The Dancer and the Shattered Shell
The glade spun past the dancer. His eyes took it all in as a blur of color, motion so fast it ceased to move, became a water-color scarf in which to wrap himself.
Alec let himself spin gradually to a stop, watching as the trees sorted themselves back into individual trunks and branches, and smiled. The boys who made fun of him for dancing—had mocked him until he’d retreated to the woods to dance for only the trees—knew nothing. He finished his dance, bare feet tapping the meadow grass, and bowed to his arboreal audience. Alec liked dancing for the trees. When he thought about it, he thought that being forced to the forest was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
Panting a little from his dance—the music in his head had been fast, a driving beat that kept him moving—Alec trotted off to the big oak to check the nest.
The oak stood in the center of the forest, and felt like a relic of an older time. Where most of the trees were slim-trunked and straight, Alec could not reach around even half of the oak’s sturdy base. And the branches, rather than climbing in neat ladders, reached in all directions with a randomness that still managed to be graceful.
Alec liked climbing trees, and the oak was perfect for it, the broad, sturdy branches at just odd enough intervals to be interesting. He had been climbing the oak for years, and he’d been hiding there when he found the nest.
Alec remembered the day. Most of the time the woods were his own, but on that day the neighborhood kids penetrated deep into the forest, not following or chasing him, but looking for crabapples to throw at stray cats. Alec climbed the tree to his usual level then, hearing the boys coming closer and afraid they would see him, he turned and climbed higher, to where the leaves and branches hid the ground completely. He knew that people hardly ever looked up, but he would take no chances. After a time, he forgot the other boys, and climbed for the love of climbing, and for the love of the tree.
He had come on the nest in the highest branches that would support his weight. It was big. Big enough that he looked quickly around to be sure the occupants weren’t home, though when he peeped over the edge, the nest was empty of both birds and eggs. It was just a huge nest, suggesting a larger bird than he had ever noticed about the forest.
After that day, Alec climbed several times to the highest branches of the tree to look at the nest. In the spring, a single, large egg appeared, and he became more careful about getting near the nest. He knew now what bird lived there, and had no desire to meet with beak and talons designed to rip apart small animals. He stayed away for the summer, once climbing a nearby tree to see if he could peek in. He could see nothing and didn’t try again.
Now it was fall, and when Alec had danced the changing seasons, he went again to see the nest. If the egg had hatched, the fledgling must by now be flying and independent, or it would not make it through the winter.
He had missed the tree. It felt like home. Rather, it felt like what he thought home ought to feel like. It covered him, hid him, made him safe. It brought him to the adventure of heights. And it gave him the nest.
Alec scanned the trees and the sky to be sure that there were no large raptors hanging about, ready to defend the nest. They should be long gone, or did birds like that leave their nests in winter, the way the robins and wrens did? He wasn’t sure, so he looked hard.
Then he peeked over the edge of the nest. There they were. The shattered shards of the huge shell, kicked aside but never fully destroyed, despite the activity that must have filled the nest for weeks after the chick hatched. Alec held his breath, wondering if he dared.
Almost without willing it, he reached out a hand, and touched the largest piece of shell. Then, hurrying, eyes as much on the sky as on the task, he scooped up as much of it as he could, stowed it in the hood of his sweatshirt, and climbed back down the tree. He looked about, hoping the bird would understand, then forgot everything else in studying the shell. The colors, the curve of the broken pieces, the smoothness of the surface. It all fascinated him, and filled him with delight.
The space under the tree was clear. Little grew in the shade of the great spreading branches. Alec laid the shattered shell on a patch of moss and began to dance.
He didn’t know that the great birds watched as he danced the hatching and the flight.
He soon learned, however, that the neighborhood bullies had been watching. They circled him, mocking. Alec gritted his teeth, ignored them, and kept dancing. When he felt the first rock, he flinched, but did not lose his rhythm. In any case, what could he do? If he fled, they would follow, and he would go down under a pile of fists and kicks.
When he danced, they never quite dared to touch him. Alec didn’t know why. It was his dancing, as much as his poverty and loneliness, that made them hate him. And yet, to dance was to be protected. Until now.
A second boy bent and picked up a rock. They had found a way to touch him without touching him. The frenzy of a mob told hold, and three rocks struck Alec. Still bleeding, he kept dancing.
Then the giant birds swept down, beaks and claws extended.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016
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