A Short Tall Tale
There was this owl wizard, Finagler, who kept starlight in an inkpot. When he dipped his beak in it and wrote upon gravestones, whatever lay dead jumped up from the rooty marl scribbled with worms and danced like children on hot sand.
Over his shoulder, in the purple placental sac of a wolverine, Finagler carried relativity. Each time he reached in, he pulled out clumps of time gooey with sunset and sunrise. So knowledgeable was he about the calculus of creation and destruction, he got work reviewing the Sun’s life insurance policy.
This annoyed Death. In the temple of skulls, Death peered into his evil mirror and searched for a competent assassin. Finagler showed no concern. He was so confident in his wizardry, he had gotten used to treating Death like a naughty puppy.
Smug owl! Deep in the gloomy Mere, where sepulchral mists seeped slowly from rotted compost and spread over bog pools like fungal throw rugs, Finagler squatted among bulrushes mending the Moon’s lace panties. This was a discreet favor for the cross-dressing Moon, and the wizard owl hunched well out of sight of the night’s inquisitive black children, the bogey wind, extorting cats and gossipy bats.
In exchange for this secret labor, Finagler expected a big payoff. The Moon had promised him a silver apple. Fed on that apple, Finagler would eat of prophecy and his already acute eyesight would grow so sharp he’d be able to gaze across outer space and read God’s diary.
Alone and out of sight in the smoldering desolation of the Mere, the wizard owl bent over his task so intently he didn’t sense Death’s assassin until too late. A giant, grinning alligator surged out of the bog and swallowed him whole before he could flutter a wing.
Death had not sent an ordinary alligator. This was Tar Log Ali, the most ancient and wily crocodilian in the Mere. Dinosaur-hide jagged black as a fire-split pitch pine, Tar Log Ali slid silently into shadows, fatal smile submerged. From his visor gaze, a hundred million years of horrible life gazed upon the haggard swamp and punctured all illusions.
Finagler’s screams ricocheted in the belly of darkness, finally emerging from Tar Log Ali’s clamped fangs with one soft burp. Haloed in silence, Finagler sat still and blind. He opened his inkpot of starlight and looked around at the glossy, wrinkled gizzard drooling digestive juices.
From his purple sac, the wizard owl yanked out lumps of time and clouted the alligator’s craw with a furious barrage. Tar Log Ali sneezed a lavender sunset cloud.
Frantically, Finagler whipped the alligator’s innards with the Moon’s lace panties, hoping to get himself spit out. Tar Log Ali held his trembling sides, and laughter blasted through the bars of his eighty teeth.
The wizard owl had no choice but to stretch wide the wolverine’s placental sac and crawl in. He tugged the pouch tight after him and cloaked himself in syrupy spacetime. The gritstones of the gizzard quickly shredded the purple sac but could not scratch the diamond emptiness of curved space. Gastric jellies dissolved the shredded placenta at once but slicked off the geodesic crystal enclosing Finagler in time’s transparency.
Death watched all this through the evil mirror in his palace of skulls, and he was not happy. Was Finagler smothered dead, squashed tight and mummified inside the faceted bolus? Death couldn’t tell. The evil mirror’s x-rays bounced off the gut pellet.
Inexorably, the bowel journey of the encapsulated wizard owl ended on the murky swamp bottom. Expelled in a heap of charred scat, the trapped owl sat in the mud like a black egg. Death glared at the nugget. The thing lay upon the sludge inert as rock.
Tar Log Ali nosed it, rolled it, thwacked it with his prehistoric tail. It lay hard and unbroken among frills of kelp. The alligator aimed his hundred million-year-old hunger at delicate lives waiting elsewhere for him and glided into the swamp’s filthy light.
Deeper in bog haze sank the chiseled nodule. Slow, toiling currents buried it under curdling silt. Death lost interest. And the Moon wondered anxiously about his lace panties.
Trapped by his own magic, Finagler the owl wizard began a madcap adventure he really didn’t want. He had wrapped himself so tightly in his bag of relativity that spacetime curled around itself, and he wobbled wailing down the drain of a black hole. His terrified cries redshifted to a haunting horn-riff lonely as midnight freight trains, and he disappeared entirely from this world.
Far across the universe, Finagler popped out of a wormhole, feathers plastered with dark matter. Under his scorched wings, he caught star winds and soared into the cosmos. By the time he returned to the Mere, star fires had fried off his ear tufts, seared his owl feathers, and shrunk him to a raven.
Death didn’t recognize him. Here was just another raven swooping between the swamp’s tattered curtains collecting bright rubbish and dregs from the marsh floor. Death looked elsewhere to satisfy his ambitions.
Meanwhile, the busy raven gathered his shiny pebbles at the furnace belly of a nearby volcano and smelted ores. Hell kindled vengeful strategies in his baked skull, where the vacuum of space still whistled. Death would pay.
Beneath a rotting stump, the deformed owl steeped toadstool flesh, spider genitals, fever virus, a panther’s putrid cough, grave spores and gummy strings of adder vomit. When this grim concoction finished stewing, he dipped his talons in the ultraviolet toxin. Then, to test his venom, he hunted in the deep woods for the Beast Maker.
That season, the animal god roamed the forest as a great black elk, and when Finagler found him, he slashed with his poison claws. The elk lord snorted twice, stamped once, launched his majestic spirit back to his throne room in the Land of Happy Animals, and fell down dead.
That got Death’s attention. But by then, there was nothing he could do from his palace of skulls. He watched aghast with his evil mirror as the mad wizard recruited the gentlest creatures of the Mere - lovesick rabbits, neurotic shrews, agoraphobic gerbils, and obsessive-compulsive mice - and armed them with gold swords dipped in his horrid brew.
Finagler mesmerized these meek beasties with snake-bone rattles and a feather pants dance. He sprinkled their bobbing, bug-eyed faces with the Beast Maker’s antler velvet, which jammed their hearts with valor. He bagged their heads in black cowls. He cloaked them all in scarlet. He did everything to make them myths to themselves, and then he inspired their timid brains with lunatic war chants and sent them scurrying through the quaggy Mere to jab at every carnivore that rose up against them.
Soon, bloated carcasses of badgers, civets, weasels, and fen cats clogged the cypress ponds. Alligators gulped them and died from the poison, convulsing like appliances stuck on spin cycle.
When Tar Log Ali bucked in the mud, violent as a reptilian rodeo attraction, Finagler did his feather pants dance an inch from those gnashing jaws. Tar Log Ali struck a death pose, and the gleeful wizard gouged out his enemy’s eyes for a snack, then used that black beak, stropped razor keen on the asteroid belt, to tailor cut alligator skin sword belts and couturier boots.
Thus, the Mere lost its predators. Finagler itched for more, revenge hatching like spiders in his blood. He intended to terminate all of Death’s best sales reps. Out of the Mere, his wee warriors scampered in their new alligator skin boots, their murderous era just begun.
But the world was too wide, and its horizons grinned tauntingly at the costumed creatures. They needed a ride.
Finagler considered air transport. Too small to carry his murderous crew himself, he petitioned eagles for help. Shaman devotees of Death, they would not betray their god. He went to his owl cohorts, but they knew when one of their own wasn’t balanced in the head. He turned to the elegant waterbirds, but their reflections had grabbed them and wouldn’t let go.
“Antelope!” he decided. Alas, the elk lord’s antler velvet did nothing for hoofed creatures. Without that surge of magical courage, antelope, sheep, goats and donkeys proved too skittish for murder.
Death meanwhile sent his most agile killers. Tigers slouched out of the Cloud Forest and a posse of lynx lurked atop the tree awnings, eager to pounce. Doped fearless on the Beast Maker’s antler velvet, the delirious upstarts from the Mere took seriously the guerilla name given them by awed onlookers: “Brave Tails!” they squeaked as they dashed into the tigers’ disemboweling claws and under the lynxes’ skydiving attacks. Brave Tails died - and so did tigers and lynxes.
Finagler skinned the cats and left their slippery nudes for ants and worms to dismantle. On the gravestones of the fallen Brave Tails, he jotted obits in starlight from his inkpot, and jubilant zombies reeled out of the worm dirt break dancing.
“Gaaah!” yelled a spooked fox peeping from the underbrush at the acrobatic dead. He flung himself prostrate and shivering before the necromantic raven-owl. “Let me worship you!”
