In a time when the greatest cities are still young and their grey boundaries have not yet stretched from coast to coast across the broken world, Pigeon goes to see Rat.
Her feathers are rich and brown, her beak gleams. ‘But I am weary,’ she says. ‘These growing cities are like the hungriest of predators. My lands diminish; my children are hunted and killed and eaten. I wish to make my peace with them, so my children may thrive. Tell me, what must I do?’
Rat sees Pigeon’s distress. His nose twitches and his black eyes shine. He thinks.
‘You must go to the Guardian of Creatures’, he says. ‘And you must offer him that which is most precious. If you do, he will grant you one desire. But make sure you voice it well, for the Guardian is wily, and he is more than he seems. He must say to you, ‘I Promise’ and then your wish is sure.’
‘Where is the Guardian?’ asks Pigeon.
‘Fly’, Rat tells her, ‘Fly far, fly into the sunset until the cities are behind you and the horizon is beyond the edge of the world. And there you will find him’.
So, as the sun lowers towards the horizon, Pigeon beats her brown wings and rises into the darkening sky.
She flies west, towards the failing light. As the great sun swells and sinks, as it turns blood-red and floods the lands with its own death, so Pigeon sees the lights of the new cities glittering. They call to her and she is afraid of them, of what will become of her family. Pigeon flies until she can fly no more, until she is sure that she must have reached beyond the very end of the world – and then she sinks, her wings failing, her chest pulling with pain.
There is a creature there, a creature of all forms and of none. Its eyes are brilliant with energy, but she cannot see it clearly – she knows not whether it has two feet or four, wings or paws, fur or feathers. ‘Welcome,’ it says to her, in a voice like the sky. ‘You have flown long and bravely. Tell me, what did you bring to the edge of the world?’
Pigeon has no doubt that this is the Guardian of Creatures, and she remembers what Rat has told her. She says, ‘I carry nothing, only the love of my children. But if I offer you my egg, will you give me your promise? Will you guard them down through the generations, as these cities swell and grow? Will you make us safe? Will you let us live in peace with the greatest of predators?
The Guardian of all creatures has eyes of many colours. Their pupils shift – now narrow like Cat’s, now long like Goat’s, now round, like those of Man. He regards Pigeon’s single, precious egg and he says, ‘I Promise’.
But the egg is cold inside; her flight has rendered it lifeless. The Guardian says, ‘You have tried to deceive me, Pigeon.’
Pigeon cries out and flaps her wings. She says, ‘You gave me your promise!’
‘So I did,’ the Guardian tells her. ‘And I will keep it.’
As it speaks, so it stands taller – on two rear limbs with its eyes like the light of the red setting sun. It says, ‘I promised you would live in peace with the greatest of predators. And so you shall. The greatest predator is not the city, Pigeon – it is the Man within, it is Man that swells the cities. And you will go there, and you will dwell alongside him. And you will be mangled and reviled and dirty; your feathers will be grey, your feet will be broken and you will eat your own kind as they lay dead upon the filth. But you will multiply, and your children will be safe.”
As he speaks, so Pigeon’s wings darken and her feet curl into toeless broken stubs. She can no longer walk – but she can still fly. She can fly away, fly back beyond the edge of the world, she can find Rat, make him tell her how to undo this horror…
But as the red eyes of the Guardian fade into the darkness, she understands too late how Rat himself has known the truth of the Guardian’s guile and promise.
Rat has already made his own bargain. And she will be seeing him again, down among the dirt heaps of the greatest of predators.
(The illustration is by Susan Seddon Boulet. Though you probably knew that!)