Monday, March 1, 2021

SHORT STORY: The Bird At The End Of The World

(This article was originally published in the July 2020 “Power” print edition of Wordly Magazine in July 2020.  You can read a digital version of the original story here:

Max walked alone across the empty plains. His parents had been merchants, but they had passed on peacefully many years ago. Alone in the world, Max had determined that his life’s purpose would be to see as much of the sphere as possible before he too expired.

James Patrik The Bird At The End Of The World

Due to the persistent heat, he walked at night, maintaining a steady pace. Other humans spent their days scrounging for food, but Max found exploration a more noble pursuit and his empty stomach easier to ignore than his burning curiosity. He walked past the crumbling temples of inconsequential belief and the old house of records, it too now disintegrating. Both buildings were now half consumed by the landscape. Still filled with artefacts of forgotten lore, they were the last remaining vestiges of a world long gone, and an absent population devoured by sickness.

One day, in search of a place to sleep, Max came across a clearing. It was a peculiar circular space, with great trees lopped off at their bases. Huge sections of earth had been scooped out as if by a giant hand, which made the ground look like an old battlefield Max had once seen in a book. What soil remained appeared chalk-like and desiccated. At the centre of the space, there was a lake. It appeared to be filled with black, oily tar.

Moving cautiously, Max noticed a small hut, composed of densely packed flotsam and jetsam. He approached the door and rapped upon it a few times. No response. Behind him, the lake of tar sprang to life, and bubbles rose to the surface. Soon, a shape revealed itself. Head. Neck. Arms and legs. Slowly it ascended from the muck.

It now stood a full seven feet tall. The slimy humanoid wiped the dark sludge from his face and revealed a large proboscis. It was a beak, like that of some giant prehistoric bird. If the sight of such a creature wasn’t shocking enough for Max, one could only imagine his surprise when it began to talk.

‘Come inside,’ he said, inviting Max into his tiny hut. ‘Thank you, sir,’ Max replied, discreetly noticing three-fingered hands concealed beneath densely feathered limbs. The interior of the bird man’s hut was a profoundly grim affair. Grimy, cluttered surfaces populated by dead plants and dust covered trinkets. The bird man offered Max a drink, but he politely declined, noting the foul state of his crockery.

‘Why have you come here?’ asked the bird man as he towelled off the residual oil from his body with a tattered rag. Now somewhat cleaner, Max could properly discern the strange man. He was covered in feathers head to toe, save for his scaly stick-like legs, which stood atop large webbed feet. Free from the tar, yet still jet-black, Max thought his feathers appeared pleasantly soft.

‘I’m a traveller,’ Max offered. ‘You’re the first person I’ve seen in a hundred days.’

‘A traveller,’ the bird repeated as he sat himself down on what remained of a broken sofa and discreetly began loading a bong. ‘I’ve barely even left this house.’ Striking a match, he placed his face upon the mouthpiece and inhaled deeply as the filthy bong water bubbled beneath.

Max watched with intense curiosity. ‘In the old world, it was called ganja. By my father, and his father before him.’

‘Been no ganja for some time now, boy. I’ve had to make do,’ the bird proclaimed as he exhaled a plume of putrid smoke.

‘With what?’

‘Everything. Everything smoked. Plants. Trees. Animals. Ground up and smoked to sustain my power,’ the bird intoned, his rich timbre resonant and masculine.

‘Power?’ asked Max as he sat before the bird, beseeching the giant ornithoid to impart his wisdom.

‘I discovered it right here in this room. I wasn’t always like this, you know.’

Max leant forward as the bird continued to weave his tale.

‘Hundreds of years ago, this hut was once part of a thriving village filled with people. One day, the sky grew dark, and the villagers became frightened. Through a hole in the sky, I caught sight of the throne. I saw the four beasts awaken. Soon after, they came from the clouds. Faceless men on horseback. They laid hands on the women as they struggled and tortured the men with sticks and ropes. The sounds of their anguish were awful, but I was paralysed by fear, so I chose to stay inside. Through my window, I saw the slaughter unfold. I saw it all and did nothing, said nothing. When the faceless men departed, I watched over their broken bodies until I could no longer stand the sight. I saw the dark man’s hand that day, and it changed me.’ The bird man’s eyes appeared wistful. Remorseful.

Max sat in silence, stunned by the surprising intensity of the story.

‘I was once a man just like you. But that day, I cried so much my face changed. Sadness can transform your body as well as your mind.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ Max offered quietly. They were the only words he could conjure. As he spoke them, he was immediately aware of how cheap they sounded in the face of such bitterness.

The bird man’s face hardened as he caught sight of Max’s expression.

‘No need to serve me pity. I neither request nor appreciate it.’

‘No, what I meant was —’

‘It was only from the cinders of my old life did I uncover it. The infinite power of surrender. The value of doing absolutely nothing.’ ‘Nothing?’

‘Nothing,’ he uttered slowly, his voice now resonating in the tiny space.

Max was aghast. ‘I could never be that cynical.’

‘It’s not cynicism, boy. It’s freedom. Freedom from caring. Freedom from action.’

‘But don’t you have any places you’d like to see, people you’d like to meet? Don’t you have any questions about the world? About yourself?’

The bird man pressed his beak against the mouth of the bong again, lit the base, and inhaled deeply.

‘If the question is pointless, so too will be the answer,’ he replied smugly.

‘For a man who claims to be free, you seem trapped.’

‘It’s all a matter of perspective. Yours might change once you see the horror this life has to offer. And besides, as your eyes will no doubt inform you, I am no longer a man.’

A chill ran down Max’s spine. He stood up from his seat. ‘Well then, it appears we have reached an impasse of ideology.’

‘Indeed, we have,’ said the feathered man as Max made his way to the exit.

‘Thank you for the hospitality,’ he offered politely as he paused in the door frame.

‘Maybe one day, when you stop walking, the power might come to find you,’ said the bird, clutching his bong.

‘Thank you, sir. But I already have my own. It was a gift from my mother and father. It is my life and the very fact that I am living. That’s power enough for me,’ said Max as he strode out of the small, strange house without so much as a backwards glance.



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