Bird of Prey, Pursing Destiny
by Tony Noland
The eagle brought his wings down hard to gain speed, then banked into the wind to trade the speed for altitude. He held his wings out and climbed, angling toward his goal. His chest ached, and even the small effort of maintaining trim to stay aloft was almost as much as he could manage so long a time in the air. He was desperately tired. There was nothing below him but mud. If he landed, he would not be able to lift again, and he would die, so close to his destiny that he could smell it on the upwelling breeze. He was almost there, but he was so very tired.
He thought again of the cliff that his clan owned, the tall, familiar cliff with the rocky land at the top and forest at the foot of it. The river with its waterfall, the thin tree-stands on the cliff top and the deep, cool forest at the cliff’s foot all went with the land. It was not a large clan-holding, but it was well-stocked. Fish, lizards and other prey-sized animals were easily found within the holding. The lands up-river and down here owned by other clans. There had not been a serious land dispute for many generations. It took a serious uprising of a chorus of females to wage one of the bloody and costly land wars. A male sometimes got a female of another clan fixed in his eye, which naturally led to some fighting and killing. That had nothing to do with land, of course, since clan land stayed with the female. It was only the males that died, and there were always plenty of males to be had.
This male was one of those that would have started a land war all by himself, had such a thing been possible. He had grown tired of life on the cliff. The life was, if not exactly comfortable, at least predictable. When he had reached his full wingspan, he had fought over females like all the other males. He’d won some females, lost others. Over and over, he’d flown the same stretch of river that his mother and grandmothers and great-grandmothers had flown. Always, he’d wondered where the river went as it disappeared through the forest. One morning nine weeks ago, with late spring in full flower around him and a full belly of fish within him, he left his clan to find out.
Early in the morning, he’d crested the waterfall and folded his wings to drop down to the rocky pool at the cliff base. He followed the river through its familiar turns to the bend that marked the edge of cliff clan land. With his eyes open wide, he stayed on the river breeze and cruised past the bend. He resisted the pull of habit and custom, and did not turn back at the sight of unfamiliar ground, but flew on. He entered river clan land and flew through it.
As the day went by, he flew on, exulting at the strangely quiet landscape so far from the thunder at the bottom of the waterfall. For the first time, he could actually hear the wind in the trees. From the tall, bare snags that stuck above the forest, nesting mothers eyed him with suspicion. On the river below, males looked up from their fish and watched him fly past. It was unusual for a foreign male to come so deep into river clan in search of a female to fight over, but not unheard of. The river clan males watched him swoop to the river and pull a fat salmon, and they watched him eat it and two more besides. They watched him perch in a low snag near the river’s edge, and in the morning they watched him fly away, continuing downriver.
Day after day, he flew. In and out of one clan holding after another, he followed the river. He was entranced, hypnotized, besotted by the sight of new bends in the river. He flew through the clan lands of eagles whose accents grew stranger and stranger until he could no longer understand the greetings and warnings they called to him. On and on he flew as the river moved through forest and field and forest again, spilling at last in a wide open marshland that stretched to the horizon.
He stayed for three days at the mouth of the river, resting and eating. Beyond the mouth, the river flattened and fanned out into a thousand small streams that disappeared into the boggy marsh. He was at the end, and there was nothing more to see. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself turning around and going back up river, going back to the cliff to tell of what he had seen. He pictured his stay-at-home mother and grandmothers listening and then rolling their eyes at the foolishness of traveling such a long in order to reach nothing. He sat and rested and thought.
Waking before dawn of the fourth day, he was well rested, fully fed and restless. After being on the move and having a purpose in life for weeks on end, he could no longer simply sit and eat. Nor could he bring himself to simply turn and undo all that he had done in coming here. There must be something more, he thought, there has to be something more. He drew himself up and launched himself with a rapid series of powerful strokes of his wings. Lifting from level ground was difficult, but he had mastered the trick in his travels. Within moments he was moving higher in the sky. A few hundred feet up, he broke into sunlight, the dawn that had not yet reached the land below. His wings and chest were warm from his exertions, but the sunlight was welcome nonetheless in the cool morning air.
