LIKE A LOVER’S HANDS • by Rebecca Birch

There was a time when the winds were not my companions.  When the thermals beneath my eagle wings did not support me like a lover’s hands.  Visions of that before-time flash through my mind like swift glints of sunlight off a salmon’s back, so fleeting it would be easy to doubt the evidence of my own eyes.  I hoard each memory and bury it deep, where my mistress cannot see, even though she rides within my mind, whispering commands and words of seduction until I lose the strength to know one from the other.

Far below, a mountain valley stretches along the serpentine path of a river.  Emerald slopes plunge downward, broken here and there by silver-white waterfalls half-hidden behind clouds of mist.  The sun peeks over the sharp ridgeline to the east.

Lower, my love.

I circle toward the valley floor.  The scent of the forest rises to greet me and —

— My hands burrowed into the loamy soil, my long braid dangling into the hole.  I scooped out a handful of dirt, embedding earth under my nails.  Something gold caught the sunlight

My wings falter and I plummet, the world wheeling in a dizzying swirl of color.  My mistress’ mind touches my own, smoothing over me with long, loving strokes, until I remember that I have no braid.  No hands.  Nothing but her.  I shudder and spread my wings.

My shadow stretches over the river, much closer now.  The crash of a nearby waterfall thunders, nearly drowning the sound of her voice.  Find him.

I do not know who him is, only that thoughts of him cling to my mistress like sticky sap.  Even when she turns her honeyed words on me, he is there behind them.

Something bright flashes farther down the river and I turn toward it, flying against the wind.  An eagle’s eyes are far-seeing and, when the flash comes again, I glimpse its source.  A silver medallion resting against a man’s bare chest.

My mistress stirs, urging me ahead.

Wind rushes through my feathers.  My pulse races, mirroring her own.  She draws my gaze up to his face.   Night-black eyes, a hawk-like nose and, between us, the sharp point of a drawn arrow.

Desire and rage seethe through my mistress.  She draws open my beak and shrieks a challenge.

His warm breath against my ear smelled of freshly chewed mint leaves.  The strong curve of his arms helping me steady the bow turned my knees soft.  I forced myself to focus on the lesson.  Sight down the shaft.  Pull back to the ear.  Exhale.  Release

The shaft flies.

Pain bursts in my wing and scarlet bleeds across my vision.  Half-crippled, I struggle to remain aloft, spiraling out of control.  I splash into the shallows at the river’s edge and flutter wildly, raising a shower of icy droplets.  Panic and pain smother the sound of her voice.

Desperate to escape the river’s clutches, I hop toward the shore, but my shattered wing makes me awkward as a fledgling.  The man approaches, crouched low, and extends his hand.  His lips are moving, voice low and soothing.  Familiar.  My frantic struggles cease.

Now I hear her again.  Tear his eyes.  Rip his flesh.  Do this for me, my love.

But his hand now rests on the curve of my neck and the other slips beneath my talons.  He lifts me free of the river, heedless of the sharp curve of my beak and the danger lurking behind my eyes.

I brushed away the dirt, revealing the eagle pendant just where the woman who walked my dreams had said it would be.  My hands trembled.  So beautiful — even more than the silver medallion he was never without — just as she had promised.  A perfect gift for our joining-day.  For safekeeping, I slipped the leather cord around my neck.  The pendant touched my skin

The man kneels and rests the arm on which I perch flat against the riverbank.  The fingers at my neck move, and he touches something cold and heavy resting on my breast.  His breath ruffles the small feathers on my face.

Shred! Take his eyes, so he will never see beauty again!

He is so close.  I need only twist my head and I could rend him.  My mistress forces my beak open, the remembered taste of blood flooding her thoughts so fully I can almost feel it sliding into my gullet.  The thought sickens me.  My tongue twitches.

His hand closes and the weight around my neck lightens.  Memories flood through me.  This man’s gentle caresses under the vast spray of starlight.  Promises of eternity.  The hushed whispers among the others, of the time when he almost wed the treacherous witch of the mountain, and the vengeance she swore over him when he discovered her evil and set her aside — that he would never find happiness with another.

My mistress still strains to master me, but with every moment, the weight around my neck rises higher, higher, until it is gone.  Within my mind there is only myself.  A wounded eagle filled with the memories of the woman I had been.

My eyes blink rapidly and his words coalesce into meaning.  “I’m so sorry.  I hoped if I freed you from that cursed charm, it would bring you back.”

The touch of the witch’s pendant transformed me.  Perhaps his medallion holds the same strength.  I nuzzle into his arms and press my body against the silver.  His warmth floods through me.  My pulse slows.  I close my eyes and feel myself shifting.  It hurts.  My fingers flex.

My fingers…

I tip my head and find him smiling down at me.  “Beloved,” he says, “let me care for the wound.”

I grasp his hand with all my strength, for my lips have not yet remembered how to form words.  There will be time for them later.  Joy fills me, despite the pain.

I am free.

Rebecca Birch lives in Seattle, where it doesn’t really rain every day. She’s a classically trained soprano, holds a deputy black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and enjoys spending time in the company of trees. Her fiction has appeared in markets including Nature, Cricket, and Fireside Magazine.

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