The thief fell from the tower’s upper window. She had lost her precarious grip on the pitted brick. She remembered that she should roll herself up into a loose ball to protect her head and neck. But by the time she remembered, she had already struck the first branch of the tree in the orchard below. Then she struck another and another. Scratched and thrashed and bounced about, she finally reached the ground, thankful that the soil was soft. She lay there for far too long a moment. The breath had been knocked out of her. And she feared moving for fear she might discover that she could not.
But she heard voices, shouting, lights coming on, the barking of dogs from the other side of the courtyard. She wiggled her fingers and toes, then bent her limbs, and at last, tried turning her head, and sitting up. She felt pain all over, and though it would slow her down, she was heartened. Her injuries could not be so bad if she could feel them all. Already, her wounds throbbed and stung and twinged, but she managed to limp toward that little hole in the courtyard fence through which she had crawled to intrude on the domain of the lord—the rich lord—of the western province.
When the thief woke the next morning, in her own bed, still dressed in the garb she had worn the night before, and still clutching the pouch full of pilfered treasure against her chest, she could not recall how she had managed to make it all the way home on her own.
She sat up slowly. Her whole body was sore. And she noted that her wounds had been cleaned and bandaged. She frowned.
Someone entered her bedchamber then and the thief gave a start. She clutched the pouch tighter and she moved her other hand toward the knife she kept on her belt, but it was not there.
“Who are you?” the thief asked.
“I’m a healer,” the woman answered. And she was indeed dressed in the garb of a healer, with her hair tied up and covered by a yellow scarf, and her dress overlaid with a white apron that was stained with spatters of blood.
The healer explained that the thief had come to her house in the middle of the night and asked for help for a handsome fee.
“I refused to help and I refused the fee, but you insisted on both,” the healer said. “And you asked that I be quick and then let you sleep. But my conscience would not let me leave you.”
“You’re a skilled healer, then,” the thief said, flexing the fingers of her right hand. “I could have sworn that the first finger of this hand was broken, cracked at least.”
“Well, you’ve caught me, then, haven’t you, thief?”
The thief’s eyes widened and she gazed at the woman, who began to transform. She grew taller. Her shoulders widened. Her arms and legs thickened. The features of her face sharpened. And her healer’s garb dissolved away, replaced by a black suit and robes that sparkled. And she was no longer a woman, but nor was she a man. For the figure now standing before the thief could only be one of the world-watchers, or as some referred to them, the “lesser gods.”
He crossed his arms and cocked his head, and smiled at the thief. “Now then,” he said. “About your crimes.”
The thief clutched at the pouch. “I will not return it.”
“Done is done. You cannot return what you have taken. Not now. Not without punishment.”
The thief’s expression grew dark. “Then you are here to punish me? At his behest? The lord of the western province is richer than I’d thought.”
“I am in no one’s pocket, dear thief. It would surprise me if your lord yet knew what was taken much less who took it. My reasons are my own. And I am not here to offer you punishment. For there is an alternative. I am here to offer you penance. I have a task that needs to be done. A clandestine task for which you are aptly fit.”
“Unless the task you speak of is thieving, you are mistaken, watcher.” Though the thief was still suspicious, she conversed with the god in the hopes that she could steady her mind and use it to escape.
“The thieving is done,” the watcher said. He placed a black-gloved hand upon his chest. “I have done it. But the treasure I have stolen is not yet safe. I need you to bring it to safety.” His gaze flicked down to the pouch that the thief still clutched. “And your fee for successfully completing your task is that your crime—all your crimes—will be forgiven. I will see to it.”
The thief’s eyes, already wide with disbelief, somehow widened all the more. She peered at the eyes of the one who stood before her, wondering if she had been mistaken. Perhaps despite his stature and the inherent glow about his person, he was not what she had thought. But she saw within his eyes what she expected to see. The black centers of his eyes swirled with stars. He was indeed a watcher. A god.
And if she made a deal with him, he would honor it.
“If I may ask, what is the task?”
The watcher frowned. “Of course you may. Who would expect one to make a deal without knowing what the deal was?” He cocked his head, then straightened it. “You mortals, after you die, your souls, the only parts of you that are eternal, do not remain in this realm. Each soul has one of two fates. You know this, do you not?”
The thief nodded.
The god continued. “Those souls who are honest, flawed perhaps, but ultimately honest, pass into the afterworld, to rest or to adventure, as they choose.” He smiled, then let his smile fade. “Those souls who are corrupt, damaged by the foul deeds done during mortal life, pass into the netherworld, to abide in torment forever. A fitting punishment for some, I would say.” He paused and dropped his gaze. “But not for all who end up there.”
He raised his gaze and again looked upon the thief. “I found a soul that was sent to the netherworld and did not belong there. I have stolen it.” He uncrossed his arms, and in his right hand, he held a shimmering black feather. “And I need for you to carry it to the gates of the afterworld.”
The thief did not ask why the god would need the help of a mortal. To her it was obvious. The god would be watched. Perhaps he was already suspected. She herself had often passed on stolen goods to another carrier, someone she could trust, to either ferry the goods to another place or sell them on her behalf.
The god explained further that if accompanied by a mortal, the soul would be invisible, unremarkable, to the eyes of the netherworld gods. He set the feather down on the thief’s bed.
“You have only three days before it is too late,” the watcher said. “By evenfall on the third day, you must be at the gates of the afterworld. If you are not, then the spell I have placed on the soul to keep it in the mortal world will fail, and the soul will sink into the netherworld.” He glanced at the black feather with a tender look. Then he raised his brows and looked at the thief, as he reached out his hand. “I will place a map within your mind.”
The thief nodded, and he touched her temple. The knowledge of the route she must take appeared in her mind.
She reached for the black feather, noting that the pain in her arm and fingers had almost melted away. The watcher was a skilled healer indeed. The thief gripped the tip of the feather and tried to lift it. It felt as if it were stuck. She did not want to damage it, so she gently pulled, slowly increasing the force of her effort.
The feather would not move.
“Why do you hesitate?” the watcher asked.
The thief exhaled a heavy breath, noting that her breathing was much easier now. She tried again to lift the feather, this time gripping the middle of the shaft and taking lesser care about crushing the vanes. The muscles of her arm strained. She held her breath and she tried, first with one hand, then with both. She huffed out a breath as she let go.
She looked over at the watcher, who glanced between her and the feather.
“The soul is too heavy,” she said. “I cannot lift it.”
The god stepped toward her. “This cannot be.”
“Perhaps you were wrong. Perhaps this soul’s crimes are too great and it deserves to be in the netherworld.”
The god frowned at her. “I am not wrong. And you must find a way.”
“Is there something you can do to help me? You gave me a map. Can you give me a container, an enchanted pouch, perhaps, that can bear the soul’s weight?”
The god shook his head, and his brows remained furrowed, though now it was in thinking not in frowning. “You must bear the weight yourself.”
“Then, can you make me stronger? You have healed me. You can make me strong enough to—“
“No! It would be noticed. There are some gifts I can give you that are easily dismissed. Like the healing and the map. But other gifts would be noticed. I want no immortal eyes to fall upon you and wonder why I favor you. I cannot make you strong, but…I can give you a gift by which you might make yourself strong. It is a powerful gift, bestowed upon many of your kind, but few are daring enough to use it.” He reached out and touched her shoulder this time.
“I grant you the power of transformation,” he said. “You will now be able to change your form, shift your shape, into whatever you envision. But take care that you only use the power in service of the task I’ve given you, or you will lose it. And do not draw attention to yourself.”
The thief nodded. She held back a grin until the watcher melted away into a gray mist that dispersed before her eyes. All pain was now gone from her body, which hummed and thrummed with the power of transformation.
Of course she thought of all the little, agile creatures she could transform herself into so that she sneak into the richest of castles and carry away gems one by one. Perhaps, once her task was complete, the watcher would let her keep the power. Perhaps she could make a suitable bargain, like promising to give a greater portion of her pilfered goods to the poor and the helpless than she already did (when it suited her to do so).
She looked at the shimmering black feather that lay upon her bed without making the slightest dent, and she knew exactly how she would lift it.
By the route that the watcher had given her, it would only take her two days to reach the gates of the afterworld, provided she did not meet with any major mishaps. So she had an entire day to figure out how to lift and carry the soul.
The thief peered at the feather. It was an amusing and ironic disguise, considering something as weighty as a soul should probably be shaped like a bar of metal.
The only way to lift something so heavy was to become stronger, and the only way to become stronger, was to become bigger. The thief called upon her power of transformation and she made herself grow bigger and bigger. Each time she grew, she tried to lift the feather. And each time, she failed to budge it or nudge it even a little. She grew so big that she feared she would not fit through the doors of her secluded cottage, so she went outside. She stood outside the open window to her bedchamber. As long as her hand could fit through the window and reach the feather, she could keep growing, and she did. She reached through the window, growing as she did, until she was a giant, and the fingers of her hand were too big to grip the feather. So she tried to lift the bed. But she could not.
“What are you doing?” someone asked.
The thief was startled and she knocked over a number of things in her bedchamber as she drew her hand and arm out of the window. She turned slowly, for she was too big to turn quickly, and spotted a small man standing just beside her.
The thief shrunk herself back to her normal size, watching the man. The man, dressed in a rich suit the color of eggplant and sporting two long pointed ears poking through thick tufts of black and silver hair, peered through the window.
“Is that a soul?” he asked. And his silver eyes glittered. He turned to her. “May I have it?”
The thief kicked herself for doing the first thing that the god had warned her against doing. For she had drawn attention to herself. And that attention, as misfortune would have it, was that of a fairy. She could offer him all the jewels and powers in the realm, and he would have refused them all. Nothing was as rare and precious to a fairy as that which they could never have, a soul.
For a moment, the thief considered letting the fairy try to lift the feather. Surely he would not be able to if she were not able to. But she was not confident or reckless enough to take that risk.
“You may not have it,” the thief said. “I am its guardian.”
“Then you shouldn’t leave it just lying around,” the fairy said as he leapt through the window before she could stop him.
With another leap, he was atop her bed. He reached for the feather and then found himself restrained.
A giant hand had come through the window and wrapped itself around the fairy. The thief’s hand. The fairy was slippery. The thief felt him sliding out of her grip. She pulled him out through the window. And not knowing what else to do, she reached her arm back and threw the fairy as far as she could.
It would not kill him. Fairies were light on their feet. And she hoped that his attention was just as light. And that he would forget her and the black feather as some other wonder caught his eye. But she was wrong. He would not forget. He would return.
Becoming a giant had failed. So the thief next transformed herself into a being both powerful and also common-looking, a mage. She hoped to cast a spell to create a container that could bear the soul’s weight so she could carry it on her person. This too she failed to do. By midday, she was becoming nervous, for she had to set out the next day. And that was when some force knocked down her front door, and the fairy she had thrown, leapt through it.
And so began the thief’s battle with the fairy.
He cast spells upon her, but she was able to counter, for she was still a mage. She cast spells to hinder and foil the fairy. And he was able to counter her as well. They battled that way for hours. The thief-as-mage managed to keep the fairy away from the feather, but she could not keep it up forever. She was still mortal and would have to eat and rest. The fairy did not seem to be tiring. The thief wished she could transform the feather. But she could not transform or disguise the feather. She could only transform herself. So she transformed herself into a black bird with feathers the same shape, size, and color as the soul. She flew around her bedchamber shedding dozens upon dozens of her own feathers. Then she perched upon her windowsill and watched the fairy.
“I have disturbed the soul,” she said. “It now lies among all these other common feathers.”
The fairy began to lift the feathers one by one. The thief knew that the soul was still lying on her bed where it had lay since the watcher placed it there. But the fairy did not know that, for the fairy did not know that the thief could not lift the soul.
“Your task is futile,” the thief said. “You will not be able to distinguish the soul from all the other feathers.”
“And why not?” the fairy asked, though he did indeed seem troubled and overwhelmed by the abundance of feathers.
“The soul is shaped like a feather because it is as light as a feather. When you lift it up, it will seem to you as any other feather.”
“Then I will take them all,” the fairy said, his silver eyes gleaming with mischief.
