The End of the World
by Adrian Kane
Eric lay on his stomach in the dust, clutching the edge of the cliff with both hands. The seagull was some ten feet below, on a ledge that jutted over the surf like a yellow pregnant belly. Its beak was open, its wing was fanned on the rocks, and from here its little eyes glittered, so still that Eric couldn’t tell if it was alive, or dead.
“Eric, is it still there?” Jack hung back by Eric’s knees, torn between his natural anxiety and the siren song of the cliff. Mattie squatted near him, clutching their climbing rope with grim determination. But neither of them could see the gull, and Eric savored his sole possession of the view the way he would a chip of blue beach-glass or a deer’s jawbone thrown up by the turbulent grasses, unmarred by coyotes.
“Still there,” Eric confirmed, eyeing the splintered fan of feathers. “Its wing’s broke. It might be dead.”
“Shut up, Eric, you don’t know anything about birds. Move, Jack.” Mattie flopped down on the edge of the cliff and wriggled up beside Eric. Her thin sheets of hair dropped across Eric’s view as she leaned over, head hanging over the foaming abyss.
“It isn’t dead, stupid.” She turned to Eric scornfully and knocked his elbow. “See, it just moved. It shut its beak. Hey, BIRD!” she shouted, and Eric, stretching himself a little more boldly over the drop, thought he saw the gull’s wing stir.
“All right,” he admitted. “It’s alive.:
“Cool,” said Jack.
In the silence another seagull keened, far off and invisible in the vaults of cloud. Such small sounds rang hollow at the end of the peninsula, breaking the dull and constant throb of the waves hundreds of feet below. It was a quiet born of fifty unmanned years, the isolation of a lone finger of land thrust into the Pacific, and in the silence of the children a natural hush descended again to claim the country for its own. Someone long ago had named the place Cathedral Rocks, for the vaguely medieval spires, arches, and caverns of spray-sculpted stone that rose from the beach, but the children thought of it privately as the End of the World.
“Once we get it,” Eric interjected finally, “what are we going to do with it?” Mattie was the boss, sure, but Eric, thought, at least he was the brains of the group. He thought ahead.
“I say we stay out late and roast it on a campfire,” Mattie put in. “Like Indians.”
“We’ll get caught for sure if we stay out that late. We should help it,” Jack protested. Finally he lay down, crawled to the edge and looked down over the water. His terrified black eyes filled his face, but he wasn’t about to be outdone. “We can rescue it and put its wing in a splint and keep it as a pet until it flies away. I saw some people do it on Animal Planet.”
Eric wrinkled his nose at Jack.
“Do you know how to do it? Fix its wing, I mean?”
“We’re going to cook it,” Mattie declared.
“You want to hurt everything, Mattie.”
“Anyway,” Mattie said decisively, “I’m going to go down and get it, so I get to decide.”
Even though he’d known from the beginning Mattie would be the one to rescue the bird, Eric felt a twinge of disappointment. He imagined bringing it up himself, like Edmund Hilary or some other National geographic hero. Boy, 10, Saves Seagull on Cliff. He would fix its wing and keep it in the cage in the backyard. All his, like a chip of beach glass or the jawbone of a deer.
He imagined reporters. Boy, 10, Saves Seagull on Cliff. Another Child Lost at Sea. In the papers, all the way south to San Francisco. Himself, saying, Tried to save her, but she was hanging on a rope and the rope broke and she doesn’t climb good. (Petting his seagull.) Mattie thought she knew enough to boss us but...
But nobody competed with Mattie. After a moment she tossed one end of the rope over the edge of the cliff and handed the other, matter-of-factly, to Jack. Overhead the clouds were massing, threaded with white, eating up the last of the sun. Jack murmured behind the, “Rain coming.”
“It’s not,” Mattie said firmly. “It’s been sunny all day. You’re just scared.” She looked pleased when Jack flushed. “Now get up and find somewhere to tie the rope.”
Jack stood up. The frayed hemp end that hung over the cliff swung slowly in the gathering breeze. Its monotonous creak mad Eric think of ships lost in the doldrums, somewhere out in that blue distance, crew vanished in silence. A chain clinked behind them: Jack had double-hitched the rope to a ring in the wall of the crumbling Nike missile station, a few yards up the point.
“Is it tight?” Mattie called from the edge of the cliff. She was the hero, she was the boss.
“It’s tight,” Jack called. “Looks like a spider.”
“Come here and hold the rope, then.”
Mattie had tied the other end around her waist and sat with her legs dangling over the hundred-foot plunge, as though perched on a sofa. But her knuckles were white, and she was breathing hard through her nose. Hah! Once they had the bird up, Eric resolved, he and Jack would make fun of her. Maybe they’s tell everyone on the playground how scared Mattie had been. I wasn’t as if it would get around to the parents.
“Okay,” Mattie squeaked. She sounded like a drowning girl, throat full of saltwater. “And don’t let go. I’ll climb down and then I’ll put the bird under my arm and you’ll pull me up.
“Okay,” Eric and Jack chorused. Mattie’s fall. Mattie’s bird.
“Okay,” Mattie repeated. Jack and Eric lay down so they could watch her climb and gripped the rope with both hands, like a game of tug-of-war. Mattie against them both.
“Okay I’m going down,” she said finally, and dropped over the edge.
In a moment Mattie’s tawny scalp had disappeared, and they could see only her spiderlike fingertips. Down Mattie inched, toes seeking blindly for a hold. Through the taut rope Jack and Eric could feel her shaking.
“Okay, Mattie?” Jack whispered, too anxious for the moment to be cruel about the trembling rope. Mattie didn’t answer. Her gaze was fixed on the cliff in front of her. If she looked down she would see the fall, she would fall. She inched to the right, rope stretching taut as she put more weight into their hands. She wasn’t far from the gull now, though it remained entirely still. Her fall, her bird. Mattie always won. Poor, terrified Mattie.
“Okay, Mattie?” Eric echoed, louder. Mattie braced her feet on two little outcrops, looked up at them.
“You shut up,” she snarled, teeth bared. Eric recognized her expression immediately: he’d once seen a coyote driven from a kill by a flock of ravens, pecked half-blind, with the same look of helpless fury. Eric didn’t feel very sorry for her.
Boy, 10, Saves Girl on Cliff.
When Mattie looked away and extended a foot to the shelf below, Eric gave the rope a jerk. He couldn’t help it, it was the sort of thing Mattie would have done. A shriek from below ripped the air top to bottom, a girl shriek. One hand, one leg peeled away from the cliff and she screamed again, flailing blindly in the air for a handhold. The wind tore more rope from the boys’ fingers; Eric dug his toes into the ground and held on with both hands, pulse choking him. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He and Jack couldn’t hold her if she fell. She would fall straight down into the sea. He shuddered, imagining her breaking like an egg on a white-streaked cathedral spire, lingering for a second in pink blood and the being swallowed by a wave, never seen again. It was possible now, it wasn’t just in his head–
But Mattie did not fall. She found a hollow near her left shoulder and dug her nails in long enough to settle her feet underneath her. The now vibrated with her fear, and her elbows flapped in and out like skinny wings. A surge of half-relief and half-triumph surged up in Eric’s throat and emerged as a laugh. Poor Mattie. There was pure bloodthirst in the set of Mattie’s jaw.
“Fuck You!” she snarled, the worst word she knew. “I’ll kill you if I ever get back up.”
“You just do that,” Eric called, giddy with relief.
But Mattie had snapped. Violent, terrified, spinning out over a gulf, she let go with both hands. A sudden weight dropped on the rope and Jack yelped; Eric held on with fingers and nails and was dragged a few more feet nearer to the edge.
“Let go, then, you fuckers! Do it! Go on.”
“C’mon Mattie,” Jack groaned, hauling on the rope. Mattie flailed for a handhold. “Are you crazy?”
“You may as well drop me! Who cares anyway?”
“Mattie, I don’t want to drop you.” Eric clung and felt like he would throw up. “Hold on. We’ll pull you up.”
But Mattie was sobbing and shrieking at once, face nearly blue. Eric and Jack exchanged glances; they couldn’t hold on for much longer. Neither of them had the courage to think what would happen if Mattie didn’t come back from the End of the World that day, if school let out and Mrs. Simmons came knocking on Mattie’s door and no one answered. The Coastguard would come. They would come for Eric and Jack, the only people who knew Mattie, besides the father who would be miles offshore and unreachable. Eric and Jack would cry in front of cameras. They would look for her if she fell but they wouldn’t find her; there would be a pink mist and then nothing but waves.
“Let go of me!” Mattie squalled. “Let go! See if I care. See if they care.”
She would live in the papers for a week, then the excitement would die and she would fade up and down the coast until she became just one more of the century’s sacrifices to the sea.
“Forget the bird,” Eric said, trying to keep his voice level. “Just climb back up.”
Mattie clung to the rope, pressing her sticky flushed face against it.
“It’s dead, anyway,” she choked. “The bird.”
“Mattie, we don’t want you dead.”
“We don’t. C’mom.”
Inch by inch, Mattie reached for a protruding rock in the cliff. Caught it. Devoted herself to self-preservation, clawing her way up the sheer rock face with more willpower than physics. Eric and Jack threw their backs into the rope and hauled with all their guilt, and in minute Mattie was kneeling on the earth, hands and feet raw and tears streaming down her cheeks. Jack and Eric sat down beside her, exchanging another look. Tentatively Jack reached out and touched her shoulder, making sure she was still there, still skin and bone. As though this were Mattie’s ghost and the real Mattie was below, swept away by the tide. But she was Mattie, all right. Big and mean and bawling.
“Hell,” Mattie said suddenly, wiping her nose. “Hell, it was just a stupid bird.”
There was a pause. Then Eric slapped her shoulder, like a movie cowboy, and the Jack flung his arm around her neck, and Eric flung one arm around Jack and the other around Mattie, and she put her arms around both of them, and for just a moment, a moment which all of them, mortified, would erase from their minds that evening, the three children huddled together at the edge of the cliff and realized they were all alive.