"I trust," said Stephen, "that Captain Aubrey has some valid reason for rousing me out of my bed at this evil hour."
"I couldn't say, sir." The boy stopped at the foot of the ladder to let Stephen go on. "He only asked me to fetch you up as quick as possible."
Above his head was a sound he could not place, a vast whispering that was more of a hush than a noise. As he came level with the deck, the dawn air was filled with a rush of pale blue and flickering white that finally resolved itself into individual shadows, hundreds of them, racing down along the swell of the shrouds and across the gleaming planks.
"Ah, Doctor, there you are," said Jack. "You wouldn't have forgiven me had I let you loll about while this was going on." He gestured with his chin toward the stern of the ship.
Even after Stephen had turned and murmured "family Gruidae" under his breath, he could still scarcely comprehend what he saw. From the bare headland, and for miles on either side, a mass of cranes, cranes in their thousands and hundreds of thousands, were streaming out over the silent water, more and more rising up as he watched, and then, impossibly, still more, until the entire dome of the sky was a pulse of black and white.
"A whole continent in migration!" he cried. "Like Virgil's souls driven to the banks of Styx:
quam multae glomerantur aves, ubi frigidus annus
trans pontum fugat et terris immitit apricis.
"Prodigious, ain't it?" said Jack, "even if I can't quite recall the Latin for it."
Already the leading edge of the flock was nearing the horizon. Beyond it the lakes and reedbeds of Africa still slept in darkness.
"Tomorrow they will feed in the delta of the Nile," said Stephen wistfully.
"Surely that's no reason for us to wait so long. Will you join me for breakfast, brother?"
© 1998 Patrick Otte