The call still echoed from the depths of the trees.
It made Sky Messenger push onward, down the leaf-strewn trail and into the dark filigree of shadows where glinting eyes watched him from the branches. Night was falling. Soon the owls would lift into the air and vanish like smoke on a windy day, but for now their gazes fixed on the strange old man with the limp.
He cocked his head, listening. The call was growing fainter. Sky Messenger propped his walking stick and continued on down the trail.
He'd first heard the Voice when he'd seen eleven summers. Since that time, the great unrest came upon him every Moon of Falling Leaves. He would be sleeping warmly beneath his hides, his soul walking through springtime meadows with his Ancestors, when suddenly his eyes would jerk open, and he would sit up in bed. It always began as a low keening. When he heard it, he would jump to his feet and dash out into the cold darkness. On and on he would run, as fast as his bad legs would carry him, away from the village and down the forest trails where bears and wolves prowled.
Four nights ago, he'd leaped from his hides, breathing as though slapped awake, and known the caller was close. The hair at the nape of his neck had stood on end. From far out in the trees, the Voicecame, clear and crisp, more real than ever before--Odion ... Odion. He'd thrown on his cape, for his old body needed it these days, and rushed outside into the icy woods. It was unlike any human voice he'd ever heard, composed of many notes, like an eerie song. And he knew it, knew the speaker, in the depths of his heart, as he had never known another human being.
Sometimes he pursued the Voice all moon long, looking for it as though it were real. Speaking gently or shouting in desperation, he would limp along the trails like a madman. He used his crooked walking stick to probe beneath fallen logs, or stab into holes in the forest floor where supernatural creatures lived; or he would crouch in the underbrush for days, his eyes wide, sniffing the wind for that otherworldly scent he knew would someday be there. Listening. Always listening for that mysterious voice that called him by name, filling him with wild desires and a vague sweet gladness.
His obsession frightened his children and grandchildren. His clan had begun to say that he was insane, that he was chasing his own afterlife soul that had wandered away into the forest and become lost. None of that mattered. He knew he had to find the caller and look him in the eyes.
Sky Messenger stopped to take a breath and looked up into the overarching branches of a hickory tree. He especially enjoyed these rare autumn evenings when he could stand beneath the trees and hear them snapping and cracking as the night cooled.
The Voice faded.
Sky Messenger propped his walking stick and held his breath, listening. In the moonlight, the snow-coated trees had a bluish gleam that seemed to radiate outward into the air, turning it liquid and faintly silver. Deep autumn leaves rustled around his moccasins as he cupped a hand to his mouth and called, "Where are you?"
He searched the forest until he spied movement among the shadows. Concentrating, he thought he saw a black silhouette, standing tall and straight, its arms open to the night sky. Heat flushed his face. Was it real? Was it a ... a man? Or did it have wings? Black wings that sleeked down its back? Or perhaps the hump was just a bulky Trader's pack?
He slowly moved toward it. He was afraid of falling. His old bones had grown brittle, and he knew that a simple broken arm might kill him. As he sneaked closer, the Voice lowered its arms and turned toward him.
Odion. Are you coming?
For the first time since he'd seen eleven summers he was looking into the dark holes of its eyes. Terror made his hands tremble.
"Th-that was my childhood name. They call me Sky Messenger now."
Hunched over, he limped toward the Forest Spirit, his ancient body aching. Every step was at once a threat and a gesture of love and need. The Voice seemed to sense it. Like all predators, they feared each other. It cocked its head, and its eyes caught the starlight and shimmered as though dusted with quartz crystals.
A fleeting instant later, it dashed out into the trees with twigs cracking in its wake.
"No, wait! Come back!"
Sky Messenger stumbled after it, thrashing wildly through the brush, trying to catch up. He chased it straight into a meadow where the starlight reflected so brilliantly from the snow that the Voice's dark silhouette seemed to be floating above the ground.
"What do you want? Why do you keep calling me? You've been calling me for sixty-five summers."
The creature growled like a cornered wolf, its arms extended as though preparing to take flight.
