There once lived a quill-maker who carved fables into feathers. She dwelt alone in a wooden cabin, at the edge of a mountain range that jutted up sharply into the sky like teeth. She sometimes thought she lived in the bones of a great dragon which roamed the earth long ago, large enough to kiss the stars with fire.
Each morning, she rose with the sun and went out into the woods to collect feathers. The birds knew her and flocked to her eagerly, for she fed them seeds and stories in the dim morning light. In return, they gave her preened feathers of all colors and shapes, which she tucked away in her basket.
In the afternoons, she washed the feathers, sorted them, and lay them out to dry in the sun. And by the last light of day, she sat by her hearth and carved stories into the shafts of the feathers, fairy tales and fables and epic adventures. At the end of every week, she traveled down into the valley to the village, where she sold her prized quills to the traveling salesman who took them far and wide.
On a cloudy morning that smelled of rain and dew, she found a boy in the woods, sleeping near the tangled roots of a birch tree. He was small, covered in earth and leaves, and muttered through pouting lips as he dreamed.
The quill-maker roused the boy gently. Upon seeing her, his eyes widened in fear and he dashed away, deeper into the woods towards the mountains. She chased after him but could not hope to catch him, young and spry as he was. Reluctantly, she gave up and watched, gasping for breath, as he vanished amongst the brambles and pines.
She gathered feathers slowly that day, hoping to find signs of the boy as she wandered the woods. He was nowhere to be found.
That night, she left a clay plate of food on the low stone wall near her garden, along with a cup of water. In the morning, the food was gone, but she found no other trace of the boy.
The village was a half day’s journey down into the valley. It was a small town, and she knew everyone in it. He was not from there. She had never seen another soul in these woods, not so near to the mountains. She worried for him constantly. It was not safe to be alone in the wild, left to the mercy of the sun and the earth.
Each morning and night for many days, the quill-maker left food out for the boy. She never saw him take it, but every time she woke or returned from gathering feathers, the food was gone.
After thirteen days, she went to pick up the plate and discovered a collection of wildflowers resting on the stone wall. She put them in a jar of water and placed the bouquet proudly on her windowsill so he could see them.
One afternoon when the sun was hot overhead and the doves sang requiems from the pine trees, the quill-maker spotted the boy at the edge of the woods, watching her as she lay her feathers out to dry. She said nothing, did nothing to acknowledge his presence.
The boy crept closer, feet sly and soft like a deer. The quill-maker rearranged her feathers, humming to herself. When the boy was close enough to hear, she spoke, low and calm like the sound of the trees. She told him a story.
“Once, there was a young boy whose voice was lovely enough to send the wildflowers into bloom. He wandered the woods, singing songs without words, until he reached a wide river.
“Some of the prideful willow trees by the river bent to listen, and their branches drooped so at the sorrowful beauty of his song that the trees could not raise them again.
“The river stood still at the melody, and he crossed into the field beyond without wetting his feet. Behind him, a lake began to form.
“The birds in the field sat hushed, the deer lay down beside the wolves, and the whole of the earth listened to him sing. Even the sun came a bit nearer in the heavens and was so moved by his voice, she cried tears of gold that fell onto the field like rain. Where the tears landed, dandelions grew, proud and strong and full of music.
“The boy wanders the wilds to this day, singing and shaping the earth as he goes.”
The quill-maker glanced at the boy, who now stood near enough that she could get a proper look at him. He was small, with thin arms and legs, dark like the shadows that dappled the forest floor. His curly brown hair framed his head in a wild halo that looked fiery in the sunlight.
She smiled at him. He grinned back, golden eyes shining.
“Do you know any more stories?” he asked.
The quill-maker chuckled. “A few.”
That night, the boy ate with the quill-maker on her doorstep. He was wary of the cabin and did not want to enter, preferring the company of the open air. She left the door open so he could watch while she carved quills. While she worked, she told him fairy tales until he fell asleep, curled up on the grass under the first light of the stars.
The next day, she woke to a bowlful of wild berries on her doorstep. The boy stood outside by the stone wall, watching the sun rise as if longing to join it in the sky.
“Good morning,” she called. He turned and smiled at her.
“Would you like to gather feathers with me today?” she asked.
He nodded, clearly eager to return to the woods.
She picked up her basket and they set off, into the cool and dewy morning. The birds flocked as they always did, but seemed to favor the boy over the quill-maker. They brought her feathers and showered him with gifts of nuts and twigs and dandelions.
When her basket was full, they returned to the cabin and he helped her wash feathers in a bucket of cool water from the stream. The quill-maker flicked droplets at him which shone like diamonds in the sun as they fell. He splashed a handful of water at her in return and they began to laugh. The quill-maker realized she had never heard a sound so sweet.
“Where are you from?” she asked, setting a brilliantly white feather out to dry.
The boy shrugged and pointed up, towards where the peak of the tallest mountain touched the sun.
The quill-maker glanced at the mountaintop for a moment and imagined the boy stepping out of the sun itself, making his way down the great dragon’s tooth to her. She was struck with fear that one day, the sky would call him back.
“Do you have a name?”
“Cyrus,” he replied.
“Where is your family?”
He shook his head. “I have none.”
She turned to him and smiled, marveling at the way the day brightened around him.
“You do now.”