A BEDTIME STORY READER
By Alan J. Paul
ABOUT THIS BOOK
When my daughter was eight or nine years old she asked me one day: “Daddy, can you write about anything besides sports?” Having been an editor and writer for many years, mostly for sports and fitness magazines, I still couldn’t help but be a little offended by the question. Finally, I said, “Sure, Munchkin. I can write about other things. Why?” Then she said, “Could you write me a story?”
This book, based upon a small article that I had read in The New York Times about the prehistoric ancestor to modern-day birds, is the result of that conversation. It was my attempt to prove to my daughter, and perhaps myself, that I could write about something besides sports. After I had finished each chapter, I would test it by reading the segment to my daughter before she went to bed. Judging by her reaction, I would either move on to writing the next, or further tinker with the last, until the manuscript was ultimately completed.
I purposely ended each chapter with a “cliff-hanger” in an attempt to maximize her interest. It worked. She could hardly wait for the next installment, and on reading nights I had no trouble getting her to go to bed.
I’m not sure who enjoyed these bedtime story sessions more, but I do know that I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. Those nights reading to her, and seeing the excitement in her young eyes, became defining moments in my evolution as a parent. We often read to our very young children, but as they get older we fall out of the practice for a variety of reasons. Don’t allow that to happen!
I hope you will read this book to your older child and in doing so experience the joy that I felt then, and continue to hold in a corner of my heart today.
Alan J. Paul
The Last Arkie
Far to the east of the great mountains, across the vast savanna, south of the inland sea, at the edge of the ancient forest, in the land that–eons and eons from now (beyond even the wildest imaginings of the eldest elders)–would come to be called “China,” there dwelled the last remaining clan of Arkies.
Among the smallest of the terrible lizards, Arkies matured very rapidly after birth. Within a few months, they were close to their adult height of barely one foot tall, with pear-shaped bodies, short legs, stubby wing-like arms and short tails. Except for their small wing-arms, which were adorned with feathers, Arkies were covered head-to-foot in a suit of rubbery gray-green scales; they had piercing yellow eyes and protruding snout-mouths filled with rows of tiny dagger-sharp teeth. Atop their crowns grew a reddish brown comb–not unlike a modern-day rooster’s–which jiggled furiously with every nervous jerk of their reptilian heads.
Arkies had flourished in this region for millions of years, but now, because of their inability to adapt to ever-changing conditions around them–like the scarcity of food, changing climate and growing predator populations–they were on the brink of extinction. Fortunately for the survivors, though, they were blissfully unaware of the precarious state of their existence, as they joyously celebrated the end of another winter.
Certainly, one of their last winters.
It being spring in this land, Arkie eggs were hatching everywhere, and in the nest of the mother Arkie known as Ling there were two newborns who had emerged days before, and one uncracked egg, which wobbled and rolled in fits and starts, as its occupant struggled mightily to free itself.
First-born to Ling–and to the entire community, in fact–was named Genghis; he was brooding and defiant, sour of expression and already suspicious of everyone and everything around him. A strong, sturdy Arkie with courage to spare, Genghis would one day grow to challenge for dominance in his clan.
The middle child, born two days later, was shorter–though no less sturdy–with a broad, round belly and a sunny disposition. Called Buddha by his mother, it would be said of him that he came out of the egg smiling, and a smile was never far from the corners of his snout. Buddha was funny and kind and would be well liked by every creature who came to know him.
Finally, a full day after all of the other Arkie children in this community had entered the world, the entire clan gathered and watched with great anticipation as a tiny hole at last appeared in the leathery shell of Ling’s third egg and slowly began to widen. Historically, the first-born and the last-born each year held special places in the hearts of all Arkie clan members, for the former generally became leaders and the latter most often required extra care, guidance and protection in order to survive. It was exceedingly rare that the same mother would have both the firstborn and last-born of the clan.
