“Solitary Birds,” by Jennifer Diemer
Lonely and depressed, Juliet ran millions of miles away from home: she signed up for a lifetime contract on another planet. Unfortunately, her loneliness traveled with her. But then a mysterious girl gives her a silver kiss beneath the Quipa trees…
(photo by GNews)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
by Jennifer Diemer
Sometimes I miss the birds. There aren’t any here. Dad and Georgie would go mad. The only flying, flitting things in the air are the nulas—palm-sized, battish, cattish creatures with soft white fur and pearl-textured wings that shimmer with the green of the sky.
A couple of the kids on base—homesick for their dogs and cats—caught a small flock of nulas by installing a complicated series of nets in a stand of Quipa trees. But they don’t play with the captured animals, haven’t taught them to fetch or bat at string. Because they’re smart and have deft, four-fingered paws, the nulas have to be kept in double-latched cages. Otherwise, they unhinge the doors and fly away.
Henry, the captain’s son, got bitten by a nula once, but he probably deserved it. He reminds me of my older brother Robbie back home: boastful and aggressive with other boys, prone to picking fights.
Robbie called me crazy and selfish for signing on to be a youth officer here on Emerald. But he’s called me worse things—words I can’t forget, no matter how hard I try—so his knocks don’t really hurt me anymore. At least, not much.
I’ve always been closer to Georgie, anyway. My younger brother Georgie takes after my ornithologist father: sweet, lost in a world of his own invention. By the time he was ten, Georgie could imitate twenty birdcalls, almost as many as Dad, and he always tiptoed over the lawn when the robins were hatching, in case any flightless babies had fallen from their nests.
Georgie gave me half of a robin’s egg before I boarded the shuttle. He told me he’d put the other half on his bedside table, that he’d keep it there until I returned home.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was under a lifetime contract.
Someday I swear I’ll let him know, slip it in during one of our teleconvos. When he’s my age, maybe, or a little older.
Now that we’re in a warm cycle on Emerald, I like to sit in the grass and watch the nulas and think of Georgie with his oversized binoculars peering up at them, too, crouching right beside me. He’d love to observe the way they bound from branch to branch, like overgrown squirrels. You can almost lull yourself into thinking that they are squirrels: strange, large, albino squirrels. But when they unfold their big wings and swoop down first and then up, up high into the sky, higher than seems possible or wise, you feel the strangeness of it all. It’s a strangeness that sneaks up on you, wraps its arms around you from behind, and just like that, it blankets your whole body, inside and outside, making even the air you’re breathing taste somehow not right, somehow not meant, never meant, for you, with your artificially adapted lungs.
And then you’re hit—hard—with the loneliness again. But there’s nothing strange about that. I left Earth to escape it. I guess it stowed away in my flight suit’s pockets, nestled alongside Georgie’s egg.
“Going for a walk, Juliet?”
I turn around and nod, offering Captain Miguel a small smile. “I’m not really up for another game of Candyland.” I shrug and gesture toward the rec room full of kids half my age.
I came here to get away from my life, from my grief over Mom’s death, from Ember—who told me she never loved me, after all, wasn’t even really into girls, and dropped me at the winter formal for lumbering Lucas Brown—and I succeeded. I’m the one and only teenager on planet Emerald. “So far,” the captain always assures me, but shuttles from Earth are grounded until the medics finish up their reports on the current wave of Facets—their gemmy word for Earth transplants.
It’s kind of ironic: there aren’t actually any emeralds on Emerald, but it’s a very green place: green soil, green sky. The water looks green, too, which is kind of disgusting. When I run it through my fingers, though, it’s only faintly green, clean. But it doesn’t taste like Earth water. I threw it up the first time I drank it.
“You could join us in the adult lounge, you know, if you’re ever in the mood for more—well, somewhat more—mature conversation.”
Earlier today, four-year-old Tyler Ritter performed a long, very detailed soliloquy about how his pee comes out a different color here than it did on Earth—“like lime Kool-Aid.” He’d offered to show it to me, but I politely declined. And Henry asked me if I’d ever done it, with a wicked gleam in his eleven-year-old eyes.
“I might take you up on that, Captain. Thanks.” I salute and turn back toward my favorite place, my place, on base: the Quipa forest.
