretched on. “It’s short for ‘Endless trouble’.”
Endless avoided the canary’s gaze. “But you’re from the sky, aren’t you? A servant of the Sky Gods?”
The canary tilted its head. “No. Why would you think that?”
“You’re a mechanical thing. I thought you must have been made by them.”
They both glanced upwards at the mention of the great, dark shapes that would sweep across the sky every year.
“I’m afraid not. I was created in a workshop in Tashkent. I was supposed to be a wedding present for the prince.”
“Political upheaval, revolution, the fall of the royal family. Actually I have no idea. My maker put me in a box, ready for the ceremony. When I woke up, I was in the hands of your village chief, who can’t understand a word I say.” The canary turned its gaze on her, and the moonlight reflected on a small, garnet eye. “In fact, no one can understand me here, except for the birds…and you, Endless Trouble Jones.”
“Yes.” Endless drew her knees to her chest. She had been lying in the dirt beneath her master’s belt, getting a flogging for not being fast enough, not being pretty enough, not being worth anything at all to a man with almost a hundred sheep.
And she’d heard a voice say, “Well that’s a lovely way to treat your daughter, you great lump of sheep droppings.” And the shock of it, of hearing that language again, had frozen her in her tracks and earned her a scar on her cheek that would never fade.
Curiosity had brought her back, again and again, to spy on the silver canary as it sat in its cage and harangued the chickens that pecked and fluttered in the muddy street. And in time she realised that the people of the village didn’t hear anything except the twittering and chatter of a bird.
“So how is it that you live in a mud-walled village and you can understand a language that has been dead for a hundred years?”
In answer, Endless reached down to her belt and tugged free the little sack she kept there. She reached in and pulled out a box, and held it up before the canary.
Bikak hopped to the bars and peered at the box. “What is it?”
“I don’t know. I call it the Goose Box.” She tilted the box so the moonlight played over the carvings of geese in flight over sharp mountains. She pressed a button on the side and it opened. Inside a silver ball swung in-between a brass circle, marked into sixteen divisions.
Bikak climbed the side of the cage and hung there, watching the compass as Endless tilted it, making the ball swing wildly in its casing. “It used to talk to me. About clear skies and fair winds and the pass over the mountains. It glowed, blue like the water. But it got quieter and quieter and then one day it just stopped.”
“Where did you get it?”
“It was with me when they found me,” she whispered.
It was first thing she could remember hearing. Lying on the little bed with the pain of her twisted foot, the words had soothed her. She had understood them in a way that she had not understand the woman who stroked her brow and fed her tasteless broth.
The man who owned her had taken the little box away. She remembered screaming and screaming until the woman chastised him in a sharp voice. He shrugged and handed it back to her. The box had been hers from then on. It was a worthless thing as far as the village people were concerned. So she with her twisted leg and the little chattering goose box had grown up an oddity, an ugly foundling with brown skin and dark hair and strange eyes.
“Yes, I can understand you, and I thought—” She paused. “I thought you must be from the same place that I am.”
“And where are you from?” said the canary, hopping back onto its perch.
Endless looked up at the stars. “I belong to the Sky Gods,” she said.
There was a long, long silence from the canary. “What makes you think that the box comes from the Sky Gods?”
“Because I know I can fly,” said Endless. She looked out over the dark landscape under the stars. “It’s all I dream about. My first dream, I was flying so high, looking down on the world. It was green and brown the blue and I remember the clouds came in about me. They were dark and wet. They’re not fluffy at all, you know.”
“They’re not?” said the canary.
“No. They look like that but they’re not, and how would I know that if I can’t fly?”
In the east above the mountains there was a glimmer of light. Endless stared into the dawn, wondering if she was imagining dark shapes rising before the clouds.
“I don’t belong here,” she said, “I’ve never belonged. I came from the sky and now I want to go back.”
The canary shuffled on its perch. “You know those dreams could just be…dreams.”
“No.” Endless pushed herself up until she was standing with her back against the glass dome. “They’re not just dreams. That’s where I belong, and it’s calling me home.”
