We’re Going To The Zoo

(If you’d like to listen to this story, you can find the audio narration at the podcast 600 Second Saga, narrated by Mariah Avix)

I yanked on the old Honda Odyssey’s sticky sliding door and nearly hit the pavement when my four year old launched himself out of the car.

“Grant!”

He skidded to a stop and I blinked in surprise. Apparently he’d actually heard my voice instead of the gibberish his kid filter usually turned it into. He turned around, staring at the asphalt rather than at me.

“Do you want to see the surprise, or not?”

He nodded.

“Then tell me what the one rule is.”

He looked up at me with eyes so droopy he looked like a Precious Moments figurine. My heart squeezed, but I stood my ground.

“Stay with Mommy.”

“That’s right. Now, do you think you can follow that rule?”

He nodded, transforming from a Precious Moments into a bobblehead.

“All right then. Let me get your sister out of the car and we’ll be ready to go see the surprise.”

“Yay!”

After ten frustrating minutes wrestling with the stroller, we were ready to go to the zoo. Grant danced with one hand on the stroller while Eloise bounced and squealed. While we inched our way through the line, I shook out my watch and swiped to the right app. We stepped up to the gate and I held out my wrist to the admittance scanner. The little box squawked its approval and the bars slid away, allowing us through. As I shoved the stroller into the park, a flashback of my pudgy six year old hand holding out a paper ticket to the gate attendant popped into my head. A smile tugged at my lips.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”

The memory was instantly replaced by the huge crush of people Grant was trying to yank the us into.

“Okay, okay. Stop pulling on the stroller. Do you want to see some animals first or should we go straight to the surprise?”

“Surprise, surprise, surprise!”

I rolled my eyes. Asking this kid to wait was like giving him a death sentence.

“All right, all right. Let’s go.” I bent to retrieve the tiny stuffed unicorn Eloise had thrown over the side, then pointed the stroller toward the aviaries.

Our path took us past the mountain goats, arctic foxes, the zoo’s lone pegasus, and finally a bunch of exotic birds I never remembered the names of. Eloise bounced in her seat and clapped every time she spotted a new animal, but we didn’t stop at any of them. I did promise her we’d come back after the surprise, though.

As we approached the aviary, more people crowded the path until we had to stop. Grant danced with impatience as we inched closer, but thankfully didn’t pick up on any of the excited chatter around us.

After enduring the test of patience Grant had hoped to avoid, we reached the stairs leading to one of the aviary’s viewing platforms. We both groaned. The entrance was as packed as the walkway outside.

“Where’s the surprise, Mommy? Are we almost there?”

“Yes, we’re almost there. I promise, just a little longer.”

A tinny voice drifted toward us from the platform, repeating all the info everyone had been discussing while we’d waited. I rolled my eyes as Grant failed to hear the recording repeat the creature’s name several times. When we reached the top of the stairs, bypassing the maglev ramp for regular strollers, I was relieved to see the platform was not nearly as crowded as I’d expected. As we neared the windows, we began to see more trees and bits of cliff through the spaces between people. I grinned in anticipation of Grant’s reaction.

“Is the surprise in there? Is it? Is it?”

I chuckled.

“Yep. They’re in there somewhere.”

Grant pushed forward, stretching his arm, still gripping the stroller, as far as it would go. We weaved our way through until, finally, we were right in front of the window. I panned my gaze back and forth over the whole forested enclosure, trying to spot them while Grant tugged on my sleeve asking where they were. It took a couple passes, but I spotted them by a pond on our right.

“There, Grant!” I pointed and he squashed his nose against the glass.

“See them? By the pond.”

“Yeah,” he said, looking in the opposite direction.

“No. Grant, over there. Look where I’m pointing.”

He glanced back at my outstretched arm, then followed it to the pond.

“Oh.” He frowned. “What are they?”

My arm drooped. “What do you think they are?”

“Um, Iguanas? Lizards?”

“Close.”

“I don’t know, Mommy. You tell me.”

I sighed. “They’re dragons, Grant. Like in your favorite bedtime story, remember?”

He frowned again. I watched him for a moment, trying to figure out his response. I’d thought he’d be more excited. Then I looked back at the dragons. Perhaps if I could see them the way he did, I’d understand.

