Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Canary Cage

Jim was a good storyteller. In three villages, no, in three hundred villages could not be found such a weaver of tales, a purveyor of dreams, a painter of colorful yarns.

Children and adults alike pursued him. Open evening campfires drew instant crowds when word got out that he was reviving his craft once again at the behest of every influential person in the town and at the insistence of every eager youth.

Once of these evenings began in a particularly pleasant way, which is often a sign of impending turbulence. One would not have guessed from the way it began that the night would end as it did.

A gentle breeze swayed the limbs of an ancient apple tree against the backdrop of a deep blue sky spaced with final sunset streaks shot between the night's first and boldest stars.

The words of the storyteller drifted out above the hush and the hickory smoke. The enthralled crowd hung on every word. Imagination lit every animated expression. Behind them a golden coach led by golden horses came to an abrupt stop. The insignia on the door was a star intertwining a crown. A young man, hardly more than a youth, strode out with a kingly gait and listened silently with fire in his eyes.

The weaver's tale came alive as though he were creating real and living worlds with the depth of his imagery. Every brushstroke of vocal intonation conveyed unrivaled passion and sincerity. Nobody breathed for fear of missing a single syllable.

Jim paused. His eyes opened widely. The crowd had parted to allow the stranger's approach, and they were shyly ducking their heads and looking away.  Some were bowing.

The stranger looked him in the eyes.

"Why do these people listen to you?" he said.

"Begging your pardon, Your Highness, but I seem to have a knack for spinning a tale," he replied with a modest blush.

"You're hired.  Come with me," said the prince.

"Begging His Highness's pardon again, but I have a shop to run, a home to tend, and a pet canary to feed..."

"Sed," called the monarch-to-be over his shoulder.  A muscular servant appeared from the direction of the coach.

"Sed," repeated the prince, "escort this golden tongued word weaver home to fetch his canary. Have them both at the palace by morning."

With a slightly arrogant parting glance the prince was gone, leaving a disappointed dispersing crowd and a stunned storytelling storekeeper.

"Why me?" moaned Jim. The servant rode a horse slowly beside him as he made his way down a graveled path.

"You'll be paid well," said Sedrick. "Good food, too."

Jim held his forehead and groaned.

The shop was set in order and locked. The storyteller packed a few clothes and removed a wicker canary cage from its hook. Its yellow occupant flittered excitedly inside it. He hooked up a cart to a brave little donkey and set off with the tall guard towering alongside on his steed.

It was extremely late when they reached the palace gates. Sentries let them in and took their conveyances to the stables. Jim was shown to a small room with a single window and a sofa with red velvet cushions.

"Have a good night," said Sedrick. "And don't try to leave," he added. "The doors are guarded, and so is your window."

The next morning dawned gray and foggy. Jim found himself wearing stiff new clothes and sitting in the billiard room among a crowd of nobles. Some were smoking enormous cigars. Some were feasting on pie and pastry. Some yawned and stared blankly out the window.

"Gentlemen," said the prince. Every eye looked his way.

"I have endeavored to bring you, at great expense to myself, some enlightening entertainment. This peasant, a mere shopkeeper, has the gift of a golden tongue. Let us listen."

He promptly seated himself on a rounded royal blue silk cushion and proceeded to help himself to a small portion of roasted corn.

Jim missed his home. He missed his freedom. He felt as trapped as a canary, with the exception that a tame canary could never fend for itself in the wild.

Neither could these nobles. Jim told himself that he had never seen people more lonely, more bored, and more completely helpless than these overfed, underworked, pompous men.

He fired his imagination to full steam and took them on a journey through forests, over valleys, past flowing rivers, across plains, into the midst of dragons and sword fights; and by the time he'd finished every mouth gaped in utter astonishment at his skill. They rose and applauded as the last phrase fell on grateful, enlivened ears.

Jim was paid good wages through the years. Generations of noble children learned both traditional tales and new ones. He was a walking library of literature, as beloved and respected a figure as ever had walked the halls before or since.

He kept many generations of canaries in his room, and they always reminded him of the life he'd lived before. He missed his freedom, but he recognized that by accepting his post as the "royal canary" and bringing life into the palace through his ideas and words, he was setting others free. The nobles, the children, and all servants within earshot were enabled to look forward to life with courage, kindness, and contentment. This in turn trickled down to all the rest of the people, who had a much easier lifetime under rulers that were well educated in things like morals and empathy for others.

