A crystal shadow soared unnoticed over steel-glass city cliffs, flickering through visibility in a summer sun. As it passed the towers, a tremor rippled its length, breaking the rhythm of great wings. The change had begun.
Fear rising, it scanned rooftops for the nearest landing spot then swerved toward a building marked by a white “H” on a blue square. The roof rushed closer as it flailed at humid air. Its talons caught on the roof edge, and a scream like breaking glass escaped it. Tripping, it ploughed across the roof, diamond-edged plumage slashing deep gouges. A small duffel bag held in a claw flew free.
An air vent at the far side finally stopped it. Its faceted body faded again from visibility, reappeared for a wing beat, then shifted into a smaller, more recognizable shape. Lean but muscular, the naked body of a young woman lay in the creature’s place. Raven-black hair scattered over pale shoulders as she struggled to rise, only to collapse again, darkness taking her.
• • •
Lilith Hoyl awoke shivering, a smell of tar in her nose and the setting sun in her eyes. Slumped against the exhaust vent, she picked at the pebbles and dirt imbedded in her skin. Nice landing, Hoyl, she thought. Real smooth.
She rose, scouring the roof until she spotted the bag. Removing briefs, bra, jeans, a Tragically Hip T-shirt, and Teva sandals, she dressed.
Once more, she had flown too long, flown past the point of exhaustion. That had been stupid. But in bird form, her human memories grew dim. As the Hoyl, the Crystal Angel of the Heroka, she could beat this world away with her wings. Beat away his memory. Forget what they had done to him. Forget that she was alone—again.
Chirping broke through her melancholy. She looked up to see a feathered temple of life spiraling above her. Smiling, she raised her arms, and they fluttered to her hands and shoulders and around her feet. Birds of all kinds and sizes and colors, predators and prey, singing her praise. She smiled. “Thank you, my little ones. Today I need some friends.”
The cacophony dropped. A lone sparrow’s voice made her look down. It hopped away, then looked back. Lilith reached with her mind. What is it, child? An image flowed back, flavored with pain and fear. She projected calm.All right. Take me to her.
On the far side of the roof, a female sparrow lay quivering, wings spread, head twisted. Lilith stilled its fear with her mind, then picked it up, smoothing the layered softness of its feathers. Entering its mind, she shared its memory and agony, flew with it between city towers, felt its confusion, the impact against the window, its struggle like her own to reach this roof.
She directed the functions of its body to start the healing process as best she could. Removing a sweatshirt from her bag, she gently placed the bird on it, folding a sleeve over it for warmth. She filled a Styrofoam cup with water from a puddle, so the bird’s mate could feed her.
The mate perched on her shoulder. She projected hope to it, and he nipped at her ear lobe, making her laugh. Hopping down, he settled on the edge of the sweatshirt and closed his eyes.
May not make it, she thought. The damn cities confused them, all the lights and glass. Sometimes it was a window. Sometimes they just flew and flew between the towers, lost and disoriented until they fell to the hard streets below. Damn humans. They’d killed her mate too. Curse them all.
She walked slow circuits of the roof. Looking down at the streetlights winking like urban fireflies, her anger faded. Not knowing what else to do, she kept walking. On her third circuit, she felt something. It was stronger on one side of the building. Lying on her stomach, she looked over the edge. Three stories below, a mourning dove perched on a window ledge, above a terrace containing a children’s playground. The sensation flowed like a fuzzy TV signal from it. She reached into the mind of the dove.
And reeled back from a flood of images and emotions.
A mother’s face smiling behind tears—a black V of geese frozen against a gray sky—a father, his face buried in his hands—the swoop of a roller-coaster—a sky so blue it made Lilith ache—a dog she wanted to hug and hug—a stuffed bear lost forever. And through it all, the pain, so real, so deep it cut through faces and geese and roller-coasters and dogs and stuffed bears and hopes and dreams and love to something dark and cold and final.
Lilith cried out and pushed back, breaking contact. She lay on the roof, gasping, shaking. That could not have come from the dove. Yet her mind link with the bird had been the source. She leaned out again. The bird sat looking into the window. She again made the link. But this time she stayed in the background, letting images wash over her, a spectator, not trying to control.
Then she understood. She projected her control onto the bird again. It yielded. A moment of vertigo, a sensation of falling, then she was on the ledge, looking through the bird’s eyes into the room.
In the room, a little girl lay in bed, so thin she seemed to hover over the sheets. A doctor talked to an adult man and woman. The girl’s parents? The dove could hear nothing through the window. The doctor motioned the parents into the hall. As the door closed, the child turned to the window, immediately fixing on the dove. A smile transformed her pale face. Her lips moved, and a voice sounded in Lilith’s head.
Still here? Good! I was afraid they’d scare you away.
Lilith almost broke the link before she realized that the girl was speaking to the bird, unaware of her presence. Lilith was puzzled. The voices of the adults had been inaudible, yet she could hear every word of the girl.
I wonder? she thought. She projected a greeting from the bird. Hello. My name is Lilith. What’s yours?
Jagged terror from the child slashed through her control of the dove. The bird left the ledge in an explosion of wings. Lilith tugged at its mind as it fled, pouring streams of calm into it, finally coaxing it to return to settle beside her on the roof. Picking up the dove, she stroked it as she mused.
The child had heard her. The bird had reacted to fear shot back from the girl. As far as Lilith knew, only the Heroka could hear such thoughts. Yet this child was human.
Entering the dove again, she took complete control. Seeing through the bird’s eyes, she flew as the dove from her own hands back to the window. The child now huddled under the covers. Lilith flew the dove to the partly open terrace door leading to the hall. She could hear the doctor speaking to the parents. “ . . . all we can do. I’m sorry.”
The mother shook her head. “I always thought she’d take one last trip there again.” Her voice was a monotone, an actor in a too familiar scene. Fatigue and resignation seemed to mix with bitterness. “Now there’s no time.” She turned and walked down the hall. The husband glanced at the doctor, then followed.
Releasing the bird, Lilith pulled her mind back to where she sat on the roof. She stared at the city lights, thinking, then rose and walked to the stairway door leading to the floors below.
• • •
On the tenth floor, she followed halls to the side of the building where she’d sat on a window ledge in the mind of a dove. She stopped before closed doors marked “Ward 10F—ACU.” The girl’s room should be to the left, she thought. End of the hall.
A stern-faced nurse looked up as Lilith pushed open the doors. “Visiting hours are almost over, Miss,” the nurse said.
Lilith just nodded and kept walking. She stopped at the last door. That should be the one. She stepped inside.
It did not resemble a hospital room. Stuffed animals and books covered tables and cabinets. A metal arm extended from the wall beside the bed, holding a television and a Nintendo unit. Posters and pictures of birds covered the walls. Birds in flight. Birds floating on green rivers. Birds perched on trees and wires and hands. One picture, a “V” of Canada geese against a clouded autumn sky, recalled an image from the dove.
Several copies of one poster covered the ceiling. In it, the outline of a bird shifted in stages to an old biplane, then to a jet. Scenes from around the world against a blue sky formed the background. The words, “Dream Flight” ran across the top.
The voice startled her, quiet though it was. She turned. The child lay in the bed, her head on the pillow but eyes open. Seven, maybe eight years old, Lilith thought. “Hello,” she replied. “What’s your name?”
A pause, then the child spoke. “Odette. Who’re you?”
Here goes, she thought. “Odette, my name is Lilith.”
Odette’s eyes widened, and she hugged a green stuffed parrot tighter. Lilith stepped closer. “I think we share a friend,” she whispered. “A pretty mourning dove that visits you outside your window.”
Curiosity battled fear in the child’s eyes. Lilith pulled a chair to the bed. “You see, Odette, I love birds too. I have a special thing that I can do. I can talk to birds and hear what they say. And if I try hard, I can see what they see, hear what they hear. Birds listen to me and help me.”
Odette pulled the parrot down, letting Lilith see all of her face. Cute, but so pale, so thin, she thought. “Today, I was on the roof and heard the thoughts you were sending to the dove. That’s very special. Not many people can do that. So I asked the dove to show me who was talking to it.”
