December 22nd, 2005
Hongping watched a small child flounce across the glacier floor. The furry grey snowsuit the child was sealed into kept it from going faster than a clumsy amble, but it didn’t seem to mind. It was charging toward a huddle of summarily swaddled children. Waving its arms like that, the handless sleeves of the snowsuit made it look like some half-formed bird about to take flight.
Hongping smiled sadly deep within the voluminous black cloak that signified his adulthood. He had not been wearing it long, and was still unused to its weight. He had been so excited to cast off his fuzzy grey clothes and don the white and the black. Now he felt buried in the thick material.
When he had put on the cloak for the first time, Hongping’s father had handed him the sword of their family, saying that it was a symbol of the old days, and that it would protect his family. Hongping had believed that to be true, then. Now he saw the sword as little more than a heavy piece of ceremonial metal.
Watching the children play their huddle-game, Hongping wondered if his son would have charged so, or if he would have cautiously approached the huddle, like some of the other children. Hongping thought about pretending one of them was his boy-faces obscured by the snowsuits and goggles, the children all looked alike. But their laughs and cries were alien. None of them sounded like his boy, not one.
Just as well. Hongping remembered how distraught Alice had been, driven so mad by their shared loss that she pretended another’s baby was their own. She had been beaten by the other mothers; slapped raw by mittened hands. Hongping was scrounging in what was left of the city when it happened. He returned just in time to find her sprawled on the ice, her tears searing away the frost that clung to her bare face.
She told him not to leave. It was Alice who had been in the ruins when their son had gotten sick, and now it was forever a place of poison in her mind. The last time Hongping had seen her, she was walking away from the tribe, in a direction opposite of the city. She needed more distance, she had said, and begged Hongping to come with her.
Hongping stared at the children and their play, and felt the deep weight buried in the center of his chest intensify its ache. He found himself wondering whether he should have wandered off with Alice, whether it was better to bury this ache on the other side of the glacier instead of bearing it here within the warmth of the tribe. He wondered how long he would have to walk before the ice crystallized inside his lungs like it had his son’s.
He was staring straight at it, but it wasn’t until the large predatory bird screeched that Hongping realized it for what it was. He was horrified at its presence, but that fear was replaced by cold dread when he realized that he was not the bird’s target.
The children were.
Hongping wasted no time closing the distance between himself and winged terror, his black cloak billowing behind him. Hongping withdrew his sword without even realizing he was doing it, his body now a puppet of adrenaline and purpose. The bird had already gathered up three small bodies in its massive talons, and was reaching for a fourth when Hongping’s ancient steel dug deep into its thigh. The raptor’s screech echoed painfully off the ice. It dropped the children, choosing instead to bury those gargantuan talons into Hongping’s shoulder. As the bird’s jagged beak thrust itself toward its attacker’s face, Hongping summoned the last of his strength and shoved his sword up underneath the bird’s head.
The giant bird kept twitching long after the sword’s point burst through the crown of its head.
Hongping’s shoulder was attended to by Musette, who had recently lost her husband to water beyond the glacier. She removed his cloaks and undergarments, keeping him warm within the folds of her own black clothing. Their bodies close, Musette set to the art of healing Hongping wounds.
“You know,” she said. “You’d make a wonderful father.”