Already, aged nine, she was the kind of girl to seize a chance when it came her way.
You couldn’t miss her. Her face was framed by a mass of red curls; her skin, a pale contrast to her hair. She had often wished she didn’t stand out so, but now she was beginning to warm to the notion that it just might be a blessing rather than a curse to be so marked, so noticeable. She didn’t want to slip through life without a trace of her being left behind. Already she wanted to touch the world and it to touch her.
The chance came in the form of heron’s legs, not quite fully retracted to their usual trailing position. Or perhaps deliberately not returned; held out, for a daring girl such as herself to catch.
She was standing at the centre of the bridge in the middle of town, watching the current eddy round its piers; an endless fascination. Because she was so rapt, the bird had escaped her attention, standing motionless on the edge of the bank not far from her, watching beadily for fish beneath the rippling surface of the stream. Spooked by a motion close to, it opened its great wingspan and breasted the water.
What happened next happened by instinct – that of the bird coinciding with that of the girl. Looking up from the eddies, she saw the bird looming. The heron flew low, and dipped its legs to her at precisely the moment that she stretched her arms upwards. She was small for her age and the bird was large for his type. The bird’s legs hit her palms square and she closed her hands about their strong stems and was whisked into the air, just clearing the balustrade on the far side of the bridge. Folk drinking in the sun on either side of it gasped as they saw her rise – all excepting an amateur ornithologist among them, who was more excited on spotting that the heron was an unlikely Great Blue than he was about it taking a small girl into the sky.
The heron’s wingspan was broad and sweeping and despite the weight of the girl he was able to keep rising. She held on tight. She had strong arms from her habit of monkeying around in any climbable tree she passed; but after a while she found she could relax, and felt supported without trying too hard maintain her grasp of the heron’s legs. Whether that was magic on the part of the bird, the wonder of thermals, or some quality that unwittingly she herself possessed, she wasn’t sure.
Those folk who saw her disappear into the sky that day often wonder what became of her. Perhaps after a long time circling the globe, she lost the will to hold on and slipped from the heron’s legs into the deepest, bluest depths of the Pacific Ocean. Maybe she held on till the Americas, and was put down by the heron in Guatemala, where she remains to this day, the flash of her red hair impossible to ignore. Or perhaps she came gently back down to earth not much further from home than she left it. The watchers who saw her go would always wonder.
Originally published as The heron maiden.