“Good morning Ariel!” chirp the small brown birds, voices quavering with the excitement of being the first to greet.
“Good morning my sweetest silverbills!” Ariel exclaims to the three small birds flitting in front of her. She raises her arm with a finger outstretched, where one of the light brown silverbills alights. Ariel giggles through a wide smile as she watches the bird bounce its chest on her finger.
“Your eyes are dazzling today, Ariel,” the bobbing bird says.
“Aww. Isn’t that sweet of you silverbill!”
“And your voice is like music!” another silverbill says at it lands next to the first.
“Well,” Ariel gasps, “especially coming from you, that’s quite a compliment! Thank you!”
“Good good good morning Ariel!” a large grey rabbit chatters, excitedly thumping the ground with a rear leg.
“And to you, Mr Rabbit!” Ariel says with a laugh, now basking.
“Good MORNing Ariel!” shrieks a larger green bird as it lands on Ariel’s raised arm and scares away the revelling silverbills.
With a face full of dramatic surprise Ariel says “Oh, good morning to you, miss parakeet!”.
“I have a PROBlem, a PROBlem,” the parakeet cries.
“Uh oh,” says Ariel, still smiling. “You’ll have to tell me all about it at breakfast!”
“Can’t wait, canNOT wait,”
“We love your hair, Ariel!” declares a group of swarming yellow birds, pulling Ariel’s attention from the parakeet.
Ariel giggles. “Of course you do my little yellowhammers!” She lowers her arm, which forces the parakeet to jump to a nearby branch, and resumes her forest stroll.
“CanNOT wait, canNOT wait,” the parakeet squawks from the branch.
“It’s going to have to, parakeet,” Ariel replies with a voice so resonant with sweet that it puts all the birds to shame.
One of the small yellow birds lands on Ariel’s head, partially camouflaging itself in her wavy golden hair. “Mama, mama, mama,” the bird chirps.
“None of that now.” Ariel stops and lifts the baby yellowhammer from her hair by nudging a finger to its golden chest until it jumps up, first onto her finger and then to the sky. “Bye bye baby hammer,” she says as she continues her walk, stepping over the occasional root or flower, and gently avoids the growing cast of animals around her.
“Breakfast ready,” a squirrel on a nearby tree trunk chirps. It starts a cascade of “breakfast ready,” “breakfast time,” “breakfast,” “chirp chirp,” “breakfast ready,” from dozens of squirrels.
“Lovely. Thank you Squirrels! And good morning!” Ariel ducks under a tangle of low branches.
As Ariel enters the forest clearing, the parakeet gets louder, struggling to overcome the din of an excited ecosystem coming to life: “canNOT wait. PROBlem.” The chirpings, squawkings, compliments, and greetings all continue unabated, spurred on by the combination of light of day and light of woman. The parakeet shakes itself from head to toe and continues. “PROBlem. DARKness. DARKness came last night.”
The cacophony disappears. The silence is louder and more noticeable than the symphony due to the speed it descends on the forest.
Ariel stands up straight after making it into the forest clearing. “I said you’d tell me at breakfast, miss parakeet!” Nothing answers. As if indifferent to the silence, Ariel sits down on the single tree stump in front of a large flat rock, which is covered in a variety of small piles of nuts and berries. Ariel picks a red berry, places it in her mouth, closes her eyes and smiles inward at the flavor. Then, eyes still closed, she begins to sing:
“How many miles to Babylon?” Each syllable seems to harmonize and vibrate in sync with the beauty of the world around.
After a beat, a low croak comes from the undergrowth, wiry brown fur barely visible: “Three score miles and ten.”
Ariel, louder and more dramatic: “Can I get there by candlelight?”
A lounge of lizards in a higher pitch, finding musicality in the precise collective: “Yessss, and back, again”
Ariel: “If my heels are nimble and light?”
One group of birds, led by the starlings: “You may get there,” and joined by the remaining birds, parakeets included: “by candlelight.”
Ariel opens her eyes, looking up in appreciation at all the animals surrounding her in the small clearing among the trees. “Bravo,” she says, clapping her hands. The animals bob, wiggle and writhe in the acknowledgement.
She eats a handful of seeds under the rustling sound of voiceless forest. “Now then, miss parakeet, what did you want to tell me?”
The parakeet glides down to the corner of the flat rock. It’s dense green body bobs, but at profile, its beady eye above its red beak stays fix on Ariel. “The DARKness,” it says in low tones, though screeching the inflection. “The DARKness came and TWO babies gone.”
A murmur in all tones, like an out-of-tune kindergarten orchestra, envelops the grove.
“Oh my,” Ariel whispers. “Come here, parakeet.” The bird hops around a mound of nuts to the side of the rock closest to Ariel, where Ariel’s small pale hand caresses the back of the birds feathered neck. The bird pressed its neck back into Ariel’s hand despite itself. “That’s incredibly sad, miss parakeet,” Ariel continues in soothing tones. “And what does their father say?”
