“Really? Thanks! You’re the best!” Nuria cheers into her cell phone. She turns and waits in the fax center at the library. A signed document eases into the collection tray. Nuria beams when she lifts a permission slip titled “Bonaro Zoo Excursion”. “Yeah, it came through.” Nuria pauses. “I will send you pictures.” Another pause. “And I promise to call once a week from now on. I’m sorry. It’s just, I’m having a lot of fun here and I lose track of time.”
The pause goes on for several minutes this time. “I will let Rum know. I see him on occasion. We have different schedules, so we manage when we can. You don’t have to worry so much, Mom. We’re- My medicine? Of course, I’m taking it.”
Later today, that is.
“I love you, too. Bye.”
And here I thought I had less responsibility with more freedom.
She folds her permission slip the long way and sticks it in her back pocket. She ignores the scratching sound it makes as she breaks into a run, once finally clear of the library. She recalls a chat she had with Zathony prior to receiving the permission slip.
The field trip to Bonaro Zoo was scheduled while Nuria was comatose. She swiftly learned of it after her return to class. Zathony still challenged her during the math and science classes but excused her from their Vanusi classes until he was certain she could handle it. She assured him she was ready for the zoo. It wasn’t until they were alone that he brought up their conversation from right before the fire.
“You do realize there will be animals in cages for the entertainment of the public,” he said.
“I’ve been to zoos before.”
“Before you read Halko’s books, yes. I need your word, under the threat of expulsion mind you, that you will hold it together during the trip. I will not have you besmirching my reputation and the reputation of Four Hearts Academy in public.” The tone in his voice rang true with authority.
“There will be no fires,” she said.
“Tell me this. Why did you even schedule a field trip? Doesn’t suit your teaching style.”
“Professor Marmagar and I jointly scheduled the trip, but he will be running it. As housemaster, he oversees all social functions put on by Vanusi house. My only position is to teach. So, as you seem to have guessed, I will not be going with you all to the zoo.”
“So, it’s simply a social thing?”
“Would you like to know a secret?” Zathony said with a smirk ripe with venom. Nuria hesitantly nodded. “Learning by doing is the best way, but it is not the only way. Watching is second best. In this instance, watching animals similar to yourself gives you greater ideas on how to utilize your abilities.”
“Did you ever watch over do?” Nuria asked.
“Every day,” he replied. “Come. I can show you better than I can explain.”
Nuria followed her instructor through the whole of the spiraling staircase and stopped when they came to a landing. Like the other floors below, there are two doors on the four ends of a grid, a pair across one the x-axis, the latter on the y-axis. Zathony lead Nuria to the door on the farthest positive end of the x-axis.
Professor Zathony’s quarters were scarce with furniture and decorations. There was a bed next to the window at the back of the room, a desk, two chairs, a closet, and one large terrarium filled with sand.
Professor Zathony walked to the side of the tank and touched the glass. Nuria stood behind him nervously but marveled as dozens of scorpions climbed from beneath the sand’s surface and converged around Zathony’s hand. They all raised their claws as if worshipping him.
“What are they doing?” Nuria asked.
“Ignore that and focus on what they are,” he instructed quietly. She saw a brief glimpse of comprehension in his gaze as if he were having a wordless conversation with the arachnids.
“Are you a scorpion Vanusi?”
“Every trick I ever learned, I learned from watching these guys right here.” The slight rise in the warmth of his voice would go unnoticed by most.
Nuria took a step toward the terrarium and placed a hand on the glass. The scorpions peeled away from where her hand touched. She instantly withdrew it.
“Don’t feel ashamed. They do that to everyone I bring up here.”
“I thought you weren’t the type for social calls,” Nuria teased.
“Never said I enjoyed bringing them here. Like you, they needed a demonstration to fully grasp the lesson I wished to teach them.”
“Now you sound like yourself again,” she said.
Zathony snickered beneath his breath. “Would you like to see?”
It took Nuria a moment to catch his meaning. “You mean your transformed state?”
“Do you want to show me?”
“No,” he snapped.
