Call of the Heron
By: Amber Michelle
Originally posted to Livejournal on December 30, 2008. This is just a lot of speculation rolled up into fic. Don't mind me.
Ashunera was born of the dawn, they said later. She walked across the waters, out of the liquid face of the sun, and her hair bled from the rosy sky and drifted behind her on invisible wings. She set foot on Tellius and green sprang from her steps, creeping upon the sand, over the rocks, growing into trees and grass and blossoms. She did not call or keen, but spoke words with meanings never heard before, and in their wake the Zunanma were born and shaped from the forms of animal and insect. They brought her offerings of flowers and sometimes fruit, laid them at her feet, honored her for their new-found consciousness.
As her words shaped their existence, so the song of a heron was engraved upon her memory. She remembered waking in the deep green of a forest to its cry. Snowy white, blue and gray, she watched them take slow steps through the waters on stilted legs and stretch their long necks to reach berries, or dip their beaks through the silver surface. She gave them the offerings left by her Zunanma. Some savored the yellow flesh of nectarines, others the red, pulpy seeds of pomegranates. Many refused the gift and flew south to new hunting grounds, but when Ashunera finished her wanderings and rested at the lake there was a sea of slender heads and wings to meet her and crowd at her feet, their feathers white and blue, and brown and gray.
Many of their generations passed. Ashunera walked the continent, every rock bearing her footprint, yet when she returned they were there to welcome her and utter their sounds. They spoke in tones and harmonies, even the small ones, searching for her words and capturing their essence.
Their calls echoed in her dreams of the far ocean when she stared to the east. She fed the children with seeds cupped in her hands and little bits of cherry and blackberry, and sang to the ones that stayed behind once the food was gone - a pure white egret and an ebon heron who tilted his head and watched her with his dark eye, silent as the dark, cloudy nights his color resembled. She sang to the Zunanma about lands over the mountains in the east, and the wide body of water that was cold and dark, unlike their balmy green sea at the end of the river.
It was when she prepared for a journey to that far land the dark heron picked its way across the shore, over rocks and vines, each step measured and careful. She could have carried him in her hands. He turned his head to fix his gaze on her, stretched his neck, lost his balance and flapped his stunted wings to regain it. He allowed her to smooth his feathers and uttered a warbling sound when she lifted her hand away.
Go back to your mother, little one. You're too small to wander far. He blinked. Ashunera bade farewell to the place of her genesis and turned her back on it.
He followed. He stretched his stick legs, tail feathers sweeping up and down, spread his wings. She walked several hours listening to his talons scrape rocks and puncture leaves, days listening to the click of his beak and the snap of a berry from its vine, or the small, musical sound he made when he fell too far behind and wanted her to wait. Sometimes he flew to land some distance ahead of her and turned his head to watch her walk, looking up and down, from her hair to her legs to her feet, until she caught up and paused to stroke his back. We'll leave the forest soon, she told him one day. The foliage was thinning; areas like the lake, overgrown with berry vines and ferns, and willows bending over the silver water, that was the environment he was suited for. I will cross the plains and scale the eastern mountains. What if there are no Zunanma to give you fruit? What if a predator snatched him while she wasn't looking, what if he lost his way and starved?
Stay in the forest, she begged him, but he followed her into the grasses, and Ashunera slowed her step so he wouldn't be left behind.
There are lands over the ocean, she told him while they walked. The vision came to her when she explored the continent. She remembered standing on the beach, sand gritting between her toes and brown seaweed wrapping her ankles, and saw a great serpent in the deep who willed himself into existence from the rock and knew how to wear a form like hers, upright, no feathers or fur but smooth, pale skin. He tried to shape another with his hands, but the stone was unyielding and the water ruined his work, scattering it in particles of sand that sparkled. Was he like her? And what was she?
Her Zunanma called her ashunera because the sounds were reminiscent of the words 'goddess who walked out of the dawn,' so perhaps he was a male counterpart who came to being in the sea. To what end, she could not fathom; her children were born from words. Yet, to meet one might mean meeting others - perhaps she was not alone with thoughts and speech like this. Would you like that? she asked her companion. Would you like to meet others?
