Saturday, March 5, 2016
Chapter One: Ask Now the Beasts
With a wet thump the badger pinned the magpie to the sodden grass.
The bird flapped its free wing in the badger’s face but the badger dodged, bit to the bone, and broke it. “You won’t fthly now, you dethil!” the badger spat, pushing down with its paw tighter on the magpie’s chest.
The bird flapped its broken wing feebly, jerking its head to and fro to avoid the froth and saliva dripping from the badger’s leering jaws.
“Aloysius, please!” the bird croaked.
“Pleathe? Pleathe!“ the badger roared. With a free paw it stamped the flapping wing to the ground, twisting on the broken bone. The magpie winced. “Thlee didn’t get a pleathee out, I’ll warrant, before thlee died! And you dare athk me pleathe?”
The badger panted. Strong as it was, it had lost much blood. Half its teeth were broken and bleeding and one of its hind legs still dragged the steel trap that had shattered its foot. The magpie could feel the weight of the animal pushing it into the mud underneath the grass, but not its strength.
The badger licked its broken teeth and let out a whimper.
“I couldn’t know, Aloysius, I couldn’t know they’d be here!” the magpie pleaded.
“Couldn’th know,” the badger repeated. “Maybe the beaverth knew. But we all know now! Build that dam, you thaid, and they, the foolth, lithened. You and your Rebekah – “the badger spat out part of a molar – “dragged uth here, Landi and I. For a lark! A lark! Foolth built their dam, had to built it higher. And nobody thought the humanths wouldn’t come?” The leg pinning the bird’s broken wing to the ground trembled, and the magpie could breathe again as the badger shifted its weight to its haunches and one good hind foot.
“We lotht the battle, we lotht the war, Jarrod,” the badger said. It turned its head to one side and vomited up blood and foam. It drew a huge breath and seemed to choke on it as the rain fell and more foam bubbled at its lips. “Landi,” it said, and the strength left its front paws. The badger collapsed atop the magpie and rolled to one side, shivering, sobbing, choking on the rain.
“Landi,” the badger whispered. And then was still.
The magpie stroked at the badger’s side with a free claw and nestled its beak into the fur at the badger’s breast. Through the slow, rattling breaths, it heard the heartbeat, punctured by coughs and quiet, rattling sobs and the splatter of rain as it drenched them.
“I’m sorry, Aloyisus,” Jarrod said. And he too was still.
Grey-blue clouds wept onto the canyon grasses, pattering onto the snow still lying in the shadow of the bigger rocks and trees.
The creek cascaded through a yawing hole in an enormous beaver dam, a twisted pile of logs and branches and mud., The lake behind it diminished, showing the outlines of the chain of small ponds the beavers and formed the summer before, the ponds where their kits played and swam and splashed and thumped their tails in the mud.
Scattered near the dam near the shores of the former lake, bodies.
Necks snapped in the jaws of traps. Tongues lolling, eyes empty, not blinking at the raindrops that fell on them. Beavers old, some with kits curled up next to their stiffening bodies, shivering in the cold rain. Some young, bearing looks of surprise and agony and fear.
And there, in a trap, a badger – smaller than the other one, white-starred on the broken face.
And here, an oddity: A magpie, also dead in a trap, strained at the chain that kept the trap tethered to the ground, its wings outstretched like a dropped flower, its beak straining toward the dead badger whose paws lay outstretched, nearly touching the end of the dead bird’s beak.
Jarrod closed his eyes. The rain fell harder and he thought, between patters of water, that Aloysuis’ heart was slowing. Ebbing. Growing weaker. But perhaps, he thought, it was only the natural rhythms of the body. Not death. Because the badger’s breath, though slow, was steady.
He woke. The rain had stopped and the skies had cleared, revealing a half moon in the darkening blue. The Moon’s Eye stared down at him. The breeze was warm and Jarrod found that as Aloysius had slept, he had turned his snout down into his chest near his beak, so they were breathing the same air.
“Little magpie,” a voice said.
Jarrod jerked his head, trying to find the source of the voice. He jerked too hard and winced as the broken bones in his wing sang through and blanched his eyes with streaks and stars of whitish light.
“Little magpie,” the voice said.
Jarrod blinked and stared at the moon, which stared back.
“Little magpie,” the voice said again.
“Yes?” Jarrod asked.
He felt gentle nudges on his chest, along his legs, down the bones in his wings. Where the nudges found hurt, the nudges probed and the hurt blinded Jarrod, but then disappeared like mist in the sun.
“Who are you?” Jarrod asked.
“I am He Who Marks the Sparrow’s Fall,” the voice said. He thought for a moment he saw the Moon’s Eye wink. As the voice spoke and pronounced his name, Jarrod felt as if he’d been plunged in cold mountain water and brought to the surface again, exhilarated at the breath and the cold of the water, yet feeling as at home in the water as a wood duck.
