The Grand High Eagle flexed his talons on the branch. Small flakes of the tree drift down and out of sight. “The first leaf has fallen.”
The first leaf to fall was a naturally reoccurring plot point in the calendar of my life. Aside from the autumn months spanning September to December, everything in my world was standard issue.
I stepped out of my modest home in the tree hostel I shared with a variety of animals and birds, creatures big and small, sleazy and well to do, and looked down from my perch to see the leaf on the ground. The color of the leaf was dull due to the incoming cold front, diffused light. But it held significant meaning; everyone but the Grand High would be shipping off for the cold months. I could see a few of my summer neighbors outside on their branches, all of them birds of flight, ready for the trek south. The Oriole across the way once greeted me with, “Hola!” My embarrassment was too much and so I turned away and went back inside, pretending like I didn’t hear him. I later learned it is a greeting from the southern warmer climes, as told to me by a rather disgruntled Albatross who foolishly found his way far too north for his liking, at my tree hostel. The oriole’s girlfriend is a Blue jay and she’s absurdly proud of her use of Portuguese, a language I cannot even fathom let alone understand. She once gave a sermon at the council, all in a foreign tongue, and even the Great High Eagle couldn’t help but roll his eyes at the ludicrous pomposity of it all.
I gathered my materials and readied to set off for the mountain and the cave. For a bird in my condition the trip would take three weeks. A bird of flight could manage in a day. The journey was arduous the first few autumns, and was now still arduous, though less so.
Inside my quaint domicile I double-checked my satchel for the trip and then checked once more, as birds that cannot fly tend to worry a lot. I don’t require much, not after my first several journeys to the mountain but had many years ago encountered a grueling test of my will when I came to learn I had misplaced my edible wares and had to hunt like my ancestors, with my wits and strength alone. I was not one for the hunt. Praise the mighty Falcons of past a deluge of rain came forth and drowned out many delicious earthworms much to my delight, for sadly my hunger was merciless and I was a talon’s length away from closing my eyes and allowing my being to fall from a cliff to certain death, a drifting and hopeless walk I’d often pondered.
For this years journey I had with me: three earth worms, still alive and scared (the best flavor), and a pouch of seeds and nuts that I’d foraged for in the summer. When I first began my yearly trek I brought far too much in the way of food, and now thanks to my study in the cave I was able to find nourishment in the challenge ahead as opposed to my gluttonous appetite. A worm a week, always on Saturday morning, was plenty.
I suppose I should mention my predicament. You’re probably wondering what could possibly keep a bird such as myself from traveling south during the cold months. It’s rather simple. I was born with a birth defect. My left wing never grew from my body, nothing more than a shriveled pokey thing like a baby chick – and so I have one beautiful right wing and a crippled left. Now, don’t get me wrong – my feathers are immaculate and my sheen is untouched in nature (perhaps a benefit of never really living a true birds life). My carriage is emblazoned with flecks of gold and red like the inside of a rare gem; I have muscular legs that turn the heads of all the ladies of flight, and my beak is well trained, a result of boredom, training in the cave, and being a carnivorous predator by birth.
When I was still nothing more than a little hatchling, much to my chagrin, for I would have liked to know my family, my father took me in his beak and carried me away to the mountainous region I now call home, ignoring my pleas of, “Papa! Papa! Please!” A shameful display, as no falcon begs or bargains. The Grand High Eagle took pity on me enough to spare my life, for he found me in the rain, my bulbous head slouched down, my skull grazing the ground in front of me, shivering in the cold, and didn’t kill me or eat me. So there’s that. He lent me the home I still live in where before me a deranged woodpecker had presided and pecked the walls to smithereens while rambling incoherently about God knows what. The Grand High Eagle never told me what happened to the woodpecker, though he did mention that the woodpecker drove many birds away in the fall with his madness, never to return, and was never exactly a pillar of the community.
I’ve spent many years perusing the trailheads and attainable cliff sides of my region and there was even a short stint in my younger years in which my legend preceded me – a misunderstanding, actually. I was walking a bluff, not far from my home, the focus of which was to grow my meager legs into the bamboo stalks they presently resemble. I saw a winter fox below me climbing upward among the sharp wild grass. I was frightened, for it was the first winter fox I’d seen in my walks and it had an air about it, the kind of gentle walk that promoted an explosive physical versatility, and slit eyes like a venomous snake. I peered over the edge where I had been set on a rather weathered and battered rock, and as I stretched my neck the rock loosened and began to slide away – and here is where a normal bird of flight would have most likely hop up and take to the air, but instead I panicked and held tight to the rock, flexing my strength trained talons, as it plummeted down and came to a crashing halt in a spray of blood on the spot where the fox was.
So there was brief legend of a non-flying bird killing a winter fox and then wearing the tail like a hat, a talisman. I never wore the tail. I walked away from the scene rather quickly and in all honesty couldn’t come to consume meat for almost a month after witnessing the awful death.
