Reading Time: 5 minutes
“You’d think I’d be used to this by now.” Davis absentmindedly addressed the plump little bird cradled in his hands. The creature squirmed. The vestigial wings, dwarfed by its nearly round body, wiggled uselessly while its legs pushed in a pulse against Davis’ cupped palms. The wide, nocturnal eyes appeared unfocused and the small, nearly round beak gasped open and closed. “I guess I’m just a softy at heart.”
Davis broke the bird’s neck with a practiced twist.
It hadn’t been so easy the first time. After finally catching one of the things, he had to locate the neck under layers of feathers and loose skin and it took several tries to actually snap it. By that time his eyes had welled with tears, from frustration as much as from empathy.
Apart from a few insects, the entire world, or at least the small island he was marooned on, was inhabited solely by birds. He hadn’t found anything even vaguely mammalian or reptilian on the little dome of sand, grass, and brush. Every biological niche appeared to be filled by fowl.
While scavenging the ship’s wreckage, Davis pulled a slab of insulation from under a sweep of dune. A wave of sand-fleas burst around his feet.
“Birds and bugs,” he muttered. In addition to the surprisingly agile hoppers, he’d also run face first into clouds of tiny gnats. “Unless you guys are really just ridiculously small birds.” Joking at first, then considering it more seriously as he eyed the critters resettling in the sand.
He’d found what remained of the rations, which he allocated into four meals. He guessed that only about half of Meredith’s old tug actually made it to the beach, but he was able to construct a reasonable shelter from the salvage, using hull sheeting and half a dozen trunks from the largest of the thin trees that grew like bamboo in the center of the island.
He finished the rations before his second sleep.
Davis had been raised on Celine, trained from youth to build an ecosystem. He’d certified as a permaculturist – a weave of biology, botany, agriculture, and whole systems theory – and committed himself to jump starting the ecology of the small rock whirling around Trappist-1. The reality of the job, which devolved quickly into day labor as a farm hand working partially composted human waste into dead soil, eventually wore his mind numb and he began to find solace in the card room and its weak whiskey.
The challenges facing Davis on this deserted island, on what seemed likely a deserted planet, were sharper, honed by desperation. But his motivation was also stronger, fierce with hunger and vulnerability. Despite the loneliness, Davis breathed with an unfamiliar satisfaction as he looked out over the water at the sunset each night; he’d survived another day.
The sea seemed home only to a misty algae and thumbnail sized globes of jelly. It surprised him how industrious one could become after only a day of swallowing salted jelly balls. A couple of hours of vomit and bile had a way of inspiring alternative solutions.
The days on this small rock were short, he slept once every two or three cycles, which familiarized him with both the nocturnal and diurnal ecosystems pretty quickly. The daytime avian population was almost entirely airborne and offered little opportunity for capture and consumption, but during the crepuscular hours the grassy bluffs came alive. The undergrowth teemed with ground-locked birds of various shapes and sizes throughout the night and, after a couple nocturnal cycles, Davis successfully tracked the equivalent of an opossum to its den which he raided at noon the following day, rousting two small fowl.
He used the slab of insulation he’d found to float in the shallows. He carved it into a more amenable shape, rounded on the edges like a wing to slice through the water. He fought his way out beyond the breaking waves and straddled the board. A thick line of land defined the horizon off one side of the island, far too distant to attempt without a proper vessel and weeks of supplies, but it still gave him hope for more than his scrubby beach. Paddling beyond the breakers on this same side, he discovered a small archipelago of offshore rocks.
“Well, hello there,” he greeted a small crowd of wobbling fowl. “You’re some slick looking geese.“ He paddled the board closer to the rocks and the birds dominoed into the surf. “Okay, you’re too fast for food,” he said with awe as they zipped through the water with easy grace. “But you are fun to watch.” A cluster of the water birds began to play in the crashing waves. “Beautiful.”
Davis laid on the board, propped on his elbows, trying to discern the purpose of the bird’s riding the curls of surf. After a few minutes he concluded that they were simply playing. He smiled.
“That looks like too much fun,” he paddled shoreward. “I’ve got to try.”
After a several clumsy tumbles onto the beach, Davis started to get the knack of leaning into the face of the wave and carving a path, and soon the birds began to join him, swimming under and beside his board instead of scattering at his approach.
“I haven’t had this much fun since I played Three Touches and the Truth in that closet with Finny-Ann Baxter!” He stood on the beach, panting for breath, the broad smile starting to ache his cheeks. “I could get used to this.”
In the distance he spotted the silhouette of a bird against the clouds. He squinted. It must have come from the shore on the horizon. It swooped through gradually growing circles.
“I guess that land’s closer than I thought,” he said, judging from its size. “Maybe I can make a day trip of that after all.”
He ran forward carrying his plank and dove headfirst into the crashing waves to cut through the rushing current. A little trick he’d picked up watching the birds. On the other side, he pulled himself up and straddled the board, looking back to the horizon to check the swells.
The grin faded from his face and his brow furrowed. The circling bird had grown significantly larger, but it remained quite distant.
“You,” Davis said to the growing black shape, “are bigger than I thought.” He turned back to the shore, paddling with urgency. He glanced over his shoulder, confirming the bird’s continued approach. In his growing trepidation, Davis slipped off his board in the breakers and was sucked under in a rolling tumble. He lost his breath under water when he slammed into the hard, wet sand. Disoriented, he rolled and tried to claw his way through the bubbles.
The wave receded suddenly, leaving him panting in a few inches of foamy sea. Pushing himself up on hands and knees, he tried to blink the wet and dark out of his eyes.
“Oh crap,” he whispered as the shadow grew huge around him.