When the earth was youthful a wood grew upon it, and beside that wood a village was built. In the wood there lived the Horned Owl and in the village there lived a young woman named River. This story is theirs, and begins in late autumn when Saturn was bright and the moon was close.
The wood was filled with beasts and creatures, and all of them from the bee to the badger knew Horned Owl as a fearsome hunter. His chest and brow were dressed in feathers that shone in the moonlight like burnished silver. His talons were black and smooth like shadow, and his wings were wider than the wolf was long. His wondrous eyes were two spheres that glowed yellow as if a candle flickered behind them. Yet for all the splendor of his appearance, Horned Owl was perfectly blind in the light of day. His hunt was a nocturnal one, and the cover of night kept no secrets from him. And as soon as the first smidge of morning sun came over the trees, he disappeared like a ghost, hidden from sight. Some called him an apparition and others thought him a wise spirit, but ghost or otherwise he was creature about whom the wood spun many tales.
The porcupine, the squirrel, and the sparrow told such stories, saying Horned Owl was one of the great spirits who lost his way to the heavens. The crane, the beaver, and the toad believed he was a magician who could cast spells and curses. When the bear spoke, she proclaimed Horned Owl to be an omen of death, and that all should fear to meet his eyes. Many woodland creatures told their little ones that should Horned Owl ever find them alone, he would turn them into a mushroom to be forgotten by their mothers. The little ones listened and stayed close, and dared not eat the mushrooms that grew in the grass.
Such stories as these were carried on the air up to Horned Owl’s nest in the tall oak tree. He was a hunter just like the fox or the snake, and he was made of blood and bones just like the fox or the snake is, not of mist. Yet Horned Owl could never tell the other animals what was true and what was false. He could not go down into the wood when the sun burned his eyes, and he could not approach them in the night when they feared him most; instead Horned Owl remained alone. He had lived like this so long, he was beginning to believe he was a fiend as the stories said, full of darkness and belonging elsewhere. Horned Owl had but one salve for his troubles, and it was a flute the same silver as his feather coat. It hung from a black cord around his downy neck, and he was never without it.
Morning to evening Horned Owl lay hidden from the sun in the high branches of the oak, making the most entrancing music with his silver flute. Horned Owl played tragic songs, full of loneliness. All the other animals listened from below as the sweet sound echoed through the wood, but no one knew where it came from; for no matter how sorrowful the notes, no creature sought to find the heartbroken player. They feared the mysterious music, and all agreed it was a trap set by a cunning spirit to lure unsuspecting prey from the quickest path home. They listened as the music mingled with the wind and the ripple of the stream, but did not linger. When the badger and the wren were safe in their beds, they might have spared a moment to ponder the sad music maker, but the moment passed, and they slept. The sun sunk low and the moon rose high. The music ended, and Horned Owl took to his hunt.
Just beyond the wood was a small village, and in this village lived a woman named River. There was much friendliness in this village and many who loved one another, but River was often alone. She was the chief’s only daughter and fond of their home, but she did not join in banter with the other young villagers. Instead, River would be found lying in the red summer sun for hours without sweating or sweltering, or dancing barefoot in the white snow without shivering or shaking. She had a light step, firm shoulders, and the slightest bump in her nose. Her hair was deep in color like the sky on a clear winter’s night and moved like the tall grass in a summer wind. Some villagers called her wild and strange, some called her frightening, and even cursed. River did not care for their talk, but her father heard every sound in his village. He knew his daughter to be a strong woman, able to hunt her own deer and keep her own fire, but even so, her solitude brought him much dismay. Her father’s distress was difficult for River to understand, and the chief had great trouble explaining, for that would mean to reveal a great secret he promised to keep from his daughter.
One early morning, when the chief was a young man and he and his wife had just built their own shelter, the chief went hunting in the wood. It was dawn, the morning of season’s first frost. He was creeping through the roots and underbrush of the wood, his eyes searching ahead of him, when he nearly fell over a baby girl bedded in a pile of fallen twigs and needles. She smiled and laughed at his clumsiness, reaching up her tiny hands. He laughed too, and lifted the child in his arms. She felt warm to him despite the pinching cold air. The young man saw she was covered in dirt and tree sap, so he brought the babe to a river to wash her clean. The girl delighted in the water, splashing her naked feet in joy. To the young chief the water felt as cold as fresh snow, but the girl let it wash over her like summer rain. The young hunter was endeared to the sight, and gave the girl a name. He wrapped her in his own furs and brought the baby girl home to his wife. The girl was to be called River, and would live as the young couple’s own daughter.
