by John Benedict Matthew Wallace
12th grade, Mountain Lakes High School
Teacher: Melissa Cesaro
Second-place prize: $200
The mountainous Mongolian landscape grew hazier as Kip gained altitude, her brown feathers rustling in the chill April wind. Emerging from the wispy cloud that had obscured her vision, Kip dove, swiftly relinquishing the height which she had so effortlessly gained. She plunged down, down to the foothills of a large mountain where her companion waited.
Tuya held her blanketed arm steady as Kip, a ten-pound masterpiece, clamped down on the padded surface. The nine-year-old girl staggered, as always, under the weight of the animal. Though she had a six-year advantage on her companion, the bird had aquiline evolution on its side: it was nearly fully grown, with full golden-brown plumage, while Tuya was still somewhat encumbered by age and inexperience. Despite this, Tuya clearly held mastery over her bird; indeed, she had known the bird since she was a fledgling, and the spirits of the two were closely intertwined.
From her vantage point, Tuya could not see it, but she knew it was there. On the other side of the mountain lay a small encampment. It had no name, yet it needed none; it was home.
The sun drew near the horizon, and the sky began its daily transfiguration. Behind the pair at first, then all around them in a soft gradient, the sky blazed orange and yellow, with spots of pink dappling the edges. Tuya and Kip retreated from this beauty, putting foot in front of foot as they ascended the imposing mountain of green and grey. Their silhouette, a single entity in the void of the world, guided them along the familiar path.
A fork appeared; both paths led to the camp. Every fiber of Tuya’s being told her to go left, obeying the weight of convention. That’s the way that all the humans went. But Kip always wanted to go right, for that path was green and bountiful with natural beauty. All the eagles wanted to go this way, but typically their handlers would dismiss their requests. For the first time, Tuya went right.
A peculiar phenomenon graces the human mind while walking this path. When one marvels at the verdant landscape, the mellifluous birdsong, all the world seems at peace. But when the very same mind turns to the struggles that the path presents, one can quickly despair at the thought of the ordeal.
Tuya clambered over rocks in the dimming light, the grit wearing at her hands as her bird flew above. The bird was just a shadow above her, but Tuya did not despair; she knew her companion was close by. Try though the moss might to divert her steps or the rocks to catch her heel, Tuya’s mind remained focused on the winged marvel above her.
The landscape became less treacherous. Tuya walked peacefully, and she recalled her bird to sit on her arm. They crested the mountain together.
As she walked, Tuya began thinking about what lay ahead. The fear of further tribulations began to trouble her soul. Kip cried out. A small, dark thought entered Tuya’s head. She contemplated the potential havoc that she might encounter in the dangerous world around her. Worse, she was burdened by this unhelpful bird whose capabilities were hampered by the night, and who sat as a lead weight upon her right arm. No, she must not dwell on that. She must get home.
The landscape became more treacherous, with the only illumination filtered from a half moon above. The light only served to glint dimly off the tops of damp rocks that littered the path. Tall, brutal rocks. As Tuya jumped the first boulder, Kip leaped from her arm, and Tuya made a small noise of discontent. Her bird was all but invisible now, only perceptible by the sharp, infrequent cries from her beak. Harsh, shrill cries. Each one felt like a strike at Tuya’s tender ears: a striking reminder of their urgency.
While peering above at Kip, Tuya’s leather boots slipped on the wet turf. She slid a small distance and struck a great boulder with a quiet, deep noise. Gingerly, the child brought herself to her feet, cursing with what little words she knew. Kip’s cries became more frequent, louder, more tenacious. The small dark seed in Tuya’s heart began to blossom, and she felt anger. Toward what, she did not know.
The path now sloped down steeply. They were near the foothills, but not quite there yet. Tuya’s breath now came ragged to her, yet her companion seemed no worse for wear. Jealousy—wait—yes, jealousy—blossomed freely within her heart. Why was she consigned to scramble across the dangerous rocks, while that bird flew effortlessly above her, squawking all the way?
Her foot slipped. The world shattered, grated against itself.
Tuya was in a small pit in the land, with a mossy rock brushing her right hand. Her ankle burned. The bird’s cries rose to a fever pitch.
The rock left Tuya’s hand with surprising force, and it lost little velocity as it flew toward the source of the cries. A dull thump echoed in Tuya’s ears as the stone hit her friend, and a second soft thump signaled the bird’s return to earth. The sobbing child rushed over to her fallen friend, who lay on her back in the short grass. No blood marred the soft ground, and no light had escaped the eagle’s eyes. But Tuya wept and cradled her companion in her arms just the same. Without a word, Tuya put foot in front of throbbing foot toward her home, which glowed brighter and brighter the closer she drew.
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