A warm, tender wind swirled inside the hollow as the rising sun shimmered over the edge of the opening. The nest felt more comfortable than I could ever remember, making the thought of leaving home unimaginable. But my sister and brother had already taken their first flights, and were practicing for untold journeys. Once in a while, when I would balance on a sizable lump on the nest floor, leaning forward and holding my wings against the sides of the opening, I would watch them sail up over the meadow, exuberant and happy, and then disappear below, out of my view, sinking to a place I had only become familiar with in my imagination, a wide, expansive, wayward area scattered with green plants and the trunks of the massive trees which I could only see the tops of, and I was content, then, that what I knew of this land below came mostly from the vivid detail gleaned from my Mother’s and my sister’s and my brother’s patient descriptions.
But I soon wanted to see it for myself, this land below the sky, this solid place where other species lived and nested; I wanted to get out and explore, see what was what. But I could not yet fly like my older siblings, I could not yet claim the great accomplishment of my kind which opens up the reality of the world and the full beauty of existence.
Why hadn’t I yet taken flight? Why was I not like my siblings?
“Because,” my Mother said, growing impatient with that oft-repeated question, “You took your time coming out of your egg. Your siblings had eaten ten times before you even started rocking in your shell. I thought you weren’t going to hatch at all–I was ready to throw you out altogether. And I would have, probably, if your sister hadn’t pleaded to give you one more day.”
My first recollections of existence were of my Mother’s ruffled feathers submerged in gray light. Either my eyes were still blurred from having just hatched or it was a dark period, I do not know which, but that feeling of gray light stayed with me into adulthood, and in quiet moments I would remember the sight of dark feathers in still air, and a light that felt too dim for taking flight, and I would hold close a primordial sense that the air itself did not have enough substance to hold-up my entire, burdensome, blue-brown being and so I dare not even try. And I would always be troubled by the unanswerable questions presented by the recollection of my earliest moments: what is this world? I have always felt cheated not having the answer to that one stupid question.
And how is one supposed to face an adulthood where one must hold fast to a wavering existence while captive to such random requirements as knowing how to fly, hunt, and defend oneself from danger every hour of every day?
As I grew a little bigger, I could clamber to the upper edge of the nest and, leaning over the brim of the opening, finally see the straight horizon beyond and the green land below. I would spend whole afternoons watching various creatures spend their impressive lives searching, searching, and searching for what would keep them alive. The rabbits sticking their white tails in the air with every hop, as if trying to fly with them; the butterflies going senselessly from bush to grass to bush looking for who knows what, but presumably something they had to have to survive; and every once in a long while, I would spot a man walking on the path outside the meadow on the other side of the sunrise wood. I had been told of men before I could fly, and while no one could say they’d ever seen a man harm a bird, there was a great deal of trepidation in the mere mention of that peculiar species.
One day, my oldest sibling, Will-lalee, perching on the edge of the nest as I stood on my favorite lump, watched intently as something passed below, all the while alert to enemies from above. As she watched the thing go on its way, she began to trill to me with great urgency.
“Do you know about men?” she asked.
“Men?” I said.
“Be aware of men,” she said. “I have heard from other bluebirds near here that men do things no other animals have ever done. Be aware of men.”
I could not understand what she meant. What things did men do, I wanted to know.
She looked at me with affection, but then flew away. She seemed never to have time enough to talk, but instead fostered some dire purpose, an unquenchable urge to go, to accomplish . . . something.
Bobb-alee, my middle sibling, always went after her, always followed her, imitating her songs and echoing her feelings, including that haunting urgency toward motion. Bobb-alee always took a little more time to explain things to me, but about men, he seemed unsure how to explain, or else he wanted to keep the fear he felt from being a part of my life as well. So, he cocked his head to show me he could not bring himself to let me know the truth about the world, then dropped into the air and disappeared like Will-lalee.
I would feel elated when they returned from their flights and I couldn’t wait to hear their stories of newly explored horizons, new fields charted, new species discovered, new dangers avoided. My mother would turn away when Will-lalee would tell of some narrow escape from a fox, she and Bobb-alee swooping to within a nest-twig’s width of the fox’s nose and flying away, then making a pass back over to witness with amusement the humiliation on the poor creature’s face.
Not many days after Will-lalee’s warning to me about men, while my Mother was out finding eatables, Will-lalee and Bobb-alee returned to the nest with a report about two small men having entered the far edge of the meadow from the sunrise wood, and they were carrying some sort of thick sticks, while on their backs were things that looked like smooth black nests.
“Men never come through the wood,” Will-lalee said. “They always go along the path outside the meadow.” She turned to Bobb-alee for his opinion.
Bobb-alee ruffled his feathers.
“Well,” he said, ”maybe they don’t know about the path.”
“No,” said Will-lalee, “I don’t think so. Men not knowing about the path is like birds not knowing about flight.”
Bobb-alee scanned the meadow.
“They seem to be coming this way,” he said. “Look.”
Will-lalee followed his direct gaze and I scrambled up the nest wall to look over the side. Sure enough, they were heading directly toward us.
“They’re going to come here,” said Will-lalee. “Maybe I can draw their attention away.”
Without another word, Will-lalee flew off. I did not understand what she had meant to accomplish by drawing their attention away.
Bobb-alee looked at me and, seeing my confusion, said sharply, “You don’t understand the danger.”
Then he, too, abruptly flew away, imitating Will-lalee with every midair bank and high-altitude dive. Suddenly, the men below crouched low, as if they could actually hide in the tall grass. They pointed their sticks in the air and used them to follow Will-lalee’s flight back and forth across the meadow, the rhythm of their motion matching the rhythm of Will-lalee’s curves, darts, lifts, and aborted dives. Then I heard the air crack and felt a disturbance in the wind, an unnatural break in the pattern of existence, a terrible pressure around my head, a feeling of destruction. I looked up just in time to see a ruffle go through Will-lalee’s feathers and to see her spin wildly toward the ground, her wings reaching out awkwardly. I had never seen her do such a maneuver before, and I could not imagine how she could pull up before she hit the ground. But I knew that she had at her disposal a profound repertoire of deceptions.
In astonishment, I watched. A numbness came over my entire being, for I watched her hit the earth at full speed and somehow knew, without proper introduction, that here was death, and it took away my sister.
Moments later I saw Bobb-alee hurtling toward me from below, his eyes wide and filled with horror. I could feel everything he felt as I locked myself onto his disbelief and helplessness. He reached level with the nest and was settling onto the opening’s edge when I heard a pop, pop, pop. This was something else, something smaller than before, but of the same feel, an accompaniment to destruction.
“What is that?” I asked Bobb-alee, but his expression had shot from fear to agony; he began falling back, out of the hollow’s opening, spreading his wings for balance, just managing to hang on. Then suddenly, for the second time, came the original disturbance, the all-mighty world-concussing bang. I saw Bobb-alee’s gentle eye close as he fell back off the edge. A few moments later, I heard the soft thud of his body in the tall grass.
Those horrifying, devastating moments were quickly followed by shrill noises coming from the men, who were running to the spot where Bobb-alee had fallen. There was something about their mad rush to his body, their sprightly gait, that made me understand. The men had done this to Will-lalee and Bobb-alee. The truth was certain to me, but what to do was not, though I felt I should do something.
I began to feel dizzy, to see gray images swirling about the hollow, and moments later I fell back onto the nest floor. The next thing I could remember, my mother was standing over me, her feathers flapping wildly as if she was trying to take flight inside the hollow, all the while imploring me to . . . what? It was hard to know what she wanted of me.
“La-lawoo . . . La-lawoo! La-lawoo!” she repeated urgently.
“Ma-mawee! What happened to Bobb-alee? What happened to—”
“Listen to me, La-lawoo, you must save yourself, the men are coming to get you. They are going to climb our tree. They will get you.”
“You must fly. You must fly, now!”
“But . . . I can’t fly.”
“Yes, you can.”
“No, no. I can’t.
“You’ve watched your siblings,” she said. “Now do what you have seen. You’re a bird, you know how to fly, you know how to be. Do what you know. Quickly, they’re almost here.”
I climbed up the nest wall and clung to the twigs, leaned against the opening and peered down to the spot where Bobb-alee had fallen dead. In the confusion, I could not find his body, and it troubled me so much that it was all I could think about. What happened to it? Did it vanish? Do we vanish when we die? Or did the men take Bobb-alee?
“La-lawoo! Let go, let go!”
The men were at the base of our tree, and their sticks were pointed upward. Pop, pop, pop again. With each pop I wanted to let go, but something held me. I was not ready. It was unnatural.
“La-lawoo!” said my Mother. “Listen to me. Will-lalee said to me just earlier today that she thought you would soon fly every bit as fast and as good as she did, maybe better.”
As she spoke, I noticed in utter horror that she seemed about to take-off herself, whether or not I was coming along. She would leave me, in the lonely nest, with the men coming to kill me. I looked across the meadow and all was an insane swirl of sky and land and blue and gray, and my mind seemed no longer to live in my body, it had abandoned me, flown away, disdainful of my incompetence and inaction, not wanting any part of me . . . and then, suddenly, as if my mind had had a miraculous change of heart and had rejoined my body, I remembered something, something which now seemed very important to be mindful of, something Will-lalee had impressed upon me a long time ago, an admonishment not to look down, but instead to look ahead, not down, ahead, ahead, ahead. Always ahead.
I cannot explain it, but the recollection calmed me, and as I looked up from below, from where my dead siblings had fallen, I saw the sky above me, and it seemed to move over me, through my feathers, around my body, and it brought a knowledge that I was lighter than, maybe even a part of the wind itself, and that I was not bird but, rather, a blaze of light, a presence unrestrained. Suddenly, all conflict left me and without effort I fell forward into nothingness. At once, I was streaking over the green meadow and beyond, not down, but ahead, and out, toward the horizon, away from the danger I now, finally, could comprehend and make a part of me, freed somehow by a new understanding of the world. Not an answer to my constant question, but a momentous flight toward it.
* * *
“We got two,” said one of the boys, “Not bad.”
“I hit that first one in one shot,” said the other boy.
“You did not,” I got ‘im. I got ‘em both. You can’t hit something that fast with a pellet. It was my buckshot that got both of ‘em.”
“Uh-uh. You missed that first one outright.”
“We’ll see when we dig out the pellet.”
“Look at him. Bluebird, I think. Kind of sad, I guess—”
“Yeah, I guess. I didn’t see the blue. Thought they were sparrows.”
* * *
I am grown now, have my own offspring. Four of them. All flying. All on their own. I am happy for their growth, their lives, but . . . I worry. And I have come to believe, near the end of it all, that there is no escape from the fear, only an occasional and welcome respite from it, that most often comes, for me, when I am floating, high on the wind, a glimmer of blue light through the feathery gray beyond.
Lowell Press is the author of a middle grade fantasy novel, The Kingdom of The Sun and Moon, which received an IBPA Gold Benjamin Franklin Award, and writer/director of a short film, Jack Be Quick, which appeared in the Seattle International Film Festival, the New York International Independent Film Festival, and on KCTS, Seattle’s PBS station. Lowell and his wife, Sasha, and their two cats remain mostly quarantined near Seattle.