I shoved my hands in my hoodie pockets, trying to get some feeling back into them after I’d let them freeze up in the cool night air. My feet were starting to drag on the worn dirt path and my nose was running from the cold. Nolan was already at the top of the hill, watching me trudge, and I knew even in the darkness that there was a huge smirk on his face.
“You can do it!” he called, mock-encouragingly, the wind carrying his voice down the slope and around my ears. “Only the entire other half of the hill to go!”
“Shut up,” I muttered, hoping that the wind would bring the words back to him. When I heard his laughter, I knew that it had. “You could have chosen a warmer night,” I complained up to him, and I saw his shoulders bob in a shrug.
“You could have chosen a warmer sweater,” he countered, and I rolled my eyes. Increasing my pace a bit, I climbed up the rest of the hillside and joined him on the top.
In the time it had taken me to reach him, he’d already begun to prepare for the ceremony. A dim flashlight was resting on the ground next to an open, blank-paged book, and three round white quartz stones were sitting in the grass. He was bent over his backpack, digging out a few more things, and the breeze passing his hunched shoulders ruffled the small, downy feathers of his sparrow cloak.
I’d watched–and occasionally helped–him make that sparrow feather cape, right from scratch. The hardest part had been finding enough feathers to cover the whole thing, and that had required months of hard searching. Most of that, he’d done alone, going where the wind took him and often travelling quite a ways away. During that time, he would regularly be away for a week or more, and our only communication was whispers on the breeze.
I noticed that the cloak was looking rougher now. Some of the feathers were missing, and others were broken or mangled. It had also lost some of its amber sheen. Yet, despite the deterioration of the cape, I smiled broadly. Those feathers had been worn lovingly, on so many summer days and winter nights, and there was something absolutely beautiful about the sign of their old age.
While Nolan continued to gather his objects, I sat down on a nearby rock, one I had adopted as my “frigid throne”, and eased my satchel from my shoulder. I pulled out a thermos of hot chocolate to drink while I waited in the cold and clutched it tightly in my hands. Gradually, my fingers began to warm, just as Nolan was ready for the ritual.
I’d watched him do it a thousand times at least, and so I was familiar enough with the motions to be able to predict them before they happened. First, he pressed the side of his hands to his lips, then he put a necklace with a black starling-feather pendant around his neck, and then he picked up the small inscribed bird-bone trinket and enveloped it within his closed hands.
Faintly illuminated in the moonlight, Nolan next knelt on the grass, hands clutched to his chest, and remained like that for a few seconds, murmuring quietly in the dark. Reaching down one hand, he gingerly touched the pages of the book, tracing a small circle with his fingertips, before picking up the three quartz stones and placing them atop the blank pages. Saying a few more words, he then bowed his head and was both still and silent. He looked like a statue against the night sky, with only his feathers moving in the restless night air.
This was the boring part. The rest of the ceremony, from this point on, was done entirely in his head. He might stay kneeling there for ten minutes or a whole hour, depending on his peace of mind at the time. Sometimes, he would shift uncomfortably, his legs cramping up, and I would know that his focus was short. Other times, he would stay so motionless, even the wind around him feared to disturb his meditation, and his feathers would join him in his frozen state.
This was when I cracked open my hot chocolate and stopped watching. I instead spent my time star-gazing. The stars, a source of never-ending magic and a gentle and sweet light, fascinated me. It was more than their beauty that captured me, though–I was most enthralled by the stories of the heroes who had been sent up to live amongst them. I didn’t worry too much about what would happen when I died, but I hoped that I might in my lifetime do something worthy of the stars.
I sipped my hot chocolate and glanced over at Nolan. His hair had fallen in front of his face, hiding his expression from me, and I wondered how it was going for him. The wind was particularly unruly tonight, I noticed, for even though it was gentle around him, it kept biting my cheeks and blowing down into my hoodie. That would make it difficult for him to commune with the North Wind, I thought, and I hoped that we wouldn’t be here long.
Luckily, fortune was smiling upon me. Perhaps fifteen minutes after he’d first knelt on the hilltop, he raised his head and stood slowly. He shook out his sore muscles and quickly began packing up his things, without a word to me to say if things had gone well. When he was done, he came over to my rock and handed me the book.
“Thanks for letting me borrow it again,” he said mildly, and I nodded in acknowledgement. I then tucked the book and the thermos in my satchel and put it back over my shoulder before standing beside him.
“How are things in the sky?” I asked curiously, a little troubled by how brief he was being. Usually, he took a while to clean up his stuff, and he would chatter about all sorts of nonsense things while he did. Tonight, however, he was all business.
Avoiding my question, Nolan asked, “Did you bring your sketchbook with you?” I nodded, being the kind of person who didn’t leave her sketchbook at home, no matter the occasion. “Good,” he said, satisfied. “We’ve got an errand to run.”
Then, without another word, he turned and started back down the hillside, beckoning for me to follow.
What type of feather is your favourite?
May you have a quiet night with much peace of mind.