Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes.
– Karl Marx
Everyone had been called to Worship. I stood outside the temple, and waited for the doors to be opened. It was early morning, and very bright, with sunbeams reflecting off the snow that had fallen the night before. I felt exposed, standing as I was on the mountain top, near the greatest temple in the world, or to my knowledge, at least.
The time between call and opening was usually about an hour. Today, by my estimate, it took around fifteen minutes.
Once the doors had been flung wide, we all began to file silently inside. I’d been in the temple many times in my life, but the place never ceased to leave me awe-stricken. Everything in it was made of stone, because wood is living material, metal is forged by humans, and only rock has no ancestry.
The two Leaders of Worship took their places at the front, between two columns of gray stone. They linked hands, and each put their other hand flat on the stone beside them. They looked around at us, and their expressions dwindled from gentle smiles to sadness, through desolation, and then shrank down in horror. A hush fell over us as we listened. The one on the right spoke.
“The dark tide will soon be upon us,” she said.
The man on the left nodded. Tears began to flow down his cheeks.
He said, “We have displeased the gods, and this is their vengeance.”
In the silence that followed these terrible words, I could hear people’s breathing quicken, and some began to gasp for spirit. A few children cried, and a few looked at their parents’ frightened faces in bewilderment.
Through his tears, the male Leader of Worship said, “There is nothing that can be done; nothing that can placate them now. You may grieve, but there is no point. Soon, our whole city will be utterly destroyed. Our only hope is to leave before the dark tide sweeps us all away. Let us pray now, and hope that the gods will see fit to tell us when the dark tide might arrive.”
Both Leaders of Worship gestured to us and on shaking legs, I stood. Parents pulled their children upright or took babies in their arms. We all moved toward the nearest stone and put our hands flat upon it. The wall was cold under my palms and I was shivering. The rock seemed to draw out all the heat in me, to suck away the warmth of my blood, and to be trying to remove my soul from my breath. The gods were definitely displeased. I wished with all my pounding heart to be told when the dark tide would come.
A few minutes later, the Leaders of Worship shook their heads, a signal that our request to know when the dark tide was coming had not been granted.
That was when the wailing started. It hurt my ears, and careful not to lose contact with the stone, I began to edge my way toward the great doors. I was close to the back, and it only took me thirty excruciating seconds to leave, but I was afraid my ears would burst with the terrible sounds that the women made.
Outside, I kept my hands pinned against the stone of the gods and shivered with cold and fear.
The wailing and grieving went on for hours. The cold grew more intense, and my fear ever greater.
Finally, just after sunset, the crying died down, and I re-entered the temple to see the two Leaders of Worship still standing silently between the pillars of unyielding, godly rock.
After about half an hour, the Leaders of Worship nodded, and the moaning subsided into silence.
The female Leader of Worship said, “We have been given a sign, and now we know when the dark tide will come.”
“Hurry home,” the male Leader of Worship said, “for in one hour, the dark tide will come, and out of the earth shall emerge a roiling cloud of dusty gray, as a flood, not of water, but of destruction and damnation.”
Both Leaders of Worship signaled us to depart in orderly fashion, and that Worship was at an end. We all let go of the stone walls and the nearest to the back left first. My wife and daughter were near the front, so I left before they did. Their poor throats must have been so raw. There was no running water in the Worship room, so they would have to wait until they got home. I also worried that either of them could be injured if the crowd exiting from the temple descended into disorder.
Our home was a ten-minute walk down the mountain from the temple. The snow crunched under my feet as I made my way toward it.
We didn’t own a bicycle cart, so we’d flee on foot with whatever the three of us could carry.
When I got to our house, I went into the master bedroom and looked at the bed where Anna and I had first made love, and was overwhelmed by sadness. There was nothing I could do, and it was time to pack.
I heard Anna and Felicity coming in and going into the kitchen, and I savored a moment of relief that they had made it home safely. I listened until I heard the clanging of pots and pans being packed, and then I went into the closet and began packing our clothes. It would be warmer in the valley below, I reasoned, so we didn’t need to bring our heaviest winter coats, but I did pack our spring ones.
Ten minutes passed and then Anna called to me from the kitchen.
“We’re going now. Are you ready?”
“I just need to get a few more things and then I’ll follow.”
“Yeah okay, but hurry up.”
“I will, but don’t wait for me. We can find each other later.”
I heard them leaving and I tossed the last of Felicity’s socks into the bag. All I needed to pack now were her sketches. I slung the bag over my arm and opened the drawer where I kept the folder of drawings that she’d given to me on my birthday and other occasions for the last sixteen years. I opened the folder and looked at the first one that she’d made at the tender age of two. It was a stick figure that I knew was supposed to represent Anna. She’d drawn her mother with a black pencil on white paper. It wasn’t very good, but it was her first. I took all of them out of the folder, intending to count them and make sure that they were all there, and began to flip through them. The one she’d done when she was three was more elaborate, and showed the three of us, sitting on the grass in the summer, with flowers all around us and in our hair.
A gust of wind against the house startled me, and I dropped the papers.
“No!” I bent down, and began to pick them up one at a time. I would now have to count them three times instead of only once, because dropping precious things displeases the gods and counting them would restore order.
My fingers were clumsy and my heart pounded as I picked up sketch after sketch, my mind chattered at me to hurry up, but I would not risk sliding into disorderly haste.
Finally, I had them all in the folder, and began to count. I made it to 287 and then started again. I made it to 287 for the second time, but after the third count, I only had 286. I’d have to count them until I got 287 three times in a row.
When at last I was sure I had them all, I’d counted them fourteen times over. I put them carefully back into the folder and put that into my bag. I zipped it closed and then I looked at the time. A lot more than an hour had gone by. The dark tide must be very near. How long before it burst into my house and consumed me? I rushed to the door and flung it open. It was dark, snow was falling, and the wind gusted fell against me. I hoped that Anna and Felicity had gotten a ride with somebody who had a bicycle cart, or they’d be caught out in this, and wouldn’t get far before the dark tide overtook them.
I, on the other hand, had to decide if I wanted to walk into a storm, or if I preferred to die holding Felicity’s sketches in the warmth of my home.
I stepped out into the storm. The icy wind blew right through the winter coat that I’d donned, and threatened to tear the bag containing Felicity’s art right out of my hands. I clutched it tightly and began to walk. I had taken only a few steps, but I could just barely see my house.
How could I find anything in this?
It was night and not a single light was visible. I turned back and made it to my door. I practically fell inside, went into the master bedroom, and curled up on Anna’s side of the bed with the folder of Felicity’s sketches in my arms.
The wind howled all night, and I woke up several times, but no cloud came for me out of the earth.
At dawn, I rose and got dressed. I put Felicity’s sketches, still in their folder, into a light bag and strapped it securely to my chest. If anything came to kill me, I could not easily be separated from her work.
I walked into the kitchen and saw that there was nothing to eat except some old bread. The big jug would have been too heavy for Anna to carry, and it was almost full. I drank and then looked outside. Snow was falling and the wind blew through a day dimly lit. Would I ever see the sun shining again?
All that day, I sat and listened to the storm and leafed through the 287 sketches that were the next most precious to me, after my wife and daughter. Each time I looked, they grew more beautiful.
That day and two more passed in the same way.
In the middle of the that night, the wind stopped. I lay awake, listening to the silence, until just before sunrise. When it came, the sun was as bright as it could be, and I had to shield my eyes from the glare. I looked out upon the day, and saw only snow, blue sky, and houses that stood quietly in the still air. It was time to go out and look for food and find out if anybody else had stayed or been left behind.
I put on my heavy coat and my snowshoes, made sure the bag of sketches was tightly strapped to my chest, and slung my bag of clothes over my shoulder. I walked from house to house, looking for people and food. I found enough of the latter to sustain me, but none of the former, until I came to a set of steps and saw a hat in the snow. I lifted it up, and saw a frozen man. He’d died just feet away from his home, as I probably would have if I’d tried to leave during the storm. There was no point in digging him out; this was as good a grave as any, so I nodded respectfully, replaced his hat, and kept going.
In one house, I heard a voice, and went into a bedroom where an elderly lady was lying in bed. She was mumbling nonsense to herself, and her skin was thin, dry, and pale.
