Summer was coming to an end. The days grew shorter as the nights became colder, and it wouldn't be long before I was to experience my first winter in Yellowstone park. The entire community was preparing for the bitter cold that would soon overthrow our home, stockpiling strips of wood to insulate nests and blankets supplied by charitable Humans. Father and my brother spent more and more time collecting bark for the family, as our bodies began to require greater amounts of nourishment to sustain us in the changing climate. Mother was often left behind to watch over me, still in need of constant supervision despite my rapid growth.
And it was not only size that I found myself increasing in. Mother and Father, who at first saw me as more of a doer than a thinker, were shocked that my intellect was developing at an alarming rate. Mother often joked that I was almost smarter than them already. It became less of a joke over time, and on occasion I would notice my parents both watching me as I played in the nest and the surrounding branches. It was not merely supervision, and the looks in their eyes were of intrigue.
Perhaps most baffling of all for them was when I successfully made a fully functional pulley system in the home tree. Father had spent the day pulling thin strips of vegetation from loose branches and fastening them together to reinforce our sleeping area. He showed me, very briefly, how to attach small strips together to form one long, tough rope. At one point, he ran out loose branches, and rushed off in search of some more. He returned to find that I was doing the job myself. Having explored the base of the tree and picking up several inadequate twigs, I placed them all in a makeshift basket and used the strips that he had made earlier to hoist them up into the tree, looping the strips over a higher branch to make the job easier. Father was convinced that someone else had created it, but Mother had witnessed the whole thing.
Thankfully, it didn't appear to worry them. It was barely a concern, and more of a curiosity.
Father and my brother were out collecting bark once again, leaving me behind with Mother. She had supervised me for a large chunk of the day. The others had left when the sun was at its highest point, and now it was closer to setting, slowly encroaching on the horizon of trees. For the entire time, Mother tolerated my higher level of activity, because though she was still young herself, I was at that particular age when energy seems infinite, as if I had just gorged on an entire bowl of maple sap, and she struggled to keep up.
"Mother!" I called to her. "Chase Taku! Chase Taku up tree!"
She was sat, wedged between two sturdier branches. "Chase Taku?" She repeated wearily.
"Yes! Chase Taku!" I urged, pulling myself up the central trunk.
Mother groaned and rubbed at her face. "No, Taku. Pok play with Taku all day. Want rest now."
In my hyperactive state, rest was a meaningless concept to me. "Not rest! Mother play with Taku! Chase Taku up tree!"
"No, Taku!" She snapped in frustration.
The tone of her voice brought me down from my bouncy condition, and I realised that this time she was serious. I dropped from the trunk onto the platform on which we lived and gazed at her glumly.
Mother seemed regretful at her outburst and sighed. "Maybe Taku want story instead?"
I shook my head, not in the mood for another story, especially so late in the afternoon.
Mother accepted that, but found a way to compromise. "Mago and Lenk back soon. Maybe Lenk play with Taku."
Disappointed, I pouted to her and slumped in place. It was meant to pull at her motherly side and bring out some sympathy, but all I got in return was the slightest hint of a snicker. She hadn't fallen for it, and so now I had no one to play with, at least until the rest of the family returned home.
Over the past few weeks, on some of my more casual journeys from the home tree, I had garnered some new acquaintances, and even new friends that were about my age. I thought about visiting them, but I recalled that Mother would have to supervise me to wherever they were. I could ask to see my grandparents, but that held the same problem.
Thankfully, I didn't have to wait long for company. The squirrel that frequented our tree had returned, gathering nuts and seeds, nibbling on them in the branches up above our heads. Grappling onto the central trunk of our tree, I crawled slowly towards it.
The squirrel was not too far away, just three awkward branches upwards and slightly to the left. I had never successfully approached it before, and I had no idea what I would do when I finally achieved my goal, but at the time it was a little mission I could undertake while I waited.
It noticed me after I passed the first branch (though it had likely seen me earlier, only now caring about my presence). Its hairy little nose twitched, as did the long bushy tail, and yet it remained stationary, clutching a tiny nut in its even tinier claws.
"Hello, Squirrel." I whispered, still approaching without any sudden movements. Its response was understandably silent, but its body tensed up just noticeably, causing me to stop.
"Squirrel hungry." I noted, staring at the nut that it held. "Need food to be big and strong like Taku."