In a motion as old as predators themselves, Sky Messenger took a step backward, yielding the moment to his opponent, and slowly began to circle around the tree-lined edge of the meadow. He poked at rocks with his walking stick, and sniffed damp tree bark, precisely like the demented old man people claimed him to be. The Spirit kept cocking its head, watching curiously, and after a time it quieted and lowered its arms. But its quartz-dust eyes remained focused on Sky Messenger, charting his methodical progress around the meadow.
It stunned him that the Spirit seemed suspicious and afraid. What could an old man do to harm a Spirit? Then again, maybe it wasn't harm the Spirit feared. Perhaps it was just the way of the chase. Run and feint. Let your prey catch up, then whirl around and snap at it, keep it at bay until the final moment. The final lunge for the throat.
Sky Messenger saw his chance and dashed out into the meadow, heading directly for the Voice ... and the chase resumed.
Time and again he cornered the creature and tried to force it to answer his questions before it darted away. He stumbled after it in some incomprehensible ancient dance. Was it just a man? Sometimes he thought so. But why would a strong young man let Sky Messengercatch him? The Voice ran until Sky Messenger was right on its heels; then it whirled around snarling. He would never have caught the Voice if it did not wish to be caught. Surely this was some Spirit game.
He halted, breathing hard, and let his gaze drift over the brush and trees.
I'm here, Odion.
He saw it. The Voice stood just ahead, hidden behind a frost-covered dogwood. Its eyes gleamed through the dark weave of branches.
Come ... . Follow me.
It trotted away, repeatedly looking back over its shoulder, as if to make certain he was still behind; then it disappeared into the forest.
Sky Messenger worked his way down a winding forest trail dappled with snow and frost-rimmed leaves, simultaneously fearing and eager for what he would next see.
"Where are you?" he called. "I've lost you."
From the dark depths of the forest came the call--a long drawn-out wail, his name in the voice of a wolf, howled with chilling effect.
Sky Messenger's bony fingers tightened around the knob of his walking stick. He was close now. Very close, and he dared not be afraid of what would come. He swallowed hard and limped forward.
On the other side of a birch copse, the trail sloped upward to a high point overlooking a hilly country filled with great stretches of forests and shining creeks.
There. On the trail below.
The Voice let him get to within thirty paces, and started slowly walking away.
Through endless towering trees, Sky Messenger followed, step after step, always twenty paces behind, until Elder Brother Sun rose red over the eastern horizon. As the air warmed, an exotic flowery fragrance wafted around him. His nostrils quivered. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the otherworldly sweetness, and his old heart began to slam against his ribs. That scent!
In the distance, he saw flocks of birds gathered over a bridge, fluttering, waiting. All along the planks of the bridge, mice darted, their furred backs shining in the newborn light. There were other animals, too. A white-tailed doe, and a lean young wolf.
At the sight of the wolf, tears traced warm lines down Sky Messenger's wrinkled cheeks. He had been running from this moment his entire life. He whispered, "Hello, old friend."
The Voice stopped dead in the trail and let him advance to stand at its side. Sky Messenger shivered. He understood now.
He was answering the last call, walking at the side of the only brother who truly mattered. The brother who had always been there, as unobtrusive as his own shadow, watching over him, fighting at his side on the darkest days.
"You can tell me now," he said, and took a breath to prepare himself. "What is your name?"
The Voice hissed, the sound like a truce being broken by an arrow, and he thought he made out the word Sonon.
Yes, do you remember me, Odion?
Ancient memories flooded up from behind doors buried deep in his heart, doors Sky Messenger had kept barricaded for sixty-five summers. Behind them monsters still lived and breathed.
He shook his head and stumbled backward. "No. No, I--I can't--!"
Remember, Odion. You must remember now. It's time.
All of the doors he had so carefully guarded vanished, and a sea of ghostly eyes started coming toward him.
Shuddering, Sky Messenger sank down in the trail and squeezed his eyes closed. As the monsters surrounded him, terror swept him back in time to that long-ago day when this journey had truly started ... .
Copyright © 2010 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear