Sky with a Capital 'S'

by Saor Hawk

Uncle Phil pulled me away from the window as if the remaining shards of glass jutting out from the wooden frame like crooked teeth belonged to the mouth of some malevolent creature ready to take a bit out of me. Dad was still yelling from when the window had taken a bit out of him. That was a good thing. Yelling meant he was still breathing, and still breathing meant he wasn't in any immediate danger of dying.

Dad deserved to suffer for what he'd done, but he didn't deserve to die for it.

Blocking out dad's continued wails of agony, not to mention the confluence of blood streams running steadily into the palm of his hand and down his elevated forearm, I examined the shattered attic window, feeling a sense of relief. The jagged opening was sufficient enough for even a large spirit hawk to fly though, and since grandma had been a rather small woman—in size not in stature—it seemed logical to think her spirit hawk would be similarly proportioned.

Of course I couldn't say any of this out loud—not that anyone would have heard me over dad's caterwauling. That grandma still held to some of the traditions of her mother's tribe was our little secret—although the secret wasn't so little anymore, what with dad having lied about having opened up the attic window.

Uncle Phil dug one of grandma's scarves out of an open box and wrapped it around dad's hand to stem the bleeding. He should have found something else to use: grandma had collected those scarves over a lifetime; she'd been very proud of them. She even had one from Paris, from the time her sister and brother-in-law had gone there on vacation. Hopefully Uncle Phil wasn't so panicked that he grabbed the one from Paris. Within seconds the scarf was saturated with dad's blood.

I felt a certain satisfaction.

Grandma had know she was dying. Her dad was a doctor for the railroad, and he'd taught her what signs to look for. Sometimes when she didn't think anybody was looking, she'd rest two fingers on her wrist, her lips moving ever-so-slightly while she counted, the faintest hint of anticipation in her eyes. I don't think she was being morbid, or that she'd been in any big hurry to die, it just seemed like she wanted to be informed, so there wouldn't be any big surprises.

The night she passed away her fingers never left her wrist for more than a few seconds, even when people were looking. Mom and dad, my brother and I, we were there in the bedroom with her. Uncle Phil and Aunt Kathleen were there, too, with their kids. My Uncle Gene was coming down from Chicago, but his train was delayed and he wouldn't make it in time.

Mom was acting strange, like someone I didn't even know. Everyone seemed to sense it, but nobody said anything. She and grandma had never been close, but for some reason mom was showering grandma with attention—much more attention than grandma seemed to want. She hovered over the bed, bombarding grandma questions about how she was feeling. There wasn't anything warm or comforting or motherly about all the attention she was focusing on grandma, it seemed to stem more from some kind of fascination, like my mom was angling to make sure she had a front row seat for whatever was going to happen next.

Grandma furrowed her brow a couple of times, but she never said anything. I wondered if she was worried that mom might be that big surprise she was hoping to avoid.

But ultimately it was dad that ended up being the big surprise.

I don't know to what extent I buy into the whole spirit hawk thing, and I'm not even sure if grandma fully bought into it, but there was something appealing about the concept, something reassuring: the idea that at the moment of death one's soul takes the form of a hawk and soars majestically into the afterlife.

"Does the spirit hawk fly to Heaven?" I asked grandma the first time she told me what her mother's people believed. She'd pursed her lips, tilting her head from side to side, as if she was literally weighing my question. No adult ever weighed my questions the way grandma did. "There's all different sorts of words for where one's spirit goes," she said, finally. "I like to think of it as the Sky, but not the normal sky...more like the Sky with a capital 'S'."

Soon I discovered that I liked to think of it that way too. Sky with a capital 'S' seemed more intuitive to me than Heaven, something less in need of interpretation. From there on out, whenever I was in Sunday school or church, or wherever it might come up, if someone made mention of Heaven, I would secretly substitute the word Sky.

The idea of a soul hawk flying into the Sky had one crucial disadvantage over the more traditional idea of a soul ascending to Heaven, however. Logistically speaking, a soul could ascend to Heaven under any condition—assuming of course that was the soul's rightful destination. I didn't really understand the physics of it, but someone could die miles below the earth, with no means of getting back to the surface, and their soul could still find its way to Heaven, effortlessly.

In order for the spirit hawk to take flight, however, it needed an actual physical way out of whatever dwelling the person had died in. That was why when grandmother began checking her pulse almost continuously, when mom began hovering so close to grandma's bed she looked like she hoped to inhale the old woman's final breath, when all the various conversations throughout the bedroom began to quiet down to little more than reverential whispers, that Grandma insisted my dad open a window—and not just any window, but the single window up in the attic.

