I didn't sleep a wink. My mind simply wouldn't let me, and it buzzed for as long as the moon hung in the Earth sky, wondering, questioning. Tomorrow was going to be something special, something much different from my usual routine, but somehow I knew that it would be equally daunting, the beginning of something that I may later come to regret. The origin of those thoughts itself was a curiosity, and much of the time was spent wondering where they came from. The pace at which my brain was churning eliminated any possibility of sleep, and Mother eventually snapped after my spending so long just wandering around our home, and she told me to get some sleep.
Morning eventually came, and the trees around us began to flicker with the beginning of our people's daily chores. Father had rushed off to do his own little duties, and Lenk had gone to the school tree with his peers, so Mother waited with me for Toby Hamee to arrive.
She did so, earlier than expected, and I instantly suspected her eagerness. She kissed Mother and assured her that I would be taken care of, and that I would be returned before sunset. To a Hork-Bajir, that is a long wait, and Mother held back a whine but was ultimately agreeable. She held me close, told me to stay out of trouble, and we were on our way.
The journey to Toby's home was lengthy, much further than I expected. It was amazing to see how far our people's home spread, when just that morning the world consisted of just a few square miles. We sprinted past great mazes of trees, bounded over endless open grasslands and scuttled through hot springs, always maintaining a steady pace. When we tired (which, more often than not, was just me), we took a few moments to catch our breath, find some bark to feed on, meet a few of the locals.
I no longer recognised anyone as we made our way further from home. No one recognised me either, but they greeted me just as kindly nonetheless. Toby, however, seemed well-known wherever we went, and I began to feel a little intimidated by her apparent influence on most that she passed. She did her best to avoid getting stopped, but sometimes she simply couldn't escape, and she would spend some time chattering meaningless conversations with faces that she knew well and some that she didn't.
Eventually, we arrived in Toby's local area, plainly distinguished from the other localities we had passed by the number of inhabitants. I had never seen so many of our people in one place. There was never a moment when no Hork-Bajir invaded my field of vision, and many were wandering the clearing in which we arrived, transporting bark or conversing with neighbours. Toby informed me that this was the first place that our people had come to when they moved to Yellowstone, so a great number made their homes here. I simply asked, "What Toby mean when say Hork-Bajir move to Yellowstone?" She said that she would tell me later.
Once she had passed by her neighbours, Toby led me up her home tree, one that stood in the centre of the clearing, taller than those surrounding it, and made up of several spruce trees tied together, a platform built sturdily between them. From the canopy, she could see for miles, as I found out when my explorative instinct led me up there.
Not only was the tree fascinating in its structure and location, but its contents also piqued my curiosity. A number of small white boxes were sat in one corner, and within them were piles of strange leaves covered in black scribbles, like someone had scraped a muddy claw on them, but with exquisite and organised detail. A few more stray boxes were lying around, and there was also a whole host of unusual and foreign objects compiled by one of the tree trunks, guarded from more extreme weather by an expertly crafted shelter.
Toby Hamee's home was impressive, to say the least.
I couldn't spot anybody else in the tree, and at first I thought that she might have been living in there on her own, but I then noticed a nest large enough to comfortably fit a whole family on one side of the platform, wide enough for several people to huddle for warmth in sleep. Perhaps her family were out doing their daily routines elsewhere.
Toby had made herself comfortable, wedged in a nook in one of the trees. "Make yourself at home, Taku. I have some water from the hot springs if you wish to have some."
I nodded, still amazed by her beautiful home. Toby reached to her side and retrieved a large translucent cylinder filled most of the way with water, twisted the top away and handed it over to me. I took a greedy gulp, spilling a large portion down the sides of my mouth.
"Thank you, Toby Hamee." I said once I had moved the water away from my mouth. She took the water and drank some herself.
"Taku like Toby Hamee tree." I started, sitting down in front of her on a cushy mound of dried grass. "Big. Make Taku feel… good."
"I'm glad you like it." She replied nonchalantly, hand now reaching down beneath the nook for something else. Apparently, she had another storage space just beneath the platform.
I crawled closer, trying to peek at what she was rummaging for. "What Toby do?"
She smiled down at me, though her right hand still searched. "I am trying to find something that will help you to learn to read."
"What is read?" I asked.
"A way of communicating, without speaking. I will also teach you to write. And to speak English in a way that will be more suitable when conversing with Humans."
I stared blankly at her. Nothing that she had just said made any sense to me, and she quickly realised that, slumping back and rubbing her chin with her free hand, trying to find another way to explain.
She caught an idea, getting up from her nook to walk over to the area of the platform where the small white boxes were sat. I followed her closely and watched as she bent down to pull out one of the white leaves with scribbles on one side.
"Here," She said, handing me the white leaf and then pointing to the scribbles. "I will teach you to understand that."
I gulped, now able to inspect the white leaf more closely. The black squiggles were tiny and complicated, formed with curls and spots and strung out in long lines that stretched from left to right over the surface. Those lines were themselves arranged into large blocks, of which I counted five on the single leaf. I shook my head.
"Taku not know what leaf say." I whined, shaking the piece of paper as if doing so would somehow reveal something yet undiscovered that would aid in my understanding.
"It appears daunting, yes." Toby mused, once again sitting down in front of me, now flat on the platform. "It was just as daunting to me when I first learned to read."
I paused to think for a moment, now sitting down before her. "Toby Hamee know white leaf?" I asked incredulously.
She nodded. "Yes. And you will someday, too. Soon, if my own experience is anything to go by."
I didn't feel at all assured, especially when I gazed once again at the terrifyingly complicated series of scribbles that I had been introduced to. "What white leaf say, Toby Hamee?"
She hesitated, but then shrugged and took the paper, raising it before her snout. "It reads: Dear Ms Hamee. We write to inform you that your reservation at the Four Seasons Hotel, Washington D.C., has been approved, commencing on December fourteenth and terminating on December twenty-eighth. You shall be residing in room 130 for this duration, with access to all hotel facilities and-"
I covered my ears and rolled out my tongue, causing Toby to stop her reading. She chuckled knowingly, and placed the white leaf back in its box. "That was a letter. It is what the Humans and I use to communicate with each other. Letters are written on paper. White leaves."
I squinted at her, still not quite getting it and growing more and more agitated, but I reached into another box that was closest to me and lifted out a second white leaf. "Pay-per?"
Toby froze and stuttered silently. Then, she reached forward and gently pried my hands off of the paper. "Yes, paper. However, a lot of this paper is very… important. Work that I must ensure is done. Please, ask me before you touch any." She placed that particular box away in a small storage shelter, and then brought another box out. This one was red and filled with paper that had been scrunched up or torn. "Here, you can play with these sheets of paper. They are not needed."
Intrigued, I pulled out a small piece of paper from the red box and investigated. This one had fewer words on it, and they were bigger. However, they were a lot messier, the lines not as straight and the style not as consistent. I flattened out the corners and decided to keep that piece for myself. My family may have appreciated me bringing it back to them as a gift, because though its smell told me that in was inedible, I was sure that they would find some entertainment in its simultaneous simplicity and complexity.
Nonetheless, I still understood nothing of it, and my young mind saw this initial lack of knowledge as defeat. "Toby Hamee," I began meekly. "Taku not read. Why Toby want Taku read?"
Before I had asked, she had made her way back to her nook to restart her search for the mystery object below the platform. She used her blades to hook onto the trunk, and lowered her upper body over the edge of the platform. "Because, though you may not be able to read now, it will not take you long to learn."
I narrowed my eyes, yet again unsure of what she was implying. That reply did not answer my question, and so I continued to press, though talking to her lower body, that hung upside-down over the platform edge, was a little off-putting. "But why make Taku read?"
Finally, Toby found what she had been looking for, and rotated so that she could walk upright, back onto the platform. In her hands, she held a large boxy object, displaying numerous shapes and colours that were arranged in long horizontal lines.
"Because, unlike the rest of our people, you can."
"Because Taku different?" I asked.
"Yes. Being a seer means that your mind can remain better focused." She explained, sitting down before me with the object in her lap. My eyes wandered to it as she continued, "You are a seer not only because of your more defining world perception, but also for your intellect. Though it takes that particular side a little longer to develop, it means that your intelligence is not faltered by our limiting biology."
I stared at her blankly, and she sighed apologetically.
"Please, trust me. You will begin to understand." She said, hoisting the colourful object between us on the platform. The body was white with a blue base, but a series of protruding orange knobs spring from the centre in three long lines. On those knobs were more small scribbles, but they were larger and brightly coloured. More distinguishable. The whole object shone, light rays reflecting off its surface. Not too bright, but enough to further engulf my attention.
"What that, Toby Hamee?" I asked, still gawking at its vast array of colours and shapes.
"This is something that I borrowed from a Human friend." She said with a smile. "This is how I am going to teach you how to read."
I blinked, a little surprised at how a single, inanimate object would be able to teach me anything. Nevertheless, I reached forward with a tentative claw, pressing it against one of the strange orange knobs, and-
G, it screeched in a hideous, high-pitched vocal tone, This is the letter G.
Perhaps this box was not inanimate after all! I grunted to express my ambivalence towards the object and pulled it a little closer. I pressed another orange knob.
B. This is the letter B.
I laughed heartily, and already I found myself fully enthralled by the baffling and marvellous… thing! I pressed more and more orange knobs, and the thing continued to emit its confusing but repetitive statements.
Then, completely by accident, I nudged another small knob, but this one was off at one side, away from the orange ones, and instead of describing so-called letters, it began to make a most peculiar set of noises, followed by another voice and some jangly, metallic tune.
Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O…
I covered my ears with both hands. The simple vocal sounds that the orange knobs had spoken were bad enough, but this was terrible. I screeched at the box to make it stop, but only when Toby messed with another knob, hidden on the underside, did it stop.
Uncovering my ears, I asked, "This help Taku read?"
She nodded, and pointed to the first orange knob of the second horizontal line on the box. "These are each called letters. These make sounds." Lifting the box again, she flicked the hidden knob again, and the object sprang to life once more. "It will also help you count. Has your family taught you to count?"
I grinned and nodded proudly. "Taku count good! Taku know all numbers!"
With a claw that was just a little too large, Toby pressed one of the knobs that occupied the highest horizontal line, the furthest to the left.
One. This is the number one.
I smiled, recalling that one was a word I knew well, and one that I could apply meaning to. I lifted a single digit into the air. "One." I repeated.
Toby moved her finger to the next knob on the right and pressed it.
Two. This is the number two.
Again, I raised the correct number of digits into the air. Now, however, I stopped my childish giddiness and laughing, putting aside my excitement of the fascinating object and now tried to seriously search for a pattern. Before, the numbers one and two were merely spoken values, sometimes symbolised with my fingers, though that was merely just to aid in remembering them. Now, one and two were not just spoken sounds, but pictures. The knob that produced one was illustrated with a straight, vertical line, whereas two was a large curve, ending in a horizontal straight line beneath.
I tried to reinforce the idea by pointing it out to Toby, and her response was positive. Already, I had figured out the pattern, and I moved further along the line of knobs, to one whose illustration consisted of two smaller curves that were joined at the middle.
"Three." I guessed, pointing at the knob and then accompanying the guess with a display of fingers.
I pressed the knob, and to my satisfaction, the machine agreed. I moved my fingers further along, correctly guessing each number before validating it by pressing the knobs. That is, until I came to eight.
Eight. This is the number eight.
Suddenly, I found myself in a difficult situation. Eight was not the end of the line, and indeed there was one more symbolised knob to go. The illustration showed something that looked much like the image for six, just upside-down. I flummoxed and placed my hand over my snout, contemplating.
Eventually, I realised that I couldn't figure it out. I glanced up to Toby, whose gaze had been fixated on me the whole time.
I saw that worry in her eyes again.
She nodded and forced a smile. "That one is unfamiliar. Not only to you."
I looked away, feeling strangely embarrassed, and I played with the tip of my tail nervously. "Taku no more fingers…"
"You thought that numbers only went up to eight." Toby summarised for me.
"Yes." I admitted, perhaps unjustly ashamed of myself. "Lenk always say that. Mother and Father say, too."
Toby reached forward and took my right hand that I had nervously withdrawn, and she guided it gently towards the new number. I held a claw over the number, and slowly pushed it down.
Nine. This is the number nine.
I looked to Toby again for reassurance. She smiled down to me and repeated, "Nine. The number that comes after eight."
"Nine…" I mumbled under my breath. "But… Toby Hamee?"
"What come after nine?"
I spent the rest of the day in Toby Hamee's tree, mostly learning, with aid from the various gadgets that she kept stored away under the platform. I learned to count to twenty, and quickly skimmed over the alphabet, something which I would continue with tomorrow. In between teaching sessions, Toby would take me away from the tree to feed or to visit local landmarks, perhaps to drink from the river or aid families harvesting bark, but all the while I would let my mind churn on, and I would often find myself instinctively counting, speaking letter pronunciations to myself, revising what I had been taught.
Toby had taken note of my progress, and she seemed impressed with the pace at which I was learning, but not too surprised. She told me vaguely about her own experiences, how she suddenly found herself soaking up each and every little bit of information that she could, despite having so little around her to aid in her learning. She had to do it almost independently, but I had her now to help me, and that meant that the pace at which my intellect grew was staggering, even within just that one day.
Despite my eagerness to show off my new counting abilities, Toby was stubborn in keeping it downplayed, to the point where she wouldn't even admit to those around her that I was a seer like herself. Local people would see me counting happily to myself, and though I could see the clogs churning within their brains, the slightest hint that they understood what it meant, Toby denied that it had anything to do with being different. She would tell them that I was simply recalling, not actually appreciating the words that I spoke. They believed Toby, no matter what she said.
She was protecting me from something.