There were three of them, all about the size of a Labrador. They were all pale brown, almost tan, with dark brown stripes across their backs. I could see how their size and coloring might be underwhelming. Then one of them opened its wings and several people around us ooh’d and aah’d. While most of it was colored for camouflage, its wing membranes were a collage of varying shades of red. Then another dragon growled before spitting fire across the water at its third sibling. I glanced hopefully back down at Grant, but he’d backed away from the window and was staring at something on the other side of the aviary.

It was my turn to frown. They were dragons, for crying out loud! Didn’t every kid dream of flying one? I know I did when I was Grant’s age. And that was back when everyone still thought they were mythical.

“Let’s get a little closer.”

He nodded absently and I nudged the stroller toward the right side of the window. At least Eloise was enjoying herself. But she bounced and clapped every time the trees moved, so it was a bit of a hollow victory.

We squeezed right up to the glass and discovered that the fire-spitting dragon’s wings were covered in swirls of bright green. I nearly sighed at their beauty. Grant started playing with another kid his age, oblivious to the wonder of mythical beasts come to life. Then I did sigh.

“All right, Grant. What do you want to see now?”

He continued running around with his new buddy. My voice had turned into gibberish again.

“Grant! We’re leaving.”

That he heard. He squealed in alarm and rushed after me, throwing a quick goodbye over his shoulder. As we stepped back into the sunlight I asked Grant where he wanted to go next.

“Tigers, tigers, tigers!”

My brows lifted at his sudden resurgence of enthusiasm. I shrugged. It would be selfish to let my disappointment about the dragons affect the rest of the trip. I pulled up the map on my watch and, after swiping around for the right path, pushed the stroller in the right direction.

We took our time getting there, stopping to let Eloise shake her little hands at the other animals, as I’d promised. I knew we’d reached the tigers when Grant shouted.

“Tigers, tigers, tigers!”

I stood and watched him as he pressed his face to the gate bars. The tiger didn’t seem particularly amazing. Orange, black stripes, claws and teeth. Nothing I hadn’t seen a hundred times.

Yet somehow, to my little boy this simple animal elicited all the wonder the dragons failed to conjure with their best performance. Somehow, what appeared ordinary to me was, to him, extraordinary.

The Currents Of Life

(If you’d like to listen to this story, you can find the abridged audio narration at the podcast 600 second saga, narrated by Mariah Avix)

 

Somewhere above the endless sparkling blue of the sea floated a regal osprey. It had been a long exhausting day of hunting and he had nothing to show for it. The summer was almost over. He could feel winter’s encroaching fingers clawing at him more and more each day. The once abundant buffet below him was now no more than scraps left over by the sharks and dolphins. Scanning the glittering, undulating waters beneath him, he spotted plenty of loose kelp and bits of flotsam, but only the smartest fish must have been left because he couldn’t spot any lingering near the surface.
For a moment he allowed the flow of the wind to distract him. He tipped his wings just slightly and spun in a wide, slow circle, rising in altitude. Avid bird-watchers might have contrived some complex purpose for the movement – from the precise angle of the wings to the exact height to which he rose – but to the casual observer he appeared to have done it simply for the enjoyment. Casual observers were right more often than they realized.

He leveled off and, with a sense neither bird-watcher nor casual observer could ever be aware of, he zeroed in on one small spot of ocean. To untrained eyes it would seem identical to every other watery ruffle. To this predator, it was a target. He tucked his wings and sank, cutting through the wind and spray like an arrow.

A snap of suddenly outstretched wings.

A splash.

The fish wriggled and squirmed in the hunter’s claws. Somewhere in its tiny brain it was aware of the great peril, but that awareness didn’t leave enough room for devising a way of escape. All it could hope for – though there wasn’t any room left in its brain for hoping either – was the slim possibility of a larger predator attacking the owner of the claws wrapped around its slimy body.

Then a loud screech split the air and the very thing the little herring would have hoped for – had it had any brain left to hope with – happened. A massive albatross swooped in on the now less regal looking osprey and the fish was free.

