I bounced higher up into the trees, flitting on sturdy branches that had barely been scanned through my head, barely spent more than half a second in my line of vision. They ran in spirals as I approached my home tree, turning and rising up the tree trunks, leading so conveniently to the branches of the next. Smaller branches and leaves slapped against my chest and my face, momentary obstacles that caused nothing more than minor irritation as I sped onwards, passing by dense vegetation and hand-made platforms where our people's homes were. They grew more frequent the further into the woods I went, and soon only a little sunlight breached the tiny gaps in the leaves of the tallest trees, and though the skies high above were bright and only slightly clouded, it may as well have been late evening where we lived.
I was slower than usual today. Having been at Clarissa's home for a fair portion of the day, I was carrying back with me the usual gift bag that she always insisted I take. Not that I minded. In fact, the gift bags she gave me were almost always useful, both for my family and for my neighbours. She would place a few small items in a paper bag and ask me to bring it home. The last time, she gave a small mirror (much like her tiny pocket mirror), a roll of bandages, a notepad and three pencils. Sometimes, I wondered whether she'd spoilt me, however, because the contents of the bag weren't always so useful, and were geared more towards my childish love of gadgets and toys. Now that I was getting older, however, things were started to become more practical (though I did miss the occasional arrival of new things to play with).
I swung into my family tree with my one available arm, the paper bag in the other, and was immediately greeted by my parents. They were sifting through a pile of bark that had been collected during the day, cleaning it of dirt or small animals before it would be eaten or stored. When they noticed my return, they put it aside and sprung up to greet me.
Mother held me lovingly and kissed my head blades. "Taku home." She stated.
"Yes, I'm home," I agreed. "And Clarissa has given another bag."
By this time, Mother had released me from her grip, and allowed Father to approach and give the ritual kiss of his own. "Taku home," He repeated. "And Taku have new bag."
Now the centre of attention, the bag was begging to be opened. The three of us sat around on the main tree platform, and I pulled the small piece of tape from the lips of the bag. I reached inside and pulled out what I could only describe as a gloopy, squishy blob of… something unknown. It was green, and it glopped comfortably into the palm of my hand as I held it up.
Mother and Father were just as curious and I was, but Father then notified me to a sticky note attached to the side of the object. I pulled it off, and read:
A stress toy for your trip. You won't believe how many of these Toby goes through in a week!
"A stress toy…" I mused as I removed Clarissa's message, squeezing the unusual gift in my hands. It was very soft and pleasant to touch, but the sentiment still left me wondering. I handed it to Father, and he continued the investigation into its meaning.
Then, Mother's attention was distracted, and she shifted to look past me. "Lenk home," She chirped. "Lenk purg with us?"
He jumped onto the platform behind us, and I heard him panting. He was over two years old now, and for Hork-Bajir, that meant he was making the gradual change from childhood to adulthood. Most of his time was spent away from home, carrying with him a yearning for independence and the longing for a mate. The second of such concepts was a mystery to me, but the first I had already gone some way to mastering. From his sustained panting, the three of us assumed that he had been off to some other part of the park, perhaps on the trail of a female that had stolen his interest.
I hardly saw him anymore, and the only time we really spent together was deep in the middle of the nights when one of us would arrive late at the tree, and would collapse into a slumber among the sleeping area. In the mornings, one of us would usually have left the tree before the other awoke.
"Hello, Lenk," I said, leaning backwards to see him. "I haven't seen you for a while. How are you?"
He cocked his head, and for a brief period it appeared that he didn't know what to say. I made space for him in our circle, and he sat beside Mother and me. She gave him the usual motherly kiss, and I just smiled at him acceptingly. His expression barely changed, and he stared blankly at the stress toy that Father was still playing with.
Finally, he said, "Lenk fine." He didn't detail any further.
I shook my head of the nagging thought that poisoned it, and rummaged more through the brown paper bag. From it, I pulled what appeared to be a shrunken, squishy Hork-Bajir, features such as the blades and the eyes exaggerated in size. I knew that it was a small plush toy, something that Humans bought as cute souvenirs, but my parents had no knowledge of such things.
Mother's eyes went wide as she saw the tiny Hork-Bajir. She let out an abrupt, concerned outburst, and said, "What happen?! Why friend so small?!"
