From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Above It All

Suddenly here was this baby girl and I said, okay. I didn’t have a lot to do right then except for the baby birds who had lost their mothers. They had to be fed every two hours. . . and so did she. It wasn’t much extra work. That year I had three baby ravens, one wounded jay, one wounded owl…. I also had an almost-road-killed baby raccoon, though I usually stick to birds. I’m a certified raptor rescuer, but I take in anything. That year I didn’t have as many as usual.

They told me they’d found her at the bottom of a cliff in the mountains, not even bruised. They looked, but they couldn’t find where she’d come from. And then they couldn’t find anybody to foster care her. I felt sad just as I do for all the creatures in my care. I took her in right away.

She was so small and skinny. . . I didn’t think she’d last. She’s still small and skinny, but now I think that’s the way she’s supposed to be. Perhaps that’s why. . . partly why. . . she does as she does.

At first she wasn’t hard to look after because I’d tie her to things and I had a net over her crib and play pen. I even sewed stones in the linings of her clothes. They had named her Robirda. That was fitting. I call her Birdy.

Later, when she understood what those stones were for, I couldn’t keep them on her no matter what I did. She’d take off all her clothes and I’d find her in a tree. I know she liked to tease me. She’d get just out of reach and sit there seeing what I’d dare to do to get her back. And I always dared to do it.

When she was older I gave her a little backpack. It was sky blue, the color of her eyes, and had animals all over it. I filled it full of the books she loved the most, but she’d hang it on a tree limb and off she went. Up she went, that is. It was only for me, she did these tricks. In front of others she acted like a normal girl. As if she knew that was best. But even weighted down, she was great at running, jumping. . . (She never skinned her knees, unless I had sewn too many stones in her pockets.) On the swings she’d take your breath away.

I had to be watchful and with my net by my side all the time, but now that she’s twelve everything has changed. All of a sudden, she wants to be just like everybody else. All by herself she started gathering up stones to keep in her pockets. She even asked me what other people liked to eat the most and she stopped eating her favorite foods in favor of what the other girls liked. She said she liked bacon and I knew she didn’t. She said she loved walking in the rain when I knew she loved the sun. She was always cold in rainy weather. She said her favorite color was pink when I knew it had always been blue. She started walking around hunched over instead skipping and running. She didn’t climb trees anymore at all.

We couldn’t afford a lot of things but I bought her a pink dress with a lacy collar just like everybody else had. I got her the heavy boots she asked for when she hardly needed shoes at all. She does errands for friends and has a little money of her own. She bought herself stuff to plaster down her hair. I refused to buy that. I liked her hair the way it was, just as fly-away as she is.

When she changed, I changed. I was the one, then, taking out the stones. “I wish you’d be yourself,” I said. “I wish you’d go back to eating my fried frog’s legs and my airy pancakes with honey. I wish you’d stand up straight.”

I told her she was exactly right for who she is and she said, “Then why did you tie me down all the time and weigh me down with stones and catch me in your net? You’re the one, wanted me to be like everybody else. So I agree with you now, that’s all. You ought to be glad.”

“But I didn’t know how to look after you without you being down here with me. I didn’t know where you’d end up or how high you’d go. I still don’t know. I just wanted to keep you safe. Where would you end up? You don’t even know yourself, do you.”

She’s right though, it is my fault. I called her Birdy and never wanted her to be one.

Now that she’s changed it’s a lot easier for me, but I don’t want easy anymore. I wish she was back to her old giggly self instead of staring around watching what everybody else is doing and trying to do the same.

Perhaps we ought to get away. . . from school and home and all my orphaned animals. Take a vacation. It’s a good time. I only have a few birds here now. I can get a baby sitter for them, though it’s not an easy job. The baby humming bird you have to feed with an eyedropper and the baby crow takes meal worms.

She hasn’t been up into the mountains, ever. She used to want UP so much I never dared go there, where it was all UP. Also, since that’s where she came from, I didn’t know what might happen. Besides, I was always too busy looking after my creatures. At least that was my excuse.