Another splash and the herring took a deep breath. The cool, tangy water flooded through its tiny body while salt, algae and other unwanted bits filtered out through its gills. It twitched through the water for a few seconds as its various systems got back into working order after the shock of all that stark air. Then it simply floated down toward a small bed of coral where it would hide for the foreseeable future. However, given that it was incapable of foreseeing further than a few seconds, it was unlikely to remain in hiding for very long.

The trip south was mostly unremarkable. The shallow water held not much more than algae and plankton and as the herring floated down, the sea simply grew murkier with added particles and minerals. Then it began to swim away from shore, following some mysterious instinct that told it where its safe haven was. And as it pushed further and further out, the murkiness began to fade away.

When the view finally cleared, it honed in on a small cluster of coral and mollusks a few yards away, though measurement was far beyond its limited capabilities. Had its brain capacity been slightly larger it might have been able to appreciate the vast beauty surrounding it. Its little heart might have warmed at the undulating shades of blue and green beckoning the courageous to explore. It might have sighed at the vibrant colors covering the ocean floor, the sandy bottom teeming with life of all kinds. It might have paused to take in the gentle sway of the kelp and seaweed as the tide pulled it to and fro. Perhaps it would have taken a scenic route, past all the sea star and muscle encrusted rocks and stopped to chat with the hermit crabs digging in the sand.

As it was, this particular fish was not equipped with the necessary brain synapses to appreciate, or even notice, the surrounding magnificence. In fact, it was so oblivious to its own surroundings, it failed to spot a new predator lurking in the shadows. Though, in defense of the simple fish, poor eyesight could have easily lead it to believe that the turtle shell was really just another rock.

The poor thing didn’t even make it past the first outcropping.

For such a large creature, with little to no streamlining, the sea turtle was remarkably fast. She was hailed as the best hunter in her bale. The rest of them were content with whatever food was easiest to get. She always went for the best first. The tough, stretchy mollusks couldn’t go anywhere, so she risked nothing by starting with the crunchy, textured fish.

Of course, once she snapped up the herring, the rest of the fish caught on and scattered, hiding in all the cracks and crevices she couldn’t reach. Oh well. She’d come back for them another day. Most fish had terrible memories anyway.

She yanked up a couple of the boring mollusks to finish off the meal, then with a swipe of her flippers, spun up and away from the rocks, heading to the surface for a quick breath. When she dove back under, she turned her tail east and swept toward her favorite ledge. She was going to take a nap.

Unlike the fish she’d just eaten, this dark green turtle took in the sweeping vistas around her as she stroked through the water. She luxuriated in the feel of the cool currents rushing over her face and flippers. She even spun around a few times, creating currents of her own.

Then the edge of a huge reef came into view to her right and she slowed. At this distance it was difficult to spot any critters along the sandy bottom, but she knew they were there. Only the smallest and least nourishing creatures lived that close to the nearby trench, though. She turned slightly and noticed a new patch of kelp growing just a few yards away. Another swipe of her flipper and she sailed toward the swaying plants. Closing her eyes, she let the soft strands glide along her belly as she swam over them. A cloud of rockfish swarmed out and she snapped up a few of the slower ones.

After one more dip to the surface, she turned back to the reef and her ledge. It was closer to the trench than most would be comfortable with. That trench hid many large predators. She probably should have been more wary, but she found the solitude peaceful. Besides, she’d never actually gone into the trench.

But she didn’t need to go in the trench to be spotted. The ledge itself might have been well hidden from larger, stronger predators, but she simply wasn’t prepared for the few predators smarter than her.

As she approached the reef, a strange untethered harpoon shot through the water. Before she could look up to determine the source of the strange eddy, it sank into her neck and through her body to pierce her heart.

She was just inches away from her ledge.

Her lifeless body sank to the sea floor, tracked by a hidden pair of strange intelligent eyes. With a speed surpassing that of the odd harpoon, the strange creature darted out of the shadows to trap the turtle in a small fishing net. His tail seemed normal enough, though one didn’t usually see a dolphin shaped tail covered in scales. With the dexterity of an octopus, the creature’s crustacean-like arms quickly wrapped up his kill. His oddly shaped head turned from side to side, seemingly watching for larger predators. Much like the turtle, his head looked as if it had been mashed onto the end of his body. No tapering, no streamlining, aside from the three fins on top with the center one trailing down his back.

But none of that detracted from his superior hunting abilities. Though most predators were larger than him, his species were by far the smartest in the sea. Smarter even than the dolphins, some believed. Superior to the sea turtle, the herring, perhaps even the osprey and the albatross. But the undines were still a simple species. Smart certainly, but lacking the passion and ambition that would drive them to seek to rule.

Not a single creature could become so elevated that a greater predator couldn’t knock them back down. All who lived in the sea or depended on it knew this. And so, as the hunters went their separate ways, the journey of life, the fight for survival, went on.

The Apple Tree

(If you’d like to listen to this story, you can find the audio narration at the podcast 600 Second Saga, narrated by Mariah Avix)

    Flowers and leaves swayed in the breeze as Ann strolled through the gardens. It had been a lovely morning, until something hard landed on her head.

    “Ow.” She bent to pick up the bright green apple, then peered up into the branches above her. She sucked in a gasp.

    “Nic, what are you doing up there?”

    The prince perched in a most undignified manner on one of the thicker branches of the large apple tree. He grinned sheepishly.

    “Um, picking apples?”

    Her eyes narrowed. “Picking apples.”

    “Uh, yes.”

    She stared at him for a moment.

    “Any particular reason you are picking them instead of one of the gardeners?”

    “Um … uh …”

    She crossed her arms, waiting for his poppycock excuse.

    “Okay, so I’m not just picking apples.” After darting glances around them, he launched into his explanation, which was, indeed, poppycock. Then he had the gumption to invite her to help.

    “No!” she replied, her forehead wrinkling in consternation.

    “But it’ll be hilarious.”

    “Nic, your pranks are always hilarious to you and annoying to everyone else.”

    “I know. That’s what makes them so funny. Oh, come on, Ann. Don’t be such a stick in the mud.”

    Her hackles rose at the insult. She shot him one more glare, then hiked up her skirts and climbed up after him. He let out a quiet whoop in triumph.

    “I will have you know,” she spat when she reached the branch he was perched on. “I’ve seen plenty of ‘sticks’ flower quite beautifully when simply ‘stuck in the mud.’”

    Nic just rolled his eyes and continued picking. She wrinkled her nose at him and started pulling fruit from the branches as well. He could be a pest sometimes, but he was her best friend. Her only friend. When it seemed like all the world was out to get her, he could always make her laugh. And even she had to admit, his little prank would be funny if they could pull it off. Soon, they’d created a sizable pile of apples at the base of the tree.

    Then a quiet cough came from below and they both froze.

    “Something tells me you’re not picking those apples for the pies Miss Bridget is making for the feast tonight.”

    Ann gulped. It was her father. She knew helping Nic with his prank was a bad idea.

    She dared a peek down toward him. Would she have to scrub the dishes? Go to bed with no dessert? Surely he wouldn’t make her attend the ball tonight. That would be horrid. Her brows pinched in confusion upon finding him staring at their pile of apples. His hands rested on his hips and she couldn’t see his face.

    “Uh,” she heard Nic say above her. Her head whipped up in panic. “Sure. Sure it is. That’s exactly what we’re doing.”

    “Uh-huh,” her father replied skeptically.

    Finally he looked up at them. His lopsided smile baffled her, but not nearly as much as the wink he gave her before turning around and disappearing out of sight. She sat frozen. Should she stay and take the punishment, or try to escape and risk making it worse? She didn’t have enough time to answer the question, though, as her father returned within moments, carrying two huge boxes. As he set them down she was able to peek inside. What she saw only confused her more.

    Nic gasped and when she looked up, his expression was all delight and excitement. She looked back down at her father, who gave her another wink. She looked back at the boxes. Then, as her father began to help with their mischief, she suddenly understood and nearly let out a chirp of laughter. Sometimes being naughty could be fun.

    It took them most of the morning to finish picking all the apples, then a good bit of the afternoon to get through the contents of the boxes. They were all exhausted and sweaty by the time they were done, but they looked up at the tree in pride. Her father held the boxes, now containing the apples they’d picked, Ann carried more apples in her flower baskets and Nic propped his hands on his hips.

