Tuesday Fiction: “Eagle Feathers” by Joyce Chng
Her stories have been published in The Apex Book of World SF vol II, Crossed Genres, Bards and Sages Quarterly, M-Brane SF and Semaphore Magazine. Her novels are published under the pseudonym J. Damask by Lyrical Press.
This is the story’s first publication.
by Joyce Chng
Noraishah watched the dance of the eagles in the air, her digital camera poised in her hands. She seemed to have forgotten about it, so transfixed was she to the dizzying spiralling movements of the sea-eagles. They were a mated pair, appearing frequently in the skies. As long as she could remember, there had always been a mated pair of Lang Siput. White-bellied sea eagles.
The pair were joined to each other with outstretched talons, spinning downwards as they renewed their pair bond in a death-defying act. Grey feathers flashed in the air, like a comet plunging towards the earth. When Noraishah thought they would hit the water, the mated pair pulled out of their dive and veered away, calling out in that familiar cry which made Noraishah’s heart twinge. They flew above the shimmering water, flapping their wings.
Realizing that she was still carrying her camera, she lifted it up and took a few pictures of the two sea-eagles soaring on the thermals, their vows now completed and affirmed. Seeing the eagles reminded her that she had come home.
The sea whispered, waves hissing on the shore beneath the small cliff she was sitting on. It was her favorite childhood spot, where she would watch the sea-eagles hunt for food, skimming over the bright surface of the sea. She placed her camera beside her and leaned back, her face to the sun, feeling its warmth on her face.
She looked back to see her maternal grandfather slowly ambling up the cliff. Slowed by advancing arthritis, Tok Wan still looked strong and hale, his body sinewy and lean, a testimony to his fisherman days. Noraisah remembered the fragrance of fried ikan selar cooking on hot coals, delectable of course with hot sambal belachan and lashings of lime juice.
“I knew you would be here,” Tok Wan said smiling, his face seamed with age and laugh lines. His temples were grizzled with brown-white, like eagle feathers.
Noraishah smiled back. She stood up, brushing her blue jeans, before walking back to the house with her grandfather. Behind her, the sea-eagles called out to each other in a love song.
* * *
Her family house looked the same, as if nothing had ever changed. She was sure that the corrugated iron roof was still rusty and in desperate need of repair. The well was there; every morning, her grandfather washed his face with the cold water and filled buckets for daily use. Poultry clucked on the dry earth, hens pecking at the grains of rice, followed by their chicks.
Stepping into the house, Noraishah could see the wooden eagle sculptures on the shelves, the stylized picture of a sea-eagle painted by one of her aunts and eagle feathers adorning the walls. Tok Wan loved eagles and imparted that love to his children. She knew – with a quiet smile – that the neighbors gossiped he was part eagle himself. When she was a little girl, he had brought her along on his fishing trips and showed her the areas where the mangrove grew, where the kingfishers hunted and where the sandpipers fed on low tide sand banks. He had taught her the various uses of plants found in the forest, including preparing the nuts of the sea almond tree. She had missed those excursions deeply, especially during the cold of winter.
Her ibu treated her to a delicious meal of rice and ikan selar, topped off with a glass of icy-cold coconut juice, perfectly sweet to her tongue. The fish was freshly caught and fried to perfection.
She had not had such wonderful food, not when she was in England reading history. Nothing beat home-cooking.
She fell asleep, later, and dreamt of sea-eagles spinning in the sky, their song weaving through the air.
* * *
She woke to see her grandfather staring out of the window, his face suddenly dark and anxious. She followed his gaze, to see bulldozers rolling in, their machinery at odds with the peaceful tranquility of her family home. Dust clouds puffed up in their wake as they rumbled into the forest.
“Pak?” Noraishah asked tentatively, feeling her grandfather’s anger like a growing thunderhead. The atmosphere in the house was suddenly grim, and goose pimples ran across her arms, causing her to shiver involuntarily. The only time when she had seen him that angry was the day he had rescued a fledgling eaglet from a mass of fishing wire, carelessly left behind by holidaymakers from the city.
“They plan to turn the forest into a golf course.” Tok Wan choked out the words, his brow furrowed. He did not like modern things, and did not care for amenities like television and radio. He walked into a shopping mall once and walked back out, his shoulders stiff in disgust.
Noraishah recalled seeing the huge sign at the roadside with “Green Acres Golf” proudly emblazoned across, with a young couple posing with golf clubs and fixed smiles. It was going to be an exclusive club, targeted at the well-to-do and the upper middle class.