The clan members formed a slowly-diminishing circle around the last egg, as they all inched closer and closer, each one hoping to catch the first glimpse of the last Arkie. Suddenly, everyone jumped back with a start, as the last Arkie’s snout-mouth finally punched through its shell. But instead of seeing that familiar protuberance, what greeted Ling, Genghis, Buddha and the rest of the clan was a strange, long, orange-brown… cone! It was hard, and split down its length from pointed tip to base. The odd cone soon caused the Arkies to take another giant hop backward, as it opened quite unexpectedly, showing a short, pointed tongue inside–and no teeth! Then, to the astonishment of all, the cone emitted a short, high-pitched squeak, the likes of which had never before been heard in the ancient forest. Soon the entire head appeared; it was without a comb! Then, before anyone was quite prepared, the newborn shed its shell completely and stood quite unsteadily, in all its profound glory, before the astonished community.
“What is it?” someone finally asked.
“I think it’s a girl,” said another.
“Yes,” replied a third, “but a girl what!?”
No one could even venture a guess.
The newest Arkie–if indeed it was an Arkie–looked nothing like its kin: A cone on her face instead of a snout-mouth; no comb upon her head; long, spindly legs instead of short, sturdy ones; a long, curving neck and equally lengthy tail. Her arms were also long and gangly–and webbed, from wrist to hip with tightly stretched skin. But perhaps the most foreign characteristic of the girl-thing was her “skin” itself; absent were the gray-green scales of the Arkie, and in their place were tufts of fine, pale-purplish down, like the fluffy seeds of a thistle plant that floated so gently and so distantly on a soft, warm breeze.
Because of the continuing uncertainty surrounding the birth of this highly unusual female child, and because of her strangely beautiful color, Ling named her only daughter Confuchsia.
The Elders’ Decision
For days after Ling had managed to shoo the curious multitude away from her nest, she fretted. She didn’t understand why this child was so different from the rest of them, but she soon came to the realization that she didn’t care. Confuchsia was her daughter, and that fact was all that mattered. In the weeks and months that followed, she went on with the daily routine of caring for her children–all of her children–and didn’t give the mystery another moment’s thought.The rest of the clan, however, was clearly outraged by the appearance of this strange, new creature in their midst and the elders had been secretly plotting to do something about her when the opportunity presented itself.
Genghis and Buddha could do nothing at first but stare at their sister–and she at them–without uttering a word. At long last, though, it was predictably the gregarious Buddha who finally broke the ice.
“What happened to your choppers,” he asked one day, so loudly that it startled her.
“My what?” she replied timidly.
“Your teeth,” he said, showing his own with an exaggerated grin. “Where are your teeth?”
“I don’t know,” said Confuchsia after a long pause. “I guess they haven’t grown in yet.”
Buddha considered this for a moment. He thought all Arkies were born with teeth… but, maybe–
“She doesn’t have teeth because she isn’t one of us,” said Genghis sternly. Some other clan must have dropped their unwanted egg in our nest when mother wasn’t looking. She has to go back where she came from.” And with that, he turned and stalked away.
Buddha thought it was impossible for Confuchsia’s egg to have been put in the nest by another clan. But he had already learned that one did not argue with Genghis. As for Confuchsia, she was close to tears with the understanding that at least one of her brothers didn’t want her.
“Don’t worry about him, Confuchsia,” said Buddha, suddenly overcome with love for this peculiar sibling. “That’s just his way; he doesn’t really mean it.” But even as he made feeble excuses for their older brother, he could scarcely conceal his concern over what Genghis might do. And he wouldn’t have to wait long to find out. Later that day, Genghis brought the elders to Ling’s nest for a meeting. Chang, the senior elder spoke for the group.
“Ling,” he said, “We have been attempting to solve the riddle of your girl-child to no avail. But your son Genghis has proposed a possible explanation to a situation that seemed to have none. He proposes that some members of another clan deposited a foreign egg in your nest, and that the egg contained the child you call Confuchsia. We think he may be right; there doesn’t appear to be any other possible answer.
“Therefore, it is the decision of the council that Confuchsia must leave our clan. We are sorry, but we have considered this long and hard and there can be no other solution.”
Ling began to protest the council’s decision, but the group, which had already turned to go, ignored her pleas. “It doesn’t matter,” said Ling softly to herself, as the elders continued their retreat. “I know what I must do. I will take Confuchsia, Genghis and Buddha and leave this place forever.”
