An essay by Sorcha Bell, as provided by Judith Field
Art by Shannon Legler
I stand on the edge of the giddying cliff. The sea crashes below. “Skildir,” I whisper. The word catches on the wind. Soon the sun will rise. I must catch the brief January light. I will see the eagles fly, this time. I must. I cannot go home.
Home was Liverpool, with Rob, until we split up in November. I had to find somewhere else. Where I wouldn’t have to risk seeing him and Abi every time I went out. The letting agent found me a bedsit on the other side of town. But I saw Rob in everything. I spent a lot of time at work in the lab. Where else did I have to go? But someone would crack a joke and I’d think, I must tell Rob. And I’d remember I couldn’t.
Mum came round for coffee. She sank into the under-stuffed sofa that was also my bed. “Sorcha, this place is a dump,” she said. “You know it. You’re a physicist, not some squatter. Come home.”
I shook my head. “I want to make a go of it, Mum.”
Mum nodded. “That’s my girl. There’s someone out there who’ll only have eyes for you. But, for goodness sake, get some new furniture. Something you can sit on without getting a spring in your bum.”
The landlord didn’t mind taking the chair and sofa away, as long as I didn’t expect him to pay for replacements. I bought some charity shop substitutes. I strung red, green, and blue tinsel round the front door, covering the gap where it didn’t meet the frame. I called a locksmith. My own lock. I put a card up at work, advertising for someone to share the bedsit. Every evening when I got back, I knew the place would be exactly as I left it. And it was, at first.
One night, I came home from work. I shut the front door behind me. There was a feeling about the place, out of the ordinary, that I couldn’t explain. I smelled a woody perfume, like roses burning on autumn bonfires. Unfamiliar, and nothing like the bacon I’d cooked for breakfast. I stiffened. Someone had been in the flat.
I’d double locked the door when I went out. It had been like that when I got back. Don’t be stupid. Who breaks in, sprays perfume about, then leaves, locking the door behind them? The scent must have blown in from the street. I switched on the light. I was sure I had left that book open. And I definitely hadn’t washed up my coffee cup from breakfast.
I heard a tick, tick, the sound slow and dragged out. On the wall, by the light switch, in a spot previously empty, hung a clock. It was shaped like a house, plastered with carved oak leaves and trees. It was red, from the fake wooden roof to the pine cones and pendulum dangling below. Seven o’clock. A mechanism whirred, a little door opened at the top and a bird with a curved bill and two sets of talons popped in and out seven times, screeching as it went.
The man stood with his back to me. His hair reached his shoulders and was so black that I almost expected to see ink drip from the ends.
“Sorcha. I see you.” His voice had a croaking, cawing quality. He turned.
I jerked my head back and gasped. His eyes, on the sides of his face, were round and bright blue, his nose curved like an eagle’s beak. He blinked and a clear membrane flicked over his eyes and back again.
My throat tightened, choking off a scream. The chain was still closed, the door still locked and bolted.
“Please,” he said. “You have no watch. I gave you the clock. Do you not love it? You have been so sad. I wanted to help.”
“By scaring me shitless?” You had to humour lunatics, right? Keep them calm.
He took a step toward me. I backed away. “Sorcha,” he said. “This place is uncongenial. I tried to rid it of the odour of pig meat.” His nose wrinkled. “Make more space for you to inhabit. I mean you no harm.”
I grabbed my mobile from my coat pocket. I keyed in nine, nine.
“Your mother wants you to come home.”
I stopped. “You know Mum?”
“I have seen her. And heard her. I sensed her concern about you. Her worry sent me.”
“Don’t come any closer.” I ran to the door and fumbled with the chain. “Get out.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Which do you want? I cannot do both.” He put up his hands. “Permit me to explain.”
I turned away from the door. “OK. You’ve got five minutes. Starting … now.” I pushed up my sleeve. No watch. I glanced at the clock. “Now.”
He smiled. “I have been watching you since the moment you were born. I chose you. I am your observer.”
I drew my arms around myself. Into my head flashed an image of an eagle, flying across a blue-yellow sky.
“You intrigued me,” he said. “I had to … reach out. I want to protect you. I want to shield you from sadness. I can no longer remain an observer. My eyes are only for you.”
I shuddered. “I don’t want them. Time’s up.” I jerked my thumb toward the door. “Out. Before I call the police.”
He shook his head. “My people will not take me back. I have broken our one law. We are forbidden from making contact or ever making ourselves known. It affects quantum indeterminacy. That is something you have considered in your work. Watching a subject influences its behaviour.”
“Find yourself a new subject,” I said. “Goodbye.”
“But I do not know how.” He stared into my eyes. I could not look away. His voice softened. “Understand. Sorcha.”
