The Lesser Ring
By Madeline Howard
There once was a king of the birds: a wise and noble Barred Owl who ruled over his kingdom for years and accomplished much during his reign. In times of famine and drought, he fed the poor and hungry, and in times of plenty he made certain that there was feasting and comfort for everyone. In wartime he waged war swiftly and stoically, but in times of peace the owl was kind and loving to all…
I felt the sleep filter from my mind as light flooded my hollow, coaxing me out of dreams of what I should have been. “I could’ve been another perfect link in the perfect chain of monarchs,” I mused bitterly. I hacked a racking cough, trying to force the liquid from my lungs. Blood spattered my feathers. “At least it’ll all be over soon,” I grumbled. “Penny!” I shouted.
“Coming, my Lord!” came a voice from below my lofty chamber.
I muttered to myself. “Just me withering away. Take your time.”
“One moment, my lord!” I did not reply.
Instead, I surveyed my chamber, a hollow that housed every monarch before me. It was nestled among the branches of a pine that had been the first to have dug in its roots and reached skyward after the great fire had devastated the kingdom in its early days. Arching growth rings wound around the chamber’s interior in spirals. Those rings were the history of the kingdom as I knew it: the dark rings at the heart of the chamber marked the years of the First Owl Queen’s reign, and the crisp lines that charted the reigns of her descendants. And, many rings past those early years of the kingdom, lay the faint line that burrowed against the pith that marked the year of my coronation.
But I did nothing with the crown, nothing with the privileges that were bestowed upon me. I glared at the rings that put mine to shame. I coughed a strident cough.
“Good morning. What’s wrong, my lord?” my servant chirped.
“Penny, you’re here at last.”
“What ails you?” She glanced at my bloodstained feathers.
“I’m a sorry excuse for a king.”
“No, you’re not, my king.”
“You’re right, Penny. I’m far worse, for I will be a forgotten king. I have done nothing with my power to help anyone, and now I’m going to die as if I was never here.”
“You won’t be forgotten.”
“Are you so sure about that?”
“I am because everyone, from the tiniest sparrow to the mighty eagle, has a chance to make a difference in the world. And that opportunity is wide open from the moment you hatch to the moment you die.”
“Excellent. Now I’m really feeling hopeless. You know that my death draws near!”
“I’m sorry, my lord.” She respired, gazing out the chamber at the canopy outside. She regained her composure. “But, you never know,” she said briskly as she exited the hollow.
I barely heard her. I feigned being pained by the notion of death, but in reality, I was obsessed with death, particularly my own. I yearned to be missed after I died as though I had made a difference in the world while I was there. I dreamed of a glamorous death: family, friends, prominent artists, historians, speakers, and authors all watching my final breath.
I reclined on my bed of down and closed my eyes to picture it more clearly. I saw it in my mind like a macabre painting. I was always at the center of the scene, gazing skyward as I valiantly journeyed to the afterlife. There were always onlookers in the picture: attractive mourners gathered at my bedside. Some wept stoically, others wailed in agony. I chuckled. “When I die, they’ll miss me.” It was at that moment a horrifying realization crept into my mind: No one would miss me if they had nothing to miss. The warmness of the notion of death melted into the clutches of cold talons. Heroes are missed for their bravery and nobility. Leaders unite and serve. Even the poorest artists make the world more beautiful. But what had I done?
“Penny! I need to do something that will be remembered!” I called frantically. “Get the General!” Penny fluttered in and out of the chamber, nonplussed.
I rose, coughing again. I paced the room frantically. The picture warped in my mind to an image of me dying all alone... I swiveled my head. I would not end like that! I would make a difference and be missed by everyone!
But what must I do? What made someone cherished? I considered the monarchs gone before me. I couldn’t recall anything. I stared up at the rings of the pine, searching them. They spiraled in nauseating circles. I felt their weight. Had those knots in the wood always hinted at glaring eyes?
“Your Majesty,” echoed the General’s voice.
Standing in the threshold was the General, a weathered kite with rain-gray plumage. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, with his crimson eyes and primly folded wings, but this was most beloved bird in the kingdom. For years he had trained in the Royal Army, scaling the rungs of the military hierarchy until he took charge of the entire kingdom’s military forces. Despite his success, he was miserable. Waging war only brought despair to everyone. And so, after years of hard work, he stepped down from the position. Since then, he has used his accumulated wealth to give to the poor, completely relying on the generosity of others to survive. He claims he’s a happier bird for it, but one thing is certain: when he’s dead, he will be missed by many.
“You’re here! I need your help. I need to be loved like you!”
The General looked surprised. “Hm. What’s on your mind?”
“I can’t be forgotten when I die. What must I do to be great?
“True greatness comes in the lifting up of others,” the General said simply.
