_________________________________________Kyra, Outskirts of Saelyn - 4'2'196'5
His breath hung in the air, an unmoving fog that blurred his vision. All around, blinding white snow buried everything from the once swaying grass to the graceful boughs of the saelpines. Nothing was spared the onslaught of winter’s most bleak, yet wondrous condition. The blue jay’s claws sunk deep into the snow with the crunching of so many thousands of tiny ice crystals that succumbed to no more than a mere footstep – one of many trekked by the bird that night. Feeling the sting of the cold in his throat, the jay held his beak tight, breathing through his nostrils until they went numb. He switched back to his beak as long as he could hold out.
The subtle silver light filtering through the distant wisps of clouds lining the far horizon began to disappear, leaving a lonely pale blue clinging to the air. While the sky grew darker, the snow cover seemed to brighten with an eerie winter’s night glow. What little light remained of the relentlessly short days was soaked up by the snow in the few lingering minutes.
A sudden fluttering of wings and the sound of clawsteps alerted the jay. He spun around and ducked low, letting the growing depth of snowfall cover his presence. It hardly did him any good. He knew was being watched.
The jay let out a short whistle. He waited a few seconds, hoping to hear a friendly response.
A second rustling from the other direction startled him. They had him surrounded. He would have no choice. He would have to fight his way out. The looming saelpines seemed to close in around him, blocking his every escape.
Drawing a sharp breath, he sprinted for the cover of a berm, hoping to distance himself from the rustling. One hit and it would be over - he wasn’t about to give them an easy target.
The jay ventured a peek over the top of the snow bank hoping the snow-encrusted parka covering his head and torso would obscure his silhouette. Peering into the gathering gloom, he saw nothing. He waited a full minute longer in the freezing snow to make sure the coast was clear. The jay shivered deeply, exposed feathers heavy with frost, trying to convince himself that he rustling he heard was nothing more than a branch giving way to the weight of snow or something.
The blue jay was on edge. He’d have to make a mad dash to the safety of the clearing only a few hundred paces ahead.
He stood up, readying himself for the sprint of his life. One…
He counted in his head, giving himself just enough time to quell the stinging numbness in his lungs. Two…. This was it. It had to be now. The feathers on the back of his neck prickled, adding to the already oppressive weight of apprehension. He was certain his foes were waiting for him to move. It was exactly as he feared. He knew it. He felt it. THREE… He took one step and felt the icy cold smack in the back of his head. He fell, beak-first into the very snow bank he had sought protection from.
The teal feathered jay spat out a beak of snow, turning to face his assailant. Orin cursed to himself seeing Mati perched on top of the berm, laughing her feathers off.
“No fair!” Orin complained. “You got me from behind!”
“You’re just a sore loser, Orin” a second young jay hopped down from a low branch right above him. The snow compressed under her light frame as she trudged towards Mati, her deep blue feathers blending well with the darkening night. Stopping next to Mati, she brushed her wispy crest feathers out from in front of her eyes before looking at the downed jay. “We won! Get used to it!”
“Yeah Orin,” Mati added spreading her wings defiantly. “Besides, you hit Kalli from behind – it’s only fair!”
“Hmph,” Orin turned his beak away from her.
“Aww, poor little chick can’t take losing, can he Lu?” Mati lamented mockingly to her compatriot.
“Nope,” Lu laughed playfully, piling more snow onto the teal jay who laid in snow feeling sorry supremely for himself. Adding insult to injury, he tried to swat out at Lu only to knock the top snow off the berm straight onto his already snow-laden body. Mati and Lu burst out laughing.
Mati reached down and pulled at his wing. “Let’s go find Kalli and Ray! It’s getting late.”
Lu pitched in and helped Mati heft the shame-stricken jay out of the snow and onto his feet.
“Three-on-two isn’t fair, Mati,” Orin beaked up sullenly, blushing hotly under his grey-green feathers.
“Fine,” Lu smirked knowingly. “Next go, you and Mati can be on the same team!”
“No I mean…” Orin stammered. “I just wanted…”
“Oh, you know you like each other!” Lu grinned.
