Out of the mist, claws slash and hook their struggling quarry.
Wings beat smoky sunlight up to a high branch, where razor beak cuts through the struggle and the flesh and tugs free a red flag of victory. Raw tendons, crimson tissues, and various greasy organs follow, swallowed whole or minced by the dissecting beak. And all the while, the quarry’s head remains intact, emitting sad chirps of distress.
That’s how owls kill.
Most owls have no compunction about killing anything smaller than they are — including their own kind when they can. I know, because I am an owl.
My name is Shagbark. I am a great horned owl and an aspiring author under the penname Jonathan Sparrow.
I eat small creatures, including mice, frogs, centipedes, and sparrows (my favorite — hence, my penname). But I won’t kill an owlet.
I saw my younger sister slain that way. Owls regard such a kill a coup — a triumph — because these killings cull the weak. But for me, her death is a searing tragedy.
“Musing again, Shagbark?”
A severe-looking falcon appears from behind the stately bookshelves in the athenaeum where I’m perched at a drafting table in my carrel, writing this. “You are to be writing during this period. If you are not writing, there are plenty of chores for you. Books to shelve. Shelves to dust. Dustbins to empty. Empty catalog forms to fill.”
“I am writing, Doctor Sparverius.”
Actually, I was remembering how Smudge — my younger sister — lay on a bough under the claws of her killer, her small face turned urgently toward me. I watched, horrified, crouching on a safely-distant branch, to which I’d fled when the hostile owl struck her. I could hear her small chirps calling to me — not for help and not in anguish — but, well, contritely. She was pleading for forgiveness. As the aggressive owl hooked a slither of her glistening organs, she chirped me sorrowful regret for not looking up before she had entered the glade, a precaution our parents had taught us since we’d hatched.
“You appear preoccupied, Shagbark,” the old falcon correctly observes. “We cannot tolerate malingering in the athenaeum. Your novel — Brave Tails, is it? It should have been completed by now. After all, you’ve been writing this story far longer than we usually permit our first-time novelists. What is your justification this time, my dilatory owl?”
I make a mental note to look up ‘dilatory,’ though I suspect it probably means ‘dawdling.’ “I’m composing my author’s notes.”
Doctor Sparverius has gray eyes, luminous and cold as smashed ice, and they watch me closely. “Hmm. Are these notes necessary?”
“My story doesn’t need them,” I reply meekly, keeping my face aimed at my writing tablet on the drafting table. From the corner of my eye, I snatch glances at my stern preceptor. His kestrel features have a hard pride uncommon even for a falcon. “Brave Tails: The Moon’s Prophecy is complete without notes.”
“Yes, I recall from earlier drafts, your story has an effective beginning and a robust development, which assures me that you have by now carried it to a satisfactory conclusion — and I do emphasize by now, young Shagbark. There are many other deserving writers whose tenure at the athenaeum your procrastination denies.” His eyes of crushed ice look strongly at me. “And so, I inquire of you again, are these notes necessary?”
“My epic does not conclude in one volume.” I answer timidly, afraid of the falcon beside me even though, strict as he is, he never cajoles or bullies but remains as calm and deeply sure of himself as a surgeon. “I — well, I uh — I thought these notes might encourage the reader to go on to the next volume — Brave Tails: Invasion of the Boars.”
“A good story requires no further encouragement than its own creative force.” My preceptor taps the drafting table with his talon. “So, are these notes necessary?”
I stare at the rows of bookshelves foreshortened against the tall, parabolic windows of the athenaeum. Through those windows, I can see giant trees wearing scarves of mist. They remind me why I’m here. To get away from that dangerous forest, where owls feed on their own.
“My story doesn’t need these notes,” I admit honestly. “I’m just trying to explain myself to my readers, so they understand why this saga of talking animals is important to me.”
I peer at the stack of ruffled pages in the manuscript box beside the drafting table. And I get dizzy at the thought of how many long hours I’ve given to these imaginary characters. “I guess maybe these notes are necessary for me.
“First-class answer!” says the falcon. Some keen, frightening intent flashes in his icy eyes. “Carry on then.”
And he is gone, off to review the work of other writers in other carrels throughout the athenaeum.
I’m a little shaken. Whenever Doctor Sparverius confronts me, I feel afraid, all feathery inside.
As my preceptor, he alone decides if the story of the Brave Tails possesses sufficient merit to submit to your world for publication.
