An essay by Ellan Vannin, as provided by Arnout Brokking
Art by Luke Spooner
On the day of the race I arrive at the track early, the area already filled with frantic activity.
Down by the kraals, the animal handlers scurry about with oils and ointments and make last minute adjustments to saddle straps and hackamores.
A long line of spectators has begun the trek up the mountain pass in search of a good spot. From down below in camp, I can see them climbing the rocks like one gargantuan snake.
The riders are gathered in the medical tent for examination. All but one. Martin Grimsby is nowhere to be found. If he is not here within the hour, he will not be allowed to start.
Once every year, the entire CockatRace community descends upon the Isle of Monapia to test itself against the slopes of Kepler’s Peak.
It is a spectacle like no other and has been the pinnacle of the sport for over a hundred years. But the mountain is unforgiving. Since the first time it was run, two hundred and fifty-two riders have left their lives on the tarmac.
In the coming ten days, I have the opportunity to follow Martin Grimsby, one of the race’s fiercest competitors, as he prepares to take on the mountain.
I am excited to figure out what draws him to the race.
“It’s in my blood,” he tells me when I meet him at his ranch, “Growing up, when we got in trouble, the father of the day made us clean out the cockatrice pens. That’s where it started. Ran my first race when I was thirteen.”
He smiles at the recollection. His unfiled tusks gleam in the suns’ glare.
“Lost her in a sweeping left hander, she took me on a low side slide. Had to pry gravel out of my ass for weeks. But I loved it and haven’t looked back. Never cared for anything else in my life. Not for the farm, nor girls … or boys for that matter. Just don’t do it for me like them birds do.”
There’s an easy charm to Grimsby. He speaks fast, in half sentences, with the infectious enthusiasm of a child. It’s not hard to see why he’s a fan favorite.
He has never won, but his fans think he’s due. “Just had bad luck,” he says. But I’ve heard different.
Experts claim Grimsby is an anachronism, the last remaining specimen of an extinct type of daredevil, a relic from a wilder, uncivilized past, gladly left behind by society.
His chances of winning without a team are slim. Graton Racing, backed by traders in spices and coffee, has won the last four events with three different riders.
“The big teams,” he says as he walks me to the stables, “they don’t stand in the muck and the shit to raise them birds, like they used to. It don’t mean anything to them.”
He opens the door, and I follow him inside. The scent of sulfur and sweat hangs heavy in the air. There’s a ruffling of feathers and a flickering of scales as a large animal paces the length of a box stall to our right.
“There’s no need to be scared,” Grimsby says, “She’s a good girl.”
The good girl is called Bonfire and will be his mount at the race this year.
“We race the animals blind, so they have nothing to go on but what you tell them. There has to be respect, trust.”
The cockatrices Grimsby rides are from a small, local breeding farm run by friends of the family.
“They still do it the old ways there. Scoop the eyes out when they’re young, don’t hurt them much when you get them straight out of the egg and they’re still all slimy and soft. They’re still developing their nervous system, I think.”
Bonfire is different. After she was pushed out of the nest by her mother, Grimsby raised the creature on his own. And left her her eyesight.
“An extra bit of spark in that one,” Grimsby says and pushes a dried rabbit through the bars. Bonfire greets it with an excited screech.
There has been an official complaint lodged against Bonfire, for whom he has designed a special cap. Grimsby blames Graton Racing for fearmongering.
“It got cleared by the Federation, didn’t it? Then shut your gob and race,” he says.
I wonder if there is more to their rivalry than sports.
The next morning, I travel to Milshun Kinz, where Team Graton operates a state-of-the-art facility. I am curious to meet with the “enemy.”
The contrast between Grimsby’s rural hideout and Team Graton’s towers of glass couldn’t be greater. It’s as if I’ve traveled fifty years in time.
At the front gate I am welcomed by a golem, wearing a şalvar and caftan lined with golden thread. It introduces itself as Metjen and hands me a visitor’s card. The runes inscribed on the plastic surface allow access to the facility for one day.
He denies lodging the complaint and assures me that Team Graton is too focused on their own program to worry about Bonfire.