“Oh. Oh, oh lord,” Jarrod said as he felt his chest tighten and the tears well. He Who Marks the Sparrow’s Fall. Or the Sparrow-Minder, sometimes called derisively. Most in the wood knew of Him, spoken of at dark and furtive times by mothers offering comfort or fathers offering the last shreds of courage before the floods or claws or teeth or drought came to claim those he sought in vain to protect. His own mother, he recalled, spoke of Him as he and his siblings learned to fly.
He was a late flier, was Jarrod. Saw both a brother and sister die young, the brother learning to fly and snatched from the air by an owl.
He only minded the fall. Why not the flight, he remembered his father asking. Why not the flight?
But his mother taught him not to question. To be a Good Bird. To be patient and to accept what happens as what was meant to be. His father, he remembered, left the nest when such talk came up.
He opened his beak and his father came out.
“Oh lord,” Jarrod said. “Where – “
“Where was I, when all this happened?” the voice asked.
“Yes, lord,” Jarrod said. “My Rebekah, she is – she lies . . . “
“She is now with me,” the voice said. “As is Landi the badger. And so many of the beavers. They are all with me.”
“Could you not mind them?” Jarrod shouted as the blood rushed in his head and water coursed out of the broken dam. “You mind them now they’re dead, but not when they were alive? At the fall!” he shouted. “Why always at the fall?”
Jarrod again felt the nudges of the invisible hands, stroking his feathers. Where they touched, a shivering thrill went down his spine and the whitish light of pain was yellow as the marigolds.
“I am told I am cruel,” the voice said. “Do not think you are the first.”
“Why mind the fall?” Jarrod asked. Just as soon as he felt the warmth and comfort from the invisible hands, it faded and it felts as if his heart and mind turned from flesh to stone. “When you could mind the flight?”
But ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee. . .
Other voices sang as if in the wind, the sky, the trees, the air, the moon and its eye, the ground and its tunnels, the leaves and their green.
Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.
Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this; In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all . . .
Though he could see his father’s hunched shoulders, the voice he heard was that of his mother, singing a rhyme of similar vein in the magpie tongue. “The fowls of the air will tell thee,” she would sing “that He minds the flier’s fall . . . “
He opened his beak to speak, and his father came out again: She sang the song to comfort, and she sang the song to tease. When she would finish, he who had been hunched on the branch near the nest, pretending not to listen, would hop back to her side, lean against her and say “Almost, you convince me to believe again.”
Then he remembered: Rebekah is dead. Gone her voice, her laughter, her gentle taunts and proddings to fly high in the sky, far along the creeks and rivers, low among the tree branches to meet those who lived in the wood and hear their songs and laughter and share their joy and maybe make them a little less frightened of magpies.
And their fledglings. Somewhere, they lived. She often worried about them. Wondered if they still flew, if they had fledglings of their own. And he heard his father in him: “They are their own worry now.”
How empty that felt.
Now, she is gone. More emptiness.
Be a good bird, he heard his mother say.
How long had it been since he thought of her. Did she still fly? And his father, brooding, melancholy to her happiness – Did he still gaze up at the bright moon and tell little ones the story of the Moon’s Eye?
The Moon’s Eye, that looks on all, and remembers all and connects all to those who have come before and to those who come after.
“We could find them” she told him. “How far could they have gone?”
So they flew long flights, always asking, always stopping when they saw birds of black and white.
They never found one. But she remained hopeful. “We have our lives to look,” she said.
“Ever faithful, though doubtful,” said He Who Minds the Sparrow’s Fall. “Just like y our father. Just like your mother. I have for you a task. Look!”
Jarrod looked and first beheld his wing, though stiff, healed of hurt. He looked further and saw ethereal paws stroking Aloysius’ back, gently freeing the broken foot from the trap and caressing it until it regained mostly its former shape and the skin and bone healed and crusted blood faded away.
But as the red faded, Jarrod thought he saw wisps of white, growing like blind roots seeking the sun but never finding it, shooting out of the ground and wrapping themselves around the still form of the badger. Even when Aloysius stirred and got groggily to his feet, the tendrils flexed and bent and moved with him, though ever shot their sickly feelers into the ground beneath him.
“Here, your mission, Jarrod,” the voice said. “For you I give the call to rescue. This one. He will not remember. He will not remember what good has been done to him this day. He will curse you. He will curse you for the death of his beloved. For from this day, he will be in thrall to the other. To The Lady, my sister.”
Jarrod saw Aloysius as if through ice on the surface of a lake, in shape and form but exaggerated with whorls, bulges, bubbles and the flotsam of leaves and twigs frozen in the water. He tasted the gall rising in his throat as Aloysius stumbled over to the still form of Landi, face a grimace of pain. Aloysius lay next to her and wept.
“Find him, Jarrod,” the voice said. “Find him, and set him free.”
“I don’t need another task,” Jarrod said.
“Complete one, complete many,” said He Who Marks the Sparrow’s Fall. And he felt his presence leave, like one flying into shadow, out of the sun.
Then Jarrod closed his eyes. The ice melted and he heard anew the sobs of his friend.
The sun set and darkness filled the canyon.