The day my pin feathers came in sharp and black, I was disappointed. They were not the soft buff color of my mother, and nothing like the regal red my mother told me my father had been. Maybe there was something wrong with me.
The squirrels scampered and leapt from one spindly oak tree to another, and the nuthatches bobbed up and down at the feeder. Blackbirds chirped louder than ever near the pond. It seemed there was a new liveliness in the yard, yet all I could do was stand on scrawny legs and twitch these ugly, pointy things at my side. And cry.
“Hush now,” said my mother. “What’s the matter?”
I wasn’t sure what to say to her. I didn’t know if she, too, might be disappointed in my feathers.
“I’ll be right back,” she said and flew away from the nest.
She came back with a beetle kept fresh for me, and as she fed me tiny, wiggly bites, she said, “Okay, now tell me what’s troubling you.”
I took a big breath.
“What is a quest?” I asked her.
Her eyes shone brightly and she touched me tenderly.
“You were listening?” she answered.
“Okay, then. I will tell you. A quest is a search for answers to questions.”
I thought for a moment, and then I asked, “What are the questions?”
She laughed. “Smart bird,” she said. “But this, too, is part of the quest.”
I did not understand.
“You have heard me talk about the farm and the barn that I named you after, Barney?”
“So many things have changed so quickly in this world. Roads and buildings, so much replacing where birds used to live. And pipelines underground, spilling black snake poison into the rivers, so the fishes and frogs and birds die when they take a drink.”
Even now as she spoke, I heard a car horn honking, and another starting up, and the great wave of sound from many cars on the highway that my mother told me was not very far away.
“But there is something else,” she said. “Even the great orb is changing.”
I looked out past the nest to where the round and yellow cream of light mixed with the periwinkle blue of sky.
“The world is hotter than it used to be,” she said. “Birds are moving at odd times because the sun sends different signals. There are not as many of us as there were once. I fear one day our songs may go silent.”
I had no idea how I was supposed to help with any of this. How could I possibly be asked to help when I hadn’t even done anything when my father had been killed?
“Don’t worry, my son,” my mother crooned. “You have time. Your real feathers have not even come in.”
“These are not real?” I asked.
“They are real, yes. But they are just a stage. Everything grows in stages. This is how learning happens, too. Do you think that when I started to gather twigs I despaired that I did not yet have a nest?”
“I want to learn,” I told her.
She took a deep breath and then exhaled. Nodded. And then she sang.
“There is a space filled with light,” she sang, “that the eye cannot see, but we feel it there. Each feather’s end points to a circle. The light is outside but also in, like when you were in the egg and you could not see but you could feel the cool of the wind and my belly’s warmth and hear the leaves rustling and the first birds waking up.”
When she ended her song, she smiled at me.
“My first memory is of sound,” I said to her. “But there was also a light I could not see.”
“Yes, good,” she said. “You’re understanding.”
“Is there someone who made the light?” I asked.
“No one knows for sure, though many have tried.”
“Have you tried?”
“No, not really. I am happy and I know that the space filled with light is strong in me and I have no need to search for something greater.”
I paused, and then I admitted what was weighing on my heart. I said, “Sometimes I feel so angry.”
“Yes,” she said, brushing her left wing lightly against my head. “I know. But when we are faced with loss, we must always avoid letting our anger be greater than our love.”
It struck me that she was not shocked when I admitted my anger. I was overwhelmed by her acceptance of me. Her love for me.
“Can you tell me more about love?” I asked her.
“Close your eyes,” my mother said. “Hear the songs. What do you hear?”
“The chickadees. They are always there.”
“Not always. But they seem to be. They travel in packs larger than our families.”
“What is a family?”
“It is a group that loves and cares for each other. There are many different kinds of families. They help children grow into teenagers.”
“What is a teenager?”
“It’s what you will one day be. Then you will fly away from me.”
My eyes flew open. “But I don’t want to go!”
“You will,” she smiled. “That is how we grow. It’s all part of the quest.”
“What is a quest?” Even as I asked it, I realized I was repeating the same questions over and over in an effort to understand.
“It is a journey you take when you have a question,” she said patiently.
“Like my question about who made the light?”
“Yes. Or about anything. This space of light in us, it is open. We want to fill it. That is partly what love is, the attempt to fill the space. But it is never really filled, and so we go looking. That is how we grow.”
“How do you know so much?” I asked her.
“I have lived a long time. I have raised many fledglings from eggs. And your father and I used to discuss such things.”
We sat silently in remembrance of him.
Then she murmured, “There used to be more space.”
“Like the space in us?”
“Yes. Sometimes there was so much space you could feel the light in everything.”
“I would like that.”
“Yes, it was nice.”
“Can it be that way again?”
“Maybe that is your question,” she said.
“What is my question?”
“If it can be that way again.”
“If I know my question,” I asked her. “Does it mean I am ready to begin my quest? Does it mean I am ready to leave you?”
“Well, then,” I said, “I don’t think that’s my question. Because I’m not ready to go.”
Once my real feathers came in, my mother began staying away from the nest for longer periods of time.
During one of her absences, I ventured to the edge of the nest. The nearest bird was a lady robin, so I watched her. She stayed close to the ground and made short flights from the compost pile to the soft grass beneath the tulip poplar trees.
It was hunger that drew me further. Ants were crawling on the branch outside the nest, and I clung to the bark with my tiny feet as I started out toward them. And then I ate one.
The first food I put into my mouth with my own volition caused a powerful feeling of triumph in me. I could feel my deep current of anger recede when I managed to do something on my own.
And from the small oak tree in the west, I heard my mother begin to sing.
She sang a song of all her children, how she had watched them leave the nest like this to feed themselves, and despite her sorrow at the death of my father, she was happy for me, and she would proclaim her joy to everyone at the evening celebration.
It filled me with such pride to hear my mother singing about me like this that I lifted my wings like the lady robin, and I leapt from the branch and let the air take me.
I soared briefly, feeling the freedom of flight for only a moment before crashing to the grass below.
After I let what I had done settle in, what struck me even more than the memory of being in flight was the great steadiness of the earth beneath me.
Always in the nest, there was a slight wavering, as if we were living more in air than on earth. But down here, with my feet tucked under my belly and my belly near the ground, there was such calm. I had not felt this way since that first day when my mother was near me.
I closed my eyes and said thanks to the ground, and then pretended in my mind that I was robin, and practiced a short flight like I had seen her do. It was easier, somehow, to be someone else than who I was when trying to do something very scary.
When I rose up to the fence and could look out across the yard for the first time from my own perspective, this again felt like a great triumph.
Over the coming weeks, I developed the courage to rise up above the trees alone. I felt my wings stretching with each beat, and it was as if the wind were my partner in soaring. I felt his soft embrace beneath my belly, lifting me and guiding me. I was strong because of the wind. I was part of him.
One day my mother flew next to me and called, “Now that you can fly, it is time to begin your quest.”
Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D., is an ecofeminist poet, novelist and TEDx speaker. She is the author of 16 books and audio programs, and her poetry has been nominated six times for the Pushcart Prize. Her most recent book is The ReSisters, a #1 bestselling LGBT YA novel. She lives with her wife in South Carolina and her website is www.cassiepremosteele.com.