With nothing and no one around him, he deliberately closed his eyes, another trick he had mastered. In the open air above the treeless grassland shore and wide, open marsh, he kept them closed. This, more than his travels, would have shocked and appalled his kin and clan. Sight and flight, life and breath. When an eagle could no longer see or fly, he threw himself off the cliff to die on the rocks below. It was the way of things. To deliberately invite the darkness, while in the air no less, was a blasphemy bordering on madness. He had never done this while in the air, but something called to him and pulled him into this dark insanity.
He felt the sun and wind on his wings, smelled the grassland and marsh below, heard the wind blowing strongly under him. The minutes passed in darkness, and his exhilaration turned to an instinctive fear. He forced his eyes to stay closed and his fear gave way to panic, panic to terror and terror ultimately, incredibly, gave way to a deep, accepting peace. As he drifted in the brightly sunlit darkness he had created for himself, he felt that he was no longer merely an eagle in the sky - he was the sky. The sky, the earth and all that was in them and on them were as much a part of him as his talons or pinfeathers. When peace eventually turned back to exultation, this time in his mastery of the world, he opened his eyes to survey his domain.
The wind from the grasslands had blown him rather far out over the marsh. He could still see the land he had taken off from, a greenish-brown line on the horizon upwind. Crosswind, the marsh stretched endlessly. On the downwind side, from his great height, he could almost see something white on the far distant edge of the world. Gray and white, like a cliff in winter. He turned and flew back into the wind, back toward the grassland, and he gained altitude rapidly. He turned again, and eyed the distant cliffs. That was where he must go. He would find another river that fed into the marsh from those hills, and he would follow it to its source. He watched the wide marsh slipping by and gauged the speed he was making in this strong wind. The wind showed no signs of slacking, and the cliffs did not look too terribly far away. He would probably have to fly on after sunset, perhaps the entire night before he reached the forest or grassland that must lie at their feet, but he was ready for the challenge.
He paced himself with slow, easy strokes as he flew forward, the strong grassland wind helping him toward his destiny.
It was that sense of reaching toward a destiny that had kept him flying toward the distant cliffs, far and away out over the baking mud below. He flew on and on, riding the thermal winds that were faster than anything he'd ever known in the moutains. When the sun went down, the residual heat rising from the wide, blasted mud flats helped him forward. The sunrise the next morning was as blinding as anything he'd ever seen. Fatigue and the cold night air had made him dull and slow to respond.
All day he flew, moving at terrific speeds towards the cliffs that came closer but slowly, oh, so slowly. By midday he was worried. By afternoon, he was terrified. Now, at close of day, he was only tired. If he did not make the cliff edge by sundown, the land thermals would push him away, and he would die.
Again, he brought his wings down hard to gain speed, then again banked, climbing as high as his quivering, exhausted muscles would carry him. Then, his right wing collapsed and he fell. He came angling in at the cliff's edge at a bone-breaking speed. The limbless corpse of fir loomed up and he scrabbled at it with both talons. He snagged and scraped, then went twisting, tumbling and slammed into the ground. The rocky soil at the base of the trunk dug into his back and he shrieked out his agony. He flopped over and the world went white, then red and finally all was blackness.
After some unknown time, he opened his eyes. Standing eight wingspans off was a female. She had a fish between her talons, a fish the strangest shade of blue that the eagle had ever seen. He tried to speak, but could not. Thirst had gummed his tongue in place. The female cocked her head at him, then picked up the fish, flapped into the air and swooped to drop it in front of his beak.
He could barely make out her accent, but he understood her words.
"Eat. We will talk later."
She turned to face a ground perch not far away. She made to fly, then turned back to him.
"Not many males could haved crossed the nothingness. I will be waiting for you."
With one huge draft, she lifted and left him to eat and recover his strength.