That night, after a humble celebration, all three had settled into a peaceful sleep. The moon rose, and when it reached its height a wild bird appeared at their window. The young chief’s wife and daughter did not stir, but he awoke with a start to find a golden falcon before him.
The Golden Falcon spoke. “You have taken a spirit child into the world of earthly things. This is forbidden. You must bring her back to the wood so she may return to the stars from which she fell.”
The young man replied, “I am sorry Golden Falcon, but she has brought happiness to my home, and I cannot take her from my wife, who loves her.”
The Golden Falcon pondered this. “If that is so, then she may stay with you until seven years has passed three times. Before it is over, the child must have chosen a partner from your world in order to tie her spirit to the earth. If she does not do this, her spirit will leave this body and return to the heavens when the time has come.” The man stared, amazed. Golden Falcon spoke again, “You must never tell your wife or the child of this, for the child must choose a partner with pure intentions.” And then, the Golden Falcon disappeared into the night. The young man grew to become the chief of his village, but always heeded the great animal’s words, and never told his wife or daughter what the falcon foretold.
What the chief did not know is that his wife had also woken, but did not move. She heard all that was said by the Golden Falcon, and swore to guide her daughter with all the wisdom she had.
Now, the first frost of winter was hovering in the air, creaking in the trees. When the winter finally arrived, it would be seven autumns three times over since the chief found River in the wood. The chief knew well the time, as did his wife, while their daughter still danced alone. To them her feet barely seemed to brush the earth, as if she were already floating away.
River, though sometimes too solemn or too wistful, had grown to be a bright and kind woman. Her chore each day was to carry fresh water from the stream back to the village. All day long she walked back and forth, back and forth, but she did not mind the work; it was only more time she could spend in the wood. This is how River discovered the most wondrous and sorrowful music she had ever known. Everyday as she knelt by the stream music seemed to fall out of the heavens and into her ears. The music fascinated her, for it was filled with a loneliness she recognized as much like her own. As she listened, River wept sweet and quiet tears. These tears slipped off the bump of her nose and fell into the water she brought back to the village. River hoped every day, very quietly within herself, that the player might come to her and wipe her tears. When day after day the player did not appear, River only hoped more for the day to come. She did not know it was Horned Owl playing his silver flute just above her head in the tall oak tree, nor could Horned Owl look below and see that a woman wept for him as no creature ever had before.
Meanwhile, the chief had become frantic. He knew that if he did not intervene, River would only have a few short days left as a woman of the earth, as his daughter. River’s mother had also been counting the years, but in her heart she questioned if her daughter’s happiness was not far beyond the village, farther than the stream flows and higher than the smoke rises.
The chief spoke to his daughter, saying, “River, you are old enough to choose a partner, and have been these past years. What do you wish a man to do to prove himself to you?”
River laughed gently, and answered, “Father, my heart belongs to the wood. I seek no other partner. I will stay here, with you and mother as my company.”
She smiled at her father, but his features were hard. “You cannot live such a life. I am asking what a man must do to prove himself as your partner. Whatever it is you desire, I will find the one that can provide it.”
The chief’s words were like stone. He did not look at his daughter, but River proved his equal in composure. She answered bitingly, “Find me someone who can spit into a fire and make the flames taller, and I will have them as my partner.”
The chief stood. “It will be done.” He left without another word. River looked to her mother, who looked back with kind eyes, but her lips were taut, saying nothing.
That very evening it was announced to the village that whosoever could spit into the fire and make the flames taller would win River as their partner. Any villager who believed he or she could perform the task would have to prove so at the village fire the following night. Much whispering followed, for many a hunter and warrior sought someone with whom to take their meals and share their troubles. They bet on their chances, while the woman they sought slipped away into the wood, unnoticed.
River did not wish to see her father speak, nor hear the whispers. She ran to the wood, to her own place by the stream beneath the oak tree. River had never been here after sunset, and when she reached the stream she much admired the stars and bare branches reflected in the water’s surface. The stars and the stream seemed trustworthy friends, and to them River confessed her worries. She spoke of her father’s strange anger and her mother’s strange silence. She spoke of her wild request and the people of the village. It felt good to lay her heart open, but now it would not close, and she began to weep into the stream. When she had no more tears, River dipped her hands and brought the cold water to her face. She did not notice that perched above her was Horned Owl, his round eyes open and clear, and his pointed ears having caught every one of her soft words.
