Genre: Whimsical Fantasy
Bits of earth stuck to Bernard’s fingers. His hands expertly worked through the rich forest soil littered with the skeletons of decomposing leaves. The gentle hum of millions of insects chewing through leaves and tree bark soothed him. Wrapped in the protective arms of ancient oak trees, he felt at home; here, in the company of other ignored things. Fungi, insects, birds, and tiny saplings; away from people who are so strange and unpredictable.
A red-billed crow gave cry and swooped low over his head. Settling on a branch, she regarded him with a glossy black eye.
‘I know what you’re going to say,’ Bernard said.
The crow cocked her head and blinked.
‘Stop that!’ Bernard threw a stick at her, and she gave a squawk and flapped out of the way.
‘How rude,’ she said, ruffling her feathers indignantly.
‘Stop pestering me about it.’
‘But it’s a good idea. In fact, I think it’s the best idea I’ve ever had,’ the bird answered. ‘I need my art, and humans need friends.’
‘I have friends,’ he mumbled.
He liked the bird, despite her stubbornness. She was a collector, like him, but her hoard was made up of shiny things that she stole from the villagers. She called it her art collection.
Bernard’s attention returned to the ground. The bird hopped down to get a better look.
‘This is a surprise,’ Bernard murmured. He caressed the edge of a small, perfectly round mushroom. The pale lavender cap was slashed with distinctive white markings around the edge, and ringed with black gills underneath.
‘Poisonous, no?’ The bird gave an anxious hop.
‘Not this one. This is the Moonrise mushroom. They only come out once a year; mid-summer, during a full moon.’
He took a pair of scissors from his pocket and snipped the mushroom off at its base.
‘You’re a bit early,’ he said to the mushroom as he placed it into a small case. The bird clicked her beak impatiently, but he ignored her. ‘We’ll come back here in two days to see if we can find the rest.’
‘Why?’ the bird asked.
‘Because they’re beautiful.’
‘And my plan to help you make human friends?’
‘People think I’m odd,’ Bernard said softly, looking at the scissors in his hands.
The bird only blinked at him.
‘Aren’t you my friend?’ he asked.
Two days later, Bernard was back on his knees, painstakingly investigating a clump of attractive coral mushrooms, their delicate caps as large as a man’s hand. The bird circled above him, and dropped something from her beak.
‘Hello,’ Bernard said, without looking up.
‘Good day,’ the bird chirped, settling down across from him. She eyed the mushrooms. ‘Poisonous?’
‘Not too sure. It might be Golden Treasure; delicious with lamb. Or Witches Lamps; they’ll kill you in seconds.’
The bird cried out and flapped her wings in front of his face.
He leaned back to cover his face with his arms. ‘Stop that!’
‘Rather safe than sorry,’ she replied, settling back down.
He spotted something shiny among the leaves, and a chill ran down his spine. ‘What’s that?’
The bird pecked at the silver chain. ‘It’s art. For my collection.’
‘You stole that from the village!’
‘I did not,’ she said.‘It was lying around.’
‘Lying around? Where?’
She avoided his eyes. ‘In a house.’
Bernard broke out in a cold sweat. ‘Whose house?’
Without answering, the bird made a gurgling noise, scooped up the chain, and flew off.
‘Hey!’ his words caught as he heard the sound of a girl’s voice; a very angry girl’s voice.
‘Come back here, you pesky bird! Insufferable, impossible…’
The girl burst through the bushes a few feet from him and stopped in surprise. He recognised her immediately; raven black hair, and skin like Pixie Milk mushrooms. Her name was Luca. She doubled over with her hands on her knees, breathing heavily.
‘Have… Have you seen a bird? A red-billed crow, the… Pesky thing…’
‘A bird? I don’t know any birds,’ Bernard said, his face red.
‘You’re Bernard, right?’ She stood upright, and placed her hands on her hips. Her breath was still coming in short gasps.
He stared at her, on the verge of running away. People were so unpredictable.
‘Yes, you’re that boy who hoards things.’ She eyed him suspiciously. ‘You’re not going to attack me or something?’
He shook his head.
Bernard nodded earnestly.
‘Good. What are you doing here?’ She looked at his tools and notebooks on the ground. ‘Oh, how lucky, some Golden Treasure, this goes very well with…” She reached out to touch the orange mushrooms but, without a word, Bernard leaped forward, grabbed her around the waist, and tackled her to the ground.
‘Ow! You’re just as crazy as they say! You promised you wouldn’t attack me,’ she protested.
‘They might be Witches Lamps.’
Luca’s eyes opened wide. ‘Oh.’ She rubbed her sore hip. ‘In that case, thanks.’
Ignoring Luca, Bernard gathered his tools and notebooks with sweaty hands. He had to get away quickly, before she did something else irrational. That bird would be in so much trouble when he got hold of her.
‘You know,’ Luca said, ‘I think these might actually be Golden Treasure. See here, the stalk and the ring are exactly the same colour as the cap. The stalks of Witches Lamps are pale yellow.’
Bernard turned to look at her. She was lying on her side, flat on the ground, her face just inches from the mushrooms. She smiled up at him.
‘You know about mushrooms?’ he asked.
‘Sure,’ she said, sitting up. ‘Grandpa was a keen mushroom gatherer. Told me all about them. Everyone always said he would die from eating the wrong one but, in the end, it was the Summer sickness that got him. Grandma says that’s ironic.’
She had some dirt stuck to the side of her face, but Bernard tried not to look at it.
‘I’m looking for Moonrise mushrooms,’ he said. ‘I found a small one a few days ago.’
‘They’re meant to be very valuable. Grandpa always told the story of how he stumbled upon them once. He said he brewed a love potion with them, and that’s how he got Grandma.’
She sat on her haunches and carefully moved the dead leaves around.
Bernard stood watching her. She seemed so… nice. Even if she was unpredictable.
The bird flew down from a nearby branch, and landed on Bernard’s shoulder.
Luca gasped. ‘Thieving bird. Give back my necklace!’
Bernard took the necklace from the bird’s beak. ‘She doesn’t mean any harm; it’s for her art collection.’
The bird looked longingly at the necklace as Luca fastened it around her neck.
‘Art collection?’ she asked.
‘Well, you’ll have to find something else for your collection,’ she said to the bird.
The bird chirped enthusiastically.
Luca looked long and hard at Bernard and the bird, and he shifted uncomfortably under her stare. ‘What will this odd girl do next?’ he thought.
‘Maybe you can show me your mushroom collection one day?’ she said at last.
Bernard frowned. ‘If you like.’
‘And I’ll give you some of Grandpa’s books on mushroom gathering.’
‘I already have a lot of books.’
Luca sighed. ‘Alright then. Moonrise mushrooms are meant to grow close to tree trunks; let’s see if we can find any over here.’ She got down on her knees, searching the ground.
‘Told you it was a good idea,’ the bird whispered to Bernard. ‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go check on my art collection.’ She gave his ear a playful peck before flapping off towards the village.
If you enjoyed this story, why not read Her name was Lolagh next? It’s about one man’s lonely journey to find a girl called Lolagh.
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