"Human do?" Father asked, also alarmed and having dropped the stress toy.
I waved a hand dismissively in an attempt to calm them. "No, no. This is just a toy. It is made to look like a Hork-Bajir."
Mother reached out a hand, and I agreed to hand over the plush toy. She held it gently in her hand, and then laughed.
"Not real Hork-Bajir," She echoed. "Just look like."
Assured that there would be no further panic, I delved again into the gift bag. Within, the contents were no longer squishy and fluffy. I felt something boxy and hard, and so I retrieved it.
It was a bright silver colour, and made of a combination of plastic and metal in a cuboidal shell. On one side was a tiny blank screen, surrounded by a series of small buttons that I instantly deemed too fiddly for my claws to adequately operate. On the other side was a round protruding section, and the title Canon.
"What that?" Lenk asked me, peeking over my shoulder.
"It's a camera," I told. "It's something Humans use to take pictures of things."
Nobody understood that, and I doubted that I could explain it in simpler terms.
There was another note on the side. I picked it off and read Clarissa's tilted, fanciful handwriting. It said:
You asked me about all the pictures in Toby's office. I thought you might want to take some yourself. When you've got some pictures, I can print them for you to frame. I think you're smart enough to know how it works.
I admit, I wasn't, but Clarissa had knowingly left an instruction manual at the bottom of the paper bag. This was, without doubt, my favourite of her gifts up until that day, and my hearts swelled with gratitude for what she had given me. I remembered seeing the picture that Toby kept close on her desk, of herself and her family gathered. They would always be close to her, and now mine could always be close to me.
I saved it for later. There was one more item in the bag, and I tipped it upside down to retrieve what was left. Out dropped a small brochure, mostly blue and white in colour. My family watched on curiously as I took a closer look.
The large words at the top, lined with stars and stripes arranged into a glaring and attention-grabbing slab, read Washington D. C., below which was a picture of the White House under a clear blue sky, and underscored by a beautifully green lawn.
That was where I was going, and I couldn't resist the grin that took over my face.
"What that?" Father asked, leaning forward.
"It's a brochure," I explained. "For Washington D. C.. This is where I'll be going."
I had told them previously that I would be going, but none of them had any idea what Washington was, nor did they know where it was. The idea that I had unleashed upon them now was that Washington was a brochure.
"Not understand." Father pouted.
"I, oh…" I paused and searched for another way to explain. "Those are pictures of Washington. The real Washington D. C. is a big place, where lots of Humans live."
I let that sink in. The concept of pictures and brochure is still relatively new to our people, but I knew that Mother and Father had received lessons on this sort of thing from visiting Human teachers, so I was surprised that it took them that long to understand. Eventually, they recalled what they had learned, and the bafflement dropped from their faces.
"Mago see before!" Father chirped, pointing a finger at the picture of the White House. "See on magic box!"
The magic box was actually a television set. Millie, one of the park's education officials, would often visit and allow our people to watch various documentaries about the Human world around us. Quite clearly, she had shown our local population a video that had depicted the White House, because Mother then remembered it, too, as she inspected the brochure herself.
"Taku go there?" She asked.
"Where is it?"
"A long way from here," I said. "Near the East coast."
Mother stuttered, and let Father re-take the brochure. "Long way. Taku still sleep at tree?"
"I can't. I will be too far away."
It confused Mother, and though she was used to me either coming back home late or not coming home at all, it was always just for a single night at a time. Not a day went by when we weren't in contact, and now I could see the worry in her.
"How many moons?" Father asked.
I spoke gently, understanding that they might not like the answer. "I will be away for a week. Seven days. Seven moons."
They had to count. I saw Mother lift her hands and start numbering her fingers. She was slow at first, but then she tried to rush it, and her eyes began to water as she reached five and lost count. I felt a crippling stab of guilt as she placed her face in her hands and started to bawl. Father held her gently around the shoulders, and Lenk watched them, unsure.
I moved forward to comfort her, connecting my head blades with hers and saying. "It's not too long, and I'll be back as soon as I finish."
Mother pulled away her hands, only to wrap them around mine. "Not want Taku to go. Pok will miss Taku!"
"I will miss you, too, Mother." I assured.
Father pulled Mother closer, and, the stoic figure that he was, said to her, "Taku is seer. Seer different. Go to places that Hork-Bajir not go."
