Things changed so much in the weeks that followed my first visit to Toby's tree. I was amazed at the sheer amount of knowledge that I was able to pick up with little to no difficulty, and even Toby was stunned at how pacey my progress was. Within two days I had mastered the alphabet, and though my pronunciation wasn't quite perfected for another day or so, it wasn't long before I was learning how to read. Toby would take sheets of old paper from around the tree, and challenge me to read them. At first, I was asked to read one word at a time. Words became phrases, phrases became sentences. Soon, after about two or three weeks of intense training, I could read entire pieces of mail. Numbers were a little harder to grasp, especially when it came to manipulating them, performing sums or subtractions, but my previously unexpected mastery of the Hork-Bajir counting limitations was a telling premonition, and soon I was as equally well versed in numeracy as I was in the alphabet.
Though she had originally planned for me to visit daily, Toby would frequently be absent. She would never give me a straight reason as to why she would be gone, but I knew every time that her duties stretched far beyond that of anybody else that I knew. She was working with Humans, those strange, noisy creatures that were so rarely seen. My parents were more than happy to supervise me on such days, but when Toby was around she would pick me up from my school tree and tutor me for a few hours, before helping me home. She had become something of a third parent, which both Mother and Father acknowledged without issue.
At first, Toby insisted that I kept my gift to myself, but even she acknowledged that both my and her family members would soon let the fact slip, and I found more and more visitors climbing our home tree in the morning, eager to meet me and my family. My parents didn't mind the attention, and nor did I to an extent, but it sometimes became a bit overwhelming, especially during story nights and other such gatherings, when our people would badger me with questions. I never quite understood their curiosity, because Toby was still so reluctant to share her experiences, and on a couple of occasions I became irritated by the attention and left home for an early night's sleep.
I started at the school tree about a week after my first meeting with Toby. I was a little resistant to the idea at first, not feeling the need to go when I was already learning from what I had already realised was a more reliable source of information, but both my parents and Toby insisted vehemently that I should attend, not only to be with those of a similar age, but also because they would teach things on a more practical side than mathematics and literacy. Things like how to cut specific barks, how to plant new trees, how to build nests, were apparently just as important, especially when it came to my own well-being.
They also taught us what kinds of bark to avoid eating. I didn't pay attention at the time, but when I became violently ill a few days later after eating infected pine bark, I decided that perhaps school wasn't such a bad idea.
The concept of school, I have found since, is similar but not quite the same as the Human ideal. With Humans, juveniles are separated into groups according to age, and spend a specific amount of time sat in large buildings, either paying attention to their teachers and doing homework, or lazing off and tormented their fellow pupils. Hork-Bajir schools, however, never really have set hours, and most of the time is spent practically. The teacher gathers kawatnoj of varying ages at a designated school tree, and from there decides what will be taught, and takes us all to whatever destination is suited to that lesson. For example, if we were to be taught how to cut bark from a maple, we would spend the day in a host of maple trees. We could leave whenever we wanted to, unless the teacher deemed a specific lesson important enough for us to require the information. For the most part, I would doss around and play games with my peers.
I was not shy when it came to making friends, having spent a good amount of time before attending school introducing myself to the other kawatnoj in the local area. As soon as I began, I already found myself in a small gang. When time would allow, we would do all the things that kawatnoj should do, like frantic games, exploring and finding new places, and even playing the occasional prank on some unsuspecting locals. I was an immature, developing juvenile doing what any immature, developing juvenile would do, before I aged and became a more mature, calmed individual that all Hork-Bajir become when adulthood sets in.
Toby was to be away for a week. A week is seven days, she had told me, and she had been gone for six, so I didn't expect her to be around to tutor me after school. Mother or Father would take me home, or perhaps Lenk, though that was a much rarer occurrence. Mother was the one to drop me off at the school tree on that particular day, and she left me with a long kiss and wished me good luck, still so attached to me and unwilling to leave me without her parental supervision. Once she had left in search of some chore to get on with, I joined up with my closest friends in ascending the large Cottonwood tree that was a designated meeting point.
My closest friends consisted of two male kawatnoj not living too far from my own home tree. Ruga was about the same age as me, and about the same height, but his unusually down-turned arm blades and stumpy tail were traits I often teased him about in the usual childish manner. He didn't mind it, and he often had his own ways of getting back at me. According to him, I had fat toes.