Horned Owl had never seen a woman from the village alone, but she showed no fear of the dark. The woman’s skin glistened, and the gentle curve of her nose caught the moonlight. There was a terrible itch under his left wing, but Horned Owl would not move for fear the woman would be frightened. He overheard all she said of her father’s demand, of the village, of her impossible request and her father’s announcement. Horned Owl happened to know exactly how to spit into a fire to make the flames grow taller. It was rather simple, he thought. Horned Owl then recalled, with much regret, that he was not a man and was not welcome to the village fire. They would only turn him away, as all the animals do.
However, thought Horned Owl, she does not seek a man as her partner. Perhaps she would take an owl instead.
As Horned Owl considered his chances, River stood to leave. She wished farewell to the stream and the stars and turned to run back to the village. Horned Owl could not help but swivel his neck to see her go. She ran blithely past the tall oak, and River thought she saw a spot of silver twinkle among the branches. But River also knew the wood held many secrets better left unknown, and did not turn back.
When Horned Owl could no longer hear her steps, he flew to the oak’s tallest limb. He had abandoned his nightly hunt, taken with an idea of how to meet the woman from the village. He knew of one spirit that might help, if the stories were true. Horned Owl meant to call upon the Golden Falcon.
Horned Owl took his silver flute to his beak and began to play. He did not play his own lonely song, but an ancient sound taught to him when he was but a hatchling. His elders had told him of a time when all the animals of the wood carried a flute with which to speak to the heavens, but now his flute was the only one left, and this was the only ancient sound his own teachers could remember. Horned Owl played and played at the indifferent sky until he doubted if he had the notes right at all. He let his flute fall limp on his chest, crestfallen. It was just then that he saw a fleck of gold among the distant treetops. It was miniature at first, like one of the thousand stars, but as it came closer it became a golden light with wings and burning eyes. Horned Owl’s flute had worked. The Golden Falcon had heard his song.
That morning, the chief looked to the fallen leaves and still there was no frost upon their edges, though the air seemed cold enough. He would have spent the day warming each one with his own breath if it would give his daughter more time. The chief could not sleep the night before, and had walked all about the village. He swore to himself he saw the Golden Falcon pass across the moon.
River had not slept either. The night had lasted years while today the sun rose and set in a breath. It was the night of her impossible request, but River feared it was not impossible enough. She would run from the village forever before promising herself to someone she did not love or trust, she thought, but then River remembered her family and suddenly her feet became heavy. Feeling like a woman of two opposing hearts, she began preparing herself for the night to come.
As River combed her hair, her mother approached. “My daughter,” she said, “Listen, you do not have to choose a partner because he can perform a trick with fire, nor must you turn away a man who cannot. We say wild things when we are angry.”
River saw the sincerity in her mother’s face and was hopeful. “So will father end this? Will you tell him to?”
Her mother paused. “No, no. He will not give up when there is still a chance. For his sake, consider choosing a partner, if only because they are kind.”
River took her mother’s hands. “I will consider it, mother. But it is no promise.”
Both women bit their lips, holding truths in their cheeks. “River, you will realize what is right, and you must not be afraid.” With that, her mother kissed her cheek and went away. River was left with her mother’s words, hoping she understood their meaning.
Horned Owl had woken that morning with his back against the earth. His body was sore and the sun was bright in his eyes. He closed them, and did his best to recall when the Golden Falcon came to his oak tree.
The great bird perched among the branches of the oak with such grace there was no sound or shudder. Horned Owl did not speak. The Golden Falcon had one eye turned towards Horned Owl, and it was an orb of white fire, fierce and cold. It already knew what he would ask. The Golden Falcon spoke. “You wish to appear a man so you might win the heart no man has won.” Horned Owl gave a brief nod. “This will not end the way you hope, but it will not end the way you fear.” Then the Golden Falcon turned the other eye to Horned Owl, this one an orb of blue fire, mesmerizing and deep. “You will only appear as a man for two nights from this very hour.” At that, the great bird’s wings unfurled and the Golden Falcon leapt from the oak, sending the branches shaking and Horned Owl falling to the earth. As he tumbled through the branches, Horned Owl glimpsed the pale gray sky of morning, and heard the Golden Falcon call out, “River, River, River is her name…”
Now, Horned Owl blinked in the sunlight. The sky was blue, and the day had arrived in full. He could see all about him clearly, nothing blurred or in shadow, but when he made to fly he could not lift from the ground. Looking to his wings he found the arms and hands of a man instead, and when he looked to his talons he saw the legs and feet of a man. Finally he turned to the stream, and in his reflection Horned Owl saw the face of a man. Yet on each side of this face Horned Owl found pointed silver feathers where a man’s ears should be; these feathers were his own. Except for these feathers, the Golden Falcon’s words had come true, and Horned Owl appeared a man like any other. He then thought of his flute, but it still hung soundly from his neck.
Moving carefully, Horned Owl took to his feet, wobbling a bit for the newness of them. He knew he must master them quickly though, for there was much to prepare for the evening, and the sun was already high in the sky. River, River, River is her name, he chanted within himself. To Horned Owl, the words were full of magic, and the wood was full of strange and hopeful dreams.
That night, the village fire was lit and River poised herself beside her mother and father; she betrayed no outward feelings, while inside her two hearts fought like wolves. The chief restated the task, that one must be found who can spit into the fire and make the flames taller.
One after another villagers stepped forward to try the challenge, but as each came and went the flames grew dimmer and dimmer. River never broke her stillness; she saw hunters, warriors, fools, youths, and widowers all take their turn without success. River’s father sunk further and further into his discouragement as the night wore on, the fire disappearing before his eyes. It was late in the night and the flames had diminished to nothing but smoldering coals. Everyone who wished to step forward had done so, and the chief did not know what else to do. He raised his hand, as if to bring the challenge to an end, when a rustle was heard somewhere in the darkness. The whole village turned their heads to see a stranger step into the amber glow of the coals. It was difficult to make out the man’s exact features, but on his head could be seen a sort of feathered headdress that covered his head and his ears.
Horned Owl’s heart quivered beneath the ribs of his featherless chest. He could feel the presence of many bodies circled around him, but with the fire nearly snuffed he could make out no single face. Features glimmered in the dark, floating lips, and cheeks, and noses. A man stood, and Horned Owl understood this was the chief. He looked to either side of the tall man and could make out two women. Horned Owl could not be certain, but he thought he recognized River when the shadowy light caught the bump of her nose. He wished to find her eyes, but could not. The chief asked, “Are you here to try the task, stranger?” Horned Owl nodded, but did not speak, for it would give away his trick.
Tucked inside both of Horned Owl’s cheeks were small batches of kindling from the woods. He collected twigs, leaves, and needles that had dried in the sun and would easily catch fire. He heaved a breath in through his nose, and spit his kindling into the village fire pit. In an instant, the kindling came alight among the coals and a small flame appeared. The villagers let out baffled guffaws and exclamations. Horned Owl spit again and again into the fire, and more and more of the kindling caught flame. Horned Owl snuck a glance from his work to the woman he hoped was River, and to his pleasure, there she was. River, River, River was her name.
For an instant, her face alone was illuminated and her eyes were alight just as the kindling in the coals. Horned Owl paused for a breath as he met her glance. He quickly spit the rest of his kindling into the fire, and the flames crackled with a lively sound. Horned Owl could now see the face of every villager. Many stood amazed at his work, but others were simply glad for the warmth and took up a joyous, reeling dance. River remained seated where she was, carefully observing the stranger. She saw the stranger fully in the firelight, and to her great interest, she saw a silver flute hung around the stranger’s neck.
The chief and his wife came to Horned Owl, “We have found the one we have searched for! Stranger, you must tell us your name so we may announce the man who will be our daughter’s partner.”
He answered quietly, “You may call me Horned Owl.”
The chief’s wife spoke next. “Horned Owl, you have brought much joy to our village.” Her words were kind, but she stood away from him, as if hesitant to be nearer.
It was then that River approached. She stood before Horned Owl, daring him to address her. The chief spoke. “Horned Owl, this is my daughter, River.”
She spoke next. “That is an odd name for a man, Horned Owl.” She added, “Now, remove your headdress so I may see you entirely.” Horned Owl did not move. He could not disobey her but neither could he reveal himself now, should they shun him. River did not relinquish her gaze, but rather stepped closer. Horned Owl could see her eyes were not ablaze with mere reflection, but burned with a light from within. “I asked you to remove your headdress.” Horned Owl took a breath as if to explain, but before he could River had reached out her hands.
As soon as Horned Owl felt the headdress being pulled from his brow, he pushed past River’s shoulder, past the chief and his wife, and leapt away into the darkness, his hands hiding his owl’s ears.
