Fariha soared through the sky, her glossy feathers drenched in gold light and violet shadow. The sun would soon drop below the horizon. It was her favourite time of day, not because of the sunset — she had seen many sunsets, and she had grown rather bored of them — but because it was a time of change.
Change was interesting.
Two eagles glided on the thermals ahead of her, working together to hunt. Fariha could feel their prey below, a rock rabbit, ears twitching as it sensed danger. The eagles separated, the female hugging the cliff edge while the male soared in the light of the dying sun. The tiny creature stared at it, transfixed. It was not blinded by the light, but it was distracted as the female eagle circled behind and prepared to dive. Fariha watched, fascinated, and then hissed a word. The rock rabbit suddenly turned and let out a high-pitched, shrieking, chucking sound, many times louder than its tiny lungs ought to have been able to produce. The female eagle, spooked, missed her target and rolled into a ball of feathers and screeching frustration.
The rock rabbit, shocked by the sound it had just heard itself make, froze in place and was bitten by an opportunistic puff adder.
Fariha cawed with delight and soared higher.
She continued to drift on the thermals, skimming over the boundary of a small town. Houses lay below her, whitewashed U-shaped buildings that curved around small gardens. At this time of day, most people were beginning to retreat indoors, but something below snagged her senses. Longing. Clear and sweet as the note of a bell.
Humans who wanted things were so much fun.
She tucked her wings and began to descend. She found the girl quickly enough, sitting in a small garden, fingers working a lump of clay. She wore a dress of muted greens and browns, her dark hair tightly braided. Her face was smudged with dirt.
Fariha landed, clawed feet scratching the hard earth. The girl looked up and then scrambled to her feet, eyes widening at the creature before her with gold earrings and human-like eyes and a nose-bridge that stretched and curved into a brutally sharp beak.
Fariha folded her dark wings around her body and said nothing. She wasn’t tall, but neither was the girl, and they gazed at each other eye-to-eye.
‘Who are you?’ asked the girl, after a moment.
‘Fariha, goddess of the winds, mistress of machination, sovereign of schemes, arch of artifice, at your service,’ said Fariha, sweeping one wing in front of her and dipping her head.
The girl stared. ‘My father told me stories,’ she whispered.
‘Did he indeed? And what did he tell you, child?’
‘That the bird goddess Fariha is… clever.’
‘Hah. And appreciated flattery, no doubt? An astute man. There are some. What is your name?’
‘Elissa, and I am pleased to meet you,’ said the girl, nodding her head. ‘But if I may ask, why are you here?’
Fariha looked around. The house to which the small garden was attached shared walls with both of its neighbours. The doorway was dark, and spoke of damp coolness. The air in the garden was heavy with the scents of late-blooming flowers, long shadows stretched over the gum trees and red yucca plants. A small, wooden stool lay overturned at Elissa’s feet. She had not dropped her clay.
‘You have a pretty garden,’ said the bird goddess.
‘Thank you. I have worked hard to make it so,’ said Elissa.
‘But your house is very small. Perhaps you dream of something richer. More opulent. With servants to bring delicacies and cool drinks?’
‘Not really,’ said the girl.
Fariha clucked. ‘No? Then…’ she twisted her head to the south, where there was the beat of distant music and lights were beginning to mark the darkening sky. ‘Perhaps the party? You yearn for the music, and dancing and song? The hand of a handsome prince?’
Elissa giggled, then clapped a hand over her mouth. ‘No!’
Fariha’s brow creased. ‘All young girls want to go to the party, surely?’ She looked Elissa up and down. ‘The dress is easily remedied. And the hair. And I’m sure there’s something around here that would do for a coach…’ Her eyes stopped on a lizard skittering up one of the whitewashed walls. ‘Certainly, attendants would not be a problem. And shoes, yes, I could make the most beautiful shoes,’ which, she mused silently, would pinch and stab and fall off at the most inopportune moment. She had heard the prince had a thing for shoes.
‘No, please,’ interrupted Elissa. ‘I don’t want to go to the party. My sisters went. They will tell me about it when they return. I would rather stay here.’
Fariha buried her fists into the feathers at her waist. ‘Well, then, child. I felt your longing, and it was strong. Tell me, what is it that you want?’
‘Honestly, there’s nothing,’ said Elissa. She paused. ‘You must be tired. Would you like some tea?’
‘Tea?’ Fariha found herself disconcerted. Usually, when she found a human who wanted something, she offered it to them, and they took it. And more. Their avarice tangled them like fish caught in nets, and she took great joy in watching them flap and flip and try to squirm out of the predicaments they created for themselves. They never offered her anything. At least, not until it was far too late.