But Confuchsia, who had overheard the entire conversation, knew she could not allow that to happen. So she quickly and quietly left the nest and headed off to the northeast, into the heart of the ancient forest, to free her family of the great burden that she had become. Buddha watched her go, hesitated, then took off after her.
She had been moving much faster than Buddha could have anticipated–long, slender legs carrying her gracefully over every obstacle. He had to run as fast as his own chubby legs could carry him before finally catching a glimpse of her, still quite a distance ahead, partially obscured by a thick growth of horsetail ferns.
“Confuchsia!” he yelled. “Wait!”
She stopped and turned toward the voice. Seeing her brother many yards behind her, she was tempted to run from him, knowing he could never keep up with her. Instead, she resisted the impulse, stopped and waited for him to arrive. When at last he did arrive, he was exhausted and completely out of breath. He leaned heavily against a ginkgo tree and slumped to the ground with a thud, his huge belly heaving uncontrollably with every desperate gasp of air. Looking at him, Confuchsia couldn’t help but smile; he was such a comical sight.
“Whew,” said Buddha, as his breath slowly began to return. “I never thought I would catch you. How did you learn to run so fast?”
“I have no idea,” said Confuchsia, herself truly surprised at the swiftness with which she could move.
“I guess those skinny legs of yours are good for something,” said Buddha rising to his feet; they both laughed in spite of the circumstances. After a moment he said: “Why are you running away?”
“You heard the elders,” she replied. “If I don’t leave, mother will take all of us away from our home. I can’t do that to you or mother… or even Genghis. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I’m not an Arkie–and if I’m not, I need to find out what I am.”
“But you can’t travel through the ancient forest by yourself; it’s very dangerous here! I’ve heard that there are huge, horrible monsters in the ancient forest that eat Arkies by the dozens–just for snacks! Do you want to end up a monster munchie!?”
As he said it, the ground shook beneath them–softly, subtly at first, but then again, much more pronounced. Buddha and Confuchsia looked at each other without speaking, barely breathing, And the ground shook again–really shook–so much so that they had to grab onto each other to keep from being thrown to the ground. Then they heard that terrible sound–a deafening roar that echoed through the trees and chilled them to the core, freezing them at once in place and in time…
The Most Terrible Lizard
Suddenly there was a tremendous eruption of green a few yards away from where they were standing, as the forest literally exploded, great trees crashing down, branches and ferns flying in every direction. And soon the cause of the explosion emerged from its center: an immense head, nearly twenty feet above the ground, thrashing violently from side to side, saliva spraying thickly from the corners of its cavernous, bellowing jaws. Jaws filled to bursting with impossibly large, incredibly sharp teeth. Carnivore teeth. Flesh-ripping teeth.
In an instant the terrible behemoth was upon them: Tyrannosaurus Rex, tyrant king of the ancient forest. He was a relatively young one, perhaps only three or four, who had probably been on a long, unfruitful hunt. Ordinarily he wouldn’t bother with the likes of puny Arkies, but he was angry, tired and hungry. Very hungry. These two wouldn’t satisfy his hunger, but they would do for now, at least until something more substantial had the misfortune to cross his path.
The huge head lurched downward toward the paralyzed pair, jaws agape; Confuchsia could feel the creature’s hot, moist breath on her face and smell its stench. It mobilized her. She quickly pushed Buddha off to one side, and dove, headlong into the foliage in the opposite direction, just as the killer’s evil mouth clamped shut with a bone-jarring crunch over the very spot where they had been standing. Momentarily confused, the T-Rex lifted his head slightly and took a step backward, slowly surveying the area; his prey had seemingly vanished. But then he spied movement to his left, out of the corner of his eye, and jerked his head around in time to catch a glimpse of Buddha attempting to find better cover for his rotund form under a small bush. He lurched toward the terrified Arkie, intent upon swallowing him whole, when a noise to his rear caused him to stop and whirl around. It was Confuchsia, standing atop a newly-fallen cycad tree, flapping her arms and squawking for all she was worth.
