flash fiction

The Crooked Tree

(flash fiction challenge from Terribleminds.com based on a picture of a blasted tree in fog)

Natalie Maddalena

I was jolted from sleep as the nest jerked. A moment later it dropped out from under me. I fell a wing-length with a startled squawk and landed awkwardly on my eggs, splaying my legs wide to avoid damaging them with my hard feet. The whole branch continued to shake erratically although I could see from the other trees around me that there was no wind.

I peered over the edge of the nest. Almost directly below me a fox sat staring up hungrily. I usually felt very safe, so high above wingless predators, but the continued twitching of the branch unnerved me. And the way that fox was watching, waiting … I looked along the thick branch to see if some large animal was climbing towards me, causing the swaying, but it was bare. A strange noise came to my attention and I looked further down. At the base of the tree crouched a beaver, its huge teeth working away at the trunk.

I knew beavers, of course, and their habit of gnawing down trees to use in their own nests; but we were quite some way from the water. Why was it here destroying my home? I realised at once my desperate situation. Claws and beak are no use in moving fragile eggs. I was in no danger myself, but my babies had no chance if the tree fell. If the drop didn’t shatter them, the fox would make short work of them.

After a moment’s hesitation, loathe to leave my eggs, I hopped out of the nest and dived down to where the beaver squatted; fluttering around its head to get its attention then perching nearby. I couldn’t speak beaver, of course, but somehow alerting it to my situation was my only hope. Its sad brown eyes watched me and it paused in its destruction. It glanced up at my nest, finding it unerringly which suggested to me that it already knew it was there. I began pleading with the creature, hoping it could understand the import of my song if not the words. The beaver stared at me. As long as I could keep its attention, it wasn’t chewing on the trunk.

But then the fox barked once. Even to my avian ear it sounded impatient and commanding. To my horror, the beaver went to continue its chewing. The beaver must have weighed considerably more than the fox and had its own fearsome teeth and claws, why was it obeying? I made my song louder, more impassioned. The beaver huddled into itself as though indecisive. The fox barked again but the beaver made no move.

There was a rustling in nearby bushes and the tail of a second fox appeared. It emerged back wards, dragging a little beaver cub. It turned and sat, holding the child’s tail in its jaws while the first fox yapped imperiously. The furry young thing was clearly alive, squirming feebly in the dirt.

I found it in myself to pity the beaver, even as it resumed its murderous task. It couldn’t risk attacking the foxes while they had its baby. The foxes couldn’t eat the child without risking dire retribution. But they could make the beaver work for them while they held its cub.

But I could not give up on my own unborn children. I darted at the second fox. It was a female, I thought; although it is much harder to distinguish between the sexes with animals than birds. Presumably they can tell amongst themselves. I was about a third her size and rather less than that in weight difference, but I had my own sharp weapons and I was desperate. She ducked out of my way as I swooped back and forth but did not drop the baby beaver’s tail.

Suddenly I was knocked out of the air. I tumbled across the dirt and the first fox sprang. He got a mouthful of feathers but I made it back aloft, staggering back up to my nest with one wing sorely damaged. My home was tilted now, the eggs already in danger of falling. I had so little time left. I was no match for the foxes, and there seemed even less value in attacking the beaver. It was in the same grave straights as myself; and even if I managed to hurt it a little, it wouldn’t stop. Regardless of species, I recognised in it another frantic mother.

But I had one more ploy to try.

Waiting until no eyes were on me, I put all my meagre skill and power into one last dive. My claws gripped tightly and my beak drove deep into the little eyesocket and through into the brain. The baby beaver convulsed and then lay still. I launched myself back into the air and back to my own precious children.

The adult beaver roared and lunged towards the foxes. The female dropped the dead cub and fled, the male close on her heels. The poor mother sniffed her baby, nuzzled it, keened her sorrow. But I had to do it. It was her baby or my own. I would do anything for my eggs. She had made the same choice herself, in trying to fell my tree for the foxes. And now she would leave me and my children in peace and safety.

The beaver stared up at me for a few moments. Then she turned and slowly lurched back to the tree trunk. And started to gnaw.

 

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