White wings flashing in the gloom. Kingfisher. Perch, a hoarse rattle; head cocked, black eyes intent as I paddle upstream. Swoop to a new branch; chatter. He leads. I follow.
Where, kingfisher, where do you lead me? To a land of song, where every day is seven years, or seventy? To a princess in need of rescue, or a prince, or an old woman who will grant me three wishes or turn me into a frog if I can’t answer her riddle? To somewhere, anywhere, that is not here?
Or should that be, “Whither leadest thou, kingfisher?” When one follows an avian guide into the deepest woods, does one address the bird in the familiar or the formal form?
I didn’t set out to follow a kingfisher up the river, but then, who does? I left early, my house still warm and coffee-scented, even the dog still asleep, to drive over the mountain and through the morning mist — autumn coming faster than I’d like — to do some paddling before holiday crowds overran the little man-made lake where I dropped my kayak in the water. I seek solitude there, not noisy children and picnickers. My preferred companions are iridescent dragonflies and scarlet-and-yellow-striped turtles basking in the morning sun. Even the orange bobbers of early fisherman, a generally silent breed, are enough to spoil my mood. I get enough of people the rest of the time, and more than enough.
I paddled hard, fleeing the parking area and any stray people. The kingfisher was just another bird among the many who filled my ears with song so dense that no single voice stood out from the rest. I could distinguish the red-winged blackbird guarding his bit of streambank only because I could see him sing.
I slalomed my kayak around the fallen logs that nearly blocked the stream. The kingfisher sat on a hemlock bough, dragging it down slightly over the first fork in the stream, watching me with black eyes from under his messy mohawk. I pointed my kayak up the left fork, questing for turtles along the sunlit banks.
The kingfisher swooped across my path, white underwings catching the light, rattling furiously. He flew across the stream then back again, scolding me all the while, diving low across my bow then rising to perch in an ash tree leaning out across the right-hand tributary. Curious, I slid across the current and entered that branch. The kingfisher darted ahead, keeping just in sight, chattering at length about my slow pace from a sequence of branches.
Of course I followed the kingfisher. I raised myself on princesses and goblins, magic and music and glittering dragon hoards. I papered over it with science, but you can still see the unicorn-shaped lumps if you know where to look.
Of course I followed, even as I reminded myself that the most persistent bird is still just a bird, neither guide nor messenger. No fairyland would await me around the last bend, no palace of rainbow-hued shell, no enchanted king and sleeping court. No pomegranate seeds to avoid, no youngest daughter to dance with or eldest daughter to kiss. Not a single old lady to be kind to.
You probably know the stories as well as I do, dear reader: three riddles, three quests, who to befriend and who to avoid, how to win a kingdom and a beautiful wife. An escape from your everyday life, something special, something secret, but wrapped in tricks and illusions. If you didn’t throw this story away as useless escapist fluff after the first sentence, you know.
The silence rose slowly. It must have, because I didn’t notice until every noise was gone but the kingfisher’s chatter. No sounds of people, no birdsong, not even a rising trout or rustling leaf. Me, a bird, and the splash of my paddle dipping in and out.
The stream curved out of sight before me. I knew these waters intimately, had spent nearly every summer Sunday morning tracing its bends and ripples: my own personal worship. I pictured what lay around that bend: a sandbar, a trout pool, a small spit scarlet with cardinalflowers this time of year, fallen tree trunks that blocked my path.
And yet. I clutched a tiny nubbin of doubt, a seed dropped into my heart by the kingfisher. The stream, opening out before me, a hand raised with a sword, or a canopied barge fit for a queen, but empty. The stream braided into a moat encircling a castle wrapped in thorny roses and humming with bees, or spread into a bog full of will’o’wisps and drowned ghosts, or naiads draped fetchingly in shallow pools.
Why else would a kingfisher be leading me into the woods. Why else would I follow?
The participants in an arranged marriage must feel something like I felt as I ducked under the last fallen log, a mixture of fear and anticipation, excitement and dread swirling inside them. Life will change, but the manner is still unknown.
Sandbar. Snags. Trout in the crystal water. Even my guide vanished. Silence, stillness. Me, my boat, the glimmer of sunlight on the rippling current, a hummingbird in the cardinalflowers.
This is where I should deny any anticipation, where I ought to assure you that I never had even a flicker of doubt about what I’d see, where I paper over a kingfisher-sized lump while you and I speak knowingly to each other about the difference between reality and fantasy.
But no. This is where I scrawl “Follow the kingfisher!” across the wallpaper in silver spraypaint. This is where I point my kayak upstream.
About the Author
Sarah Goslee is a cyborg, a mad scientist, and a string enthusiast. She writes about all of those things, often in less than 140 characters as @phiala, and in rather more than 140 at sarahgoslee.com. She spends a lot of time kayaking in central Pennsylvania, and this story is entirely true.