He escorts me to the scientific research center, a cathedral of silicate glass and white marble. There’s an airlock at the entry, and before I can go in, I have to put on a hazmat suit.
The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as the door closes and the thaumaturgic pressure drops. Metjen is waiting for me on the other side.
From behind double-glazed windows, I can see the gene-sculptors bent over Petri dishes and microscopes to create a new generation of prize-winning cockatrices. Sightless, sleek running machines.
There’s a phlegmatic arrogance about Team Graton. Their sterile approach to the race unsettles me, and I find myself missing the muck and mud of the ranch. I can’t wait to go back north.
Back at the ranch, Grimsby is waiting. He’s found out about my visit to Milshun Kinz, and he is furious. I have clearly underestimated how deep the rift goes. And although I try to reason with him, he sends me packing.
Back at the hotel, I try to make sense of it all. I’d started this journey as an impartial observer, but my time at the ranch changed that. I feel as if I have betrayed Martin.
There’s still no answer when I try to contact Grimsby. The race is only six days away, and I worry about the article. I worry about Martin too. To understand why he’s left me out in the cold, I travel to Adenow.
Hidden deep in the forest valley lies the convent that is the home of his birth-mother. Jayne. Despite the misgivings of the Mother Superior, she agrees to talk to me.
We meet in one of the smaller, simple cabins circling the central tree. Now in her fifties, Jayne’s a striking figure.
They share the same prominent nose, the same wide, open face. I see the resemblance in the way she sets her jaw when I say something she does not agree with, and how she rushes her words, as if they’re piping hot in her mouth.
But there are differences too. Most noticeably in her eyes. Whereas Martin’s burn a feverish, bright blue, Jayne’s are pools of chocolate. They radiate calm. Here, in the constant cycle of forest life, she looks like a person who has found her place.
She offers me acorn tea. She knows why I’m here.
“If you are looking to make this a story of success, you will fail.”
I ask her why she thinks Martin has no chance of winning. She laughs.
“Of course he can win, but he is not looking to win.”
I can sense there’s more to it than that, but Jayne seems unwilling to say more at this time.
Like Martin, she is easy to be around, and I let the conversation wander. We talk about life at the convent, about her fears for Martin and about their past.
Jayne remembers her time on the Grimsby farm with mixed emotions. “During the good times, it was paradise. We worked together, fathers and mothers alike. But it only takes one to piss in the soup. And …” She is silent for a while, skipping over things too painful to say out loud.
“When I got out of hospital, I could not return. He was only a young boy at the time. Nine years old. I had to let him go.”
Her voice is thick with remorse, and I reconsider what I thought I’ve read in the depths of her eyes.
“The others never ask about it. They only want to know about Martin. To turn him into some hero he’s not, or to make fun of him. You won’t make fun of him, will you?”
I assure her that I will not. That I care about the boy she had to leave and the man he has become. That seems to comfort her. When I tell her about our fight, she nods.
“He’ll be back,” she says.
When I get back to the hotel there’s a telegram from Martin waiting for me. SORRY, it says, OVERREACTED. IT’S COMPLEX.
Today we leave for Kepler’s Peak. I follow Martin around as he lowers the cage that holds Bonfire into the hull of his two-master. He calls out to the blindfolded cockatrice and feeds her strips of bacon.
She is a magnificent creature, seventeen hands high. At top speed, her head stretched down to the ground, and her long neck, sleek with feathers, outstretched, balancing on the edge of gravity, she’ll reach one hundred and fifty kilometers an hour.
The membranous skin of her two small wings allows her to glide over the crevasses on the course. She also uses them for sudden changes of direction, like sails on a ship. But for now, Bonfire is locked in a cage with straw, a bucket of water, and a large cuttlebone.
She seems restless, pacing along the bars, to and fro.
“She don’t like traveling much,” Grimsby says, “Bit like her daddy, eh. Best we’re out there soon.”
The stress weighs on him. When I bring up my conversation with his birth-mother, he is stand-offish.