Thankfully, his words were calming enough to Mother that she stopped sobbing, and she smiled. "Yes. Taku is seer," She confirmed. "Pok is being too… um…"
"Pok not too anything," Father laughed. "Pok just love Taku."
Their hands connected, and suddenly they were clung together like a hungry squirrel and a nut. While they were busy leaning into each other in some loving embrace, an idea sprung up conveniently into my head. I took the camera that I had placed onto the platform and messed around with some buttons. With some trial-and-error, I managed to turn it on, and the tiny screen on the rear of the camera burst with colour. Seconds later, I felt one of my fingers, wrapped around the front of the camera, being displaced. I looked to see the circular protrusion extending, the end blinking open.
I smiled to Mother, who was now following my movements curiously. "Mother," I said. "I know how I can go to Washington and stay here, with you, at the same time."
Of course, I had to explain, but this time I thought a demonstration would be more appropriate. It didn't take long at all to learn the basic camera function, and when I did, I took a picture of my parents sat together. The camera unleashed a loud flash that caught them completely by surprise.
"Yati!" Father grunted, an indication of the pain that the flash inflicted upon his eyes.
I chuckled. "Sorry, Father. I didn't remember the flash. Don't worry, it's normal."
The picture of my parents appeared on the tiny screen, as if they had been shrunk down, frozen, and pushed inside the tiny box. The image was pleasing, and I bent down to show Mother and Father. Their expressions were priceless.
They were silent at first, gazing with utter bafflement at the tiny picture and trying to comprehend what they were seeing. They had seen pictures before, of course, and they had seen television, but to see themselves was another level of abnormal.
Father squinted to see it better, and then pointed at Mother's side of the image. "That is Pok," He surmised. Then he pointed his finger at his own image. "Who?"
"That's you." I clarified.
"Mago look like that?!" He burst, pulling the camera closer to get a better look. "Mago have such small snout…"
Mother huffed. "Pok like Mago snout. Pok look fat!"
"But how Taku be here and not here?" Mago asked, bringing us back to the original discussion.
I smiled, knowing that I would not be able to adequately explain it to them, but showing enough confidence to assure them that it would work. "I will put this picture into a frame, so that you can keep it. You will have it while I'm away."
"But Taku not in picture…" Mother noted.
"Oh," I blinked, mildly embarrassed that I'd forgotten. "I need to be in the picture, too."
It was a simple solution that I thought of, and I turned around with hope that Lenk would take the picture while I sat with Mother and Father. He was gone. Perhaps he had left while we weren't looking. Mother and Father looked deeply concerned, and tried to spot him through the dense horizon of trees.
He had run off, of course, and I was quickly beginning to understand why he acted like he did. He had always behaved strangely around me, and, before, I couldn't put my finger on it. I planned to bring it up to him, to resolve our differences.
First, I finished our photo-shoot, making sure to get a good few images for Clarissa to choose from. Afterwards, I collected everything back in the bag, told my parents that I would be back in time for dinner, and bounced off to visit a tree only about thirty feet away.
Over the last few months, I had begun to stockpile the various items that would end up in my hands. There were books, toys, gadgets, décor items, and plenty of files and pads of paper, all that needed a home, and that were cluttering up our family tree. For a few days, we were all sleeping on scattered pieces of paper. I decided to make a shelter for all my things, and our closest neighbours were more than happy to help us build a small treehouse. It was indeed very small, but it was just large enough to store all of my things, myself included. Already, I found it filling up, and I would have had to expand sooner or later.
I crawled into the small tree house, halfway up a large pine near the centre of our locality, and started to empty the bag's contents into their appropriate sections. My books were all against one wall, as well as my many files of paper and weights to hold them down in case of bad weather. A sheet was also hung over, because my treehouse was not exactly waterproof, despite the blanket of leaves we had created as a roof. To the other side sat shelves of toys and gadgets. I was growing too mature for some of the toys now, and I had thought about donating them to the newest batch of kawatnoj popping up here and there. I placed the camera among the shelves, but would soon be handing it back to Clarissa.
My task completed, I huffed with satisfaction and let my shoulders relax. I had nothing to do for the rest of the day, and my mind wasn't at all fussed with finding anything to accomplish. I would be called for a late meal soon, and then Father would likely ask me to help brew a sap-based delicacy that we could share with our neighbours over a campfire during the night. Until then, I could indulge in some reading.
