All that time ago Tom Gunn set himself up as boss of the wood. The fat ones got their names then. On the long scrubby hills which ran up to the wood Grouse became then. And Grouse worried loudly about the madness of this, incessantly shouting about the ever ongoing intrusion in short alarmed outbursts. Quail also became, pretty and small; Quail trembled and ran and ran but always in circles and always on the cereal side of the hill.
Grouse clattered on one side and Quail ran on the other side, whilst in between Pheasant bumbled in amongst the trees, and then Tom Gunn said he was surely right to set himself up as boss. He had a gun in his hand. He fed Pheasant. Pheasant said perhaps it was not so bad after all.
* * *
One of the fat ones decided to keep an old name, for Tom Gunn was not the first to marshal the land. In days gone by Perdix enthused brilliantly and generously with Deady. Perdix invented the compass so that together they could make a round tower. Deady invented the window so together they could see far and all the world and the sky also which rolled toward them as an immense possibility. It was when they began to design wings that the arguments started. Enthusiasm soured, their friendliness became sharp and dangerous. Deady considered it possible to hold all the grandeur tight within his control. He made the sky smaller and smaller, he parceled up the land and invented walls. Family, friends, and all his servants developed the habit of slipping, stumbling, tripping over and falling. In the end he had the tower all to himself. Perdix, transforming the ground from a hammer into a companion, survived only by gliding low. She decided there and then to always avoid the tall. No more towers. Even trees were suspect.
* * *
Perdix on occasion ran alongside Quail.
“Why not choose a different name?” she asked.
“Too busy too busy wet my lips.”
“Wet my lips?”
“My song. Wet my lips, look over here. Wet my lips.”
They came to a hole in the soil through which ran a thin ribbon of clean water.
“Wet my lips.”
“Yes.” Perdix looked into the hole. “You give me an idea. I know someone who may help.”
And Perdix set off into the hole.
Wings a whir of mechanical fury. There would be a long way to go. The tunnel walls slipped loose a ripple of dust following Perdix. The tunnel barely deviated. A gradually curling descent. There are occasional junctions but most of these holes had sleepy rodents blocking their passage. Perdix flew hard. The earth was not a hammer and it would not be a snare.
“The earth is not a trap.”
Perdix continued to fly.
“I am not lost,” Perdix lectured. “No more lost here than in fields of shotgun pellet; no more lost here than in arguments with despotic mechanics; no more lost here than when caged.”
Should Perdix have stopped and skidded to powdery halt, gathering breath, rolling beak through feathers; perhaps if Perdix turned and straight away flew back; then perhaps Perdix would not be lost.
“But the earth is no ruse,” she insisted.
Perdix continued to fly onward, deeper.
The sandy tunnel opened into a hard and glittering place before again narrowing. Hardness became hotness. Darkness always. Darkness sensed by the twirl of Perdix feather, the push of Perdix breath, and the scratching circles of Perdix pinions as they brushed against slick black walls.
“This,” Perdix admitted, “is no place for one accustomed to the open field. This is no place for one befriended of the curvature of earthen beauty. This is no place. This is nowhere, this air has never before held aloft the wing. Or not, at least, the wing of feather. And no fox ever made it so deep, nor mole. No worms here.”
Waters dripped slovenly, murky. The tunnel continued to curl down. Perdix’s head pressed low under the drone of this determined flight. There was illumination. Little at first but growing, a lightness in the rock, a gentle brilliance becoming radiant. Light bloomed from off walls and even dripped in the water, and soon there was a plunge, a great enormity, void, and Perdix was sent tumbling without coordination or direction. Perdix was unsure if Perdix flew upside down or back to front or even if Perdix flew at all. Was Perdix soaring or sinking? Was Perdix gliding or tumbling? This was again that last struggle with Deady over the tools. This was her as she demanded to know how it was that anyone might own an original gift of nature’s own inventiveness. And this was Deady opening the window and cursing nature for not abiding by his rule. This was Perdix still loving her friend and laughing and saying that you yourself are truly a force of nature. And this was Perdix tumbling without any sense of end or beginning.
