The road became dirt and pine needles, or perhaps was so dusty with disuse that it appeared unpaved. Upon sight of a meek wooden bridge, Anders’ grip tightened on the steering wheel and Eirik sat a little taller. Without a word they held their breath until the Land Rover cleared the other side.
Nose smudging the passenger window, the chatty panda cub glued its eyes to passing scenery. “You should’ve brought rain coats and swim floaties,” it babbled to no one in particular. “Strange things might happen to us before we reach the bungalow. Here, boy, stop here.”
Anders parked the vehicle by a cluster of dead trees and killed the engine. Climbing out, Eirik set the cub on the ground and it immediately bounded across the road and into the wood; the men looked both ways out of habit and followed.
“Our Nana is a celebrity,” said the bear, proudly. “She created a legend. You see, she enchanted the land around the bungalow with unnatural natural phenomena to ward off uninvited guests because, you must recall, her biggest annoyance was unannounced guests. What in heaven’s name is an ‘unnatural natural phenomenon,’ you wonder. Well, a downpour of water is a natural event, a downpour of pennies is not. Nor tornadoes made of tomatoes or yarn.”
“Yarn?” Eirik scoffed as he stepped over a felled tree. “Can we collect it and sell it? Isn’t yarn big business?”
The bear agreed. “She’s done that on more than one occasion. Mostly she turns it into socks and mittens.”
Raining pennies. Anders scanned branches overhead for bits of blue peeking through. What kind of umbrella do you use for that?
An whistle-like noise stopped him but it ceased as abruptly as it began. Neither the bear nor Eirik showed any sign of hearing it.
The panda chuckled. “Tomatoes seem innocent until you get slapped by a ripe fruit at 200kph. But our Nana wasn’t cruel, no. Hikers who get too close are alerted and thus warned away by the appearance of a herald. The locals know it as an out-of-place off-white animal. It’s a well known legend, the white animal in the woods the presence of which foretells impossible unnatural natural disasters. Have you heard about it?” It glanced back to be sure Nana’s boys were still there. “You’ll see what I mean. But don’t worry, you’re safe with me.”
“I feel like I should be more weirded out than I am.” Eirik cast a glance to his friend for agreement but found him deep in thought. He elbowed his buddy. “Nana was way cooler than anyone gave her credit for.”
Anders remembered times, recently, when his mother and her sisters had argued with Nana, begging her to give up her silly talk, begging for one normal holiday. Nana had smiled and laughed and carried on. No one knew, he thought. She never told anyone the whole truth. It’s incredible. She was amazing. This is amazing. I was the closest to her and I never knew. The idea of her being torn between a need to share her passion and a need to keep it secret… Did I seem like I couldn’t handle it? If he did, he wanted apologize.
Anders squinted ahead. “I miss her.”
The whistle-like noise returned. There’s the sound again. What is that…? A chill touched his heart. The noise wasn’t an ordinary sound. It was a voice like he’d never heard. “You hear that?”
Anders stopped Eirik with a touch and they listened. The sound came from overhead in the sparse evergreen canopy. A faint high-pitched voice with a breathy quality, at intervals it slipped between the stillness with a sort of warbling. It uttered a soft, drawn out hellooooooooo.
Eirik shot Anders a blue-eyed stare.
“Don’t lollygag!” the bear barked back at them.
Like spooked schoolboys, the men pointed up at the trees.
Pausing, the panda’s fluffy ears perked. “Oh. Pfft! That’s the herald.” It scurried on, muttering, “Such children, scared of everything.”
They looked around wide-eyed like toddlers at a zoo.
“Where is it?” said Eirik.
“You can’t miss it,” said the panda. “To your left, to your left.”
If a great bird could be carved from marble and still be alive, that was the animal they beheld perched on a sturdy branch. ‘Twas an outsized parrot, egg-shell white, that seemed capable of effortlessly taking a small child for a turn about the sky. A regal turn of its head directed wise eyes like cosmic-blue pearls at the gawkers, as though it contained the soul of every African grey ever born and had thus become all-knowing and too righteous for the world.
“Holy crap,” muttered Anders.
Eirik broke into a smile. “When do we drown in yarn?” He called to the bear that continued to toddle on its way with purpose.
Anders wanted important answers, too. “Can it do impersonations?”
“You two won’t be joking for long!”
The parrot ruffled a wealth of feathers and turned its icy gaze away. It said, “Never wear a red hat!”
The friends shared dumbfounded silence.
“I – I don’t know,” said Eirik. “I was expecting something profound.”
Never wear a red hat. It rang a bell, sort of. “I think I’ve heard Nana say that before,” said Anders. “No idea what it means. Oh, hey, he’s leaving us.” He gave Eirik a friendly shove and they jogged to catch up to their guide, coming upon an open field beneath a cloudless sky.