“She once asked me when I was going to settle down, I said, ma, you can’t race a house.”
He looks old, huddled deep in the folds of his coat, and tired. By the time the ship reaches the Isle of Monapia, the silence on board is almost sullen.
Still, I am awestruck. The island is teeming with people. It heaves and squirms like a termite mound. An electric expectation hangs in the air, crackling between the murmur of the crowd, and dancing in the looks they give the road.
“Welcome to the mountain,” he says with a wry smile.
In the days leading up to the race, every competitor gets two practice runs. The time of their fastest run determines their starting position on Decaday.
Manon Rowland is the first to take her place on the starting straight. She keeps her eyes fixed on the first braking point in the distance and her breathing steady, as the marshal counts down the seconds. Her cockatrice is impatient, ready to roar.
It waves its feathered head from left to right, compensating for the loss of sight by rudimentary echolocation. Its wattles swing in the cold morning air and the vermilion scales on its rump glisten with wolf’s claw oil, which stimulates the blood circulation.
“Three,” the marshal says. The noise of spectators, other riders and handlers around me quiets down. “Two.” Silence has descended over Kepler’s Peak. “One.”
It’s a magical moment, like the moment the fireworks announce a new year. One moment something isn’t, and the next it is. It provokes a primal response in all of us. The hairs on my arms feel charged with a thousand volts.
The bird screeches, kicks up dust, and sprints off in the distance.
Kepler’s Peak has begun.
As one by one the others start their run, I find Grimsby lounging outside his tent. He is wearing his black olive gambeson, the top two leather straps undone. His sallet, a protective helmet covered with dark velvet and decorated with a repousse gilt copper edging and crest, lies on the ground between his feet.
He has his eyes closed. I wonder if he’s fallen asleep and consider waking him up. Then his eyes flutter open.
“Sorry I didn’t notice you,” he apologizes, “I always run the track in me head before I set out. It’s like a ritual thing. Bang! Off at the start, then down Blackgates, turn up at Eastwood Corner, be careful at The Crannies, then all the way up to Snowfell, and back down again, through Balsdewell. That’s a scary one, that one. We call it Balls-to-the-wall.”
One trip takes about seventeen minutes. “Your heart is in your mouth the whole way. You have to balance on the edge. That’s where the magic is.”
When it’s Martin’s turn and I hurry to a video-feed, I get distracted by a crowd outside the domed pavilion of Team Graton. One of their riders, Sam Berger, is holding a press conference.
There’s a few beads of sweat on his brow, but otherwise his appearance and his ivory-white gambeson are spotless. He has just beaten his teammate Régis Latours for the fastest time of the day and looks as if he’s done no more than pick up his mail.
One journalist, new to the mountain, asks which competitors he is most scared of. Berger smiles. It’s an unpleasant smile, a thin line that cuts through the blank canvas of his face.
“I don’t have time for fear,” he says.
There’s a small chuckle at my side. Régis, Team Graton’s other driver, has joined me. He’s a small, solemn man in his thirties. His thinning hair cut short, his gaunt face looks like a razor blade. He asks me if I think they’re crazy. I take a moment to consider the question, then tell him I’m not sure.
“We’re all screwballs,” he says. It’s a statement without humor. A fact. Not up for discussion. “But calculated screwballs. To win, you have to make it to the line first. That’s the only trick. Get the best beast, stay focused, make sure you get to the finish, and get there fast.”
When I ask him about the love of the sport, Latours seems dismissive.
“Love ain’t nothing if you don’t win,” he says. “Don’t let your heart get in the way of your head. The great Pat Breschi died on the mountain. Two days later her son, Calder, won the race. I was there, and it was incredible. What good would grieving have done? It wouldn’t bring his mother back, so he did the next best thing and won the race.”
Before I leave, my eyes cross those of the man who owns the team, Iven Graton. There is something about the intensity of his gaze, azure embers in a face marked by a scar along his cheekbone, that feels frighteningly familiar.
I get to the finish just in time to catch Martin’s return. It’s a disappointing result. He’s only seventh fastest.
