by Graham B.
The forest creatures gather together for a fateful ceremony
|The ancient Crocodile dreamed a dream of the stars, but it was different this time. This time, the stars joined hands and danced on moonbeams, and their laughing voices reached out to him and tickled his ears, deep within the rugged crags of his scaly head. Crocodile opened his eyes and beheld the giant tree stump where the Banquet of Choosing would be, lit by the silvery light of a rising full moon.
"We await your word," said Ox from her position of honor at the head of the stump.
Around the stump the animals gathered, a motley assortment of nature's creations. They had come for miles, from every corner of Blackleaf Forest. They tramped and scuttled through meadows and brambles. They flew between the grasping branches of the autumn-dressed leaves. They slithered between blades of grass and beneath fallen sticks. Sounds of movement accompanied a cacophony of scents, musty, feathery, sweet, and tangy, swirling together in the living air. All would be here for the ascension, for all were subject to the ceremony.
"It has begun," said Crocodile. "The stars are ready."
Lynx unwound himself from a ball of fur and stretched. Then his eyes fixed Crocodile's with a lambent stare.
"Will it be like last time?" said Lynx. "My whiskers still twitch at the choice."
"Only the Blackleaf knows what the choice will be, and why," said Ox.
The looming shadows of the trees around the posse of animals murmured in agreement, pushed by unknown breezes, and the moon slipped higher into the sky. The forest's earthy smell filled Lynx's head, as if the ancient trees were waking up and announcing their presence. Egret came to life from utter stillness and shook her head with irritation.
"You always complain, little one," she said. "Remember when Frog was chosen? How you whined like a hatchling for days afterward?"
"It was not because it was Frog," said Lynx. "It is the inevitability of the whole thing! Why must we do this?"
"We do it every year," said Aardvark, and he placed a claw on the stump and scratched it thoughtfully, adding a mark to the thousands that crisscrossed its surface. "It must be so."
"But why? Can't the stars do it without us?"
"The Banquet is to remind us of the fate that waits for us all," said Ox. "Our lives continue, but the shadow of fate always covers our path. The forest shelters us, but it demands our loyalty."
"I don't need to be reminded," grumbled Lynx.
Crocodile's eyes closed and his breath deepened in the way it always did when he dreamed. A skittering noise sounded underfoot, then a pair of tiny ears and bright, black eyes appeared above the rim of the stump.
"I'm here!" squeaked Rat, his nose twitching in excitement. "Any news? Any nits? Any nosh?"
"Late as usual, Rat," sniffed Egret. "And no, the moon still has not spoken. We will know, presently."
Rat hopped upon the stump and his tail twitched in unison with his nose.
"This is so stimulating!" he said. "Everything heard. Everywhere hallowed. Everyone hirsute! We meet and greet and eat!"
"He's making me nervous," said Lynx. "Can I just eat him?"
"You know the law," said Ox.
Lynx glowered at Rat, who took no notice.
"The time draws near," Ox continued. "Everyone has now arrived. In addition to myself I see Egret, Crocodile, Rat, Tortoise, Lynx - "
"Of course you mention me after Rat," grumbled Lynx.
"- Aardvark, Boa, Monkey, Wolf, Mantis, Eagle, Horse, Cobra, Squirrel, Ant, and Hippo."
Ox finished with a flourish of her head indicating that the meeting was now in session. Boa's great bulk circumscribed nearly half the meeting. Monkey looked bored and Horse grazed peacefully nearby within earshot. Hippo yawned a fleshy cavern that smelled of damp and lilies. The moon climbed higher, and dozens of pairs of eyes shone like silver coins.
"In our previous meeting, Frog was chosen," said Mantis. "I see his successor has not deigned to grace us with his presence. Given that his kind is unlikely to be chosen again, it is of little consequence. I move that we continue as we are."
"Seconded," said Egret.
"We a have a quorum," said Ox. "There's no need for a vote. Agenda?"
"Concerns have been raised regarding the conduct of one felid at past banquets," said Mantis. "The behavior of said felid is now a matter of discussion."
"Can't we at least wait until we eat?" said Lynx.
"I'm afraid not," said Ox.
"And what about my behavior? Don't I always show up?"
"I think it would be better if you didn't," said Hippo. "The last time you insulted Frog after his ascension. The year before, you ran off into the forest before the choice was made!"
"And yet, here I am," sad Lynx. "Which is more than you can say for Crocodile. Look at him! Off swimming somewhere in dreamland."
"Crocodile's dreaming serves a purpose," said Egret. "Your bellyaching and flightiness serve only to dishonor him and taint these proceedings."
"I call order to the proceedings!" boomed Mantis. "We will not use this little time for petty recriminations. Lynx, what do you have to say for yourself?"
Lynx gave his paws a few licks and managed to look as contrite as his felid face would allow.
"I regret insulting Frog," he said. "It won't happen again."
"Your apology is noted," said Mantis. "Will any one move to regard this matter as closed?"
There was a pause.
"I so move," said Egret.
"Seconded," said Rat. "And thirded! Fourthed! Fi-"
"Ayes?" said Mantis.
Paws, hooves, and wings were raised.
"The ayes have it," said Mantis. "The matter is closed. Next item: the waterhole has shrunk down a span. It seems we might have a drought."
"It has been happening all year!" moaned Hippo. "Look at my skin! Dry. Cracking."
"The waterhole is the lifeblood of the Blackleaf," said Ox. "I await solutions."
"We can start projects to reroute some of the Old River," said Ant. "That should supply all of our water needs."
"That is very far away," said Ox. "Are you sure the Ants can manage it?"
"Every colony across the Blackleaf stands ready."
"Very well," said Ox. "As usual, we will owe you a debt."
"We Ants live only to serve."
The moon rose higher, and Egret's plumage seemed to glow in its rays.
"The ascension draws near," said Ox. "We were late getting the banquet started and have no more time."
Glares were directed at the oblivious Rat. The moon was almost directly overhead, and the stump, normally a tan slab with countless rings had taken on the moon's silvery character, looking almost like a pool with concentric ripples frozen in place. The animals crept closer and looked toward the moon, and their shadows fell upon the stump.
But only one animal did not cast a shadow. Crocodile slowly blinked his rheumy eyes and smiled as only crocodiles can.
"I have already dreamed this," he said. "I dreamed I swam in an ocean of moonbeams, and the light shone through my very bones. This is an honor, a dream come to life."
"It is not an honor!" cried Lynx, his hackles erect. "It isn't right! It isn't!"
He turned and bounded into the woods. Egret sighed and unfurled her wings.
"I will go after him," she said, and quickly became a slip of silvery white, flitting between the tree branches.
Egret caught up with Lynx next to the ruins, the occupants of which had been gone so long no one remembered what they looked like except that they walked on two legs. Lynx was curled up next to an ancient, weathered obelisk, sobbing and licking his paws. Egret settled in next to him and gently preened behind his ears.
"It isn't right!" said Lynx. "Crocodile took me in when I was a kitten after my mother ascended. He showed me the proper places to hunt. He told me the tales of the buffalo herds that trampled whole forests. He told me the meaning of my dreams! It cannot be him!"
Egret stopped preening and her gaze radiated as much compassion as an egret's little black eyes could.
"It must be," she said. "Eventually it must be all of us."
"You know why. It is the way of things, the price we must pay to the forest for when it pushed the two-legged-ones and their stone trees back and gave us sanctuary. Do not grieve, little one. On any clear night, you will be able to look up and see him smiling."
Lynx tried to hide his head under his paws.
"Must I do it?" he said, his voice muffled.
"Oh Lynx, little one. You are so young, yet you carry such burden of responsibility! Must it always be so hard for you? Crocodile will be devastated if you are not there. You are special to him, and he would not ascend happily without you."
Lynx's return to the stump was far slower than his flight, but Egret stayed by his side like a silvery angel. Crocodile was already lying on the stump, and his eyes overflowed with love as Lynx entered the clearing and took his place.
"I had a final dream, little one," said Crocodile. "I dreamed I could see all the world, and I saw you dashing between the trunks, leaping across streams. You are happy in this dream."
"I will never forget you," said Lynx.
"Of course not!" chuckled Crocodile. "I played enough pranks upon you to last a lifetime. But it will be your lifetime, and my time is over. Be at peace, young Lynx."
Crocodile closed his eyes, and the moonlight brightened. The stars added to its strength. The animals all looked at Lynx. Lynx took a last look at the moon, then lowered his head and sank his teeth into Crocodile's flesh. The other animals followed suit. Crocodile did not cry out or gasp as the animals fed, and his hide tore and bones crunched. His eyes stayed closed, and his smile never wavered, even as his blood flowed freely and vanished into the pool of moonlight.
High above, the twinkling stars were moving in a languid dance, rearranging themselves into a new constellation. Very quickly the shape of a crocodile sparkled in the heavens, and the eyes, wide and clear, looked down upon the Blackleaf Forest.
Word count: 1735