I had no idea what had gotten my parents so worked up. The next day, as soon as the sun had broken its way back into the distant sky, they were up on their feet, talking, feeding, running around trying to get something organised, and nothing of the activities for a daily bark harvest. They had something else in mind, and it brought both a smile to their faces and a desperate urgency simultaneously. And I seemed to be the centre of it all.
"But Mago say take to Toby Hamee." Mother said to him, midway through another brief conversation. I was clutched to her side, a little panicked as to the pace at which everything was going.
Father was stood before us, a half-eaten slab of bark clutched in his right hand. "Yes. But Mago not know where Toby Hamee tree."
By now, they had been up for quite some time, and the Sun was fast rising through the sky, approaching its autumn peak. In their haste they had woken both me and Lenk, and though I was too small to find my own entertainment elsewhere, Lenk had grown bored and ventured off to find his peers.
I had no idea what was happening, so in my determination to receive an answer, I spent most of the time holding onto and prodding Mother impatiently, but nothing she said made any sense.
"Mother," I spoke up, leaning into her. "What happening?"
She turned her head down to me. "Mago need find Toby Hamee for Taku. Toby Hamee need to see Taku. But Mago not know where Toby Hamee."
"Not know where Toby Hamee." Father agreed.
Unsatisfied with the answer, I grunted disapprovingly at them. No answer they gave me made anything clearer, and the repetition of this strange person's name was beginning to confuse me.
Eventually, Father left the home tree, saying that he would find this Toby Hamee person and bring them back here. This made me nervous, because it was plainly obvious that this whole issue, and the arrival of the new guest to our home was all something to do with me. Mother was left behind to keep watch over me, and though she was disappointed to be once again stuck waiting at home, her mind was kept occupied by talking almost incessantly. She had a lot on her mind, it seemed. She was sat on her favourite perch, and I was beside her, kicking my feet over the side of my branch.
After a few long and essentially meaningless conversations, I brought up the question that had burned in my head for the entire day. "Mother," I began, "Who Toby Hamee?"
She gazed at me as if it should have been common knowledge. "Pok think Taku hear story before when smaller. Story of Toby Hamee."
I shook my head. That was one of the few things that I didn't remember. I was most likely asleep at the time, which is not unusual when story nights go on till the moon begins its slow descent.
"What Toby Hamee do?" I asked Mother.
She smiled warmly. "Toby Hamee save Hork-Bajir. Make Hork-Bajir free. If no Toby Hamee, no Taku. No Pok. No Mago. No Lenk."
This intrigued me greatly, and I crawled forward so that I was almost stood on top of her. "Mother tell Taku story of Toby Hamee now?"
Mother paused and looked away briefly, eyes wandering as if she were deep in thought.
"Pok not know story well. And think maybe story too scary for Taku. Scare Pok. Even scare Mago."
"Scary story?" I pressed curiously, bouncing up and down with my tail holding onto the branch behind me. "Taku not scared."
Mother smiled, possibly amused by my fearless and naïve attitude. "Pok not tell story. Pok think maybe Toby Hamee tell story to Taku when Toby Hamee get here."
I backed away from Mother so that I no longer leaned over her, and sat back down on my own branch, growing ever more impatient as time went on. Mother and Father had talked about this Hork-Bajir with such appraisal that she was bound to be something so extraordinary. I grew tense and excited, almost shaking in place. I continued to question Mother, but her answers remained confusing and unclear. She said that Toby Hamee was different. She talked of Toby Hamee's parents, and she repeated mentions of strange creatures that I had not previously heard of.
But there was something other than joy in her voice. There was also a hint of worry in her, something that she hid so well, but not well enough for my ears to miss.
We eventually decided that Father would be absent for longer than initially expected, and so during the peak of daytime, Mother kept me entertained by taking me to a nearby stream, where we filled donated containers to bring back to the tree. We drank heartily from it and bathed further downstream. Mother insisted that I be especially well-kept today.
When we returned, Father was still not present, but Lenk had come back from the hot springs where he spent most of his social time. Mother was stunned when he asked her why she was in such a rush to get the tree looking nice, and she was disappointed that he too had not heard of the apparently oft-told story. He and I sat to watch as Mother panicked over the cleanliness of the tree platform, and after a while we resorted to playing yet another time-wasting game, making sure to stay out of her way for its duration.
"Why Mother so worry?" Lenk asked mid-way through another game of Find. Even he was now sensing her anxiety.
I shrugged, handing him the half-eaten leaf that he had asked for. "Mother say Toby Hamee save Hork-Bajir."
Lenk looked flummoxed, almost unbelieving. "Save Hork-Bajir from what?"
"Taku not know."
He smiled slyly. "Save Hork-Bajir from bark stew Father make."
We exchanged a laugh. Father was never known for the concoctions he brewed for special campfire nights.
Just then, Mother came bounding over to our side of the platform, bobbing nervously on her feet. "Lenk. Taku. Ready?"
"Ready, Mother?" Lenk asked, slowly standing up. It seemed as though our game was finished.
Mother smiled. "Toby Hamee nearly here."
Lenk finally appeared to lose patience, grunting irritably at her. "Mother not say to Lenk why so important. Mother run around too much. Mother need rest."
She shook her head from side to side. "No rest now." Then she looked down to me, an almost expectant look on her face. Offering her hand to me, she said, "Taku, come with Mama."
I brushed past Lenk and took her open hand, not quite sure why she wanted me close. On the way past, I caught a glance from Lenk. I didn't see long enough to decipher his expression, but it wasn't a positive one.
Mother guided me to the other side of the tree, and there she stood, watching expectantly for Father to return. I noticed her smiling when his familiar figure came hurtling towards us from a distance, and she had been right in saying that it wouldn't be long for his (and the stranger's) arrival.
He swung fastidiously through thickets and over branches, landing daintily before us with a proud grin on his face before shaking off stray leaves that had landed on his body. "Mago back!" He announced.
"Yes. Mago back." Mother observed, but she craned her neck to look over his shoulder. "Where Toby Hamee?"
"Toby come." Father nodded, turning and pointing an arm out in the direction of newly emerging noise. Just coming into sight was another Hork-Bajir. Female, a little over average height. She was casually jogging through the trees, bundling over thickets and dodging out-thrusting stumps, a slab of bark held in one hand while the other guided her between the tree trunks.
She landed on our platform, steadying herself against the trunk and observing her immediate surroundings.
I don't quite know what my mind imagined I would see. The constant appraisal of her name by my parents seemed to instil an image of something purely amazing, someone that would cause my jaw to drop in disbelief. Someone who, on first sight, would instantly give an off an aura of uniqueness and bravado.
But she seemed just normal. Nothing special. If anything, she looked weary, worn down and dishevelled. She was considerably older than my parents. Not elderly, but her blades had begun to dull in colour and her eyes sagged tiredly.
Then again, I didn't know her yet. She hadn't even spoken a word.
"Toby Hamee here." Mother said, a big grin on her face.
Toby turned and picked some leaves from her wrist blades, remaining silent for now, but taking the bark that she held and offering it to Mother with a warm smile and a greeting kiss.
"Toby come. Pok fallana." Mother continued.
The strange new Hork-Bajir nodded. "Your kalashu travelled far to reach me, Pok. I understand that you wish to show me something."
I noticed something peculiar. Toby Hamee's speech seemed different. Quicker and smoother in flow than what I was used to. Perhaps there was nothing physically special about her, but there was something different elsewhere. I began to listen more intently, watching her closely. As of yet, she hadn't paid much attention to me.
"Yes," Mother said. "Want show Taku Kelmut to Toby."
Mother stood aside and allowed me to move into focus. I moved close to her side, yet forward enough for Toby to get a full view of me. She looked down to me, and with a friendly smile she lowered herself so that she could offer a greeting. I readily craned my neck to accept the kiss.
"Hello, Taku Kelmut." Toby said, releasing the kiss but still keeping herself lowered so that I did not have to stare upwards to her.
"Hello." I returned, still trying to figure out why this person sounded so unusual.
Toby moved backwards slightly, adjusting on her bent legs. Her eyes locked on mine for a while, and even they seemed different, intensely focused and wise beyond any I had seen before. They made me nervous, and I reached up a hand to find Mother's own, that clutched onto mine.
Toby finally averted her gaze, and stood up tall to continue conversing with my parents. "Has Taku been to the local school tree yet?"
"No." Father answered. "Mago think Taku go to school tree after three moons pass."
"Taku smart. Smarter than Mago. Smarter than Pok." Mother explained.
It was not something that I had heard them say before, and it shocked me completely. But despite my parent's assuredness, Toby seemed doubtful, and I found her stare once again piercing into me.
"You think he is different?" She asked them. Then, for clarity, "Like myself?"
Mother and Father both nodded.
"What makes you think that he is different?"
For a second, my parents blanked, and then looked to each other in puzzlement. Obviously, they hadn't quite thought this through. Toby, seeing that my parents would struggle to explain, turned her focus back to me. She held out a hand in my direction and invited me to take it.
"Taku," She started as I took her hand. "Could you please show me around your home?"
I hesitated, at first looking to Toby and then to my parents to receive permission. When I saw that they gave their approval, I looked around for the best way to introduce the visitor to our tree.
Leaving my parents behind to go over whatever they needed to discuss, I first dragged Toby to the other side of the tree where I expected to find Lenk. He had disappeared, probably having gone off to find his friends again, but left behind the various items collected during our latest games in the centre of the platform.
"This where Taku play." I told Toby, grabbing a spare blanket and swinging it over my head. "Play with big brother, but he not here."
Toby acknowledged. "What games do you play, Taku?"
"Play Find. Play Teach. Play Sleep."
"What is Sleep?"
"Sleep. Big brother say, "Play game. Play sleep. Taku win if sleep long time"." I explained.
"Ah. I see."
I threw down the blanket and jumped onto the trunk of the tree, lifting myself up to the small squirrel box that I had created the night before. After making sure that no squirrels were inside, I gently removed it from its hanging position and withdrew it down the tree. Hanging with one hand one a thin but sturdy branch so that my eyes were level with hers, I handed Toby the box.
"Taku make for squirrels." I said.
Toby carefully took the box in both hands and inspected the handiwork. I was disheartened when her expression showed nothing more than slight interest.
"It is very nice." She complimented. "And it is good of you to embrace the wildlife that we share our homes with."
She handed the box back to me. I was confused, puzzled as to how her reaction was so different than my family's. They were stunned by my box, but Toby was barely interested at all. Hiding my disappointment, I returned the box to its hook and jumped back to the platform.
I continued to guide her up and down our home tree, even taking her away from home and showing her the local area. However, nothing seemed to be of great interest to her. She put on a façade of intrigue, but I could just as easily tell that she was not here for sightseeing.
There was something else to her as well. Her body appeared strong, proud and experienced, but whenever I caught her gazing at me, in the small moments that our eyes remained in contact, I noticed fear. A strange kind of guilt that she was hiding. She didn't want me to see it.
But I saw it all too well.
I began to wonder what her real purpose was. Obviously, she had taken the time to travel a considerable distance to our home at the whim of my Father who, in all honesty, has never been much of a speaker.
My initial thoughts of Toby were vanishing, once seeing her as just a well-spoken middle-aged female, now seeing something else entirely. My mind buzzed, going over every possibility as my eyes kept watch on her.
Funnily enough, she seemed to be doing the same to me. So often we would find each other staring, pondering, and trying to figure something out.
On one of our short trips away from the home tree, somewhere nearby the river where a few locals had gathered, Toby sat down in the canopy of a tall conifer and tore off a few slabs of bark, offering me some as I joined her.
"You have a lovely home." She said as I sat down opposite to her. "I do not often come this way, but I always enjoy when I do so."
Though she had talked a great amount since we first met, I still struggled to grasps some things that she said. Her voice was fast, flowing, and it seemed to me that she did it deliberately as soon as we had left my parents.
"Toby say fast." I pointed out, after so long trying not to.
She nodded, swallowing what bark she had in her mouth. "Yes. I speak fast." She acknowledged.
Toby paused and dropped her slab of bark to rest between two diverging branches beside her. "Taku, have your parents talked much about me?"
I searched my memory. "Say, "Toby Hamee come". Say, "Toby Hamee save Hork-Bajir"."
"And that is all that they have told you?"
I nodded. "Yes."
She sighed and picked up her food again, gazing over it and dragging a claw down an indentation in the bark surface. "Do you know why your parents called on me to come?"
"Taku not…" I started, before stopping myself and putting a hand over my snout. I was about to say that I didn't know, but something within me had been putting the pieces together this whole time, and only now did I begin to see what was going on. "Toby Hamee come to see Taku."
Toby smiled approvingly, crunching down on her food.
I continued. "Toby Hamee come long way to see Taku. Mother and Father tell Taku yesterday: "Taku is different". Say because Taku make squirrel box. Say because Taku count good."
She continued to watch intently. She wanted more.
I was happy to supply her with my guesses. "Toby not think box different. Not think count different. Any Hork-Bajir do that. Taku only remember good. Maybe Toby…" I hesitated.
She stopped chewing and lifted herself forward to sit up straight, alert to my sudden pause, but remained silent for me to finish my thought process.
"Toby come to see if Taku different. Different like Toby. Taku not different because count or make box. Taku different because Taku see different.
