A drip, a drip, a drip of water.
Water falling from the sky.
Clouds roll in and cap the Earth,
Obscuring yonder mountains high.
The cap, it falls to form a prison.
A prison which has no gates to open.
Those inside know not the prison,
Only of the promise broken.
The prisoners have no eyes to see.
No eyes, no sight to part the darkness.
For dawn they wait, with young ones crying,
For dawn they wait, and hearts fail hopeless.
The water dripped on Jarrod’s head. And with each drip, he heard a whisper.
Drip, the voice of an otter.
Drip, the cry of a wolf.
Drip, bubbles blown by a fish.
He opened his eyes in the dark. The dark sucked at his eyes as he blinked in the rain. He opened his eyes wider and the darkness sucked at them. There was no light. No light of the moon, no light of the stars. Even the feeble lights of the farm nearby were obscured by rain and branches and leaves and mist.
A rustling, heard over the patter of rain. A snaky hiss, scales sliding over the rocks. Clicks of grabbing claws and, here and there, whiffs of foul, black-beetle breath.
“Not welcome, not welcome, not welcome, here of all places,” the black-beetle voice said in the darkness. And with each syllable, the darkness cracked to reveal smoky tendrils wrapping around tree trunks, snaking over boles and filling them, leaping over the creek, caressing leaves on the trees before plucking the branches bare of leaves one by one.
Jarrod opened his eyes wider, and the light from the tendrils faded. If he squinted, it returned.
Underneath the hissing, underneath the syllables, Jarrod heard the other voices:
“Set us free!”
“Prisoners would be free!”
With each voice, new ones joined the cries until no words would be interpreted and the voices sounded like the blended screams of joy and terror and Jarrod was swept from the dripping tree and tossed by the tendrils to the ground into a misty bole and opened and swallowed him.
The voices, once muted, were louder and came from both inside his skull and out. Jarrod felt the darkness. He dared not open his eyes, but felt the darkness prying at his eyelids, creeping underneath his feathers and working to unclench his clawed feet. The earth convulsed again and spat him out.
Jarrod lay still.
The screaming followed. And this time Jarrod, eyes and claws still clenched tight, recognized the screams and cries of pain and fear of friends. Of young once watching as their families died. He smelt blood and the gorge rose in his throat.
The screaming quietened, but the trees. There were trees, and the trees roared in agony, and the rocks tumbled and the ground shook.
A shout of command from a quiet voice, and the trees and the rocks and all the Earth grew still.
Jarrod opened his eyes.
He lay on the shore of a montane lake, surrounded by trees, bathed in bright sunshine. He looked for the hole in the Earth that had spat him out and saw nothing but Indian paintbrush and bachelor buttons.
The voice spoke, again in a whisper:
“Set them free.”
Jarrod thought of the cavern in the Earth, dripping with water and screams, and a cloud seemed to pass over the sun and his eyes failed and, for a moment, all was dark again.
“How can I?” he asked. “When I think of them, I cannot see.”
“Close your eyes, and you will hear,” the voice said.
Underneath the first voice, strong but still as a whisper, Jarrod heard a quiet burbling cackle, growing louder.
“If I hear, I will hear only their agony.”
“Then close your eyes and stop up your ears, Jarrod,” the voice whispered. “I will see and hear for you, and you will deliver them.”
“Close your eyes, stop up your ears, and I will find you by breath alone and eat you,” said the cackling voice. When the voice spoke Jarrod’s eyes failed and sound came to his ears as if he were deep under water. Jarrod strained to see in the darkness, groping, gasping with his beak open and eyes rolling.
“Close your eyes, Jarrod, and set the prisoners free,” the quiet voice said.
“No!” Jarrod opened his eyes wide.
He heard the chorus of voices again, calling from the darkness. The darkness that was his.