Footsteps echo in the hallway outside. A guard’s armor clanks. He stops at my door.
A sweet smell pulled me from my dreamless sleep. I let the warm morning light from my round window fill my eyes, and I stretched. My arms were met with a slight chill, and I tucked them back into my quilt. Maneuvering myself into an upright position against the wooden back of my bed, I glanced around the room. I'd left the place a mess. My desk was cluttered with ink-spattered parchment, and leather-bound books were crammed into impossible positions on my shelves. I was the most unorganized of all my friends. Kiya, a girl that lived in the redwood nearest to me, had all of her books lined up in alphabetical order, and even had space left for fanciful decorations.
I located my new sage-green tunic folded by my door. Suddenly, I remembered what today was.
It was my birthday! My sixteenth. One of the most important days of my life.
Every halconian’s sixteenth birthday was a big deal. It was the day they received their wings.
Stifling a shriek of delight, I leapt out of bed and scrambled to put on my tunic. Bouncing across the ringed wooden floor, I examined myself in the mirror. The garment that I wore was the first I'd ever donned with a wing-hole in the back. It was a beautiful thing, and I beamed with contentment. I couldn't wait to see the colors of the feathers that would soon replace the pale skin that showed now. Of course I couldn't walk around in the Seca autumn with a big, unfilled hole in my clothes, so I snatched my light brown cloak from its hook on the tree wall and slid into it. It matched, and I was satisfied.
After tugging my unruly brown hair into a lose braid, I skipped out the door and down the narrow spiral staircase that was carved into the tree we lived in. I followed my nose all the way down several floors and into the kitchen where the rest of my family awaited. They were seated around a round table that was built out of the tree as well, permanently rooted to the floor. A large platter rested in the middle of the table, piled with chocolate nut rolls.
“Yes!” I squealed. “My favorite!”
My siblings laughed and my parents smiled.
I sat down on a stool next to my younger brother Dustin, and picked a roll from the pile and started chowing down.
“So, everyone,” my father said with a proud smile, “what color do you think Corricaye’s wings will be?”
“I think they will be crazy rainbow colors!” My youngest sister, Gaila said, giggling through her food.
“That's not possible!” Dustin exclaimed. “Have you ever seen a rainbow colored bird? No one can get bright colored wings like that.”
“You can get bright wings,” Gaila argued. “Mine will be bright pink!”
“No you can't!”
Irritated by my siblings’ arguing, my other sister Anya, who was still younger than me, cut them off.
“You can't get very bright wings, but you can get colored ones. Remember Rone, Corricaye’s friend? He has grey and blue wings. Although I doubt you could get pink, Gaila.”
Gaila folded her arms and scowled. “Never mind. Who needs wings anyway?”
My mother and I laughed, and everyone resumed eating.
When breakfast was finished, I made to leave to my room, but my mother stopped me. I turned and looked at her expectantly. She grinned, and I realized she was holding something behind her back.
“Me and your father went searching at the market for a suitable gift the other night, and look what we stumbled across!” Bringing her arms to the front, she displayed a necklace. It was a pendant on a expertly woven string of twine. The pendant was a silver pinecone surrounded by painted green needles.
“It's beautiful!” I said, taking it carefully out of her hands. She helped me loop it around my neck. She turned me around, and I saw tears rimming her blue eyes.
“You look very nice. But I might fix your hair up later for the ceremony.” She patted me on the back. “Now why don't you go to your friends?”
I smiled and gave a quick nod. I turned tail and flew up the stairs and into my room.
My heart thumps against my ribs. I think the guard is going to open the door, but he doesn't. Instead, a roll of parchment slides under the door, causing me to jump.
I lived on the top level of our tree. My room was spacious—it took up the entire level, so the walls were all one circle. The door to my room from the staircase was actually a trapdoor, providing more space. I sure needed it. Without it, where would I put my books?
Jogging across the floor, I approached one of the two wall-doors in my room. Opening it, I paused and took a long sniff of fresh forest air.
In front of me stretched an old rope bridge. At the end of it was a wooden deck, supported by several regular-sized trees. Three other rope bridges were connected to it. It was a fort that me and my friends had constructed—with help, of course— several years back.
