Size / / /

Content warning:


Ama’s arm rested protectively around the girl’s shoulder as the giant bird glided above, its head angling right to left. Violet-black wings soared across a cloudless sky, blocking the sun’s midday rays and swathing sections of the village in deep shadow. Given its size, this argentavis was one of her first, but too far above for her to differentiate by name. Even across the distance, Ama could feel its heartbeat synced to hers, their lives intertwined until death.

Passing neighbors paused on the path outside Ama’s hut. They covered their eyes against the sun with one hand to gaze upward while balancing woven bamboo baskets or kindling against their hips with the other. They waited until the shadow moved away before moving on. Only a couple of elders nodded to Ama respectfully as they passed, most of the others avoided looking at her or Kina. Proof that the old ways were changing.

Huwe stood a few huts down, casting poisoned glances at Ama and Kina who sat on their dusty doorstep. He was a strong man, filled with empty anger that constantly sought direction. The whispers he uttered to another young man made brows stiffen before they spit on the ground and moved away.

Ama pretended not to notice, even as the back of her neck tingled in warning. She was skilled at reservedly ignoring occasional ignorance and prejudice. But as the drought moved into a second year and people looked for someone to blame, their brazenness had escalated. Granny Zin once said that those without understanding of the world seek those who are different to fault. It was easier for ignorant folks to express anger than fear, which was all anger really was when you carved down deep, she’d said. Ama had doubts about that last part, though, seeing as she was the one made afraid.

“Where do the birds come from, Ama?” Kina asked. Her voice was light, unburdened by time or worry. The sky was reflected in her black eyes as she tracked the bird’s flight with fascination.

Ama stroked the girl’s dark curls as the argentavis dove into the tree line. She didn’t want to tell her that they were either cursed or blessed, depending on the view. That she was the only girl born with the gift in decades. Instead, she offered a weak, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

Kina’s face fell. Though she’d only seen eight and a half years, she’d have to be told soon. Before she found out the terrible way that Ama had, without warning or preparation.

Three children ran toward the empty, baked fields and Ama allowed Kina to follow. The girl should enjoy their company before they noticed her differences. Before they saw the scars that were destined to traumatize her smooth skin or the shadow that would haunt her eyes. Dust kicked beneath Kina’s small legs in her haste. Ama slumped in the doorway of their hut.

The argentavis reappeared. It had to be Reisha. A long-toothed liger limply swayed in her talons. The cats rarely got much closer to the village before the birds made meals of them.

A pair of women nodded politely as they passed. Some neighbors kept their silence out of respect, others out of fear. Sometimes they whispered, "Bird mother." But it wasn’t meant as an insult.

Huwe and a few others spoke hate loud enough for Ama to hear. Blaming her and the birds for the lack of rain and poor harvest. How easily they forgot the protective services her children provided. But any disrespect silenced when Elder Xinuen was near.

Ama was still young when Granny Zin and her birds died. Reisha and the others weren’t grown enough then to provide proper protection to the village and the elder’s son was killed by a liger that came too close. Even during the depths of their grief, Xinuen and Ninia had always been kind to her.

 


 

Thin strips of meat were seared over a small fire when Kina returned with scraped knees and tears on her cheeks. She refused to repeat whatever was said to her and heaviness sank like a stone in Ama’s chest. It was a loss and an insult that no one could mend. Her first, but certainly not her last, rejection. Although she had six months before the birds began tearing through her, the shunning had already begun.

Ama remembered those first stings and pretended they didn’t still bother her, while rubbing Kina’s back and encouraging her to eat. Gently, she reminded the girl that Ama’s birth celebration was coming. Kina’s quiet bordered on morose for the rest of the evening. She never liked it when Ama was away. But resting on their pallet that night, the girl curled Ama’s hair between her fingers. Kina murmured words steeped in dream, while Ama inhaled her scent and worried about her future.