Pluk was older than both I and Ruga, and though it was just by a few weeks, his height would make anyone think he was much older. He was massively tall for his age, and built sturdily to match. Nevertheless, he had a particularly sensitive sense of humour, and even the sound of crickets in the evenings would send him into fits of giggles.
I had plenty of other friends, but Pluk and Ruga were the closest, and at the school tree it was exceedingly hard to separate us. I had no real enemies, but considering that Hork-Bajir naturally don't make enemies due to our docile and peaceful natures, that was no surprise.
It turns out that Hork-Bajir as a species do have enemies, but I would find out about that later.
There was something else about that period in my life which I am often ashamed to admit. I was a bit of a bully. Actually, perhaps bully is too strong a word. A bully, in Human terms, is someone who is violent towards others, or deliberately hurtful, usually for egotistical benefits. Hork-Bajir aren't really capable of those things, nor are we willing to do them, so perhaps a better word to describe me at the time would be troublesome. Sometimes I would say things that could be considered hurtful, but I was still at an age where I had no filter, and thoughts would often fly from my mouth unchecked. Coupled with my rapidly increasing vocabulary and, dare I say, cockiness born from all the attention I had been receiving, I may have said things to some peers that I wish I could take back now. In one such case, I would trade anything to take back what I said…
"Taku slow today." Ruga called down from above me, already reaching the canopy of the Cottonwood where a few of our peers were waiting. "Maybe Taku toes slow Taku down."
Pluk reacted with his signature laugh, having reached the canopy before the both of us. "Taku too busy make think." He said, tapping his temple with a claw.
I grunted back up to them, increasing my climbing pace to prove them wrong. "I don't have fat toes, and I don't think too hard to climb."
I pulled myself up between two dispersing branches and leant myself against the most upright one. Above and below us, sat among the various other branches of the large Cottonwood were the rest of our school, most of whom were the product of last year's breeding season. They chirped and chattered between themselves, wondering where Meeg Hapul, our teacher, would take us today.
"Pluk want go to hot springs." Pluk muttered, wrapping his arms over his chest and rubbing at his upper arms. "Pluk cold."
"Go to hot springs yesterday." Ruga mentioned. "And Pluk always cold."
"Pluk not." He grumbled. "See snow yesterday."
I baulked in disbelief. "You didn't see snow. It too early for snow."
Pluk shook his head. "Not too early! See snow yesterday. That way." He pointed off in a northerly direction, a look of absolute conviction on his face.
"No. Toby told me that-" I hesitated, suddenly finding a flaw in Pluk's assertion. "Have you ever see snow before?" I asked him.
He blinked. "Pluk… No."
"So how you know if you see snow if you not know what snow is?"
He remained silent, puzzled and seeking an explanation that never came.
"What is snow?" Ruga asked.
I smiled and stood up straight from the branch that I had leant on. "Toby Hamee told me about snow. Snow is cold and white, and it fall from the sky."
Ruga huffed. "Why Toby Hamee so special? Taku always talk about Toby Hamee."
"Toby Hamee is different. Like Taku." Pluk explained to him.
"Toby Hamee have fat toes, too?" Ruga teased. I barked my disapproval at him. Pluk laughed.
Pluk uttered a shiver, blowing condensed air from his nostrils. "Pluk want talk about something warm."
"Like what?" I asked.
He paused to think, then a relieved smile struck his face, and he leaned back into his nook, cooing. "Talk about camp fire. Warm camp fire."
I smiled, recalling the feeling of cool nights, warming myself by the heat of a fire in the midst of friends and family. "A good story, too."
Pluk nodded and grinned. "Good story. Story about being warm."
We took a moment to relish the feeling of comfort, and I found myself relaxed against the branch again, eyes drooping lazily.
"This boring." Ruga interjected. "Where is Meeg Hapul?"
I snorted a laugh. "Meeg Hapul is too fat to climb the tree."
It was partly true. She was on the chunkier side, relative to other Hork-Bajir, at least.
I noticed that Pluk didn't laugh, and that was totally unexpected. Ruga had wrapped his hand over his snout.
"Taku Kelmut be nice." The voice of Meeg spoke from behind me. I turned and looked her in the eyes. She appeared unaffected by my comment, probably because she had gotten so used to my careless comments.
Of course, I never tried to say such things in her presence, but she always managed to turn up when I least expected it.
She yawned widely, brushing off my comment and turning to address the entire group. "Meeg here now! We cut fir bark today!"
There was a collective groan.
Meeg chuckled to herself, before descending down the tree trunk. "Follow Meeg!"
