"I think," Ashley begins contemplatively, almost carefully, as though trying the words out on her tongue. "It would be nice to be a bird."
All around her, the wind threatens to drown her voice out, hair whipping around her face as she gazes across the pale horizon. Her companion and younger brother of two years only turns to give her an incredulous look, wrinkling his nose at the thought.
"And I think," Aster imitates her deliberate pause. "it probably wouldn't."
She looks at him with the patient air of one long accustomed to his contradictions, waiting for him to continue. Unfazed by the amused quirk of her eyebrows, Aster carries on. "For one, you'd be stuck out here on these freezing cliffs, and second, you'd have to live off nothing but raw fish."
It's nine a.m, somewhere in the north of England, and the two siblings are standing on a cliff, watching a flock of birds: a large gannet colony- one of the largest in Europe, they say. The paths are unsurprisingly devoid of people, early as it is on a cold, overcast weekend. Above them, the sky that stretches overhead is a bleached canvas of white and grey, as though all the colour has been drained into the ocean below. Here and there black specks the size of insects dot the expanse; more birds, taking advantage of the strong winds to survey the seas, or returning to litter the sheer cliff face that curves and stretches before them where they stand. Countless individuals roost on the buff rocks, marking it as though some great hand in the sky had splattered white paint all across the surface, and indeed, the rocks have been streaked and spattered by years' worth of their droppings. The cliffs themselves resemble the crumbling remnants of old castles Aster had seen so many times on field trips and vacations, but with a much more wild, crude constructed appearance. Still, they maintained their majesty over the landscape; these were nature’s own grand monuments, even if they were battered and stained and kind of smelly with the stench of seabirds.
These cliffs rise to over a hundred meters in height at points, Ashley had told him on their way up as he’d been complaining about the amount they had to walk. As he looks down now, all he can think of is that it’d be an awfully long way down to fall. The waves crash and churn with a wild ferocity at the jagged rocks those hundred meters below them, and the cliffs open up to reveal the impossibly blue expanse of the ocean, seeming almost to Aster as if it chopped the horizon in half. Despite the dizzying heights, he finds he can’t look away from the constant motion of the water, almost expecting the cliff base to crumble beneath its violent ebb and flow. Surely anything caught in their foamy grasp would be dragged down and drowned instantly, but yet the white squawking specks nestled on the cliffs were spread out almost all the way down. Sprays of white flecks fly up over the edge every few gusts, narrowly missing him, and Aster recoils in disgust as he realises they're scattered bird droppings blown up from below.
"They're kinda dirty, aren’t they?" Aster remarks, in an offhanded way that belies his desire to be anywhere but here. "And noisy," he adds, wincing as the birds’ raucous calls ring out and mix with the whistling wind that surrounds them. Ashley had woken him up, 7am on a Saturday morning (on a Saturday morning!), to drag him out here on a hike with her and watch a bunch of birds fly around. Big deal. He wraps his arms around himself and shivers as he stares at the ground; it's cold, and the winds are relentless. He’d rather be at home, preferably in bed.
"Not at all." Meanwhile, Ashley's eyes are trained on the sky through a pair of bulky binoculars, where tiny silhouettes continue to wheel almost miles overhead. Aster waits expectantly for a few seconds before huffing when she doesn't even spare him a glance, and turns his attention to the nearest birds, perched on the side of the cliff that curves before them. Some are huddled together, their heads tucked into their ruffled plumage, sheltering from the breeze too strong for even them. Beyond them, birds in flight dip in and out as though in a reckless game of tag with the waves, and he half expects to see one snatched by a foamy crest to disappear underwater forever. What a harsh environment to live in, he thinks. His sister’s words come back to him; how would it be nice to be a bird? He glances at a couple of birds struggling to land against the wind that threatens to dash them against the cliffs. What would be so great about that? As he watches the birds weave back and forth between each other, tumbling in the winds in that wide expanse, he finds himself wondering: what would it be like?
"Here, why don't you take a closer look at them?"
As though she'd heard his thoughts, Aster finds a pair of binoculars nudged into his hands. A protest starts on the tip of his tongue, but Ashley is watching him expectantly, so he sighs and takes it. They're heavy and clumsy in his frozen hands, but he wrestles his fingers into some sort of cooperation as he lifts them to his eyes. It takes a moment to orient himself as the span of the sky suddenly spins alarmingly fast through them, but now he can see those distant birds magnified. He aims them at one that seems to be hovering aimlessly just above the cliff, wings outstretched and wobbling like a child trying to balance on a beam. The wind pushes it back, keeping it from leaving the security of the clifftops, but eventually it breaks free and takes to the skies. It’s then that Aster notices the effortless way it glides through the air, each rhythmic flap of its wings sending it smoothly forward. He watches as it sails against the wind, and then through the air, like a tiny plane a hundred meters above the endless sea, it begins its gradual descent.
He can see it surveying the waters, head cocking this way and that, until fixing its gaze somewhere far below.
Its wings propel it through the air, faster and faster, beak piercing through the wind like an arrow.
The gannet pulls its wings close to its body, extends them behind it, resembling a feathered torpedo as it hurtles towards the blue.
Three, two, one.
The water explodes upon impact, and his senses are fully alert, taking in the sight of the spot it had dove into. For a long moment it doesn’t emerge, and he scans the waters for it, fingers gripping tighter at the binoculars. How long can these birds hold their breath for? Had there been something lying in wait beneath the waves? He’s almost about to call for his sister to ask when at last, the gannet emerges in a flurry of feathers and waters, a catch held firmly in its beak as it begins its ascension once more. It glides on the wind as though a living kite, and every flex of its sleek wings and twitch of its rudder tail guides it precisely through the air, suspended in a space unreachable to him or any other visitor to these cliffs. He watches it return to the clifftop with a mixture of relief and awe. Nature’s designs, he realises, are perfect. Gazing on as the birds continue their aerial acrobatics, completing this wild landscape, he wonders if perhaps it's this same thrill and freedom people so often seek in their everyday lives. As several more gannets prepare to plunge back down all over again before his eyes, he realises in that moment, he envies them. A sigh escapes him as he lowers the binoculars, and almost jumps as he brushes against something. Ashley had been by his side the whole time.
"What do you think?"
Unused to the entreating tone in his sister’s voice, he shrugs, swings the binoculars idly by his side as he tries to look away.
"...they're alright. I guess."
One wheels past them, so close he feels she could reach out and touch that pure white plumage. But it stays tantalisingly out of reach, gliding away gracefully until it's just another speck in the distance. When Aster finally looks at his sister again he doesn’t miss her knowing smile, and he figures Ashley hadn’t missed the way his eyes were fixed on its retreating silhouette. Under her steady gaze he concedes; fine, maybe this was worth getting out of bed for.
“Maybe... being a bird wouldn’t too bad.”
His sister’s eyebrows begin to rise in surprise, but before she can say anything Aster’s mask of indifference dissolves into a grin.
“I mean, you get to poop wherever you like.”
He ducks as Ashley makes to bop him with the binoculars, and laughing, the siblings continue on their hike.