I've begun a little bit of work on my future entry into the Writers of the Future contest. I think I like where my mind has decided to take things, but so far it isn't coming out as brilliant as I imagine. Such is the nature of a first draft. I just need to set my writing perfectionism aside long enough to get the entire story onto the computer before I begin to revise. I'm sure I am not the only one who feels that is easier said than done sometimes.
The story I am going to share with you today came about from an offhand comment once from my fiancee, Nicole. I am rather pleased with the resulting story, and hope you enjoy reading it. This is certainly one of the things at the top of my list to submit for publication somewhere. She thinks I should try and get it published as a children's story. What do you think?
The Keeper of the Woodland Creatures
“I wonder where all the animals go when the rain falls and the winds blow?” says Terra, watching the clouds fill the sky. Her hands play with the pink ribbon in her wavy brown hair. A boy, standing next to her, gazes out the window. His face crinkles with lines as he thinks. His blue eyes widen and his face lights up as he finds an answer.
“They go to the Keeper, of course,” he says. Terra frowns, picking her answer carefully.
“Who is this Keeper, and why have I never heard of him?”
“Her,” he corrects Terra. “She is the Keeper of the Woodland Creatures and she cares for all the animals in the world.”
“That is crazy, Nathan. How can she care for all the animals when the wolf hunts the deer and the hawk hunts the mouse?”
“They are all welcome under her care and protected from all harm. Not even a lion would dare to hunt while in her care.”
The rain comes down in dripping droplets. Nathan and Terra play all afternoon without a thought toward their talk of the Keeper. It is much later before it crosses their minds again. The two children, sitting on the couch with their parents after eating a large dinner, are watching the news. The weather reporter comes on with his yellow rain coat and his muddy galoshes, reporting heavy rain and high winds tonight. He advises anyone going outside to be careful, and that sparks a question again in Terra.
“Mommy, where do all the animals go when the rain falls and the winds blow?”
“I don’t know,” answers Mother, her eyes fixed upon the television. “They probably hide in the rocks or trees.”
“I think,” Nathan starts but he is cut off by a shush from Father, who turns the volume up. Their evening passes without word about the Keeper. Later that night, after the children are in bed, Terra rolls over and asks Nathan about it again.
“Do you think she is real?” asks Terra.
“I know she is. I saw her with my own eyes.”
“Really?” asks Terra in a loud voice. Nathan glares at his sister but the sound of footsteps in the hall forces them both to feign sleep. The door creeps open a crack, a narrow beam of light cutting through the darkness. Several minutes of silence passes after the door shuts. As the children are lying there, listening to the rain and the wind pound on the house, Nathan gets an idea.
“Come see, Terra. I bet there are animals crossing into the forest right now.” The children slip out of bed and walk to the window. Even through the rainy darkness they think they can see three deer and a burrow of bunnies scampering into the trees behind the house. A flash of lightning shows birds diving into the trees, their paths erratic as they fly into the wind.
“We’ve got to follow them,” says Terra. Nathan nods and they go to their closets and arm themselves with what they think they need. Nathan grabs his Spider-Man rain coat and matching rubber boots. He stuffs his Batman backpack with a flashlight and a dozen toys he thinks the animals might enjoy. Terra grabs her Tinkerbell rain coat and umbrella, along with her favorite pink rain boots. She places her brush and many ribbons into her purple purse, hoping to give some makeovers to the animals. The children look at each other and nod, ready to go. First they have to get downstairs without being caught.
Nathan goes first, flashlight in his hand. He opens the door, freezing at every sound made. Finally he has it open far enough to wiggle out the door and they sneak out of the room. They push the door shut with equal care but the only sounds reaching their ears come from their beating hearts. They move like a pair of ninjas down the hall, counting the stairs as they descend. Terra loses track and sets her foot down on the seventh stair. The stair moans under the weight of her foot and the children stop. Their father lets out a loud snore from the bedroom. Terra whimpers in fear, biting down hard on her lip to prevent another sound. The two children feel relief when the sound of deep breathing resumes from Father. They sneak down the stairs and dash out the kitchen door.
Nathan steps onto the deck and is blown over by the wind. He grabs the rail and pulls himself up, but gets startled when Terra’s umbrella flies into his face. It blows into the forest and Terra sprints after it. The wind pushes at her back, adding speed as she chases her umbrella. Nathan lets go of the deck and runs after her as she disappears into the forest.
The trees crowd around the children, the branches shifting closer to block the wind and rain. Terra gasps when she looks back and notices this. Nathan shouts that he sees her umbrella and they race deeper into the woods. The umbrella rolls and bounces across the path and neither child notices that the trees are getting sparse and the air is lighter. They can no longer hear the sound of rain or wind present, but neither Nathan nor Terra realizes this. They glimpse spotted owls and scurrying squirrels and prancing ponies as they race through the woods. The sound of soft, graceful singing reaches their ears.
Oh where do they go
When bad weather blows?
When rain floods the seas
And the wind bends the trees;
When the snow blankets grass
And storm clouds won’t pass.
