“Strange,” the many-colored creature said.
It was not the reaction that Halceyx expected. With her beak full—full of the creature—she could not speak. But the creature, who was some kind of water slug, seemed to understand the inquisitive squeak that Halceyx uttered. The creature answered her as if she had spoken.
“Yes, it’s strange that you’re still alive. You have lucked into grasping me in just the right way.”
Halceyx uttered another query in the form of another squeak.
“I possess many different pockets,” the water slug said, “and I keep poisons in them.”
Halceyx spit the slug out onto the dirt beside the river from which she had plucked him. She examined the creature, whose smooth body did not seem to possess any pockets. They were under his delicate skin no doubt. Or he could be bluffing. But she would not take the chance. He was very colorful, after all, bearing colors bright and colors soft. The colors would have been beautiful on a flower. She supposed they were beautiful on the slug as well. He was peering at her with his two eyes, each rising from a stalk that connected to a head with no other features, save a small opening that was his mouth.
“How did you obtain these poisons?” Halceyx asked.
“By eating venomous things.”
“How are you not harmed by the venoms that you eat?”
“My stomach and my pockets are sturdily made,” the water slug said. And he laughed.
Halceyx cocked her head. “I’ve never encountered a poisonous river slug before. This is most adventurous.”
“I am not a river slug. I am a slug of the sea. I am called Irsid. And I have come to the river to explore. But the waters are different, very different here.”
“I was very deep underwater,” the slug remarked. “And begging your pardon, but your beak—while very long and sleek—does not appear long enough to reach such depths.”
“My beak is not long enough, indeed,” Halceyx said. She gave the slug her own name. “I am not a bird who swims and dives. I have been trying to teach myself. But being underwater is daunting.”
Irsid’s colors seemed to brighten to a soft glow. “Perhaps we can help each other.”
The river fisher bird and the slug of the sea conversed, and they made an agreement. The slug would teach the bird some things he knew about the various waters he had visited, and the various ways he had witnessed creatures swimming and diving in those waters. And the bird would carry the slug around the forest—wrapped in a leaf—so that the slug could explore places outside the waters, places he would never before have seen.
Halceyx and Irsid began their association, and all went well with their lessons and their explorations.
But one day, as Halceyx was carrying Irsid up to a high branch to show him the forest floor, a voice upon the wind spoke to the two. They landed upon the branch, for both suspected the voice belonged to a spirit that governed the world.
Indeed, the spirit said, “I am Trutinum. I am the spirit of balance.”
Trutinum warned the two that they should not go too far in exploring their curiosities. They would disrupt the natural order if they did not stay in their appointed places and environments. Their absence would cause small shifts and subtle influences, but these would grow and spread, until all of the natural world collapsed.
Bird and slug both bowed to the spirit. They declared their understanding and agreed to temper their curiosities. The spirit was pleased and departed in a happy flutter.
Though they both were curious, Halceyx noted that Irsid was patient and cautious, whereas she was eager. It seemed in keeping with the powers and limits of their forms.
“Let us heed the good spirit’s warning,” the slug said.
The bird agreed. “Though I am eager to learn more, it might be wise for me to ponder what you have already taught me. Sometimes, I have found new knowledge lying within old lessons.”
The slug laughed. “That is indeed wise, my friend.”
“I’ve been wondering,” said Halceyx. “Does it bother you that you have no limbs?”
“Does it bother you that you have no colors?” Irsid asked in return.
The river fisher had never considered it. Her tail and her crown bore long silken plumes, but all were painted in the same shade of soft blue.
The two animals continued their association, taking heed of the spirit’s warning.
Halceyx learned to dive deeper into the water, though not very deep and not for long. And Irsid kept close to the gently flowing parts of the river.
Soon, they heard again that voice upon the wind.
The spirit of balance returned.
Trutinum reminded the two of the warning.
“We have taken care, good spirit,” Irsid said.
“And we will continue to do so,” Halceyx added.
“But you were supposed to disperse, to separate and return to your environments.” The spirit’s voice sounded rough and reedy.
The spirit had given them no such direction. But neither bird nor slug spoke of it, for it seemed that they had unwittingly irritated, perhaps even angered, the spirit.
“It is clear that I must be direct with you both,” the spirit of balance said.
The spirit departed in a sudden gust.
“I must return to the sea,” said Irsid.
