The light of day, Saguaro realized, can sometimes make things look worse.
She stared at her hot air balloon. In daylight, she was unable to ignore the extent of the damage. The hole in the balloon was large and gaping, and she would need sturdy material to repair it. She also would need more of the concoction she had used to seal the fabric.
It did not even look like a hot air balloon anymore. It gave the impression of a giant basket with a tattered pile of cloth attached.
Besides, her right arm still hurt. There was no way she could risk using her wand with a weak arm after what had happened the previous night. It would only end in disaster.
Things had looked much brighter the night before. Saguaro had taken out her sleeping sack and laid it on the ledge where the balloon had landed. She’d scarcely registered the biting wind or the rocks beneath her back. Instead, she had stared at the stars, imagining her future in Oz.
Saguaro climbed up the sharp boulder that had snagged her balloon. It was high enough above the ledge to serve as the perfect lookout. She gazed down at the barren path. What had seemed so intriguing in the night now looked dull and empty.
Saguaro was used to being alone. She did not have any friends in Cascadia and, as an only child, had spent hours entertaining herself while her parents worked: her mother as a sorcery teacher and unofficial Animals activist, and her father as an architect and builder. She had passed long hours playing outside, exploring trails in the forest and inventing games to amuse herself.
The difference between now and then was that in Cascadia, there had been other people. Yes, most of them had not liked her, but she had never been alone. The only living creature she had seen so far was the beetle that had awakened her by crawling up her arm.
A flock of birds flew above her, their black wings bold against the cloudy sky. Saguaro felt envious. She would give anything for wings right now.
The birds above slammed her thoughts into focus. If nonspeaking animals lived in the Badlands, surely speaking Animals lived there, too. As the daughter of Cascadia’s most influential Animal rights activist, Saguaro should have realized this sooner. Her current feelings towards her mother did not change these facts.
She steadied herself on the boulder, then waved her arms above her head. Birds seemed like the safest bet. They would be able to help her fly.
“Hello?” she called. “Is anyone out there? I’m trapped, and I need some help! Anyone? Please!”
A sparrow flew above her. He ignored her calls and continued on his journey.
“My name is Saguaro!” she added, now inspired. “You probably know my mother. She lives in Cascadia and has a sanctuary for injured birds. I’m sure she’s helped someone you know!”
Her call startled a prairie dog down below. It looked up and then scurried back into its hole.
“Not that it matters!” Saguaro was becoming more and more frustrated by the lack of response. “I’m obviously not my mother, because if I were, someone would be coming by now. I don’t have lots of Animal friends like she does. In fact, most of the time, she spends more time with Animals than she does with me.”
This time, nothing. She kicked the rock and ignored the pain that shot through her foot. It was true. She had never been as popular with Animals as her mother was.
She turned away and prepared to climb down to the ledge. She should have known better than to use one of her mother’s skills. Especially after last night.
A loud fluttering echoed through the Badlands, interrupting her frustration. She looked up to see a dark blur flying through the air. The black mass landed on a rock that faced her and grinned with its equally dark beak.
“What’s the matter?” said the Bird, his voice raspy and teasing. “Haven’t you ever seen a Crow before?”
Saguaro caught her breath.
“N-no, actually. My…my father’s a half Scarecrow.”
She had expected the Crow to be offended, but instead, he laughed a deep, resonant caw. He looked up at something above him. “Cirrus! The girl’s father is a Scarecrow. Should we help her or leave her be?”
A second Crow landed next to the first. Cirrus had shiny, elaborately styled feathers and a polished beak. “That’s very interesting, Crowton,” he said, studying Saguaro. “I never knew Scarecrows were green.”
Two more Crows joined them. “He’s not green,” said the smallest, his black eyes narrowed. “Obviously her mother is. Not that we need that for confirmation; you can already tell she’s Cascadian from the embroidery on her dress.”
“Well, I think she’s doing remarkably well, Smim, considering the circumstances,” said the fourth Crow, the only female. Her feathers were as messy and ruffled as Cirrus’s were coiffed. “I don’t know that I would be able to be here if my father were a Scarecrow.”
