When she was young she rode horses, seeking the moment suspended in midair over a fence, the fraction of a second when the animal's thrust and power allowed them both brief freedom from gravity. She learned to hang-glide, to pole-vault, to jump with ease on skateboard and ski. Airplanes did nothing for her, their wings unmoving and skins so still. She never lost her love of a swing set.
She took scissors to each new-purchased shirt, slicing the back to make room for her wings. When she came home after school, her mother would sigh and shake her head at shoulders slumped and aching, hands and knees bruised from falling. She leaped from the tree in their yard every day, wings outstretched and beating the air, feathers bending as the ground rushed up to meet her. Once she broke a blood feather and came in crying, sure she would die. When it was pulled, when the bleeding had stopped, she made her way outside again.
"I'm going to fly," she said. "I am."
She came close the summer after graduating from high school, escaping the Colorado cold in Hawaii. One of her friends, wild-eyed and fearless, took command of the day's agenda and so they found themselves toeing a cliff, one by one bounding into open air and crashing down to blue water below. She waited a few paces back from the edge, waited until the others had all taken their turns at jumping.
She stood with toes curled over the edge, eyes not on the water, gazing ahead at cloudless sky. Carefully, she spread her wings, tawny rust all barred with black, long as she was tall. She drew a deep breath that tasted green, tipped her head to hear the waterfall rushing like cymbals: cool. She stepped off the cliff and onto nothing. The rush of wind deafened her as she dropped.
Her body arrow-straight, feet first -- backwards for diving, right way up for flying.
Her wings snapped taut and filled with air, wrenching her shoulders and sides and spine.
Downstroke and hover, upsweep, down again. For half a dozen heartbeats she hung stretching from wingtip to toe, straining upwards, always upwards.
Gravity again, overcoming muscle. She tried to fly, but fell instead.
She began to work at the Center; she knew from the start that she wanted a kestrel. Falcons hardly came any smaller, or more terrifyingly easy to lose. At first they tried to talk her out of a kestrel into something else, something bigger: into a female at the very least. But she needed to ride the finest line, to learn the most difficult points of managing flight.
She took four years, a long, slow apprenticeship with wicked, quick peregrines, with Harris hawks, at last with the kestrels, fragile and fierce. Within months she'd made herself indispensable at the Center, made a friend out of Gavin. She took him out with her friends and shrugged at their questions, hands in the pockets of a coat that he'd loaned her. Her parents met him on the day she graduated, perplexed but liking him even so.
They walked to the Center after the ceremony, in the lull between celebrations. She reached for his hand and took it; he slid an arm around her ribs. He made her promise not to peek and stood her in front of the kestrel mews.
"Mine?" she asked, when she opened her eyes.
"He's lovely," she breathed, staring into the mews at dark-barred wings of slate blue-grey and watchful yellow eyes fierce as any eagle's. No longer the downy ball of fuzz he had been but still impossibly tiny, with no idea of his robin-size.
"Yeah, well," Gavin said, grinning hands-in-pockets. "Thought you'd like him."
She called the little falcon Spike, and Gavin helped her at first; she had to relearn everything that she thought she knew, now that the falcon was her own. He stood behind her and off to the side on the first day she hunted the kestrel for real, sending him from glove to sparrow. Spike hovered, watching, waiting midair and then wings ducked and dropping low, tiny warm bodies colliding. For a moment she stood transfixed and staring, then spread her own wings and lashed the air once, fancying her feet briefly rose from the ground.
"I'm going to fly," she told Gavin, leaving no room for argument.
She was learning slowly that she couldn't fly, that her wings could never support her weight. She could hover, almost, if she beat her wings with all her strength, an effort that left her shaking and weary. At first, she thought she'd grow stronger, tougher, more capable with every instant above the earth. Sometimes she'd fling herself from roof or tree, but she found herself growing tired of falling.
She rode behind Gavin on his motorbike, arms locked tight around his waist and wings held wide to catch the wind, nearly toppling the bike at first, until he learned to compensate. She ducked her head against his shoulder, out of the wind that stung her eyes and reddened her cheeks. She closed her eyes and thought it almost felt like soaring.
