The Feathered Cloak
by Edward Ahern
Audio file read by Graeme Dunlop
The trouble began when Rhys found the oak wardrobe. He stood barely four feet tall, but the free-standing closet was twice that high. Its hinges were beaten brass turned brown with age. The carved wood was riddled with little wormholes. Rhys had never seen a piece of furniture so big and heavy, and he knew that if it fell on him he’d be squashed.
The wardrobe rested in a corner of a large, open attic. The attic was a jumbled clutter of his grandfather’s collection of magic equipment. His grandfather had been a professional magician who had starred in New York and Paris and even Moscow.
The key to the armoire doors stuck out of the lock. It turned with a dry rasp. When Rhys opened the doors, piles of theater costumes, tablecloths and curtains spilled out onto the floor. Their colors, which might have once been bright purples and pinks, had faded over time into pastels.
I’m in trouble, Rhys thought. He pulled out the rest of the clothes so he could restack them and try and shut the doors. Under the cloth, worms had eaten through one of the baseboards. Beneath the rotted board, he could see the shape of a box.
Rhys touched the riddled board, and it broke into dusty fragments. I’m so in trouble, Rhys thought, and reached in and pulled out a yard-long wooden box. The wood was different than the wardrobe, darker and denser. Peculiar symbols were carved all over it, and on the top was written: Numquam Mutare Pallium In Flavo.
The box was untouched by worms. Rhys looked back into the false bottom of the wardrobe. Odd, he thought, there’s no latch or hinges. This was sealed into the wardrobe. Did my grandfather ever know it was here?
Rhys reached down and pulled off the lid. He stared again, this time at gray-brown feathers woven together. The feathers were big, bigger than seagull wing feathers, bigger even than turkey tail feathers. And when he touched the feathers, they sparked into sharp oranges and purples.
Rhys dropped the feathers in shock, then bent back down and picked them out of the box. They were a coat, no, not a coat, a cloak. As he held it, Rhys watched the feathers pulling back into themselves, shrinking until they were a size that would just wrap around him.
The cloak continued to sparkle where he held it. I wonder, he thought, and swirled the cloak around himself. He was covered chin to toes. The cloak was comfortingly warm, like a snowsuit on a cold winter day.
It burst into shiny black, then red, then purple. I wonder, Rhys thought, maybe green? The cloak shifted into greens. First the color of a fall Granny Smith apple, then the shade of deep winter ocean, then the dark green of spring leaves and, lastly, the green of a summer frog. And Rhys could feel the skins of apple and frog against his skin, the wet of sea water and the damp of new leaves.
He tried to do other things, but the cloak didn’t make him strong, or let him fly, or give him a chocolate cake. Still, the colors were brilliant, and swelled Rhys’ feelings, making everything more intense.
He took off the cloak, put it back into the box, and paused. I can’t tell Mom or Dad. I’m only nine, and they’ll take this away from me. I’ll put it back where it was and only take it out here in the attic.
The next day after school, he clambered back up the narrow stairs into the attic. When he took out the box he almost dropped it. There were new words carved on the box, and one of them looked like his name: Rhys, Caveat flavi.
Rhys had no idea what the words meant, and took out the cloak. It was still his size, and sparkled again when he touched it. He turned the cloak sunset red and felt the dwindling warmth of day’s end. He changed to the dark blue of his eyes and suddenly he could see past his school to the highway. And then, as he thought of the highway, he was hovering over it, staring down at passing cars from what seemed to be the height of his attic.
Rhys panicked, and was immediately back in the attic, the cloak again a dull gray brown. I can go places, kind of. Or at least I can see them.
That was blue. What else? Mustard yellow, he thought. But nothing happened. The yellow of fire! Still nothing. Rhys became angry. I order you, he commanded, to change into the yellow of gold. It was perhaps his order, or perhaps his anger, but the cloak shifted into the buttery glint of gold. Rhys felt the slick coldness of the metal, so pure that he knew if he could bite it, his teeth would leave marks.
But something was different. Rhys felt as if the gold color reached far beyond the cloak, as if he had just let something loose that was rampaging further out than he could see. He took off the cloak and put it away.
That evening his father paced back and forth excitedly. “What a day I’ve had, Rhys. The stock market is up three percent and my own investments are up five percent. We’re a lot richer today than we were yesterday.”
Rhys’s father kept talking with his mother about buying things, about taking vacations, about schools for Rhys. But his father didn’t sound happy. He just talked about getting more things.
When Rhys put on the cloak the next afternoon, he wasn’t his usual cheerful self. Give me the dirty yellow of a dying fire, he ordered. As he stood basking in cooling embers and ringed by ashes, he felt the sadness of presences ending. This is so uncomfortable it’s painful, he thought, put the cloak away and went downstairs.