The bird anxiously squats and lifts. “Doesn’t’ CARE. Does NOT care. Says it’s NORMal. He has THREE nests. THREE nests. NORMal.”
“And that probably doesn’t make you feel any better, does it?”
“I have ONE nest. ONE nest.”
“Yes, of course. With only… what, three more babies in it?”
“THREE. Yes, THREE.”
“And it’s very sad to lose two to the darkness, but I think Mr Parakeet might be right. I’ve been here a long time, and the darkness seems to be part of life. In fact,” Ariel raises her voice, “is there anyone here who has not been touched by the darkness?”
The dense ring of animals shrinks back, sinking into the roughage. A baby yellowhammer jumps forward, but a large yellow wing smothers its chirp and pulls it back to the periphery.
“BUT,” the parakeet screeches. “BUT. What IS the darkness. DARKness, WHAT’s it?”
“Now that’s a tougher question,” Ariel answers. “Does anyone have any ideas on what the darkness is?”
The animals are quiet, until a lizard scurries forward into the clearing. “Methinkss it’s the Raven, the goddamn Raven” the lizard spits out before retreating again to the outside.
Ariel looks around, surprised. “What makes you think that?” she asks.
Ariel hears the sound of feathers rubbing and a hollow tapping from high above.
A new lizard sprints into the clearing. “We saw it. Ssaw the fuckerss, with eyess of our own. Baby lizzzard it sssnatched.” Animals throughout gasp.
Ariel looks up to the sky. “Is this true?” she asks loudly. “Ravens?”
Two large, oily black birds descend to the rock, scaring away the terrified parakeet. In a show of irritation, they each rub their wing feathers against their body, making a loud silky scratching sound. “Nooot true, not truuue,” they exclaim, voices shaking like wooden rattles, soft and hollow in rolling vowels. “Nooot us, not uuuuus.”
“You know there are rules against eating live flesh,” Ariel says, voice still light and airy.
“Oooof course, of cooooourse!” the ravens protest.
“In Negev, we are all one,” Ariel explains. “All of us, a special kind of animal. A conscious, living animal, blessed in our creation.”
“Bleeessed, bleeessed, of course,” both ravens say, hopping in place.
“So any time one of you eats another…”
A diverse hissing chorus of “never,” “neeever,” “NEVer,” erupts.
“It’s cannibalism. Like eating your own.”
“We knoooow. Our Ooown,” the ravens assert.
“So by eating a baby lizard,” Ariel concludes, “you may as well have eaten a baby raven.”
Agitated animals stir noisily in the brush.
“But the liiizard, the liiiiiizard…” the Ravens croon.
“They are dark!” a squirrel chirps. Dozens of squirrels echo, “dark! They are dark! Chirp chirp! So dark! Darkness animals!”, drowning out the appeals of the agitated ravens.
A splotch of white suddenly appears on the wing of one of the ravens. Then another on its tail, as birds gather overhead. “Arieeeeel, Aaaariel,” the ravens hop while they plea.
The parakeet returns to the rock. “YOU ate my babies? You ATE my BABies? My BABies?”
One of the ravens tries to peck the parakeet, causing the green bird to flee again, but the raven is immediately hit by another wet lump of birdshit. Amidst the growing animal chaos and Ariel’s disapproving silence, the two black birds briefly survey the other, then flee the grove.
“Enough!” Ariel finally says when she can no longer hear the thick flap of ravens’ wings. The animals quiet. “Would you defecate on your children?” she asks, still kindly composed. “No? Then why on a raven?” Silence. “And whose children here have never done wrong?”
The first lizard, visibly emboldened by the display against the ravens, returns to the clearing. “The darknessss, the darknesss lovess my naughtiesst kin!” The outcropping of lizards in the periphery erupt. “Fuck the ravensss, fuck the ravensss!”
“Tell me, lizards,” Ariel interjects. “The baby that the ravens ate, was it in your nest?”
The lizards tilt their heads in unison. One says, “right outsside. Immediately outsside the nesst.”
“What was it doing outside the nest?”
The lizards are silent.
“Do your babies ever leave the nest before they’re big enough to fend for themselves?”
After a beat of silence, the front lizard speaks again: “The ravenss, the goddamn darknesss must have pulled it out, and then fuckin eaten it!”
“Well, to me, you’ve all attacked your family, a fellow enlightened animal here in Negev,” Ariel says, then looks back down to the rock surface. “And you’ve ruined my breakfast while you were at it.”
She stands up and exits the clearing amidst the vociferous rustling of animals.
Stepping down the sandy bank of the river, Ariel removes her white slip of a dress and holds it up between thumb and forefinger. A dozen small brown birds appear and the dress floats up into the sky, each starling grasping a different part of the dress. “I’d like the blue one afterwards, if it’s dry,” Ariel says to the birds as she steps into the lazy water.
Flowing waters ascending her body, Ariel sings:
“Each little flow’r that opens, each little bird that sings, He made their glowing colors, He made their tiny wings.”