At this, Mati’s crest flattened against her head – an involuntary sign of embarrassment. Just as Lu began a lighthearted giggle, Mati launched a clawful of snow at her, freckling the dark blue jay’s stunned face with icy powder. Without missing a beat, Lu swooped to the ground and sprung a wingful of topsnow right back at Mati, clumps bursting up into a fine mist of flakes that sprinkled back down over Mati’s feathers. Bursting out in laughter, Mati shoved Lu into the snowy berm. She grabbed Orin’s wing and yanked him quickly along the trail.
“Urg….This isn’t over, Mati!” Lu grunted, trying to right herself in the unforgiving snow.
“Heehee! C’mon!” Mati trilled as she and Orin took off.
Lu finally managed to stand back up. Quickly shaking her feathers off, she tore after Mati and Orin.
It was a short chase. Lu was too fast for the pair, and before either could duck away, they found themselves rolling once more in the dusty snow as Lu tackled them to the ground.
“Told ya!” Lu smiled smugly. “Now we’re even!”
“Fine! Just help us up, beak-face!” Mati growled trying to lift Orin off her midriff. “Erggg…Orin, I can’t breath!”
“Let go of me then!” Orin grunted.
“I should just let you two enjoy your time together,” Lu grinned.
“Shut up, Lu!” Orin slyly whipped out his claw and grabbed her leg.
“OH!” Lu collapsed on top of them.
“Thanks Orin,” Mati squeaked pinned under the pressure of her friends. “Thanks a lot!”
Suddenly, the suffocating urge to move drove Mati to lever herself against the ground and slide out from under Orin’s back. She heaved an exaggerated gasp as she freed her torso. “Skies you’re too HEAVY! You two are never going to get off the ground tomorrow!”
“Umph, what’s that supposed to mean!?” Lu grunted, lifting her self from the jumble of legs, wings, feathers and snow. “Orin’s the one squashing you!”
“Hey! The practitioner said I just needed to get into shape!” Orin protested.
“Whatever you say, Orin,” Mati giggled.
“What!? You’re just jealous I’m going to be a better flyer than you!”
“Hehehe! Right, I’m SOOOO jealous!” Mati nudged Orin’s wing.
“Uh-huh, I know you are!” Orin shoved her back.
“Oh, just kiss and get it over with, you two!” Lu smiled.
“Okay, I will…” Mati shot back.
Orin felt his stomach drop straight into his claws.
“…but only if you make out with Ray!” Mati announced haughtily.
“Uh…I…heh, c-come on let’s get going,” Flustered, Lu only managed a nervous twitter in retort.
Trudging briskly, their small claws sinking in the soft snow beneath them, the three jays made their way to a pristine vista over Kyra where two small figures were waiting. Beyond them, the sloping field rolled down towards the pinpoints of Kyra’s lights just materializing through the misty nighttime fog.
“’BOUT TIME!” a muffled voice of a young male echoed over the snow.
“Ray! Kalli!” Lu called back, her breath trailing behind her as the trio marched towards the siblings.
“There you are!” Kalli shuddered. “Ray and I wanna go home – my feathers are frozen over.” She held up an ice encrusted primary and shook it clean, spraying dusty snow over every bird.
“For sure,” Mati said. “Let’s go!”
The five young jays huddled together and started down the slope towards the bejeweled streets of Kyra. Orin took a special interest in asserting his place by Mati’s side, often doubling his pace with a harried intent to stay just within her attention. He strained for something interesting to say, but nothing struck his beak. It’s probably better this way, Orin lamented sourly.
Soon enough, the five fledglings were treading lightly back to Kyra’s plazas. Once among the warm walks and flyways, the young jays were greeted with a subtle sigh of familiarity. Claw-packed snow was suffused wth welcoming amber light from the numerous portals of cozy lofts and street-front bays. Even in the frigid air, the light painted a comforting sunset-colored twilight under the cloud-soaked night sky.
Above the streets and terraces, hundreds of red and green lanterns hovered on thin cables zig-zagging across every imaginable gap of black sky. Something special and exciting arose in Mati’s breast. The efforts of trudging through the snow evaporated, replaced with some warm sensation of floating under the festive lights. She wanted to run - to fly – to zealously delight in the birthright of all birds!