I’d been with Rob for six months, and when we split it felt like my heart had ripped to bits. So … to be apart from all of your people, from everyone you loved? I dragged my gaze from his and tapped my closed lips. “Have you been watching me do … everything?”
He nodded. “All is noteworthy and to be monitored by us. May I remain? Please? Did you not wish for a room-mate?”
I remembered how it felt to be alone. How I could pick and choose what I did, when I did it. But nobody to see, or notice, or care. I took a slow, deep breath. “OK, but just till you work out how to get back.”
He sighed. “Did you not hear me? I do not know how.”
“Don’t give me that. I know there must be a way. But you’ve got to promise that you’ll only appear … er … be, in here. The bathroom is strictly off limits.”
He reached out. No talons. I felt warmth and a tingle as his hand took mine. “Thank you, Sorcha.” The way he said my name made something go thump behind my ribs.
We held hands for half a minute.
“You can let go now, er,” I said. “Actually, what is your name? And if you say ‘you couldn’t pronounce it with your sort of vocal equipment,’ I really will call the police.”
He dropped my hand. “I am unnamed. We have no need for speech, although in observing you, I have grown to love words.”
“I have to call you something,” I said. “That thing you said, before. About looking after me? Think I’ll call you Shield.”
“I’m going to be late back from work tonight,” I told Shield, at the beginning of December. “So don’t worry.”
“You are going to see the lights switched on in town, with your parents,” he said.
“Boring old Sorcha. Same old, same old, that’s me.” I sighed and shut the front door behind me.
As I left work that evening, I realised that Shield could tell what I was going to do before I did it, or he might as well have been able to, my life was so predictable. He’d made me realise what a rut I was in, doing the same thing every Christmas. I expect he’d been there when I was a baby and Mum took me to the lights in my pram. I’d do something different, that he couldn’t second guess.
When I came out of the hairdresser, I noticed the shop across the street. “Sunglass Sentral.” Someone had sprayed lines of white paint across the window, as though they were edged by snow. Sprigs of holly and stuffed robins decorated the display of glasses. I went inside.
As I came through the front door, Shield looked up. “Lovely hair!” He walked over and touched the fine fringe and wisps framing my face. “It suits you.”
“Rob liked long hair,” I said.
“Rob. You have spent the last few weeks speaking of nothing but him. My observation is that he was an egregious, obnoxious, er …” He frowned for a moment. “Yes. Ignoramus. Always trying to make you comply with him.”
I sighed, and headed for the kitchen. “I don’t expect someone like you to understand. When you love someone, you want to please them.”
He ran after me. “Someone like me? You mean, who knows the meaning of the word ‘compromise’? Rob did not.”
“Shut up. You don’t know what it’s like to be in love.”
Shield grabbed my arm. “You think?” he said.
“Look, if you’re going to start on about how your lot are in and out of each other’s hearts and minds, don’t bother.”
He shook his head. His face looked pinched. “I give up. You do not have a clue. And neither did he.”
He stood in silence, gazing at the floor.
“Look, Shield, I’m sorry,” I said. “Christmas truce?”
He sat down. I took a paper bag out of my pocket. “Here’s an early present. Try them.”
Wearing wrap-around, silver mirrored sunglasses, he looked human, or at least, like a human stuck in a 1980s time warp.
I picked up my coat. He sat, looking at me. Or so I supposed, I couldn’t see his eyes. It felt like sitting on the wrong side of a two-way mirror.
A brown feather spiralled down through the air. Shield caught it before it landed. “My people,” he muttered. “They draw near.”
“And so do mine. Come on, or Mum and Dad’ll be off to the lights without us.” We left the flat.
Three days before Christmas, I got out of bed and staggered into the kitchen in search of weapons-grade coffee. Shield followed me.
“We must talk.”
“What is it? I know the place is a mess, but nothing a bit of elbow-grease won’t sort.” I knelt in front of the cupboard under the sink, rummaging among the cloths stiff with polish and the half-empty bottles and spray cans.
“No. I must leave. My people will take me back.”
I stood up and faced him. “I thought you said they wouldn’t.”
“They will, if I go now. I must do a penance. I must remain isolated from my people, until they forgive me. I go now. Or not at all.”
“That’s not fair. Can you ever come back?”
He shook his head. “This has been a once in a lifetime infraction. I can never come again. Anyway, by the time I have finished my penance, you will be long dead.”
“My people are not yours. I do not belong here. I must go to the far west, where the space between your dimension and ours is thin. I must wait until they will let me through. I must wait in the high places, the rare places, where no people live and few visit.”
“I’ll find you. Where is it? What’s it called?”
He shook his head. “I may not tell you. Besides, you do not need me. Your heart is mended.”
He pulled me into his arms. I smelled smouldering roses in his hair. Our noses bumped together as we kissed. I felt that thump behind my ribs again. He turned his face away and stepped back. “Be well,” he said.
