Maia stumbled as she stepped off the boat. She caught an old wooden post just in time and pulled herself up onto the concrete dock.
“You OK?” Josh asked.
He was standing a few feet away on the dock and scrolling through his iPhone.
“Yeah,” Maia said, wiping dirt off her gloves. “That was a close one.”
“Mmm,” Josh said, his eyes still glued to his phone.
How did he even have service out here? Stupidly, Maia had assumed that for once he would be forced to leave Instagram alone. But Josh, of course, found a way, even as far away as the Faroe Islands.
The dozen other tourists who had traveled with them in the tour boat were gathering on a patch of gravel further up the beach. Maia nudged Josh and they made their way over.
“Welcome to Mykines island,” their young tour guide said to the group in her strange half-German-half-Irish-sounding Faroese accent. “We will have about four hours to explore and see all the birds before the boat goes back to Sørvágur.”
As the guide pointed to the direction they would hike to see the puffins, Maia noticed Josh was scrolling through pictures of his friends from Vassar. Mostly women. Mostly attractive. She forced herself to look away and focus on what the guide was saying.
“Before we go up, I want to remind everyone again to please stick together, follow the markers, and stay away from the gannet, swallow, and skua nests—especially the skuas because they’re hard to spot and those birds can be vicious,” she said before waving them up the stone steps and into the grassy hills above.
Maia started following them up before Josh tapped her shoulder.
“Hey, want to grab some selfies first?” he asked eagerly. “Everyone’s gone, so it’ll look like we’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“But the tour’s leaving,” Maia said. “And we are in the middle of nowhere.”
It had taken them two flights, a long drive, and a once-a-day ferry to get to the remotest of these remote islands. Maia didn’t want to miss any part of this trip.
“It’ll only take a few minutes,” Josh said before flipping around his phone and grinning into the camera lens.
“How else are people going to know we were here?” he added as he whipped around and took a photo of them together with their backs against the green hills.
Áki woke up to the sound of his chicks clucking softly. He opened his eyes and saw them and their mother bundled up in the nest below.
He got up and slowly turned his head from side to side. That damn crick in his neck was acting up again. It had started a few days ago when his ass of a brother Áron challenged him to a diving competition.
Áki never should have accepted. Áron was a far better flyer and had won easily, dropping like a boulder and then gracefully skimming the ocean waves before lifting up in a perfect arc. When it was his turn, Áki hesitated and then dove awkwardly, nearly gashing himself on jagged rocks by the bay.
Áron had cawed mockingly and somersaulted in the air before flying away. That cocky jerk liked to stage little competitions like this every now and then to prove that Billa should have chosen him instead. Áki was too proud to admit it, but deep down, he knew that his brother was right. Billa should have chosen Áron.
Billa was now looking up at him sleepily through the blue haze of the early morning. Áki flew down and landed at her side. He grazed his wing along her neck and felt that her feathers were cold. Billa had been weak since the birth.
“They are hungry,” Billa clucked gently to Áki, motioning to their chicks, Tóti and Týrur.
They were just ten days old. It would be another 30 before they were ready to fly and hunt for themselves. And Billa was too frail to share the burden right now, which was a shame because she was the better hunter. Áki nodded and gave Billa what he hoped was a reassuring look before lifting off.
It was a cool, damp morning and the clouds were hanging low in the sky. Sometimes, Áki wished he could glide into them and disappear. He cared deeply for his family, but more and more these days, he felt that it was all too much. As he flew past the east end of the island, he wondered where he would end up if he just kept flying.
But today was not the day to find out. Áki turned around and began flying up the southern ridge. Hunting was his least favorite thing to do. He was also terrible at it. He hated getting wet, and he hated competing with the swallows, gannets, and other skuas. Most of all, he hated the days when the fish seemed to disappear from the waters and he was forced to attack kittiwakes and gulls instead. Not surprisingly, Áron loved those days and went after the other birds with gusto. But Áki found it barbaric. The only ones Áki didn’t mind hunting as much were the puffins. The puffins were the biggest idiots he had ever seen, the way they gadded about in the western cliffs in big clumps, just waiting for someone to snatch them up. You’d think they’d learn.
Áki swooped down and scanned the icy blue waves. His heart leapt as he thought he spied glimmers of silver under a rising crest. He looked around and saw that Áron and the others were still circling around the western end of the island and hadn’t seen what he had seen. Maybe today was not going to be such a bad day after all.
