River gang boys
The goat had already been bleating for longer than Rocco wanted to hear it. Hauling himself out of bed, he stomped outside. How was he supposed to sleep with so much squawking going on?
Poised on his top step, he gazed across the yard. A goat was standing up against the bramble fence. Lifting its yellow eyes, the animal bleated again.
What was it doing here?
Rocco’s house, the last in the row, had a clear view down the path, all the way to the village yard. No one was even up yet. The well stood empty. The pulley hadn’t started its squeak-squeak as the women began drawing up buckets of water to fill their pots or wash their clothes.
The day’s game of kickball had yet to begin. The ball, a wad of tightly wound tickets, sat forlornly in the middle of the yard.
Fluttering his wings against the cool air, Rocco jumped down the steps. Coming to the bottom, he stared over at the goat. Was it hurt? Why wasn’t it with the other goats?
The effort of flying up was going to wake him up completely, but what did it matter, he thought pushing off with his toes. He was already too wide awake to fall asleep again.
Up, up he flew until he had a clear view over the fence. In the distance, Jafari and his father were walking along, spear poles in hand. A herd of goats moved, a bobbing strand of white against the stony ground. They were off in search of edible grass.
A goat bell clanged.
It wasn’t like Jafari to leave a straggler behind, thought Rocco as he glided back to the ground. Tucking his wings up tight to make himself look small, or at least less raptor-like, he approached the goat. Someone had tied its foot to the fence, tethered it in such a way that he didn’t even see the rope until he was hanging right over the animal.
He reached down to untie the knot. A flutter of panic rose in his throat. Why was the goat tied up here, out in the sun, without water or shade?
Swallowing hard, he stood up again. In the corner of his eye, in his bird eye vision, he spotted a rock hurtling through the air. He ducked hard. The rock flew past, narrowly missing his head as it crashed into the brambles behind him.
‘Take that you freak!’ shouted a voice.
Across the yard, Snaggletooth was running right at him. His mouth hung open in a sloppy grin.
‘Get away from me!’ Rocco frantically kneed the goat. He needed room to spread his wings, but the animal wouldn’t move. Startled or stunned, it only pushed back into his legs.
‘Move! Move!’ Rocco pushed again.
‘Loser!’ Snaggletooth called, galloping ever closer.
Two other figures had just stepped out from behind the fig tree at the side of the house, Snake and Grimly. They’d been hiding there, waiting for their moment of glory – the ambush. Both boys began to run. One had a stick, the other carried a rock.
Rocco’s heart had already been thumping fiercely, but now the throbbing moved to his ears. He’d never be able to fight all three of them. He yanked hard, but his tunic pulled back, caught on one of the finger long thorns in the fence. Rocco yanked again. A loud ripping sound erupted as Rocco, torn tunic and all, jumped free.
His wings sprang wide. His eyes were so full of sweat that he could hardly see.
‘Go ahead then, monster! Go ahead and fly off, if you’re too scared to stay and fight!’ Snaggletooth lunged, breathing hotly on Rocco’s neck as he reached forward and seized Rocco’s wing.
‘Get off!’ Rocco twisted away.
‘It was a set-up and you didn’t even see!’
‘So what?’ said Rocco lurching left and right. But the more he twisted the louder Snaggletooth laughed, and the tighter he squeezed. He had to get Snaggletooth off, Rocco thought, half gasping at the sight of Snake and Grimly, just a few strides away.
He only needed a second to get airborne. He pummeled his fists and stabbed his elbows. Finally he managed to clip Snaggletooth’s chin.
With a yelp, Snaggletooth fell backwards. Rocco felt a sting followed by a dull throb. Plucked feathers always hurt, like getting punched in the face. But it would go away in a minute, he just had to get aloft.
He shot up.
‘Coward. Desert rat. Too scared to fight!’ Snaggletooth’s winded voice called from below.
But he was free! Airborne! Two strong swoops and he had escaped, narrowly, but who cared! When he was roughly the same height as the fig tree, too far for one of them to throw a rock, Rocco turned.