Halceyx, feeling some irritation herself, only said, “I will carry you, my friend.”
They were already on their way to the sea when the spirit of balance flew back to them. It was only then that Irsid realized the spirit might have expected them to stay where they were, and wait for the spirit’s return. Alas, it was too late.
Halceyx looked for a place to land.
“No need for that,” the spirit said, in a high whistling voice that now sounded pleased. “I have borrowed an enchantment from the spirit of metamorphosis. It will help me with your lesson.”
In an instant, Halceyx and Irsid began to transform. Bird became slug. Slug became bird.
Irsid did not know how to use his wings.
They both fell out of the sky and into the river’s water below. Under the water, Halceyx began to sink.
She tried to use limbs that she no longer had. Her fear that she would drown overwhelmed her awareness that she was a now a creature of the waters.
She felt herself rise. She rose above the waters, floating on it, and then was carried gently to the shore. Irsid already lay there on his side, rolling his bird body, struggling to get to his feet.
Halceyx moved to him, so slowly that she despaired of his fate, and of hers. For she felt the winds swirling around them, and they were no ordinary winds, but the form taken by the spirit of balance.
“I have calmed the waters and brought you to shore,” the spirit explained.
“Good spirit, we beg you,” Halceyx said, bowing her head. She grew dizzy, for her eyes were upon stalks now, and she did not know how to direct them. “Please! Harm us no further! We have learned your lesson. I swear it! I was only taking Irsid to the sea.”
“Mercy, good spirit!” Irsid said. “Mercy!”
The winds suddenly went still.
The spirit spoke. “But…I have not harmed.”
With a flurry of leaf and twig, the spirit departed.
Though Irsid and Halceyx were now left alone and stranded in their new forms, they were both relieved.
When theslug and the bird had calmed and helped each other to a safe spot beneath a rock, they began to discuss what they might do. They realized that they needed the spirit’s help to change back, but they were afraid to call for the spirit. First, they agreed, they must wait for Trutinum’s anger to cool.
But they also feared that they might be attacked and eaten while they waited. The rock they were under would not protect them for long. Irsid, being a bird now, needed to find a higher place to perch. Halceyx, being a slug now, needed to return to the water, and find a safe place to attach herself.
So they did as they were doing before. They helped each other to learn how to use their forms to endure and move through their environment. But now, rather than by choice or curiosity, they did so out of necessity. They reminded each other of the strengths of their new bodies.
“You can fly away,” said Halceyx to Irsid. “Once I teach you how to use your wings.”
“You can poison” said Irsid to Halceyx. “Once I teach you how to open your pockets.”
“Who would dare bother us?” they nervously jested.
They were soon to learn.
As Halceyx directed Irsid in how to flutter and flap his wings, trying to remember how she had learned so long ago, a serpent bearing bright orange scales slithered toward them.
The serpent whipped past Halceyx, ignoring her. Her voice caught in her throat as he passed.
But Irsid had heard her warning. He flapped his wings and hopped onto a rock, flapped them again and rose, then fell to the ground. But he did not tumble onto his side as he had when they first started. His feet gripped the earth. He flapped again. As the serpent reared and struck, Irsid rose up and up. Then he fell again. He hopped and he flew. Hopped and flew. But each time, he was going higher, landing on branches now.
Halceyx could not follow. She slipped into the river, in case the serpent chose to shift his attentions to her. But the serpent continued chasing Irsid.
Before she sunk below the waters, Halceyx heard the happy chirps of her friend.
When the two were reunited, Irsid spoke in a series of squeaks about his fear, and later, his exhilaration when he fluttered and flew through the forest.
Then he taught Halceyx how to release the poisons from the many pockets in her slug form. And he taught her none too soon, for a fish swam toward them. Irsid did not yet know how to use his beak to catch food. Even if he did, the fish was small and quick. She darted toward Halceyx, who released the poisons from her pockets. She released two different venoms, meant to irritate but not to kill.
The fish swam into the cloud of pink and yellow poisons and veered away.
The two friends judged that enough time had passed.
They called out to the spirit of balance. But the spirit gave no answer.
Still, they were not discouraged. They, who were still clumsy in their new forms, were prepared to struggle and stumble on their way to seeking aid.
“There is another spirit who might help us,” Irsid said.
“The spirit of metamorphosis!”
Irsid nodded and turned his head one way and then the other, still not used to having stationary eyes.
