“I…I can’t,” I whimpered, peering out from the safety of the roost at the cold, terrifying world outside. “It…it’s too high. I’ll fall.”
“Come on, Eric!” Stevie groaned, barely managing to conceal his impatience. “Don’t be such a wimp!”
“I’m not a wimp!” I protested meekly. “I just…I’d rather stay here.”
“And have Mum feed you like a baby?” my brother teased. “She’s not going to keep feeding you forever, you know? You’re going to have to learn to take care of yourself eventually.”
“I know,” I pouted, the thought of it simultaneously saddening and scaring me. “It doesn’t mean I have to come out tonight.”
“You’re right,” he sighed, hopping through the hole and edging his way out onto the ledge. “I just thought you were braver than this.”
“I am brave!” I stated firmly.
“I mean, everyone’s scared their first time out. I know I was. It’s just…well…you’re nearly six weeks old. If you don’t start flying soon, the others are going to start thinking there’s something wrong with you.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me!”
“It’s ok if there is,” Stevie shrugged. “You’re my little brother. I guess I can catch food for you and bring it back here, if you don’t mind being teased by the younger kids who are already flying…”
“I’m not ready,” I snivelled, close to tears. “I want to learn to fly, I really do, but it’s just…I’m afraid.”
“I know,” he said, “but if you’re too afraid to even leave the roost, how are you ever going to learn? You don’t have to fly if you’re not ready, but how about you come out here with me for a few minutes. You can get used to being outside, watch me take off and land…”
“But I don’t have to fly?” I asked nervously.
“You don’t have to fly,” he confirmed. “You just have to come out here.”
“But it’s so high. Promise you won’t let me fall?”
“I’m your big brother,” he stated confidently. “I won’t let anything bad happen to you. I promise. You’ll be perfectly safe.”
I wanted to refuse. I wanted to scamper back into the darkness, back to my mother, but I knew my brother was right. I needed to learn, and the longer I left it the harder it would become. Leaving the safety and comfort of the roost was the first step, but the very idea terrified me. I’d never been outside before, but I’d heard others in the colony talking about what was out there.
They talked about the huge beasts that stalked the ground, beasts with ferocious roars that could outrun almost any other living creature. They talked about water pouring down from the heavens, bringing with it flashes of light that burned the sky and caused the air to tremble. They talked about stone pillar with golden lights at the top and wooden pillars adorned with soft, green flakes. They spoke about all of these things with wonder in their voices, but I felt no wonder when I heard their tales; only fear.
The world outside the roost was cold, dark and dangerous, and I wanted no part of it, but I knew I had no choice. While the idea of my brother bringing me food for the rest of my life was tempting, I knew that I couldn’t rely on him. If something ever happened to him I would starve to death, for there while the colony was a family in every sense of the word, there were few others within it who would indulge me the way he did.
Besides, Stevie once told me that our current roost was not the one he was born in. Our entire colony had been forced to move when he was just a few months old. If that happened again…
“I’m coming out,” I said reluctantly. “I’m not flying though. I’m just coming to the edge.”
“That’s fine,” Stevie replied cheerfully.
Taking a deep breath I edged my way slowly towards the hole that marked the sole entrance and exit point for our roost. It had always looked a small hole to me, comfortably small, barely big enough for the largest adult to squeeze through, but the closer I got to it the larger it seemed to become, like a great mouth opening wider and wider, ready to clamp down and swallow me whole. Once more I considered retreating to my mother, but Stevie was watching me and I didn’t want to let him down. I had made him a promise and I owed it to him to keep it.
I swallowed hard and, with my entire body trembling, I hopped into the hole. Another hop took me through, carried me out onto the ledge outside the roost, took me out into the world I’d been so afraid to see.
It wasn’t so bad.
I couldn’t see far or clearly at first, my eyes used to the near-complete darkness of the roost, but slowly everything began to become clear. I gazed in wonder at the world before me, all fear evaporating as I saw for myself the marvels that lay beyond the entrance to my roost. I could see the pillars with golden lights at the top that I’d been told about, though I didn’t stare too long at them. While the light was beautiful it also hurt my eyes a little. I could see the wooden pillars too, dozens of them all around, reaching up towards the heavens, but seeming to break apart before they could get there, the mighty central columns shattering into dozens of smaller arms that shot out in all directions. I could see some familiar faces suspended from those arms, others from my colony just hanging quietly, chatting contentedly with one another or staring out into the night.