Grimly scowled up.
‘You want ‘em? Come and get ‘em.’ Still sitting on the ground, Snaggletooth waved his bouquet of feathers.
Snake, mean eyes staring up, stood behind Snaggletooth. He threw the stick. It curved up, arcing half way before flopping back to the ground.
Rocco snickered. ‘Why’d you bother coming back here! No one misses you!’
At fourteen, they were just two years older than him. He’d been happy when they had stopped coming to school. At first they’d only missed a day now and then, but then they’d found an old barge out on the Ebo River. Eventually they started living out there, disappearing for long periods of time and returning at night to steal fish from the villagers’ traps.
‘You’re uglier than the ugliest hunchback,’ yelled Snaggletooth.
Rocco cracked his wings. He wasn’t afraid of them.
Snake began running in a circle flapping his elbows. ‘What am I?’ he called.
‘Not an ostrich. Wait. Wait,’ called Snaggletooth. ‘You ain’t urvogel either. No, you can’t be. Your wings are ugly and blue. Ha! You’re a freakin’ monster. Whoever heard of a bird with arms!’
The three River Gang boys fell on each other, laughing and pointing up at Rocco.
‘You’re nothing but a pack of jackals,’ called Rocco. One of the old village men had called them that, shouted it across the water late one night when they’d been laughing and carrying on.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you next time.’ Snaggletooth, feathers in hand, shook his fist.
Swoosh. Rocco’s wings cut the early morning calm. He might be a freak, but at least he was up and they were down. He didn’t have to take their abuse.
He cleared the fence. At least they couldn’t see him anymore, but he needed to get far enough away that he couldn’t hear them either. He followed the outer edge of the fence, closing his mouth and forcing his throat into a buzzing sound so he couldn’t hear their taunts.
The grass stunk – or what was left of it. Black prickly stubs and patches of charred soil covered the ground. The villagers regularly burned the grass to keep the meat-eaters from stalking them as they passed in and out of the village gates.
Nearing the end of the fence, Rocco banked higher, soaring out over the Ebo River. Stranded fish flopped in the sink holes along the banks. Mosquitoes and flies clung to the murky water, which was little more than knee deep. A little farther on he passed over Snaggletooth’s barge, abandoned in a muddy bog. Everything, even the barge, was waiting for the sky water to return.
Why did Snaggletooth have to be so foul? Rocco wiped his eyes.
Tilting his head away from the sun’s glare, he flew on, following the dried-up riverbed. Moments later he came to the bend where the river turned east to Gogogamesh.
He didn’t have his cloak, so there was no point in flying there, not today. He didn’t visit Gogogamesh very often, but when he did he bound his wings tightly under the cloak and carried a sack on his back. People might know that a boy from one of the river villages had wings, but they didn’t know it was him.
The hunchback children lived in Gogogamesh. He sometimes saw a brother and sister, also dressed in cloaks, walking around the market with their mother. They rarely looked up.
Rocco had reason to stare. Like them, his mother was human. Like them, his father was urvogel. But that’s where the comparisons stopped.
He still had his wings.
He had been a baby when his parents moved from Gogogamesh to avoid the law. No child shall walk and bear wings, the Sultan had decreed. That meant, by the child’s first birthday, he or she had also become a hunchback. The hunchback didn’t appear right away, his mother said. The wing root sprouted later, in adolescence as the child grew.
The village elders didn’t like winged children any more than the Sultan of Gogogamesh, but they were afraid of his father, Milos. After Milos died, they were only slightly less afraid of his mother, a midwife and healer who was skilled with medicines and potions.
He smacked his lips at a warm patch of air. He’d come away without his sheep gut of water. Perhaps a spring or a tree with fruit lay ahead. He’d never flown out this far before, although he always planned to. Now was as good a time as any. He would explore, give the River Gang boys enough time to move on or find someone new to pick on.
The grasslands rolled out in every direction. A pride of lions was lounging in the shade of a bushy tree. They were gaunt, too hungry to even look up as his shadow flitted past. A little farther on he passed a cheetah, standing on a knoll, gazing out at a herd of wildebeests.