“I’m Curtis,” I said. “Would you like a glass of water?”
She looked at me but didn’t seem to see.
“Lady, are you thirsty? I’m your neighbor and I’m here to help you. The storm is over. I have water and food.”
She still didn’t seem to understand, so I filled a glass and offered it to her. She didn’t appear to know how to drink it, and I didn’t want to force it upon her, so I stayed with her and offered my hand, which she took.
All that day and into the night, I sat with her.
Just before sunrise, she expired, and I covered her with a clean sheet, lifted her up, took her outside, and laid her in the snow beneath a large evergreen.
With a heavy heart, I continued my search for other humans. I found three more dead: a man and a woman outside their house, and a small boy in a broken bicycle cart. I had no doubt that there were others I couldn’t see beneath the snow. I was all alone. Soon, I would head down the mountain side in search of my family, but there was one last place I needed to go.
As I approached the massive structure, I felt very little, except for a kind of dull, aching sadness, and something that resembled anger. I flung the doors open without any reverence, and entered. The place smelled bad, and the Worship room was empty. I walked with no hesitation between the two great pillars, and observed what lay beyond. There was a hallway with a door on each side, and another door at the far end.
I opened the door on the right and saw a bed that had been stripped bare, a kitchen containing very little, and a bathroom in need of a good cleaning.
In the room on the left, the bed was also bare, the kitchen was empty, but the bathroom was spotless. The suite of rooms smelled faintly of perfume, and I imagined that it belonged to the female Leader of Worship. Where was she now? Where was the male Leader of Worship who had stood beside her between the pillars and told us all that the dark tide was coming?
Did I care?
I left her rooms and approached the door at the end of the hall. I wanted to leave, but I had a duty to find anyone who might still be here.
The door was locked. I almost departed; it was probably just an office. What made me set my mind to the task of breaking in was not curiosity about what lay beyond the door, but anger at the Leaders of Worship for not being the last to leave. Mariners say that the captain goes down with the ship, and as a parent, I know that mothers and fathers would gladly give their lives for their children, so why shouldn’t Leaders of Worship be willing to die for their people?
The door was solid, but being a furniture maker, I had the tools to remove it. I studied the problem, got my tools, and a few minutes after that, the door fell into my arms, and I laid it down on the floor.
I looked into the room. It was no office! In the center stood a large cage. In the cage, there were two creatures. One was a child of about two, and the other was a bird. The bird was sitting on three eggs, and the child was curled up asleep. The bird was large, and I could easily have sat on her back. Her wings were folded against her sides and her feathers were a muddy mixture of brown and gray. Her eyes were also brown, but sparkled with life and looked at me intently.
On the floor, the child uncurled and opened its eyes. It saw me, opened its mouth, and screamed. Another scream came from behind the bird.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said. The words sounded ridiculous, given that my voice was shaking. If I was frightened, how could I comfort those around me? Could the children even understand me? Felicity had, but I was her father, but these children were in a temple, and perhaps children of the gods spoke a different language or none at all.
A pair of brown eyes appeared beside the bird’s tail and looked at me.
“I have food and water,” I said. “Are you hungry and thirsty?” The child nearest to me nodded. The bird chirped in what sounded like agreement. I searched the room and found a cupboard containing bowls and cups.
Once I’d filled them and put them through the bars, both children rushed over and picked theirs up. The bird looked at hers and made a mournful sound. The children looked at me.
“Can you two push her bowl and cup closer?” I said, realizing that she couldn’t leave her eggs, and I didn’t want to make her wait until I could get into the cage myself. The children nodded and did so. The bird chirped happily and began to eat. I was starting to feel peckish myself, so I made myself a meal and ate it on the floor, just outside the cage.
After we’d eaten, I took out my tools and smiled at them all.
“I’m going to open this cage so we can leave. There’s nobody else here.” The bird gave a sad chirp. “I’ll try not to make noise, but if I do, don’t be frightened.” The children watched as I cut the door from the cage.
“May I come in?” I asked, once it was out of the way and I’d repacked my tools. The bird chirped and the children nodded. I entered the cage and saw that there was a door built into the floor. It was locked, and it took me only a few minutes to remove it. I climbed down a set of stairs and found myself in a small room lined with shelves. Some held preserved food, some bottles of medicine, and others were piled with papers and books. There was also a wooden seat with straps that appeared as though it would conform perfectly to the bird’s back. On each side of it, bags hung by more straps. I opened the bags, but they were empty.
Could I put this on her back and fly with the children out of there and down the mountain? What a wild thought.
I was about to go back upstairs when I saw it. On top of a stack of papers lay a sketch that could only have been done by my daughter. With a trembling hand, I reached out and took it. I looked at the bottom right corner and saw her mark.
I looked carefully at the sketch itself. It showed two babies. I couldn’t tell for sure, but I thought that it might be of the two children upstairs.
Why had she done this sketch? It was as good as the ones she’d done when she was fourteen. She got better every year. What would compel her to drawn pictures for anybody but her mother and me?
I looked through the papers and found more sketches. In fine penciled lines on good paper, I watched the babies grow, until after thirty-two pictures, they were identical to the living ones above my head. Dates on the backs of each sketch told me that she’d done one per month, which made them thirty-two months old. The only question still unanswered was: why?
I searched the room for answers, but there were no more sketches. I added the thirty-two to my folder, bringing the total up to 319. I put it back into my bag and mounted the stairs.
The children had fallen asleep, and the bird was still sitting on her three eggs. I wondered how close they were to hatching. I sat on the floor and waited for the children to wake up.
An hour later, the bird made a mournful sound and got up. She left two eggs exposed, and carefully rolled one a few short steps away, and sat down upon it with another mournful noise. I went over to the two abandoned eggs, and touched them. They were warm, and I wanted to hold them until the little birds came forth, but her behavior indicated that she knew that they would never emerge from their eggs. I didn’t want to watch them grow cold and then decay, so I took them and put them outside in the snow under an evergreen.
“Goodbye,” I whispered, and went back into the temple.
When I entered the cage, the children were just waking up. They looked at the bird questioningly. She made two mournful sounds and the children both cried quietly.
“Do you know when the egg will hatch?” I asked. Both children nodded. “Can you tell me, please?”
“Twenty days,” they said together.
“Who are your mother and father?” They got up and I followed them. They walked out into the hallway, and into the room on the left.
“Mother’s room,” one of them said. They went into the room on the right.
“Father’s room,” the other one said.
“Do you mean the Leaders of Worship?” They nodded. “Were you in the Worship room when everybody was there?” They shook their heads. “Why not?”
“Not allowed,” one said.
We went back into the room with the cage, and I said, “I’m Curtis. What are your names?”
“Melody,” one child said.
“Oliver,” the other one said.
“What’s your name?” I asked the bird.
She looked at the children and chirped as if to say, “You tell him.”
“Tammy,” they said in unison.
Twenty days would have been an eternity if I’d been alone, but it was much better with Melody, Oliver, and Tammy for company. She couldn’t speak, but Tammy appeared to listen attentively when I spoke to her.
During the day, the children and I stayed in the open cage with Tammy, but at night, I took the children into their mother’s room, and I slept in their father’s bed.
As the days wore on, it became more difficult to obtain fresh food. I did not know how to bake bread, so by the third day together, we were eating preserves from the storage room below the cage. I calculated that it would last us another thirty days, and then I would have to search houses to see if I could find more preserved food. With every hour that passed, I felt further and further away from Anna and Felicity. I was desperate to leave and go in search of them, but I could not leave the children and Tammy alone; my conscience simply would not permit such an act.
At dusk on the twentieth day, I heard a loud chirp from the room where the cage stood, just as I was seeing the children into bed. We looked at each other in silent understanding.
“Would you like to come with me?”
Both of them shook their heads, and Oliver said, “Dark.”
“See you in the morning,” I said, and went down the hall.
Tammy stood beside the remains of an egg, and a young bird was pecking at some preserved meat that I’d left in case it hatched while I was in bed.
“Congratulations,” I said. Both birds chirped. “Do you need anything?” Tammy chirped a negative. I said that I’d see them in the morning, and went into the room that had belonged to the male Leader of Worship. I lay on his bed and attempted to fall asleep, but I was too excited about my plan, which was to ask Tammy if she could fly us down the mountain once her young was old enough to accompany us.