I should explain that the athenaeum is a school in the
. As the name of our college implies, the residents here are eagles,
hawks, falcons, and owls. Admission is granted only those raptors who score the
highest on the Raptorial Exams. These are general knowledge exams with emphasis
on mathematics and communication skills, and the College conducts them
throughout the forest once every five years. College of Raptors
I didn’t do all that well on the mathematics portion of the exam. I don’t have a head for ciphers. And my general knowledge is mediocre. But I earned matriculation with a poem I wrote:
Little Notes to You from an Owl
The owl is looking for you.
The owl’s voice is a question whose answer is you.
The owl’s flower face has death for a sun.
The owl’s neck is a wheel with spine for axle
So every direction the owl goes is forward.
The owl is the courage of life and death’s mystery.
The owl hunts by slam victory.
The owl is a moon spirit.
The owl is a medicine pouch stuffed with twilight
And the bones of small animals. In this pouch,
The owl keeps its tears,
And each teardrop is harder than a diamond, a star.
The owl loves darkness and built the night
By nailing its shadow to the sky with its tears.
The owl slays by surprise.
Yet owls say they do not slay. They find the way
Up from the earth. And once away,
The owl unmakes its prey and then makes its prey
That’s the poem that began my writing career. Do you like it?
The raptors who chose it were very deliberate in their judgment: Raptors admire ferocity; so, I wrote the most ferocious poem I could. I wanted to win their approval and get out of the wilds — at least for a while.
Unnerved by my brief exchange with Doctor Sparverius, I take my writing tablet and leave my carrel.
The athenaeum is a maze of ornate bookshelves, kiosks of scrolls, catalog cabinets, scrivener carrels, reading stalls, and corkscrew stairwells. Fanlight windows high among the vaulted ceilings admit long, dusty shafts of amber sunshine.
It is morning — late for an owl — and I should be asleep. The globe lanterns that suffuse the central well with a lunar radiance at night are all extinguished, as are the individual study lamps that gleam orange and blue from the numerous tiers of the multistoried building. I don’t feel sleepy. Brave Tails: The Moon’s Prophecy is finished — and I am too afraid to submit it.
I retreat to the rooftop’s hanging garden. Here, among blossom arbors and fern trellises, alcoves provide residents privacy to work outdoors above the busy courtyards and plazas surrounding the athenaeum.
Butterflies crisscross the rooftop. I find an empty niche under a lattice of flowering wintergreen, purple blossoms busy with bees. The droning bees steady my thoughts, and within moments of sitting at the weathered gray writing desk, I know how to explain myself to you. I will describe what I see — and you will understand my world.
Through a flowery frame of hanging vines, I observe cloud plateaus above remote mountains. These are very old crags, worn down to purple horizons. For as far as the sharpest-eyed eagle can see, a measureless forest ranges, a misty, netherworld of enormous trees — sequoias, redwoods, and towering cypresses.
fills a large glade with a ziggurat (which is a rectangular building of
stone terraces), five glass towers slender as obelisks, a mirror-sided pyramid,
and seven quadrangles enclosed by dolmen rocks, similar to College of Raptors Stonehenge, but our dolmens are smaller and shrouded in ivy.
How can raptors, who have no hands, build such structures?
That’s a human question. How do termites build their towers? Or bees their precise honeycombs?
Have you ever examined a bird nest? Ever tried to make a nest yourself from thin twigs and grass?
Few people can.
The ovenbird fashions an abode out of clay or mud mixed with straw that bakes in the tropical sun to brick-hard walls. The eagle’s nest appears a mess, but it’s sturdy enough to support a human adult, because the sticks — some of them inches thick and several feet long — are actually stacked in rotated triangles. Birds are remarkable engineers.
This voice that rasps like a boulder rolling down a gravel slope makes my neck feathers stand straight out.
“You should explain how you know about humans. They only care about themselves, fool.”
I stop writing. The owl who has been reading over my shoulder through the lattice of the adjacent alcove is Jagged. His name comes from a birth trait — his serrated beak.
I stiffen, because he is the owl who killed Smudge.
The College forbids coup killing on campus. My blood thickens anyway, running sluggish with heart-sore pain.
“You don’t belong in the athenaeum,” I manage in a steady voice. He doesn’t. Jagged is a math wizard and resides at the ziggurat, where he should be engineering aviary condominiums or calculating more efficient swan flyways.
“I’m here to see you.” The gray owl with the saw tooth beak steps around the lattice partition and enters my alcove. His truculent presence nearly shoves me out of my seat and over the roof edge into soaring flight. “I hear you’ve been busy, Shagbark. You finished your book.”
