A Treasure Lies in a Cage High Above the Forest by Joshua Flowers
Hanging above the forest, Emilia sat in her cage. She watched globs of mist grow over the forest beneath her like moss. From so high up, green lapsed into gray, and the lithe child followed the edge of the mist creeping across pines the size of needle tips. She pressed her forehead against the gentle curve of the golden bars, trying to see as much of the world below in its mix of colors and clouds.
Emilia heard Him coming for days. The wooden spiral staircase, curling around the thick iron pole holding her bell-shaped cage, creaked when He walked it. She measured the echoey pace of wood aching, knowing when He savored his time and when He hurried to see her. Sometimes the creaks would quiet, and Emilia pictured Him taking a moment to stare down at the world like her. From what Emilia could see, the staircase had no walls and no railings. She imagined that, from the bird’s perspective, it must have been a surreal image spinning out from the forest to up and beyond the clouds.
A pair of birds raced through the sky beneath her. Their pale, white feathers made them nearly invisible as they flew just above the clouds. Emilia fixated on the birds, following their competition as best she could.
She didn’t turn around as He came onto the landing beside her cage. She sat on the other end, a boulder’s distance between the two sides. She could sense His long, dark-furred legs stiffen as she ignored Him.
“What are you looking at, songbird?”
Emilia didn’t answer. The two birds were neck and neck.
One dove beneath the other, beak first into the thicket of clouds. The visible bird faltered in mid-air, shocked that their friend vanished from behind.
“Songbird, please answer me.”
Popping up ahead in an explosion of vapor, the second bird resurfaced and stole the lead. The two cooed excitedly at one another, their banter traveling up to Emilia. She smiled at their game. Then He shook the cage.
A single blow tilted the cage on its side, tossing Emilia into the air before bouncing her off the barred walls. Momentum consumed Emilia in a chaotic frenzy as the golden bars kicked her thin limbs from every angle. If her bones could break, Emilia thought she would have shattered into pieces.
He put a single, black-furred hand out, and her world stopped. Emilia landed on her back. Her scraggly gray being sprawled out over the smooth, wooden bottom like a puddle.
He knelt down by the locked entrance, a single red eye staring down at her as His two broad, black wings folded into His back. Emilia could never find His mouth, His nose, His ears, nor anything she thought a face needed. Only that single red eye at the end of a long, tendril neck.
“My lovely songbird,” he said mournfully. “Please don’t ignore me.”
“What am I?” It was one of the few questions she could ask without much risk of retaliation. Emilia knew very little outside her name. Her real name, not ‘songbird.’ He always talked of her like a fragile creature, yet none of His violent outbursts broke her despite the fact killing humans seemed a trivial affair. His kindest days were the ones when He reeked of their blood.
“A treasure, my lovely, little songbird,” he answered.
Emilia looked at her gray, boney arms lacking a single feather. She knew what birds looked like. They were the closest things she had to friends, and she knew she was nothing like them. She didn’t even know any songs. She couldn’t remember a moment in her life she’d ever sung. Maybe before the cage, but whenever Emilia tried to dredge up memories from so far back, her head would throb.
“What am I?” She asked Him again. Sometimes being asked twice would make Him angry. This time, He took her question calmly. He had sat down on the landing beside the locked entrance, a spot of flat surface before the first step of the staircase. Like everything, it floated, warring against gravity with a mystical physics all its own. He had set beside Himself a pile of wild violets that must have taken Him days to pick.
He picked up a violet with deep purple hues soaked up to its tips and plucked away at the petals, thinking on the question. His single red eye curled through the air to loop back around the folded joints of His wing before pointing down at the flower being torn apart. Emilia didn’t want the eye to gaze over her body, so she let her question land in the empty drop between them and fall away.
“You are something magical, songbird,” he interrupted His meticulous plucking to crush what remained of the violet against His palm, “Something magical and amazing, and that’s why I must keep you safe. So no one can steal you away.”
“But what am I?”
He dropped the crushed corpse of the flower over the edge. It didn’t fall but float. Emilia wondered for a brief moment if she, as light as she felt, would float like that stripped bulb and smothered stem until she disappeared into a cloud.
“Why do my answers never satisfy you, songbird?” He curled his eye toward her, and Emilia shuttered. She fled to the other end of her cage. He didn’t mind the reaction, picking up another violet to start His plucking again.
Emilia’s moment of hope came with a change to the usual creaking. He was climbing up the stairs again, but this time there was an off pattern to His pace. Emilia listened to the unsteady rhythm curiously until she realized He was limping.
When He appeared with a sack of food, Emilia saw a bouquet of arrows dotted around the nape where His black wings could not brush them away. Their colorful feathers stuck out in a litany of crooked angles with a faded fury more vibrant than the blood in His black fur. Emilia marveled how, despite the wounds, He still stood straight and rigid.
He crumbled a half-eaten loaf of bread through the bars. Emilia looked from the crumbs to Him.
“What is it, songbird?”
“Can you put your back to the cage?” Emilia felt the words lump in her throat as she said them. Dying never crossed her mind, but in that moment, she understood what it meant to suffocate. “Please?”
“My songbird! My lovely, little songbird!” Without question, He turned around and presented His back full of arrows to her. “What a sweet treasure you are!”
Carefully, Emilia slid an arrow out, red on its tip. He did not grunt nor make any painful noise as blood streamed over His other wounds before soaking into His tacky fur. The only evidence it ever existed was the wet sensation where she pressed her hand. The arrow felt flimsy, and she thought it might break if she put it back. Not this one, she thought as she tossed it through the golden bars. It did not float like the broken flowers. It plummeted.
Emilia grabbed another arrow as He started to sing, “Songbird,” again and again in a lyrical voice. He sounded happy. Giddy. His bulb-like head snapped back and forth like a dancing snake. The second arrow felt frailer than the first, so Emilia dropped it through the bars. The third held firm in her hand. Emilia eyed His long swaying and twisting neck, wondering how to bring that dancing neck closer to her.
She didn’t have to. He twisted it around Himself.
His head slithered past a folded wing, and His one red eyes stared inches away at Emilia’s face. “Songbird! What a lovely songbird!” Emilia had never seen His eye so close. The pupil was as big as her head, and the red iris appeared built from little hexagons. His eye blinked—a brief moment of vulnerability. Emilia swung her arm up, her arrow going toward the little bit of sky above her head.
He croaked in pain as the tip pierced His black neck. The bulb-like head thrashed and knocked Emilia against the far wall. When she hit the bars, the force rocked the cage into motion. He tried to get away, tried to stick out His massive black wings she had never seen used, but they got caught between the golden bars. Emilia listened to Him croak as His feet lost balance, and the swinging bars pulled Him off the landing. Kicking feet looked for the platform but found empty air. His wings slipped out, and He dropped down the eye of the spiral staircase. Emilia peaked over the edge of the cage to find Him, the bloodied arrow still in her hands, but He had disappeared beneath the clouds.
The girl waited, expecting to hear Him roar her name, for a shadow to shoot up from the clouds, for the stairs to creak as He crashed onto them, but the world remained silent. Emilia waited, curled up on the far end of her cage. Her small hands gripped the arrow for when the worst returned. As the sun went down first, the realization came slow like the rolling clouds and the methodical trot of the waxing moon above her.
Emilia was safe.
For the first few days, Emilia thought she’d starve, but she didn’t. She assumed being without water would kill her, so she drank from puddles left on the floor by passing clouds. But drinking didn’t make her feel better nor worse. She had always wondered what she was, and in her solitude, thought back to everything He ever said to her, but nothing helped. All she knew was He called her ‘songbird’ though she was neither a bird nor sung. Emilia mused if the thing that made her a bird was the fact she was in a cage, and thus all caged things were birds. The only real holder of answers had fallen away.
She sat through many lonely days listening to the whistles of wind and chatter of thunderstorms. When she started to forget the sound of His voice, the stairs began to creak again. They moaned as weight climbed them, but the wood’s pain sounded off. Lighter. She imagined Him coming back, wings ripped off somehow, large swathes of His body torn away from the fall, His red eye boiling with rage. Emilia curled up with her single arrow.
Then up the stairs came a human.
He was an older man, gray beard nearly hidden beneath the hood of his brown cloak. A sword hung on his side. Emilia could smell the foul sweat emanating off his shaky body. The older man’s small eyes looked blurry as he stared into the cage, unsure of what they peered at until focusing on Emilia’s tiny, childlike frame. The human’s face shuffled from shock, to pain, to a sad sigh. He walked up to the entrance where He used to stand.
“Child,” the man said, kneeling down to be leveled with her. “Are you perhaps the miracle-granting treasure rumors tell of?”
Emilia stared at him. Scared. Not moving from her safe spot.
“My name is Gerrard.” He waited for Emilia to respond. When Emilia didn’t, Gerrard looked around the cage that held her. He seemed unimpressed. “I can let you out.”
Gerrard produced a golden key that mirrored the glimmer of her bars. The magnetic sight brought Emilia to his side. The only thing in her eyes was the key: a freedom in front of her that she never knew existed. Her mind grappled with questions. He had never mentioned a key, but what Gerrard held looked too much like the golden bars entrapping her to be coincidence. Emilia—so focused on what was in one hand—didn’t notice when the other grabbed her arm and pulled it through the bars. The shock caused her to drop the arrow. It fell point first toward the forest beneath them.
Gerrard set the key down and pulled out a knife. He looked up at her briefly before muttering, “I’m sor—” before his words were lost to her panicked struggles. The tip of his knife pressed into her flesh, split down her bone, and then cut across. Emilia screeched, overwhelmed by the pain before realizing there was none. They both stared down at the bloodless chasm in her forearm. Gerrard pulled apart flesh with his thumbs to examine the wound. Her insides were the color and texture of gray clay.
“A golem, huh.” The older man sighed in relief, letting go of Emilia. The child crawled away, looking back fearfully at him. She wished the arrow had not slipped away. “They made the treasure into a golem. How cruel.”
Gerrard knelt down, picked up the key, and unlocked the entrance. The door swung open, and Emilia could see the uninterrupted sky past Gerrard’s tired face. Between those two points were steps waiting to test the weight of her small feet. Gerrard stood aside, once again waiting to see what she’d do.
Emilia stood up, wondering if her feet were any bigger than a bird’s, and left her cage. Even with such a small body, the wooden steps creaked for her. Her weight sounded real, a reminder that she too existed within this world.
Their trip down was marked with several breaks. Gerrard sounded on the constant brink of exhaustion as they descended the stairs. There were no railings along the side, so whenever he sensed himself swaying or being assailed by gusts of wind, he brought them to a safe stop for growing intermissions.
The farther down the stairs they went, the less blotchy the world seemed to Emilia. Trees gained details, mountain peaks came eye level to her, rivers that scarred through the land revealed themselves. Emilia’s heart raced at the idea of being beneath the trees. Then a creeping doubt snuck up on her like a giant hand threatening to drag her back up. What if what lay at the last step was just a cage of a different kind?
“What am I?” she asked the only person who could give her answers. “Why did you come all this way to free me?”
Gerrard did not look at her, feigning silent ignorance like he didn’t hear the question even though there was nothing else to hear. Emilia gave up hope for an answer before Gerard finally raised his head, looking off at some hidden home beyond the horizon.
“Have you heard the story of the magus stone? No, I don’t think you’d hear any stories up here. Long ago it was said that a mage had constructed a miraculous stone that could grant any wish. It could fill mountains with gold. Bring rain to deserts. Cure the most heinous of diseases.” Gerrard kept staring off, something hidden for him in the horizon. “With a power like that, you could save anyone. But to use the stone, they say all you have to…” Gerrard glanced at her, his eyes widening like he had just caught himself in the middle of a malicious act. “Well the rituals are lost to time. Anyways, the magus guarded himself with a monster, but one day that monster killed the magus instead and stole the stone. It’s said the monster hid it in some nearly unreachable place in the middle of nowhere, killing all who tried to find it.”
“Am I that stone? You called me a golem before, is that what I’m made from? Did you save me so I would have to grant you some wish?” Emilia stared at the man’s face, noticing how the corners of his eyes seemed to well up as some awful memory tugged at his sleeve from the direction of that far off secret he had stared at moments ago. She tried to remember a magus and being stolen away, but all that came to her were the days inside the cage.
“You?” Gerrard wiped away the budding tears with his thumb before looking at her again with conviction. “You are just a normal girl. Don’t think too much on my silly stories. I’m old. I ramble. No, your story is that of a poor child locked away in the sky, and I, the gallant hero here to save you. I’m afraid it’s as dull as that. Sorry I didn’t arrive in my prime.”
“So, you’re just here to save me?” Emilia didn’t believe the man’s words, a distrust building as if she had stumbled upon some awful truth he could not bear to show her. She thought of running down the stairs to get away. “This has nothing to do with my song?”
“Song?” Gerrard appeared genuinely puzzled, a look that took Emilia off guard. His next words were coated with nothing but truth, and Emilia regained a bit of trust in him. “I don’t know anything about that. But on my travels, I came across a kindly town, and a farm with big hearts and a real need for help. If you’d like, I’m sure they’d take you in. Again, only if you’d like. Before anything, we must finish hiking down these awful steps.”
Gerrard hauled himself past her. As they walked, imaginings of a new life gave Emilia a warm feeling she didn’t know her body could feel. She had no concept of a farm but thought she would at least like to see one. Then she could decide for herself if she would want to stay. She had nearly forgotten the ominous story Gerrard had begun and just as quickly ended. She wanted to believe he was just a good-hearted, old hero. Emilia tried not to be bothered by the distance Gerard seemed to create between them as he descended further ahead.
Halfway down the staircase, Emilia started to separate the trees from themselves, no longer just a homogeneous blur. They had life with wind swaying across pines and small creatures hopping from branch to branch. She stood at the elevation of birds, and in a few steps, she’d be below their open wings. A few steps after that, she might even be able to reach down and feel the pine needles prick her fing—
A massive flap of wings tore the air apart, and she knew it was Him. Gerrard didn’t distinguish the sound from the birds but noticed Emilia. Her fearful grimace was warning enough. Gerrard drew his sword, whispering it would be okay. Neither of them saw Him land. They just heard the heavy sound of something slamming down on the stairs beneath them.
He blocked their way. A dozen damp patches of blood spotted His black fur. One of His arms dangled broken at His side, mangled. His wings, wider than she’d ever seen them, folded to His back as His lone red eye gazed past Gerrard like he was nothing but another rolling cloud between Him and her. He didn’t blink as Gerrard angled his sword.
“Songbird, I am so disappointed in you. I didn’t think you would leave your cage. And at the first one to pick up that key I left. After you were so cruel to me, I thought I’d give you a chance. A chance to prove you understood how important it was for you to stay in your place! Oh, songbird, I hoped so much that you would know to shoo him away! But no, you followed!”
“Stay back monster!” Gerrard held his sword low, blade parallel to the slope of the stairs.
He finally focused His red eye on Gerrard and started up the stairs, daring the warrior to fight.
“I’ve been watching, songbird.” The eye blinked, and suddenly the pupil was on Emilia again. “I’m so very disappointed. I don’t know where to begin! Why did you leave? Why didn’t you turn back? The world down there is not for you.”
“I said, ‘Stay back!’”
“I kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting for you to be a good bird and fly back to your cage where it’s safe. I kept saying to myself, ‘Surely she’ll turn around! She has to realize what danger she’s in now that she’s out!’ But you didn’t, songbird. You make me so sad now that I have to put you back myself.”
His ascent stopped as the red eye widened in disbelief.
“Your arm?” He said, His voice a deep tremble only a dozen steps away. His eye focused on the long scar on her arm from Gerrard’s knife. The flesh had come back together nearly seamlessly. Emilia herself had trouble noticing the scar. “What happened to your arm? Did he touch you? Did you let him touch you?”
Gerard took the initiative and charged, covering the distance in one leap with the intent of stabbing his sword down into any bit of flesh it could find. The sword sunk into a shoulder that did not notice. With the non-broken arm, He swatted Gerrard with the back of His hand. Any hope Emilia had of escape blew away at the sound of the old man’s ribs shattering. She watched Gerrard fly toward the center of the staircase, sword still in hand.
The stairs creaked, and Emilia turned from the vanishing Gerrard to the bleeding figure standing in front of her.
“You’ve been cracked, songbird. This is why you should never leave your cage. Come here. It’s time to put you back where you’ll be sa—”
“No!” Emilia’s heel tripped on a step as she shrunk away. Her body tilted, and before she knew it, the sky was beneath her. She felt gravity grasp eagerly at her like she was a denied existence it desperately wanted back. A brief relief danced in her heart before a large hand grabbed her wrist and kept her from falling any further. Emilia saw fear flicker in His red eye before fading through a sigh of relief. Any weight she had was gone, in complete control of the furry hand holding her by the wrist. She hung in the air as fleeting as a cloud, victim to winds out of her control. A plaything at the mercy of the world around her, and that world was the golden cage and Him.
“It’s okay, songbird. There’s no reason to fear. You’re safe. I can make your arm fine again, once you’re safe in your cage.”
Emilia looked down at the forest beneath her feet. She saw a bird sitting on the tip of the highest tree, staring up at her curiously. Emilia wondered if she looked like some kind of dangling fruit praying to be shaken loose. She felt so close to being free, could picture the feeling of pine and branches tickling her soles. The grip on her wrist reminded her just how far away dreams were. She looked up at Him, tears overflowing, wishing her sorrow could drown the both of them at the spot.
“What am I? Some kind of rock? Are you hoarding me, and the miracle I might be able to grant? If you want me to grant you a wish, I’ll try! Just please, let me go! Do I have to sing? Is that why you call me songbird? Please, just let me go!”
“Miracle? Songbird! How could you think that? I have no interest in something so cruel! Believe me! Do you even know how they make such a thing out of you? They smash you. They burn you! They dance to the music of your fire before shoveling your ash in their mouths because they are all monsters! I am not like them! I keep you safe because you are a treasure, songbird. And treasures must be kept safe and hidden away! That is the nature of treasures, and the nature of thankless guardians like me. Don’t cry! No one will ever touch you, or hurt you, or burn you!” He lifted her up so that her face was level with His massive red eye. “Remember this songbird, you can never leave your cage. You think the world outside is wonderful, but it is not. That awful human didn’t tell you what he planned to do, did he? He didn’t! I know! I listened! He lied! You are not some simple girl. There is no peaceful life on a farm for you. Only death. Stop crying, songbird. Stop it! Please stop, you’re making such a dreadful noise! Come, let’s get you back where you’ll be safe, and things will be back to norm—”
In the brief moment between sobs, Emilia saw Gerrard sprint up the stairs, his sword in hand, pointed at the figure holding her. Gerrard threw his whole weight into one thrust and put his blade through the winged back. Like every wound, He didn’t notice, unflinching as the whole of a sword slid through and out His chest. He didn’t notice any inch of it. Not until the tip stabbed into Emilia’s belly.
The red eye followed the line of steel and winced as it cut into her. The fear in Him appeared so real, Emilia thought she might be dreaming. She never thought He could be frightened. The shock loosened his fingers enough that Emilia’s tiny hand slipped out. The tip of the blade cut all the way up past her shoulder, and Emilia fell away toward the ground.
Emilia felt the wind wrap around her as His shape shrunk, and the sun’s rays blotted Him out. He screamed some guttural plea, but the excited winds chattered so loudly she could not make out a single word.
He dived down after her, His red eye still panicking. He tried desperately to catch up. Gerrard had climbed onto His back, knife in hand, and stabbed at the spot where wing connected to shoulder. None of the stabs fazed Him as His looming shape began to grow at Emilia. When He stretched out His black wings, the snap of air pulled on chopped flesh, and His black wing popped out of the socket. It flapped behind Him, finally eliciting a screech of pain. Emilia knew it was for her, not the wing.
With His one angry hand, He grabbed Gerrard by the shoulder and flung him off. Emilia’s eyes followed Gerrard’s flipping body before it landed spine first on the side of a step. Gerrard’s entire torso folded back. His dagger flew out his dead hand.
“Songbird! Quick! Take my hand!” Despite the stab wounds and sword still through Him, He stretched a hand out to Emilia. He exerted it as far as it could go. Emilia imagined Him trying to rip Himself apart just to become a little longer so He could touch her. “Please! I need you! I need to protect you! It’s all I know how to do! My treasure! My songbird!”
Emilia did not reach out for Him. She put out her arms to both sides and closed her eyes. She pictured herself a bird, soaring through the air, wind as eager to meet her as she was to meet it. The illusion felt blissful, if only lasting a moment.
Her body fell through the forest canopy, thin limbs crashing and breaking through pine branches until her whole being came to a quiet stillness. When she opened her eyes, Emilia thought a specter of death loomed above her. A being of shadow stared down from the sky with light splintered around and through it. As Emilia’s eyes adjusted, she realized what hung above her were branches blotting the sun. Bits of light escaped through their cracks. A distant hole revealed the empty sky she had escaped from. He was nowhere to be seen. Not even as a winged shadow returning to His cage.
Emilia moved, her motions awkward as the branches that had pierced her clay body impaired her movements. Pine needles porcupined her sides, determined to stay where they were. One by one, she plucked each gift of the forest from her and tossed them away. Her wounds closed, leaving a faint pattern of scars. Beneath Emilia, a bed of broken branches held her up off the ground and invited her to stay, though the thought of rest never crossed her mind.
Emilia twisted her body up to stand on the pile, her weight making the web of wood shudder. Then, with a short hop, she found herself on the rough ground with two feet, the world beneath her no longer creaking.
Joshua Flowers is a graduate of the University of Maine Farmington and has lived in Maine for over a decade despite a tumultuous history with snow and ice. His work has been seen in Flash Fiction Magazine and The Literary Hatchet. He tweets his existential crises on his Twitter.