Miranda took a deep breath to steady herself. She had to stop the pounding in her ears so she could hear what was on the other side. The knock came again, this time a faster rap, rap, rap. Xipilli let out a screech of impatience. A squeal of fear emanated from the other side of the door, followed by the sound of someone stumbling backward.
The woman pulled open the door to the sound of her visitor’s footfalls running down the path. “No. Wait!”
The footfalls stopped, but Miranda could still hear fast, panicked breathing from about three yards down the dirt path. She scanned the area in front of her, looking for any change in the pattern of the light, willing her eyes to work. “Hello? Are you still there?”
“What was that noise?” It sounded like a little girl was addressing her. Miranda hesitated before adjusting her gaze down a few feet. A thin shadow swayed nervously back and forth near the end of the path. The child couldn’t be more than ten years old; possibly even younger. She had to have been born after the plague had decimated the population.
Questions whirled through Miranda’s head. Where did this child come from? Was she alone? Where was she going? Why had she knocked on a stranger’s door?
Miranda took a deep breath. It wouldn’t be right to subject the poor child to an interrogation; best to start out simple and direct. “That was my pet, Xipilli. I’m Miranda. Who are you?”
“Fern,” the girl replied, scuffing her feet in the dirt.
The older woman’s mind still reeled with questions. She clamped down on her excitement and her confusion. The little girl was already scared and Miranda didn’t want to frighten her further. “Well, it is awfully nice to meet you, Fern. Why did you knock on my door today?”
Miranda forced herself to wait patiently for the child to answer. There was a gulping sound as Fern choked back on her fear before responding. “My uncle fell off the trail. I can’t get to him.” Her voice crackled with emotion. “I don’t know what to do.” Xipilli let out another screech from inside the cabin. “What kind of pet is that?”
“He’s a harpy eagle. He helps me by hunting food. He’s getting nervous—we don’t have many visitors.” Would the child be more frightened by the sound or sight of Xipilli? He would probably seem even larger and more threatening if viewed in her small cabin. Miranda wasn’t sure how she was going to help the little girl find her uncle, but she couldn’t just leave her. “Wait here. I need to get Xipilli’s glove. He comes in handy on occasion.” She turned and made her way to the counter where she’d stored her hawking gloves. Xipilli obediently stepped up on the gloved arm that his mistress offered.
Fern gasped as Miranda crossed the threshold with Xipilli on her arm. “I’ve never seen a bird that big! Is it safe?”
A smile played at the edges of Miranda’s lips. The child was brave enough not to run but smart enough to be cautious. That was good. “Safe enough when he’s with me. I don’t recommend trying to pet him though.”
Fern was silent for a few moments. Miranda assumed she was processing the size of the predatory bird before speaking again. “Will he help find my uncle?”
“Oh honey, I don’t know,” Miranda replied. “Xipilli’s a great hunter, but he can’t track people like a dog does. It can’t hurt to have him along for protection while we look for your uncle, though. Can you lead me to where he fell?”
“This way, come on!” Fern’s footfalls began to move away quickly as she jogged down the path. Unsurprisingly, the little girl hadn’t noticed that Miranda was blind.
“Fern, wait!” The footsteps stopped, and Miranda heard the little girl turn around.
“What’s wrong?” Fern asked.
“I can’t see to follow you that way. I’m blind. Can you take my hand and lead me there?” The rocks crunched under Fern’s feet as she walked back to take Miranda’s free hand. Fern’s hand was small and warm. Miranda hadn’t realized how much she had missed the casual touch of another human.
“Oh right. That’s how come your clothes don’t match. My sister is blind too. It’s hard for her but she helps me lots. Sometimes I help her match her clothes. Let’s find Uncle Marcos. I’m worried about him.” Fern continued chattering as she led Miranda down the path. She was an expert guide, even if she was moving faster than Miranda was used to. “My mother and my sister left a few weeks ago for a place called Odessa. There’s a group of science people who have made a safe place to live near Florida. My parents had heard there were people to help get us from Odessa to Florida, but they wanted to make sure it was safe for me. In some places, kids are getting stolen!”
Miranda latched on to the word kids. Perhaps Fern was not an anomaly. She would have to get more information about the village from the child once the crisis was past. It might be helpful to know more about who Fern was traveling with, however.
“Your uncle was taking you to Odessa then? All alone?” Xipilli was getting heavy so Miranda released him to fly above as they walked.
“There was a group of us kids from the village. Uncle Marcos and me got separated from Aunt Karen and Uncle Keegan. Uncle Marcos said we would see them in Odessa, but then he fell down.” By the sound of the footfalls on the path in front of her, the child had resorted to skipping. It occurred to Miranda that she may have overestimated the little girl’s age by several years.
“How old are you, honey?”
“I just turned eight last month. I got cake and ice cream.”
Miranda was getting a little disoriented this far away from the house. She hadn’t had time to count her steps as she followed Fern, and she didn’t want to get lost in the wilderness with an eight-year-old. She needed to get her bearings
“Is it much farther, Fern?”
“I don’t think so.” The child sounded dubious. Was this a case of the blind leading the blind?
“Are you sure we are going the right direction, Fern?”
“I’m pretty sure, but I was scared, and I was running. I remember the waterfall over there and the big dead tree ahead of us.” That would be the old oak that had been struck by lightning a few years back. That information gave the blind woman a rough idea of where they were. There should be plenty of stout branches nearby if they needed to fashion a splint or a stretcher. Should she gather some now?
“Fern, do you remember how far past the tree you were?”
“Not far. Uncle Marcos was going to fish off the bridge for lunch, but he fell over the edge while he was getting ready.”
Miranda sighed in relief. She could find her way back to the cabin from the bridge if she needed to, and there would be plenty of branches there. She wasn’t feeling as hopeful about Uncle Marcos. The cliffs by the bridge were steep and rocky. If he had landed on the river banks, he would have to deal with the bears that hunted near the trees, and huge freshwater crocodiles had become a greater threat near the rivers in the last few years. If he’d landed on a rocky shelf he may have to contend with the bald eagles that frequently hunted there.
Fern stopped suddenly. “It was here. Well, right over there, where the bush is all crushed up.”
The pungent aroma of the recently fractured evergreens led Miranda to the spot the girl described. She got down on her hands and knees, moving carefully towards the edge of the cliffs. “Fern, I need you to stay where you are, well away from the edge. Ok?”
Fern certainly was an obedient child. Miranda guessed that being obedient and brave had contributed greatly to her survival thus far.
She peered over the edge out of habit, but all she could see was vague, swaying shadows in green and blue. Shutting her eyes didn’t fully block out the light the way it used to, so the blur of green and blue was still present, but at least it wasn’t swaying distractingly.
She concentrated on her hearing instead. Something was breathing down there, but the sound was wet and irregular. If that was Fern’s uncle, he didn’t sound good. Perhaps he could hear her? “Marcos?”
“Is someone there?” The voice was weak and raspy, and at least a dozen feet below them. “Is Fern with you?”
“Yes, Uncle.” Fern’s voice thickened a bit as she held back tears. “I found someone to help. I still can’t see you.”
“Fern is here with me. My name is Miranda. We’re trying to get to you.”
“Don’t bother. I can’t feel my legs, my back is broken. It’s too dangerous a climb to retrieve a dying man.”
She could hear him shifting below her. He sounded fairly young too. She wanted to cry. This wasn’t the time; if the little girl could hold in together she certainly could too! “Is there anything we can do for you?”
There was a pause as the man below considered his options. “I have something I need to give to Fern. Do you have a rope?”
Miranda wondered what she had been thinking when she followed this child with just her raptor and a canteen. “No, I left in a hurry, but there’s some back at the cabin if we need it. What do you have?”
