Massive poplar trees are the only things keeping the midsummer sun from baking me alive in my regalia. Buckskin, usually light and breathable—perfect for anything a Protector might get up to in the line of duty—becomes unwieldy and suffocating when you sew hundreds of white and purple shell beads, woven together in a series of intricate rectangles, across the chest. My ceremonial cape of grackle feathers doesn’t help, either. The little black birds look so cool and happy with their iridescent plumage, yet here I am sweltering under the heat their feathers capture. A beyond-the-grave joke the grackles play on a fancydancing Protector. I can hear their cackling now. I haven’t even put on my turkey feather headdress yet. Who knows what kind of tricks those phantom gobblers have in store for me?
Seven years have passed since I last donned regalia and attended a Dance. Back then, I wore neither beads nor feathered cape. My headdress was a single line of porcupine quills running from my forehead back to the nape of my neck. A much lighter getup: one thrown together in the sparse downtime of an in-demand Protector. Never thought I’d miss it. During the Great Hawk Purge and the subsequent life on the run Tal and I led as we fought to prove our Creche’s innocence, beadwork and feather-sewing were the only things that helped with my anxiety. Now, for all my hard work and dedication, the Creator sees fit to reward me with burning to a crisp, even in the shade.
As if in response to my internal griping, a breeze blows through the trees, catches my cape, and twists it around the side of my body. The bluish-green shimmer of the treasure grackles store among their feathers ripples across its surface. For a second, the heat is gone, and I remember everything I’ve ever loved about fancydancing. The swell of the drums, the thrill of the song, the release of the whooping, the story told through body movements instead of words. It all still lives inside me, having survived seven years without being fed.
The cape falls limp against my back, and it’s hot once more.
I snatch up my headdress. Turkey feathers are resilient and can withstand a little rough handling. That’s why I like them. Anything as durable as the turkey should be viewed as the ultimate teacher.
I pull my four hip-length braids through the back of the headdress. I adjust the crown to sit comfortably on my forehead. A big breath to calm the mix of emotions tying my gut into knots: seven years is a long time. Even though Tal and I have fought every day to prove that the Great Hawk Creche did nothing wrong, the negligible weight of turkey feathers sewn into a buckskin band against my brow feels like I’ve truly reclaimed our stolen honor for the first time. And I can’t tell if I’m strong enough to carry it.
A branch behind me cracks under the soft pad of a footstep, erasing all thought from my mind. I freeze and sharpen my ears. Half a second later, parched grass crunches under a second footfall, a sound so light only a Protector could hear it.
Instincts from living the life of a prey animal for so long kick in. Many people saw me walk into the woods, and I’d be a fool not to act with caution around most of them. My hand reaches for the two marble-headed tomahawks that usually hang on my hips. No weapons beyond the ceremonial are allowed within the sacred circle where the dancing takes place, so my fingers find nothing but leather tassels covered in white shell beads. I bite my tongue to keep down the string of curses clawing its way up my throat.
Without much recourse, I whisper the true name of Shadow. A dear friend since childhood—our connection only rivaled by my partner’s ties to Water—It responds immediately. Poplar shade coalesces into a pool of night-sky blackness on the ground, then moves to cover my body. I lean back against the nearest tree, dissolving into the unseeable, and wait. My fingertips buzz with the martial artistry trained into them.
“Wen’lei, my foolish Two-Spirit, you know I can see through your Spirit’s tricks.”
The fear in my heart is replaced with longing. I release Shadow, thanking the Fundamental Spirit for Its help as It goes. Not ten steps away from me is a glorious round face with a crooked smile and deep brown eyes laced with life: Qwila, the head medicine woman of the Unonchka Nation, and my wife of eight years. Married right before the Great Hawk Purge, we’ve only been together as wife and spouse a handful of times. Every time I see her, I once more become the teenager full of heated passion who fell headlong for her all those years ago. She wears a traditional buckskin dress dyed in brilliant turquoise, scarlet, and gold. Made specifically for her by the Order of Medicine elders, the dress fits the curves of her body as if it’s her own skin. Desire pours from my heart and floods my body. No force in the world can stop me from rushing across the distance between us, sweeping her up into a spinning embrace, and kissing her thick, soft lips.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” I say, still holding her off the ground. Though we are roughly the same height and build, the enhancements the Protectorate placed in me make her weight negligible.
