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An island made entirely of birds

Published 3rd January, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger

At daybreak I follow you, search for footholds. Soft dawn light lifts above the horizon, tilts me horizontal. I half-watch the loose ground, half-watch the notch-notch-notch curve of your spine press-press against your shirt as you climb the incline ahead of me, I climb; I am inclined. You lead me to the top of a corrugated ridge fringed with low trees; catch our ragged breaths, look down into a valley, green-dense and mist-floating. I am mist-fringed and dense-floating. The valley cuts through the landscape like a scar, the memory of stitches. Two tectonic plates hemmed together; they shift and slip against each other how I imagine our bodies might if we let them collide; we have not yet crossed that dividing line, the lingering dividing line. I look at the single loose strand of hair curling down the nape of your neck and a quake runs through me.

We trace the perimeter of the ridge as the sun climbs higher; the Earth spins, axial. The mist evaporates, beneath us a lush basin stretched out. Walk me down into the dew-bright valley, condensation beads on my skin. Sun’s rays break unbreak in leaf-interrupted patterns. We push through thick tracts of shimmering tree ferns, follow paths twisted with clematis vines, stones skittering in my simmering skull, my mind an unwinding skein, flayed. The once-proud pine trees have been felled, they lay fallen and slowly decaying; moss-carpeted and insect-dissected, disappearing into the soil, atoms collapsed and carbon reclaimed.

A morning chorus of birdsong resonates; the air reverberates. The forest is a feasting palace strung through with bursting fragrant blossom and hung with bright berries. I am buried, feckless. Around us, rustles of ground dwellers, unseen and flightless, fair-weathered. Sunlight catches metallic feathers. You tell me that at one time this island was made entirely of birds; flocks sun-eclipsing; wings beating down storm-like. Now many are myth, relegated to stories. I glimpse your barely-concealed plumage, tucked away recklessly. The skeleton of a bird is near weightless; the almost hollow bones crisscrossed with trusses. I wait, baited; I am weighted, unabated. With my eyes I trace the dips and slopes, tread the tropes, of the delicate outline of your clavicle, walk the ropes of the contour of lean muscle stretching from your scapula along the length of your wing. 

The sun presses moisture out of foliage, presses into chlorophyll, presses light into energy, presses out oxygen. We are inhaled in the valley’s breath, drawn into its lungs and wrung out. Rising heat: a cacophony of humming crickets triggered, vibrating through eardrums, settling in our brains. Tuataras creep from burrows, leather-spread on rocks, slowly warming their blood and waking. Sunlight radiates through ozone, searing into my pores and melanin activating. Ultraviolet light refracts off your scales, a swathe of dazzling keratin prisms, reflecting. You fix me with parietal eye-gaze; slough your reptilian skin; it gathers at your shoulders, your hips and falls in drapes, in waves; it spreads across the forest floor, a discarded fabric of brilliant fractals. I am fractured.

Clouds bank up and thunder cracks overhead; a breeze disturbs the leaves; humidity weighs hands against us. A single tear of sweat rolls down your face; rain drops slide down wide palm leaves, fall to ground. We shelter under a Kauri tree, a minaret calling us to prayer under the breaching sky; each flare of lightning a calamity of electricity; every hair on my body charged. The rain closes in, falls steadily, heavily; the sound crowds in. Narrow rivulets grow, forge a path through dense undergrowth, washing furrows into earth, flooding burrows, displacing leaves and eroding soil. Fat rain drops crash through the canopy, anointing us; wringing hair hangs on our baptised heads. Our clothes are through-soaked; a sheer gauze-wrap clings to your body; I map the unchartered ridges and contours, the unexplored heart-of-darkness territory. I pioneer you. You lean in close, tell me of a reservoir in the valley where a demon’s submerged heartbeat rises and falls the water. I shiver as each word pools in your mouth, stories of gods and monsters spill from your mouth onto my rain-soaked skin and drown me. 

As the rain subsides, you lead me out of the forest; we tread a mutable path. Emerging streams carve impressions, meet and diverge at intersections; a watery template laid across tessellated stones, bracken-tangled. Tracks dissolve and deviate, ambiguous margins. Heavy wafts of compost loam the air. Our feet fall on a terrestrial veneer over fractured veins of rock. Beneath us, a subterranean world writhes, crackling with radiation and hydrogen, starved of oxygen. Flatworms, nematodes and protozoa swim in fissures running deep with ancient, brackish water, multi-cellular. We reach a dam that cleaves the valley in two; we walk along its concrete wall, peer down into the reservoir, restrained water, the force of nature held against its will. The reservoir’s surface is rainfall-punctuated, an irregular staccato; ever-widening circles echo outwards echo outwards. I watch your chest rise and fall, your breath; the water ebbs and flows in sympathy. I want to press my palm against your chest, possess your heart as it winds through its repeating rhythms, usurp your coursing veins and capillaries, bear down until I feel your blood rise to a gentle sunset-bruise, spread like a soft depression on a too-ripe peach; the pinks and purples of the gloaming sky. Shadows of tall trees elongate across the valley; dusk light dips behind the horizon.

Night is closing on the valley; the temperature falls; the day is failing. We retreat under an overhanging ridge, gather dry kindling, light a fire. It spits and crackles as it catches, flashing. Birdsong gives way to the nocturnal calls of croaking frogs and the haunting whoop-whoop wing-drag of bats, their sonar-pulse frequency-hidden. Whirring moths glow white, seduced by perfume blasts of night-blooming flowers, pollen-redolent. A steep bank ahead of us lights up, a galaxy of glow-worms casts a net of bioluminescence. The moon slides out from behind shifting clouds, joined by stars, flashing ornaments against the pitch. I look up, follow the celestial trajectory of a distant glittering sun, an exploding supernova, dying, swallowing all the silvered filaments of light. Your face flickers in and out of firelight, in and out of shadow. 

I reach through the dark to take your hand; the planet’s rotation slows, time stretches and contracts, elastic, as the millennia wind back towards infinity, beginnings; civilisation begins to unravel, scramble; mountains rise up and collapse back into the ocean spent of lava; ancient viruses burst in a glacier-dark release as permafrost melts; continents freeze and retreat as another ice age looms; fur and feathers and fins sprout and retract as evolution rewinds, waves of extinction ebb and flow; living things are dead and buried, turn to fossils and are dug up and burnt for fuel; rivers surrender their water and refill, brimming; great forests blaze and regrow green from smouldering ash; rains fall over deserts and spring flowers burst and wither; water, mountains and earth converge into one vast heaving mass. I press my lips against yours, you seep into every corner of my body, looping through my veins, making me liquid and unbound; the ground cleaves open; the dam cracks, water surges through its breached wall, flattening the timber skeleton and releasing a thundering deluge; the rush of water, the rush and flush of you, the rush of blood as your tongue fills my mouth, my lungs fill with water; I am swept and split into a thousand droplets of water and drained away by gravity, willingly, bereft of oxygen, my metabolism slows, cells divide languidly, extinguishing. I step into the anoxic void as the burn in my lungs gives way to aquamarine dreaming, grow gills from fish-memory, become a mermaid, my hair seaweed-tangled, float untethered from the earth, discard it; push myself into you, you open into an abyss, oceanic, I edge closer to oblivion, all colours split into their separate wavelengths, bleed and fade to dark; sink into the lost boundaries of our bodies and for a moment you dredge me out; I inhale a knot of oxygen that fires my cells, crash back into you, the world dissolving around me.

Long after I decay, you remain: a spectral presence, ephemeral traces persisting as rising carbon, resisting, floating like abandoned thoughts, random equations in the atmosphere, through timescales that are imagination-defying.

Justine Hyde is a writer, critic and librarian who lives in Melbourne. Her writing has been published in all the usual places.

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