Horned Owl ran and ran, thumping his feet madly against the hard ground until he made it to the wood. It was dark away from the fire, and he was constantly tripping over stones and roots and tumbling across the dirt and leaves. The night had always been when things became clear, and now its ways were hidden from him. Eventually Horned Owl broke through to a clearing where the moon lit the earth around him. Horned Owl recognized the place, and marked his way carefully back the tall oak tree and the stream. He felt an aching all over, an especial soreness in his feet, recalling every time he fell over himself onto the unforgiving earth. Horned Owl did not imagine the human body would be so fragile, and thought longingly of his feather coat.
At last Horned Owl came upon the oak and the stream, and gently laid himself beside the rippling water. River had seen his feathered ears. She must have, he thought. Now she would realize his true nature and have only fear for him in her heart. The cold autumn air came blowing through the trees and wrapped itself around Horned Owl’s naked shoulders. He thought of building a fire, but the thought passed. Instead, Horned Owl reached for a truer comfort. He brought his hand to his chest, but found only his own bare skin. He reached frantically for his neck but there was no chord around it. Horned Owl got on his hands and knees in a panic, running his fingers back and forth through the leaves and grass, but found nothing. He searched again, farther and more carefully this time, but still found only the ordinary stuff of the wood’s bottom. Horned Owl tore at his feathered ears and cried out in despair. His silver flute was gone. Silence followed, and Horned Owl was deeply alone.
The village chief called out in the dark, “Where are you going? Horned Owl! Where…” But the stranger had fled. The chief turned back to the fire. His wife stood close by, looking past her husband to the woods. A hard frown weighed on her face. The chief’s wife had always believed in the wisdom of the Great Spirits, in things foretold. But for a moment there, she began to believe in her husband’s dream that River’s fate was to stay with them after all. She had seen Horned Owl make the flames tall, and he stood before River with gentleness in his eyes, and now he was gone. The spirit’s intentions for her family were unclear, clouded. The chief’s wife looked back to her husband’s face, and reached her hand to his cheek, but he stepped back.
The chief spoke to River, “Why? Why did you send him away?” His voice broke, his sorrow like deep cracks in clay pot. “You could have been safe…” but he stopped himself.
His wife took his face in her hands. “You cannot blame her or yourself, for things that are bound to be just so.”
River stood apart from them, looking from her mother to her father, trying to understand their shrouded faces. “What do you mean?” she asked simply.
Her mother replied, weary, “Your father is tired. That is all.” She paused, and added, “Remember what we spoke of, and come to bed soon.” River watched as her mother led her father by the hand back to their shelter. The fire roared and leapt for the black sky, the rest of the village drumming and dancing a wild, violent dance that threw their shadows clawing into the night, as if they could scare the winter away.
River looked towards the wood. It was quiet and still. The stars too were quiet, peeking down from the heavens to the strange happenings in the village. In one hand River held Horned Owl’s feathered headdress, and in the other hand, she gripped a sparkling silver flute. She let the headdress fall to the ground, but carefully considered the delicate instrument. Shyly at first, she brought it to her lips. The first few notes were sour, but River tried again, and found its voice. The sound was clear and sweet, and exactly what she hoped it would be. She knew just whom it belonged to. He lived in the wood, far away from the dancers and their fire. But River had no doubts. She did not fear the winter as they did.
Horned Owl lay by the stream, resigned to wait until the Golden Falcon returned to undo the spell. He thought of what the Golden Falcon had said, that this would not end the way he feared. It seemed to Horned Owl things had ended much worse. He would become the Horned Owl once more, but now with no flute. He would be a beast of the wood meant to kill and eat and rest until he was no more. He would hold no magic. As Horned Owl continued to lie still, the blackness of the night relented to deep indigo, to blue. Morning was still far away though, and his man’s body was only a cold and heavy burden he felt no desire to comfort. Then, Horned Owl thought he heard the sound of music coming from between the trees. A heavy blue mist lay over the wood, so that Horned Owl could not see very far, but he could listen. He could not help but believe that he had heard the sound of a flute. The sound came again.
It was a tentative music, rising in bursts and falling away, each note like a question. Listening closer to the sound of the flute, it would swell with air and then disperse. Even in this odd time, Horned Owl recognized the melody, for it was a melody of his own creation. Horned Owl hopped to his feet, his senses reawakened. He looked all about him, calling to the mist, “Who’s out there?” and an answer came from behind him, the rustle of leaves under soft feet.
