High above the earth, settled in a thicket of branches atop a lonely tree, three hatchlings ruminated, waiting for their mother to return with food.
It was almost fall, and their adult feathers had just begun to replace their soft, colorless downage. Feathers of deep brown sprouted from their bodies; staunch white and pitch black dotted their wings, all the way to the tips. The two brothers noted some yellow in their smaller sister as well. How she looks like mother, they both thought.
But fall brought more than just adult plumage. Now a few months old, it was time for flight lessons, a concept that terrified the younger of the two brothers.
The eldest brother had no problem with the concept. Weeks earlier, a storm with high winds had knocked him out of the nest – he was always playing too close to the edge. As he fell, brother and sister watched helplessly, while their mother stood at attention, ready to intervene if necessary. He tumbled through the air, but only momentarily. Halfway to the ground, his wings shot out to his sides and remained perfectly straight, as his brother executed a perfect glide to the earth. It hadn’t taken much, but he had indeed flown.
“You see? It’s not hard,” their mother reminded them. “Trust your body, and your instincts will take over. They won’t let you hit the ground.”
For the younger brother, there was no comfort in the memory of those words. Each time his mother had knocked him from the nest, his wings had failed him. They weren’t strong enough to handle the rushing air, buckling and folding upward. Mother always had to dive in and save him at the last minute. He took some solace in knowing that his sister wasn’t much better than he, but even she had only required rescue once, maybe twice.
And today, he knew there would be another lesson.
Finally the little birds saw their mother returning from the east, ahead of gray clouds on the horizon. She came closer and closer, until she was near enough that the chicks could feel the cupping of her powerful wings, slowing her for landing. She perched, leaned forward, and opened her beak for her young. The youngest brother moved to the side, allowing his sister to eat first. Their elder brother pushed them both out of the way and gorged himself.
After lunch, his brother mocked him: “You gonna fly today, little brother? Or is mom going to have to save you again?”
“Stop it!” their sister demanded. “He’s doing the best he can!”
“No he’s not. It’s not hard, all you have to do is spread your wings.”
“Enough!” their mother snapped. Her voice cut through their bickering like the thunder that now grew louder from the east.
“There’s a storm coming,” she said. “I want you to finish you meals, and then it’s time for your lesson. Today is a perfect day to get accustomed to flying in different weather conditions.”
“Mother,” the younger brother pleaded, “can’t we skip the lessons until after the storm passes?”
“No, my child. We are hawks – birds of prey do not hide from the weather. You know that land creatures scurry on the earth ahead of the storm, a perfect time for us to hunt. There may come a day in your life when you must hunt before or even during a storm.”
“See?” the elder brother asked their sister. “He’s too scared to fly. Mother should just let him fall. He’s certainly no bird of prey.”
“Enough!” said the mother, seeing the words cut into her younger son. She whipped her head to the side and knocked the elder brother out of the nest. Thunder roared as they peered over to watch his descent.
Sure enough, same as last time, the elder brother spread his wings. This time though, he began flapping them. He was not just gliding today; he was flying.
He climbed higher and higher, spinning through the air. Flying. He came in for a hard landing, and slammed into the straw floor of the nest.
“Good,” their mother said. “You exhibited body control, but your landing needs work.
Next came the sister’s turn. She fell from the nest for a moment, eventually spreading her wings and gliding gently to the ground. She looked up at the nest, unable to return to the top of the tree.
Their mother dove to retrieve her, while the two brothers argued.
“If you weren’t so scared of flying,” asked the younger brother, holding back laughter, “where would you go?”
“I’m not scared!” little brother hissed, “I’m just thinking about it too much, like mom said.”
“You didn’t answer my question: where would you go if you could fly?”
His brother was taunting him, leading to something, but he didn’t know what.
“I don’t know,” he said, confused, “why does it matter? Where would you go?”
“Wherever I want – because that’s what you do when you learn how to fly!”
The older brother broke out into laughter. This was the brilliant joke my older brother was getting at, he thought.