Qwila wiggles her way out of my embrace and hikes an eyebrow. “I’d planned on surprising you, only to find that you were hiding away in the woods. I had to ask Tal—that slob—where you were. And you know what he said to me? He said, with that stupid grin of his, ‘How should I know, I’m not their keeper anymore.’ Then he laughed.”
Qwila mimics Tal’s gruff, resonant tone, and I can’t stop myself from chuckling. “Technically, he never was my keeper. If anything, I was his.” We both immediately know this as a half-truth. Even joking about it feels wrong on my tongue, so I change tacks. “And I’m not hiding, my love. Just needed to get out of the sun. Why do we have these Dances during the hottest parts of the year?” Qwila crosses her arms and clucks her tongue. “What?”
“We haven’t seen each other for months, and the first thing you’re going to do is lie to me?” I open my mouth, denials already ripe on the tip of my tongue, but she sucks on her teeth and the words wither between my lips. Since we first met, Qwila has been an expert at stripping me down to the barest version of myself. Now here I am again, standing in front of her with layer upon layer of leather and feather covering my body, yet I’m naked as a screaming newborn in her sight.
“No one wants the Great Hawks here, Qwila. I saw the hatred, the desire for our deaths in their eyes when Tal and I walked through the grounds. They don’t see people when they look at us. They see this.” I grab the Creche necklace resting against my chest. The wooden hawk’s open beak, spread wings, and grasping talons dig into the calloused flesh of my palm. “It still means traitor to them, no matter how thoroughly we’ve proven the Creche’s innocence.”
“Oh, my love.” Qwila pulls me into a hug. I bury my face in her broad shoulder. Only then do I realize that the heat streaking down my face has nothing to do with the sun. “This reintegration is going to take time for our people. You weren’t around when the Council brought forward its justification for the Purge, but I was. What they said, what they showed of your Creche’s betrayal of the Confederation, was damning and thorough. If I didn’t know better, I could’ve easily fallen for the vile propaganda they spewed those first two years. You need to give our people grace as they adjust to the truth. But you need to give yourself grace, as well. You’ve lived a hunted life for so long now. It makes sense that, coming here, you’d feel as if you’re a quail inside a den of foxes. When you’re stripped of all sense of belonging, it takes time to get used to having that belonging restored. It won’t happen all at once. It can’t.”
“Doesn’t stop me from wishing it could.”
All members of the Order of Medicine come out of their sixteen-year training highly skilled in treating wounds both physical and mental. As a Protector, I’ve had a plethora of Medicine Folk tend my body as well as my mind after strenuous assignments. Qwila has never practiced her Medicine on me, due to the Order’s strict rules on conflicts of interest. Still, some of the most effective healing I’ve ever found has come from her words and embrace.
“I just want everything to go back to the way it was. Back to the old normal,” I say.
“Normal doesn’t exist. Never has.”
A roll of drums echoes through the woods. My heartbeat thunders to match their cadence. I pull away from Qwila’s arms, lest I risk staying there until the end of time.
“Fuck, Tal’s going to kill me if I’m late.” The Dance of the Great Hawk is hard enough with just two of us. Since receiving the invitation to come dance a month ago, Tal has put a tremendous amount of work into paring it down from the traditional seven dancers. “He’d never manage by himself.”
I sweep in and give Qwila a quick but passionate kiss and start toward the sound of the drums. Qwila grabs my wrist and stops me.