Of course he did not answer. He listened, and Ashunera carried him in her arms when he tired and she wished to walk through the night, into the morning. They found strawberries creeping along the ground in woody regions, and kernels of wheat mixed with the grasses, and he drank from water summoned to her hands when he was thirsty. He huddled in the crook of her arm when she decided to rest and sleep.
She didn't like sleep. Among the others the darkness teemed with their ideas and dreams, but alone the time passed silently, empty, and when she laid her head on her arms, Ashunera wondered if this would be the moment she dissolved into the air again - if the nothing from which she came would swallow her whole. It breathed when she imagined it, always breathing in, never breathing out, the sound like wind echoing between mountains and canyon walls.
She woke one morning near the slope of the first mountain to find the dark heron gone from her side. The oak they took shelter beneath hid a gray sky with its branches, and the sensation of the wind was such she thought he might be uncomfortable. Cold. Birds moved up above, water broke over stones beyond the trees of the glade. Had she slept too long? Did something steal him away? He wasn't hiding in the grass or in the branches. Ashunera wanted to call him, but he didn't have a name - she'd never given any of her flock names. Did he die and rejoin his ancestors - did she simply not notice the effect on his body? But he was so small and they'd walked for several moon cycles, but not yet a full cycle of the sun--
Ashunera followed the sound of the water splashing and foaming, bending branches out of her path slowly, so as not to break them. She left the track when it meandered too far out of her way and her feet bent new grass, pricked on pine needles and splinters of bark. The movement of the water was too loud to be her heron. She clenched her nails to her throat. It was the nature of predators to kill to fill their stomachs, but if she found his feathers scattered on the shore, bloodied, or drifting away on the current, what would she do?
When she parted the branches fanned across her path, she saw him on the shore of the creek on all fours, hands mired in the mud, back bent under the weight of his wings, bare and white. Ashunera ran into the water, let the stones cut her feet and fell to her knees in the shallows to pull him up by the arms and look at his face. Small, round, white, eyes the color of her lake in the forest, almost green, almost blue. His wings flapped and sprayed her with water. Cold. "What have you done?"
He opened his mouth, and the sound reminded her of his speech in the forest; small sounds, tonal, wordless though he tried to mold them with his lips like she did. Ashunera hugged him to her chest and carried him out of the water. His skin was cold as stone until she rubbed his arms and legs with her hands, rubbed his back, folded him between her limbs to impart her own warmth. She draped her hair over his back and stretched his wings out to dry. He was so small; his head would barely reach the height of her hip if they stood beside each other, and his hands spread over her palms when she held them up to look at the way his fingers parted.
Just like hers. Not like talons, not webbed, but in five blunt, distinct shapes, just like hers.
His hair was soaking wet, and thick and black, clinging to his wings in spider-webbed mats of jeweled thread. The sun was burning through the morning haze, but the mountains breathed a cold wind, and she saw his skin prickle, as if it missed the protection his feathers once offered. Yellow light cast a pale sheen on his feathers and the crown of his head.
Was this the power of her words, or was it his own power, his own will that wrought the change? She pulled his hair from his neck and twisted the water out over the dirt. "Why? Why did you do this?"
His lips moved, but there was no sound. His dark eyebrows knitted, and he curved his fingers over her mouth.
"You'll learn," she said. "I'll teach you, and then you can tell me. Don't fret about it now."
He breathed deep, opened his mouth, and his voice was like the voice that woke her from sleep the first time, when dawn's light gilded the water and edged the dew-beaded leaves with silver. His skin blazed white and the sound vibrated in his chest, her arms, and her ears when she laid her head over his heart to hear it beat.
She named him lehran - the first light of the first morning, and the crisp quality of the air at dawn.
