(Author note: this is an excerpt of a story available in full on Wattpad! Find me @jordynsaelor there!)

I walk for two days and the trail ends. Sparse hills have given way to barren flatness, and I glance at the afternoon sun for proof that I am going west. I glance at the sacks in my hand--one half full, one very full. The third I’ve tied as a burlap wrap around the top of Skeleton Cook’s skull, where the bird sits sometimes when she tires of perching on his arms. Or where she flutters to, after she has cometed into the ground, after she has wheeled across the sky, after she has erupted in a storm of jet feathers.

The end of a trail is a good place to rest. I sit on the scrubby grass and unknot the half-empty sack, stare at the collection of deep red vegetables and rust red mushrooms and brown-red meat and pale bottles of water. I am not hungry. I glance at the bird, who’s perched on Skeleton Cook’s arm, but she is asleep. Eyes closed, breathing even, blood like lazy snowflakes.

I knot the sack. I shut my eyes, imagine the breeze a solid color, cyan, floating around us, soft like ribbons.

Skeleton Cook clanks, and I open my eyes. I stand up. I pick up both sacks. I stare at the end of the dirt trail, unevenly speckled with stones. I tilt my head up to the afternoon sun. We keep walking west.

I walk until the sun touches the edge of the land, and walk some more until the land fades into glistening water, eating up the dark red sun slice. There I stop. Skeleton Cook stops. The royal avian erupts in a storm of feathers from Skeleton Cook’s head, cawing. I sit on a rock and pull out the tuktu meat. I place it on a different rock. I turn my back as she plummets to the ground, soil splitting. I shield my eyes from the cloud of dust and hold my breath until it fades. The bird caws, claws tap on a rock, ripping dried meat. I stand and walk away, towards the ocean eating up the sun.

The grass gives way to rocks and a beach of round, black stones. The waves rush like choruses of whispers. I crouch, scrape my boots over the stones, leave streaks of dirt. I try to picture this place in winter, when the ocean is frozen over and the beach is only a streak of color between land and unending sheets of ice. Assuming the black beach isn’t covered with snow.

Skeleton Cook clanks behind me, and judging from the position of his arms the bird must be perched there. I don’t turn to look at them. If the bird plummeted to an ocean covered with ice, would she drown in the ocean or find her way back up?

My stomach growls, so I stand. I walk up the beach, boots crunching and then treading through grass. I haven’t tried either of the red vegetables yet, because I don’t know what to do with the skin. Maybe Skeleton Cook could peel it with his teeth.

I toss and turn all night, wrapped in the cloak, Skeleton Cook a formless huddle with the bird resting in his rib cage. I think she is peeping in her sleep. I wonder what royal avians, days old, dream about. It’s hard to remember she is only days old.

I stare at the stars, left-over bitterness of red vegetables twisting my tongue. The stars stare back. I search out the eyes of the archer, Anuenu, who hunts tuktu, until I remember I can’t see those during the summer. It is summer, I remind myself. Nearly the solstice. Well, close to the week before the week around the solstice when the sun doesn’t set. I turn from staring at the stars to staring at the horizon; I imagine tinges of red and violet creep into the edge’s black.

One of Aukai’s star people was Palili, brain, a seabird with black feathers and a buttercup beak. Palili wanted to dive to the bottom of the ocean. Wainini, the turquoise whale, warned Palili that if they dove too deep they would not be able to make it back. Palili was foolish and ignored the turquoise whale, and tried anyway, kicking and flapping their wings until all the air inside their body grew spent. But after they died they kept sinking, eventually settling at the mouth of a cave with a sea monster. What name did Aukai call the tentacled creature? Or did it not have one? Was that because the creature was so ugly it didn’t deserve a name?

Anyway, the dead Palili’s beautiful beak convinced the sea monster they could be loved, so they swam to the surface and met Wainini. It was at that point you pointed out how ridiculous this story was.

Aukai laughed, and he forgot to explain half of the next part. Apparently Wainini and the sea monster used to fight a whole bunch before the sea monster disappeared to the bottom of the ocean. Or maybe they used to be lovers? Or maybe Aukai did explain and you later forgot what actually happened. But anyway, Palili made it to the stars because their death reunited these old enemies who decided to be friends again.

“What a lame story,” you muttered. “Besides, those stars look nothing like a bird.”

“Sure they do,” Aukai sounded like he was grinning. His silhouetted arm pointed, tracing outlines. “There’s two wings, and all of the stars in the curve are yellow.”

You squinted, rubbing grass stems between your palms, shreds fluttering to your stomach. “What’s the difference between yellow and white?”

He poked your shoulder. “Do I actually need to answer that?”

“It’s a really pale yellow!” you exclaimed, throwing grass at him.

“Maybe Palili’s beak was a very pale yellow.”

“Is buttercup color a very pale yellow?”

“A buttercup, I think, is a cup that holds butter. And butter is a pale yellow. So Palili’s beak might be a very pale yellow.”

“Maybe Palili is a made up story,” you rolled to face him, plucking more grass to launch at his face. “Same with buttercups.”

“Maybe you’re a made up story,” he shot back, swatting your hand away. You tried blowing grass stems as they were swept from your hand but somehow entirely missed. Your breath merely puffed Aukai’s hair from his forehead. 

You lowered your arm. “Why do you have so many star people anyway?”

His smile glittered with the stars’ reflection. “There’s not a whole lot to do on a ship in the middle of the night except make up stories.”

“You could try sleeping,” you muttered.

“Somebody had to be awake at night. To steer the ship and stuff.” He reached behind his head and you realized too late he was throwing grass at you. You thought it scattered across your shirt but that wasn’t important because you were sitting up to hurl more grass at him. 

Cue: grass fight. By some unspoken rule neither of you were allowed to stand up, which meant the grass gathered like a ruined nest in your lap. By some unspoken rule that grass had to stay there, like the taller the pile the worse of a player you were. You were both pretty excellent players by that standard. “This isn’t fair,” Aukai exclaimed, vainly ducking one of your throws. “All I’ve got is rock patches!”

“And I have a sharp rock poking me in the leg!”

He glared at you, except his lips kept twitching which rather ruined the effect. You plucked a stem of grass and threw it at his face. He blew it away. 

“Want to go inside?” you asked, yawning.

He swept a hand through his hair and grass fluttered from his face. “Race you?”

You leapt from the ground in a shower of discarded grass, stumbling down the hillside as Aukai yelped in surprise.

***

Continued in part 2!