by Samia menon
Hawken Upper School
The night the yellow birds came back took him thoroughly by surprise. He had spent his summer aching helplessly in the cricket fields, the screaming insects lapping over his feet and fingers like a tide, scrambling fruitlessly for friction as he swept them into his bruised tin bucket. Sometimes they died on impact, some forced their ways over the rim, and he would constantly shake out the anxious ones who stubbornly refused to stay put. The birds used to help him, swarming overhead, and once he felt their cool shade hover above his dusty brown hair, he knew his day was going to become just a little bit more bearable. They sang a little metallic song, voices sharp and crisp, as they ducked down into the fray, tugging out thousands of crickets with each dive. But for the past two years, he hadn’t heard their reliable chirp. He had toiled away silently in the scorching fields along with other workers of flesh and blood.
He had never seen the sky outside the fields. For his twenty-three years of life, the sturdy glass dome that engulfed the horizon had been his only up, and the muddy browns of the cabin sitting in the intolerably yellow field were the extremes of his entire spectrum of color. He saw things in cricket-shades: the brightness of the young, the dull skin of the old, and the roasted, rich gold of wings that had rested outside far too long. The lightest thing he knew was the bleached white residue of cricket-flour, the very thing he kneaded into bread every morning and ate for supper every night. His aspirations, like the dome above, were blurry and grey.
In his life, there were four different types of beings. Harvesters, like him, crickets, wheat, and the birds. He had heard about others from the simulation stories they showed him when he was young, but he had never connected them to reality. In fact, he was never told that the yellow birds were truly birds. He only assumed so, from the vivid holograms of the light winged creatures that darted in and out from view at will, with no purpose but to ride the wind. The program described their behavior as “free”. He could never fully comprehend what they meant by that word, but what he did know was that the beings that hovered above him, singing while they dived, seemed to fit that definition immaculately, so he never questioned them or his thoughts. He wasn’t supposed to.
The last two autumns had arrived desperately; the humans had been mulling about void of their technology, leaving them sore and worked thin. Although they were a strong breed, short and sturdy, skin immune to burns, the harvesters had grown weak from their dependence on the birds, and the sudden lapse of aid hit them harder than the permanent glow of the dominating, artificial sun. He had been working in the fields for the past eleven years, completely young and able, and unlike many of the others, his dark arms and thick legs developed quickly to the change. During those summers, the other workers’ eyes glazed over, dull and glassy, broken as they mindlessly carried out their tasks without a tune. He was different, and by the end of the first year, his pure determination and skill pushed him to become a leader of sorts within the harvesters. They crowded around him, tongues running wild with praise, and he smiled back, grinning with his bright blue eyes.
This year, unlike the other harvesters, he wasn’t relieved when the cool touch of fall wrapped around his arms once more. Last night, the yellow swarm that spanned the sky like a slew of stars turned his sun-kissed skin as pale as cricket-flour. Yes, he detested the arduous task of harvesting without technology for the past several months, but the sheer thought of isolation, of obsolescence almost drove him to tears. Nowadays he had been wanted, yearned for; he had been the bird’s sweet tune, urging the others along, but last night, as his summer dwindled into darkness, that strange sense of superiority that he had developed burst right out of his chest. It leaped right through the boundaries of the glass dome, forever out of his reach. The others were laughing, leaping, positively ecstatic that their saviors had returned. He was already a distant flicker of a memory. The birds were close to him now, humming softly as they brushed by his ears, pulling up the last crickets of the day. His lips quivered as he endeavored to smack them away, but his hand collided much too hard against the force of their loud, hard shells, and he screamed as they raced out of sight. How funny, he thought, through the cacophony of his voice, that I loved them before. After his voice had worn out, he stared at his hand’s silhouette against the grey horizon, how funny, he wondered, that I thought I was free.
Samia Menon is a 17-year-old student from Cleveland, Ohio who is passionate about sharing stories in any way, shape, or form. Besides writing and illustrating, Samia enjoys programming, playing tennis, and cheering on the Cavaliers. Her work can also be found in the Bridge and Body Without Organs literary journals.