Tuesday, November 25, 2008
The Birth of the Owl in Daylight
They stand on the edge of a forest raining with trees, trees that stand like dominoes against the pale background of the morning only they are without the black spots the white trunks of dominoes, they are taller and more crooked darker and leafier than any domino but the forest stretched out away from the horizon coming toward them growing taller and taller as they stood there at the base of the red bark the ground soft and loamy around their feet, this boy and this girl stood holding hands wondering up at the length of the sky and the shadows cast by the growing structures wondering at the safety of their crossing and the possible dangers that lurked in the depth and the darkness of the wood. The animals were silent in their perches, merely rustling in their dens. Any snakes that were in the forest lay in wait. They hid under logs, under bush, in the darkest places. There were so many snakes and such little food, they trained themselves to move together, as one solid mass pulling together from different directions, they slid out from their rocks to join in a circular sweep, like an amoeba, fanning out for the kill. It had been long since they loosed their venom and now their mouths were tight and their bellies empty.
Girl and boy made ready with a pack on each of their shoulders, this old red spotted handkerchief tied to a stick full of biscuits and cheese and the boy carried a skein of water upon his belt. They moved quickly into the beginning shadows and were suddenly swallowed by the excess of dark. As they walked the boy sang a song.
The owl, dark as peat, sat on a branch with his head cocked toward the music. Apart from a deer now and then, these were the largest creatures to enter the forest. He catapulted off his seating and flew above a clearing, circling the thin rays of light that penetrated where a tree had fallen off some time ago. The boy and girl continued their walk, the song in its lilts picked up the rustle from squirrels and the movement of wind almost still by the ground. The song was small and thin like the boy and girl, it seemed blond too almost, a pale wavering that hovered in the air before the boy wordless but full of melody. As they walked he sang and the animals listened.
This dark owl hardly moved but tightened his circle that had been so small to begin with. Like to being charmed the snakes slowly unfurled their ruffleless skin and smoothed closer to the feeble rays of light pouring in. No birds but this owl and in the dim intensity of the light the snakes formed a gathering at the clearing, the light pouring down and giving depth like the inverse of a well-bottom and the boy and the girl walked on hand in hand their biscuits and cheese flapping along their shoulders as they traversed the forest.
In the village when the summer came pea pods dried up like the corn on their stalks. The roosters went sterile and cried dawn in the evening, the sweet milk from cows curdled, turned to clabber on their lips and the grasses in the valley sickened and died. Behind the barn where the cows and chicks were kept the girl had lain in the grass the blue above her and the grass already yellowing below. Her skirts were blue and white, mimicry of the clouds, and perhaps that was why the heavens opened up on her, rained down their cunning rebellion against this poor shadow of themselves. For her hair was blond as the sun, her eyes and mouth too bright and her hands still soft for all her chores. She lay behind the barn in the grass and it itched her ankles and her calves, made its way to her thighs and the backs of her arms and they were red and blotchy but her face was radiant. The boy was kneeling in front of her, the fabric of his pants collapsed around his ankles. Perhaps that is why the blight of fields, perhaps that is why babies wept all night in their cradles and the milk turned to clabber in their mouths.
His song faded out as they approached the circle of light. What they saw struck them and they remained motionless in the shadows. Snakes moved so slow as if dancing, the floor was alive with them, light shifting off their backs, refracting into the trees and disappearing at the end of the circle. They didn't leave it. Boy and girl walked the edge, marveling, their hands sweaty and entwined but the girls mouth worked in a spasmodic smile gasping all the while at their glittering backs and the boy kept his song quiet in wonder. Snake bodies pushed against each other, unwet but with some friction they glided smoothly in a tussle untagled and as the boy and girl tried to full circle they ran into the fallen log of the tree no longer standing.
It pushed them off to one side of clearing and they clambered on top of it, first the girl then the boy who had held her kerchief and who then handed it back to her. They sat watching the snakes entranced until she looked up and saw the single owl circling the daylight. His color was almost bleached out by the pale rays floating in. He screamed and plummeted. The boy pulled back and the girl cried out as he rose fistfull of snakes in to the sky. They hurried off the fallen log, back into the deep shadows ran without thinking through the forest, droplets following them from the tops of the trees, a spattering of fresh blood almost purple in this streaming dimming light. They ran together until they came to the cover of a cave freshly matted with dew and they stopped in to rest and to think and to hide for a while from the owl.
The cave was dark and cold, strange for all the heat emanating from the forest. The mushrooms growing on the soft loam outside halted their journey as the cave drew closer. It was bare outside. Inside was it was so still and so quiet the boy and the girl found themselves mute, unable to speak and they rationed out biscuits and cheese there in the darkness of the cave and they ate in the bleak silence. They knew they had to keep walking to get out of the forest before their food ran out. She was tired from running, not showing it but holding on to the boys hand with a tightness she could not conceal. They lay down to rest, his hand on her hair and her head crooked into his shoulder.
