‘Jumping Off’ by Sarah Evans
Our new short story of the month is ‘Jumping Off’ by Sarah Evans.
Emma, a wildlife photographer, is filming a family of barnacle geese. As the fluffy chicks take their first steps into the world, the cliff-edge of uncertainty lies before them. But what lies ahead in her own life, and is it worth the risk?
Sarah Evans has had many short stories published in anthologies, literary journals and online. She has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and been awarded prizes by, amongst others: Words and Women, Stratford Literary Festival and the Bridport Prize. Her work is also included in several Unthology volumes, Best New Writing and Shooter magazine.
Emma trained her binoculars on the ledge set high into the cliff-side. The grey was flecked by mustard-coloured lichen, the monotony broken by twigs poking out from a sprawling nest. It was one heck of a hike.
‘You OK with it?’ Chris asked, eyes creased with concern; clearly she looked as crap as she felt.
‘Sure.’ It was her turn, she had sod-else to do and no way was she playing on feminine weakness.
‘Best route starts just behind that outcrop.’
She strapped her camera across her back and listened with impatience – unfair, he was being helpful – as nausea rose; if she was about to puke, she didn’t need an audience.
‘I’ll be fine.’ Only one way up.
It felt good, stretching thigh muscles and easing into the climb, following the path that meandered round the side of the sheer face. Breathing in the frozen nothing helped to settle the rebellion in her gut. A boulder barred her way and she sought hand and footholds to scramble up. Her foot slipped as she heard the penetrating rise and fall of a wolf-whistle. What the hell...? She twisted her head to peer down. Simon’s long-nosed lens was pointed her way – on her stuck-out arse no doubt – and his arm was waving mockingly.
Damn it! How could she have been so mind-blowingly stupid.
She reached the top of the rock and paused to sip water, swallowing all that idiocy down. Now was not the time to dwell on her current disaster.
Eventually, she reached the stone-strewn top, hauling herself up into the blast of wind. She was heaving for oxygen, muscle-sore and sweat-drenched as she bent into the gale and stumbled towards the cliff-face. Getting closer, she crouched onto all fours. Closer still and she was crawling on her stomach like a lizard.
Her hands grasped the edge, rocks crumbling under her grip. Cautiously she eased herself forward until she could see the line of the drop. The nest was below and to the right. She unstrapped her camera, securing it in a hollow, the lens providing a magnified view. Sticks and moss stuck out from beneath the black-white body of the female goose. No sign either of eggs, or of the male, though he would be out there, somewhere, faithfully performing his duty, finding food – somehow – amidst the desolate landscape. The nest-site was optimal in terms of avoiding predators; in every other respect the choice seemed downright irresponsible.
Just as she had been. She clenched her hands, inhaling the scent of sour clothes. Six weeks ago, she’d spruced herself up for the TV awards ceremony. She’d mingled with the bubbling crowds and answered questions about her job. How exciting, people gushed. All that visiting far flung places and capturing spectacular sequences on film.
The reality was months away from home in the most inconveniently remote locations. No sanitation, shelter or communication. Always too hot or frozen solid, too dry or dripping with deluge, crawling with insect life or harbouring predators. But the worst of it was the mind-numbing tedium. Wildlife neither appeared nor performed on demand.
Small rocks spiked her breasts, thighs and belly; her neck was stiff from craning. Come on goose! Budge! She couldn’t leave without an update. The barnacle goose stood, unsteady on her spindly legs, and waddled to the edge of the nest. Two eggs lay there. Dirt-yellow. And starting to crack.
She woke to the stink of frying bacon and incipient nausea. Morning was a joke; the sickness lingered most of the day.
She stared at her canvas ceiling and listened to the banter from outside, Simon’s convoluted tale of his latest conquest. Perhaps he guessed she’d be awake and the bluster was for her benefit. Don’t flatter yourself.
She sat up quickly, head spinning, sickness worse. It was hard to fathom the evolutionary function of feeling so bad, when logically her body needed extra calories. Outside the humid warmth of her sleeping bag, the air was breath-mist cold. The light was steely grey. Her legs wobbled as she joined her colleagues, Chris looking embarrassed and Simon’s stream of words switching off, an arrogant eye-flick cast her way. She’d always prided herself on being one of the boys, foulmouthed and foot-free. She’d enjoyed the adventure of lonesome travel and having no responsibilities. Only recently had self-sufficiency started to feel arid. Reaching forty, the cliff-edge of fertility lay ahead: it was such a tired cliché.
The coffee was foul, but at least it warmed her hands. They chatted through their plan. Specialist briefing told them to expect a two day lag. Tomorrow would be all-action. Today, sod-all happening.
They agreed that Chris would hike up and get footage of the day-old chicks, adding to her images of new life emerging damp and bedraggled. Simon would scout out a nearby site and another pair. She would mind camp: hours of wilderness boredom.
A river lay a hundred feet distant and she busied herself with a perfunctory wash and then rinsing off the breakfast things, her hands turning blue as she gave the men time to get gone.
Making her way back, the camp appeared empty – good! – but no, a figure emerged from the main tent, profile black against the white sky.
Tall and with that arrogant, alpha-male slant to him.
Simon watched; no attempt to come help with the pots and bucket of water. Not that she needed help.