A flightless bird such as myself doesn’t go south. We’ve covered that much, I believe. Instead, what I do is pack my satchel and head to the mountain home of the hermit tribe of the meditative cultural preserve (HTMCP). Aside from myself there are usually one or two others who join me and spend time with Master Fry. He calls us his Lost Boys, a secret joke I found irritating at first and now think little of in terms of judgment. Last year was only I, but every year before that there was at least one other boarder in my little shared room. Mostly the spiritual types that come from all over the world and speak about things like chakras and ahimsa and parapsychology and other weird stuff – and when they aren’t visiting Master Fry they refer to their ventures south as the “Solstice before the winter solstice,” and they laugh. At first I found them quite irritating, the way I couldn’t hear their quiet spoken thoughts and reflections over the smacking clatter of the shells and jewels and wooden beads they wear around their necks. But they grew on me and if I were to see them again I’d consider them friends.
Master Fry, like so many of the guru stereotypes, is an owl. He’s also blind. He spent three years living at the top of the highest tree he could find in Chile where he never moved a muscle, and there he stared at the sun from sun up to sundown until it obliterated his sight, and in his own words, gave him a new sight, something far more valuable. He has, by his own choice, never taken flight since his time in Latin America and claims his walk from Chile to the Northwest region of the United States we now find ourselves took one and a half years. His talon feet are as hard as the infamous Snakewood tree. One of the enlightenment searching followers I met a few years ago claimed he witnessed Master Fry kick a boulder into oblivion, saying the stone literally disappeared leaving no remains behind.
I began visiting Master Fry out of a deep-set feeling of resentment. I hated everyone for a long time, the family that abandoned me, and my neighbors, even the Great High Eagle who saved my life – all because I couldn’t take to the sky and see the world from the angle I was supposed to see it. All the flying-people of my region felt sorry for me because I’ve never joined them in the epic journey to the southern hemisphere, where they eat delicious rare foods and meet all kinds of interesting bird-people, and all that other stuff they blush off and pretend isn’t incredible when they return and see me in my little room. But eventually the journey to see Master Fry took on a newly unique perspective for someone like me, and without even realizing it I possessed an inner calm I would have thought impossible to achieve. I owe all of that to the strange blind owl in the cave on the mountain.
So, Fry awaits the arrival of the cripples and those seeking enlightenment or nirvana or whatever, even just a friend, and we spend the winter talking about stuff we’d never talk about with anyone else, (me anyway) and eat uncooked rice in his cave. We watch the sunrise from flattened stones worn down by thousands of years of rain, and in the evening we watch the sunset from the same stones. Master Fry taught me to mediate and now I can reside an entire twelve hours in the lotus position, my mind a blank river of eternity. In the beginning meditation was the most difficult thing I’d ever done. I would jump from my stone and curse at Master Fry and kick up chunks of grass and dirt, smash my forehead into trees hoping to obliterate my mind. All my thoughts came back to one thing and one thing only, the never-ending cycle of blame I casted off on everyone I ever met, pointing a sharp talon at anyone and everyone for my little left wing; and especially my father who carried me away in his powerful beak, his mighty wings cutting through the air as mine never would. Master Fry always sat quietly, his foggy blind eyes looking in my general direction, and when I calmed down he’d simply ask me, “Are you done?” and I would grunt and sit in the lotus position again and start over.
The journey is rather simple in theory. I walk and I walk and I walk until I arrive. Now, it is much more difficult than that and there are dangers on the way, but those might be better explained another time. I eat a worm a week, and sometimes in the evening or early in the morning I consume some of my feed. If I encounter birds I wave and tell them to enjoy their trip south. They’re always flying southbound, and they always look at me like I’m insane for walking and walking north at that. I do sometimes meet other types of animals. The larger species are nice enough though I certainly don’t go out of my way to greet them, and really, it’s the little guys you have to watch out for. They lie and steal and play games, as my theory is their little heads contain small brains and they’re just barely hanging on, mental-wise. I learned early on to avoid them.
When I arrive at Fry’s cave he is always on his stone, legs crossed in the lotus, his feather-fingers resting in Surya Ravi Mudra, his minds eye clearly somewhere out there in cosmic connection wit the sun and Uranus, looking extra-oracle-like, sitting and waiting. He mediates with his eyes open and they blaze swirls of whitewashed silver. His coat of feathers is a snowy white with accents of a shimmering navy blue. He’s quite interesting to look at.
I take extra precaution to be as quiet as possible, and yet still he picks up his head and looks somewhere around where I am, “You’re here, young falcon. How was your journey?”
I always tell him the journey was fantastic and all the while I walked I got to see the falling leaves and the changing colors as the seasons go from summer to autumn and that even though I can’t fly and I’ll never be able to spend the winter months with the other birds like me I can appreciate the life I’ve been given and I’m happy to see him again and that he looks well.
“And what have you to say of yourself?”
I have this part memorized, “I am a falcon and I cannot fly but nothing will stop me from soaring.” It’s really lame, I know, but I made it up myself the first autumn I came to visit Master Fry, when I was still very angry and full of spite for my position in life. It’s those emotions that made the silly mantra stick. Now I’m unashamed and use those words to my advantage.
Master Fry pats the smooth surface next to him, my smoothed stone, “Very well. Shall we begin?”