There was more too. There were other stone blocks like the one we lived in. There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands. As I stared at a few of them I could see holes in their walls, some filled with light, others dark, all opening into different worlds. Through some of the holes I could see large creatures walking around; strange animals with flat, colourful fur and arms without wings.
“They’re called hoo-mins,” Stevie told me, nodding with authority. “Old Henry told me about them. They live in the cavities underneath our roosts, but they don’t like the dark so they make fires on their ceilings and walls. I don’t think they can see without fire.”
“They look so strange,” I marvelled. “Their fur…their arms…their faces…”
“You don’t know the half of it,” my brother said, nudging me. “According to Old Henry, hoo-mins shed their fur at least once a day. Some shed several times a day. And when their fur grows back, it’s often a different colour. They can’t fly like us, but they have these beasts that eat them and carry them all over the place.”
“What are they like?”
“Old Henry says they’re not very smart,” he answered. “You see those holes over there?” I nodded, gazing through one of the holes at a smaller hoo-min who appeared to be grooming herself with some kind of stick. “Well, Old Henry says we need to stay away from those holes. Many of them are covered with invisible stone.”
“Invisible stone?” I gasped.
Stevie nodded. “He says that the hoo-mins need to cover the holes because if they don’t cover them they might fall out. Hoo-mins are very clumsy creatures, especially when it’s dark. Old Henry says that there’s this place not far from here that lots of hoo-mins like to go in the evening. They don’t come out until after it’s dark and when they do they stumble and fall lots. That’s why they block their holes and that’s why they need fire, because without the fire they can’t even stand up properly.”
“Wow,” I said, turning to my brother with wide eyes. “I want to go and see that place Old Henry talked about.”
“Maybe one day,” Stevie nodded. “You have to be careful though. You can’t get too close to a hoo-min. If you do they make a loud screeching sound and do a really strange dance. I don’t think they’re dangerous, but the noise they make can be quite scary. Besides, you need to learn to fly before we go over there.”
“I want to learn,” I said eagerly, surprising even myself.
“Really?” my brother asked. “I thought you said no flying today.”
“Stevie!” I whined.
“If you’re sure,” he teased.
“No,” I admitted, glancing over the edge at the ground far beneath me. “It’s a really long way down.”
“It is,” Stevie agreed. “The trick is to not fall.”
“Well duh!” I scowled at him.
“It’s easy Eric,” he stated, a hint of exasperation in his voice. “All you have to do is hold your arms out wide and lean forward. You’ll glide for a bit and then once you’re out in the open you start flapping. Twist your arms forward if you want to go forward, hold them flat to glide, hold them flat and flap to go up and twist them back to slow down.”
“You make it sound easy,” I muttered.
“Actually, I’m making it sound harder than it is. The truth is, once you’re in the air your instincts will take over and you’ll just do it. You won’t even need to think about it. You’ll know exactly what to do and when to do it.”
“But how can I be sure I won’t fly into anything?” I asked nervously. “I heard Benji say that one of his cousins flew into an invisible wire that was hanging between two pillars.”
“That’s true,” Stevie nodded, “but what Benji probably didn’t mention was that his cousin was showing off and apart from a slight headache he’s perfectly fine.”
“No, he didn’t mention that,” I admitted.
“Didn’t think so,” Stevie nodded. “Even so, there are things you won’t be able to see with your eyes alone, and that’s why you need to sing.”
“Sing?” I frowned.
“Yep,” he nodded.
“You’re being silly.”
“I’m not,” he insisted. “Try it. You don’t even have to fly. Just stand right here and sing. See what happens.”
“OK,” I replied uncertainly. “What should I sing?”
“Anything,” he shrugged. “Just give me a note.”
