Escape by Maryam Shadmehr
Ava's yellow beak flashed in the knife's gleaming glare.
Be patient. You still need to tell Mom.
Her caregiver, Sarah, placed the salmon she had neatly cut in the feeding area of the towering walk-in cage. She stroked Ava’s silky feathers, then crawled her fingers to rest momentarily on Ava’s back. Busy with her food, Ava missed the concerned frown forming on Sarah's face.
Ava hatched in the Birds of Prey section of the zoo and had spent the five years of her life in the same enormous cage. Growing up, her mother, Osyka, had told her stories, memories, of what it was like to soar in the endless blue sky and to dive, to free-fall, through the air. Imagining the sensation and dreaming about it had occupied Ava day and night. She glanced at the knife again before Sarah picked it up and left the cage, the metal door screeching behind her.
Osyka perched patiently on the highest branch of the caged trees. She flew down to eat once Sarah left. While she took her time with every bite, Ava devoured her own share.
“Mom, I have a plan.” She flapped her wings, dancing around her mother.
Osyka turned to face her with stern eyes, beak half open.
“Sarah's knife is our way out of here. If I grab it tomorrow morning, you'll be soaring through the skies again and I can know what it means to be me.”
“No.” Osyka continued to munch on the fish.
“Mom!” Ava craned her neck to face Osyka. “I've thought this through.”
“What if you get stuck in the net and hurt yourself? Besides, you don't even know how to live in that world.”
“You're going to be there with me.”
Osyka chortled, wiping her pale beak on the feathers of her shoulder. “Ava dear, even I've forgotten how to catch a fish after being fed for all these years. My wings are sore and tight. We won't make it out there.”
Ava sighed. “I will rip this cage open tomorrow and you're welcome to follow me.” She opened her wings and rose to the topmost branch where she usually passed the hours of the day observing the flying crows, hawks, and sometimes even fellow eagles. The free birds shared the sky without feeling crowded. They seemed oblivious to the caged ones and were preoccupied with their spiral dance. Their slanted, circular meditation mystified any onlooker, especially one who was fenced in.
As night fell, Ava reviewed her plan, fluttering from one side of the cage to the other, tapping the network of wires with her beak to make sure she knew where it was most vulnerable. She remembered years of failed efforts when she had naively tried to cut the net open with her curved beak and talons and the day it had dawned on her that the straight steel knife was the appropriate tool.
Sarah walked inside, knife in one hand, dead rats in the other, but she was not alone. Moving aside the large ladder that was against the tall tree, she made space for the white-suited stranger.
Ava landed next to them, keeping her distance. She was busy envisioning the knife in her claws, when the new person approached her and, holding her firmly, examined her wings. She struggled to free herself, but relaxed when Sarah stroked her head.
“Yeah, there's definitely something there. She has maybe twenty-four hours left if we don't remove it.” The vet stood and continued, “The procedure's fairly straightforward. For wild ones, we're concerned about flight limitations, but it's not like this one needs to fly outside, and it won't restrict her in this cage.”
“Is she in pain?” Sarah held Ava's head in her hands and stroked her beak.
The vet shook his head. “That's the problem with this disease. They don't feel any pain until the very end. You were pretty sharp to notice the bump.”
Looking at Ava and patting her back, Sarah nodded. “Let's get it over with tomorrow.”
Ava wriggled free and flew back to the top branch. Osyka wrapped her wing around her. “I should have known.” She looked away, tears of regret brimming her eyes. “Your father had it too. But there was no one to save him.”
“At least he knew what it was like to fly free.” Ava gazed at the netted indigo sky, dreaming about free falls that lasted forever. From the day her young feathers had whiffled to lift her, she felt cramped in the lofty cage.
“I can't stay here and never know.”
Osyka pecked the feathers below Ava's prominent eyes. “You don't have to. If you grab the knife, you'll have twelve hours to experience life in the open.” She lifted her daughter's chin with her bony beak. Ava's eyes resembled her father's; they were the only remnant of Osyka's untethered past. She stared into them and said, “Just remember, I'll be waiting for you tomorrow night.”
When Sarah came the next morning, Ava spread her wide wings and floated down, the streak of brown feathers on her head fluttering in between the maturing white. For weeks, she had studied the exact moment when Sarah placed the knife on the ground to arrange the fish slices. Today was no different; the moment the knife was set down, sending the glaring signal to Ava, she jumped at it and flew to the top of the cage where the net was most vulnerable.
“Ava come back!” Sarah climbed the ladder up the tallest tree.
Ava's attempts at slashing the angled net with the knife in her talons were futile. She placed the weapon on a wide branch to pick it up with her beak. Sarah, now on the last step, threw herself on the branch, reaching for the knife. Her fingers barely touched the blade. The knife tipped over and ripped through the air.