So far she doesn’t know about the thinner air and the beautiful views. Oh I suppose she knows, but only what she’s read in books and seen in pictures. It’s not the same. I was scared to take her there. Maybe she’ll even remember getting lost and falling off the cliff, but maybe now is the time to do it. Except would she come?

I tell her we won’t stay long. “We’ll take a picnic. You can wear your boots.”

“What would we do up there?”

She wants to mope around down here all Saturday. I don’t say that out loud though.

“Aren’t you curious about those mountains?”

“No.”

“Just for today. Just for me. You can bring a book. I’ll bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. . .” (She never used to like those) “. . .and we can pick berries. They’re different up there.”

“I don’t like berries.”

(How can she not like berries?)

“Well then pick some for me. We’ll leave early and be back by afternoon.” (I’m thinking, then you can mope.)

I finally convince her.

She wears her heavy boots. She never had blisters until she got those boots, even so she insists on wearing them. Maybe that’ll be her excuse for not going very far and for resting all the time and for reading her book and never looking out at the view.

I don’t head for the tallest mountain in the region, that one’s always too crowded, but hardly anybody bothers with the second highest.

I know these trails by heart. Even after all these years I recognize the rough steep parts and the smooth easy parts, the big tree struck by lightening. The logs, where you cross the streams, look like the same old logs. Even with those big boots, she keeps her balance crossing them. She’s fearless. I knew she would be.

She starts getting excited about how great it is. She actually stands up straight and looks out at the views. No need to worry that she’ll be reading every chance she gets. We bird watch. We pick berries and she can’t pretend she doesn’t like them. We start having a good time just like we used to have before she got to be twelve.

I see a place that looks sort of like a trail but it’s not one I ever took before. . . if trail it is. I choose it because, unlike most trails, it’s headed straight up. Pretty soon we’re off in unknown territory.

We both get out of breath. If it wasn’t for her boots she wouldn’t be. I’m tempted to tell her to take them off but I want her to think of it all by herself. I never wanted to be a hovering mother even though, what with her drifting off whenever she got loose, I had to be.

We go on up until we get above the tree line. It gets hard to walk. There’s no trail, it’s rocky, and lots of the rocks are wobbly. Finally she takes off her boots.

She’s looking embarrassed—as if she’s failed in some way. I guess in her own mind she has. . . failed as one of us.

I say. “Nobody’s here but us. Do it! It’s OK.”

She knows what I mean.

It’ll be dark if we don’t head back soon, but she’s not thinking of heading down. She’s looking on up. Eagerly.

I’d like to watch her as she skims away, but I’m trying keep my balance on these rocks and I have to keep watching my feet. And then I do stop and watch.

At first she’s wobbly. How could she not be since I never let her practice? And the air is thin up here.

She gets about bush high. Then, leading with her left shoulder, she moves off slowly, sideways, then faster and faster, zips around the cliff and out of sight.

I follow but I’m so slow on these rocks.

She didn’t even look back once—at least that I could see. Maybe it’s so much fun to skim away that she’s forgetting everything else. I’d love to do that, too, especially now that I’m not only carrying all the food and jackets, but her heavy boots. If I could waft away like that I’d forget all about me, too.

But I begin to worry. I don’t want to get lost up here all alone.

At least she’s finally enjoying herself. There’s that. I should feel happy but I don’t. But isn’t this what I wanted? Isn’t this exactly why I came?

I sit on a rock and rest. Then, after a long lonely time, I pick up my bundle and her boots and go on. Up.

It’s starting to get dark. We’ll. . . I’ll have to find a sheltered spot. I should head down into the trees, but I don’t want to leave her up here by herself. Except what if she goes on, up and up and up, and never comes back?

I find a cubby hole in the rocks. At least it’s sheltered from the wind. I leave my pack out where she’ll see it and know I’m here, though I’d rather use it as a pillow. I’m too worried to sleep much. If she doesn’t come back in the morning I’ll have to go down by myself. Why did I ever think of doing this?

