Cirrus did not come home today.
In the morning, there was the sky and the sun and the little birds.
At noon, there were lizards and cool water and cumulus clouds just starting to tangle into a storm.
In the evening, there was rain on my wings and wet fur and the smell of flaplings in the nest.
When night came, there was a moon, but Cirrus was not here.
I dare not approach the stone city. It is a place of dread. Sometimes, I see my brothers and my sisters there. Their faces have been painted black, and they do not remember how to sing. The red leeches have stolen their wings.
My brothers eat only when the red leeches bring them food. My sisters mate only when the leeches tell them that the time is right. Their children hatch with no brood patch to comfort them.
If they have taken Cirrus …
I cannot think of it. He is lost by lightning, he is drowned at sea, his bones lie broken in the canyon. He is too old to imprint, at any rate – he flies for me, and I for him.
I do not think of it, but even so, thermals seem to buffet me to the city of stone. For the first time since I was a child, I find myself watching my brothers. Leeches cling to their back. Their coloring varies; red, gold and blue. Strange flaps wrap around the brothers and sisters that they have captured.
Do they drink blood?
I look at the haunted faces of my parasitized kin. There are dozens of them, all striped with black. They have hollow eyes, and cannot move as a flock. They fly in strange shapes, forgetting to twist with the wind, always keeping flat above the ground.
I wonder if they are happy.
The flaplings are gone when I get back. It is good. They want fresh meat, and they are tired of waiting for me.
Some of them may come back, at first.
Soon, none of them will.
But Cirrus …
Cirrus cannot come back because Cirrus is dead. He has been eaten, he has been drowned, he has starved, he is lost.
He is not there,
I have stopped lying to myself. I circle the city in the canyon, closer and closer. I need to be sure. Every day, the broken forms fly out, and every day they return to roost. There is no clattering of beaks, no elated screaming.
The leeches peel off, and retreat into their burrows.
None of the sisters leave.
I look carefully at the faces of the brothers. They preen at each other, as peaceful as unmated flaplings – no jousts, no postures, not even an ill-natured squawk between neighbors who have come too close. None of them are Cirrus.
Cirrus is the one who rattles his beak the loudest and suffers no one to approach. He is the one who mates with everyone when he is in the lek, he is the one who takes care of my nest. None of these brothers are him.
The next night, I do not go to my nest. I have no flaplings. I do not want eggs.
Instead I circle the city, looking down.
At night there are no thermals, and the work is hard.
I need to rest.
If I leave early enough, before the leeches come out of their burrow, I will be in no danger.
I land in a warm place, with safe walls of stone. Sleeping here is like sleeping in an egg.
In the morning, there is something warm and dry on my bill
A leech stands in front of me. It is one of the gold ones, with a great mane of red fur on its head. I think it is immature – it has not yet developed the clinging pads. I do not think that it can drink my blood.
“Hello, Nimbus,” it says.