My reading was now fully concentrated on the encyclopedia, and I was taking it in at a steady, deliberate pace. I was finding it more and more difficult to read, and not for its advanced vocabulary or complex details, but for the oft gruesome content within. I was now reading a section on The Middle Ages, and it was not at all helping my confidence before the trip to Washington.
So I opened up the book and sat myself down on a makeshift seat, hoping that the more nightmare-inducing material would begin to dissipate. I was now moving onto the Italian Renaissance, which apparently occurred over five-hundred years ago. That seemed like a tremendous amount of time.
I zipped through the first paragraph, but before I could entirely lose myself in the words, the decipherable sound of creaking branches alerted me to the area outside of my treehouse. I lowered the book from my eye line, and gazed from the narrow opening. A couple of trees away, I spotted Lenk, grooming his blades on the skin of an old pine.
He didn't look particularly peeved, but then, he had never really expressed much emotion in my presence. He was always so quiet around me. Now was the opportunity to find out what was going on. I put the book down, making certain to save my page, and leaped from the treehouse and towards him. He saw me as I bounced into the adjacent tree, and looked as if he wanted to leave, but by then I was too close, and he stopped grooming to face me blankly.
I stood on the opposite branch. "Where did you go?" I asked him.
He stared long and hard, and then his eyes averted awkwardly. "Lenk go."
"Yes, I know," I grumbled, edging closer to his branch by hooking onto a higher one and shimmying around the trunk. "But why did you go?"
Lenk lowered his neck and scratched at his lower jaw. "Lenk go." He repeated.
He was fidgeting awkwardly, and I almost felt guilty for confronting him in such a manner, but, as his brother, I felt that we needed more of a connection. I wanted one. "We have never spent much time together, Lenk," I said. "Do you not like being around me?"
Lenk shrugged, and that was, in my mind, a clear 'yes'. I shuffled closer so that I was stood directly before him. "Could you tell me why? I want to know, brother."
"Taku different," Lenk stated, though it was not in the way that our people usually would. "Do different."
I latched onto what he had said and mulled it over, while urging him to continue. All the while, he avoided eye contact between us.
"Lenk think… Just think…" He hesitated for a long while, and in the end clasped his hands around his head in frustration. "Mother, Father. Say that Lenk get little brother, but Lenk get big brother."
"Lenk," I hushed calmly. "I am your little brother."
He shook his head, taking his hands away. "No. Taku know things Lenk not. Go where Lenk not. Never."
There was not a great number of ways to convince him otherwise. Quite frankly, I chose the wrong way. "Maybe, someday, you will go to those places. And you know some things that I don't know."
Lenk grunted and started to turn, ready to leave. "No. Lenk never go, never learn like Taku."
I gave myself a mental slap, and tried again. "I am a seer, so I have to do some different things. That doesn't mean that we can't be brothers."
"Mother and Father like Taku. Like more than Lenk."
"That's not true!" I countered instinctively.
Lenk nodded pitiably. "True."
I was beginning to get frustrated at his irreversible self-pitying, but at the same time I felt greatly sorry for him. It was not often that I got to spend time with our parents, so they would make a fuss of me whenever I was around, usually to the unintentional exclusion of my brother. Of course, he would see that as favouritism, and it explained why he would have a grudge against me. This was exactly what I had suspected.
"I am sorry that you feel that way, brother," I offered. "But I know that Mother and Father love you. It's just that I am not around much for them. I am sorry if anything I have done has hurt you."
Lenk nodded, and though I could tell that he still didn't believe me, he at least said, "Lenk forgive. Taku is brother."
It made me smile deep inside, and that moment was a prime reminder of the forgiveness of our people. I was slowly being sucked into a very different world, a world filled with Humans and all of the baggage that they dragged along with them. Our similarities were subtle and poetic, but our differences monstrous and cutting. Just months with the Human presence, watching television shows and broadcasts, and even talking with Clarissa, had dulled me to the generosity and sensitivity of those that I shared genes with. I had almost expected Lenk to spit at my feet and curse my name, maybe even lash out, but he was not like that. He was a Hork-Bajir. He was not a Human.
That line between us was slowly disappearing, and though I realised that, it just became harder and harder to stop.