Technically, the forest is just beyond the border of Facet-approved territory, but no one’s chewed me out yet about crossing over the thick black lines. I think the officers feel sorry for me. I’m too old to relate to the kids, too young to be a working officer. As a youth officer, my only responsibilities are to check in every morning for medical and psychological exams, study independently, and fill out regular surveys on how I’m coping with my otherworld experience.
So, how do I spend my free time?
I just wander.
I hardly ever took walks back on Earth, but here it’s all I do—besides eating and sleeping and occasionally holing myself up in my room to (quietly) cry into my pillow. Despite all of the state-of-the-art technology on Emerald, the walls between cabins are paper-thin.
Squinting up at the glaring white star, I watch as a flock of nulas crosses the sky, fuzzy specks of white upon the vastness of green. It’s rare to spot a single nula. They’re usually in pairs, at least, but more often in large groups—family groups, the scientists speculate. But no one’s studied the nulas intensively yet.
I walk faster, anxious to lose myself beneath the fragrant, swaying trees. My boots move over the grass with a satisfying crunch. I guess it isn’t really grass. It’s coarser than the grass I’m used to, and it never grows higher than a few inches. If his yard grew with this stuff, my father could finally trash his hated, perpetually broken lawnmower. He’d probably weep for joy.
But Dad’s not here.
Neither is Georgie or Robbie. Or Ember.
Or a single, solitary bird.
So I run into the forest alone, my mess of red hair knotting in the warm wind, and when I’m in deep, when I look back and can’t see the dull gray lines of the base anymore, I stop, breathing hard, and stare up at the heavy boughs of the alien trees.
Aside from the nulas, the Quipa trees are the only native beings I’ve come in contact with since arriving on Emerald. I’ve heard the officers discussing some small, lizard-like creatures, and something fast and silver that they’ve yet to catch and identify, but I haven’t encountered any of those yet. And there aren’t any people on the planet besides us invader Earthlings.
The trees, though—they feel like people to me. I guess that’s why I enjoy their company so much. They listen; they’re a presence, but they never ostracize. Never turn their backs on me when they get to know me—can’t. Sometimes I envy their roots.
“Hi, Steve,” I whisper to my favorite tree, the one with a heart-shaped whorl in its thin, pale trunk. The Quipas’ bushy boughs remind me of something out of a Dr. Seuss story. The branches are all high up, too high for me to reach, and fat with thick, glossy leaves that flash an unreal blue-green.
Steve doesn’t reply, only shifts his branches as if to wave hello, so I move on to greet Tom, and Mike, and Pete. The four of them make up a cozy little circle. I sit in the center of their trunks, cross-legged, and close my eyes.
And I lie.
Mom used to do something like this, but she called it meditating. I call it lying, because when I’m still, when I shut out the noise and the world, the visions that come to me are lies, all lies.
Like now: Ember’s here. She followed me through the forest, silent as a cloud. She wants to surprise me, tell me—in person—that she was wrong, stupid, afraid. She’s changed her mind. No, come to her senses. She dumped Lucas and traveled the universe to find me, because there’s no one else on Earth she could imagine herself dancing with, dreaming with, kissing…
I lean forward.
Ember kisses me.
I soften, too.
It almost feels real. My heart speeds up, and my skin tingles, and she tastes like…tastes…
Not like Ember.
My imagination isn’t half this convincing: someone’s really kissing me.
Startled, I open my eyes and scramble back, half-expecting to see that Ember’s here, really here, really does love me, really did follow my self-imposed exile—madly—into outer space.
But the girl gazing back at me with a curving, half-open mouth and midnight blue eyes isn’t Ember.
I don’t think she’s human.
“Who—” I begin, but then my throat closes up, and I touch my lips, disbelieving. This girl, with her too-large eyes and shining silver skin kissed me—lips, tongues, cheeks touching—just as I was imagining Ember’s lips on mine…
“Why did you do that?” I ask her, nervous and a little annoyed, but she shakes her head, a smile stretching across her face.
She’s crouching in front of me, leaning toward me, her shimmery body clothed in rough, green fabric. Her head is as smooth as the moon. When I meet her eyes, her gleaming dark eyes, my insides tremble, or melt, or gasp. No one’s looked at me like that since…ever.
“Why did you…” I begin again, but she touches a fingertip to my temple—so gently, a feather’s touch—nods her head, and then, just as gently, her nail grazes my just-kissed lips. She touches her own temple, urging me to understand.
I do. She saw my lies. And she took it upon herself to make my vision real.
‘But why?” My voice is hoarse, a whisper lost amidst the whispering Quipa leaves.