Rhys’s mother and father called him into their bedroom the next morning.
“Rhys,” his mother said, “your great aunt Clarice died late yesterday afternoon. She had been sick for a long time, so I guess it was her time, but she’s gone.”
“And lots of other old people,” his dad whispered to his mother. “It’s as if someone had encouraged them to finish their lives. Very strange.”
That day at school Rhys said almost nothing. He felt like he’d gotten lost in the woods, or had done something really bad that no one knew about. As he walked from the bus stop back to his home, he noticed a woman standing on the sidewalk in front of his house. She was very old but somehow still beautiful, strawberry-colored hair half covered with a babushka, clothed neck to wrist and ankles in soft beige and green. Rhys blinked and she was standing next of him.
“Rhys, stop. You and I must speak.” Her voice had the gentle echoes of wind.
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“I was called Jörd. You’re tied more closely to me than you know, and know me much less than you should.”
“But you’re still a stranger.”
“What sign would you need? Ah. Look closely at this picket on your wooden fence. Do you know what tree wood it is under the white paint?”
“It’s a spruce that grew in Canada.” Jörd touched the wooden slat. “Look at it now.”
As Rhys stared at the picket, it sprouted, with no noise or fuss, a green needled sprig. “Wow,” Rhys exclaimed. He still hesitated, but Jörd radiated the comforting ease of his grandmother’s hugs. “Okay, I’ll listen.”
“You’ve found the cloak. Don’t bother to deny it! The cloak has adopted you, even though you’re dangerously ignorant of its powers and dangers. Why didn’t you obey the warnings?”
Rhys was puzzled. “Warnings? Oh, you mean the symbols on the box. I don’t understand them.”
Jörd sighed. “Time turns wisdom into error. When the words were carved, Latin was the common language of the world, known to millions of people. Now it’s dead to all but a few scholars. The writing told you never to turn the cloak yellow.
“You can transform the cloak into any color you wish, and learn how each color heals, how the colors blend, and how you can reach outside yourself. But never again change the cloak into yellow, flavum. The shades of that color are used only for evil.”
“But what if I think of a yellow color? I can’t stop thinking. And why is yellow evil?”
“You can think all you like without harm, just never command the cloak into yellow: not straw, not pus, not gold, not sand, not amber. Yellow has wonderful shades, little one, and once was as the other colors. But it was used for horrible purposes, and those who do horrible things have used it since.”
The old woman was frightening Rhys. “Could we just burn the cloak?”
“Little one, the cloak feathers were taken from the ashes of a bird that never dies. They can’t be destroyed by fire. And you’re its guardian now. Deep down, you already know that you want to keep it.”
Jörd touched two fingers to Rhys’ forehead. They felt mountain firm. She kept them pressed against his head while she talked. “Your actions have awakened another who will come to take the cloak from you. He must not get it. He’ll lie and try and cheat you out of the cloak, and if that doesn’t work, he will try to kill you. Never, ever, agree to his entering your house. Here is knowledge of the cloak, which I hope protects you.”
Images poured like a waterfall over Jörd’s two fingers into Rhys’ head. He saw the strength of green, the unmagical stability of brown, the mingling and stripping of a thousand colors. Rhys staggered when Jörd broke the contact.
“I must be elsewhere and everywhere, Rhys, and can’t stay. You must behave like your namesake.”
Jörd sighed again. “The things parents don’t tell you can hurt you. Both you and your name are Welsh. Rhys means ardor and enthusiasm. It’s the opposite of what the other stands for. That’s your birthright. Use it to counter the evil coming at you.”
Jörd walked away without another word. Rhys felt like he was lost and scared in a dark chamber, but finally decided that what Jörd had told him must guide him onward. For several afternoons, Rhys went through rainbows of colors, exploring what he could see and do. He discovered that if he wished for no color at all the cloak became invisible, and Rhys just looked like he was wearing his ordinary clothes.
On the fifth day a man came to Rhys’ school.
His jacket was the color of bug guts, the yellow of a rotten peach. He talked with Rhys’ teacher, Mrs. Burton, who asked Rhys to come out of the class with her.
“Rhys” — she nodded — “this is Mr. Flaves.”
When the man smiled, Rhys could see yellowed teeth.
“Mr. Flaves has apparently lost something, and thinks that you know where it is.”
Rhys felt himself trembling, but his voice stayed firm. “Mrs. Burton, I don’t know Mr. Flaves. What’s he lost?”
“What have you lost, Mr. Flaves, and where?” From her tone, Rhys knew that Mrs. Burton didn’t much like Mr. Flaves.
“Ah, I’d rather not say, but it’s precious to me and I think that Rhys knows where it is, don’t you, boy?”
“No, sir, I do not. And I don’t know you. Can I go back in now, Mrs. Burton?”
