“But the comb is itchy,” I groaned, but quietly. I knew better than to argue with the Mother. Even though I was coming of age today, the Mother always knew what was best for all the Hatchlings, no matter how old.
After all, the Mother had been a foster mother to all the Hatchlings of our community for the past five hundred years.
People of my kind aren’t born of parents, but Hatched from the Commune’s Queen. We are incubated for varying times, and upon our Hatching, we are raised by the Mother. There are other tengu in training to replace her when she dies, but nothing seems to get rid of her. One particularly power-hungry tengu girl, desiring to overthrow the Mother, tried to poison her, but there was no effect. She just slept it off. She has never fallen ill, either. The tengu of my Commune swore she was immortal, and other tengu were trained just as a formality.
I wasn’t about to be trained to be a Mother. I wanted to go into our Commune’s Defense Force, keeping our tree village safe from invaders with our swords. I was always a talented fighter, focused and calculated. I had quite the collection of swords of my own hanging in my dormitory above my bed, just in case. Somehow, I felt that I had to defend my people.
“I’ve never seen a tengu girl with this much hair,” the Mother said, trying in vain to pin my wild curls into a bun for my Coming of Age Ceremony.
I didn’t comment on my hair. I had given up on trying to tame it years ago. I was lucky if I could even pull it into a ponytail. Instead, I focused my attention on the other tengu girls, all with the same Hatching Day as me. They took great care and pride in their appearance, putting on extravagant makeup and giggling.
The Mother sighed and picked up a hair pin, throwing it at the tree’s wall like a dart. “Children. We are tengu. We are but servants of our Queen. We reflect the moods of nature’s call, and we respect our bodies, for it makes it easier to disguise ourselves when necessary. Where did you even get that makeup?”
One of the girls, a tengu named Keri, tossed her white-blonde curls over her shoulder and ruffled her pale, angelic wings. “We got it in Bellingham.”
The Mother groaned. “What is my rule about seeing humans?”
“But they’re so funny! They think they’re so smart and know so much about the world. They’re so fun to fuck with! And fuck,” she added with a giggle and a high-five from her friend.
Keri rolled her eyes. “You’re a tengu, too. You have to understand!”
“You cannot explore the human cities or…human bodies…until you are of age.”
“I’m of age now!”
“You will be of age tonight. Any more lip from you, and you’ll receive a lash.”
Keri instinctively covered her arms, the signs of lashes from previous punishments. If she was lucky, the Queen would pardon her childhood crimes and wipe her arms clean of scars. But Keri was the biggest troublemaker of all the tengu, and even if her arms were as clean and pale as mine, she’d be covered in so many lashes, she’d look like the local oni, covered in tattoos. Of course, we tengu never marked our bodies outside of punishment. It would be uncivilized, like the oni clans.
Keri turned her attention out the window, and the Mother went back to doing my hair. “You’re not seeing any humans, are you?”
I tried to shake my head, but I couldn’t move with the decorations being put in my curls. “I’m not interested.”
“That’s because you’re a goody-two-shoes,” Keri hissed.
I ignored her, but the Mother did not. “Keri, go see Alakar.”
Alakar was the tengu man in charge of the lashings given to the Hatchlings. I had never seen him before, but the other Hatchlings made him out to be a tall, terrifying creature, almost as terrifying as the uncivilized oni.
Keri gave her a blank stare, trying to appear nonchalant. She was already quite good at suppressing her emotions, a great tengu skill, far greater than my own. Of course, I didn’t tend to show my emotions because I didn’t have many. Instead, I had thoughts.
“If you hesitate, I’ll lash you myself.”
Keri fluffed her wings in a huff and left the room, gliding down to where I was told Alakar lived.
“Your hair is wild,” the Mother began, putting the last pin in, “but I’m glad that you’re not. You’ll make a great warrior tonight.”
I couldn’t help but beam to myself. Maybe I didn’t have many friends, but at least I’d go through my life without anything to mar my beautiful skin.
In the heart of the tree-village was the Atrium, a sort of auditorium used for ceremonies. Once a year, it held the Coming of Age Ceremony, where we would all be brought before our Queen and painted the color for our destined job.
I stood in line with the other Hatchlings, dressed and ready to go, when I heard a rather noisy car go by. Our Commune was rather remote, deep in the woods of the Washington-Canada border, so we hardly got any traffic. And being bird-spirits, none of the tengu, not even the Queen, drove.
I turned toward the sound, my stomach sinking. I instantly had a bad feeling about this car. The energy around the Commune felt wrong, disorderly, and it wasn’t Keri milking her wound from her lashing.
The car parked. I heard the voices of young men speaking English with American accents, not Canadian. The room spun.
I had made up my mind, impulsively. If I wanted to be part of the Defense Force, I should already be pro-active in protecting my people. I pulled the headdress from my head, unpinned my wild hair, and unstrapped my wings from my dress, shedding layers of my kimono.
“What the hell are you doing, Elita?” the Mother hissed. “It isn’t like you to misbehave!”
“I need to keep us safe!” was all I said before swinging a window open and climbing through, heading for the skies to get an aerial view.
There was a cluster of blonde boys, their hair sideswept, their clothes crisp. One of them pointed at me. His friend shrugged. What were they doing?
I watched in horror and confusion as they pulled colorful boxes from the trunk of their car, followed by several equally-colorful tubes. What were those? I had never seen anything like them before, but I somehow knew they were bad.
They chatted and laughed amongst themselves, making obscene gestures toward me, before pouring gasoline over the boxes.
I gasped. Those boxes had to be flammable! I banged on the windows of the tree houses, trying to get anyone’s attention, but the tengu dwelling inside of them paid me no mind.
The boys took matches, fistbumped each other, and flicked them at the cluster of boxes and tubes before running away.
For a moment, nothing happened.
Then the world exploded with color.
I could hardly breathe in all the smoke. I heard screams of my brethren, windows shattering as I assumed tengu tried to fly to safety. The trees were engulfed in flames, burning the great branches and the people inside their trunks.
I knew I should’ve stayed behind to help my Commune, but I couldn’t breathe. I flew higher, higher, until I had an aerial view of my Commune being destroyed. I watched, tears streaming down my face, as I saw Keri and her friends falling from the sky, hands around their throats, eyes wide, wings becoming ash.
I flew away. I had no idea where I was going. My left arm, shoulder, and back screamed with pain, but I tried to ignore it. It felt as though my very flesh were falling off. I could tell I no longer had sleeves with the way the cold Washington air burned it with cold. Rain began to fall, and I tried in vain to soar above the clouds, but my wings crackled with sharp pain.
Eventually, I couldn’t fly any further, and I began falling out of the sky. My vision was cloudy with either rain water or tears, I wasn’t sure which. I hugged my body close and embraced the impact of death.
“What is that?”
“Is that a tengu?”
“Is she dead?”
“Her wings are broken.”
“Is that a burn?”
“Poor thing, she was probably trying to escape the forest fire.”
I tried to open my eyes to see who was speaking, but my eyelids burned too badly to move. I remained still as the mysterious ladies listened for my pulse and breath.
“She’s alive, but her heartbeat is faint. We have to take her to the hospital.”
“Do we take her to an animal hospital or a human hospital?”
“What about your parents? They should know what to do. They’ve saved tengu before.”
“We don’t have time to drive her all the way to their house and then to the hospital! Let’s just take her straight to the hospital.”
“Can we stay with her? You know some people will just put her kind down.”
“Of course.” I felt someone hold my hand and give it a squeeze. “I promise,” she said in a low voice, probably to me, “you’re going to be okay. Can you hear me?”
“I can,” I wheezed, coughing up what tasted like my blood.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Elita. Elita Waaren.”
“Elita Waaren, I am going to save your life.”
I tried to thank the mysterious woman, but my throat was too dry. I fell back into unconsciousness as I felt her and her friends lift my limp body.