A story about well-intentioned promises.
In the late 1930s a certain professor came into some money after inventing a new cellular staining dye, and with this money he began to build an aviary. He had obtained a large plot of land- about three hundred acres- from his late mother, and the aviary was, somehow, to cover all this; much to the bewilderment of his hired workers. But they began to build it according to his design, and soon the wooded lots were draped with a strange cobwebbing of silver netting, looped and curled around curved metal poles. For it was not a glass aviary, nor a round, domed sort; this aviary, once it began to show its real shape, looked like nothing more like a vast butterfly net caught in the motion of falling over an unfortunate insect.
When the exterior of the aviary was nearly complete, the professor lavished his attention on the interior: paved stone paths were constructed, the forest trimmed down neatly, and among the remaining trees there were beautiful wooden walkways suspended among the canopies, so that the aviary’s inhabitants could be viewed from every angle.
What these inhabitants would be, of course, was a source of great curiosity and speculation among their workers, as well as the professor’s neighbors (many of whom had shaken their heads at the first sight of the eccentric man’s strange project); but nobody knew what, exactly, the professor was going to put into the aviary. Certainly something big, and rare, and exotic, to warrant such a living space. Perhaps richly colored birds-of-paradise, or great harpy eagles, or winking owls; one rumor went around that the professor was having giant, bloodsucking bats shipped all the way from Uruguay; and one man, who was not very well versed in biology, suggested a team of flying emus.
But when the aviary was done, the professor sent his workmen away, and away they went, disgruntled and disappointed, dragging their feet, slapping their hats against their knees: they never saw so much as a feather. The professor’s neighbors were a little more lucky: from their estates many spying eyes peered through binoculars, and one day they spotted a peculiar procession of trucks carrying closed crates. Some of these crates might have been shaking a little upon the approach, though reports varied. Either way, the crates disappeared into the aviary, and the trucks left without them.
For some time all was quiet around the great aviary: no sound, nor sight, of any living thing was spotted behind the vast silver net. It was put forth that perhaps the crates had been just a sham: the poor man, having completely run himself to the ground with the construction, must not have had enough money to acquire his specimens after all, and had playacted at it for the benefit of his eager neighbors.
But then the rumor came. The professor, it seemed, was finally opening up the aviary to the public. On September 7, 1939, a grand tour would take place, along all those gilded walkways and underneath the shimmering shadows of the leaves; and anybody could see the results of the professor’s experiment for a mere seventy-five dollars.
This did generate a great deal of excitement among the man’s neighbors, and indeed, among the people of the town and the surrounding countryside; and a great murmur of anticipation spread throughout the normally quiet little area.
But the tour never happened, because between September 1 and September 7, a war started.
It was enough to drive the great aviary out of anybody’s mind, and indeed it did: people stopped hearing the coo of exotic pigeons and began hearing the distant rumble of bombs; so doors were locked, belts tightened, and prayers drifted up into the uncaring blue sky.
Anyone who did come to the aviary on the appointed day- September 7- would have found the grand gates locked tightly shut, and the professor’s own home dim and silent. At some point- nobody could say when- the man had entirely disappeared.
So the aviary was left alone, tucked into an obscure corner of the English countryside, the silver netting quietly tarnishing until it looked more like a gray fog over the trees. It was rumored that there had been a number of attempted break-ins- those steel beams that held the netting aloft, for instance, would have been very useful for the war effort- but either no one managed to get in, or no one returned.
So the aviary waited: silent, impenetrable, and lonely.
A person did enter it, eventually, but it was long after the war had ended; in fact, it was so long after it had ended that the great war was merely a half-forgotten footnote in this person’s mind. He was more concerned with other things, like the batteries in his torch, which seemed to be fading fast, and the heaviness of his backpack, and the empty ache in his stomach.
His name was Phillip Grayson, and he was sixteen, and he had run away from home. There are good reasons and bad reasons to run away from home, and in Phillip’s case we can say that there were a mixture of both; but in any case, four days in, Phillip was finding himself much worse off than he had anticipated. His plan had been to hike stealthily across the fields, avoiding the main roads, to a friend’s house, but he had almost immediately lost his way. The problem was that there were a great lot of open fields out in the countryside, and they all seemed to look about the same. Running away tends to be much more successful in a place like a city, or at least like a suburb; at least in one of those places there are regular gas stations and fast food restaurants. In the country there was grass, and every once and a while, a tree.
