The wind swept over the rise and cannoned down the shallow slopes of the valley, stalking the road’s sinuous waist. Strut sat on the fence-post opposite his mate watching the rise of the hill and as he turned his head from the wind’s fury, his back feathers ruffled and he hunched against the cold. He watched and waited, listening, head tilted; guarding. Preen dipped and tore at the rat’s fresh carcass, pulling at the worm-like still warm entrails.
The first Preen knew of the car’s approach was Strut’s harsh warning screech as he leapt from his perch towards her. She looked up and gave one more tug at a stubborn morsel and as he repeated his warning she swept up into the air and they landed and turned together to watch the rise. Expectant. The wind’s dull boom had chastened at the car’s approach and now they could hear the hard drone of the provider and Preen shook her head in frustration. Not this one; not this time. More than he, Preen could recognise the distinct sound of her particular love. Her angel.
She considered her mate. So protective, so confident and yet so vulnerable. How will he respond to her news?
She had lost interest in him by the time the car had come into sight, appearing phantom like through the early mist; a blood red avenger threatening to obliterate their breakfast, grind it into the black, granite hard surface of the road.
Strut was back at the kill first; he hadn’t eaten yet. Preen took her place on the post, vigilant as Strut searched the verge for what was left of the meal. Again she gazed longingly at the rise. It must be time. Soon it must be time.
Saphy walked through the dappled morning sunlight as it shone through the leaded Victorian glazing of her entrance porch. The light pierced the sheer fabric of her Monsoon skirt and then spilled spent onto the red, black and white tiled floor. As she closed the door behind her she reflected on the last few months: what a change in her life! One life ends and another begins and only she remained. Improved. The cul-de-sac echoed to the sharp click of the deadlock and the rooks nesting in the limes shuffled crabbily as she walked to the car whose shrill greeting ‘peep peep’ stirred more memories.
This had been his car, well, the one he had wanted. She smiled as she adjusted the seat belt under the growing joy of her womb and around the pleasing swell of her breasts. She recalled his face when she had explained that with the baby coming they couldn’t afford such a toy. He just had to be content to drive past its gleaming metalwork in the showroom each day to work. It’s sapphire pearlescence, ‘cosmic blue’ according to the handbook, reminded her of another blue: the blue of a Greek sky two years ago when the brown of his skin had merged with the ivory of her own and the promise of his ‘Mr Rightness’ had made her giddy. Now he was gone. Good riddance! And it was with a visceral glee that she had bought the car. His car.
Saphy adjusted the mirror so that she could look at her face. She removed her CK glasses and smiled at her reflection. Those eyes! Probably her best feature. The whole iris was visible, almost turquoise so that strangers assumed that she wore fashion lenses; perfect eye lashes, her beautician made sure her eye-brows were flawlessly arched. She was, after all, named for her eyes – her father had prayed that his newborn’s eyes would not dim to grey or taint to green. His prayers answered, Sapphire Newland grew up learning how to use her best features – the power of a sideways glance, a coy glimpse, the wide-eyed mock innocence – all weapons in the arsenal of one born with such beautiful eyes. After the baby was born and her gym membership had repaid itself, there would be other men in her life – under her terms of course.
Preen watched the rise impatiently and then, too tense to just sit and watch, joined her mate. Surprised, Strut stepped to the side and allowed her pride of place. The red car had in one go taken and delivered: the rat had gone but a leveret had taken its place and now lay astride the white line – a final embrace as if it was desperate to hang on to something, anything. Desperate not to die. They fed together in silence. Dipping and rising in time and Preen noticed the echo of their courtship display and was filled with optimism. Soon her nest would be ready, just a few more bill-fulls of fur – this young hare might be all she needed – and of course, a few more bright, blue precious jewels to proclaim their union.
Paul would surprise Saphy with weekends away at country hotels and with beautifully wrapped gifts of antique jewellery, not for display amongst her flock of competitive friends but adequate for those country escapes. Saphy would find them beneath her pillow in warm little boxes and velvet bags – tokens of what she took to be his sincere love. Paul had had his good points; so Saphy’s sister had also thought. Bitch had always wanted what Saphy had.
