feather behind the ear

Part 1

You could walk that endless savannah for eternity, it seemed. There, above the lowlands dotted with spiky shrubs, reigned a mighty mountain ridge, its peaks so sharp that every sunrise, when the young sun’ light overflowed them with crimson, people couldn’t help but see it as divine blood coming from the wound in the sky itself.

In those mountains, lived harpies - beautiful winged people with lithe bodies and evil faces. When they reached for an unlucky traveller with their hands, curved claws sprung from their fingers; when they smiled, their sharp fangs glittered in the sunlight. Usually, such a smile was the last thing the poor human saw in their life.

The harpies were strange creatures, tricky. Just like cats, they often hunted out of boredom, not hunger, and liked to play with their victims for hours before tearing them apart. Often, they offered humans to play a game and promised to spare them if they solved their riddles. Few had ever won and lived to tell the tale. Still, people kept visiting the harpy mountains. Why?

Harpies didn’t know they had a treasure in their possession. It wasn’t gold, no, it was something way lighter and much more precious: their beautiful feathers. During the moulting season, the mountain passes were blanketed with them. Humans gathered the precious feathers when harpies dozed off in the sun. Sometimes, the treasure hunters were lucky enough to get back home in one piece after that. Only the luckiest few managed to get rich.

Everyone wanted a rare harpy feather: adventurers wanted them for luck, poets - for inspiration, lovers - as a symbol of their eternal love to each other…

For centuries, people kept risking their lives, harpies kept toying with them and killing them afterwards, and both romantics and gold hoarders were to blame for all that…

(January 20, 2003)

Part 2

Usually, Inola wore a harpy feather behind her ear as a symbol of her heart being taken but sometimes she dipped that feather into ink to write a special poem. Inola’s little brother, Inberg, was a potter’s apprentice. He earned a pittance but still couldn’t keep dreaming about getting his own precious feather sometimes. Why would he even need such a thing? He didn’t know. He wasn’t in love and wrote no poems; gold didn’t make him lose his mind and luck was kind to him even without magic tricks. Still, the dream was strong and seemed to grow with the boy.

There is a special sort of people who make their living by masterfully exploiting little weaknesses of others. Kids are their favourite prey. One such crook had noticed Inberg. He followed the boy for a while to learn more about his hopes and dreams, then approached him with the most welcoming smile he could muster. The stranger told Inberg stories, promised him adventures, and even gave him a shiny dagger. After an hour, the boy was ready to follow his new “friend” anywhere.

They left the city and headed toward the mountains, those very mountains that made the sky bleed every time the sun rose above them; those very mountains where the harpies lived.

The crook kept chatting so his victim would have had no chance to think for himself and get any ideas about running away. He told Inberg legends, sang songs, and joked a lot at the beginning of the journey but the closer to the mountains they were, the less merry Inberg’s new friend became. When they stepped on the mountain path, he dropped the cheerful mask and told the boy to keep silent. That made sense: he didn’t want the harpies to see them too soon…

For an hour or so, they walked in silence. Suddenly, a stranger barred their way. He wore a grey cloak that camouflaged him perfectly when he stood against the rocks, so they hadn’t seen him until he moved. For a second, Inberg thought of a legendary Stone Guardian but, no, the cloaked man turned out to be just an ordinary human.

“Murderer!” the stranger threw this word in the crook’s face. “You want to throw the kid to the harpies, don’t you?”
“Bugger off, Kin…” The crook tried to walk past the man. Futile. Kin stood his ground.
“Take two feathers and leave the kid to me!” he demanded.
“All right! Take three and go to hell! I hope those bitches tear you apart on your way back!”

Everything had happened so quickly that Inberg came to his senses only when he was alone with the cloaked stranger. Terrified, he grabbed the dagger his “friend” had given him and prepared to fight. The man looked at the boy, as fierce and as helpless as a scared kitten, and gave him a sympathetic smile.

“My name is Kin,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Inberg.” “Well, glad to meet you, Inberg. And now let’s get out of the path before some beast swoops down on us.”

Part 3

The world was quiet, enchanted by the jade autumn. Birds sounded hushed and wary. Flowers didn't wither, they faded like fog. The green, pungy tea-like smell was in the air.

In the grass at the foot of the mountain, there lay a winged boy. He used to be a good-looking boy - despite not being human - but then somebody broke his wings and smashed his face. His fair hair turned red with blood. Sprawled on the ground, his maimed body looked like a broken doll.

The winged boy was still alive. His eyes, cerulean blue, were wide open. His bloody lips whispered something, the tinies cry for help, probably, for he couldn't be any louder with his ribs broken.