So Phillip was cold, and tired, and hungry, and carrying two nights’ worth of wetness in his sneakers to boot. He had not found an abundance of power outlets in the countryside, so his cell phone had died long ago (not that he would have stooped to calling his parents either way), and he had run out of crackers and dry cereal and packets of raisins to eat, and he was beginning to suspect that he, Phillip Grayson, was in Serious Trouble.
He was still mentally enmeshed in the midst of this realization when he hit his nose on something that should not have been there.
Phillip’s momentum carried him forward, and the rest of his face got squashed too before he was able to stop himself, staggering in the wet grass. What had look like a bit of fog in the dim twilight was much more solid than fog had any right to be, and sharp, too- the tip of his nose was bleeding. He staggered backwards and slipped on the wet grass and fell down.
Above him, lit from behind by fading sunlight, loomed the aviary.
It had gotten very overgrown since the professor’s original tidy construction, and the tarnished silver mesh now sported a number of creepers and clinging vines, bits of moss, cobwebs, and innumerable secret, dark spaces. It was hard to discern, now, where the metal web stopped and the trees began, for they had grown to press intimately up against it, some forcing small branches and leaves up and through the spaces, giving the aviary a kind of spiky, patchy, furred quality. Within the mesh, there was only a greenish kind of gloom, and a heady stench: the stench that would have been better suited to a deep forest, or a murky swamp, not a little patch of woods in the countryside.
Phillip had never heard about the aviary, as forgotten as it had become, but he gathered that the thing he had jammed his nose into was some sort of fence, and probably belonged, therefore, to some sort of person, and maybe this person had a house and possibly a phone or at least a cup of tea and a place where he could dry out his now-damp bottom.
He got up off the grass and peered around at the silvery mesh. It stretched on a long ways in both directions and it was difficult to say where a door or entrance might be (Phillip had gotten the notion that this was someone’s front yard, and there might be a gate with a driveway). After a bit of stumping around alongside the queer barrier, he came upon what looked like a very small door- more a metal chute, really, that swung open like a cat flap. It was just large enough for him to squeeze through, and beyond he could make out what seemed to be a path covered in dead leaves.
Questionable, perhaps, but Phillip was more or less on his last mental string at this point, so he took off his heavy backpack and jammed it through the chute and then ducked through himself. He did smell a kind of odd smell as he did, and noticed that there were dark smears on the metal- Phillip thought that they were rust, and put the smell out of his mind once he was through. He had never spent a great deal of time around anything like a butcher’s or a hospital, so he did not recognize the thick stench of blood.
He scraped his foot through the carpet of leaves, and there was indeed a path, paved in white stone, though it was mossy and caked with dirt. It looked, Phillip thought, as he cast the shaky yellow light of his torch out between the trees, as though no one had walked on it for years. Perhaps this was a bad sign. But by this point Phillip had been struck by a spark of curiosity, the kind of curiosity that strikes us all when we come a place that seems abandoned, or forgotten, or deserted. He was compelled to take a closer look.
He shouldered his backpack and thrust his chin out and hiked forward, all but forgetting his empty stomach and wet feet (and bottom). The further he went into the trees, the darker the light got, and the darker the light got, the more the hairs on the back of Phillip’s neck prickled. Night in the countryside was usually far from quiet: there were insects, and the sound of wind, and the cries of vixens and other nocturnal animals, but here in this strange, closed-in forest there was nothing but a kind of damp, stifling warmth. Even his footsteps seemed muffled, the rotting leaves absorbing every noise.
The trembling yellow circle from his torch was Phillip’s sole bit of comfort, and he followed it down the path, which twisted and wound and was sometimes overgrown by thick brush that he had to force himself through. He found that he was sweating, and that his heart was beating rapidly; the looming trees crowding against the mesh blocked out any sight of the sky, and he couldn’t even tell if the sun had gone down yet.
Phillip was just beginning to wonder if he was going to run across a dangling skeleton when his torch flickered and went out entirely.
He gave a muttered curse and banged on the end of it. It produced a few more sputtering attempts at light, but it was clear that the poor thing was more or less worn out, and he was now, suddenly, engulfed in complete darkness.
The stifling silence was somehow louder, the heavy air pressing down closer. Phillip’s skin was soaked with sweat, his shirt clinging to his chest, and he could feel his own pulse beating rapidly in his neck.
There was something- just the faintest whisper of air moving behind him- and he turned around, dropping his torch, and the light flickered on.
