A fable from Riveeds.
Part of the forthcoming anthology When the Goddess Walked: a collection of Sinferrean stories and companion to Ashes, Embers, and Ignition. 1,500 words.
When the world was new, in the spreading delta beneath the grey-green mountains, there lived, in the shallows along with lots of siblings and cousins, a mollusc. This particular mollusc lived close to the surface, and so, unlike all the rest of the family, could see the sky. And the birds.
Every day the mollusc watched, as they swam the air. And longed, with all the longing a tiny mollusc possessed, to swim with them.
The mollusc’s siblings didn’t understand. “What do you need to look at birds? They are so far away. Look at the fish swimming past us, instead.”
The mollusc’s cousins didn’t understand either, as word of the wish passed down through the colony. They were further down, where the water was more silted. “How can you even see them that well? Are you sure you’re seeing what you think you’re seeing?”
But the little mollusc was determined.
One day the mollusc asked a starfish that was creeping along the rockbed. “Birds?” replied the starfish, trying to pry one of the mollusc’s siblings from their bed. “You don’t want to mess around with birds, little clam. You want to stay down here.”
“No, I want to swim like a bird,” the mollusc replied.
“Trust me, mate, birds are not your friends. They’ll eat you as soon as look at you. You need to stay down here, where you’re meant to be.” The starfish finishing prying the sibling loose and pushed off, drifting out into the silty water.
But the little mollusc wasn’t dissuaded.
Another day a bird landed near him, looking for fish.
“Bird! Bird! I’m so happy to see you. I want to swim like you,” the mollusc called out.
“Swim like me?” said the seagull. “What are you talking about?”
“I want to live in the air! How do I do that?”
“You don’t want to live in the air, you’re a mollusc! You won’t be happy in the air. You need to stay in the water.” The seagull perched on one foot. “Me, I like being in the water. It’s safer. It’s nicer. I’d be a fish, if I could. Maybe you should be a fish too.”
“I don’t want to be a fish,” replied the mollusc. “I want to be a bird.” But the seagull was already gone, soaring into the great blue sky, tiny against the rolling clouds.
The little mollusc was afraid of never learning how to join the birds.
But one day, at another low tide, an eagle dropped a fish on the rock, and settled down to eat. “Eagle! Eagle!” cried the mollusc. “I want swim like a bird! Can you help me figure out how to do that?”
“You want to what?” replied the eagle, with a cocked head. “Birds don’t swim, they fly.”
“Oh.” The mollusc thought a bit. “How do I learn to fly?”
“I learned in my nest,” the eagle said, between beakfuls of trout.
“Where is your nest?” the mollusc asked.
“Up that mountain,” the eagle replied. “I am sure that if you found the right nest, you’d learn to fly, too. Eagle parents love their eggs, and you are look a bit like an egg, so I’m sure you could find an eagle parent to teach you.”
The mountain, the mollusc thought. I have to get to the top of the mountain.
Mountains are very far away.
Saying goodbye to all the closest siblings and cousins in the colony, the mollusc started started pushing. Molluscs have a little foot, just the one. It’s for holding onto the rock where they live their whole lives, but can also be used to push forward.
It was very slow. The current was strong, and the mollusc was very small.
A push, a roll, wobble, and push again. All day, and all night, the mollusc worked, because they don’t need to sleep—and they catch their food with little whiskers that sweep the seawater. Leaving more time to push. Push, roll, wobble.
The mollusc didn’t know how many days, or how many nights. Seasons went by. Years. One little push, one little roll, one little wobble at a time.
Eventually, the little mollusc made their way to the foot of the mountain, very tired of pushing. The water was very clear, and very cold, and the mollusc was very far from home, very far from any siblings or cousins.
But through the cold, clear mountain water the mollusc could see the birds, all kinds: big, small; fast, slow; flapping and drifting. So many eagles! The mollusc was happy, knowing the way to go, going the right way. But now it was time to climb.
Not sure how to accomplish such a big climb, the mollusc worried. But there was only the one way to get up the mountain: one little push at a time.
There were no big rocks here, so the mollusc pushed against pebbles instead. Sometimes the pebbles rolled. Sometimes they rolled downward, and the mollusc was worse off than before. But there was nothing else to do but try again. Push, roll, wobble.
Days and days, years and years and years went by, but the little mollusc climbed.
Then, one day, one last push brought the mollusc up and over and back to being flat. It had been so long since the mollusc had been horizontal, life had been tilted up for so long. That’s when the mollusc realized: flat meant the top of the mountain!
They were here!
They waited in the spring at the top of the mountain, resting, and watching for eagles. Soon, one landed, to drink.
“A mollusc? Here?” the eagle said, very surprised. “How did you get here? I only ever see your kind in the ocean.”
“I am from the ocean, from the great delta,” said the mollusc. “I have been climbing up this mountain for years and years, so that I can get to the top.”
There was a very long pause.
“…why would you do that?” asked the eagle.
“So that I can find an eagle’s nest.”
“An eagle told me that eagle parents teach babies to fly in their nests. So maybe I can find an eagle to adopt me and teach me to fly too,” the mollusc explained.
“But you have no wings. You aren’t a bird, or a bat, or even a squirrel! How will you fly?” the eagle asked. The mollusc was silent. It had no answer. “Why would you go to so much effort for something that is impossible?”
Finally the mollusc replied: “I had to. It is all I wish–all I have ever wanted, from the first low tide that let me see the sky.”
Now it was the eagle’s turn to be silent. Thinking. Finally the eagle flapped open huge black-feathered wings, and said, “Perhaps I can help. I shall pick you up in my talons, and fly with you back to the ocean. Then you can see what it is like to be a bird.”
“Oh thank you! Thank you!” cried the mollusc, wobbling in delight.
The eagle picked the mollusc up, and lifted into the air, soaring over the tops of trees, back down the mountain.
The mollusc was overjoyed. This is what the wind felt like. This is what the world looked like, spread out below. This is what it felt like, to float so gracefully, swim so weightlessly.
Soon the great delta spread out beneath the pair, and the wide ocean, that looked as blue as the sky had looked. The little mollusc was so happy, so overcome with emotion, not yet realizing that the eagle had let go, even though they were not yet over the waves.This was not flying. This was falling. Falling faster than any bird the mollusc had ever seen, heading for the hard ground and rocks below.
And yet, for that brief moment, the mollusc had known what it was like to swim the sky.
The mollusc woke up, held in the hands of the Goddess.
“Little mollusc,” said She, “you have worked very hard for such a sudden end.”
“I don’t mind,” said the mollusc. “I worked so that I could fly, and I did that.”
“You never wished to go back to the sea? I made molluscs to enjoy the water,” the Goddess continued.
The mollusc was quiet, not wanting to contradict. “But if you made me, you must have made my urge to be a bird as well.”
The Goddess laughed. “This is very true.” She threw her hands up into the air, tossing the mollusc into the sky. Soaring upwards, the mollusc grew bright white wings, and two feet, and eyes at the front of a beaked head, at the end of a neck.
The mollusc-that-was spread new long wings, and didn’t land, but glided in circles around the Goddess, crying “Thank you! Oh, thank you!”
“Keep flying, little one!” the Goddess yelled, as the great bird soared, out over the vast blue ocean that wrapped the world.
And that is how the albatross was born, a great bird that never stops to land, except on the sea that it was its home, long long ago, before it climbed the mountain.