The sounds of birds filled the mountains.

A flock of choughs flew close beneath the lingering pearl clouds. Amidst the blues, greens, and grays of the mountains, their black feathers stood out. Through the intricate workings of colour theory and superstition, they were considered omens to the many tiny towns scattered about the craggy hills. It mattered if they had yellow or red beaks, but which bird-bill belonged to which end of the moral spectrum went back-and-forth between villages like the  pendulum of a grandfather clock.

A young boy looked up at the birds, focusing on them with all his might. His face was simultaneously soft and fierce, a testament to how he is and how he has to be. The birds looked just like moving holes, punch card-patterns migrating from fluffy cumulus to the next. They left no tearing, they only moved. It made him smile, the widest he’d ever.

Please, come down here. Help me out.

He followed their trail until the group reached the pantone-blue sky, when they became harder to track. And then the pain became too much to ignore. Colour theory did not do him any favours, the red flowing from where he was struck flattered his olive skin none. Stunned, dazed, and even with twice the usual amount of legs, the boy struggled to regain his balance. Blood oozed from the wound above his eye, blurring his vision

“So, Hyla, had enough yet?”

Kokran’s voice was sharp, precise, surgical, a knife slathered in venomous words. It got under Hyla’s skin – the merest drop filled his heart with panic and resignation. Earthquakes screamed in his chest, his heart the epicentre, the aftershocks fell to his toes, shook the tears out of his eyes. But in an earthquake, he was trapped. He stood his ground, unstable as it may be. He refused Kokran’s question, no less dangerous than a cup of poison. Taking it would not make the pain stop, drinking in the false promise wouldn’t save him. Saying yes wouldn’t amount to anything – time had taught him this again and again. So instead, Hyla kept to silence. He’d lost sight of the birds, but he craned his neck up high.

Take your blade and cut it. You want me dead, well here you go.

Kokran looked back at his friends, insecurity in his steel eyes, his hate wavering for just a moment by this beautiful surrender. The group reminded him how much depended on his bravado, so he pulled at Hyla’s white hairs, forcing him to make eye-contact.

“When I ask you a question, you answer me, monster.”

Hyla could not hold back the tears any longer. His vision was yanked from the sky. Kokran’s stare was angry, cruel, disgusted; an expression burned into Hyla’s memory from merely living in the village. The same superstition that gave meaning to the beaks of birds, turned Hyla into something to be feared, and if possible, destroyed. It horrified him. He tried to wrestle free, but Kokran’s gripped his scalp tightly.

“You can’t leave yet. I’m not done with you.”

Kokran’s words cut through Hyla like a hot knife through butter. The white clouds had turned into gray, and in the length of a single sentence a light drizzle became a downpour.

Even the weather hates me. Hyla. Hyla he can’t hurt you any more than he already has. He’s tried but he can’t. He can’t. He can’t he can’t he can’t he can’t he can’t

A scream filled the air, and to everyone’s surprise it wasn’t Hyla’s. Kokran lay at his feet, convulsing in pain with two clear hoof prints in his back. Hyla raised his head, hopefully, and the widest smile returned to his face.

“You fucking, absolute pieces of goddamn garbage.”

Mom’s voice was as delicate as a detuned piano in a shipwreck, but it was the best music in Hyla’s life. Kokran’s friends were already running away – cowards and bystanders fleeing at the littlest resistance. Kokran himself was crawling on hands and knees to get away already.

“Y…you could’ve killed me!”

Mom shrugged. “And I’m sad I didn’t, you little shit. You bully and abuse someone and you’re surprised you get back what you serve? Hurts, don’t it? Maybe pay some attention in school instead of picking someone who won’t fight back, idiot.”

Kokran locked eyes with Hyla as he made his theatrically comedic escape. His eyes had stopped hiding the fear and ignorance that fuelled his hate.

“You’re a monster! Why don’t you just leave! No one wants you here!”

Hyla took in a breath so big it felt like he sucked in the sky itself. “I’M NOT A MONSTER! YOU ARE!”

The centaur collapsed, his legs folded unnaturally under his body. He began to cry again, his sobs amplified when his mother knelt down to embrace him. She always did this. And she’d always say sorry, because there was an ‘always’ at all. And she’d cry along with him, cursing all the time. He was glad he knew better than to take over her potty mouth.

“Let me look at you. Shit, that cut looks bad. Let’s wash it at home. Oh, your shirt is all dirty and torn. They didn’t do anything to your binder, did they? I’m going to have to fix that shoe. Oh Hylaeus, my sweet Hylaeus, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Hyla wiped away the snot and tears and stood up with wobbly, unsure motions, as if to reassure his mother. “No, I’m fine. I’m fine. It could have been worse.” It was the least reassuring thing he could have said, but it was all he could say.

“Mom, do I deserve love?”

His mother embraced him even harder, the closest she’d ever, so much it became an effort to breathe. “You feeling this, Hylaeus? This is how much I love you.” She failed to control the tremor in her voice. “This is how much the world ought to love you. But the world is full of fucking idiots who are scared and don’t want to learn. I know the pain of feeling like an outcast. That’s why you remember this hug, alright? That’s how much you’re loved. That’s how much I care about you. That’s how much everyone in your life cares about you. Survive the fuckers who don’t care about you. Make them eat shit.”

He’d heard this all before, of course. But in the rain, in the mud, in that hug, it hit home how true it was. He finally saw the depths of her affection for him, learned exactly how people could have the capacity to love him. Here is a woman who’d survived a war as a girl, who took up residence in a village full of old enemies. She’d seen death, she’d grown through pain, she’d fought back against a world that did not understand her, and somehow emerged on the other side. Perhaps she hadn’t emerged victorious, but she emerged stronger, and made those who suffered around her stronger.

“Am I a monster?” Even though he’d just yelled otherwise, Kokran’s poison managed to creep into his heart. It was repeated in his head, repeated in his own voice, repeated as if he were the one saying it. But, he held on to this belief as tightly as his mother held him: these were not his words. It was not his voice. It was Kokran who got under his skin. A hate wanted to destroy him, so the most he wanted to do is live. His mother kissed his white hair and twirled some in her fingers.

“’Course not, don’t be an ass. You’re my son, and I love you. You’re a goddamn person and I love you for that. Anyone who doesn’t is a fool who shits from their mouth instead of their ass.”

Hyla burst out laughing at this. He wanted to make a ‘potty mouth’ joke in response to this, but kept to silence. Grabbing his mother’s hand the tightest he’d ever, he looked up at the sky again – two birds flew side by side. One yellow beak, one red beak.

“Come on. Let’s go home.”