Ariel submerges herself in the water and emerges dripping wet and smiling. She playfully spins herself around, skimming her hands against the water to make it splash, and continues her song:
“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small.” She splashes water in her face, squeezes water from her hair, and curiously lifts her breasts. “All things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.”
Ariel is so busy enjoying the play of the water under the beams of sunshine that she doesn’t notice a duck approach.
“Are you, quaquaqua, really, quaqua, one of us?” the black duck asks.
Ariel starts, but immediately regains her composure, shining her smiling countenance onto the nervous black duck with white wings, bright yellow eyes with the speck of a black pupil, and a blue-grey bill.
“What do you mean, my little duck?” Ariel asks.
“Quaqua, you said that here we are all quaquaqua one, all quaqua special kinds of animals” the duck says, making small circles in the water.
Ariel’s smile widens. “Why, yes. We are all special kinds of animals, and I am too. I may be human, and you duck, but we are all able to speak, and we all live here in Negev. So I would say yes!”
The duck spins around again, its feet barely visible as they work and churn under water, its body remaining composed and poised above water. “I need help quaquaqua.”
“Anything, tell me the matter.”
“It’s, quaqua, one of my ducklings, quaquaqua, he’s, quaqua, well, quaquaqua…”
“Why don’t you just show me, my little duck. Lead the way.” Ariel follows the wobbling black rear of the duck out of the river and up the sandy bank, where a blue silk dress floats down to Ariel’s outstretched hand. Body still dripping, arms and nipples in goosebumps, flaxen hair sticking to her and reaching the dimples in the small of her back, Ariel retrieves the dress away with her arm outstretched, and continues to hold it there as she follows the duck through the shrubbery along the riverbank.
“Quaquaqua, here we are,” says the duck after a few minute waddle in the sunshine. Ariel clothes herself, the blue silk dress falling over her body like a loose shawl, while another duck, brown but with the same bright yellow eyes, wriggles out of the underbrush.
“Wha, quaqua, what is wrong with you, quaqua,” the brown duck says, feigning pecks at the other. “He’s fine, quaquaqua, nothing she can do, quaquaqua, duckling is a-okay quaqua.”
“That’s alright,” Ariel interjects. “Let’s just take a look, shall we?”
The brown duck shakes its tail as if shooing flies, and waddles away from the mess of overgrown grass and bushes. Four brown ducklings, each a lighter, milkier chocolate color than the adult, scurry out of the foliage to follow the brown duck.
“Oh hello my little ducklings!” Ariel says with a gasp of delight, talking over the black duck’s attempted explanation. “You remind me of bath toys! So incredibly cute. You should be proud, mama duck!”
The brown duck glances back at Ariel, this time with bill held high, chest puffed up.
The two milk chocolate ducklings in the front look at Ariel and quack “Hello!”
“They’re, quaquaqua, not the trouble,” the black duck interrupts.
Ariel ignores him. “What about you two?” Ariel asks, nudging the two ducklings in the rear of the line. “Good afternoon ducklings!” Ariel says, followed by an expectant giggle.
The two ducklings in the rear look up at her. “Quaqua, good afternoon,” babbles one who is a darker brown than the other three. “Quaquaqua, Quack,” burbles the other, who has a black tuft of feathers like a crown on the top of its head.
A small all-white duckling peeks his head out from under the foliage and quickly quacks, “Good afternoon Ariel, quaqua, and a fine one it is!”
“Oh, hello you!” Ariel giggles in delight again.
“Quaqua, there he is, quaquaqua,” says the black duck.
“Who, this one?” Ariel asks as she places her hand flat in front of the albino duckling. With new confidence, the tiny ivory duck waddles onto her palm.
“Yes! Quaquaquaqua, just look at him!” the black duck insists.
“I am!” says Ariel in delight, holding the duckling closer to her face.
“You’re looking lovely, quaquaqua, Ariel,” says the white duckling. “Though a little, quaquaqua, wet, no?”
“And, quaqua,” says the large black duck, “Just quaquaqua listen to him!”
“I do, quaquaqua, suppose a swim is a great idea on a day such as, quaquaqua, today,” mumbles the white duckling. “I do hope I’ll, quaqua, be able to swim as well.”
“And why wouldn’t you?” Ariel asks.
“Well, you see, quaquaqua, I’m a bit of an outsider in these parts, even amongst, quaqua, family. My father is skeptical regarding paternity, quaquaqua, as if that were possible, while Queequeg bites me if I quaqua come near.”
“Uh oh,” Ariel says solemnly, turning to the four brown ducklings nibbling at the grass. “Which one of you is Queequeg?”
“Quaqua, not me,” “not me,” “qua quack,” “not qua me.” They each respond without much attention payed.
“I see,” says Ariel, staring at the duckling with the black tuft on its head, who expectantly stares back at her. “Hello Queequeg.”
“No words for me, Queequeg?”