As he dismounts and walks Bonfire to the kraal for her rub-down, he ignores me. Grimsby is in no mood to talk. I do not press him and adjourn to my own tent. At this point, it seems as if Team Graton will gain another easy victory.
Night falls, and around me, the cacophony of the day dies down to a low murmur.
I feel restless. Grimsby has not returned from the kraal. I am unsure what to do. When there’s still no sign of Grimsby two hours later, I make my way down to the animal enclosures.
Bonfire’s paddock is near the end of the kraal, close to where the field gives way to the cliff and the water of the ocean.
I find him leaning against the fence, handing Bonfire strips of food through the steel wires.
He seems small, and lonely, nothing like the man on the posters in kids’ rooms. Nothing like the larrikin who greeted me at his ranch not a week ago. I sit down next him.
“D’you think I’m a joke?” he asks.
I say I don’t.
“I could’ve won plenty, you know, if I wanted.”
I say sure.
“If I sold my soul to that bastard, I would.”
There’s a tremble in his voice. A mix of exhaustion and emotion.
Let’s go back, I say.
He shakes his head. “It’s no use. I’m useless.”
Let’s go back.
At breakfast, Grimsby seems his jovial, cocky self again. He breaks up a baguette for us, hands out the pieces while he talks to a group of spectators. They laugh at his quips and thank him for taking the time.
As I watch him smiling with these strangers, I can’t help but think about our friendship. And how, as we’ve gotten closer, I have come to distinguish between two different personae. One real, one racer.
Just before he leaves for his final practice run, as he pulls the sallet over his head, he winks at me.
“Life’s a comedy in long shot,” he says. “Put that in your piece.”
I wait for his intermediate times. Five seconds down on Régis Latours at the Crannies, only two at Snowfell. At the finish line, the difference between the two cockatrices is less than half a second.
When he returns, he’s wearing a smile as wide as the Austronesian Ocean.
“Oh, she was really enjoying herself today,” he says, strutting down the paddock. “It was glorious.”
More people come by the tent, and Grimsby is the talk of the camp. For half an hour. Then reports of a crash at Blackgates trickle in. The atmosphere changes in an instant.
There’s an uneasy silence, and people speak in hushed voices. First there’s just a name.
Berger. It’s bad.
Then slowly, the details make their way through the crowd. “Clipped the Devil’s Toe” they say. “Nothing he could do.” Which is ominously followed by “nothing they could do.”
It takes over an hour before we get the official news. It’s clinical, matter of fact: Sam Berger had an accident between Blackgates and Eastwood Corner. All efforts to resuscitate him proved fruitless. He died doing what he loved. Our condolences go out to his family and friends.
The facts are left behind on the mountain. No one needs to know that Berger was almost cut in half by the impact of his crash. That the only thing the emergency response team could do was pick up the bits. There is no place at Kepler’s Peak for horror; here people die doing what they love.
The accident has rattled me. Is it really worth the risk? I ask Grimsby, after the dust has settled.
He takes a moment to answer, and it’s as if I see the defenses rise in his eyes. When he speaks, it’s the fake Grimsby that answers. The one the public sees, not the one I sat with last night.
“I’m not an adrenaline junkie or anything like that,” he says. “I don’t go out there to be hurt. But when you’re close to that edge, there’s nothing else out there that feels like that. You’re always risking your neck, in a way. That’s life, innit? I want to risk my neck for something I love.” He taps the side of his nose. “If it were easy, everybody’d be doing it.”
Grimsby is old school like that.
Later in the day, I bump into Ana Bárron, recently retired, and three times winner of the Peak. She seems more honest.
“When we talk about the big one, we lie. We all do. We say we know the risks and accept that they are part of the sport, but it’s a charade. We never really stop to think about the big one for too long, we can’t. We would lose our nerve. We just hold our breath, clench our butts, and hope it never comes. It’s the only way to do it. Somehow, we all think it won’t ever be us. Until one day it is. You don’t get old on a cockatrice and stay fast, you either slow down, or you die. That’s just how it works.”
Bárron says she still feels the pull of the mountain.