Her eyes widened, and she gulped down what remained of the bark. "Go on."
"Taku see Toby," I continued. "But not just see Hork-Bajir. Taku see that Toby scared. Toby worry."
Now Toby was the one to appear bemused. "What do you mean, Taku?"
"Toby scared that Taku is different." I spoke, revealing what I had kept hidden in my throat since we had been introduced. I had seen more than just her outward emotions, but I had also seen her on the metaphorical inside whenever I caught her glance.
She knew that I was different, and, for some reason, she was concerned.
Toby was silent, and she stared at me with narrow, calculating eyes. I felt the disguise drop, and from it came the look of worry that I knew was there.
But with it came something that perhaps I had missed. She was relieved.
"So it's true." She mused. "And here I was, thinking that I would never see it again in my lifetime."
I shook my head, feeling a little dizzied. I didn't quite know what to say, and for a while there was an awkward silence.
"So what mean?" I asked of her, her own sense of worry discomforting me.
"It means lots of things," She said. "Most of which you will learn soon. For now, it means very little. But, Taku, it means that you and I will need to spend a little more time together."
"Toby come back to Taku tree again?" I guessed.
We returned home a little while later. Toby went over a few issues that I had, mostly just questions about what being different actually meant. She explained, and I listened diligently.
I was a seer. An anomaly. The details as to why I was a seer were still a bit much for me to understand, but Toby assured me that I would know soon enough.
There was a lot that I didn't understand at that moment, and challenges that I did not know I would have to face. I was naïve, ignorant of what it all meant, how it would affect myself and those around me. That was something that Toby was yet to reveal, and now I realise that that was probably for the best. The true reality of my deformity, had I known from the start, would have scared me into remaining silent, pretending to be just another simple, innocent Hork-Bajir.
I may have been a seer, but at such a tender age I still had so much to learn.
Mother and Father had waited patiently in the tree for us to return, and before they noticed our arrival, I saw concern in them. Not the same as it was in Toby, but concern nonetheless.
Mother was quick to embrace me, bringing her head down to connect our head blades. "Taku back." She whispered.
I smiled up at her as she stood straight again. "Sorry Taku take long."
Toby shifted forward, standing tall and proud before them. "Mago? Pok?" She began. "You were right."
Father nodded, a smile creeping its way onto his face. "Taku is different, like Toby Hamee?"
"Yes," She replied, barely holding back a smile of her own. "He is like me."
"So…" Mother grunted. "What happen now?" She, unlike my Father, looked more unnerved than joyful.
Toby's smile dropped, and a more regretful expression took its place. "Taku will need an education different from the other kawatnoj. With your permission, I would like to teach him personally."
"Toby Hamee want to come back to tree again? Teach Taku?"
She shook her head. "No. Taku will need to come to my tree. If it's okay, I would like him to be there tomorrow."
Both of my parents looked saddened, but they gave their permission without pause.
"How long Taku at Toby Hamee tree?" Father asked.
"Daily." Toby answered immediately. "I have a lot to teach him. But don't worry, I will make sure that he is home every day. Despite the distance between our homes, I cannot bring myself to keep Taku away from you. Though I would love to be able to teach him in his own home, I have duties to watch over which requires me to be at my own tree."
I noticed Mother turning towards me, lowering her arms and inviting me over. I waddled to her and she lifted me up in her arms so that I sat, leaning against her shoulder.
"Taku want learn from Toby Hamee?" She asked me, her snout almost pressed to mine. I nodded.
Toby shifted, once again reigning in my parent's attention. "Please, though, don't stop Taku visiting the school tree. Though he may not need the education, I cannot stress enough the importance of having peers his own age."
"Still take Taku to school." Mother confirmed, her warm breath curling around my neck.
"Thank you." Toby grinned, turning and making her way to the edge of our home. "And thank you, Taku. I shall be back tomorrow morning."
With that, my new teacher left.
That night, I didn't sleep. From nowhere, this revelation had popped its head up and fuelled my imagination to bursting point, and as my mind began to churn faster and more vividly, I found myself unable to sit still, unable to let it all rest. I laid down in my nest once my parents had stopped fussing over me for the night, and though I was able to nap briefly, I found myself pacing our tree platform, wondering and questioning.
Toby Hamee had awoken something deep inside me. My entire perception was changing, and for now those perceptions were positive, something to be proud of, thankful for. But then I remembered the look in her eyes when she revealed it all to me. The look of concern and guilt.
I suppose that nothing is what it seems.