“The Sign of Sapphire,” by Jennifer Diemer
Adrift on an ark in a drowned world, Hesta waits for her blue jay to return with proof of land. But what she discovers when the earth dries up is a promise that is nothing less than a miracle.
(photo by NHoulihan)
(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.].)
“The Sign of Sapphire”
by Jennifer Diemer
Eyes trained on the clouds, we wait for the bird.
“He will have drowned by now,” Nila moans. She cradles her round belly and begins to weep. Gru, long-faced, encircles her in his arms, whispering calmly into her ear. But my sister has never been soothed by words—when she was a baby, Nila screamed every moment she was not asleep—and so her weeping soon becomes wails.
“We’ll be in our room,” Gru tells me with a grimace, and I nod to him, watch him guide his sobbing wife through the door leading to the living quarters of our ark. He will hold her, I know, until she sleeps her sadness away.
My own sadness is a barb within my heart.
I turn back to face the empty sky and the fetid, corpse-steeped sea.
Our ark is one of a fleet of many. I’ve never bothered to count how many arks there are. Hundreds, perhaps. We did not set out as a fleet, but we found each other nonetheless, helpless to fight against the pull of the tide. Together we bob, adrift upon the angry waters, all of us desperate for sight of land, each of us, within our wooden ships, dreaming of grass, of the soft give of earth beneath bare feet.
The rains stopped sixteen days ago, but the water has not receded, and there is no land in sight.
Nine days ago, my mother loosed a bird to the sky, one of the scores of birds we keep safe—fed and watered, with clean bedding—inside our ark. Mother hoped the bird would return to us after he found land, return to the place he had nested for these many weeks.
And the bird is still gone.
It was my idea to stow away a flock of birds. Before the rains began, I watched our neighbors and my father gather the earth creatures into their vessels, the milk bearers, egg layers and meat-yielding beasts, but none seemed to spare a thought for the birds.
“They’ll die,” I told my family, as I drew down one of my traps from a tree. Within the simple cage, a white-winged pigeon cooed uncertainly. I cooed back in my softest voice, coaxing it to settle down, unruffle its feathers. Its round black eyes regarded me for a long moment, and then the bird nestled upon itself, tucking its beak into the feathers lining its back. “The trees and the mountaintops will be underwater if this flood is as dreadful as everyone has predicted it will be. The birds will have nowhere to land. They’ll drown in the rain. There will be no more birds, save for the chickens.”
“And chickens can’t fly,” Nila whispered, wide eyed.
My father shook his head at me, waved his hands, fretting over preparations, taking stock of our supplies, too busy to discuss the fates of fowl with me. But Mother and Nila and Gru stared at the soft-feathered pigeon dozing in its cage and then, as one, stared at me.
“Will you help?” I asked them. “It would be tragic, wouldn’t it, to live in a world without birdsong? Without gliding, flying things?”
Gru nodded his head. “It would. Imagine—a wingless sky!”
“It is foolish, when we can scarcely ensure our own survival. But,” Mother said, working her jaw thoughtfully and wringing her hands, looking after my father, “we can’t let the poor things die out, not if we might save them with little efforts, such as that contraption you’ve made.” She nodded, frowning, toward my cage. “Do you have others like it, Hesta?”
“Yes. And I can make more.”
Nila bit her lip, worried. “The waters will rise quickly. There is not enough time to catch all of the birds.”
“A few is better than none,” I whispered, gazing at the sleeping pigeon. “Two of each kind we manage to catch, at least.”
And so the four of us worked quietly, when we were not engaged in other chores, to fill our ark with chirping, cawing birds. My father was aware of our endeavor, and, though he did not help us, he made no complaint. And once we were afloat, he kept his idle hands occupied by building nesting boxes for the mated pairs.
In the end, we trapped seventeen pairs of birds and one lone blue jay. Nila thought we should set the jay free—“What a pity to have no one else like you on all the earth!”—but I gazed at the bright blue creature in his cage and felt something tear within me. I would not doom him to drowning, to oblivion, simply because he had no match. We did not know what fate awaited any of us. Maybe a blue jay had alighted upon another ark. Maybe, when the world dried up, our blue jay would call out from the dripping trees and hear a song that only he could answer.
He was my favorite of the birds, and, secretly, I named him Sapphire for the rich blue stones that I had glimpsed once in a market vendor’s tent. If my family knew that I had named him, they would have chastised me for making a pet of a wild thing. But Sapphire did not seem to mind my attentions. When I fed him, he took seeds and dried berries from my fingers with his sharp beak and never once pinched my skin.
It was Sapphire that Mother sent over the seas.
“Perhaps he will find another of his flock,” she said wistfully as she unwrapped her fingers from his feathered body and set him on wing in the air.
I wept after he flew away, though I did not weep like my sister weeps: loudly, openly. I hid myself in my small room and cried without making a sound, and I dried my tears before they stained my cheeks or darkened my eyes.