“Fine. Light a votive candle under your rump, pal, because I need speed not prayers.” Finagler danced his feather pants dance and floured the fox’s sniveling snout with antler velvet. “Show me some velocity, Reynard.”
“Rumner the Swift if you want to run with us.”
With the Dead Riders on his back light as ghosts, Rumner the Swift charged across moorland and through forest mazes. He moved by day as sun dazzle and by night as moonsmoke.
Now Death really despaired. Rumner the Swift outran wolves and bears. The Brave Tails snorkeled wetlands and lakes and slew every otter and mink. In the Tarn, the Dead Riders toured their skeleton stompdances, driving serpents from their hideouts onto the eagles’ dinner plates.
Finagler wanted the eagles stuffed and mounted, too. But Death had finally had enough.
He came forth from his palace of skulls in his leper rags and winding sheets. Finagler flashed a cold smile. With a demented cry, he arrowed straight at that infamous starved face.
Death swatted him aside like a frivolous spitball. Finagler stabbed that bony hand with a beak tempered in stellar furnaces. Death clenched his fist to crunch the pesky wizard.
That was hopeless. The gouging beak whetted on interstellar debris bored straight through the necrotic flesh and came out the other side.
Finagler dove between Death’s knobby legs and swiftly seized a frayed burial cloth in his talons. With a mighty heave, he sent Death toppling. The impact shook mountains into avalanche and buried the shrouded specter. Laughter convulsed the wizard to see Death interred!
Eyes veined with lightning and bulging from their grim sockets, Death shoved upright out of the rubble, creating Weasel’s Pass. In one hand, Death throttled Finagler. With the other, he groped through swamp weeds and muck until he snatched up the lopsided egg where the wizard had once hidden in Tar Log Ali’s belly. He cracked that egg hard over Finagler’s skull.
Out slopped the black yolk of relativity. That sucking vortex hit the ground like a bowling ball dropped on a wedding cake. Splat! The mountainside caved in, rivers followed dragging forests into a crevasse that became the muscular rapids of the Riprap. And fluttering through the air above all this devastation, the lace panties of the Moon unfurled from out the broken egg, pink and ruffled as twilight.
Death gaped agog at the uncontrolled black hole. After it ate the Earth, it would eat him too. He hacked away with his notorious scythe, chopping furiously until he had diced the black hole into bittie pieces that drooled among the rocks slithery as eels - squirming out of sight into slitherholes that are there to this day.
While Death wildly minced, Finagler tiptoed off with an incinerating headache. Knocked to within a feather’s breadth of oblivion, he wanted no more tussling with Death. Yet, Death wasn’t done with him.
Death would have beat that wizard silly as a tambourine if those lace panties hadn’t ballooned into the wind from the scythe’s blender blade frenzy.
Before the Sun noticed that frilly undergarment, the mortified Moon skidded before him, blathering noisily about that nasty, runaway black hole. The Moon bunched up those darling skivvies behind his back, then hurried away with them squeezed out of sight, dying to try them on.
In the eclipse darkness, Finagler slinked off, never to be seen again on Riversplash Mountain. Some say he crawled wounded into a peat pit to die and his fossil bones adorn Death’s trophy room. Others insist he escaped to world’s end. There, he thrives thanks to an everlasting elixir distilled from tissue samples stolen when he bored through Death’s hand.
A few remain convinced that he intended all along to provoke Death and steal his cankerous flesh, that this was the wizard’s purpose from the first, since he began hoarding starlight in an inkpot. And they claim the most impelling support for their conviction is his name.
As for the Brave Tails, they didn’t last long without Finagler. The Dead Riders fell apart the first moment sunbeams notched the eclipse. The remaining Brave Tails buried their swords and costumes with their dead comrades right there under the Riprap and returned to their gentle lives.
In their dreams, the wizard owl kept in touch. He served his veteran warriors during the night as legal counsel, financial adviser, marriage therapist, psychoanalyst and lifelong friend. At the end, each of their families lodged complaints of bodysnatching with the local constabulary. But if they had looked closely, and knew what they were looking for, they would have seen that the apparent snail tracks scrawling the headboards above the empty deathbeds of their aged heroes were not snail tracks at all but the ink of starlight.