A great pale, flat, face and colorless black eyes were directly in front of him, within inches; a face with no nose, no mouth, and no expression. It stared, and Phillip couldn’t move.
Something fell soundlessly down onto his shoulders, and twisted his neck; there was a crack, and Phillip died.
The torch died too, right about the same time, for good, but neither of the two creatures present needed its light; in fact, they were more comfortable without it. The one that Phillip had seen was blinking its great black eyes, readjusting them; the smaller one that had landed on his back got off of him and nudged him over with its head.
Were Phillip still alive, he might have recognized this creature- the smaller of the two- though not from any field guide or biology textbook. The front part of it was certainly avian, and nocturnal (were Phillip alive and an avid birder, he would have found it similar to a striped owl), but the back part of it, including the rear legs and the tail, were that of some sort of cat. (Again, were Phillip alive and a decent mammologist, he would have noted that the dull reddish coat with faint spotting was very similar to that of an African golden cat. Sadly, he had been neither birder nor mammologist- but he was very dead.)
The owl-cat creature was, of course, a griffin, and now it nervously raised its wings, for the other creature was moving closer, its great, sad eyes blinking slowly in the darkness. This other creature did look a bit like a griffin as well, though it was composed of different parts (a bay owl for the front, and the sloping, stocky haunches of a sabre-toothed cat in the back). But there was one key difference: this griffin had no wings.
It did, however, have the benefit of a very large size, so there was definitely some trepidation present in the manner of the other as it stood proudly over Phillip’s body, fluffing up its feathers for a better effect, widening its eyes, lashing its tail. This was, after all, a good-sized meal, and it had gotten there first, and the other had missed its shot, and it was certainly not going to give it up.
The wingless griffin, however, ignored the smaller, and lowered its great pale face closer to Phillip’s own. It tilted it from side to side.
“Go away,” hissed the small griffin, finally. “It’s mine!”
The larger gave one slow, sorrowful blink, and then turned away, so that the other, much relieved, could get started on its feast.
The wingless griffin had actually been following Phillip for some time, though he had not known about it at all- in fact, it had trailed him from the moment he had squeezed through the little door and into the sky-cage. It had not been its intent- or rather, her intent- to cause him any harm; she had merely been curious. On the other hand, it wouldn’t do to stop another griffin from having a decent meal; good meat was hard enough to find these days, now that most of the hippalectryons had died out.
The wingless griffin had no real name, though when the others spoke of her they called her Alce, because that was what she was: an alce, a griffin born without wings.
It suited her fine, or at the very least she did not complain. It was not her lot.
Alce moved slowly along the path back towards the chute poor Phillip had entered the aviary through. As before, she walked with absolute silence, the pads on her heavy feet absorbing any noise, her short tail flicking slowly. Above her through the trees were stretched the hanging walkways, and her sensitive hearing caught the tiny, subtle sounds of other griffins waking up from where they had lain, lolling in lazy piles on the rotted wood. If she were to go up there, she would break the walkways (she knew this from experience), and besides, she was so big that she made the others nervous, and a nervous griffin was not particularly enjoyable to be around.
Alce was not extremely bothered by all this; griffins were, traditionally, solitary creatures, so it was part of her nature to feel comfortable alone. Still, in the great sky-cage, there was so little territory that they inevitably had to clump together or risk running afoul of some of the nastier fellows living in the place. Because it was not just griffins. The professor who had gathered them all here, so long ago, had been a collector of all sorts of strange winged creatures, and though it was not normal for them all to live in such close and cramped quarters (in their own opinion) they had to make do or end up fighting to death. Some had, in fact- none of them were typically humble animals.
Alce reached the little chute, and inclined her great head to examine it. It seemed undisturbed, and her powerful ears could detect no sounds of anything approaching.
She felt oddly relieved. Seeing the young human come through the chute had been a cause of great concern to her, and she could not help but follow him, though she knew he was not the one she sought after, and even seeing him killed had led to a very un-griffinlike feeling of guilt within her feathered breast, though she knew she owed no debt to him.
But the old woman was not here, had not been here today; it was all right.
She raised her head, and something small flitted soundlessly through the air over her head.
Alce stood still, feeling the disturbance, and a moment later there was soft pressure against the feathers between her shoulders.
Alce’s short tail twitched, and then she turned away from the chute and began walking. Her rider gave a startled warble and took to the air again, fluttering to land at the top of her head right between the rounded tufts of her ears.
“A strange creature came by again,” he said. He was a tiny griffin, barely larger than a housecat, though he was full grown. His round little face bore the striking mask of the long-whiskered owlet, while his back end bore the signature marks of the black-footed cat.
