The horizon was a sapphire trench, and they dug their way through, wings up. Over the open ocean, hundreds of miles from the nearest land, they appeared like white pinholes in a blue expanse. Exposed but confident, they sailed above the void without fear.
Beating down from a cloudless sky, past their black and white coats, the sun cut into the water below. It revealed slender, shining animals swimming just below the calm surface. Every so often, one would lurch into the air, attempting to look graceful during its skyward passage. From where she flew above them, it seemed to Aasiva that they were trying to emulate the partial colony of terns they had been travelling with for the past few hours. If they were, then she understood their desire. Many times, while diving for food in the open water, when she plunged under the surface to secure her catch, she wondered how it would feel to be a fish. Enclosed by the water and yet no less mobile, with a world below just as endless as the sky was above. Instead, she lived in a world that was similar in theory, but alien in experience. Desire for something she could only have temporarily.
Aasiva’s thoughts drifted slowly, like the gentle breeze carrying the arctic terns roughly Northeastward. Though Silla claimed they were on the right course, they had not managed to rejoin the main colony yet. An awful storm, strangely unforgiving for this time of the year, had driven a lightning bolt through the colony and sent them scattering in the violent winds. When the torrent finally calmed, Aasiva was fortunate enough to locate several dozen survivors, still dazed in the aftermath. Her mate was not one of them. She had become separated from Katjuk during the storm, and did not know his fate. All she knew was that it had been almost seven cycles of the sun and moon since any of them had sighted another tern, either in the sky or on the water. She did not want to consider the possibility that they were the only ones left, but it was a thought that would not leave her mind.
Aasiva did her best to convince herself that it wasn’t true. It couldn’t be! Over twenty times she had made this journey now, and although the colony normally lost a few on the way, they always managed to pull through. Five migrations ago, they had been resting on the coast when the water inexplicably receded. Fearing the worst, the colony took flight, watching as the ocean first swelled, then crashed into the beach with a mighty wave that was tall enough to spray their feet as they flew above it. Some stragglers were caught in the wave, though they weren’t any that Aasiva was familiar with.
And last migration, just after they left their colony’s nesting grounds, a storm had engulfed them, so quickly and violently that they nearly decided to turn back and wait it out. Aasiva had never experienced snow in the nesting grounds – that usually only happened in their summering grounds, on the other side. Despite their proximity to land, several were either blown into the water or beaten down by the heavy snow bombarding them on all sides.
Aasiva had to admit the strangeness in the fact that these terrifying acts of nature had only become more common recently. She could not understand why. Sometimes, she wished she could skip a migration cycle, staying in the nesting grounds instead of traversing the endless ocean. Her wings seemed to grow more and more stiff with each journey, and it wasn’t easy to keep up with the juveniles by the last leg. Still, she pressed on. She and Katjuk were yet to see a chick of their own that lived to see their summering grounds. A streak of bad luck, or a bad omen? She did not know. But even though Katjuk grew dissatisfied, even embarrassed at their lack of success, Aasiva was determined to keep trying.
She just hoped he was still out there, alive but simply out of reach.
Silla always knew first when they were near land. Maybe it was extraordinary eyesight, maybe he had developed a sixth sense from the fifty migrations he had undertaken before this. But whenever it was close, Silla got the feeling before anyone else in the colony, and it seemed to get sharper with age.
He felt it now, a shivering in his outstretched wings, not unlike the ones from a frigid gust or dampness on his feathers. On this perfect day, however, with a warm sun and favourable winds, there was no reason for him to shiver. It could only mean one thing.
Normally, Silla flew near the middle of the crowd with the rest of the elders. The adults and older juveniles encircled them, providing a degree of respite from the elements. For an aging tern travelling as far as they did, it was almost a necessity to keep some of them from dropping into the water. But now, Silla led from the front. The wind broke at his beak, and he sliced through it with stoic determination. The battered terns followed closely behind him, now sheltered in the way that they had once sheltered him. Silla envisioned himself as a shield, weightless yet strong, a protector of his remnant of the colony. The juveniles had to be kept from panicking, and the adults from trying to go off on their own. In distress, they looked to Silla, who had weathered these migrations more than many of them combined. He led with pride, a patriarch of their population, resolute to deliver them home once again.
Silla called out, and a juvenile joined him at the front.
Miki, your wing?
It’s holding. This was Miki’s first migration back to the nesting grounds. During the storm, Silla had seen him collide head-on with another tern in the confusion. Miki had escaped with only a hurt wing; the other tern had not been so lucky.
We will make landfall soon.
How can you tell?
I do not know how. But I know.
Miki cocked his head. Is this land like the ones we saw on the last journey?
No. Completely different. You have never seen anything like it before.
There is no sand. Only trees.
Very little. And they are covered by rocks ten times your size.
Will there be other birds there?
Other birds. Other animals. Foxes and cats. We will need to be careful.
Very careful. But Silla could tell that Miki’s mind was far away, considering the possibilities of this new, unknown land.
Let the others know.
Will the rest of the colony be there? Miki asked.
Let us hope so.
Miki dropped back, and Silla could hear him chirping with excitement as he told the other juveniles. Suddenly, all of them were conversing, boisterous and animated. Silla called again, this time for two of the adults.
Akumik, Aasiva – we will land soon. Rest for a time. Keep an eye on the young ones.
Just as the juveniles were beginning to quiet down, they sighted what Silla had noticed long ago – the faintest outline of something long and dark on the horizon, a change from the unbroken blue line. This sent them into another frenzy, and Silla had to start beating his wings to keep pace with them. Despite his willingness to lead, he ached for a break. There were more predators here, though Silla preferred it to the open endless beaches or humid rainforests of other lands. This bay was usually peaceful, and the gulls that inhabited it year-round were surprisingly tolerable and wise. Normally, they would have seen a few by now, out for a lark or following the fishing trawlers around. There were none, this time. The last few migrations from the summering grounds had skipped this rest stop in favour of a quicker journey, but Silla was hoping they were still there.
As the water below became lighter, and the direction of winds became more confusing, Silla realized why the gulls had disappeared. Though his memory had never been spectacular, the bay looked unrecognizable from the last time he had seen it. Many of the verdant trees were cleared away, and the rocks were transmuted into large, alien structures. The tallest trees had been replaced by massive edifices with blinking suns at the top, and they belched clouds unlike anything Silla was familiar with. As they approached, it seemed that the air became thicker, and a noise reached his ears that sounded like a low, ominous din. It was no sound specifically, but an amalgamation of thousands of other discordant noises. The cacophony confused him, eschewing his sense of direction. All at once, he felt weak and sickly.
Looking below, he laid eyes on half a dozen fishing trawlers sprawling throughout the bay, saw a flock of gulls circling it hungrily, and all at once, he knew what had happened.
We cannot land here! He struggled to make himself heard over the din.
What do you mean? It was one of the juveniles.
This place has changed. It is not the one I remember, and it is too dangerous.
We have to rest! None of us will make it to the nests if we do not stop! This was from one of the adults, and Silla knew he was right.
We will find another place. Somewhere close. But humans have this land now.
Are they dangerous?
More than any fox.
Mustering his resolve, Silla banked sharply to his right, turning until he was in the direction he thought was right. The colony trailed behind, though Silla knew their willingness to follow was tenuous at best. Most of them did not know the danger humans posed. He hoped the rest of the colony had bypassed this place, too. They would never be able to return to it.
As they flew further from the bay, back across the vast ocean once more, Miki caught up with Silla.
Is that how you can tell when land is near? The juvenile asked.
When the air changes. The way it is out here – is different. I cannot explain it either, but I just…feel it. It is better.
Interesting. Silla said nothing more. Perhaps these juveniles were not so naïve after all. Perhaps he still had something yet to learn from them.
Did you see them?