When the beast began moving slowly toward her, she took the opportunity to shout, “Run, Buddha–now!” And as the terrified Buddha took off toward home, the T-Rex stopped momentarily and half-turned in his direction, but Confuchsia continued her squawking and flapping, earning his undivided attention once again. T-Rex’s anger intensified; he was being toyed with by this impudent little pest, and he didn’t like it one bit. He charged Confuchsia, and an instant before his jaws clamped shut around her, she managed to hop down and scurry under the cycad. The creature’s massive jaws chomped down onto the great tree, teeth sinking deeply into the fresh, sap-laden log, but missing Confuchsia by mere inches. When he raised his head, most of the log remained imbedded in his mouth, and as he labored to free it, Confuchsia made her escape.
She raced further and further into the forest for what seemed like an eternity, and when she finally could run no longer, she slowed to a stop and stumbled to the earth, exhausted, in the shadow of a large rock. The forest was still and silent here, but for her ragged breathing, the thumping of her overworked heart and the rush of blood surging through her tiny veins. Several minutes later, when she had begun to feel reasonably safe again, Confuchsia fell into a deep sleep…
At virtually that same moment, Buddha arrived back at the Arkie community at the edge of the ancient forest, and collapsed, crying hysterically, into his mother’s arms. Between gasping sobs, he kept repeating the words, “She’s dead! Confuchsia’s dead!”
In time, he would relate his fantastic tale, in very dramatic detail, to the whole clan. And his voice would tremble a little, and his eyes would fill with tears when he told them how his sister–the same child whom the elders rejected as being unfit to dwell among them–had sacrificed herself so that he might live.
When Confuchsia awoke, the sun was high above the forest canopy; she had slept through the night and well into the next day. It was a beautiful late summer afternoon, and the ancient forest was alive with sights, sounds and smells unlike any she had ever before experienced in her young life. Arkies generally lived and died within a few miles of the place where they were born, and those of her clan never ventured far into the ancient forest in search of food, for fear of falling prey to one of the many predators that roamed there.
Confuchsia’s thoughts turned toward her encounter with the T-Rex the day before. She quickly got to her feet and peered cautiously around the area, from the safety of her rock shelter, to assure herself that the beast was nowhere near. When it became clear that there was no immediate danger, she allowed herself to relax once again. She thought, too, of poor, terrified Buddha, and wished with all her might that he had arrived home safely; she was certain that he had. She became filled with sadness, though, because she knew that she would probably never see her family again. She was alone now–very possibly, the only one of her kind in the entire world–and she could rely on no one but herself for her survival.
Survival began with food and water, and Confuchsia suddenly realized that it had been more than a day since she had last eaten or drunk anything, and she was famished. Water was no problem, since there was a shallow pool nearby from which she drank thirstily. “What is there around here to eat?” she thought. And while the thought was playing upon her mind, she noticed, on the ground next to her feet, a fat, juicy worm, partially emerged from its earthen home. She had never eaten a worm before. Though they were delicious looking, worms were not part of the Arkie diet, because their short arms and tiny hands were not efficient worm-catching tools. Confuchsia, however, was suddenly overcome by an irresistible urge to eat this worm. In the blink of an eye, she bent over, snatched the wiggling creature from its hole with the sharply pointed tip of her… beak–and swallowed it down. (She had finally found at least one useful purpose for the strange looking cone on her face.) “Not bad,” she thought, “Not bad at all.” She searched for other such tasty morsels, found them quickly, and dispatched them happily. After she had eaten her fill, Confuchsia burped loudly, stretched and continued on her journey of discovery.
She traveled for many weeks through this strange and exciting place, meeting many wonderful creatures along the way–though none who resembled her, even a little. She did not understand exactly where she was headed, or why, but a tiny voice inside kept urging her on, in a vaguely northeasterly direction. Since she had nowhere else to go, and no place she had to be, why not follow her inner voice? As she traveled, Confuchsia became increasingly aware that there were changes taking place within her body. She had matured greatly during the course of her journey, and felt herself gaining strength with each passing day. But her newfound strength and maturity seemed to slow her down, rather than making her trek easier. She felt heavy and sluggish recently, and it had become more and more difficult for her to navigate the cluttered, overgrown forest floor.
