“There’s an old legend that states that one night a burning star fell from the sky and slammed into a mountain range. It caused a catastrophic explosion, tossing huge hunks of rock and dirt and debris around the mountains for miles.”
There’s an old legend that states that one night a burning star fell from the sky and slammed into a mountain range. It caused a catastrophic explosion, tossing huge hunks of rock and dirt and debris around the mountains for miles. The star disappeared, but it left a gaping hole in the mountains.
According to the legend, my people and our sheep were born from that star. In the morning, my ancestors emerged fully formed after its burning diminished. Together, they all blinked in the harsh light. They looked around at the scorched, rocky ground and the walls of stone on either side. One of their sheep bleated. Then, a cluster of massive shapes dove down towards them. They grasped both sheep and people in cold talons and swooped back up to the sky. They ate their prey. From that moment on, my people have called them sky demons. From that moment on, they have been our enemies.
That’s the legend of how we came to be. I always thought that it was ridiculous, because how could people and sheep come from a falling star? And how could a star not destroy the Earth? Papa thought it was nonsense, too. Mama and Sam didn’t though. They were the dreamers in the family.
I once told Sam that the legend was utter nonsense. I was eight years old at the time. He was seven.
“No it’s not!” he replied. “The legend is true!” That was the end of our conversation.
Sam also liked to look at the tufts of green grass that had sprouted up over the years.
“It’s like us, Sophie,” he said to me one day. “The grass is like us. It lives on rock. And,” he paused here, his light brown eyes wide with excitement, “no one would have ever thought that grass could live on rock. But it has. Just like us! No one would have ever thought that humans could live in a rock hole, but we have, too!”
I had laughed and ruffled his soft blond hair. I didn’t care about metaphors between us and grass. All I had ever wanted was to learn about the world. The real world outside of the ashen gray rock walls that surrounded us. Once I learned enough about the world, I reasoned, I would be able to escape the rock. I don’t know what I was thinking. Papa had always wanted to escape. And look where that got him.
Sometimes, on clear summer evenings, Papa and Mama and Sam and I would lie on the stone behind our hut. Together, we would watch the sun set. Once Papa tried to explain how it worked, how it wasn’t the sun that was moving, it was actually the Earth. Even I quieted him, though, because sunsets shouldn’t have a scientific explanation.
We would watch as orange and pink spread their fingers across the sky, pushing away the soft blue-gray of daytime and welcoming the purple of night. We would watch as the purple oozed across the sky, erasing the orange and pink. Once it was completely dark, Papa and Mama would usher Sam and me inside. Sam would go right to sleep on his cot, but I wouldn’t. I would peek out from my window and watch the sky demons cut across the dark, hurrying towards their nests, their bodies like blades against the soft purple. I watched as the adults in our village would crowd in the square, holding spears of wood and stone. I watched as they hurled the spears at the sky demons. Sometimes, a spear would hit its mark, and a sky demon would fall from the sky, shrieking. The next day, we’d have meat at dinner. Sometimes, a sky demon would fly down towards the adults. Sometimes, it would grab one of them in its talons. Sometimes, it would rip the roof off of the sheep barn and steal away the sheep.
Every morning, we would find blood dribbled on our roofs and splattered in dark stains on the stone. We always worked hard to scrub it away.
Mama and Papa were the only adults who never took part in sky demon hunting. Papa because he was too busy studying a way to get us out of the hole in the mountains. Mama because she couldn’t bring herself to pick up a spear.
Sam and I used to watch the other children holding little bits of stone, throwing them towards the sky, trying to hit a sky demon. It never worked. The stone would always fall back down before it flew up far enough. It would usually hit one of the other children on the head. Sam and I never threw stones at the sky.
I used to wonder why the sky demons only ever ate a few of us or our sheep. I used to wonder why they didn’t kill us all. They must have wanted to, I thought, them being such evil beings. I never figured out why they didn’t. I also used to wonder about why, in the legend, when a cluster of sky demons first swooped down, why they didn’t eat all of us.
I asked Papa why. He told me not to bother with the legend because it was stupid. Then he took me and Sam by the hand and slung a rope over his shoulder. He called for Mama.
“I’m ready,” he told her.
Mama just nodded. I’ve always wondered why Mama didn’t argue, why she didn’t tell Papa not to go.
We walked to the rock face near our hut. Then Papa tried to climb it. He wanted to get to the top. He wanted to see what lay beyond us. He had a long rope and strong arms. He got very far. The whole town gathered to watch. He was almost out of our sight when the rope broke. He flailed for a grip on the stone, but to no avail. He fell, and his body broke on the ground.
