Shiloh was five when the dark birds disappeared. They remembered looking out through the squared window of their bedroom every night they could, watching against the darkness of the sky for the flapping of the birds’ wings. They fell asleep every evening to the sound of their calls and songs, and woke every morning to their farewell. It was a routine, with the dark birds the night was brought, and with the light birds the morning was ushered in.
To say it was a shock when the fall of night ceased to continue is an understatement.
The denial came first of course, as it always does. Then there came the fear, almost arriving alongside the outrage. The people knew not what to do when the dark birds vanished as if it was nothing, so they chose to do nothing.
Once it became apparent that night was no more and day was eternal, everyone declared it a blessing. Their lives had become more sunny, both literally and figuratively.
The river banks were muddier than ever today. Rain showers for three days nonstop, Shiloh felt grateful they were finally able to get out of the house again. They kept their head low and lightly tugged the brim of their cap over their eyes. It wasn’t enough it seemed, as the harsh light of the sun reflected against the rushing river and blared straight into their sight.
Their boots squished against the river’s edge as they made their way to the group of blooming reeds. No matter what night or day might do, Spring always came to bring the Green River reeds blossoming buds. Their saccharine scent danced through the air as Shiloh finally approached them, pulling out their pruning knife.
This early in the season, while the blossoms are still fresh and sweet, a bundle of reeds could fetch a good few solaris. Shiloh thought to themselves that they might be able to afford a time slot in a shaded parlour during their family’s given nap period.
Grunting, they made the final cut through the last good reed stem. Carefully, they set the plants close together but not so compressed against each other so as to ruin the flowers. Doing their best, they wrapped the parchment paper they had set the stems on around the bunch and gathered it up into their arms.
They sighed to themselves, looking back out along the riverside to where they had trekked from, and where they would have to walk all the way back to again.
Their boots squished in the mud as they took each step back the way they came. Maybe a few years ago, they would have worried about making it back in time before sundown, but right now they wanted to get back home before the sun reached its peak in the sky again.
The sun blistered hard against their dark skin, a few stray drops of sweat travelled down the back of their neck in its following. They picked up their pace as they tugged on the hem of their white blouse. As they continued along the strand, they heard the sound of stone hitting wood.
Turning, their eyes landed on a small group of boys all jumping around the base of a scraggly tree. A split second later, they saw beige and yellow day birds, squawking at the boys as they flew away from the branch they were previously perched on. The boys all shouted in some childish frenzy, Shiloh hearing something about it being “their fault” for the heat.
Shiloh sighed, watching in commiseration for the day birds. It was their duty to bring the day, it wasn’t their fault that their counterparts weren’t there to relieve them of it.
After half an hour, Shiloh finally made it back to their village and trudged in through the doorway of their home. As soon as they entered, scents of herbs and stewed plains fowl wafted towards them and delicately settled on their nostrils. Before they could speak, their stomach rumbled in its demand for lunch.
A short woman with grayed hair poked her head around the corner from a room Shiloh couldn’t see into, smiling when she took in the sight of her grandchild.
“Ah, you’re just in time. I was worried you would get caught in the noon heat,” Shiloh’s grandmother said, walking back into the kitchen. “Lay down your bundle by the door, I’ll be with you in a moment.”
A minute later after Shiloh had unwrapped the parchment and carefully separated the reeds apart from one another, Shiloh’s grandmother came back into the front room and sat beside them. Together, the two cleaned and dried the blossoming reeds. Shiloh’s grandmother worked with a gentle hand, showing Shiloh the right way to grip the stem when cleaning off dust and dirt. As they worked, the smell of the reeds filled the space, the air taking on a sickly sweet odour. Once they were finished, their grandmother gathered the reeds and put them into a small vase she had formed specifically for holding them.
“You did a good job today, Shiloh,” Their grandmother congratulated. “You have an amazing eye for looking for delightful things.”
