*Author’s Note: “A Tern for the Worse” is a standalone story, set in the same universe as my other Reedsy short-stories, with overlapping characters and events.*
The headwinds were getting stronger. The world was changing, and my flock was getting smaller. Each loss was a new addition to the Firebirds twinkling in the sky beyond; but I survive.
Since the thunder storm that dried the rivers and lakes, life was hard. The Grounders suffered the most, and still do. The Baldies ruled the Grounders thanks to the Gift they received from their God, but even this wasn’t enough to save them now. Our Gift lets us soar above the Wasteland, and whatever we need we can see and reach. Life will get harder; but we’ll survive.
This year the landmarks on the ground were unrecognisable; it made gauging our progress impossible, so the journey felt endless. But the call to fly had always been right in the past, and we were stronger together, so the flock flew on. The drying marshes we left behind wouldn’t sustain us.
I rolled in the air to clear my head. The flight was too long to allow myself to dive into the realities of the new world. I had to stay positive. Stay focused. Stay with the flock.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on the wind; its embrace was comforting despite its chill, as it rolled underneath me, raising me above the truth below.
Suddenly, the wind deserted me. I opened my eyes with a jolt, and gave two hard flaps to maintain my altitude. Another bird swooped beneath me and stole my wind.
I didn’t need to see the thief to know who that call belonged to.
“So you made it another year,” I called back. Alf levelled off and flew beside me, so we could maintain a comfortable formation to chat. “Want me to slow down old timer?”
“I’m Whiskered by name not by nature,” proclaimed Alf with a dignified lifting of his beak. “There’s plenty of flaps still left in me.”
“There’s flapping…and then there’s flying.” I spread my neatly pointed wings to show off my plumage.
“Calm down lover-boy, we’re not in the marshes now.” Alf barrel rolled above me and looked down, “Your black hood is already receding.”
“Kik-kik, kik-kik!” My deafening laugh made the flock turn to us, and then they looked away with disdain, which we fully deserved for acting like a couple of Common Terns. “I do NOT have a receding hairline.”
“Ka-caw. Okay, don’t get your flight feathers in a twist.” With Alf by my side, the headwinds felt lighter, and the embrace of the wind felt warmer. The gang would soon be back together.
“So where’s the others?”
Alf didn’t reply, and I got my answer. We flew on in silence, both knowing sharing the pain hadn’t halved it.
“I’ll be glad to leave the effects of that storm behind,” I said, no longer able to stand the silence I’d caused.
“Storms. Plural. I was talking to the Swallows before I found you, and they said the storms happened all over.”
This changed everything. Maybe we weren’t leaving the worse behind us after all.
“So they say. An un-Godly thunder, but no rain.”
Suddenly I realised the journey would only get harder, “And the half-way house?”
“Gone to the crows. The Baldies have survived…mostly.” Alf showed no signs of empathy for the Grounders, he was the pragmatic one of the gang. “And what the Crows don’t get is left to the flies. Swarms so thick you can feed with your eyes shut.”
“I hate flies.”
“Food is food, and things will get worse before they get better. They reckon these storms are the same as the ones before we were Graced.”
“They? Don’t tell me you’re a convert?”
“No, don’t be silly. Do you think this is my first moult – I’m just saying what I heard.” Alf flew in closer and continued, “But there’s a lot of birds looking for answers, and the Embers have a growing flock.”
I had to admit, I had more questions than I did answers. But the Embers were fanatics, and lived a life waiting for the Firebirds to save them. I didn’t have the faith to wait to be saved. It had been eons since the Firebird descended to our sky, from the sky beyond, and gave us the Gift of flight. We were merely Grounders before, but as the chosen, our scales were Graced to become feathers, so we could soar and leave the others below and become more. If we weren’t grateful for this Gift, and for being closer to the sky beyond, we could end up being banished to the depths of the oceans like the Wet-scales.
I looked at the waning flock around us. It wasn’t just because our numbers were fewer, Alf was right, there was fear in the air.
“Maybe,” I said. I was already missing Alf calling me old.
“The Firebirds could be punishing the Baldies,” continued Alf, oblivious to how one-sided the conversation was becoming. “Their metal wings invade our sky and foul the air, so maybe this was to put them back in their place.”
Even Alf was beginning to sense my unease at discussing my fears; whether real, imagined, or spiritual.
“I don’t blame the Firebirds wanting to put greater distance between the Grounders and the sky beyond,” stated Alf.
“Kik. You don’t have to be an Ember to know that’s a great idea.”
We rolled with laughter. Nothing unites like mocking others.
“Although,” I said, pondering on Alf’s words, “there could be something to it.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Firebird flocks are definitely bigger than I’ve ever seen them, maybe they are gathering for a reason.”
“They always flock where it’s darkest,” explained Alf. “Now the Baldies are only left with their fire, the world doesn’t shine as brightly as when they wielded lightning too.”
“We’ll find out soon enough.” My fatigue made my words sound sharper, and more ominous, than I intended them to be. It was difficult not to sound defensive discussing these fears; males have to be brave. But how can you stand firm against a fear, when there’s no physical foe to dive bomb; and the concept of a Firebird descending from the sky beyond to save us was a comforting hope.
We continued to glide on the wind, and took genuine comfort from our proximity to each other, rather than any spoken words or beliefs. The flock always makes us stronger, but just as I began feeling its strength course through me, we began to divide.
At this point in the journey, individuals decide whether to keep on, or to make a stop-over to rest and refuel, before continuing. The weather was often the deciding factor, but this year I had no choice. My hollow-bones felt liked they’d been filled in with lead-shot.
I didn’t have to ask Alf to know his decision; the conditions were favourable, and his flaps still looked strong and purposeful.
“I’m going to take a pit stop,” I called, trying to make my voice sound authoritative, despite the strain I felt. “So I’ll catch you up.”
“Tired eh?” There was no judgement in Alf’s voice, nor concern. “Old age catches up with us all eventually.”
“How very dare,” I said curling my wing to face Alf, and giving him my best look of mock shock. “After I’ve been dragging my tail feather all this time so you could keep pace.” Alf rolled his eyes, and refused to take my bait. “I want to check on some baldies I’ve been taming, see if they’re doing ok.”
I wish I could’ve stayed with Alf, but I was tired. I was always tired lately. No matter how much I ate or rested, there was always a feeling of fatigue consuming me.
“Okay. Well, I’ll catch you on the wind then,” called Alf – his wings drooped with the realisation he’d be making the rest of his journey alone.
“Yeah fly safe.”
I just needed to refuel.
I veered off from Alf as we went our separate ways. My soul was the battlefield, as the deep pain of watching my friend fly on battled against the dull ache of my muscles; there were no winners in war.
I’d feel better once my journey was done.