Mati was not alone in her revelry. Throngs of jays were out enjoying themselves amidst the supernal pleasures of the festive evening. Couples snuggled as they walked, lost in their shared warmth; harried hens hustled their hatchlings in and out of countless shops; small groups of fledglings just like Mati’s flittered around the larger adults, delighting in newfound independence.
The crowds would only grow denser in the coming evenings as the Chae Festival of the Nocturnes pressed on to the first days of spring. It was that very joyous time when Chae’s young wayward migrants would be returning home, their last step into adulthood completed.
It had been generations since migrations had any tangible bearing on society, but many young birds still practiced the timeless traditions. Even if now it was merely a pleasant honeymoon celebrating passage into adulthood, the Festival of the Nocturnes was as lively as ever - their homecomings guided by the ever vigilant nocturnal serenades. From choirs that lined the streets to solitary voices singing from cozy burrows, hundreds of songs rang though the streets, calling out into the night.
Even as she lingered on the edge of her own adolescence, Mati couldn’t quite explain or understand the significance of the pre-spring festival and all it meant to birds only a few years her senior.
Though most birds Mati’s age had left the safety of their parent’s breast feathers, ready to explore the world around them with their school flocks, their explorations were tempered only by their inability to fly. They were never far from home. While they would not be fully fledged for another year or two, in the few months since she joined her school flock, Mati was spending less and less time at the villa. Even the long absence of her father began to weigh less on her wings. She was growing up, no longer the lost little fledgling running through the vineyards late at night looking for her kala.
She still alighted home every night, spending a few hours before sleep chatting with Marelo on her tapslate. It was a meager substitute for their time spent apart. Now, the inevitable hormones of adolescence began to lead her further into the wider world with friends she’d soon count dearer than her own blood relations. Even now, Mati found herself staying out later and later into the nights with her flock.
Even so, Arlyn or Hael or another of her little flock’s parents would always be somewhere nearby, ready to usher their tired fledglings off to their lofts for the night. The nightly ritual of searching out whichever parent was waiting for them had become a bit of a fun little game to Mati and her cohorts.
Tonight, it was a bit more difficult to find them. Too many birds were gathered around the many cafes’ wall sized holo-projections. Adding to the ethereal frenzy of the Festival, Saelyn’s olaya team was in the midst of the season’s championship tournament, playing against their heated rival from Moloakio - Chamaica. Raucous trills punctuated the singing of the festival choirs that night, as if the mere energy of tuning-in to watch would edge their city’s chances to bring home the coveted championship cup. She couldn’t help it – with a gasp of longing, Mati immediately thought of her father. He always loved watching this team. He’d be so excited to see them compete - if he were home. She vaguely wondered if he was watching wherever he was.
“Over here! They’re in this one!” Kalli was the first to spot Arlyn, perched with Hael and Lu’s mother through the corner window of Té Rutón – a fancy little twilight bistro Arlyn enjoyed. Mati didn’t have to guess that her aunt picked the place to meet tonight.
The fledglings filed through the café’s heat soaked perching porch, quickly threading through the feathery crowds towards the broad front window.
“Well well!” Hael cawed above the low din and clamor of the café. “Our brave little wings return from the snow fields!”
Mati sidled up to Arlyn who slid a small cup of pepper tea towards her. Mati carefully lifted the drink to her beak, breathing lightly through the rising tendrils of steam. She took a sip and passed the cup to Orin. “Here!” she smiled happily.
Orin grew visibly nervous, shrinking into his feathers that only seemed to involuntarily puff out around him. “That’s okay…I-I’m fine.”
“Oh come on now, drink up!” Hael nudged his fledgling. "In fact, why don’t I order a round of kadomuut for you all? They’re finally in season!”
“Ooh! Yes please!” Kalli trilled. Kadomuut nuts, when roasted just right, were a chae’s favorite wintertime treat, only in season amidst deep mid-winter freezes.
“So, are you all ready to start flight practice?” Lu’s mother, Kazanda, inquired in a wistful airy tone.
“Yes nala!” Lu nodded intently.
“I hope kala gets back in time for the first take-offs!” Mati chirruped and looked at her aunt pleadingly. “Is he coming home soon?”
