by Brian C. Mahon
Gishna laughed at the butterfly perched on his toe and pointed excitedly at its waving wings, but Dad kept talking, eyes set on the tree line.
“Pride is another one. Vultures used to be proud. Proudest birds in the sky. Soared higher than eagles, faster than hawks, farther than the great sea birds. They were the royals of the air, mm-hm. Are you- Hey Gish, are you paying attention?”
I patted his arm. “It’s fine, Dad. I’m listening if it’s any consolation.” The butterfly flitted away, Gishna’s little hands chasing after it.
“Hmph. Well, he needs to learn his history, and I know you’ve heard this before. So, Gish, listen to Grandpa. Once upon a time, Semuul- “
“It was four-hundred years ago, Dad.”
“Fine!” He cried, tugging his beard. “Four-hundred years ago, which was a time once ago,” he muttered, eyeing me, “Semuul was the world’s strongest man. Semuul had the blood of gods in him, the pure gods too! He was direct lineage. Son of Hmuul, God of Earth and Weight.” Emphasized with two taps of his gnarled wood cane. “Semuul found love in a beautiful, beautiful wood nymph, so beautiful flowers always jealously bloomed wherever she was. Her name was, uh, er…”
“Clycestra, Dad. Clycestra.” Gishna cooed and giggled over blowing spit bubbles.
“Clycestra. And Semuul loved her, very, very much. He loved her so much, he made her a headdress from the feathers of a grand vulture he caught hunting. Back then, we had grand vultures. Wings as wide as four men with arms outstretched! It was a Golden Crowned Grand Vulture, chosen of Vymeera, Goddess of Sky and Wind. Back then, everyone was taught at temple each of the gods’ chosen. They were sacred, never ever to be harmed. All the faithful and humble knew this.”
A memory of a once upon a time, sitting on his lap, staring at the same tree line, drifts in and away with the spring breeze. The voice of the storyteller aged and a little more brittle, but the tenor of the tale all the same.
“Semuul one day goes for a walk with Clycestra and wants to show her how strong he is, so he picks her up in the Norfavrian Fields- “
“It’s South Embry these days.”
“Yes, yes, in South Embry. It doesn’t matter, daughter, just let me tell the story!”
His sudden irritation scratching his voice resounded of my childhood, and I reach over to gently touch his cheek. “Yes, Dad. Please go on. Sorry, little love, Mommy’s sorry for interrupting story time.”
“Semuul is in the fields with Clycestra. Wants to show how strong the son of Hmuul is. Wood nymph, very excited.” He snorted, collecting himself. “So, he picks her up by the waist and throws her as high as he can. As high as he can!” He exclaimed, scooping up Gishna into his arms. Against the lighthearted squeal and staccato laughs, he raised his voice, saying, “And Clycestra goes up and up and up! The headdress he made for her was tied around her waist, its golden feathers gleeeaming in the sunlight!”
I stood to lean against a porch post, admiring a hovering silhouette aloft in the blue sky. How free it must feel, gliding by the gust, untethered in its flight.
“But as Clycestra’s coming down, screaming because she’s so very afraid and so very impressed by her love’s strength, Semuul sees something. Semuul was not only strong, you see, but his sight was so powerful, he could tell the color of a man’s eyes from miles away. Do you know what he saw?”
Gish stared wide-eyed, his little mouth open in a mimic of Dad’s questioning gaze.
“That’s right! A vulture! A Golden Crowned Grand Vulture swooped in and captured Clycestra before she could land in Semuul’s arms! That vulture soared away to its roost high up in the Norfavrian, er, Embryian range! Now, the story gets a little scary here, Gishna. Do you want me to continue?”
Gish’s little face scrunches in response. “I think his silence is good enough. I’d like to hear it again at least.”
He cuddled Gishna to his chest, then lowered his tone darkly. “Vultures used to make nests out of the living: animal, human, so long as it was alive. This was the mother vulture, the vulture that lost her child to our hunter named Semuul. That vulture took poor Clycestra and made her part of the nest for it to lay its clutch of eggs. After climbing to the highest heights, this was how Semuul eventually found his love! Enraged, bewilderingly angry, he confronted the mother vulture in the nest! It thought, surely, no mere man could defeat her in her own domain, but it did not know the blood of gods was in him! With hateful tears nearly blinding him, Semuul killed the mother vulture with his bare hands. His wrath was sated, and it soon gave way to debilitating grief. He sat down in the nest, resting himself on the eggs, eggs as large as you, Gish. But then it dawned on him. He knew what a clutch meant: there was another one to wait for! Anger seethed again, and blood was on his mind. Semuul pulled at the defeated mother bird and hid under her snapped wings. He waited night after chilly night, until finally, on the fifth night!”
“Sixth night! A large shadow cast by a full moon darkened the bloody nest!”
Gishna picked at his nose, prompting me to pull his little hand away.
“The King of Vultures arrived, the largest of all Vymeera’s children! Stricken, it roared at the sight of its shattered brood. Its sorrowful cry scattered all the clouds from the sky, and it landed in grief to pick at the broken shells! As soon as it did, Semuul leapt from under the wings of the dead mother and attacked! King versus Demigod! The King and Semuul dueled in the air as the vulture soared higher and higher, but the world’s strongest man would not let go, driven by intense hate and vengeful sadness. The Vulture King soared until they were above where clouds dared float, past the moon, and reached the stars themselves! Semuul pulled and pulled at every feather he could from the King’s neck and face to force him to turn back, but the King refused! Pride! Pride drove them both towards the stalemate. Semuul stripped the King of his crown, and the King stripped Semuul of the land beneath his feet. Neither truly won.”
I reached to take Gishna from his Grandpa, who continued, stroking his beard, “Hmuul cried for his son and decreed among the gods, especially to Vymeera, that vultures should forever be crownless and cursed to eat only the dead and rotted. But Royrene, matron of the nymphs, cried for her daughter Clycestra and petitioned for Semuul’s punishment. Hmuul, heartbroken, could not deny his son’s responsibility, and to satisfy justice, demanded Semuul drift among the stars for a thousand years. This is why we say Clycestra’s Grace when we see shooting stars, so Royrene knows we won’t forget her pain. More importantly,” Dad started to whisper, “we tell this story so great-grandmother Vymeera knows we never forget the folly of pride.”
Dad patted his knees with a sigh of satisfaction. “The end.”
I pace around on the porch, feeling Gishna relax into my shoulder. “It’s not quite the end, but I think Gish fell asleep.”
“Not that entertaining, eh? Ah, that story isn’t the best anyway. I have better ones like, oh! Wait until I tell him about Thief Lord Nariartrix and the Eighteen Scimitars! That was a grand old time!”
I kissed his wrinkly forehead. “Let’s wait until he can walk, ok?”