Although Kina wasn’t born of her, Ama had her since she was ten months old. Her parents had known what Kina was when she’d refused to suckle and would eat only mashed nuts and berries. They’d travelled miles from their village to find a bird mother, fearing for their daughter’s life. Kina’s mother sobbed as they rode away and left Kina in her arms. The fact that it had been the right thing to do made it no less heartbreaking. Ama loved the girl fiercely, like one of her own. One that wouldn’t fly away so quickly.

 


 

On the eve of Ama’s birthday, the village held its annual feast to celebrate a fate she’d had no choice in. It was a tradition that pulled everyone together around the fire as people told stories of the birds’ blessings and protections. Every family spoke, save one. Huwe and his people were absent.

Elder Xinuen wore his finest linens of black and indigo and sang while a drum beat a hearty rhythm. His black feathered cape draped to the ground, the edges caught on the slow breeze and waved as if wishing for flight. Kina and Ama sat on a blanket nearest Ninia, his wife. Although intended as a place of honor, it only amplified their separateness. Ama encouraged the girl to sit with her friends, but she clutched her hand and shook her head. Kina cast longing glances at the other children, but they only huddled tighter together and whispered to each other.

When the celebration ended and people began to shuffle home, Ama kissed Kina’s head and watched her stumble away with Ninia, who doted like a grandmother. Kina only looked back once.

Elder Xinuen hobbled forward on bowed legs, fatigue moistened his brow. He gently drew the feathered cape around Ama’s shoulders and handed her a bag filled with cuts of raw goat meat and a few berries from the lone vine that still produced. With a resolute heart, she stalked across the dried fields into the northern woods.

Streams of moonlight trickled through the trees, spotting the forest floor. The air was cool with mist, and she knew it would frost in the next week. The knowledge that came to her was the same that told birds when to travel to warmer lands. And the same instinctive knowing led her to her feathered children waiting in the glen. They greeted her the same way every year for their birthdays.

When Ama emerged from the trees, the argentavis raised a collective sound that hovered between a soft purr and a throaty growl. It was a warm, contented greeting that brushed the chill from her skin. An all-loving welcoming. There should have been thirty-two of them, but Reisha was absent. There was no point asking about her. If she’d fallen, there was nothing to be done. At twenty feet tall with talons longer than her arms, only age could bring her down. They would only live as long as Ama did, and not a moment longer. But she worried, nonetheless, as mothers do.

A flutter moved beneath the taut flesh of Ama’s chest. A familiar scratching of nails raked from the inside. Ama’s knees buckled as she gasped. Basha, her oldest, cradled her on a wing, lowering her to a soft feathery nest the birds had made. The others gathered close, creating a warm, breathing mass of downy kinship.

When Ama was born coughing violet-black down, her parents had known what she was, but their denial was strong. Basha broke through her nine-year-old belly on the morning of her birthday after her parents failed to turn her over. After that, Ama came to Granny Zin, whose flesh was a frightening puzzle of traumatic lines.

Every birth was different, though equally painful. The soft, new beaks couldn’t peck through the old scars and had to tear through untouched flesh. Jagged, silver lines covered Ama’s abdomen and back. Wormy blotches and deformities scoured her thighs and upper arms where each chick had torn through. With every passing year she resembled Granny Zin more. She wondered if Kina would feel the same.

The pecking began as a dull throb that stretched the flesh away from her bony sternum. Its desperation escalated while its wings struggled to expand. Basha’s soft feathers muffled Ama’s cries as one small talon pierced through her skin while the sickly-sweet scent of blood mingled with the aromas of sweat, pine, and oak. Another nail emerged, rending her flesh in a grotesque crescent shape. A sickening sound filled the air—like sawing through tough meat—each writhing accompanied by a fresh torrent of dark blood. The point of its beak edged out, pausing in its violence. It breathed in the surrounding scents for the first time, smelled the musk of its siblings and mother. With a final push, Ama’s skin ripped apart and the chick, no bigger than a finch, struggled free.

Tears streamed down Ama’s cheeks, her arms suddenly too weak to wipe them away. Each year became harder to bear. The moonlight trickling through the trees glinted on the pale sternal bone of her chest exposed within the gaping wound.

Basha and the others greeted their new sibling tenderly as Ama closed her eyes. She slipped into the safe thrum of her children’s heartbeats before exhaustion overtook her.

 


 

The sky was lightening when she woke. Reisha lay beside her, gently nudging her with a large beak in concern. Wise eyes assessed Ama’s state. The birds had laid her torn skin down and packed it with fresh herbs. The chick nestled beneath her arm; the vibrato of its throaty coo rattled Ama’s bones with each soft breath. There was a peace amongst her children that she longed to stay in and a sadness that it wouldn’t last. It was the thought of Kina alone that made her sit up and retrieve her bag.

Her chest burned. Pain-born nausea swelled in her belly for a moment. The chick’s head raised, eyes widening at the movement. Ama offered it the goat meat and it gobbled it whole, bloody juice dripped from its beak. The others chirped and grunted as Ama ate a handful of berries and swallowed a bite of meat. They would all live another year.

“Chana.” Ama named her, sliding fingers from the tip of her feathered head down between her wings. She’d already grown to the size of a small falcon. In another day, she would be as large as an eagle and hunt beside her siblings. Until then, Ama had to stay. She didn’t mind the warmth of her children’s wings or the quietude of the woods, but she worried about Kina.

When she returned to the village two days later, her hut smoldered beneath a smoky sky. All her belongings were turned to cinders. A neighbor’s voice startled her from her shock.

“Elder Xinuen died two mornings ago.” His head tilted down in shame, as if he’d seen who set the hut afire and done nothing.

Knowing that conflict was unfamiliar and typically avoided by her neighbors did nothing to lessen the hurt in Ama’s heart. These people whom she’d been raised to protect would likely not discomfort themselves to do the same for her.

The loss of Xinuen hit harder than she’d expected. He wasn’t a perfect man, but he understood the importance of protecting the old ways. Of protecting herself and her kind.

“Where’s Kina?” Ama whispered.

“With Ninia. They’re grieving in the ceremonial hut.”

She stared at the man for a moment, long enough to let her disappointment settle on his shoulders, before darting toward the western edge of town. Ama’s route took her past a combination of curious stares and darker glances. Between the sorrow and confusion, hostility shone through. Someone cursed. A rock sailed by her head, but she kept moving.

A charcoal rendition of Xinuen’s face on a linen cloth hung against a far wall, propped next to his corpse, which was already shriveling. Sandalwood incense burned her nostrils, and she choked on the thick air. In village tradition, his eyes and lips had been sewn shut to prevent any birds from entering. And his wrists and ankles were tied together to keep him from wandering off.

Ninia sat cross-legged on the dirt floor, gray braids secured high upon her head. She rocked gently forward and back, humming a sad melody beneath the thin stream of broken shine that slipped in from the open door. Kina nestled beneath her arm, sleeping like a chick. Ama sat beside them, wrapping an arm around the old woman’s shoulders. They sighed and leaned against each other.

“The younger ones have turned,” Ninia said in a faint voice. “You should take Kina and go. I can’t protect you.”

A shiver slipped down Ama’s limbs. “It will be hard for Kina in the forest. She’s so young …”

Ninia pulled her gaze from Xinuen’s body to look at Ama. “They’ll kill you both if you stay.”

“What about the ligers and wolves? They’ll have no deterrent for hunting close to the village. If we leave, the birds will follow," Ama said.

There was a flash of deeper pain on the old woman’s face. Ninia patted Ama’s knee. “We cannot force them to hold on to the old ways. Some people only learn from regret.”

Kina stirred. A wide smile broke across her face. She propelled herself into Ama’s arms.

Ama’s strong arms wrapped protectively around the child with the understanding that what Ninia said was true. Ama and all her children would die if they didn’t leave.

The women huddled together until the light outside faded, sharing the weight of grief for the man before them and the lives they could not return to.