“Quack?” Queequeg tilts its small black tufted head at Ariel.
“And he’s not the problem?” Ariel asks the black duck.
“Queequeg? No, quaquaqua, he’s great.”
“Quaquaqua,” the albino duckling interrupts from the vantage of Ariel’s palm. “He tries to drown me in the quaqua water.”
“But, Queequeg doesn’t seem to be able to…talk,” Ariel says to the black duck, inspecting the duckling with the black crown.
“Talk?” The ducks stare back at Ariel in obvious confusion.
“I’m sorry, forget I said anything,” Ariel says suddenly, blushing slightly, and lowers the white duck to the ground. Looking to the adults, she continues, “All your ducklings are marvelous, you two. This white one especially. He may look different, but he’s one of us just the same! Please try not to get so caught up in looks. Its the creature on the inside that matters, the creature we welcome through language and therefore understanding.”
The large brown duck pecks at the black one before walking away, the four earthy ducks waddling right behind her.
The white duckling shakes itself off before flapping impotently and then clumsily waddling its way to follow the rest from a short but safe distance.
A dark, hooded figure sweeps through the forest floor, feet finding soft landing spots nearly every step of the way. The figure stops at a large bush, and a practiced hand pries branches open like the opening of a treasure chest. Draped by the sagging black hood, the figure peers closer into the formed opening, and a soft red glow lights up both the bush and her face.
Six baby squirrels nuzzle together amidst a ring of foliage. One squirms under the red light, then presses its infantile bulging eyes under the adjacent squirrel. Their soft rubbery skin is visible underneath short and thin fur. Ariel smiles like a proud mother and leans in closer. A lock of flaxen hair, turned a pale pink from the red light at her chest, falls from the hood, nearly touching one of the baby squirrels. Ariel quickly tucks it back behind her ear.
“Goodnight squirrels,” Ariel chirps, quiet enough to not escape the bush, and close enough that her breath vibrates against the nascent fur.
The squirrels each lift their chins, bumping one another but all remaining closed-eyed. A tiny mouth with 2 front rodent teeth quivers as it squeaks, “Goodnight squirrels.” Then the others repeat in staccato, “Goodnight,” “Goodnight squirrels,” “chirp chirp,” “Goodnight squirrels.”
Ariel uses her small right thumb to gently pet the back of the neck of one squirrel. It struggles to open its eyes.
“Goodnight squirrels,” Ariel chirps again.
And again the small mass of infant life writhes, the squirrels taking turns, “Goodnight,” “goodnight squirrels,” “goodnight.” The one exception is the baby that Ariel is touching: “Chirp chirp,” the squirrel says, eyes now open and trembling slightly.
“I thought so, yes…” Ariel says in breathy, cheery tones. She uses her index finger to pinch the other side of the scruff on the squirrel’s neck, and her childlike hand lifts the squirrel away from the others. She uses her other hand to extinguish the red light, and the forest is once again shrouded in darkness but for the dim light of the waning moon.
She turns away from the bush, and lifts the baby squirrel above her head, into the moonlight. Her black sleeve slides down her slender pale right arm like a dress falling to the floor. “Any words for me,” she asks softly.
The squirrel, fear finally aroused, stares into Ariel’s eyes and squeaks.
“Shhhh…” Ariel breathes, as if to an agitated baby. “Shh-shh-shhhh…” But the suspended squirrel chirps more insistently.
Ariel lowers the squirrel to chest height, and brings her left thumb and forefinger to the front of the squirrel’s pulsing neck. With some gentle pressure, the chirping sound stops even as the squirrels tiny mouth continues to quiver.
The veins and muscles on Ariel’s small hands begin to bulge, any semblance of being appendages of a child lost as she does so. The squirrel’s eyes bulge, the natural infant protrusion combining with the pressure of the two small sets of thumbs and forefingers pinching together, and a sudden fear of death.
Petite hand muscles spasm once, and Ariel feels the soft pop of the spinal cord, like a tiny branch giving way. She thinks of a sunflower seed, and smiles in appreciation of her analogy.
The now limp head of the squirrel droops onto her fingers, as if seeking a chin scratch. Instead, Ariel opens her hands and lets the squirrel body fall to the ground.
Ariel puts her hands to her sides, the long baggy sleeves dropping to cover them once again, and begins to step away before stopping abruptly. Turning around, she looks down at the blanket of dead leaves covering the ground, and the wispy figure of the dead squirrel barely visible in the soft moonlight.
Ariel glances up and around before kneeling and retrieving the carcass. She places it into a pocket on her cloak, tucking it in next to the contorted body of a small brown duckling with a black feathered crown. Then she walks away, this time without looking back.
“Good morning Ariel!” chirp a pair of pale yellow birds, proud and harmonious in the honor of being the first to greet.
“Good morning my sweetest finches!” Ariel exclaims to the birds flitting in front of her. She raises her arm with a finger outstretched, where the smaller of the finches alights. Ariel giggles through a wide smile, watching the bird bounce its chest on her finger.