“My satchel with the map to her parents and pictures of her family.” Important items, and fortunately lightweight as well. Xipilli’s training would come in handy. “Do you have anything red?”
“One of my shirts is red. Why?”
“Can you tie the red shirt to the satchel?”
“I think so—if I can reach it. I really don’t know how that will help.”
That could prove to be a long conversation and Miranda wasn’t sure they had time for that. “Just tie it to the satchel and I will get help. Don’t hurt the bird, ok?” Miranda stood up, brought her whistle to her lips and blew. Three short bursts and two long; come and find me. Xipilli landed deftly on her leather glove and picked at the tassel. She pointed down with her other hand. One long burst and two short from her whistle and the large raptor began shifting on her arm as he looked for a red target to retrieve.
She could tell by his slow shuffling that he had not yet spotted it. “Marcos? Are you strong enough to wave the shirt?” There was a rustling sound from below, then Xipilli’s body went tense. “Help is coming.” Xipilli jumped off of Miranda’s arm, intent on capturing his quarry, a red shirt tied around the handle of a satchel.
“¡Híjole! ¡Dios Mío!” It seemed Xipilli had found his target. “What kind of a bird is that?! I have never seen anything so large!”
“That is Xipilli. He’s a harpy eagle, and he will bring the satchel to me when I call him.”
“Can he stay just a moment? Will he trust me?”
Fern had crept up closer to the edge next to Miranda.
“He’s not afraid of people, but he has been known to bite on occasion.” Miranda replied. “If you want to risk touching him, you can say his name and move your hand slowly towards his back, but he’s not entirely tame.”
“I can see you, Uncle Marcos. I can see you touching him! Can I take a picture of you touching Zipply, Uncle?”
“Yes child, I think I would like that.” His rough voice softened when he spoke directly to Fern. It was obvious to Miranda that he loved his niece very much. She wished that there were some way to save the man.
Fern’s feet shuffled in the gravel as she adjusted her position, presumably to get the best shot. Miranda wondered if Fern was using an old-fashioned film camera or if her village had managed to salvage or recreate some of the old digital technology.
“I got it, Uncle. It’s a good picture of you!”
“Come along Fern, it’s time to get back from the edge.”
“I don’t want to leave my uncle. He’s my favorite uncle. I am always safe when I am with him.” A pebble fell down the side of the cliff as Fern sat down near the edge in defiance.
“Fern!” Uncle Marcos’ voice trembled with fear. “You are too close to the edge. You are always safe with me because you always listen to me. Listen to me now. First, scoot away from that edge.” His voice softened as the girl presumably moved away from the edge. “Fern, honey, I can’t come with you right now. You know this is the way of things sometimes. Eagle woman! Miranda. Will you care for Fern, help her reach family?”
How did he expect an old blind woman to protect a little girl in this world? There wasn’t anyone else, though, and the girl couldn’t be left on her own. “Yes, of course I will care for her.”
“You will go with this woman, and trust her and her bird with your care for now. The maps inside show how to get to Odessa and how to get back to the village. Can you read them?”
“Yes, Uncle. You know I am good at maps.”
“I love you, Fern-frond. All will be well in the end. You will see your parents and sister again.”
Miranda blew her whistle again, three long bursts and two short, by the weight on her arm, the satchel weighed only around five pounds. She had not woken up this morning expecting to interact with anyone, and here she was, becoming the ward to a young girl.
“Come along, Fern. I promise I will help with everything I have.” Miranda said, hoping that everything she had would be enough.
Later that night, after getting Fern settled in the bed, Miranda rocked in front of the woodstove once again. This time, she mulled over the future rather than thinking about the past. Fern had insisted that she wanted to get back to her family rather than stay put, and Miranda was fairly certain that the girl would leave on her own if she didn’t go with her. That left the old woman to decide whether to take the little girl back to her home village or guide her on to meet her parents in Odessa.
Reader votes dictated that Fern, Miranda, and Xipilli will be moving on to Odessa.