One fall day she stopped at a glacial pool to quench and refresh. As she leaned over the clear, still water to drink, she was startled by her own vivid reflection. The fluffy down that had clung to her body since birth was suddenly gone! She was now covered, from head to tail, in a shimmering coat of purple, red and white feathers. She gasped–not only from surprise, but also because of the startling, exquisite beauty of her reflection. She stared at herself for a long time. “So this,” she said finally, “is what I look like. If only I knew what I was…”
She left the pool no longer thirsting for confidence, and with a refreshed determination to find an answer to the question that was Confuchsia–or die trying.
The One Great Truth
After traveling for days through one of the densest parts of the ancient forest, Confuchsia was relieved to finally come upon an expansive clearing. There was something very strange about this clearing, though, since all the foliage seemed to have been trampled, and in the very center of the clearing there stood four, very large, symmetrical trees. Confuchsia walked over to one of the trees and leaned against it; its bark was warm and surprisingly elastic to the touch–nothing like any of the other trees she had come into contact with throughout her journey.
Suddenly, the tree seemed to move. “No,” thought Confuchsia, “I must have imagined it,” But it moved again; then another tree moved; and a third. Confuchsia ran clear of the animated trees and turned back to look: all four trees were now shuffling slowly toward her. Then they stopped, as suddenly as they had started, the closest one several yards in front of her. Now something moved behind her; Confuchsia whirled around and right in front of her was a huge, round head, with two large, calm, brown eyes blinking at her from a few feet above the ground.
She was not afraid, for the face seemed friendly enough, but she was astonished at her perception that the head seemed to be floating in space before her. Then Confuchsia saw clearly that the head was connected to an impossibly long neck that stretched up, behind and high over her, for what seemed like a mile, into the dark canopy above. As she turned slowly around, staring upward, she realized that the head and neck were connected to an immense body that was supported by the four pillars she had mistakenly thought were trees! And beyond was a tail fully as long as the neck!
“Don’t you know it’s impolite to stare?” the creature said in a deep, soothing voice.
“I-I’m sorry,” stammered Confuchsia, “but I’ve never seen anything quite like you…”
“Nor I, you,” replied the giant. “My name is Braxus. And you are..?”
“What a lovely name. Tell me, Confuchsia, what brings you to my forest?”
“It’s a rather long story…”
“I’ve been here for two-hundred years, my dear, and I’ll probably be here for two-hundred more. I’ve got all the time in the world…”
She took her time relating the story of her family, and the elders’ decision, and the T-Rex, and the rest. It felt good to finally be able to tell someone all she had been through, and Braxus was an attentive listener, pausing her every so often to ask a pertinent question or offer a thoughtful insight. When, at long last, she had concluded her tale, she felt as if an enormous weight had been lifted from her. And Confuchsia, one of the smallest creatures in the ancient forest, felt an immediate kinship with Braxus, surely its largest. Somehow she knew she could trust this gentle, old giant with her life, and desired his approval and his guidance.
“My, my,” said Braxus sympathetically, when her story had concluded. You have experienced much, for one so young…”
“But what do I do now, Braxus?” asked Confuchsia, still agitated from the telling of her tale. “What should I do? Where should I go? What can I be? Do you–”
“Whoa, child. Whoa,” Braxus said, to calm his small, young friend. “Slow down. Take a deep breath. You’ve got to give my old brain some time to consider all of this.”
She did as he asked, and after several moments of reflection, Braxus took a deep breath and spoke again.
“I have seen many unusual things over the past two hundred years,” said the wise giant. “And I have come to understand one great truth: no matter how strange the world may appear at times, everything in it has a purpose. There is a universal balance governing all of nature–a balance designed and perpetuated by someone greater and wiser than all of Earth’s creatures combined. Only He knows the purpose of life, and only He knows how this grand plan is going to evolve. It is not ours to necessarily understand; only to be.
“It is obvious to me that the Great One has been guiding and protecting you; if He wasn’t, you could not have reached this point in your journey. He is the inner voice you hear; if you always listen carefully to that voice and heed its advice, you will never stray far from your intended path in life.”
Confuchsia considered all of this, while thoughtfully nodding her head. “I think I understand,” she said at last. “But I have so many questions…”
“There is nothing wrong with questions,” said Braxus. “Questions often lead to answers; but not always.