I was happy to see that all of them were already lounging on their usual bean bags and blankets, and papers and half-written novels were already starting to clutter the place.
“Cori!” My friend Kiya hollered when she saw me. “I thought we said we'd do that midnight horror-story thing! I spent all week on mine!”
I shuffled my feet faster across the wobbly wooden boards. Once I got to our deck, I plopped down into a pile of green and yellow cushions. Kiya glared at me with her dark brown eyes from atop her throne of quilts. Her golden-brown wings splayed out behind her at careless angles, but they complimented her dark skin nonetheless.
“Erun was the only one that showed up.” She glanced over at the third member of our club. It could have just been me, but I doubted she honestly felt sour about last night.
Erun shivered in mock fear. “It was truly bone-curdling. It was wise not to come.”
I laughed. “Then I'm glad I didn't. I just wanted to save my energy, you know. My grandma says growing wings tuckers you out. She also says cookies will give you energy. I should have a few dozen to share tonight.”
That last statement caught the attention of the fourth group member. Rone looked up from his book, which was probably a fast-paced thriller according how close he was holding it to his face. I wasn't sure if he'd really heard or understood the whole conversation, but his grey wings flecked with blue lifted a bit and he looked up for a moment.
“Sounds like a plan,” he said. His next suggestion was directed towards me. “Maybe you'd be able to fly to the lookout we've been building, and we can all celebrate there after your ceremony is done.”
Kiya brightened. “Oh Cori!” She came over and hugged me, a rather unusual form of affection among book nerds. “I just can't wait to see what yours will look like!”
Of course she meant my wings. I grinned. I was the last of the four to turn sixteen, and I was more than ready to fly. It’d really irked me that I wasn't able to properly visit the lookout that they had started a few months ago. My friends had actually tried carrying me up when it was half-finished, but they couldn't get a safe angle downwards, and I had to risk climbing down. Despite my usually profound climbing skills, I nearly slipped and fell to my death.
But why? It's just paper. And a fountain pen, I realize. Why would my captor bring me this? To remind me of my previous life? To taunt me? That doesn't seem likely. I sit back against the cold stone wall and cradle the strange gifts on my lap.
With only a light cough as a warning, Erun stood up and theatrically spread his dark, swallow-shaped wings. His slick black hair glinted in the speckled forest light, and he began reciting one of his poems.
“Inside the warm enclosure of the egg she squirms to escape. To flee from the cocoon and glimpse the sun; to spread her wings and pass through the forest’s veil; to be free from the chains of earth. To fly.” Erun lifted his arms high and stooped into a low bow, his wings flaring behind him. Me and Kiya applauded and Rone chuckled, but Erun wasn't done with his show.
“Happy birthday Corricaye, writer of the most intriguing tales of ordinary folk, reader of obscure fiction, and maker of many-“
“Thank you, Erun,” I interrupted laughingly before he could go any longer.
“And maker of many messes,” Erun continued without missing a beat. He stood up. “We cleaned up your part of the fort for you. I'd hoped you would realize and thank us for our labor.”
Him being Erun, I wasn't entirely sure he was joking, but I thanked them all for clearing my spot anyway. I realized for the first time that my pillows were actually in the shape of a slightly lopsided square, and my papers with scribblings of Seca creatures and characters from my favorite novels were scooped into a neat pile. Noticing that the others were beginning to start their own work, I picked up the stack and began rooting through it. Kiya looked up with her eyebrow raised when I dropped a few of them, and they glided to the center of the deck.
“I have completed the poem you wanted for your book, Kiya,” Erun said, breaking the silence. He held out a piece of paper and flicked his right wing. He let the poem fly on the wind he'd created, and it landed neatly in Kiya’s lap. Erun grinned broadly, probably really proud of the smooth execution of this trick.
“Oh! Thanks,” Kiya responded, holding up the paper to look at.
“Cori,” Rone said, ignoring the other conversation, “have you finished your third chapter yet?”
“Uh…” I thought back to my desk, and the papers full of scribbling and notes for revisions. I probably needed to make a fourth draft. “Yes,” I answered. It was finished, more or less.
“Can I read it? I've been letting you read and edit mine for weeks now, you know.” Rone’s tone was oddly irritated and playful and the same time. I was always amazed at how the kid could never manage to sound mad. At least not around me, I thought.
