Every year in spring, the shearwaters and terns return to Fairlie Island, spiralling in from their long migration, exhausted and hungry. The island is still frigid, snow covering the heather, when Evan begins his daily ritual of visiting the beach, checking for black dots in the sky, hunting for the ice melt. Everything he cares about leaves the island. He does not. He waits for the birds to return.
The sky and sea are winter-grey and tired, unforgiving. No break in the bleakness. He presses his hands into his pockets, trudging out to the shore, foot mushing the snow at the ice edge. His dog Tip whines, trembling in the fierce wind. Not yet. The sky is still empty.
He turns reluctantly for home, up the hill to his grandmother’s cottage. She gave up on the island, never came back, leaving her remote home to him, three miles from the one village on Fairlie. Nothing on the island is far away, but this is the farthest. A crumbling stone wall circles the dwelling, and he goes to the gate instead of nipping through the gaps.
Inside his courtyard, his cages are empty, waiting for lost and sick birds. One seagull watches the sky from inside, almost at health again after a broken wing. Tip sits on the doorstep, panting. Evan’s taking too long. Near the doorhandle, someone has plastered a leaflet.
RESETTLEMENT OF FAIRLIE ISLAND RESIDENTS, he reads. His heart beats faster. Who would bring that out here? He saw no vehicle marks on the rutted track. And he’s heard it all before. Leaving is not for him.
He reaches up and tears the paper down, crumpling it in his hands.
He feeds the leaflet to his faltering fire. The smooth paper doesn’t burn so much as char, and in the embers, it smokes. He crushes it with a lump of peat, thinking of those who escaped the island. His mother did it by dying, after his father ran away on a fishing trawler bound for Japan. His grandmother went to an assisted living village on the mainland, even though he could have looked after her in the cottage.
And Claire—his friend. She left on the ferry to see the world. The boat bobbed on the tide, and she’d waved, her red hat bright against the blues. Evan left, unable to watch the boat shrink before hitting the horizon and disappearing. They’d followed correspondence school together, played in the peat bogs, hid in the bay. Sat their exams in the post office, under the eyes of the postmaster. How would he manage without her?
She should swim in the warm sea, and dance under soft lights amongst a crowd. He’d expected never to see her again. But she’d returned a year later, with a boyfriend trailing behind.
The fire flares, the stark words on the leaflet turning to ash. He can’t stand it. He rushes for the door, falling into the courtyard.
It’s time his last bird flies, before the new migration arrives. He loosens the latch of her cage, hands shaking, and swings the door wide. The seagull chirps, opens her wings and beats upwards, scrambling against the westward wind. Gone.
He needs to prepare the remaining cages for the inward-bound birds.
The next morning, frost grows on the inside of his windows despite the fire. He wraps his oilcloth over his thick woollen jersey and steps out, shaking with chill. Another leaflet is tucked beneath the door. He skirts around it like one does a mystery object, feeling his heart rate rise again. Where are they coming from?
He can’t bear to read the words again. He shuts his eyes and snatches it up, shredding it rapidly between his fingers. The fragments he stuffs into his pockets, out of sight.
The dog refuses to stir when he whistles, so he stomps down to the beach alone, venturing out on the frozen sea. He ignores the cracking under his boots and stretches out flat to chip away at a fishing hole. He doesn’t fall through. The fish swarm to his line; he reels in a full string, evidence of Fairlie’s bounty. He can survive here, without anyone.
An onshore wind blows in his hair—the wind that brings his birds every spring. Does he want the season to roll in or not? Full cages mean he’s needed. But time brings him closer to the island’s abandonment. Why would the authorities want to do this?
He knows the answer. Fairlie is too expensive to maintain. No healthcare.
He stands, splaying his feet wide on the ice, tempting fate. Shouts at the sky. “I’m ready! The ice is melting. You can come!”
Only the few seagulls overhead even take notice, and they whirl higher. The string of fish flops out on the ice, dying. He takes the smallest fish and throws it into the water, hoping it will come alive, flick its fins and dive free. But it rolls over and presents its white belly.
The wind catches his coat, and a thousand white paper fragments whirl into the sky, dropping to the ground like scattered hail.
Evan pours himself a third finger of whisky, sips it until the bottom of the glass appears, thick wavy glass marred by bubbles. Like looking through the sea, searching for life.
Fairlie is his end place. He’s attached to the land like a limpet, unable to survive without it. He likes folk in the village, but not at the expense of his island. Supplies will be harder to get hold of. He gets up, wanders to the window, searching for lights. None. Just his own gas lantern, beaming.
A dark shadow crosses the heather and falls, thump, over the rubble of his wall. Screaming, like an ungraceful bird. His fingers tighten over the glass, then he sets it down, throwing on his oilcloth as he lurches to the door. His view is murky, and wobbling. The black shadow has vanished. Irritation rises in his throat. If people come, he’ll care for them, but there’s no need to play games. Where is the fool?
He peers around the corner, and there’s Claire, cradling one wrist awkwardly. He takes her shoulder, shuffling her into the cottage. The lantern illuminates her face, revealing a mottled black eye.
“What happened?” he asks, but he knows. The boyfriend with the manicured nails. She wouldn’t have run otherwise. The man hisses at her in the village, leaning right into her face under her favourite red hat, and he’s seen her flinch.
She says nothing now, and wobbles. Wrapping an arm around her waist, he steers her to his chair so she can slump into it, her head hanging. Bare feet, her toes turning blue.
“You need the doctor,” he says. Fairlie boasts one doctor, a son of one of the oldest families.
She blinks and shakes her head. “No. You mend the birds. You can fix this.”
He doesn’t like it, and protests. A broken wing is something he can straighten out and immobilise. Not a broken arm. She wears him down, repeating no, no, no. He finds a slab of wood, smooths it out and straps her wrist on, tying a sling around her neck. She turns quite white, a snowwoman, as he works. Then she passes out.
He carries her to the bedroom at the back of the house he thinks of as hers. As children they spoke of living together, of how they would not annoy each other, how they would have fun, silence and books. She is an only child, just like him. Those dreams were never meant to come true, but he’s kept a space for her in his life. They both know it.
He wakes before dawn, aware she’s gone. The house feels empty and peaceful; it’s been waiting for her, and now is calm. She touches lightly on him as an adult, a feather floating past, whipped by the wind. Why must she return to the man who hurt her?
He cannot imagine treating her with anything but reverence.
The next day the shearwaters begin to arrive, and they are dying. They fly in over the breaking ice, low and sluggish, faltering and then falling. Some into the water; some on the shore. Evan picks up body after body after body, fingers oily from their feathers, hunting for signs of life, nestling the few with heartbeats into his wheelbarrow. Tears stream down his face and are frozen by the prevailing wind.
Several die journeying from shore to cottage. He tips more bodies into the rubbish hole. Three sickly ones live. Four the next day. The hole fills. Burning feathers make his stomach roil and churn until he vomits into the melting snow.
He mashes millet with honey, hand-feeds the living birds, falling asleep on his feet. Once he’s collapsed into his bed, he wakes in the morning to the insistent nudging of the dog wanting breakfast. Usually, he cannot remember when he ate last. He thinks of Claire, wonders about the parallels of her arriving injured with his birds’ arrival, glad she is a survivor.
When they cease coming, he returns to his cottage to concentrate on the survivors, but there are too few to need him for long. He sets the last one free only days after they arrive. He tries to suppress his questions, pushing them out of his mind, but they bubble to the surface. Why did the birds die? Will they ever come again? Will the few remaining on Fairlie set out on their journeys the next year?
He takes one last trip to the beach, closing that door in his mind. To be unneeded: a sneaky thought that he, too, could leave Fairlie now. No.
When he returns to his front door, three more leaflets are taped on. Who would bring them? A malicious, whispering person from the village, disturbed by his solitary existence? An overzealous official? His cousin Clara, certain he cannot survive alone, who makes him meals and brings them to the cottage in the summer? They will all leave.