She turned and leaned against the dome. Up close now, with the sun rising behind her, she could see that what the villagers thought was glass was something else. Not green and warped and bubbled like the glass in the headman’s hut, but silvery and clear. It rose in a great curving sweep of latticed metal and diamond glass. Endless scratched at the caked dust and grime with her fingernails. When that made no impression she pulled out her little belt knife and scratched again. She heard a rattle from Bikak’s cage.
“So how is climbing this tower going to help?
Endless rubbed at the glass and peered through the tiny area she had cleared but the interior of the dome was dark. She slipped the knife back in her belt and turned to the bird. “This is where I need your help.”
In the dawn light, another noise could be heard, a shuffling and creaking from the top of the dome.
Endless and the canary both looked up as the sun brushed the glass. Now in the light she could see the mess of sticks that formed the communal nest of the giant storks that nested on top of the dome.
“Oh no,” said the canary.
“Oh yes,” said Endless.
The canary rattled about in the cage. “I really don’t think this is a good idea.”
“It will work. Trust me.”
“No, no, it won’t,” said the canary.
Endless reached down for the straps and slung the cage onto her back. “I need you to talk to the storks. Stop them flying away until I can get up there.”
“And then what? You just hop on their back and fly away?” The canary flapped its wings, making the bars ring.
“Shh! You’ll frighten them off.”
“Well that’s good. If they fly away, then we won’t have to do this crazy thing.”
“If they fly away, the only way we get down is by jumping,” said Endless.
“Either way, it’s straight down. I won’t do it.”
Endless paused with her hands on the metal frame of the dome. “I’ll make you a deal. If you do this for me. I promise when we get up to the top I’ll let you go.”
The canary was silent for a moment. “You will?”
“I promise. All you have to do is keep them happy until I get up there.”
“You’re crazy, Endless Jones.”
Endless shrugged. People had been telling her that all her life.
“All right, I’ll do it.”
Endless pressed her lips together and looked over her shoulder, squinting towards the sun. There were definitely large shapes running before the light, high up in the orange-tinted clouds. She turned her attention back to the dome and started to climb.
The dome was easier to climb than the tower itself. The metal frame offered easy hand and footholds, and the dome curved inwards as it rose so Endless could lean against it as she climbed. There was a sudden burst of noise above her, a forlorn honking and the shuffle of wings.
The canary started to chatter on her back, harsh, loud sounds that she would not have expected from such a tiny bird. But the noise settled the birds and Endless continued her climb.
She was startled to see a bird’s head poke over the edge of the nest. The head twisted this way and that as the stork examined her. The canary talked faster and the stork head withdrew. Endless grabbed a branch wider than her arm and pulled herself up over the edge of the nest.
The mass of sticks and feathers at the top of the dome was wider than the one-roomed hut she had grown up in. Five of the enormous storks watched her and her metal passenger, who was chattering as fast as his clockwork would let him. But the storks were silent.
“If I let you out now,” whispered Endless, “will you keep talking? Please?”
“I will,” muttered the canary.
Endless eased the cage off her back. She slipped a finger down toward the latch, moving cautiously. The bird nearest to her was a massive female, her wingspan wider than Endless was tall. Endless undid the latch and the canary hopped toward the door.
Endless glanced over her shoulder once more at the dark shapes heading towards them, high in the sky. If she failed today it was over. She would never have another chance.
She slipped forward carefully until she could almost touch the feathers the stork. It glared at her and snapped its beak together with a sound like timber breaking.
“Be careful, be careful,” said the canary. It chattered rapidly. “She doesn’t trust me. If you want to go, then go.”
Endless tensed and then leapt onto the broad back. There was a mad honking and crashing and all of the birds catapulted up into the sky, filling it with the thunder and crack of wings. Endless clung to the body, her arms around the stork’s neck as it plummeted towards the ground. She thought for a moment that she would end her struggles in a dizzying crash into the rocks below.
But then the stork spread its wings and soared.
“Up, up!” she cried. She wrapped her arms around its neck, tried to guide it by tilting her body, but the stork did not understand her and flapped erratically across the sky.
She saw the shape of the Sky Gods as they came closer, but they were still far too high above her.