I cringed. “No.”
“What? Is there something embarrassing in it or something?”
Not entirely sure why, I reddened a bit. Rone knew that a lot of my writing had to do with my day-to-day experiences and real life. A lot of my opinions and feelings entered my attempted novels. And yes, I did have some thoughts that I'd rather keep hidden from others, and Rone knew that too. Especially before editing, my writing was often raw and exposing. Rone and me liked to swap writing to edit a lot—in fact, he is probably the only person I would ever let read my first drafts.
I always enjoyed the fact that all my friends wrote in different genres, though. Kiya wrote detailed fantasy, Rone wrote action-packed adventure, and Erun wrote elegant poetry. I guess you could categorize my writing as realistic fiction, but I hardly consider my insights realistic.
“No. Nothing embarrassing either.”
Rone rolled his eyes. “Then let me read it!”
I sighed and rose to fetch my papers from my room, although I cannot say I was particularly upset that he insisted.
Whoever gave me this paper knows I write. They obviously intend me to. The chains encircling my right arm clank as I shuffle through the parchment, looking for instructions.
“Come on Cori, we don't have all day!” Kiya chided me from her perch in a skinny tree by the smoothie stand. The stand was an undecorated wooden structure and wasn't set in an extremely popular part of Seca, but it had no problem with business. I had a problem, though. There were way too many options listed on the painted sign in front of me. The customers behind me didn't look patient, either.
This shop was by far my favorite in Seca, which is why we were there on my birthday, of course. It was far from the busy Upwood, yet not too close to Downwood, the darker side of Seca where animals and rogues could become a hazard.
“I got blueberry-coconut. That's always a safe choice,” Rone said unhelpfully. I did like that flavor, but not this time. This was the last time I could get a “wingless discount,” and I had to make the perfect choice. The perfect choice would have a perfect balance of risk and satisfaction.
Crossing my fingers, I ordered. “Pine-strawberry guava, please.”
“I believe you have made a tragic mistake, Corricaye,” Erun said sadly.
Kiya clamped her legs around the branch she was sitting on nearby, and hung upside-down. Her curly black hair nearly brushed the ground as she swayed.
“We've gotta hurry,” she said. “I'd bet your mom wants you back at least an hour before the ceremony starts.”
Before she could say another word, one of the smoothie-stand workers set all the drinks out in wooden mugs. Kiya swung down from her tree and joined the others, and they all sat down in a circle on the ground. I tasted the red liquid in my mug, and deemed it worthy of my last wingless day.
As if on cue, pain jolted through my back, and I gasped, somehow managing to only spill some of my smoothie.
“Are you just clumsy, or…”
“Yeah,” I breathed in vague answer to Rone’s question, clutching my back. I ran my fingers up my spine as far as they could go, and felt telltale wing-bumps. Another surge of pain wracked my body, and despite the agony I felt elated. When a halconian starts having back pains, he or she could expect at least two hours before his or her wings emerge.
“We have to get you to your mother,” Kiya exclaimed. “I didn't realize you would start this early. On foot, we may not have enough time…” she mused worriedly.
“I suppose one of us will have to fly her there,” Erun said. I knew he didn't volunteer because his light wings were meant for speed, not for carrying extra weight. Only Rone and Kiya’s broad wings could perform a task like that without mistakes.
“I will,” Rone said quickly.
Already knowing the drill, I chugged the last few drops of my fruit drink, slightly disappointed that I wasn't able to savor it. I raised my arms so Rone could wrap his tightly around my torso, and before I could even drop my mug, he leaped into the air and flapped his large grey wings madly to stay airborne. The first-layer of forest fell away, leaving only the sparser giant redwoods to block our view of the sky. Rone’s struggle against the air ceased, and we soared.
Of course I felt overly self-conscious being so close to him, but I calmed my brain quickly with the notion that everything being done was out of necessity. Instead, I savored the feeling of the wind through my air and the sense of freedom. Today I would be able to experience this euphoria tenfold by myself.
