Iara sat in her nest of cycad fronds and dried ferns. She gazed at the cool evening sky, its expanse limitless. She liked the in-between time, the time before absolute darkness and the time just after the sun slipped beneath the horizon. The stillness and the silence thrilled her down to her marrow, made her bright green eyes dilate in wonder.
She felt her heart thudding against her ribs as she breathed easily. She shifted her position a little, the sound of snapping and cracking from the cycad fronds beneath her abnormally loud. She froze for a moment, instinct consuming her. A flock of small pterosaurs erupted from a nearby gingko tree and swirled upward into the sky like a living cloud of dust in the sunshine.
Iara held her breath. She gazed skyward, anticipating its arrival.
The first star of evening shone in the rapidly darkening sky. Iara’s moist breath came in wisps from her fluttering nostrils. A choir of crickets and beetles began buzzing and singing. Mammals scurried furtively in the undergrowth, wary of Iara’s every breath on the night air. Iara’s nicitating membrane swept for a millisecond over her eyes, which glowed to make up for the change in the amount of light available to them. She continued to stare at the night sky, her feathers fluttering in the cool breeze that night brings. More stars appeared as if from the void.
Iara drooped her head. She yawned, her jaw dropping to her chest. She shook her head and neck afterward. She blinked.
She was about to drift off into a delicious sleep when a pair of green eyes, illuminated by eyeshine, winked in and out of the darkness. A lithe form approached, her pawpads silent against the forest floor litter.
Iara, the female jaguar gently commanded. She sat next to Iara, her gaze locked on the Lek site. What are you waiting for? You must go.
It’s just…I don’t know, Iara turned her gaze away from the jaguar. What if I don’t meet anyone? What if I am rejected?
You will find a mate, in time, Moongaze’s voice filled her mind. Now is that time.
Iara sighed. She trotted slowly over to the Lek site, inhaling the scents of the males tentatively.
She looked to the left. Males were hopping about inside immense bowers, made of piles of sticks and odds and ends. Each male preferred a different color, and Iara was drawn to the bright blues at first. Then, the raspy calls within made her cringe.
She turned to the right to face more suitors. These males were strutting silently, showing off their plumage to surrounded females. Iara blinked, taking no interest in their showy displays. Iara felt drawn instead to something she had never experienced before. It was overwhelming, the sound. It pulled her, irresistibly.
Music filled the air, in dozens of different pitches and melodies. Males and females performed call-and-response duets, each with a different song.
A flashy male with bright pink and teal plumage crooned, “Everybody wants to put me down, they say I'm going crazy! They say I got a lot of water in my brain, got no common sense, I got nobody left to believe in!” Several male and female avians surrounded him, sighing as he belted the song.
Iara turned her attention to a female with champagne plumage who approached the flashy male. Her warbled response, “Where have all the good men gone, and where are all the gods? Where's the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds? Isn't there a white knight upon a fiery steed? Late at night I toss and I turn…and I dream of what I need…!”
The flashy male momentarily locked eyes with the approaching female, then turned away dramatically, looking off in the distance as he continued his song. The rejected female took it in stride, continuing her song as she slowly walked past Iara, gazing her way and sending her a suggestive wink.
Iara was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the cacophony of songs that flooded the clearing where she stood, the bright colors of the singers, the scent trails of each as they crooned to find their mates.
“Hola, bebe,” warbled a soft voice behind her. Iara turned to face a male with gray plumage and an initiation scar of three claw marks down his left eye. He fluffed his feathers up and bowed, clacking his jaw. “Soy El Lobo, the lone wolf, or so they call me,” he continued, his bright gold and orange eyes alight. “And you? What’s your name?”
“My name is Iara,” she bowed in return. She started to back away, “…I…have to go…”
“Huh? But you just got here!” Lobo whined, watching Iara’s eyes dilate and constrict by turns. “You can run, you can hide, but you can’t escape my love,” he sang softly to her, trying to calm her and keep her interested.
Iara made her way to the edge of the Lek. Another male, a bright blue one, sang, “Don’t go breaking my heart…”
Only one male’s voice was familiar to Iara…she had often heard his signature calls as she drifted off to sleep in her nest during the Lek. His voice was crystal clear and resonant: “So I wonder, where were you? When all the roads you took came back to me…so I'm following the map that leads to you, you-you-you-you-you! Ain't nothing I can do! The map that leads to you…following, following, following…”
Iara gazed into the foliage on the edge of the Lek site, trying desperately to spot him. She then saw a beautiful white crest and pale blue green eyes. The male Iara was enchanted by stepped forward. Here was a handsome male, indeed, with a soft white crest, bright blue eyes and a strong build. He bowed to Iara, the long initiation scars that stretched across either side of his muzzle glowing in the moonlight.
Iara closed her eyes. Suddenly, she too burst into song, tremulous at first and then gaining volume: “We're all just looking for connection…yeah, we all want to be seen…I'm looking for someone who speaks my language, someone to ride this ride with me.”
“I like to think that we had it all…we drew a map to a better place, but on that road I took a fall. Oh baby, why did you run away?” the male sang in response.
“Could you be the one that speaks for me?” Iara continued.
“I hear your voice in my sleep at night…hard to resist temptation…’cause something strange has come over me…and now I can’t get over you,” the male stepped closer to her.
