A comedic introduction to my beloved sidekick. (Chapter 1, Scene 2)
|The young woman cringed as she felt a few of her fine, straw-colored hairs catch in the splinters of Mountain Oak wood just above her head. Getting into her current position, lying face-down on the cold stone floor, crammed beneath a towering network of giant stacked wine barrels, had been challenging enough. Now she winced and pushed forward on her elbows, dragging her slight body behind her through the dark tunnel-like pathway, and bidding a silent farewell to her stolen strands of hair.
"I think I've found your problem, Mister Cooper." Her amiable voice, constricted by her position, echoed off the cavern walls. "But it looks like you're going to have to get rid of one of these barrels."
Mister Cooper stood faithfully by the edge of the stacked cylindrical giants, worriedly supervising the young woman's sandaled feet peeking out from below the bottom row. "What? Are you sure? But I thought it was only a Snowberry Thrush…"
"Gotcha!" The young woman's triumphant exclamation was answered by the panicked squeals of a small bird; though whatever miniature battle had ensued was invisible to the old vintner.
"Oh, that must be it, love!" Misses Cooper took her husband's arm in her hands and leaned into him, smiling gently with relief. "It sounds like she's caught your troublesome little bird, after all!"
Mister Cooper grinned and folded his stout arms overtop of his plump middle. "Nice job, Akira. Now bring that little menace on out here so I can wring 'is skinny neck!"
The kicking of Akira's sandaled feet was the only indication that she had begun her tedious retreat from under the wine barrel stacks. "You'll do nothing of the sort, Mister Cooper!" Her voice reverberated determinedly through the edges of the finely-shaped Mountain Oak wood. "I'm going to let this little guy go back to his home in the forest, where he - OW!!"
"Be careful, dear!" Misses Cooper left her husband's side and knelt by Akira's slowly emerging legs. "Let me help you out of there…" Akira continued her reckless and ungraceful backward departure, unperturbed that her woolen skirts had caught on the craggy bricks supporting the bottom row of barrels. Misses Cooper worked quickly to free the thick fabric and smooth it back over Akira's linen knee-length pantaloons, obviously concerned that the young woman's underclothing not be seen in the presence of her husband. The stony walls of the extensive wine cavern echoed with the shrill voice of the Snowberry Thrush, which had resorted to an adamant repetition of short protesting screams.
Mister Cooper chuckled merrily at the distressed cries of the bird. "Sounds like you've got a good hold on 'im, little lady. Don't you dare let 'im loose, now." He stepped over to kneel by his wife, then held out a thick, calloused hand as he finally saw the face of his young helper appear. She sat up and allowed him to pull her out from under the barrels and into the dim light shining in from the cavern entrance.
"Thanks, Mister Cooper. Whew!" Akira smiled as she wiped the dust and wayward strands of hair from her face. Her golden locks, which earlier had been carefully corralled into two short ponytails, were now tangled and scattered over the sides and back of her head. The pink ribbons clung desperately to what was left of the arrangement, and appeared ready to slip over the remaining locks at the slightest toss of her short mane. "And I haven't let him loose. See?" Akira proudly held up the bird, which she clutched firmly in her small, delicate hand. Mister Cooper examined his foe with a mixture of curiosity and contempt.
"Hmmm…" The old man growled thoughtfully at the animal. "So you're the little pest who's been making such a mess of my wine cavern!" The Snowberry Thrush had finally quit the incessant cries. It sat helplessly in mid-air, its brown-spotted cream belly exposed, its dusky black wings folded strictly against the palm of Akira's hand. It bucked and twisted against her fingers, which gently restrained the bird over the shoulders and around the sides. "Not feeling so happy about it now, are you? You're going to pay for what you've did to my good Snowberry Wine!" The bird's wings shuffled angrily up and down, and its long feathers shifted and bent as they chafed against Akira's warm skin. The frustrated creature kicked its scaly black legs in rapid succession, as though hoping to find a foothold on an invisible perch.
"Now, now, Mister Cooper," the young woman spoke reprovingly as she waggled a finger at him. "This little bird hasn't done a thing to your wine. Just because he's left his… little gifts… around here, doesn't mean your wine is ruined…"
"Those 'little gifts' are covering more than half the wine barrels in the entire cavern!" Mister Cooper stood up so that he could point accusingly down at the young woman with the bird. "How many Travelers are going to want to trade for our good Yamayagi wine when the barrels are covered in - "
"Come, now, love, it isn't all that bad." Misses Cooper, too, stood, and once again took her husband's arm. "A bit of soap and warm water will take it right off." She leaned in to plant a kiss on the old man's wrinkled face. Then she turned back to the young woman and gasped in surprise. "Oh, Akira! Doesn't that hurt you, dear?"
The angry Snowberry Thrush was holding a pinch of Akira's soft flesh in its long, pointed beak, twisting and pulling it with quick, sharp turns of its head. Akira giggled, "No, of course not! This little guy can't do much damage. His beak's only strong enough to bite berries and little… Oh, that's right!" She suddenly gathered her skirts with her free hand, and made to stand up from the cold floor. "Mister Cooper, you've got to get rid of one of those wine barrels, or the Snowberry Thrushes will keep coming in here all winter!"
"Huh!" Mister Cooper scowled skeptically at her. "And just why is that, now?"