Getting close, she saw his smirk. ‘Just you and me in the middle of nowhere.’ She tried to recall the champagne high, body fizzing with desire; all that remained was the bubbles-pricked aftermath and throwing up in his hotel bathroom.
‘Thought you had a job to do.’
‘Got all day. Geese aren’t going anywhere.’ He raised his eyebrows suggestively.
She thought of telling him her news, the thing that they had inadvertently started. It was almost worth it, just to wipe the leer from his face.
Almost, but not quite.
She tidied things away, said she was going to crib some briefing notes and disappeared into her tent.
Laptop battery was halfway down and she did no more than scan the documents. She huddled forward over her knees. All around was perfect stillness, the bliss of solitude. She was a natural loner, atypical for her species, had never succeeded with the day-in, day-out pattern of living with another person. Why imagine that sharing her space with a child would be easier? That the complete upheaval to way of life would prove worthwhile? She had a whole list of arguments, all pointing one way and too well rehearsed to bother repeating. And yet they seemed to miss something.
Emma’s long-lensed camera was trained on that ledge. The breeze cut like ice and her back ached. Come on, do something! Nausea fermented in her throat.
The chicks would already be fluffed up and mobile. Only two days old and it was time for them to learn to forage and feed. Action was imminent.
Currently zero happening.
But she daren’t look away. If she screwed up this opportunity, there might not be another.
She shivered and shrugged her shoulders against the knot of tension, and turned her head left then right, cartilage crunching like walked-over pebbles.
Movement caught the edge of her vision and she snapped alert. Chris, positioned up top, was waving. Action! He would film the initial jumping off. She and Simon had the harder task of capturing what happened subsequently. Her hand was steady on the camera, eye trained on the viewer. She fine-tuned the focus on the black-white blur of the adult geese who were approaching the edge.
The geese took flight, one, then the other, gliding upwards on the air-currents. Finding food was imperative and there was zero-availability on the cliff-side.
She kept her finger poised to alter the angle of the lens. Still no sign of chicks. Right now the twiggy sanctuary of the nest must seem preferable to the unknown.
There! A yellow-brown blob of wide-beaked fluff appeared. Two days old and already quite self-reliant and fully cute. The ball of shuffling curiosity approached the lip of the ledge, and hesitated.
The adult geese circled, yapping noisily. She could feel the wavering of this baby bird. Instinct taught caution, yet remaining in the nest would get the gosling nowhere.
Time stopped in this moment of indecision, leaving space for her thoughts to loop round. She’d never been a cooing over babies sort and statistics proved that having kids didn’t make people any happier; yet neither did anyone seem to regret it. Taking the plunge into the sheer unknowability of having a child and trusting mother-love hormones to kick in: it felt such a bizarre leap of faith.
And then... Emma flipped into reaction mode, trusting to reflex as she tracked the jump, the fall.
The chick tumbled webbed feet over stumpy beak, the decent slowed only a little by the drag of air through its barely formed wings. It hardly weighed a thing, yet it weighed enough for gravity to grip and pull and it was falling fast, faster, faster. Her camera was swooping downwards too and the gosling was going to smash-land.
Her whole body recoiled as she tracked the rock-hard collision on a jagged outcrop. The bird bounced, a sack of bones, flesh and fuzz. It fell again, a shorter distance, an equally unforgiving landing and this time it snagged on the rocks near the bottom. Bile rose in her throat. No further movement.
She thought of the many weeks of parental endeavour. The courtship and nest building. The act of copulation and laying of eggs, which seemed to involve neither the ecstasy nor agony of human equivalents. The routine of taking turns to protect the nest, versus scratching food from these wastelands. All of it come to naught.
Show over! Simon’s camera was already pointed up towards the second chick; she should do the same. Yet she continued training her lens on the gosling which had landed so brutally. One of the adults was on the ground now, heading towards the river. Did the parents mourn? Wonder how they could’ve got things so badly wrong? Crazy type questions spun by her own mixed-up hormones.
She caught a flick of movement; likely just the wind. Nothing could have survived that landing. What mad-arse strategy had these parents invented; how could they for one second have expected it might turn out OK? She would make a lousy mother.
Again! That flicker. The tiny creature was struggling. Surely it would have shattered bones. It would die in pain, rather than having died cleanly.
She kept her focus on the baby bird, willing it to survive, to come through the knocks and bumps and pick itself up, continuing it’s barely started journey. As if her own desires would have any effect. But like a miracle it found its feet, seemingly unharmed, frail legs hobbling rapidly over the stones as it followed its parent, placing its faith, despite the apparent betrayal. She felt a lump rise up and bubble out of her throat. Water misted her eyes. A reaction to focusing so intently on the viewer. Well obviously. She paused to wipe the moisture away.
Plenty of young thrived with imperfect beginnings.
It came from nowhere, the swift slink of an arctic fox. No! But it wasn’t her place to intervene. She aimed her lens on the fox and its pursuit. Unlikely this footage would make the cut, not for family screening. The gosling that had survived such a rude rough and tumble down the jagged rocks had no defence against a sharp-toothed predator.
The fox needed to eat to survive. Perhaps it had young to feed too.
That was the way the world went. Nature was harsh: no uplifting endings, just the knife-edge of survival. No easy answers emerged from the battle of instinct versus reason, uncertainties versus imperatives. There were just wild leaps of faith and the possibility of growing wings.