She tried to shake off the inhibitions of a lifetime and set off towards the hill. She climbed it feeling fragile and was intensely nervous, filled with thoughts of what she had been told about this mound. That witches gathered there each new moon; that the fairy folk, with their silver skins and strangely jointed limbs, lived beneath it; that it was the centre of the world and the protecting walls of cloud spun slowly around with the top of the hill as their pivot.
As she reached the top she saw a fire had been lit in the middle of a wide circle of flat stone slabs. On the other side of the fire from her sat the old man, unexpectedly tall with a face invisible under his thick dirty beard but with eyes a friendly, warm brown.
He said nothing, just looked at Ana as though sizing her up for some task. She felt like a free labourer being assessed by a potential client. He began to play on a small drum -- a simple repetitive beat that got inside Ana’s head.
She could see the sparks rising in a fountain of speckled light. The old man's eyes were black through the fire. Confused and a little frightened Ana considered leaving but from somewhere she found the strength to stay.
She could see the stars spinning, a sprinkling of snow against soft black felt. She remained silent.
She could see that which all the inhabitants of the land could see but always denied, sometimes with great force. She could see the flesh-in-ice itself.
She'd seen it once before, in a waking dream she'd had as a child.
Huge, mountain sized but without the solidity of a mountain, it drifted, somehow obscenely, over the ground, as light as feathers with a body that was roughly conical in shape, three sets of tentacles projecting from half way down. The tentacles tapered and coiled inwards, each set of coils wound around the body when not in use.
It moved on countless stubby, unarticulated legs and where each leg fell ants of ice, translucent blue, emerged.. They hurried across the ground in stark contrast to the slow gait of their parent and they ate the ground, turning it to tiny lumps of ice which they piled up, producing ever growing spires, watchtowers of the cold they spread.
She'd run to tell her mother about the dream but mother hadn't listened to details, just laughed in joy that her little girl was becoming a woman. She'd been dragged before the council which called for a celebratory feast that night. Her waking dream was a form of prophecy, a rare skill and one that only came with puberty, hence her mothers delight.
At the end of this reminiscence the old man had stopped his hypnotic drumming and sang in a high fragile voice. Ana listened, almost drifting into a waking dream such was her concentration. She didn't understand but she felt as though something important was happening to her.
I once had a world in box
Speckled blue, the size of your fist
Resting on aromatic wood shavings
I can smell them now as I sit in my dark cell
I smashed it, I was only a child
I dropped it from a top floor window
It shattered and out came a drab brown bird
It flew high, then higher then disappeared
We all get one world and every world gets a bird
To warn other birds of a new predator
To be lured away from the speckled blue eggs
She was slowly understanding what the old man’s mission involved. He wanted to repair the world, he was just an old tinker repairing the bottom of a pan.
He stared into her eyes and, without breaking eye contact, reached to his neck and pulled over his head a small cloth bag.
He tossed it through the fire and to her surprise Ana was able to catch it. She loosened the drawstring at the top of the bag and poured out onto the stone in front of her a handful of pure white bones, slender white flutes.
At first she wondered if she was supposed to read some deep truth from the way the bone straws had fallen but then, looking up at the old man again, she realised that something stranger and more fundamental was expected of her.
Bones laid out on a stone in front of her she reached out to the fire, as did the old man she only knew from this clearing. Together they made a tear in the way things are and opened a way to the land of screaming birds.
Drums everywhere overlaid by the desolate screaming of birds. There was a terrible emptiness in her eyes. It was a world that was one giant blind spot -- the eye skid across it. The near gray (but really as far from gray as ice was from water) space defied the eye to look at it but defeated the eye every time.
There was only one set of directions to move in here, up or down, and nothing was moving up. Ana realised that this place had been constructed especially for one purpose -- to torture a bird, to take away its chance to move gloriously in all the directions available, to blind it and replace what it could usually see with its great acuity with this visual wasteland. Even in the short time she had been in the land of screaming birds she had found herself forgetting what the other directions were; what blue looked like; how there was an option other than to endlessly fall.
She couldn't see, the wrenching visual emptiness of the land prevented that, but she sensed a dot coming towards her from below, growing larger, clearer to whatever non-visual sense she was using. Somehow the ragged broken object was _flying_ towards her. Then she realised it was a small bird, one that seemed to have been mangled then burned. How it was still alive, let alone flying in this terrible place, she didn't know. The bird landed in her arms.
"She's here because she let a man kill her and take her feathers. Or rather she's here because of what happened afterwards. He ate her eggs you see. She was supposed to protect them by luring predators away, pretending to have a broken wing. She'd be easy meat then you see? Easier than rooting around for some nest that might not even exist. She died and couldn't protect them. Or you.
"You will gain nothing here and will lose much."
She would have screamed at the unfairness of it, but every sound she tried to make simply became another layer of drums.
Then, winding its way through the rhythms, came the old mans wavering voice.
We own who we are
We all live forever
We all have a home
Just one more black dot
Reach out and take
She held the bird, its heart strong despite its injuries, and turned in an impossible direction.
She was back on the hilltop, the world was complete again.
After gently putting the bird down on the stone slab she tried to wipe off the vomit she must have thrown up when she was in the Land of Screaming Birds.
Finally looking up she saw that the old man was gone. For some reason she wasn't surprised. She now knew what came next and it only needed her.
Ana held the bones, now somehow turned soft, and easily molded them together with her hands into a ball. It was like firm clay and was slightly warm to the touch. She rolled it into a long cylinder which she divided into three sections and these she wrapped around the body of the bird. Then she halted. She wasn't sure what would happen next but she had the feeling that once she performed this last action in the ritual she would be changed. There was always a cost to such powerful science.
She took a deep breath and gently breathed on the corpse of the bird.
It fluttered, the loops of bone were absorbed, she held it high over her head then threw it into the air.
The bird flew up, higher than high, silhouetted against the squirming bulk filling the sky. It should have turned away or been driven back by the icy winds issuing from the pores in the flesh-in-ice. Instead the bird got closer and closer, vanishing one second as its wings closed, flashing a pure white from the underside of its wings the next.
As it seemed to get impossibly close to flesh-in-ice, the flashes so tiny as to tax the eyes, the blinks of white became syncopated, as though one wing were ailing. Simultaneously it began to drift to the left, a hurt bird favouring its bad wing and looking to land as soon as possible -- a small, brown, deceitful bundle of love.
All this took place against a backdrop of smooth, dark green-grey almost covered by clouds of pure white ice powder. Gradually the clouds grew. The flesh-in-ice could still be seen but now it gave off an air of confusion, as though its concentration were split and something new had taken its attention.
The clouds that gyred around the hill lightened and seemed to speed up. A sweet breeze came from the sea.
The old woman slowly climbed down the hill. She muttered to herself as she went and even if the words couldn't be heard the tone of her voice was filled with a kind of triumphant regret. Occasionally she would rub at her forehead as though it pained her, but whatever was there she had covered with an improvised head-scarf. She kept trying to stand up straight, to place her feet more delicately but her body lost no time in reminding her what she had paid for those white clouds over a smiling blue sky.
She reached the camp but, being an old woman, was invisible so she kept walking until she reached the forest. There she paused and looked back at the refugees. Soon they would realise that the world had changed, return to their old homes. For now they would bicker among themselves and with the villagers, eat that foul blue paste in incomprehensible stews.
The old woman laughed shortly. Then she turned and began the long trek to the edge of the world. There she hoped to see a bird and, if possible, protect it from senseless hunters.