He yanks the leaflets down and lays them over his path to the cages. They disintegrate, becoming fibres and slush.
Tip disappears the next day. Evan searches around the cottage, down to the shore, seeing water lapping on the grainy sand, renewing and cleaning the barren beach. Nowhere to hide in this land of tussock and grasses, without digging a hole through earth like a rabbit. Tip has been with him since she emerged from her mother’s body. He feels like he’s short an arm, trying to manage with only one.
He puts her favourite bones and bowl in the porch. Perhaps she’ll sniff the meat out from a distance. Clutching at straws. In the barn, he reverses out the tractor, putting his foot on the accelerator with reluctance. There is so much change.
The sky sits heavy on his shoulders as he drives down the lane. More of those posters line the village, on the sides of the crofts.
He cuts off the folk wanting to speak to him before they start.
“Have you seen Tip?”
Diverted, they search their minds, come up with nothing.
“There were a dog on the mail boat this mornin’,” the general storeowner proffers, when Evan makes it that far. “You know it’s going to happen this time, Evan, the migration? They’re just working on Granny Alba and the Buttons.”
His mother would have called him rude, but he turns away, hiding his reaction. His jaw tightens and his teeth grind. Folk always need to probe.
At the wharf, a notice proclaims the ferry service’s demise. ATTENTION, it shouts. He pulls the paper off, crumples it into the sea.
Tip isn’t here, either.
Even the least faithful of hounds sticks with its master.
His unoccupied cages are a reproach. The porch paint is peeling. He runs his hands over it, scraping away the loose bits. Time he did something about that. Wash it fresh, so the weather doesn’t destroy it further.
A late snow howls around the cottage that night. The morning arises still and serene, a weak sun burning and sparking off the blinding ground. Burgeoning daffodil shoots are buried, the tops frozen into the snow’s crust. He wallows to the shore, finding the water lapping at the snow. This is a reprieve. Nobody can migrate from Fairlie while the snow lies at their doors.
When she steps into his courtyard, her hands grip a bundle of leaflets. Her breath mists the air, and under her gloves and hat, she trembles.
He takes her hand, comparing the mottled blues of her wrist with his own. A few nudges, through the door into the cottage, and she collapses into his armchair, a snowwoman again. He heats water for a bottle to warm her. Does he need to rub her fingers back to life?
Her eyes are open, but blank. He hovers over her. Clucks. Is she still ill?
“Will you come with me to the mainland?” she says.
For the first time, he turns away from her. No wonder she clutches the pamphlets. She’s joining the exodus, obeying the rules. He wants to cry at her that it never actually happens. Every time the powers that be fold, and let them remain on Fairlie.
“It’s proper this time,” she says. “They’ve arranged a house on a moor for Granny Alba. Told her she needs electricity.”
He could have taken care of Granny Alba. He boils water for Claire, putting in a tea bag, stirring in a teaspoon of sugar. He remembers exactly how weak she likes her tea.
The birds would be out there at the beach with nobody to meet them. Tip might come home to find no food or fire. He would be like a small dinghy, a cork with no ballast. Clinging to her instead of protecting and serving. A tree without roots.
“Here,” she says, extending one of the pamphlets toward him. “You could read it.”
He cannot bring himself to reach for it. “I can’t.”
Her face closes up, and the hand drops. Claire’s cage mustn’t be locked. This has always been known between them.
They sit in silence, him perched at the far end of the room, his toes digging in the cracks between the old boards. She slumps sideways, asleep in his armchair. Once again, he lifts her in his arms, birdlike and fragile, and carries her to her room, tucking her into the bed. She’s safe here. The key lies on the bedside table.
In the morning she’s gone, like the last time. She’s plastered the pamphlets to the walls of her room in the night. They shout dates, finalities. A final attempt to get him to change his mind? He shuts the door and thinks he won’t open it again.
In the middle of the next night, he wakes to the dog howling outside his window.