Shiloh nodded and absentmindedly ran their fingers through their curly hair, whereupon they realized their braid had started to come loose. They sighed and started to undo the rest of the plait, gaining their grandmother’s attention.
“Oh dear,” she said. “Would you like me to help you with that?”
Their grandmother took their hair into her hands and carefully twisted and turned the strands into braid formation, being careful not to pull too hard so as to hurt her grandchild. Shiloh sat patient and still, sitting with their hands on the knees of their crossed legs as they let their grandmother work.
While the two sat, the front door suddenly opened. Through the open doorway, in trudged Shiloh’s father, a weary expression on his face as he staggered a bit from exhaustion.
“Hey Dad,” Shiloh spoke.
Shiloh’s father turned towards them. He said nothing, but Shiloh could see a light enter his eyes as he laid his gaze upon his child. A little wobbly, he walked over to Shiloh and gave them a small pat on the head, then he made his way to the bedroom for the adults, lightly closing the door behind him.
“Must have been a hard day for your father,” Shiloh’s grandmother hummed. “We’ll let him rest.”
With that, she got up and entered back into the kitchen, emerging a second later with a bowl of soup. She handed it to Shiloh, who gladly took it with a small ‘thank you’.
The minutes passed by in silence as Shiloh ate their lunch. Once they finished, the two waited a bit longer for the sun to pass out of the sky’s centre before Shiloh’s grandmother handed them a list of other tasks they needed to do.
Reading the small paper scrap, Shiloh walked over to the vase of reeds and grabbed a couple, leaving for the day’s first dealing.
The merchants knew how to haggle, but Shiloh had their stubbornness. As they made their way across town and deeper into the business centre, they gained a few coins from selling the blossoming reeds alongside the completion of their grandmother’s list. At one point, they actually got a lowered price for the blue butterhead they had to buy when they traded one of the stems. They didn’t waste the Green River blossoms on anything besides that however, only doing it for the butterhead because of its needed nutritious value.
The solari coins had a golden sheen to them, one that the unaccustomed eye would mistake for the real deal. However, it was only a mint coat which gave the copper some glimmer, arguably a process more expensive than the solari’s actual value. There was no point to it, Shiloh found, as they could easily smell the metallic stench that lingered on their hands after touching it.
Finally, they arrived at one of the last destinations they were meant to go to. While not for the purpose of trading or buying some better supplies for the coming month, Shiloh’s grandmother had put in the extra option of checking out the observatory near the edge of town. Shiloh knew she could have only put it in as something they could do because they hadn’t shut up about sky patterns and constellations since they were ten. They made a mental note to thank their grandmother for this small favour later.
They stared at the tall, white building with stylish alcoves dotted along the base and a handful of buttresses lined around the bronze dome on the roof. It looked heavily out of place when compared to the rest of the town, which consisted of grey and brown cubic buildings which normally only had one storey, two on the rarity. Plus, the walls looked pristine and untouched by the mud that surrounded them, meaning it was well-maintained and built recently.
On one of the double doors for the entrance, which looked like they were built out of the common deciduous from the area, was a sign simply stating “Open.”
Letting curiosity get the best of them, Shiloh shouldered the woven bag they had initially carried by hand and walked in through the doors.
The inside was even grander than the exterior. It was like there were almost no free surfaces that weren’t covered in something. Books, maps, large sheets of paper bedecked in scribbled notes, and so many pieces of metal apparati adorned shelves and the long, wooden tables that circled in the centre of the main chamber. Within this circle of desks, was some sort of large, cylindrical instrument. Around the edge of the tall room was a secondary, higher landing with railings around its brink. The floor was a grey, polished stone and the walls looked a similar pristine white to the ones outside, albeit more smooth to match the floor. Shiloh almost felt out of place within this setting so clean, and turned to go from rising thoughts of inadequacy.
“Hello? Is that a visitor?” A voice called out. Shiloh stopped.
