She was five years past hatching. Alone now, she was jutted down over two white eggs tucked under her belly in a nest built in an old spruce that hung out over the drop-off down to the water.
As she sat there brooding, she thought back to her time when she was wing-wrapped, leg-tangled, tiredly wet trying to break out of her own egg all those years ago … trying to flex her neck so it would spring her head up to the inside of the shell striking the egg-tooth at the end of her beak against the calcified inside of the shell with enough force to make a crack.
A gap big enough to allow her to continue her egress from her egg into a world where she would exist through hard-wired genetic traits, an intense learning curve and luck.
She stood, looked under her at the eggs, bent her head down and rolled each a full turn, shoved a stick or two around, then settled back down, thinking …
When she’d broken out of her shell, she found she was the third hatchling. She had two siblings already many days old. How she made it to fledging she still didn’t understand. There was enough fish that came to the nest from her parents. That was good, for without that she would’ve never made it with two older brothers. She’d made it though.
Flying for the first time when she was almost 4 months old. And that was when it got hard. She was fed often by her parents as she wandered tree to tree near the nest.
She’d learned while a nestling to scream loud and long for food. And she was fed. She was larger than her two brothers and all three were larger than their parents. That first winter was, again, hard! She learned to scavenge the beaches, to steal from gulls, but she also learned to spend long hours, sometimes days, limb-clinging with an empty stomach.
Now, thinking back, she thought of those hours and days as her meditative time. By her first spring she’d lost weight but she’d become an adept flier and a terror on the beaches when any food source might come into existence. She knew that one of her siblings hadn’t made it this far. She saw his carcass on the beach near the nest tree being fed on by a coyote. Her other brother was still in the area, but his flight patterns were erratic and labored. She gave him no further thought.
The days passed, turning into months and then into years. She’d left the area where she was hatched sometime in the fall of her second year. Her journey took her north along the coast where she spent her third winter hunting, fishing and meditating from huge spruce and hemlocks tucked over an estuary where salmon came in herds up the fjord to spawn in the river. The snow there was deep all winter. And it was cold — colder than she’d known where she hatched.
Hunting was good, though. She stayed well. There were others like her there, most of them young — some not even a year old, others with head and tail feathers turning white.
And there were adults. They were vicious, noisy … always screaming at or chasing away anyone who came into their territories. Sometimes the encounters were unforgiving. Twice she’d lost feathers across her back when a white-head came at her faster than she could escape. Mostly though, when older birds screamed, she simply flew farther up the estuary or along the beach settling in where no one bothered her.
She grew — not in size but in knowledge, skill and especially confidence. She’d learned how to watch for and take salmon or other fish from the bay or the shallows along the river. She learned how to hunt diving duck through repeated attacks and how to plunge talons deep underwater closing around them as they dove.
She even learned how to swim. She knew how obnoxious gulls were whenever they were around, but she’d also discovered that – in her reality – they were fairly easy to pluck out of the air and weren’t bad eating. And deer and moose carcasses? She wasn’t fussy about a food source. Staying warm wasn’t a problem – ruffle feathers and hunch-up on a cedar limb over water; always warmer there. Staying cool in summer? Roost back in the deep woods; it’s always cooler there.
As to others like her? She mingled, flew with or ignored them for the most part until early spring in her fifth year. Then something happened that changed her perspective on the others: the white-heads.
She’d left her night roost as the sun was coming up, flew down the coast and, as she flew, she caught a thermal that carried her several thousand feet up where with wings out, primaries spread, she soared for what seemed like hours.
Then, on a slow turn, she saw another coming in toward her. She watched as it soared; moving closer. Oddly though, she saw that it was soaring with its legs down, a move that slowed it as it approached her.
Then she knew – instinctively knew – it was male. And a white-head. An old white-head.
She could see this in his feathers, in his movements, but mostly in his bearing. He came on, closing the distance. She turned away from him. He closed the distance more, changing course toward her. Then she heard his screams. Or so she gathered those sounds into her as screams. Then suddenly she heard them differently. Songs! He was singing to her.
She turned. He turned.
She tucked her wings in a little closer to her body, gaining speed as she did so. Moving away from him. Quickly though, he caught up with her. Passed over and turned so suddenly that she had tossed a wing out and down, the other up so not to collide. As she did this, it flipped her sideways, tilting her body. In reaction she flashed her legs out to stabilize herself. As she did this he came past in a steep dive; his legs down, talons out and flicked her feet with one of his, then he was past her. She spun up, regaining balance, then turned quickly away. Again, the move flipped her, and again the male came in fast and this time, dropped both legs out, talons grappling into hers and then clasping her as he flew past. This flipped her over him in a somersault. She struggled to free herself. But couldn’t. Down she went, under his outstretched wings. But wings that weren’t horizontal to his body, but up over it. She couldn’t right herself.
She tumbled. He tumbled. End over end. Head over tail. Screaming. Now they were both screaming. Or was she singing, too?
She flipped. He flipped. They both flipped in a downward spiral. Tumbling. Spiraling. Twisting. Down. Air ripped past her wings. Past his wings. Down.
Although her world knew nothing of merry-go-rounds or loop-de-loops, this was what she was on. A ride like she’d never known before.
No longer frightened, no longer strange, no longer terrified, she rode this magic-feeling down, screaming.
Below them, trees coming fast. Down. She tried to tear free from his grip. He held her talons tight. Then, just there at that last moment before crashing he let go. She grappled with the air around her; no purchase for wings. Then, suddenly snapping primaries out, she flicked her wrist and was upright, soaring low. Not over, but through the trees.
Flapping one wing beat after the other. Faster and faster. Up and over tree tops into the sky. Looking everywhere, not seeing him. Nowhere. Then, there! Past her he flew. Then up. Gaining air with each wing-beat, she matched his climb. Gaining. Using each breath on each wing-beat to push her higher. Following him. Chasing him. He flew hard. Gaining more air.
Then just as suddenly as it had begun before, he came past her. But this time she tucked her left wing, extended her right, and flipped her body upside down, threw out her legs, opened her talons and met his as he passed gathering hers into his. “What’s happening?” she thought as she began the spiral downwards again … “What’s going on … ?”
Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org.