“Then no,” she snapped back. “How long did it take you to grasp your abilities by watching the scorpions?”
“For the basics,” he said, then paused to recount his experiences. He smiled at one time, frowned at others, and even seemed to growl at one point. “Nearly three months.”
Nuria felt the flush in her cheeks flame. “Then why did I only have a week?”
Zathony turned to her, hiding none of the apathy ironed into his expression. “Because this is a school that’s run on a schedule. I can’t let you take the whole semester for one assignment. If you fail- which you didn’t- you use what you learn from that failure to succeed the next time.”
A trail of dusty sole imprints on the hardwood floors follow Nuria all the way to her now coed living space, a detail she has no intention of sharing with her mother, among other unseemly events. She frantically searches for her medicine, finding the sack nestled firmly between her tattered clothes from orientation day.
Was that the last time I took my medicine? Okay, maybe she was right to get on my case after all.
Nuria pilfers two of the almond-colored seeds from the sack and swallows them straight away. Before she races right back out the door, she dumps the seeds inside her new bedside drawer.
“Cutting it close, don’t you think?” Tyra asks as Nuria bounces to a halt beside her.
“My mom was in interrogation mode. No way I was getting her to sign without subjecting myself to her questions.”
“What did you tell her?”
Nuria sighs gustily. “Nothing I should have. I never would’ve gotten her signature if I had, and she would’ve been on the next train here.”
“Do you think Rum will tell anyone?”
Nuria shakes her head. “Not at all. At least, not without asking me first.”
“What about that Shuri kid?”
Nuria flushes. “Why would he tell him?”
“Oh, I assumed you and he were friends. He stopped by to check in on you a couple of times while I was around.”
“He did?” Nuria asks incredulously.
Tyra nods, hiding a grin beneath her fingers. “He never stayed long, but he always asked if you were okay. Then he would look at you for a while in silence like he was searching for any signs you might be conscious.”
“And how do you know he wasn’t, umm, you know?”
Tyra flushes now, too. “Oh. Um, I could just tell. He always focused on your face. Never…anywhere else.”
“You guys are all set,” Stark announces as she and Professor Marmagar join them at the jeep. “FHA” is emblazoned on the grey doors in jet black letters.
Nuria takes a second look around. “It’s just gonna be the three of us?”
“When Carnya learned the Bonaro Zoo didn’t have an aquatic area, she decided to spend her day at the pool. Syl didn’t really give a reason, just grabbed his sketchbook and wandered off this morning,” Tyra explains.
“Oh, well, more fun for us,” she quiets her voice near the end, finding her upbeat attitude misplaced.
“Listen to Professor Marmagar when you arrive. I’ve instructed him to be abundantly clear with you,” she says to them while her tone sinks into Marmagar’s ears only.
He shakes with soundless laughter.
“Have fun.” Stark bids farewell by tilting a pair of fingers their direction, an action Professor Marmagar reciprocates to her back.
The professor turns to the girls with a gentle smile, though his throat scar subtracts from the charming gesture. He swings his arms to the jeep. The young ladies nod and sequester in the backseat. Marmagar steps inside and starts the ignition, then points to the radio, pretending to turn the knob.
“Could you turn it to 82.2, please?” Nuria asks.
Marmagar gives her a thumbs-up before locating the station. The radio host speaks with a guest named Calil. The host interviews Calil about the latest teaser single she released that’s slated to be the opening track of an album coming in the next couple months. As they speak, Nuria types the name of the single into her phone. As typical of TFF, the name is wonderfully abstract.
“Keep Your Love On The Left Side”. Can’t wait to listen to that for hours.
The rest of the way to the zoo, the station alternates between the greatest hits by The Four Feathermen, including “Kissing You With An Open Wound In My Chest”, “Losing Games To Butterflies”, and “All My Compliments Originate In The Bathroom” and the interview. Nuria finds both parts equally pleasing, so much so that she doesn’t realize she quietly sings along to each track they play.
“You have a beautiful voice,” Tyra says as they disembark the jeep.
“You heard me? You can read minds? You can hear how I sing in my head?”