‘I’ll make some,’ said Elissa, darting through the dark entrance of her house. She returned a few minutes later with a pot and cups. The scent of cardamom drifted across the garden.
Fariha sniffed cautiously. A beak was not the most conducive thing for drinking from a cup, but if she allowed the liquid to cool a little she could pour it into the bottom part of her bill and swallow it from there. It smelled deliciously sweet.
‘I think,’ said Elissa after they had both taken cups, ‘that you came to my father, once.’
‘Perhaps. I have seen a lot of men, in my time.’
‘He was a good man, my father. My mother was pregnant. Her time was near and he had only one thought on his mind. He wished for a healthy child that would live a long life.’
‘And you’re here, I see.’
‘Yes. But he never wished anything for my mother. She died a week after I was born.’ Elissa looked up from her teacup and met Fariha’s gaze. Her eyes were challenging.
Fariha shrugged. ‘That was not my doing. Human childbirth is a difficult business.’
‘You could have saved her.’
‘I could have. I wasn’t asked to.’
‘He blamed himself. ‘
‘Again, that is not my doing.’
Elissa looked down. ‘No. I suppose not. He loved me, of course. He was happy that I was healthy. But I know that in his heart, he always wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t taken that wish. If he had refused it.’
‘If you’re asking me for the answer to that, I don’t know it. I can move a thread in the tapestry, but I cannot tell you how the pattern would have looked if I had not done so.’ Fariha paused, fixing the girl with a beady stare. ‘Unless, perhaps, that’s your wish?’ Yes… she thought, and the knowledge will burn inside like you a parasitic grub, eating its way through your flesh until it utterly consumes…
‘No,’ said the girl thoughtfully, ‘I think it is better not to know.’
Fariha huffed. ‘Well, then. What is your desire? I felt something. Tell me.’
Elissa laughed, and looked at her ball of misshapen clay. ‘Probably that I wanted my sculpture to actually resemble something.’
‘Is that all? That’s simple. I can make you the best sculptor in the world. People will weep to see your work.’ And the King will find you, and insist you make endless models for him, until your nails crack and your fingers bleed and they are so calloused that you can no longer feel anything, and…
‘No, no!’ said Elissa. ‘No. If I am to become good at modelling clay, I shall learn the skill for myself. With practice. If I acquire it by magic, it will be as though it’s someone else’s work, and what would be the point of that?’
Fariha looked at the sky with irritation. The sun was gone, leaving nothing more than a bloody glow across the darkened horizon. Soon, it would be night, and her power would be gone for another day. ‘You waste my time,’ she hissed.
‘I’m sorry. It was not my intention. There is nothing that I want. Take your leave, if it pleases you, of course.’
Fariha screeched. ‘You bore me, child! I hate being bored.’ The bird goddess spread her wings wide, so that the tips almost touched the walls of the tiny garden, filling it with black shadow. The teacup fell to the ground with a crash as she flexed her talons, long, wicked things that dug deep into the ground, and stared at Elissa. ‘Such lovely, soft skin. I promised your father you would live a long life. I never promised you would live it painlessly. Unscarred.’
Elissa took a deep breath. ‘You need me to ask for something?’
The two stared at each other for a long moment.
‘Do not think of tricking me, child. You cannot wish me harm.’
‘No,’ said Elissa, breaking Fariha’s gaze and looking up at the sky, now a deep indigo marked with a single pinpoint of white, light. ‘But perhaps there is another way.’
Fariha’s black eyes glittered. Time seemed to stretch and stop, and snap.
‘I wish… you were not bored. And would never be so again.’
There was a sound, just on the edge of hearing. Clear and sweet as the note of a bell.
Fariha began to laugh. She flapped her great wings and leapt upwards, still laughing, and the sound turned into cawing as she soared into the endless sky.
Somewhere far below, a girl picked up a lump of clay and began to work on it, so that it resembled something a little like a woman.
Or perhaps a bird.
Or perhaps, a reminder.
This story was written for another Mythmaking event. The idea behind these events is that a group of storytellers write and perform stories inspired by museum artefacts that have no stories of their own. In this case, we know these small, female-form, ceramic figures are about 4000 years old and were widely traded, but that’s all — no one knows who, or what, they represented, or why they were significant. The event took place at the Ashmolean Museum, was organised by Brian Mackenwells and Charvy Narain, and was totally brilliant — look out for more in the future!