“Listen to me,” he continued softly, sensing her growing sadness. “I can tell you one thing that may help you: You are not alone in this world. The one whom you seek, he exists. I have glimpsed him from afar. And as long as you follow your heart, I believe you will find him.”
Confuchsia’s spirits suddenly lifted; this was what she had hoped to hear. She began to speak, but was cut off gently by Braxus.
“That is all I can tell you now,” he said. “Listen to your heart’s voice. And don’t forget that I am here if you should ever need me. Go now, child”
With that, Braxus turned ponderously and set about creating a new clearing in the dense forest. But he stopped suddenly, craning his long neck back toward Confuchsia.
“One more thing,” he said, a clear note of warning in his deep voice. “Beware the raptors…”
Confuchsia left Braxus’ clearing feeling better than she had in a long time. She had found a true friend in the huge creature, and he had told her things that lifted her spirits. “I am not alone,” she said to herself whenever she began to tire or doubt the purpose of her quest. “I am not alone.” Every time she said it, it made her a little stronger and a little more confident that she had chosen the right path to her destiny. Though she sometimes wondered if she was traveling in the right direction, each time she began to feel lost, something would happen–some sign would appear–that told her the end of her long journey was somehow close at hand.
Up ahead, at long last, the forest brightened, and it wasn’t long before she broke through the darkness onto a short, rocky plain that ended abruptly at the edge of a deep canyon. The gorge seemed to be about a mile across and some five-hundred feet deep, and the canyon rim stretched out to Confuchsia’s left and right, as far as her sharp eyes could see. Far below her, at the base of the sheer cliffs, ran a raging brown river, dotted with white caps, snaking its way ever forward, as it purposefully carved out the canyon floor.
The finality of this stunning vista struck Confuchsia like a dagger to the heart: there was nowhere for her to go! It would be impossible for her to navigate the steep cliffs to the bottom of the gorge in order to continue toward the northeast. And if she chose to go either north or south along the rim of the canyon, she might have traveled days, weeks or even months in the wrong direction. Had she come all this way for nothing? Where was her inner voice? Had it been misleading her all along? She fell into a deep despair–deeper even than the unreachable depths of the canyon floor that lay so far below her.
Confuchsia sat down on a rock and began to sob uncontrollably. It was as though all of the tears that she had been unable to shed–virtually since the day she was born–came rushing out in a deluge which knew no limits. She cried for her mother, who in spite of everything, loved her completely; for poor, kind Buddha, who surely thought she were dead; for Genghis, who could not see beyond his own selfish ambitions; and for Braxus, who had deluded her and himself into believing in the Great One and his foolish plan! Most of all, though, she cried for herself. For the wretched state of her very existence, and for her now unbearable, unfathomable loneliness. “I am alone!” she cursed at the top of her trembling voice to the heavens above. “I am alone!”
She cried for a long time, and finally when the tears would come no more, she stood and turned back toward the ancient forest. When she looked up, she beheld a sight that made her gasp. Directly in front of her, perhaps ten yards away, was a pair of young raptors advancing slowly–hissing and snarling, tails twitching anxiously, yellow-and-black lizard eyes fixed dead upon her. Now that she had seen them, they hastened their approach, circling in opposite directions as they positioned themselves for a quick kill.
The large, curved, claws on their hands and feet glinted ominously in the brilliant sunlight, temporarily blinding Confuchsia and causing her to stumble backward. She regained her vision and balance just in time to see the creature on her right launch his terrifying form into a killing strike, all four claws slashing out in front of him. She dropped quickly down, causing the raptor to sail over her, his foot-claws barely scraping the top of her head. The raptor hit the ground awkwardly, just at the canyon’s rim, his right foot slipping over the edge, sending soil and rocks spilling into the gorge. He glanced mournfully at his companion for a moment–as though pleading for help–and then careened over the cliff to his death.
