Harold awoke to a terrifying sound. It was both a hiss and a rumble, deep and brash, loud enough that the vibrations wracked his body. The peaceful sanctuary he had stopped to rest in was awash with chaos. Baleful orbs of water fell from the sky, larger than his own head. They pelted within inches of his body, their disturbance of the air palpable. Instinct kicked in immediately and he knew that he had to move. Only death awaited here. Far below, the water pooled and swept away debris with a fierce current – one he knew he could never fight. To either side, the verdant drape Harold clung to curled in toward that vicious rainfall. There was only one way. Up.
A stab of panic sliced through his thorax as he tried, unsuccessfully, to move his leg. The appendage was drenched in water, the strong membrane pinning him down. His heart convulsed in fear as he whipped his gangly body about in a frenzy, flailing from side to side. It held him fast. The weight was unbearable, stifling. Hope began to sweep away from him.
And then he saw her face.
A brief flash across his vision, her beautiful face.
The quiver of her antennae, the multifaceted emeralds that were her eyes. In that moment, she was his strength. He reminded her of everything he had to live for. Of a wonderful wife who would be left alone. Of three hundred children raised without a father. Determination slammed into him with all the force of the drops from above. He commanded his leg to move and it did, eking slowly at first but it moved. Harold strained against the grip, refusing to relent, body quaking with exertion. The membrane gave and Harold lurched upwards.
He scrambled onward, ignoring the screams of his aching body and the trembling of his limbs, dragging himself up and up as fast as he could. Water sloshed toward him, dangerously close, and the air grew thicker and thicker, hot and dense with vapour. His breathing was laboured and unsatisfying, each lungful merely keeping him conscious and doing nothing to stave off the crushing feeling of suffocation.
And suddenly, time was standing still. Water hung suspended in the air. All the vapour in the world could not have made Harold have felt as breathless as the sudden sense of dread he now held. Very slowly, like the crawl of a glacier, it turned to look at him. The thing, the thing that basked in the fitful pelting of the water, turned and looked at him. Harold did not know what they were, nor did he want to know. He wanted as little to do with them as possible. The things were gargantuan creatures of bizarre proportions, their legs barely longer than their bodies and heads grotesquely large. Some said they were keepers of the earth. Others said they were gods. It didn’t matter. They only ever reacted one of two ways to Harold’s people. Hateful anger or cold indifference.
The thing eyed Harold, the protective layer gliding over its eyes and back. He was overcome with jealousy that the creature could hide its sight in such a way. All he could do was stare, betrayed by his own vision, forced to watch his fate with the torturous drag of time. Eventually, the creature chose its path. Choosing cold indifference, it turned its back on him and he was forgotten.
Reality came crashing back to Harold. He was alive. Struggling and suffocating, but he was alive and his resolve remained. This was clearly a sign, he thought. He was meant to live. He chose to live. He continued to climb, fighting his way every agonising step until finally he was mere inches from the top. Then the water stopped. Silence tumbled around him, the only sound to be heard was the persistent throbbing of his heart. It took a moment of confusion for him to realise what had happened but when he did he waved his antennae in elation. He’d made it.
The curtain was thrown back and folds of it came crashing against him. Enveloped in darkness and motion, he could barely hang on, a mere two of his feet left clinging desperately to the fabric, all that was keeping him from plummeting to the damp, soapy abyss. His four loose legs scrambled for purchase but in his panic and disorientation, he could find no hold. As suddenly as the turmoil had started though, it ended. The curtain was pulled taut again, giving Harold the space and light he needed to compose himself and cling safely. He wasted no time in hoisting himself up the last little bit, over the top of the drape and onto the rail.
He hunkered down, taking a moment to try and catch his breath in the thick air. The thing moved on the other side of the curtain now, ignorant or simply uncaring as to Harold’s presence. It moved over to the great screen of light and began to toy with it. Harold watched, forgetting his own near death and laboured breathing. The thing lifted something and then pushed. The screen of foggy light fell away and pure, unhindered light spilled through. At first Harold thought he was hallucinating but a blast of cold, pure oxygen filled air penetrated his lungs, the feeling of which was almost euphoric. He scrambled to his feet to get a better look. The trails of mist upon the air spun and danced as the fresh, untainted breeze from outside swept in, mingling with it.
Harold didn’t need another sign. There had been too many already. He was supposed to live. He would see Maria and all his little children again. He was supposed to live.
Giddy with joy, he leapt from the rail and into the air, wings spreading and hammering to keep him aloft. He whizzed toward the open portal to the outside world, to freedom, to victory. And as he passed the threshold from the watery prison and into the world, he pumped his antennae victoriously into the air.
When, really, he should have been keeping an eye out for that chaffinch.