Above their heads, the beech leaves began to stir. A tiny bug scurried for cover beneath Mary's bare foot just as a drop of rain plopped onto her shoulder. Mary jumped and giggled and took cover herself, wriggling back against the beech's smooth and ancient trunk. Tom was drumming on a branch just over her head, playing counterpoint as the rain began to tap irregular rhythms on the leaves.
"C'mon," said Mary suddenly, "Let's make a run for the B'wizzer's!" "We'll get soaked," Tom answered lazily, stretching and yawning, "Wait til it lets up."
"You can if you want, but you're gonna get soaked right where you are if it starts coming down any harder."
Water filmed the air as they looked out from their haven, awakened the rich earth smells of the beech wood, and washed the summer dust from the leaves, leaving them shining. Above their heads the rain beat a drum roll on the canopy.
"Nah, this old boy is better than an umbrella," Tom replied, patting the branch under him affectionately.
"Okay. But I still feel like racing raindrops!" Mary burst out, jumping to her feet.
Tom watched her pelt through the trees toward the center of the beech wood, yawned again and leaned back into the broad tree lap. A few seconds later the first fat wet drops began to slide off the overburdened leaves above. A rivulet made its way down an almost
vertical branch, slid underneath, gathered and fell. Tom shook his head and muttered, "Okay, okay, I'm going!" Leaping from his branch to the still dry ground under the tree, he sprinted for the tree Mary had begun to climb. When he had scrambled into the
branches at the tree's heart, Mary was waiting on a small platform, woven of branches and twigs and mosses.
"Knew you'd be coming," she laughed. "Yeah, well, the tree nudged me - right on my head!" Tom shook his head like a dog.
"Hey! I'm wet enough!" But Mary's complaint was cut short as the platform began to descend. And as calmly as though everyone they knew spent Saturday afternoons riding elevators into trees, Mary and Tom sank through the leaves and branches and into an almost invisible well in the tree trunk.
The patter and hiss of the rain quieted and the green light of the summer storm gave way to a shadowy yellowness pierced by an occasional weird sharp cry. When the platform thumped down, Mary and Tom had already hopped off and were making their way along a winding, tiled underground corridor.
Sounds of distress could be heard in the distance. Mary and Tom exchanged a look of amusement, rather than alarm. "Wonder what's eating the old boy this time." "Yeah," giggled Mary, "Maybe a beard-nibbling feather-brained Snood from Venus!"
"Oh, man," Tom snorted, "remember how he tried to decoy that dumb bird by putting pumpkin seeds in his hair?" "And how he looked like a haystack in a windstorm after the Snood pulled out his hair to get at the seeds!"
But when the short figure of the B'wizzer came bustling toward them he was fully bearded, his white hair streaming onto his white robes so that he resembled an animated snowball. Totally ignoring the anxious shrilling of a tiny bird clinging to his shoulder, the B'wizzer beamed at Mary and Tom, waving his arms and shouting, "Oh, it's wonderful, simply wonderful! Just in time! We must leave at once!"
"Okay," said Mary enthusiastically. "Where to?"
"Uh, okay," echoed Tom, somewhat less enthusiastically, "What did you have in mind, exactly?"
The B'wizzer's trips, invariably bird collecting expeditions, required a vehicle capable of space flight. Before Mary and Tom discovered his underground tree house and became his friends, he had happily stocked his extraterrestrial aviary by magic alone. All birds fascinated him, and there was a fine collection of terrestrial specimens, from an irritated emu to a placid pair of Central Park pigeons. But many of the rooms off the corridor where he and Mary and Tom were talking were specially fitted for birds who required zero gravity or a constant temperature of 600 degrees or air approximating a deadly swamp to match their native terrain. He was glad of Mary and Tom's company on expeditions to entice these guests to accompany him back home, and for their contribution of a homemade rocket.
A good summer's work had gone into that rocket, using salvaged parts from all over town, and the tank from an outdated water truck. Tom's mother worked at an aerospace company, which provided them with a working knowledge of rocketry and a source of supply. The B'wizzer had handily endowed this model with enough magic to handle a two day expedition to anywhere in the known or rumored Universe, round trip.
Tom had been through some pretty weird experiences since Mary had come to live in the big house next door. He had accompanied her on the B'wizzer's last expedition to Mars for a red Dust Devil bird, which was now happily nesting under three feet of orange dust, sending up plumes of dirt and feathers, in one of the B'wizzer's aviary apartments. But his first reaction to one of the B'wizzer's ideas was still usually caution and doubt. The B'wizzer's next words did not allay his suspicions.
"Well, I believe you could call it Pluto3 although what they will when they do find out about it I haven't the foggiest nor do I have the time to worry about that just now, because the important thing is that the Great Bird is there and it's really an absolutely unparalleled opportunity. Of course it won't stay, just a visit," he said wistfully, but brightening, "but we'll be in his stories forever, you know!"
The reason that Pluto3 has never been discovered by astronomers is primarily because much of the time it is invisible, shrouded by a shadowy fog. At unpredictable times it becomes visible, then disappears again. If it is spoken of at all, it is as one of the many anomalies of deep space.
The B'wizzer suddenly began to chirp and shrill and the tiny bird with the toucan beak answered, and hopped from his shoulder to his head to his arm to the air to turn pirouettes as precise as a hummingbird's. "Yes, yes," the B'wizzer beamed, "he's right, you know!"
"Um, about what? We don't speak bird," Mary reminded him gently.
"Oh, quite, quite, about the Great Bird; it'll be so pleased I think to receive an invitation, my friend here is from Pluto3, says it's due. Comes every 3,000 rotations or so, quite an event on that tiny world. The little one here is quite anxious not to miss it."
"But Pluto3, does that mean it's beyond Pluto?" Tom asked incredulously.
"Why yes, that's why I call it that. Only one bird species there, mostly bug like creatures, tiny little things. Often thought it would be grand to have a few...oh, but insects would be so easy to lose, and the birds would want to eat most of them..."
"Uh, B'wizzer? Pluto3? The Great Bird? What size of rocket would we need to carry it back?" Tom said, recalling the wizard's mind from wherever it had flitted at the thought of all the wonderful bugs there must be in the Universe.
"Oh, that won't be any problem at all, you see, it will fly."
"By itself? It's probably 3 billion miles just to Pluto. I know you can get us back, but does this bird do interstellar flight?" asked Mary.
"Oh my yes," the B'wizzer answered seriously. "But you'll see! We'll just use the rocket you made for me - when we took it to Alpha Centaur it was a delightful trip. I'm having such trouble with those Centaur birds! Aggressive and very forceful for their size. I wonder if I could put them next to the Silent But Deadly Cowbirds. Sort of an example, a model for them."
B'wizzer took Mary and Tom down the hall to show them the Centaur birds, who had wreaked havoc on their aviary and were sitting peacefully amidst the wreckage, cooing and stroking each other's razor sharp bills gently.
The preparations for the journey were surprisingly simple and quickly accomplished. They told Tom's parents that they were going to pretend they were taking a trip to Pluto and would be camping out in the rocket for a couple of days. Then they pulled it out of Tom's back yard - where the B'wizzer preferred to store it - with their bikes. Launch was from a secluded clearing near the swamp, where no one was likely to drop in unexpectedly. In the early morning light of launch day, the rocket's gleaming silver sides reflected swamp greens and browns. When they took off, the magic was so silent, even the frogs didn't miss a beat.
And in a moment, they were beyond Mars, beyond Jupiter, beyond Pluto and on in a gentle curve. The rocket thus approached the planet from deep space, so that it was back lit against the faint light of the sun, which seemed no more than a weak flashlight there at the edges of the solar system. But against the faint light, they could make out a lavender colored sphere, with two great wings of shadow curving around it. As they watched, the wings began to unfold. A great creature soared away from the little planet and out against the stars.
The B'wizzer stepped to the nearest view port, which looked directly out into space, away from the planet.
"How are you going to contact it?" breathed Mary. "Ah, that's why I brought this," he replied and placing a circular instrument against the glass, he pressed several keys on its back.
A beam of laser light, bright red, seared out into space. The B'wizzer waited several minutes, then again pierced the dark of space with a brilliant light, green this time. Several minutes passed, then Mary called the B'wizzer over breathlessly to her view port. A shadow, like fog or smoke, unlike the limitless black of space, came swiftly between the ship and the sun. The B'wizzer smiled gleefully, "It has heard me." He sent a blue light next - "For earth" - and finally, a lavender beam, then said to Mary and Tom, "Now. Let's go home."
"Will it come with us?"
"I'm sure of it."
So Mary set the coordinates and Tom prepared for their return, reversing the strategy used to get to Pluto3. The B'wizzer was right, as they zipped through space they were accompanied by a bolt of changing light, like a comet, but seen close, a comet of many colors.
In a scholarly mood, the B'wizzer explained to them that the Great Bird has two modes of flight - for speed, it folds up its great wings and becomes a column, arrowing at unimaginable speeds through the universe. When it is at rest, or visiting, or drifting or observing, its wings are spread and it looks rather like a pterodactyl - long arrowy head, bat wings through which light is visible, but clouded like an early dawn light, cloudy and sun pierced.
The bird followed them along their trajectory to earth, lazily keeping pace with them without even folding into the cosmic arrow position. In the last hours before re-entry time it folded up and lay against the rocket and they began to descend very fast. Tom pushed buttons frantically, "We're approaching too fast, we'll crash!" At the last moment, great wings fanned out from the rocket, braking the dashing fall, and gently the rocket set down. The bird had broken away just before they reached the level of the trees, so as not to become entangled in steeples, water towers or rooftops.
Human vision can't exactly perceive the great bird, it appears to be more like an interference; it doesn't appear on radar or become more detailed through a lens. During the next week, odd shadows appeared over great parts of the earth, larger than the largest clouds, and then passed away in directions completely unlike the prevailing wind patterns.
The Great Bird can communicate with other creatures, for instance through the tiny toucan-like bird, but it had learned the language of humans during the time it was attached to Mary and Tom's rocket during the ride down to earth. Its talk was slow, meditative.
Mary and Tom had long conversations with it, and did not notice that they had talked through the day and on through the night. It showed them things about other planets that scientists haven't discovered yet - the swirl of gases on Venus, what the planet Mars
is like, inside.
Ruminating on what it had seen of Earth, the bird said first, "Water."
"Oh, yes," said Mary. "We are mostly water, you know, even the creatures themselves." And she told about the oceans, the cycle of rain and evaporation, the place of water on Earth.
Then it said, "Smoke. Fire."
Tom explained about oxygen and combustion, and the different causes of smoke - natural lightning and fire and man-made factories and burnings.
The bird's third observation sounded amused, or surprised, "Busy," it said.
"Oh," replied Mary. "There are so many creatures on earth, some so small that we can't even see them, all with their own lives and activities. Then there are all the various things that move, including ourselves, and all acting and interacting together all the time. The clouds move, the weather changes, water cycles." The column of shifting, dull colors changed as she spoke; faint pictures of elephants, birds, clouds appeared as the bird thought on what it had seen and what the two kids were saying to it.
As the sun rose over the trees in the park where they were talking, the great bird spread its wings, giving the park the metallic look of an eclipse, or a land under a volcano's smoke and ash. To sum up its experience of Earth, it said, "Energy." And then, swiftly growing larger and denser it lifted up off the ground - its last words to Mary and Tom, and all earthlings, being "Peace" and "Balance". As it lifted up, its wings spread leisurely and powerfully, and a rainbow of color rippled through, earth colors in all their shades and subtleties - cold moonlit blues, pale dusty tans, brilliant lupine purple and living fire orange and yellow.
"Thank you" its voice/thought/feeling came down to them.
Sometimes when Mary or Tom feel very alone, or very small in the universe, they will go up to the widow's walk and lie on their backs. Looking up into the sky, they know that they are not alone, that somewhere the great bird is folding its wings on another planet or dusty asteroid, sharing its pictures of the universe with others. Sometimes they see a shadow fall across the moon or darken a patch of stars and they know and smile hello.