The Bird in the Ice
by Elizabeth Hoyle
Stiles shows me the costumes he’s spent every spare minute over the last two weeks making.
“We’ve been thawing out an ancient bird and you want me to dress up like a plague doctor?”
“Drake, we’ve been through this already. This bird was revered by the Ice People, so much so that those who cared for them wore these special outfits. Just ask Daria to show you the carvings when we get over there.” He gets in my face when I turn away from him. “We’ll hopefully finish thawing the poor thing today. Think if you were frozen in ice for so long and suddenly found yourself awake and able to move again. Wouldn’t you want to see a familiar sight?”
I can’t think of a counter argument so I stretch out my hand. He hands me the new gear, which is much heavier than it looks. I turn around so we both have privacy to change. The mask, when I put it on, throws my breath back in my face, making me wish I hadn’t eaten an onion bagel for breakfast. When he tells me he’s done, I turn around, surprised to see that his outfit is slightly different from mine. We both wear the same insulated black coat but he has a white, wide-brimmed hat that seems totally unsuitable to the arctic winds. Before he puts it on, he pulls a snug white hood over his head.
Our sun lamps and other equipment rattle in our packs as we shoulder them. The North Pole has warmed significantly thanks to humanity’s foolishness, but there’s still no way to prepare for the cold and the wind, though we did our best before we left for this research trip. Going outside is like knowing you’re going to walk into a wall: you just have to shut your eyes and hope it won’t hurt too much. Thankfully the site where we found the bird isn’t that far away.
Daria unzips the containment space’s door then zips it back up once we’re inside.
“There’s no change. It’s still asleep.”
Every time I see it, the bird takes my breath away. About the size of a swan, the bird’s coloring is what makes it unusual. It is white as bone from the back of its skull to its sharp beak. The rest of it is scarlet, even its feet, which are the only parts left encased in ice. I get to work, pulling two sunlamps and a portable heater from my pack. I plug the heater in and turn it on.
“Its temperature hasn’t changed since last night,” Stiles says, carefully removing the thermometer. I pull out my tablet and key in the information. “Heart rate remains steady and strong.”
I make note of the other particulars of the bird’s condition that Stiles calls out to me. When he’s done, I turn on one of the sun lamps. We have to increase the temperature around the bird gradually. Daria and I help lift the bird into a big, deep bowl so we can catch and measure the ice as it melts. She goes over to the other work table which is full of fragments of pottery.
“I’ve been looking more at these while it was my turn to keep watch and I think your theory is closer to the truth, Drake. This writing is closer to Viking runes than any other type of script that I’m aware of, even though the lack of skill with the drawings that accompany them could indicate Neanderthal origins as well. But why and how did they come all the way up here? And why did they care about these birds so much?”
“Careful, your historian is showing,” Stiles quips as he hands her the suit he’d made for her. She rolls her eyes at him and pulls it on over her coat. I plug in the last of the sun lamps and the two hairdryers Stiles and I will be using and we get to work. Stiles and I have to empty the water bowl seven times before the bird’s feet are finally free.
“I think they might have worshipped this bird, whoever the Ice People were,” Daria says after I turn off my hairdryer. The generator starts to whine shrilly. “A rendering of that bird is all over this one, along with etchings of people carrying what could be candles. Or maybe spears.”
“Maybe they were hunting it,” Stiles suggests as he towels off the bird’s head.
The bird stirs beneath us. I step back and Stiles lowers his hairdryer and his towel. The bird awakes and lifts its head, blinking at us with eyes that are as scarlet as its plumage. It stretches its wings, ruffles its tail feathers. It splashes us as it shifts from foot to foot. It stares up at Stiles, cooing low in its throat, then turns its head and starts to gag, choking and wheezing. Before any of us can think what to do, the bird arches its neck and pukes, splattering the contents of its stomach all over the blue floor of our tent.
There’s a little blood, but it’s the sight of the bones on the floor that stuns us. So many bones. I think I see what might be parts of fingers, ears, and possibly ribs. I swallow hard when I see a tiny spearhead.
“Or maybe it was hunting them,” I whisper, glancing from Daria to Stiles. The generator rumbles. The lights flash then give out. It’s just enough to see the bird lunge at Stiles before everything goes dark and so, so cold.
Cover art: Carrington, L. (1974). Bird Bath
About the Author:
Elizabeth Hoyle is from southern West Virginia. Her fiction has been featured in 365 Tomorrows, Moon Magazine, Oddball Magazine, and other online and print publications. Her poetry has been featured on What Rough Beast and Boned: A collection of skeletal writings. She makes her online home at https://entwinedinpages.wordpress.com and on Twitter @ERHoyle.