A new volume of succinct yet stirring stories arrives with the second season of Future Fables. Exploring how the ancient fable form may bring us replenishment, comfort and perhaps guidance for the modern day, celebrated contemporary writers weave yarns that resonate and illuminate in equal measure.
An Australian writer of Aboriginal Mununjali Yugambeh and Dutch heritage, Ellen van Neerven has won various literary prizes for their works of fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction.
Their fable invites us to reflect on the relationship between humans and the lands we inhabit, giving us a bird’s eye view on how we can better understand our connections with the natural world.
The Eagle’s Daughters
by Ellen Van Neerven
The Eagle’s daughters remembered falling before flying.
It was a quiet cloudy day. Their mother’s warmth was over them and they had recently eaten.
The Man owned the farm below. That afternoon, he had set out on the field with his rifle and shot the nest out of the tree.
The Eagle’s daughters were just hatchlings, weeks away from supervised flying. The smaller sister had barely opened her eyes.
Early wings protruded from their backs that day, and a miracle happened, halfway during the long fall from the tall tree they lifted and began to fly. The sky was full and tremendous. Flying felt like sun and blood. Quickly their bodies began to tire. The larger sister lasted longer, yet both dropped and hit the ground hard.
They were still alive. But The Man’s had made his shot. Their mother was dead. Her bloodied and lifeless body was on the grass near them.
The Man walked over to inspect his kill, scuffing his boots in the ground.
He didn’t see the chicks, small in the tall grass. They huddled together, panting, silently crying, until the ringing in their heads stopped.
At dusk their father swooped down to move them to higher ground; another tree that looked over the valley. It was the lack of warmth on their bodies in a thin makeshift nest while their father left to hunt that let them know their mother was gone with finality.
It was not new, their father wanted them to know. Men killed eagles. He told stories of a community of eagles existing before. This valley used to be big enough for multiple pairs. Until only one. And now half of one.
Their father soon took them flying. When they had built enough stamina, he showed them the Sad Place. A pile of carcasses on the farm. Surviving would be against the odds.
A while later, their father left to hunt rabbit one morning and never came back. The daughters feared the worst, he had also succumbed to the pile.
Now young adults and almost full size, they roamed their ancestral place with their father’s training.
It was unusual for two sibling eagles to survive in a clutch. Usually only one survived, especially in dry years like these. However their intense fledgeling had created a bond in them.
Some would say unnatural. For word had spread across the range of the twin eagles and that one had a twisted heart. That there was darkness within it.
One of the Eagle’s daughters had taken to watching The Man’s wife’s growing belly. The Woman was rarely sighted, but each time she came out of the house in the mid-afternoon, to sweat and put clothes on the line, her stomach was a larger size.
As the eagles aged their sense of the range widened. They watched The Man’s chemicals poison the river and saw sick trees, suffering animals.
We should leave, the small sister told the big sister. Had any eagles left the perimeter of the range? Ventured to the other side?
No, the other side is another’s place. We would die there.
They were their mother’s first chicks. She and their father never got the opportunity to raise others. They defended their parents’ territory.
The small one dreamt about her mother every night. Do Eagles dream? Her feet, her cry. The way their parents used to call out to each other at dawn and dusk.
And the smaller sister would whisper on those cold nights, What do you remember of her?
Only meat. The big sister would answer.
As The Woman’s belly grew, the big sister got stronger. Swooping low, she was able to lift small marsupials off the ground. Wings at large, spread.
She wasn’t the only one with a secret. The smaller eagle didn’t tell the bigger one about the song over the valley.
The voice came to the smaller eagle while the big one was sleeping. Come with me, he sang. It’s beautiful over here. I will watch our chicks while you soar across many orange skies.
I will not leave my sister.
There is nothing left here for you. Soon, you will come.
One day The Man and The Woman bundled swiftly in their car and drove to the highway. They were away for several hours. It got dark and then it got dark once again.
Finally, The Man and The Woman came back in the high of the morning, holding a child wrapped in a blanket.
The big sister lifted a lamb off the ground and didn’t share.
She watched the house. The opportunities would increase as they let the baby play in the backyard.
The smaller sister became aware and uncomfortable of the big sister’s plan. One night she decided to speak up.
How could we do what they did to us? she asked.
How could we not? the big sister replied. Flesh for flesh.
This will not bring our mother closer, the small sister urged.
Months went by with the big sister watching the house and the smaller sister watching her and the river getting sicker. The Man set bait and the eagle’s daughters did not know if their next meal would be their last.
The smaller sister woke up with a bellyache. They had the spent the last night feeding from roo roadkill and she had a hefty share. She was tempted to snooze further when she realised her sister wasn’t nearby.
Following her hunch, the smaller sister flew to the farmhouse and took position in a nearby tree.
A bright blue dot crossed the yard. The Child had received a new beanie as a birthday present around the same time she started walking. The Man and The Woman were nowhere to be seen.
The blue dot moved further and further from the house and the smaller sister wanted to scream a warning.
She scanned the sky for their sister. There she was – mighty and powerful – flinging towards the blue dot at speed. The smaller sister dove after her.
The blue dot looked up, eyes wide. The eagle’s daughters collided – a spectacular sight – fighting mid-air. They had never fought like this. They were at each other’s throats, snarling and tearing each other to pieces.
I should have done this when we were chicks, the bigger sister said. Her talon pressed on her sister’s throat.
Before she could press down any further, a shot pierced the air and forced the eagles to scatter. The Man raced to The Child’s side, her beanie had slipped off.
At the tree the sisters met again, this time for the final time.
You wish to kill and destroy everything so I must leave, the smaller sister said.
Now completely alone, the bigger sister cried all night, her feathers shivering.
Years passed and the larger sister did not venture near the farmhouse. She lived off lizard, drank very little. She got old and her feathers went grey.
The Child grew up seeing an eagle-less sky. The word around the valley was that there was no more of the big birds.
It was a rainy afternoon when the eagle flew near the house again to visit The Child, who was shocked but somehow not scared. For the eagle had changed so much, brittle bones, and weak legs, and her flight was heavy. The eagle swooped down to sit on the shed and looked directly into The Child’s eyes, showed her a world. It was a dream where the land was healthy and fine, the river flowing and full of life. All this was future and inheritance.
When The Man and The Woman grew old and passed, The Child remembered what she had seen. The Child knew what would happen if she didn’t listen – the eagle’s eyes had warned her of that. The Child moved with the land and listened to its non-human inhabitants, those who belonged. The farm shut down, trees were restored. The place became an eagle haven once more, where the descendants of the sisters lived in peace and harmony.
Ellen van Neerven (they/them) is an award-winning author, editor and educator of Mununjali (Yugambeh language group) and Dutch heritage. Ellen‘s first book, Heat and Light (UQP, 2014), a novel-in-stories, was the recipient of the David Unaipon Award, the Dobbie Literary Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize. Their first poetry collection Comfort Food (UQP, 2016) won the Tina Kane Emergent Award and was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Kenneth Slessor Prize. Throat (UQP, 2020) was the recipient of Book of the Year, the Kenneth Slessor Prize and the Multicultural Award at 2021 NSW Literary Awards and the inaugural Quentin Bryce Award. Personal Score: Sport, Culture, Identity (UQP, 2023), a book that weaves history, memoir, journalism and poetry, is now available.
They are the editor of three collections, including the recent Homeland Calling: Words from a New Generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voices and Unlimited Futures with Sudanese multilingual writer Rafeif Ismail.