Her phone vibrated on the cream calfskin seat beside her: she was a little was late.
Saphy readjusted the mirror, hid her eyes behind her glasses tinting in the growing light of dawn, started the car and left the cul-de-sac behind. This evening when she returned the kitchen would have been done: granite surfaces, red tiled floor and duck egg blue splash tiles. The baby’s room was nearly finished too. What a room! She knew it was right the moment her mother had hated it. She had poured all her training and experience as an interior designer into the nursery and it had evolved into a tropical seascape of flying fish, surfacing mermaids and pelican mobiles. Her mother saw it as frivolous, her cold, dark eyes scanning the walls just as she scanned the way Saphy dressed, her make-up and her choice of men. Her mother had even dismissed her unborn grandson as inconvenient ‘just like his father and mother’ when Saphy had told her the expected birth date – it had clashed with a friend’s party. Just once Saphy would have liked a little warmth, a little comfort from her mother. She determined to be everything to her son that her own mother hadn’t been to her. And it started with this beautiful room. A nest to welcome her child to the warmth outside the womb and to a world full of wonder and joy. And if he never knew his father, so much the better.
She left the dormitory village and began the long, serpentine ascent to the top of the ridge. She let the car have its way, in sport mode, hugging the camber, taking the racing line through the empty curves. Life was good; she glowed with maternal power.
Preen and Strut heard their angel at the same time and recognised her sound instantly. Preen looked at him and knew the game had begun. So Preen stayed despite her yearning to rise up and be first to see the provider. She feigned interest in the meal – at least the tender, young gut was pleasantly warm. Strut must never find out of course that his game of chicken was rigged to boost that frail male ego. And then the car appeared over the brow of the hill like another sunrise. One more second and she’ll jump to the safety of the verge and perhaps even give a frightened little squeak for effect, allowing him to face the threat for a second longer and to win his victory. To prove his worth.
As Saphy drove over the rise she had already started to look for the birds. ‘Her birds’ as she called them. Always two never one or three. Soon she’ll be two again and be just as independent and perfectly adapted as these wonderful birds. And there they were. Feeding. Soon with perfect timing they would step aside, hopping nonchalantly to let her pass. And when she had passed she would see them in the mirror just as coolly step back to the road kill – oblivious of her passing. Closer, any time now they would jump away onto the verge. They were in the middle of the road so they could just step to the other side. But still they stayed. They seemed intent on each other; one a little further away than the other. Closer still, Saphy clutched the wheel harder, ‘Move you silly birds!’
Strut looked anxious and Preen knew she should have gone by now. What was she doing? The car, fast, beautiful and deadly was nearly upon them. Her mate screeched harsh and loud: warning her, pleading with her to move. She didn’t react. Couldn’t. Strut leapt just in time, the force of the car’s approach spinning him in the air until he fell to the verge still screeching his fear, his despair. Preen was transfixed by the glittering blue and chrome and could not move. She felt the heat of her angel’s breath and vaguely noted that she would die.
Saphy saw the nearest bird fly to side, the male probably, but the other stayed and seemed to stare straight at her; not at the car but at her. Its black eyes seemed to transfix her; to see through her carefully groomed exterior and to truly see her. Her knuckles white, death bleached at the wheel, she screamed, ‘Move!’
Preen wondered if her mate would harvest her. She hoped so. It appealled to the romantic in her. The blast from her angel’s breath hit her and she unfurled to embrace her beautiful death. Then too late she remembered that it was not just her death. A scream ripped through the morning.
She found herself near the verge, plucked from the road by the car’s passing as it veered around her. Strut was at her side. She felt like road kill but responded to the gentle touch of his bill. He looked angry and yet there was something else there too. Relief? Respect? Preen would later have time to consider these happy thoughts but now the morning’s pattern was being shattered by the rending of metal and an explosion of glass as the car sacrificed itself to the road’s uncompromising hardness.
Saphy’s despairing tug on the wheel was enough to send the car into a side-ways spin and then, still travelling fast, it hit the mile stone and turned over and over again.
The morning seemed to pause. All sound hushed, all movement ceased and even the trees froze and stared down the wind that stepped aside to give the tableau vivant a moment’s respect.
She hung suspended from her seatbelt conscious enough to feel a cold, spreading numbness in her legs. A slow, steady tick of cooling metal was the only sound but then Saphy became aware of a less regular scratch like sound to her right but was unable to turn her head.
Preen approached the wreckage of the car in shocked awe. What was once so beautiful, predatory, glorious was now bleeding its dark oily life’s blood onto the road. Shards of bright glass kicked and skidded from under her feet as she hopped tentatively closer. Strange alien smells and sounds made her wary but her eyes were transfixed by the face – inverted but its eyes still radiated perfection.
They seemed to be glad to see her.
Saphy struggled to reach the seat belt catch. The tightness in her chest was suffocating and her eyes were wet with tears. The strange scratching came closer and from amongst the twisted confusion there was her bird. Alive. Tears of joy merged with those of pain and fell amongst the mirrored glass, crystals that reflected the flames that had begun to leap around the shattered engine compartment. She studied the bird as she skipped ever closer towards her. Almost green rather than black – a deep rippling green which reflected the flames.
Preen was aware of the flames and of Strut’s growing impatience, his harsh bark-like calls intense, insistent. But Preen was as a moth drawn to a flame and she stepped towards Saphy’s tear streaked face.
There was a deadness in Saphy’s arms – they seemed weighed down, pulled over her head, touching but not resting on the car’s headlining. It seemed like too much effort just to reach down to her waist for the seatbelt release. But her bird was fine and so close she could see the individual feathers at the base of her bill and the little tuft of what looked like rabbit fur still lodged to one side of the beak. Her last meal. The perfect predator. She seemed to be staring directly at Saphy. It was almost as if the bird cared and was coming to check on her.
‘It’s all right. I’ll be all right. If I could just reach.’ She tried to move her arms again.
The movement startled the bird and it jumped back a little.
‘No. It’s all right. Don’t go. Please don’t leave me.’
Her breath was coming in gasps and her eyes swam with tears of pain and useless rage. The life inside her stirred against the seat-belt’s pressure and sudden panic for her unborn child made her strong again. She reached down to the left of her seat and her hand found the smooth, cold button. She willed with all her maternal might that she could pull herself free from the wreckage. She could hear sirens. They might save her son, if only she could reach.
She fell onto her right side screaming at the pain in her back and knew she couldn’t move again. The bird jumped back but only a few steps.
Preen stared at Saphy’s beautiful eyes which seemed to grow in both size and intensity as she stared back and felt love swell inside her. She would complete her nest. As always, out of death and sacrifice, life would spring. She stepped closer despite the danger from the flames and the wailing sirens as a stream of cars came over the rise. Preen noticed that the rain swept slopes above the road were stained azure by flashing lights and the trees were casting sudden, brief shadows in cold, cold blue. Good omens for her, for her mate and for her brood. She stepped closer.
The bird and woman were surrounded by the flames that were reflected in the shattered glass and pools of oil and radiator fluid. Eye to eye they regarded each-other.
‘Hello bird’, croaked Saphy and almost smiled. They said magpies were black and white and yet she could see iridescent greens and even blues in her bird’s plumage. She was beautiful. The only real black was in her eye; a dark scrying glass of coldness. The bird stepped closer still. For the first time since the crash, Saphy felt fear.
Preen struck. Stabbing with practised precision with her perfectly adapted bill.
Preen and her mate flew off across the fields to their nest deep inside the copse. Triumphant sirens called in the valley and the morning’s light was suffused with blue. Clutched tightly in her talons her trophies glistened in the dawn’s new light. She regarded her mate flying respectfully to her side and slightly behind. A handsome bird and he’ll take care of her. Now home to finish the nest and then to another harvesting for after all, soon there will be new mouths to feed.