But she did look so happy as she sped away. I had no idea she could go that fast. I’ll bet she didn’t either.

In the morning I start down. I don’t know what else to do, but I go slowly. On the way I see a wounded pika. Should I carry him down to my bird clinic? It’s sort of like rescuing a rat but not quite.

He’s been attacked by some big bird. I don’t know how he managed to not get eaten—unless I scared the bird off with my wobbling around on these rocks.

I know how to hold him so he can’t bite. I wrap him in toilet paper and then my bandana and put him in a side pocket of my knapsack with his head peeking out.

I feel better now. A little bit. At least there’s something to look after and he’s company. I talk to him like I do to all my creatures. I name him Little Rat. Birdie would think the name silly and would name him something better—or even sillier.

I keep looking back to see if she’s coming. It’s breezy. I’m cold. I have her jacket. I hope she’s OK.

I say all that out loud to Little Rat.

There’s a swish of air, a bit of blue, and I hear an “All OK,” as if right in my ear.

Then a cool touch on my cheek. I can’t see her but I know she’s there.

Finally she settles on a rock a few yards from me and holds still so I can see her.

Mom!

She yells it.

“Mom, they’re all over!”

“Who?”

“Us.”

I run to hug her, but she isn’t there. She’s zipped to a pile of sharp rocks a yard away, too rough for anybody but her kind to sit on comfortably.

But then she comes and we hug.

“You wanted me to see how nice it is up here, and I can’t even tell you how wonderful.”

“I just thought you should be who you really are for once.”

“And we’re here. It’s us. And they’ve always been there. Here. I mean even down there. They mix in with you guys lots of times.”

(We’re still hugging.)

“Lots of times they tried to bring me back but they couldn’t because you always had me weighted down some way and you had that net over my crib. They’re all skinny little people just like me. But Mom, you’re my real mom. They say so, too. After a while they thought nobody could be any better than you at looking after me so they let me stay with you. They want me to say Thank you. Oh, Mom. . . I’ll never forget you.”

“What are you saying? Are you leaving? You’re only twelve.”

“They want to teach me how to be what I really am. Just what you wanted. They’ll take care of me. Look.”

She disappears into nothing but a breeze. Then I think I see her, but hardly, maybe it’s her, ten feet up. Then she stands still, in front of me again.

“They taught me that last night. It’s so fun.”

“I did the best I could.”

“I know.”

“Can’t you stay a couple more years?”

I knew I’d have to let her go like I have to do with most all my creatures, but I didn’t think it would be so soon.

“Mom, they. . . we’re all over. They hide among us. . . among you guys I mean, and take advantage of your things, your warmth, your food. . . you never notice. They can sip your tea even as you’re sipping. They snatch bites from your forks. They’ve lived with you since the very beginning. We, I mean. And you’re right to call me Birdie. They think they started out as birds. Maybe some kind of hummingbird. They call themselves Snatchers and you guys are The Slows. And Mom, I even have an aunt up there.”

She gives me a kiss on my cheek and a hug so hard it hurts. “I gotta go. Bye. . . Mom.” And then she’s gone.

I tried to hold on to her but I didn’t try really hard.

I hear, as if right in my ear, “I’ll come for visits.” Then something brushes at my tears.

Soon as I start back, my hat blows off and I have to chase after it. I don’t know if she did that or not, or if it was the wind. It would be just like her, though. I hope she was the one that did it.

I stroke Little Rat a couple of times, being careful to avoid his teeth. I tell him, “It’s just us—for now.” And we go on home.

CarolEmshwiller4-cropCarol Emshwiller grew up in Michigan and in France. She lives in New York City in the winter and in Bishop CA in the summer. She’s been doing only short stories lately. A new one will appear in Asimov’s soon. She’s wondering if she’s to old to start a novel but if a good idea came along she might do it anyway. PS in England is putting out two of her short story collections. . . a sort of Ace double. . . her anti-war stories on one side and the other stories on the flip side. Find her online at sfwa.org/members/Emshwiller.

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