I know he can always sense me nearby.
If that was the last remaining work of Longwei or simply the fact that Ung had always been a little too smart for his own good, I did not know.
I can say, though, that when he walks home from school alone and the ripples in the pond nearby shiver, he knows that I am flying fast, and I can say that when the branches shake above his head, he knows that I am flying free. And so what matters most is that Ung knows he is not lost because I am his echo. I am what comes after. I am the wind. I am his birdcall.
To tell you the truth, Ung was born too early. Too small. When I first saw him in the cradle, I didn't know what to make of him. Tza--or maybe it was Gee... it's beginning to get harder and harder to remember-- tended to get nervous when I was around him, as if I would somehow bring harm. It was not implied whether it was physical or nasty luck I would cause. It wasn't every day a baby's older brother flapped around like I did.
I couldn't describe Ung's baby skin even if I tried. It was sick-like, almost similar to that of waxy almonds. When I would stretch the tip of my wing, my feathers would brush against him, and he'd never make a sound. I'd always stop to think now and then if he was ever frightened of me. Of my beady eyes and white and brown-crusted fur. He never did get scared, though, or at least not from what I could tell. To tell you another truth, I didn't think Ung could get scared. He was too other. If magic was real he was it.
So he'd sit in that big, white cradle with his big brother bird looming over him, ensuring he was protected. I thought it my job to make sure he was. I'd watch the raindrops smack against the window at night, and watch dawn rise once again knowing this strange, small creature was safe.
I think what's important to know is that when Tza was pregnant with me and slowly becoming heavier and breaking as if she was carrying the Earth itself within her form, Gee went to see the healer who lived deep in the Siztiik forest. She called herself Longwei. It meant "dragon greatness" which was said to be her warrior name back when she was learning the ways of the forest. There were three names for one person back then. The one you were born with, the one you said to the silver lake when it showed you your true self, and the one to which you answered when summoned. Longwei was the only person Gee knew could help him when Tza was dying.
Longwei outwardly looked maybe halfway through her life, but she was, in reality, old enough to be called a legend. Gee slammed his fist against the wooden oak door and called her name. He said, Longwei, make my son strong. Make him alive. Make him never stumble when he walks or run when he is scared. May he go to great heights. Give Tza enough power so that this may come true. Can you do that?
The door opened, and Longwei peered with a jar of feathers and pine in her hand and said Yes. Yes, I can do that.
Nobody knew what I would become until the transformation slowly started to begin. I was ten and had just learned how to swim in the river. Had begun to understand my math. Had sat watching the bugs move on that flat stone below my bedroom window. At least I know what it is like to touch the sky.
Some may ask what it feels like to a bird, and the truth is it has its moments. I never have to live in fear, as Gee had asked of me. Longwei made me a predator bird for a reason. I do have to tell you, though, that when you soar with the gentle wind caressing you, holding you in guidance, and you look down to see the tips of the evergreen trees along with the snowy mountains, it was nothing short of otherworldly. When one is so used to looking up, it hits you how odd it is to look down. But of course, I had to learn how to love these things. Had to for Ung, so he could stay alive. For Tza because she had worked too hard. For Gee because he was so tired.
Sometimes when it was cold outside and winter was approaching with its whisper of ice-like death, I'd sit on the windowsill and stare at Tza reading to Ung on the living room rug. Tza would hold him in her lap, looking over his shoulder as she read. Something burned my chest then, and I'd remember that although I was much smaller, I still felt too much. Within me, it lived. Reminded. It was times like these that you forget you were once ever a human at all.
When I was ten, Tza became pregnant with Ung. Through her transformation into motherhood, I transformed into Longwei's falcon.
And Ung was a quiet baby. Never made a sound. When he laughed, it was the sound of rain against a tin roof. Choppy, as if the noise was coming out wrong. As if he didn't know what to make of it.
When he finally learned how to balance his body to sit upright, he'd stare at me for a long time. Just watching. Calculating, it seemed like. My stare would meet him back, and for a minute, that's all we'd do. I think about how even though neither of us could talk, we'd speak to each other in a language Tza and Gee never would understand.
Ung scrunched his eyes before he leaned forward and placed his palm on the width of my beak. Something like wet leaves became stuck in my throat. I then wondered if birds ever cried and what it sounded like. Maybe it was tin roof laughter, too.
My brother never got to see me as a human, and though ten-year-old me had so much to tell him-- about the bugs, and the swimming and the math--I knew there was nothing else I could do.
But that was before he really began to get sick.