The next day dawned dark and forbidding. The wind howled, and by the time I had made breakfast for us, snow was falling and it was impossible to see even the nearest houses.
The young bird required a lot of food, and at the end of the second day after the egg had hatched, the storm was still raging, and there was no more food. I didn’t tell the children, but it was only a matter of hours before they would ask for nourishment, but I would be unable to provide them with anything.
I lay awake listening to the wind, my failure to save us all lying heavily upon my chest. Only Felicity’s lovely sketches provided a small measure of comfort, but they couldn’t vanquish the knowledge that if the storm did not loosen its grip, we would all starve.
I must have finally fallen asleep, because I was jolted awake, not by a sound, but by utter silence. I dashed to the nearest window and looked out upon a brilliantly sunny morning. Today was the day. I woke the children and brought them into the room with the open cage.
Tammy and her young were gone. My heart fell into my boots. There would be no escape for us. They’d flown away during the night, just after the storm had ended, in search of food, I had no doubt. I would have done the same thing for my daughter, so I knew how Tammy must have felt, and why she’d left the children and me here alone. Well, we would just have to walk.
“I’m hungry,” Oliver said, and Melody nodded. It was time to go and find more food, and then I would have to walk with the children down the mountain, and hope that another storm wouldn’t catch us out there. I knew that we were unlikely to survive for long; spring was always a bad time for sudden storms.
I looked through the bedrooms, the room containing the empty cage, and the storage room below, but could find no warm clothing for the children. They had only the formless gray robes all young children wore at home. I could bundle them up in several layers of these, but their legs would be cold, and their only shoes were sandals. The temple’s hearth kept the entire place comfortably warm, but once we left, we could only build small cooking fires.
“I will go and look for warm clothes for you,” I told them. “Please stay in your mother’s room.” They nodded, and I walked toward the entrance to the Worship room and the two massive pillars of stone. My footsteps echoed hollowly on the stone floor, and I wished with all my breath that I would wake up in my bed, with all that had transpired merely a bad dream.
Standing just inside the doors of the temple were Tammy and her young. Beside them lay the wooden seat with bags attached at either end. Tammy chirped softly, and looked from the seat to me and then over her shoulder.
“You want me to strap it on your back?” She chirped in agreement, and I did as she had asked. “Will your young fly with us?” She made a negative sound. “Should I put your young into one of the bags?” She chirped in agreement, and before long, her young, my bag, and the children were distributed between the two bags.
I left them for a few minutes while I went to a nearby house, where I found some preserved food and warm clothes, and then I returned to the temple.
Once I’d packed the clothes and food, I took a deep breath, gathered up all of my courage, climbed up, and sat down in the seat upon Tammy’s back. I clutched my daughter’s sketches to my thumping chest, Tammy spread her wings, and for the first time in my life, I left the ground.
Tammy flew through the clear air, and I looked far into the distance, and could see nothing but evergreens, snow, and blue sky. A frigid wind blew all around me, and I thought how good it was that the children and Tammy’s young were tucked up safely in warm blankets in the bags hanging from the wooden seat upon which I sat. I’d had to tie my hat under my chin in order to keep it on my head. I’d doubled the straps that kept the bag containing my daughter’s sketches pinned to my breast. We’d already been aloft for three days, and I couldn’t take much more of the loneliness. Tammy was right underneath the wooden seat, but we could not even look at each other as she flew, and the wind made conversation with the children impossible. I couldn’t hear them if they cried out, but Tammy could, and she would land us and the children would emerge from the bag and I would tend to them. I longed to stop for a few hours and converse with them and come up with a name for Tammy’s young, but the threat of another storm made that unwise, and I would not risk all of our lives merely for a few minutes of companionship. Instead, I sat on the wooden seat and imagined every one of Felicity’s beautiful drawings, and when I came to the last one, I started from the beginning again.
At night, I lit a fire and warmed preserved food, but soon we would run out, and I didn’t sleep well, worried as I was that we would be overtaken by a blinding white expanse of falling snow.
What I feared most happened on the morning of the fourth day out from the mountain top. We’d just taken off, when I saw a dark mass of clouds moving quickly across the sky from the northeast. Blue turned to gray, and the clear air became dark and murky with impending doom. My heart thumped against the bag of sketches and I began to shiver deep inside my winter clothes. It wasn’t extremely cold, but there wasn’t enough shelter, and I wouldn’t be able to keep a fire going for very long.
A few flakes began to fall, and I wondered how long Tammy would wait before landing.
A few minutes later, I felt her slowing, and I gripped the sides of the wooden seat in preparation for a very wind-buffeted landing. Instead of making a descent, she launched herself upward, and I cried out in surprise. The wind tore my voice from me, and I coughed and then let out a strange laugh. My heart beat with stunning force against my sternum, and I was overcome with heat and dizziness as I looked down at the ground that was now disappearing. I leaned back in the wooden seat and tried to school my breathing into something resembling calm. Tammy flew faster than she ever had, and the wind gusted ever more fiercely around me, snow began to pelt me, and I longed for the solid earth and the warmth of a bed by a fire in a well-built home.
Tammy’s wild flight lasted for what seemed like an eternity, with snow falling more thickly, and the wind trying harder and harder to unseat me. I gripped the wooden arms as tightly as I could, and hoped with all my soul and breath that she would land, but perhaps the storm had frightened her so badly that all she could do was fly until she ran out of energy, and then she would crash-land us all. It would be a quick death, but the plunge through the stormy air would be an endless torment of seconds turned to centuries by the fear of the final, deadly impact. Of the children and her young, I could hear nothing, and I willed the straps to hold out against the tearing force of the wind.
Suddenly, Tammy began to descend, and I sighed with relief, even though I knew we would not be completely safe on the ground.
As we neared it, I saw that there was a cleft in the mountain side, and I could see several bicycle carts heading into it. As I watched, one pitched and struggled up over the precarious terrain, and I looked on in horror as it overturned. A few seconds later, a man got up and tried to right his vehicle. We were still descending, and the wind died down for a few moments, and I clearly heard the sound of a woman screaming for help.
I called to Tammy, “Please, take us down so I can help them.” She made a mournful sound, and I saw the man finally lift the bicycle cart up. Tammy likely knew, as I feared, that the woman lying on the ground had been crushed beyond saving. Tammy did move faster, and soon we were on the ground. It took me several seconds before I could pry my hands free of their grip on the wooden arms, but finally, I stepped down and stood on firm ground beside the bicycle cart. The children and Tammy’s young were safe for the time being, so I approached the woman, but the man moved in front of me. His chest was heaving from the exertion of righting the overturned bicycle cart, and his brow was beaded with perspiration. His eyes blazed with hatred and his expression was distorted by fear. He jabbed a thick, work-hardened index finger at me.
“Sir, is there anything I can do?” I asked, even though I was quite certain that there wasn’t, and even more sure that he did not want my help, although I couldn’t understand why he should fear or hate me, and I couldn’t walk away without offering help.
He stood there for a moment, and then he said, “Curse you, shadow man who flies upon the back of a vulture. Death to all yours. And you, you who have brought evil down upon my god-fearing wife, live forever. In the names of all the gods!” His voice was rough, but his words were clear, and I felt it prudent to back away, rather than trying to reason with a man who had just lost his wife and needed somebody to blame.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something grayish brown, and realized that Tammy had taken off. I looked around desperately, hoping I’d see the children, but they were still in the bag strapped to the wooden seat, which in turn was strapped to Tammy, who was now disappearing into the terrible sky.
A blow struck hard in my left side, and I fell to the snow. I lay there and listened to the man groaning with grief and exhaustion as he lifted his wife into the bicycle cart. Once he’d gone, I got up and checked myself over. My side ached, but I still had my warm clothes, and most important of all, Felicity’s sketches. What I lacked were food and shelter, but the cleft in the mountain was near, and I began to walk toward it.
The hollow in the mountain was full of people, bags, and bicycle carts. There were also shelters that although hastily constructed, would see us through the storm. I saw cooking fires, and families were sitting together eating preserved food. I, on the other hand, had no food, and I was unwilling to ask anyone to share what little they had left.
I wandered around until I came to the other side of the hollow in the rock, where I stood at the edge of a precipice. I felt dizzy looking down into it, so I turned my head to the right, and saw Felicity. She was standing there looking down into the void. She saw me, and her face lit up with a smile that was more life-giving than a thousand wholesome meals, and more beautiful than all 319 of her sketches.
“My father,” she said. “I thought you . . . I thought . . . the dark tide . . .”
“It doesn’t exist. I was delayed, but I’m here now, and ever so happy to see you. Is your mother here?” She shook her head, and her smile dwindled.
“I was offered a ride in a bicycle cart, but there was no room for Mom. She kept going on foot. The storms have been so bad. I hope she found shelter.”
I heard a bicycle cart coming, and wondered if I was about to meet whomever had offered her a ride.
“That man. He was flying! It’s him.” It was the man whose bicycle cart had overturned.
“Flying?” Felicity said. “Who’s that?” The bicycle cart came to a stop beside her. In it sat the man who had cursed me and the male Leader of Worship. The latter smiled at Felicity, who smiled uncertainly back.
“Is he your father?” he asked in a friendly voice. She nodded. “Shall I pay him then?”
“Pay me?” I said, my gaze moving from my daughter to the men in the bicycle cart.
“Your daughter draws very well,” the male Leader of Worship said, “and she’s also great company. I owe her a . . . debt of gratitude.” He smirked at me.
What was he really saying?
“He flies,” the man who cursed me said. “He killed Cecily with his shadow.”
“He won’t be flying anymore,” the male Leader of Worship said. He grinned broadly at me. “Look carefully in the cart.”
I did, my stomach knotted with dread of what I’d see. At the back, there was a storage area that was closed, but there was an object on the floor between the front and back seats. It was covered by a sheet, and I had no idea what it was at first, but then I saw a grayish brown feather in the bottom of the bicycle cart.
The male Leader of Worship looked me in the eye, nodded, and gave my daughter a violent shove, which sent her lurching sideways. She struggled for balance, but ran out of ground, and fell off the cliff.
The two men laughed as they drove the bicycle cart away, and I was left standing alone at the edge of the precipice. For a few seconds, I considered jumping off and joining her, but Anna might still be alive, and I owed it to Felicity to find her mother, or at least to try.
I looked around, but didn’t see anything that had belonged to her. She must have either left it somewhere or she’d only had what she’d been carrying in the bag I’d seen strapped to her back.
Had the male Leader of Worship truly given her a ride in his bicycle cart? I would likely never know the truth, but I hoped that he’d just been talking out of his backside. I had to accept that he really had seen her drawings, given the fact that I’d found thirty-two of them in the temple. Had he commissioned them? If so, why? If not, then who had?
My mind bubbled and foamed with endless questions as I searched for food. At last, I came to an abandoned shelter where I found some preserved food. Before consuming any of it, I went to the nearest occupied shelter and asked a young man if he knew who had lived there.
“There was a family there, but they left two days ago. They were going to try and find a place where they could raise crops. This place is quite safe, but barren.” I nodded sadly, doubting they’d managed to find such a place before the storm struck.
“Why did they leave food behind?”
“I think they might have left something in case others needed shelter.”
“Thank you. Do you have enough?”
“Yes, thank you.”
I stayed only until the weather cleared, which took only a day and a night.
In the morning, I rose early, packed half of the remaining food, made sure the shelter was clean, and closed the door. Then I began to walk.
For ten days, the weather was clear, and preserved food sustained me, although I longed for fresh fruit.
At midday on the eleventh, I consumed the last of my food and walked on.
On the fourteenth day, I found an empty bicycle cart. I found nobody nearby to claim it, so I climbed in and looked in the storage area at the back. What I found stunned me. The storage area was filled with preserved food. Why had this bicycle cart been left? There was no one to ask, so I kept going down the mountain side.
The weather became warmer, and layer by layer, I shed my winter clothes like serpents shed their old skin.
On the forty-first day, I came to a flat place where bushes grew thickly in black earth. I yelled with delight when I saw plump red berries and pushed handfuls into my mouth as fast as I could swallow. I ate them for myself, for the sweet refreshing taste, but also for Felicity, who would never enjoy them again.
As I walked, I noticed how flat the terrain was. When I paused to listen to my surroundings, I thought I heard the sound of water running. Yes, surely a place like this would offer a clear stream for drinking. I headed toward the sound, which grew in volume.
A while later, I emerged from a clump of bushes and looked upon a vast open space. It was carpeted in grass, and dotted here and there with houses. At the far side of it wasn’t the stream that I’d been expecting, but a river. I could see people swimming and playing in it, as well as some others washing clothes, so I gathered that it was shallow for quite some distance out.
I walked until I came to a deserted spot, took off all my clothes, and proceeded to wash them as thoroughly as I could. I hung them to dry, unstrapped the bag containing Felicity’s sketches, took out the folder, and laid it on the grass. I took the bag into the river and washed both it and myself. It didn’t take long for the sun to dry everything, and soon the bag of sketches was strapped to my chest, and I was dressed in my lightest layer.
I walked around and enjoyed another meal of red berries, and then I offered to help a man build a house if he would let me use his tools to build mine.
Once his house was finished, he said that I could have his tools as payment, as he no longer needed them. I thanked him and began the construction of my own abode. Once it stood ready, I moved in. I found that there was no lack of work for me, and I throve. I earned meat and fish, delicious herbs and nourishing roots, and fine clothing, but all I wanted was to find Anna.
One day, I found her. I’d almost lost hope, but then there she was, eating the same red berries that I so enjoyed.
“Anna!” She popped a large berry into her mouth and turned to gaze at me. She was a little thin, but otherwise she appeared to be just as she always had been.
“Curtis,” she whispered. “I have been searching for you and Felicity. Have you seen her?” I couldn’t bear to tell her that our daughter had been pushed to her death, so I shook my head. That was the only time I can remember lying to her.
She joined me in our new house, and a few days passed in peace and comfort.
One morning, the river seemed louder than usual. I think that a few people noticed this, but nobody paid it any attention; we were all too much occupied with enjoying a clear, warm day. Anna stayed to wash our clothes, while I went in search of red berries. As I picked, I scarcely noticed the sound of the river, but when my sack was full and heavy upon my shoulders and I turned toward home, I did perceive that the river sounded quite a lot louder than it should. I felt no fear as I walked down the hillside. No dread pitted my stomach, and no anxiety quickened my heart.
I walked down the steep path and stepped into water that was ankle-deep. As I stood there, the water crept up my calves and I saw people running in and out of houses, trying to prevent their possessions from being washed away by the rising river. I looked at the sky, and saw only blueness. Had it rained while I’d been away? But no, that was impossible. I stepped back up out of the water, and looked frantically for Anna. I had a clear view of the whole area, and what I saw terrified me. The houses that were mere steps from the river’s edge appeared to be completely under water, and I saw clothing, branches, toys, and tools floating and being carried downstream. My heart thundered against Felicity’s sketches. Where was my wife?
“Curtis!” I looked left and there she was. Her arms were full of my tools, and she had a bag strapped to her back, which I guessed contained clothes and food.
“It’s dry up here,” I said. She came to me. Her legs were soaking wet, but her shirt was still dry. I breathed a sigh of relief. We could move to higher ground and rebuild our home. If others had lost their clothes and food, we could help them.
Anna put my tools down and groaned.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. I’m only tired and your tools are heavy.”
I heard sounds, and saw a man climbing up toward us.
“Hello,” I said.
He didn’t answer, but ran up the slope as fast as he could.
“Sir, it’s all right. You’ll be safe up here.” If he didn’t stop or turn, he was going to run right into Anna. He didn’t slow or change course, so I moved to pull her to safety, but he got there first, grabbed her, and then I saw his face. It was the man who had cursed me. He pushed her, and then both of them went rolling and tumbling down the precipitous incline and straight into the rapidly rising flood. I couldn’t swim, and I had no boat. I went down after them. I’m a tall man, and I intended to rescue her before the water came up over my head. What made that so much harder was that he was fast, and she was weighted down by the large bag that was still strapped to her back.