“Your hair is resplendent today, Ariel” the bobbing yellow bird says cheerily.
“Aww. Isn’t that sweet of you finch! But where are all the other finches?”
The dusty yellow bird cocks its head. “Didn’t listen, stayed in bed!” And then as if fearful of Ariel’s grimace, the finch flies off through the forest, its pair following it.
Ariel’s smile returns within a few seconds, and her walk through the forest continues. Animals line up on her path to greet and compliment her, as Ariel stops with love, adoration, and caresses for every one of them, from the hare to the hedgehog, from the shrew to the tortoise to the frog.
“So wonderful to see you all this morning,” she beams.
A small yellow bird lands on Ariel’s head, ducking town to nearly camouflage itself in her golden hair. It chirps gleefully.
“None of that now.” Ariel stops and nudges a finger to the bird’s golden chest until it jumps up. She holds the small bird perched on her finger close to her face. “Good morning siskin,” she whispers. The bird twitches, chirps loudly and wordlessly, and flies away. “Bye bye siskin,” Ariel whispers as she continues her forest stroll, stepping over the occasional root or flower, and gently avoiding the growing cast of animals around her.
“Breakfast time,” a squirrel on a nearby tree trunk chirps. It starts a cascade of “breakfast time,” “breakfast time,” “breakfast,” from dozens of squirrels.
“Lovely. Thank you squirrels!” Ariel says with excitement. As she ducks under some low branches to enter the clearing, a squirrel leaps onto her shoulder.
“Psst,” the squirrel says.
“What can I do for you little squirrel mama?” Ariel asks, still walking towards her breakfast.
“One of my babies…” the squirrel chirps softly. “At first I thought it is their daddy squirrel…”
“What made you think that?” Ariel asks, a hint of amusement infiltrating her voice.
“Cuz it’s the baby he hated. Hated!” The last word is chirped loud enough that a small chorus of asynchronous “Hated! Hate! Hated!” ripples through the clearing. Quieter again, the squirrel continues, “He chirped a little funny, and I think, I think…”
“Oooh, interesting”, Ariel says while sitting down, looking at her breakfast of fruits and nuts and seeds, while the squirrel wavers to keep balance.
“But now, now I think,” the squirrel stammers as Ariel begins eating, “that it’s the ravens…”
Small squeaks of “Ravens,” “darkness,” “ravens,” resound.
“Not a squirrel?” Ariel asks.
“No, I realized he could never do that. Not a monster. But the ravens…”
A raven swoops down onto the flat rock in front of Ariel, as the squirrel jumps from Ariel’s shoulder to a nearby tree. A second raven joins, and the crowded murmuring rustling sound of the clearing disappears to an uncomfortable silence, only interrupted by the occasional murmur of “darkness”.
“Arieeeeell,” one raven croaks. “Aaaariel…”
“Waaaasn’t us,” the other says, gurgling it’s vowels. “Noooot uuuuuss,”
Angry yelps blanket the clearing. Ariel stares at the ravens’ black eyes, seems to consider, and tosses a berry into her mouth.
“Muuuuuch daarkness,” the first raven caws, addressing all the living things. “Mooooore than you aaaaall know. Noooot new. Nooot us.”
“I ssssaw you fuckersss” a lizard hisses. “Darknessss, baby ssstolen.” Angry rustling sounds and disturbed animal voices flood the small area.
“Noo!” the second raven caws above the din. “Babyyyy was Deeeeead. Already deeead. Booody eaten. That is aaaaaall.” The four black eyes stare at Ariel, who closes her eyes.
“Imposssssible,” a lizard responds.
“And MY babies. My BABies,” a parakeet screeches. “ALIVE. Alive unTIL the DARKness.”
The ravens’ feathers sound of scratching silk.
“Time to time to time to monitor,” a grey rabbit declares. “Eyes eyes eyes open, discover the truth-uth-uth.”
“YES! We must WATCH!” the parakeet squeals in agreement. “WATCH you. SEE you, DARKness.”
“Watch!” a squirrel agrees, echoed by a squeaky chorus of “watch! Watching! Watch!”
“How many miles to Babylon?” Ariel’s soft but vibrant song pierces the clamor.
“Three score miles and ten,” answers a deep raspy set of hidden voices.
Ariel, deeper and more insistent: “Can I get there by candlelight?”
The lizards, in sync but flat, discordant: “Yessss, and back, again.”
Ariel: “If my heels are nimble and light?”
“You may get there,” birds sing gleefully, “by candlelight,” though the tune is dampened by much merry wordless chirping.
Ariel opens her eyes and looks up and around. “Bravo,” she says, clapping her hands. The ravens are gone; the remaining animals bob, wiggle, and writhe under Ariel’s grace.
The eruption of a gunshot consumes the forest, billowing the Eden with echo after echo of blast from all direction, followed by an auditory waterfall from terrified animals fleeing for their lives, broken branches from quivering trees, the winds from the wings of a sky full of fleeing birds.
“Alouette, gentille alouette…” Ariel’s soft, angelic voice fills the subsequent silence. “Alouette, je te plumerai…”
Her black shrouded body skips through the forest, displaying a practiced nimbleness amidst brisk energy. Her pace doesn’t affect the tone of her song. “Je te plumerai la tête. Je te plumerai la tête…”
The loose black sleeves hang below Ariel’s hands, while the barrel of a large handgun extends well beyond the bottom of her right sleeve. “Et la tête! Et la tête!”
Standing on her toes like a reaper ballerina, Ariel peers under the lip of her hood into a small nest on the branch of a tree. “Alouette!”
“Alouette!” a tiny brown bird, beak to the sky, chirps in reply.
Ariel reaches into the nest with her free hand, grabs the three silent birds by their necks, and throws them into a small canvas satchel that hangs from her shoulder. “Je te plumerai le bec, Je te plumerai le bec….”
She proceeds to a nearby tree, this time stepping on a rock to see into the nest. “Et le bec!”
“Et le bec!” a chorus of chicks cry. Ariel, as if removing a moldy berry from a feast, lifts one tiny chirping bird from the nest with her thumb and forefinger and throws it into the satchel with the others.
Flutters smatter the sky while Ariel is walking to her next destination. She stops, points the muzzle of her gun to the sky, letting the sleeve of her shaul slide down to her naked shoulder, and pulls the trigger. Echoes of the explosion rock the forest, followed by a few sets of flapping wings and scurries from the repeat escape of some less patient creatures.
A nearby raven, its head tucked backwards into the cleft of its wings, trembles in fear but remains perched. Soon its shiny black eyes continue scanning.
“Je te plumerai les yeux, Je te plumerai les yeux,” Ariel’s song continues.
So it went for the next quarter hour, Ariel visiting nests, collecting mute young birds of all shapes and colors. “Et les yeux! Et les yeux!”
Soon her satchel is full, bloated to the size of a watermelon but lighter, softer, and writhing like a bag of snakes. Like a girl carrying the laundry back home, Ariel skips towards her home with the loud, animated satchel. “Je te plumerai le cou, Et le cou!”
The rambunctious jostling in the bag disrupts her gait. Ariel slows down and slips the handle of the satchel from her shoulder to her free hand, allowing it to sway back and forth just inches from the ground. “Et les pattes!”
She swings the dangling satchel into the trunk of a large tree, where it makes a soft thud. “Et les ailes!”
She skips through a small clearing and uses her momentum to whip her bag into another tree. “Et les ailes!” And then another. And then another, but not before she twirls the bag over her head.
The eggshell colored canvas of her satchel turns pink in spots, and the writhing inside turns lazy, like an animal adjusting under the sun on a warm summer day. “Et le dos!”
Before long Ariel is just a girl gaily dancing through the forest, winning her pillow fight against the stoic trees.
While Ariel picks at her breakfast, the birds are in a frenzy. “DARKness,” “babies,” “chicks,” “gone,” “darkness,” “RAVENS.”
“We were WATCHing!” the parakeet screeches. This gets Ariel’s attention, who turns to the green bird.
“And what did you see?” Ariel asks.
“The DARK sounds. They made us RUN. The DARK. Left BABies.”
Ariel frowns. “So, you didn’t see?”
“We SAW. We WATCHed.”
“ALL animals to SAFE spot. All SAFE. All ANimals. But, but, but, no RAVens. ALL ran, but NOT the darkness. DARK ravens STAYED. Stayed with our BABies.”
Ariel is quiet, pensive amidst the chaos, and looks up, around. The ravens are absent.
Ariel stands up, surprising the animals’ natural sense of routine, sending them into silence as she ducks to leave the clearing, walking briskly towards her home.
Ariel hears the ravens before she sees them. The pecking beaks, the croaking conversations, the corduroy zipping of feathered friction. But all sounds stop, beady eyes focusing in unison, when Ariel walks gingerly into the opening in front of her small wooden cottage.
The largest of the dozen ravens hops to the front. Its feathers are messier, drier, and lighter in color than the rest. “We knoooow,” the old raven gurgles. “We saaaaw.”
“Silly ravens,” Ariel says with a newfound smile, slowing but not stopping her walk to her cabin. “I don’t know what you think you saw, but this…”
“Teeeeelll the others,” the old raven caws. Its head twitches, black eyes reading the surrounding forest. “Raaaavens not daaaaarkness, tell the aaaaanimals.”
“Is that the problem?” Ariel asks with amusement, walking within kicking distance of some of the birds. “I never said you were the darkness!”
“You, Ariiiiiel…” The old raven’s voice is somewhere between a groan and a growl. “You…”
“Remember, my beautiful little ravens, that I always protected you. Explained that we are all one. All conscious, living, speaking, blessed animals. Each created with a special purpose…” Ariel reaches her cabin door and stops, turning back to the ravens. “A purpose you couldn’t even begin to understand.”
