Walking on the clouds was a wonderful feeling. Her feet felt as if they were sinking into plush carpet. The air was brisk and cool around her, while the sun warmed her from above. The sky was a brilliant blue and the various shapes of the clouds around her made interesting landscapes. Celeste could see the tree ahead of her, growing steadily closer, and for a while it seemed that her struggles were almost at an end.
Then the eagle came.
Swooping down from the sky as if from nowhere, it was fully ten times bigger than any eagle Celeste had ever seen. Its wicked-looking curved beak was as big as her head, and its razor-sharp talons were easily big enough to pick her right up off her feet and carry her off as if she were a fish. And Celeste had plenty of opportunity to see that beak and those talons up close because the eagle repeatedly dived straight for her head. Celeste ducked and dodged and more than once fell headlong into the clouds, coming up with a mouth full of water. She had never been so terrified in her life, and without thinking she began to sing the lullaby again as she ran. She sprinted toward the tree with her head as low as she could keep it, expecting at any moment to feel the sting of those cruel talons and beak. The pain never came. The eagle continued to assault her, soaring up only to swoop down toward her again, beating her head with its wings, but somehow Celeste always managed to just evade disaster. At last, just when she thought her heart would burst and her legs give out, she stumbled one last time and felt her head hit something solid. It was a root. She had made it to the Tree of the Four Winds. With one last heart-stopping shriek, the eagle swooped up and perched on the highest branch, where it sat glaring at her with its beady eyes.
Celeste was trembling all over. She couldn’t make her arms and legs move at all. Her voice had completely given out. She didn’t even have the strength to be amazed that the eagle had not killed her. She just lay there gasping for breath and trying to pull herself together. After what seemed like hours, Celeste finally felt strong enough to move again. Very cautiously, she lifted her head and looked up. The eagle hadn’t moved. High up in the tree, Celeste could see some red fruit. It should be possible to climb up to them. Celeste lowered her head again. What was she going to do? If she tried to climb the tree to pick the fruit, would the eagle attack her again? But what choice did she have? She couldn’t just lie there forever. Besides, her mother needed that fruit. With that thought, Celeste stood up.
The eagle let out a loud cry, but it didn’t move. Taking heart from that, though still trembling, Celeste carefully began to climb the tree. Fortunately, the branches were low and close together, so that climbing was really not too difficult. If it weren’t for the bright eyes of the eagle staring at her through the leaves, Celeste would have found it almost enjoyable. As it was, she had a hard time forcing herself to go on. Every new step up brought her closer to those waiting talons.
Finally, Celeste could see the fruit on a branch just above her. Bracing her weight against the tree trunk she reached up. The eagle shook out it’s wings. Celeste wrapped her hand around the fruit. The eagle let out a harsh scream. Celeste pulled, and the fruit came away from the branch.
For a long while it was completely silent.
Then a voice said, “Well done, daughter.”
Celeste was so surprised she almost fell out of the tree. She looked all around to see who was speaking to her. It wasn’t until he spoke again that she realized it was the eagle.
“I knew you would be the one,” he said.
“You…but you…but why were you attacking me?”
“I am the guardian of the tree. It is my job to keep away the unworthy. I had to see if you were worthy.”
“You mean you never meant to hurt me?”
“Not if you had the courage to continue.”
Celeste thought about that for a long time. Then she said, “Now that I have the fruit, can I just go? You won’t chase me anymore?”
“I won’t chase you anymore. You have proved yourself worthy.”
“I’d better get going then,” Celeste said. “I may be too late as it is. It is a long journey home, and my mother is very weak.”
“There is a faster way, you know,” said the eagle.
“Where is it?” asked Celeste eagerly. “Could you show me?”
“I am the way,” said the eagle. He flexed his giant talons.
Celeste just stared. Was he suggesting what she thought he was suggesting? The very thought of it terrified her.
“If you trust me, I can have you home before the sun sets.”
Thinking of her mother, Celeste pushed down all her fears and nodded her head. With no further warning, the eagle swooped down, seized her in his talons and flew away. Whether an eagle’s view was beautiful, Celeste could not have said. She kept her eyes shut tight the whole time, clutching the fruit in her hands.
At long last, the eagle sailed down, down out of the sky and lightly set Celeste on the grass outside her own little cottage.
“Thank you, oh thank you!” cried Celeste breathlessly, and she was already running inside.
It was very dim in the house. There was no fire on the hearth.
“Mother?” called Celeste. There was no answer. She began to fear the worst, that she had already come too late.
Quickly she ran to the bedroom door and opened it. Her mother was lying on the bed, pale and still, but Celeste could see that her chest was slowly rising and falling. She was still alive. Celeste cut a small piece from the fruit and held it up to her mothers lips and watched as she slowly ate it. Almost immediately a little color came back into her mother’s cheeks. Then she opened her eyes and smiled.
“Celeste,” she said in a very faint voice, “you are here. I was so worried.”
“I went to get this for you to eat, Mother. It will make you well again. Please, eat more.”
And she did. And by the morning all her pain was gone, and she got up out of bed and began to do her usual chores, and the doctor came and shook his head again, but this time it was in wonder that such a miracle had occurred.
Celeste and her mother continued to live very happily in their cottage from that day on, and if you walked past their windows in the evenings, you would hear a beautiful voice singing a lovely lullaby, and you would feel, just for a moment, as if you could do absolutely anything.