“Every day. Like giving up stogies.”
She shows me a photograph of her pack on holiday. “There’s more to life than getting to the finish fast.”
I’ve come to realize that it’s something that’s easily forgotten in the shadow of Kepler’s Peak.
Race day. And the clock is ticking. Grimsby has less than an hour to get his medical clearance. When I ask the other riders if they’ve seen him, they shrug.
I hurry to his tent and find it empty. His helmet lies abandoned underneath the guy lines. I pick up the sallet and run across the paddock toward the kraal.
Traversing the sea of handlers, spectators, and VIPs is like zigzagging through an oversized ant heap.
At the tents of Team Graton, I pause. One half of the complex is a hive of activity. Oils are prepared, Régis’ gambeson is laid out for him, there are two waif-like creatures shining up his race number with their phosphorescent spit, vendors are selling merchandise–caps and clothes, statuettes, the works. The other half is empty.
There’s nothing left of Sam Berger’s crew. There’s no evidence he was ever even there. The other team members, the organization, the spectators, they go on and pretend as if nothing has happened. No one sees the empty space. They blank it out. It’s an unspace that does not exist in their world.
Bonfire is still in her paddock, but one of the handlers tells me he’s seen Grimsby walking out on the track.
I find him down by Eastwood Corner. Some of the crowd veer in his direction, perhaps to ask for an autograph, but when they get close, they turn away again, resume whatever conversation they were having and head farther up the peak.
Martin is crouched next to a sharp rock that sticks out about twenty centimeters from the road.
“The Devil’s Toe,” he says without looking up at me. “Sharp as a razor blade. You hit it, cut the bird’s talons, and you don’t get a say any more in where you end up.”
“You don’t have to do it, you know,” I say, getting down on my haunches next to him.
He runs his finger along the thin edge of the rock. There’s a slight discoloration where the stone has soaked up the cockatrice blood.
“Sure I do,” he says.
We sit by the site of the accident for a while. There are birds around us singing, kids play tag in between the trees that cost Berger his life, an elderly man wheezes as he walks past us. I wonder how often he has made the journey. How many places like this he has seen or unseen.
After the old man has turned the corner, Grimsby sighs. He makes the sign of the All-Mother and rises. There’s a smile on his face again. It’s the mask he wears when the game is on.
“Better hurry, don’t want to miss the window.”
He doesn’t. Two minutes before the examinations close, Martin Grimsby is deemed fit to race.
One by one, with ten-second intervals, the cockatrices leave the starting line and speed off up the road. They go from a standing start to a bright flash of color within seconds, spurred on by the deafening cry of thousands of fans.
Bonfire is nervous. She trots back and forth in the holding area, breathing small columns of smoke. Grimsby tries to calm her down, but it’s no use. He looks almost as tense as she does. His jaw is set, and beneath the rim of the helmet, his eyes are fixed on the mountain.
Grimsby and Latours are the last two to head out. When they have left, I head toward the press area. The crowded tent is abuzz with excitement. The first intermediate times are already in, and Latours and Grimsby are in a class of their own.
Régis has set the fastest time ever recorded down Blackgates, but Martin is only one second behind him. At Eastwood, the roles are reversed, and the crowd cheers. It is a fight for the ages.
At The Crannies, a tricky, twisting section of the track, Grimsby has doubled his advantage to two seconds.
The gathered journalists are on the edge of their seats, shouting at the screens. Their fervor makes me claustrophobic, and I feel sick. I leave the tent behind in search of a quiet spot.
My feet drag me back through the paddock, and when I look up, I find myself outside Berger’s tent. A monitor without an audience relays the times. There’s a table with a couple of chairs, all unoccupied. I hesitate. No one seems to notice me.
At Snowfell, the gap is back to one-and-a-half seconds, but now the track straightens out to the advantage of Latours. I watch the two riders dip and rise, twist and turn, their heads mere centimeters from the foliage. It is as beautiful as it is senseless.
Next up is Baldeswell. Balls-to-the-wall. In the end, no one knows exactly what happens. Maybe he is just going too fast.
