From the author: Time loses its grasp on people, misplaces them…
You fall through time on a summer's night.
The cicada hum has merged with the low buzz of the transformers atop the creosote-sticky power poles. The street lights flicker to life. You are alone in the alley, running, arm outstretched, one hand gripping a foam toy Spitfire.
If you can run fast enough, if your throw is strong, you can send the Spitfire flying twenty yards. If you throw it just right, maybe it will keep flying, will carry away the sting of hard hands and harder words that chased you out of your home, into the alley.
You fling out your arm and let go.
Your sneakered foot lands in thick mud. You stumble and crash through horsetails and flowers like monstrous, bloated poppies.
You rise slowly, the high sun beating down on you. Your nose is assaulted by the scents of sap and wet soil, the absence of any trace of warm asphalt or diesel exhaust.
It happens sometimes. Time loses its grasp on people, misplaces them. If you could visit every asylum and lazaretto, every homeless shelter and hidden sea cave across twenty thousand years, you'd find your siblings in displacement. The woman working the food truck grill who curses in earthy peasant Etruscan. The mammoth hunter north of the Clyde who still wears his Patek Philippe watch as a talisman of his days at the investment bank.
You have fallen further than most. Children are less moored in time than we suppose.
Your crashing arrival attracts attention. Blunt-beaked heads are raised on supple, scaled necks. Wide brown eyes blink and assess, and decide you are no threat to the herd. They resume cropping the fat, dense ground cover.
You stare at the dinosaurs as they pass by.
You cry for help until your voice is hoarse, and it is only by chance that your tale does not end under the claws and teeth of a predator on the first day.
After that, after the first glimpse of feathered, fanged hunters on the distant ridge line, you learn quiet.
Your story becomes one of wordless survival.
You learn the taste of grubs and beetles, of bitter things that are not quite fruit. You sharpen sticks and find the patience and speed to spear darting lizards. Your first fire is a miracle.
You become night-wise, sleeping in the crooks of trees to avoid the predators that prowl below.
You find an island. Several miles long, nourished by the silt of a broad brown river, it is too small and distant from the shore for the larger predators to visit. You brave the currents and the crocodiles on a raft of lashed sticks.
The soles fall from your shoes. Your clothes rot off your body. You make what you can from sun-dried leather, leaves, plant fibers pounded and woven together with blistered fingers.
You live and you live and you live, until the lack of human voices almost drives you to fling yourself into the hungry river.
They come when you are near your last.
The newcomers fall out of the southern sky like storm-tossed leaves. Black-tipped wings fold and long beaks clack happily at journey's end.
They gallop on the beaches of your island, so large that the crocs scatter in their presence. Tall as giraffes, yellow beaks longer than you are tall.
Pterosaurs. You say the word and scratch it in the mud with a smoke-blackened finger.
They are more beautiful than anything you have ever seen. Love's hook catches your heart and sets itself deep in the muscle.
Every moment you can snatch from mere survival, you spend watching them.
At first there is a flock of a few dozen, but more come every day for a week, until the island throngs with them. They stalk through the copses, spearing lizards and turtles and small mammals. They fly to the mainland, and return with swollen bellies.
But their reason for arriving on the island is to dance.
The males bluster and bleat and show tongues red as June strawberries. They flap their wings and shake those great heads.
The males leave. The females stay, and lay eggs by moonlight in shallow scrapes above the waterline. They fuss over their nests, guard them with mad-eyed intensity. They grow thin, refusing to leave even for a moment.
One cloud-shrouded night, you steal an egg.
It is long and smooth, leathery and warm from the sand. You bury it in the mud near the ashes of your fire, to stay warm. You leave one face open to the sky, as the mothers do.
On the beach, the other eggs are pierced from within by long bills, and the young take tottering steps that turn within days into sprints and short flapping hops into the sky. The island hosts a cacophony of new life.
Your egg is still, and at night you fuss and touch it, and wipe tears of shame from your eyes that you've deprived the world of even one of these glorious lives.
The flocks depart, heading inland, towards the setting sun. The young follow in clumsy spirals, flapping fast to keep up.
Your egg is silent.
You have given up when, days after the exodus, it twitches. You feel it come alive, the beat of wings and beak thrumming through the earth and up through your feet.
The yellow bill pierces the shell. A long head, beak and fine fur slick, finds its way free for the first gasp of air.
She blinks at you, the first thing she has seen of the world.
At first she stays hard by your heels. You feed her grubs and insects and small frogs, but within days she is hunting her own food, too. Her beak is as long as your hand already, and she flings the sharp tip down on unwary prey and immobile seed alike.
She takes her first flights tentatively. You run with her up and down the beach, flapping your arms. You demonstrate the way she should take flight, with a strong push-up of her wings.
She follows your clumsy movements with a head cocked curiously to one side.
You laugh and flop on the sand, and she pecks your ear to prompt you for food. You gently rub her long neck with two fingers, and she trills back.
You will never name her, for what are names to the only two people in all the world?
By the turning of the season, she's as large as you are, and flying off to the far shore to hunt by herself most days. She returns with a full belly, with a beak smeared with blood. While she is gone, you feel a knot in your own stomach.
Twice she comes back bleeding. There's nothing you can do, not about the shallow gash just under one eye, not about the three raking claw marks on her back.
Nothing but worry.
Several times, you catch her standing on the beach staring south. She clacks her beak, tasting the wind, and you pretend not to know what calls to her.
She leaves when a flock of her kind pass over one morning.
You are sleeping next to her when she wakes, and you feel her heartbeat quicken. You rub sleep from your eyes and through the canopy see a flock of impossible size passing overhead. Hundreds, thousands of pterosaurs. Enough to return the pink dawn to shadowed night for a time.
She gallops to the beach before you are fully awake. You scramble after her, and by the time you've pushed through the bushes, she's airborne.
You watch until you lose her in the pale-winged stream of bodies. You watch the flock until it dwindles into the southern plains.
You ache for days.
The river rises and falls with the rains in the hills. The young crocs are not wary enough to avoid your lures. You spend days pounding plant fibers, twining rope, chipping stone. The monotony of survival weighs on you.
You subsist on hope.
When you hear the wings, you sprint through the island's undergrowth to the beach.
She lands with the first wave, grown so large in her southern journey. She squawks and clacks her beak and gallops back and forth on the sand. She has new scars, new scratches on her long bill, but you recognize her.
She recognizes you. She crouches -- she has to crouch to look you in the eyes now! -- and you throw your arms around her neck, and she click-coos. You can feel her heart beating, a heart strong enough to fight hurricanes and cross continents.
Again, she leaves at the turn of the seasons. But she is reluctant, running back and forth with you on the beach, hopping skyward only to settle again, to nudge you with her long bill.
She is waiting for you to take flight with her. To follow.
The next season, she again returns early, this time almost fully grown. She can snatch fruit from the treetops now.
This time, you are ready.
She snorts at the first version of the harness. But you have time to change it, time and rope and woven fabric made through thousands of hours of mindless work. Your hands are thick calluses from the labour, your body leaner than it should be. You've sacrificed much for this.
When she first accepts the harness, looped over her shoulders, cinched around her back legs, you whoop with joy. She wants to fly to hunt on the mainland, but she's being patient while you fuss with her. She allows you to climb onto her back, to pass the loops around your harness through hers. You put your feet into the woven stirrups, and hang on.
She glances over her shoulder, and you can read the question there. Are you ready?
You pat her flank. She drops to a crouch, then leaps into the sky.
She's hesitant at first, the extra weight throwing her off. But within a few wing-beats, she's found her rhythm again.
Awe washes over you, as you rise above the island you've called home now for more than two years. So small! Around you the plain stretches out for a thousand miles, fern and flower and tree covering every inch. Herds of duckbills and horned dinosaurs chew their way through the verdant landscape, shadowed by stripe-flanked predators.
She takes you on a short flight that day, to an inland plateau where she hunts small burrowing mammals, spearing them one by one and then tossing them into the air and swallowing them whole.
You clamber onto her back for the flight back to the island.
You fly with her a dozen more times that summer. Not every day, but often enough that she gets used to it. You modify the harness, add padding where your fingers detect a hint of chafing. With a fishbone needle you sew yourself thick down-lined trousers and a coat for your flights -- you haven't felt cold like that since the last time you saw snow, back home.
She'll take you on the migration this year, you know that. She's as eager as you are.
It is not to be.
You're standing at the edge of the river when it finds you, fish spear poised for a throw. She'll enjoy having a piece of that big catfish, you're thinking, when the world snaps out of focus.
You stumble, and skin your soft hands on the asphalt.
Cicadas sing to the streetlights, and your foam and plastic Spitfire falls to the ground, snapping a wing.
Time bends, but it does not break. Whatever careless watchmaker oversees causality does eventually notice a stray gear, and flicks it back to its proper place.
You stand there for long minutes, staring at your small hands, pink-palmed and free of scars.
No matter how many times you squeeze your eyes shut, they do not open again onto a Cretaceous river, an island, a pterosaur lazily preening.
The tears evaporate fast off the summer-hot road.
You let faded memories guide you back to the porch and the swinging screen door.
Things are strange at home. You have gone quiet. Your body is strange to you, well fed but weak and small. Curses and insults slide off you, whether at the kitchen table or the school yard.
But the next time your father raises a hand to you, he regrets it. He stares from you to the blood on the carpet and back, wondering what wild thing has possessed his child.
You tell no one. Not teachers, not friends, certainly not your parents.
You learn a new camouflage. Small smiles, casual friendships, pretended interest in music and videos and jokes.
You drift through university and into a job you don't quite hate, in a glass office building downtown. You take your lunches on the roof, sitting on the ledge and remembering how it felt to dive through a sky, held aloft by leather wings and the trust-beyond-reason called love.
You live and you live and you live, until you can barely keep from screaming.
The cry shatters the air before dawn, waking you from a restless sleep.
Your legs kick off the covers before your brain understands what's happening. Barefoot, you sprint down the stairs and onto the patch of green in front of your building.
Time does not only break in one direction, and perhaps the clockmaker is not always indifferent to the quiet cries of the heart.
It's early spring, and cherry blossoms swirl around her mighty wings. She snorts as they scatter across her long beak.
She's taller and older, with new battle scars from many migrations. For a moment you freeze. It's been years. You're not who she was expecting. You're someone else. A carrier of memories, not the callused, spear-hunting child by the river.
But she takes in a whiff of air and clacks her beak and thrums at you, deep in her chest.
You bury your face in the soft down and coo at her.
There's no harness, but her neck is thick and your arms are strong enough for one flight. You clamber onto her back.
She leaps into sky to a symphony of police sirens and screams.
Time will snatch her back, you know that as the city turns beneath you. Time takes all things.
But some things are stronger than the span of years, and cannot be erased by all the turns of the Earth.
This story originally appeared in Analog.