Sunday, August 10, 2014



“Rise, Wanderer,” a voice quipped into his ear and had he the strength, Chaska would have covered the exposed side of his head at the shrillness of the sound. As it was, however, he couldn’t even sum up the energy required to swat it away.

Regardless, the scratching of twigs dragged over undergrowth demanded his attention, as the noise was far too close and far too insistent to ignore. Eyelids as heavy as bear pelt were hefted over gritty eyeballs. He struggled for focus through river-water vision.

Below him leaves crushed and decaying to silt lay under traces of frost. Above, sunrays valiantly attempted to breach the criss-crossed arms of the forest canopy. Neither, however, offered any indication as to the source of the scritch-scritch-hop, scritch-scritch-hop.

Chaska’s mouth tasted vile. His belly continually offered grumbles of disapproval. The only part of him that didn’t throb and ache was his fingertips. And that was only because they were so cold he’d lost sensation.

Self-pity was not the answer—of that fact Chaska was certain—nor was acquiescence. Just one, he kept telling himself though, just one moment. To close his eyes, to not feel the hunger or the pain or the chill. Yet one had led to many. And many were melting into way too long. And it was getting harder and harder to contemplate the process of rising.

It was the end of something sharp that forced him – something cruel and brutal that clunked mercilessly against his skull. Chaska cried out, rolling in the damp leaves, and lifted his head to face his attacker.

A slick black head tilted to the right, regarded him with one glittering black eye, before stomping its spindly claw into the earth and opening its beak. “Rise, Wanderer!”

“Accursed thing!” Chaska hissed, and tossed a handful of forest litter at the creature. Without a moment’s pause, the bird hopped to the left, and leaf and branch fell to the ground entirely harmless.

The bird titled its head once again, still scoping Chaska as he fumbled to lift himself to seating. “You have been and gone,” it said, voice cracking and lilting all at the same time. “Why are you back?”

Chaska said nothing. His head swam as blood tried to realign and gain a foothold with newfound verticality. The bird moved forward, daintily lifting feet as though disgusted with the thought of the muck below. “You have already found me, yet here you come again. Explain yourself.”

Through chapped lips Chaska found words. “It is not you I seek this time, Howahkan.”

The raven spied something below him and its beak flew to the earth, before lifting its head with a look of annoyance. “What then do you seek, Wanderer?”

Chaska shook his head and fell silent.

“Speak,” Howahkan insisted. “Speak while there is still time.”

A sigh leaked from Chaska’s dry throat. “No, bird. I can’t explain it. You would not understand.”

The raven answered with a sharp laugh, beak wide—haw-haw-haw—and Chaska eyed the creature with growing irritation. The dull hammering in Chaska’s temples mounted alongside the emotion. But the incessant cawing did not relinquish and Chaska had no doubt that it would not cease until the request was granted. He lifted wavering vision to black eyes yet again. “Fine. I came to find myself.”

Howahkan fell silent and shot him a look of disassociated interest. “You have lost yourself?”

Through the ache of hunger and the fog of exhaustion Chaska struggled to sound reasonable. “I have… I don’t…” Finally he resorted to another handful of leaf and dirt. “Go, bird. You are no help to me this time.”

Wings fluttered to move free of the tossed debris. “I?” Howahkan asked, voice holding and peaking the vowel with disbelief. “I am no help? In finding yourself? Surely this journey has driven you mad for you to state such a thing.”

“You are a spirit bird,” Chaska rebuked. “You are merely a mask to wear at ritual and in play. You do no good for the real. You are pretend while I am fact. You don’t know me, not the true me. This,” Chaska touched his face with weak fingers. “This is the reality! This is what I have come to find.”

The air reverberated with the raven’s renewed laugh—haw-haw-haw, haw-haw-haw—and Chaska furrowed his brow and looked at the ground. “Mock me now.”

“Mock you!” Howahkan chuckled. “How can I not?”

The grumble that left Chaska’s throat grated burning tissue. “What do you know?”

“I know you,” the bird answered.

Chaska dropped his head that much further, his shoulders straining with the pressure of keeping himself from falling back to the earth. “Just… a bird.”

Howahkan stomped and the effect was far more dramatic than it should have been for such a light and simple form. It shook the ground, made the trees around them tremble and sent that which rested in the growth and foliage to flight. “Stupid human,” the bird hissed, and gone was the squawky tongue, replaced with a timbre that made Chaska shiver and pull back. “You say you seek yourself, and I come to you, but you refuse to see me. You say that I am just a bird as if I were somehow less than you, yet who is the one crawling on his belly in the filth?” Howahkan spread his wings and ruffled them furiously. “I, the one who lifts his body into the air and soars above that which ties you down?”

