“When we die, what legacy will we leave behind?” queried a rich masculine voice, one the fledgling had never heard before. The voice echoed in her developing mind, sealing itself in her memory. She felt as if she were floating above the ground, her toes spread wide in a defensive posture. She was older, a little wiser but still awkward in her movements, still behind her siblings in their physical development. The voice belonged to a shadow, an odd form she could not place—quadrupedal, with a muscular neck and chest, round appendages at the top of the head, and a thin, curly tail behind.
The shadow paced in circles around her. She turned her head every which way to follow its lithe movements. The voice continued, “As we grow and change, so too do our needs. You are almost grown; it is time for you to leave the nest and begin to fly unaided. I will serve as your Guardian, hijita.” The shadow suddenly leaped toward her—and in an instant, in tendrils of smoke and mist, the shadow changed forms into a new shadow, a small avian with a pair of long tailfeathers.
“Remember all I have taught you...I will meet you when the time is right…”
The fledgling woke with a start. The sun was much higher in the sky than she had anticipated. I slept in! she panicked, her heart thundering in her chest.
Wadjet stood over her resting form, clicking her jaws in disapproval. “Fledgling, why aren’t you practicing your exercises with the others?”
The little brown fledgling ducked down into the nest, curling her tail over her legs and pulling her neck toward her chest. “Wadjet, I am sorry, I…I slept in…”
The alpha female’s crest rose in irritation at the fledgling’s submissive display. “Get to the clearing with the others. Now.” The hiss was low pitched, an intimidating sound the fledgling dreaded hearing.
The fledgling stood reluctantly, hurrying to the practice ring.
The littlest fledgling took her place on the outermost edge of the practice ring, a clearing where the male fledglings would spar with one another and the females would practice the mating greeting to the winning males. The new alphas had already taken the center positions, with the lower ranks radiating outward from them. The littlest fledgling was an omega…the last of the group, as usual. She had come to expect it, given she could only bob her head during the greeting. She couldn’t even hold the stares of the other avians for too long…it made her plumage rise and her skin crawl.
As the males puffed out their feathers and hissed at one another, jaws agape and wings outstretched, the littlest fledgling began to lose interest. She had seen this practice run so many times, it didn’t matter who was the new alpha anymore…why should she care, when she was ousted too many times to count? She soon noticed something odd in the corner of her eye. Distracted, the littlest fledgling gazed at a branch on a nearby tree bordering the clearing. On the branch sat a brilliant green avian, a species she had never encountered before.
The avian had a beak rather than a typical snout, and it was a deep orange, like the setting sun. Its eyes were brown, and, to the fledgling’s surprise, its tail ended not as her own, but in a short fan with a pair of long ribbon-like feathers trailing at the end. Just like the Guardian in my dream!
The fledgling was startled when the winning male approached her at last, bowing his head in gentle submission. She repeated the movement as gracefully as she could, which resembled more of a jerking halt than a sweeping bow. The Guardian studied her curiously.
Wadjet was also watching the fledgling’s movements, unaware of the Guardian perched outside the clearing. “Sweep your head from side to side!” she snapped at the littlest fledgling, her eyes narrowed. The littlest fledgling could only weave her body back and forth, wiggling her wings awkwardly. Her siblings snickered at her. Her lores began to flush crimson. Wadjet bounded over to her, snapping her jaws testily at her misbehaving fledgling.
“Back to your places! All of you!” Wadjet growled at the giggling avians. They dutifully turned and left the littlest fledgling to her enraged mentor. “Fledgling, you are better than this! Why do you disobey?”
“Wadjet, I can’t help it! I can’t!” the fledgling squealed. She felt like crying.
Wadjet leaped on the fledgling, pinning her to the dust under her merciless talons. “You will do as I say! You need to learn this, in order to leave home. Don’t you want to leave home?”
“Y-y-yes, Wadjet…” was the tiny reply, muffled by gasps. The fledgling was more frightened than ever.
“Good.” The alpha female bounded away from the fledgling. She stared at the others, snapping her jaws at a few to keep them in their places. “Again! New contenders! Take your places!”
The sun finally sank into the horizon. The avian with the bright green plumage and elongate tailfeathers had studied the littlest fledgling all day, its eyes alight with sadness. In her, I see myself, he had decided.
A rustle of wings, a whoosh of air, and he left his perch at last, to return to his own nest and consider the fledgling he had chosen.
In the meantime, the littlest fledgling felt miserable. She had time and time again been pinned by Wadjet and laughed at by her siblings. Her performance worsened with each threat, unlike her siblings, who took to the challenges eagerly. She was grateful the day had ended.
She hobbled back to the safety of her nest…when she was stopped by Wadjet, who was sitting in it.
“You will have to make your own nest for the night.”
The fledgling held back tears as she stumbled in the darkness, grabbing too many branches in her jaws and spilling them on the dirt. She kept grabbing them, trying to make a circle. More than once, the cycad fronds scraped her legs, making them bleed. More than once, she fell into the dirt, her plumes coated with it. Finally, her makeshift nest complete, she curled up into it.
The stars twinkled in their inky sea overhead. The littlest fledgling sighed, wondering if every day of her life was going to be this terrible. The Guardian fluttered down, landing on a branch of a tree closest to her.
“Some days, I wish I wasn’t here anymore,” she wept softly to herself. The Guardian replied,
“What legacy will you leave behind, when you die?”
The fledgling stopped crying, and looked in vain to find the creature who spoke.
All she heard was the subtle creak of a tree branch, followed by barely audible wingbeats in the darkness.