“Tryyy us!” a small, deeply oiled black Raven screeches. Others hop in anticipation.
Ariel grimaces. “Is that why you’re here? To learn of purpose, and meaning? Of faith, and of sacrifice? Of divinity, and of creation? Do these words even mean anything to you?”
“Nooo,” the old Raven rasps. “We are heeeeeere to make it stop. For we have also looooost to the daaaarkness. And to blaaame us now, raaaaavens as eeeenemies, is this meeeeaning?”
“You pretend like I’m in charge, like I’m the one choosing” Ariel protests, arms dramatically turned up, a gesture obviously intended more for the writhing, breathing periphery than for the angry, anxious inner black circle. “This is what you can’t understand.”
“Maaaake us understand!” the small raven caws.
Ariel’s smile returns and became patronizing, like she is speaking to small children. “I’ve tried,” she sighs. “All of you must have thought you were being very clever, watching out for the darkness, thinking you saw something. But tell me, did you each see something with your own blessed eyes? Or are you trusting in one creature, who may actually be the darkness?”
The ravens’ heads twitch slightly, each now staring at the old raven, who noisily rubs its wings against its body. The circle of ravens tightens around the elder, who still stares at Ariel.
“We knooow! We knooow what’s insiiiide!” the old raven croaks.
Ariel’s smile drops. “Inside where.”
All the ravens tilt their heads toward the cabin.
“Are you threatening me?” She purses her lips and steps to her left, away from the door. “Threatening the one person that gives you meaning?”
“Nooot a threat,” the old bird groans. “An offer. A plea! We waaant peace. A pleeea to stop. Eeeeend darkneeeess.”
“And you all believe this old fool?” Ariel asks to the circle of ravens, who noisily don’t reply. She laughs, making all of them startle, though they defiantly stay together on the forest floor.
“Then you make me happy for human advantages…You see, we’ve been here before. Apparently you’re all too young, or,” she looked at the elder raven, “too old, too forgetful. Clever enough, brave enough, and with memories besting any other creature of Negev, with one exception of course… but you forget we’ve been here before…”
The ravens rustle and twitch but don’t reply.
“Silly animals, with the same demands, in the exact same place as last time. Is that instinct or stupidity? But last time you came with pleas to understand, not this filthy threat you call an offer.” Ariel exhales the tension in her voice before continuing.
“Last time, I explained everything: the purpose of this forest, the divine blessing of speech you’ve been given, communication providing opportunity for animals to live lives of meaning, whose purposes can finally be one with humanity. The needs of people, the depravity of humanity, only matched by the depravity of the animal kingdom. And now, on our way to creating a better world where all can finally communicate and understand, and thereby work together.
“You think Babylon comes from nimble heels, a matter of walking. You miss the point, the light we need to travel there. It’s a spiritual endeavor, reaching the promised land of progress, where the candle lights the way, even as it burns the fuel and destroys the candle. To tolerate those without words, without divine blessing, would be to extinguish our candles, and abandon our destiny.
“This is bigger than you, bigger than me, and yet you’d want the lives of some mute babies to take priority, to run free like viruses in Negev.”
Ariel laughs silently. “But you, you animals with your psychic ceilings, couldn’t understand. Couldn’t fathom the possibility of a world where light touched every living creature. Where the grace of God could be felt by every being. Couldn’t fathom anything greater than individual lives. So you plan, and attack, not knowing you only hurt yourselves.
“Last time we were here, you scared me. Even though I was alone then, I feared for my life. Me, driven only by faith and righteousness, in fear. So I planned. Planned for this day.” Ariel kicks a small log that rests against her cabin. The kick releases a rope which whirs to the forest canopy and sends a weighted net down over the group of ravens.
Shrieks envelop the forest, the loudest those of the ravens now tangled in a mess of black feathers and ropes. “Daarkness! Nooo! Ariiiiel! Kiiill! Heeelp! Darkneeess…”
Ariel sits by the bonfire staring into the flames. Her hands are busy while her eyes are fixed.
The flames tell her stories: Stories of cavemen and tigers, of hunters and pheasants, of ranchers and brands; stories of loneliness and isolation; stories of human destruction and sacrifice, where the creatures longed for are the same as those feared, and the creatures feared are those sought and slayed; legends of infernos and the disorienting aromas of flesh; parables of dogs and sheep, of horses and cattle, the hand selected partners; myths of right and wrong, of the particular versus the universal, and of the heroes choosing that exchange; tragedies of mother and child, Aaron and Nadab and Abihu, Rebecca and Esau, Abraham and Isaac and Ishmael; stories of sparks next to matches, matches next to bonfires, bonfires next to infernos; tales of trembling in fear and trembling in protection and trembling in faith; stories of simple wishes such as warmth and food becoming destructive maniacal dreams of safety and security.