The spirit of metamorphosis could not be reached by calling to the wind. They would need to travel and travel far. But they both wished it, and they both and willed it. As they spoke of their hopes, they noted a sparkling glow surround their forms. They recognized the glow, for both had seen it before. Though the last time they saw it, they were both falling through the sky in terror.
“It’s the spell,” Halceyx whispered. “The spell of metamorphosis is still upon us. How can this be?” She curled her body and bent the stalks of her eyes so she could examine herself.
Irsid tilted his head to the sky. “The spirit of balance left in such haste…the spell was left behind. This spell could do much harm to the balance of nature.”
“How can we see it now, when we did not see it before?”
“Perhaps because we were both seeking to transform back to our former forms.”
Halceyx directed her eyes toward her friend. “Does that mean we can use the spell to transform back? That we could have done it this whole time?”
“We don’t know how the spell works,” Irsid said. “We should examine and study it. If the spirits won’t help us, we may need to use the spell ourselves. But our first aim should still be to seek the spirit of metamorphosis.”
Halceyx sighed. “You should go alone. You will travel faster if you don’t have to carry me. Maybe…I can live as a slug.”
“I am not skilled enough to fly such a distance. And I can hear the sorrow in your voice, my friend. You want your feathers back. I want my colors back. There may be another way.” Irsid turned his head to the river, then hopped around so that his body faced the river as well.
When Irsid steered the waters as a slug, he had done so by sticking to a surface and waiting for some creature or object to float by, aiming himself toward it, and then sticking to that until he reached his desired destination. As a bird, Irsid rode the water’s surface, steering by stretching his wings—when he remembered that he had them.
Halceyx rode behind her friend upon a tangle of vine that Irsid held in his feet. This way, she could observe him and herself as they traveled. They found that once they were aware that the spell of metamorphosis was still upon them, they could easily see it whenever they looked for it. Halceyx studied the spell as they traveled. She spoke her observations and questions to Irsid.
Their aim was not to understand how the spell was made, but how to use the spell to undo what the spirit of balance had done.
One morning, when they judged that they were growing close to the place where the spirit of metamorphosis abided, the two friends realized that they understood how the spell of metamorphosis had changed their forms.
“If we use the spell,” Irsid said, “it will still be upon us, until it is removed.”
“We are close to the spirit of metamorphosis,” Halceyx said. “Should we wait and ask the spirit to transform us? We might make a mistake, if we use the spell.”
“But what if the spirit takes the spell away and refuses to help us?”
Halceyx shook her head, holding her eye-stalks steady. “What if we use the spell correctly, and the spirits are angered that we have learned how?”
“They have no one but themselves to blame. They left the spell with us.”
Halceyx was startled at the anger she heard in her friend’s fierce chirps.
“You’ve spent too much time in an impatient form,” she joked.
“Then let us change back to the forms we prefer.”
The two friends were in agreement. They used the spell. The transformation was slower this time, and they who were transformed were calmer.
When it was done, they looked upon themselves, and they looked upon each other.
Nothing seemed to be amiss.
Halceyx lifted and stretched her wings. She threw back her head in a happy trill. She gazed down at Irsid. His form glowed with color. He had not had a chance to teach her how he did that. Or perhaps it was a reflex from a feeling that she had not felt when she was in slug form.
“I never thought I would miss having beautiful colors,” she remarked, as she gazed upon her many-colored friend.
Irsid laughed. “Never realized that beauty was not frivolous, eh, friend?”
“I never did.”
“I suppose we have learned the lesson the spirit of balance wished for us to learn,” Irsid said.
Halceyx cheeped in anger. “It was a cruel way to teach it. And we did not need to learn it. You did not, in any case. Your explorations and your will have made you wise, Irsid. Your lessons were gentle, and they honored the balance of our world.”
Irsid’s sluggish mouth stretched up into a smile. “Don’t speak so loudly. The spirit may hear and come curse us again.”
“Come, we must return the spell of metamorphosis. It does not belong to us.”
Though they were anxious of meeting another spirit, the two friends resumed their journey.
The spirit of metamorphosis abided where there was fire.
Halceyx and Irsid were on the verge of the spirit’s realm. They prepared to leave the river behind.