As Grimsby hits the apex of the corner and crests the rise that has shielded him from view, Bonfire is already out of shape. Her claws rake the gravel, frantically searching for grip, kicking up dust and stone. Her head is dipping down toward the ridge of the mountain, and she is shrieking like a banshee.
Martin is on her back, leaning into the turn hard, desperate to make it to the next stretch of road, to avoid the inevitable. Beast and man seem to be caught in time, unwilling to bend to the rules of physics. Spectators scatter.
In camp, everyone holds their breath. Wills him to make it by force of mind, but of course he doesn’t.
They go down in unison, hit the gravel, and bounce along like a stone skipping on water. Please stay a lowside, I pray. But Bonfire has other ideas. Somehow, she manages to stretch out her wings between two impacts. The membranes between the thin bones catch wind, and the cockatrice rights herself with a triumphant cry.
A cheer rises, but it’s too late. The bird has run out of road. They plunge over the edge.
When the rescue services get to the scene, Bonfire is gone. Lost in a crevasse or swept away by the river in the gorge. Martin Grimsby’s broken body lies face down on a ledge about thirty meters down the hill, like a discarded scarecrow.
The bones in his legs have twisted and cracked. There’s a growing pool of blood next to his head, trickling over the side of the ledge into the abyss beneath.
It takes the emergency team forty-eight minutes to stabilize him, secure him in a harness, winch him out of the ravine, and put him on an airship. He wakes up on the way to hospital, but doctors put him into a thaumaturgically induced coma to aid his treatment.
I can’t tell you how I got to the hospital. I simply don’t remember. It’s all a blur, from watching him fall to listening to the doctor go over his injuries: multiple fractures to his femurs, a broken kneecap, some chipped vertebrae, four cracked ribs, and a punctured lung.
“He’s lucky,” the woman says. “That ledge saved his life.”
I look down upon the man, who over the last couple of days I’ve come to see as a friend. He looks fragile tucked underneath the sheets, his face the color of chalk. A machine beeps the rhythm of his heartbeat.
I realize that as different as it is to the clamor of the race, this silent room, the pungent smell of ether, and the empty hospital corridors are as much a part of the mountain as its wooded slopes. It’s the part everyone refuses to see.
It’s almost night when Martin Grimsby opens his eyes. They are bloodshot and bruised, but it’s good to see that blue again.
He licks his lips, his mouth dry; when he speaks, I have to lean over him to hear his words.
“Where’s my sallet?” he asks.
I say nothing.
Grimsby groans, tries to right himself.
“Where’s Bonfire?” he croaks, “Get me back on. We’ve got to make it.”
I help him back onto his pillow.
“It’s okay,” I say, “Your mum’s on her way.”
Somewhere close by, Régis Latours lifts the winner’s cup for the second time in his career. Is he happy? I don’t know. Some come here to win; for others, I’ve learned, it’s an obsession.
Love has many names and many faces, we look for it in many places. Ugly and cruel the Peak may be, they love it, even though it kills them. You can think them mad, but no one ever said love and madness were mutually exclusive.
The camp followers are already tearing down the tents, and as night falls, the curtain falls on the weekend. The worshipers leave, trickle back to their homes like water back to the sea. At last, the forest on Kepler’s Peak is quiet once more.
Silent, but for the rustle of its creatures, the chirping of the birds, and the lone screech of a cockatrice.
Bonfire … still trying to make the turn.
Second son in a family of five, Ellan Vannin neither showed the athletic prowess of his sisters, nor the acumen of his elder brother for marrying into a wealthy poly-cule. Instead, bereft of other options, he turned to journalism. “The Edge of Gravity” is his first foray into the fascinating world of cockatrice racing.
Arnout Brokking (1983) is a Dutch writer of SF, fantasy and horror fiction. Arnout believes in the power of story to amaze and inspire, to terrify and delight, and to teach and question. Stories shape both our world and ourselves. He lives in the Netherlands together with his beloved Camilla and Olga and their three children.
Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.
“The Edge of Gravity” is © 2019 Arnout Brokking
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Luke Spooner