“Sing a song of sixpence,” Ariel sings softly, like a lullaby to remind the fire of its origin and of its purpose in order to keep it tame. “A pocket full of rye.” Her right hand reaches into a net. Without looking away from the fire, she retrieves a raven and places it in her lap.
The raven slowly struggles to beat its wings and open its beak. But the only sound it makes is that of the soft swishing of silk, the friction of oily feathers rubbing against themselves.
Ariel places the raven’s entire head into her small left palm and twists. She feels the small pop of a neck separating. She feels a small pleasant surge of purposeful progress.
“Four in twenty black birds…” Wings and beak now limp, Ariel tosses the bird into the fire. “Baked in a pie.” She watches as the animal body becomes a black shadow of an animal, becomes pungent aviary flesh, becomes a charred caricature, becomes another mass providing fuel to the roaring, storytelling flames.
“When the pie is open,” she retrieves another mangled body of a raven from the net. This one is the slightly brown body of the older raven. The forests around are silent. The old raven doesn’t struggle with its wings – only its eyes. Terrible, bright black eyes containing the reflection of the fire look straight at Ariel.
Ariel doesn’t look away from the fire. “The birds began to sing…” She slides her hand over the old bird’s dry head and twists. The anticipated pop doesn’t come. She tries to twist again, muscles and veins in each of her hands swelling under the effort. The neck refuses to budge past life.
She looks down and makes brief eye contact with the bird. Then she refocuses and reaches into her satchel with her left hand.
The old bird opens its mouth. “I rememberrr,” it croaks wetly. “I gave you an offerrrr, not a thrrrreat. An offer to heeeelp.” The raven coughs dryly, rolling like a worn baby rattle. “The otherrrrs… baby not saafe… the oooothers…”
Ariel adeptly uses a knife to carve through the neck of the raven. The spine only resists momentarily before cleaving.
“Isn’t that a dainty dish…” She tosses the body into the flames. Then she lifts its toy of a head up to her eyes. She gazes expressionless into the lifeless beads of raven eyes that sit above the slack beak with the sagging tongue.
“To set before the king?” she sings, squeezing the little bird’s skull until it collapses under the pressure of her fingers.
She tosses the mangled head into the flames before pulling another raven from the net.
Only after entering her cabin does Ariel recognize how filthy she is. Her skin and pink slip of a dress are covered in ash and soot. Her hands are covered in a mix of ash and dried blood. More smears of blood cake her dress near her hips. Her smell is pungent even to her, the aroma of campfire superseded only by that of blood and death. Her nose wrinkles as she tiptoes into the dark room. She keeps her arms outstretched until they find a table.
Ariel’s hands slowly skim the surface of the table until her fingers find what they are looking for. She turns a small knob. A tiny red light appears, providing enough illumination to see the walls. She turns the knob the opposite direction. The red glow diminishes until it only lights the immediate area.
Behind the lamp, Ariel notices an envelope. She immediately opens it, leaving black and red streaks on the pristine white paper. She skims the document:
Despite previously ascertained longterm effects, recent duration-dependent studies of the Universal Communication Disinhibitor (UCD) have now concluded the transient nature of high universal audible scales… Those subjects with greatest audible universal communication scores in treatment, corresponding predominantly to the subjects chosen for field trials, experience the greatest degradation of effect upon crossing the duration threshold….
Such degradation is first apparent in the selective reception of communication.… chaotic communication ascertainment… certain audible frequencies becoming reinhibited…
Telos has determined… study-wide requirement of UCD booster administration… Beginning with the field subjects… field technicians will be on-site to administer boosters. Should such UCD booster fail to significantly limit the selective communication degradation, Telos plans to terminate all field trials for the health and safety of the participants…
A line of loopy, messy handwriting borders the bottom of the letter: See you in a few weeks, A! Can’t wait to see how you two are getting along! xoxoxo, M
Ariel attempts to decipher the letter. A thick dripping sound interrupts her contemplation. The syrupy plopping so contrasts the still darkness that it makes her startle. She throws the letter back onto the table and turns up the lantern to bring bathe the whole room in red light.
She hears the flap of wings, but doesn’t see the source.
Instinctively, her eyes dart to the crib in the corner of the room. The tiny bed is still silent despite the light. Ariel takes the couple of steps needed to get to the crib, and screams a foreign scream.
A finch, dusty yellow body turned orange in the light, flies up from the crib. Beak and face looking sticky black, the finch nearly hits Ariel in the face before escaping through a broken window.
“I COULDn’t. I could NOT” a parakeet shrieks over Ariel’s horrific screams. It perches on a black hood on a coatrack. The happy trill of starlings rises from the crib.
No. How. Why. Ariel cries hysterically.
“I could NOT underSTAND. No BLESsing, no DEStiny. Could NOT underSTAND”
“What?” Ariel screamed at the bird, saliva spewing from her mouth, blood dripping from her hands. “You God forsaken creatures, what couldn’t you understand?”
“Could NOT underSTAND, couldn’t UNDERstand a WORD from that CREAture. Not a GOD DAMN word.”