Authors: Kenneth Oppel
For Philippa, Sophia, Nathaniel and Julia
The tree had never seemed so high.
Dusk laboured up the trunk of the giant sequoia, sinking his claws into the soft, reddish bark. Pale lichen grew along the ridges; here and there, pitch glistened dully in the furrows. Warmed by the dawn’s heat, the tree steamed, releasing its heady fragrance. All around Dusk, insects sparkled and whirred, but he wasn’t interested in them just now.
His father, Icaron, climbed beside him and, though old, moved more swiftly than his son. Dusk hurried to keep up. He’d been born with only two claws on each hand instead of three, and hauling himself up the trunk was hard work.
“Will my other claws ever grow in?” he asked his father.
“If they don’t?”
“You’ll have less to grip and pull with,” Icaron said. “But you have unusually strong chest and shoulder muscles.” Dusk said nothing, pleased.
“That will help make up for your weak legs,” his father added matter-of-factly.
“Oh,” Dusk said, casting a surprised backward glance. He hadn’t realized he had weak legs, but his father obviously had noticed. Maybe that helped explain why climbing was such tiring work.
Just four weeks ago he was born, rump first, and three seconds behind his sister, Sylph. Blind and naked like all newborn chiropters, he had crawled up his mother’s belly and started nursing immediately. Within days his vision cleared and focused. Fur grew over his body, and he gained weight. He ate insects his mother had caught and chewed for him.
And this morning his father had roused him in the nest and told him it was now time to climb the tree. They’d set off, just the two of them. Even though he’d been nervous, Dusk had loved the way everyone looked at him, the youngest son of the colony’s leader.
“Am I odd looking?” Dusk asked now. He was merely repeating what he’d overheard—including from his own mother, when she thought he was asleep.
Icaron looked back at him. “You are rather odd looking, yes.”
The answer disappointed him, though he knew very well it was the truth. Watching the other newborns grow, he could tell he was different. His chest and shoulders were bulkier than normal, giving him a slightly top-heavy appearance. His ears were large and stuck out too much. And, most mortifying of all, even at four weeks, no fur had yet grown across his arms and sails, making him feel childishly naked. He wished at least his sails were like his father’s.
“Dad, what’s it like being leader?”
His father reached back with a rear foot and fondly tousled the fur on Dusk’s head. “It’s a lot of responsibility, trying to take care of everyone. It’s a great deal to think about.”
“Well, we’ve been very fortunate here. Food is plentiful. There are no predators. I hope things stay that way. But if they change, I might have to make hard decisions.”
Dusk nodded, trying to look solemn, having no idea what his father was talking about.
“Will I be leader one day?” he asked.
“I very much doubt it.”
“Why?” Dusk asked indignantly.
“When a leader dies, his first-born son becomes the new leader.”
“That would be Auster,” Dusk said glumly. He scarcely knew his eldest brother. Auster was eighteen years older than Dusk and had a mate and many children. Most of
children had children. Dusk was uncle to dozens of nieces and nephews; and great-uncle to hundreds more—and he was younger than practically any of them. It got very confusing, very quickly.
“But,” Icaron continued, “if by some dreadful chance the firstborn is already dead, then the next oldest son would assume the leadership, and so on.”
“Borasco, Shamal, Vardar …” Dusk felt proud he knew the names of his eight older brothers, even though he’d only ever exchanged a few words with most of them.
“And if there are no sons,” Icaron continued, “only then would it pass to the daughters.”
“So Sylph might be leader one day?” he asked in alarm.
“A frightening thought, I agree,” Dad said. “Of course, her seven older sisters would have to die before her. So it’s even more unlikely than you becoming leader as my ninth-born son.”
“I see,” Dusk said, feeling this was all outrageously unfair. He paused to catch his breath. High overhead, through the redwood’s vast canopy, he caught small glimpses of the sky. Sleek,
feathered creatures darted through the air. The sight of their beating wings made his stomach swirl excitedly.
“Are we related to birds?” he asked his father.
“Of course not,” he replied. “We have no feathers. We’re not born from eggs. And we can’t fly.”
Dusk peered up, hoping to see more birds. He loved the way they lifted so effortlessly.
“How much higher will we go?” he asked. Surely his father wasn’t planning on taking him all the way to the tree’s summit. That was where the birds perched, and the newborns were always told to stay clear. The flyers were fiercely protective of their territory, especially when rearing their hatchlings. Luckily, the sequoia was over three hundred feet high, and big enough for all of them. Dusk and all the other chiropters lived in the tree’s middle reaches. Amongst the profusion of mighty limbs, they nested in the bark’s endless network of deep furrows.
“Not much higher now,” Icaron told him. Despite the effort of the climb, Dusk was not eager to reach their destination. He knew what awaited him there, and though he and the other newborns had chattered endlessly about it, Dusk could not help feeling afraid.
“Is this the tallest tree in the forest?” he asked. He wanted to talk.
“I’ve never seen a taller one.”
“How old is it?”
“Very old. Thousands of years.”
“Are you old?” he asked his father.
His father gave a surprised laugh. “Not quite that old. But old enough to have had many sons and daughters.”
“Seventeen including me and Sylph,” Dusk said.
“That’s right. But you two, I think, will be my last.”
Dusk was alarmed. “Are you going to die soon?”
“Certainly not. But everyone reaches an age when it’s no longer possible to have more offspring.”