“Yes, Rhys, you may. Mr. Flaves, this all seems very irregular. Unless you have something more specific, I’m afraid you’ll have to leave the school.”
The man looked at Rhys like he wanted to rip out his throat, but smiled enough to show his yellow teeth again. “I’ll keep looking, won’t I, Rhys?”
When Rhys came home from school that afternoon, Mr. Flaves was sitting in the living room with Rhys’ mother and father.
But I didn’t invite him in! Rhys thought
“Rhys, this is Mr. Flaves. He seems to think that you found something of his.”
His mother and father looked strained, as if they regretted letting Mr. Flaves in. But Mr. Flaves had the look of a dog about to tear apart meat.
“Thank you, Mrs. Cardiff, for letting me in. Rhys, would you invite me in as well?”
“No! Never! Get out of our house!”
“Rhys,” his father barked, “manners, please. Apologize to Mr. Flaves.”
“Never! By that which I have worn I order you to leave! Never enter again.”
Flaves jumped up from the sofa and began cursing. At least it sounded like cursing, Rhys didn’t understand the words.
As he hissed at Rhys, yellow spittle sprayed from his mouth.. “Little toad, I will be upon you when you least expect it.” And he backed from the house, glaring at Rhys and hissing curses.
Rhys’ mother and father called the police, and everyone questioned him about Mr. Flaves. But he just kept repeating that, no, he didn’t know Mr. Flaves, and, no, he didn’t have anything that Mr. Flaves owned. I’m not really lying, he thought, I don’t know Mr. Flaves and I do know the cloak doesn’t belong to him.
The police drove by Rhys’ house several times a day, but after two weeks his parents and the police forgot about the episode. Not Rhys. He knew that Mr. Flaves was waiting for his chance to pounce.
Jörd’s lore surged like tide inside him. It’s pushing at me to be understood and used, Rhys thought. Every afternoon he scooped mind water from Jord’s knowledge and practiced a new skill with the cloak. Flaves is ready to hurt me just as soon as I’m alone. I only have one chance to protect both me and the cloak.
On the day when there was no more of Jörd’s knowledge to absorb, Rhys got off his bus one stop early, waved goodbye to his friends and started walking alone toward home. Flavis was on him before the first minute had ticked by.
Flaves was dressed in his long coat the color of rotten peaches. “You can’t run from me, you little brat.”
“I’m not going to.”
“First I’m going to reach in and rip apart your puny little mind. I’ll order you to bring me the cloak. After that I’m going to use this” — Flaves pulled out a bronze dagger — “and slice you open from navel to neck.”
Rhys had never been so scared, but he knew what he had to do. “There’s no need to send me for the cloak, I have it on.” And Rhys changed the color of the cloak he was wearing from invisible nothing to purple, dark brooding royal purple.
Flaves stumbled back a step, but then jumped forward again. “All the quicker to cut you open.”
“Flaves, go away now without the cloak. You’ll be disappointed, but still be who you are. If you attack me, you’ll be changed into something you hate, and still won’t have the cloak. Please. Go away.”
Flaves’ coat swirled with ugly yellows, the colors of old bruises and pond scum and dead fish bellies. Gnarled yellow fingers sprouted from the coat and grabbed at Rhys.
As Rhys jumped back he flung jagged spouts of purple at Flaves, spouts that twisted and squeezed the yellow fingers. Flaves screamed in pain. The purple pounded like waves over him, frothing and hiding Flaves from view. When it ebbed away, the man who stood there was dressed in dull brown. “What have you done to me?” he wailed. “What am I?”
“You’re an empty husk now, Mr. Flaves. Yellow and purple are contrary colors. When I merged them, they created a special brown. Drab, powerless brown. You’re of no harm to anyone but yourself now. Walk away.”
Rhys never saw Mr. Flaves again. A year passed, during which Rhys became adept at using the cloak, being careful never to order it into yellow. But over time he began to feel that playing with the cloak for his enjoyment was almost insulting to it.
One day, using the blue of his eyes, he was skimming at tree top through a forest of oaks and maples. Far below, in a clearing next to a huge oak, he saw an old woman with red hair, dressed in green and dark brown. Just as Rhys recognized her, she looked up and smiled.
“My little Rhys,” she thought to him, “I’ve waited for you to come. You protected the cloak well.”
“Jörd, thank you for your great help. I wouldn’t be alive without you, and the cloak would have been lost. But why am I now feeling uncomfortable in it?”
“Sweet child, it’s time for you to grow up, at least a little. The cloak is not a toy, and you are not its owner, just its steward. You will do wonderful and magnificent things with the cloak, but for others and not for yourself. Now fly off and enjoy my forest, feather steward, for I must be elsewhere and everywhere. But know that I wish you well.”
Copyright © 2014 by Edward Ahern