Maia had wanted to visit the Faroe Islands ever since she was a little girl. Her parents used to drop her off at the Teaneck library when they fought, which was all the time, so Maia blew through the entire children’s section in less than a month. A few weeks after her eleventh birthday, she wandered over to the geography section, where she found a book about a tiny string of islands halfway between Iceland and Norway. It was a travel book from the 1970s, the kind with glossy, cream-colored pages and more writing than pictures. Maia read it four times.
The Faroes drifted around the back of her mind for the next two decades. After a spate of disappointing dates in her twenties, she finally found a travel companion in Josh, a 32-year-old video game designer who shared her love of musical theater, international travel, and Ethiopian food, but disagreed with her on most everything else. Given the household she had grown up in, Maia had never expected a fairy tale romance. Instead, she took a more practical approach to love: all she wanted was someone to do interesting things with.
Maia and Josh’s one-and-a-half-year partnership had been rocky, but the sex was good and they had some interesting debates about religion (her family was agnostic and he had grown up conservative Jewish). Maia found that their relationship worked fine if they stayed out of each other’s way and drank a lot of whiskey in the evenings. In truth, if not for her fixation on this trip, they might have broken up months ago.
But now, while staring down at the crags breaking through the lush green coastline as a cool breeze gently blew up the edges of her jacket, Maia felt disappointed. But not because the vista wasn’t stunning, for it was. The problem was that while she should’ve been listening to the waves crashing into rocks below, the wind whistling through the lime-green weeds, or the gentle clucking of birds whizzing past, all she could hear was the sound of someone fidgeting with his phone.
“Hey, are we going the right way?” Josh asked again from somewhere behind her.
Maia turned around. He was standing on a pile of mossy rocks and holding his phone up over his head, looking for the signal he lost a few minutes ago. With growing regret, Maia wondered if she had made the fatal mistake of letting an intruder inside her Never-never land.
It was only when Josh’s eyes widened in surprise that Maia realized she was glaring at him.
“I don’t know,” she said, facing the water again. “I thought we would’ve caught up with the group by now.”
She heard Josh jumping off the rocks and walking up behind her.
“Does this mean we’re in worse shape than those old Danish people?” he asked while wrapping his arms around her.
She shimmied away and walked up to the edge of the bluff. She wondered vaguely if she wasn’t being fair to him. This whole thing was, after all, her idea.
She held up her hand to block the dipping sun and squinted at the western tip of the island.
“Shit,” she said. “We were supposed to go the other way.”
She could barely make out tiny figures walking in single file through a narrow pass far on the other side of the island. They seemed to be heading back to the dock.
“We need to start going back,” she said. “We’ve gone too far.”
“Fuck, are we going to make it?” Josh asked, starting to panic. “That’s the only ferry.”
“I think so,” Maia said, looking down. “But we’ll have to cut through that valley. And we need to go now.”
When she turned around, Josh was frantically waving his phone over his head again, desperate to find a signal, as if he could as if he could summon a flying Uber if he did.
Áki was feeling pleased with himself. The sun was hanging low in the sky and he was heading back to the nest with his third beak-full of herring. The chicks were happy and fed, and this last batch would be just for him and Billa.
It was days like this that made all the others seem less mundane. He had never wanted to become a father, but what was he supposed to do? There weren’t any other options, and Billa was so graceful, kind, and brave when he met her that he felt everything was going to be alright. He was lucky, really. It was all he could do to puff himself up and do his best not to let anyone down. And today he hadn’t.
He did a little twirl in the air as he glided back to the south end of the island. But as he approached the nesting field, he saw something that nearly made his heart stop. There were two dark figures darting through the valley below. They were moving fast and getting terrifyingly close to the nesting field.
Áron suddenly appeared on his wing and cawed loudly at him. It was only then that Áki realized he had dropped all the fish. Down they fluttered like silvery leaves.
Áron was gaping at him in disbelief. Áki motioned with his wing to the valley. Áron took one look and understood immediately. The two looming figures were now getting closer and closer to where Billa and the chicks were nestled. Áki had seen these large, gangly creatures before. But they usually stayed on the other side of the island with the puffins. For the few that ventured this far east, well, there was only one thing to do.
With a sick feeling in his belly, Áki girded his torso and dove straight down. As he dropped faster and faster, he kept his eyes trained on the two moving figures. But all around him he could hear whistling sounds, which meant Áron and a few others must be alongside him.
Good. At least he wasn’t alone.
Every muscle in Maia’s body was screaming out in pain. They had been running for nearly an hour. She called out to Josh, who was about 15 feet down the slope, and motioned at him to stop. Maia had been a track star in high school, but that was more than ten years ago, and she was in no such shape now. She bent over and gripped her knees, panting. She watched as Josh stopped, glanced up at the sky above her, and then started waving at her frantically.
Something heavy whacked her across the top of her head. Maia fell to the ground, more out of surprise than pain. She crouched in the grass with her hands over her head, not daring to look up. She saw Josh’s hiking boots running toward her.
“Holy shit!” Josh said as he dropped his backpack and hunkered down next to her. “That huge bird just dive-bombed you.”
“That was a bird?”
“That was a fucking bird!”
Maia slowly turned her head skyward. About half a dozen huge, eagle-like birds with white-tipped wings were circling directly above her. They were flying low in the sky and squawking loudly.
“What the fuck is going on?” Josh said. “Why are they attacking us?”
Maia looked around and realized, with a sinking feeling, that the small patches of land surrounding them that she assumed were dried grass were actually birds’ nests. She pointed them out to Josh, who gaped and then shook his head
“I didn’t think they’d be in the ground,” he said.
“It’s because there aren’t any trees here,” Maia said.
She hadn’t realized it until she said it out loud. Feeling like an idiot, she looked up at the sky again and wondered who was more scared.
“I wish there were some way we could tell them we’re not here to hurt their babies,” she said.
“But what should we do?” Josh asked anxiously. “Should we lay low until they leave?”
Maia raised her eyebrows at him.
“They’re not going anywhere, so we don’t have a choice,” she said. “We’ll miss the ferry unless we run for it.”
“Right,” Josh said.
He got very quiet and stared at the ground for several seconds before looking up at Maia again.
“You go first,” he said.
“Are you kidding me?”
“I mean, well, I dunno, they already got you once, so you sort of know what you’re in for,” he said. “And I just want to see what the birds are going to do before I…”
He trailed off.
Maia got off her hands and knees and slowly stood up. She could hear the birds above her squawking louder but she didn’t care. Her fear was subsiding. She suddenly felt like she’d rather take on a whole battalion of birds than spend another second with this whimpering idiot lying in the weeds. She wished she could think of a perfect Hollywood line to spit at him, but when nothing came to mind, she just glared at him one more time before lifting her parka hood up over her head, securing her backpack, and starting to run.
“Come at me, you fucking birds,” she muttered as she picked up speed.
She could hear them flying after her and see their shadows criss-crossing the sun-dappled ground. But she was feeling fast and powerful, a force of nature just like they were. They had the aerial advantage, but she was bigger, stronger, and incensed. Her reflexes hadn’t felt this sharp since she ran the anchor leg of the 4×400 relay race at the New Jersey state finals. She had been so focused that she could almost see the girl running the third leg coming up behind her and knew the exact moment to stick out her arm to grasp the sweaty baton.
That was how she felt the bird tearing through the air behind her long before it arrived. At just the right moment, she used her momentum to swing her right arm backward as hard as she could. She felt the bird crash straight into the outer edge of her arm and flutter away. She kept running and didn’t look back to see. Only much later would she find out that the split-second encounter had given her a hairline fracture in her arm.
Ten minutes later, Maia reached the top of the stone steps leading down to the beach. Through the rivulets of sweat streaming down her face, she saw the ferry lowering its little drawbridge and the other tourists, looking calm and refreshed, forming a line to board.
She looked behind her. The hills were blocking her view and she couldn’t see what, if anything, was happening in the valley that lay beyond. She wondered if Josh had followed her and then realized, as callous as it was, that she didn’t really care.
Realizing how tired she was, Maia dropped her backpack into her left hand and gripped the iron handrail with her right. She descended the stairs slowly, gazing out onto the water all the while and thinking vaguely about how the islands in the emerald green archipelago looked like giant sea beasts frozen in time.
Áki fell to the ground softly. He landed in a clump of weeds and lay there without moving. It was surprisingly comfortable. He lay for what seemed like hours and watched as the sky turned from dusty blue to a shimmering violet.
His left wing was hurt. The gangly creature had struck him so fiercely. The wing was likely broken, and he could very well never fly again. He wasn’t sure. It didn’t seem to matter. Not now, anyway. It would when he woke up. If he woke up. Only then would he worry about what would happen to Billa and the chicks, and whether he could count on Áron and the others to care for them. But he wouldn’t think about that now. Now, he just wanted to rest.
Áki watched the horizon and waited for the darkening skies and tide to merge into one before finally closing his eyes.
Judy Wang writes fiction while nourishing her inconvenient love for exploring some of the strangest and remotest regions of the world. Find more of her stories plus her musings about travel, art, food, and literature at www.judy-wang.com.