“You wouldn’t be here, Midnight,” said Smim, “because you’d be terrified of us. Though heaven knows how a Scarecrow managed to have a child in the first place.”
“That’s an interesting point,” said Crowton, the first Crow who had approached her. He turned to Saguaro. “Just how was a Scarecrow able to have a child? Or was he not a Scarecrow before you were born?”
Saguaro blinked, thrown off-guard by the directness of the question. “He’s not stuffed with straw like most Scarecrows. I mean…he’s half human, too. But that’s not important. I hope I haven’t offended any of you. You probably don’t trust me, but I would never do anything to hurt you. My father wouldn’t, either. He might be half Scarecrow, but he’s also the nicest man I know.”
Midnight, the female Crow, smiled at her. “It’s all right. You’re certainly not the first human to have been startled by us. It wasn’t our intention to insult your father, either. I can’t say that we’ll ever understand his sort, but you deserve to be judged on your own merit.”
The other Crows considered this. To her relief, everyone but Smim, the smallest Crow, began to smile.
Crowton stepped forward. “I’m Crowton. Allow me to introduce you to Cirrus, Smim, and Midnight, the other Crows in our murder.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” said Midnight. Her beak turned up in another smile.
“It’s nice to meet all of you, too,” Saguaro said. The three males bowed their heads.
They all began to stare at her again. Saguaro was confused until Crowton spoke. “So, I suppose half Scarecrows don’t name their daughters. That’s a shame. I was curious whether your name would be Corn or Crow Hater.”
“Oh,” said Saguaro, flushing. “It’s Saguaro. Saguaro Crowse Throgelaar.” Upon their reaction, she said, “My mother came up with my middle name. She never understood my father’s fear of you, especially as it should be the other way around. Her sister’s middle name was Rose, so it was a way of honoring her as well.”
“Saguaro,” said Crowton. “A green cactus. That’s fitting, I suppose.”
He had pronounced her name like the cactus: “sa-whar-o,” with a “w” sound replacing the “g.” Though she was not about to tell Crowton that his explanation did not make as much sense as he thought, she couldn’t let his mispronunciation slide.
“Actually, it’s ‘Sa-gwar-o’…with a ‘guh.’ We pronounce it the way it’s spelled.”
“Saguaro with a ‘guh,’” Crowton repeated. “Do you have any idea why they chose to pronounce your name differently from the cactus?”
“I don’t know,” Saguaro said. “But they always laugh whenever I explain how to pronounce my name, so they must find it funny.” Indeed, her strange name pronunciation was yet another thing she didn’t understand about her parents.
“Never mind that now,” said Midnight. “Miss Saguaro, have you eaten? We have some corn, if you like.”
“That would be very nice, thank you,” Saguaro said. “And you don’t have to call me ‘Miss.’ We’re on equal footing, you and I.”
Midnight’s eyes shone. “I think I like you, Saguaro with a ‘guh.’ You’re not like most humans I know.”
She flew to a nest below and returned with a sack of corn in her beak. The corn was hard and dry, but Saguaro ate it nonetheless. She wanted to save the food she had packed for as long as she could.
While she ate, Smim flew down to the ledge upon which her hot air balloon rested. “I suppose this used to be one of those flying balloons?” he said, nudging it with his beak.
Saguaro nodded. “I used it to fly over the Nonestic Ocean from Cascadia. I was going to ask if you could help me fly it.”
“And where do you need to go, exactly?” Midnight asked. “I’ve been wondering why you’re out here on your own.”
Saguaro took a deep breath. “I’m trying to get to Oz. My parents are from Oz, and I need to learn some important things about their lives there.”
The Crows exchanged looks. “Well, I can’t blame you for wanting to escape your father,” Crowton said in an obvious attempt to ease the tension. “I would have done the same.”
“My mother, actually,” Saguaro said under her breath. The Crows turned to each other again.
“I don’t think we should help her,” said Smim immediately.
Crowton exhaled in a raspy sigh. “And why do you say that?”
“Look at her. She’s still a nestling. Many youngsters argue with their parents at that age. It’s a simple act of rebellion, nothing more. She needs to go home until she’s old enough to be out on her own.”