When at last his stories were no more, and he awoke to the gracious freedom for which he'd always longed,  those left behind mourned respectfully and deeply, and buried him with honor among the graves of valiant knights. A large aviary was built for his canaries, with a servant assigned to attend to them. They live there to this day, and the notes of their songs still cheer and comfort the lonely and sore of heart who pause to listen and observe.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Legend of Firebelly

Deep in the dimness cast by craggy rocks lay a cavernous expanse filled with smooth pebbles. Nestled in among the warm, sheltered bed of gentle gravel lay three eggs.

They were large eggs, as blue as a robin's.

Within this cavern stood someone who played flippantly with the cords of his life just by being there. Standing beside him, someone who did not want to be there. His servant had done many menial tasks without complaining, but this time he wished to do so now more than he ever had in his life. Great self-restraint kept his lips muzzled and barred the exit of the words that demanded they vacate the place.

It was not for fear alone that Albert wished to be going. Sure, he did not fancy being alit with dragon's flames, nor did he especially treasure the notion of being its lunch. But there was another reason eating at him from the inside.

"Carry two under your arm and let's be going," instructed his superior in clanking gold-plated armor. (Whenever the gold plating scratched in battle, Sir Douglas would simply have it refinished. He would have made the pieces of solid gold if it had not been for the fact that gold is such a very soft metal.)

Albert lay his hand gently on an egg. It was extremely warm, and the gravel held the heat well.

"Might die if we move them?"

"Good," came the reply.

"What good are they to us dead?" said Albert, trying to appeal to the nobleman's greed on behalf of saving these most unusual somethings.

"They will harm no one, and I can display them in my parlor."

A lump rose in Albert's throat.

"No," he said for the first time in his entire life, and because it was the first time, Sir Douglas dropped his jaw in gaping surprise.

"Albert, you are obligated to help me wherever I request it."

"If the Creator didn't want dragons to live he wouldn't have created them," replied Albert.

"I'll pretend you didn't just say that," said the knight generously, scooping an egg out of the ground with his leather gloved hand.

The pebbles below their feet began to tremble and hop.

"C'mon!" said Sir Douglas. "Grab those eggs and run!"

Albert could not bring himself to disturb the remaining two eggs. He sat down in the empty space left by the first egg and put his head in his hands.

"Okay, fine," said Douglas. "You're finished. Don't come back home anymore."

He lifted one leg and then the other arrogantly out the entrance, and was gone.

Screams pierced the air, wild strange animal screams mixed with those of the knight. Albert froze with surprise. The screams bled into quiet, and the egg that Douglas had displaced returned through the opening, followed by his armor, one piece after another. Then a head, a long, narrow head lit by two orange and glowing eyes, looked in. It surveyed the lair with satisfaction, blew fire on the armor one piece at a time, and entered. The long, scaly tail was the last to come in, and took longer than anything else.

Once inside it stowed the armor pieces in an overhead hole that reminded Albert of a cabinet. He noticed a glint of more than just the armor where the lit eyes of the dragon reflected in the hole. Seemingly satisfied, it turned back to its egg, which it now clutched to its heart.

Albert dreaded being noticed but could not wait to get it over with, so he deliberately moved out of the space where the egg belonged, feeling sure this would grab the beast's attention. It seemed not to notice, however, and it carefully replaced the egg into its warm socket of earthy heated pebbles.

"You been here long?" it said.

Albert jumped in surprised, but he promptly recovered and spoke.

"Not long."

"You know how medicine?" it said.

"Yes," he replied.

"Medicine this," it commanded, pointing to a gash beneath its left arm.

The servant removed a clean handkerchief from his pocket and soaked it with wine from a little canteen. He pressed and dabbed very gently at the ooze between the missing scales till he was sure it was quite well disinfected by the alcohol.

"Smells good," it said. "Good medicine."

Albert hesitated.

"You should do this again tomorrow," he said. "Every day for a week."

"You do good medicine tomorrow then," it said. "Stay right here."

With a swish of its tail the dragon turned about and reached inside its storage hole. When it returned it held out a glittering diamond as big as a hickory nut.

"You keep this," it said. "Good pay for good medicine."

It's a test, said a voice from somewhere in Albert's head. He thought he'd heard that voice before, but he couldn't remember where. He began to reach out.

It's a test, came the voice again. Don't take it.

He closed the dragon's scaly hand over the gemstone and gently pushed it away.

"No, thank you," he said. "I don't care much for those."

A curved smile played upon the giant toothsome mouth.

"Me treasure's safe, then," it said, putting it back.

"You sleep," said the dragon, turning itself round about and curling into a ball. It rested its head on its tail, but he couldn't be sure if it was asleep or awake because the glowing eyes remained open.

With the shock of all that had happened, Albert quickly found himself void of energy, and he gradually succumbed to the sleepy warmth of the cave.

He was awakened by a small stirring. Something nearby was pulling at him, pinching him. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and saw two tiny coals glowing up at him. At least, that's what they looked like. The baby dragon had been trying to get his attention. He held out his hand to it, and it climbed up in his lap like a puppy and fell asleep. After a few short blinks Albert dozed again, thinking himself to be in a very strange dream.

Near dawn he was again awakened, this time by all three dragons pulling at his legs and feet. He chuckled and tolerated the pinching, although their teeth felt like pins.

Two years later, tales arose and circulated of a hero who rescued the downtrodden, riding through the sky on the backs of dragons. He was said to breathe the fire himself, although this could not be confirmed. He was known by all simply as, "Firebelly."

He persistently defended the innocent. All the knights said he was evil and pledged to kill him, but he was far too wary to be caught. Whenever he'd been in the vicinity, food somehow showed up on the porches of poor houses. Prisoners who'd been jailed unjustly would be routinely freed. Those who'd put them there were often found to have been placed in their cells instead, alive and mad as hornets.

If you, however, find a large blue egg in a cave surrounded by warm, smooth pebbles, I would suggest that you leave it alone.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Lioness

It wasn't possible that the she-lion's eyes looked so familiar. Elizabeth had been lost eleven years ago, yet somehow this animal's gaze reminded him of her. It padded silently ahead, urging him forward with its unspeaking eyes. The glare of hundreds of torches lit the valley below and reflected like gleaming gold through the retinas of this large and soundless creature. The rock ledge was easy enough for a cat's paws to negotiate, but his clumsy human stride knocked rocks and sticks down at every turn. She had long since quit giving him reproachful glances, knowing that he couldn't help it.

The ledge turned a sharp corner and abruptly ended. Here, it seemed, was their destination. A large cave stood five feet above. She leapt in, then peered over the edge.

"I can't jump that far," he quivered.

The lioness sighed. He heard rustling up above him, and with a thud a large stick landed at his feet. It was quite thick, and at first he didn't see the use of it, but presently he leaned it against the rock, carefully balanced one foot upon its end, and hauled himself upward while grasping into the cave for something to grab onto.

Soft breath and a wet tongue took hold gently of his wrist. He felt his weight move forward as easily as if he were a rag doll. Kyska couldn't believe the terrible size of her teeth, which did but barely touch him.

Just as though his entry into safety had signaled it, it started to rain. Thunder split the sky into shards as the torrential hot water drops flashed in the oft lit night. The lioness lay undisturbed among a heap of rabbit skins, breathing gently as her great sides fell and rose.

Cautiously he crept nearer as the urge to sleep overcame his sense of fear at the sudden loss of his freedom and his pride. He didn't think that sleep would come to him in such strange surroundings, but come it did. In the morning he'd be able to tell them all he'd spent the night with his back to a lion.

When the evening rains had passed, the blazing tangerine dawn echoed with the raucous calls of many brilliantly colored birds. Kyska rubbed his eyes sleepily and was surprised to find a large red parrot, dead, before his nose. He arose with a start. The lioness was busily consuming what was left of a green parrot. Her translucent fiery eyes stared at him. He picked up the bird.

"Uh--um--thank you."

She purred softly and began to wash the finished meal from her paws.


The lioness paused in mid lick, her eyes once again fixed on him.

"I can't--that is--I need to cook this," he said, holding up the bird, beautiful but stiff, by the tail.

As if to shrug she went back to her washing, leaving him to figure out his quandary. He piled dry twigs and strips of old moss together and struck two white stones upon each other again and again until the numerous sparks lit them. After pulling out the quills and down as best he could, Kyska held the bird by one long tail feather over the flames.

Breakfast done, the lioness seemed to think that he also needed a bath, which he did not enjoy, especially the time or two he squirmed uncomfortably and received a scratch for doing so. He began to wonder if this was really Elizabeth, or if he had wandered into the custody of a truly wild beast that would eventually consume him. He kept his thoughts to himself, however, and clambered clumsily out the entrance where she'd signaled him to follow.

The trail led into the mountains. They were warm, weepy, full of trees. No where was there a hint of any snow, and the trail went only upward. Finally they stopped to rest in a treehouse that had been made by some villagers ages ago. Kyska shuddered at the runic carvings on the tree supports, for he knew what they meant, and what they meant was ugly. He tried not to think about it.

There was scarcely room in the treehouse for both him and his companion, but somehow they arranged to sit and rest a while. Kyska dozed with his chin buried in fur.

Suddenly he sat up. The lion's fur bristled. Green eyes glowed from the shadows below. A hundred black wolves appeared and encircled the tree. They made no sound except for the scratching of their paws against the dirt and rocks below.

Kyska stood sadly and readied to venture down to them. He could not ask one lone lioness to fight a hundred wolves. He knew they'd come on his account, for it had been this way in the past, whether they be villagers with spears or elephant tusks.

Sharp claws grabbed him between his shoulder blades and threw him flat on the floor of the structure. He tried to protest but was soundly slapped by her weighty fur paw.

Her growls seemed to imitate the tone and spacing of human speech, and the tallest wolf looked up at her and barked out a reply. She leaned again and assured him with an earnest huff that she hadn't seen any other humans that day other than the one she intended to eat (that's what it seemed like she was saying when Kyska listened hard). The wolf leader thanked her cheerfully and bounded out into the surrounding bushes, followed by his avid frisky pack.

The journey resumed. Slowly their ascent seemed to reach some sort of plateau near the top, in the middle of which stood a structure made of brass in the shape of a giant box. When they drew near he ascertained it had a door, and the lioness disappeared inside it. A moment later she reappeared and signed for him to follow. The inside was dimly lit, with a terrible reeking haze that stung his nose and limited his view. He kept his eyes on her steadily rising and falling shoulders and tried not to succumb to the smell all around him.

The ground inside seemed to rise, and he soon found himself stumbling wearily up a golden staircase. Occasionally his foot slipped because the strange haze made everything moist, but he persisted with the determination of a hundred heroes. And now, it seemed, they were at the top.

A single tree made of glass glimmered in the misty cavernous dusk. At its base rested a serpent coiled as if at rest. The lioness stepped over it and went up the trunk in a single bound. Her gaze rested on him as if she expected him to follow.

"Same problem as before," he said. "I can't climb or leap like you can."

She growled at him insistently, and to his surprise the glass was not slick. He ascended with ease as though magnetized by the tree, and followed her into a little glass canyon inside the trunk.

A little old man with a wrinkled face and a very long beard sat in the midst of it, and he seemed to be deep in thought.

"What you say is true," he said to the lioness. "They do exist."

"What do?" said Kyska.

"Good humans," he replied. "I was afraid there were none."

Kyska blushed.

"How do you know if I'm good?"

The old man smiled.

"There is little, if anything, that I don't know about humans. Your soul windows tell me everything."

"Are you a human?" he ventured.

"Alas, I am. It was a terrible burden to be the only living virtuous human."

Kyska was quiet for a moment. Then he began anew.

"The snake sleeping outside..."

"...is old and toothless," the wise man finished for him. "He will only harm those who lend him an ear."

"And now?" said Kyska.

"And now I will return Elizabeth to human form. You and she will be permitted to go back to wherever you came from, provided you stay there."

"You changed her into a lioness? But why?"

"So she could defend herself against the villagers. It worked, didn't it? And now she's brought you to me to prove there is someone I can trust to send her home with. But as I said you must stay where I am about to send you, and never come back."

"Stay there? How can I stay there if I don't even know how I got here?"

"Stay out of those books," the old man glowered. "They were not supposed to be read by human eyes."

Kyska hesitated.

"Books, books..." he muttered to himself. "I can't remember any books."

"Go!" the old man thundered. "And remember what I said."

Everything faded. Soft sun poured through the tree limbs onto a large green hammock where Kyska dozed lazily.

"Tea time," Elizabeth called cheerily, waving her hand towards the house.

"Books," he moaned, half asleep.

"Oh, yes!" she replied. "Those first edition magic and conjuring lesson books arrived today in a big box. Shall I open it?"

Kyska gasped.

"No!" he said, then more calmly, "No, thank you."

Elizabeth tilted her head back and laughed. She slapped him through the hammock and grinned.

"Up, you lazy thing, and come drink your tea."

As they walked hand in hand towards the waiting refreshments, Kyska thought he heard the faintest hint of a lion's purr. He looked all around him. There was no one but Elizabeth, and she was smiling warmly. He would definitely destroy those books, and soon.