Since they had left the bay, the juveniles had not stopped. Whatever dejection weighed itself on the backs of the adults and elders was not felt by the younger terns. They tweeted and chittered noisily, in lively discussion about what they saw.
They looked so strange. They don’t have wings!
Do you think they live in those rocks?
I wonder if they migrate too. Those nests looked huge. Maybe they live there all the time.
Innik, juvenile though he was, did not take part in the conversation. The others did not ask for his input, and he was happy not to give it. It was deliberate. They knew of his experience with humans, and it was probably a stroke of luck that he was even allowed to fly with them. It was times like this that the small metal band on his leg felt heavier than ever. It reminded him that, even though he was related to all of them, he was still an outsider. None of the terns had any idea of what the small ring did, but it was something that distinguished him from the others.
He was not particularly upset that they had skipped landing earlier. The ring had caused his legs to develop differently, and resting for too long was painful for him. He preferred the air, perhaps more than any other tern, and his wings were strong and durable as a result. Innik thought that he would be strong enough to make an entire migration without stopping, if he had to. It was out of necessity, rather than desire.
Besides, he had no interest in getting any closer to humans than he already had.
Near him, the juveniles were still tittering.
I think Silla is just old and stubborn. How could they be dangerous? They have no beaks, and they can’t fly!
The gulls looked pretty relaxed around them. If they aren’t worried, why should we be?
I don’t know. Maybe Innik knows. Innik!
Keeping his beak high, Innik answered. They are strong. They have a tight grip.
Yeah – if you’re slow enough to get caught. The juveniles chirped joyously, and Innik closed his eyes. I was a chick. They are faster than you think.
Sure, they are, one taunted. You probably wanted them to catch you. You want to be like them.
I do not!
Then why do you wear their jewelry?
It was useless. Innik could do nothing to stop their jeering. He wished one of the adults would admonish them, but deep down, he knew they thought the same things the juveniles did.
At that moment, he heard a burst of noise from the adults ahead. Silla was speaking to some of the adults, who dropped back to relay his message to the juveniles.
There is a human fishing boat up ahead, Akumik told them as he passed by. If we are careful, we can steal some food and rest for a time. Do not let your guard down! Then he was gone, to the back of the flight.
Innik’s frustration bubbled to the surface. If you think humans aren’t dangerous, go land on the trawler, next to one, he told one of the juveniles.
If you like them so much, why don’t you do it? The tern, Hanta, shot back.
I have already met a human, and I have the scar to show for it. If you don’t do it, then you admit that I am braver than you.
Never! You’ll see.
As they approached the trawler, they saw several gulls circling it. Periodically, they would dive into the gargantuan nets, and Innik knew they were pulling away mouthfuls of fish.
We will not be so foolhardy, Akumik instructed the juveniles sternly. Take the fish that fall from the nets and float to the surface. We do not want to start anything with the gulls.
Having never been in such a situation before, the juveniles first watched as the adults stayed in an almost stationary position as the vessel crawled across the water. Finally, Aasiva folded her wings and dove nearly straight down, piercing the water, and the terns held their breath. Just as quickly, she resurfaced, her beak clutching her target and swallowing it whole.
This happened a few more times before the juveniles felt emboldened enough to try on their own. Many of them picked it up quickly, their piercing dive bombs coming naturally. Innik struggled, the metal band weighing on his side and keeping him from diving straight down. By the time the others were full, he had only succeeded a handful of times. Even Miki, with his weakened wing, had finished eating. The adults circled above lazily, clearly intent to rest on the water once the rest of them were done feeding. By now, it was just Innik and the elder, Silla, who was taking his time between attacks. The other juveniles had long since finished, and now hovered around Innik.
Having trouble stealing from your own kind, Innik? Hanta chirruped.
Go away, Innik retorted. Don’t you have a human to be cozying up to? Unless you’re a chicken.
Don’t compare me to those things. Hanta was clearly annoyed by the barb. Tell you what: you make a catch on the next dive, and I’ll do it right now.