“Wait, I have something for you first.” She dips her hands in her pockets and pulls out two leather straps with laces loosely holding their ends together. Sewn onto each of the straps is a multitude of hollow deer toes, cured in the sun for a more resonant sound when they knock together. Rattlers. An addition I’ve always wanted to make for my regalia, but never had the time to. The amount of hunting needed to collect the materials for one, let alone two, was unfeasible while Tal and I were on the run.
“Hush.” She waves one rattler-filled hand at me. The beautiful sound of clinking deer toes brings back the distant yet visceral memory of my mom dancing to keep a toddling me from crying. “For once, take a gift with some grace, Wen’lei.” She kneels in front of me, and I lift a foot for her. The rattler slips easily over my orange-dyed moccasin. Soft leather presses against my lower shin as Qwila tightens the laces. “I’ve been working on these since before the Purge. Since before we were even married. I got tired of you talking about how much you wanted a pair.”
When the second rattler is in place and laced up, I do a shuffle step forward. The deer toes jingle. My every movement is music. Light twinkling, full of treble and so out of place against the bassy drums droning in the distance. I drop into a squat, then pop with a twirl. The rattling from my ankles fills the space between the poplars. I repeat the move once, twice. The rattlers replace the drums, and the whole world is my music. On the third time, I let out a full-throated whoop and pull Qwila into another embrace.
“Oh, they’re perfect, Qwi. Thank you so much. I love you.”
“I know you do. Now go dance. Tal’s a showman, through and through, but he can only do so much.”
With one last kiss, I hurry out of the woods, each step a song.
The Dance grounds are densely packed with bodies. This is the Inter-Tribal Dance, so citizens from all Seven Nations of the Floating Isle Confederation are here to trade goods and knowledge. I never missed one of these before the Purge. The outer ring of the grounds is where these traders have set up, and even though the drummers are calling everyone to order, business booms. Fast-talking negotiations. Fond reunions after a year spent separated by the Cloud Sea. General Dance merriment. The crowd’s cacophony swallows my rattlers’ music.
As I’m in full regalia, people part with a single glance. It’s on the second one that they see the Creche symbol hanging from my neck. Their distance grows from respectful to cautionary—the small-animal wariness of seeing a hawk swoop too low for comfort.
A girl with dark hair hanging just below her shoulders steps up to me. She holds out a handful of roasted sunflower seeds, already shelled. Before I can politely turn her down—I’ve made the mistake of eating before a dance one too many times—an adult hurries in and drags the girl away. The sunflower seeds spill through her fingers and patter against the trampled dust at my feet. I look away from the waste of perfectly good food before the pain at the back of my eyes turns to tears.
I lock my gaze on Tal.
Since I met a ten-year-old Tal’lei when I entered the Great Hawk Creche at age seven, he’s always been easy to spot in a crowd. Just look for the tallest, broadest, most goofy-looking man surrounded by other tall and broad Protectors. Even when we were still finishing our schooling in the Creche, Tal earned the awe and respect of the most experienced in the Protectorate—partly through his unmatched tactician’s brain, and the rest due to his friendship with Water. Golden boy Tal. A mythical figure across the islands scattered amidst the Cloud Sea. After the Purge, every hotshot Protector looking to prove themselves hunted Tal with the ferocity of starving wolves running after the last rabbit in a burnt-out forest. Tal put them down like the rabid dogs they’d become.
There’s no crowd of Protectors around Tal now, even though he stands close to the gathered dancers from the other six Creches, each dressed in their own regalia. He seems so bare without his two-handed ax across his back and war club on his hip, yet his sheer size allows him to keep an edge of danger even when unarmed. His wide chest and strong belly—both bare save for pale blue streaks of paint—rise and fall with his steady breathing. Solitude rolls off the sleek hawk feathers and deep purple beads used as the main decorations on his pants. While he hated being hunted over the past six years, the loneliness we faced hardly affected Tal. Or if it did, he never showed it. Either way, I wouldn’t have made it to today without his stalwart positivity. The death of so many friends and exile from our community introduced an atrophy into my life that would’ve left me unmoving and broken without someone there to help work those withering muscles.