"Look, over here!" The petite young woman picked up her skirts and hurried down the row, still clutching the bird in one hand. She rested a hand on one particular barrel. "It's this one. It's got a leak in the bottom, and it's dripping your good Snowberry wine all over the ground under there!" She pointed determinedly into the shadows below the giant tower of barrels.
Mister Cooper had reluctantly followed her to the spot, and was now glaring with disappointment at the offending barrel. "Ah… So the little wretch 'as been having 'imself a good time under there, has 'e?"
Akira sternly thrust her kicking captive in the direction of the vintner. "Snowberry Thrushes don't drink Snowberry wine, Mister Cooper!" Then she withdrew the bird and held it close to her chest. "They eat the little insects and bugs that live on the Snowberry bushes. So now that you've got a healthy colony of Wood Ants drinking themselves silly under that leak in there - "
"What?! Wood Ants? Why in the name of Khaos would they come into my cavern?" The old man groaned in discomfort as he squatted down, peering curiously into the shadows beneath his Oakwood tower.
"I told you, silly!" Akira stood once more, guarding the Thrush protectively against her bosom. "The Wood Ants came for your wine, and the Snowberry Thrush came for the Ants. So get rid of that leaky barrel, and you won't have any more trouble."
Mister Cooper stared curiously at the girl, and then scratched his head in thought. "Well… I guess I never would 'ave imagined such a thing…"
Akira strode swiftly by the old man, back towards the entrance, where the golden rays of autumn sunlight reached warmly into then stone cavern. "Come on, Sweetheart. Mister Cooper doesn't want you in here anymore." She stood at the opening and held the frustrated bird out in front of her for a final look. The bird stared blankly around the area, holding its beak slightly open and panting. "There are plenty of tasty bugs for you out there in the forest. Now stay out of trouble, okay?" And with that, the young woman gently tossed the small animal into the air. It spread its wings, flapped frantically in place for a moment, and then sped off to the outdoors. Mister and Misses Cooper joined Akira and watched as the bird flew over the Village homes that studded the small mountain valley. Before long, the tiny creature had disappeared against the orange and yellow tree-covered hillsides surrounding the Yamayagi Brook.
"And don't you ever come back, you hear?" Mister Cooper shouted after the pest, and then turned to smile at his young helper. "Well, I can't thank you enough, little lady. That pesky sack o' feathers 'as been giving me grief all season." He turned to glance at the barrels behind him. "It's not going to be easy, though, getting that barrel out of here. S'pose I'll have to get a few strong men up 'ere to help me out…"
"I'm sure you'll find plenty of willing helpers, love." Misses Cooper reassured him, "You needn't worry so much. Oh, I almost forgot!" The kind old woman rummaged for something in her pockets. "Akira, dear, I have something for you."
Still gazing serenely at the beautiful autumn landscape below, Akira turned with surprise to answer the woman. "Really? Misses Cooper, you don't have to give me anything! I don't mind doing good folks like you a favor every once in while…"
"Nonsense. I want you to take these and put them on your poor little feet!" Misses Cooper thrust a small folded bundle of fabric upon the young woman, who quickly pulled it apart to reveal a pair of dark maroon woolen socks. "They're dyed with Purple Walnut, and I knitted them myself, so you'd better wear them." It was now Misses Cooper's turn to waggle a finger. "It's been three winters now that I've watched you prance around in nothing but those silly sandals. It's a wonder you haven't lost all your toes by now!" Akira smiled sheepishly at the old woman's friendly admonishment. "You must start taking better care of yourself, dear. And you ought to get out of that tiny cottage and move down here with the rest of us. It's just not safe for a girl to - "
"I think that's enough scolding, love." Mister Cooper put a stout arm about his wife's shoulders. "Akira's a grown woman, and she's done well enough since she moved into the Village."
Akira giggled. "Thanks, Mister Cooper." She sighed, and looked back across the Brook to the opposite hillside. The thatched roof of a small cottage peeked through the multicolored foliage covering the slope. "Anyway, I like being up there on my own. It gets lonely sometimes, but I've got plenty to do. Which reminds me…" Akira hurriedly folded her new socks into a neat bundle, "I'd better get back to work. I've got to bring some fresh water up for the goats, since it froze over last night. I hope you two won't mind…"
"Not at all, dear. We've all got work to do." Misses Cooper reached over to give Akira's back a friendly rub. "You just keep in mind what I said, now, won't you? And put those socks on..."
"Thanks again for your help, little miss. I don't suppose anyone but you could've gotten rid o' that Snowberry Thrasher…"
"Snowberry Thrush, Mister Cooper!" Akira corrected him with a grin. "And don't forget about that barrel, or it won't be long before another bird discovers your tasty Wood Ants. Goodbye, now!"
Akira waved a hand through the air before scampering merrily out the cavern entrance and down the gentle slope toward the Village. Her leather sandals kicked up the orange and red leaves that had fallen on the dusty trail, and her skirts flew as she broke into a casual skipping gait. She promptly stuffed the folded pair of socks into a skirt pocket, and continued down the trail as it snaked its way through the many small cottages by the Brook.
"That Akira… She's an odd one, isn't she, love?" Mister Cooper folded his arms thoughtfully as he watched the young woman disappear. "Charming, of course, but still… she sure is an odd one."