All the darkness and impersonality of the universe seem crammed in his harsh voice. I simply stare at him, all thoughts fading to black.
“You have a good, clear heart.” Jagged leans close, his scowling eyes gleeful. “And I’m going to eat it.”
“What?” The word sounds more like a quack than a question.
“You finished your book.” Jagged, gray as a ghost and gravel-voiced, nods knowingly. “No more hiding out. No more skulking around the athenaeum doing your piddling research, scrawling your pathetic pages. You’re finished, Shagbark. This is your one shot — and when it goes down, you go out, back into the wilds. Then, I’ll find you.” The malice in his fragment of a smile makes my heart flap. “I’ll find you, Shagbark. And when I find you — I will eat you.”
Coup killing multiple members of the same family merits such laudable acclaim among owls that an elite society exists to honor and promote those killers to the highest echelons of the forest community.
Such multiple coup killings of one family are quite rare, because the custom among owls requires children to leave the area where their parents live and to travel as far as possible to find their own place in the world. Most owlets thrill at the prospect of flying far into unknown tracts of the forest and making a life for themselves by beak and claw, and they disperse swiftly.
Fate, however, has situated me in the same college as Smudge’s killer, an opportunity too fortuitous for Jagged to ignore.
“You hear me, Shagbark?”
I can’t speak. I hunch over the small writing desk and scribble these words in my blurry shorthand. My mind is lost in a black galaxy of fears, memories and remorse, the enormity of my grief for Smudge.
“I read your story,” Jagged says lifelessly. “It doesn’t go anywhere.”
“Huh?” I twist about in my seat, wing feathers ruffling. “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t look so surprised.
isn’t so difficult for a mathematician. We’re
trained to crack codes.” He eyes my gnawed pencil nub. “You obviously put a lot
of effort into this project. The story’s mouse hero and his shrew friends
particularly fascinate me. Describing mice and shrews in anything other than a
cookbook is an unquestionable feat of imagination for an owl. Those characters
were real enough to make me hungry. But the story goes nowhere.” Reading
“You’re wrong.” I set my jaw. “The moon’s prophecy has been fulfilled. My characters have come together to begin their adventure.”
“Yeah, begin — but your book’s done, fool.” The abrasive grit of his voice scrapes mockingly as if striving to sandpaper the stupidity from my brain. “The story just ends in the middle of nowhere. What about the boar invasion?”
“This is the first volume,” I say in a weak voice. “First of a series.”
“Are you a complete idiot?” Amazement shoves Jagged’s head back. “Is that what they teach here at the athenaeum — ‘Compleat Idiocy for Writers’?”
“It’s a good story,” I protest feebly. “I mean ... it’s going somewhere. This is the first leg of a journey.”
“Readers don’t want a journey. They want a story.” Jagged lifts his claw before my face and tightens his talons greedily. “And stories have endings.”
“My story has an ending.” I stare into Jagged’s eyes. They are black candle-flames, still and hot. He wants to tear out my heart on the spot. “But to get there, my readers have to go on a journey through a series of books.”
“Fah!” Jagged expels disgust with a clack of his serrated beak — and then, an expression of drastic evil saturates his features. “It’s never going to sell.”
Dread prickles under my feathers, and a shout leaps from me before I can think, “Get out!”
Jagged backs out of the alcove. But his sneer seems to linger where he stood. “You know what I’m researching at the ziggurat? The Ghost Gates. Yeah, Shagbark, that’s right. I’ll know when they send your manuscript. And I’ll know when it gets bounced, too. I’ll know when it comes back plastered with rejection slips.”
Hostility seethes from Jagged like steam. “Write this down, Shagbark. When this lame manuscript returns through the Ghost Gates, you have to leave the College. That’s the rules. You fail to find a readership, you leave. And when you leave — I’m going to eat your good, clear heart.”
Alone, I lean out the frame of the alcove. I’m thinking of flying, just to clear my head — and my good, clear heart.
Pressing far out the opening, I can see past the ziggurat and the glass towers to the sequoia on the College margin and, just visible in a narrow gap between those mighty trunks, the Ghost Gates.
Imagine two gigantic conch shells half-buried nose down in the ground, right next to each other. Their whorled cavities stand vertical, side-by-side, facing in opposite directions. Imagine the shells are made of opal so thin that when sunlight shines through them you can see colorful mineral flakes suspended in the translucent walls like metallic bits of fluorescent confetti.