Icaron stopped suddenly. “This is the Upper Spar,” he said, sidestepping from the trunk to an enormous broad branch that projected out over the clearing. “This is as far as we chiropters go. Remember it. Above this, the tree belongs to the birds.”
Dusk looked at the branch, memorizing its outline.
“This way now,” Icaron said, and started walking on all fours out along the Upper Spar.
Dusk faltered a moment, limbs shaky.
“There’s nothing to fear,” his father said, turning to his son and waiting.
Dusk came to him. They continued along the branch side by side, and then single file down a thinner branch, luxuriant with needle-like leaves and pine cones, some almost as big as Dusk. Near the branch’s tip they stopped. It drooped slightly with their weight. The cicadas’ drone ceased suddenly, then resumed with renewed intensity.
Dusk looked down and down, through the branches to the forest floor, impossibly far away. He urinated noisily against the bark.
“Are you ready?” his father asked.
Dusk said nothing.
“Jump,” his father told him.
“I don’t want to jump.” His voice was an unfamiliar crackle. “You are meant to.”
Dusk had never left the tree. “May I go back to the nest?” he asked.
Dusk felt his throat tighten. More than anything, he wanted
to wriggle down into the deep furrow where he slept, feel the tree’s soft, fragrant bark around him.
“It’s time,” his father said. Though his voice was calm, Dusk sensed there would be no more discussion. “Are you ready?”
“I can’t remember all the things you told me,” Dusk said in panic.
“It doesn’t matter,” his father replied.
“Tell me once more, please!”
His father nuzzled him gently, then shoved him off the branch.
Dusk gave a cry, as much in amazement as terror, and twisted around, clutching for something, anything. But the branch was already out of reach and he was falling, headfirst now. Wind filled his ears. Branches rushed past; the world swelled below him. His entire body trembled, his stomach slewing inside him. Instinctively he stretched his arms and kicked out his legs, spreading his sails wide.
“That’s it!” cried Icaron, suddenly alongside him, flaring his own furred sails.
Bizarrely, Dusk felt an overwhelming urge to flap. “Stop that!” his father shouted. “You are not a bird! Stretch them out! Farther! As far as they’ll go! That’s it! Now hold them straight! You’re gliding now!”
Air flowed around Dusk’s sails and filled them. His shoulders and head lifted as he came out of his nosedive. He breathed in little gulps. He felt as though he’d been struck by lightning. He was soaring away from the sequoia, his home, out across the great clearing and towards the giant redwoods on the far side. Moths and flies whirled past him.
He was sailing too fast, slanting down too sharply. Whenever he watched the other chiropters gliding, they seemed to be moving so serenely, hardly losing height at all. He barely felt in control. “Slow down!” he heard his father shout.
“How?” he cried.
“Are your sails all the way out?”
Dusk stretched as far and wide as he could and he did slow a little, but still felt he was dropping too fast. He watched with alarm as he neared the trees across the clearing.
“Slow down, Dusk!” his father shouted again.
“We’re going to turn now,” Icaron called out. “Just tilt a bit to the left. Use your legs as well as your fingers and arms. Good! A bit more! Keep your sails straight! Don’t fold them! Here we go!”
Dusk made a fast, jerky turn, wobbling, the forest spinning as he pointed himself back at the sequoia. Seeing it made him feel better. Below him he could make out the familiar branches of their nests and hunting perches. Criss-crossing the clearing were the graceful shapes of chiropters hunting insects. He straightened out, and felt a small thrill of accomplishment.
“We’re going to land,” Icaron said, pulling ahead of him. “You follow me, and do what I do!”
Dusk tried to match his father’s glide path, but he was still falling too quickly.
“Dad!” he called out as he sank below his father. Icaron glanced back, and angled his sails for a steeper dive.
“Keep your sails flat, Dusk!”
keeping his sails flat, but that didn’t seem to help any. He kept his eyes locked on his father, who he knew was making a much steeper landing approach than normal.
“When you’re almost at the branch, flare your sails!” Icaron shouted back to him. “Angle them up and dump all the air out of them and you’ll stop. Here we go!”
Dusk watched intently as his father neared a nice broad branch that stuck far out over the clearing. Icaron levelled off effortlessly,
flared his sails sharply, and touched down with his rear claws. Then he furled his sails and set himself down on all fours. He whirled around to watch Dusk.
“Slowly now!” he called out. “As slowly as you can!” Dusk saw the branch heaving towards him and knew he was coming in too fast and steep.
“Level off! Level off!” Icaron shouted.
Once again the urge to flap was overpowering, and Dusk started chopping the air with his sails.
“No!” Icaron yelled at him. “That’s not helping. Stop it! Flare your sails now!”
Dusk flared his sails, and decelerated so sharply he felt he’d been yanked backwards. Pain jolted through his arms and shoulders. He stalled in mid-air and dropped hard towards the branch, instinctively flapping. He landed in a heap on top of his father.
“Sorry,” gasped Dusk as they untangled themselves.
“Are you all right?” Icaron asked.
“I think so.” Dusk’s flanks heaved as he caught his breath. He flexed all his limbs to make sure nothing was broken, then looked at his father sternly. “You pushed me!”
“I push all my children,” his father replied with a chuckle. “Believe me, no one wants to make their first jump.” Dusk felt better. “Even Sylph?”
Yesterday, his father had taken Sylph up for her first gliding lesson, and she hadn’t said anything about having to be pushed. “How did I do?” Dusk asked. He was still trembling. “I’ve never had anyone try to flap before.”