We wanted to bury him, but it was impossible to bury anything because our ground was stone. It didn’t matter anyway, because a few hours after Papa fell, while Sam and Mama and I all held each other and sobbed and shook, a sky demon grabbed Papa’s body in its claws and ate it. Then he was gone.
One day, about a year after Papa died, a sky demon fell. I was on my knees, scrubbing sheep’s blood from the stone, when it crashed in front of me. I dropped the rag with a strangled yell and launched myself backward, my palms skinning on the wet ground. The sky demon was lying on its side. It didn’t move.
I thought briefly that perhaps it was shot down by one of our archers, but it had no arrows or spears implanted in its body.
Once I had caught my breath, I inched forward on my hands and knees. The sky demon showed no reaction as I approached it. I had always been a reckless child, and soon I was a mere foot from its prone body. I stared at it. My whole life, I had always been taught to hate and fear the sky monsters. My whole life, I had never seen one up close. The sky demon was barely larger than I was. It couldn’t have been more than a few months old. It had a gray, downy coat of fluff. Its feet were curled and a soft, wrinkled pink. The sky demon’s talons were pliant, and translucent pink, the color of Sam’s cheeks when he was born. The sky demon’s chest hammered up and down, its heart a pulsing orb pressed against its rib cage. Its wings were skeletal. One was twisted at an unnatural angle. The other one was barely twitching.
I was enthralled. This wasn’t the nightmare that we thought haunted our home. It wasn’t larger than our huts. It didn’t have a black coat of acute feathers pointed in the shape of knives. It didn’t have fine, metallic-like talons large enough to snatch our sheep. I didn’t see a monster; I only saw an infant.
The sky demon’s eye fluttered open. The iris was a cloudy blue, the color of the dye we made from the berries that grew near our homes. The pupil swam around in the iris, constricting and expanding rapidly. The sky demon gazed at me. It let out a small moan. Then a squeak. Then it made a sound that I could have sworn was a plea. A cry for help.
I reached out a cautious hand, my fingertips brushing its feathery back.
“Sophie!” My name tore through my ears. I looked over my shoulder and saw my mother running toward me, her dress fluttering in the wind.
“Ma — ” I started to say, but before I could finish, she shoved me aside.
I watched my mother. My mother, who baked flat bread for anyone in our village who was hungry; my mother, who had never once thrown a spear at a sky demon; my mother, whose arms trembled so badly that she could no longer she braid her hair. I watched as my mother, with hands steady as stone, pushed her knitting needle into the sky demon’s chest.
What would always stay with me was the sound. The sky demon let out a shriek as the needle pierced its heart. The needle made a wet crack as it punctured the bone. It made a crisp tearing noise as it stabbed through the muscle.
Blood gushed out of the demon, flowing onto the stone. It swirled around my feet, warm and wet. I stood, paralyzed. I stared at my mother and the dying creature at her feet. She met my gaze, and her eyes were hollow. Empty.
“Get inside, Sophie,” she finally said. She ducked her hand down. “I’ll clean it up.”
Wordlessly, I ran into our hut, tracking blood on the stone.
The next night, my town gathered together in the central square. The sky demon had been defeathered earlier that day. A wooden beam was stabbed through its body, and it hung over a huge bonfire. Fat and grease dripped down and sizzled in the flames.
The adults sat at long, stone tables and laughed and drank jugs of mead. Mama sat with them, her hands folded tightly together. She didn’t drink. She was talking to some women, whom she was friendly with. Her friends were all smiling and talking loudly and cracking jokes as they bit into the flesh of the sky demon and the blood trickled down their chins. Mama had a very small portion of sky demon, which she nibbled on. She smiled and talked and laughed, too, but all her smiles were too wide, and her laughs were too loud, too late, too fake.
The children were happy, too. The smaller ones ran around chasing each other and hiding under tables. The older ones were cheerful. They gnawed on the sky demon’s bones and pushed each other around.
Sam and I sat together on the damp rock, on the edge of the square, in the shadows. I didn’t eat the sky demon, and so neither did Sam.
“Do you ever wonder, Sophie,” he asked, “where the sky demons came from?”
“No, I don’t, Sam,” I replied, not looking at him, but looking at the darkness beyond the firelight.
“I do,” he said, quietly. “I wonder where they came from.”
I didn’t answer.
“I think,” he continued, “they came from the star.” I looked at him, and his face was wide and earnest.
“What did you say?” I asked, my voice quiet, serious.
“I think they came from the star,” he repeated. “Just like us.”
I snorted and picked at crumbling pieces of rock. “That’s ridiculous, Sam,” I said, and my voice caught a little.
“It’s not, Sophie!” Sam exclaimed. “If we and our sheep were born from the star, then it only makes sense for the sky demons to have been, too.”
“Why, Sam?” I was angry now, but I didn’t know why. “Why does ‘it make sense’ that the sky demons were born from the star? How does that make sense, Sam?”
He shrank back. “I just think that we’re not that different,” he said and his voice was soft and quiet.
“Not that different?! They eat our sheep. They kill us!” I gulped down a sob. “And we kill them.”
“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” Sam retorted. “We don’t have to kill each other!”
He was wrong, and I told him so. “That’s not true. We do have to kill each other.”
He looked at me disbelievingly. “You can’t honestly believe that, Sophie. You didn’t use to.”
I bit my lip and said harshly, “Well, people change.” I turned away from him and faced the shadows.
It was several minutes before Sam replied.
“I know you didn’t want Mama to kill that demon yesterday,” he whispered. “You tried to stop her.”
I wiped away a tear. “It’s dead now, Sam. It doesn’t matter whether or not I wanted it to be.” I tried to swallow a sob, but it didn’t work. I started crying hysterically.
I could suddenly feel Sam’s small arms wrapping around my shoulders. “It’s okay, Sophie,” he whispered in my ear, his breath tickling my neck. “It wasn’t your fault.”
I cried into his shoulder. “It was my fault, Sam! I should have stopped Mama! I should have saved it!”
“She had pushed you away,” he replied. “There was nothing you could have done. Even if she didn’t kill it, someone else surely would have.”
“And that’s what I hate!” I yelled. A few small children turned to look at us, but no one else heard. I lowered my voice. “I hate how we always have to kill them! I hate how we have to live like this!”
“Me too,” Sam whimpered. “I do, too.” He paused. “I wish we could find another way.” He took a deep breath, then plunged on. “They only kill us when they have to. We kill them because we want to. Their species is obviously just as desperate as we are. I wish there was some way we could work together.”
“Now that’s ridiculous,” I told him, through my cloud of tears.
“I know,” he replied, sounding much more like the ten years he actually was than he’d been sounding like a moment ago. “I know it’s stupid. It just makes me happy to imagine it.”
Then we laughed, just a little.
Soon after that, Mama came over to us, her mouth set in a straight line. The other adults were sharpening spears. “Time to go,” she said.
Half a decade later, a sky demon landed in the garden in the back of the hut that my mother, Sam, and I shared. It squatted in the garden; its jagged tail swung, clobbering and toppling a young evergreen tree. It bent its feathered neck and nibbled on the purple thyme. My mother was sleeping on her cot, and Sam was crouched on a stone stool, weaving a scarf. I watched from the back doorway, silently. It didn’t see me.
A voice broke the quiet. “Go away!” our neighbor, Scott, shouted. The sky bird started, its wide, black eyes narrowing. “You hear me?” he yelled again, crossing over to the edge of our garden. He was holding a newly invented weapon in our village: a catar. It was dangerous, more dangerous than arrows or spears. It was made of stone and vine, and held razor-sharp rock knives. Inside of it, vines were woven together into a complicated catapult that could quickly hurl out the knives when the trigger was pulled.
Sam looked up. “Sophie?” he asked.
I glanced at him for a second, then turned around and edged out to the garden.
“Get away!” Scott yelled again, and the sky demon tensed, strands of shredded thyme hanging from its metallic beak.
“Scott,” I said, quietly, “Stop. It’s not hurting anybody.”
Scott and the sky demon both turned to look at me, equally surprised.
Scott let out a low sigh. “Look, Sophie,” he said in a much gentler voice than he had been using moments before, “it’s not often that we get one this close.” His hands clenched the catar, a finger nearing the trigger. The sky demon cocked its head and twitched its wings.
“Don’t shoot it.” I began to panic. He wouldn’t listen to me. He would kill it.
Sam stepped outside. At fifteen, he had finally gotten a growth spurt, and he was several inches taller than Scott, but too slim to be intimidating. “Scott,” Sam said. “Drop the catar.”
I felt a pang in my chest. He wasn’t going to listen to Sam either. Sam and my mother and I were known for being different than everyone else in the village. If we had been more average, maybe he wouldn’t have shot. Maybe he would have listened. But we weren’t. We were the odd ones, and we would never be heard.
Scott’s finger locked itself around the trigger. The sky demon had returned to snuffling in the thyme. It didn’t see Scott holding the weapon. It didn’t know that in seconds its life would end. Without thinking, I jumped forward. Just as Scott pulled the trigger.
As I was in midair, a knife buried itself in my shoulder, and right before I hit the ground, I could see the sky demon taking flight.
I woke up the next day in the town infirmary, lying on a cot with a bandaged left shoulder. Pale light streamed through the open window, highlighting Sam and my mother’s faces. They stopped whispering when they saw that I was awake.
“Sophie,” my mother’s voice was gentle. “How are you feeling?”
It took me a moment to register her question, and another moment to remember what had happened. “The demon,” I gasped. “Is it okay?”
Sam and my mother exchanged a look.
“No,” Sam told me, eyes downcast. “Scott shot it.”
I sank back against the cot. I couldn’t explain why I felt that way, but, for some hopeless reason, I thought that if I could stop Scott from killing the sky demon, I would finally be able to forget about what my mother did.
“But your shoulder,” my mother pressed. “How does it feel?”
I squeezed my eyes shut. My shoulder hurt, but that was nothing compared to the fact that the sky demon was dead. It was dead. Just like the one that Mama killed. “It’s fine,” I told her.
She frowned, worried.“Are you sure? The medic told us that you might be in pain for a while. You should at least stay here for the night.”
I pushed myself to my feet. It was painful, but I could do it. “I said I was fine! Please, just leave me alone.” I pushed past her and Sam and left the infirmary. I stormed to out hut and sat down in the garden, fuming. I stared at the broken thyme and the imprint of the sky demon’s body. The blood had been washed away.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but I know that by the time my mother joined me, the sharp pain in my shoulder had receded into an ache. The sun had set, the stars twinkled merrily, and the bright, fat moon was hanging low in the sky.
She sat down across from me on the dirt. I looked down, ashamed.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”
She took a long time to respond. When she did, her voice was quiet. “It’s okay, Sophie. I’m sorry.”
I shook my head. “What are you sorry for, Ma?”
She shrugged. “Nothing. Everything.” My mother took a deep breath. “I’m sorry that your father died. I’m sorry that you had to watch.” She paused. “And I’m sorry that I killed that sky demon that time, when you were scrubbing the stone. It was only a baby. And I shouldn’t have done it in front of you.” She tried to suck in a breath, but it caught in her throat. “I’m so sorry, Sophie,” she whispered.
I looked at my mother, really looked at her. For the first time, I saw how fragile she was. For the first time, I realized that she regretted killing the sky demon. For the first time, I realized that my mother made mistakes. “It’s okay,” I told her, and a tear dripped down my face.
We stayed together for the rest of the night — sitting on the stone and holding hands in the moonlight.
Anyway, I don’t want to be thinking about any of this now.
My father died a decade ago. I forgave my mother four years ago. Three months ago, my mother was killed by a panicked sky demon. It had a spear stuck in its wing, and it careened down from the sky and landed on her, hitting her hard enough to snap her neck.
Two weeks ago, Sam and I were sitting outside the hut that we share, and we watched a group of small children climbing the rock face. They were just doing it for fun, of course, but some of them got pretty high. Then one of them lost his grip. He tumbled down the stone, shrieking and kicking. A sky demon dove down, caught him, and brought him safely to the ground. No one knew quite what to make of it.
It sparked something in me, though. In Sam, too. I guess we thought, or I thought at least, if little kids are trying to climb the rock face, why can’t we? If the town is finally becoming curious enough to wonder what it beyond the rock, why don’t we climb it and see?
Together, we gathered the unused rope that we wove with Papa when we were little. We added more to it and strengthened it. We practiced climbing parts of the rock face behind our hut. We packed knapsacks with food and water and wool sweaters and blankets. Now, we are ready.
Sam and I woke up early this morning and walked to the rock face. We started to climb. It was difficult at first, and I was so nervous that my muscles tensed, and I started shaking. It got easier, though. We took small breaks throughout the day, sipping cool water and eating sheep’s cheese.
It is evening now, and we’re still climbing. A group of children have gathered beneath us, shouting words that don’t reach our ears. I think it’s encouragement, though. They jump up and down and run around in circles, heads tilted back, watching us in the fading light. We’re so high up now that the children are barely there. Just little dark shapes beneath us.
Sam and I settle in a small crevice in the rock for the night. We strap ourselves in and lean back, rubbing our exhausted hands. My shoulder healed years ago, but it has started to hurt again, a dull throb.
“So, what do you think, Sam,” I say. “Do you still believe that the sky demons were born from the same star we were?”
He looks at me, startled. “Of course, Sophie. Of course I do.” He lets out a small laugh. “Do you agree with me yet?”
“Maybe,” I reply, because I still don’t know if I even believe in the legend.
I pull a blanket from my knapsack and wrap it around Sam and my shoulders. We squint our eyes to watch as the parents come to collect their children. It’s hard to see them, but I can just make them out.
“Look,” Sam points, “a shooting star.”
I look up, not down, and I see it, too.
Streaking across the black, leaving spurts of silver in its path. I look around at the children and their parents, and me and Sam, and the dark silhouettes of the sky demons circling in the clouds.
The shooting star brightens the sky, and I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but it looks like it’s coming straight towards us.
And just for an instant, we are all encompassed in light.