Ashunera descended from the mountain with Lehran in her arms, following the path tamped down in the waving yellow grasses until the air was warm enough he did not shiver when she put him down to walk. He learned to fold his wings against his back so they would balance his upright posture, but he still clung to her hand when she moved among the grass, searching for fiber suitable to keep him warm and dry. She made a covering for herself as well, because he kept rubbing her arms, looking at her as if to ask why-- and even after she explained, he insisted, trying to emulate her spell with his own stalks of grass and songs with nonsense sounds until she gave in and made a dress of flax to match his robe, and sandals for both of them.
She taught him to shape his mouth to make the sounds she did, and he knew her words because she spoke to him every day during their journey. When he slept his dreams were about the lap of the water on the pebbles of their lake shore, the sound of a thousand pairs of wings and a thousand slender beaks opening to the sky. The first thing he asked was why they didn't do what he did and try to talk to her, but Ashunera couldn't answer him. She didn't know why or how he learned this, and did not want to tax his new skill with words by asking such a complicated question. Perhaps he didn't know. She didn't know how her own existence came about, or why she chose this form. It was quite possible she had another form in the past, and only adopted her current shape when she became self-aware. Perhaps she was a heron before she was Ashunera.
Lehran told her that of course she was a heron, or they wouldn't have liked her so much. She liked peaches and blackberries and pomegranate seeds. She had long legs like theirs.
And how did you know, she said, tapping his soft nose with her finger, that you are Lehran, and not a bird?
His wings opened slowly, folded again on his back. He knew how to jump into the air and coast on its currents, but could not yet fly as he used to. His body wasn't suited for it; his muscles were weak, and the bones still growing, but he tried every day when he searched for food because he saw more above the ground.
I'm a bird, he said.
Can you transform again?
But he didn't want to. Maybe he couldn't. Maybe he was afraid he would trap himself. Why revert to that tiny form when he knew how to speak in this one, how to weave and create things with his hands? Ashunera didn't want to be a bird again, if that was her original shape.
She showed him how to make thread out of plant fibers, how to knot and weave it with his hands, and with sticks, and which plants had dye that would color it. Red was his favorite, but he didn't want to try using it because it would stain his fingers. He always rinsed his hands when he worked or ate, always picked dirt from his nails as soon as he found it, kept his hair combed and sleek and clean, and his feathers neat. He even scraped his teeth clean. Ashunera didn't do any of these things; he accepted she did not have to - that her skin didn't stain, and her nails didn't break or turn brittle - but he insisted on combing her hair. It collected bits of grass and seeds at the ends, and he picked it out, humming melodies and adding words when he thought of them.
Several cycles of the sun passed before Ashunera remembered why she came to these plains, and why she kept gazing at the mountains. The sea serpent, the land across the ocean. There was a long stretch of plain beyond the mountains also, and whispers in the night she thought might mean there were others waiting there - others like the Zunanma, perhaps even pilgrims from the tribes she saw forming before she left the forest with Lehran. They were curious creatures, always asking what lay beyond that peak, those hills, the waves, down the river.
Lehran's wingspan was longer, and he was slightly taller - perhaps a finger's breadth, or a little more. She taught him how to make clothing, carve tools, and how to observe the life cycles of plants to predict when they would die, or yield fruit. The plants were different at home, but the skills would serve him well in this form, which demanded more nourishment than the other. Perhaps you can teach the others how to do this, she said one night, when she sat between the roots of an oak facing the eastern mountains, and he curled against her, his wings curved to keep him warm. Her fingers sifted through his hair, and he went still when she said that, his small hands closing into fists over her middle.
Lehran was reluctant to leave her side after that, but Ashunera could not comfort him. If the mountain path did not freeze him, the vast plain beyond might starve him. And what of the voyage into the ocean, or the journey to the other side? He was able to fly over the wood they lived in, but an ocean? I will take you back home she said to him when the tenth cycle of the sun since their departure came to a close. He was still so small, and she couldn't leave him to travel so far by himself. The transformation hadn't changed the composition of his body, just the way it was arranged; his bones were still frail and hollow, and he weighed almost nothing in her arms.
She knew Lehran dreamed of the lake every night, but when they started walking westward he held her back, slowed her steps. He found things to examine, and managed to lose his sandals three times before she threatened to melt them to his feet. That was the first time he frowned at her, and he refused to speak to her for an entire day. Then he started singing; his childish lyrics asked the sun to slow his descent, and while they walked Ashunera felt the air thicken around her legs - until he moved on to another rhyme and the breeze dashed the sensation away. She paused and watched him part a tall stand of grass, and his hair catch and tangle on the stalks. He knocked them open with his wings.
Was she a goddess, or was she not? Ashunera didn't choose the title for herself, but accepted it to make her Zunanma happy. They might call her 'goddess' or 'woman,' and still bring offerings of flowers and fruit, and continue to defer to her. They didn't form ideas on their own like she did - not in the beginning, when she first spoke to them. But Lehran followed her without hearing her speak, and even before his transformation she recognized that he thought about what she said to him, even if she could not divine what, or how. His upright form was not her idea - it was his. Only the details were borrowed.
It took another cycle of the sun to find their forest again. Lehran couldn't walk as fast as Ashunera did, and he tried everything within his power to delay their arrival. He learned the power of his songs. He learned how to make fruit ripen with a few words, and kept pausing to coax berries from their vines or wheat seeds from their stalks until she told him to stop disturbing the natural order. He learned how to make her feel tired, but not how to maintain the effect. He learned to heal his own cuts and bruises, and how to call her when they lost sight of each other between the pines and firs in the mountains, when he grew cold and felt the gaze of a predator. He broke his ankle once while running, and another time falling, but he couldn't mend the bones himself.
When the trees she remembered from her birth were within sight, Ashunera realized she didn't want to let go of his hand. They stopped on a smooth, flat rock on a hill that rose above the treetops and she looked down at his dark head, watching him stretch his wings back. The feathers fanned over her hand, against her legs. He looked up, and the forest was in his eyes, the green clear and lit like crystal.
"You should go home," she said, resting her hand on his shoulder. His hair was just long enough to curl over her fingers. "Teach the others. If you're here when I return, if it's safe, I'll take you to see what lies over the ocean."
He reached for her other hand, grasping it with his small fingers and pulling it to his chest, and she was reminded of the tiny black bird that followed her out of the forest and listened to her talk and talk--
His nails dug crescents into the back of her hand. Lines slashed between his eyebrows and his eyes became curiously wet, and Ashunera pulled her hand away and stepped back. Go! she said loudly, like a strike. Lehran turned and ran without a word, spread his wings, and leapt from the ledge to glide on the wind.
She watched his shape get smaller and eventually lost sight of him against the grays and greens of the forest. Cherry trees bloomed profusely white and pink in spots. Sunflowers reached to the sky near the border, their faces turned up. Would he visit them later for seeds? Would he pick cherries and think of the wedges she used to feed him before he transformed?
Were there others like him among the flock at the lake - that little white egret, or the tri-color matriarch who gave birth to him - or did she just sentence him to a life of silence?
Ashunera turned her back on the forest and started walking east again. She felt tired. Was she supposed to feel that way? Was Lehran the one making her chest feel tight and heavy? Was he at the forest edge, singing his favorite song, trying to keep her from leaving?
She wished he would.
The journey to the ocean took several cycles, and the one beneath the ocean even longer than that. Ashunera found the serpent, but he wasn't like her as she hoped. He spoke of the person who gave him the shape he wore, but she never found a trace. She turned into a bird of sunlight and flew away, the serpent said, and he saw her no more after that.
Were there other serpents? Other water creatures capable of speech? She spent a long time helping him search, walking the dark ravines beneath the water until she longed for light again and left him with the story of her own child, and the hope he would find a similar spirit somewhere in the deep. The land beyond the ocean was a vast plain choked with varieties of grasses she'd never seen and squat, thorny bushes. The dirt was loose and black. The trees were sparse.
