Roc A Bye Baby

James Robert Jones – Jimbo to his friends – wiped the sweat from his grizzled face with a large red kerchief that had seen better days. He put the pickaxe down for a breather, peered down the old mine shaft in the dim light, and wondered for how long he would still be able to work the dregs of the abandoned gold mine before it gave out completely. He eked out a meager living by mining tunnels that were almost not worth it, and did so because it kept him far from people and cities and the complications of modern life. Outside the tunnel, down the mountain, the 21st century was in full swing, but inside, picking away at ancient lodes, Jimbo could have been a hundred or more years in the past. And it suited him fine.

He resumed working, delegating worries over the mine to the back of his mind, and put in several hard swings with the pickaxe. Rocks shattered and tumbled down, the occasional yellow fleck proving that he was still on the lode. Unexpectedly, his last swing caused a whole sheet of rocks to fall away with a reverberating crash, revealing a smooth yellow surface stretching from ceiling to floor.

Jimbo stared for long moments at this impossible wall of gold. Then he reached out to touch the surface with trembling fingers. It felt strangely warm, but Jimbo paid that no mind. A wall of gold! How thick might it be? How far did it stretch up and down and sideways? Visions of untold riches floated through his mind. Suddenly all fatigue was forgotten, and he started clearing the rocks away from the golden wall.

Hours later, he had cleared enough to see that the wall curved away to the top, bottom and sides, almost like it was spherical. Jimbo did not mind. A huge ball of gold was just as good as a huge wall of gold. He felt a little bad about having to break it up, but how else could he get the gold out? The perfect, gleaming surface reflected his motion as he struck it with his pickaxe. The surface cracked. Then it started heaving and bulging, and bits began to flake off as something pushed through from the other side.

Jimbo retreated, slowly at first, and then with increasing speed as a pinkish, slimy creature emerged from his golden wall and fell with a squish into the tunnel. It opened a huge eye and made a horribly loud, brassy, “cheep”.

Jimbo fled.

He reached his cabin down in the valley in a total state of nerves. Slamming and barring the door from inside, he fearfully looked out of the window but there was nothing to be seen. He found his brandy flask and addressed it seriously.

He woke the next morning with a pounding headache curiously in sync with the scratching and screeching at his door. He stumbled blearily to the window, dreading the sight but knowing he had no choice. Surprisingly, it was not bad at all.

The slime had dried through the night, and the creature now piteously cheeping for attention was a cute, down-covered nestling with stubby wings, long toes and eyes like the night. The fact that it was about as big as a horse was the only problem.

“Aw, he’s just a little one,” Jimbo said to himself. “And hungry.”

He almost lost his arm, feeding that first chicken to the nestling. And he soon realized that his chicken coop would be emptied out in a very few days at the rate the ravenous thing ate. He should have just shot it and made an end to the matter, but every time he looked into those night-black eyes he felt his resolve melt. It was as if the chick had eyes only for him. He felt… worshiped. And he could never kill anything that looked at him like that. But it was clear that he needed help.

He drove down to town and found the number of the local zoo from inquiries. “I’ve got this bird I think you should see,” he told the voice on the line.

“What kind of bird?” the voice asked.

“Well, I’m not sure,” he said. “But it’s really big.”

“An eagle?” the voice suggested.

“Nope. Much bigger’n an eagle,” he said.

“An ostrich?”

“What’s an ostrich?” he asked.

“A bird as tall as a man,” the voice replied.

Jimbo thought a bit. “I think this one will get bigger’n that.”

The voice on the line sighed. “Alright, where are you?”

Jimbo gave directions to his cabin and drove back there with his pick-up truck filled with frozen chickens. The nestling was literally eating away his savings but he figured it would work out in the end. And anyway, once the zoo people came, they could feed the bird.

The zoo people came. Jimbo couldn’t help laughing at their reaction when he took them round the cabin to the paddock where his little friend was preening itself. The voice on the line, now introduced as Dr. Baker, stuttered and stammered and finally fell silent in contemplation of the impossible.

Finally Jimbo cleared his throat. “So, what do you think?”

Baker had to swallow before he could speak. “We’ll have to bring a bigger truck.”

Jimbo felt a great sense of relief when they had the nestling loaded and the truck disappeared down the road. He felt sorry for the bird, but he had his mine to get back to, and no great golden ball either – just eggshells.

