The butterfly opened its wings and disappeared against the tree trunk again. All that was visible were the eerie unblinking eyespots. Isaac turned and followed the forest path. The light was dim and yellow as it filtered through the trees.
Not too far in, the path branched in two directions. Both looked about the same, but one seemed a little less worn and definite. “If I was a spider running away from ants, I think I’d take that one,” Isaac said. And he turned right and took the less traveled path.
Isaac pulled the feathers out of his pocket and used them to grow a little bigger. He wanted to be able to travel faster while still being small enough to see and recognize the spider. He hurried down the path, and soon realized that the light was growing dimmer.
The trees were taller here, and grew closer together. Their branches were tangled with each other, weaving a roof of branches, leaves, and vines that shut out most of the light. Isaac stumbled over rocks and roots, trying to keep to the path.
Just as he was ready to turn around, he saw a faint golden-green glow on the path ahead. He knelt down and pulled the feathers out of his pocket while looking to see where the light came from. He was hoping to find fireflies or something else that could maybe give him directions after he shrunk to the appropriate size.
Instead, he found a feathery, glowing plant that gave just enough light to see the path ahead to the next clumps of glowing golden-green spots. That was convenient. Isaac stood up and put the feathers away and followed the path of light forward.
There were noises out in the darkness off the path. Rustling sounds and snapping sounds and sounds that might be the wind or might be someone breathing. It was a little scary. And yet, with everything dark except for the glowing moss, he could almost believe he was somewhere else.
Maybe he was really at home in bed, dreaming one of those odd dreams that he could only half remember after he woke up. Isaac pinched his arm. It hurt. That meant that he wasn’t dreaming, right? He closed his eyes and opened them. It was still dark, and he wasn’t in his bed.
Perhaps he was still dreaming and it was just a very realistic dream. “Wake up,” he said out loud. Something nearby made a crackling sound, and then there was the soft thud, thud of something small running away.
Maybe he wasn’t dreaming. What did that mean? Apparently, it meant that there were really caves with fancy hotel lobbies inside and potted plants that were portals into other dimensions. Or maybe there was just the one. The world was much stranger than Isaac had ever realized.
His eyes prickled with hot tears. Why hadn’t he listened when they told him not to go into the woods? He could be safe at home and his normal size right now. It was just all so strange and scary. What if something was sneaking up right now, ready to gobble him up in one bite. His family would never know what happened to him.
Isaac was just imagining his parents building a little memorial to him in the backyard, when he heard voices ahead on the path. Was someone singing? He quickly dried his eyes with the heels of his hands and tried to quietly hurry forward, which wasn’t easy to do at all.
In a small clearing ringed with glowing moss and tiny white mushrooms, there was a large fallen tree. It was as dark here as anywhere else, so any gap left by the tree when it fell had long ago been filled in.
At one end of the log, a branch stuck out at an angle. On top of the branch, an owl was perched, singing “Row, row, row your boat…”
Below the branch, a bat was perched, hanging upside-down and humming along. The owl stopped singing at the end of the first line and stomped his foot. “Hey!”
“What?” the bat asked.
“You’re supposed to come in there,” the owl said.
“I forgot,” the bat said. “Try again?”
“This time, you go first,” the owl said.
“Row, row, row your boat…” the bat sang, and paused. “Weren’t you supposed to come in there?”
“I was going to,” the owl said. “Start again and don’t pause.”
“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…” the bat paused.
“I wasn’t ready yet,” the owl said. “You’re obviously doing it wrong. I’ll start this time.”
Isaac checked to make sure he was big enough to not look like dinner and stepped into the clearing. “Hello,” he said.
“This choir is by invitation only,” the owl said.
“And you’re not invited,” the bat said. “So, go away.”
“I just have a few questions to ask, and then I’ll go away,” Isaac said.
“Do you think it would make him go away more quickly if we answered his questions?” the owl asked.
“He’d leave even faster if you tried to peck his eyes out,” the bat said.
“That’s rather barbaric,” the owl said.
“Then you can answer questions,” the bat said. “But I’m not getting involved. This is a choir, not an information booth.”
The owl snapped his beak and sighed. Then he stared at Isaac with his large golden eyes. “Well?” he asked. “Didn’t you have questions?”
