The old narrow wooden bridge hovered 10 miles above the shallow rocky stream between the gray and red mountain cliffs. Esther placed one tentative foot, toes exposed in flesh form, on its splintery edge. The splinters barely tickled her exposed calloused flesh, yet she immediately transformed her flesh to wood, blending in with the slats beneath her feet.
Like the other women of her race, Esther’s body had developed certain specific special qualities which enabled her to do things humans had once only imagined (or so she had read in books). The first time her flesh took the form of the nature it touched was just after her father and older brother had been teasing her about her tiny stature as she tried, unsuccessfully, to move rocks off an area of land they were going to cultivate. They called her names like “little peewee” and “pathetic pipsqueak,” laughing boisterously at her attempts. Esther was only nine years old at the time, and her small waif frame weighed barely fifty-five pounds; but, she was stubborn, and she was determined to prove she was not helpless. Yet they teased and teased and teased, and despite her attempts to hide her wounded feelings, tears cascaded uncontrollably down her cheeks as she ran away to her safety place.
The giant boulder sat behind her family’s cabin. It stood just over four feet high and about five feet wide. It was a place she could hide behind or climb on top of it; it was her playmate and shelter; it was her safety. She ran up to the boulder full of determined anger, pressing her hands against its hard, dark gray surface, concentrating on its strength.
“I can move you boulder, I can be strong. I am strong!” she thought over and over as she pushed on it with her tiny hands, streams of tears falling faster, dropping to the brown earth beneath, when suddenly, her fingers and hands started to turn the same color as the boulder they touched. The energy of the boulder filled her body; she could feel her body getting stronger. Her father’s hands gruffly yanked her from behind, just as she was about to press her bare forearms against the giant rock. In that precise second, her own hands not completely back to human form, in a moment of pure reaction, she swung out at her father, connecting with his nose. Her father stumbled back for a second, his nose bloody, raised his open palm high above his head, and backhanded her, sending her spinning and flying face first into the boulder. Upon impact though, her legs, hands, and face molded into the same material as the boulder. She fell backwards, physically unharmed. Her father looked at her through hate-filled eyes, mumbling to himself that she was just another freak.
The next day, when she awoke, the boulder was gone. Her father had, Esther later found out, made the women of the village cut it down and toss it into the pits below. From that day on her father forced her to wear clothing that covered her entire body from neck to foot, including gloves. She, being a curious child, would risk punishment though, taking off the gloves to watch her hands transform into solid dirt, green grass, or even water.
Somehow she knew, if she could only cross to the other side of the bridge, she could figure out a way to get the women of her family across safely. She shouldn’t leave them, but she had to; it was the only way she could find a way to bring them all to safety. Over the years she formed a plan. She waited until she was 17 and her sister, Thea, was 13 (old enough to take care of herself should something happen). Esther could sneak away, by herself, in the dark, unnoticed. But if too many tried to cross the bridge, then there was no telling what her father might do to them if they were caught.
So much rested on Esther successfully reaching the other side. Slowly, she slid from one wooden slat to the next. Below skeleton bones piled high enough for eyes to identify human skull from hawk skull and elbow from wing. (A shrine to those who tried to make it to the other side.) Esther looked back toward the gray cliff’s edge, the entrance to and exit from her former home. The place that she was told she must stay because she was too small, too weak, to venture to the land across the bridge. She looked at the red cliff’s edge as it beckoned to her from 10 miles away; somehow, she knew things had to be better over there.
“Wait for me!” pleaded a soft stressed voice as it reached Esther’s enhanced ears from the edge of the gray mountain’s cliff.
Stopping short on balanced toes, digging into the wooden planks with wooden toes, Esther unraveled her crown of thick black hair, whipping it around and transforming it into arms, hands and fingers as she gripped the sides of the wooden bridge and flipped her body around. Her orange eyes widened as she saw the tiny pale face illuminated in the early evening air.
“Go back to Mama, Thea! Go back home! You are too young for the journey above the skulls! Go back!” Thea stood defiant on frail legs, pale white and knobby like an awkward long-legged bird, flesh tightly hugging her thighs and calf muscles. Her thin arms resting on her sharp hips, pale skin contrasting with the gray mountain and gray sky, silver-blue hair sculpted to her head, tucked neatly behind her petite ears.
“I…I…won’t fall” Thea quivered, “I…I wo…won’t be a burden…just…please take …take me with you…please….let mm…me follow. I know how to call the hawks. Mama told me the stories.”