“You were inside the dove?” a little munchkin voice said.
“Kind of. Since I could hear you, I wondered if you would hear me. So I said hello. Do you remember what else I said?”
“You said your name and asked mine. Then I got scared.”
She had heard. “Yes! I’m sorry. That was silly of me. I would’ve been scared too.”
A smile peeked from behind the parrot. “Really?”
Lilith nodded. Footsteps approached. A nurse walked in. “Visiting hours are over, miss.” The child’s face fell.
She bent close to kiss Odette on the cheek. “I’ll send the dove to your window tomorrow,” she whispered, “and we’ll talk that way again. Only you won’t be scared this time, will you?”
Odette grinned and shook her head. As Lilith walked to the door, Odette called out, “Goodnight, Aunt Lilith!”
Walking away, Lilith Hoyl was thinking that it felt good to smile again.
• • •
She slept on the roof, warmed by a blanket and her birds. A shift to the Hoyl would have made the asphalt more bearable but she was still tired from the previous day and needed her reserves for what she had planned. In the morning, she grabbed a bite in the cafeteria and rushed back to the roof. Calling for the dove, she sent it to Odette’s window. Contact was immediate.
Good morning! I’ve been waiting and waiting, Odette said.
Sorry. I ate first. So, what should we talk about?
For the rest of the morning, they talked. And talked. Interruptions for various tests on Odette gave Lilith a chance to rest both herself and the dove. As the day wore on, though, despite her fatigue, she found she resented these intrusions.
ACU stood for Adolescent Cancer Unit. Odette had leukemia, diagnosed a year ago. A bone marrow transplant would take place in two days. Recalling her parents’ conversation with the doctor, Lilith guessed the prognosis. She hid this thought from Odette.
Odette loved birds. Any birds. Her greatest thrill had been flying in an airplane last year, when Children’s Wish had taken her and her parents to Disney World.
What’s the poster on your ceiling? Lilith asked.
Dream Flight! It was my favorite ride in Disney World! We rode it over and over. The ticket people didn’t even make me get off or line up again. We’re going back after my operation.
Lilith felt the jolt of a memory of her own. Of Disney World, with him, and riding on Dream Flight, over and over. It was a silly little ride, mostly advertising for a certain airline, but the lineups had been short. She had cuddled with him in the dark, both of them just happy to be beside each other.
What’s the matter? Odette asked. You feel sad.
Nothing. You just made me remember somebody. I’m fine. So, your turn. What would you like to know?
How can you talk to birds?
Lilith told her of the Heroka, a race of shape shifters, and how each tribe was linked to an animal species or totem.
Your animals are birds!
Yes. My totem is the bird. The Heroka can command their totem animals. The older of us can do what I’m doing now with the dove. Become one with it. Feel with it. See with it. Hear, smell, fear, play with it. A feeling of wonder came from Odette. Lilith paused. We have another power. We can take on the animal form of our totem.
You can change into a bird?
A very special bird. Here, I am called the Hoyl. In China, Feng-Hwang. In Japan, Ho-o. In others, they call me Phoenix. I am larger than a condor, with crystal feathers stronger than steel, sometimes clear as glass, sometimes blazing with light.
You sound beautiful. Can you show me sometime?
How about tonight?
Tonight!? Odette squealed. Lilith received an image of Odette sitting straight up in bed, knocking her lunch tray to the floor. She calmed the girl and explained her plan.
• • •
When visiting hours that evening ended, Lilith sat hidden in the shower stall of room 1022, the unoccupied room next to Odette. She fell asleep thinking of his face when he laughed, but as she dreamed, it changed to the picture from the morgue file.
She awoke crying. Wiping her eyes, she checked the time. Past midnight. Damn, she was late. She grabbed her bag, checked the corridor, then slipped into Odette’s room. The child woke to Lilith’s first gentle touch.
“You came! I thought you forgot,” Odette said.
Lilith smiled. “Never. Ready?”
“I don’t know where Mommy put my street clothes.”
“You’ll be fine as you are.” Picking up Odette, she checked the hall again then moved to the outdoor playground terrace. She put down the child. “Odette, I have to undress. If I shift to the Hoyl in my clothes, they’ll rip, and I won’t have any to wear when I change back.” She undressed, putting her clothes in her bag then hiding it. Odette stared. Lilith felt self-conscious, of her nakedness and of how different she was from this human child. “Odette, after I shift, we can talk only by our thoughts, like we did today. Do you understand?” Another nod.
I’m going to shift now, Odette. Don’t be scared. She paused. My thoughts as the Hoyl can sometimes be different.
Like the thoughts birds have?
Lilith smiled. What are those like to you?
Like being on Dream Flight, or when I wake up and I don’t hurt, or when Mommy and Daddy are happy and not sad.
Lilith swallowed, then nodded. Birds just enjoy being alive. Their thoughts are the joy of life. She began the shift, and through her link with Odette, watched herself become the Hoyl.
A prismed aura outlined her slim figure like a rainbow mixed with moonlight. Her feet turned to talons of ivory, muscled legs to faceted pillars. Her arms shone with light that coalesced into plates of clear crystal. A jeweled crust spread sparkling across her breasts and throat. Ruby lips bulged, hardened, curved to a blood rust scythe of a beak. Embers grew in black eyes that sank within the skull then burst into flaming orbs.
The Hoyl looked down at Odette. Terror poured from the girl into Lilith’s transformed brain.
Little sparrow, be calm. I am still here. I am Lilith.
The fear receded, and a question formed. Where will I sit?
The Hoyl settled to the ground, its back as high as Odette’s head. Two crystal plates rose between its wings. Another pair behind them did the same.
Odette’s thought squealed into Lilith’s mind. A chair!
A nest. A nest for my sparrow. Climb up, little one.
One wing extended as a ramp. Odette climbed up shakily. She giggled. Your feathers are so hard and cold, but it’s all soft and warm underneath. Odette snuggled in. Will I fall out? I need a seat belt, like in the car. I had one on the plane.
You will have one. The raised plates in front lowered to press gently on her legs. On each side, more lifted to brace her. The ones behind stayed upright, supporting her back.
Won’t it be cold? What if it’s raining?
My aura will protect you.
What’s an aura?
Sparrow will see. Now, little one, sit back. It is time. A thrust from powerful legs and a wing beat took them over the terrace wall. The ground rushed upwards. The girl screamed in fright then in glee as Lilith spread her wings to glide a story above the streetlights. A street person in a tattered coat looked up as they swooped past to disappear in the night sky.
Odette was laughing. That was great! You’re super! If I was you, I’d spend all my time as the Hoyl.
I try to. It helps me forget. Lilith stopped the thought.
It’s not important. Now, time for our own Dream Flight.
I’m going to show you the world, sparrow. She hid her next thought: You, who may not see it otherwise.
Won’t that take a long time?
The crystal energy that powers my aura can propel me faster than the fastest jet, six times the speed of sound. I can circle the earth in five hours. You’ll be back in time for breakfast.
Now, my sparrow, we fly!
• • •
Fly. To hunt northern woods with wolves, gray ghosts that haunt the caribou. Run with the caribou, hear the earthquake of their passing. Swoop with the horned owl to seize dinner from a meadow floor. Dance talons over treetops so thick you think they will never end. See them end in clear-cut wounds, and stoop to screech terror over a logging camp.
Sail moon-bright seas of grain that wash the land forever. Rise with rugged foothills that bow obeisance to the mountains. Climb mountain skies and fall into their valleys, roller coasters of the gods, as grizzly splash in icy ribbons below.
Beat the land away as waters grow to conquer the horizon. Feel your heart in the rise and fall of the timeless beast below you. Find the island of the Firebird, where the molten blood of Gaia streams, smoke spirits reaching fingers to heaven. Leap with dolphins, rest on islands of cresting whales.
Fly from empty waters to explosions of humanity, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Delhi. Circle the Taj Mahal. Top Everest. Scorch Arabian deserts with your passing. Breathe in the age of Egypt then wash away the sands of time in warm Mediterranean. Conquer Greece and fly on, winged Alexander, to other lands. Tilt at Pisa. Sparkle the Riviera, tower over Eiffel. Beat night passage across fields of vined ambrosia. Conquer Britain from the sky, feathered Blitzkrieg. Dance pagan rites above Salisbury and legend’s home, once and future. And through it all, Crystal Angel, remember.
Remember when you flew this dream flight with him.
• • •
As they flew, they talked, Odette a fount of questions, Lilith telling of times before when she herself was at each place. As they left the coast of England, though, Odette grew quiet. Lilith was wondering if she had fallen asleep, when a thought came.
Lilith, how do you think I talked to that bird?
Perhaps the drugs you take or an effect of your illness. Or maybe just because you love birds so much, and you spoke to the bird believing it could understand.
The Atlantic streamed past below them. Lilith?
Yes, my sparrow?
Do you think I’m going to die?
The Hoyl found it could not cry. I do not know, Odette.
If I do, maybe I’ll come back as a bird. I’d like that.
Lilith laughed. You would make a fine bird. A swan, perhaps. A man named Tchaikovsky once wrote a ballet about a girl transformed into a swan. Her name was Odette too.
A swan! Swans are beautiful. I’d like that. Know what I’d like even better? To come back as a Hoyl. To be like you.
I do not think that will happen. I am unique.
What’s that mean? Odette asked.
I am the only one. I am the Hoyl. As long as I’ve lived, I have heard of no other. Only in legend. A frightened response came. Odette, what did I say? Blurred images appeared of times and places decades ago. You saw those in my mind, didn’t you? I thought I’d blocked it.
How old are you? Odette asked, some fear remaining.
Over two centuries. Two hundred and twenty-three years.
Puzzlement replaced fear. Lilith responded. The Heroka live much longer than humans. Our bodies . . .
Why are you angry? Odette interrupted.
Lilith stopped her thought. I do not understand.
You’re old but you aren’t sick like me. You’ve done so many things, and you can fly! And talk to birds! You should be happy.
Lilith felt shame. You are right. I should be happy. I guess it’s because I’m alone. Even among the Heroka, even among those who are different themselves, I am different. She beat great wings to rise high above the waves then plummet into the sea. Water broke over the glowing aura around them in a rainbow spray as they dove past clouds of startled fish. They broke the surface again and soared upwards.
Odette squealed her delight. Again! Do it again!
You weren’t scared?
Not with you! Nothing can hurt you.
No. Nothing hurts the Hoyl. She thought of him.
A timid thought came from Odette, like a bird fluttering to an outstretched hand. Is he your friend?
Lilith sighed. Can I hide nothing from you? A sad smile of a thought. He was my mate.
He is dead, Odette. Bad people know of the Heroka and hunt us. They captured him and . . . did things to him.
Odette projected sorrow. I’m sorry I made you remember him.
The waves flowed by in silence. It’s all right, sparrow.
What was he like?
Lilith smiled. How can I tell you of him? She felt something shift in her heart and move aside. A path opened.Here, little sparrow. I will show you what we were together.
Images flew from her like black ravens. Here! Fly as we did to places no human has ever been. Gaze on his face as I did on too rare mornings. Hear his voice in the dark. Feel his anger when one wronged me. See him dry my tears with his laugh. Smell him on my pillow, on me. Feel how he kissed me and held me. Lilith wept but memories still beat across a stormy sky in her mind. And find him, as I did. Find what they did to his body that had been one with mine. Find how he died.
She stopped. Odette was sobbing. Lilith stroked her mind, soothing her thoughts. Sparrow, I should not have . . .
You were so happy. You remember so much of him. He made you feel so many things. Doesn’t that make you happy?
He is gone now.
Mommy and Daddy told me we all die. Some of us just do it earlier. If you hadn’t ever met him—that would be sad. But you did, and now you can always remember.
Remembering makes me sad, Lilith said. I want to forget.
But if you forget, it’s like he never was.
Lilith sobbed in her mind but no tears would flow from those golden eyes. Until tonight, sparrow, I never realized that. They flew until waves washed beaches below them.
Lilith, am I your friend?
Yes, sparrow. You are my friend.
You don’t hate me?
Wha . . . Why would I ever hate you, little one?
I’m human. I felt how you hate humans.
Miles passed. Lilith made no reply.
A mirror. It was a whisper of a thought. You see my life, and your questions hold a mirror to my soul. You make me see what I refuse to. She felt confusion from the child. No, sparrow, I don’t hate you, and I don’t think I hate humans now.
Will you remember me? I mean, if I die, will you stop thinking of me because it makes you sad? Odette asked.
My sparrow, I would always think of you, always remember. But no more talk of dying. You will live, little one!Lilith said it with such conviction that Odette beamed back happiness.
They flew to the hospital, landing with dawn purpling the sky. Lilith dressed then carried Odette to her room. Laying her in bed, Lilith kissed her and turned to go. The child’s arms flew around Lilith’s neck. Lilith felt her shaking.
“Don’t go,” Odette sobbed.
“I must. Your parents will be here soon.”
“About the operation?”
The child nodded, looking down. Lilith stroked Odette’s hair. “I’ll come tomorrow, as the dove, and stay with you till they come for you. And,” she said, lifting the girl’s chin with a finger and kissing her on the nose, “when you return, I’ll be here. Now, sleep.” They hugged, and she left.
• • •
Odette slept past noon, Lilith watching her through the dove. When she awoke, they mind-linked and talked of all they had seen and other places that Lilith promised to take her. The child tired after supper and dropped off to sleep.
After a restless night on the roof, Lilith woke shivering. A cold front had come in, and the early sun held little warmth. She sat on the roof over Odette’s room, called for the dove, and linked. The girl’s parents were there, looking drawn and pale.
Odette turned to the window. Her smile seemed to require a supreme effort. Morning!
Morning! You okay?
Hurts today. They’re coming. Fear flavored the thought.
You’ll be okay. I’ll stay with you till you go, and when you return, look to the window. I’ll be here.
Warmth flowed back to her. The two of them talked until the orderly came. As he wheeled Odette out, she sat up in the bed to look at the bird. Good-bye, Lilith.
See you later, sparrow, Lilith said, projecting her love.
“Lay back, dear,” her mother said. Odette disappeared through the door.
Lilith sighed and stood up. She shivered. Where was that sweatshirt she had packed?
Then she remembered the injured sparrow.
Walking to where she had left the bird lying on her shirt, she stood for a few breaths. She knelt then to raise the small stiffened body in her shaking hands. Trembling now not from the cold, she clutched the dead bird to her breast, rocking back and forth, and whispering, “My little sparrow.”
• • •
In the city is a cemetery, and in this cemetery rests a little girl, gone from a world that doesn’t know it is the lesser for her passing. Around her are birds. Birds that sit on the cold stone that marks her place and records in chiseled valleys her name, the beginning of her time with us, the ending of it too, but not the ending of her memory.
Birds that cover the grass covering her, that lay flowers on that grass, before that stone, flowers they bring each day. Birds that sing each day, to remember the joy she brought, the life she lived, the ones she touched. Sing to remember her.
Sometimes their singing quiets as they look to the sky. The light will be darkling when she comes, comes as a ripple on the night wind, a shimmering of moonlight on clouds, a crystal shadow of beauty. She comes as a creature of the air, but stands as a woman beneath the trees, beside the stone.
Naked, beautiful, she approaches softly with a sad smile. She sits on the grass before the stone, and the birds come to sit with her. Remembering, she smiles and sometimes cries.
After a while, at a time the birds know, they fly a little apart from her. She rises to leave, but first she will say, “I miss you, sparrow,” or sometimes, “I will remember.” On most nights though, she smiles and simply whispers, “Thank you.”
Then woman becomes creature of dreams, of flight, and a cluster of moonbeams beat sparkling pinions to the night sky.
Behind her, beneath her, around the grass and on the stone, are the birds. Here, there will always be birds.