I saw something light up behind my mom's eyes when grandma made her seemingly odd request, like what was happening was beyond even her most morbid of dreams. But I didn't have time to dwell on it—when grandma told my dad to open a window, it was me she stared at. And I knew why. Despite being a child, I was the one she trusted to make sure it got done, not dad. And equally important, I knew why it had to be the window in the attic: it was the only window in the house that didn't have a screen.

Uncle Phil was the only one tall enough to reach the latch on the ceiling door that led to the attic, and even he had to stand on his toes and grunt a lot to get a grip on it. The hinges of the fold-up ladder were spring-loaded to keep it from falling down and hitting you in the head when you opened the door. Uncle Phil pulled the ladder to the floor, and then stood back. Dad said it was too dangerous for me to follow him, so I had to stay in the hallway. But I watched him intently as he climbed up into the dark attic and out of sight. And I listened intently, hearing what I would confidently describe as the sound of an old, weathered, rarely-used window being unlatched and pushed open.

I nodded discretely to grandma when I went back in the bedroom. All systems go—the nod said. Her spirit hawk was cleared for takeoff—when and if the time should come. The relief on her face was obvious. I began to wonder if grandma wasn't buying into the whole spirit hawk thing a little more than she'd previously let on.

Weeks later, when we were cleaning out grandma's house so dad could put it up for sale, I overheard dad ask Uncle Phil why he thought their mom had wanted the attic window opened up. Even though I was a floor below, going through an old photo album in the living room, some kind of strange acoustical effect in the house allowed me to hear their voices clear as day. When dad chuckled, saying how crazy it would have been to open up a window in the middle of January, I froze. I felt every muscle in my body contract. For a moment, even my heart seemed to stop beating.

I wanted to hate my dad. And I wanted to harness the heat from that hate, use it like a flamethrower to fend off the shame that was suddenly trying to envelope me like a thick, black blanket. But I couldn't. I was the one grandma had trusted. Me. I was the one who'd failed her.

Not long after grandma had passed away, Uncle Phil had collapsed the latter to the attic and closed the door, but he hadn't gone up first and closed the window. How could I have missed that? He hadn't gone up to close the window because he knew dad hadn't opened it in the first place.

The rage I felt at my own stupidity broke my paralysis. Even though I wasn't allowed in the attic, I bounded up the ladder anyway, past uncle Phil, past dad, over to the window. The latch was small, trivial, barely more than a decorative fixture, but it was rusted shut. Using all my might, I couldn't budge it. How long could grandma's spirit hawk survive trapped in the attic?

I traded in every wish I might ever be granted, from now until the day I died, for just one: that I wasn't too late. All the riches in the world, fame beyond my wildest imaginings—not of it mattered as much to me as the chance to set my grandma's spirit hawk free.

I looked around for something heavy to break the window with. Dad was coming, his hand already reaching out to grab me. I ducked just as he tried to snatch me up. Empty-handed he had nothing to slow down the momentum he'd built up. When he put his hand out to catch himself, the small window offered little resistance, giving way in a crescendo of breaking glass and splintering wood.

The opening wasn't huge, but it was big enough—if grandma's spirit hawk was still alive, it was big enough.

I stared hard at the Sky—not the normal sky, but the Sky with a capital 'S'—looking for sign: perhaps a faint, iridescent smudge overhead, something that most people wouldn't notice at all, but to the right observer looked an awful lot like the outline of a wing. Or maybe a brief, unexplained disturbance amidst the grey, low-hanging clouds, as if something small and invisible—a soul hawk perhaps—had just flown through it.

I knew better than to expect something so obvious as a majestic screech echoing poignantly through the chilled, winter air. Or a feather so richly colored it could only be otherworldly wafting gently to the ground, each tilt and turn in its slow descent seemingly choreographed and set to music.

No matter how much every particle of my own soul ached to see it, I knew better than to expect something so obvious as that.

BIO: Saor Hawk lives in Bloomington, Illinois, USA. He dreams of making enough money as a writer to quit his job in the food-service industry, buy an RV, and drive aimlessly around his the country. When not writing, sleeping, cooking giant kettles of pasta sauce, or honing his skills as a functional alcoholic, he likes to listen to metal music, from which he draws much of his inspiration for his short stories. Saor currently has short stories accepted for publication with Bartleby Snopes, Black Denim Lit, Flashes in the Dark, The Bookends Review, and Bewildering Stories. Facebook page