A Piece of the Sun
by Renee Carter Hall
Rosalee's brothers liked to say that her name was longer than she was, and even though it wasn't the nicest thing to say, it was very nearly true. She was born the smallest raccoon kit in the litter, and even now, when her two brothers were getting almost too big to fit in the family den, Rosalee was still just a bit of gray fluff and a wide black mask, and she could squeeze through the smallest crevice if it meant getting something she wanted--or getting away from something she didn't want.
Today had been a good day for Rosalee, and she sat on a wide branch by their hollow-oak home, thinking everything over and watching the sunset. She had found something new by the creek, a little flat round thing that flashed in the sunlight. It was the same copper color that the leaves were turning, and it was just big enough to fill her palm. Even now, she was having great fun turning it over and over, since the two sides had different ridges on them and were very interesting to look at. It reminded her of the sun, and Rosalee filled her little corner of the family den with anything that reminded her of the sun.
"Better get inside, squeaker." Her brothers, Hickory and Bramble, pushed their way onto the branch, making it shake and sway as they shoved each other. "Gonna be dark soon."
Rosalee held her treasure a little tighter. "So?"
Hickory smirked. "So it's going to get all scary out here. All kinds of shadows where monsters hide to eat up little kits. There might even be owls."
"I'm not scared."
Bramble laughed. "Right. That's why you spend all night inside the den, curled up in a little ball."
"I can stay outside if I want. I can stay outside all night."
Hickory pushed his nose against hers. "Prove it. Tonight."
"Fine." Rosalee pushed right back. "I'll sit right here. All night."
"Not here," Bramble said, and grinned. "At the old oak."
Rosalee swallowed. "But--"
"You said you weren't scared," Hickory sneered.
Rosalee drew herself up, trying to look as big as she could, which was still only half as big as her brothers. "I'm not. And I will stay there. All night. So there."
"We'll see." Hickory snatched the little object from her.
"That's mine! Give it back."
Hickory sniffed it, then made a face once he realized it wasn't something to eat. "Better not let Mom see you bringing more junk inside." He tossed it down to the ground. "See you in the morning, squeaker." And the two lumbered off into the woods.
As soon as they were gone, Rosalee scampered down to the ground and searched through the dry leaves until she found her treasure again. She rubbed it against her fur so it wouldn't smell like her brother, then held it carefully in her mouth and set off at a trot. She knew where the old oak was. Everybody knew where it was. The one that had been struck by lightning one wild autumn night long ago. The one that stood blackened by fire, split open, its branches bare and dead even in the spring.
The one that was haunted.
The sun had already gone down, and the breeze that had felt crisp during the day now turned icy as it rattled the dry leaves. The sky grew darker, and Rosalee hurried through the forest. The old oak was at the edge of the wood, very near the strange square dens that humans sometimes used. She'd never seen a human, but her brothers had once, and the stories they told made the creatures sound horrible.
At last she reached the oak and stood for a moment, staring at it with wide eyes. It didn't just look dead; it looked like it had never been alive, like it had never been an acorn or a green seedling. It had always been a black husk with the wind moaning through its twisted branches.
Rosalee shivered and looked around. Lucky for her, Bramble had said at the oak, not in it. Nothing could get her inside that tree, not for a whole denful of treasures like the one she carried.
Then she heard the owl.
Once, when Rosalee was very young, she had seen an owl snatch a mouse from the forest floor. It had come down in complete silence, its talons closing around the mouse and lifting it into the air. She had heard the mouse squeak once, and then they both were gone. That was enough. From then on, she'd had nightmares of being carried away, watching their den tree get smaller and smaller, knowing she was going to be swallowed in one hungry gulp.
Now she searched frantically for a place to hide, but all the other trees nearby were young saplings. There were no friendly rotting logs to crawl into, not even the space under a boulder to squeeze beneath. Nothing but the oak.
The owl called again. Rosalee bolted toward the dead oak, her claws scraping against the blackened trunk as she clambered up and then down into the hollow space inside.
Now the only sound was her breath panting in and out. The charred wood burned in her nose, and beneath that was the musty smell of wet leaves and gray moss. The space was barely big enough to turn around in, but that was no comfort, for the trunk had several long cracks where slits of night showed through, and it was open enough at the top to show a patch of blue-black sky. Just enough space for an owl to swoop down...
She shuddered and curled into the tightest ball she could manage, trying to hide her face behind her ringed tail. She wished her tail were bushier.
The night deepened. The wind rattled and moaned. A scattering of stars came out, but Rosalee didn't see them. She kept her eyes squinched shut and clutched the little round thing tightly in her paws, remembering how it shone, imagining it was a piece of the sun.
The wind rose to a howl, died away, and rose again, over and over, until she could imagine a voice in it. Then the wind faded, and the swirling leaves stilled, and in the silence she realized she really could hear something like a voice. Not words, but... more like something crying, quietly, with little gulping sobs.
As young as she was, Rosalee was already pretty good at being a raccoon. Nothing could drive her out of a safe hiding place--except curiosity. She uncurled herself, tucked her treasure safely under a bit of bark, and poked her nose over the top of the trunk, telling herself she could scramble right back in if whatever it was turned out to be dangerous.
It didn't look dangerous, though. At least, it wasn't an owl. She watched it for a few minutes before she realized it must be one of the humans her brothers had told her about. It had the same odd, flat face and the long fur above it. Strangely, though--she sniffed the air--it didn't seem to have a scent. Her brothers said humans smelled awful, and she was downwind of it, but--she sniffed again--nothing.
Rosalee's claws slipped, and she scraped against the wood to keep herself up. The human-thing looked up at the sound. Her eyes were the color of spring leaves--wet leaves, since they were filled with tears--and the long fur that came down past her shoulders was the same brown as a chestnut.
"Is someone there?" The girl's voice trembled with hope. "Please, if you can hear me..."
Rosalee blinked. Her brothers had definitely never said anything about humans talking. They grunted and barked and sometimes howled, but she'd never heard one of them using real words. Eyes wide, she climbed carefully over the rim of the hollow trunk and edged her way down.
It didn't look nearly as big from the ground. Hickory and Bramble had said humans were huge, but this one didn't look any taller than the saplings around them. It seemed to be a young human, maybe as young as Rosalee was, in its own way.
"Hello," Rosalee said.
The girl's big eyes got even bigger. "You can talk. You--can hear me?"
"Of course I can hear you."
She thought this would make the girl feel better, but instead the girl buried her face in her hands and sobbed again.
Rosalee crept closer. "Don't cry. It's all right. You don't have to be scared. You're too big for the owls to get."
The girl sniffled. "It's just--no one can hear me. No one can see me. I tried and tried, but it was no use. They moved away."
"They left you all alone?" Humans really were odd creatures.
"They didn't know I was still here. They thought--" She tried to catch her breath. "They thought--I moved on--after I died. I should have. I meant to."
Rosalee's tail bristled. A ghost. A human ghost. The tree really was haunted. Still, it was awfully hard to be afraid of a girl ghost who was crying. Especially now that she had given herself the hiccups.
"What's your name?" Rosalee asked after the girl had calmed down.
"Annemarie." The girl wiped her nose on the sleeve of her white dress. "What's yours?"
"Rosalee." She paused. "I don't want you to cry again, but... how did you...?"
"How did I die?" Annemarie sighed and looked back at the tree. "The branch broke. I fell."
"Oh." No wonder. Humans didn't look like they were really built for climbing trees. She didn't seem to have any claws at all, for one thing.
"Where were you supposed to go, when you moved on?"
"Through the silver gate at the center of the wood."
"There's not a gate there."
"It only shows up at midnight at the full moon. It'll be there tonight, but it won't matter. I can't get through."
Annemarie pulled out something flat and silvery with a long handle. "The gatekeeper gave me a choice. I wanted to know what I would have looked like if I'd grown up. So I took this mirror instead."
Rosalee looked at it. At first, it was just smooth and blank like a stone, and then a human face appeared, like the girl's, but different.
"You're pretty," Rosalee said. "I mean, you would have been." She didn't really think so--human faces were hard to get used to--but it seemed like the nice thing to say.
Annemarie sniffled again. "So I gave up my chance, and now if I want to go through, I have to pay the gatekeeper. I don't have anything he wants, and he won't take the mirror back."
Rosalee touched the mirror, then bit the edge of it lightly. It was cool and hard, and it tasted a little like...
"Wait here," Rosalee said, and she dashed back to the oak. When she came back, she spat the little round treasure out, shined it on her fur, and held it out. "Here. You can have this."
Annemarie smiled, but her eyes still looked sad. "Thank you. But I don't think a penny's going to be enough."
The girl nodded. "It's a coin. Money. We trade it for things. But it isn't worth very much."
"Oh." Rosalee looked down at it again. "But it's so shiny."
Annemarie smiled again, and this time she didn't look quite as sad. "Yes, it is."
"Maybe we can try anyway. Maybe he likes shiny things. I would." She held the penny out again.
Annemarie looked at it for a moment, then took it. "All right, but... will you come with me? It's so nice having someone to talk to again."
They set off, with Rosalee following the girl through the forest. In the moonlight, everything looked different. If she'd been alone, the sharp shadows would have scared her, but the girl chattered like she was part squirrel, about when she'd lived here, about her older brother who'd dared her to climb the tree--which Rosalee completely understood--and in the end, with all the company, all Rosalee saw was the pale, magical light shining down through the dark branches, carving a silver path through the night.
They reached the center of the forest, a small clearing with two birch trees standing side by side. "Is this it?" Rosalee asked.
Annemarie nodded. "Just wait. It's almost time."
The forest slowly fell silent around them, and a glimmering silver thread suddenly appeared, spanning the two trees. Another followed, and another, weaving a shining web until the space between the trees became an expanse of shifting light.
Rosalee caught a glimpse of shadow and a sense of great wings beating in a way she could feel but not hear. Her heart pounded, and she leapt behind Annemarie's skirt as the gatekeeper appeared: a creature with the form of a human, arching white wings at its back, legs ending in scaly talons, and the blank, heart-shaped face of an owl. He carried a lantern on a long pole, and when he saw Annemarie, he held his other hand out palm-up.
"I bring payment," Annemarie said.
The gatekeeper inclined his head toward his open palm.
Annemarie stepped forward, laid the penny in his hand, then stepped back. They waited.
The gatekeeper drew in his palm and looked down at the coin. "No. Too slight. Too small. Not enough."
Annemarie's whole body sagged. The only sound in the clearing was her shuddering breath.
But the gatekeeper had not looked away from the coin. He cocked his head and studied it, turning it over in his hand, blinking, cocking his head the other way, cooing softly. At last he looked up at Annemarie. "Tell me... what it is."
Annemarie stared at him, her voice a whisper. "You don't know what it is?"
"The sun," Rosalee spoke up.
The gatekeeper fixed his fierce, dark eyes on her. Rosalee shivered, then drew in a breath and came out from behind Annemarie's skirt.
"It's a piece of the sun," Rosalee said. "It's small, so you can carry it with you and have it whenever you want. It's very precious."
"The sun," the gatekeeper echoed. He touched the coin gently. "Long ages has it been," he breathed, "since last I saw the sun."
He gazed it at another long moment, then looked back at Annemarie again. "The payment is fair. You may pass."
Annemarie scooped Rosalee into a hug. It was a little chilly, but Rosalee held tight anyway. "Thank you," the girl whispered, and kissed Rosalee between the ears.
The gatekeeper swept his arm toward the silver portal, beckoning. Annemarie put Rosalee down, curtsied to the gatekeeper, and walked into the light.
When she was gone, the gatekeeper turned to Rosalee. It was hard to read his expression, but there was a note of gentle curiosity in his voice. "Why do you come to this place?"
"She was my friend. I found the piece of the sun and gave it to her."
"Ah." The gatekeeper gazed at the coin in his palm. "It is a precious thing to give to another. You may beg a boon of me, small one, for such a gift."
The gatekeeper gave an owlish chuckle. "You may ask me for a gift, or a favor."
"Oh." Rosalee thought for a moment. "Okay."
* * *
The sky was just beginning to lighten over the forest. Bramble caught up with his brother. "Do you think we should check on her?"
"She probably snuck back into the den after we left." Hickory climbed inside and peered into Rosalee's corner of the den. "Squeaker?" Her leaf collection was there, and her little row of river-stones, but she was nowhere to be found.
Hickory climbed back out and turned to Bramble. "You don't think she really--"
"Mom's gonna be ticked."
The two ran to the old oak. Halfway there, as they passed through a clearing, a shadow fell over them.
Bramble glanced up. "What--"
"Get down!" Hickory flattened himself against the ground, and the huge talons just missed him as the creature landed in the clearing. Hickory stared at the thing, frozen by fear, and then realized it was carrying Rosalee in its arms.
She jumped down. "There they are! I told you they were bigger than me. You can eat off them for days!"
The owl-thing spread its wings and lunged for them. Bramble squealed, and both raccoons scrambled through the underbrush, tripping each other as they went, all the way to the old oak. Rosalee never would have thought the two could fit, but both brothers crammed themselves into the blackened den until gray fur poked out of the cracks.
The gatekeeper circled overhead for a while, then lighted on a nearby branch and bowed to Rosalee. The raccoon kit mimicked Annemarie's curtsy as best she could, though it was hard to do without a dress.
"Is it gone?" Hickory whispered.
Rosalee watched as the gatekeeper faded in a shimmer of silver light. "It's gone," she said, then grinned. "For now."
* * *
Rosalee sat on the branch outside the den, watching the sun rise. It had been a long and tiring night, especially convincing Hickory and Bramble that the thing wasn't going to come back for them on the way home, and as the sun touched the autumn leaves, she yawned and climbed into the den.
There was something new in her corner now; her brothers had helped her carry it back. She admired the mirror a moment, expecting to see only a shiny blank, but then the silver light stirred, and a face appeared. It was Annemarie--not the grown-up one, but the girl she'd been--in a field of summer flowers, laughing, with sunlight shining in her hair. Then the image faded, and all Rosalee saw were her own curious eyes looking back at her.
The cool surface of the mirror reminded her of Annemarie's hug. Rosalee snuggled against it and slept, and dreamed of owls, and smiled.
This work and all characters (c) 2010 Renee Carter Hall ("Poetigress"). May not be reprinted or redistributed without written permission.
It's tough being a raccoon kit who's afraid of the dark. But when Rosalee takes her big brothers' dare to stay all night at the haunted oak, she meets an unexpected friend and finds a way to make things brighter for both of them.