Tyra giggles. “I’m not gifted in that way. You were singing aloud. You heard her didn’t you, Professor Marmagar?”
The professor gives her quiet applause.
“Oh,” Nuria says, locking her mouth in the shape of the word.
Why do I keep singing in front of people? Not that Tyra’s a stranger or anything, but I never did this before. Then again, I haven’t had an audience outside my family before.
Nuria shelves the debate as she and her group proffer tickets to the employees at the front gate. The next few they encounter hand them each a map of the zoo. A statue of a lion roaring into the sky sits in the center of the entrance. The plaque beneath is engraved with the title of the venue, “Bonaro Zoo”. Couples, families, and friends gather around it to take commemorative photos. Professor Marmagar taps the girls on their shoulders and points to the statue, simultaneously holding up the camera draped around his neck.
Professor Marmagar refuses to relent his photo taking, failing to express they would be nice additions to the school’s online gallery, even as it begins to aggravate Nuria. From the hollow tunnel with a glass ceiling that gives patrons a view of a nest of bats; an enclosure constructed to imitate a clay wall inside a jungle where alcoves house a variety of serpents; a subterranean habitat where large alligators lay in a shallow pond in peace, thick glass separating them from the public above (though Nuria feels one of them has eyes for only her); Marmagar snaps photos of the girls, always managing to frame them close together.
Tyra hands Nuria a bottle of water she purchases from the nearby café area. Though she turns away to watch the professor taking photos of a couple with their own camera, she addresses Nuria’s sour demeanor.
“What’s bugging you?” she asks softly.
“I’m tired of sight-seeing,” she barks. “I came here to get a look at the birds they have. Zathony said that watching a similar species may give me ideas on how to use my creature abilities.”
“That’s true. It’s how I learned to fly. By watching how normal birds do it. Speaking of which, and I forgot to mention this before. You’re going to need new shirts.”
“What do you mean?” Nuria asks defensively. She stretches out her plain lavender t-shirt. “What’s wrong with this?”
“Oh, it’s not a matter of fashion. Just function. You see the slits in the back of my shirt?” Tyra turns to show Nuria the metallic slits above her shoulder blades. They do little to distract from the white, black and red marble design of her kimono. “These allow winged individuals like us to summon our wings with no resistance. You’ll need to be able to summon your wings to get properly measured, of course. After that, any time you order a shirt, you just have to fill out the extra section for “avian dimensions”.”
“Oh.” Nuria lies her palms on her skull and shakes her head with them. “I’m getting really tired of responding like that.”
“How bad do you want to get your wings?”
“At this point, I’ll be satisfied with a beak. I just want to know I’m making progress,” she whines.
Tyra turns and sees Professor Marmagar engrossed in his photographic business. “Then let’s go. We aren’t far from the birdcage. He’ll find us–”
Nuria is up and off before she hears Tyra finish her sentence. Nuria slides through the small crowd gathered around one of half a dozen bird cages. Domed, wire-framed barriers keep the birds contained. The smaller the species within, the smaller the gaps between the wires. Nuria bypasses the smaller species, thinking back to the scale of the phoenixes in Halko’s data books. Only one of the enclosures houses species of comparable size. The plaque reads “Birds of Prey, Hawks”.
Tyra finally catches up to Nuria there. “So, what now? Did he give you any clues on how to observe them?”
“Not a clue, but I didn’t ask. I got the impression it’s a subjective process, unique to every person. I can’t prove it, but I feel like there’s a huge disparity between myself and Carnya. She told me of her experience with the wall I went up against. She said it somehow impaired her on a cellular level. But honestly, I’ve felt a little better since I went through my wall. Like I recovered a piece of myself, whereas it sounds like–”
“Carnya lost a piece of herself,” Tyra finishes and Nuria nods.
“Anyway, I think the only way I’ll learn is by watching them with no expectations,” Nuria clarifies.
“I get that, but perhaps I can give you a summation of avian biology to help,” she stops and searches for the right word, “frame your observations.”
“So, there are wing types that species share, and each wing type determines the particular kind of flight the respective species can achieve. For myself and the woman that attacked us, we have what are called high aspect ratio wings, which are great for gliding through the sky.