Ava looked at Sarah, wishing she could tell her somehow that she'll be back before nightfall. Sarah looked back pleadingly. For a moment, the young eagle wanted to take refuge in the arms that had cared for her for as long as she could remember, but this was her only chance to experience freedom.
Ava swooped towards the knife, grabbed the handle, and flapped her wings to pull the blade that was lodged in the ground. Sarah was back on the ground when the knife finally gave in and Ava zoomed back up. This time she went straight for the wide branch, placed the knife in her beak, and slashed the net until a large piece collapsed, missing Sarah's face by a few inches. Osyka calmly observed from the corner of the high branch as her daughter whizzed through the hole, barely missing the sharp thorns of the broken net.
Ava stretched her wings, embracing the entire universe. Freedom roamed the hills around the zoo. Sheep and cattle, horses, even petty squirrels had more space than she had ever imagined. Ava glided over the small town, rising into cooler skies, then floating back down into the warm atmosphere of the orange-roofed houses. Now she knew, felt, why the birds she had observed every day spent tireless hours among the clouds. The sensation of weightlessly circling the skies was interwoven into her wings, her aerodynamic beak, her pointed tail. And though experiencing it for the first time, she had always known this sensation, the memories of her ancestors being preserved in her genes.
After a few hours of drifting, Ava tried to find the lake where her parents used to live. She discovered the potential of her eyes for the first time and spotted a lake in the middle of a forested area. Resting on top of a towering redwood, she noticed three eaglets on a nearby tree, daring each other to step to the edge of their nest. The braver one stepped up and attempted flight. The eaglet tried to keep himself lifted, but his miniature wings gave in to gravity and he hurtled down. Ava leaped to save him. The mother, who had been observing on another branch, dove for her baby, catching him only inches from the ground. Eaglet in her beak, she glared at Ava and flew back to the nest. Not long after, the father flew in with fresh trout in his beak.
So this is what a family looks like.
Waving her wings again, Ava approached the lake and focused her eyes. Her vision surprised her once again as she examined every little creature on the surface of the water from a mile above. She discovered a pattern in the movement of the fins. It was time to dive. As the air slipped over her beak, rippled through her feathers, and shot over her tail, she advanced on the fish and pierced the cool water with her talons. She missed. Splashing her wings against the refreshing surface of the lake, she regained elevation.
Ava plummeted towards the lake again, focusing more on developing her diving skills than on catching food. The excitement of free-falling had taken away all sense of hunger. Nevertheless, after many failed attempts, she clasped her talons around a slippery body and delivered it to a large rock.
A swoosh of wings startled her and in a glimpse of an eye, the fish was gone. The mother eagle was flying away with her catch. Ava sprang in the air and reached the rival bird, first hesitating then attacking her in midair, clasping her claws around the fish and pulling. Mother eagle pivoted and the birds were face to face, their talons entangled, the corpse slipping out.
“Give it back!”
“I don't want to see you around my nest again.”
“I was trying to save your baby!”
“My babies have a mother, show off!” Mother eagle dove and flew away to her nest, holding on to the fish.
Bewildered at the speed of events, Ava floated down to the rock again. She thought about the food that had always been set out for her, even cut into small pieces. Her sharp talons yearned for the sensation of ripping through their prey. Ava took flight once again, this time going higher, focusing harder, diving faster, and piercing deeper into the cold water.
She brought a wrestling fish to the rock and knocked it out with her beak. Digging through the skin, she clawed at the champagne-colored meat. It surprised her, contrasting the vibrant pink offered to her every morning. She devoured the fish that carried in its flesh the taste of pride and accomplishment, something the luxuriously cut-up fish at the zoo lacked.
As Ava finished her belated lunch, the afternoon sun dried her wet feathers. She rose to the same redwood she had visited earlier. Perching on its highest branch, she wondered about all the life decisions of which the zoo had deprived her. Her contemplation was interrupted when a shiver ran through her back and her spine went into spasm.
I have to head back before it's too late.
She looked around, taking in every little detail.
Do you want to live in that cage knowing you can never truly fly again, dive again, even if you escaped?
The sun kissed the smooth surface of the lake. Ava opened her wings to fly back, but pain shot through to the very tip of her feathers. She swayed her neck to relieve some of the pain, but to no avail. Her brows united at the increased throbbing; she flew away anyway. Just a few flaps outside the forest she had to land on a high balcony to rest. A comforting chant was flowing out stained-glass windows.
I have to go back. For Mom.
She took another leap. Agony accompanied every flap of her wings and blinded her vision. Her feathers had turned to rocks. Screeching into enclosing darkness, she made out the wooden entrance sign of the zoo amidst the town buildings.
Ava glided over the fenced areas, but consciousness failed her as she saw the net that she had ripped open earlier. She fell, freely for the last time, into the arms of a desolate Sarah, who was staring at the sky, the last drops of hope draining through her feet. Osyka shrieked from inside. Sarah laid Ava down and ran to get the vet.