Carolina’s eyes fluttered open. Her head throbbed. Jagged edges dug into her abdomen. She caught her breath and glanced down. It was a timber, as long as her legs, its splinters poking against her tender belly and digging into her ribs. Her heart pounded through her chest, but her vision was clearing. She glanced around. She was lying on a sea of timbers crammed onto the floor of what . . . a cave? Smooth tree limbs jutted out from its sides. Smaller branches connected with bigger branches, yet the thinner limbs had no heft. How could anything build a sturdy home in a tree like that? She shook off the splinters and rose carefully, trying to get her bearings.
She waited for the whirr of crickets, the bellow of a bullfrog—any sound from the marsh. Nothing. Not even the snap of an angry gator. She never thought she’d miss the snarl of that greedy old, knotty-old beast, who ate and ate even when his belly was bursting with crawfish.
How could she have blown so far off course?
She hung her head, letting it rest on her chest. Without her mother or grandmother to guide her, she didn’t know what to do. She hadn’t eaten a morsel before this whole mess started. So, she set out in search of food, creeping toward the front of the cave. When she reached the entrance, she peered out. A stone mountain straighter and more massive than anything she’d ever seen hovered less than a sapling’s length away. She craned her head upward, straining to take in its full measure. It loomed bigger than the swamp cypress. Larger still than the great granddaddy oak where apple snails laid their eggs all over its branches like lush pink pinecones. How she’d been swept into some mysterious grotto and not smashed into the side of that hulking rock was beyond her ken. It wasn’t her time, she supposed. Not yet.
To the left, the path was open and nearly clear of the mist and fog shrouding the cave. So she headed right instead. The morning air hung thick with haze, shielding her until she could rustle up some breakfast. As she ventured forth, she cleaved to the side of the mountain for greater cover. Something caught her eye. Nettle leaves. Never particularly fond of “fairy ferns,” as her mother called them, like something swamp sprites had hand spun with knitting needles. But she could stomach them—if she chewed carefully, eating around the spiny hairs. Usually, nettles meant a nearby stream, promising a near breakfast buffet, but she’d nibble on nettles if she had nothing else to sustain her.
As she inched closer, feeling the plant for telltale needles, a colossal roaring monster lumbered around the side of the mountain. Whirling arms forged from iron chewed up the wet grass and the clay beneath it, regurgitating it into the air, burying everything in its wake. Then it spit out a thick cover of poison seeds. Her grandmother told her to never eat those perfectly round white balls with the robin-egg blue flecks in them, no matter how hungry she felt, not ever. Because they would kill her like it did her grandmother’s children—all but one. Carolina’s mother.
The beast rumbled straight toward her. She raced back to the cave and darted to the furthermost corner, huddling on top of the timbers, letting them graze her flesh, eyes clenched shut, holding her body as stiff as one of those cave branches, to make her forget her empty belly. She waited and waited and waited. When she believed her head would split in two from the monster’s thunder, the roaring stopped. It was over. The creature had eaten its fill and moved onto another place to terrorize more inhabitants.
Slowly, she opened her eyes, her eyes darting left and right. Under the shadow of a low-hanging limb, something else had taken shelter in that cave. It had a small, compact body, stubby and soft around the edges.
“Who’s there?” she called out.
“Whoever you are, I’m not afraid of you. I’m fierce. I just shooed away the Great Clawing Monster.”
“Me,” a tiny voice called. “It’s just me. Can you help? Please?”
At the sound of his needy rasp, Carolina felt the sting of isolation. She missed her mother and her grandmother. She longed for her swamp friends. Would she ever see anyone she loved or anyone who loved her ever again? She crept forward, her steps as measured as a great heron’s. “Come out. Where I can see you.”
A snip of a creature raised its head and met her gaze. “I’m Ben,” he said. “They sent me for help. My family. They’re in trouble. That bloodthirsty Red Tail is back.” He whimpered. “Demon! He’s our enemy. He kidnapped my brother and tore him to shreds. No one is safe from his clutches.”