I sidle up next to him and tap an elbow into his ribs when he pretends not to notice me. He looks down, an infectious smile splitting his boxy face. The four long hawk tail feathers forming the crown of his simple headdress block the beating sun and make it easier to look up at him. As weird as it feels for me to wear one again, comfort blossoms in my chest seeing Tal in his. Maybe it’s because he has such a big brow that he needs something resting on it to help with his facial proportions. That’s what I would tell him if he asked about the sudden curl of my lips, at least. We would both know it for the lie it is.
“There you are.” His rumble of a voice vibrates in the space between us.
“Afraid I’d leave you high and dry, old man?”
“Not at all, kid.” He smooths a grackle feather on my shoulder. “You haven’t let me down yet. I know you never will.”
“You know, you could at least try to make Qwila like you.”
“What are you talking about? Qwi loves me.”
This pulls a snort from me. “You’ve never been one for self-deception, Tal.”
“Look, Qwila loves you, and you love me. Simple mathematic principles lead to the logical conclusion that Qwila also loves me.” The stupid grin he punctuates the sentence with drives me to punch his arm. He mouths, Ow, and rubs the spot I hit, even though I know the bulk of his muscle padded any actual hurt.
“Making any headway with our fellow Protectors yet?” I ask.
“What do you think?” He gestures to the buffer of empty space around us.
So many purposefully averted gazes. I don’t have enough fingers to count how many of these Protectors tried to kill us over the past seven years. “Think they’ll accept our dance?”
“They’ll have to.”
The drums go quiet and send out a ripple of silence across the Dance grounds until the only sounds are the distant waves of the Cloud Sea. Since our people’s ascension into the sky, Inter-Tribal Dances have been held on this small, unincorporated island close to the middle of the Confederation. The Cloud Sea can be heard from anywhere on it—a constant reminder of where we are and the land our ancestors had to leave behind to get here.
In the drumming circle just outside of the much larger dancing circle, all seven drummers—the most talented musicians from each of the Seven Nations—stand and walk away. Representatives from the Protectorate’s Creches replace them. One drum remains empty: a gaping wound the Great Hawk Purge left behind.
The Dance’s Master of Ceremonies, a little auntie named Ulah who’s served as head of the Confederation for longer than I’ve been alive, walks to the center of the dancing circle. Her moccasins are beautiful, natural leather. She wears a comfortable doeskin dress. The skirt is dyed a brilliant emerald—the color only worn by those seated on the Confederate Council—and covered in vibrant stripes of two-toned shell beads. The dress’s top consists of seven layers, all dyed different colors to represent each of the Seven Nations and sewn together with emerald thread thick enough to show off the intricate stitching pattern. Her headdress is made of sharp-shinned hawk feathers, with tails draping down past her ears and almost touching her heels. Everyone recognizes this masterwork. It’s grown to something of a legend over the years. The Chief Elder of the Great Hawk Creche gave it to her as a gift when she first rose to lead the Confederation. She hasn’t worn it since he passed back during my first year of training in the Creche.
Through the hush that has settled over the Dance, the air shifts as Ulah silently calls on Wind to amplify her voice.
“Now for the presentation of the Protectors. These mighty warriors work to keep our Confederation safe every day, sometimes even laying down their lives.” The point of Ulah’s words is keen and piercing. “Please join me in welcoming them into the circle.”
All drummers strike at once. The lack of the seventh assaults my ear. Even Tal shifts from one foot to the other. Then the beat starts in earnest, the intoxicating thud-bump-thud heartbeat of our people, and quickly covers the gap of the missing drum. The singing begins, a wordless song flowing through the beat, lifeblood propelled by drums.
Each Creche sends seven dancers to the Inter-Tribal. Positions on these teams are highly competitive. Many Creches will send the same dancers for a decade. For others, all seven dancers will be different from year to year. The competitiveness drives up the quality of the dancing, so the Confederation as well as all Seven Nations encourages it.