“He’s on his way back now, love” Arlyn answered cheerfully. “I’ll meet him at the skyport tomorrow while you’re with your flock.”
Mati squeaked excitedly, even though she had already known the answer before she asked. Nearly every day since Mati had learned when her flock would be undergoing their first take-off ceremony, she had asked Arlyn when her father would return. Every day, Arlyn ticked away another feather, counting down until now - there was just one more night to go! It was just satisfying to hear again, one last time – just to make sure.
Contented, Mati took a deep sip from her pepper tea now that it had cooled comfortably. She didn’t much care for the stark pungent sensation of the pepper; it seemed more like broth than a tea to her. It was nice, however, to drink something warm after a day in the cold.
Mati reached for a kadomuut, lifting a claw from her perch, but before she could grip one, Arlyn brushed her claw back onto her perch. “Mati! It’s rude to reach like that!”
Arlyn lifted the elusive nut with a fluid sweep of a primary and her alula ‘thumb’ and placed it in the complementary dish of honey that had been placed in front of Mati.
“There, bring your food closer like that!” Arlyn smiled maternally.
Mati rolled her eyes, exacerbated with her aunt’s impromptu lecture on mesa manners. The sweet allure of honey-dipped kadomuut was too much to bother with manners.
Orin snorted a mischievous chuckle and followed Mati’s lead, brazenly reaching out with his own claw to gather up another of the delectable treats. Politely, Mati slid the honey dish closer to him. Without missing a beat, he slurped a gratuitous swath of honey and gave it to Mati before grabbing one more for himself. Mati gratefully clipped her beak down on the spontaneous gift.
“What’d I say, Arlyn?” Hael nudged the lavender jay perched next to him. “Look at them, a couple of right love birds we have here, don’t we?”
“How sweet,” Arlyn swooned bittersweetly. She didn’t need Hael to tell her what she already knew - it was quite obvious to Arlyn that Orin and Mati have grown quite fond of each other in the many months since that late summer morning. The same morning that delivered the dreadful news that swept Marelo away from her and Mati. At least something good had come of that day, Aryln thought, wistfully smiling over Mati and Orin.
“Mati and Orin got feathers on their breast! Catch em when the sun goes down, kissing in their nest!” Lu chirped unabashed at the eyes that shot her way.
“Pardon me?!” Kazanda gawked at her daughter.
Mati burned and looked away from Orin and the others. If she weren’t all the way across the mesa, she’d have cuffed Lu off her perch.
“Should I sing a little song about you and Stelray in front of everyone? You’ve got feathers for him, don’t you?” Kazanda asked, just loud enough for everyone to hear.
“NALAAAA!” Lu gritted angrily.
“Hmmhmm,” Kazanda chuckled wryly and began preening her daughter’s plumy crest feathers; much to Lu’s blazing embarrassment. Kalli just giggled, escaping the romantic entanglements of her flockmates.
Kazanda’s ruse to even the share of the fledglings’ collective discomfort was hardly enough to make them feel any better. Next to Mati, Orin had immediately shrunk down onto his perch, burying his beak into his pepper tea, clearly wishing it would shield his flushed face from the world. It just made resuming her pepper tea all the more scintillating.
Apologetically, Hael ordered one last round of kadomuut, this time making sure to supply each fledgling with their own share. Paired with more wonderfully calefacient pepper tea, it wasn’t long before the twitter and chatter of the fledglings tapered into content, sleepy silence. With the cue taken, Arlyn, Kazanda and Hael bid goodnight to one another, and led their young charges home.
_________________________________________In-transit Above Avea
~ Do you remember what I told you? What I said? ~
Traversing the seas, but never alighting to rest, the fabled Sierene albatross once flew high above Avea’s vast oceans where the winged inhabitants of Avea could scarcely dream to reach. The ancient Sierene had long ago faded into distant mythology; had long ago been cast aside by modernity’s instance; had long ago become another of the world’s lost legacies. Only the most pagan religions of nomadic gulls from the deeper untouched coasts of the world ever gifted mention of the graceful white birds from beyond the sea and sky.