Spike and the others claimed most every waking hour as she worked to absorb all there was to know. She took over the job of weighing the birds, adjusting their feed to keep them keen, keep them just hungry enough to hunt and keep them coming back again.
"Are you okay?" he asked over dinner, pausing with knife and fork midair. She blinked and shook her head, tore eyes away from the photograph behind him, snowy owl against dark forest night, hunting after some timid mouse.
"I'm fine," she said. "Of course I'm fine."
He pointed his fork at her plate. "Not hungry?"
"Not hungry," she agreed, and cut her meat into smaller pieces.
They rode out to the mountains for a day, climbing the rock face and then rappelling down again. She paused halfway between cliff top and grass below, leaning back in her harness, looking over her shoulder. The ground stretched wide to meet in the distance with sky. She thought of letting go, of untying herself, of freeing her body from the rope; what of it if she fell? She'd fly, she thought, a moment's wild grin and dreaming. Over the grass and up to safety, to soar on the thermals and join the hawks she could see in the distance.
Once more, she glanced down. Boulders below to smash her bones, though they were too strong, and not hollow at all. Smaller rocks, sharp-edged for shredding her wings so that she wouldn't take to the air again. She'd fall, she knew, and sighed, and kicked once away from the rock face and let the rope bring her back again.
She'd thought when she'd started at the Center that she'd have some special bond with the birds. That they would see in her some kindred spirit, sense her envy of their flying, want to please her and show her the way. She'd never quite believed she was human. The birds wouldn't believe she was anything else.
She'd wanted to fly before she could walk, and nearly lost the first bird she was given to train.
They knew her now, respected her, flew for her better than for the others. She took over the Center's public shows, coaxing brilliant swoops and dives for schoolkids and anyone else who would watch, enchanted as much as her audience. Even the first time, when she stood by the field shaking with nerves, refusing to take the first bird from Gavin for fear that she couldn't support its weight. Even then -- one toss of sleek falcon from glove, one powerful wingbeat up into the air and one great sweeping dive for the lure, and she could see and hear nothing except for the bird, wingswept form and the solid thunk as she called it back to the glove and it landed, a feeling like having her hand slapped down by some angry giant and then wicked claw gripping, not hurting, but sharpish even through the leather.
"It's not anything someone else couldn't do," Gavin told her one night as they walked through the mews after-hours, in twilight. "But you wanted so much to understand them. So you do, and they understand you right back."
"Tell me how," she begged Spike, whispering each day as she offered his food, but if he answered, she didn't understand what he said.
She took to weighing herself in the mornings and again at night, keeping a chart for herself like those she kept for the falcons, searching for her flying weight, her razor-fine line, strong and light enough at once. She worked her wings for hours each night, standing in the yard and staring up at the stars. They swept from upsweep to downstroke and back again, pushing until back and shoulders burned, until she couldn't remember how it felt to fold her wings and not feel the wind against her feathers, until the force of each beat staggered her sideways.
She found herself on her knees in the grass and when she tried to stand, she found that she couldn't. She sat there trembling until she heard Gavin's motorbike in the drive, garage door opening, wobbled inside then to brush teeth and bleeding mouth and slept, exhausted, until morning.
She rarely dreamed, but she did that night, fretful visions of tight-held jesses and the clipping of wings.
Gavin left a note on the table one morning. Didn't want to wake you, it said, and, You've been so tired lately -- are you sure everything's all right? A scribble then, a scratched-out word, and finally, I think we'd better talk.
He'd signed it "Love" with a scrawl of his name and pinned it to the table with a paperweight in the shape of an eagle. She stared for a moment, then reached for a paper scrap of her own.
Went away, she wrote. Just for a few days. I have to think about some things. Please keep an eye on Spike. I'll call once I know where I'm going.
She wasn't working at the Center that day, wouldn't be missed until he came home to find her gone. She wandered the house and thought about packing: what to bring, where to go -- what could she carry, if she could fly? In the end, she took nothing at all.
Most days when the weather was nice they ate on the Center's picnic grounds; she took that lunch hour to slip into the mews, to stand with Spike on gloved fist held at eye level. "Why won't you tell me?" she asked, very softly.
He stared back, sharp-hooked beak and blue-grey feather, no fear in yellow eye. She set him back on his perch and turned away.
She used to climb one tree at the Center, a gnarled old-growth apple tree with branches swept invitingly low. Someone else had gotten there first, years ago, and propped a ladder against the trunk; it had stayed through the seasons, grown mossy and weathered and rotten inside. She paused at its base and stared up into branches thick-grown with leaves that filtered the sun. She used to climb, and sit, and leap. She shivered, cold; she was always cold these days, and felt too weary for climbing, too fragile for falling. She walked very slowly back towards the car.
He'd found the note; she'd forgotten the note, forgotten he was worried, forgotten that of course he'd come home over lunch to see how she was. She should have known better, and cursed herself now. Gavin pushed away from her car and stopped, stood and watched as she stopped in turn, ten paces apart and much, much farther.
"Why?" he asked, after too many moments, and she only shook her head.
"I wanted to fly."
"You used to say 'I'm going to fly.'"
She nodded once, looking past him to the mountains. "I used to think I was going to fly. But all I ever did was fall. It isn't you."
"Don't go," he said. And, "What about Spike?"
"I wanted to fly," she said again, and then she started to cry.
She supposed she'd known all along that it was a futile effort: worthless, wasted. She had no flying weight. Her bones were too dense, her muscles too light; it didn't matter how she beat the wind. She'd thought of going to the mountains, the sea, to some other cliff high over the ground and this time not backing away, except that of course she'd back away in the end.
In the end, she supposed she'd thought this as well: Why have wings, if not for flying?
She curled on the couch that evening and cried until she had no more tears. Gavin asked if he could help; she shook her head, not speaking, and in the end fell asleep with her head on his shoulder and her arms around him, loose enough to pull free. She claimed her week of vacation time but went to the Center anyway and spent her days sitting in the mews and outside in the weathering areas, listening for anything that Spike had to say.
She took to stretching her wings when she could, watching them only in peripheral vision. She tripped on the front porch stairs one day and caught the air as she tumbled down, landed bruising a knee but not breaking an arm, beat downwards once and rose to her feet.
She went up the next week in an old friend's glider, and began to water-ski again. She rode the motorbike alone and snapped out her wings to slow her momentum. She hunted Spike. He hovered or waited watchful atop a fence post and dove, and missed, and dove again. She hung from the lowest branch of the apple tree and when she let go, she landed on her feet in the grass.
One day, she planned a trip back to the mountains, packed climbing harness and rope and peanut butter sandwiches with marshmallow fluff for lunch high atop the cliff. She threw grapes for Gavin to catch in his mouth, bounced one off his forehead to make him laugh. She left him dozing in the shade of a friendly birch and walked out to the edge of the cliff.
This time, the day was the warm side of cool, all rising thermals and breezy air enough to lift without flinging about. The grass felt cool beneath her bare feet, almost damp, but that was only the earth still a little bit moist from last weekend's rain. Her shoulders ached as she spread her wings, that good ache of motion and honest hard work. She thought that she could gaze straight ahead into big sky and not look down to the rocks below. A good day to die. A good day to fly. She thought that she could, at least for a moment.
The wind rustled through her wings, laid the feathers smoothly back. She lashed them once, the weight of them pulling through shoulder and back. She could fly, if she wanted. But she didn't have to.
Copyright © 2003 Hannah Wolf Bowen
Hannah Wolf Bowen is a senior Philosophy major at Knox College in Illinois, where she watches strange movies and hangs out with her ungrateful (yet adorable) horse. Her stories have founds homes with Ideomancer, ChiZine, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and she reads slush for the Fortean Bureau. To contact her, send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.