After making a few of my peers laugh when I over-exaggerated the shaking of the tree when Meeg climbed down, the group of us followed her over the open land that surrounded the collection of Cottonwood trees and over to the much denser collection of trees where the Douglas-firs were.
The Douglas-firs were large trees, with thick bark that was hard to cut into at such a young age. Not only that, but the bark itself wasn't particularly tasty. Apparently it was useful for other things, but that was something else that I had neglected to pay attention to. We arrived on the edge of the fir collection, passing by a patch of saplings that we as a group had planted just last week.
Meeg stopped us beside a large fir that already had the bark around its base harvested. A pile of loose, cut-up bark had been left between two out-sticking roots, prepared specifically for our lesson. Meeg held up one of the slices and turned to face us.
"This fir bark." She stated, waving the thick slab in the air for all to see. "Meeg tell you how to cut fir bark before. Remember?"
The group muttered amongst itself, neither a yes nor a no.
Meeg nodded, and proceeded to hand out each individual slab of bark, an indicator or how our harvest should look. We all had to resist the urge to nibble at it, something which would have been impossible were the bark more desirable.
There was a short lesson to witness on how exactly to harvest the bark. Meeg easily sliced into the trunk with her wrist blade, telling us to keep the angle of impact straight so as to avoid accidental snaps. From there, she proceeded to create several indentations until she was happy enough to utilise her elbow blades. Within a minute, she held a perfect slice of bark for us to witness.
"Now you do." She suggested, pointing to dense collection of firs to the left. Then she began to eat the bark that she had just cut, and I silently provided my companions with another fat joke. Pluk's laughing almost gave me away.
We segregated ourselves, I of course being with Pluk and Ruga, and together we found a rather pathetic fir, one that hadn't yet been chosen by our peers. The bark looked twisted and unpleasant. The runt of the litter, so to speak.
Ruga huffed. "Need better tree. This bark no good."
I wholeheartedly agreed, cursing our luck that in wasting time kicking around a stray pine cone, we had taken the last choice of tree. Despite our optimism, climbing up the trunk to see if the bark improved higher up, there was nothing salvageable. At least, nothing that wouldn't likely make us ill.
My friends, once they had given up looking, settled at the base of the tree, and proceeded to groom themselves to cure the boredom. Meanwhile, my calculative mind was still searching, working out how best to succeed on our mission. The other firs all contained our peers who had split off, and we couldn't take from their trees, because the harvestable patches were too small to occupy more than three individuals. Perhaps there were more firs in another direction…
Suddenly, the sound of bark being sliced from our left. Considering that the rest of our school group was to our right, it meant that someone else was taking bark from the firs. I twisted my neck to look past a few pines, seeing a couple more firs nearby. They looked far more appetising than the one that we originally found ourselves with.
There was somebody up in the canopy, stood on a few out-thrusting branches and holding onto the trunk. On closer look, he was an adult male, on his own to gather what I assumed to be his breakfast, perhaps for his mate, assuming he had one.
I hatched a plan.
Jumping past Ruga and Pluk, I threw my wrist blade square into the bark of our runty tree. After a couple of minutes struggling, doing my best to pry free a slab, I managed to tear off an excessively large piece. I knocked on it, making sure that it wasn't rotting or too damp.
"What Taku do?" Ruga questioned, watching me closely but staying seated.
I grinned mischievously, holding up the flat piece of bark against my chest. "We are getting some bark."
Pluk looked puzzled. "But this tree have bad bark."
"Not from this tree."
I briefed them on the plan that I had conjured, something not too unlike the pranks we had performed in the past, and this time it provided a benefit, not just enjoyment. Ruga and Pluk were, as usual, slow on the uptake, but on the third attempt at explaining it, they got the gist.
"Taku is different." Pluk mentioned, something that I had begun to hear quite regularly, whenever I did or said something that others considered a little above their heads. The prank wasn't too complicated, but I highly doubted that any normal Hork-Bajir would come up with it. For one thing, it involved depriving the adult of his food (for now), and any ordinary Hork-Bajir wouldn't see that as an option.
But then, I was no ordinary Hork-Bajir.
The three of us waited nearby as the adult busied himself, ripping shreds of bark from his tree until he had enough, and he could carry no more. When he finally left, bark under his arms, we sprang into action. I had already pierced a hole at one end of our own strip of bark, and looped a rope through it that Pluk had made from strong fibres. We then hurried over to the small patch of firs and dispersed, sniffing our ways up and down different trees, using our senses of sight, touch and smell to detect the best harvesting spot, knowing full well that if the adult returned, he would find the same location and harvest it for himself.