~ Tell me again, Skye… ~
Stories of great birds that always flew just beyond the horizon had, sometime in the last decades, found their way to the ears of some elegiac Molokai engineer. As silently and unceasing as the fabled ancient birds, the Molokai-designed Sierene skyliner coasted just above Avea’s atmosphere skimming across the thin boundary between sky and space. The skyliner traced a long drifting arc above the jagged northwestern reach of Avea’s most populous continent.
~ Everything thing is different now, Marelo. The world will never be the same…we’ll lose hundreds to endless nights of conflict. Up there, down here…we’ll all share the same fate whether we care to admit it or not. ~
Traveling the relatively short distance between the Havan capital and his home in sub-orbit was expensive and impractical. The launches required the finest precision and complex timing to negotiate the global network of sub-synchronous docking stations that continuously moved in and out of alignment. But no other means of travel was as fast and the solitude of gliding serenely above the planet was perfect for a bird to lose themselves in thought. Besides the attendants, Marelo was the only one aboard the Artimea-chartered craft. The whole experience was hypnotic.
~ Thounsands, likely so many more… ~
A barely audible chime from the display at the head of the spacious ovoid passenger cabin illuminated craft’s trajectory as if the information interested him. At the very least he noted it intersected with one of the docking stations, moving along a tangential curve. They would intersect on time. He’d have an only a short while aboard the station if he wanted to make the drop to Saelyn as the station passed over the city. Marelo laid back in the overly large chair, shuffling against the latches that kept him secure in microgravity.
~ Distance is no longer a concession for our differences. Lessons we’re still forced to learn. ~
Marelo shifted against the loose hanging harness keeping him attached to the seat he occupied. The seat obviously designed to accommodate the much larger hawks the craft normally ferried. Every adjustment and correction the pilot made left Marelo drifting slightly free. It wasn’t a discomfort, but the sinking, hollow feeling in his gut that orbital travel left him with never dissipated, no matter how many journeys he made between Saelyn and Kalahasi. One of these days he was just going to get up and fly there on his own two wings – to hell with technology and hawk accommodations. He just wanted to fly again.
~ So what will you do? ~
Abruptly, his senses lost their orientation. His head spun dizzily as the pilot tilted the craft preparing to make contact with the dock. Despite the small warning light telling him to remain seated, he pushed the latch back. It released its embrace with a hydraulic buzz and Marelo drifted free.
~ What won’t we do? Generations will look back at this time, there’s no doubt. We cannot let this moment fall to attrition and hatred. ~
Clutching a grip bar, Marelo pushed away from the hull towards the axial flyway that ran the length of the craft. Spinning slightly against his control, he waited until his body was aligned with the front of the ship, and then flapped his wings. The air in the cabin gave way and he propelled himself forward. His sudden movement through the chilled, filtered air incited a tremble beneath his plumage.
~ So you’ve made up your mind. But what of Kale? What of our family? ~
There was no right way up in orbit, but wide planet-side view windows were directly “under” him. The immediate vertigo of his lofty free-floating vista took his breath away. The rising sun hung over the south-eastern horizon, brazenly bathed the world in intense blue-white luminescence. Chae’s snow-drenched landscape stretched horizon to horizon with Saelyn drifting towards the center. The city itself was obscured below swaths of glowing morning haze – part pure white fog, part night-side radiance of the city.
~ The world has changed, Marelo… ~
Marelo drifted along the craft, mesmerized. He was floating free, miles above his beloved home. Frozen. Beautiful. Perfect. He had been away for so long - been so far away. The sultry summer he had left had long since surrendered to the ice and snow. Saelyn – his guardianship – had gone on without him. He felt frail; small; useless; unneeded. His vineyard. His family. Mati. All living far below under the delicate band of atmosphere – all without him. The Sierene even docked without him noticing.
* * *
The layover was short. The orbital dock aligned with the groundside port in Saelyn minutes after Marelo disembarked the Sierene. It was unusually quiet on the station. The crowds that typically migrated to warmer climates this time of year were as conspicuously missing from the empty terminals as they were aboard the Sierene.
As short as the layover was, the drop to the surface far below was shorter. The vehicle’s plummeting transit through the atmosphere was slowed only when it had fallen within range of the port’s optical nets. The repulsing solitions of concentrated light cushioned the sled as it made final contact with the ground pad.
