by Anthony Schefter
Scout First Class David M. Halloway was a stoic. He never complained and he rarely cried, not about anything. But this hike was barely a morning old and he was already sick of it. He was ready to leave the Scouts anyway and didn’t see how this hike was going to do a thing for him. It was just another opportunity for Brendan Shaver to lay into him with both barrels. David had about had enough of it all. It was time to quit.
Shaver, walking quickly, came up behind David and said in a low voice, “Hey, Davie, did you do your ironing before you left home?”
David ignored him. Somehow he had once let slip that he did the ironing at home. His mother worked and only had so much time, and Pettigrew never lifted a finger, so David had to help out with chores. He was an only child.
He was still turning over in his mind the events of the night before. He and his mother had had dinner alone, Jarvis Pettigrew being away on business. Having dinner alone with Mom was a treat. Usually dinnertime at David’s house was a nightmare. The three of them would sit around the table with the six o’clock news blaring on the TV. Tense silence would reign, broken only by Pettigrew’s terse requests to “Pass the salt” or “Hand me some more meat.” David would quickly stuff his food down, help with the dishes, and then return upstairs to his room to surf the Internet. Tonight, however, was different. Mom wanted to talk to him, and her eyes told him that something important was afoot.
“David,” she began, “I would like you to think about taking Jarvis’s last name.”
David sat silently and stared at his plate, toying with his meat. His mother continued, “He’s a good man, David. I know you’ve got issues, but…”
“Issues? Mom, I hate him.” His throat began to constrict into a knot.
“There’s no reason to hate him, David. He likes you.”
“No way. He hates kids. Remember last Halloween?” That night, Jarvis had decided that there would be no trick-or-treaters at his house. He sat all evening in the living room, ignoring every child who came to the door. Kids came knocking, and he saw them and they saw him sitting there, but he ignored them. The next day at the school bus stop, one of the neighbor boys had asked what was wrong. “Nothing,” said David, trying to make up some excuse so as to appear to have a half-normal family, “my stepfather just wasn’t feeling well last night.”
“David,” his mom said, “that was just one night. He really likes you. He wants you to take his name.”
“Mom, I…” Truth was, David really did hate Jarvis Pettigrew. He hated him so much, he couldn’t stand even his smell. Pettigrew wore a cheap cologne that lingered in the air long after he had left the room. Whenever David smelled it, he ground his teeth and felt fire burning in his chest. Jarvis had never hit David. He had other ways of making his feelings felt. “Mom, do you remember the time I mowed the lawn wrong?” The lump in his throat was rising.
“Yes, I do.” David had adjusted the lawn mower wrong, so that one side was higher than the other. It gave the grass a cockeyed look for a few days. After the mowing, Jarvis had had friends over. With him in the room, someone mentioned what a bright boy David was. Jarvis replied, “Just look at the lawn, you’ll see how bright he is.”
“David,” his mom said, “That was only one time.”
“There are a million times like that, Mom.” Now David was crying. Tears rolled down his cheeks, and dinner was forgotten. “I don’t want his name, Mom, I want my father’s name.” His real Dad had left four years before, never to be seen again. There were letters at first, letters about his fishing trips and his job, but then they had trickled to a halt after a few months. Now there had been nothing in years.
Tears brightened his mother’s eyes, too. “I’m sorry David. I love Jarvis.”
David sat. He would never understand what his mother saw in that man. He couldn’t wait to go to college in four years, to get away from that man and this house. Dinner was over. They washed the dishes together silently, and David went down to the basement to make final preparations for his hike the next day.
David looked uphill, hoping silently for some relief from the work of the hike. They were out for five days and his pack was heavy. The trail was broad and easy enough, but the hill was fairly steep. It sloped upward sharply to his right, while on his left it dipped into a valley where a small stream ran. He could hear water rushing below. He wondered when they were going to stop for lunch.
