She is young. Some think her wise.
There are no parents to say goodbye to, but there are elders who oversee the village, and who chose her.
They give her a map of the road down the mountain.
They give her a sackful of dried meats and seeds.
The falconer comes forward with the bird. He is very old, and no one has ever seen his real hands or heard his person voice; he is always wearing the gloves, and always speaking and clicking with the birds he trains. He trills in low tones to the hawk on his arm, and after a moment, the bird hops onto her shoulder. Then swivels its neck to glare at the falconer with irritation. The falconer’s voice drops to soothing. The bird can feel how the girl’s shoulder is inexperienced. It is an unpleasant sensation for the bird. The bird is not a young bird, and would rather stay with the falconer and die with the falconer. The falconer knows all this. He leans in to tell the girl that she must always wear the scarf or talons will split her shoulder. He explains that the bird is knowledgeable and to try to comprehend what the bird is communicating.
He cannot possibly teach the girl how to understand the bird in five minutes.
It is not the best system, he thinks.
The girl nods.
She was chosen because her eyes are white.
No one has seen white eyes before. They all want her to go away.
She sits through the ceremony impatiently. Her eyes buy her endless solitude. Several believe she is a ghost.
“Goodbye,” they call as she begins her walk.
She does not wave, and the hawk does not turn to the falconer, and in that way the two depart.
I can hardly see you over there. You can come closer if you want. Or not. I’m not going to cook you or anything. Do you see how I can make my hand into a stick? No. You’re right. It’s just a stick. I can hardly see you through the flames. You are just this bird head. Shall I tell you a story? Once there was a—-. No. You don’t like stories. You are about what is happening. I can see that. I didn’t have anything ready in my mind anyway. Are you going to watch me all night? You can. Is that what you said? I can’t understand you at all. You can hardly see me, though, from over there. How will you watch me? You could just turn around and leave. What keeps you here, anyway? Listen, I’ll give you this chance. I’ll build the fire a little higher until I can’t see you at all. Then I will go to sleep. The fire will guard me. Really. I also have two knives in my bag. I will be okay. I’m also very good with bears. It’s hard to explain. But if you want you can fly off, and I’ll never know. I will be sleeping. You can even just walk off if you want, if birds do that. When the fire burns down by morning, I will wake up and either I will see you there or I will see nothing. Okay? Is it an agreement? I won’t be upset. I don’t want to keep you here just because of old rules. You’re the bird. You pick.
Oh, the bird was irritated: by her little game, her talk of bears, her remaking of rules that were not affixed to the hawk but of him, like his beak. He would never leave her; as soon as the falconer placed him on that ridiculous shoulder, that was the shoulder he would ride to the grave. And, “I’ll build the fire higher,”– dumb girl, silly thinking girl; he could be the fire, hawks are made of fire, flames shaped into feather and flight, cooled by wind, made brown and soft by the Great Watcher so no one would figure it out, but fire inside, pure and true. I will watch her like the father she never had, little grub, so tiny and pompous, the bird thought. It was easy, then, to let her build the fire, with her sticks, with her plan, with her ample skills, to let the flames rise as she dozed off, and then to step into it, light-footed, to make it bigger, to conflagrate oneself, yet still be so precise and sharpened, fire made bird, fire so loose, bird hard and pointy at edges, but have you seen me fly, thought the hawk, pleased. I burn the sky.
It watched the girl all night long. She dreamt of a parent with strict rules who would not let her do anything. The hawk did not sleep, but felt no weariness.
When the girl was born, she had very long hair, unusually long for a baby. Her eyes were white and glinted like metal, so the elders put her in charge of the knives as soon as she was old enough. The hair and the eye color were enough for them to shape her destiny, or, more to read her destiny as it was told to them through the choices of her face. She had told the hawk earlier she had a bag, but that was a dodge– there was no bag. There was only her hair tied up tight in a tall shape around the two knives that she could grab at any moment and use as easily as fingers.
So in the morning, when she woke up, and the wind was blowing, the feathers swirling, she pulled them out first thing. The hawk was around; she could sense it everywhere, but she could not tell from where the danger came. But it was danger, that was sure. She whipped at the air with the knives, to help her see through the thick wind, the knives working almost as extensions of her eyes, so comfortable they were to her, so familiar, and the small feathers blew around and in the far distance she could see the hawk pushing forward, the hawk flying at something.
She felt she was cutting through the wind with the blades. The wind felt that strong, that murky and thick.