Turning around, they saw a person walking down the ladder from the higher landing. They had bedraggled, brown hair and wore a long, white coat. As they turned their face towards Shiloh, they saw this person wore glasses over eyes that reminded them of the grass along the Green River. They had pale skin, a little more pale than Shiloh was used to seeing out in their constantly sunlit, rural area. This person seemed to be quivering a bit, and then Shiloh realized they had been standing there without speaking.
“Oh sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you working. I just wanted to take a look inside the place, but I can leave now—” Their words stumbled out hastily.
“No, no! It’s fine!” The person quickly shook their hands in the air in front of them, making Shiloh stop in their tracks. “It would be nice to have someone to talk to.”
Slowly, Shiloh approached the other person and got a better look at them. They had bags under their eyes and seemed to nervously fidget with their glasses.
“I’m Saul, by the way,” They said.
Shiloh looked around the observatory again, taking notice now that they had ventured further into it that it seemed to be in some sort of disarray. The notes written on every available piece of paper looked scrawled, rushed. There were handfuls of books that were only open to the middle of their contents, as if they had been abandoned halfway through.
Shiloh was about to say something before Saul caught them off with their own question.
“Have you noticed how convenient it’s been for the ones on top?” They sputtered out angrily.
“What?” Shiloh looked at Saul’s face. Their eyes were gazing into space, a frown evident on their features, and their bottom lip was quivering. Clearly, they had something they needed to talk about.
“I just think it’s so convenient that as soon as I bring up a concern about the weather patterns and how maybe all this sun we’ve had for the past decade might not be as good as they all think it is, I get stationed out here, with my own personal space to get distracted with, all the way from the capital,” Saul started pacing, their hands shaking as they continued. “To be fair, I had been asking for my own research centre, but they didn’t listen to my request until after I started to become a problem. For them, at least. A problem for them. They just built this whole place for me, like it was nothing, and then left me out here in the middle of nowhere.”
Saul then realized Shiloh was still standing next to them, listening intently. “No offence,” they tried to amend.
“None taken, I guess,” Shiloh said, avoiding eye contact. “It doesn’t surprise me if you weren’t listened to by people in power, though I don’t think I’m as familiar with the concerns you brought up. Limited technology out here.”
“Ah well, see…” Saul took Shiloh’s hand in their own gloved one, leading them over to one of the tables scattered in notes. As they explained their theories and observations, they pointed at various sketches and written entries. Shiloh’s head was nearly reeling from this massive information dump.
“Woah, woah, slow down for a second,” They finally said. “Can you explain the wildlife thing a little more… slowly?”
“Oh right, sorry,” Saul said sheepishly. They cleared their throat. “So yeah, nocturnal animals have probably been hit the worst by this, for obvious reasons. Just a few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me about this barn strix they found which looked badly malnourished. They showed me a few study sketches of the poor thing, it was pretty sad.”
Shiloh hummed. “Yeah,” They added. “It seems farm animals are getting mistreated as well, believe it or not. A former neighbour of mine needed to overwork his cow in order to keep up with a production demand placed on him. I could hear them both sobbing sometimes.”
“Really?” Saul looked intrigued at this, grabbing a pencil and scribbling down this new information.
Once Saul finished their writing, they stared off into space once more, as if debating something. Finally, they shook their head and looked at Shiloh.
“Can I show you something?”
Deciding to let curiosity get the best of them for the second time that day, Shiloh nodded. Saul walked over to one of their shelves and grabbed a small, square box. As they came back over, Shiloh saw that something appeared to be crammed into it. Paper appeared to be sticking out from the edges of the lid.
When Saul took the lid off, Shiloh expected it to be something grand, like an ancient artifact or someone’s preserved heart. Instead, there was only a folded up piece of paper, not looking nearly as old enough to be akin to an ancient scroll like Shiloh might have hoped.
Gingerly, Saul took the folded parchment from its den and laid it out on the table, not minding the clutter already present. As they unfolded the paper, Shiloh started to notice lines curving and spreading out across its surface. Smaller details of pointy triangles and clumpy, shaded groups were scattered all about, with some spots that Shiloh recognized and others that they didn’t. Shiloh realized, within a second at staring at the completely unfurled picture, that they were staring at a map.