Both Confuchsia and the remaining raptor froze in place for several seconds, then the killer turned toward her with what looked like hatred in his cold, golden eyes. The raptor slowly circled back toward his left–never taking his eyes off her–so that Confuchsia was again between him and the canyon’s unforgiving edge. Suddenly the vicious thing lurched forward, and this time it was she who lost her footing, falling prey not to this raptor, but to the fate that had seized his companion. In an instant the hunt was over, as Confuchsia plunged headlong over the edge into the frightful abyss below…
In the absolute silence of her free-fall, a strange peace and calmness overtook Confuchsia. “If this is the Great One’s plan for me,” she thought, “then so be it…” But even before her thought had concluded, it was interrupted by a voice–not Confuchsia’s quiet inner voice, but a powerfully insistent voice that was screaming right into her ear.
“Spread your wings!” the voice shouted. “Spread your wings–and fly!”
Confuchsia opened her eyes to see a creature who looked very much like her, falling alongside. Except that he wasn’t exactly falling; his descent somehow appeared much more controlled than hers.
“Spread your wings!” the creature yelled again, backing off slightly to demonstrate. “Like this!”
Confuchsia tentatively stuck out her arms, and was jolted, as the speed of her fall immediately slowed.
“Good!” the creature shouted. “Now stretch them–as far as you can!”
With the canyon floor less than fifty feet below them, Confuchsia did as he said… And suddenly she found herself soaring upward, if quite awkwardly, on a warm current of air that was rising in the shadow of the canyon wall. Up, up she soared, the sensation at once frightening and exhilarating; higher and higher, until the river was again very far beneath her. Her spirits, too, were soaring, as in a matter of seconds she had gone from the desperate certainty of her own death, to what surely must be one of life’s greatest joys. She was flying!
“Are you okay?” The voice brought her back to reality; it was the creature who had come to her aid, and he was flying next to her again. Startled, she faltered for a moment, plunging several feet downward before she was able to right herself.
“You seem a little unsteady,” he said to her. “Are you all right?”
“Follow me,” he said. And with that, he took off toward the opposite canyon wall, never straying too far from Confuchsia, for fear that he might lose her. He led her to a fairly large ledge, about half-way up the canyon’s northern face, which was protected by an overhanging rock. The rear portion of the dwelling was blanketed with soft, dried marsh grass; a very spacious, comfortable nest, despite its precarious location.
“I saw the raptors come after you,” he said, “and when you didn’t fly away, I thought you must have been hurt. I got there as soon as I could…”
He waited for a response but got none. In truth, Confuchsia wasn’t able to speak; the emotions of the past few minutes had finally caught up with her, leaving her momentarily speechless.
“Are you all right?” he said, finally.
“Yes,” she was able to reply at last. “I’m a bit shaken, but otherwise fine… Thank you for saving me.”
“You’re welcome… Why didn’t you just fly away from the raptors?”
“Because I didn’t know I could,” said Confuchsia, somehow shamed by her admission. “I didn’t know how.”
“It took me a long time before I realized I could fly, too,” he said, sensing her discomfort.
An awkward silence passed between them; then the creature said: “What’s your name?”
“I am called Sanctus,” he said. I’m very pleased to meet you, Confuchsia.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, too,” Confuchsia said with a smile. (If only he could know just how pleased she was.) She realized that she was staring at him, and he at her, and she said quickly, “I was beginning to think I would never see another creature like me…”
“Me, too,” said Sanctus.
“Are you an Arkie?” she asked tentatively.
“I was born of Arkie parents, if that’s what you mean–as I suspect you were. But I don’t think either of us are Arkies.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think we are something else; perhaps some new creature in the world…”
Sanctus told Confuchsia the story of his life; it was very much like her own, except that he had been born a year earlier. He too had been driven from his clan and he too had been traveling ever since, seeking others like himself. After an exhaustive and unsuccessful search, he returned to his home nest last spring and discovered that his entire clan had perished, though he knew not how, nor why. He was left with no alternative but to continue his quest. Until now.
“Confuchsia,” he said finally, “I have searched for nearly two years, and I believe that you and I are the only two of our kind. I think that part of the Great One’s plan is that some creatures are meant to vanish from the earth, leaving new creatures to take their place.”
He paused a moment to let Confuchsia reflect upon what he had told her, then he said: “I think you and I are here to take the place of the Arkies…”
Confuchsia was shocked and saddened to hear Sanctus’ explanation and she argued that it could not be so. But each time she brought forth a point to support her argument, he countered with one that seemed to make more sense. Finally, she had no choice but to resign herself to the fact that he was right.