The cheetah flicked her tail. She was warning him off her cubs. Their bobbing heads were clearly visible in the long grass.
The River Gang Boys had never seen such things. They’d never seen the tops of trees, or the crowns of people’s heads.
On he flew into the morning. Heat waves rose in ripples above the hardened earth. Only dried shrubs dotted the plains. The sun was high when he finally spotted what looked like a tree. A little farther on the rigid trunk and a canopy came into view, a solitary shape in the otherwise flat savannah. The lonely tree he would call it. He flew over and pushed his way into the cool but prickly branches.
A needle pierced his knee. Gliding back to the ground he found a stone. Flying up once more he knocked the thorns off a sturdy, sloping limb. He would take a nap and let the heat of the day pass. He laid back, tucking the stone into a cleft in the bark above his head.
Next he pushed his hand through the leaves searching for some kind of fruit, even a dried-up rind, anything that might quench his thirst. As his hand moved through the foliage, he squinted out at the bright light and a slab of vertical rock some distance away.
How had he not seen this before? He pulled the branch down, peering out intently while his heart thumped wildly.
Stay away from the escarpment. There’s no telling what the urvogels will do to you or to us if they find out you have wings. His mother, Anah, had been telling him this for as long as he could remember.
The slab of rock, the escarpment, was actually a massive fault line that separated Upper Terrakesh and urvogels from the humans living on the plains of Lower Terrakesh. Rocco squinted up. At the very top of the cliffs stood a formidable looking stone wall. Above the wall three gold suns – giant domes – blazed brightly against the blue sky.
He wasn’t just sitting beneath the escarpment, he was directly below the City of Krakatoan. How could he have come so close and not known? Had the sun been blocking his vision? Had he mistaken the rock for heat waves?
He gaped up at the wall.
Stay away from the escarpment. The warning echoed again, along with all the other stories he’d been hearing all his life. The urvogels living on the Cliffs of Krakatoan were cruel. They were cruel because their queen, Harpia, was cruel. Urvogels might look more or less human, the villagers said, but they were more like colony ants or bees living in a hive. They took on the attitudes of their queen.
He couldn’t remember his father, but from everything his mother said, his father wasn’t cruel. He’d been a warrior in Queen Belarica’s army. She’d been queen until Harpia drove her out during the Great War. Up to then the humans of the Ebo River Valley and the urvogels from Krakatoan had co-existed in relative peace. Humans had no way of ascending the cliffs, and Belarica had shown little interest in their affairs.
All of that changed with Queen Harpia. Upon seizing power she issued a death sentence to all the warriors who had fought with Belarica in the final battle. Fearing for their lives, the warriors – his father among them – fled to Lower Terrakesh where they took up residence in the City of Gogogamesh. Separated from their homeland, the urvogel warriors soon grew weak. Within months, all had died, leaving behind their wives and children.
Was Krakatoan beautiful? Dazzling? Certainly the domes were spellbinding, the way they sparkled at the top of the rock. Did any of the urvogels have blue wings? His father had blue wings, which was puzzling. All he’d ever seen were white-winged urvogels.
Ignoring the needles and the pricks to his skin, Rocco scrambled to a higher branch. He stared out. How dangerous could it be? It was just a wall. He could fly up and look over the top. That way he’d have something, a bit of action, to tell Jafari about when he got home.
His palms began to sweat. He wiped them on his tunic as he slipped back to his previous spot. He screwed his eyes shut and tried to sleep. Every few seconds his eyes flew open. He couldn’t help staring up at the rock. The wall was a force, a looming presence over his head.
After several minutes of opening and closing his eyes, he dropped to the ground. He’d go up and take a quick look, and then he’d fly right back to the lonely tree.
Loose sand covered the ground. Rocco lay down and rolled around until his blue wings were covered in dust. He was now perfectly camouflaged, should anyone be watching from the top.
He set off finally, a brown moth flitting over the brown grass.
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