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The Raven Challenge

When a night owl is the right owl

By Barbara Steinhauser Published 2 years ago 5 min read
The Raven Challenge
Photo by Tyler Quiring on Unsplash

Believing with certainty Da’s ancient tales contain truth, Roald also trusts his father's claim that century old ravens exist. Hadn’t he seen the same ebony pair hopping and coughing along the edge of wilderness and pine his entire sixteen years?

Decades of townsfolk ridiculed Da’s wild, winter tales as the ramblings of a keen storyteller. They passed the pint, chucked a few coins into the dull tin cup, and absorbed neighbors hearth and laughter, loving the strangeness of man and legend. As the sun set, they tripped home happily entertained though uninspired; they slept like saints in beds of straw.

Roald, however, understood the rise and fall of Da’s revelations. These were lessons to be learned. He wrapped soul and heart round their waists as he would have wrapped Ma, had she lived. Had she lived, the wooden cabin might have hosted fresh weavings. Two calloused fingers stroked the fine woven tapestry standing guard beside the outside door. Two trembling fingers smoothed the thick, dry lips she’d gifted him, a substitute for her kiss.

“I understand,” he whispered, studying the intricacies of her warp and weft. What he understood he could not say. Stories were easily told, but executing them was simple as counting sand.

Roald had memorized the steps Da laid out in his Raven's Tale. To acquire invisibility, find the nest of century old ravens. Approach the nest when eggs are six and a half weeks laid and hatched. Grab the chick with the longest foot; that one will be male. Kill the bird and return it to the nest. Upon discovery, the mother’s distress will cause her to disgorge a stone to magically reanimate the dead one. Swallow the stone and invisibility will be yours.

Da's situation required Roald's invisibility. There existed no other option. Besides, the task fell within his skill set. A spirited boy with the unruly independence given a motherless child, Roald had scaled many barked pine poles, swaying with joy to the beat of wind and rain. He’d been poked by pepper mint needles, discovered dominant tree crowns, squinted through sunlit eyelids past extended canopies, dreamt of conquering mountain ranges. Da’s urgency deadened Roald's call to adventure. A son's duty was to his father.

Or was it? Ma's silent pattern inspired caution. Da's foolishness had cost her life. This required action raised his bile. Long weeks he’d tracked events inside one particular raven’s nest, keeping his eye out to townsfolk who blamed the imaginative duffer for all that had gone wrong. Imprisoning Da resembled hope to the masses. A hanging was sure to follow.

Days of pacing brown needles led Roald to a bulky nest, built layer upon layer with decades of sprigs. This was the nest; he knew it as he knew his heart. And so he watched it, overseeing events within while hanging from neighbor trees. He’d witnessed the laying of four lavender speckled eggs colored pale olive and grey green. He'd seen the hatching of those four eggs. His fingers had tingled to hold the downy gargoyles--demanding yet vulnerable. Six and a half weeks from the laying, he’d witnessed two black wedged tails thermal to the sky together, croaking and screaming, off to corner unfortunate mice.

Below, four oblivious chicks pecked the rim of twigs and each other, their movements mature. They would fly soon. Roald longed to see this, for his fingers had lost their tingle and he felt like family, affectionate as a sibling.

Da, he remembered, fumbling the knife stored within his woolen coat. “Retrieve the stone. It’s all about the stone.” Roald’s gurgling croak rose in pitch as he scaled the pine. He’d never killed flesh. He ate vegetarian. “Da,” he shrilled. “My Da.”

It wasn't right to kill a tiny, peeping bird with a sharpened knife. He remembered how Ma's lips pursed when he failed her. Pain diminished him, yet he rose above the nest, grotesque. His purpose was clear; he’d become evil. Saving Da or stabbing an insignificant bird? No contest.

Noting which of the chick’s feet were longest, his heart cracked. The gas of a thousand onions exploded inside and around about him. Reaching with an exposed hand, he received a vicious peck. Blood ran from between finger and thumb.

“Well done, lad,” he gasped. “Deserved.” He clung to the trunk. Bark tore his cheeks as he rubbed his face to and fro. He wept, overcome by a familiar, motherless nightmare. “But Da!”

His fingers wrapped round smooth feathers, lit by sudden sunlight. His palm absorbed the rapid beat of its heart. It struggled. Of course, it struggled. He held a living being within his oversized hand. His mind flashed on punishing brutes who’d flushed him from the brush. He’d run, oh how he’d run from them, escaping their taunts, their undeserved wrath. He grabbed the hidden knife; he stabbed for Da.

A long, long slide down, down, down to dark, damp boughs below collapsed him to tears. He covered his ears against the distress cry of a mother bearing carrion to feed four beloveds. She had found three.

As promised, she gagged and gagged again, wet stone reflecting light as it erupted from her curved beak. Roald leapt up, scrabbling faster than he had ever scrambled up the wrinkled, cracked bark. In a flash he’d grabbed the stone from where it had fallen, popped it into his mouth. The son became invisible; the father's sanity intact.

An outraged raven flew about, dropping foraged spiders, earthworms and snails in his frantic haste. Round and round the trunk spun Roald, gripping with slithering soles. Head a roar, he froze. Da diminished, saggy cheeks, grey skin, whirled with rage.

"You didn't mean this? Da!" Confusion stymied his progress. Suddenly, he reversed direction and gathering momentum, climbed back to the nest; spitting the stone upon the limp body like an offering.

Eyes closed, he awaited a beating, a clawing, the scratching of claws. He was no longer invisible. His bones began to crack, to extend. His body shrunk and he grew a beak. How was it he'd forgotten the alternative ending: what happened when a fool stole a raven’s stone? For fool he was and ready to admit it, to claim his soul.

Rising above the canopy on fimbriae wings, Roald hooted at the hovering parents, nestling four very alive offspring. Then, buoyantly, effortlessly, the fledgling night owl glided toward the mountain range.


About the Creator

Barbara Steinhauser

Thank you for taking time to read my stuff. I love writing almost as much as I love my people. I went back to college and earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults and often run on that storytelling track. Enjoy!

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