Horned Owl turned back to see River standing beside the oak tree in the paling light. At her lips was his own silver flute, and the song she played was his own lonely song. That flute had been many times upon his own lips, that song many times in his own mouth. She stopped playing to ask, “Do you know the song?” She stepped forward. Her severity had melted away, leaving her voice and expression full of air and softness.
Horned Owl spoke. “I do.”
River took another step closer to him. “Will you play it for me?”
Horned Owl was transfixed. “I will.”
Now she took one more step and the two stood very close. River saw clearly the silver feathers on his head. She wondered at them, and whispered, “May I touch your ears?”
Horned Owl flushed, but bowed his head. “You may.” River reached out and gently felt for the silver silkiness where his ears should have been.
They sat together on the banks of the stream, and River gently returned the flute and its cord to their place around Horned Owl’s neck. He was puzzled as to how she knew his song, and she pondered his strange, feathery ears, but neither question was spoken. The only sound between them was Horned Owl’s song. At first the music was just as River knew it, full of heartache. Yet as Horned Owl played on, the thought of River at his side made the notes leap and skip, as they never had before. He could not play a sorrowful song, for he did not feel sorrow. Instead he played a song for dancing. It was not the raucous kind of dancing song heard in the village; this music was light and lilting. River took to her feet and danced like the fallen leaves dance in a swirl of wind, floating. The night had since gone from blue, to gray, to violet, and now Horned Owl’s music and River’s dance seemed to pull the pink sun from behind the hillside. The full of morning came, bright yellow, and warmed their faces, their shoulders.
The frost had waited still another morning.
When the sun was white gold and high above them, Horned Owl had no more songs left to play, and the flute fell to his chest, contented. River now told Horned Owl how she knew his song. “I hear your flute everyday, when I come to the stream to fetch water for the village. But I have never seen you, though I’ve looked all through the wood. Who are you? Where do you hide?”
Horned Owl answered, “My name is what I am, and I am Horned Owl. I live there.” He pointed up to the branches of the tall oak. “That is where I play my flute, all through the day. For in my true form I am a great hunter of the night, but I am blind in the bright sun.” He paused. “Many creatures of the wood fear me. When you saw my feathers last night, I thought you would also be afraid, and send me away.”
River sat listening. Her lips parted thoughtfully as she came to understand. “I am not afraid of you, Horned Owl, for you have been a great comfort to me. But I must know,” she lowered her voice, “Where do you keep your wings when you are walking as a man walks?”
Horned Owl smiled at this. “Meet me here tonight, when the moon is very high, and at dawn you will see me as I truly am, with wide wings and silver feathers.” River smiled too, and agreed to the meeting.
But for now, River told Horned Owl, she must return to her mother and father. “Before I go,” she said, “I must be sure. Do you love me, for my whole being, and wish to by my partner in all things?” She stood before him in perfect stillness, awaiting his answer.
Horned Owl replied, “You use the words of the village, but I will use the words of the wood. We say the promise like this.” He began, “I love you, for your whole spirit, and wish to be your partner now and in the heavens.”
River was pleased with his words, and pressed her lips to his brow, then to each of his pointed feathers. “My mother and father will be glad. I must go to them!” And she was off through the trees, practically in flight. Horned Owl thought again of the Golden Falcon’s words. Things would not end as he had feared, but now he wondered how things would stray from what he wished.
When River returned to her father and mother, she told them how she found Horned Owl in the woods and that they have chosen to be each other’s partners in all things. River did not tell them of the music, of the sunlight, or of Horned Owl’s soft feathers. Those thoughts belonged only to her. The chief was elated at the news. He commanded the village to resume their celebrations, to prepare for a hunt and a feast. “My daughter, we will spend all day in preparation. At dawn we will hunt and tomorrow morning will be your wedding.” He looked about him. “Now, where is your Horned Owl?”
River told the truth. “I am to meet him alone once more in the woods this night, and then at dawn we shall join you in the hunt.” The chief agreed to this arrangement, his senses clouded by happiness. River and her father then departed from the shelter to help the villagers prepare for the wedding.
The chief’s wife had stayed at home, very quiet, thinking over her daughter’s story. When the chief returned for an evening meal, she spoke to him only. “My chief, I do not believe these things will end the way you wish them to, nor will they end the way you fear.” He turned to her, a question on his face. “Our daughter has chosen Horned Owl from the wood to be her partner, not a man of this world.” She spoke plainly. “I heard all the Golden Falcon said that night. I know where our daughter came from.” The chief was surprised, but he recognized the wisdom of what she said regarding Horned Owl. He ran out into the village to find his daughter, but the chief was too late. The sun had set and River had disappeared into the shadows of the wood.
The chief ran to the door of every shelter in the village, taking the hunters from their meals, and pulling them out of their beds. “We can no longer wait until dawn,” spoke the chief. “We hunt now, and do not return without River among us.” As he formed the words, he could see his breath as a small cloud before his face. This would be the night of the first frost. Time was short.
River ran through the night, following the sweet sound of silver flute. It rang clear through the night, calling her. Her bare feet touched lightly upon the earth as she leapt over root and branch, the wood seeming to part just for her. But then River felt the fresh sting of a bitter wind, the bite of the cold dirt under her step. River had always known the early winter breeze to be an eager but friendly one, never harsh. Tonight however, the air pierced through her skin like a thousand hair-thin needles. It made her weary, as she had never known before. River came upon the stream and the oak tree then, and leaned against the old oak for a moment. She felt the air, heavy in her lungs. Horned Owl had made a small fire in the leaves, and sat beside it playing his flute to the breeze, and to her. When Horned Owl saw River approaching, he rose with reverence to greet her. She went to him smiling, but when he took her hands in his, they were shivering and cold as new fallen snow. He was startled, for only the night before she had lounged in the cold as if it were a mid summer’s day. Horned Owl guided River to sit by his small fire, but even beside the flames River began to shudder. Horned Owl offered her his arms as comfort, and River accepted, letting them encircle her. Horned Owl could understand the pleasures of living in a man’s body, but knew his feathers would have warmed her better. “You should not wait here until dawn,” he said. “You should go back to your warm shelter, to your bed. I will find you there in the morning.” Horned Owl knew he would be blind in the sun, and finding his way past the oak tree would be helpless. He knew though too, he could not allow her to freeze here in the woods.
River shook her head. “You worry too much. I will wait to see you become your true self.” She offered a smile. Horned Owl added more kindling to the fire.
Horned Owl had made the fire a bit larger, and covered River in a blanket of leaves before taking her in his arms once more. River let the weight of her body rest against his, her head against his chest. Horned Owl cradled her like this, his back and arms aching. But just like when he watched her from the tree, he dared not move. River was quiet for a long time. Neither of them noticed as the stars grew dim, or as the morning mist gathered. They did not notice the fine edges of the fallen leaves turn white and glittering.
Carefully and with much effort, River reached up to feel Horned Owl’s silver feathers. As her hand floated back down to her chest, it brushed Horned Owl’s cheek. It was the same fond touch as the night before, but this time it was ice on Horned Owl’s skin. “I will not go back to the village,” she said. “My heart belongs in the wood, my head belongs to the stars.”
Horned Owl was worried by her words. “But your hands…” he began.
“They are warm enough by your fire.” River’s voice had fallen to a whisper. Horned Owl had to lean close to hear what she said next. “The path my spirit walks might be too far for you to follow.”
He answered, “When you see my wings you will not worry of that.”
She did not answer, but Horned Owl pulled her body close. The two stayed like this, with Horned Owl wrapped around River as bones around a fragile lung. She said, “I will not worry then. But I must close my eyes, they are so heavy.” And then, River’s eyes fell closed and did not open. Her lips met and did not part. Her chest went still and did not rise. Horned Owl felt for her heart, but it was silent. He clasped her hands in his, but the veins were still. He spoke her name, but he knew what was true. River was dead.
Horned Owl did not know the hour. He did not see the white frost sparkle. He did not see the fire dwindle out. Horned Owl knew nothing but her face, and that the stories must be true; he was an omen of death. River, River, River was her name and Horned Owl had brought this upon her.
He only lifted his eyes when he saw a golden light cast itself upon River’s cold cheek. It was not the flush of life, but the Golden Falcon come to undo the spell that made Horned Owl appear a man. The great bird descended from the turning sky to stand before Horned Owl in the coals of the forgotten fire. The Golden Falcon, without a word, spread each broad wing to its full width so that his feathers shined with the white light of a winter morning. The great wings encircled Horned Owl with River still in his grasp.
When the golden wings separated, the sun had risen, and Horned Owl had become his true self once more. His own great wings shrouded River in their silver feathers, her cheek lie upon his downy breast. Horned Owl could feel that this was so, but he could no longer see her face with his blinded eyes. He called out to the Golden Falcon, “Why was this her path? Did you know this would be?”
