I stared closely at the white cliff wall as I climbed down. It was crystalline and beautiful, like snowflakes compressed together. As I moved downward, different crystal surfaces lit up and twinkled in the sunlight. The cave entrance had all but disappeared from this perspective. I wondered if I could find it again. Panic gripped me. What if I couldn’t find it again? Would I be trapped here forever?
The white wall extended perfectly straight in both directions as far as the eye could see. It seemed to carry on up into the sky infinitely as well. Below, it connected in a sharp line against the parched ground. What was this thing? I thought about the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and chuckled. This was strikingly more white than the monolith ever was. But maybe it was as significant. “It’s full of stars,” I muttered.
“Are you coming?” called K’eel from below. I was more than halfway down. The bird-men looked impatient, looking about in quick motions, the the occasional glance up at me. They were whistling quiet conversations to each other.
“Yeah, I’m coming,” I said.
“Please hurry,” said another of the bird-men. He had distinct white markings around his eyes, and his forearms were painted blue. “Time is short. Night comes.”
“Sure,” I mumbled, climbing down the last few rungs quickly. When I reached the bottom, I hesitated again. This was the final commitment as I saw it. The point of no return.
K’eel came close. “What is it?”
“What am I getting myself into?”
“You can help us. We need your help. Please hurry.”
I took a deep breath and put my foot on the ground. As I stepped back, bird-men rushed in and began to dismantle the ladder. It fell with a great crash. “Wow,” I said. “What’s the rush?”
“If we are found, there will be trouble,” said K’eel. “It is unfortunate that you cannot fly. It will be a long walk. We must hurry.”
“We going all the way there?” I pointed toward the distant stand of trees.
“Damn.” I hadn’t walked that far in a long time. I wasn’t sure my joints could take it.
“What is wrong? You are a walking animal?” asked K’eel.
“I ain’t been much for walking for a long time.”
The blue armed bird-man approached. “What is this? You cannot walk? How did you get here?”
“No. I mean, I can walk. That’s just a long way.”
“K’eel is not a walker,” said blue-arms. “You are. You will walk together.”
“Yes, T’r’bl” said K’eel with a reverent bow.
I looked down at K’eel’s feet. They were like those of an owl, with enormous talons. They were far better adapted for perching in trees than for walking on the ground. I probably could out-walk him.
K’eel nudged me and nodded toward T’r’bl. T’r’bl had crossed his arms and was glaring at me. “Yes?” I muttered, confused.
“You will walk, Nate?” said T’r’bl.
“Of course. Yes.”
“Good.” T’r’bl opened his wings and leapt into the sky. He screeched loudly and swooped off toward the trees. The other bird-men followed suit, leaping to the sky, each carrying part of the dismantled ladder to dump somewhere among trees.
K’eel waited patiently as I watched the bird-men fly off. He scratched at the ground with a long claw, and nervously looked around. “We must go,” he said after a while.
“Yeah, I guess so. Lead on.”
K’eel stretched his wings and flapped vigorously. I ducked, shielding my eyes from flying dust. “Right. This way,” he said, beginning to waddle in the direction of the distant trees.
I followed in silence for a while, observing K’eel. He still looked strikingly like a burrowing owl, but with human-like arms tucked under his wings. He had the huge recurved talons and hooked beak that marked all the meat-eating birds of home.
One notable difference between K’eel and other birds was the long tail. Rather than being composed entirely of feathers, the tail had a bony center that K’eel and the others tended to hold vertically like a flag. K’eel was holding it forward over his head like a sun shade. I envied him for it. The sun was hot.
K’eel was warbling to himself, looking furtively around the landscape for any dangers. He would glance back at me frequently as he scanned the landscape. He often stumbled, and squawked in a way that I assumed was cursing. His wings would fly open as he scrambled to regain his footing. I quickly learned to keep a good distance between myself and him. He struck me once with his wings and threw me to the ground. Those feathers were astoundingly solid!
We came to a stream where he paused and dipped his beak into the water. He took a beak full and tipped his head back to swallow it. I knelt and scooped some water into my own mouth. It was refreshingly cool, a welcome relief from the beating sun. I splashed water onto my face.
“We must hurry,” said K’eel. “The sun draws low.” K’eel searched the sky. “Yes, we must go.” K’eel leapt up and jumped midway into the river. The water was only calf deep. I had thought it would be deeper. “Come!” he shouted.
The riverbed was strikingly uniform, covered with smooth one-inch diameter pebbles. I reached into the water and touched a few. They didn’t move. It was as if the pebbles were embedded in concrete.
“Come, come!” said K’eel. “We must go!”
“Hold on,” I said. I quickly took off my shoes and rolled my pant legs.
K’eel flew across the river and stood on the opposite bank waiting. He flapped his wings impatiently. “Hurry!”
I waded across as fast as I could. This was no natural river. It felt more like wading across a swimming pool. Once on the other side, I dried my feet and put my shoes back on. K’eel flapped and jumped around,still searching the skies for danger.
“What could happen?” I asked.
“They may find us after dark,” K’eel said. “We could be captured.”
“Keepers. Please. We must hurry!”
I got up. “Ok. Keep your feathers on.”
K’eel froze and cocked his head at me.
“A joke,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“No time for jokes,” said K’eel, fluffing his feathers. “Let us hurry!”
“All right. Lead on.”
“Good!” K’eel hopped toward the trees, which were finally looking closer. “Let’s go.”
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