The thief feigned indifference. She shrugged her black wings. “Take them. You will not be able to tell which is which, and when you are least vigilant, I will come and steal it back from you.”
To the thief’s surprise, the fairy gave a cry of frustration and leapt away.
The thief transformed into her native shape. She waited a while for the fairy to return and resume their skirmish. When he did not, she peered at the shimmering black feather lying on her bed underneath her common feathers.
Something had occurred to her as she spoke to the fairy. Something came to her. Something she had not considered.
Could there be truth in her ruse? Was the soul shaped like a feather because it was as light as a feather? And was it so because the god was right, that the soul was not heavy with crimes, and did not belong in the netherworld? But it couldn’t be true. The thief had tried to pick the feather up, and had been unable to. But perhaps that was because she had believed it to be guilty, unworthy of the watcher’s concern.
She reached out now to lift the feather and was unsurprised when she lifted it as easily as she might lift any others. Indeed, she had a moment of doubt when she wondered if she had picked up one of her feathers instead. So she picked up every single feather, and found she could lift them all. And the other feathers were fine and beautiful as all feathers are, but the soul shimmered with a starry incandescence. She stuffed all of her feathers into a pouch, in case she needed decoys along her way, and she placed the soul in the breast pocket of her vest.
Though she was weary and in need of a night’s sleep, she could not risk resting in the remnants of her cottage. Even if the front door were intact and the windows un-shattered, they would not provide protection against the magic of the fairy should he choose to return.
So she set out upon her journey.
That night, she transformed into an owl and perched in a tree with the black feather tucked under a wing, sleeping with one eye open.
By day she traveled in her native form, for she found she could quickly transform into any other creature if she needed. But it was difficult to hold the feather for long in any form but her own. In her own form, it was now as light as any other feather. But when she transformed herself into a wolf to traverse the land more quickly, and found that the feather grew heavier and heavier until her wolf form was traveling even slower than her native form would.
As she looked into her mind to see the route that the watcher had laid out for her, she realized that she was moving too slowly. If she did not quicken her pace, she would not be able to reach the gates of the afterworld be evenfall of the third day.
She hired a carriage, but found that when the driver tried to make the horses go, they could not carry the weight of the stolen soul. She tried to hire a horse, though she was an unskilled rider. But she found that she could not even mount the horse. The mare moved away from the thief as if the thief were a far too weighty rider for the mare’s back to bear.
The thief tried to think of a simple answer to this new puzzle. She had realized how to lift the feather. She needed only come to another revelation about how to reach her destination in time.
Finally, she planned to transform into the fastest creatures in the realm, then run for as long as she could, and stop when the soul’s weight became unbearable. Then carry on in her native form. That way, she might still gain on her journey.
She was doing just that, racing across a great plains in the form of a leopard, when something hummed past her. She was puzzled, but she did not let up her pace. The soul was only beginning to grow heavy. She would be able to run quite a distance still before she had to continue on in her native form.
But something else whizzed past her. Closer, this time. It had just touched her fur. It had felt hard. Then she saw what it was. She passed by it as it lay on the ground. An arrow.
Someone was shooting arrows at her. Another shot past her, grazing her ear. She roared. But she kept running. And she heard her pursuer cry out.
“I want that soul!”
It was that fairy. That confounded fairy. The thief did not slow as she began to transform. She could run no faster and would only slow from the weight of the soul she carried. But if she could fly high enough and soar upon the winds…
She leapt into the air and changed into a raven.
Perhaps she would lose some feathers, and he would be slowed down as he tried to collect them in the hopes that one of them was the soul.
She readied herself to fight against the weight of the soul. But she was caught by surprise, as the soul’s weight seemed to vanish. She beat her wings and rose higher and higher, high enough that she could not make out the frustrated curses of the fairy.
She cawed in defiance. She kept flying. Ravens were not particularly fast. She would not gain distance on the fairy, for if he had caught up with her, he certainly had some magic to speed his way. She had tried that as well, magic in her mage form. The soul’s weight had confounded that effort too.