The light penetrating the semitransparent walls makes the air inside the shells look hazy as a mirage. Animals who have died sometimes show up there, gesturing, speaking without sound, or just staring. That’s why we call them the Ghost Gates.
“By the way, pal — ” Jagged abruptly shoves his notch-beaked head into my alcove and assaults me with his big voice. “Nobody wants another book of talking mice. The fantasy field is overrun with jabbering, yammering mice.”
The reappearance of the belligerent owl startles me. I yelp and tumble out the alcove and off the rooftop.
Snorting adrenalin, I twist about in mid-fall and whomp my wings. Now, I’m gliding. The athenaeum pulls away — an immense corkscrew ribbon of mottled stone curling heavenward.
Jagged stands at the roof’s edge, glaring at me with dark humor. As I slew with the wind, the ribbon tower retreats among other campus buildings.
It feels good airborne. I’m oddly grateful to Jagged for chasing me out into the open.
I can’t help wondering if he’s right about the market for animal fantasy.
I fly boldly, straight into the sun, hoping to purge myself of Jagged’s unkind opinion. When my head hurts, I spiral down. Sequoias full of green darkness and camphor shadows rise up and enclose me.
The Ghost Gates tower among these stupendous trees, a luminous presence in the dark grove of giants.
In the topmost galleries of the Ghost Gates chambers open into wormholes — shortcuts through spacetime that span the universe. The
has sent explorers back-and-forth through those
wormholes, investigating and populating numerous worlds — including Earth. College of Raptors
Our travelers, of course, can visit only those planets fit for habitation by birds, and millennia of such explorations have widely distributed our dominant species and breeds of birds among the suitable worlds.
I light in a wide clearing splotched with yellow flowers and grass greening in the sun. Here I quickly scratch these thoughts in the small notebook I carry everywhere I go.
“Shaggy, aren’t you done scribbling yet?”
The large great horned owl who approaches from out of the monkey park adjacent to the Ghost Gates moves with stunning beauty. She displays plumage the color of cinnamon, ear-tufts velvet as , and an ivory beak like a crescent moon.
She’s my girlfriend, Blue. She’s named after the astonishing hue of her eyes. “I thought you’d finished that silly thing.”
Female great horned owls are twenty percent larger than males, and so, even though I’m standing, I’m looking up at her as I say, “Hello to you, too.”
“You keep scratching like that you’re going to turn into a chicken. Put that down and look at me, goofy owl.” Her stare widens with concern, and the azure day pours through her eyes. “You know I can’t wait for you much longer.”
Blue is a dancer, the most prestigious profession in raptor society. Dancers collect our history and philosophy in movement. We don’t write. That art, peculiar to your culture and a half dozen other worlds, seems strange to us, abstract as it is, so disconnected from the physical world where we live body and soul from birth. Time puts one claw before the other, so why shouldn’t its creatures? Through dance, we remember, we debate, and we decide.
“My novel is finished — but I’m afraid to submit it.” I’ve always been completely honest with Blue, and that, I think, is why she loves me.
Great horned owls mate for life, and the choice of a spouse is a big issue of prestige among our peers. So, if you were to ask Blue, a highly-skilled dancer who has her pick of males, why she wants to spend her life nesting with me, an unproven practitioner of an alien and dubious art akin to chicken scratching, she’d probably offer some conventional answer, such as how the feathers of my throat band are white as water lilies filled with first snow, my ear tufts sharp as flames, my face-disc buff as an early moon floating among poplar trees.
Actually, I’m not that good-looking. She chose me, because I surprise her.
“I’m writing about you now, Blue, and why you love me.”
That surprises her.
The blue core of her soul shines in her sockets, glossy with curiosity. To avoid the embarrassment of having to read aloud what I’m writing here, I hurriedly add, “If I don’t get this right, if Brave Tails is rejected, I’ll have to leave the College.”
“Is that really such a tragedy?”
Returning to the forest is so expected and ordinary for her, so much more desirable than anything I could be chicken scratching in this notebook, her soul packs up its curiosity and withdraws to its usual depths. She looks away into the trees, distracted by angular sunlight sliding down like golden escalators.
We should be riding those escalators into dreamland. We’re both up late, I to write these notes, she to socialize with other dancers while snacking on small monkeys in the park. The drowsy sun immerses the world in shimmering dream colors.
“You can always get work as a territorial guard or a nest finder, like my parents.”
