The fisherman waited, quietly, at ease. For him it was a form of meditation; a serene escape from the everyday mundane madness that the world had devolved into. It was difficult for him to understand just how something as small and simple as a virus could change everything so suddenly and thoroughly. His employer told him that it would be temporary, and after all, it was unrealistic to expect that the club would remain open when no customers were permitted. No customers, no club; no club, no barman. And after all, the lockdown was temporary. Only a week, two at most, they all said. All the clever people from the government.
A week became a month, and then another. Hope waned as time dragged. And so the barman who could not tend bar, his soul empty, sought another way to be useful. A way to be solitary, and not risk contagion, and to, in a small way, provide. It was his wife who finally gave him the idea, no doubt frustrated beyond measure at his being continually present and underfoot.
Fishing with friends in a tinnie would have been ideal, but this of course was forbidden. It was probably even against the rules to do what he was doing, dangling a line in solitary silence at an otherwise deserted beach. And yet, there was no one around to stop him or even to object. The fish bit often enough to maintain his interest and seldom enough to maintain his peace. He would return home each day with fish for his family and perhaps for a neighbour. It was as though a plague created by the modern world and spread on aluminium wings had reverted him back to a simpler way of life. Perhaps a better one.
He knew it could not last forever, but each day he rose, and found a place where he could fish in peace, he was content that it would last for one more day.
The pelicans gathered, quietly, without haste. Aching with hunger, but voided of their instincts, they seemed to ponder their next move. Contentment was unknown to them, an empty belly did not allow for it.
One there was among them, older than the rest, her memory clear, remembering the old times of plenty. A time when there was not one thing-without-wings, but more than could be counted, when she and her squadron had but to approach them when the sun was high, and there would be such a bounty of fish, that none went away unsatisfied. The Old One and her squadron were convinced that the ones without wings were benevolent gods. What else could they be, to show such generosity, those who gave of the fish and the others who showed such simple delight in seeing them fed? Who required nothing of them, in turn, but their presence?
With ample food, easily obtained, many young were born and the squadron swelled. None of them had thought for a moment of what the gift of fish had done to them. Many had forgotten how to catch fish for themselves, and many of the young had never learned. Why should they? Life was good, and the gifts had been there for many turns of the sun. And then, one day without warning it ended. Where there had been wingless ones without number, and fish beyond dreams of satiation, there was suddenly... nothing. No one, and no food, and no understanding of why.
Soon enough, there was hunger. The sick and the weak began to die. Some few of the elders remembered fishing for themselves, and returned to that; but these abandoned the squadron, unable or unwilling to feed all. The Old One remained, a candle flame of hope still burning in her breast and unwilling to abandon her family. There were still places where the wingless gods fished, but now it seemed only for themselves. The squadron tried to sustain themselves on whatever leavings the gods discarded, but it was never enough. Starvation and death continued to pursue them.
There was no rage in them. Injustice was a concept beyond their simple minds. Now, however, they understood what desperation was. And so, the strong left among them quietly approached the lone wingless one with his back turned to them. He had fish. They could smell it. He was alone. They were many. They had pinions, talons, hard beaks and sheer mass. Nervously, they inched forward.
There was hesitation among the squadron - this was one of the gods. Could they, should they attack such a being? The Old One understood the misgivings of her squadron and rejected them. Everything had changed, and either the gods had revealed themselves to be cruel and petty, or they were not gods at all. Either way, the path was clear to her. In silent communion, the squadron agreed. They needed only a leader, and the Old One accepted the mantle.
Silently, on webbed feet, they stepped nearer and nearer. Not a wing flapped. Not a sound was made that might alert the wingless one. No warning was to be given.
Silently, on webbed feet . . .
The fisherman moved slightly. He had enjoyed his time alone, and he had fish to show for his effort, but it was time to return home. Not for the first time, he wondered when life would return to normal. The thought of pulling a schooner for one of his regulars made him smile. Soon, he hoped, but that was for tomorrow.
Something made him turn his head at that moment. What he saw buried a primal spear of dread in his heart, and at once, he knew there would be no tomorrow.
George Chambers, the author of this piece, is a finalist in the 2022 Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition. Read the full list of finalists in this year's Herald Short Story Competition by visiting the Newcastle Herald website.
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