“He does have a point,” said Cirrus, flexing his feathers. “Remember Corva’s first brood? She let them go as mere nestlings, and we know what happened to them.”
“But look at Corva’s last brood,” Crowton said. “She kept them in the nest until after they had fledged, and by that time, none of us wanted anything to do with them. Besides, Saguaro is not a nestling or a hatchling. She’s a fledgling, to be sure.”
“By human standards, she is still a nestling,” Smim said. “Human chicks stay in the nest much longer. She won’t be old enough to fledge for a few years yet.”
“Well, maybe she does have a problem with her mother,” Midnight said, her higher, female voice a stark contrast to the males’. “What if she were one of Corva’s chicks? We wouldn’t send her back, would we?”
“I’m not sure,” said Crowton, his eyes alight with mischief. “Excuse me for saying so, but I wouldn’t want one of Corva’s chicks joining our murder of Crows. I think I might send her back if that were the case.”
Smim ignored him and turned to Midnight. “You yourself were taken by the girl’s refusal to be treated as a superior. She even said earlier that her mother has a Bird sanctuary! Do you really think she learned those manners by herself? Save for her choice in mates, the girl’s mother seems like a fine sort. I’m sure the girl is simply reacting to a small skirmish. I say we look after her until one of her parents arrives or until we can take her back home.”
Saguaro’s head was beginning to hurt. When she closed her eyes and let the noises blur around her, she was startled to realize how much the Crows’ words sounded like common caws.
“May I speak?” she asked. “I know my opinion may not carry much weight since I’m not part of your flock, but since this whole debate is about me, perhaps I can shed some light on the situation.”
“Go ahead,” Smim said, focusing his dark eyes on her.
“I don’t blame you for not wanting to help me.” Now that she was looking at her situation from an outsider’s perspective, this was something Saguaro could admit more freely. “If I came across a strange girl running away from home because of a fight with her mother, I would probably hesitate to help her, too. I think the fact that I even need your help proves that my so-called wings aren’t quite as developed as I thought they were.” She gestured to her balloon. “But the reality is, here I am. I’ve already made it this far. I just think I’ll have more of a chance of surviving if I continue towards Oz than if I return home.”
“And why is that?” Smim said, still studying her.
“For one thing, I need to reach civilization. That corn was a wonderful breakfast, but as a human, I don’t think I can survive on a constant diet of corn. At some point, I need to refresh my water supply, too.” She decided not to mention the food and water she had already packed. “If you decide not to help me and I try to complete the rest of my journey on foot, I’ll never make it. There are so many hills that I’m bound to drop from exhaustion before I get very far.”
“So why do you think you’ll have a better chance of reaching Oz than Cascadia?” Midnight said. “Isn’t the Ozian border farther away?”
Saguaro hoped her next words would be convincing. “It is, but as I’m sure you know, we’ll have to cross the Nonestic Ocean to get back to Cascadia. With the way my balloon came undone, I’m not sure I feel comfortable flying across the ocean again, even with your help.”
Crowton, Midnight, and Cirrus all nodded. Smim glanced away to avoid their gazes.
“All right,” he said, sighing. “I can’t say that I’m happy about the situation, but I do see your point. Your mother deserves to find you in one piece, and flying across the ocean would be far more dangerous.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” said Saguaro, opening her eyes wide in an imitation of her father whenever he was trying to get his way. “I’ve definitely learned my lesson about flying from the nest before I was ready. Once I get to Oz, I’m going to wait for my mother in the first town I see. Then I’ll stay home until I’m ready to go out on my own again.”
Crowton shot her a look. “Of course you will. Weren’t you going on about how you needed to be away from home only a short while ago? Something tells me you’re not one to give up so easily.”
“Well, I was going to, but your comments about Corva and her chicks really made sense to me,” Saguaro teased. The Crows grimaced, no doubt realizing how ridiculous they had sounded. “Anyway, why don’t you trust me? I haven’t been anything but polite to you, have I?” She made her eyes even wider in a further imitation of her father.
“I’m afraid that no matter how many times you insist that we are your equals, the fact that your father is a Scarecrow changes that,” Crowton said dryly. “Now, tell me your plan. How are we supposed to fly you in that contraption?”
Saguaro went over and untied the ropes that had attached the balloon to the basket. She kept out two and used a butterfly knot in the center of each to attach the ropes to cleats on opposite sides of the basket. This left two equal lengths of rope on each side.
“I was thinking that each of you can grab a rope so that there are two of you at each side,” she said, holding out both ends of one rope. “That way, I’ll be balanced.”
“That seems doable,” Midnight said. She hesitated, as if not sure how to phrase her next words. “Saguaro, we’ll do our best to help you, but we might need to take a few breaks. By human standards, you’re as light as air, but I’m afraid you’re much heavier to us.”
“Oh, that won’t be a problem.” Saguaro took out her spell book and flipped through the pages. “I found a spell that will make me and the balloon lighter. Do you want me to try it?”
“You can do sorcery?” Crowton asked.
Saguaro grinned. “Sure can. I’ve never done a spell with anyone watching before, so you might have to be patient.”
Midnight shook her head. “Take all the time you need.”
Despite her initial anxiety about casting a spell while being observed, Saguaro managed to pronounce each word clearly. Crowton and Smim tested it by each taking a rope in their beaks on opposite sides of the basket. They flew several feet in the air, seeming surprised at how easy it was.
“A green girl with a Scarecrow for a father who can do sorcery,” Crowton said once they had landed. “What other secrets are you keeping from us?”
“Well, I must congratulate you on a successful spell,” Smim said. He hesitated. “Perhaps you are better prepared than I gave you credit for.”
Midnight and Cirrus joined them, and they took a practice flight to ensure that they could keep the basket balanced. After they completed this successfully, Midnight smiled at Saguaro.
“Well, come along then,” she said, nodding at Saguaro to climb in. “Shall we give it a fly?”
Saguaro smiled back. “Let’s go.”
The Badlands looked different than they had the night before. What had appeared dark and mysterious in the night was now bright and full of colors. Saguaro noticed many details she had not seen until then, like the deep blue of the water in the gullies and the scratched surface of the barren ground.
She admired the way the Crows worked as a team. They all flew at the same pace, and if the balloon tipped to one side, the Crows adjusted to restore balance. They communicated without a word.
Saguaro wished she belonged to a flock. It would be nice to always have others to rely on.
After about three hours, they landed in a flat stretch of the Badlands. “I’m sorry, Saguaro, but I think we’re worn out for the time being,” Midnight said, her voice even raspier than before. “Would you like us to wait until we’ve regained our strength and fly you to the Ozian border? We’re not very far. We could probably take you in a few hours.”
Saguaro considered this. The idea was tempting, but she knew she could not impose any longer.
“No, I’m all right. It’s still early in the day, so I should get to Oz by nightfall if I start walking.”
“Are you certain?” Cirrus said. Saguaro nodded, though she did not feel certain at all.
It became clear that none of them were sure how to proceed with goodbyes. Cirrus nodded at her just as he had when Crowton introduced them, but the others hesitated.
Crowton lowered his voice so that only Saguaro could hear him. “You’re a strong-willed girl, Miss Saguaro. I’m quite sure you’re the kindest girl with Scarecrow blood that I’ll ever meet.”
Surprisingly, Smim also had a final word. “Keep on using those brains of yours, and I’m sure you’ll find what you’re searching for.” From the look in his eyes, Saguaro realized that he understood more than she had thought.
She thanked them for their help. The three male Crows flew away, but Midnight lingered behind. “Remember what I said before. You’re different than most humans.”
“I’ll try,” Saguaro said. Midnight pecked her on the cheek, then followed the others. The Crows drew farther and farther away, until they were only tiny dots in the sky.
Saguaro stared at the sky long after the Crows disappeared from sight. They had each other, but she had only herself to rely on now. Maybe she was used to this, but she felt even more alone than she had earlier that morning. It was different now. The Crows had given her, for the first time in her life, a generous taste of friendship.
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