Once again, it elicited no reply. Mother had always told me that animals don't talk back, though I never understood why. Nevertheless, in my childish naivety I assumed that, at least on some level, it understood me.
As the situation became more comfortable again, and the squirrel had released its tension, I pulled myself further into the tree, eyes fixated on the small animal. Now I was just in arms reach.
I continued to speak to it, accompanied with small clicks that my parents used to calm me when I was stressed. "Squirrel say hello? Say hello to Taku."
Silence again, but the squirrel edged just a little closer. I smiled and lifted my arm slowly, reaching up to the squirrel's branch.
Suddenly, the tree was slammed, rocking the trunk and the branches enough to scare the squirrel into fleeing. I groaned heavily and slapped my tail against the tree in frustration. Looking down from my perch, I saw the source of the disturbance. Father and Lenk had returned.
Their reappearance was enough of a relief for me to forgive them for scaring away the squirrel, and I gracefully dropped down the trunk, using my claws to slow my descent. I came face to face with Father, several great slabs off bark hugged under his arms and a couple smaller ones locked in his snout. He grunted out a greeting as best he could, and I responded with a chuckle and an embrace around his torso.
Lenk was equally occupied with bark that had been stripped on their last harvest, and both he and Father began unloading the food into the hold that had been carefully carved out of the base of the tree. Once they had returned to the living platform, a few slabs with them for the family meal, Mother was immediate in asking Lenk the favour that she desired.
"Lenk," She started as they unlocked their head blades from a greeting kiss. "Taku want to play. Lenk play with Taku?"
Lenk nodded and looked down at me. "Taku make Mother tired again." He stated, judging the situation perfectly. "Lenk tired, too. Find bark all day. But Lenk play small game."
"Game!" I chirped, bouncing lightly on my feet. "What game?"
Lenk moved to stand before me, towering over me before he lowered and sat loosely cross-legged on the platform, his tail laid out stiffly behind to keep him balanced. I copied his posture, sitting down opposite to and facing him.
"What game?!" I repeated eagerly.
"Play Teach game." He smiled. "Taku go to school tree soon. Have to learn. Be smart like Lenk." With a finger, he tapped the side of his head.
"Teach game." I agreed. It was a game that we had played several times before, though it had been a while since the previous game.
Lenk considered for a moment. "Taku remember how count?" He asked.
How to count? I nodded a yes and smiled, pulling up the knowledge from my head and bracing myself for the game that was about to begin. Lenk raised a large hand before me, and unfurled a single digit.
"How many finger Lenk hold up?" My big brother pressed, shaking his hand slightly. "This one easy."
It certainly was, considering that he had just inadvertently told me the answer. "One." I said.
"Yes. One." Lenk replied approvingly. Then, turning his hand so that he could see clearly himself, he unfurled another digit, taking a short moment to make sure that even he knew how many fingers were held up. Once he was certain, he showed his hand back to me. "Little harder. Taku remember how many?"
"Two!" I chirped without any hesitation.
A little shocked by my rapid response, he checked his fingers again and smiled. "Taku is smart. Remember good." He commented, tapping the side of his head once again. "Now very hard one."
This time, he raised more than just the extra finger. Every digit on his right hand was raised. Again, he checked himself at first, taking longer this time and seeming to struggle, but once he was satisfied he lowered the hand to me. "Not think Taku get this one. Very hard."
I blinked, unsure of why he thought it was so hard. I counted each finger. One. Two. Three…
Lenk looked stunned. "Taku very smart." He complimented. "Count faster than Lenk."
"Taku like counting." I explained, bouncing in place on the platform flooring. "Count branches in tree every day."
Having just reassured himself that he had the correct number of fingers, Lenk stared down to me quizzically. "Okay, Taku," He began. "Do one more count."
His tone sounded defeated, not quite giddy as it had been just moments before. Nevertheless, I was pleased that he would indulge me in one more go, and I leaned forward, ready for the challenge.
To my surprise, Lenk lifted both hands before, and in one movement raised each and every digit. The look in his eyes suggested that he expected me to fail, but I had been taught this number once before. It was, as had been explained to me by Father, the limit of Hork-Bajir counting. When we run out of fingers, we simply cannot count any higher without guidance.
That one time of being taught, now weeks ago, was enough. I didn't even have to count through the other numbers, and my reply was almost instantaneous. "Eight."
The change of expression on Lenk's face was almost comical, a look of confidence instantly draining to a look of bewilderment. He pulled his hands up close to his snout and quietly began counting to himself.
"Play new game!" I suggested, seeing how he had grown frustrated with the Teach game. "New game. Play."
Lenk was happy to be distracted, struggling endlessly to count to eight on his fingers. He shook his head and shuffled his position. "Okay, play new game. Easy game. Like Teach."
"What is game?"
"Game is Find." He informed. "Lenk say something. Taku find, hold. Lenk say if right."
The game sounded entertaining enough. "Taku want to play!" I hurried him.
"Okay." Lenk muttered, now surveying the surrounding area. "Find something…. Green, flat."
"That easy!" I shrieked confidently, already lunging for the nearest sturdy branch. My feet left wicker platform, and I balanced on a perch to reach up and pull a large leaf from up higher in the tree. I returned it to him promptly. "Taku find leaf!"
"Yes. Leaf is right." Lenk nodded, taking the leaf and laying it down before him. "Now Taku find something else. Find… something soft, white."
This challenge wasn't as easy, but it didn't take me much effort to spot a small donated blanket draped on a stump nearby. I bundled past Mother, who watched with great interest, and took the small climb up the trunk to reach the blanket, pulling it from its home and returning it to Lenk's side, beside the leaf. "Taku find blanket. Blanket is soft and white."
"Good. Blanket is right." Lenk said, reaching down and folding it much neater than I had.
"What Taku find now?" I questioned enthusiastically.
Lenk considered momentarily, resting a hand over his snout. In fairness to him, there wasn't much around to seek apart from leaves and blankets and twigs.
"Taku find…" He uttered, looking around the tree. "Find something that taste good."
Something that tasted good? I searched my memory and deciphered what exactly that meant.
Looking back now, I realise that maybe I misinterpreted him.
I reached forward towards Lenk, and wrapped my hand around the tongue that sat in his open mouth.
"Tongue taste good!" I stated proudly. I was certain that that was what he meant, but the shocked look on his face explained otherwise.
He shrieked inaudible words to me as I watched in confusion, still with a hold on his writhing tongue.
"Tongue not right?" I asked.
Lenk tried to shake his head without pulling on his tongue, just as I heard footsteps bound up behind me. A larger hand reached down and slapped lightly but sternly on my arm.
"Taku let go of Lenk tongue!" Mother demanded, and I did so without hesitation.
Lenk, reunited with his tongue, got up to his feet and played with his mouth to see if everything was functioning normally. Convinced that he was fine, he still felt the need to glare at me disapprovingly.
I backed away just a little bit when I noticed that Mother shared the look.
"Bad Taku!" She yelled. "Not hold people tongues!"
Unnerved by her tone, I lowered my head and tail, staring down at the tree platform. I never liked when Mother yelled at me, and at that moment it didn't occur to me what I had done that was so wrong. I thought it was part of the game.
However, Mother did not see it as a game, and she lectured me a while longer, with me staring at the ground and twiddling my toes the entire time. Lenk provided no comfort or explanation, just stood there rubbing at his tongue. Once Mother had had her say on the matter, her voice returned to her more welcoming tone, and she announced that we would eat. But I wasn't in the mood for my evening meal. I was in a bad mood, and I pulled myself away from the family, sat on a small bed that I had arranged from dried grass, and pouted with arms folded, trying to convince myself that I had done nothing wrong. I grunted angrily at Father when he came looking for me, and he decided that it was best to leave me to sulk.
The sounds of bark being crunched soon wafted through the air, accompanied by the sweet aromas that they delivered. My stomach growled rebelliously, but I was too stubborn to offer my presence. Instead, I left the home tree, crawling from the wicker platform and silently scuttling down the side of the tree onto the litter below. I was going for a walk to take my mind away from the injustice that had been done. With the sun still gifting light upon the land, I ran off in a direction that I had never explored before.
With our tree on the tip of a sort of peninsula, most directions I could take would lead to open land. Indeed, the way I strolled led to an area devoid of trees, but I was still on our people's land. I had to be careful to avoid being spotted by anyone who knew me, who would likely feel it necessary to return me home. I jogged on at a reasonable pace, making sure to keep in a straight line so that I did not lose my way. It was not as if I didn't plan to return.
On the way, I made sure to pick out certain landmarks, the first of which was a large pile of rocks compiled for reasons unknown. Soon afterwards, I came across a small stream, an offshoot of the main body of water that ran from the mountains nearby.
There was a third landmark, and that was where I stopped. Once I had left the stream far behind and found myself engulfed in another great wall of trees, I noticed that fewer of my people lived along there. A cline that followed the path that I took. By the time I reached a fence, there was nobody else around, save for the occasional crack of bark being sliced from off in the distance. No one lived there.
The fence, to my naïve child eyes, was a foreign and compelling feature. It stretched like a hedge of bushes to my left and right, but it was made of a peculiar substance, and held by planks of wood that had been expertly cut. It was not the fence, however, that caught my attention. What did catch my attention was what lay beyond it: A huge structure of a variety of colours and materials shot up from a dark, flat ground, stretching up over the trees around it, and spewing golden light from small openings in its sides, as if a second sun were trapped inside. In fact, the whole building shone like a beacon, the actual sun's rays glistening off various surfaces.
Below the building sat a number of the odd white beasts that the Humans ventured into our home in. They were lined up on the dark flat ground, hustled to the side of the building, and accompanied by numerous other beasts, differing in colour and shape.
I heard voices. But they weren't the voices of my people. They were alien to me. Human voices.
I leant up against the cold fence and watched the enormous building as activity unfurled inside and outside of its walls. The light that shone from within would flicker on and off, but only in some openings, and occasionally I would see shapes moving around inside. Another white beast had since pulled up onto the hard ground, filled with a number of Humans who were slow to vacate. As expected, they were noisy and inquisitive, but I was far away enough not to attract their attention. Eventually, they disappeared into the building and took the noise with them.
My mind slowly changed its focus from the building to both the time of day and my family. The sun was close to setting, and I would have to return before night fell. I didn't want to get lost for the night, and I knew that my family would be concerned for my safety.
I began to consider that maybe I had been in the wrong. After all, I wouldn't like it if someone grabbed my tongue. Lenk had obviously meant something else.
Now, however, I was worried about the consequences of returning. Mother and Father would be panic-stricken to find that I had left the home tree unsupervised, and I had no doubt that they would make their feelings perfectly clear when I eventually showed up. But I had to go back, because I would have nowhere else to stay, especially when I was so small. I was practically helpless during the night.
My mind wandered again, searching for any possible way to soften the blow that my parents would verbally deliver. I could give them a sincere apology, tell them that I would never do it again. It might work.
I decided to leave the building behind. It would be better to explore it during the middle of the day and when I had my peers by my side, so for now I turned and began to bounce my way back through the trees.
Something stopped me as I lost sight of the building. As I ran, my left foot caught onto something that crinkled loudly, and clung tight to the claws on each toe. I nearly tripped as I tried to kick it off mid-run, so I came to a halt and lifted my leg to inspect what I had found. It was another foreign substance, extremely thin but not easily breakable. As I pulled it from my feet (with some difficulty) and played with it in my hands, it made that horrible crinkling sound again. On its side was a selection of colourful symbols that meant absolutely nothing to me.
What was on the inside was interesting, though. The light object had two open loops on top, and as I held them both in each hand, I noticed that the object was completely hollow. There was something inside of it. Another object like the one I held, but scrunched up and containing more objects within. I took it in one hand and dropped the first flimsy container.
It was a struggle to open the second container. I shook it in my hands and picked at bits that I thought would open it, but I couldn't get to the innards.
Thankfully, I was not bereft of tools to aid me. I looked up and saw a small tree ahead, with a small, sharp protrusion sticking up from the side. I walked over and pressed a flimsier part of the material against the sharp piece of tree. A hole was created in the material, and I was able to use both hands the tear at its surface.
Eventually, I made my way in, taking my time so that I would not break whatever was inside.
It was filled with nuts. A variety of them. Some spilled onto the ground as I opened its container, but most stayed inside.
Suddenly, instead of losing interest in the nuts, that provided me with nothing that beneficial, I stood back and looked at what I had just done. The nuts were hung up against the side of the tree, contained in the basket that used to be its enclosed container. It gave me an idea.
I returned to the home tree just as night was beginning to set in. The sun had vanished behind the horizon of trees but allowed a deep orange glow to remain that guided me back. From a distance I saw Mother and Father, pacing the local area over the undergrowth, calling my name. I sensed that Mother was close to tears.