She expected the soul to begin weighing upon her as she flew, but she would fly high until she felt it. And she would hope that the fairy did not find some means to reach her in the sky.
Dawn approached on the third day and the thief-as-raven kept flying. She flew for many hours, still not feeling the burden of the soul, and not tiring. She felt no hunger or thirst and when she measured the distance she still had to travel in the map within her mind, she found that she now had a chance of reaching the gates to the afterworld before evenfall.
So she kept flying. She did not stop for food or rest or shelter. She glanced down on occasion to check for the fairy or for any other obstacles that might lie ahead.
As evening approached, she approached the great mountain at whose peak stood the gates to the afterworld. The air was too thin for most mortals to breathe. In her raven form, she breathed easily. She landed on the peak and glanced about.
Thick mists streamed in wreaths and lay in blankets all about the mountaintop.
She cawed. The watcher had told her to call his name when she had reached the gates, for he would usher the soul through and then grant the thief the reward he had promised.
The thief waited. She hopped through the mists and cawed again, calling to the watcher with the raven’s voice.
She was afraid to transform into her native shape, for she thought she might suffocate. But as the sky began to darken, she had no choice. Evening was falling. She transformed back into a thief and called out the name of the watcher.
Out of the mists, a figure stepped forth. A figure in a black suit and robes shimmering with stars.
The watcher was smiling.
The thief took shallow breaths in the rarefied air.
The watcher placed a hand on her shoulder and she breathed easily. “You have done it,” he said. Beaming with joy, his sharp-featured face became quite beautiful.
The thief pulled the shimmering black feather from her pocket and offered it to the watcher. He looked at the feather but did not take it from her.
“Tell me, dear thief,” he said. “After all that you have suffered to bring this soul here, do you believe it was worth your effort?”
“To avoid punishment? Of course.”
“Come now. You have avoided punishment for your crimes before. Why fear it now?”
“Punishment by mortal lords is one thing,” the thief said. “I did not wish to be punished by a watcher.”
“Perhaps that was your reason in the beginning, but…did you not feel anything for the soul that you have been carrying for two days?”
The thief thought for a moment. “I agree with you, not out of fear of punishment, but out of sincere agreement. This soul does not belong in the netherworld.”
“No? And why not?”
“Because if it did, I do not think I would ever have been able to lift it. It has been heavy at times, but I think all souls are heavy at times.” The thief looked up at the watcher and returned his smile. “But at other times, I have hardly felt its presence. A soul so light…perhaps it does belong in the afterworld.”
“Tell me, dear thief,” the watcher said. “Does it not look familiar to you?”
The thief frowned in confusion. She peered at the shimmering black feather. And deep in its vanes, in its barbs and hooks, she saw herself falling from the tower and lying on the ground. She saw herself trying to lift herself from the ground. She saw the residents of the tower gathering around her still body. She saw a black-robed figure bend toward her, the centers of his eyes swirling with stars, and his expression sorrowful. She saw him lift her body and begin to sink below the ground. She saw him shake his head and set his jaw and rise up from the ground, and transform into a great blackbird that carried her away from the tower.
“Mine,” the thief whispered. “The soul is mine.”
She had never survived that fall. Of course she had not. Such things only happened in stories. The distance she had fallen was too great.
“You didn’t recognize your own soul,” the watcher said. “At times, you were unable to bear its weight. It was only when you allowed yourself to trust what your eyes were seeing that you were able to easily lift the feather aloft. And only when you were your true self that you were able to carry its weight.”
“Then…you have saved me from the netherworld. Why was going there? Is that where I—?”
“Do not think it. Remember what you said a moment ago. This soul belongs in the afterworld.”
The thief’s eyes widened. “But you, you too are a thief. To restore my soul, you stole it. You will be punished by the others.”
The thief winced. “Perhaps someone will come to your aid, as you have come to mine.”
“Is there is anything I can do to help you?”
The watcher smiled a gentle smile and flourished a hand toward the archway. “Pass through the gates, my dear thief. And be a thief no more.”
“Thief no more,” the stolen soul said with a nod. “Farewell, watcher. Thank you for saving me.”
As the watcher watched, the soul pass through the gates into the afterworld.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel