The wind whips against her face, cold and pure. Around her squawk her brothers and sisters, her friends and companions, her children. Somewhere in the flock is her mate — her companion of many years. Their youthful I-can’t-spend-a-minute-without-you intensity has faded, but their love has not diminished. If anything, the bond between them has grown more solid and stable.
She flaps her wings, powerful and adept. Her trajectory controlled, her speed strong, her destination ingrained. She honks once, a cry of happiness and belonging. Some of her friends return the call, joyful, triumphant.
Below, the land ripples in a jagged mountain range. Minty pines rise up from the earth, green, brown and woody. Grey peaks stab the sky, icy and cold. Tendrils of mist snake here and there, as if a liquid poured over the slopes of the ridge.
She soars over the mountains, along with those whom she holds dear. A family, a community, harmonious, right. Onwards, they travel, the route many of them have done countless times before. Some more than others. For a few members of the group, this trip is their first migration. The elders of the flock keep a watchful eye on the younglings, to make sure they are okay. So far, the learners have done well.
She is no spring chicken herself, although she is far from old age. Her wings flap with both experience and strength — her prime passed not too long ago. She has flown this journey many times. The memory of her first time still lingers, somewhere at the back of her mind. She cannot quite reach it, cannot quite remember how it felt. Somehow, that old fragment of recollection doesn’t feel like reality, anymore. As if it happened to another creature.
The muscles of her wings beat at the air — once, twice. The old fibres and tissues act almost on instinct. She rarely puts a conscious thought into her flight, anymore. Only when the gales blow particularly strong. Around her, the clouds froth the sky — the way they tend to do, this time of year.
From up ahead, one of their number signals they’ve seen something. It is one of her fellow elders. They honk. They’ve spotted something amiss.
It takes only a second before she sees it for herself.
At first, she isn’t quite sure what she’s seeing. Part of the earth below has sunk into clouds — only that can’t be right, because the clouds are above the ground. It looks as though some of the clouds have fallen from the sky and spilled over the crevices. They’ve pooled in one of the valleys.
She honks once.
She wants to investigate.
There are a few responses. Some tell her not to go, to leave it be. These she ignores, the voices from the ancient ones — always fretful. Others say to not take too long. A couple of her companions tell her to be careful. These she listens to. She says she won’t, she says she will, and then she descends.
It doesn’t take her long to reach the curiosity. She circles overhead several times and takes it all in.
No, not a cloud she realises.
It covers a sizeable chunk of land, and its shape is odd. The edges of the fogbank swirl and coil, as fog usually does, but there is a boundary between the fog and the air around it. Now that she’s passed it a few times, she’s gotten a rough idea of its shape.
It’s a bubble.
Whisps and tendrils snake off from the central body. These puff into thin air — into smoke. The orb of fog retains its shape always, it does not waver. Even as the mists curl and eddy, the sphere remains resolute. Granted, it’s not a perfect bubble. She can’t make out the bottom, and some mountain peaks pierce the sides, here and there. The terrain of the ridge ruins its unnatural perfection. Still, the part uninterrupted by nature is eerie in its flawlessness.
She doesn’t like it. Not one bit. And yet, she feels compelled — by something within her gut — to drop down further. She wants to know what it is, what it does. Most of all, she wants to know if it poses a danger to her flock.
She reaches the edge of the fogbank and hesitates. She glides over its surface, inches away. The sphere ripples and rolls almost like water. She gets a distinct impression that the mists know she is there, that they watch her. The sensation causes her heart to flutter.
Still, she needs to know.
She flaps her wings, shoots up into the air, backflips, and dives down into the drab soup.
She honks, once. It is more of a reaction than a cry — the touch of the mist is like a dagger of ice into her core. Sharp, cold, jagged. Everywhere she looks, there is nought but endless grey. It invades all, seeps in through her feathers, into her skin. It races down her throat and into her stomach. She is now sure of something.
It is alive.
Downwards she plunges, through the nothingness. She knows the ground is down there, somewhere. It has to be. And yet, she descends and nothing rises to meet her. All is grey. Grey is all. There is nothing else — cold, damp haze.
And then it’s there and she has to beat her wings hard against the viscous material to stop the collision. She lets out a cry, a sudden alarm. With a hiccough in the rhythmic pulse of her heart, her dive halts. Inches away from something concrete and manmade.
She hovers for a moment and her wings thump against the cloying fog, too panicked to do much else. As she regains her composure, she notes it wasn’t the ground after all — it is the roof of a building. Shingles mixed with mosses and lichen spread out before her, crumbled and grainy.
With care, she alights on the structure. It feels solid enough beneath her feet, and she trusts it will not betray her. She takes a cautious step through the eddies of the nebula, towards the building’s edge. She cannot see the lip of the roof, but she is sure it must be there. The gravel whispers beneath her. She takes another step. And another. And another.
She is not afraid of the fall — she does, after all, have wings — but the thought of the edge scares her. She doesn’t know where it is, nor does she know what lies beneath. Gravity she can defy. It’s the unknown that gnaws at her.
From out of the glooms, she sees the silhouette of what must be the corner of the roof. She inches towards it, as her body grows colder and colder. She knows she must go soon. The temperatures here are too low, too weird for her fragile body. But one look, one peek, is all she asks for.
It seems the universe won’t grant her wish. Below, as far as the eye can see, swirls the fog. It is everywhere. It is everything. All is fog. Endless, eternal, impenetrable. Seeing, watching, waiting.
And the fog clears in the street, for a moment, and two people become visible. They run from a building on the far side of the street, the door slammed open in their wake. The sound is soft and muffled in the nebulous grey.
They are the only things that move. They are not the only things that move.
The one — a man — holds his arm. It looks hurt. He says something, but the bird does not understand his human words. The other — a woman — has dried blood over most of her face. She responds, but again, the precise nature of the message eludes her. It sounds as if they are arguing. The tones of their voices, the way they hold themselves, the distance between them. Although species separates them, she understands these subtleties well.
The pair start to descend the disintegrated steps and then pause. More heated words and volumes increase. The woman says a word that strikes fear into her very soul, in spite of her lack of comprehension. She watches as they spill onto the street, the verbal back-and-forth still going strong.
A honk from behind startles her.
She lets out a response — a squeal if anything. She comes close to a tumble. She is right at the edge of the roof, and the sound has startled her. But her reflexes are fast, and she catches herself at the last moment. She spins around, ready for danger, prepared to defend.
It is her mate.
Her heart thuds in her tiny frame, but calmness washes over her. Safe. For now.
She can tell she’s upset him, from the way he ruffles his feathers to the manner in which he stands. For a moment, she remembers how old he looks. He is no longer the strong young spirit he once was, he is now mature, the midpoint of his life in the rearview mirror. Her heart flutters, with love for her partner, with fear for the future. What does that vague greyness hold? Loss? Pain? Heartbreak? Solitude?
And then he steps towards her and chastises her. It is dangerous, he tells her. She should have asked him to come with her. What was she thinking?
She responds. He’s right, she knows. She feels guilty, she didn’t mean to cause panic. She was just curious, she tells him. Curious about the fog.
Her mate looks up and around at the grey that encircles them. He feels uneasy. She can sense it in tiny vibrations. They emanate from his chest. He says he doesn’t like it, doesn’t trust it. It seems dangerous, he says. He does not add that the humans who argue in the street are part of the problem. She knows he is distrustful of mankind.
He flaps his wings in preparation. He tells her they should go back to the flock, the flock needs them. She agrees. The flock is everything. She cannot hinder them or slow them down. It would be disastrous for the ancient ones and the younglings, who struggle to keep up. For those whose endurance is not what it was, or what it will be.
He takes off and soars up into the air. He might look older than he used to, but he is far from weak. The thought warms the ice in her heart. A little. Time may strip vigour from their feathers, but the darkness at the end of the sky has not come for them yet. There is still time.
She dives from the roof, having allowed herself one last glimpse. The air slides against her feathers, chilly and full of moisture. The people in the street pause their argument and turn to look at her. They say nothing. They do not point and stare, as some humans do.
She circles around them — once, twice, thrice — then breaks away, to return to her flock. She honks, tells them to be kind to each other, that this life is fleeting. The communication will not filter through their ears, yet she sends the message, all the same.
And then she is gone.
She spirals upwards through the mist.