As if he had heard David’s thought Mr. Peterson, the Scoutmaster, called a halt. “We’ll eat here,” he said, pointing to a wider spot in the trail ahead. The place was sheltered by aspens and had a number of deadfall logs that would serve as seating. David wriggled out of his pack, sat down, and pulled out his food bag. It was on top, right under the rain gear. Always pack your rain gear on top, Mr. Peterson always advised, in case you need it in a hurry.
“Did your mother pack your lunch, Davie?” Shaver wanted to know. Mr. Peterson overheard and silenced the older boy with a sharp glance. It wasn’t like Shaver cared what the Scoutmaster thought, reflected David, but at least the teasing stopped. For now.
David had been teased at school and at Scouts for as long as he could remember. He was slightly fat, socially awkward, and never seemed to have popular friends. He mostly took the abuse, rarely fighting back, though he always felt somehow that he should mount more of a defense against his tormentors. In all his fourteen years, he had never responded with more than a few, usually lame, insults of his own. But he was getting tired of that, too. I’ve had it with Boy Scouts and I’ve had it with Brendan Shaver, David was thinking. It’s about time I did something.
But David was afraid. The thought of confronting his tormentor turned his guts into knots. Shaver was two years older than he and was on the football team at school. David couldn’t risk anything that might turn into a fight. He was sure he was smarter than Shaver, but at the moment his mind yielded no bright ideas on how to solve his problem. He thought of putting a snake in Shaver’s tent, but he would certainly be caught and then clobbered. Part of his problem was, David just wasn’t a mean person. He couldn’t calculate revenge the way he wanted to. He was stuck.
A new feeling was rising in David, now, one that was unfamiliar to him. I feel truculent, David decided. “Truculent” was his new word for the day. That’s it, I’m truculent. But he couldn’t fight. I don’t have a snowball’s chance against Shaver, thought David, unless I’m stronger. And what am I supposed to do? Lift weights?
On the desk next to David’s computer was a small porcelain hawk spreading its wings. The family – before Dad left – had gone on vacation and Dad had bought it for him as a souvenir. They had been visiting a wildlife rehabilitation center, a place where injured birds and wild animals were treated and then released. David remembered being enthralled by the great raptors, the eagles, hawks, and owls. He stood outside their pen and watched for a long time, and Mom finally had to pull him away. Now, when he looked at the figurine, it comforted him to know that there was power and beauty in the world. He never dared to allow himself to hope that such power and beauty could ever be his.
“David! It’s your night to make dinner,” Jarvis would bellow peremptorily from the living room. Jarvis almost always bellowed, and his commands brooked no refusal or questioning. “And make me a scotch first.” Jarvis was a large, overbearing man, at least six feet tall and 250 pounds. David was frightened of him, afraid that he might hit him someday, or hit his mother. “Okay,” David would say. And downstairs he would go to fulfill his stepfather’s command. He always hated himself for going. He hated himself for not being able to stand up to Jarvis, feeling somehow that he should be able to tell the man off and put him in his place once for all. But he never did. He was too intimidated. He felt like a thoroughbred loser.
Soon the boys were done eating and had hitched up their packs again. Camping that evening, Mr. Peterson announced, would be at the top of the mountain, near the granite outcropping that overlooked the river.
The rest of that day’s hike passed with much work. David spent his time thinking about ways he could get even with Shaver. He considered his options. He could pour cold water on Shaver while he slept, but that would only get him beaten black and blue and wouldn’t be all that satisfying. Shaver had been tormenting David for three years, and now that he was ready to leave Scouts anyway he needed to get him once for all. What Shaver needs, concluded David, is to get the snot beat out of him. It’s the only way. But how?
The sun circled slowly into the northwest, readying itself for another summer sunset. As the western sky began to turn red and orange, the boys pitched camp a dozen yards from a granite cliff. In the valley below them, far away, a slow-moving river wound its way downhill. After dinner—dehydrated beef stroganoff from a foil pouch—the group of five boys and Mr. Peterson sat around the campfire awhile, toasting marshmallows. They talked. The conversation stayed clean because an adult was present, but the boys still found occasion to boast about their girlfriends. David’s ears began to grow warm. He had never had a girlfriend, in fact had never kissed a girl. It was another opportunity to feel inadequate. He was more sure than ever that he wanted to quit the Scouts. After this trip, he promised himself, I’m out.