Feet shuffled outside the door, waiting. Ninia’s tears had run dry, her sunken eyes flashed with anger. Ama helped her rise, patting dirt from the old woman’s loose skirts that created a cloud around them.

Ninia gripped Ama’s hand. “I’ll try to lead them away, then you must run.”

“But—”

She shook her head. They held each other’s gaze for a moment before Kina tugged at their skirts. As Ninia walked outside, Kina and Ama hid in the shadows.

The wind carried Ninia’s voice inside. “Are you here to pray?”

There was a muffled answer with a disrespectful tone. She cut them off dismissively and ordered them to return to their homes, before asking, “Is this how you want people to attend your last rites? With hatred and disrespect? Your mothers should be ashamed.” She shooed them away with a sneer.

Ama held Kina close, waiting for the voices to trail away behind Ninia’s footsteps. They lingered another minute, watching the twilight fade to darkness. Facing the shadowed corpse of Elder Xinuen, she bowed a final time, Kina mimicked her, before they slipped through the door.

They turned down the next street, the one that would lead them to the fields and woods beyond. But Huwe and three of his friends blocked their way.

“I knew you’d come,” Huwe said. One hand rested on a machete hung upon his belt.

“What about the child?” Tuan asked. He wore a cord of rope around one shoulder, but he hesitated when he saw how small Kina was.

“Her too,” Huwe said before nodding to the two other men.

As they tore Kina’s hand from hers, Ama screamed for help. Her cries echoed off the huts that lined the street. Lantern light flickered down the dirt road as a single door opened. But the light quickly vanished, shut behind that same door as people hid from the violence. Ama’s voice morphed into a mixture of growl and screech.

Tuan lifted Kina, covering her mouth and tucking her under an arm like a heavy basket while the girl thrashed.

Ama’s nails raked down one man’s face before he knocked her to the ground. The back of her head felt wet. Stars glittered in her vision. But she continued to fight as they wrapped the rope around her wrists and throat. Propping her on swaying legs, the men hauled her towards the fields. When she stumbled, they dragged her. The fields were far enough that the villagers could pretend not to hear or see what was happening.

The rope constricted around her neck, causing her to wheeze. Her knees bled from the stones and hard dirt. Her shoulders screamed at the stretch. She reached desperately for anything to hold on to and found nothing but dry dirt. Chana’s birthing scar tore open. Blood trickled down her breasts and soaked her shirt.

Beneath the wound was a strong tug. Somewhere in the dark of the woods came a caw, low and guttural.

The sound of a predator threatened.

Kina bit Tuan’s forearm with a ferocity that belied her small frame. Tuan cursed, slapping the girl hard across the side of her head. Ama choked on her name as a cold breeze drifted across the dusty land.

Three men glowered silently above her when they stopped in the middle of the field. Ama squirmed and coughed as the rope loosened enough to breathe. She spat curses and blood while struggling to rise. Huwe kicked her ribs and knocked her back down. The two other men joined in. Their assault was silent and determined. No curses or insults this time, only grunts filled with vicious intent.

The assault stopped when Ama finally lay still. She stared at the sky, tasting blood while her ribs protested with each inhalation. A swooping, black shape momentarily blotted out the stars above.

Silvery moonlight kissed the edge of Huwe’s machete as he pulled it from his belt. Behind them, Kina’s desperate screams rose in the air.

“Please,” Ama whispered. “Leave the girl. She’s done nothing …”

Huwe’s jaw clenched, his eyes narrowed with resignation. “I’ll make it quick.”

From above the distant tree line, a caw careened toward them. It was answered by two others, and they were answered in turn. But they sounded too far away.

One man held Ama’s legs, while another pinned her tortured abdomen. She writhed as another of her children’s cries renewed her strength. Huwe raised the machete above her neck.

Chana came in a streak of shadow.

Her talons raked over Huwe’s face as she glided past. He screamed. A gaping maw remained where his eye had once been. The machete dropped beside Ama’s head as Huwe stumbled backward.

As Chana’s cry pierced the night, the men scrambled in a panic. On the bird’s next dive, she ripped an inch of flesh from Tuan’s shoulder, jarring him sideways as Kina dropped to the hard ground.

The girl crawled toward Ama’s bound figure. Huwe screamed again. Blood seeped in between the fingers that covered his marred face.

The argentavis swarmed above them, devouring the stars with their murmur.

Their cries turned angry, deafening.

The men tried to run. But twenty birds blocked their way. Basha swooped low. Her talons gripped a man’s arm and yanked it from his body, spilling his blood on the naked fields as a few younger birds dove on him, ending his cries.

Another bird took a man’s leg. His bloodied straw sandal landed a few feet from Ama and Kina.

The girl’s attempts to untie Ama were futile—her hands were too young and weak. Ama couldn’t reach the knots and each attempt to wriggle free brought pain she couldn’t push past. She searched the ground around them for the machete, but it was gone.

“Find the knife,” Ama said. Kina stood and turned, her eyes focused on the soil.

In the darkness, Huwe rose behind the girl. His blade was drawn high. In his rage and the chaos of screams and caws, he didn’t hear the beating of giant wings approaching.

Reisha’s claws sunk into Huwe’s shoulders as he flailed. Her beak sent the weapon sailing into the darkness. As they ascended into the air, his legs kicked futilely.

The pulsing wind from Reisha’s wings threw dirt into Ama’s face while brushing the tangled hair from her eyes.

“Kina, look away!”

The girl’s small arms wrapped around her, burying her face against Ama’s bloody chest.

Framed against the moon, Reisha’s beak clamped on either side of Huwe’s skull. With a terrible sound, the bird tore his head from his neck. Reisha tossed the head into the air before swallowing it whole. His body dropped to the fields below where the younger birds waited anxiously to strip his flesh.

Chana settled beside her mother, pecking at the ropes until they unwound. Ignoring her pains, Ama pulled Kina and Chana into her arms. She breathed in the scent of her children while the others feasted on the men’s remains. She made no move to stop them. They were predators, and they preyed on anything that threatened her or her flock.

A line of people gathered at the edge between the village and field. Though Ama couldn’t hear them over the buffeting of wings and breaking of bones, she could see them covering their mouths in horror. It brought no satisfaction.

She struggled to her feet, each breath searing her sides. They couldn’t go back. Not now. When the ligers returned for their winter hunting, the people would be vulnerable but that would not be her or Kina’s problem.

Several birds took to the sky, circling above the villagers with menacing caws before diving close enough to send them scurrying away. Only Ninia remained. She gave a small bow before raising a parting hand.

Ama’s vision blurred. They would not meet again. Chana smoothed her feathers before taking flight.

With Kina’s small hand gripped in hers, they walked into the woods.

Ama did not look back.


Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson

First Reader: Shoshana Groom

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors

 



N.V. Haskell (she/her) is a speculative fiction writer who lives between haunted caves and suburbia with her long-suffering spouse, rescue pets, and scurries of squirrels that she can't help but feed. After years in healthcare, she remains stubbornly (or foolishly) optimistic. Discover more about her work at www.nvhaskell.com.
Current Issue
13 May 2024

This variation on the elixir of life pairs the flavour of roasted roc with the medicinal potency of the philosopher’s stone. But buyer beware: this dish isn’t for everyone.
mourn and lament while mixing, then cut down a tree
At the end of every tunnel, there was an epithelium of silence that deluged the larynx.
Issue 6 May 2024
Issue 29 Apr 2024
Issue 15 Apr 2024
By: Ana Hurtado
Art by: delila
Issue 8 Apr 2024
Issue 1 Apr 2024
Issue 25 Mar 2024
By: Sammy Lê
Art by: Kim Hu
Issue 18 Mar 2024
Strange Horizons
Issue 11 Mar 2024
Issue 4 Mar 2024
Issue 26 Feb 2024
Load More