I took in a long, deep breath and then slowly let it out in a single, prolonged tone. It wasn’t the key I was planning to use, but at least I managed to keep it fairly even. At first nothing happened, but after a couple of seconds the world around me suddenly became brighter. It was impossible to explain the sensation. I couldn’t see anything that my eyes couldn’t already perceive, but I could sense the world with more clarity than my eyes alone permitted. I could sense the dreaded wires I’d heard about weaving between the tips of the stone mounds and pillars.
It wasn’t just flight hazards I could see too, but also bugs. There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Countless flitting, buzzing meals dancing through the air. My brief burst of song had given me just the slightest glimpse of them, so I knew none were still where I saw them in my mind, but I also knew that I would be able to find them again, track them, hunt them. My mouth watered at the thought.
Before I had time to fully consider what I was doing, I leaned forward, stretched my arms wide, and prepared to take to the sky. As my toes teetered on the edge of the ledge I felt a moment of panic, a moment of doubt. For an instant I felt certain I’d made a grave mistake, certain that my wings were not developed enough to support my weight and enable me to fly properly, certain that I was going to plummet to the ground far below, but then I felt the air fill my wings and I was airborne.
At first I didn’t dare move my arms, or, for that matter, do much of anything else. I just held still and let the air carry me, but as I began to slowly descend I knew I had to do something. As Stevie had promised, my instincts took over and the moment I started to move my arms I seemed to know exactly what to do to propel me forwards, to move me upward, to enable me to turn left and right. Before I knew it I was doing acrobatics in the air, twisting and turning and spinning.
The experience was so exciting, so thrilling, I started to sing, and just as before the world seemed to brighten around me. I was seeing with my eyes and with my mind, forming pictures in my head of where things were, pictures so clear I could have closed my eyes and still been able to fly safely.
I didn’t, of course.
I may have been a natural at this flying thing, but I wasn’t about to take any chances.
I flew for a good few minutes, soaring high over the wooden pillars and low near the ground, weaving past obstacles and dancing in the air for the fun of it, but finally my arms started to get tired. I turned, instinctively knowing which way to go to get back to the roost, to my brother, and began to glide back there, waving my arms only to change my direction or maintain my altitude.
As I neared the entrance to the roost I saw something approaching me in my mind, an image of a small mosquito reflected by my song. Without even needing to think about it I adjusted my pitch, my angle, my altitude and waited, my mouth open, until I was upon it. At the last moment it dodged to my right and for a second I felt certain it had escaped me, but with a quick jerk of my head I caught it between my teeth. I used my tongue to pull it into my mouth and bit down as I landed back on the ledge, the rich, sweet juices an ample reward for my bravery and skill.
Stevie stared at me open-mouthed, shock and pride apparent in his eyes. I scampered over to him, nuzzling against him to thank him for his encouragement and advice, too high from the experience to form actual words. Stevie was able to speak, however, saying after a couple of minutes, “You flew.”
“Yep,” I bounced excitedly. “Did I do good?”
“You did very good,” my big brother nodded approvingly. “Now, what say we get you back inside before Mum realises you’re gone and…”
“And comes out here looking for you?” a voice asked from behind us.
I span around, bounding over to my mother as quickly as I could and leaping into her tender embrace. “Guess what, Mum!” I cried, my voice so loud I felt sure the entire colony could hear me. “Stevie taught me to fly and I did it and I was really good. You can ask him,” I continued excitedly, my words coming out so fast I wondered if my mother even understood what I was saying. “I even caught a bug.”
“You did?” my mother asked, her voice a mixture of pride and concern.
“He did, Mum,” Stevie confirmed. “I just brought him out here to get him used to being outside and before I knew it he was flying.”
“And you’re ok?” my mother asked me.
“I’m great,” I beamed at her.
“Good boy,” she nodded. “Now, let’s get you both inside. You must be really tired after your adventure. I know Stevie was after his first flight. He wasn’t as young as you, though. Actually, he was so scared of falling that your father and I never thought he would take to the sky. He was nearly ten weeks old before he plucked up the courage to…”
“Mum!” my brother groaned, flashing me a guilty look.
I glanced back at him, winking to let him know I wasn’t cross. “I guess he just didn’t have a big brother to teach him and keep him safe,” I told my mother.
Many thanks to my editor and wife, Alicia.
Probably the best and undoubtedly the most beautiful editor in the world.
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