Like the passing of a year, it was slow before it sped up all at once. So fast that what you thought was yesterday was four months ago. So sudden that you sat in your room at night thinking about where all the time ran off to. Time never kissed you goodbye but rather slamed the door on its way out.
I am eleven, and all too quickly Ung began to be too feverish at night. When his coughs thundered and roared, I'd watch down from the side of his crib, footsteps rushing into that tiny room.
I only thought of one thing the whole time:
I watched as Tza and Gee knelt down, Ung curled in Tza's arms. I flapped down from the crib and wobbled towards them on my useless taloned feet. I felt defeated. The creature was dying.
I looked over and saw Gee, his eyes wide. He placed his factory-worn hand on Ung's burning forehead when it had struck me that Gee had lived this before. Twelve years earlier, when his wife began dying.
His upper lip became sweaty, and when he spoke, it was frog-like, in slow croaks. He called me by a name I hadn't heard in a long time.
Jin. Gee placed his other hand on Mother so she'd stop trembling. Jin go to her. The healer in the forest. I cannot, as me and your mother have already seen her, and she is only to be called upon once in a person's life. But please...Please, my son. She has cursed us once before, but maybe she has enough in her heart to spare your brother.
With that, I saw in my father's eyes the very same message I had sent before:
But I am just a child.
I flew across our village to the Siztiik forest, it marked my first and last time ever going there. As children, we were warned to enter it, as there were said to be trolls and goblins who would eat us alive if we ventured any farther than the open pathway. I always obeyed, not because of the trolls, but because I knew Longwei resided in the forest, and she was far scarier than any of the trolls or goblins.
I clumsily flapped my wings as I approached the front of her house, talons grabbing the door-knocker in the middle of that great oak door. The thing suddenly opened by itself, groaning in the process. When I fluttered in, I saw the back of the Healer standing in front of a fireplace. You're here because of that ill brother of yours, aren't you? Jin son of Gee.
Before I could respond, Longwei turned around, facing the very thing she cured and cursed twelve years ago.
You can speak, you know. I shall understand you as you are the forest, and I am the keeper of the forest. So go on, tell me what it is that you want.
Her voice were raspberry thorns: scratchy, tangled. I didn't know how to look her in the eye, so I gazed out and said the only thing I could.
Make my brother strong. Make him alive. Can you do this?
Longwei tsked her tongue before turning to her side to grab a bottle of feather and pine.
I can, she said. But you should know that if I am to make him strong, the same thing that happened to you will happen to him.
I couldn't help cawing bitterly in return: I thought you were supposed to be a healer. What are these riddles you put upon us? On our lives?
Longwei raised her eyebrows.
Why I am, dear child, but I am not a miracle worker. Nor a God. I can only do what people ask me to do to the limits of the forest. I cannot bring your brother back to health, for he is dying. She paused. That is...
I leaned forward. She continued.
Well! you must've known you being a falcon wouldn't last forever. It's only to hit ten years of your life as you come to know great height and strength as your father has asked of you.
It was the sound of broken glass shattering. Only that sound.
You could become human again, Jin. You could touch and marry and laugh and breathe in the scent of the sun. That melancholy, delicate human nature will return to you, and your skin will burn. You will walk again on steady feet, knowing what it was like to fly once. It could be yours once more. Unless...Unless you decide to take your brother's bird life from him. This would mean you must remain the falcon forever, though.
Longwei held out her hand, and in the middle was feather and pine.
If you take the feather and return to him, your brother will grow as normal. If you take the pine, he will learn to fly as great as you have one day.
I couldn't move. I stared down at the contents in her hand and thought of Ung's waxed almond skin. Of the way his small hand felt on my beak. Of his tin roof laughter.
My wings spread out before I knew it and the windowpane shivered when I flew out-- the decision tucked between my beak. I am a child no more.
It is summer, and Ung has just turned fourteen.
He walks home from school, and even though I don't return home as often as I wish, he senses I am near. As Ung got older, I left more and more. Sometimes it became too much.
I know I am weak but is what reminds me that somewhere deep down I am human.
As I get old, remembering becomes harder. I don't know if Ung ever looks up and see me watching-- and remembers. I'm not sure if Tza and Gee ever told him that in another life, I was his older brother. Perhaps Ung will see me as a creature that brings him good luck.
Peering down from my place on a tree, I catch my brother look up and wave.
My wings expand as I shoot off the branches. They shake above him and I am flying fast before drifting in front of the water. It ripples, and I am flying free.