What kind of wind is this? she thought to herself. And then the hawk blew back into her, straight in the chest as if forced by something, and knocked her to the ground.
It was the sun, or it was not the sun. Not any sun she had seen before in the mountains, there a round white ball many hours traveling up from the valleys below. Here, the wind had quieted and everything else in the vast valley seemed to have hushed as the huge firewheel rose, and whirled. It was rising and rolling at once, rising and moving slowly to the side, running along the rim of the world.
Do you know what it is? the girl whispered.
The hawk settled back down on her shoulder. Its wing was bruised from the wind, that thickness of wind, but it could still fly. The girl had come running to rescue it flinging those knives around, cutting the air, seemingly cutting some kind of hole in the air for the hawk to fly back through, and the hawk had to admit she was not the same girl he had met at the beginning, or perhaps he had misjudged her. The girl’s shoulder had changed in quality, too, had established a new firmness the hawk found less absurd.
I don’t know either, said the girl.
Whirling and almost crackling, the giant rotating fire.
We have to fly closer, the girl told the hawk. Can you take me on your back?
The hawk stared at the wheel with its black dot eyes.
I want to see it up close, she said. You grew so big that time. I remember. You can do it again.
She knelt on the hilltop and lay down as if sleeping.
I am pretending to sleep now, she said. Please, do it. This is what they sent us for. I won’t climb on until you are ready.
In the wheel, eyes. Ribbons of eyes wrapping around arching waves of flame, eyes like fish or gazes unblinking all looking or swimming in the same direction.
The girl, born with white eyes, found no comfort in these, eyes all staring at her, or near her, and the hawk, made of flame again, made big only by the girl making another fire it could step back into, flew straight and over.
The elders had given them no instructions. She was to leave the mountain, and the hawk was to help her. No one had said if they should come back, if they should find some special artifact, if they should never return.
The girl could not bear to look at the swirling ribbons of eyes and buried her face in the hawk’s neck, that hawk so warm and soft and sure in its job, to fly the girl closer, to get the girl closer and then, it knew, to fly past.
Because a hawk is clear-minded. And there was nothing a bird or a girl could do with a wheel and ribbon of fire and eyes. They had no way of interacting; neither girl nor hawk could touch it. No part of the wheel had a mouth or hands, and unblinking eyes on their own cannot speak. The hawk understood this and past the burning sun/wheel it could see a grassy hillside speckled with flowers and starlings that would make such a pleasant lunch, for the girl, too, on a spit, on a fire. Over there, it could see a regular white ball of a sun shining on the meadow. The ribbons coiled and watched. No mission here, the hawk thought, as it flew past another torrent of eyes to reach the high end of the wheel and soar over.
In the flight over the wheel, in what had felt like an hour, at least five years had passed. The girl was older. She could feel it in her body, everything growing all at once to catch up, an assault of womanhood. The hawk had become an old hawk now. As it walked, it slowly returned to its usual size, shrinking with each step, having launched them both to this place, whatever place it was, somewhere utterly unremarkable. It had taken a greater toll to grow with the fire like that, more than five years, ten, twenty, and it could feel its bird body breaking down. But something had been achieved, hadn’t it? If one looked close, the girl’s eyes were not white anymore; they had left their whiteness on the wheel, perhaps, and now the girl was a regular girl with dark eyes and everyday yearnings. She dropped her knives into the dirt. Her hair flowed long and unpointed.
So then what had been the task? the hawk wondered to itself. With a few more steps, it would die. The girl might or might not look behind her ever again. She was moving forward. These were the steps of a life. The starlings jumped among them, and ahead, behind a grove of trees, they could see shadowy forms of other people, children playing, a brook, some kind of dog. The girl broke into a run. He could feel her smile even with her back to him. The hawk lay its old body down on the grass, between the two knives.
Around it, starlings hopped and chirruped. They hopped on and off the hilts of the knives. They were perfect perches. Just the right height.
Lawrence Lee is a Texas-based visual artist interested in the ways narratives connect us with the world and to one another. He received his Bachelors of Fine Arts from A&M-Commerce in Commerce, Texas, and his Masters of Fine Arts from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland. He exhibits his artwork in Dallas and Houston. He is also a Dallas-area firefighter.
Aimee Bender is the author of five books, including The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and The Color Master. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, Harper’s, The Paris Review, Tin House, and more, as well as heard on “This American Life”. She lives in Los Angeles, and teaches creative writing at USC.