“I'm just looking for a witness in all of this,” Iara sang, “looking for a witness to get me through this…”
“I was there for you, in your darkest times…I was there for you, in your darkest nights,” the male sang softly.
“'Cause I only got this life…and I ain't got the time, no…not to get it right…”
“Ain't nothing I can do…the map that leads to you…following, following, following,” the male finished his song.
“We're all just looking for connection…yeah, we all want to be seen…I'm looking for someone who speaks my language, someone to ride this ride with me. Can I get a witness? Will you be my witness? I'm just looking for a witness in all of this…looking for a witness to get me through this,” Iara sang.
The duet ended. The male tilted his head to one side, eyeing her curiously. “I am Atum-Bennu,” he panted, inhaling her scent, his eyes dilated.
Atum-Bennu bounded forward in an athletic hop, making his calves flex. Iara watched his movements, fascinated by how fluid they were. She awkwardly bowed in return. Bennu remained crouched and repeated his call so softly, only Iara could have heard it.
Iara flared her nostrils, turned her head away. “I’m Iara,” she bobbed her head shyly. She had suffered rejection many times, and tonight would be no different than any other. Bennu had, too, but he was not afraid.
He made a peculiar gurgling purling sound, imitating a mammal growl nicely. Iara huffed and scrunched her body low to the ground so he could not entice her.
Atum-Bennu snapped his jaws and made the growl again, as if to say, “Where you from, you sexy thang?”
She rolled her eyes and looked away. He made yet another strange sound, mimicking a whine. He kept staring at her, so that at long last she had to look at him.
For a long time they stared at each other, eye contact unwavering. Finally Iara relented and let him preen the small of her stiff shoulder blades. She gave a grunt of approval as he gently mushed his nose into her neck and shoulders, smearing his scent all over her. He made an odd humming sound, like a purring of sorts.
“You were absent during most of the Lek…what brings you here now?” Bennu chuffed, eyeing Iara carefully.
“My attention was called elsewhere…” Iara avoided his gaze.
Iara suppressed a deep sigh as painful memories flooded her mind. Try as she might, she could not lay eggs. She remembered the joy in her brood sisters as they laid their infertile eggs for the first time as younglings. She remembered them successfully building their nests, bullying their siblings for the best spots, while she sat with Wadjet and Ra, a hatchling in comparison. When she did manage to lay an egg for the first time, the experience was painful—the shell of the single egg did not harden and remained lodged inside her. It was embarrassing and isolating. She had to eventually eject the egg piece by piece, and it took days for her to regain her strength afterward. None of the female avians had ever seen another suffer as Iara had. They kept their distance from her, polite but avoidant.
Each week of the Lek that passed weighed heavily on Iara, as she knew deep down inside that it was not meant to be, that she could not bear her beloved offspring. Why should she even bother trying to find a mate, when she couldn’t give herself to him in the way avians were supposed to? She would rather sit in her nest and wonder at the stars, the graceful flight of other avians, her own existence.
Atum-Bennu tilted his head to one side, confused by her remark. “…that’s interesting. You resist bonding? Why?”
“I…I’d rather not discuss it now,” Iara became uncomfortable. Bennu noted Iara changed the subject. “So…why call for me?”
“I have had several mates at once before, in Leks past. The arrangement was…heated, to say the least. I remember watching you at the Lek site, all that time ago. You were so awkward yet…I don’t know, I liked you. I fought off some males for you, but you were more interested in following that bird than watching us.” Atum-Bennu chortled, a gurgling sort of rasp. “I would like you to join me and my mate. You don’t have to mate with me, you can be as you are. I…I don’t know why, but…something tells me to protect you.”
“…several…mates at once?” Iara tilted her head. She had never heard of such a thing—most avians she knew of paired off and mated for life. “And protect me from what?” Iara hissed, her plumes rising. She began to feel scared. She didn’t want to be a part of a flock, she wanted to be alone…yet…she knew, with her limited hunting skills and inability to hatch young, she couldn’t make it entirely alone. Her mentor was her Guardian, but he couldn’t provide her a real home, as avians did.
“…many perils await the Warrior outside the forest enclave,” Bennu sighed. “Until you learn how to be a part of a flock, you won’t be able to fly alone.”
“Why should I be a part of anything, when I don’t belong?!” Iara snarled, rising from her spot next to Bennu. She opened her jaws, exposing a fierce set of teeth. She felt her crest puffing, and held her wings out in front of her body, to make her seem larger. Bennu backed away from her slowly, standing gracefully.
“I will be waiting for you, if you change your mind,” he grunted. He bowed, taking his leave.
Iara stood there, her pupils constricting and dilating in turns. She felt her racing heart slow down as she regained composure. She felt sad, and terrible for lashing out at Atum-Bennu. Even though I don’t understand his motives, I shouldn’t have reacted that way. He has a point, but why doesn’t anyone have faith in me?
Iara gazed up at the stars as she fled the Lek site. She stared at them, begging for an answer. How do others have more faith in me?
Have faith in yourself, came the soft reply, a gentle nudge from her shadow.
How do I do that?!
The stars were silent, blinking in the darkness. Iara sighed, feeling more lost and upset than reassured. She rearranged her nest and sat in it, then rested her chin on her chest, falling into a restless sleep.