He didn’t disappear. He just wasn’t there anymore. A shower of brown feathers fluttered around me. I half saw, half remembered seeing an eagle. I took a feather and hung it on a chain. Wore it next to my skin.
On the morning before Christmas Eve, the doorbell rang. Shield? Perhaps he’s been given early release. But, wouldn’t he just appear? I opened the door. Rob.
“Your Mum gave me your address,” he said. “I told her I had to see you.”
I stood in silence.
He stepped past me and looked round. “Very shabby chic. Very Sorcha. But that clock is one step too kitsch.” He walked over to the camp bed. “Come and sit down.”
I stayed where I was. “Why are you here?”
He came back and put his arms round me. I stood, motionless.
“Sorcha, I was stupid to leave you,” he said into my hair.
I remembered last Christmas. Me and Rob, together. He took my hand and led me back to the camp bed.
Much later, he gave me a squeeze. “It’s great that we’re back together. Those scrawny girls–like cuddling a bicycle. Thought I’d cut myself. You’re different.”
“Girls? How many have you had?”
He shrugged. “That’s in the past. Now, it’s us. But–” he ran his fingers through my hair “–grow this.”
I pushed him away and jumped to my feet. “Get your kit on and sod off out of it. Right out.”
He stood up. I shoved a bundle of clothes at him and flung the front door open.
He pulled his jeans on. “Because of your hair? I knew you were neurotic, Sorc, but I didn’t think you were bloody mental.”
I leaned forward until my face was right up against his. “You just don’t have a clue, you egregious ignoramus.”
He backed away from me. “Look like a dyke, if it’s so important to you. But you’ve made a big mistake. I won’t be giving you another chance.” As he was pulling his sweater over his head I pushed him outside, threw out his shoes, and slammed the door.
I cried for a long time. But when I tried to think of Rob, it was Shield that I saw.
On Christmas Eve, I went to Mum and Dad’s. I sat in the living room. I heard them talking about me, in the kitchen. About how sad I still seemed. “Withdrawn, sort of,” Mum said.
I switched on the TV. A man cut a slit in the stem of a rose bush. “And grafting fuses the tissue of one plant with one of another.” He pushed another stem with a flower into the slit and bound the two together with tape.
Mum and Dad came in and sat down. I changed the channel. The screen showed a landscape of rocks and mountains. “… petrels and guillemots,” the voiceover said. “St Kilda is home to the largest colony of sea birds in western Europe.”
Dad flicked through the pages of the Radio Times.
The commentary went on. “… there is no Saint Kilda. The name might come from the shape of the island itself. From the Old Norse word Skildir, meaning shield. The Sea Eagle–”
“It’s time for the Nine Lessons and Carols.” Dad changed the channel and turned up the volume.
The voice of a boy soprano singing “Once in Royal David’s City” filled the room. I went upstairs. I took the feather off the chain, cut a slit in my arm and pushed the end of the shaft inside. I wound a bandage round it.
In the final hour of daylight, the shadows are long. I no longer eat; the golden light sustains me. I look down at the waves beating below, expecting to see the cliffs of St Kilda erode, dissolve, bob away into the Atlantic. I unwind the bandage. The feather is no longer there. Just a dent under my skin. Now we are both part of a greater whole.
I look to the west. Every day I see farther. I lift my head. The sea gleams cold in the distance, rippling over shallow sand banks, blue-yellow and red-green. A curtain of rain drifts across it. “Skildir,” I call. “Shield. I need you.” The air shivers, carrying my voice away.
My feet slip on the pebbles, sending a shower skittering over the rim. Once, he reached out. He wanted to protect me. He watches. He will save me.
I step over the edge.
Sorcha Bell is, or maybe was, a quantum physicist. That’s how she described herself, in the dictaphone cassette tape I found on a deserted cliff top on uninhabited St Kilda. I played it back on the machine I’d brought to log details of sea birds. The crew of the boat that took me back to the mainland remembered taking a young woman passenger to the island. They said there’d been no recent reports of deaths by falling or drowning. I saw two Sea Eagles, high above the ocean. It’s odd, because they don’t usually fly in pairs.
Judith Field lives in London, UK. She is the daughter of writers, and learned how to agonise over fiction submissions at her mother’s (and father’s) knee. She’s a pharmacist working in emergency medicine, a medical writer, editor, and indexer. She started writing in 2009. She mainly writes speculative fiction, a welcome antidote from the world she lives in. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications in the USA, UK, and Australia. When she’s not working or writing, she studies English, knits, sings, and swims, not always at the same time. She blogs at Luna Station Quarterly.
Shannon’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://shannonlegler.
“The Observer’s Paradox” is Copyright 2017 Judith Field
Art accompanying story is Copyright 2017 Shannon Legler