The birds served the queen well enough for some time. None of them cared how many human lives she took if they could have new words. For every fruit they brought to her, they had lightning breathed on to their feathers and were made new.
Other humans too began to stumble out of the forest. The queen watched them with a smile from the highest tower, her hands resting on the window sill, the creature resting on her shoulder. How the creature detested them. They were not like the beautiful queen. They were naked and weeping and ugly. The queen opened the doors of the castle to them anyway, extending her gracious hand to each of them. Soon tamed, they wore clothes and kept company among themselves. Most importantly to the creature, they stayed mostly out of the queen’s way.
The queen discovered a problem fairly quickly with the other birds. Because they had only sharp beaks to pluck with, the fruit was coming to the castle slashed and shredded, juices oozing out.
“This won’t do,” she said quietly, examining one of the ruined fruit. In a flash, it caught fire in her hand and in a moment the blue flames swallowed it whole. She closed her hands around the ashes. “What a waste.”
She returned to the tree where the birds slept with the creature perched on her shoulder. They each felt the frost that spread beneath her feet and woke suddenly. A shower of a thousand different whispers fell on them.
“I will have quiet,” she spoke softly and the birds fell silent. “You have fulfilled your purpose. I no longer wish you to retrieve the fruits. Our arrangement has reached its end.” And she turned a heel on them.
“Yes, my love?” The creature asked, its paper heart breaking.
“Not you, my pet. I still have use for you,” the queen cajoled it with a stroke to the head. The creature let out a happy sigh, relieved that it was still special to her.
As they began to walk out of the forest, the birds left in the tree all whispered in fury. They began to swoop down, their sharp beaks pointed for her.
With a flick of her small wrist, the few birds diving for her burst into orange flames and tumbled to the forest floor. The creature watched them shrinking in the distance, its own kind writhing and whispering as they turned to ash. For the first time in its life, the creature felt fear. The queen’s face was disrupted only by a slight satisfied smile as if she had been waiting for someone to cross her so.
To the creature’s dismay, the company in the castle grew. More and more humans wandered out of the trees and filled the endless rooms, ate the food their benevolent queen had provided and walked the gardens. They wanted for nothing and when they did seek counsel with the queen, she sat and listened patiently to their trite concerns.
Why could they not reenter the forest? Could they ever see their families again? Were they in heaven? The queen patiently answered the same questions over and over: There are terrible beasts waiting to tear the flesh from your bones in the forest. No, their families belonged in the mortal realm. They would come to know their place in time. There is no such thing as heaven. She smiled and let them kiss her hands and thank her before they bowed their way out the door. The creature sat on her shoulder through all of this, hating humans more with every encounter. They were so needy, so selfish. If the lot of them found themselves swallowed by the beasts in the forest, it wouldn’t have minded a bit.
During a first encounter with a strapping young man of twenty, the creature noticed the queen was quite taken with him. She spoke with him longer than the others, asked him questions about his life in the mortal realm which he answered politely.
He had been an athlete, a runner of long distance and a swimmer of rough currents. He had been a hard and loyal worker and died in an accident in the mines.
The queen asked him if he’d like to serve her further to which he nodded. His answer was a bit unenthusiastic for the creature’s taste, but it remained silent. And just like that the queen had selected someone to replace the birds.
That night as the creature sat on the windowsill and watched the queen brushing her long black hair, she said, “I think I have chosen well, my pet. The human boy is loyal. He is strong yet gentle. He will serve us well.”
The creature nodded, but felt ashamed it could not perform the task itself. It resented the human boy for his large and versatile human hands that did not have to slash and tear to get a job done. He had an infinite number of songs to sing, of words to say.
And as he promised, the human boy did the job well. The fruits were delivered and catalogued with accuracy and finesse. Every day the boy went in to the forest, and returned quickly with the baskets filled with fruit.
The queen was pleased, but then noticed the boy’s trips to the forest extending for many hours. When she questioned him, the human boy said he had simply taken a liking to the magical nature of the forest. That long hikes were good for his health. The creature would have snorted if it could have. What health?
He was dead.
“Of course,” the queen said kindly, dismissing him.
“I want you to keep an eye on him my pet. He is withholding and that won’t do. If he is keeping something from me you must find out. For I will not be kept in the dark. Do you understand?”
The creature nodded to its queen, it’s paper heart swelling with pride. She had found a purpose for it at last.
previous: Forest Creatures: Paper Bird – Part Three
first chapter: Forest Creatures Nushka – Part One
more by NOELLE CURRIE
photograph by Vadim Sherbakov
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