Halceyx watched her friend float to the river’s surface. She was ready with a leaf. It was fortuitous that she was watching. She saw the other river fisher bird swoop down to the water’s surface, aiming for Irsid. Halceyx cried out a warning, dropping the leaf in her beak, even as she raised her wings.
She hopped up and dove toward her friend, catching him in her beak before the other bird could eat him and be poisoned by him.
When first she plucked the slug of the sea from the waters of her river, Halceyx had avoided his poisons by luck. She dropped him as quickly as she could beside a log under which he could hide.
But it was too late. For luck did not help her this time.
She gasped a breath and dropped to her back.
“Halceyx!” Irsid did not hide, but crawled to her side more quickly than she thought the slug could move. “My friend, the spell is still upon you. Transform!”
Halceyx tried. She did not want to be a slug again. She did not want to die as a slug. Even if she transformed, she was already poisoned. She did not know what she could become that would save her.
She felt a spasm grip her body. Her wings fell open. Her beak fell open.
She felt something oozing into her open beak. Something drained down her throat, opening the constricted passage. She took a breath.
“No! Don’t release me!” she heard a voice cry.
As suddenly as her strength had left her, she felt that strength returning, first to her wing. She folded them closed. She rolled to her side as another surge of vigor passed through her. She hopped to her feet.
She noted that her friend was hanging from her beak.
“Don’t drop me yet,” he said.
Halceyx responded with an inquisitive squeak. But Irsid did not have to answer. She watched his colors draining from his form, draining toward his center, where she held him with her beak. She glanced down at herself. The slug’s colors were seeping into her feathers. Yellow, orange, violet. Even her feet had turned bright orange.
Irsid began to droop, and she lay him on the ground. All the color had drained from him, and the stalks of his eyes had grown much shorter. The sparkling glow of the spell of transformation was fading from his form.
“What did you do?” Halceyx asked.
Irsid explained. He could think of nothing else but to use the poisons in his own body. He transformed them to be their own opposites, so that instead of poisoning her, they could heal Halceyx. He lost his colors, for carried in those colors was the cure.
“You won’t survive without your poisons,” Halceyx said. The glow of transformation was already upon her. “I will give you flight.”
She touched her beak to her friend. The crown of feathers on her head, her glorious tail, and the feathers of flight vanished from her form. As they did, limbs unfurled along the slug’s form, arrayed with feather-like fins.
“Now you can fly through the rivers and return to the sea without my help,” Halceyx said.
Both friends were sorrowful. But both were also glad.
Together, they went into the presence of the spirit of metamorphosis.
The spirit, who took the form of a grass-green caterpillar, removed the spell of metamorphosis from the two friends. They spoke of their hope that the spirit might restore the forms they possessed before the spell fell upon them.
“You have both changed,” the spirit replied. “Change is a part of the natural order. Sometimes that change comes about by the will of a creature. Sometimes that change can be reversed, or erased, but it cannot be undone.”
Neither bird nor slug replied, for they did not quite understand the spirit’s meaning.
“It is beyond my power to restore you,” the spirit explained. “But I can return one thing to each.”
The spirit could restore one color to Irsid, who now looked more like a sea dragon than a slug. Irsid was quick in answering that of all the colors, his favorite was blue. Even as he said the color’s name, a blush of blue bloomed through his new form, darkening in the middle until he bore the colors of sky and sea both. With the color was restored one of his poisons.
To Halceyx the spirit offered to restore either her beautiful plumes or the feathers of flight. She was quick in answering that she longed to fly again. Her feathers of flight grew back, darker than all the others.
The two friends thanked and parted from the spirit of metamorphosis, who surprised them by thanking them as well.
The river fisher bird and the slug of the sea returned to the river, for they would follow it to the home of Halceyx, and then they would part.
As Irsid slipped into the water, he said, “I do not mean to boast. But I must say, I am quite beautiful!”
Halceyx answered with a happy chirp.
At last, it was time for the friends to part. The season was growing cold, and Irsid longed for his home, the sea.
“If we ever meet again,” Halceyx said, “I hope you use your wings to dart out of the way of my quick beak.”
“And if we ever meet again,” Irsid answered, “I hope you’ll use your eyes to avoid catching hold of my poisonous plumes.”
Neither spoke the words that the other understood without hearing. Thank you for my colors, from the bird. Thank you for my wings, from the slug. For they were no longer strange to each other.
Instead, they simply called out “farewell.” And the two friends parted.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel