The light which reached the southern sections of the Deadwood Forest illuminated a strange world. Deirdre still slept on her branch. But around her, the forest began to stir.
Covering some of the trees was a reddish slime, like mold. It quaked, rising and falling, sounding very much like a distant ocean. Moss blanketed the lower trunks of other trees, odd brown moss which sent out tentative streamers perpendicular to the bark on which it grew. The forest floor was thick with ferns, black and shaped like grotesque hands. Among them bulbous mushrooms sprouted, poking their poisonous white caps between the fronds. Frogs hopped under the ferns, and there were worms, long as the raven's wingspan and tinged a pale pink.
On the trunk of the tree where Deirdre sat, two starfish, or animals like them, slowly inched their way toward her. They hunched forward in a sickening roll, pointed long arms up, grabbed the bark, and pulled themselves along.
The starfish reached Deirdre's branch and began to slither toward her. They hung below it, gripping the branch with their five pointed arms, their bodies dim grey sacks. One by one, they extended a point, took hold, and perilously inched town the branch. Gradually they came closer until one was near enough.
It reached out, fastened itself to her far claw, and wrapped itself around the branch. With a snap, the second followed, moving with unexpected swiftness. And Deirdre awoke from her sleep with a start, both of her claws cemented to the branch, two round rasping mouths trying to swallow her feet.
Groggy with sleep, she looked below her. The ferns, black as her feathers, waved in the mountain air. For a dizzying moment she thought she was about to fall into water, and then she made out their shapes, foreign and seductive, but recognizable. The mushrooms glinted in the grey light as if they were wet with sweat. And under this ground cover she saw the flash and glitter of the frogs and worms.
Her feet were being sucked and the sensation made her reel with disgust. She spread her wings and beat them frantically, but she couldn't move from the branch. The starfish held tight, their underbellies gripping with enormous suction. She cawed loudly, the ferns below her writhed in response.
She tried again. Slowly she began flapping her wings, attempting through sheer strength to pull herself free. She felt the starfish begin to release, but just when she thought she would leave the branch, they contracted and her claws were sucked back, so tightly this time she was afraid they dug into the wood.
Wings outstretched, she ducked her head and pecked at the fat stubby bodies. They were tough, rubbery, and the sharp point of her tightly curved beak bounced back at her. Shaking with rage, Deirdre stretched her neck as high as she could and brought her beak down in a tremendous blow. She felt the leathery skin break and her beak sink into the animal's body. A white ooze spread from the point she'd punctured. She pecked harder, her head jerking madly. The one grabbing her right claw let go, hung by one point from the branch, and then fell, somersaulting through the air until it disappeared among the ferns.
She turned her attention to the other. She pecked again, frantic, until she thought she's given herself a concussion, but try as she might, she couldn't break its skin.
Deirdre breathed heavily and her heart beat within her chest as if it had gone crazy. She spread her wings again, tried to fly free, but with one claw still held tightly she was lopsided, and almost lost her balance. She imagined hanging upside down from this branch, being held there by this animal. Perhaps then it would release her, and then it would release her, and as she fell, she could catch herself and fly. Instead, the took her free foot, and with as much power as she had left, stuck the talons deep into its sluglike center, and all five points let go at once.
She was free! A shudder racked her sleek black body. She rose in the air, her wings flapping, the starfish gripped in her claw. When she was twenty feet off the branch, she realized she still held the thing and her leg twitched, shaking the starfish loose. It fell like the other, turning circles in the air. It hit a branch, its five wounded points wrapping themselves around the bark, and clung with prehensile strength.
Deirdre was filled with such revulsion she thought she would fall dead. But the idea of what would happen to her if she fell, plummeting beneath the ferns to make a meal for those for those flabby groping creatures, restored her. She soared above the trees. Below her the faint oceanic roar and suck of the slime receded. The undulation of the treetops continued to one side, and to the other the rolling fell away, became flat as the Plain of Desiccation. Remembering her exhaustion of the night before and her plan to live out her life in isolation, there in the southern forest, she wondered at herself. She must have been deranged.
And she knew her directions again. She flew as fast as she'd ever flown, in the upper reaches of the air where the clouds were beginning to settle. She didn't know what it was she was leaving behind; perhaps it was some place of punishment and purgation, some gratuitous prison the owl had constructed in his madness; perhaps she had merely imagined it. But no, she was awake, it was no dream, it had been real. As if to make valid that thought, she caught a glimpse of her left claw, now tucked tightly against the underside of her body. On it a drop of white ooze glistened like dew, and hardened there, a calcified knob.
The wracked trunks of the familiar sections of the Deadwood Forest soon lay beneath her. Never before had it seemed so much like home.
* * *
It was Monday, the moon's day, but she was utterly disenfranchised. It was truly the owl's day, she knew, and tomorrow would be owl's day as well. She fell calmer now that she was rested, but the new morning promised no more hope of escape than had the light of the previous day. She looked to the east for some sign of the sun, but there was none to be seen. The sky was a different color today, a different grey. It looked like the silver lining of a mussel. In its own way it was quite beautiful, but the moon would have given anything for a glimpse of blue, a hole in the clouds through which an arm of sun might streak like a battering ram.
