Friday, 1 February 2013

The Steel Birds

Overhead, a flock of birds soared in the crystal blue sky, banking to the east simultaneously, still in their ‘V’ formation. Keaton watched them with interest, lying on his back in a field of yellow flowers, remembering a time when different birds flew across the sky in a ‘V’ formation. Only these birds didn’t flap their wings, and they made a loud, horrible noise… and they were made of shining steel.
            It was a day just like this when the birds came: a lazy spring day when the sun sat high in the sky, a bright yellow-orange disc, and the sounds of insects and birds filled the air with a pleasant spring hum. Everything back then seemed to be in order. However, there was a feeling of depression in the air: an atmosphere of foreboding. The world wasn’t the same. He remembered his mother putting him to bed some weeks after the steel birds flew past and the things she had told him.
            “The world has gone crazy,” she had said, more to herself then to Keaton. He had been just about on the verge of sleep when she had made that statement, but now that Keaton’s mind was alerted, he snapped wide awake.
            “Crazy?” he asked.
            Her face was very pale, and her eyes had a sunken look and appeared very dark in the night, but they were alert, and fixed intently on Keaton’s own. He saw in her eyes a very frightened look: the whites of her eyes stood out in relief against the dark pupils. “You said the world is crazy…” he continued.
            Mother shook her head slowly, looking slowly down at the hands she had folded on her lap. When she lifted her eyes, Keaton saw that they were bleary with tears.
            “Don’t cry, Mother,” he said, slipping out from between the blankets and going to her side. “Please…”
            She placed a hand on Keaton’s forehead, ruffling the tangles of dark hair. “It is really stupid, anyway,” she said.
            “What’s stupid?”
            She drew a deep breath, which upon exhaling, wracked her body so much that she began coughing. Again, Keaton was at her side. “What’s stupid, Mother?” he asked.
            She was silent for a while, looking over Keaton’s shoulder. When she spoke, it was in a whisper, and Keaton had to strain to hear. “You know how I kept saying that when Daddy gets home, we’re gonna have a party?”
            “Yeah. You said we’re gonna have drinks and ice cream… and I can invite my friends. Yeah, I remember that…”
            “Daddy’s not coming home.”
            Keaton stopped, and his mouth slammed shut with a loud pop. “What?” he cried.
            Mother bowed her head, still looking away.
            Keaton sprang from the bed. “What did you say?!” he shouted.
            “He’s dead, Keaton.”
            “WHAT?” Keaton retorted, falling to the ground on his knees sobbing. “He can’t be dead, he can’t be!”  But then, he saw the flat expression on Mother’s face, and the frosty look in her eyes.
            “We’re all going to die,” she said flatly. “Slowly and painfully. Look at me, son. I’m already showing signs of it.”
            “The poison, Keaton. From the bombs.”
            “What bombs?”
            “Do you remember the steel birds?”
            “Yes.” Keaton replied, with a smile. The sight of the steel birds was still lodged firmly in the annals of his mind. The sound of them, the metallic shine; the very fact that they flew in formation, and all turned at precisely the same moment… yes, Keaton remembered the steel birds, and knew he would never forget them.
            “Do you remember what happened after they flew past?”
            “They disappeared from my sight, Mother. They flew over the hills…”
            “Do you remember what happened that night? It was the night of the great lightning storm.”
            “And the thunder?  Yes. It rained really heavily that night, didn’t it, Mother?”
            “It sure did, Keaton,” Mother replied, her voice sounding dreamy, vague. Again, her attention dwindled, and she began to cough. “That was the night we saw the big lights, wasn’t it Keaton?”
            “The big lights…” Keaton found his eyes trailing to the window… it was through that very same window that he saw the lights. During the storm, there had been a fair share of both thunder and lightning: and the winds had been fierce. Many times Keaton had feared that the house would blow down, and no matter how much reassurance he received from his mother, the thought of having the roof fly off into that dark stormy night lingered like a supernatural presence over Keaton’s head. Then, without any warning at all, he saw the huge flash of light: white, brilliant light—almost bright enough to light the sky as if it were daytime. And he felt the earth tremble violently under his feet. The next morning, he went outside to look for storm damage… and he found the entire back yard covered in a film of dust. “Yeah… the big lights…” he gasped in awe.
            Mother must have seen the glint in Keaton’s eyes. “You look… a little—” she began coughing—“awe struck.”
            Keaton went to Mother and put his arm around her. “Mother—what’s wrong? Why are you sick?  Why isn’t Daddy coming home?”
            Mother went very silent, and each breath came out in shaggy gasps that rattled her chest. “It was a bomb, Keaton. A nuclear warhead.”
            Keaton’s jaw snapped shut. “A what?”
            “Radiation sickness, Keat,” she said, and grimaced, doubling over with a scream of pain. Immediately, it was followed with a bout of heavy coughing. Keaton leaned over Mother, putting a comforting arm around her, helping her up. “It’s getting worse, son,” she whispered. “First, it was only a rattle in my chest. And then the small sores on my skin. And now, this—” she pulled back the sleeve of her shirt, and even in the darkness, Keaton saw the extremely dark lump on an otherwise pale complexion of skin. “It bleeds, Keat,” she croaked. “And it’s getting bigger and is spreading over my body!  And there are others!” she lifted the shirt and Keaton saw weals on her stomach.
            He backed off with a sharp intake of breath. “Does it hurt?” he asked, his voice now suddenly shaky.
            “Yesss,” Mother replied, before her eyes curled up, her eyelids fluttered and she fell forward.
            Keaton sprang forward to catch her, but she toppled sideways, landing on the floor at a crazy angle, with her eyes staring up at Keaton, semi-dazed. She lay there, staring up at him for a few minutes, before she spoke again:  “The end is near, son. There’s nothing we can do… the sickness… the pain…”
            “Mother!” Keaton cried, leaping to her side. He gripped her hand, flinching at the cold. “Mother!”
            But she was dead.

He buried her on top of the hill in an unmarked grave. There were only the small yellow flowers to decorate the grave with, and he tried his best to say some prayers, but it all seemed a wasted effort.
            Many weeks passed him by, but Keaton was oblivious of them. He was oblivious to everything really, except the birds flying in the sky. They came and went now with more vigour. They came in many shapes. The small, fast birds attacked the larger, slower birds, and every now and then, one would blow up in a puff of smoke and flames, then hurtle earthward to crash behind the hills.

Of course, he could always remember better days…