Flowers were fading around him, slowly being consumed by the magical autumn. Shelini - musical winds - sang their wordless songs. With every droplet of blood the grass stole from the wounded child, the world became a little darker before his eyes. That darkness, it had no stars. Somewhere in its depths, wheels whirled within wheels, fixing the balance of the Universe so the dying boy's destiny would cross with the destinies of those who were to save him…

(January 13, 1999)

Part 4

This autumn was golden, full of colour and sound. It seemed that all living things celebrated these days. There was no rain, no fog, no jade in this October.

The winged people had bronze skin and agate eyes. Their beautiful wings, brown with intricate patterns of yellow spots and stripes, made them quickly overheat in the sun when they flew but created a perfect shade above their heads when they perched to rest. They didn't rest for long, though, because the autumn was too beautiful not to dance with the winds.

Sharsha's thoughts soared in the sky with his friends but his body was down there, in the tree, too crippled to fly again. His brown hands, crossed by multiple white scars, were thin and shaky. His wings looked miserable: two scarred, dry sticks without feathers. His agate eyes were sad.

The jade autumn was way too vivid in his memory yet. The fog that swallowed the flowers as it spread; the wet, silent leaves that could not rustle; the silent birds…

Creeping like a slow-burning illness, the jade autumn was conquering the world bit by bit.

The sky was heavy with rain that wouldn’t fall; every ray of light that managed to find a gap in the clouds looked like a shining pillar from afar. The world full of those pillars looked like a colossal temple abandoned by gods.

The jade autumn. Shelini, the musical spirits, cried so plaintively that every song was tearing at Sharsha’s heart. Remembering them hurt him still.

But at least he had power over those memories! There was a dark, closed room in his mind where the reason, the event that had crippled him, was buried. He had no access there. His psyche refused to let him into the darkened room. All memories Sharsha had from his fall, were only tiny shards of the real thing. Something big, relentless, and as heavy as a rock had hit him mid-flight. Could it have been a Stone Guardian? Sharsha heard that they liked humans and could be protective of them. He also knew that humans were afraid of harpies as much as harpies were afraid of humans and that there were professional hunters on each side living to trap and kill their enemies. Could some Stone Guardian have thought that little Sharsha was a threat to one of its pets? Was an ordinary trap the reason for his fall? There was no way to know.

So, Sharsha had fallen. When he opened his eyes, he was sprawled on the rocks, all broken. Every breath was torture, every moan filled his mouth with bloody foam. The world was going dark in his eyes, losing colour, lights, shadows, and then - sounds. Only pain had always been there, a beacon in the dark, the only sign of Sharsha's still being alive.

Enveloped in the darkness, the winged boy saw a pattern of golden strings, pulsing with life. One of those strings, thin and silvery, was his own. Something moved in between life and death, a silent wind that made the strings stir, the patterns shift, the destinies cross, and Sharsha saw two lively golden strings touch his.

That was when he opened his eyes again and saw two humans standing above him: a man and a boy.

Later, much later Sharsha learned their names: the man was Kin, the boy was Inberg.

The humans had been arguing. Every angry word of theirs got enticed into Sharsha’s terrified mind forever. It took him half a year to learn their language enough to understand those words:

“This is a monster!” said Kin.
“No! He is a boy! A boy like me!” cried Inberg.

Part 5

Inberg, now a man in his late twenties, wore a harpy feather behind his ear as a symbol of friendship between two sentient races: harpies and humans. Also, he wrote with a quill made of a harpy feather and slept on a pillow filled with harpy fluff.

The feathers were not worth a fortune anymore, now when there was plenty of them in the market. They couldn’t make anyone rich, they couldn’t lure anyone to their death, they were just things - lovely and useful.

But years before, when they were still a rarity, little Inberg talked his new acquaintance, Kin the harpy hunter, into selling a bag of bloody feathers - Sharsha’s feathers - to buy everything required to save the alien boy: meds and housing, healers and their silence, food and clothing, and later - books and toys.

The harpy boy who could no longer fly became an ambassador between the two races and it changed everything.

The human man who could no longer hunt harpies spent the rest of his life in the mountains alone, thinking of what he had done. His “colleagues” on the other side - the harpies that used to hunt humans - had it easier and could let go of the past. He could not.

There were those who could not forget, of course, and could not forgive. Centuries-long hate never ends in the lifespan of just one generation. But, hey, even cheap-dirt feathers still had meaning and even with all the gold they could have bought some years ago, a wounded child still needed a lot of time to heal.

It will pass. Everything does.

(October 6, 2003; ending edited on August 20, 2020)

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English is not my native language.
If you see an error or a typo, please, tell me. I will fix it.