Do you remember how it is, little one, when you are so hungry, stupid hungry, and then you find food? Do you remember how you taste the food at first, savoring it, and then you feel the rush to eat more and more and more, greedy to fill your body with it?
That is how Prince Claudius felt when the sparrow introduced him to the harvest of nuts. And that is why, at first, he didn’t hear the singing. But as his hunger was sated, he became aware of it. Of the sweet voice, singing, from somewhere, a song that felt familiar somehow.
He looked around him suspiciously but didn’t see anyone. The voice seemed to come from all around him. He stood, absently chewing, his hands still full of nuts, listening. And then it seemed to him that the voice came from above although, when he looked up, he still didn’t see anyone.
He began to move then, nuts forgotten, hunger forgotten for the moment, all of his attention focused on the voice. He searched until he could recognize the direction that the voice came from and moved closer to it and closer, until he stood at the foot of a huge tree that reached upward toward the sky. He gazed up at it a few minutes, listening to the waves of voice coming down to him.
Then he began to climb, up, up, up. Until he finally emerged above the tops of the neighboring trees, and then still higher, and then he reached a wide platform that encircled the trunk and spread outward, securely nestled on supporting branches.
At the far end of the platform, resting on a pile of branches and swaddled in blankets, was the singer.
“Athena?” He asked, unwilling to believe his eyes.
The singer stopped and looked across at him, startled.
“Claudius? Little Claudius, all grown up? Come closer and let me see you.”
Claudius moved tentatively across the high platform toward his sister. When he grew close, she reached out a hand and stroked his face.
“Oh, Claudius! I am so happy to see you!”
“What are you doing up here?” Claudius asked.
“This is where I live now,” she said simply. “I am Queen Above the Forest and this is my castle. Oh, I know it doesn’t look like much now, but in the moonlight… in the moonlight, it is glorious.”
“I met Ursula. Have you seen her?”
Athena shook her head. “I don’t get down to the forest floor much. How is she? How do you come to be here? Tell me everything!”
So Claudius sat on the floor beside his sister and told him his story, and Ursula’s. And then Athena told him her story.
As the carriage that bore me away from our home reached the edge of the forest, the horse stretched it’s wings wide and there was a jolt and I felt myself lifted into the sky. Oh, the feeling of it, you could not imagine. We flew high over the trees and, as I watched the forest stretch out beneath me, I wondered where we were going and if we might fly to the moon.
Finally, I saw on the horizon, a tall tree, taller than all the rest — this tree. It stretched up above the others and then outward and twinkled like a thousand stars. As I grew closer, I could see it was a great castle in the air. The horse settled outside the door and the King emerged, wrapped in a cloak woven of feathers, in a million shades of gold and brown. He stretched out a hand to help me descend from the carriage and welcomed me to his home, where I would be his Queen.
The castle was beautiful with fine hangings woven of reeds and feathers – even the furniture was woven and so soft to sit on. There was a huge feast but we served ourselves for there was no one else around. As we ate, he told me his story, of his curse, to be man in the moonlight and eagle otherwise. Even the fine castle with it’s beautiful furnishings would disappear when the moon set. He apologized but I had already fallen in love.
Athena shrugged. “And so you see me… waiting for the moonlight.”
“Would you come away with me, if I asked?” Claudius wondered and she shook her head.
“No, for even without the moonlight it is better than what we had. Oh, and in the moonlight… in the moonlight, it is glorious.” Her eyes, when she said this, shone. “And I have another reason,” she added, pulling away the blankets that wrapped her round, revealing a bundle that she held to her breast. She gently nudged the wrappings away from the bundle and Claudius glimpsed a huge egg, before she quickly wrapped it back up again. “I’m having a baby.”
Before Claudius could figure out how to respond to this, Athena sat up quickly. “My husband – he returns! Quickly, he must not find you here in the daylight. He’s really not fit to meet new people when the moon is not up.” She gestured at the trunk behind him, and Claudius, rising and turning saw a huge hole in the trunk. “In that hole, quickly!”
Claudius ran to squeeze into the hiding place. “All the way to the bottom, where he won’t be able to reach you,” she called after him. “It’s just for a little while, just until the moon rises!”
The cavity was deep but not bottomless and Claudius settled down at the bottom of it. It was lined with soft needles. High above him, he heard the sound of wings, the hunting cry of the raptor, and his sister’s soft voice answering. Then the light was blocked out by a huge head and the cry came again, reverberating through the tree, shaking it. Claudius hardly dared move. Then he heard Athena speak again and the great shape withdrew.
Claudius lay his head against the side of his refuge, wrapped what was left of his cloak about him, and closed his eyes.
Claudius again awoke to a world transformed. His refuge had become a richly decorated room, with a symphony of wood inlays decorating the walls, floor, ceiling; and a delicately-carved bed. He climbed the sweeping staircase to the main level and emerged into a soaring space, all decor leading the eye upward toward the sky.
“Welcome to my home,” the king greeted him warmly. “I am so happy to meet Athena’s baby brother.”
They dined, they danced, they told merry stories, they gazed at the stars from the windows. When the moon began to set, Athena and the king packed supplies for Claudius and the King escorted him to the forest floor.
“Be safe,” he said. “Go far before the moon sets and stay out of sight from the sky. Find what you are looking for.”
Then he removed a ring from his finger and handed it to Claudius. Taking it, Claudius saw that it was tightly woven of tiger-striped feathers.
“If you need help,” the King told him, “take that ring from your finger and call on me. I will come to you one time.” Then he hugged him. “Go now, go safely.”
And Claudius, once more, was on his own.