“Here, man!” a boy’s high, piping voice called. I looked and saw him sitting in a canoe. He threw me a rope, which I caught, and then he jumped out of it and ran up the hillside. I called out my thanks, pulled it to me and got in. It was quite long and there were two paddles. I had no idea what I was doing, so I let the current carry me along.
The man who had cursed me was just disappearing into a house, and he still had Anna. How long had her face been under? How long before the river filled her lungs and trapped her spirit forever?
The current pulled the canoe closer to the house, and I looked into a window that was fitted with the kind of wooden bars used to keep children inside or thieves out. As I watched, the door opened, and the man who cursed me entered the room, dragging Anna’s still form behind him. The water was almost up to the roof. He came right up to the window, his eyes met mine, and his lips formed themselves into a grin.
The canoe drifted toward the house, and I thought it was going to collide with it, but it skimmed past the corner of it and carried me downstream. I had nothing left in the world except the canoe, the clothes I wore, and Felicity’s sketches. If I could ever get free of the river, I could earn food, clothes, and tools, and as long I had the bag strapped to my chest, life was still worth living, even without my wife and daughter by my side.
As the current carried me along, I had a chance to look at my surroundings. On either side of the river, there was submerged flatland, and the detritus of daily lives uprooted could be seen floating at times: a wooden toy, boards, and even whole houses that must not have been anchored sufficiently. I also saw people paddling canoes similar to the one I was in. Whenever I did, I watched, and gradually, I copied them, until I achieved some ability to navigate. I had nothing of use with which to barter for food, so I did not approach any other boats.
When night fell, I stopped paddling, and let the canoe drift in the moonlight. I didn’t dare sleep, for fear of inadvertently ramming another boat.
At first light, I started paddling again. The banks were steep and the river was quite narrow, and I noticed that the scenery was passing by at an increasing rate of speed. Ahead of me, there was a bend in the river, and I couldn’t see what lay beyond, but I could certainly hear it! I became anxious, but there was no way except forward, so I kept paddling.
I rounded the bend and all was chaos. The canoe plunged down a cascade, and somewhere between air and water, I was dumped out of it. After what seemed like an endless fall, I landed in water. I flailed and thrashed, terrified of losing my breath and having my soul trapped there forever. I tried to regain my canoe, but I couldn’t find it in the tumble and tumult of roaring water.
Everything fell calm. My head was above the surface, and I blinked and looked around. The river was broad and there were trees and bushes on the banks. To my right, very close, there was a canoe, and somebody was pulling themself into it. It wasn’t mine, but I hoped that whoever it belonged to would share. I threw myself in that direction, kicked with my legs, and gained the side of the boat. I grabbed hold of it and pulled myself in. I landed beside the owner, and then I saw her face. It was the female Leader of Worship. Soon, I was going to get some answers.
“Let’s get out of the river,” I said. She nodded. I took the paddles and navigated us toward the right bank. When we reached it, the canoe touched down and I stepped onto dry land, and with that, I regained all of my confidence and anger at what had happened. “Come with me, please,” I said. She climbed slowly out of the canoe, and followed me up higher, until we came to a clearing.
A short time later, she was tied with vines to a tree. I found a small piece of wood that would serve well as a gag, popped it into her mouth when she opened it to cry out for help, put a leaf over it, and glued it in place with resin from a nearby evergreen. I checked that nothing was covering her nose, started to go look for red berries, but then I thought that I’d better check the river, in case there were others who had fallen into the cascade and who were now boatless. I couldn’t swim, but I could throw them strong vine ropes and pull them in.
As I neared the river, I saw a canoe with a man in it. It was the male Leader of Worship. Quickly, I ducked behind a tree.
Had he seen me?
I peered out. He’d reached the bank and was tying his canoe to a tree. He finished and stepped back into it, and I watched as he began to untie something. I took my chance. I sprinted to his canoe, jumped in on top of him, tied him up, and then gagged him. I unfastened his canoe and dragged it until I found a second clearing. I tied the canoe to a tree, and went in search of red berries.
Once I’d eaten, I went to the first clearing, where the female Leader of Worship was bound.
I removed the gag from her mouth and said, “Tell me why you left your children behind.”
“I didn’t,” she said. “Have you seen them?”
“Yes, but I believe that they are dead, although I haven’t seen their bodies.” Tears streamed down her cheeks, and it was a while before she spoke again.
“My Partner of Worship asked me to pack clothes and food and said he’d help the children and Tammy. He’d already put the bicycle cart onto the Basil’s back, so all I had to do was load it.”
She stopped for breath, and I said, “Who is Basil?”
“Tammy’s mate. I packed what we needed and called to him that I was ready.” She took a deep breath to replenish her courage. “He came but the children and Tammy weren’t with him. He put me in the storage area of the bicycle cart. I heard him lock it and sit down at the front, and order Basil to take off, or he’d take me out and do things to me in front of Basil’s eyes. Basil took off. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“He made him fly until he had no spirit left. He flew and he flew, and he didn’t stop until he had just enough left to land us safely. As soon as we touched the ground, he collapsed beneath the bicycle cart.”
“Would you like some red berries and some water?” I said.
After she’d eaten and drunk, she said, “He took the bicycle cart off of him, folded him up, and shoved him into it. He opened the storage space, and made sure I had a good look. ‘The children are dead,’ he said. ‘Tammy and her eggs are history.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. He smiled at me, and said, ‘I was bored.’ I didn’t understand, and I still don’t. I asked him to explain, but he hasn’t spoken to me since. May I sit down?”
I loosened the vines, helped her to sit, and retied her.
“I heard what happened to your daughter.”
The sketches! With shaking hands, I removed the bag from my chest. I opened it, took out the folder, and we both stared in horror at the mass of sodden paper.
“The river,” I whispered. “That soul-stealing river did this.”
“Who made Felicity draw sketches of your children?”
“I asked her to. My Partner of Worship admired them, but he had no part in commissioning them. I asked what she would like as payment, and she said that being allowed to spend time with Melody and Oliver was all she needed.”
“What happened to you when the flood came?”
“The gods told him that the river was going to overflow its banks, so when it started to rise, he put us in separate canoes and tied them together with vines. Everything was fine until we came to the waterfall. Somewhere on the way down, the canoes became separated and I ended up in his and then you came.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Are you going to let me live?”
“Before I determine that, I must speak with your Partner of Worship.”
“I know not where he is.”
“I do. He’s bound and gagged in a canoe in another clearing. But before I go, take breath! If what you have recounted is true, then your children, Tammy, and one young bird are alive.”
“How can that be? They were left behind.”
“Yes, but so was I, and I found them. I packed the children and Tammy’s young who has not yet been named into the bags that were attached to the wooden seat, strapped the whole thing onto her back, and she flew us until we had to take shelter from that storm in the cleft of the mountain. I was the only one on the ground when she flew away, and I haven’t seen her, the children, or her young since. Now I shall leave you, and go interrogate your Partner of Worship. I’m afraid that I must return the gag to your mouth, lest you call out and alert somebody that we are here.”
As soon as I took the gag out of his mouth, the male Leader of Worship started screaming for help. Quickly, I gagged him again, and then I listened. I heard a distant voice. So did he. He smiled.
It took a few seconds before I could hear it properly. It sounded like a young woman. I did not want to hurt anybody, but I couldn’t allow my interrogation of the male Leader of Worship to be stopped. If she found us, which it sounded like she was about to do, I would tie her up and let her go when I could.
I grabbed a length of vine and hid behind a tree.
It wasn’t long before I heard her footsteps, which sounded oddly familiar.
A hand pushed some leaves aside, and then I saw a young woman with Felicity’s face. On trembling legs, I came out of my hiding place.
As soon as she saw me, she said, “My father.” She looked around and saw the male Leader of Worship in his canoe. “You!” She looked back at me and said, “Have you seen his Partner of Worship?”
“Yes. She’s tied up in another clearing. I was just about to interrogate him, but first, I . . . don’t understand how you . . . didn’t fall to your death.”
“Let’s go down to the river and talk.” I followed her nimble form as she navigated the complex path down to the water’s edge. When we got there, we leaned against trees on opposite sides of the path.
“Felicity, my only daughter, speak.” She smiled.
“It was terrifying. I was falling. I tried to grab the air but there was nothing. It was so bad, I don’t have the words for it. It wasn’t real, yet it was. There was a scream trapped in my spirit, and I could see rocks and branches flying by, but I couldn’t reach any of them. Dad?”
“I was only a step’s length away from the ground, do you understand? No, don’t answer. Nobody can understand, me least of all. I was this close,” she demonstrated with her thumb and index finger, “when I heard a sound and felt something grabbing me. It hurt. It felt like I was being stabbed in both sides. I thought death would feel like a great blow or like nothing at all, but it was like there were spears being driven into me. I thought it would never end, and I hung there forever looking at a flat, gray rock just below me.” She slid down the tree and sat on the ground.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. I kept staring at the rock that was supposed to kill me when I struck it, but I was bleeding, trying to scream, and still somehow alive. The ground inched closer and the pain in my sides was tremendous. Then I was on the ground, on my stomach on that flat rock. Whatever had stabbed me let go, and then I actually saw it. It was a huge grayish brown bird with a wooden seat strapped to its back, and there were bags suspended from each end of the seat. I thought I was dead and dreaming in the spirit world, but I was bleeding and feeling the pain in my sides. There were pools of my blood on either side of me and they were so incredibly red against the gray rock. I started to shiver and I didn’t think this was what death felt like. Do you have any food?”
I reached into my pockets and pulled out handfuls of red berries.
She saw them and squealed with delight.
After she’d eaten them, she said, “Thanks. The bird wasn’t moving, and I couldn’t, so I just lay there waiting to bleed to death on that flat, gray rock. I heard a sound and then Oliver and Melody climbed out of one of the bags. They helped a young bird out, and soon, they were standing in my blood. ‘What’s that red stuff?’ Melody asked Oliver. ‘Blood,’ he said. I feared that they might not recognize me and would walk away, so I said, ‘help.’ They did.” She smiled at me.
The breeze played with our hair, and birds sang in the trees.
“I know the birds and the children,” I said. “What happened? How did you find me? Where are they now?”
“The poor thing was dead. Saving me was her last act. The young bird climbed onto my back and put her wings against my sides and held pressure until the bleeding stopped. I was an egg and she kept me warm. Then the children brought me food and water. There wasn’t much preserved meat, and the young bird needed protein, so once I was able to get up, we found fish, insects, and worms for her, and I wanted to name her, so I asked Melody and Oliver. We named her Edwina. After a few days, I went for a long walk and was resting before going back, when I saw the man who’d offered me a ride. Dad?”
“I love him. There really wasn’t room for Mom in his little bicycle cart. He still feels bad about that. He’s a hunter, and he came back with me and caught meat for us. My father?”
“Yes, what is it, my daughter?”
“I have his child in me. You’ll be a grandpa!”
“Then you must eat these,” I said, and pulled the rest of the red berries from my pockets.
She grinned, took them, and devoured them.
She wiped her face on a leaf, looked up at me, and said, “Where is Mom?”
I told her the truth.
She cried until her tears ran out.
“We must return to where she was drowned. If we can find her, we can free her trapped spirit.”
“Do you have more to tell me before I question the male Leader of Worship?”
She shook her head.
“Would you like to come with me?”
I showed her where to find more red berries, and then I went to the clearing where the male Leader of Worship was still tied in his canoe.
“I’m going to make sure you don’t do any more screaming for help,” I said. I searched his canoe, and found food, blankets, and tools. Among them was a well-sharpened knife. “See this?” I held it up.
“If you scream, I’m going to gag you, and then use this on your privates. I know how to stop the bleeding and just exactly which leaf to use to turn the wounds to fire. So, my advice to you is that when I remove the gag, you start talking immediately.” I took out the gag, and he didn’t scream. “What I want to know is simple. Why?”
“I was getting bored.”
“Of living up there on that mountain and running the temple. The birds were nice for a while, but then they just became chores, and the children became chores as soon as they were born.”
“Okay, so why didn’t you pack a bag and leave? You could have gone somewhere else and done whatever didn’t bore you. Why the dark tide?”
“The gods showed me the way. I asked for a vision of what would make life more interesting, and they reminded me about an old legend the Leaders of Worship before us told to me and my Partner of Worship. A roiling cloud from the ground was exactly what was needed. All kinds of fun things would happen. I didn’t need the children or Tammy or the eggs, but my Partner of Worship was warm and comfy at night, so I took her with me. Can I have some berries?”
I shook my head.
I reintroduced him to the gag, and went to the berry bushes to talk to Felicity about going to rescue her mother’s spirit.
She wasn’t there.
I walked among the bushes, but there was no sign of her.
Had I dreamed the whole thing? It had all seemed so very real, but my dreams usually did. Had I truly fallen for my own mind’s desperate lie? I couldn’t remember waking up, but somewhere between talking to my daughter and interrogating the male Leader of Worship, I must have done so.
I went to check on the female Leader of Worship.
As soon as I removed the gag, she asked for water, which I provided.
Then she said, “What will you do with my Partner of Worship and me?”
“I will set you free once I have killed him.”
“May I watch him die?”
“If you are certain, then yes, you may accompany me.”
“May I help you kill him?”
“Yes, if you wish, but let there be no misunderstanding between us.”
I told her of my plan. By then, the day was growing old, but I figured that there would be enough time before nightfall, and if not, moonlight would suffice.
She agreed to my plan, and I untied her carefully, lest I cause her skin to be abraded by the rough vines, and helped her to stand at her request.
She leaned against the tree and said, “Are you afraid?”
“Of killing him?”
She nodded and I shook my head.
“No. Are you?”
“Yes. I can’t help but feel what he cannot. But he left our children and Tammy and her eggs to die, and I must bear witness.”
“I have already seen fear in his eyes, so I know that he can feel it. He has done what he has done, and must pay for it with his life. I feel nothing for him. He has no heart. Let’s go. It’ll be over in a few minutes.”
I did not ask her if she wished to stay behind; to do so would have shown her gross disrespect, and she walked by my side to the clearing where he was bound in his canoe. She untied the canoe and together, we hauled it down the slope toward the river. He couldn’t speak, but he could look at us, and his gaze was filled with a mixture of anger and fear.
When we arrived at the river, she secured the canoe to a tree, and I untied him from it, but left him bound at the ankles and wrists. I stood him up and pushed him against a tree, where I held him.
His Partner of Worship faced him, looked him in the eye, and said, “You have betrayed our people and have led many to their deaths. You have left your children, Tammy, and her eggs to perish. You have imprisoned me in a bicycle cart, forced Basil to fly until he was no more, and I have heard you push a young woman to her death. I know the dark tide, and it has your face. You are a curse to all those you meet. You are a traitor, not only to humans, but to life itself. You have shown that you prefer death, so to death you must go, alone.” She looked at me. “Would you tell him his fate?”
I nodded and spoke.
“This is my judgment. All the wrongs that you have committed, all your crimes, both legal and moral, merit the sentence of death by drowning. As your lungs fill with water, instead of floating up to the stars, your spirit will be trapped for eternity in the void that is death. Unlike those above, you will never see another spirit again. Where you shall be, there will be no plants, no humans, no birds, and no other creatures of any kind that are, will be, or have ever been alive. Before we carry out the sentence, do you wish to speak? You have one hundred breaths in which to consider what you will say.”
The female Leader of Worship counted off his breaths silently while I watched his face. I saw calculation in his eyes.
What was he planning?
At ninety, she began to count with hand gestures, and she said “one hundred“ out loud.
I removed the gag.
“Your daughter was a lady of the low,” he said. “I never had the pleasure myself, but I know others who did. I am a faithful man, but I know what those who stray from their wives’ beds thought of her. They said that there was nothing in the world that she wouldn’t do. If you had any honor, which I’m sure you don’t, given what you fathered, you’d untie me, we’d each pick up a knife, and we’d see just who could kill the other.”
“If you weren’t a traitor to your people and to all life, then yes, probably, but I won’t allow you to goad me into killing you and thus freeing your spirit. I saw you thinking as your Partner of Worship counted your breaths.”
I looked at her, and she said, “Time.” I looked at the day, and figured that there was maybe half an hour left before the sun set.
“The time is right,” I said. Together, we tore off all of his clothes, and tossed them aside to be burned later, along with anything else that hadn’t been washed since he’d last touched it.
We dragged him as fast as we could to the water. I held him while she removed the vine ropes that bound his wrists, and he attempted to strike her, but she evaded the blow and laughed in his face. I untied his ankles, looked at her, and she pushed his head beneath the surface. He put up a struggle, but we held him, and soon his efforts to come up for air weakened.
“How long?” she said.
I looked at the day and said, “Until sunset, so not long.”
“Good,” she said. “I’m almost spent.”
“Yes, so am I.”
We said nothing more as we waited for the sun to set, and when it did, we let go of him, and his body began to drift.
We didn’t wait for it to pass beyond our sight, but found matches in the canoe and burned everything of his that had been tainted by death.
Once that was done, we found blankets, and made up beds in the clearing where she’d been tied.
I’d just lain down when she said, “Your eyes are sad. Why is that?”
I sat up.
“Because I was so sure that my daughter was alive, but alas, it was only a dream.”
I told her.
“I did hear him calling for help, and I also heard somebody walking by where I was tied up.”
“Yes, and the footsteps were light, as those of a small woman, and they walked in the direction of the clearing where my ex Partner of Worship was. So perhaps you did not dream it.”
“But why would she leave?”
“That I don’t know, but maybe she will return, or maybe she won’t, but it’s highly probable that she is still alive out there somewhere.” She gestured in a circle at the deepening night all around us and smiled at me. “Rest deep,” she said, lay down, and closed her eyes.
I said and did the same.
“My father!” I opened my eyes, and saw the female Leader of Worship rubbing hers and Felicity standing a few steps away. “Dad, I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to interrupt you, and Edwina needed my help. I had to go with her and there wasn’t time to tell you. Oh Dad . . .” She gasped for spirit.
“Come and sit down,” I said. “Yesterday is history, and today is fresh.”
She walked over to a tree and collapsed on the ground at its base.
“Are you all right?” the female Leader of Worship said.
“I think so.”
“Let’s eat,” I said.
Once all three of us had been replenished and were sitting in the clearing, Felicity said, “Edwina found a young male bird. He was newly hatched and his parents were nearby.” She shuddered. “I saw their bodies. They had both been drained by a vampire snake. I know vampire snakes are just creatures like us, only trying to live and feed their young, but oh, why do good creatures have to die that others might live?” She put her right index finger to her lips. “Don’t answer that. I know, but it was so hard for me to see that.”
The female Leader of Worship and I nodded.
“So when she found him, Edwina came and found me where I was just starting to pick berries. I didn’t know what she wanted, and I feared for the life of my love and for those of the Oliver and Melody. She flew us to him and I helped her with him. He wasn’t hurt, but I didn’t want to leave right away, because my love said that he’d heard a large animal nearby that would make good eating. That took until nightfall, and I didn’t want to leave until morning.”
The female Leader of Worship said, “Edwina is Tammy’s young, right?”
“What’s the young male’s name?”
I said, “Do you think that Edwina will still fly us to go and rescue your mother’s spirit?”
“I don’t know, but all we can do is ask her. If she won’t, then maybe we can try by boat.”
The female Leader of Worship said, “I know I shouldn’t ask, but I’m afraid to stay here by myself.”
Felicity said, “Rescuing Mom’s spirit is something that Dad and I must do alone, but we can take you to where your children are, but neither you nor Dad may meet my love yet.”
“What’s his name?” I asked.
Felicity put her finger to her lips and said, “We’d better start out now. It was only a few minutes in the air, but it will take four hours or so on foot. Mom’s spirit has waited long enough.”
It took longer than four hours to reach the place where Edwina, the children, and Felicity’s love were, because we had to stop along the way for food and water.
Felicity ran ahead to warn her love that he mustn’t be seen or see the female Leader of Worship or me (his seeing the children had been necessary), and then Felicity and I left the female Leader of Worship covering Oliver and Melody in hugs and kisses, and went to where the two young birds were. Bobby was tiny.
“He hasn’t been getting enough protein,” Felicity said. “I think he must have been orphaned three or four days ago. If nobody had found him, he’d be dead now.”
Edwina walked over to us.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m happy that you and Bobby are well.”
She chirped softly. She sounded so much like her mother had, it made my heart ache.
“Edwina,” Felicity said, “we’re loath to ask this of you, but we need your help. My mother’s spirit has been trapped in the river, and we . . .”
She looked at me and I said, “We’d like to rescue her spirit and put her body somewhere nice. Would you fly us there, please?”
She chirped softly, stood tall, and looked over her shoulder at her back.
Felicity strapped a small wooden seat to Edwina’s back, although there were no bags attached, and we climbed into it.
“We can’t go very high or fast,” Felicity said. “Edwina, if you tire of flying or fear anything, you must make a sound and land.”
“Thank you,” I said.
She chirped again, and took off.
She flew slowly, and Felicity directed her toward the river.
We were passing above a clearing when Edwina made a terrible sound.
“What’s wrong?” Felicity and I said in unison.
She held still in the air for a moment, and then she reached back with her right foot, and tore a grayish brown feather from her tail. She grasped it in her claws and pointed it at something on the ground.
I looked, but didn’t see what had upset her.
Felicity’s sharper sight allowed her to see it, and she gasped.
“What is it?” I said.
“A vampire snake,” she whispered. “Is it the same one?”
Edwina made a two-tone sound.
“Maybe,” Felicity said.
Without warning, Edwina dove toward the ground.
Felicity and I both cried out in fright, and gripped the seat as tightly as we could.
As we got closer, the scene resolved into a grassy spot with a tiny stream flowing through it. A huge dark-red snake lay with its head on the bank, but the rest of its body was in the water. Edwina flew us down until we were about a house height about the stream. The snake hissed, and I pressed myself hard against the back of the seat.
Was it long enough to reach us?
I heard a soft splash and looked into the water. A small snake was wriggling in the stream by its mother’s tail.
Edwina dove straight down into the stream, and then she was carrying us aloft again, and I saw the young snake hanging suspended from her claws.
Before I could catch my breath from the plunging descent and stunning rise, she spun herself around and zipped through the air as fast as wing and muscle could take her — and us.
She took us back to where Bobby was, dropped the young snake a few step lengths in front of him, and he pounced upon it. She looked at us over her shoulder and chirped apologetically, turned slowly this time, and flew us toward the river.
It was very hot, and I thought Edwina was tired, for we flew very slowly along the river, looking for the place where the flood had surprised those living on the flat, fertile land.
A while later, Edwina chirped softly and landed us.
“Do you need water?” I said.
She did, and so did Felicity and I.
We took off again and continued along the river.
I recognized some landmarks, and then I saw it. Up ahead, a wide, grassy area extended on both sides of the river, and I saw my house, which was still submerged.
Felicity looked at it, turned to me, opened her mouth as if to speak, and then closed it, for what could she say?
I pointed out the house into which the man who cursed me had taken Anna, and Edwina brought us slowly toward it. The water had come right up to the roof, and I was grateful that I would not have to look at the face of the man who cursed me, staring sightlessly from the barred window.
“How are we going to get in?” Felicity whispered. “I didn’t realize that the water would be all the way up to the roof. I thought that floods were . . . shallower.”
“Through the chimney,” I said. “I’m afraid that this is going to make us all unhappy, but it’s the only way.”
“One of us has to be held in Edwina’s claws.”
“Since I can’t swim, it should be me, and I’ll lower you down and help you and your mother’s body up.”
“It hurts so much.”
“The pain will be nothing compared to the joy of knowing that her soul has been reborn. Let’s go. It won’t take long.”
I asked Edwina to return to the bank and land, which she did. I stepped down, and looked into her eyes.
“Please hold me as still as you can and fly with us directly above the chimney of that house.” I pointed to it.
Soon, I knew what Felicity meant; it did hurt a great deal, and she wasn’t catching me but picking me up as tenderly as she could. I gritted and ground my teeth and bore it.
Slowly, Edwina glided toward the chimney, and when we got there, I reached up, grasped Felicity, and lowered her down, until she took firm hold of the wood of the structure.
Why hadn’t we thought to bring vine ropes?
I opened my mouth to say that we should go back and get some when I heard a voice speaking from within the house.