Some time after dark David retired to his tent. It was a two-man tent, but, because there were five Scouts present and David was the odd man out, he had it all to himself. He was still bent on pummeling Shaver. As he unrolled his foam pad and sleeping bag, a sudden idea occurred to him. At first he tried to dismiss it, but the idea wouldn’t go away, no matter how hard he tried. Why not pray, he thought, for strength? David thought the idea was perfectly silly. God wasn’t going to grow new muscles in him overnight. But still, he couldn’t put the idea down.
He eventually decided to go for it, and see what happened. He hadn’t prayed for anything in three years, not since his father left. But he decided that it couldn’t hurt to try. He knelt down with his knees on his sleeping bag. His head was pressing against the nylon ceiling of his tent. He folded his hands and said, “God, please make me strong.” He decided that simpler was better, so he kept it short. Then he changed into his sweatpants, slid into his sleeping bag, and lay there.
He spent a long time thinking about Brendan Shaver and his hopes for revenge. He pictured himself pummeling Shaver with his fists until the older boy begged him to stop. But the more he thought about it, the more a doubt grew inside him. Somehow, his scenario for revenge didn’t seem right. It was as if a small voice inside him was saying, You’re better than this. You don’t have to do this. There is a better way. What the better way might be, he had no idea. He tried thinking of alternatives to fighting, but couldn’t come up with any that he liked. His mind went round and round trying to parse the situation. He just wanted revenge too badly to consider anything else. Finally, after a couple of hours, he fell asleep.
David slept soundly that night, but he did not go unseen. From far away and high above, the One who dwells in the highest heaven smiled upon His son and, for reasons known only to Him, was pleased to answer his prayer, albeit in a way entirely unexpected. Something new happened, something the world had never seen before from time beyond memory. From beyond the farthest star, a solitary ray of the uncreated Light fell on David, a radiant dewdrop of eternal glory touching him in his inmost being. A miracle happened, and an extraordinary one at that, even as miracles go. David would never be the same. He awoke at sunrise.
David woke slowly that morning. The first thing he was aware of was the strange dream he’d been having. He was looking through the art history book that they kept on their coffee table at home, at the picture of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where God was touching Adam’s finger at the creation. Then the dream descended into something crazy, with him having feathers and flying like a bird.
As David came further awake, he slowly became aware that something was different about him. First of all, he felt like he was standing. He was confused because he remembered going to bed in his tent, and there wasn’t room to stand. Next came the awareness that his eyes weren’t working properly. He couldn’t seem to focus on anything in the tent. But his big moment of horror came when he realized that he couldn’t feel his hands. There were limbs there, with nothing at the ends of them. They weren’t just asleep, they were gone. Now he knew something was very wrong, and he began to panic.
He began flapping his wings out of fear. Full stop, Halloway, he thought. You don’t have wings. But then, as he looked to his left and his right, he saw them, a bit fuzzy with his malfunctioning vision but perfectly real nonetheless. He had wings and feathers! He tried to yell, but nothing came out except a loud creeing noise. Now he was hopping up and down in consternation. Good grief, I’m a bird! he thought. He began flapping and running around the tent, squawking like a nervous turkey and carrying on like a chicken with its head newly cut off. He had to get out of the tent.
It took a minute to get his legs to work properly. At first he could only hop around randomly, unable to make himself go in any particular direction. With practice, and as his initial panic subsided (David always did have a cool head), he was able to hop over to the zippered front door of his tent. Now his missing hands became a real problem: he realized he would have to use his mouth to open the door. He opened his beak and closed it a few times experimentally. Then he bit down on the zipper handle and pulled. It moved an inch. He pulled again, and it began to slide. Soon it was open enough for him to wriggle out into the morning air.
He sat down beside the tent and looked around. Camp was there, just as it ought to be. Nobody else was up yet. He realized that he could see distant objects very sharply, but things close in were indistinct. Okay, Halloway, you’ve just been turned into a bird. What’s your plan? There was no plan. He had no idea what to do. Something in his mind connected his newfound feathers to the prayer he had made the night before. He had prayed to become strong, and God, evidently as a cosmic practical joke, had turned him into a bird instead. He was sorry he had ever asked his Creator for anything. Next time, he’d know better. He needed to get away from camp, to think. He didn’t want any of his fellow Scouts to see him like this. He began to walk, one talon in front of the other, slowly away from camp. The sun began its daily climb up into the eastern sky.
David stopped near the granite precipice, about fifty yards away from camp. Cautiously he inched toward the drop-off and looked down. He felt terror in his heart. David was deathly afraid of heights. Quickly he backed off. David sat there, on the ground, and gave in to his fear and despair. He was going to spend the rest of his life as a bird, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. For once in his life he would have cried, but birds don’t cry. So he sat, his eyes staring out into space. How long he sat there he had no idea. Then a newcomer arrived.
She landed next to him and caught his eye. He turned and saw a hawk sitting next to him, wings folded. “I can see that you’re different,” she said. “Do you need anything?”
“I’m a bird,” was all that David could say. They didn’t speak in words; instead, David could look her in the eye and know exactly what she intended to say to him.
“Of course you’re a bird, silly,” she said.
“No I’m not,” replied David, “I’m a boy and there has been some sort of mix-up.”
“Well, you look like a bird to me,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Hello David. My name is Pierce.”
There followed silence. Another bird, even a kindhearted one, was not going to help him out of this mess.
“I’m not supposed to be a bird. I need to figure out how to get back to my own body,” said David.
“Well, you’re a bird now, so I think that’s what you’re supposed to be. Nothing happens by accident.”
“What kind of bird am I?”
“You’re a red-tailed hawk. So am I.”
A red-tailed hawk. David craned his neck around to see his tail. He couldn’t quite turn his head far enough. Then he looked at Pierce’s.
“Your tail isn’t red,” the hawk-boy accused.
“Neither is yours. We’re not old enough. Our tails will molt red next year.”
David was having none of this. He settled back down with a sigh. “I’m just going to sit here until this nightmare blows over,” he said.
“Wouldn’t you like to learn how to fly?” Pierce wanted to know.
“Fly? I’m too afraid of heights.”
If Pierce found this funny, she kept it to herself. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said. “In fact, it’s as easy as spreading your wings and stepping off the cliff. The Law of the Gift always keeps us aloft.”
“What’s the Law of the Gift?”
“Every hawk knows about it. You give yourself to the wind, and trust that in turn the wind will keep you aloft. It always does. The Law of the Gift is the way to fly.”
When Pierce talked about flying, David felt his heart skip a beat. A new feeling began to dawn within him, a feeling of nascent excitement and power that he couldn’t shake, and wouldn’t want to if he could. “Flying, huh?” he asked. Maybe he could forget his troubles just long enough to try it. It might make him feel better about being a bird if at least he could fly and wasn’t afraid of heights.
“Yes, flying. Why don’t you give it a try?”
“You go first.”
“Okay, I will.” With that Pierce stepped to the edge of the precipice, spread her wings, and took off. With a few powerful flaps she was ever-farther aloft. Suddenly it occurred to David that she might not intend to return.
I could fly, thought David. It sounded like fun, the more he thought about it. Well why not give it a try?
David spread his wings, gave a mighty flap, and stepped off the precipice. The first thing he noticed was how sensitive were his feathers. He felt the wind as if it were a thing alive, resisting him on his pinions but also supporting him and keeping him aloft. The Law of the Gift. He had trusted, and he guessed the wind was doing its part. He didn’t fall. Experimentally he gave another flap and went a little higher. The air seemed as if it were a solid thing, but also fluid, yielding to his presence but also strong enough to hold him up. Flap. Flap flap.