Alce did not respond, and kept moving forward. The tiny griffin tilted his head from side to side upon his feathery perch.
“You saw it? You saw it, didn’t you? Tell me!”
He danced a little atop her head, nipping at her feathers. Alce gave a gentle shake and he lit into the air again, and then onto the branch of a nearby tree.
“I think I shall leave,” he said to her, raising his clawed foreleg to preen the feathers on his breast with his beak. “I think I shall do it, after all. It’s so crowded in here, and I’ve almost figured out how to open that chute.”
Alce blinked slowly.
“I had wanted to wait to see- to see if I could get a mate,” mumbled the griffin, from deep within its own feathers. “But perhaps there is no use waiting. Perhaps there are others on the outside.”
Alce’s deep, empty eyes were hard to read, but perhaps there was a trace of pity in them. The griffin did not appear to notice.
“I am to small to eat one of those two-legged things,” he said, flaring his minute wings, “but maybe a baby, or something else. I expect there are other kinds of prey outside. Do you think?”
“I do not know,” said the Alce. She had a deep, sonorous voice, and she used it sparingly; so the little griffin was startled and fluttered his wings.
“It has been a long time,” he said. “I thought that the waiting time would be up soon, and that we would be free to go to our new home by now. But I don’t suppose it will be in our lifetime.”
Alce looked up into the dark canopy, where the flickers of many wings were just barely visible. The griffins ruled the night, and they would prey on the hippalectryons and perytons that they could catch; while the simurghs and hippogriffs ruled the day but feasted upon the same. Except that they had feasted too greedily, and the hippalectryons were almost gone, and the perytons were more wary than ever.
Once, long ago, there had been deer, and squirrels, and a great variety of other small animals, and the predators had feasted upon those, because part of their contract had been to avoid killing anything with wings. But those had been snapped up, and the perytons and hippalectryons had become too numerous too quickly, so the winged ones made their own agreement, the tacit agreement that exists within all natural beings, and the business of nature was carried on without much fuss.
Except that they were still enclosed, in the great sky cage, and they grew more numerous; and the more numerous they grew the less space there was for them to stretch and fly; and the less there was for them to eat; and meanwhile, the trees kept growing: no one was tending to them. And they all waited, impatiently, for the day when they would be taken to their new home, for that had been the promise that they had made with a certain man, a long time ago. But they had not seen that man for some time.
“What would stop us all from leaving?” murmured the tiny griffin, tilting his head back so that his little beak faced the crowded sky. “What would? Why not make our home just here?”
Alce said nothing, because she had no answer, and when she had no answer, she found she could not speak. She thought again of the old woman, the old woman that pushed meat through the slot and crooned and stroked her head- the old woman, who was her own private secret.
She had not appeared for several days; Alce’s heart had felt a brush of fear. The woman was a frail thing, so delicate, getting puffed after walking from the manor to the aviary, where once upon a time she had run back and forth thrice each day and laughed about it.
As she was lost in her thoughts, the little griffin left, fluttering from branch to branch, likely hoping to scratch out what small sustenance he could while the night was young. Alce’s eyes followed him for a moment, then she threw her head back, looked up through the trees. There was little sound, but she could make out wings and shadows, flitting back and forth and over and under; a riot of activity, of eager, hungry griffins. Alce blinked slowly. Sometimes, during the winter when the trees had fewer leaves, she could make out a few stars through the gaps; but now at the height of summer the lushness of the woods obscured any glimpse of the sky.
Alce occasionally pondered her own longing for the sight of it, given that she had no wings to fly with. But like much of everything else, she had no answer, not even for herself.
She moved back towards the chute, close enough so that the mesh crumpled a few of her luxuriant feathers, and peered at the outside world. All was silent, waving grass, soft starlight, distant hedgerows, and the dark lump of the manor down in the valley below.
Her short tail flicked, and she looked to the side; she was no longer alone. At some point a tall creature had come out of the dark and stood at her shoulder. It closely resembled a stag, though it was charcoal-black, with sooty wings folded over its back, and claws instead of hooves.
The peryton- because that was what it was- looked at her a moment, and then tossed its head. Alce recognized the meaning behind the gesture, and turned away; the creature stamped on the ground, and then moved away, as quietly as it had come.
She had not eaten for several days, because her heart wasn’t in it. She needed to know what had happened to the old woman.
Sometime later Alce fell a sleep, and had uneasy dreams. The night passed, and dawn came, flushing everything orange and red and purple; the griffins retreated back to their hanging walkways, and the noisy morning crowd began to stir.
The hippogriffs were first, raising their dusty wings in the sunlight and calling out in raucous tones. Though they had the rear legs of horses, they were meat-eaters by nature, and that same thirst for blood as their cousins the griffins had drove them down into the trees, snapping at one another as they searched. The simurghs woke too, but they were the smallest of all, and the meekest. They had faces and hind legs like dogs, but wings of the most brilliant and striking colors; certainly the jewels of the professor’s collection, and certainly dwindling rapidly in number.
Hippogriffs were headstrong in nature, and one of their favorite pastimes was chasing the poor simurghs, especially when they could not find any suitable prey (not that they would turn their beaks up at a simurgh, if they could catch one). Two young hippogriffs spotted a huddling cadre of simurghs near the forest floor, and with typical hippogriff bravado swooped down towards them in tandem. The simurghs scattered in a flurry of loose feathers, and the hippogriffs snapped at them, fascinated by the way they winked with color in the sunlight.
One of the hippogriffs had caught a long, emerald-green feather in his yellow beak (it had a face rather like that of a secretary bird) and was turning to show his companion when it suddenly jolted. It had just spotted the great, curled up lump that was Alce, tucked down in the leaves and slumbering peacefully.
The hippogriff retracted its head, then thrust it forward again, taking jerky steps towards Alce; its companion noticed and began to follow, a little ways behind. Stealthily the hippogriff got closer, its horse tail swish-swishing behind its rear, until it was close enough to touch her.
The hippogriff might have done any number of things then, all nasty but ultimately harmless, but just then Alce’s head shot up, and it startled the poor creature so badly that it actually tumbled end-over-end and backwards before bursting into noisy flight.
Alce squinted at the other hippogriff, which as still standing, frozen, and slowly got to her feet. She had not woken from their mischief; it had been a subtler sound that had drawn her out of her slumber. Human footsteps were approaching the gate.
Alce stretched, rump in the air, squinting and blinking in the brightness, and then moved quickly towards the metal chute, stub tail raised.
She knew the figure standing there even before she made out the features, and increased her pace, giving little trills and whistles, and squashed herself up against the mesh in a most undignified way so that she could rub the side of her face downwards against the fingers of the human standing there.
“Hello, hello, my dear beastie,” crooned the old woman, crooking her withered old fingers through the gaps in the mesh. Alce turned around to rub against them from the other direction.
“Oh, I’ve missed you, I have; oh, you sweet thing.”
Alce warbled and butted her great head against the mesh, rattling it, and squinted lovingly down at the old woman’s face.
“I am sorry I’ve been gone so long,” the old woman said. “I hope you weren’t hungry.”
She drew something out of the bag at her side: a dead rabbit, stinking slightly in the warm, humid daylight. She grasped the handle to the big chute and pulled it down, trembling a bit from the strain, and let the rabbit slide inside the aviary.
Alce snapped it up at once and swallowed the tiny thing whole, purring as though it had been the finest butcher’s cut. The old woman chuckled.
“Always so hungry… Oh, you’ve grown so much…”
She lapsed into silence, pensive, and Alce sat down, arranging all four paws just so, and tilted her head. She had indeed grown; but then again so had the woman. At one point she had not been an old woman, but a young girl, a young girl who ran around the yard while her mother cleaned the manor (the manor that had never been sold, and still retained housekeepers on staff to visit once a week, despite the disappearance of its owner). She had discovered the aviary, and with it, young Alce, barely more than a kitten, pushed out of her nest by her siblings.
It was the way of the griffin, that the stronger siblings should oust the weaker, particularly a sibling that had been born with such a defect- winglessness- and Alce had never borne them any ill-will; such a thing would be to ignore the inevitable harshness of their lives. Still, when the little girl began to poke bits of meat from her sandwiches through the mesh, it was Alce’s first sight of kindness, and when she began bringing bigger things, like dead mice in traps, and whole chickens, Alce’s heart swelled with a kind of deep love. It was not merely the food, though food-giving was a kind of expression of love in and of itself; it was the devotion, the gentleness, and especially the warm girl’s voice that had won her over.
Griffins rarely loved, but when they did, it was powerful.
“You used to be so fluffy,” said the old woman, her red-rimmed eyes brightening. “But now you are so sleek and lovely, oh, look at you!”
Alce purred louder, closing her eyes.
“I had a bad fall,” the old woman told her, brushing a hand down against her hip, “so I had to stay in bed a little while… I missed you. I am afraid that they want to hire someone else to do the cleaning. Someone younger.”
Alce stopped purring and looked down at her.
“I cannot blame them,” the woman told her, slowly shaking her head. “My son wants me to retire… we have a little house, with a little fenced-in garden, and there will be flowers… I can put up all my photographs…” She trailed off, picking absently at something invisible on her shirt. Alce waited patiently.
“It will be hard to visit you then… I’ll have no one to drive me, and the buses don’t run so far anymore. I’ve spoken to my son about it. He’s very hard to talk to, sometimes.”
Alce lay down, crossing her forelegs, and gave a soft coo.
“I have spoken to him, though,” the old woman said, seeming to draw some strength from the sight of her. “I have… and he is going to help me. He is stronger than me, and he’ll bring his friends… and they can cut open this cage, and you can come out. Would you like that? Would you like to come home with me?”
Alce’s eyes, half-closed against the daylight, suddenly grew wide and dark. The old woman smiled.
“You can understand me, dear beast… Would you like to come with me to my retirement? We have a little garden where you can stay… oh, I am sure you would be happier there than here, in this dreary old cage of yours, alone…”
So saying, she put her withered old claw of a hand back against the mesh, and Alce obediently got up and rubbed against it. But now her heart and her mind were both disturbed.
“I came to tell you that,” the old woman said, crooking her fingers against Alce’s soft feathers. “In a few days my son is going to come with his friends, and they’ll have some tools, and a truck. I want him to bring you a whole ham, too- you always did like ham, didn’t you, dear beast? And we’ll have you out of this cage forever.”
So saying, the old woman nodded, clutching her large purse closer to herself, not seeming to mind that it stank of dead rabbit. Alce warbled, putting a clawed foot against the mesh.
“I promise,” said the woman. “I’ll come and get you with him. We can spend all our days together after that, with no cage between us; I can finally put my arms around you.”
She stayed by the cage a little longer, crooning and clucking over Alce, and then turned around to go, every movement stiff and measured. Once Alce saw her slip on the damp grass and tensed up, but she was all right; she recovered herself without falling down.
Alce’s anxiety did not disappear, though, even when the woman herself was out of sight. She paced back and forth along the short section of the wall, her tail flicking, her chest painfully constricted.
The old woman had never known about the other creatures in the aviary; it was one of the rules established by the professor that they should not show themselves to people outside, a rule they usually obeyed quite happily, given an ancestral- perhaps genetic- aversion to humanity. Alce had first shown herself by accident, but she was young and lost and unable to fledge. The old woman was now her beloved, cherished secret.
But if she cut a hole in the mesh large enough to escape, it would be a door for every other winged animal within, for Alce was the biggest and greatest of them all- for all that she could not fly. The old woman would not realize that. Alce herself was unsure of the consequences, but she knew that with such a hole those within would be unable to keep their first promise anymore- that they should wait- and would fly out, with empty stomachs and hungry minds, and the quiet countryside would no longer be so. A griffin did not discern between cattle and their master; for that matter, nor did a hippogriff or a simurgh or any of the others; it would be, as ever, whatever was most abundant and easy to eat. And the perytons and hippalectryons too; they would ravage the crops and fields, and shotguns would surely ring out. To the benefit of whom? Alce felt that the answer was nobody.
But she loved the old woman so dearly, and oh, to feel her gentle arms around her neck was only everything Alce had ever dreamed of, and to go to her little garden and care for her, protect her, had been nothing more than she ever would have wished, even if the garden was small, even if she got anxious or bored or outlived the old woman for a thousand years… oh, to spend that small time with her, loving her!
An complicated emotion bubbled up inside of her, and she shook her head to dislodge it, but no, there it was. A little fenced-in garden was, in truth, another cage; a much smaller one, in fact, and she would have to struggle with the demands of being a pet, with making nice with those she would not care for, of staying still and quiet day by day, of revolving her life around another’s.
She would do it, for she loved the old woman; but it was shameful, in a way, too, and the other griffins would scorn her- not that that had ever been her concern. In truth, Alce would never escape the sky-cage, even if she stepped outside of it; all the sky was a cage to her.