Black eyes glittered with outrage. It hopped forward and Chaska shrunk back further. Every inch that Howahkan closed brought heat with it. Every hop resonated around them. When Howahkan finally took the last bound and landed on Chaska’s knee, Chaska winced in apprehension of the pain that powerful leap would bring. It brought nothing more, however, than the scrape of talon against leather. “Foolish man-child,” Howahkan said, locking one eye to Chaska’s own. “I AM YOU.”

Warmth pooled into Chaska’s body from their contact point, enticed blood to flow, urged the thick fluid to once again course through artery and beat through heart. “I am not that which is separate,” Howahkan continued. “I am not even a part of the whole. We are just one. One cannot exist without the other because one IS the other. You have come to find yourself? Here you are. And here I am. And you did not need to go looking for me because I am always here. I am your heart, your lungs, your kidneys, your brain. I am your mouth, your ears, your fingers, and your cock. When you look upon your reflection, you see me. When you open your throat, you speak me.”

Chaska’s fingertips began to pound with renewed life; his mind began to find purchase. “Rise, Wanderer,” the bird said again. “Lift yourself from the decay and the dirt. Regain your feet.”

His legs quivered as he unfolded and his knees threatened to refuse him, but Chaska forced his body to comply. He stood.

“Better,” Howahkan squawked. A flurry of wings rose from the earth and Chaska lifted his arm to protect his eyes as the bird found his shoulder. Talons gripped flesh and though they penetrated Chaska’s skin, it was not an unpleasant sensation. More so, it seemed the attachment of something that had been removed; that his skin accepted the piercing like a needle reattaching broken. No blood flowed. The pain revitalized rather than weakened. The weight was a balance, not an anchor.

“Walk from the forest now,” Howahkan demanded. “This is not your place.” It lifted a wing as if directing. “Your place is out there.”

Chaska paused, “I don’t want to be out there. Once I am out there, you’ll be gone again.”

He turned his head an inch, the raven turned towards him, and eye-to-eye they watched each other. “I cannot be gone if I am you.”

A breeze drifted past, reminded Chaska that night was approaching. It carried with it a promise of snow. It hinted at death. “Yes,” Howahkan agreed, reading thought. “To stay is to perish. Be it figurative or literal. You cannot live if you remain in hiding.”

“I will not live if I’m forced to go back,” Chaska answered.

Howahkan nodded, slick black feathers dancing with the same wind that picked at Chaska’s similarly coloured hair. “I will. So you will. We will as one,” Howahkan said.

“Do you promise?” Chaska asked. “That when I walk through the tree-line and breach the clearing that I will still see you on my shoulder?”

“What is seeing?” The raven turned its head to the wind. “Do you see the air? The wind? The cold? Does the lack of visual made its existence questionable? Does it become not there because the eye does not know it?”

“Tricky bird,” Chaska mumbled. “I don’t see the air but I see it fill my chest. I don’t see the wind but I see it move the trees. I don’t see the cold but I see it turn my fingers blue.”

“Ah,” Howahkan nodded. “But smoke can fill your chest as well. A shake can move the trees. Berries will turn your fingers blue.”

Chaska sputtered. “But that’s a ridiculous analogy! The cold that turns your fingers blue is not the same as a berry! You know the cold because you can feel it…”

“Ah-ha,” Howahkan said. “Indeed.”

Chaska frowned, confused.

“You know it,” Howahkan repeated, “because you feel it.”


Howahkan shook its head, denying the rebuttal, repeating its words. “You know it because you feel it. Sight has nothing to do with truth.”

Chaska paused for only a second longer, to take a deep breath. He began to walk. And Howahkan continued to speak. “Stop looking so hard for that which exists so clearly.”

Claws clung more firmly to flesh. “Stop searching for what you already hold in your hand.”

The path of Chaska’s feet was unknown but he followed it nonetheless. “Just feel.”

Hopelessly lost mere moments ago, the familiarity of one shape to another suddenly became so obvious that Chaska shook his head with amusement.

Thick trees began to give way to smaller, sparser ones. “Do not look to the mirror when you need me. Look to the sky.”

Daylight, though losing its hold to the horizon, shone just beyond the way. As Chaska breached the final cling of forestry, he heard the last words on a rustle of wing. “Do not crawl. Fly.”

He lifted his gaze to the shifting clouds and scanned the open space.

And as his feet began to move him forward, his heart lifted from the mire it had wallowed in for too long.

He flew.

The End

Copyright © 2011 AF Henley

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