From The Channah Tales
Bradford Morrow


--for Emmy

ONCE UPON A TIME there was a young man named Claro. He lived in a house at the top of a tall grassy hill. It was the same house his people had lived in as far back as anyone could remember. All the boys in the family were named Claro, and all the girls were named Clara, the story has it, because from their house on the hill they could see with absolute clarity for great distances.
      It was said this lad Claro had always been blessed with the most perfect eyesight of them all. At night he could see the owl in the branch of the tree before the owl caught sight of him. They said that when he was growing up he had better vision than any of the hawks that made their aerie nests in the trees near the house at the summit of the hill. "Claro! Claro!" the hawks would cry, circling above, and he would look up at them and smile straight into the pupils of their eyes, and cry back, "¡claro! ¡claro!" The owls and hawks, who generally could see so much better than any man, respected him, for they knew Claro to be in some ineffable way their brother.
      Moreover, the boy's outward sight was matched by his insight. He was uncanny in his ability to understand what people were feeling, what their hopes were, and what would make them happy. It was even said of Claro that sometimes he would stand at the foot of his parents' bed while they slept, and could see their dreams. He never abused these powers of perception, however, and generally kept to himself.
      He was a good son, a kind brother, a strong friend. The hill was a better place for the fact that he daily wandered it, watching and remembering. Daylilies, spring buds, fish in creeks, lichen on stones -- Claro was devoted to them all. He saw people in the valley walking through their years, and remembered who they had been and who they had become. He worked hard cutting firewood in winter and mowing hay in summer to feed the cattle. He helped his father plant the garden in spring and reap the last of the vegetables for the root cellar in fall.
      Claro went through his life doing the best he could by anything and everyone he met. He had his shortcomings, to be sure. One of his legs was not quite as long as the other, and so he walked with a slight limp. For all his love of beautiful things in nature, and of the many beautiful things men had made, he never dressed himself very well. He slept in a bed too small for his frame. He sometimes forgot to feed himself properly. But more than not he was a survivor. He watched the people in the valley live their lives. He watched the leaves of grass grow and then be buried under the winter snow. He watched the foxes and ferrets bear their young and hunt in the woods. He studied and learned as best he could. He tried to be happy, though it was not, unfortunately, in his nature to be happy, as such. His eyes were always trained outward. He might have lived a better life if he'd been more selfish about what it was that would have made him happy. But he didn't fare, by his own estimation, too badly except that, of course, he was lonely.

      Now, one day a young hawk, who had watched Claro for many months from her nest at the edge of the woods, could no longer keep from herself what she knew had happened to her. She had re- sisted admitting that she had fallen in love with Claro, in part because she felt she was already quite content with her life at the edge of the woods and did not have any desire to open herself up to the problems that love can bring, and in part because she found it impossible to believe that Claro could ever find it in his heart to return her affection. No, she told herself, this was not to be.
      And yet, as spring moved toward summer she discovered, for reasons she would never be able to explain, that her love of Claro had grown, so quietly in her heart she'd not noticed, to such a full- ness there was no more setting it aside, no more resisting it.
      "If only I could transform myself into a beautiful girl, then perhaps Claro would fall in love with me, as I have with him," she thought. "Then my life would be well worth living. As it is now I have less and less use for it, no matter how high I can soar nor how many other hawks admire my plumage."
      So the hawk determined to visit a wizard who lived down by a waterfall in the deepest gorge at the bottom of the hill. She flew down through the maple and ash trees, then the green hemlock pines which grew thicker and thicker as she neared the waterfall. She had never been here before, and the forest's canopy was so dense down at the bottom of the valley that though she'd soared over these woods many times she had never been able to see what lived on the damp forest floor.
      What strange creatures glanced up to see her as she flew by! Creatures who had pearls for eyes lived there, as did others who had hundreds of wispy ears with which to hear. White toads with white eyes sat on white mushrooms, waiting for a white fly -- then, flick! flack! out went their long white tongues and into their white throats the helpless fly would disappear. The flora was no less peculiar. Large luminous flowers grew in clumps, and breathed, and even seemed to talk among themselves in a musical kind of language the likes of which the hawk could not understand, One small fern waved its peaked tendril at her as she passed.
      The hawk shuddered a little at the sights she saw, but her determination to visit the wizard overcame any fears she felt rise in her heart.
      The waterfall was silver. The grotto was black and green. The cave was bejeweled with stalactites that resembled fangs, phosphorescent and sharp-tipped.
      Still she flew forward into the depths of the wizard's cave, knowing as if by instinct where to find him.
      And she did. The cave opened up into a grand cavern that glowed with glorious golden light, and the wizard she saw at once upon entering this great underground room, where he kneeled, tending to his fire.
      She alighted on an outcropping of stone opposite the wizard, and adjusted her wings, preened a moment, and then spoke. "Forgive me, wizard, for coming to you unannounced. But I have heard of your powers, and I seek your help."
      Good as her own powers of vision were, she could not see his face in the shadowy depths beneath his woolen cowl. His voice was low and melodious. "I know why you have come, and I am prepared to grant you your wish. I will help you to transform your shape into that of a young woman, if that is what you want, but must warn you that once you've walked the earth with human feet and have given up your wings, and afterwards are transformed back into the hawk which you were --which will happen in one week's time--you will never be able to fly again. Furthermore, I can make no guarantee that this boy you love will return your affection. I can arrange for you to take the shape of a human girl, but my powers cannot alter fate. Are you prepared to accept these terms?"
      Without hesitation she agreed, knowing that for her a chance to taste Claro's love, even for so short a time, was preferable to passing an entire lifetime without him.
      And the wizard transformed her.