Carolina sighed, shaking her head. “I can’t help you. I don’t know where I am. Somehow I ended up here, wherever this is—a long, long way from my home. I’m…starved. Ravenous. I haven’t eaten for hours, maybe days. I can’t—”
“We have food,” Ben said. “If you can get me back to my family, we have plenty to eat. Are you smart?”
“Smart enough to know my limits.”
“If you come with me, help me find them, they will share what they have. When your belly is full, we can hatch a plan to get rid of Red Tail.”
Carolina said nothing. She had to conserve her energy. She hadn’t seen him clearly enough to know who or what this Ben was. Was he for real or a big faker, like the mockingbird? The mockingbird who imitated everyone’s call. Once she followed the wha-wha-wha of a nuthatch, desperate to find him. Another one of the mockingbird’s stupid tricks, a silly ruse, at her expense.
“Step away from that branch, so I can see what you are,” she said.
“No,” Ben said. “I don’t want to get eaten any more than you do. You come closer.”
“All right.” She inched toward the front of the cave. His voice was young, vulnerable. But she still had to be careful. “Don’t move a muscle. Or I’ll shriek. A fox may hear my cry and snap your head off at the neck because he can get to you before he can reach me.”
Ben began to sob. His chest puffed in and out, panting faster than a tree frog.
“Don’t cry. Didn’t mean to scare you. I don’t know who to trust around here. They call me Carolina.”
Ben sniffled. “Well . . . you . . . can . . . trust . . . me,” he said, struggling to catch his breath.
“Shhh. Take one big breath and fill your lungs. Then let the air out slowly.”
A clap of thunder shuddered through the cave, knocked them off their feet. In an instant, the heavens belched rain like an engorged river had ripped through the guts of an angry thunderhead, far too rapidly for the ground to absorb a fury of water. The run-off was filling up the cave.
“Get up,” Carolina cried. “Get yourself onto one of those branches.”
“We can’t stay in here,” he protested. “We will surely drown.”
She flew to his side. “Maybe. But we won’t drown as fast.” She helped him scuttle to safety, perching on a high limb. The water had risen half a foot already. Ben clung to her side, while Carolina considered how to save herself . . . and Ben, she supposed. The rainwater reached the tops of their feet and kept rising, the current teasing them further into the cave.
“I can’t hold on any longer,” Ben cried.
“You and me. We hardly weigh anything. Lay back. Let your head touch the water. Ease into the current.” She tilted her head back to show him, and in the next instant, she floated atop a current heading toward the cave’s interior.
“Let go. Float. Now.”
As he cried out in desperation, his body was lifted off the branch he clung to, buffeted by the rushing water, now floating faster than her because of his feather-light frame.
The pressure of the flood waters pushed them deeper and deeper toward shadowy oblivion and their certain demise until a clamor like something ripping in two resounded throughout the cave. The force of the water tore a hole through the far edge and sent them careening out the other side, headlong into the storm. Their heads bounced atop the water as the river continued to churn, roiling in on itself, Carolina and Ben bouncing over the swells.
Stinging sprays pelted them as whitecaps collapsed, dragging them under, and then catapulting them out of the water like flying fish. Ben slammed headfirst into the deadly current just ahead of her. Then his head was dragged under as the water convulsed over him. Faster and faster, she tumbled over and through the waves.
The raging water spit her up and pummeled her into the top of a huge mound, where she lay prostrate, gasping to fill her lungs. She lifted her head to gulp in air and glimpsed a tiny blue cap bobbing along in the rushing water. She scrambled down the side of the crag and reached for the little blue crest, hanging on with every tendon in her feet. She plucked the lifeless form out of the river and cradled it to her side, scaling back up the mountainside. When she reached the top, she laid him face up, as the clouds parted overhead and the morning sun emerged. The bad weather clearing was a good omen, but she still feared the worst.
As quickly as the river had swelled up, it was now subsiding, revealing more of the stinking heap that had saved them and the strange surrounds below. No cypress. No meandering current. Not even the buzz of mosquitos.
