by Amanda Gibson

The feather rests light and ethereal on the mud-packed road. I stoop to study the bit of fluff, my breath clouding in the cold air. As fragile as wispy down, the feather is white with grayish-brown stripes, mimicking the outer wing of a red-tailed hawk. More tiny feathers are caught in dry leaves on one side of the road, and a few are scattered opposite. Perhaps a hawk tousled with another bird mid-air, dislodging these belly feathers.

Unzipping my jacket pocket, I negotiate a feather inside, careful not to crush it. I zig-zag after another beautiful specimen lifted by the breeze, finally managing to pin it with my thumb. I add the feather to my pocket.

I hurry to catch up with my dog, scanning the trees for the hawk. My mind returns to the woman’s voice in my ear. Today’s pick is about writing goals. The host suggests that first one needs to define success. Does success mean writing a novel? she asks. To publish? To write daily for an hour?

I’m at a threshold with my writing where something just out of reach beckons. I’ve been writing for years, participating in a writers’ group and taking classes. My writing has improved, my work has been published in journals. But lately I feel unsettled, like I’m ready to leap, with no guarantee I’ll land. I may end up mired in a ravine.

Rounding the curve, we head to the end of the road. This stretch follows a farm field, the road a bed of sand and loose stone. I half-listen to the podcast, the sun warming my skin. While publishing is an achievement, success feels both simpler and more profound.

After turning around at the end of the road, I look to the distant pines back at the curve. That’s when I see the dun-colored smudge among the pines. Is it what I think? It could be the exposed flesh of a tree branch ripped open in a storm, the bare wood shining in the sun like a breast of a hawk or bald eagle. I keep my gaze on the place. There’s success, I think, in that tree.

It takes the dog and me about five minutes to reach the pine. All the while my eyes don’t stray. Only after leaving the road and crossing a field do I see the shape move. It is a hawk, cocking its head to get a better look at me. I laugh, delighted.

We stop just below the branch where the hawk perches. The bird’s breast is streaked reddish-brown, its head disproportionately small to its grand body. The hawk studies me, assessing me like only a bird of prey can. I’m convinced this is the hawk that lost its feathers.

“Hello pretty bird,” I call softly. Discovering the hawk evokes the same thrill I get when I bring a flat character to life or when I resolve a plot problem. That feels like success. That’s when I understand that what dances just out of reach is the mastery of the craft. Mastery includes outside validation, but it’s also about having the skills and patience to address challenges that arise. Success is mastery and all that it entails: the discovery, the process, the pace of a writer’s life.

I want a memento to add to the feathers in my pocket. I fumble to retrieve my phone. Just as I raise the camera, the hawk spreads its wings and lifts off, flying deeper into the forest. I watch it go, at peace. Success waits for me to put pencil to paper.

Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr.