Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Chapter Five

The terrible thing about him is that his bottom is made out of springs.

Thus, he moves quickly.

Faster than anything in the Wood, surely, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to escape. Not when her child is still alive.

“Faster, Mama, faster!” cries her son. In a way, he’s lucky. Safely tucked in his mother’s pouch, he can’t see behind them, can’t see what his dearest friend has become.

He’s never known his mother to leap and run, let alone at such a pace. If he didn’t know any better, if he hadn’t experienced the nightmare that has been the past few days, he might’ve thought this was some new game.

In a way, it is a game, a deadly game of tag. She changes direction, jumps over a bush and squeezes through a thicket of trees. Fortunately, her pursuer has lost most of his coordination, and he has trouble with changes in the terrain. She might not be faster than him, but she can maybe outmaneuver him.

He bounces over the bush with ease, still hooting and chortling in a cruel perversion of his former laugh, but he doesn’t think to sidestep the thicket, giving her a few seconds of precious time.

“Where are we going, Mama?” asks her son. He still strains to look behind her, but she keeps one arm wrapped around his small body.

She only shakes her head. It’s too much to endure the strangled, dry burning in her lungs, and she cannot spare the breath to speak.

With one heavy leap, they are across the stream. She hopes he won’t think to use the bridge only a few feet away.

They come across a small trail of burrowed earth – a sign that Gopher’s recently passed by – and she changes course to follow it. Apparently, Gopher had the same plan. He was digging to the edge of the Wood. Toward the Door.

Water splashes behind them. He didn’t use the bridge.

Her son cries as the giggling grows louder. Soon, too soon, they can hear each wet bounce of his tail as he chases after them.

She turns and desperately jumps over a cluster of thistles. Some of them dig into her tail, but she ignores the pain. Hopefully he’ll be distracted by the drops of blood.

Only when she hears the crash and crackle of thistle stems does she change direction, reuniting once more with Gopher’s path. After several painful leaps, they reach the edge of the Wood, and she is greeted with a sight that hurts more than her lungs, more than the spikes of the thistles, more than the loss of all her friends.

It’s a field. A sunny, breezy, balmy field, wide enough for a dozen picnics, just right for flying kites, the perfect place to spend one’s summer afternoons.

A field that is impossibly too large and too open. No trees, no rocks, no bushes to hide behind. As the hungry chuckles creep through the air, she knows that she isn’t fast enough to reach the simple wooden Door at the end of the field, at the end of the Wood, at the end of the world, before he catches them.

But with a heavy, sorrowful heart, she bounds forward, eyes focused on the Door, ears ringing with that poisoned laughter.

Maybe that’s why her son notices it first. “Mama, look!” he says, and points to the sky.

“Can’t,” she manages to say. It’s maybe a dozen leaps to the Door, plus a second to open it. Not enough time.

“It’s Owl!” says her son. She still doesn’t waste a moment looking upwards, though she catches the plump shadow cast on the field.

It doesn’t matter, though. His laughter is too near. A dozen leaps are too many, and he rockets onto her back. She falls forward, instinctively putting down an arm and turning to her side so that her son isn’t crushed.

She knows what it means to be bitten, has seen it happen to her friends. He rips into her, and though it hurts, she doesn’t allow herself to cry out in pain. She only screams for Owl. Surely he will notice them with those far-seeing eyes.

The shadow, already plummeting, pulls itself out of a dive-bomb maneuver. Relief washes over her, blissfully numbing her ruined body.

“Owl, save him!” she screams. With her good arm, she holds up her crying son, hoping that he won’t look back at what’s happening to her. “Please!”

Her head grows heavy and drifts slowly into the grass. She smiles as she sees the shadow grow wider with Owl’s descent.

Their eyes meet briefly for one final time, his shiny with tears, hers serene and resigned.

“Thank you, Owl,” she says in a tone that is so calm, the voice she’d often use to soothe her son when he’d had a nightmare, the voice he would always remember.

And the weight of her son grows lighter as his jumper is snatched in Owl’s claws.

“Mama!” Her son holds out his hands to her, but he is too quickly pulled away into the air.

And she smiles to herself (her attacker never noticing the departure, so intent is he on the feast) and lays her head on the soft meadow.

“Love you,” she whispers. The words are lifted away by the breeze, and that is enough. He’s heard her. Nothing else matters.