“For simplicity, let’s assume yours will be the same type as ours. That means watching the hawks will be beneficial for you. I know you want to make distinct observations yourself, so I’ll end the lesson with a theory I subscribe to regarding flight. If you want to hear it?”
Nuria nods solemnly.
“Okay, to be precise, it’s technically two theories, but they have the same end result. There’s the arboreal, or trees-down hypothesis, and the cursorial, or ground-up hypothesis. One theorizes that birds learned to fly by running very fast on the ground and leaping small distances through the air, then later evolved to species that gained the ability to fly. That’s the cursorial hypothesis. The arboreal theory posits that organisms that lived in high places developed the ability to glide over time.”
Nuria hums as she ponders, her eyes scaling the hawk enclosure’s domed barrier. “And which of those do you agree with most?”
“I’ve never witnessed the arboreal theory put into practice,” she admits. “Why?”
Nuria lowers her gaze, committing to memory the bend and shape of the trees within the enclosure, especially taking notice of the hawk roosts as well. “Practice makes perfect.”
Nuria locks her fingers around the wires before her, then pulls herself up. Tyra whispers warnings and tries to call her back down without drawing attention, but Nuria continues to climb anyway. In a manner of seconds, both zoo patrons and hawks alike become acutely aware of her actions, and both erupt in outcries.
Nuria finds the hatch at the peak, then smiles when she notices the lock is open. Not good for security, but I won’t dismiss good fortune right now.
The hatch squeals as she opens it and the hawks increase the volume of their squawking. It draws nearby zoo personnel to the cage. Nuria ignores their pleas for her to step down. Only when one of the larger hawks quells the uproar of the others does she release a breath.
Don’t chicken out, Nuria. You have all the pieces of yourself necessary to fly, just have to play chicken with my own evolutionary path. Either I get it to blink, or I end, here and now. Drijad, please let it be the former.
Nuria snaps her eyes open and flips backward through the hatch. A chorus of gasps and cheers resonate around the cage as Nuria nosedives toward the family of hawks, down a predetermined path she mapped moments before. Her bravura comes with a field of tenor air, waves of humidity distorting the contours of her body on all sides. She shows no fear until her body suddenly jerks backward, knocking her off course.
Nuria slams into a branch, but she feels the rough bark of the tree scrape against flesh, but…not flesh. She bounces off several branches before she manages to grip one with both hands. She swings her body in a downward arch and rolls when she hits the ground. Her body forms a wider circle than she’s used to as she rolls to a stop between two small artificial boulders.
She feels incredibly itchy between her shoulders, and when she reaches around to scratch her fingers come into contact with edges of torn fabric and smooth, ruffled skin.
Either one of those stupid hawks is messing with me, or…
Nuria takes a deep breath and peers over her shoulders. Her jaw drops open when she sees a pair of crimson wings erect and fully spread. She frantically searches for any bronze stains and relaxes when she finds none, remaining oblivious to the tip of such a stain peeking between feathers right at the base adjacent to her shoulder blades. The entire rear of her shirt is ripped right down the center, and her bra straps are frayed.
I hope they have this shirt available in avian dimensions.
Nuria looks up at the crowd, still taking photos and videos of her, but she smiles. Not at them, but at the young lady on the end with the information she needs.
Nuria turns her attention to the crowd cheering her on. She raises her hand to wave at them when the tension in her shoulder forces the collar of her lavender shirt to split like the rest of the shirt. With her bra exposed and shirt destroyed, the cheering morphs to laughter. Nuria gathers up her t-shirt and covers herself with her wings while desperately searching for an emergency exit.
The hawks stir slightly as they watch Nuria with predatory gazes. She turns her head and sees a large hawk in the center checks some of the others inching to take flight. The hawk’s feathers are pristine, except for a bald spot on its neck where the flesh is stained by a jagged scar. Just before zoo personnel shut a door between them and the hawks above, Nuria notices the alpha amongst them spread its wings and take flight. It tucks in its wings to fly through the hatch and into the horizon beyond.