After a quick breakfast of coconut rice and leftover fish, Noraishah followed her grandfather to the forest, slipping past the stationary bulldozers with their napping operators. He brought her to the center of the forest where the sun turned the foliage and canopy to splashes of gold and green. The forest was alive with bird song and insect cries. It was also humid and warm; Noraishah felt as if her clothes were stuck to her skin. She slapped an errant mosquito on her left arm, wincing to see the small splatter of red blood. Her blood. It was something she did not see often in England. There was the tinge of salt in the air – the mangrove swamps were close by, framing the forest.
“Look,” Tok Wan said, his anger gone now, replaced by a reverential whisper. “Up.”
She did and her mouth fell open. It was an eagle’s nest, huge, almost as broad as the tree holding it up. It was composed of an intricate network of twigs. Gazing up, Noraishah could see that the nest was fairly new, because some of the twigs bore green leaves.
“Lang Siput,” her grandfather said, placing his hand on the gnarled tree bark. “Our brothers and sisters.” Sea eagles. Their kin.
Noraishah had to laugh. Grandfather could be so literal. What did the neighbors say about him? Part eagle? Yet listening to his rich voice comforted her. She had indeed returned home.
They walked back to the house. By then, the bulldozers had begun digging ugly trenches across the earth. Tok Wan kept quiet and glared balefully at the machines.
* * *
Noraishah did not think much about the bulldozers. She met up with old friends from her secondary school, chatting amiably about old times over cold latte and capuccino. Sitting in the cool interior of the trendy cafe, she could see dark specks in the blue sky. Eagles. She showed them photographs of the mated pair and they oohed and aahed at the clarity of the wings, back lit by the sun, and at the crystalline spray of water beneath clenched talons.
“Tok Wan still talking about his eagles?” Siti teased her, grinning playfully. Noraishah noticed that her friend had put on weight. She was now a full-time mother to a rambunctious two year-old boy. Back when they were teenagers, they used to walk to school together, chatting about boyfriends and their dreams for the future.
“Yes, he does,” Noraishah sighed. The dark specks had disappeared. She stifled an odd pang of disappointment, smiling at Siti.
When she made her way back, she was shocked to see the forest half-destroyed by the bulldozers and excavators, the trees and shrubs all ripped away, exposing awful gouges in the brown-red soil like dreadful wounds. She was more shocked to feel as if her heart was being ripped away as well, and she gasped, placing her hand on her breast. She could see the surveyors and architects in yellow hard hats, inspecting the land and making notes with their tablets and styluses.
Something moved, like a fast-moving shadow, in the forest. It was not an animal, nor was it a bird. It moved like… sludge water. Like the sickly flow of oil, hovering about the broken tree trunks. As each tree fell, it seemed to grow larger, bolder. Hungrier.
Noraishah blinked, shaking her head. When she looked at the forest once more, the thing was simply not there. An optical illusion, she thought resolutely, and walked determinedly towards the house.
Her mother was standing at the doorway when she finally reached the front porch. Wearing a green kebaya and sarong, she cut an imposing figure, her face regal and her dark hair tied in a ponytail, covered by a thin light green shawl. Her expression, however, filled Noraishah with an uncommon dread.
“It’s your grandfather,” her mother said quietly, casting a worried glance at the forest and at the bulldozers steadily removing the trees. “He’s missing.”
“He might have gone to the beach,” Noraishah shook her head. Suddenly she wished she was back in her cosy dormitory room, cut off from all these worries, her only concern finishing her dissertation.
“Not there. I checked.”
Noraishah’s heart sank. Tok Wan wasn’t a man to go wandering around unannounced. Even when she was growing up, he would inform the family, and Grandmother would leave some food for him on the floor, covered with a straw hat to keep the flies away.
“Did he take anything? His parang? Ibu?”
Her mother looked away, her way of saying “No.” Outside, the bulldozers clanged, making an unholy din.
“The forest. He must be in the forest!” The memory of her grandfather standing beneath the giant tree flashed vividly and Noraishah was gripped with an acute premonition. She opened the door, driven by a wildness to look for her grandfather.
“Aishah!” Her mother called out. “Aishah!”
Noraishah did not turn around, paying no heed to her mother, but headed straight for the roaring bulldozers. The supervisor, a plump Chinese man, his stomach round with good food and beer, yelled at her to stop. She paid no attention to his words. The dust churned from the bulldozers filled her lungs, stinging her eyes. She fought it as if she was fighting some unseen evil. Things rose around her, hissing and snarling incoherently at her. There were voices, sarcastic, hateful and mean-spirited. Leave us be. We are here to take over the land. Go away.
She swatted at those voices. Just dust, just dust. She coughed and pushed her way through the remaining thicket, the branches tearing viciously at her skin.