Because, despite my sorrow at Sapphire’s absence, I cling even now to the hope that he will return to us. And if he returns, that will mean that, truly, the earth has prevailed. All is not lost. The world will, in time, know beauty again.
Every day, I search the sky for a sign of soaring blue.
“You must be so lonely,” Nila says, resting her head upon my shoulder. Evening has fallen, and we sit together in the largest room of our living quarters, the place where our family eats and gathers together. But Mother and Father have gone to sleep, and Gru is in bed with a stomach ailment.
Nila and I talk alone in the moonlit dark.
“You’re here with me.” I laugh softly. “Why would I be lonely?”
“Hesta, you know what I mean. Mother has Father, and I have Gru. But you—You’re like that poor blue jay. One of a kind. There’s no one like you.”
There’s no one like you.
My heart lurches, and I turn my head away.
“You never speak of marriage, Hesta. But if it weren’t for the flood, Mother would be making your dowry. Perhaps you would already be betrothed. I worry that you’re sad, thinking of these things.” She takes my hand into hers and pats it gently. “Are you, sister? Do you long for a husband?”
I ease my hand away. “No, Nila.”
“No? But do you not wish for a companion? Someone with whom to share your laughter and your tears?”
I bite my tongue and lean against the wall behind us, eyes closed.
In truth, I do long for a companion.
But I have no desire for a husband at all.
I can’t tell Nila this, can’t tell anyone. My family would not understand what I scarcely understand myself. I have known, have always known, that no man will ever quicken my heart. Still, in a flooded world, without trees or flowers, it seems unwise to pine after impossible things.
“I am not sad for the reasons you worry over, Nila,” I whisper.
“But you are sad.”
Sighing, I rise and turn to face the small window framing the half moon. “I am only waiting for the sun to return, as are we all.”
We discover land before Sapphire comes back to us.
One of the other arks had set loose a dove, and it returns, at last, with an olive leaf clutched in its beak.
A short time afterward, the ark at the front of our fleet sights earth ahead, curving out of the deluge like a giant’s rounded back. The news flies across the water, winged words, fluttering against our ears like the sweetest promise.
When my feet finally touch solid ground, I fall to my knees and kiss the bud of a flower; its small green leaves, and my sun-starved eyes, reach for the now streaming light.
We cannot return to our homeland. It is too far away, and perhaps we were brought to this country for a reason. So my mother believes, and I think I do, too. Before we leave our ark, I free the birds and their nestlings, and my heart soars with them as they fill up the whitewashed sky.
Our neighbors have a daughter.
Like me, she is young and of marriageable age. But she is not married.
Her name is Marya.
Sometimes we meet at the well, and though we share few words, Marya’s eyes are articulate. I watch her calm, sure hands as they grasp the weight of her buckets. I watch her steady brown gaze follow me as I return—glancing back every few steps to smile at her—to my parents’ home.
It is not until the day of the rainbow, after a warm drizzle, that I tell her about Sapphire.
“I had a bird,” I say, pointing to the arc over our heads, “who was that same shade of blue. He was beautiful. He was my friend. A jay. But we lost him to the flood. He flew away and never returned.”
As she listens, Marya tilts her head, her long, smooth hair brushing against her hips. Then she puts down her buckets and, startling me, grabs my hands.
“Come,” she says, and she tugs me behind her, an eager bounce in her gait.
When we arrive at Marya’s home, her mother, gathering stones outside, smiles warmly, drawing her daughter to her for a quick embrace. Then she pats my head, her black eyes twinkling. “You are Hesta, I think. Marya speaks of you morning and night.”
I blush, bowing my head to point toward my feet, but Marya’s mother places a finger beneath my chin, urging me to meet her gaze. “You will always be welcome beneath my roof, daughter,” she says softly but seriously. “Remember this word: always. That I promise you.”
Surprised, I glance to Marya, and her smile is not simply warm and bright but golden.
Her smile is the sun.
I feel that part of myself which was torn on the ark begin to, stitch by stitch, mend at the seams.
“Come,” Marya says again, and she does not take me into her home but pulls me behind it, to a copse of thin but thriving trees. With her free hand, she points toward the branches arching under the rainbow. “We chose this place because of them,” she tells me, guiding me nearer to the trees.
“Because of who?” I begin to ask, but then my voice fails me, and my heart pauses, then takes up its beating at a breath-stealing pace. Above us, there is a nest loud with peeping chicks, and upon the branch just beside the nest two birds roost so near that I can’t tell which feathers belong to which.
They’re both blue jays.
“Do you think the male is Sapphire?” Marya asks, pressing close against my side.
I look at her, at her curling lashes and curved mouth, at her eyes flecked with the colors of the rainbow, and I exhale.
“I do,” I whisper, turning to gaze at the birds again. I smile at them, at the trees, at the spectacular, miraculous arch. “So he found his match.”
“It is a sign.” Marya leans near, touches her warm lips to my cheek. “Perhaps, then, Hesta, there is hope for us all.”
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