Alya had always been a dreamer. When she was little she used to imagine her family; a mother with her bright blue eyes and white china-doll skin, a father with her light brown hair and faint freckles on her nose… a kindly grandmother with a wrinkled face and white hair. It was the best she could do, for she had never seen them; she had been found, five weeks old, in a box on the orphanage doorstep, alone in the world. No relative had ever come for her, no mother or father had ever materialised to take her home; her family was a mystery. There was no note nor trace, her name was chosen by the one who found her- in this case, the milkman, who had stumbled upon her in the early hours of the morning.
The workers at the children's home expressed their astonishment that an abandoned child, cold and alone, would make no sound or whimper to alert them to its presence; they worried that she must have caught cold or a chill in the night, or that she had a problem with her lungs, but she was checked over by the local doctor, and he assured them all was well.
The milkman-, whose name was John McCallum-, was shocked by her eyes.
"Bright blue they was," he assured anyone who happened to ask, "and like no bairns eyes that you've seen, I'll wager. They had the knowin', ken what I mean? The knowin'".
Alya certainly did have extraordinary eyes, everyone agreed. She looked out at the world with intelligence, even as a baby, and the air that she was perfectly aware of everything going on, thank you very much. She certainly had, as Mr McCallum would say, the knowin'.
And so began the life of Alya, in the arms of a milkman. She was always an odd child. She never fought or played with the other children, and they avoided her whenever possible. She had an air of melancholy about her, and was, as the carers whispered, very much the lone wolf type. She unnerved them, with her deep thoughts and dreaming eyes and sharp mind. When she was in a good mood she was likely to take your own words and throw them back at you, twisted beyond your meaning. On a bad day, she rarely said anything at all, but stared dreamily at an empty wall and traced the shape of her lips with one long, white finger.
Being without parents or family never really bothered her; her relatives were distant ghosts, figures at the back of her mind. She was very much independent. People looked at her and shook their heads; her dreamy eyes and wistful smile were enough to convince them that her orphan state had been too much for her to bear; they thought her mind was shut, that she had withdrawn herself deep within and locked the door. Alya listened vaguely to them, smiled, and moved on. Her thoughts were elsewhere.
More than anything, Alya loved birds. She was constantly gazing out the window, watching starlings frisking across the rooftops. The schoolteachers had long since given up reprimanding her- they said she was a 'special case'. Alya knew they meant 'stupid' but she also knew that her mind was sharp enough, just different to everyone else's
The carers would often go in the night to check on the children to find her bed empty, covers neatly folded over a pile of pillows moulded to her shape- she had crept away to watch owls. They shook their heads and said she'd come to a bad end, and scolded her upon her return, but apart from that they left her to it. They certainly weren't heading out into the cold night to look for a wandering child.
Outsiders smiled and humoured her- she was small, quiet and insignificant, and the orphanage workers said she was a strange, disobedient child, ill mannered and antisocial. She wasn't particularly pretty, and had no charming laugh, no dimples in her cheeks- therefore she was dismissed as a sullen, shallow child with no personality and little hope in making something of her life. She was glad of this, though she sensed the injustice- it gave her more time on her own.
And so the majority of her hours were spent in the wasteland at the back of the church. The vicar was a good-natured, short sighted old man who rather resembled a mole, and didn't mind Alya in the least- although she wasn't quite sure whether this was because of his good nature or his short sight. But the fact remained she was given free rein over the wasteland to do what she wanted.
She would leap from tussock to tussock, darting like a sparrow through the waist high, whispering grass; and fall, dizzy with laughter, onto the sun-soaked wildflowers that swayed in the breeze, to watch the swooping, soaring martins and swallows that rode the winds far above. Here she could be content, her mind empty of maths and problems and homework; free to wander where it willed, and listen and rejoice at the blissful, wild, happy song of the wilderness. She heard the song in the bubbling stream, in the wind as it stole through the grass, and especially in the trilling, joyful song of the wild birds. Often she longed to be able to join them, to soar through the air and sing her heart out with joy at the first rays of dawn creeping over the horizon. But she was left, no matter how hard she wished, on the ground.
Her life continued along more or less the same steady track- sleep, eat, school, wilderness- until the day of her thirteenth birthday. Then it was torn in half.
It was the morning of the 12th of March- Alya's birthday. She received a few half-hearted presents from the carers and her companions in the Children's Home- mainly those who felt obliged to buy her a present, who bought everyone a present no matter how much they despised them, and those who had old or broken things that they wanted to get rid of, for she had no real friends- she was happy on her own. She thanked them absently- in truth, she was far away, wandering on the hilltops. She set off to school in dream- she was thirteen now. Alya reflected on what another year meant, and came to the conclusion of not much. Still, you weren't thirteen every day.
She didn't see the car, and the driver didn't see her until it was too late. He swore, later, that he hardly touched her and the local doctor who had examined her thirteen years ago agreed. Her heart had given out. It was the shock, he said, rather than any injury that had killed her. As she lay, pale and cold, on the tarmac, she could have been sleeping. There was no blood, nothing unnatural about her pose on the ground that told there was no breath in her body. But her eyes, those blue, dreamy eyes, the eyes that had the knowin', were open, and empty, staring up at the sky and mistily reflecting the sun that she would never see again.
A grave was dug, and a funeral held where not a person shed a tear. The carers said how they had known all along she would come to a bad end, and the village people nodded wisely. A speech was made by the headmaster of the school, lying about how much she would be missed. The cheap, chipboard coffin was placed in the shallow grave and covered in earth- and just like that, Alya was forgotten. Children laughed and played, village people chattered happily, and everyone wandered off. The orphanage children hurried back, eager to reclaim their gifts, and the schoolteachers and village people returned home.
But unknown to them all, high above the clouds, a young kestrel swooped, riding on a thermal. Alya was free.