The city had always been his destination. It was apparent in the shift his breathing took the moment that he set eyes on it, the complete relaxation of all the muscles in his face. He would admit to none of it, said he had merely dreamed this city, which seemed like a good sign to him. I decided against protesting his lie this time. The last leg of the trip had seen him soften, sometimes he even let slip some sliver of information he would have guarded before. It was clear that our path was not entirely random – though he no longer used the map, he was set on arriving somewhere, only vaguely aware of its location. And now, here we were.
The entire city was built in a language I could not translate. It was nothing I had seen before. “Likely because it won’t exist for another four or five centuries,” the old man muttered low enough that he was sure I hadn’t heard. Our road to arrive was linear. There was never a gate or bridge we had to cross, nothing that would have complicated our path and explained this anachronistic settlement we walked through now. Whether this was his doing or otherwise was unclear, but walking through the cobblestone streets he stopped frequently to explain what I was seeing, how the people of this city lived, why their dress and manners were so complicated.
We took a room at a small inn near the center of town. He had me wait outside while he spoke to the innkeeper. Whatever deal they struck I could not imagine, as we were carrying nothing worth trading. She led us up to a small room on the third floor with a single window and I perched there, looking out into the drizzly lane lined on both sides with stone-walled shops, each with a finely carved sign announcing their business, as my companion busied himself with a crudely drawn map the innkeeper had let him borrow.
“We will be staying here for some time while I procure information that we will need for the journey ahead. Take this time to rest.” With that he began his routine of sharing breakfast with me and then departing until past nightfall. I was to stay in the room. I of course did no such thing, following him on whatever quest he was on that day from some distance, mad for my questions to be answered at last.
He knew a number of people in the town and they all greeted him exactly the same way when he visited – profound shock followed by an outpouring of warmth, followed by a deep, dawning fear. Each of them bade him quickly enter, checking both ways before they shut their door behind him. In most cases, he stayed for some time, talking either animatedly or in hushed tones, depending on the tenor of the conversation and the apprehension of his host. These conversations were difficult to overhear, though I caught pieces of a few of them. Some involved multiple maps laid out all over the host’s library, my companion comparing each map, noting any changes from year to year, asking his host specific questions about landmarks and the founding of cities. In others he seemed obsessed about the location of a specific whaling ship and a harpoon thrower who knew something of our hunter. A few of these meetings were spent mostly with him recounting stories of the sisters to his host while they scribbled them down, often for hours at a time.
Days that he wasn't visiting old acquaintances were spent in the catacombs, in an underground library that I shuddered to think was connected to the one we spent time in. Poring over books so ancient they seemed ready to dissolve in his hands, he entered the dungeons early in the morning and stayed until his torch was extinguished. He wouldn’t read the books so much as ravage them – he opened each one furiously, tore through it, scanning for something specific, and then jammed it back on the shelf, doing the same to the next one. He would return home most frustrated on those nights, his voice donning the edge it gets when you’re in a hurry but have wasted a lot of time.
Perhaps the strangest visit he made, this one weekly, was with a decrepit, serpentine man who drew on his skin. The location alone was off-putting. He knocked on the door to a nondescript row house, a dull bovine woman allowed him in, he walked directly into her basement, uncovered a floor entrance and took a ladder down into a dark pit where the man awaited. They spoke to each other in a guttural language that barely seemed human, my companion dictating as this snake man wove a symbol into his skin in that inexistent language. The tone they took was more incantational than conversational, and the entire process bred sleepless nights, so unsettling was the man and their ritual.
I made a habit of arriving at our apartment an hour before he returned, assuming my position at the window. At first I was so occupied with questions that I paid little attention to the scene in front of me, but after we had continued our routine week-in and week-out, I began to notice the birds. They were gray and fat and weather-beaten and there was little to justify their existence or draw the eye towards them, but their numbers gradually began to rise. One or two made their home on our window ledge, but soon it was crowded by a half dozen, and a week later a full dozen. Across the way they dotted the rooftops, then lined the perimeter of the roofs, then eventually crowded them. Following my companion one morning I noticed that we were both unconsciously winding our way through throngs of birds carpeting the road, every tree I passed sagging under their weight as they crowded each branch.
He was so focused on his meetings and research that he made the discovery a few days later. Halfway to the library, as if awakening from a long dream, he stopped suddenly in an alley choked with birds and took in the scene. There was a moment of calm, and then, to my shock, he began screaming at the birds, kicking them violently and grabbing a few mid-flight, snapping their necks. The entire flock then rose at once as a cloud, but he managed to snap one up and held it close to his murderous eyes, pushing words haltingly out of his mouth. “Leave and do not return. I will kill all of your brothers. Leave tonight or you will all be dead by morning.” The cloud of wings ascended and took what space they could on the adjacent rooftops. My companion flew into a rage, punching the wall until he bloodied his fists and cursing at the top of his lungs, a seeming madman. Unnerved by his radical break in character, I returned home and studied the birds outside of my window.
He returned that evening still tense, but more focused. He spoke not a word to me before going to bed, and immediately I noticed that he wasn’t planning on sleeping, so I faked it for a few hours as well until I heard him rise and leave quietly and trailed him from the rooftops. The birds were thicker than ever, making it almost impossible for him to move through the streets at a quick pace, but he didn’t have far to go. Once he was a few blocks from our room, he reached into his satchel and began sprinkling the ground with what looked like seeds. Immediately the birds began swarming, but he continued calmly walking down through the town sprinkling seeds as he walked. For hours he traced the streets and alleys, feeding the birds, who must have been famished judging from their frenzy. Finally his seemingly infinite supply of seeds ran out, and he journeyed back to the inn. It was then I noticed that he was now walking through a carpet of bird corpses, whistling happily and chuckling to himself as he kicked a few aside to clear his path. It was the happiest I had seen him.
But it was short-lived. Walking through a plaza framed by trees, he paused to listen to a deep sound that rose and fell like the planet breathing. It was a few moments until he registered the author of the sound, and by then it was too late – a thousand birds dove at him from every direction. It was no attack though, it was as if they were magnetized to him, and could do nothing but go limp as they flew toward his body. There was a mass of birds, and then a scattering, and my companion was gone. There was no blood, no sign of a struggle and not a single feather on the ground. I heard no flapping of wings or screams either. All that was left, looking smaller and more insignificant than ever, was the book.
A deep rage took seed in me as I circled the plaza, swelling and swelling until I had to unleash it, wresting trees from the ground and ripping them in half. I then sat in the center of the plaza and took the book gingerly in my hands. I knew what I had to do. Come morning, I had to find the serpentine man and hope he knew more than I.
The moon was phosphorescent. It lit the book well enough. I turned to the last chapters he had translated and read as I waited impatiently for the dawn.
Illustration by Chris Baily