Round one of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction challenge July '22
Genre: Action adventure, Location: An outpost, Object: a blue bird
The trajectory of Huw’s first summer of liberty after uni was abruptly altered when he bumped into the mother of a school friend on the platform at King’s Cross. Having left his partner LC in Durham to finish his finals, he had been relishing the prospect of a weekend with no responsibility whatsoever.
Mrs Hardigan’s emotional story had grabbed his interest however and suddenly it seemed fortuitous that Travis had gone AWOL in Greece. Money changed bank accounts and he found himself accepting a rescue mission. The last conversation between Travis and his mother had been six weeks ago when he had hinted at a romantic engagement, which seemed unlikely for a man engaged in solo field study of passerines on an uninhabited island. Huw thought it likely that the object of his desire was winged and feathered.
Scorching through South London on the Gatwick Express with a boarding pass on his phone and a completely new itinerary, he briefed LC by text and engaged his research skills.
The first feeling of apprehension surfaced when he chartered a boat at Mongonissi beach, explaining his needs in pidgin Greek to a surly local who had insisted on visiting the local store for water and provisions.
“Nothing there, only rock,” he insisted, piling more tins into Huw’s basket. “You will kill yourself in this place.”
The crossing had been pleasant enough however, and once on the tiny island he was relieved to find that he had a cell phone connection. “What’s up?” he asked LC.
“I tracked down Travis’s sister Phoebe in Seattle. Apparently their mother is going loopy because something horribly similar happened to her husband.”
“Also a birder?”
“He was, but he also served in Vietnam and deserted from his platoon’s outpost after the siege at Khe San. The mother won’t talk about it but Phoebe tells me he went chasing after something called the Asian Fairy Bird.”
Huw huffed in disbelief. “Seriously? Who risks court martial to go twitching?”
“It looks like he went a bit Colonel Kurtz. His comrades talked about him going crazy with the birdsong in the forest at night.”
“Yikes! So what happened to him? Did he ever show up?”
“Nope. Officially MIA but the psychological reports apparently tell a stranger story. He seemed to really believe that the birds were talking to him; that he could join them.”
Huw exhaled slowly as his summer frolic turned a shade darker than the Ionian blue sea. He thanked LC and promised to check in once he had lugged some of his gear over to the other side of the island, where Mrs Hardigan had dropped a pin marking the windmill converted for field research studies. Caching the bulk of his supplies, he began to pick his way between limestone boulders and thistles towards a gorge that seemed to present the easiest traverse of the island.
“What halfwit spends the summer at the edge of civilisation?” he grumbled to himself as he took a breather halfway into the jagged gully. A slate-blue bird was watching him from an ancient olive, its unfamiliar plumage standing out in the buff foliage.
“Are you the one?” Huw asked it, laughing to himself.
At that moment, a crescendo of shrill calls filled the ravine as a group of identical birds descended, their wings beating against him as he flailed his arms to swat them away. Trying to charge away up the valley, he tripped on rocks and snagged on thorns until he was coated in sweat and bloodied from the effort. Swearing, he dropped to his hands and knees for the last few metres to the top of the rise, finally ditching face down in the dirt with his hands clamped over his ears to escape the dagger beaks and jabbering cries.
A torturously slow belly-crawl down the lee slope of the ridge found a clump of stunted oaks for protection. The chattering birds observed him for a few moments before lifting off en masse and wheeling away.
Taking his chance he half staggered half ran downhill until, topping a ridge, he was rewarded with a panoramic view of the azure coast and the windmill standing proud above it.
The door was ajar but Huw slammed it behind him, leaning back against it for good measure and surveying the interior. A spartan space of stone and light, the only contents were a rough table covered in books and papers and some scruffy blankets atop a wooden palette.
“Totally Travis,” he reported to LC once he had regained his composure.
“No sign of our boy though?” LC asked.
“Nothing. No food and no sign that anyone has been here in weeks.”
“Listen, don’t be mad but there’s something I didn’t tell you. A word Phoebe found in the declassified report on Travis’s father.”
“What word? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Shapeshifter.” LC paused. “It might be nothing, I didn’t want to freak you out. It’s just so fantastical.
“You’ve got to be kidding me...”
As twilight approached, Huw let his gaze wander around the place. Among the confetti of notes, a pile of books caught his eye: Homer, Audubon, Kafka. “What’s going on with you here Travis?” he wondered out loud.
The birds were circling the windmill again, Blue Rock Thrushes according to the guide he had found: Monticola Solitarius. Their cries filled the evening air and one bird perched accusingly outside on the windowsill, its black eyes fixed on his.
Drifting into a fitful sleep, dreams played out on his eyelids like a sci-fi movie; men growing wings and hurtling towards him with blazing eyes.
“Morning,” LC greeted him soon after dawn but was alarmed by the tremor in Huw’s reply.
“I noticed last night that the windowsill is covered in bird shit.”
“Well, you’ve been besieged by thrushes.”
“It’s on the inside of a glazed window. One of them has been living in here.”
As he spoke, a blue bird alighted outside and began tapping aggressively at the glass.