I still sensed an ambivalent stream of emotions from her whenever her eyes settled on me. Especially when I was learning. The concern was still there, wrapped in a subtle veil of relief, and I quickly came to accept the reason for this to be the same reason that she was so unwilling to announce my "gift" to her neighbours. It didn't matter, however, because members of her own family were swiftly able to spot it when they came back home, and I soon found myself the centre of their attention, and they cooed and clicked approvingly over me. Toby managed to pry us away to a more secluded area nearby the river, but I was glad of the extra company and sad to leave them behind.
But through all of it, I never got to know her. She was my teacher, and she did that job with all the enthusiasm I would have wanted her to show, but that was it. She was simply a voice. I would try to ask her about her life occasionally, about why our people considered her so influential, how she "saved" the Hork-Bajir, about why her tree was full of white leaves and strange foreign gadgets, but every time she would change the subject. She evaded any question that became too personal.
The sun was beginning to set, and we had just gone over the first half of the alphabet again when Toby decided that she was hungry. She sat herself comfortably against two thick branches and slumped, jabbing her wrist blade into the bark behind her head to pull away a slice. She handed me a piece, and I took it and sat by her side.
"Toby," I started as she bit into her slab. "Taku come back tomorrow?"
She gulped down the pulp in her mouth. "Of course, Taku. If you want to. I can pick you up from your tree at the same time."
"Thank you." I smiled, sitting up on my branch and casually swinging my legs. "Maybe when Taku come back tomorrow, Taku know all alphabet. Remember good!"
She nodded to me and gave a smile of her own. "You have made good progress today. I am sure that you will be able to remember all twenty-six letters by this time tomorrow."
I paused to nibble at my bark, but my gaze fell static on my feet, and I couldn't help but bring up my concerns, having hidden them all day. "Toby?"
"Yes, Taku?" She replied through a snout-full of bark.
I took a deep, steady breath. "What Toby hide from Taku?"
She paused, and for a second she withheld a steadfast appearance, but it soon faded, replaced by that guilty expression I had seen only a few times before.
"I don't wish to hide anything from you." She stated. "But at the same time…"
There was an awkward pause. While she was trying to find a way to explain, I was trying to figure it out for myself. She beat me to it.
"I don't want to scare you." Toby explained, "The title of seer brings more than just a deeper perception and a greater intellect. It brings certain responsibilities that I believe you are far, far too young to understand, let alone cope with. I cannot bring myself to announcing you to our people, because that would mean expectations of you, especially in times such as these."
"Times?" I asked, not quite sure of what she meant. She still had told me nothing of our people's history.
She sighed. "This is not our world. This is not our home. This is not where we belong. I wish I could tell you why, but… I will wait until you are a little older."
I huffed petulantly, disappointed that yet more facts would be unavailable to me. Her statements, however brief, though, intrigued me.
"This Human home?" I asked from some corner of my mind.
Toby blinked and look over to me, eyes narrowed. "Yes, it is. How do you know that?"
I scratched my chin, not quite sure myself how I knew. "Toby tree not like other trees," I recalled. "Toby tree have white le-… paper. Say paper how Toby talk to Humans. Alphabet box also from humans. And…" Something tugged at my mind, and it finally caught up to its own pre-formed conclusion. "Toby talk like Human."
"You have met Humans before?" Toby asked.
"Father take Taku to see Humans." I explained. "Humans talk fast. Long. More words. Like Toby Hamee. Toby Hamee is seer, now talk like Humans. Talk like Humans because Toby be with Humans."
Toby looked sick, and her jaw trembled, just barely but enough to notice.
"Toby is different. Taku is different, too. So if Toby be with Humans, maybe Taku be with Humans, too. But… No Humans here." I said, gesturing to the landscape around us. "Mother and Father say Toby Hamee save Hork-Bajir. Maybe Toby Hamee save Hork-Bajir from Humans."
She didn't quite know what to say, and for a while she just stared, emotions swirling visible over her. Then, she held out her hand for me to take, and pulled me a little closer, trying to break the awkward tension that had befallen us.
She whispered slowly to me. "Taku, I want you to have what I never did have. I want you to have a childhood. Don't worry about any of that now, please. Don't overthink this. This is why I haven't told you anything. Obviously, I misjudged your insight."
"Taku is seer, like Toby." I stated matter-of-factly.
"I know, Taku," She replied mournfully. "But that doesn't mean that you should live like I did. Be a child while you still can. Please."
I leaned against her side and watched her, picking up on her sincerity and her deep sorrow. As far as I was concerned, I was, and always had been, a child. I felt like a child, acted like a child.
I took my small piece of bark, and with a giggle I balanced it on the tip of Toby's snout. To my relief, she smiled warmly, and after balancing the bark for a while, she whipped out her tongue to snatch it into her waiting mouth.
"Come on, I should take you home."