I’m walking through the forest, or at least I think it’s me. I’m low to the ground, and I feel the cool dirt beneath my feet. Am I down on all fours? I look down, and I see short, light orange, and gray fur. Am I an animal now? I walk around in circles and notice I have a tail: big, fluffy, and gray that looks way better than Baolarah’s. I’ll tell her that later, wait. I don’t look like this. What do I look like?
I almost make it there, but I get distracted by a smell. Is it food? It’s soft and pleasant like the berries I pick, but there’s something more to it—only one way to find out. I follow the scent, and I come to a part of the forest that I haven’t ventured to before. I can’t focus too much on being lost because noise makes my ears perk up. I turn, and I see people not too far from me, picking berries. Are these the people from the village? They look kind of like Mother but not really. Are these the women from the village? The elders were right; if everyone else looks like them, then I’d stand out. One thing’s for sure; they’re younger than her.
I move to get a little closer and don’t realize how close I’m getting since I’m mesmerized by their long dark hair. My focus is on their brown and tanned skin, almost as smooth as the undisturbed ground between us. I wonder if it feels as cool. By now, I’m so close they have to know that I’m here. One of them turns once she notices me and smiles. At this point, I couldn’t move even if I wanted to, whether I wanted to retreat or get closer. All I can see are big brown eyes staring into mine. Have I seen these eyes before? I know that I haven’t seen any of these women before, but these eyes are taking up all of my mind, and they feel like they’re all I’ve ever looked at and all I ever want to look at. She reaches out a hand and touches me.
Warm. I close my eyes and fall into it. I never want to leave this moment. I wish I could always look at these eyes and feel this warmth. Maybe I can find her when I go to the village.
When I open my eyes, I see the yellowish-orange streaks of sunrise peeking through the trees. It’s a little early, so the sun isn’t as high yet. As I’m waiting for my eyes to adjust to the light coming in, I feel something wet and rough on my hand. Squinting, I look down, and I see Baolarah licking my hand. Someone must be feeling better.
“What have I told you about coming into my room?” I scratch behind her ears, and she rubs against my hand and purrs.
I can’t get used to this newfound attention. How did she get in here anyway? Mother usually doesn’t let her in the house. She’s too big to be inside without getting in the way even if she had space in my room before I got here. I don’t have time to shoo her away, and if I step on her paw or something, then it’ll be her fault.
“Move, I need to get ready.” I look down and take more than a passing glance at her. Her wounds are all pretty much healed, only faded red scars in patches of fur that are missing.
“You have almost as much hair as that old guy from the village.” I struggle to get it out because I’m laughing so hard. I touch her nose, and she swipes at me and goes to sit under the table.
“Hey! Is that any way to treat someone who saved your life?” She turns her head and ignores me.
Well, that didn’t last long.
I wash up with this water we suddenly have, and I’m trying not to get annoyed at the useless errand I was sent on all over again. Finishing up and pulling down my shirt, I walk back toward my room to make sure I didn’t forget anything. Do I need to bring anything? And what do I need to do with my hair? The elders all had their hair up, and Maeren had his tied low, so should I also keep mine low? I don’t want to get on their bad side before they even get to know me, but I don’t want to try and be like Maeren. I’m sure my hair doesn’t look as good tied low, and if I keep it out, it’ll be a massive puff by midday if it gets too hot. I can’t look a mess on the first day I meet these people. And it’s not like I know what is and isn’t acceptable where they live. I tie my hair up halfway and feel to make sure no curls have gotten out. I smooth it down as best I can and head out. Just as I get past the table, the door opens. Mother walks in with two plates in her hands.
“Why are you up so early?” I ask as she hands one of them to me. She places the other one under the table for Baolarah, who is still pouting.
“I couldn’t let you leave without eating anything,” she says. “And I wanted to see you off before you left.”
I hastily eat without sitting down. It’s starting to settle in that I’m going, and I’m too nervous to sit down. I shift my feet while I’m eating, and I suddenly realize what I’m forgetting. I was so busy worrying about my hair that I forgot to put on shoes.
“Are you ok?”
“Yea just forgot something.” I finish my food and hurry back to my room. I get the shoes and come back out. “I think I’m ready to go now.”
She looks down and laughs. She is so cruel.
I roll my eyes and head to the door. She puts her hand out and catches mine.
“What? I don’t want to be late. The sun is pretty much up now.”
“I know, just…be careful. Remember everything I told you about yesterday. Try not to stand out too much and if they ask too many questions, look to Denchi or Maeren. And if you feel uncomfortable, you can always come home.” She squeezes my hand and gives me a soft smile.
“I know, I know. I don’t think they’ll be bad unless they’re all like Maeren and his father,” Seriously, they’re the worst. “But I’m sure I can handle myself, and it’s only for the day.”
“Go on then, I’m sure Maeren is waiting for you,” She’s full-on grinning now. Never mind that I’m venturing out for the first time, and I’m so nervous that my stomach is on fire.
I give one final wave and walk through the clearing and to the edge toward the dense trees. I look back once the house is in the far distance. I’m going through with this. The farther I walk, the more nervous I get as reality sets in. I keep going over what Mother has told me on how to act, and I’m thinking of questions to ask once I get there.
What do they do day to day?
What do they eat?
How many are there?
This is too much to keep up with, and my head is starting to hurt.
The elders must regularly come through the forest, and there is a slightly more worn path. I’m surprised no one has wandered to where we live, considering. But I’m also not because I’ve been walking for what feels like forever, and the trees are just as thick. And there’s no shore anywhere. I can’t even smell any water yet. Am I sure I want to meet these people? This is a lot of work. I’ve already gotten to a part of a forest that I’ve never been to before. I’m trying to focus on staying on the path, but I can’t help but look around. The height of the trees, the smell of the flowers, the sound of the insects, the thin slivers of the sun heating my back…have I been here before?
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