The girl takes my hand and tugs. I seek out her eyes again; they implore me. Her skin against mine is down-soft, warm. I rise to stand uncertainly beside her.
We’re the same height, nose to nose, eye to eye—
She steps close, and I feel the heat of her, marvel at the way her silver hand casts mirror-like reflections upon my hand, fractured waves of starlight.
She says something—fast, her voice light, susurrant—and then, hand in hand, as if we’d planned it, came together on purpose to do it, we run.
There’s less gravity on Emerald than there was on Earth, and it makes me feel reckless now—or maybe it’s the girl who’s making me feel that way, with her over-the-shoulder smiles and flashing blue gaze. I laugh, weightless, bounding—almost flying. I haven’t ever run here, never thought about running, because I figured I’d done enough running for a lifetime. I ran light years away from home.
But this is different: it’s running for running’s sake alone. I gulp down air greedily as my legs pump and my long, tangled hair thumps against my back.
The girl is faster than me, a little ahead, but she hasn’t let go of my hand.
It feels so good to fly.
Gulping at the air, muscles aching, I watch in mute wonder as the Quipas zooming past give away to open fields dotted with small bushes and yellow-headed plants—flowers?—with spiky stems. We’re far from the base now; I’ve never dared wander so far on Emerald, though I suppose the officers must know about these plants, this field. My eyes scan the landscape until they rest upon slim notches in the earth, tracks from the officers’ rovers.
I glance down at the hand clasped gently but firmly in mine.
Do the officers know about her?
She says something to me, then, in her quicksilver tongue, and we run faster, faster, the world around us smudging to a watercolor painting, an Impressionist dream of sun-dappled greens.
My legs begin to quiver. “Can we stop?”
But the girl gestures as if to say, “Only a little further,” so I draw in a ragged breath and try my best to keep up with her pace. Ahead of us, the field narrows, and suddenly we enter a new forest peopled with dark, unfamiliar trees.
“Please, I can’t—”
Her hand slips from mine as she slows and, laughing, lifts her arms high above her head.
The sky fills with wings.
In sync with the raising of her arms, hundreds of green-winged birds whoosh from the thick-branched, leaf-heavy trees. These aren’t Quipa trees—they’re larger, sturdier—and these birds aren’t like any birds I’ve ever seen, or read about in my father’s books.
Instead of two wings, they have four, arranged like butterfly wings, only feathered, all flapping at once. I gape as a shower of feathers flutters down upon us; I catch one of the small wisps between my fingers, hold it closely to my eye. It’s fine and soft, barely an inch long. The birds—circling above the leaves now in lazy, shifting formations—look to be about the size of pigeons, and each one sports a flare of gleaming plumage on its head, a shock of gold that ruins the camouflage effect of a green body against a green sky.
The birds fly round and round as, beside me on the ground, the girl spins slow circles, her arms still pointed toward the sky, her eyes closed and her silver mouth smiling. They’re mimicking her, or she’s mimicking them…
Suddenly, she stops, draws her arms back down to her sides and reaches for me, taking both of my hands in her own. My heart skips as the air changes: above us, the birds downshift, rushing back into the trees, done with their rotations. The rustle of the birds’ folding wings is strangely comforting to me in this strange, discomfiting place.
The girl speaks again in her quick, eager way, drawing my attention back to her, and when I shake my head, she lifts my hands high above my head, nodding, talking fast. She lets go of me and does a twirl, encouraging me to do the same.
Again, the birds sweep up, and the glory of it, of this feeling, this connection, is staggering. I turn, and the birds turn with me, and neither of us is controlling or commanding; this is symbiosis, a mutual recognition: I recognize you, honor you, acknowledge the threads that bind us—Emeraldian and Earthling—together. You matter; I matter, none greater, none less…
I never let anyone see me cry.
Without a glance at the girl or another glimpse at the birds, I run behind the trunk of a tree, and I press my back against the grooved bark, and then I slide down, bow myself in half to bury my face in my knees and sob.
A hand smoothes my hair, following the slope of my head and neck, and a sweet voice speaking foreign words sings a song, only three notes, that subdues my tears.
“That’s beautiful.” I lift my wet face and stare into the girl’s knowing blue eyes. Her expression is so soft, so compassionate, that I feel the tears gather again. But I blink them back, swallow hard. Say, “My mother died four years ago. She was my best friend, and I couldn’t—I can’t—“ I swallow again. “I miss her, you know. My father and Georgie have their birds, and Robbie has his anger. All I had, all that was left of me, was…depression.”