I swallowed my pride and ran for them, ducking down from the trees and instead running over the damp leafy ground. Mother was the first to spot me, and she instantly opened her arms and smiled, a welcome that I was hoping to receive. Once united, I embraced her around her torso, and she moved her head down to connect our head blades.
"Where Taku go?" She asked beneath a sob.
Feeling guilty, and perhaps scared that she would chastise me whatever the answer, I remained silent on that particular matter, and replied instead with, "Sorry, Mother."
Father had noticed my return and strolled to Mother's side, grinning. "Mago say Taku come back. Taku explore. Hunt for bark." Then, to me, "Taku find good bark on hunt?"
Again, I felt the same stab of guilt, responding with a shy shake of the head. Father drooped, disappointed.
I looked up to see that Mother's relieved smile had vanished. She began to express her feelings, just as I expected.
"Taku not run away like that!" She ordered. "Pok and Mago worry. Scared! Think Taku get hurt!"
"Sorry, Mother." I repeated meekly.
To my surprise, that was the extent of my punishment. Mother calmed just as quickly as she had grown angry, and she hoisted me carefully over her shoulder. "Taku come to tree now." She sighed into my ear. "Must be hungry."
I certainly was hungry, but most of all, I was relieved that my parents seemed so forgiving, at least for now. I hadn't even given them their gift yet.
"Mother," I said, poking her shoulder. "Taku make something. Make to say sorry for leaving home tree."
By now she had ascended the tree up to the platform, where Lenk had seemingly been kept as a lookout, and she dropped me down beside the trunk. "Taku make something?" She asked, cocking her head down at me.
I nodded and lifted my left hand, in which sat a small contraption that I had crafted on the return journey home.
The container full of nuts had inspired me. I had recalled the squirrel in our tree, how it searched daily for nuts to keep it nourished. I thought that maybe the way to get closer to it, to bring it to our tree more often, was to appeal to its hunger. While walking back, I found myself some branches and sliced them up to form long, tough pieces of string, and I used skills that Father had taught me, added with a little extra knowledge I had gained independently, to construct a small, sturdy box with a hole in the side, large enough for a squirrel to pass in and out. Inside, I had left the nuts that I had found outside of the Human building.
The three members of my immediate family gazed curiously at my squirrel box, silent for a while, and then all at once inquisitive.
"What that?" Lenk asked, among similar questions from Mother and Father.
I smiled, pleased with my own handiwork. "Taku make box for squirrel. Make squirrel come to tree."
Father appeared baffled. "How box make squirrel come to tree?"
"Taku find nuts." I explained. "Put nuts in box. Squirrel come to eat nuts."
To demonstrate, I lifted myself up the trunk of the tree with the contraption in my spare hand. Taking the squirrel's preference for higher branches into consideration, I had attached a small hook onto the back of the box so that I could secure it higher up the tree. I found an appropriate nook in the side of the trunk, and placed the box over it. As I thought, the box's attachment held it firmly in place. Once I was happy with its placement, I retreated back down to the platform.
There was a small period where the four of us simply stared upwards at the small box. It began to dawn on me that the squirrels had all retired for the night, because I only ever noticed them during daylight hours.
But apparently, one squirrel was still awake, still searching for nuts for as long as the sun would allow. It hesitated as it entered our tree, perhaps wary of our presence, perhaps catching the scent of all the nuts that I had placed.
It turned out that my squirrel box worked. After that momentary pause, the squirrel caught onto the alluring scents, jumped straight for the box and dived inside.
I was too busy admiring my creation, initially, to realise that my family had all begun staring down at me instead. It shocked me a little when I turned around.
"Taku make box?" Father asked.
"Yes, Father." I beamed. "Taku make box for Mother, Father and big brother."
Father looked intrigued, his eyes full of puzzlement, yet at the same time I saw a distinct sign of hope. For what, exactly, I wasn't sure.
He turned to Mother. "Taku is different."
"Yes. Taku is different." Mother agreed, gaze still stapled on me.
Lenk, meanwhile, seemed a little lost from it all. "Why Taku different, Mother? Father?"
Father smiled. "Mago not know, but know somebody who know. Take Taku tomorrow. Take Taku to see Toby Hamee."