Those jobs are owl equivalents of a police officer and a realtor. Neither career appeals to me, because they leave me vulnerable to Smudge’s fate. “Blue, I’m a coward. I’m afraid of the forest.”
That returns her attention to me, and her tallness seems to collapse inward. “You’re not a coward, Shaggy. You’re a rare and sensitive owl — a bard who should be crafting hooting melodies about life’s joys and travails. You’d make a fortune, and your admirers would protect you.”
Can you see why I love this female? “Sure, Blue, I’ll thrive as a bard — just as soon as I recall where I left my singing voice.”
My clumsy attempt at sounding flip only makes Blue more certain that I need her help. Her embracing look of love pops the knuckles of my spine, and I level with her: “My only gift is this peculiar art in a strange language useless everywhere but on a distant planet called Earth. If the Raptorial Exams hadn’t identified my aptitude for abstract thinking, I’d never have gotten into the College’s developmental skills program, never have learned this otherworldly business of reading and writing, never had a chance to compose my ferocious poem... ”
“And never have met me.” Her voice fits snugly around a gigantic tenderness. “If you were to ask me, I would go with you today, Shaggy, right now, to find our own tree.”
My heart roars like a furnace. There’s nothing I want more — except to avoid what happened to my sister.
I know that with Blue at my side during our mating time I’d be safe. But owls live most of the year alone, and I don’t want to have to spend the majority of my life looking over my shoulder for Jagged or someone like him eager to eat me. “We can make a stupendous — and safe — life for ourselves right here on campus,” I blurt, then add more softly, “that is, if Brave Tails finds a readership on Earth.”
“Okay.” Her voice narrows, approaching a wounded whisper. “So what happens now? You can’t keep scratching at that pad forever.”
Staring up at all that unlocked desire in her beautiful face and seeing above her the immense redwood canopy and clouds like incomplete pieces of our lives waiting for me to fit them together, I wonder where to begin.
“There are animals on Earth who enjoy stories like this. Humans. They’re similar to those monkeys your friends are eating in the park.”
“Do owls on Earth fight for the tails of humans as we fight for monkey tails?”
“Humans don’t have tails, and they’re less hairy. I don’t think you’d like them. Not only are they too big to eat, they’re violent. It’s common for them to destroy other animals — not just for food but for expedience and pleasure.”
“They sound abhorrent.”
“Obscene! They’re annihilating whole species at a terrifying rate. That’s why the athenaeum has forbidden direct contact with them and why we’re trying to civilize them with their own language and art. My mission is to touch their souls by writing a story where animals behave like humans. Maybe then they’ll think of the species they’re devastating more compassionately.”
My girlfriend nods carefully. “That sounds — ” The blue fire in her eyes flickers as she kindly discards the word ‘crazy’ for “…far-fetched.”
“Yeah.” I chew off that word, sharing her skepticism. “The athenaeum has been trying in vain to enlighten humans for centuries. They made small progress a couple millennia ago when a crow, using the pen-name Aesop, introduced some fables that dramatized common sense and decency.”
“A couple millennia?”
“Slow learners. More recently, we achieved commercial success with athenaeum writers who fronted their work through two human allies on Earth, Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame. Ms Potter actually used a great deal of the money she earned from her animal stories to establish a wildlife reserve. Of course, my work can’t compare to creations like Peter Rabbit or wacky Toad of Toad Hall... ”
“It’s late, Shaggy.” Blue maintains eye contact as she slides deftly away. She wants me to see that she loves me even if she doesn’t think much of my chicken scratching or the athenaeum’s infirm efforts to reform rabid animal killers on an alien planet.
She shows me love feathers. “I’m going to grab a monkey to eat before I get some rest. You hand in that silly thing now — and when we get together later, I’ll help you forget all about it.”
Blue retreats into the trees among veils of morning light. It’s so late and the sunshine so spooky bright, I wonder if maybe that wasn’t Blue after all. Maybe she was a phantom of my anxiety, jumping out of my fatigued psyche to scare me with the terrible truth that my work is pointless.
Smudge is gone.
And all those extinct species of your world are gone.
I shiver, watching the way gauzy sunlight pleats around Blue until she disappears.
Daylight makes everything seem so unreal. Who can believe such intense colors?
Well, I suppose you can — if this story has actually gotten into human hands. You’re accustomed to daylight.
For an owl, the colors of sunshine don’t seem made of light at all but smells. Colors appear that strong. They rise off the surface of things like fumes and spread in the air, trailing and mingling odors.
Maybe I’ve been writing too long.
That’s my thought as I saunter among redwoods scratching these thoughts. If I weren’t so preoccupied with writing down what I see, I would have known better than to discuss with Blue my mission.
She’s not your average female owl. The domain of dancers is so sophisticated and challenging, she gets bored easily when males talk about work, and she gets outright angry if they try any of that corny romantic stuff, like robust beak snapping, ventriloquial breeding calls, or the sexy crooning and ‘wraaa-wraaa-aarrk’ songs that send most females into a dither.
If I want Blue, I have to let this novel go.
But I’m holding onto it the way I wasn’t able to hold onto Smudge.
That thought walks me through the chartreuse shade of enormous trees to the Ghost Gates, where I’m hoping I might catch a glimpse of my sister’s wraith. That has never happened the many other times I’ve stood here in the punctured darkness of the forest gazing intently at this unreal immensity — and it doesn’t happen now.
No one knows who created the Ghost Gates or what purpose they originally served. Maybe Jagged and his research cohorts at the ziggurat will figure that out.
Sunlight squeaks through pale curves of twisted shell that vastly loom above the sequoias. In the dark depths of those cavernous portals, tiny lights effervesce.
Tourists flock to see this wonder. I hear their awed cries in the wind. Birds blow in and out of the monumental interior.
From a low bough of a sequoia, I watch a group of hares lollop into the clearing. The younger cottontails glance up at me nervously. Unlike their elders, they’re not so trusting of laws that forbid me pouncing on them within these revered grounds. They keep an eye on me until they enter the colossal lower chamber of the Ghost Gates.
Inside, what they see is as close to you as I can get. Eerie, turbulent auroras spill from the upper storey, out of winding corridors that connect my world with yours.
It is to this chamber that Dr. Sparverius will bring my manuscript. In one of those mysterious vaults, my written pages will disappear from this world and arrive in yours.
Thrilled by this possibility, I glide among pillared shadows of the redwoods. The athenaeum appears ahead, its helical stones weathered to the color of dead leaves by centuries of frost and rain.
At the perimeter of the athenaeum’s turf courtyard, I alight atop a boulder that wears a shawl of moss. It’s one of several that stand like guardians. Here, I read over what I’ve written, wondering if any of this sounds true.
Are these notes necessary? Dr. Sparverius’ intimidating question rises like a voice out of a well.
My story doesn’t need these notes. My story needs you. You are my story’s purpose. Until you read them, until you add your human perspective, they are nothing. Then, they are made more by your faith that words can tell a story and a story can abandon truth and still be true.
When writing enchants, animals of different species talk with each other, and what they have to say is real and important. To live fully, we must listen to their fantasies. After all, the real enemy of life is not death but disenchantment.
My pencil pauses. I read that line again. I lift my claw and gnaw on my pencil nub. The real enemy of life...
Can that be true?
Am I afraid to fail, am I afraid to return to the forest not because I saw Smudge die, not because Jagged wants to kill me too but because...
My heart lubs heavily.
t’s not death that has made me a coward. It’s disenchantment. I saw my sister cut to pieces before my eyes, and my little playmate, my bothersome tag-along, my humorous sidekick, my tattletale, my best friend suddenly exposed as slithering organs and raw meat.
My neck feathers stand straight out. I understand everything. My pencil scrawls faster than I can read.
I’m disenchanted. I’m frightened, because I believe that life is pointless. I have lost the heart to live. The irony is that I’m afraid of death, because I’m not really alive! I’m already dead inside.
All this time, I’ve been running away from an enemy I carry with me. I haven’t been writing about imaginary characters — I’ve been hiding among them, learning their desires, confronting their fears. Unaware, I have been desperately trying to build a new heart.
Smudge and all the extinct species of your world, of all the worlds, are gone — gone like the inventors of the Ghost Gates.
No one knows. We are not meant to know, only to wonder.
So long as we wonder, ever so long as we can wonder, we will not be defeated. Not even by death.
Do I believe this?
I swoop down from the boulder and slide along a ramp of sunbeams to the stone steps of the athenaeum, and I wonder what on Earth will happen with my novel, this fantasy of talking animals in a frightening situation — a situation as dangerous as what you and I must face every day.
I pause at the top of the athenaeum’s ancient, worn steps to wonder what will happen to me in the forest if I fail. I wonder what it’s like to die.
Boldly, I walk through the vaulted entry on my way to my writing carrel, to get my manuscript. I wonder if Dr. Sparverius will be surprised this morning when I present him with volume one of my epic.