So she paced, and ate little, and slept little as well, in the following days. She was unable to come to a decision about what to do, if anything. How could she even stop the old woman’s plan if she tried? Or wanted to? She did not know, she did not know, she did not know. It was only the image of that small garden, the freedom to at least lavish her love on the one whom she wanted to; that she held close to herself, that thought- the flowers, the feeling of touching, the warm voice in her ears. A dream.
The days passed. Alce waited with a kind of quivering, nervous impatience; and then more days passed, and more. The old woman could be forgetful. That was all right. She had never lied. Alce waited. The leaves started to turn. Alce waited.
The bones of Phillip Grayson, picked clean, gradually became buried under mats of leaves, and hippogriffs played tug-of-war with pieces of the bright fabric from his backpack. A simurgh shyly presented his yellow torch to a mate. Life somehow went on inside the sky-cage, as it had for many a long year; the little griffin with the whiskered face still promised that he would escape, and spent a great deal of time looking at the metal chute, and built a large, messy nest in one of the nearby trees.
Snow had fallen and covered Alce’s back one morning when she heard the crunch of footsteps approaching. Human footsteps. She shot out of the snow in a great white flurry, startling a flock of simurghs into glittering flight.
Someone was coming.
She shook herself, squinting mightily against the bright white light reflected off the fallen snow; it had nearly buried some of the treetops, bowing their branches down underneath its weight, and had formed columns wherever there were gaps between the trees. The silver mesh itself was slick with ice, like a great, shimmering spiderweb.
The crunching footsteps got closer, and Alce moved stealthily, her head low, her tail twitching.
It was not the old woman. The tread was too heavy; her heart sank. Still, she moved towards the edge of the treeline and stared out.
A figure stopped near the chute: a man, solidly built, and bundled up for the weather, his breath puffing. He gazed up at the silvery mesh with a furrowed brow.
She was surprised to hear him call out. His voice was muffled in their little white world.
When no one answered, the man shivered, and rubbed his gloved hands together. He took the handle to the chute and pulled it away from the gate with a great crack of ice, and then stepped through it.
The chute banged shut behind him, and the man looked around, blinking, only his eyes visible over his scarf. Snow fell down from a nearby branch with a soft whumph, and he jumped.
“Is anybody here?”
His tone of voice made it seem as though he felt foolish, and he rubbed the back of his head, nearly dislodging his hat, before stepping forward. There was only stillness in the sky cage, and the snow near the gate was unmarked; but Alce was not fooled, she knew what sort of stillness this was.
She followed the man as he stumped forward, kicking at banks of snow that hampered his way. She moved with her head low and her shoulder blades jutting, in a silent stalk. Around her she could hear the sound of cold wind and breath; lots of breath; and many eyes.
The man stopped, shook his head, and called out again.
“Hello? Anybody? Dear… dear beast?”
Alce went stock still.
“Dear beast? Are you in here?” The man furrowed his thick brows and rubbed his arms again. He turned around, as though he were going to give up, and then gave a great shout: Alce was sitting on the path.
“Oh- oh god!”
He stumbled backwards against an icy tree, and nearly lost his balance. Alce took rose and took a step forward, saw him flinch, and sat back down again.
“Oh, god,” said the man, staring at her with wide eyes. He tugged his scarf down, and his breath steamed out into the air. “Oh, my god, it is you.”
Alce slowly tilted her head.
“Oh,” said the man, gripping the tree. There were tears in his eyes. “Oh, god, Mother, I’m so sorry.”
Alce let out a soft warble, the feathers on her throat moving. The man rubbed his eyes with a sleeve.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice hoarse. “I didn’t believe her. And now she’s… you must know, right?”
Slowly Alce bowed her great head, turning her eyes towards the snow.
“But you’re just like she described,” said the man, his teary eyes searching her, his cheeks reddened with cold. “You’re… you’re so beautiful.”
Alce’s head came up, and the feathers on her neck rose: she knew that she was gaunt and dirty now, that many of her feathers were broken, and yet… She let out a throaty purr, and the man smiled.
“She loved you so much,” he said. “You have to know that. You do, don’t you?”
Alce blinked, slowly, her eyelashes catching small flakes of snow.
“If she’d been better… if she’d been stronger, I would have come here with her,” he said, casting his own eyes downwards. “I didn’t want her to come. It’s my fault. You… waited, didn’t you?”
Alce rose to her feet, and took a step forward. The man flinched, but stayed where he was, so she came closer, and closer yet, until she was nearly nose to beak with him, her huge, flat face dwarfing his own.
She could see some of the similarities he had with the old woman who had disappeared, especially the warm voice, the tendency towards kindness; but there were differences, too, and this man was not the same- no, he was different, he was entirely different, and her old woman was no more.