Above her, the sky darkened and a large cloud descended. The air was filled with deadly roaring. As she watched, the color took shape, its brown barred feathers furred in the grey light. The owl's head was bent, his beak pressed tightly against his bloody bib. Like a thunderbolt he fell to the clearing, thudding against the ground with such force he buried his talons in the dark loam. One by one, he extracted his claws and cleaned them. Behind him, a host of falcons settled, leaving him plenty of room.
"My one failing," the owl said to the moon, mildly staring up into the oaken cage. "I can't land without sinking a bit. It's my imposing size, don't you know."
The moon struggled against here gag, but only muffled noises escaped her. "How thoughtless of me," the owl said. "You must think of me a beast of a host. Ungag her."
Three falcons flew to the oak. Two of them separated the branches enough to let the tird inside the cage. He flew around the moon until she was quite dizzy. On one of his swoops behind her, the falcon nimbly snipped the back of the gag and it fell to the ground. In a single motion, the two outside parted the branches, the third slipped through, and all three returned to their previous positions around the owl.
The moon groaned with relief. Her mouth was parched and sore and she swallowed painfully, trying to rid her throat of the dryness.
As soon as she found her voice, she let loose. The owl sat tranquilly, almost smiling, as she ranted at him. And when she finished swearing, she began with curses. "May your talons curse in the night and silence your curdled brain. May you sink so deeply in the ground you suffocate on filth. May you live to old age a crippled one-winged toothless starving. . . ."
"Sticks and stones," the owl said, in a voice of the deadliest calm. "It is nothing for me to have my friends here gag you again."
The moon shut her mouth. Her chest was heaving so deeply the air around her glowed, a nimbus of fury.
"I thought you might be lonely and in need of conversation. After all, you're intelligent, I'm intelligent. I thought we could talk. Your rudeness wounds me deeply. I thought you might like to hear the news. So keep a civil tongue, if you will."
"I'm in no need of your conversation," the moon said.
"But I think you are," the owl said.
"I know my own mind."
"We are huffy today," he said and turned to one of the falcons who stood behind him. "How should I speak to her royal moonness? Perhaps her moonness is insulted by my diction. Perhaps I never learned the proper forms of address." The falcon stared dumbly at the owl. There seemed little reason to offer his opinion. "My flicker of light," the owl crooned. "My twin-horned lovely. Thou ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas."
Emotions welled up in the moon she found difficult to name. She was enraged, of course, but the edge of her anger was muffled by the mortification she felt. Shame, yes, and powerlessness, but there was something else besides.
"Stop your wretched poetry before I. . . ." she said.
"Before you what?" the owl asked, intent. "Before you spit? Not so genteel after all, eh? Finish your sentence."
"No," she said. "No, I will not. You make me forget myself. You may have humiliated me, but I shall not give you the satisfaction of watching me humiliate myself."
"Bravely said," the owl cheered. "Well put! Bravissima! But let me make one thing perfectly clear. Your courage will not get you very far. Your cooperation will. Do you understand me?"
"No," the moon said.
"That is your prerogative. You are ill-advised. I will never lie to you. To the others I will lie, if it suits my purpose, but never to you."
The moon tried to think of a comeback, some flippancy she could hurl at him, but nothing formed.
"You will have noticed the absence of the sun these two days past. You may count on her continued absence. Thick clouds cover the arc of heaven and the sun cannot penetrate them. She grows weak without you, you see, and in a few days, the earth will know only darkness. It is then I will send the falcons, my emissaries, to receive the world's acclaim. It will be a very different place to live, I promise you. And I need do nothing more than wait. You, or course, will remain my special guest. You should decide just one thing. If you want a stake in my imminent kingdom—and there are ways in which you could be useful to me—you have only to tell me this: I want to know where your sister spends her nights."
The moon was stunned, not so much by the news of her sister as by the thought of betrayal.
"I will leave you now," the owl said. "But be aware you will be watched. My falcons will return by nightfall to replace your gag."
He spread his wings and they began to shiver in the clearing. Small leaves and twigs eddied in the fierce air currents his wings created. They began to flap and he rose, straight into the air above her, with so little effort the moon was filled with awe. The falcons left with him, and she was alone again.
"Help!" she screamed. "Someone help me!" She screamed until her breath was gone and her fire was nearly out. The forest lay around her, silent as a cave. And yet there were presences there. If the owl said she was being watched, she knew she was being watched. Perhaps the trees had eyes. Perhaps this very oak had a life she didn't begin to suspect.
The smell of the owl hung in the clearing, an unclean odor that would not disperse. Suddenly she pinned it down, that inchoate feeling she had experienced before. There was anger, yes, and shame, and even a bit of awe. But there was also—could she admit it to herself?—a ripe plum of envy. In his way, he was magnificent and truly terrible.
And all these years she hadn't had a thought of competition.
* * *
That's all for now. If you're still reading, a few words worth of comment will give me the strength to write faster, and write more.