Monday, April 9, 2012

The Raven's Warning

Written Feb. 4

She stood on her tiptoes and peered over the thick trunk of a fallen oak, careful not to be seen. The bird had told it true; three deer - a buck and two does - stood grazing placidly by the stream. Stifling a giggle, she lightly ran around the tree and down an old, disused game trail, grown thick with vines, long golden hair trailing behind her. Oh, what fun she would have with them!

The path wound around and across the stream, and presently she was on the side of the stream opposite the deer, well hidden by a boulder. The buck and a doe, the larger of the pair, looked to be chewing cud now, and the smaller doe was drinking from the creek. She recognized them now; the smallest female was new, but the bigger doe had a distinctive pattern of dots on her rump. The girl smirked. This would be fun!

She sprang from her hiding spot and jumped nimbly into the stream, splashing water everywhere. The deer all froze at once, then scattered, leaping over rocks and brush. She laughed, but it was a hollow sound, and soon her cheer was gone. Why did they never stay? She considered running after them, but she knew them to be faster, and it would bring her little joy this time.

She got out of the stream, and slowly took off her clothing – a simple thing made of vine and leaves – and shook the water off of them. Some droplets clung to her body, and she swiped them off lazily – it was a hot day, after all, and the water was still cool on her skin.

As she redressed, a small red bird alighted on her shoulder, chirping loudly. Listening to its tune, she smiled, cocking her head to one side, and offered a finger to it, which it stepped onto readily, giving her a moment to pull the garment's single strap onto her shoulder. It finished its song, and she whistled back in reply. Satisfied, the bird flew off, and she grinned. The deer may not wish to befriend her, but the birds made good company. She had already outlived one generation, the first to find her and call her sister, but she was happy to be called aunt by the next. Weren't they all children of the forest? Hatchmates of tree and stream alike?

Suddenly, there was a disturbance behind her, a great rustle of wings, and a loud caw-ing. She turned, and wrinkled her nose. A great raven was perched on the stone she had hidden behind not moments ago, and regarded her warily. It was not unwise to do so; she knew ravens and crows to be intelligent, more so than the sparrows and robins that visited her, and warned others of danger, but they were also scavengers and thieves, and rude as well, and she did not like them. This one was known to her, as well; he had a scar on his beak from some attack from a cat or wolf long ago. She had long forgotten what it had said to her on their last meeting, but the encounter had ended with her throwing rocks at the bird.

Her greeting whistle was terse. What do you want? Go away.

His reply stopped her heart and breath. Fire, south of here. He flapped his great wings and sped away, cawing his warning as he went. Fire in the south! Gather your young and flee! Hie you to the north! Fire in the south!

She turned north and began to run.

This was not the spirited running of before, with the only goal to scare some deer. She was sprinting, whistling the same warning as the crow, but fleeing all the same. Fire to the south! Run north! Quickly! She soon lost the breath for this, but the message spread and the whole forest moved. Deer and wolves and birds of every color and size sped north and away from the fire.

The girl soon halted, nearly out of breath. Had she ever run so hard and so fast? She couldn't remember ever being in such terror. Allowing herself a brief respite, she looked around and saw a tree good for climbing; gulping down air, she scrambled up it to the very top, coming to stand on a thick branch above the canopy.

She had seen the forest before from this height, but never in such desperate danger. The crow had not lied. The entire southern horizon was alight, thick clouds of smoke billowing up from the canopy. She knew, instinctively, that this was part of the renewal of the forest – that dead leaves and needles coating the ground could not stay there forever without someday catching fire, and that it was good for the soil – but this looked bad. Terrible.

And it was coming towards her, like a living thing seeking fresh prey.

She scurried down the tree again and began to run. She could smell the smoke now, and hear the sounds of distressed birds, her kind, crying out for help that she could not render. All the while the fire pressed in close; she was fast but the fire was faster, impossibly. Soon she felt the heat on her back, and heard the crackle of flames. Somewhere a sap-filled tree exploded with a loud thud. She ran faster still, her lungs crying out for a halt she could not allow them. It was run or die.

Then she realized the path she was on. The lake. The lake! Her feet had carried her here without her knowing it, but now she ran with purpose. If she could reach the lake she would be safe, at least for a time.

Smoke blew freely around her now, and began to obscure her vision. Her eyes stung and wept, and she thought the ground under her bare feet would soon catch fire from the sheer heat surrounding her. Then her vine-dress did, and she ripped it off in a panic. Not further now. Not much further. A few more yards. A few more.

She reached the shore.

She dove, closing her eyes against the smoke and the water.

The pool was sweet relief, but when she surfaced, the forest blazed around her, and she wept for the only home she had known.

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