First to dance into the circle is the Great Elk Creche, their movements long and graceful. One or two of them I recognize from the last Dance I attended seven years ago. Behind them is the Great Owl Creche, with their swift yet well-thought-out gestures. All new dancers, at least to me. The Great Bear Creche plods in next. Each of their dancers are as grizzled as their Great Beast namesake. Then the Great Viper Creche slithers out. These are the bastards who led the Purge. A spike of hatred impales my heart. The leader of these dancers has a jagged scar running from his hairline across his face and stopping at his chin—a present Tal gave him three years ago. I lose myself in wishing that Tal’s ax blow that day had done more damage than any amount of scar tissue could hope to heal, and I miss the Great Salmon and the Great Fox Creches entering the circle.
“Showtime,” Tal whispers in my ear, pulling me back to the here and now as he’s always done.
“Let’s make it a good one,” I say.
The gathered Protectors dance around the circle for four revolutions. The heartbeat guides their feet while their spirits follow the lifeblood. Each Creche’s dance has echoes of the others but still sports enough unique features from the Great Beasts from which the Creches pull their traditions to be distinct. Our fighting styles differ in the same way. There used to be such beauty in this separation. Now it only throws into stark relief the gulf between the Creches.
On the third revolution, the drummers strike in unison and stop. The Creche dancers come to a dead halt right in time with the sudden cessation of the music. Not a single moccasined foot moves past the final beat. No disgrace will be brought upon any of the Creches or dancers today.
Air draws toward Ulah’s small frame again, and the attention of the Dance returns to her.
“Now, I would like to welcome into the circle two of our people who have been mistreated for nearly a decade now—at our very own hands.”
A wave of uncomfortable shifting crashes through the crowd. A blanket of silence falls over the Dance, so thick not even the drone of the Cloud Sea can penetrate it.
Ulah was the only member of the Confederate Council who would hear the evidence of our innocence when Tal and I uncovered it. The only one who was brave enough to go public with it. It was always rumored that she and the old Chief Elder of the Great Hawk Creche had been lovers. True or not, Ulah never fully believed the claims of treason made against us.
“The Chiefs of all Seven Nations have been consulted, and the Confederate Council has met and voted,” Ulah says. “The Great Hawks are not traitors, and it is my great pleasure to welcome the surviving members of the Creche back into our society.”
Ulah’s final amplified words echo across the absolute silence. Tal and I walk into the circle. The rattlers on my ankles chitter. Their sound pounds against my ears with infinitely more force than Ulah’s Wind-aided voice, and suddenly I can breathe again. Tal glances to my legs, and that boyish grin returns to his long lips.
“What?” I ask.
“I’m just relieved. Here I thought we wouldn’t have any Great Hawk music to dance to. But you found a way to smuggle some in. I told you, you never let me down.”
We stop in front of Ulah. This close to her, I can see the rainbow-crinkled energy of Wind wrapped around her shoulders. As one, Tal and I kneel.
“Tal’lei. Wen’lei. The last surviving Protectors of the Great Hawk Creche. I welcome you into our circle.” Ulah pushes both her fore- and middle fingers into the mound of ashes left from the Order of Medicine’s cleansing fire, burned to bless the circle before the beginning of the Dance. She comes back up with black fingertips and faces us once more. “Be welcomed.” With the fingers on her right hand, Ulah smudges my forehead and both cheeks with the soot: burnt sage, sweetgrass, lavender, and other holy herbs the Order of Medicine keeps secret to protect them from overharvesting. Tal and I look at each other. He has matching smudges on his broad face. We stand and turn out to the crowd, cleansed of all accused crimes, our proclaimed purity on proud display for all to see.
“To honor the Great Hawks,” Ulah says, “I give them the first solo dance.”
Tal and I move to opposite edges of the circle. I avoid the gazes of the other Protectors ringing the space—an easy task, because they all refuse to look straight at me.
When our positions are taken, the drummers strike, and the dance to reclaim our place here amongst our people—inside the Protectorate—begins.