He did have questions. Unfortunately, Isaac couldn’t remember any of them. Why was he here? The spider, right. “Have you seen a spider?” he asked.
“I eat spiders,” the owl said.
“Me too,” said the bat. “Do you have any?”
Fear flashed like a bright light behind his eyes. “Did you eat any recently?” Isaac asked.
“What does recently mean?” the owl asked.
“Did you eat any spiders today?” Isaac asked.
“It’s night time,” the bat said.
Isaac pointed up to the roof of leaves and branches. “It’s just dark. It’s not night yet.”
The owl shrugged. “We’re only awake at night, and we’re awake now, so it must be night. That’s only logical.”
“If we could look at a clock,” Isaac began.
“Do you have one?” the bat asked.
Isaac checked his pockets again, just in case a clock snuck in when he wasn’t looking. Considering how his day had gone, it was somehow a possibility. But there was no clock. “I don’t have one,” Isaac said. “But if I did…”
“But you don’t,” the bat said. “So it doesn’t matter.”
“It was light out when I was walking here,” Isaac said. He pointed up at the leaves again. “It’s just all that stuff in the way that makes it dark.”
“Do you know how long you were walking?” The owl asked.
“Not long enough for it to be night,” Isaac said.
“How do you know?” the bat said.
“Well, I don’t have a clock, but I couldn’t have been walking that long,” Isaac said. “The sun was still up.”
“Can you be sure?” the owl asked. “We can’t see the sun now. Are you good at keeping track of time?”
The bat snorted. “I bet he’s never even met him.”
“Met who?” Isaac asked.
“Time,” the bat said.
“Time’s a person?” Isaac asked.
“No, Time is Time, of course,” the bat said.
Isaac wasn’t even sure what they were talking about any more. “It can’t be night, I’m not tired yet.”
“It’s night when you are tired?” the owl asked. “How can anyone tell if it’s night when you aren’t around?”
“Don’t you sleep when it’s night?” Isaac asked.
“We sleep when it’s day,” the owl said.
“You can tell it’s day by all of the tiresome sunshine,” the bat said.
“But it’s only dark here because of the leaves and branches and stuff,” Isaac said. “Do you ever sleep at all?”
“Not at night,” the bat said.
“If it’s always dark and you never sleep, wouldn’t you go crazy?” Isaac asked.
“I don’t know, how can you tell?” the bat asked. “I don’t feel crazy. I’m not so sure about you, though.”
“I’m just fine,” Isaac said. “It’s the rest of the world that’s gone strange today.”
“That sounds suspicious to me,” the owl said. “It seems much more likely that there is something wrong with you. The simplest answer is the most likely, after all.”
Isaac frowned. He didn’t like where this conversation was going. “So, nobody around here sleeps at all?”
“Well, there’s the lazy squirrel that lives in the log. He’s always sleeping,” the bat said.
“Surely he must wake up sometimes,” Isaac said. “Unless he’s hibernating. Is it the right time of year for hibernating?”
“You don’t even know what time of day it is,” the bat said. “Do you think figuring out the time of year would be any easier?”
The bat had a point. Isaac was done arguing. “Just tell me if you’ve seen a spider,” he said.
“I don’t remember one,” the bat said.
“But you have a terrible memory,” the owl said.
“So do you,” the bat said.
“No I don’t,” the owl said.
“Yes, you do,” said a new voice. Isaac looked down. A squirrel looked back up at him from a gap in the side of the log. It blinked slowly.
“What do you know?” the bat asked. “You’re always sleeping.”
“I’m not sleeping, I’m remembering,” the squirrel said. “Would you like to hear what I remembered?”
“This is a story from before,” the squirrel said. “I was there, and owl was there, and I remember, but owl does not.”
“I object,” the owl said. “If I don’t remember it, then I obviously wasn’t there.”
The bat laughed. “This is obviously going to be good. Keep going. What happened?”
“As I said…” The squirrel paused and yawned. “I said that the owl was there.”
“I was not,” the owl said.
“Keep going,” the bat said.
The squirrel blinked sleepily. “The owl was there, and he lived in a hole in a tree. The tree was on an island in the middle of a lake. My cousins and I visited the island in the fall, to gather nuts for winter.”
“What kind of nuts?” Isaac asked.
“Whatever kinds we could find,” the squirrel said.
“What kinds could you find?” Isaac asked.
“Whatever kinds were there,” the squirrel said.
“But…” Isaac began.
“Hush,” the bat said. “You’re interrupting the story. That’s rude.”
“I don’t remember when I last met someone so rude,” the owl said.
“You don’t remember anything,” the bat said.
“I remember…” the squirrel said. The owl and bat looked down at the squirrel. “I remember that we took boats to the island. And we carried empty sacks for the nuts. We used our tails as sails and the wind pushed us across the water…”
The squirrel stared off into the distance. The bat scowled. “What happened next?” he asked.
“I used to like riddles,” the squirrel said. “The trickier the better.”
“That’s nice,” the bat said. “But I wanted to hear the rest of the story. Tell us a riddle later.”
“You’d better know the answer to the riddle before you ask it,” the owl said. “The bat always forgets. It’s irritating.”
“I do not,” the bat said.
“You do too,” the owl said.
“I remember…” the squirrel said again. Once again, the owl and bat stopped arguing and looked down. “The owl lived in a hole in a tree.”
“You already said that part,” Isaac said, trying to be helpful.
“Stop interrupting,” the bat said.
“You interrupt too,” Isaac said.
“I do not,” the bat said. “I have more manners than that.”
“Is the story over, then?” the owl asked.
“No, it’s just started,” the bat said. “Keep talking, squirrel.”
“The owl lived in a tree, and the tree was on an island,” the squirrel said. “And my cousins and I would come to gather nuts for the winter.”
“Is that the whole story?” Isaac asked.
“Hush,” the bat said.
“My cousins and I would visit the island, and I remember…” the squirrel looked off into the distance. Isaac opened his mouth to say something, but closed it when the bat hissed at him.
“We would ask the owl permission to gather nuts,” the squirrel said at last. “And I would tell him riddles. But he never answered them. He never answered.”
“This story is obviously not about me,” the owl said. “I am very good at riddles.”
“What happened?” the bat said, ignoring him.
“He bit off my tail,” the squirrel said.
“But you still have a tail,” Isaac said.
“It was longer,” the squirrel said. “I remember.”
“Is that the end?” the owl asked.
“My tail is the end of me, but the end of my tail is not the end of the tale,” the squirrel said.
“I’m suddenly remembering something,” the owl said.
“What do you remember?” Isaac asked.
“I’m remembering that I hate riddles,” the owl said. He clicked his beak ominously.
“The tale is done,” the squirrel said, and he disappeared back into the hollow of the log.
“If you don’t remember the spider…” Isaac began.
“What spider?” the bat asked.
“I eat spiders,” the owl said.
“Right,” Isaac said.
“Left,” the bat said.
Isaac scowled. “Could you tell me the way out?” he asked.
“We could…” the owl said.
“…but we won’t.” The bat cackled.
“Yes we will,” the owl said.
“Why would we do that?” the bat asked.
“So he’ll go away,” the owl said.
“But which way out does he want?” the bat asked.
Suddenly Isaac’s heart felt lighter. “There’s more than one?”
“It all depends on where you want to go,” the bat said.
“Home,” Isaac said. “I want to go home.”
The bat looked at him. “Nope, too far,” he said at last.
“Out of the cave?”
“Nope,” the bat said. The owl hooted and it sounded like laughter.
Isaac’s heart was dropping. “Out of the lobby?”
“Nope.” The owl hooted louder.
“Out of the potted plant?” He was still hopeful, but beginning to be resigned to be directed out of the clearing or the conversation or something like that.
“That we can help you with,” the bat said.
The owl hooted a half-hoot and then sputtered. “We can?”
“Sure. Follow the direction the log is pointing. You’ll find some ladders leaning against some trees. Take the third one,” the bat said.
“I’ve never seen any ladders,” the owl said. “When did we get ladders?”
“They’re not ours,” the bat said. “And you always forget everything.”
“At least I remember exactly when to come in,” the owl said. “You start this time.”
“Gladly,” the bat said. “Row, row, row your boat…”
“Wait,” the owl said. “I wasn’t ready.”
Isaac looked at the log. The far end did look sort of pointy. He followed the direction it pointed, into the dark of the forest.