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On the Wing

On the Wing 
by Nina Shepardson

The first time Ellie saw the swallow, it flew in a low arc over the birdbath, scooping up a bit of water in its beak as it went. A crimson patch of feathers on the back of its head stood out against the glossy blue-black of its body. After taking its drink, it soared over the back fence and out of sight. Ellie grabbed her field guide and flipped through it, looking for a picture that matched what she'd just seen. Aside from the red patch, the bird matched the description of a barn swallow. From the drawer of her desk, she took a small pink notebook with a rainbow on the cover, and carefully wrote "barn swallow" in it.

At ten years old, Ellie was already an avid birdwatcher. She had a field guide and a pair of plastic binoculars. She could identify most of the common birds in her area by either sight or sound. Her parents had been so charmed by her enthusiasm that they bought the birdbath, and a feeder to go with it, for their backyard and set them up within easy viewing range of Ellie's window.

They urged her older sisters to take an interest in the winged visitors as well, but Claire and Amanda declared them “boring” and ignored them. Ellie’s parents expected her to be disappointed that her sisters didn’t share her interest, but she was secretly relieved by their indifference. She shared a bedroom with Claire, owned several dresses that had once belonged to Amanda, and always lost to both of them in arguments over what TV show to watch. But the birds were hers and hers alone.

* * *

The next time Ellie saw the swallow, it flew straight toward her as she walked home after school. "Oh!" She ducked, and the swallow glided over her head. She was sure she felt its wing brush her cheek, dislodging a strand or two of her unruly hair. As it soared on down the street, she glimpsed the distinctive red spot on the back of its head.

She saw the swallow again at the playground. It flew around and around the merry-go-round, keeping pace with her so that it almost seemed to be hovering. This time, she got a good enough look at it to note the deeply forked tail and the way the feathers on its back shone in the sunlight. Unease fluttered like wings in Ellie’s chest when her friend Dana glanced at it, but a moment later Dana looked away again, turning her face into the breeze.

Ellie saw the bird several more times over the next few weeks. It was never at rest, always giving the appearance of being on its way to someplace else. Even when it wasn’t making forward progress—sweeping back and forth over her head or circling around her—it was still in motion. She never saw it still.

* * *

One afternoon at the library, she left the History section, where she was supposed to be looking up information on George Washington for a homework assignment, and wandered over to the Nature shelves. There were several books on birds, and she took one down at random. It was titled Winged Legends: Folklore and Mythology of Birds, and the picture on the cover showed a phoenix rising from a raging inferno. Flipping through the pages until she came to the entry for swallows, Ellie read:

In medieval times, it was a common belief that swallows lacked feet and thus never landed. They were thought to eat, drink, mate, and lay eggs while flying.

* * *

Ellie was on a field trip the next time the swallow appeared. Her science class had gone to the beach to look at tide pools and shells. Ellie was more interested in the plovers and sandpipers that ran along the edge of the water, darting away when the waves came in and back onto the wet sand as they retreated.

There was a twittering sound behind her, and she turned to see the swallow winging its way toward her above the beach grass. As it swung out over the ocean, she saw the blood-red patch that marked it as "her" swallow, mimicking the colors of the still-distant sunset. It pivoted and came back in, making a beeline for the boardwalk.

Ellie glanced over at her classmates. Along with her teacher, they were all clustered around a tide pool, where one of the students had found a starfish. They jostled and craned their necks to see it, but she was the only one paying attention to the swallow. The sand tugged at her feet like quicksand as she took off after it, but she made faster progress when she reached the boardwalk, her feet thumping on the planks. At the other end, she found herself jogging along a dirt path through a field studded with small purple flowers, rather than the parking lot she was sure had been there when the class arrived.

The swallow was still in front of her, still flying, the red patch on the back of its head beckoning her on like the lamp in a lighthouse.

She followed.

* * *

Nina Shepardson is a scientist who lives in New England with her husband. She is an affiliate member of the HWA, and her short fiction has been published in Devilfish Review, The Colored Lens, and Nightscript. She also writes book reviews at

Where do you get the ideas for your stories? 

Many of my stories draw their inspiration from legends and folklore. For example, I got the idea for “On the Wing” from an old folk belief that swallows had no feet and spent their entire lives in the air.