      The girl who appeared one evening at the door of the house that stood at the summit of the hill was more lovely than any Claro had ever seen before in his life. She was lost, and his family was pleased to take her in for the night. Claro admired her face which was honest, and her hazel eyes which were pure and seeing, and her voice which carried its words on the most lilting cadences he'd ever heard. After everyone bid goodnight, he found that for the first time in his life he could not sleep. He gazed out his window at the moon, and studied its craters and crevices, and felt troubled. He thought about her sleeping in a far room in the house and was content that she was safe, but knew that he must confess something to her in the morning.
      When the sun came up over the far ridge, Claro arose much later than usual, having slept so fitfully the night before. He came downstairs to find that his family and the girl had already eaten breakfast and had gone down into the field to work together on finishing the planting of the garden. He sat at his place at the table but had no appetite. The piece of paper she had left under his plate he found at once, and the words "I love you" which were written there only made him more melancholy. Reluctantly, he went to join his mother and father and brothers and sisters and the girl down in the vegetable patch, and worked as best he could, making sure not to look the beautiful visitor in the eye. The next morning, after another sleepless night, he seized his opportunity to speak with her when they were left together in the tool shed for just a moment.
      "I found your note," he said. "And I am flattered that you would love me. But I have a confession to make, and that is this. I didn't really understand how I felt until you came to our house the night before last. I've watched other people fall in and out of love, but I never knew what love is until you came. Please forgive me, I must confess I love someone else -- I hadn't known until now, but now I know. You have made me understand what love is, and for that I will always be in your debt."
      The girl did her best to hold back her tears, and having a strong heart she did. She could see that her love for Claro had never been directed at someone unworthy; he was as honest with her as he could be. She assumed she had taken her chance, and lost. The wizard had promised her nothing; Claro had the right to be in love with someone else. She had no complaint.
      Five days later the girl left the house at the top of the hill, and became once more a hawk and returned to her nest, where she did her best to make herself comfortable, knowing that this was where she would pass the rest of her days. Once in a while, just to verify the edict the wizard had pronounced upon her which provided that having touched the earth with human feet she would never fly again, she flapped her wings a little. But they were useless. She stood up on her legs, clutching the sticks of her nest with her taloned feet for balance, and cried "Claro? Claro?" knowing she would never see him again. She looked up into the blue sky where the other hawks circled and soared and finally she could no longer hold back her tears.

      Fall came. The leaves turned red and yellow in the maples and ash. The winds blew cooler. The nights brought frost.
      One evening, after the sun had just gone down, the hawk settled down into her nest, pushing her beak into the feathers on her chest to stay warm. Not having been able to hunt so well without the use of her wings -- she lived on the slugs and insects and the occasional lizard that came within her reach on the branch of the tree where she made her home -- she had become more and more gaunt. She had begun to molt during this, the autumn, which was just the wrong season; she knew her chances of surviving the winter were slim. But then she heard a sound, and raised her head. The sound was at once familiar, and yet seemed distant, impossible.
      It was Claro, and he was calling her --"¡claro! ¡claro!"-- just as he used to when she could fly, and when she used to call down to him in the meadows below his house.
      Was she too feeble, or else too embarrassed to answer him? She burrowed deeper into her nest, and hoped that Claro would not see her. But he did. And before she knew it Claro had climbed up into the tree and out onto the branch where her nest was built. He had with him a basket of provisions, of fresh food and water and a small, round down-filled comforter that one of his sisters had sewn to his specifications. The bird and the boy looked at one another in awe and not without some fear. "I know you can't understand me, dear hawk, but I've seen you often from afar. I used to watch you when you soared overhead in the sunlight. I used to enjoy studying you while you hunted. It gave me the greatest pleasure to see you settle down in your nest at night. And now it gives me such pain beyond what I can describe to see you in your present state."
      She listened, rapt; although Claro had no way of knowing, she could understand his every word, for though the wizard promised her that she would never fly again once she took on human form, he never made mention that she would always be able to understand human language. She made a few attempts to respond to him, but nothing came forth from her beak but "Claro--"
      The boy went on. "I've brought you this food and water and a quilt my sister made to keep you warm, and if only you could understand I would ask you to do one thing for me in return. I would ask you to wait for me, because I'm going on a brief journey. I will come back to you soon." And Claro reached out to stroke her head and was suddenly seized with the thought that he had seen her somewhere before. Her eyes were so familiar.
      He left the food and comforter, shimmied down the trunk of the tree and set off in a different direction from his house.

      Need I say where he went? I don't think so. As he walked rather than flew there, he saw the white frogs and beckoning ferns better than his beloved hawk did. And since he was a mere mortal, just as was the hawk, he was received by the wizard with no greater ceremony than she. He asked his question, and he got his reply. The terms of his arrangement were not so unlike the terms the wizard had set forth for the hawk. He was in love, and he accepted.
      When he flew home to his girl he knew to bring with him twigs and reeds for the nest, because he had but a week to build it large and warm enough for them to make it through the oncoming winter and the rest of their lives.

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