He noticed something else. In the depths of his heart, a new place for him, he was aglow. Starlight distilled to its pure essence burned within him. He was afire. He knew that he was living a miracle. The light wasn’t just light. It was love, the pure unaltered Source of Love itself. Had it been with him all his life, and he just hadn’t paid attention?
He noticed how silent were his wings. This wasn’t like flying on an airplane, with the incessant noise of the engines. All was silent above, below, and around him. All he could hear was the breeze. Flap flap flap. He was starting to relax, now that he was sure he wasn’t going to fall to his death. Pierce was right. The Law of the Gift was the way to fly.
He was aware of something else now. In his heart were words, a small voice, speaking directly to his soul. Fly, said the voice, for you will live. Now there was another new feeling, one that he had felt once before, as he sat on his grandfather’s back porch in the country watching a thunderstorm build in the west. It was a wild feeling, full of power and grandeur and love for life. It was a feeling at once very old and very new, something that most people experience a few times in their lives and then forget about. Hawks are wild, thought David, and I am wild. Something loosed inside him then; the fear that had been holding him back gave way and was replaced by the wildness of a driving rain, a leaping tiger, a river over rocks.
David rejoiced. He let go with a hawk cry, “Creee-eee-eee-eee.” Tucking his wings back slightly, he went into a dive. He forgot all his fears and gave himself over completely to his rapture. He held his breath while he dove, and, as the ground rushed toward him, he brought his wings forward again. With several great flaps, he pulled up beak skyward. He opened his beak and took in a great draught of the cool morning air. Then he did it all again, daring to graze closer to the ground this time. He dove and climbed for the better part of the morning.
David was hardly aware of the passage of time, but eventually the sun began to sink low. David would later have very little memory of what happened to him that day; a sense of speed and effortless movement were among the impressions left in his mind. He could recall a fiery joy, and the Light having once entered his heart never really left. He had flown among the birds.
Mr. Peterson and the rest of the Scouts were frantic when David was found absent at breakfast. The Scoutmaster organized a search party and sent one Scout back to the trailhead to notify the authorities. Even Shaver aided the search wholeheartedly. But they came up with nothing. David was occupied elsewhere.
In the afternoon, a helicopter joined the search. David’s mother was called and volunteers began to arrive to help. Still nothing. As evening fell, the search was called off for the day.
The next morning, as Mr. Peterson got out of his tent, having spent a sleepless night worrying about his young charge, he spotted a still form lying a short distance from camp. He hurried over and saw it was David.
“Wake up!” said the Scoutmaster. “Son, where were you?” he asked.
David thought hard. “I was right here – I think,” was all he could say.
“No, son, you were gone all day. You gave us quite a scare,” replied Mr. Peterson.
“I remember feeling – the wind is solid and very strong. It holds me up. It’s like I have to trust it. I’ll never fall if I trust it, even though you can’t see it.”
David wasn’t making any sense, but Mr. Peterson kindly didn’t point that out.
“My head kinda hurts, Mr. Peterson.”
The boys took a vote and decided to cancel the rest of the hike, since David wouldn’t be able to join them. David was taken to the hospital in town, where he checked out okay except for his headache. The doctors thought that maybe he had sleepwalked out of camp, then fallen and bumped his head. David himself was no help. The doctors sent him home with his mother.
At the next Scout meeting David was up for promotion to Star Scout. He was flush with pride at his award. Before the ceremony began, Brendan Shaver sidled up to him and snidely inquired, “Did you need your mommy to help you with your hiking merit badge?”
David looked at Shaver. Instead of the old anger and humiliation, he felt something new in his heart: sorrow. Suddenly Shaver seemed pitiable. Is this the best you can do, Shaver? thought David. Shaver needs God, it was crystal clear. I need to trust God with Shaver and his smart remarks. Then he wanted to do something else that was new to him: he wanted to pray for Shaver. God, please have mercy on my friend, prayed David, because I honestly don’t think he has a clue.
David turned and walked away. All at once he knew: God had answered his prayer, and he had become strong indeed.