    “This is going to be epic,” Nic whispered.

    A creaking in the distance spurred them into action and they all raced back to the rose covered trellis they’d decided to hide behind. The apples were tucked underneath a particularly large rhododendron and they all crouched by the opening in the trellis, Ann and Nic on the left and her father on the right. Just then, Miss Bridget came bustling into view carrying a box much like the ones Ann’s father had brought, only this one was empty. Ann glanced up at Nic and smothered a snicker as his face turned red from suppressed laughter. She turned to her father on the other side of the path and he gave her another wink before turning back to watch Miss Bridget.

    They all held their breath as the cook reach the base of the tree and set her basket on the ground. She straightened, peered up into the branches … and gasped.

    “Pears? Pears?! When did my apple tree start growing pears?!”

    At that point they were clutching stomachs and biting fists to keep silent. The shock and befuddlement on Miss Bridget’s face made all the effort entirely worth it. The ties her father had found blended so well with the branches, no one would know with a cursory glance that the pears weren’t indeed growing on the apple tree.

    Miss Bridget stumbled back a step and made the Saint’s sign of protection against evil and Nic let a snort escape, apparently unable to hold it in any longer. Miss Bridget’s gaze snapped in their direction. Ann gulped and glanced at her father with a worried frown. Would he abandon them? He looked back at her and his eyebrows rose as if to say ‘oops, I guess she caught us.’ Relieved, she returned it with a grin and a shrug.

    Miss Bridget marched right up to them, slamming her fists onto her hips. Nic guffawed in renewed laughter and fell onto his behind, wrapping his arms around his middle, tears streaming down his face.

    “Think it’s funny, do you?” She glared at Nic and Ann, then turned and gasped in surprise to find Ann’s father. He gave a guilty shrug, trying and failing to appear contrite.

    “Not you too, milord! What’s gotten into you?”

    “My humblest apologies, madam,” he replied, rising and giving her a polite nod. “I believe the apples you seek are beneath the rhododendron there.”

    She harrumphed and retrieved the apples, turning to march back to the kitchen. The three miscreants peered at each other, not sure what they were expected to do. Then they all jumped as Miss Bridget shouted back at them without breaking stride.

    “Quit lollygaggin’ and get all those pears back where they belong and report to the kitchen.”

    Ann and Nic peered up at Ann’s father.

    “We’d best do as she says. You know how fond the king is of that woman’s cooking.”

    So, the three of them spent the rest of the day ‘picking’ pears and baking in the kitchen. And when one of those hard won apples somehow ended up thumping Nic on the head, Ann decided it was the best day ever.

An Ill-fated Scarf

(For anyone interested, there is an audio recording of this piece, narrated by Mariah Avix, which can be found through the podcast 600 Second Saga at insani-x.com)

    Ann poked her head out the door to the castle gardens.  Her eyes widened as they adjusted to the darkness.  She tiptoed out and shut the door behind her.  The combined scents of lavender and sweet pea wafted toward her and her nose twitched in appreciation.

    Cheery laughter drew her attention to her goal.  Just one look at the pretty gowns, then she’d sneak back to her rooms to prepare for the birthday celebration.  Nana would never know she was gone.  She turned toward the courtyard, creeping from shadow to shadow.

    Finally, she crouched behind the large sweet pea covered trellis that bordered the fire lit courtyard.  All the ladies.  All the gowns.  And even prettier than her eight year old heart could have dreamed.  Everything sparkled, like they were all floating on a sea of diamonds.  A sigh escaped her lips.

    A squeeze on her upper arm was her only warning before she was yanked onto her backside.  She peered up toward the sky and crumpled in on herself when she saw who stood above her.

    Princess Stella was several years older than her and much taller, so from Ann’s vantage point, cowering at her feet, Stella practically loomed.

    “Spying on the higher class, orphan?” she sneered.  “Hoping to dig up some dirt?  Or perhaps you planned to soil the whole occasion with your lowly presence.”

    Ann stammered.  Surely Stella knew Ann had been invited, didn’t she?

    “Hey, girls,” the princess called over her shoulder.  “Look what I found.”

