The sound of the birds’ feet on the roof reminded her of something. She lay thinking on the freshly turned straw mattress, her mind trying to hack its way through a jungle of tangled impressions in the hope of emerging into the sunlight of clear memory. She still could not immediately place the quiet, yet insistent, scraping sound of the birds’ tiny feet as they strutted then settled on the palm leaves spread over the roof supports above her. She knew only that she had loved to hear that same noise since her earliest days.
Then she remembered her feeble mother and rough father and how she had been only too glad to marry Japheth, never questioning why he had deigned to marry her. She had wanted only to escape the squalor of the little encampment where her father tended his goats in a desultory manner; his only real interest being in extracting and fermenting liquor from the palm trees that grew in such abundance around them. It had of course been the guarantee of this ready supply of hard drink that had attracted Japheth to their encampment to drink with her father on so many nights, until, blurred by the sweetness of the wine, he had agreed to marry her in a hasty ceremony grudgingly attended by her stern new father-in-law and his long-suffering wife.
She had married into one of the most prosperous firms in the valley. Japheth’s father had become indispensable to the rich clients for whom he built ever grander mansions higher and higher up the valley sides to guarantee them the best views. Their commissions provided constant work for Japheth’s brothers and even for Japheth himself despite his more and more frenzied drinking bouts and preference for philosophising over physical labour. The brothers had built the young couple their own small cabin in the shadow of the family home, and she had been almost content to begin with, sweeping its carefully compacted floors and tending the small outside space where she let some flowers as well as vegetables grow. In the long hot afternoons of that first summer, she had sat watching the doves come down to peck at the little seeds she threw for them. She had smiled at the sight of them so close to her, then sighed when they flew away so freely, and she could not. Japheth had already begun knocking any newfound happiness out of her. He was drunk most days by the autumn, when his father had suddenly lost interest in the business he had spent his whole adult life establishing. Japheth, in one of his few sober moments had tried to reason with him, telling his father how much the business and his family needed him, but it was no good. Japheth had reported to his brothers that their father had become both paranoid and a narcissist, gripped by the belief that their Great Lord planned to pour a torrent of water from the heavenly clouds onto the mountain tops to stream down the carefully incised dry valleys. His father alone, he explained to Japheth, had been designated to build a massive lifeboat. In return for sheltering some token creatures on the boat, he and his immediate family would be allowed to survive, whilst their neighbours perished under the waters of the inevitable flood.
‘And good riddance to them,’ his father had muttered as he strode away from Japheth towards the site that he had set aside for constructing the vessel.
It had taken so many wearisome years to build that boat. The neglected family business had eventually collapsed as one might have expected, and they became poor. The sons wrestled to eke out a living as labourers, but they wrestled even more with their father’s obsession. He demanded they shared his vision of an apocalyptic future and, as there was often little else for them to do, they humoured him by endlessly shaping planks, to form first the enormous hold and then the cabins beneath and above deck for the precious cargo to be stowed in. She had laboured on in her yard so that there would be some food for them to eat. She no longer found the time to watch the doves. She entered middle age without children or any hope of them, struggling both with Japheth and with the dry soil. There seemed to have been barely a drop of rain for months on end. Heat and hunger ratcheted up family tensions.
Then came the night when Japheth and his brothers decided to rebel by setting light to the unsightly piles of rejected planks left beside the boat at their father’s behest. In the bone- dry air, the fire caught light quickly, and she watched Japheth, lit up by drink, collecting extra branches to feed the flames and gesturing towards the hull of the boat.
‘Let’s torch this monstrosity,’ he had shouted to his brothers who seemed rooted to the spot, unable to intervene, uncertain what to do next. As they paused, their vacant faces were suddenly illuminated by an arc of lightning that lit up the sky. They craned their necks to see where the bolt had come from. Then the rain began to fall on their upturned faces until they laughed and shouted and started to stamp and leap in some kind of frenzied rain dance.
Only the rain didn’t stop. It was of an intensity that they had never experienced before. In what felt like moments, the earth had begun to clog under their feet and their dance of joy had slowed under the beating pressure of the water. It was then that the old man appeared, his white robe momentarily illuminated by another arc of lightning connecting with the ground. In his hand he held the rough staff of elder that he perpetually carried and, as they watched incredulously, he raised it in his right hand towards a ring of beasts that none of them had noticed beginning to assemble around the now extinguished bonfire. She and the others had run to lower the ramp from the massive boat down to the ground and to encourage the pairs of animals that lumbered towards it upwards and on to the boat itself. They watched the massive elephants stepping daintily across the rough wood of the ramp, skirting round the silkworms who wriggled their way relentlessly aboard bearing mulberry leaves. And then came the beating sound of wings as fowl of all kinds filled the skies, swooping downward to perch on the roof of the boat.
The old man had remained at the bottom of the ramp with his staff still upheld. It was then that the townspeople had burst onto their land, and the awful noise of their screaming began. They had not come empty handed, but pushing carts which were piled with anything that they had been able to find in their hurry to leave; blankets, pottery, little precious trinkets, or bottles of palm wine, lashed down with whatever makeshift ropes they had found to hand. They had pleaded with him to let them up the ramp, but the wind seemed to tear the very cries from their lips and throw them to the ends of the earth, drowned out by its own loud wailing. For a moment she had thought that they would simply push her father-in-law to the ground and trample him in their rush to board the boat, but he had faced them down, simply raising his staff higher to the sky, as if he did not hear them at all. The crowd hesitated for a moment, and in that pause, he had seemed to glide effortlessly up the ramp that his sons raised again behind him with a thud. Almost at once came the sensation of being swept up high on the water and of the boat drifting away on the waves. And yes, they had heard the ones left behind begin to call, to shout, to voice recriminations, to abandon their carts and belongings and start to stumble and scramble towards the hills, perhaps even believing or at least hoping that they might still survive.
He said not a word about what had happened and so neither did his family. Instead, he put down his staff and quietly told them what each should tend to next: There were pandas to calm, altercations between different species of ants to settle. Her task would be to stay in the cabin beneath the roof section where all the birds were gathered within a makeshift aviary. Its net had been placed carefully, not to imprison, but to prevent the birds being blown away by the force of the wind. Japheth was quietly assigned to another cabin at the other end of the boat. He would keep watch over the brown bears, ensuring that they did not accidentally crush the koalas with whom they shared their berth should the boat list a little too steeply in the choppy waters.
She had known then that her father-in-law had decided to protect her from Japheth on the voyage, whilst she protected the birds who scuffled and scuttled on the roof above her bed. Months later when the brave rook launched himself from her hand, she could only hope that the huge bird would find land, and when he did not return, grieve for him. It must have been many weeks before her protector visited her again and pointed to the turtle dove to whom she had become attached as if she were her own child. This time she had wept as she released the gentle bird, with the old man at her side, silent as ever. They had waited together watching the waters, waiting for a sign, a signal, and then at last had come the rush of joy, the sudden small fluttering as the dove returned and, in its beak, the emerald green of a leaf, of land, of life to be grasped afresh… though of course it took them a few days of moving slowly in the direction offered by the circling dove to find land again.
As they had stood together on the deck, her father-in-law had given her another precious fresh start, turning to her, and lifting his hand as if in a blessing. It was she alone he had allowed to disembark onto what seemed at first to be no more than a cluster of large rocks. She kept with her the beloved doves for companionship, and although Japheth and the rest of the family clamoured to be released, the old man stood firm and would not let them off the boat; compelling them instead to sail on towards a distant pinnacle of sheer rock. As the waters receded, she and her birds had crossed the freshly revealed causeway to firmer land. It was there that she had come across other human survivors, all women, with whom she had built this encampment and lived out contentedly these last years of her life.
She felt herself dozing off again as she lay on the clean straw mattress on the floor, feeling the warmth of filtered sunlight on her face. She could no longer even call to mind what it was that she had just been musing about as she lay there. Her mind often wondered now, but she was not perturbed when she forgot which meal she had just eaten or the name of the friend who sat with her and held her hand. She no longer needed to tease out truth from dream. All she could be sure of was that the sound of the birds’ feet on the roof reminded her of something.
About the author
Jane Spirit lives in Suffolk U.K. She has written academic articles and books from time to time and is now enjoying writing fiction.
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