Fine. Innik scanned the water, spotted a silver mass dislodging itself from one of the nets, and coiled up his wings. He dropped like a stone, trying to adjust the trajectory his metal band had him on. As he neared the surface, something flashed in his peripherals, but he was too close to stop now. Just before he hit the surface, Innik collided with the object. He careened off it, beak first, and nearly fell into the water, but managed to right himself and hover just over the sea. He focused on a massive, white creature that peered at him with black eyes. It seemed to engulf Innik’s entire field of vision, it was so much larger than him.
You terns just love getting in the way, don’t you? The gull was furious, bleeding slightly, and Innik’s eyes grew wide as it spread its wings before him, resting on the surface.
I didn’t realize –
You’re as entitled as the last colony that passed here. Maybe I need to make an example out of you.
There was a fluttering of wings then, and suddenly several more terns were hovering beside Innik.
Enough, gull. It was Silla. Innik saw Akumik and Aasiva with him. He is a child.
And he’s marked.
At this, the gull regarded Innik for a moment. Then looked back at Silla.
Leave us. Food is hard enough to come by these days. We don’t need to compete with terns, too.
If you would just let us rest for a few hours, behind the vessel, Aasiva tried.
No. You have spoiled your graces with us. Find another place to ruin.
As the terns returned to the rest of the flight, the juveniles renewed their mockery of Innik.
Guess you can add gulls to the list of animals you want to be, Hanta chirped.
In response, Innik opened his beak, and a small bit of flesh dangled from his mouth. I made a catch, didn’t I? He neglected to mention that it was from the gull he had careened into, but it seemed they didn’t notice.
The other juveniles looked at Hanta, who looked uncertain at first, but then cawed loudly.
Alright! Watch this. Hanta broke from the group and soared downward, ignoring the surprised cries of terns and gulls alike. Some gulls tried to intervene, but Hanta swerved and swiveled in the air, graceful and lightning fast. In a flash, he was above the trawler, dusting the heads of the humans upon it. They cursed at him, teeth bared, grabbing with their hands, but Hanta was too quick. He danced around them, chirruping triumphantly, just outside their reach.
Then one of the humans disappeared into the vessel, emerging a moment later with an object of some kind. Silla and Akumik began trilling immediately.
Hanta! Get away!
The human pointed the stick at Hanta, and a moment later, fire and sound erupted from it. It shocked Innik to his very core, and the terns were immediately frenzied. Innik looked back at the vessel and saw Hanta hastily trying to fly away. But the gulls returned with a vengeance, and suddenly they were in his way, all around him, forcing him back towards the vessel with their massive wings and sharp beaks. Another explosion from the human’s stick of fire, and Innik saw Hanta falling back towards the deck. The terns cried out in unison, and then Silla and Akumik were beating all of them with their wings, forcing them away from the vessel, pushing them as quickly as possible. The gulls did the same, pecking and cawing at the terns as they retreated.
Innik risked a look back. As he did, he saw the human with the stick holding Hanta’s body over its head, like a sick trophy. Despite everything, Innik was thankful for the feathers on his body. He was sure that the skin beneath blazed pink with shame.
The terns journeyed on for weeks. Though they were nearing the end of their migration, it never seemed to come any closer. The winds grew steadily stronger and the ocean water turned black and frothy, reflecting the roiling skies above it. The temperature, however, did not drop in the way that the terns were used to. Even this far North, they still seemed to encounter warm slipstreams and hot days. It was an odd situation that they were not prepared for, and their thick feathers felt claustrophobic in the heat. Silla became too weak to lead the flight, and Akumik took his place. Aasiva tended to the younger terns, trying to keep up their spirits however she could, but they seemed permanently disheartened.
Food was no easier to come by here, either. The large schools of herring and cod that normally crossed paths with the terns were strangely absent. Only a few stragglers seemed to be present, sick and injured fish that the schools had left behind. It was possible that the storm had simply put them further behind than they thought, but it was worrisome all the same.
They eventually began to pass over landforms. Small, rocky outcrops and slender islands with stricken trees. Graphite pillars that raked the sky like blackened fingers. Lichen and small shrubs bloomed on the thawed ground, but little else.
It was during a particularly rough wind, over a patch of open sea, that Silla shivered again. He gazed to his right and saw an outcropping of land, nondescript as all of the others on first glance. But as he looked closer, he made out small disturbances in the air above, visible against the backdrop of gray cloud columns.
But Akumik had already seen, and was steering the flight towards the island.
The terns were reinvigorated, seeing their nesting grounds on the horizon, as well as the rest of their colony. They beat their wings tirelessly, mightily, against the prevailing headwind. Aasiva’s heart beat like that of a hummingbird, and her thoughts were only of Katjuk.
As they approached the island, some of the terns circling it broke off from the group and approached them. Akumik recognized the one in front.
Atuat, you’re alive!
Same to you. We have been here for only a few hours. It appears you were close behind.
We have barely rested, Akumik told her. We are looking forward to nesting, that is for sure.
Atuat did not respond immediately, but her body language spoke volumes.
Come with me.
The reunion was short-lived. Aasiva broke off immediately to reunite with Katjuk, who had survived the storm, and Silla met with the few remaining elders. Miki and the rest of the juveniles found each other quickly, swapping stories and taking counts of who was still among them. Innik joined their conversations, but offered little about himself or Hanta.
It was Aasiva who heard the news first. She was flying close to Katjuk as they circled the island. As they did, she couldn’t help noticing that something about it looked different.
Were you waiting for us? She asked him. Why hasn’t anyone landed?
Because we can’t, was Katjuk’s simple reply. Aasiva started to ask why, but as she looked downward again, she understood. The island, once large and far above the surrounding waters, now seemed to be sinking in. New beaches had formed on shallow coasts, and it seemed as if waves were able to wet every piece of land on the island. Few trees for nest-building remained, and those that did looked to be in danger of being washed away.
It was as if Katjuk knew exactly what she was thinking. The waters have risen.
Where is our old nest? She asked him, searching frantically.
A similar conversation was playing out between Silla, Akumik, and some of the other adults.
We have to risk landing.
You want to do that? Atuat retorted to Akumik. Others have tried. Look closer.
Akumik could make out the outlines of several birds below, either on the island or in the water. Many were still and unmoving, but some inched slowly around the island. They were clearly injured.
If the wind doesn’t dash them against the rocks on the descent, the ocean sweeps them out to sea, an elder opined. The island is simply too small. We could not land a dozen of us here, let alone the entire colony.
What do we do then? Akumik asked.
The terns flew in uncharacteristic silence for a time, contemplating. It was Silla that broke the quiet.
We fly on.
Akumik scoffed. To where? All of the islands we passed are exactly like this one.
North. There is another colony of terns there, perhaps a few days of travel away. I saw them once, as a child. Maybe their nesting ground is still viable.
Will they let us stay there? I think we have squandered enough of our goodwill on this journey as it is.
We have no other choice, Atuat told them. Maybe there are uninhabited islands further North. We could stake a claim there.
Now Akumik looked at Silla, really regarded him and his place in the colony. You won’t survive the trip.
I doubt it, Silla admitted. But this about more than just myself.
Akumik took one last look at their old nesting ground, his temporary home for nearly forty cycles – the place where he had found and lost his only mate – and then began gathering the remaining adult terns. In turn, they gathered the juveniles, and before long, a cohesive group sailed high above the island. As was custom before undertaking a migration, they were dead silent. The only difference was that it took place in the air, rather than on the ground.
And all at once, they were off, battling against the headwinds in a Northern direction. Akumik led the colony, Aasiva and Katjuk close behind. Not a single tern knew the exact location of the other colony, but Akumik had a feeling about the particular direction he had chosen. He could not rationalize the feeling, could not explain it. And in this situation, he could not afford to be wrong. The colony depended on him, and it took everything he had to take to the wind and bend it to his will.
The horizon was a deep, dark trench, but they dug their way through, wings down.