I tried to see into the chimney, but Felicity was in the way of my sight.
Anna said, “How did you know?”
“Dad brought me here to rescue your spirit. Mom, how?”
I tried to keep the pain from my voice as I said, “Let’s get everybody out of here and then we can talk.”
Edwina chirped and settled me down onto the roof, which was bathed in about a finger’s depth of water. She let go of my flesh, and held only my clothes, and the torment in my sides abated somewhat.
“Mom, how?” Felicity said. There was no point in trying to insist that she wait for the story until after we were all safe.
“When I was a child, I used to dip my head into the bath water and hold my breath for as long as I possibly could. When the man grabbed me, I had no idea what he had against us, but when I realized that we were going into the water, I took a deep breath and didn’t move. I wasn’t strong enough to fight, and I hoped that my breath would hold out long enough. It wouldn’t have, except I got a little air when he hoisted me up the stairs. He wasn’t doing such a great job of keeping my head below the surface there, so I got some air. The water was rising, and I didn’t think I stood a chance, but then he stopped dragging me, and let go. I looked up and there was the chimney. With the last of my failing spirit, I kicked my feet and swam upward, until I popped into the chimney and took in a lungful of sweet, fresh air.”
“How come you stayed here?” Felicity asked.
“If the flood had risen much more, I would have had to leave via the chimney, but I preferred to wait and see if the water went down. I’d much rather walk out of here through a wet house than go up and face a river I didn’t know or understand. The only problems would have been time and water.”
“What?” Felicity said.
“I was starting to get thirsty, but I had no intention of drinking water fouled by a dead man. Eventually, thirst would have driven me upward, but I was able to get into my bag, and my water bottle was clean, but now it’s empty.”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
“Before we go,” Anna said, “why did that man want to kill me?”
I told her about the bicycle cart accident just as Tammy had been landing.
“Felicity,” Anna said when I’d finished speaking, “would you please help me pull him out of this house?”
“Are you sure?” she said.
“Yes. He belongs with his wife and although he tried to kill me, I don’t want to leave him trapped here.”
I listened to the splashing and sounds of effort that my wife and daughter made, and soon, the head of the man who had cursed me broke the surface.
“Dad, can you lift Mom and me up, please?”
Edwina reached out and grasped the body of the man who had cursed me with the claws of her other foot, and then took firm hold of me. She took off, and flew us up out of the flood.
As soon as we were over dry ground, she landed in a clearing.
“Thank you,” I said.
She chirped and let go of me.
Felicity picked some red berries, and we all ate, then Edwina flew Anna and me to where the female Leader of Worship and the children were. As soon as we’d landed, she went back for Felicity and the body of the man who had cursed me.
I was spent, so I washed myself, asked Anna to help me dress the wounds in my sides, and lay down.
When I awoke, it was the middle of the night. I heard a sound that was both familiar and strange to me. I had fallen asleep in a small shelter that Felicity’s love had built.
I went outside, and saw Felicity sitting on the ground with a candle burning beside her. In her lap, there was a piece of paper, and in her hand, a pencil.
I didn’t look but asked, “What are you sketching?”
“I’m designing my wedding dress, and Mom said she’d make it.”
“When is your wedding?”
“It will be in the deep and dark of winter, back up at the mountain top. There will scarcely be any daylight, but the sun will shine from our hearts, and we will know the darkness not. On the way up the mountain, we will leave the man who once cursed you near where his wife died.”
“That’s a good idea. What’s your love’s name?”
“You’ll meet him at the wedding.”
“What? That old tradition?”
She nodded and frowned slightly.
“It’s a very good tradition, so mock it not, my father who should know better.”
“Understood. I shall not ask his name again.”
“I miss your sketches,” I said, afraid that I was going to break down and weep. “They were destroyed when I fell into a cascade.”
“When I fell from the cliff, I had a bag strapped to my back,” she said. “In it, I had clothes, food, and a large case. In the case, I had the originals of every sketch I’d ever made. Nothing was damaged, so I still have them now. I believe I gave you 287 of them, and I’ll copy them through the long days of summer, until you have them all again, and then I will make even more for you, for Mom, for my love, for the children and their mother, and for the child in me.”
The summer passed us by in a frenzy of activity.
I harvested fruits and vegetables, Felicity’s love caught meat, Felicity caught fish and sketched, and the female Leader of Worship took care of her children.
Autumn came, leaves fell, and the air grew cold and fresh.
One day, there was a light fall of snow, and we all agreed that it was time.
The female Leader of Worship knew how to preserve bodies with leaves and roots, and I had made a coffin out of wood, and the man who had once cursed me had lain in it for the duration of the summer. Now it was time to lay him to rest. Bobby took the coffin handles in his claws, and Felicity’s love climbed into the small wooden seat on his back, and most of our possessions were loaded into the bags that were strapped to the seat. Edwina was outfitted with a large bicycle cart on her back, and in it were my wife, my daughter, the children, their mother, and I. We took off separately, lest Felicity’s love meet us, and the birds flew steadily during the day, stopping only to eat and drink, and landed at night. We slept in the bicycle cart, and Felicity’s love doubtless slept on the ground.
One frigid day, we arrived at the cleft in the mountain, and found the coffin containing the man who had once cursed me exactly where I’d asked Bobby to leave it.
I grasped the handles on my side, and Anna and the female Leader of Worship took up those on theirs.
Once we had walked to the correct spot, we stopped, and put the coffin down.
Anna said, “Man who once cursed my husband and attempted to drown me and trap both of us forever, I have liberated you, and I have brought you here to be with Cecily again. I forgive you.”
“Husband of Cecily,” I said. “I forgive you. I call you neighbor.”
“Neighbor,” the female Leader of Worship whispered. “Be free and be reborn.”
We left the coffin and went back to where Felicity was with the children.
“It is done,” I said. “Let’s go on up.”
It was strange to see the temple again. It stood so proudly on the highest point of the mountain, and although I wasn’t sure if I still believed in the gods, the place filled me with a kind of awe.
Anna and I went to our old house, and Felicity, the children, and the female Leader of Worship went to clean out the temple and make it ready. Felicity’s love stayed in another house on the other side of the temple.
Seven days later, a long, dark night gave way to a cold, clear morning, and the time was right.
I sat in the temple with Anna on my right, and watched with joy as Felicity, dressed simply in a pale yellow dress, marched up the aisle to the rhythm the children beat out on small drums. Anna and I added our stamping feet to the glorious sounds.
Just as Felicity reached the two pillars of stone, a man stepped into the space between them from where he’d been waiting in the hallway beyond.
The female Leader of Worship whispered the lines, and the children spoke them in high, clear voices.
Together, the children called out the names Felicity and Matthew, and then said, “Do you love each other?”
“Yes, we do,” they answered as one.
“Do you want to be married forever, until death and beyond?”
“Yes, we do!”
The female Leader of Worship said, “In the light of the sun, in raindrops or fresh snow, in moonlight, in prosperity and in adversity, in all seasons, forever in time, you are married.” She spoke their names: Matthew and Felicity.
I got up and walked over to my newly made son-in-law.
“I am your father-in-law, Curtis,” I said.
My wife said, “I am your mother-in-law, Anna.”
“Thank you,” he said. “What may I call you?”
“Are your parents still living?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “but I still call them Mom and Dad in my thoughts, so you must have different names.”
“Call us Ma and Da,” Anna said.
The female Leader of Worship walked over to us.
“I have an announcement to make,” she said. “From now on, I am a Leader of Worship no more. I will conduct only births, weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies of family and friendship, but I will not perform rituals of the gods ever again. My name is Sophie. Call me mother, neighbor, and friend from now on. My children, please say your names.”
We all cheered. Then we left the temple.
For most of the year, we live in the valley, just high enough not to be caught in spring floods, but each winter, Bobby and Edwina, who now have young of their own, come and fly us up to the mountain top. There, we play in the deep snow and dance in the sunshine of the place that will always be our home. After a few weeks, Edwina and Bobby fly us down again, long before the terrible storms that herald the coming of spring.
Felicity has six children now — three of each. We are as one family, and all the adults nurture all of the children and vice versa!
Of the gods, we think and hear very little. The temple is no longer a place of fear, but of time, becoming, and of life