Marelo tried to glimpse Saelyn’s frosty skyline in the distance, but a low steamy haze and spattery dampness of melted snow on the heated concrete tarmac threw the sun’s glaring reflection into Marelo’s eyes. Even through the sled’s polarized windscreen, it was blinding. Without a second chance to glance at his city, the sled lurched downward yet again. The pad underneath the sled sank beneath the tarmac and into the port’s underground concourses.
Marelo’s first steps back home were made to the clinking sound of his claws against the metal of the elevator pad as he finally stepped, aching, from the sled. Sleepy, disoriented and unsettled by the jarring drop from orbit, Marelo’s numb legs protested painfully as the blood started to flow normally again.
The stewards up on the station didn’t have any of the usual gravity-mitigating equipment passengers typically received aboard the drop-sleds. They had told Marelo that his trip was last minute and the sled was being shot up to the station before being fully refit. The dockers didn’t have the time - such was the precision timing required in orbital travel. One particularly well-meaning tern instructed him to tense every muscle he could while breathing in some over-trained pattern to avoid fainting. He had made it down no worse for the ware, but every step stung intensely.
Limping his way through the concourse, Marelo studied the faces of the first non-official birds he had seen since departing Kalahasi. A few families filled long avenues and atriums; a few business-like birds hustled to their sleds to the tone of a dulcet intercom voice; a few migrating couples waited patiently, occupying themselves with tapslates, news casts or each other.
In his striking black and brown uniform, Marelo sensed he was drawing eyes his way. Some seemed mildly curious to see their city’s guardian stalking down the walk, some even seemed sympathetic. But one was a refuge – Marelo spotted her instantly. Arlyn’s lavender crest stood out to him as much as his sharp uniform must have stood out among the birds hurrying through the concourse.
The weight of apology, apprehension and self-exile evaporated as she slid her wings around him. Against his inhibitions, he embraced her, nuzzling his beak under hers as he would have with his mate.
“I’m sorry, Arlyn,” he said.
“For leaving so suddenly…Mati won’t even remember me.”
Arlyn raised her eyes incredulously.
“Heh, I’m surprised you even do.” Marelo continued in a wry huff of a laugh.
“Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself, Mare,” Arlyn grinned, nudging him under the beak.
“Seriously, Mati’s been so excited for you to get back that she’s been bouncing around the nest for days. I don’t think she slept at all last night.” The grin that lined her beak lingered as she looked again at the indigo bird. She couldn’t hold back her elation to see Marelo again. She pressed herself into his wings. “I don’t blame her.”
“That excited?” Marelo smiled cautiously. “How is she doing?”
“Well enough,” Arlyn said. “She’s loving her classes and her flock! You know Councilor Cyira?”
Marelo hung on the name. “Not at all,” he let it slide off his wings.
“Well, his two fledglings are Mati’s flock mates, along with Hael’s son, Orin, and a local Kyra girl.
“Is that right? She’s getting along well then?” Marelo sounded almost proud, but the regret of being gone for so long tinged his voice.
“Wonderfully!” Arlyn exclaimed. “She and her flock are starting first flying lessons today.”
“So a lot of controlled falling, huh?”
“I’m sure,” Arlyn twittered. “Ah, she’s grown so much! I wish you could’ve been here.”
Any happy note Marelo had felt in hearing of his daughter evaporated. Reality nipped his tail once again – the cold impress of the world enveloped him. He dropped his wings from Arlyn and nodded blankly. “I know.”
“Marelo?” Arlyn reached her wing out, noticing the unusual black military short-cape slung over his Artimea uniform. “What is this?”
The question must have shocked him. Arlyn noticed his eyes ever so slightly freeze on some distant point far behind her, almost as though he was dizzily trying to right his senses after being cuffed across the face.
He reached into the fold of his pressed uniform and pulled out the medal Lyais had given him – had given Kael.
It was Arlyn’s turn to reel. “Skies…Kael…”
“Hero of the Alliance, Arlyn, and this thing I’m wearing…” Marelo shrugged, nudging the black velvet garment fastened around his shoulders. “It’s formal Havan military – something special for the Hero…or…his family.”
Arlyn’s eyes were fixated on the platinum medal. “…Kael…”
“Don’t worry, yours is in my pack,” Marelo huffed lightly.