* * *
There was a lake. Cold and illuminated in its own center, and the bird was caught in this glowing water. Perdix’s wings rested and soon an utter stillness reclaimed the realm. Surely Perdix was now near to Perdix’s intention? She carefully waded toward a ridge of white rock. The rock lifted its head and two blood red frills wafted the golden reflections. Perdix stopped and carefully repeated the movement of gill foliage, shifting her silvery and dripping wings in time with these undulating blood ferns.
A worm, after all. Not a rock.
This was Proteus Olm.
By swaying and fanning, by long silences, by the deep ripple pushed into a still night ocean, so Proteus Olm and Perdix came to an understanding. The bird had very little flight left. Gracious Olm, the night worm, allowed the bird to perch on its back. They drifted purposefully through black and gold channels, soundless.
And there was the tower, an exact inversion of Deady’s great work. In the window he still sat, jealous even of this oblivion. Blindly he saw and yet he saw. He stood, and was upside down in standing, his standing on head was reflected in the luminous water.
“I suspect down here the roots are windows,” Perdix called. “Could anyone be flown through them?”
“Only a few roots are deep enough to touch this place.”
“Can I see?”
“My tower clings to one.”
“So it does. Are you happy to see me, Deady?”
After a long silence… “Happy?”
“Like that day you recovered flight.”
“I invented flight.”
“And you invented gravity, so you have it pronounced.”
“Yes, of course. I am also glad that I invented you, now and here. There has not been much building recently.”
“I am no invention.”
“Let us not argue again.”
“No, you would have to tumble me all the way to the surface of the earth once more.”
“Yet could such an accident happen again?”
“It happened many times.”
“So you have it pronounced.”
“Let us not argue. Why should I have conjured up an argument? I babysit salamanders and silence and then bring in annoyance as a means to entertain?”
Proteus Olm began swimming in slow, brooding circles.
“I am not an invention,” Perdix repeated.
Deady hit the window frame and the root of the tower quivered.
“This contradiction must not continue!”
Proteus Olm reared up, and Perdix hopped onto the white triangular head. The amphibian rose higher, and Perdix’s orange face was framed as if by wings of fire, the gills of Proteus. Perdix then lifted her own pointy wings, allowing the golden water to drip down the long white back on which she rode.
The tower trembled. Deady swayed, no longer in balance with his building.
He grabbed dangerously, barely contained by the balcony, and Perdix’s breast feathers were in his roughened hands.
“You will fall down!”
And Deady slung Perdix down, which was up, against the root which hung into this abyss.
A quail, a trembling, a quake! The earth quaked. And Deady was slung upwards by his slippage, wafting furiously with the few fluffs of feather he still grasped. He swung his arms as if they were wings but still, down. Down he fell into Proteus Olm’s cold water.
* * *
A trembling, an earthquake: all of Tom Gunn’s woodland shook. He stumbled and fell. His gun was in his hand. And so it was that as he fell the weapon’s stock hit the shifting rocks and so Tom discharged his weapon against his own skull.
Perdix whirred along the root, a tunnel, a turning and a turning. Perdix flew until Perdix came to be seated in a pear tree. Perdix blinked, looked around, and jumped down. Trees were not for sitting in.
With Tom Gunn gone so was the hunting gone. The Lords and their Ladies were leaping, the farmers began to sell Turkey. Pheasant and Grouse and Quail all made it through to the next spring, and the spring was green and vivacious and generous.
Nick Norton‘s recent prose can be found in 3:AM, Fatal Flaw, Idle Ink, Selkie, Punt Volat, Shooter, Fictive Dream, Epoque Press, The Happy Hypocrite, and elsewhere.
featured photo by Nick Norton