    Ann clambered to her feet as Stella’s jewel encrusted friends joined them in the shadows.  “I h-have as m-much right to be here as you.”

    “Ha, we’ll see about that.  Ladies, how much would you say that scarf is worth?”

    Prices were shouted out, each more outrageous than the next and Ann’s hands darted up to cover the glittering fabric that concealed her hair and ears.  Stella smirked and held up a hand to quiet the group.

    “Certainly more than a petty orphan could afford, wouldn’t you say?”

    This was met with snickers and jeers.

    “It w-was a gift, from my father.  He’s the k-king’s Ambassador.”

    The snickers elevated to chuckles and guffaws.  Stella’s brows rose in mock surprise.

    “Oh, is he now?” Stella mocked, glancing over her shoulder at her co-conspirators.

    Ann’s eyes began to sting.  Stella’s eyes narrowed to slits and her lips quirked up on one side.  Ann decided in that moment that she must have been a demon dressed in the princess’s body.  Stella was the only one in that courtyard who knew who she was, but Stella would go to her grave before admitting their acquaintance in public.

    “Nellie, what is the punishment for stealing?”

    Ann’s stomach turned to sludge.

    “For a first offense, cutting off the hand.”

    “Well, then.  It looks like you have a choice, orphan.  Give me the scarf, or suffer the consequences.”

    Ann gasped and clutched the scarf tighter to her head.  “But I didn’t steal it.  My father gave it to me.”

    “Hand it over, or I’ll call the soldiers.”

    She shuddered.  She’d overheard stories, seen the soldiers training.  Stella was a kitten compared to them.  Ann lowered her hands to the knot at the nape of her neck, but paused before untying it.

    Her father would be so disappointed if she lost another gift.  And Ann was too ashamed to admit that Stella was taking them from her.  Picturing his downcast face as he learned of her missing scarf, her gut clenched.  She’d had enough.

    Ann took a deep breath.  She met Stella’s smug stare with icy resolve.  She lowered her hands.  Then spun and ran.

    Shouts and crunching footsteps followed her, but she knew the gardens better than any of them.  She was going to beat Stella this time.

    She jumped over daffodils, ducked around azalea’s and climbed over short trellises, avoiding the paths altogether.  She paused beneath some draping wisteria and held her breath.  A sharp crack to her left startled her and she stumbled onto the path.  Her foot crunched on gravel, giving away her location.

    Panicking, she pushed her way through a row of unruly forsythia and stumbled into the courtyard.  She paused as several pairs of eyes turned to her in surprise.  The sparkly gowns she’d admired moments before, now surrounded her in flurries of glitter.

    Then a rustling and shouting from behind made her jump and turn.  A few girls from Stella’s posse tumbled out of the forsythia and spotted her.  Ann bolted for the courtyard’s main doors, ignoring the shouts of the guests.

    She didn’t make it more than a few steps, though, when she spotted Stella from the corner of her eye.  The princess charged straight at Ann.  Her feet flew, but she wasn’t fast enough.  Ann felt a sharp tug on her scalp and her feet slipped as Stella yanked the scarf from her head, pulling out a handful of pins and hair along with it.

    Her heart dropped into her sludgy stomach as gasps surrounded her, followed by an eerie silence.  Ann turned to see Stella standing frozen.  Stella stared at her like Ann’s eyeballs had fallen out of her head.  Her silver scarf dripped from the princess’s fingers.

    She’d always known she looked a little odd, that her hair and ears were a little different from everyone else.  But she’d always thought of her oddities like having a large nose or being unusually short.  Something she could be teased about, but nothing more.

    Tonight, as she stared back at the horrified faces surrounding her, she finally noticed what her father had never told her.  The real reason he’d always made her wear her scarves.  Why she’d been privately tutored all these years.

    Not a single head in that crowd bore green hair, nor did a single ear show the slightest hint of a point.

    Her throat tightened more and more with each achingly silent second that passed.  Then sharp footsteps drew her attention to the courtyard doors.  Her father plowed through the doorway and stumbled to a stop as his terrified gaze landed on her.  Her sludge soaked heart wrung itself dry.  Then a gentle zephyr plucked the scarf from the ground and as it drifted past her, Ann desperately wished she could follow it to the twinkling stars.