“Live generously and humbly. That’s all,” the General continued.
“But I’m not like you; I’m a king,” I emphasized.
The General waited.
I had no other option. “Well then. I guess it’s time to start living humbly and selflessly. Penny!”
It was time to plan my new life. It would start with a speech telling the world about the new king.
“Would you fetch my parchment…please?”
“Yes, my lord.”
She retrieved the parchment and quill.
“Now, some privacy.” Penny shrugged and obeyed.
Wasting no time, the General and I began to write out a speech with all the changes that I planned to make racing in my mind. I would be generous and humble; a perfect, adored, king. We made plans to help the hurting, afflicted and impoverished, young and old. We wrote for what might have been days or even weeks. We spun words as if we were transforming straw into gold.
While the General and I hovered over the parchment with quills in talons, Penny announced a visit from the physician, Dr. Olive.
“Make her leave,” I mumbled, “my time is short and the speech must be perfect.”
“Well,” said the cream-colored dove, ignoring the order, “then it is in your best interest to let me examine you.”
Dr. Olive toted in some bright green herbs and a stone bowl and pestle.
The doctor pressed her head against my chest, listening to my breaths for abnormalities. Silently, she and proceeded to examine my throat.
Dr. Olive produced the bowl and pestle. With one foot, she placed the greens in the bowl. With the pestle, she began to crush them. Still gripping the pestle, she began to make conversation. “Did you know,” she began, “I only grind the herbs this way for my aristocratic patients?”
“Why is that?”
“The poor can’t afford it,” cooed the dove. “For them, I ingest the herbs and regurgitate them after they’ve been ground by my gizzard.” She sighed. “There’s a lot of necessities they can’t have. They must endure excruciating of injuries without comfort.”
Olive sighed again. “Sadly, that’s how it is.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” I contradicted. I smiled.
Olive smiled, too. “Maybe so,” she sighed again, as if lifting weight out of her lungs. “You’ve improved greatly since your examination weeks ago. The fluid in your lungs is beginning to clear, and it seems that your respiratory bleeding has completely stopped. It appears that you are on the path to a complete recovery.”
I was frozen.
Words flooded from me. “I’m well! A second chance at life! Goodbye, Dr. Olive! Your work is done!” I roared triumphantly. I waltzed around the chamber. In my abandon, I had stamped on the parchment, ripping it into slivers that fluttered on the floor of the chamber like torn butterfly wings. I was too elated to care.
Penny soared into the chamber from her perch above the chamber entrance. “Is something wrong? I heard--”
“No! Nothing at all!”
Olive escorted herself out, shaking her head.
The General eyed me uneasily. “What are you doing? This is the perfect opportunity to deliver your speech—strong and well!” said the General. “You can do something with your life! You can put your wasted years behind you!”
I scowled. “General, do you expect me to slave my life away? There’s no need! I only need to be remembered once I’m dead, and I’m far from it! Tonight, we will celebrate my recovery!” I turned to the servant. “Penny! Gather the servants! I expect a party fit for a king by tonight!”
I employed every member of my staff preparing the best banquet in living memory. There was tremendous feasting and pleasurable music. It was nectar for the senses. And, best of all, the party was to be held on The Plateau. The Plateau was a block of marble perched on Pinnacle Peak, the highest hill in the kingdom. It was from The Plateau which the grandest speeches were made and the most lavish parties were held.
I put my own speech completely out of my mind. I didn’t need it or want it. I had more important matters on my mind: my grand entrance was due soon. I stood perched on a branch of an oak that towered above The Plateau. I peered down at the party. It suddenly seemed far away. Inhaling deeply, I let myself fall from the perch. The swath of purple cloth around my neck flowed behind me like liquid metal. All eyes turned to me as I alit on the cool marble of The Plateau. I gave a detached smile as the guests recited:
“Long live the king!” Abruptly, the General rose from his seat at the far end of the table with a chalice in his talons.
“May greatness await you as you lift up others.”
The other attendees raised their own glasses of stone. “To the king!”
I lifted my own ivory vessel. The words of the General clouded my mind like a fog. I looked away, deciding to distract myself by analyzing the table laden with food. There was seasoned game, nuts, and berries arranged in perfect stacks. My own roast rabbit lay before me. Steadying the table with my claw, I stooped to take a bite.
Music, flavor, and conversation flooded The Plateau. The thought of the speech crossed my mind, but it was drowned out by the music. I picked up a berry and began nibbling on it savoring its sweet earthiness, and I swallowed it whole.
Then I was drowning.
The berry had wedged itself in my windpipe. My blood froze. My eyes widened with panic.
I cried out.
I stumbled backward over the edge of The Plateau. The world rushed past me. I closed my eyes, and it was at that exact moment that I felt my hollow bones shatter against the earth as my life escaped me.
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