“But what of my family?” she asked. What will happen to them?
Sanctus did not answer.
“I have to go back to them,” said Confuchsia. “I must see for myself.”
“All right,” said Sanctus. “Then I’ll go with you–but we must hurry, for winter will soon be here.
The journey back across the ancient forest was a long one, but much less difficult from the air than it had been on the ground. When they were nearing the home of Confuchsia’s Arkie clan, Sanctus flew close to her and said: “I don’t think we should land among them; they won’t know what we are and may be angered or frightened by our presence.”
Confuchsia thought about that for a moment, and agreed; too much time had passed and she herself had changed so strikingly from the “Arkie” they had known. So instead of landing, they both circled the community from a safe distance. Confuchsia noticed immediately that the clan’s numbers had diminished greatly in the many months since she had left. Soon she spotted Genghis, gesturing wildly to a group of elders; he had apparently become the leader everyone assumed he would, but by the looks on the faces of many in the crowd, his leadership was based upon fear, not wisdom or compassion.
She saw her mother, too, sitting quietly near the entrance to her nest, close to where a small happy group of Arkies had gathered. She seemed to have gotten very old, and did not look well, but there was a slight smile on her face as she listened attentively to what someone in the middle of the laughing group was saying. Confuchsia flew closer and a little lower to the ground to get a better look at the speaker. It was Buddha, of course–a little taller, and a quite a bit rounder but, as she remembered him, a silly grin forever etched upon his friendly, expressive face.
At that moment, someone in Buddha’s group looked up into the sky and, noticing Confuchsia and Sanctus, pointed toward them excitedly. Everyone turned to look; many also pointed and others gasped at seeing creatures that they had never seen before. Soon, the entire village–or what was left of it–had gathered to gawk at the strange pair hovering over them in the sky. They stared for quite some time, until Genghis grew angry and dispersed the crowd–except for his brother who, ignoring Genghis’ commands, continued to gaze skyward, one chubby hand shielding his eyes from the sun.
After a few moments, Buddha began to wave toward Confuchsia–slowly, hesitantly at first but then much more enthusiastically. Soon he was waving frantically with both arms, jumping up and down and shouting in her direction. She let herself drift a little closer to hear what he was saying.
“Confuchsia!” he yelled happily. “Confuchsia! It’s you; you’re alive! You’re beautiful–skinny legs and all!”
Confuchsia laughed out loud, then she fluttered her graceful wings, and began flying alternately in great looping circles and perfect tight spirals to let Buddha know that–yes–it was her and that her happiness was now complete, just for having seen him once more. Buddha ran to Ling to tell her his news and called Genghis to join them. Soon Buddha and Ling–and eventually even Genghis himself–were waving to her as she turned reluctantly, urged on by Sanctus, into the cold north wind to begin her final voyage to their new home.
Confuchsia did not allow herself to dwell upon her sadness at leaving them or on the ominous future of her former clan. Instead, her mind returned to what wise, old Braxus had told her, and the feeling that came upon her when she had fallen into the gorge. “The Great One has a plan for all of us,” she thought now, as she and Sanctus soared high over the ancient forest. “It is not ours to necessarily understand, only to be.”
On the way back, they made one stop in the forest, to see Braxus. The giant was overjoyed to see Confuchsia again and to meet Sanctus, the mate he had foretold she would one day find if she listened to her heart’s voice.
“You must love, protect and care for each other,” he said to them just before they left. “For it is up to you to begin a new era in the history of life on earth. You and Sanctus are the transition between what was–the Arkies–and what will be: the Birds. Your children and your children’s children carry the future of the world upon their wings.”
The First Bird
Confuchsia and Sanctus spent the first of their many winters together in and around their home on the cliffs high above the brown river. And in the spring, to their great joy, they were blessed with five eggs, huddled contentedly in the warm comfort of their nest. When the first of these opened, the chick that emerged looked like a plump fuzzy ball of pale purple down. The chubby first-born lifted his head to look up at his parents, blinked, yawned and chirped so loudly that it startled all three of them. Then a broad smile formed from the corners of his beak.
Confuchsia named the child Buddha.