The story our Creche tells in its dance is that of the Great Hawk’s fiercest battle. One dancer takes the role of the Great Hawk, while the other six embody a gaggle of grackles who mob the Great Hawk in an attempted coup to replace her in the pantheon of Great Beasts. Today, Tal is the Great Hawk, a role he’s held since the age of fifteen. I’m all the grackles rolled into one.
I start on the offensive, swooping in close to the Great Hawk but never close enough to fall victim to her talons. The Great Hawk ignores me at first, but as my mobbing becomes more concentrated, she must respond. We dance around one another, a sky death ballet brought to the ground, legs replacing wings, arms replacing claws, always moving forward or from side to side but never backward. For either of us to go backward would be cowardly and dishonorable.
I try to let the drums lead the rhythm of our battle, but the missing Great Hawk through line brings hesitation and poor timing to my steps, dips, and twirls. This is not our music, not the way it was before the Purge. We have no place in this circle. Though we were invited in officially, we don’t belong here socially. The drum that’s not there drives this fact home with every missed beat.
I swoop in for a strafe. On my flight forward, my feet stutter as I lose the song. I crash into the Great Hawk in my clumsiness. But her wings never falter, and she catches me. We lock talons and go into a death spiral around the circle, our velocity picking up as we go. The Great Hawk brings her beak close to my ear and whispers:
“Find our music. It’s here with us. You brought it. But you’re not hearing it. Hear it, Wen.”
The Great Hawk flings me away. Through wild spinning, I dip into a squat so deep my tail nearly drags through the dirt. When I bounce up, my moccasins leave the ground, and I truly fly for a few seconds. In my recovery, the Great Hawk’s words repeat in my mind and mix with Qwila’s advice on giving grace to myself. A Great Beast and a great woman have great wisdom to share, even to a gaggle of treacherous grackles.
It takes a great force of concentration, but I manage to mute the pounding, incomplete drumbeat. For the first time since the dance began, I can hear the rattle of hollow deer toes. I am once more a child learning to dance with the music of my mother. The music of my Creche. Hidden around my ankles all this time, I find the beat needed to guide my wings.
It’s the beat of forty-three brave hearts, all stilled before their time. The tenor of just as many voices, trilling out a hawk song to guide us, brightens the beat. The bass of eighty-six feet, stamping out the next move of the dance before we make it, gives the beat a robust body. The Great Hawk Creche is here. Between Tal and I. Unseeable. But. Felt.
Slowly, I let the drums of the other Creches back into my mind. Their thunderous booms and the rainfall chitter of the rattlers’ music is discordant. Impossible to bring together.
The Great Hawk takes advantage of my distraction and rushes me. We begin another death spiral. It’s her turn to lead as the dance approaches its end. The Great Hawk will best the upstart grackles and reaffirm her place in the pantheon of Great Beasts. But the Great Hawk makes no move to end our fight. We continue to spin around and around, making a full revolution of the circle, then another. The Great Hawk’s wings flap rapidly, then spread into long, strident beats, changing the pace of our flight and, by extension, the tempo of our music.
Then it happens.
The rattlers fall into the hole in the drumbeat. Each step, twist, and turn of our dance jingles a peaceful release. Every deer toe on my ankles rattles out a tribute to all the Great Hawks no longer here. There might as well be a drummer behind the empty seventh drum, playing our music.
It may not last through the end of the Dance. It probably won’t survive the last strike of the drums, coming any moment. But for now, in this glorious handful of breaths, our music has returned. The Great Hawks belong in this circle. They’ll never need to provide us with music.
We’ll always bring our own.
Tal lets me go, no longer grackles but a manifestation of the Great Hawk herself, just like him. We soar around the circle, our feathers leaping in the wind. Every eye at the Dance is firmly on us now, watching us fly. We’ve made it impossible to ignore us. We throw our heads back, looking above and beyond the crowd, and cry out into the endless blue dome above us. In a world this vast, no one could ever make us feel as if there isn’t a place for us. Not anymore.
We Great Hawks whoop and dance until the music stops.