She rests her hand on my cheek, and she looks sad, so sad…
“My mother was really into stars.” I scrub at my wet face. “She had this big telescope on the deck, and she and I used to stay up really late and take turns searching out the constellations.” I smile a little, sniffling, remembering. “I figured, if I came up here, I might feel a little closer—” My voice catches. “It’s so stupid. I’m so…”
I feel the girl’s arms encircle me, tighten around me; with a sigh, I rest my chin upon her shoulder.
Again, she sings the soothing notes, and my body relaxes against her.
“Did you make up that song?” I ask her softly. “Is it a song everyone who lives here knows?”
She pulls back, watches me for a moment. Then she shakes her head—no—and points to herself, to the earth beneath us, shakes her head again. No, no, no. No, what?
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand…”
Her blue eyes roll toward the sky, and I look up with her, watch her hands rise, pressing together, pointing up, as if reaching. With a look of sorrow, she brings her hands back down, presses them meaningfully against her chest, over the space enclosing her heart.
“Do you mean… No, the song isn’t from here? You’re not from this world? You’re a transplant, too, like me?”
She gazes into my eyes deeply—so deeply that the blue blurs, and pinpoints of light sparkle in the cobalt spheres like stars illuminating sister worlds.
“You knew I wanted to see birds again,” I whisper. “So you brought me to them.”
She lowers her lashes, smiles a subtle smile.
“And you…kissed me because I was wishing for a kiss.”
Her gaze moves to my mouth, lingering there, and her smile deepens. She reaches out to graze her thumb over my lips.
My heart flutters winged within me. “Tell me, then,” I breathe, touching my fingers to her gleaming temple, “What do you wish for?”
She draws in a breath. For a moment, I fear I’ve offended her, and my pulse speeds up, but then she situates herself squarely before me and takes my free hand, presses it to her other temple. Then she places her own fingertips on either side of my brows.
Together, we close our eyes.
Birds. Behind my eyelids, I see the four-winged birds—a cheerful cloud of green and gold flying, filling up the sky for miles and miles. They swoop and soar and flutter away.
But upon a branch, its wings folded back, I see a single bird apart from the others, forgotten or left behind. It isn’t green but silver, and it tilts its head back, gazing, forlorn, at the now-empty sky, tweeting a baleful, three-note song.
Again and again, it tweets. Sings until its voice lowers, hoarse.
Until, finally, its song is returned.
A red-feathered bird wheels into view, singing, singing, desperation in its off-key reply. When it finds the silver bird and alights beside it, the tree beneath them seems to sigh: At last, at last…
“Oh,” I breathe, opening my eyes.
“Oh,” she says, imitating me, laughing.
“My name is Juliet,” I tell her, pointing to myself. “Juliet.”
She nods her head and leans close. “Martu,” she whispers, watching my mouth closely as I form the crisp syllables: Martu.
There’s so little space between us now; we’re breathing one another’s air.
When I kiss her, when she melts against me, there’s no space between us, no space or time. I don’t think of Ember when I’m kissing her, or of the words Robbie and the kids at school spoke to scar me. I don’t think of the sorrow in Dad’s searching, upturned gaze. I don’t think of the night that, weeping, I held Mom’s long-expired bottle of pills in my hand—and then tossed it in the trash, made up my mind to fly away, instead, to sell my soul to the stars.
I don’t think about my half-egg, my loneliness.
I think of feathers molting and growing again, more brilliant.
I think of the glory of earth and tree and star and sky.
I think of nests built in unexpected places.
The girl clasps my hand, draws me, still kissing me, to my feet. And then she pulls back, points, begins to spin in slow circles, smiling. I laugh and raise my arms over my head, astounded by her, by myself, by the universe.
We spin together.
Above us, the birds take flight; they paint the sky with wingstrokes, determinedly soaring, and I almost feel myself flying with them, feel some part of me rise to join the flock. It’s a flock that has always been with me, will always be with me, I know, no matter how far I wander from where I began. I’ll never be—have never been—alone.
The girl and I, aliens both, dwell beneath a rain of green feathers and listen to the sound of a hundred wings folding.
We nestle like hatchlings in each other’s arms.
In the morning, the officers discover my nametag pinned through a note scrawled on the back of a Quipa leaf:
Found what I was looking for.
Thanks for the ride.
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