They don’t hide in bush, vine, or creeper;
They gather here with the Keeper.
The mouse is most fun
To watch as he runs,
The thrush and the owl
Are among most beloved fowl,
The wolf and the deer
Play together in here.
You’ll never learn this from teachers
But children will find—
This place is one of a kind—
The grove of the Keeper of Creatures.
Nathan and Terra step into a clearing. Everywhere they look there are animals. Bears are chasing antelope in a game of tag. Instead of growls and snarls they hear laughter from the animals involved. Several squirrels scamper up a tree, leaping branch to branch ahead of a spotted leopard. Frogs sing in harmony with the buzzing of flies and bees. Amidst all these playful animals sits the Keeper.
Fireflies dance around her and animals approach her in turn. She bows her head to each animal as they come, the silver curls of her hair dangling. She places a hand on their heads and, though no words are spoken, the children understand that she is communicating with them. The children lose track of time as they stand watching all the wondrous creatures. Eventually no more animals approach the Keeper and the children notice she has turned to gaze at them. Nathan and Terra come forward, being beckoned by the old woman in front of them. Her lips move and the singing voice echoes into the forest again.
Many seasons have long passed
Since humans have ventured last,
For among the creatures, great and small,
Mankind is the most dangerous of all.
Their fears are now at an ease
But there is a task to appease;
For trust in people is hard to see,
And if you pass we’ll welcome thee.
Nathan and Terra exchange a glance that speaks more than words could. Nathan bows as he responds. “Keeper of the Woodland Creatures, we will accept the task.” The woman smiles and a few of the animals crowd in closer. The Keeper springs to her feet, a flower-print dress dancing in the wind as she waltzes through the clearing, singing a new song.
Far to the left, past many a tree,
Caught in the bushes you may see
One small bunny, white spots on black;
This is your task: to bring him back.
The storm rages on ‘round the poor lad,
If he stays stuck his life will end bad;
Hurry my children, no time to waste!
Why are you standing? Away! Make haste!
The Keeper finishes her rhyme and an aging fox, with specks of gray mixed with his red fur, steps forward and bows before the Keeper. He backs away and, to the children’s surprise, he speaks in a clear voice.
“Mistress, worry not about the dear old bunny. I shall delight in the task of finding him and breaking his bonds.”
The fox vanishes into the trees and Nathan grins at Terra. “I guess we no longer need to go, huh? We can just stay here.”
Terra hits Nathan’s arm. Nathan recoils in pain, rubbing his arm. “If you trust that fox,” Terra says, “you are a bigger fool than I thought.”
The fox is a creature most cunning and sly,
He’ll tell a truth and hide a big lie;
The safety of the bunny is no longer clear,
A dinner he’ll make for the fox, I fear.
Terra grabs Nathan’s arm and pulls him into the forest. They follow the trail as it twists and turns between trees and bushes. As they get further from the grove they can hear the raging storm again. The children nearly tumble down a slope but Nathan notices the path turning in time. But no matter how fast the children hurry down the path, they are unable to catch up to the fox.
They come across the biggest thorn bush either of them has ever seen. The fox is sitting nearby, trying to bite a thorn from his paw. The bunny is laying motionless deep within a tangle of brambles. Several deep cuts are still bleeding as he sits there.
“Oh, good, you’ve finally arrived,” says the fox. “Help me with this thorn and then we can free the dinner. Bunny.”
“Dinner, huh?” says Terra.
“A thorn is less than you deserve, Mr. Fox,” says Nathan.
Terra kneels by the rabbit, untangling the animal from the thorny mess. She pulls the final branch as the fox frees his final thorn from his paw. The fox makes a quick leap at the rabbit, jaws snapping. Terra moves the injured bunny out of the way, and the fox tumbles into the thorns head-first, yowling in pain and in rage. The children get up and walk away when he calls out to them.
“Wait! Don’t leave me here to die. I’ll never eat another animal!”
“How can we trust you?” asks Terra.
“I swear by the good name of the Keeper, no animal shall suffer harm from my jaws or claws.”
“Let him rot,” says Nathan. “He got what he deserved.”
“He is sincere,” Terra says. “I forgive him. Let him be free.”
The fox whimpers in pain as Nathan removes the thorns from the fox. The fox leaps from the brambles as soon as he is free and darts off down the road. The children follow after him with the small bunny in their care.
The Keeper, and all the gathered creatures, celebrates their return. A feast of honey and bread and fruits and nuts is laid out for all to enjoy while the storm blows around them. With their bellies full, the children lean against a tree to take a short nap before heading home. The sounds of the Keeper singing and the merriment of the animals fill their minds as they fall asleep.
They wake the next morning in their beds, the sun shining bright in their eyes. Nathan and Terra sit up with a start and look at each other.
“Was it all just a wonderful dream?” Nathan asks.
Terra thinks for a moment and answers. “No, I don’t think so. She is the Keeper of all Creatures, and she took care of us, too.”