Noraishah emerged into the center of the forest and the tree was there, solid and infallible. She stared dumbly at the eagle’s nest dominating the entire tree, her face covered with dust and streaked with tears. The bulldozers had removed most of the foliage; the tree was a lone survivor in the middle of a clearing.
It was unusually silent. The birds had all fled.
A figure, wearing a blue tattered sarong wrapped around the waist, sprawled beneath the tree, prostrate as if he was praying. Somehow Noraishah thought she might have shouted something. It felt so much like a dream. She, rushing forward, kneeling down, touching the cool neck of her grandfather. Crying loudly. Grandfather! Grandfather! Time seemed to slow down. He was holding something in his right hand. Two tail feathers.
Someone pulled her away and she struggled with all her might, fighting back with the ferocity of a raptor defending her nest. The hands were too strong, too insistent – and she let them pull her away, her vision blurred by tears.
* * *
They buried Tok Wan in the nearby cemetery after performing the rites. Noraishah did not speak for the entire funeral, holding onto her mother who hung limply against her. Their family gathered around both mother and daughter, silent and united in grief.
The tail feathers rustled in her hand.
Her dream that night was filled with screaming. Her screaming. An eagle’s scream.
* * *
After the last of the relatives had left, Noraishah helped her mother clean the house, her beloved ibu not wanting to touch her grandfather’s belongings. It had been two weeks since he had passed away. Massive heart attack, the coroner had reported. That was Western medicine talking. He died of a broken heart. She could not bear to stay in the house, fretting as if she was a trapped bird. She grabbed her camera and ran to the cliff, glad of the temporary respite.
She scanned the heavens for the mated sea-eagle pair. Nothing. They were gone.
Sorrow warred with rage, an unbearable riptide within her. She wanted to lash out and shred the foreman and his workers into bloody strips. They had destroyed the forest. They had taken her grandfather away from her. She pressed her hands against her temples. “No,” she whispered to herself. “No!” She had a degree in Asian maritime history. She was a rational person. Logic. Reason.
Noraishah shuddered, adrenaline coursing through her body. Something beat inside her ribcage. Pounding heart or flapping wings – she did not care. All she wanted was to confront whatever was inside the forest and powering those bulldozers.
She marched towards the forest, or what was left of it. They were already bringing in the piledriver and the cement mixer. Stacks of equipment were arranged next to barrels of oil.
The thing came out to meet her.
It was a mish-mash of many things, like many mouths all open and moving at the same time. A Greed incarnate, always hungry, always wanting more. It moved like an oil slick, making her eyes water just by looking at it. It flowed around her, taunting her, mocking her. It plunged straight at her, trying to intimidate her, to scare her away, a shadow given life. It sought to corrupt her, its dark tendrils insidious and toxic. Feed me, the mouths said like the flickering of snake tongues. Feed us. The forest is nothing. We grow strong every day and when the new place is built, we will feed on the people. Join us. Join us.
Iblis! Noraishah opened her mouth. What came out was an eagle’s defiant shriek, a hunting shriek. Everything happened simultaneously: feathers sprouting from her body, bones shrinking, pulling in and re-structuring. She spread her arms, embracing the wind.
Her new body threw itself at the black miasma, tearing into it with sharp talons.
* * *
Lim had a splendid meal of nasi bryani and chicken curry. It was mid-day: bristling hot and dry, perfect for taking a brief siesta. His workmen were busy trying to clear out the last of the trees, including the one with the eagle’s nest. A few of the men refused to cut it down, because they argued that the tree was sacred. He wondered idly if he should dock their pay.
He did not know what hit him.
* * *
The workmen told the TV reporter that it was a huge sea-eagle which appeared from nowhere, plummeting from the skies like a lightning bolt. Its talons raked across the supervisor’s neck; he passed out from sheer pain and shock.
They swore it was true. A giant sea-eagle, with a wingspan as broad as a full-grown man with his arms stretched out. A huge Lang Siput. A Garuda come to life.
The forest is sacred, they said with awed and frightened looks. We should not harm it. The Lang Siput is its guardian. We should leave!
* * *
From her room, Noraishah watched the bulldozers roll away one by one, escorted by the trucks still heavy with earth. She drew her knees up to her chest, closing her eyes. Brown-grey eagle-feathers, the plumage of a young female eagle, covered the bed, scattered across the sheets. They radiated from her like an aura. Absentmindedly, she rubbed her hands, still twisted as if they were talons. Her talons.
The black thing, the greed-beast, had fled shrieking. It wouldn’t be back for a very long time. The forest had a new guardian.
Somewhere, Tok Wan smiled.
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