We found our best spot, and from there we looked for the nearest sturdy branches, and we required at least two, both of which needed to stick out at a shallow angle and be a small-enough distance apart so that our slab could sit comfortably on top of them. Fortunately, an almost perfect pair of branches was just below the harvesting patch. With some more rope, we tied the slab down to just one of the branches, creating a hinge. When we pulled on the rope that we had looped through the bark from below, the whole slab flipped upwards. Once secured, we retreated to the base of the tree and hid among the undergrowth.
Everything was in place, and now we just had to wait.
We didn't have to wait long, and the adult returned with a big smile on his face and a spring in his step. For a moment I felt a little guilty for what we were about to do, but I had assured myself and the others that we would make it up to him later. He eagerly began exploring the trees, hugging himself to the trunks and sniffing out a prime location to begin his second round of harvesting.
As expected, he settled on the area with the most appealing bark, and seeing a large flat slab nearby where he could safely deposit his cuttings, he couldn't quite believe his luck. He thrust a wrist blade into the tree and began the harvest.
Pluk giggled. Not wanting our presence to be announced, Ruga and I shushed him. I held my hands firmly around the rope that was attached to the hinged slab up above, ready to pull when the time was right.
The adult finished his first cutting. He held it, inspected it for anything amiss, and kneeled down to drop it on the slab we had laid. Happy with its security, he went back to cutting up the trunk.
I yanked the rope, and the slab flicked upwards, thrusting the newly-cut bark into the air and down towards us. Ruga caught it with a grin and dropped it between us. The system worked perfectly.
Pluk giggled again, and we shushed him with a little more force this time. He clutched both hands around his snout, but still chuckled away silently. Meanwhile, I was grinning, proud of the trap that I had set and its performance thus far.
The adult had sliced up his second piece, and he bent down again. The second bark hit the now-descended slab, but before he could turn back towards the trunk he performed an almost cartoonish double-take, noticing that the first piece had vanished seemingly into thin air. He froze for a few seconds, and I could see the confusion and uncertainty run over his face.
He shook it off, likely thinking that it had simply slipped off the side, and went back to his harvest, completely unaware of our trick. I almost burst out laughing, myself.
This time around, in order to avoid his suspicion forcing him to search elsewhere, we let him build a larger pile on the slab. Once I had counted eight pieces of bark being deposited, I warned Ruga and pulled the rope once more. The bark rained down upon us, but Ruga performed his task well and stopped the bigger pieces from causes any alerting noise. I loosened my grip on the rope slowly for it to reposition.
On this occasion, the adult took far more notice when the eight slabs of bark he had collected disappeared. He stared closely at the depositing slab, bending down to prod it and inspect its sturdiness. Then he looked past it, wondering if perhaps the bark had all fallen over the side. He would see nothing, as we had hidden out of sight and taken the fallen pieces with us.
His head bolted around as Pluk's unhindered laughter echoed through the trees. Thankfully, as if some miracle had shone down upon us, the distance between us and him made the laugh's location difficult to pinpoint. However, I got the feeling that the adult was on the verge of sussing that he was being tricked.
I shook my head at Pluk, who had clamped his snout shut again, looking quite embarrassed. Knowing full well that it would happen again, I kicked a piece of rope to Ruga, who tied it tightly around Pluk's snout. Pluk couldn't resist laughing at the situation, but now his laughter consisted of muffled huffs and his cheeks bulging on exhale.
The adult, now cautious and paranoid, slowly began to chip away at his tree again, frequently turning to gaze at the slab where his third pile was building. Nevertheless, with precise timing, I was once again able to fling the new pile of 13 pieces without him noticing.
He barked when he turned to find it missing again. He had grown angry.
"This Yuru bark!" He shrieked. "Where bark go?!"
Ruga and I snickered. Pluk's eyes were beginning to water. This was tremendous fun.
And then another idea popped into my head.
"My name is Tree!" I shouted up to him. While I spoke, I pulled on the slab rope in time with each syllable. Yuru gaped noticeably, my timing convincing enough that he thought the slab itself was speaking to him.
"Thank you for your bark!" I continued. "Very tasty. Mmmm."
Yuru was frozen completely, barely able to stammer out nonsense syllables.
