A Riddle and an Answer
Ella landed on the Tower ledge for the second time that day. Hurricane clambered up on the opposite side and flattened himself against the wall. He waved at Ella and made a series of complex motions with his paws.
Ella stared at the mouse.
He must have walked into a spiderweb, she thought.
Hurricane shook his head.
“Our hero realized he had forgotten to share his system of secret signs that enable silent communication,” he said. “He flattened himself against the wall, unable to make contact with his partner. What should he do?”
Ella glared at him.
“Sorry,” whispered Hurricane.
Our hero remembered he had already been told to keep his voice down, he thought.
Hurricane and Ella both leaned around the entrance and peered into the darkness.
Wednesday was nowhere to be seen.
Ella motioned to Hurricane and pointed inside. Hurricane nodded.
They entered quietly and moved through the shadows. The silent mechanical heart of the Tower loomed above them.
“Meet me at the cages,” whispered Ella.
She leapt into the air and flew as fast as she could.
Maybe, she thought. Maybe, and maybe. Wherever you are, let me find you.
Ella sped through the heart of the Tower and its mechanical marvels, zipped down the dark passageway and reached the cages. She scanned them quickly as she rushed past: robin, starling, finch, chickadee, warbler—
Ella’s mother pressed up against the bars of the cage.
“Ella!” she said.
Ella skidded as she landed. She tilted her wings and twirled around one hundred eighty degrees.
I can fly, she thought.
“Ella!” said her mother. “You found me. And you’re injured.”
Ella looked down at the bandage that wrapped her chest.
“I found you,” she said. “Again. And this time, we’re going to make it. We’re going to escape.”
Her mother shook her head. “You are an astonishing and amazing little bird, but you can’t rescue me.”
“I am rescuing you. Right now. At this very moment.”
“No,” said her mother. “There’s a problem. It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have come back.”
“Uh-oh,” said Ella. “Tell me.”
Ella’s mother told her.
Hurricane waved at the birds as he ran past the cages.
“Don’t worry!” he called. “Hurricane has returned!”
The robin watched the mouse run past. He shook his head.
Hurricane reached Ella and her mother.
“You found her,” he said to Ella. “That’s good.”
“There’s a problem,” said Ella. “My mother can’t fly. The raven must have played that trick on her with the pocket watch.”
“She can’t fly?” said Hurricane. “I thought you were the one who couldn’t fly.”
“Yes, but now I can, and she can’t,” said Ella.
“Is it hereditary?”
“I don’t understand,” said Ella.
“Let me get this straight,” said Hurricane. “First she was the prisoner and you were free. Then you were the prisoner and she was free. You forgot how to fly, but she didn’t. Now you’re free again, and you remember how to fly, but she’s prisoner and has forgotten. Is that right?”
“Something like that,” said Ella.
“We better get going,” said Hurricane. “If this keeps up you’ll be back in that cage in no time.”
“You don’t understand,” said Ella. “If my mother can’t fly, then she can’t leave.”
“I knew that,” said Hurricane. “I was distracted. You sparrows are too complicated.”
“You two should go,” said Ella’s mother. “Release the other birds and leave me here.”
“Really?” said Hurricane. “That’s a good idea.”
“No,” said Ella. “We’re not leaving without you.”
“Of course not,” said Hurricane. “That’s a terrible idea.” He turned to Ella. “How did you learn how to fly again?”
“I ate some cake,” said Ella.
“This is no time for snacks,” said Hurricane. “We have to leave.”
“But we can’t—”
“Right, right, I knew that,” said Hurricane. “Let me think. What if she rode on your back?”
Ella and her mother looked at each other.
“Birds don’t really do that,” said Ella.
“Really? Mice do.”
“Can you carry her?” said Ella.
Hurricane looked at Ella’s mother.
“Let me think of something else,” he said.
“Hurry,” said Ella. “We have to leave.”
“That’s what I keep telling you,” said Hurricane.
“Never mind,” said Ella. “This is what we’ll do. I’ll open the cages, release the birds and teach my mother how to fly. You collect the ring and the blue-covered book, and we’ll meet back at the entrance.”
“I notice you expect me to carry everything,” said Hurricane.
He looked off into the distance and narrowed his eyes into determined-looking slits.
“That’s okay,” he said. “Such is the hero’s burden.”
The general public, he thought, has little idea how a hero operates.
“I’ll help you later,” said Ella. “There’s just one thing—be quick, and try to be quiet.”
“That’s two things,” said Hurricane.
“Did you hear me?” said Ella.
“Roger,” said Hurricane.
“Who’s Roger?” said Ella’s mother.
“Ten-four,” said Hurricane. “Rendezvous ASAP. Over.”
“Over what?” said Ella.
Hurricane scampered off into the shadows.
She hoped he wouldn’t make too much noise.
Hurricane crept through the collections and talked to himself.
“When last we saw him,” he said, “our hero crept silently into the Tower on a deadly mission—a mission to challenge death itself…”
Hurricane paused and searched for the right word. When he couldn’t find it, he moved on.
“…to challenge death itself in a contest to the death,” he continued. “Although, given his advanced and sneaky skills, it was highly unlikely that death would notice our hero as he slipped between the shadows.”
Hurricane looked around. He had arrived in the Timekeeping section.
“Huh,” he said.
He tried to remember where he had seen the jewelry.
“Deep behind enemy lines, our hero radioed to headquarters for target coordinates,” he said. “Come in, headquarters. I need the position of the target, over.”
He reached another turn and pressed himself against the wall.
No one was there.
“When headquarters failed to reply, our hero knew he had only his wits to rely upon. Fortunately for the world, he had a lot of wits.”
Maybe around the next corner, he thought.
He also thought: I wonder what a wit looks like?
Soon he arrived at the jewelry section.
“Ka-ching!” he said. “But there was a problem. The jewel vault was quiet—too quiet. His suspicions aroused, our hero paused and monitored for enemy activity.”
Hurricane stood in the dark and swiveled his ears back and forth. He didn’t hear anything.
“Unable to register the slightest of noises with his ultra-sonic listening apparatus, our hero relaxed and continued his journey into the shadowy maze. But was it possible to find the ring within this gloom? He knew his only chance for success lay in charging forward and embracing his destiny.”
Hurricane dashed forward, did a somersault and landed in a crouch. He looked at the pile of jewelry in front of him. On top of the pile lay a ring with two swallows circling a stone.
“That was easy,” he said. “Next stop: the blue-covered book.”
He slung the ring over his shoulder and continued. A minute later he stood in the place where he had last seen the book.
“Very interesting,” he said. “Our hero could not help but notice that the book was not where he expected it to be.”
Before him was an empty space just large enough to display a small, blue-covered book.
He looked around and frowned.
Blue comb, blue pen caps, blue feathers, he thought. It used to be right here.
Hurricane scratched his head.
“If the book was once here,” he said, “and it’s now missing, there can only be one logical explanation.”
Was that right? he wondered. Maybe there were two logical explanations. Probably no more than three.
A small noise came from behind him.
“Aha!” he said. “Too late, our hero realized he had walked into a trap. He turned to escape.”
Hurricane turned to escape and saw Wednesday. She held the blue-covered book high above him.
“Excellent,” said Hurricane. “We meet again, foul villain. I’m here to tell you your evil scheme will never work. Tell Dr. Temporal the jig is up.”
He jumped and tried to grab the book.
Wednesday raised the book higher.
“Who’s Dr. Temporal?” she said.
“My nemesis,” said Hurricane, “and no doubt your employer.”
He raised his tiny fists in a fighting stance.
“Don’t bother denying it,” he said.
“I don’t know Dr. Temporal,” said Wednesday.
“Oh,” said Hurricane. “Is it The Tall Phantom? Professor Nightmares?”
Wednesday shook her head.
“You remain, without doubt, the most remarkable rodent I have ever met,” she said.
“Ha-double-ha,” said Hurricane. “I’m not falling for that trick again. I’ll tell you what—give me the book, and I’ll give you a two minute head start before I hunt you down and bring you to justice.”
“What book?” said Wednesday.
“The one you’re holding,” said Hurricane.
“Oh dear, you’ve caught me,” said Wednesday. “Here you are.”
Wednesday slammed the blue-covered book down on top of the mouse. Hurricane collapsed beneath it and lay still.
Wednesday prodded him with her foot. Hurricane didn’t move. The raven stared at him with her great curious eyes, then walked out toward the cages.
Ella hopped and leapt and flew over to the wall. The key hung on its hook again. She grabbed it and shot back to the cages. She released her mother, gave her a quick peck on the cheek, and moved on to the next cage.
“You’re free,” she told each bird as she swung the cage doors open. “Will you stay and help me? I need to carry my mother down to the ground.”
“Are you crazy?” said each bird. “It can’t be done. We’re grateful that you freed us, but how can we carry a bird? We’re not donkeys.”
All the birds except the chickadee fled.
“I want to tell you that I love your scarf,” said the chickadee, “and since you gave me my freedom I’ll be your faithful ally and won’t try to steal it.”
“That’s good news,” said Ella. “Will you stay and help me?”
“I’m not that faithful an ally,” said the chickadee. “Are you crazy? That bird will finish us. Sorry! Sorry!”
She too flew off.
Ella returned to her mother.
“They abandoned us,” she said.
“They knew it was impossible,” said her mother. “They’re only little birds. Just leave me here.”
Her eyes went dark.
“I’m a fool,” she said. “I thought you would be here. I thought I would return and rescue you. I should have known you would escape on your own.”
Ella shook her head.
“I’m the foolish one,” she said. “I know now that none of my plans were ever real plans. They were only lists of things I wanted to accomplish. It’s no wonder things always go wrong for me. The only way I get anything done is through dumb luck and other people’s help.”
“But your plans haven’t gone wrong,” said Ella’s mother. “You wanted to find me, and you did—twice. You stood and faced a raven and challenged her and survived. Who else could do that?”
Ella’s mother wrapped her wings around Ella’s shoulders and pulled her close.
“You are more than a common sparrow,” said Ella’s mother. “You are a wonder. My wonder. You are the greatest invention I could ever imagine.”
Ella felt her blood surge. Her entire body beamed and blushed and glowed.
“But,” continued her mother, “I still don’t see how we can escape.”
“I don’t either,” said Ella, “but I have a new plan.”
“What can we do?” said her mother.
“It’s simple,” said Ella. “I’ll just make things up as we go along.”
Ella and her mother raced toward the Tower entrance. They ran down the dark passage and past the rows of automatons and the gears and wheels and pulleys and cogs. The opening loomed before them, and beyond lay the bright blue dusk.
“I’m going to teach you how to fly again,” said Ella. “And when Hurricane gets here—”
She paused and considered this.
“I hope Hurricane isn’t in trouble,” she said.
A familiar, throaty sound that could almost be laughter came from somewhere behind them.
“Hello, sparrow,” said Wednesday.
Ella and her mother froze. They turned slowly and carefully to face the raven.
As Wednesday emerged from the darkness, the shadows fell away from her in thin, slippery veils. Ella glanced toward the opening and tried to gauge the distance to the ledge.
It’s not impossible, she thought. It’s a maybe.
“Silly me,” said Wednesday. “I remember now that we already said hello. Maybe I meant goodbye.”
Ella pushed her mother behind her and toward the exit.
“Run!” she said.
Ella’s mother didn’t move. She stared up at Wednesday.
“You run,” said Ella’s mother. “I’m here to save you.”
Wednesday smiled at Ella’s mother. “My dear sparrow,” she said. “You are free to go whenever you like.” She laughed. “Just tumble right off that ledge. Or don’t. I’ll take care of you after I repair the new exhibit.”
“I have something for you,” said Ella.
Wednesday eyed the sparrow.
“Even if you do, I’m sure I’m not interested,” she said.
“Even if it’s a new riddle?” said Ella.
“A riddle?” said the raven. “Do you really have a new one? No, you don’t. Or do you? Tell me quickly.”
Ella’s mind raced.
A riddle, she thought. I can’t remember any riddles—except the one about the writing desk, and Wednesday told that one to me.
“I still can’t remember how to fly,” whispered Ella’s mother.
“Remember what you told me,” whispered Ella. “We throw ourselves into the air.”
Wednesday stepped toward them.
“Wait,” said Ella. “I need a little time.”
“Everyone says that,” said Wednesday, “but I’m the one with all the time in the world. If you don’t have a riddle—”
“I work day and night,” said Ella’s mother quickly.
“What?” said Ella.
“You work day and night?” said Wednesday.
“That’s it,” said Ella. “That the riddle: I work day and night and never sleep.”
“That’s not a riddle,” said Wednesday.
“It’s the beginning of the riddle,” said Ella.
Wednesday grinned. She nodded slowly.
“Tell me,” she said.
“You should run away,” whispered Ella’s mother. “Escape while you can.”
“We flap our wings as we fall,” whispered Ella.
“What’s the riddle?” said Wednesday. “Tick-tick-tick, dear sparrow. Time is running out.”
She began to step toward them, and Ella signaled her to stop.
Ella adjusted her scarf and cleared her throat. “I work day and night and never sleep,” she said, “but each day I grow poorer. What am I?”
“That’s simple,” said Wednesday. “And obvious. The answer is a clock.”
“It’s not a clock,” said Ella.
“A clock doesn’t grow poorer each day.”
“A clock winds down.”
“Winding down isn’t the same as growing poorer,” said Ella. “You need to guess again.”
She took a small step toward the exit and pulled her mother along with her.
“I’m sorry,” whispered her mother.
“Listen,” whispered Ella. “We are going to fly from here. We are going to throw ourselves into the air—”
“I don’t know how,” whispered Ella’s mother.
“A night watchman,” said Wednesday.
“What?” said Ella. She moved them one small step closer to the exit.
Wednesday took one large step toward them.
“I believe you heard me say: a night watchman,” said Wednesday.
“I believe you know that’s not correct,” said Ella.
“I know, I know,” said Wednesday. She frowned. “Don’t tell me. I need more time.”
“Silly me,” said Ella. She shrugged. “I thought you had all the time in the world. Tick-tick-tick, dear Wednesday. Your time is running out.”
Hurricane opened his eyes. He crawled out from under the book, leapt to his feet and muttered, “Our hero leapt to his feet, ready for action.”
His head spun a little, and he lost his balance and sat down again with a thump.
“Ouch,” he said. “Our hero is dizzy.”
Hurricane furrowed his brow and tried to remember what action he was ready for. He looked down at the ring and the blue-covered book.
Right, he thought. Time to save the day, again.
He slung the ring over his shoulder, hoisted the book above him, staggered under the weight, and dropped the book. He did a quick stretch and cracked his knuckles. Hurricane hoisted the book again.
Oof, he thought. I’m glad they didn’t write a trilogy.
He started for the exit.
“Stars,” said Wednesday, as she stepped forward.
“How could it be stars?” said Ella. She and her mother backed up.
“Stars don’t sleep.”
“Stars disappear during the day.”
“Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there,” said Wednesday.
“Do they grow poorer?”
“No,” grumbled Wednesday.
“Do you give up?” said Ella.
“No!” said Wednesday. “An hourglass.”
“The answer is simple,” said Ella. “It’s so simple that you’ll never find it.”
Ella laughed. “You already said a clock. You know there’s a better answer.”
“What is it?”
“Do you give up?”
“I give up,” said Wednesday.
“You give up so soon?” said Ella.
“Yes,” said Wednesday. “I give up so soon.”
Ella and her mother took another step back.
“Tick-tick-tick,” she said. “Now tell me the answer.”
“What happens now?” whispered her mother.
“I don’t know,” said Ella.
“You don’t know?” said her mother.
“You don’t know the answer?” said Wednesday.
“No,” said Ella. “I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know what will happen now.”
“I’m confused,” said Wednesday.
“I made it up,” said Ella.
“You made up the riddle?” said Wednesday. “Why would you do that?”
“You yourself said not all riddles had answers,” said Ella. “You told me they were only for your amusement.”
“I’m not amused,” said Wednesday.
“Neither am I,” said Ella. “Try to imagine my complete lack of amusement at this moment. Do you want to know why I made up the riddle? Because I wanted one more minute with my mother. Only one more minute. Because time is different for a sparrow. You may live a dozen of my lifetimes, but I’m only here for a brief moment, and I have no time to waste. And I still know that despite all that has happened, everything could still happen, and that’s why my mother taught me to keep trying and never stop. We throw ourselves into the air, and flap our wings as we fall.”
“I don’t understand,” said Wednesday, “and I don’t care. And because I don’t care, it doesn’t matter. Your minute is over.”
She took another large step toward them. Ella pushed her mother behind her and once more signaled Wednesday to stop.
“I just realized something,” said Ella. “There is an answer to the riddle. I couldn’t see it before.”
“Is this another trick?” she said.
“It’s not a trick,” said Ella. “I can see it now. The answer was always there.”
“What are you going to do?” whispered her mother.
Ella stared at the raven. Her face grew hard.
“I work day and night and never sleep, but each day I grow poorer,” said Wednesday. “What is it? Tell me.”
“Your heart,” said Ella.
Then she leapt into the air and flew at the raven’s eyes.
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© 2018 Colin Lewis · Brought to you by Unlikely Objects