There were flies everywhere. Nasty black ones, nearly covering the mound, with maggots wriggling through in spots. Below lay a pasture overrun with clover. And a rooster skewered on a stick atop a gable. A barn gable? Someone painted a funny round sign with a plumed red and yellow bird smack in the middle of it. Some territorial marking? No matter. It had to be a barn, which was all that mattered. Precious shelter for them, if Ben survived.
She could head there herself and search for nourishing food. Not even her grandmother, not even during the time of the Great Wind Waters, would allow her family to eat maggots. Maggots could make even the healthiest among them turn deadly ill with one bite. If Ben woke up, she’d signal him and tell him to join her. Surely there were plenty of tasty morsels in that barn for both of them.
Ben’s chest rose slightly. He’d survived. She rustled him awake, nudging his limbs and feet to get his blood pumping. His eyes blinked open.
“You made it,” Carolina cried, ushering him to his feet. “We did it.”
“I can’t believe it,” Ben whispered. “The flood didn’t kill us.”
“No, it didn’t. We beat it, Ben. We outsmarted it.”
“You outsmarted it. You’re the smartest whatever-you-are I ever met.”
Carolina’s heart swelled. His gratitude meant everything. And likely nothing because they still had to get to that barn for food and shelter. The flood waters were waning but still swirled around the maggot-riddled mound. “You’re on your feet. Let’s go.”
Ben peered over the side. “I can’t make it through that water.”
“What do you mean you can’t? You’re a—”
“Can’t fly. Not yet,” he confessed, contracting his sodden feathers, feeling deep shame that he was a fledgling.
“Well, of course, you can’t. Not with those soggy things. Shake yourself dry, and we’ll practice.” She puffed out her chest since flying was her greatest talent. “Right here on top of this pile.”
Two flashes of blue emerged from the eaves of the barn, flittering toward the smelly heap. “Ben,” the bluest of them chirruped. “Ben! We’ve been looking for you.”
The duller bird of the pair glided to a stop beside them.
“Mama,” Ben cried. “I thought I’d never see you again.” He nestled against his mother, dissolving into tears, while his father perched on his other side. Ben looked in Carolina’s direction. “She saved me. I wouldn’t have made it without her.”
“Who is this brave bird who saved our baby?” his father asked.
Carolina stepped forward. “Carolina Wren.”
His father gasped. “Carolina, you say? How did you wind up in these parts?”
“We had a Great Wind Water that swept me up and dropped me here. Wherever this is.”
“Big Barns. You’re in Big Barns now.”
Carolina winced. She had never heard of Big Barns or seen those funny unnatural bird decorations before. “All I know is I am very far from the big swamp I call home.”
A gigantic winged shadow swept over them, looming overhead.
“Hawk!” Ben’s mother cried. “It’s Red Tail!” She crouched over Ben, protecting him with her wing.
“I’ll give him chase,” Ben’s father said. “You two, get Ben off the top of this mound and hide on the side with no sunlight.”
“No,” Carolina said. Hawks loved baby birds, especially the tender flesh of a baby bluebird. “I’ll do it. You are a family.” She knew she would never see her loved ones again. The hollowness and the sadness of living apart from everyone and everything she cherished overcame her. “Get out of here. Go!”
Red Tail toyed with the little band, lifted his wings, and circled the heap one last time. He was the expert flyer, not Carolina. In his next breath, he descended into a death spiral, engorged with bloodlust, wings spreading, tail expanding, claws gaping, ready for the kill. He swooped down to snatch Carolina just as Ben’s family clambered over the side to safety.
Carolina fluttered her wings to escape, but everything she faced in the last hours of her life had sorely depleted her strength and her resolve. The hawk’s eager talons sunk into her back, but not before she pecked a hole in its belly. The hawk raged in agony and dug his claws deeper into her flesh. Delicate chestnut brown feathers fluttered to the ground like leaves on a blustery day in Lowcountry. Hers, she knew. She glanced below. The raging river had slowed to a trickling stream.
Her unexpected sojourn was not for nothing. She had wounded Red Tail. Ben and his family would make it safely to the barn. Today, her mother and grandmother would have been proud of her, she thought, as the blood streamed from her side, and she summoned her final breath.