"Tree is angry with Yuru! Yuru stand on Tree so long! Poke Tree with your claws! Scratch Tree with your blades!"
Yuru shook his head, placing his hands to his snout and chewing on his claws, a saddened look in his eyes.
"Now Tree is mad!" I exclaimed, resisting the urge to break into a fit of laughter. "Tree take all of Yuru's bark! Yuru must appease Tree!"
Yuru whimpered, his tail quivering and held between his legs. "Yuru sorry, Tree…"
"Yuru must bring blankets to Tree! All of Yuru's blankets. Yuru must put the blankets on Tree's roots, so Tree doesn't get cold!"
The adult sobbed loudly. "But… But Yuru… But… Tree…"
"Go!" I screeched.
He sure did go. I don't think I have ever seen anyone disappear so speedily since.
Now I was unable to resist the itch in my chest, and both I and Ruga were soon writhing on the ground, succumbing to the laughter that had been fighting to escape. Pluk tore away the rope around his snout and joined us.
"Work so good!" Ruga commented when he had finally caught his breath. "Now have so much good bark!"
I nodded. "We have enough. Let's take it all to Meeg and hope she not eat it all."
With plenty of barks clutched under our arms, we made our way happily back to the edge of the woods where Meeg was waiting, grooming her wrist blades. She seemed totally convinced that the bark we held was our own, and she even told us how well we had done, how expertly it had been cut. Once again, we had to stop Pluk from spoiling the secret with his laughter, and he continued to snicker and giggle when we returned to the woods, leaving the entire collection of bark beside the tree for Yuru to find when he came to plant blankets at its base.
With the day's lesson pretty much finished, it was time to play, something that, as kawatnoj, we did very well. I needed to pass the time before my supervisor arrived, anyway.
Today we were playing a game called Catch. We use pinecones, and Pluk had found a very large, hefty one for us to throw around. I was never the best at Catch, and Pluk, being the most athletically built of the three of us, was always able to beat us.
"Pluk throw too hard!" Ruga moaned when he failed to catch a throw that was perhaps three feet from his reach.
"Ruga too slow." Pluk countered, sticking out his long tongue and punctuating it with a laugh.
Ruga grumbled and picked up the loose pinecone. He raised his arm, pulled back, and tossed it over to me. I caught it with ease, thanks to his accurate throw.
I heard footsteps padding up behind me as I was about to launch the pinecone to Pluk. I turned to see Relk, a female of my age, smiling up at me. She was a familiar face, but only from my time with the school group. I never spent time with her outside of such locations, either due to distance or because I didn't feel the need to. She was quite short for her age, but her blades were pronounced and deep in colour, her tail lengthy and thick.
"Hello, Taku Kelmut." She squeaked.
"Hello, Relk." I mumbled.
Her appearance, and her interruption of our game, was uninteresting to me. I wanted to play my game, and wasn't in the mood to talk to near-strangers.
Relk, however, was obviously bored, and she slithered up to me, a big grin on her snout. "Taku play Catch." She noted.
"Yes, I am playing Catch." I replied, preparing once again to throw the pinecone to Pluk.
"Relk like Catch."
My throw was again interrupted, and I huffed indignantly. "Okay. I like Catch, too. So, I will play Catch with Ruga and Pluk."
Relk pushed herself in front of me, insistent. "Relk play Catch, too?"
"No," I snapped, weary of her intrusion. "This game is for me, Ragu and Pluk. You not allowed to play."
Her smile dropped instantaneously, her whole form slumping. "Why Relk not play?"
"Relk snout too big." I responded.
She put a hand over it, offended. "Relk snout not too big!"
I laughed. "It is! Your snout is as big as Meeg's belly."
Relk had had enough, and with a sad sob she sprinted away. She wouldn't be interrupting our games again for a while.
Toby retrieved me a short while later, having returned early from her duties elsewhere, when Pluk had dominated the game of Catch enough for us to give up and sit around feeding for the remaining time. When she asked me how my day of school was, I avoided telling her how I had pranked one of our fellow people and rather selfishly denied a fellow kawatnoj entry into our game. Somehow, though, I don't think my impersonation of a perfect student was convincing to her. It was as if she knew that I was up to no good, but that she didn't care. She probably didn't need to care. After all, I was just a kawatnoj, and in time I would grow up to be a sensible, mature adult.
But things that you do when you are young may have a dramatic effect on you as you age. Toby said nothing about that at first. I'm sure that she left it for me to figure out on my own.