“Here,” Saul said, pointing at a small assortment of squares near the top of the paper. “Is where your village is located.”
Shiloh took a look at where they pointed and then drew their attention to the expansive remainder of the map, at all the space that was unfamiliar to them.
“And this,” Saul continued, referring to the area Shiloh was looking at. “Is the result of consulting as many travellers as I could find. And when that wasn’t enough, interviewing folklorists. In as close to theoretical accuracy as possible, I have illustrated bits of land outside of the Continent.”
Shiloh looked at them in shock, letting their words simmer in the air for a second before responding.
“Outside of the Continent?”
“Well, yeah…” Saul looked around, sparkly excitement in their eyes. “No one’s seen night in several years, not anywhere within the land that we know of. I’ve asked lots of people to be completely sure of that. So, think about it, what if the dark birds left somewhere else? Somewhere unknown to all the people in our land? Outside of the Continent.”
Shiloh pondered that for a second, taking a glance at the map again.
“Alright but,” They started. “If they were to leave outwards, that would have meant the people closer to the coast would have been the last ones to see nightfall. Did you check to see if that could be true?”
Saul smiled. “Five steps ahead of you. Back home, we had a bunch of immigrants coming in from the northern shores when some of their fisheries crumbled. I questioned as many as that would tolerate all my questions, and they all gave me a consensus that they had seen night for the last time at a later date than we had in the capital.”
Shiloh hummed, considering all they had been told.
“So you think it’s true, then? That the night birds are still out there?”
“I… I don’t think I have any other choice than to believe in it. All the other options sound hopeless,” Saul admitted.
Shiloh was about to add on before they realized just how long they had been there. Muttering several apologies, they made their way to the door.
“My grandmother’s a kind person, I swear,” Shiloh said as they pulled on the handle. “But she can be scary if you come home late.”
Saul nodded. “Oh yeah, my dad was like that back home. Good luck, I hope I’ll see you again.”
“I hope so too.” Shiloh smiled, then they dashed out the door and scrambled down the path in a mad attempt to get home.
They passed by the business centre, bustling with life as people continued to wander and deal within it. They breezed by the nicer side of town, with houses made of decent stone and the occasional two-storey. Something fresh swarmed their nostrils as they made their way through this small area. This was completely overtaken by the stench of something rotting as they continued on into the more sparse areas, walking past a decomposition pile of bad produce. Finally after jogging another ten minutes, they arrived at their home.
Their grandmother was definitely disappointed to say the least, but after a thankfully short amount of words, she hugged them and only said that she was glad that they were able to come back home safely. Plus a little bit of teasing at finally making friends after Shiloh told them about Saul.
After putting the supplies gathered that day in the underground storage space, Shiloh helped their grandmother cook dinner. The two worked in a comfortable rhythm in the kitchen, moving easily around the other as they added sliced bits of vegetable and meat into the cooking pan. While Shiloh’s grandmother stirred and mixed the blend, Shiloh took care of the fire under the stove. As Shiloh prepared the portions and figured out what could be saved for later, their grandmother made sure that the small set of utensils were clean. In all, dinner was served in no time.
Shiloh’s father came out of the adult bedroom to join them, rested but still his movements were a little slurred. Nonetheless, he sat side by side with his child at the low-to-ground table and tried his best to participate in conversation.
As the meal drew to a close, he bid a small goodbye as he made his way out the door to go back to work. Shiloh helped their grandmother clean before they were sent to bed, entering the solitary chamber. Though Shiloh was well into starting adulthood now, they still took the child bedroom, partly out of habit.
As they laid down on their low cot, they pondered over what Saul had told them earlier. They thought about what it would mean to leave the shores of the Continent, how far they would mean someone had to go. They took a look out the squared window of their bedroom, where the sun still shone despite the time of day. Bright and hard.