I was almost sad when we landed awkwardly on our tree-deck. Well, I was pretty sad as I watched one of my drawings fall off the edge, carried by the gust Rone’s wings had created. I didn't tell him, though, and thanked him kindly. Grinning boyishly, he dove backwards off the deck and flew away.
I was glad he was gone when I suddenly convulsed, lurching forward as if moving in that direction could take me away from the sudden stab of pain in my back. When it faded away, I felt a bigger protrusion right under my shoulder blades—this time there were two.
I scurried across my rope bridge, and flung open the door to my room. To my relief my mother was there, her brown wings tinged with white lowering and rising as she rummaged through a strange box.
“Hello Cori!” Looking up, she immediately realized what was going on. “Oh! Looks like we're gonna have to hurry!”
The parchment is completely blank. The person that sent me it could not have been my captor. Maybe I have ally after all these years. I haven't put my ideas to paper in so long…
I stood, fully garbed in wing-friendly clothes, meaning that cold wind snaked down my back whenever I turned a certain direction. My friends and family made a ring around me on the forest floor and watched my metamorphosis.
I was not entirely sure why they call this event a ceremony. The only ritual-type aspect of the gathering was that everyone wore formal attire. I have witnessed many people receive their wings—including my friends and cousins—wearing traditional children’s dresses all of them but never wing-tunics. Mature halconians do not wear dresses, at least not without leggings underneath. Just imagine looking up at the sky and seeing something you never wanted to see.
The pain in my back increased, and I barely suppressed a scream. Since I’d seen many embarrassing wing ceremonies, I bit my tongue. My relatives and my three friends murmured encouragement and laid their hands on my shaking shoulders as the two bumps in my back swelled and became jagged. Involuntary tears sprung into my eyes and blurred my vision. The pain began to cool off, but I knew from every other halconian’s experience that the worst was yet to come.
It felt as if my back had suddenly been dipped in ice, and the hot throbbing ceased. I sucked in a deep breath, and waited.
A minute later, my back began to sting. It stung more and more. I reached my arm around, and felt something hard and skinless sticking out from the protrusions. And then, completely without preamble, white-hot agony, worse than anything I could ever describe shot out between my shoulder blades. I cried out, but then it was gone as soon as it came. A strange numbness soothed me, and then I noticed that something wet was brushing my arms and tickling my ankles.
A wave of excitement passed over me, so great that my mother had to steady me, for I nearly fainted. Exclamations of wonder erupted from my gathering, and tentatively I touched the wings on my back.
They were wet, but not bloody. A halconian's metamorphosis is clean. They were broad, but not too much so. Nerves began to run up and down my wings, sensing the breeze in a way I would have never thought possible. I moved them, and accidentally slapped my brother behind me in the face.
“Hey!” Dustin shouted, and everyone laughed.
Giggling with glee, I wriggled the muscles in my wings, slowly figuring out how to operate them. Butterflies went wild in my stomach when I remembered that I still hadn't seen the colors yet.
I thrust my sight wing forward at an awkward angle, making my friends snicker, and studied it in awe. The fluffy inside of my wing was a creamy white speckled lightly with tan. The other side was smoother and a darker tan, mottled with many different shades and forming an elegant bar pattern at the flight-feathers, just like a barn owl’s. They were definitely pretty, but that wasn't what my mind was set on anymore. The feathers were completely dry now.
I flapped my wings for the first time, expecting to take off immediately, but finding flying harder than it looked. Filled with determination, I leapt into the air and pumped my wings forcefully.
I hadn't realized that I was thirty feet in the air when I finally looked down. Vertigo I'd never known roiled in my gut, but I forced myself to ignore it. My friends took to the air in turn, and surrounded me.
“Try to reach out and force the air behind you!” Kiya said loudly whilst flapping in place. “It's hard to explain, but you have to work with the wind.”
Rone and Erun yelled encouragement as I worked my wings. I stopped ascending so fast, and began moving forwards. The cool air sifted through my feathers, and I could feel distinctly each individual current. Instinct kicked in, and I flew faster. I turned, dived, and soared. I rose above the redwoods, and embraced the sun.
Tears stinging my eyes, I set out my gift on the floor, and curl my bony fingers around the pen. My crippled wings tremble in sudden remembrance, as if they know what I am going to write.
I tell the paper what life was like when Seca was better.