But even though she did not love him, she thought she owed it to him to get him away safely; the old woman would have wanted that, she felt. At least that much.
So thinking, she cocked her head and gave a trill, and the man gave a shaky, teary laugh and reached out a hand to her. His fingers just brushed her soft feathers before she backed away.
“Right,” he said, clenching and unclenching his fingers, as if memorizing the sensation. “Then, I suppose there’s only one thing left to do.”
Alce cocked her head the other way.
“I’ll get you out of here,” said the man. “She wanted that, and I think it’s fair, too… you deserve to be out of this cage. A beautiful great thing like you belongs out in the open somewhere.”
Alce’s heart did something strange then, and her chest suddenly felt squeezed too tight; she gazed at the man, the man that was like and unlike her beloved old woman. And yet. And yet. He did not know that she was the only thing there was to worry about, here in the sky cage.
She could show him. She remembered where the bones of poor Phillip Grayson lay; she could dig up his skull and carry it back in her beak; she could locate the skulls of a half-dozen other pitiable men and women as well: all lost, all forgotten, all subject to the brutal rules of the sky-cage.
Perhaps it would have been better, perhaps it would have been more right, but Alce felt strangely weak, standing there in the snow, looking down into the earnest eyes of the man who was smiling at her.
“I’ll have to find a suitable place,” he said, “so it won’t be right away- but I’ll do some research, I will, and it’ll be a nice big place, and maybe there will be others like you- I don’t want you to be alone, you big beast. Oh-”
He reached into his pocket and drew a little package out, wrapped in clear plastic.
“I nearly forgot about this,” he said, and slowly unwrapped it, fumbling with his gloved hands. “She said you liked ham.”
It was a ham sandwich, nearly frozen solid. Alce plucked it from his hands with infinite care, and it disappeared into her great beak: a speck, a fragment, a drop in her stomach. Ah, but she felt filled up somehow.
She walked the man back to the gate, and he slipped back through the chute. There were still many eyes watching them; she would have to deal with them later, but she did not care. She was so strangely happy.
He turned around, outside the mesh, and put his fingers up against it, just the same way that the old woman had done. Alce pressed her forehead up against them, and then withdrew, and sat down.
“You can understand, can’t you?” he told her. “You must have been such a good friend to Mother. I promise, I’ll come back, and I’ll take you somewhere better.”
He tugged up his scarf, no longer smiling, but seeming very serious; his straight black brows furrowed together with intensity.
Alce inclined her head forward.
“I will wait,” she said.
The man gave a kind of stuttered gasp at the sonorous sound of her voice, and went rigid, and then a moment later he said, weakly, “R-right. So- I’ll be back.”
He started to walk away, then turned and said, rather shakily, “Goodbye, dear beast.”
Alce blinked slowly in response, and the man went down the hill, rather more hastily than before. Alce listened until his stomping, crunching footsteps faded away, and somewhere far below, a car engine started. She stared at the line of silent boot prints he’d left behind.
In the trees behind her, there came the sound of wings, and a soft murmur: it was all going to be passed throughout the sky-cage, but perhaps it was only right. She would not want it keep it from them, after all.
She looked after the boot prints until they again filled with snow, and became gentle bluish depressions; then nothing at all. No mark, no sign, no solid reminder of the promise she had been given, except in her head, yet she held on to it. And she waited.
Because time moves, the snow melted, and the small flowers began to show their bright faces; the trees were green with buds, and the sky was more visible through their branches for a time, blue-black at night, punctured with stars. The winged ones fought and mated and died, as was their way; as it was with most things. The silver mesh grew ever more tarnished, and as the days passed perhaps it was getting weaker in places; perhaps there were some that were impatient enough to push.
Alce’s promise might come true, or that silver netting might get pushed apart first; or perhaps in the end all the winged ones will slowly die out, one kind at a time. I do not know, and when I do not know, I cannot say anything.
But time moves, and moves, and as far as I know, she is still waiting.
Thanks to pride-in-storm, ninjaeyecandy, eisenbergandelephants, gigglesnorts, just-a-kobald-bard, and goodbyeomelas for suggesting griffin/gryphon, sandorismybabe and eisenbergandelephants again for suggesting hippogriff, zielderhydra for suggesting hippalectryon, and dragonlord132 for suggesting peryton. (Simurgh suggested by ME!)
The previous short story in this collection was Crocodile Head.