“Uh…yea…” Arlyn responded, unable to quite comprehend the perverse mixture of honor and grief. “Cape…sure…okay…”
“Come on, Arlyn,” Marelo slid his wing around the lavender feathered jay, pressing his feathers over her thickly wrapped winter shawl. Suddenly and strangely, his breast lifted from the months of oppressive isolation. His world no longer felt obscenely distant. “Let’s go surprise Mati.”
“Y-yea, okay…” Arlyn mused. “Mati…flying…she’s learning to fly…”
_________________________________________Kyra, Outskirts of Saelyn
“Yea, I’m ready!” Mati shook her feathers and leaned low ready to launch herself forward.
The sun glanced off the snow as sharply as the freezing, shrill wind washed over the circular courtyard between the classroom pavilions. A series of interlocking, crossing, lashed beams were rigged together making a huge pyramid of branches with gaps, perfectly sized to practice their winging exercises – a claw-made kameh. The first lessons in flying were simple enough. The flocks of fledglings would take turns climbing up to whichever beam they felt comfortable with, open their wings and glide-hopping from perch to perch, learned unpowered maneuvers and fine feather control. Every little twitch of a primary feather or every flinch of their tail would send them veering awkwardly away from their flightline.
There would be more instruction after their break – the mid-day recess would last a little while longer at least, but until then, there was only the game under the fledglings’ wings.
Mati lined up next to a lanky jay, ready to spring into the mess of branches and beams.
“Remember this one, Mati?” Orin coached from behind her. “Get the flag back here as fast as you can!” He leered at the team lined up next to his own. “We can take them!”
High upon the perch of the tallest beam a small flag was tied.
He couldn’t hold in his excitement. “Come on Mati, let me go first!” Orin begged.
“No way! This one’s mine!” Mati felt her claws clutch the ground - her talons gripping into the ground below her. Just like with the sparrows! Just like that tree with the sparrows…except this isn’t a tree – that was hard to climb – no place to grip…there’s nothing BUT places to climb on this thing…I can do this – I’ve done this before – what has THIS bird ever done? Glancing at the bird next to her, she felt a lurch of excitement. The fluttering in her breast turned to icy determination.
“Ready? GO!” some voice called. She pressed her legs against the snow-packed ground and swept her fledgling wings hard downward, heaving her self upward. For the first time she could feel every feather lifting her towards the first perch. She’d never jumped as high before! Clasping her claws on the lashed perch, Mati scrambled her way through the intertwined branches. Claw over claw up the grips, rope and wood, winging over the gaps that were just out of reach, Mati heard hear opponent’s scraping talons fade behind her. Spurred on by her lead, she forced her way upward.
Her claw slipped as she grasped a stretch of bare wood. She bristled at the sudden sensation of falling before her wings instinctively righted her precarious posture.
“GO! HE’S ON YOU!” Mati heard Orin shout over the cheers of her classmates. She chanced a glance back just as he bumped his way under her wing. She let out a grunt as he shoved her aside. Mati’s breast burned fiercely as she forced herself to close the narrow gap he had on her.
“Careful you two!” her instructor called from below. “Don’t get yourselves hurt before flight practice this afternoon!”
Mati paid absolutely zero attention. Neither, it seemed, did her opponent, who was now winging wildly side to side, attempting to keep her from passing. Seeing her opening, Mati beat him to the grip just above them, sliding her claw under his, stealing his momentum completely. She shoved her way under his wing and the flag was hers! It was right there, on the highest perch. Without a second thought, she sent the other jay spinning off the grip and into the rope netting and winged to the prize.
Mati snatched the bright flag with her beak and turned around. It wasn’t over yet. The jay she beat up now had the chance to wrestle the flag away from here. He had broken free of the netting and was about to launch himself at her. The only one way down was through him – or… There was another way!
Before the other could make a dive for the flag, Mati kicked off the perch and into the air.
“MATI DON’T!” her instructor shouted.
It was too late. She was airborne, her wings spread as wide as she could make them go. The oppressive falling feeling melted away as they caught the chilly air. Her wings took her further and further away from the safe perches and grips of the kemeh and out over the snowy courtyard.
Mati glided tenuously above her classmates. This was it! She was flying! She was suspended in the air with nothing separating her from the ground but her own two wings. She was her own bird – her own world, where nothing else mattered.
Except stopping. With a jolt of terror, she saw the walls of the courtyard speeding towards her. In an instant, she wheeled her wings backwards and fanned her tail out. It was instinct, it was ugly – hardly the refined flying her instructors were teaching – but it worked. In a flutter of feathers, Mati went vertical, then stalled and slid backwards off her wings. The falling sensation returned with a vengeance as she fell awkwardly back-first into the snowdrift below her.
Upside-down, she saw her classmates, Orin, Kalli leading the way, running towards her. Her instructor leered over her, sweeping the snow away with his large wings. “Mati! Don’t move, are you okay?” he asked breathlessly.
“I’m…okay,” Mati grunted as she rolled out of the snow bank and onto the hard packed ground. “Mmmph,” she winced, trying to push herself back up, but there was no strength left her in wings – or at least her right wing. It just collapsed under her. ”Or not…” she stared dumbfoundedly down at it. She couldn’t even will it to move. It wouldn’t – like it was stuck.
“Oh, Mati, your wing…I think you broke it,” her instructor sighed. “You must have pinned it when you landed.”
“Pinned it?” Mati mouthed in shock, looking at the grotesque angle it made. “You mean I broke my wing?! It doesn’t even hurt!”
“It will soon – it doesn’t look like a clean break,” he put his wing around her carefully and led her towards the pavilions. “Come on, we’ll have to get you to the infirmary before you get shocky.”
Not a clean break? What does THAT mean? Mati felt the beginnings of panic creep in on her. Mati glanced back at Orin and her flock. She had never seen their faces look so frightened.
_________________________________________Cialo Memorial Medical Center, Kyra
Mati opened her eyes. Dazed, blurry visions slowly came into focus around her. Why am I here? What happened? She remembered coming here with her flock instructor - a flurry of uniformed jays hurrying her away from him through the lofty triage. Then one of them did something…she felt sleepy…never so tired in her life. Suddenly she was here trying to wake up.
Her wing was sore – stiff – felt as though it was caught in a vice - tightly bound and unmovable. She broke her wing! THAT’S RIGHT! She struggled against the drowsy heaviness in her eyes to try and see it. But she couldn’t sit up, only glimpsing a large shapeless thing bulging over where her wing should be.
It was her aunt’s voice. Something between a worry and a loving laugh colored the subtle warble in it.
“Mati, what did you do to yourself, love?”
Mati blinked hard, hoping to focus her eyes. “I…”
A sudden bout of dizziness slammed into her. Lying down was the only thing that felt comfortable.
“Don’t try to sit up yet,” a stern voice instructed. “The meds will wear off soon enough. Stay still, please.”
“It doesn’t look so bad.” A third voice – a familiar voice – one she had not heard since…she felt so comfortable laying there on the antiseptic-smelling pillow. An easy, pleasant warmth filled her mind.
“As far as breaks go, Guardian, torsion fractures aren’t clean – won’t heal easily – take months – our best guess,” Mati only caught a few broken bits of the conversation.
“I see,” the third voice replied.
Mati glanced up, trying hard not to fall asleep again. “K..al..a.” The word felt unusual in her beak. “Kala…KALA!” the weariness evaporated and she sat bolt upright.
“Please, Mati, stay down,” the doctor insisted.
“It’s alright, doc,” Marelo perched next to Mati’s alcove. He gazed at her, looking over his growing daughter. Mati stared happily – expectantly – up at him. He then suddenly gave her a sly grin and suddenly a wash of reassurance raced through her faster than the painkillers being pumped into her wing.
“I come all this way only to find you in a hospital huh?” he chuckled.
Without missing a beat, Mati tried to explain. The game. The race. The other jay that blocked her from getting down to the ground. Marelo listened studiously, rapt in his daughter’s story.
“Well, Mati,” Marelo’s voice was quiet and firm. Then he winked at her and gave her a wide smile. “From the sounds of it, I believe you won.”
Mati laughed elatedly.
Aryln nudged Marelo gently. “Welcome home, Mare.”