Laughing hysterically, the older brother continued: “What kind of bird can’t fly? YOU! I’m going to fly wherever I want when it’s time to leave the nest, all around the world if that’s where the wind takes me. I’ll never stop, not even to make a nest. And while I’m traveling the world, you’ll be stuck here with mom, in this nest forever!”
The sky above looked ominous now. This was no ordinary rainstorm. Thunder bellowed loudly from above, then dissipated, its rumble trailing off like a rock rolling further and further away.
“Your turn young one, and quickly! This storm will turn violent in a short time,” said the mother, all at once speaking and nudging the younger brother out of the nest.
He tumbled, spinning end-to-end. He felt his organs protesting the fall, the pull of gravity against them. He saw the earth, then the dark clouds – earth, clouds, earth, clouds. Get a hold of yourself! He thought. You’ve got to get this, or your brother’s right – you will be stuck here forever!
He waited until his senses told him he was level, between seeing the earth and the clouds. Instantly, he thrust his wings out beside him, and glided for a moment. Finally he could saw straight ahead, and he focused all his energy on gliding – but the air was too powerful. He felt a cool breeze run through his feathers, and he his wings began to give way. He fanned out his tail – not enough. The strain was too much. His wings buckled, and he fell straight to the ground. Luckily, his flailing had been just enough to reduce his speed, and he was uninjured.
For the first time ever, he felt the earth. The tall grass around him, the coolness of the soil under his talons. Something’s not right, he thought. Why didn’t mother save me?
As the thought left his mind, something exploded to his left. Then in front of him; to his right, and now behind him. One after another, these huge balls slammed into the ground, sending shockwaves through the soil as they fell. He could feel cold fragments hitting his body as they exploded. What was this?
He looked up into the tree, frantically searching for the nest, wondering where his mother was. Suddenly, where the nest was supposed to be, he saw an explosion of branches and twigs. Hail had hit the nest. The impact shot his brother and sister out the nest, and he saw his mother nab his sister from the air. Behind her, his eldest brother fell.
“Youngest son!” she called in a panicked voice, “Your brother is unconscious, and my wing is wounded! You have to save your brother – he’ll die if he hits earth!”
The thunder shouted at him, and the wind folded their tree in half. Debris clouded his eyesight, but he could see enough to know that the hail fell like rain. A small piece hit his back, sending pain radiating through his body – but it would have to be ignored. His eldest brother continued to fall.
He jumped up, thrusting his wings outward. He continued moving upward toward his brother, knowing there was only one chance to meet him in the air. Keep going, he told himself. Adjust for the wind….now straight….not yet….NOW!
He reach his talons out, and clamped his brother’s body within them. His wings ached under the added weight, and he suddenly realized what he was doing – he was flying.
Halfway up the tree was a large hole, a void left by one of the tree’s branches that had fallen off decades ago. It wasn’t deep, but it was deep enough. I’ve got to get inside that hole in the tree, he thought, and wait out this storm. A piece of hail hit his wing as he climbed. Again, pain shot through him, but he kept on, shielding his brother beneath him.
Finally, he made it. He dragged his brother inside and collapsed, his body able to do no more. He had flown! Not just a simple glide – he had actually flown, to save his brother no less!
The he remembered – his brother.
Joy left him as he looked at his older sibling. He lay there, in that damp hole in the tree, beautiful new feathers stained red with blood.
His brother was already dead.
The day had finally come to leave the nest. It had been almost a year since that day he learned to fly – the day his brother died, so undeservingly. Now it was time for youngest son and sister to leave the lonely tree, to go into the world and make lives of their own.
“Goodbye to you both,” their mother said. “I’ll never see either of you again, but you make me proud today, as I know you will in the world. Live well, for me and for your brother!”
They jumped from the perch, spread their wings and tucked their talons beneath them. Brother and sister flew for a short while together.
“Where will you nest, brother?” she asked.
“Nowhere,” he replied. “I’m going to fly wherever I want, all around the world if that’s where the wind takes me. I never want to stop, not even to nest. I want to see everything.”
“But why?” she asked, confused.
They began to pull away from one another.
“For our brother,” he said.