The Golden Falcon replied, “I did. But she is not truly a woman as you think she is, in the same way you were not truly a man.” Horned Owl was about to reply, when the village chief and his hunters came through the trees.
The chief came to a halt, and all his hunters grew still in his wake. The chief saw before him the Golden Falcon, whose great height and gold plumage were even grander than he recalled. Beside the Golden Falcon was an owl; this bird was smaller though still great in height and width, with feathers of silver. As he looked upon the bright and wild creature the chief knew he must be Horned Owl. He saw too that his greatest fear had come to pass. There in Horned Owl’s silver wings was River, lying still as if in sleep. The sad chief approached the two great birds. Horned Owl discerned only a shadow moving closer, but knew the chief once he spoke. “Great and wise spirits, please, may I see my daughter?”
Horned Owl could not refuse. He tenderly unfolded his wings, and laid River upon the earth at her father’s feet. The chief fell to his knees as if to weep, when the Golden Falcon spoke. “Do not forget, she is still a spirit creature. This is not death as you know it. She will be returned to the realm from which she fell, and will live happily there.”
The chief asked solemnly, “But how will she return?”
At this the Golden Falcon addressed Horned Owl. “This is your purpose, Horned Owl. She has lived too long among earthly things and her spirit has grown heavy with them. She is trapped in this world. You must carry her back to the realm of spirits.” Horned Owl listened to the Golden Falcon’s words and understood. The chief listened as well, and knew his wife had been wiser than he. River did not belong to him, to this earth or even the wood, but to the heavens. He kissed the brow of the spirit he had loved as his daughter before he stepped away. Horned Owl lifted River from the ground in his talons. The chief and the village hunters looked on as Horned Owl then spread wide his silver wings and took flight, heading straight for the sun, for he did not need his sight to know where the heavens lie.
Horned Owl flew on and on and on still, up past the treetops then up past the clouds, careful that River never slipped from his grasp. He flew up past the sun and up past all of the familiar stars into all the stars unknown, and then farther still, never stopping until, suddenly, he did. He had reached the realm of the spirits, and here Horned Owl paused. The clouds lifted from his eyes, and all about him Horned Owl could see clearly the twinkling of lights against a velvet black space. The space went on forever in all directions, the lights all different shapes and colors, some moving as if blown by the wind and others still as stones. Horned Owl was dazzled.
“Is that you, Horned Owl?” The voice startled him. He looked down to his talons, and there was River with a glowing smile. “You have brought me home,” she said simply. In that moment, both spirits saw the other for their true shape. Horned Owl’s silvered feathers shone more than ever in the wood, and River’s hair ran down her back, winding through the stars of the heavens as a true river runs. Golden Falcon appeared among the lights, looking upon them, and knew that things had been made right. The hearts of Horned Owl and River were together in the realm of the spirits, where they would live happily into eternity, making music on their silver flute to ring through the lights of the heavens, just as through the trees in the wood. They would often look down past their feet, past the familiar stars, far below the sun, to the earth they once knew and all the creatures in the wood and all the people of the village, especially to River’s mother and father.
Now, all of the people of River’s village had drunk from the water touched with the sweet tears that River wept for Horned Owl’s music. It was in those tears they cooked their soup and they bathed their children. It was in that water they washed their hands, faces, and feet. Because of this, River’s father, mother, and all the people in the village had a small piece of River’s eternal spirit inside of themselves. It is a piece that belongs to the realm of spirits. The day that River looked down to the earth and saw her father and mother had grown weary of the earth, she asked if Horned Owl would fly down to the village and fetch them, so they might come to live in the spirit realm too. Horned Owl did as She asked, first bearing the chief’s spirit up into the stars and his wife second. All were glad, until the chief and his wife saw their friends from the village had become weary too and asked if they might also be flown to the heavens. One by one Horned Owl flew down to the earth, fetching each tired spirit and carrying them to the stars.
Many years had passed since Horned Owl delivered River back to her home in the sky, and while they were up above, the village they once knew below grew to be many villages. The villager’s children, and their children’s children scattered across the earth, all with a tiny piece of River’s spirit within them. Because of this, everyone who walked the earth and everyone who would walk after was welcome among the eternal lights. It was once said that Horned Owl was an omen of death, and these words became true. If he appears to you, do not be afraid, for he has come to carry you up into the sky, to the same heavens from which River fell as a child. There you will live as a bright star, burning your eternal light and listening, as River plays upon a silver flute.