I come into the world screaming. The sky is pewter and the air is damp and cold. I have only a dim memory of the dark warmth that insulated me just hours ago. The icy air bites my feathers, which are cold and stick to me, a wet, heavy cloak I cannot remove. My body quakes involuntarily and I want the warmth of tears as I squeeze my eyes closed. They will not come. I lift my head to the heavens and shriek for help. There are only shrieks and screeches around me. I cannot survive in this harsh environment. What will become of me?
I wake to the sun. It is beautiful rising up over the lake. I feel it each morning on the soft fuzz of my skin. I am surrounded by my brothers and sisters. My mother and father have six of us to watch over. They drop food in my mouth. I am grateful. I am hungry, but my brothers and sisters push me out of the way. I am the youngest of the six. I am learning to be patient. The gnawing in my stomach goes away once the others are fed and a fat insect is dropped into my gullet. It quells the gnawing.
There are tall reeds and cattails to protect me. They form a tall fence at the edge of the lake. On mornings like this one, the sun is a red ball that burns a warm gray mist off the surface of the lake. I hear a chorus of frogs, the spring peepers. They are young, too. We must all learn to survive, my mother says, wrapping a warm wing over me before dropping a worm into my beak. I will protect you she says. Do not worry, she says.
I am getting sturdier now. It is important to be attentive to my surroundings. Only those who are strong will remain. This lesson comes harshly to me. One of my brothers has died already. He was weak, a dreamer. While the rest of us followed my mother, he looked deep into the lake looking for the ghostlike catfish that floated silently below. When the moon came out at night, he stared at it and sang softly. And he tarried when we went on outings.
This was his downfall. There are animals to watch out for, coyotes, dogs. We found his body, matted traces of feathers and blood and a strange foreign smell that made my skin prickle up. I resolve, I will never let myself be alone. From that day forward, I am vigilant.
The air is beginning to warm and my feathers are coming in nicely. They are fuzzy and brown, although my black beak is still tiny. I am always the last bird in the procession. The lake becomes crowded. There are people here. They fish, they walk, they row tiny boats onto the lake. At times, I feel proud. My mother is too. She holds her head high and I can see them out of the corner of my eye. They hold the hands of their own children and stop and point to me. They slow when we all come walking in a line. They smile and gesture. It feels good to be here. For the first time, I am happy.
The days are getting warmer now. The sun is up earlier, and no longer do I see the gray turn to gold. The sky is gold when I wake up, azure by the time we are on the lake. Humans are familiar to me now. They bring soft bread that they break into balls and throw to us. First foreign to this new food, I am now adept at eating it. It is unlike anything I have ever tried. It lacks the earth-scent of the food my mother used to bring to us. It does not have the grit of duckweed, but it is soft and sweet and dry. I swim close until the bread is thrown and how to pause for just a minute while the lake water transforms it into manna. My skinny body is beginning to become rounder.
Last night I got hurt. The sky was black and peaceful. I closed my eyes to the net of stars and soft moonlight above me. I heard a whistle then. It was not the whistle of a bird nor the buzzing of cicadas. This was a whistle of warning, of violence. There was a loud crack, and I could see a bloom of color in the sky. Starbursts of green and purple and blue. The whistles and crashes came faster then. I stared at the sky, mesmerized. The sounds and colors were hypnotic, unlike anything I had seen.
Suddenly, I felt searing pain. Something hit my wing. I waved it hard, back and forth. The air only came to me in anxious gasps and I ran, pumping my wing as hard as I could. It was too late. I sought cover with my brothers and sisters in a copse at the quiet part of the lake. There was no respite for me that night. Whizzing and explosions and violent eruptions of color prevented sleep.
When early morning finally came, my eyes were heavy. I could smell the heavy scent of smoke still in the air. There was detritus along the edge of the lake, burned papers and sharp wire. Something is wrong. I must keep still. My burned feathers smell sick, like death. My brothers and sisters can sense it, and it scares them. I am left alone.
The days are shorter. I force myself to stay with the flock. For weeks they have shunned me. They know I am weak. Weakness is danger. They sense the change in seasons and are restless. I hurry to keep up, but I hurt. My mind races, and I fear I will be left behind. There is something in the air that is foreboding. I am afraid.
I will not be left. The flock is restless today. Something is on the verge of happening. My wing aches dully, but I have become used to it. I try to rest, but the flock will not let me. When the sun rises white this morning, they are huddled and anxious. I see them running, then I see wild flapping. They are a veil of black and grey, sleek bodies covering the sky.
I am last, running, desperate. They are going to leave me behind, but I will not let them. I pump my wings as hard as I can. Searing pain again. I have no choice. I must pump as hard as I can, so I do, beating, thrusting, gasping for air, I find myself struggling to become airborne. I want rest. Each time I extend my wing, it throbs. I am looking straight ahead. I see nothing but the blackened V-formation that I am frantic to join. I become hollow.
* * *
We have been flying for days now. Yesterday something happened. A current of air slipped under my wing and I soared. I am able to stretch for hours at a time now. When I catch a current, I stretch and rest, airborne, until the ache returns.
* * *
The air is different today. I can smell it. The sun paints the sky and the trees are not on fire here. When we stop, my stomach moans. Food here is different. I feast on serviceberry and seeds we find sprinkled over farmland. I am not selective. I have learned to be grateful for what the earth provides: grubs, beetles, worms or plants. Each is a blessing.
* * *
I am learning. Distraction is the gift that I have been given. I cultivate it. When the pounding in my wing comes, I recall the lattice of stars, or the scent of apple blossoms, and I forget momentarily. I tell myself stories: I am strong, I say. Only look ahead, I say.
I will not fly today. A large weeping willow caught my eye this morning, and I see a fringe of tall reeds around a pond. This is a farm. The air is warmer here, and I imagine what it will be like to wake in the morning to the sound of songbirds who raid a feeder next to the house.
There are squirrels and chipmunks. They quarrel and play-fight over the pecans that fall from the tree. In the woods, I hear gunshot. I recognize the sound now. I know it means danger. I am wiser than I was before the migration.
The others may fly on. I will stay.
My mother once said that there are seasons of rest. I will stay here and let my wounded wing heal. The flock has lost a few. I have become accustomed to the rhythm of life and death. I will persist. I am too tired to be afraid of being alone. I will stay here until the flock returns. When the stars have rearranged themselves, when the air becomes warmer, I will make my journey back.
* * *
It is my second day on the farm.
There are fish that leap from the pond in the early morning. They are trying to catch the insects that circle over the glass surface.
I will fly to the pond. I will not be surprised at what I see. I am sleek, I am strong, I am able.
This journey has changed me. I have seen suffering, but it does not shackle me. I have also tasted splendor. There is beauty in migration.