Caged Canary || Alex Marroquin

On the island of El Hierro, José Fonseca types the last of his letter—his personal manifesto that no one will see—before finally clicking “send.” Five hours of deleting and tinkering with complex words with little comprehension. He sips his final cup of coffee as the computer confirms the download. He watches the viewer counter on the bottom right corner of the screen.

The hours pass as slow as a rusty meat grinder. José refuses to cook himself any food from or slaughter the one sick chicken wheezing in its cage. José refuses to drink a sip of water from the single, half-full bottle lying on his mat-tress. Even as the orange of sunset scans his face, José still refuses to budge. By nightfall, not a single person has seen the letter, nor do any remaining people care enough to click and read the entire document. José’s eyes start to feel heavy with fatigue and frustration. The waves of the surrounding Atlantic calm José into rest with his one wool blanket left speckled with moth holes. The next morning, a disheartening wail wakes José. After swatting the flies off his face, José listens for the sounds until they seem too familiar. The cries remind José of his Great Dane Pablo, who ran away into the beaches during the final quaran-tine.

“Pablo!” José cries out with his first smile in months. The barking sends deeper shivers down his spine, driving him outside his failing impromptu shelter. “I’m coming, boy!”

In only a pair of sweatpants and the wool blanket over his shoulders, José grabs his rifle—he counts just three bullets left—and runs through the litter of decaying bodies and food scraps. His smile grows as he nears the source of the barking.

“I’m here, Pablo! I’m coming!” He whistles for Pablo, calling him to come back. After five minutes of joyful sprinting, José encounters a beached monk seal with deep gashes in clean, precise cuts.

The wailing seal lies still, preventing any more flesh from falling out of the wounds. José stands petrified as the seal flails in fright of the human presence. He finds a spear with a piece of rope tied to the rear end protruding from the opposite side of the seal. José inches closer to the seal which shudders and curls after seeing the rifle. Unable to move except with fruitless flopping, the seal remains helpless as sunlight cooks its exposed flesh, or the seal’s immense weight succumbs to gravity. A horde of aggressive seagulls with black-tipped beaks hover above and wait for their impending meal. José reaches for the spear and fights off the gulls, careful to avoid the greenish fluids dripping from their eyes and beaks, until they leave the seal in peace.

“I’m sorry, Pablo,” José whispers as he aims the tip of the spear towards the seal’s neck. José’s fingers stiffen from the possibility of the free supply of food in front of him. The seal suddenly stops barking and turns its face away from José and towards the calm ocean only ten feet away. After contemplating, José throws the spear into the ocean. He sits on the blood-stained sand and pets the seal as he would for Pablo. The odor of the seal’s rotting innards have little effect on José; he kisses the drying forehead of the seal before racing back home to retrieve his starving chicken, which he promptly kills with a rock, and a jar of honey. As he makes his way back to the seal, José hears the wailing return. From afar, José sees a man and a woman digging their hands into the wounded seal.

“Leave him alone!” José screams. The two people look up to see José, but they resume their flesh gathering without response. José aims his rifle and takes his first shot at the man devouring the seal meat. He falls onto the sand and lies motionless. His female accomplice scatters with a sack of seal meat dripping a neat trail for José to follow. José reaches the seal, now resting with a permanently fear-stricken face: its eyes and mouth are wide open. A stream of salty tears still drips from the brief moment of comfort with José. Next to the carcass, the victim of José’s bullet pleads in French. José ignores the pleas, and lays a tribute of honey glazed chicken in front of his seal. He gives one last kiss before following the trail left by the female accomplice to the murder.

The blood trail climbs over the grassy hill overlooking the village of Pase-ando. Thanks to the height and the gleaming rooftops, Paseando appears to be a haven protected by a ring of Phoenician juniper trees. This natural barrier, like the steel fence, proved useless against the plague that nearly wiped the pop-ulation from El Hierro. On top of the hill, José spots the woman, still clutch-ing her bag of meat, running into a small house on the far east wing of the vil-lage. José walks calmly downhill. He kicks aside the blue helmets and skulls off rotting corpses with camouflage clothing. Hundreds more blue helmets, along with their respective bodies, lie face down across the hillside like a field of blue poppies. Some decayed faces retain bulging eyes and split mouths that charac-terized the infected. As José nears Paseando, the bodies of the villagers appear like roses in a garden of yellow tulips. José steps over his long-gone friends and neighbors to finally reach the ring of juniper trees. They are strangely greener than he expected. The leaves look fuller, more developed, and more alive than they were when the quarantines began.

As with everything that appears to be shimmering with hope, Paseando is drastically disappointing upon a closer look. The shining roofs comprise old ceramic roof tiles covered with bodies of those who starved waiting for rescue. The torn and looted markets are as barren as the rest of the Canary Islands. José glances at the ruins where he used to play and explore. The infected avian con-querors have taken shelter to rest from their travels. On the central road that bisects the village, the blood trails wind through the bookstore where the pages will provide food for moths and fungi, a coffee shop where all the wonderful flavors of coffee bean will never be consumed again, and the alleyways where neither men nor women will ever enjoy the pleasures of brisk intercourse. The trail ends in front of the corner butcher shop.

Flies and their maggot offspring cover the few remaining pieces of beef and pork in the display window.

Inside the shop, José hears a soft mouth chewing on tender meat. He pokes into the malfunctioning back freezer by pushing aside the plastic with his rifle. A bug-eyed young woman, maybe in her early twenties, wearing only a pair of shorts and a hoodie drops her lightly browned seal meat. Like a cornered feral cat, the woman hunches her back and waves a small dagger for defense. José shoots his gun once more, intending to give her a quick death. The bullet pierces her lower abdomen instead of her head. She trembles like the seal on the beach and begs for mercy in French. José takes the bag of seal meat and grabs the woman’s arm to pull her outside where the infected birds catch sight of her. Without thinking of possible trade deals or considerations, José covers the woman with the pungent seal meat. The gulls and native birds fol-low the aroma of carrion and flock towards the French woman, who kneels on the ground and prays for a quick death. Dozens of beaks sink into her arm and breasts to pick all traces of the seal meat. The woman’s screams stop suddenly as a result of the numbing thanks to the germs from the beaks. The brief moment of calm is broken by violent vomiting and convulsions. Rage persists and out-grows the pain of the beaks while she watches José leave Paseando.

One eventless journey later, José returns to his beloved monk seal whose ribs are already being cleaned by more infected birds. José sits with his seal, shooing away any bird that comes near. He sighs, realizing that he can no lon-ger hug or kiss his dead pet. Without any chance of loving touch, José destroys his pathetic home only to return with nothing but his dying laptop. He returns to the forum which declares his letter received some outsider attention. A user from Belgium, Troubleshere162, with no profile picture and no descriptions of himself left only a single reply: an ad for a pornography site featuring slender European women. José throws the laptop into the sea.

José speaks with the monk seal of his beachside childhood and his aspira-tion to travel abroad: mainland Spain, Italy, Malta, New York, now likely either fighting the rampaging bacteria or already fallen to the disease. The sun reaches its end. The last of the orange glow subsides, only to bear the return of the wounded French woman. She lingers with bulging eyes and a split jaw as Mr. Hernandez and the other inhabitants of El Hierro had done only a few months ago. She points her half-devoured hand towards the ocean and shouts “Boat!” in near-incomprehensible Spanish.

“Why did you kill him?” José asks while staring at the rotting seal corpse.

The Frenchwoman continues to point while shouting, “Boat!”

“I will give your boat an hour to come around to this exact spot.” He cocks his rifle, preparing the final bullet. “I bet both of us will die before it arrives.”

Thirty minutes pass.

A fishing boat with French and Spanish flags flashes its searchlights for hopeful survivors. The sailors see only a faint glow from the beach ahead. The boat docks close to the shores of El Hierro. The crew prepare emergency boats and first aid kits to welcome their new guests. The sailors scouting for survivors find a laptop on the brink of losing its power. One by one, the crew gathers to join in reading José’s final letter. Those who read voted to remain on the island and stare into the empty sea as the rest of the crew search the interior of the island. A young cabin boy begins to converse with the infected corpse of a woman. In his eyes, she is as beautiful as the models of Paris. He leans in for a gentle kiss.

This was originally published in Spring 2018 edition of The Helix.