Lehran would have hated it. He would have hated the dust, and the heat, and though she knew he was happier in the forest, she missed the shiff shiff sound he made when he parted tall grass and reeds with his wings, his hands. She kept looking back, missing his soft footfalls. When she found a new yellow fruit at the border of the plain with a thick forest, and varieties in brown and green and even red, she wondered if he would like it. She tasted a pulpy orange fruit and knew he'd turn his nose up at it without asking. It was messy and left her hands sticky.
The Zunanma hadn't yet made it this far. The animals she met didn't respond to her as they did, as Lehran did. Ashunera grew tired of walking as she grew tired of the dark water and the sound of her own voice. There was more water waiting for her at the end of the rainforest and a smear of gray on the horizon that might have been land or a storm, and she turned back before she could find out. Who knew how long that journey would stretch, quiet and empty?
Fall touched the treetops of her forest when she finally returned. The air wasn't cold yet, but the wind brought a chill and the smell of rain from the mountains when it slithered through the leaves and onto her skin. Herons still dotted the lake, wading the shallows, dipping their beaks into the water for fish or insects. Her arrival didn't disturb them. Lehran would have looked up if he were among their number, but she saw blues and browns - no black.
The trees were the same - the ferns, the pines, maples - rising several steps from the shore, the ferns fanning over the rocks. The lake was still vast and deep as the sky. It was small compared to an ocean, but it didn't smell like brine or wrap seaweed around one's ankles. If she waded to the bottom, every crack and crevice would be as she remembered, hidden in quiet shadow, hiding more silence - not krakens or tentacles or teeth. Ashunera walked onto a flat outcrop and looked into the deep green.
Sandals scuffed on the rocks. The wind blew against her, veiling scent and the sound of wings, but his voice was unmistakable - so unlike hers or the Zunanma. "I heard a whisper..."
Ashunera turned around, catching only a glimpse of Lehran's dark hair flying behind him before he knocked her back a step with his weight and hid his face in her shoulder. He was so much taller - his head reached her chin, and his wings nearly blinded her with their protective curve. She felt their strength in the muscles of his back, though the rest of his body was still frail and filled with air. When his wings folded she saw a pale shape behind him - sunlight hair, white wings.
"So there are others," she said. "You taught them."
Lehran wouldn't lift his head when he stepped away. His eyes slanted to the side, his head turned slightly. "Only one. She likes the name Sarai best."
Ashunera smiled. Was this the egret she fed with cherries, the one she met before Lehran followed her out of the forest? Her golden hair gathered in kinks and curls between the pale wings, clinging to the feathers when they shifted, compressed, and the girl moved forward a step. Like Lehran, her eyes reminded the goddess of the depth of the lake in the summer, when the light shined down deep and turned it into the jewel of the forest.
"Why did you leave?"
Her attention focused on her child again. His hair was longer, draping over his shoulders in black streaks. The cut of his clothes was more precise, the stitches careful and even. "I'm sorry." Ashunera stroked his hair as she did the day she left and felt him quiver under her touch.
He'd grown, but he was still young. His princess was a child too.
Ashunera tilted her head down to catch his averted gaze. "Why did you take this form?"
His lips worked. Lehran's eyes shined when he let her turn his chin up. "I didn't want you to be alone."
Of course he would say that. She pressed her hands to her chest. He always tried to tend to her needs, always listened to her talk. He used to sing for her, and the wind on the plains was dry and empty without his accompaniment. He could scold her like this for the next cycle, his mouth trying to turn down, and her days would be warmer in comparison. "It was a mistake to leave you behind," Ashunera said, "but now you have a companion, and I know what lies across the world. Will you forgive me?"
He averted his gaze again. Long lashes veiled his eyes. "I'll think about it."
Ashunera sighed. "How disrespectful."
Lehran looked back at his princess, and then his hand reached for Ashunera's arm, and he pulled her away from the water. "We made a place for you," he said, and let her arm slide from his fingers. "Will you see it?"
She looked from Lehran to Sarai, and smiled at the way his princess hovered behind him, using his wings as shields. "Of course." She saw his hand in the girl's clothes, his neat stitches and careful pleats. "Show me the way."