‘Hey, Noosh!’ Siggy. Great. Just great. ‘You on late shift tonight, eh?’
‘Well, uh. I’m hardly here just to see you, friend.’ He fell into step beside me, long and lanky where I was twisted and frail. His arms swung free. Hands at the ready.
‘Sure, sure. Think you can catch somethin’ ‘sides starlight tonight, maybe?’ He laughed like a flung cat, all hssss and no ha.
‘Try my best, I guess,’ I said, wishing he’d go back to whatever it was he’d been doing before he spotted me. Spying on the women’s hut, prob’ly.
‘Yeah. Believe it when I see it.’ He clapped me on the back, fit to knock me flat. ‘See you at sunup, little man.’
‘Little man! I’m older’n you,’ I muttered, once he was well away.
Didn’t take me long to reach the Sand. It stretched for miles in both directions, the sea’s gentle kisses already lulling me. I wasn’t the first Baiter to dream on the job, and sure I wouldn’t be the last, but for fellas like Siggy, one slip-up was more than enough.
‘Noosh,’ nodded Barret. ‘You’re early.’
‘Sir,’ I said, slipping on my gloves.
‘Got your goggles?’ he asked, pointing towards the spares box, just in case. But who’d want goggles full o’ someone else’s sweat and spit? I fumbled in my pocket and drew out my own, facet-cut lenses polished clean, adjusters oiled and ready.
‘I’ll jus’ get started, sir. If that’s fine with you.’ I strung the goggles loosely round my neck and tried to look capable in my too-big gloves, made for proper hands. Barret hmmed and went back to his paperwork, waving me vaguely on. So I went.
I settled onto the perch, comfy as a cactus mattress, and watched the dying sunlight turn the sea pink. I grabbed up my rope, nestling it loosely between and around my gloved fingers. I didn’t bother with my goggles, not yet. They made the world look like a headache, unless it was full dark, and everyone knew birds didn’t come out at dusk.
I did check whether the Bait was in the net – the guy before me had done his job right, for once. Then my gaze roamed the sea for a while, watching the waves.
So, when the rope jerked, it fair knocked me off my perch. I pulled and tied it off instantly, though, without even thinking. The huge net at the rope’s far end clapped shut, just as it should, and it jerked, tautly, with the kicking of my prey. I closed my eyes, fumbling my goggles on with shaking, gloved hands. Then, I squinted through the haze and caught the flash of one giant white wing, the edges of the world shattering off into multicoloured planes.
I slithered out of my gloves and grabbed the knife at my belt. Throat, wings, feet, I recited as I clambered down. I’d never had to finish a catch; I’d never made one alone before. My knife was a stranger in my palm.
I slapped my way down the boards, approaching the net carefully. The catch thrashed about in it, a bird as white as bone and easily as big as me, which was big for a bird. Its beak was as long as my arm and it shone like moonlight on water. I’d seen, up close, the damage it could do.
‘Easy,’ I whispered. ‘Easy, now.’ The bird reared back its head and screamed at me. I tried to hide the knife behind my back, but there was no fooling it. Huge black eyes rolled, following my movements. ‘I don’t want to hurt you,’ I told it, because it was true. Cut just right, we’d always been told, and the catch feels nothing. It just dies.
I blinked, frowning, as pale, pinkish light started creeping in around the edges of my goggles. They began to steam up. I swore under my breath, but knew I deserved as much for hauling them on in a hurry. I stuffed my knife back into my belt and scrunched up my eyes before pulling my goggles away from my face. I started to resettle them, hoping the seal would take properly this time. This job had to be done right.
‘Please,’ said a voice. ‘Please, I’m begging you. Don’t hurt me.’
I held my breath. For a long second, I stood, goggles in hand, and then I made another move to put them on again. Get this done, and stop being stupid little-man Noosh, no-catch nobody.
‘No! Not those stupid things! Please! Look at me. With your own eyes.’ The voice was like soft cool sand sliding through my fingers. I chewed on my lip for a bit, feeling Barret’s gaze on me, hoping he wasn’t spying out the window of the Baiters’ hut, wondering what the hell I thought I was doing.
And then I cracked one eyelid, just a hair’s breadth, just to see. I wasn’t long about whacking it closed again.
Half a breath later I flicked my two eyes open and stared, my heart throbbing so fast it made my whole body shake.
A woman lay in the net – a white woman, pale as a pearl, with hair that looked like a candle flame. She had a vivid gash down one leg and she cradled one arm, like it was injured. She was wrapped up into herself so that I couldn’t see, but I could tell. She was naked.
‘I know what you want to do,’ she said. ‘Please. Don’t. Your people have killed so many of my sisters already.’
My mouth fell open. ‘Your – your sisters? But we kill the mountain birds. For food. We don’t kill no women.’
‘They are,’ she said, sadly, ‘one and the same.’
‘But I don’t -‘ I began. She shook her head.
‘I don’t have time to explain. Please. I will find it hard enough to fly with my injuries as they are; with every second, I grow weaker. I beg you – set me free.’
‘But – I can’t,’ I said. Her skin glowed even whiter now in the growing dark, and it drew my eye. ‘I have to finish a catch, or I’ll never be – I’ll never be good enough.’
‘I don’t want to die,’ she told me, fixing me with those large black eyes.
I leaned in close. Her pulse was hopping in her throat and I could hear her breathing, fast and shallow. I wrapped my fingers around my knife handle and drew it out; she flinched, a huge tear rolling down her moonlight cheek.
I slashed a hole in the net, hoping it was big enough, and then I turned around. I wanted to vomit, but I bent forward and breathed deep for a while, and it passed. Through the rushing of my blood I heard the fluttering swoosh as she clambered free, and out of the corner of my upside-down eye I saw her flying, skin like a coconut’s innards and hair like the sun.
I didn’t see the spear, and neither did she.
With a whoop, Siggy and his idiot friends, goggles all round, clambered out of the undergrowth. I didn’t see where she fell, and I couldn’t watch them bring her in.
When I wouldn’t join in the feast the next day, Barret called me over and told me I’d be a better farmer than a bird-baiter, anyway. He gave me three weeks’ pay and a handshake.
I looked him in the eye, and in his face I saw white-skinned women with bright yellow hair, and I knew nothing I could say would change his mind. I saw myself being laughed at as the village loon if I said a word to anyone else, and I knew he wasn’t going to explain.
So, now I grow beans and maize, and it’s a fine life. I go to the feasts, but I don’t eat, and at night I stare at the mountains and dream of star-pale skin and hair like fire.