In her sleep the owl haunted her. He screeched and wheeled and flashed behind closed lids and startled the girl awake. Fistfull of snakes. The boy had turned away and was asleep on the rock floor. The girl was bathed in a light mattering from silk worms that swirled the cave. She gasped but she welcomed it-- it was warm and comforting and the white so brilliant in the dark she was grateful for it. This twisting silk, the silvery confection danced over the entrance, and she sitting in it, and he sleeping in it and the entrance covered up, a thick white mucus hanging like starwax from the dark mouth. She watched it grow and grew warm and in her belly the stirring began and she sang a soft song to it and the boy woke and put his hand to it and they sat in the cave growing warm and grateful and the silk worms spread themselves against the mouth of the cave and when it was time to go they pushed and tore at the silk, the worms that fell to the ground withered like ash, and they stamped on some as they made their way out, trailing stardust on the bottoms of their feet.
They had been run out of the village. The boy held her hand as they made their way to the edge of the wood. Everything will be fine, he said and she had shielded her face in her hands and he could not look away. When her cheeks were flushed they were beautiful; when she sat still as stone as the villagers, her mother and her father threw sticks, as the children ran up to her and pulled her hair and the townsmen cried out at her, her skin was silent, it was muted by the lack of red, a dim tide of pale that washed her out. At night they fled. He put his hand in hers and she made kerchiefs and they ran out of the barn where she was kept and made it to the edge of the forest in the daytime.
It went unnoticed for months but the seedlings died early that summer and the roosters were struck with an impotence, the cows gave no milk and the corn roasted black on their stalks. If she were not the only thing flowering in the village the attribution would not go unnamed. She was guilty. She had sucked up the warmth of the sun, the life in the grass rubbed itself into her body and the boy was not exempt. So they ran and they hoped to cross the forest before too long. But they could not say how long was too. So they ran in the cover of night and woke up and ran again, shielded by dark and the glowing traces of silk rubbed off them as they fled.
A dark owl slept in the moorings of an old ship. Some of the snakes in his fists remained alive, dripping but flashing and their venom it coiled and was ready to spring. The owl did not sleep lightly. Boy and girl were traversing the forest, what they saw as a clearing was the end of the clearings and the beginning of the sea.
That night there was no moon and the water was dark. It shifted black and shapeless beyond the tree line. They ship stood stranded halfway up the shore. Its masts were ruddied brown, leaning in the direction of the wind, the way of the trees. Cracks drew up its sides and every time the wind pushed through it it breathed a heaving sigh. The whipcrack of the sails was peaceful.
Girl looked at boy and he smiled. They had made it out of the forest. What lay beyond was the ocean, and in the distance they could see hillsides and the dim sparkles of fire-- perhaps another village lay in the dark. The crossing would be difficult, but together with this old ship the boy felt certain they could manage a shanty raft that would carry them to the other side. Owl held snakes tight in his fist. The footsteps on the boards below did not rustle him, he remained suspended in the lookout his head slowly melting in with his shoulders as he dozed. The boy and girl laughed and sang as she danced on the deck imagining themselves pushing off and floating along this battered wood to the hills beyond the sea. But it was night, so they buried into a cabin and there they settled till morning.
In the daylight, the owl awoke. He looked like a broken stump against the light. His yellow eyes shot open and the black of them could be seen dilating. The snakes had died sometime in the night, their venom, once coiled and ready to spring now leaked out of their bodies bathing the deck below. With no more than an upheaval of his body the owl dropped off the perch and into the lap of the girl. Fistfull of dead snakes.
She screamed and the boy came running. He pushed the owl, shouted, beat it with his fists but the owl clung to her skirts and she couldn't get up. She cried and screamed and they boy was red with fury but they could not unplant the owl. His talons scratched her thighs as he clung, the snakes whipped about and her legs began to gleam with poison. Slowly the girl and the boy realized that they needed to remain still. Like coming into the barn in the morning and finding a nest of scorpions, they had to quiet, still themselves until they could safely back out. The owl, once they had fully quieted, ruffled his feathers. He let the snakes loosely uncurl from his talons, settled them on her lap.
Terrified the boy reached for them and whipped them up into the air. They fell to the deck and shattered, splinters broke off and stuck into the skin of the boy, the girl and the owl. With the sun blinding above them the three sat on the deck unmoving, the owl so dark his figure looked carved out of basalt. Them so light they looked to be made of silk spun effigies. Venom had been loosed. Inside her stomach began a movement. The movement in her stomach grew louder as she sat there, unable to move and the boy could only hear the scratching helplessly. The scratching grew louder, her face was unable to contort, the floor of the ship was damp and loamy and the thing grew out of her, pushed its way through the glistening white silk and emerged, matted, and ruffling its feather took off into full rising light of morning.
Out of the forest, at the edge of the wood, there is a ship fast to the shore with the statue of a boy, a girl, and an owl so black as to be lost in the shadows.
On the other side of the ocean there is a village full of lights at night and dancing. The grass is green and plentiful and the cows are among the fattest ever known. They crop up out of the grass, black and white like dominoes and the villagers are red faced and happy and never go hungry.
There is a forest so thick with trees it is easy to lose place. There is a circular clearing, full round and lit up made from a tree that fell long ago.
As the boy and girl walked through the forest, they came upon the clearing. It was full of snakes. As they tried to circle they were entranced, the log stopped them and they were frightened by a dark owl. They ran. They ran to the edge of the forest and looked back on their village, the lights off in the distance; imagined that they built a ship to float on the dark water.