“Mom told them to me too, Thea, but they are only stories. They aren’t real. Well, at least not anymore. The hawks won’t come anymore, Thea. Look below; look at their grave of skulls and wings. They are only in stories like the ones Mom tells. I promise that I will return for you and her but you can’t come now. It’s not safe.”
The stories said that the hawks, glorious, giant birds large enough to ride upon, once carried women back and forth between the red and gray cliffs. According to legend, they also protected any woman in danger. Only a living hawk had never been sighted in any one’s actual memory. Despite this, Thea believed, completely, in their continued existence.
“I won’t go back. I won’t! You think you’re the only one who can help, but so can I!” Thea exclaimed. “You may be older than me, but I’m already taller than you. You forget that I’m not a child; I grew up a long time ago. It’s not fair that you get to go and I have to stay behind. And you know I can’t do much on my own to protect Mom, our aunts are better suited for that.”
“You are right,” was all Esther said as she sent a section of hair out toward her sister, “but at least let me secure you; let me wrap my hair around your waist.”
Thea nodded and stepped one delicate toe onto the edge of the narrow suspension bridge, eyes forward, holding her older sister’s hair as it curled around her. Esther detached the rest of her hair from the wood below, leaving it loose, and then imbedded her heels into the slats, fusing the bottoms of her feet with the wooden surface beneath. She glided through splinters as if walking through water or soft ice. Wooden boards shot forward across the bridge forming a track through which to glide. Thea followed behind.
“Travel on the beams behind me, Thea. Though you can’t glide through them, you can slide on top of them; follow my lead.” They traveled in unison, breath synchronized. Below and to the sides, thousands of skulls stared up at them.
Soon the sky started to darken, the moons rose overhead. In the night, Thea’s pink eyes flickered to violet then yellow, shining light ahead like two flashlights. Shining the yellow light in the dark night drained her quickly though, and not four hours passed before they started to sting and burn.
Esther felt a tug on the back of head. A stopped weight prevented her from moving forward. The horses usually carried Thea on the gray mountain; she was not used to walking. Her heels had no callouses yet, and her toes bled from the contact they made with the splinters. Thea wobbled on unsteady limbs, night’s slumber inducing arms starting to surround.
“I need to rest Esther.”
“We can’t stop now; we must keep going. We can’t rest on the wooden bridge. It is not safe, Thea.”
“Unravel your hair from around my waist. I will be okay. My feet are bleeding, and my eyes are too tired. The yellow hurts them so. I just need them to be dull for a while. ”
The suspension bridge measured barely 2 1/2 feet wide; yet, Thea could easily fit herself flat against its floor with space to spare on either side. She pressed her back against the wood, unraveling her body from the hair rope her sister had secured around her waist. Silk flowed from the small of her back, billowing beneath her petite frame. Soft, her eyes flickered from yellow to orange then brown then black. As her eyes changed colors the light that illuminated from them also disappeared.
“Thea! Thea! You must get up! I can’t leave you behind and I can’t see the way ahead without your guiding eyes. I’m sorry I tried to leave you behind.”
Esther stretched her hands forward. She carefully bent down, gingerly crawling left hand, right knee, right hand, left knee, reaching forward with her senses, searching for a mass blocking her crawl path. Carefully, she stretched her fingers forward, until bare fingers touched soft toes. She inched over her sister’s body, and whipped her hair down and around the bridge, fastening it around their two torsos. Thea’s body lay flat against the wooden bridge, billowy, and empty of bones. Her jagged hip bones and bird like arms were now plump and soft; Esther hovered centimeters above atop a bed of thick hair.
“Why does your hair separate us?” Thea asked sleepily. “You can’t hurt me when I’m like this, let me be your pillow now.”
“I don’t want to hurt you; you are so soft.”
“But I’m scared I might slip off the bridge. I’d feel safer with your strength to keep me safe.”
“What should I do?”
“Anchor me down”
Thea lowered her hair and wrapped her arms and limbs around her sister, her hands, forearms, legs and feet turning to wood as she secured her sister. They slept like this until the suns rose the next morning.
“Look Esther!” Thea said as she filled her body with marrow and bone. Slowly the two girls knelt facing one another. Thea’s eyes to the red cliff, Esther’s to the gray.
“I can’t see, Thea.”
“Look, you must look! Turn around Esther. Look!”
Esther transformed flesh knees into wooden discs and rotated around so that she faced the red cliff like her sister. That’s when she saw it; it was both massive and magnificent. Thea looked at it with calm, knowing eyes, smiling. The two sisters stood together, five miles between the two cliff-edges, awaiting the giant hawk as she soared directly towards them.