Baker was back the next day. “It won’t eat,” he said.

“What? Just toss him some chickens,” Jimbo said, leaning on his pickaxe.

“We’ve tried that,” Baker said. “It just sits there, blaring at us. Heartbreaking, really.”

“So what do you want me to do?” Jimbo asked.

“Come back with me,” Baker said. “I want to try something.”

He drove Jimbo back to town and to the zoo, where the nestling was sitting forlornly in a quickly-revamped bear cage. As soon as Jimbo stepped up to the bars, the bird ceased its piteous cheeping and bounded towards him. Baker handed him a chicken which he tossed to the nestling, which gulped it up and asked for more.

“As I thought,” Baker said. “It’s imprinted on you, and won’t accept food from anyone else.”

“So if I go back to my mine it will starve?”

“I’m afraid so,” Baker said. “Do you want a job?”

So Jimbo got a job feeding and taking care of Youngster, as it became known to the press. Ornithologists came from all over the world to study the ever-growing bird. Conferences were held where they debated about its species; school groups came to take photos.

Jimbo had to tell his story to a thousand and one reporters and to whole crowds of visitors. He hated all the fuss but comforted himself with the thought that Youngster would soon be weaned and then he could go back to his quiet valley and forget all about it.

Meanwhile Youngster grew. Its feathers filled out into a stunning array of gleaming black and gold. Its beak shone like burnished copper and its talons were a sight to behold. They had to move it into a larger cage, and then again into one, specially built. It ate two sheep every day but the zoo more than covered the cost of its keep in ticket sales.

Youngster started practicing its wings and soon the day came that Jimbo could stand aside and Youngster would eat by itself. Jimbo knew it was finally time for him to go home.

Months later a headline caught his eye one day at the store. “Big bird escaped!” Photos next to the story showed Youngster’s cage, bars peeled open as if something had burst out. Something had.

Jimbo went home to find Youngster, now three stories tall, sitting in his paddock, preening itself.

“You silly bird,” Jimbo scolded it. “Why did you come here?” Youngster bent his head down so that Jimbo could scratch around its eyes. “I can’t take care of you here!” Jimbo said. “And they’ll come get you very soon.”

Looking into Youngster’s night-black eyes, Jimbo suddenly knew what the bird was thinking. “I can’t come with you!” he exclaimed. “Where would you go?”

A vision of wide expanses, lofty mountains and endless skies filled his mind.

“Yeah? And what would you eat?” he asked. Vast herds of sheep and cattle paraded before his eyes. “No, those all belong to be people with guns, my friend,” he said. “You won’t be safe.”

He leaned against Youngster’s feathery neck. “There’s no place left on this world for mythological creatures,” he sighed. “At least you were safe in the zoo.”

The sense of frustration from being cooped up in a small cage with no room to fly was overwhelming.

“I know, I know,” he said. “But what else is there?”

Youngster looked up, and Jimbo saw vast expanses between stars and nebulas.

“Can you really go there?” he asked, awed. “There is nothing to breathe or eat in space.”

Not important, Youngster told him. Flying is everything. Space is nothing. Come with me.

Jimbo looked around at his dilapidated cabin. The track up to the mine was trudged to dust by his feet, and he had nothing to show for it. Wordlessly, he held his arms up, and Youngster bent down his great neck until he could hoist himself on board. He settled between the gleaming feathers and leaned forward. “Fly, my friend.”

Dr. Baker, arriving with an abnormal-sized truck and tranquilizer darts in a bazooka, was in time to see the great Roc take off. Its mighty wings beat clouds of dust and leaves from the ground, and it seemed to go straight up as it got smaller and smaller. Finally, just before it disappeared from sight, the sky tore open and the light of a million suns shone through for a moment. There was a flash, and the tear closed with a great roar of air. Nothing remained to be seen.

“So that’s where they went,” Dr. Baker said to himself.

No place left on Earth, but it is a big universe, after all, and somewhere there will be a place to call home.

The End

Constructive critisism postively sought after!

Written in a few hours on 10 December 2007.
Woo, no disclaimer this time. This story, the characters, the idea and the execution all belong to me. This is an original work of fiction.

Roc A Bye Baby

Leoni Mullett

Nelspruit, South Africa

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Written especially for the Bubble Bestiary.

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