“Come on,” she screamed. She leaned back, trying to encourage the bird to fly upward but the stork wouldn’t heed her.
Then she heard a chattering and there was Bikak, his wings a blur as he raced along beside her. He shrieked at the stork and then the stork was going upwards with great sweeps of its wings. The canary struggled to keep up.
Endless reached out and pulled him into her chest. They seemed to climb and to climb, up and up until it grew bright around them and the air turned thin and cold. The sunlight curved around the dark shapes of the Sky Gods. Endless clung to the stork, buried her face in the feathers as its wings beat around her.
The Sky Gods grew and blotted out the sky. Closer now, she could see there were nine of them, flying in a triangle, with round dark bellies and stubby wings. Their undersides were laced with long, jagged scars, silver streaks on dark metal.
And then the roar and thunder of the engines. A propeller loomed over them and the stork panicked, lurching up and slamming into the hard metal belly. Endless screamed as the turbulence tossed them like a leaf in a storm. She clung to the bird as they were thrown up and over the engines, and slammed down onto a metal deck.
Endless let go and rolled, coming up against a wall. She looked back to see the stork stagger to its feet and flap its wings and then the wind tore the bird away from her. She could hear nothing over the scream of the engines and the thunder of the wind.
She crouched on the deck in the shell of the Sky God. Above her, twisted spars arched, blackened and half-melted. On the floor beneath her was the litter of ages, dust and debris and dead birds. Endless crawled to the edge of the deck and looked out.
The Sky Gods were nothing more than hollow shells whirling endlessly around the world, empty, destroyed.
Bikak fluttered against her chest. She reached in and pulled the canary out of her tunic. He lay in her hand, wings buzzing ineffectively, beak opening and closing soundlessly. He went still in her hand and she stroked the metal head.
“They’re dead,” she said to him. But the canary did not reply.
Endless reached down to her belt and pulled out the goose box. She put it on the floor amid the debris and opened the top. The ball rested steady, needle pointing to the west.
“I’m sorry,” she said to the canary.
She lay on the deck, feeling the cold creeping into her feet and her hands, felt the wind stirring the back of her hair, buffeting her tunic about her, drying the tears on her face.
I tell you, I saw something!
I don’t know. It was up near the front.
Endless opened her eyes. The outlines of the carvings on the goose box glowed. She reached out a hand. The box was warm to the touch.
I definitely saw something.
Well, head up and take a look.
Keep your eyes peeled.
The voices coming from the box were tinny and faint. And then there was a different sound. Endless rolled onto her back and looked up.
A vessel rose beside the Sky God, tiny in comparison, tossing and dancing in the wind.
Hells bells. The ship is fighting like a wildcat. I can’t stay here very long.
Well, just fly over and take a look.
I’m looking, I’m looking!
Endless pushed herself upright.
It’s a girl!
Look, it’s a girl! On the deck!
Get the grapple!
Endless grabbed the goose box and tucked it into her pouch with the canary. Then she crawled towards the edge as the vessel rocked and bounced alongside.
She saw a girl reflected in a window. A little brown girl with hair as black as night, long and straight, and eyes that slanted upwards. An ugly girl, just like her.
Endless reached the edge as the vessel came closer. Grapples landed on the frame of the Sky God and a door slid open before her. A hand was held out. Endless looked up into the face of a man in goggles and a leather cap.
“Take my hand,” he shouted to her, though the wind tried to tear the words away.
Endless reached out and grabbed his gloved hand. He yanked her forward and onto the vessel, closing the door behind them.
Endless turned and looked through the porthole at the patchwork of green and brown below her, brighter and more real than her dreams. She looked up at the man beside her. He pulled off his cap and goggles, revealing a shock of dark hair and brown skin. Just like her.
“Hello,” he said, smiling down at her.
“Hello,” whispered Endless, and knew that she was home.
Meryl Stenhouse lives in subtropical Queensland with her family, a weed-infested garden and far too many characters. She has been a research scientist, call-centre operator, auditor and environmental officer but now writes fiction for a living. Her stories have appeared in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, Shimmer, Shock Totem, and Extreme Planets Anthology.