The Book of Names
(originally appeared in Beetroot Magazine)
Jake wrapped his fingers around a different clump of feathers. The wind slapped at this altitude and it was difficult to hold on. Sometimes he rested his head down on the bird’s neck. He felt its muscles flex slightly as it tilted its head to see more of the sky or some crawling thing on the ground. With his eyes closed he’d also get curious about the ground a thousand feet below, or about Caroline on the other bird.
Hey, he yelled to Caroline but she didn’t hear. She often looked over at Jake so even when his yells went unanswered she was looking over anyway. She waved.
Are you okay? he yelled.
What? she yelled.
I said how are you?
Cold, she yelled and smiled and waved again.
The birds took them down below some low-lying clouds. They flew over an open grassland. It was golden with occasional trees. Sometimes there were other birds, which Jake and Caroline’s birds avoided. They had to hold on as the birds soared sideways, necks twitching, eyes looking away away away until the strangers had passed.
How long do you think? Jake yelled.
I don’t know, Caroline yelled. She wasn’t thinking about how long it would take to get there. She was thinking about promises she had made and broken. When she was a child she promised she’d never steal or lie. She thought those were good things to make children promise. These promises reminded her of the ones she made to people in her life. Some to Jake. Some to herself. She’d been with other people since then but she couldn’t help but think about it. He was staring her in the face every time she turned. She tried to think about something else but the only other thing was the worry about starving to death or falling to death or freezing to death.
When the birds got hungry they tilted their bodies and glided down to the floor of a forest. As they pecked at grubs or nuts on the ground Jake and Caroline slid down to the smalls of the birds’ backs so they wouldn’t get bucked off. Jake took out some of the dense bread in his bag and ate it with some water.
Do you have enough water? he said.
I think so, Caroline said.
I need to sleep, he said. His bird hopped. It sent him up in the air and back down so he almost fell off.
When the birds’ bellies were full they jumped and took off. Jake and Caroline had to hold on tight and then climb up towards the big squawking heads. This time the animals stayed low as if they were looking for something. They flew close together and it was easy for Jake and Caroline to hear each other.
She smiled at Jake but he didn’t smile back. Jake was worrying about finding the village. He hoped the birds would hold out. He looked over at Caroline. She looked filthy. He started to think about their years together but pushed it away. Instead he looked in his bag for his skull cap.
The birds flew over a lake. They were low against the water as the sun was setting. The entire lake was orange and it looked like beaten metal. Shallow waves crested into each other. The birds’ wings stretched out like two wires that connected them to the horizon. Jake closed his eyes and fell asleep. Caroline looked back to the tail of the animal. Its feathers were layered on top of one another into a fan. The feathers looked still in the wind and the tail was so close to the water that she expected to see a wake trailing it. She looked up to see their progress: the forest, the mountains, the cloudless light sky fading to dark.
In the night the birds fed once. Jake and Caroline, sleepy, went through the routine. They ate a piece of dense bread and drank a little water. They jumped off and squatted in the bushes to relieve themselves. The birds, also used to the routine, waited for them. In the morning the sun grew hot and they covered their heads with sweatshirts.
Jake stretched his leg. His hamstring spasmed and he yelled.
Are you all right? Caroline yelled.
No, I’m not all right, he yelled and let the sun beat down on his face.
It can’t be more than a couple days, right? she yelled but Jake didn’t answer.
The next time the birds stopped to feed Caroline slid off and sprinted around. She squatted and stretched. I don’t think my body can take much more of this, she said.
You better get back on or it’s going to leave without you, he said.
Caroline crawled onto the back of the bird and as she got to its shoulders it gave a loud squawk and flapped its wings. Too many feathers came off into the air. Caroline saw the bare spot on its wing.
Jake, the bird’s missing feathers. I think he’s got it, she said.
Are you sure? Jake said but he didn’t need to hear the answer. If yours has it, then mine does too.
Are we going to make it? Caroline said. Her expressions were always more bold than she felt, but
Jake saw the wrinkles above her brow that he knew well. They were confirmation that she was heading away from worry and toward panic.
Let’s go, he said in a way that made her turn onto her stomach. He did the same and the birds took off. In the coming hours, a thousand feet up, the birds lost more feathers. Bunches pulled from their skin as they flapped to maintain their glide. The feathers flew into the cold wind like leaves from a dead tree.
In the morning the birds stopped on a bare hill. They could see down into the valley. There was an old riverbed, dusty and brown. The trees along it were droopy and in need of rain. Caroline’s bird didn’t eat. It sat there quiet, its eyes glazed over, stomach upset and muscles sore. It squatted and hunched as to curl into a ball that its bird body couldn’t manage. Jake’s bird was still foraging so he told Caroline to climb up.
They had to sit close so they wouldn’t fall off. At first they tried to ignore that they were touching. Jake didn’t turn around or say anything once Caroline was clinging to him. The bird flapped and took off. Caroline’s bird stayed put and got smaller as they went higher.
Will you talk to me, please, Caroline said after a while.
I see something, Jake said. They squinted at the future.
The main road of the village was matted with dead grass and it had patches of open dirt. The buildings were musty huts. At night the people lit lanterns and danced in celebration at what there was left to celebrate. Some stayed in their huts, too hurt or afraid to guess at what might come next. Children were born. The elderly died. Food was grown outside of the village in old sallow fields. There was just enough. More people meant more labor and every few weeks a few stragglers came rambling in. They were dirty and tired and sometimes spoke a different language, but they were always grateful, as if the village was the place for which they had been looking.
Malorie, the woman that everyone turned to for decisions, made newcomers feel welcomed. She ordered new huts built, another field cleared and planted. There was a three-shift lookout on the shore because every so often travelers came in on the backs of exhausted animals and when they came the villagers rejoiced. They held a celebration and danced all night, ate and drank to the growth of the citizenry. In the morning they went about their business, sweeping the dirt floors, digging trenches, inventing games and having arguments.
Oy, Turner yelled as through the mist on the water came a hulking bird with a dark lump on its back that meant only one thing. Malorie ordered water boiled, beds made, and she hushed the gathering crowd as they began rumors about who the newcomers might be and from where they might have come.
Malorie went to her hut to retrieve the Book of Names. It contained the oaths and signatures of all the villagers who had agreed to do their share, to care for one another. She took it to the shore where the bird would touch down. All the birds that brought newcomers came to this spot because the villagers threw down grain for them to feed on. When a new bird came it could see the grain from a great distance. She opened the book and sat with it in her lap. She took the chiseled pencil from her pocket and drew two lines. Then she turned back the pages to the first so that the newcomers could read the oath they must take, or if they could not read, so they could see words that would be read to them. She worried, as she did every time, that these travelers might bring with them evil of some kind, weapons or muscles that would be impossible to defend against. She worried the weariness of the villagers might outweigh that of the newcomers. Then she bowed her head and this made everyone looking on do the same.