“Who goes there?!” Two well-armed guards stood on either side of a broad path. Several of the villagers were cautiously walking up the path toward the guards, curious about the strangers.
Trunk of Tree cleared his throat, but he hadn’t thought about what to say.
Fleet of Foot began to answer, “We are Veritas. From the Center Place of the Veritas. Near the once-forgotten Field of Flowers. I am called “Fleet of Foot” and this man is called “Trunk of Tree” — you can probably see why. This woman is named Cat Eyes. She was born here, but stolen at a young age. Now, she returns to see her family.”
The guards both frowned. It was a lot to take in. Behind the guards, the crowd began murmuring and passing along the information.
One of the guards began, “We are Veritas. I am Throws Far and this is Tree Climber. Our ancestors lived near the once-forgotten Field of Flowers. We have tried many times to send a party back to the Center Place but no-one has ever gotten through. Come and meet our leader. Follow me. Wait. Why do you have horses?”
Trunk of Tree began to answer, “We — I don’t really like horses anyway. They are too big.”
Fleet of Foot added, “We have very little experience with horses. They just came into our possession recently. It is a long tale, but we will tell all your people. Cat Eyes wishes…”
Cat Eyes put her hand on her chest. “I am Cat Eyes. I smell spicebush tea.” Tears ran down her cheeks though she reined in her breathing so that she could continue speaking. “I thought I would never find my way back here. Do you know my parents, Gathers Acorns and Of the Night?”
The guards exchanged looks. Throws Far said, “Your parents? I know them. I knew them. They left to find you. We have not heard from them. We assume…we think…it’s likely that the fell into the hidden holes in the Ice Mountain. But how did you get here without going over Ice Mountain?”
A beautiful lanky youth with long ebony hair pushed her way through the growing crowd. “Cat Eyes? Is that really you?” She walked right up and looked into the teary eyes. “Oh! Cat Eyes! It is you! I am your cousin, Blackberry Patch!” Blackberry Patch gently took the hand of Cat Eyes into her own and led her along the path to the Fire Circle. Cat Eyes stared around. The Fire Circle looked familiar though vastly smaller than she remembered. There was a cliff of brown stone which she remembered but there were many … rooms … in the cliff which she did not remember at all. “It’s nice to meet you, Blackberry. I don’t. But I’m sorry I don’t remember you.”
“I remember you! You were quite a … you were always…do you remember playing ‘Hide and Find’ with me?”
Cat Eyes kept casting her eyes about to try to find things that looked familiar. She looked back at Blackberry and then over to the brown cliff. She pointed, “I think we played there … in the … tunnels. But it looks all different.”
Blackberry Patch nodded. “Oh, yes! We have been excavating. We’ve found out —- there used to be — we’ve found many things of the ancients! But never mind that. Let me introduce you to the others. We never thought you would be found. After your parents … we’ve never made it out of these mountains. The mountain of ice is now very unsafe. Much of it is mud and where there is ice, there are hidden cliffs. We stopped trying. But some people think that there might be a tunnel in the ancient places in the cliff. Here.”
Although Blackberry Patch spoke directly to Cat Eyes, everyone who could get close enough was listening. The rumor had now spread throughout the village that strange visitors had come and that one of their own had returned. Nearly everyone in the village had heard the story of Cat Eyes and most of the adults in the village remembered her specifically because of her oddly shaped pupils. They all had to wriggle themselves close enough so that they could verify that this was indeed the one who had disappeared. The people stopped their normal activities and crowded around. Many questions were asked but confusion reigned until the man who was obviously their leader came solemnly among them. His voice boomed low and loud, cutting through the din.
“WELCOME! WELCOME! Oh, long lost of the Veritas! And Welcome, Oh, Welcome to the daughter of Gathers Acorns and Of the Night, whom we all well regard and remember. Oh, daughter of our tribe, Welcome, She with the Eyes of the Cat! Please, take this seat of honor and introduce us to your friends!” Gentle Talons, their leader, gestured grandly toward a beautifully made blanket. Cat Eyes nodded and began to walk over to her place.
Trunk of Tree, who had remained silent during their walk into the village now seemed to find his voice. “I am Trunk of Tree and the leader of our small group.” He began to walk toward the place where Cat Eyes was about to sit. Fleet of Foot, put a strong hand on the shoulder of Trunk of Tree and said, “Not now. It will be more powerful if she introduces you.” After noting the hesitation in Trunk of Tree, he added, “Just as their leader was not the first but the last to arrive. See?”
Trunk of Tree relented. Cat Eyes, sat down gracefully and gestured to her companions. How on earth should she — could she — tell this tale? Everyone was looking at her and I don’t know what to say. The image of Many Paths flashed into her mind and she decided she would pretend to be Many Paths — or her own version of Many Paths. “Come friends, and sit near me. We have many tales to tell each other. But I will begin with the basics. First, I am overwhelmed with happiness to be here and I am overwhelmed with grief to hear that Mom and Dad disappeared. I remember much about this place, but the brown cliffs have changed much, I see. Let me introduce my friends and traveling companions. I have not known any of them very long, but we have become good friends and I can vouch for them all.
“This strong man has been the leader of our expedition. You may easily guess why he has that name.” She smiled. She looked at the people. Everyone could see that she spoke the truth from her own heart. “This man on the other side is known as ‘Fleet of Foot’ and, as you might expect, he is a very fast runner. But he is also a fast thinker, and quite diplomatic. She smiled at him and then at the crowd. “That man Jaccim is our expert on horses. The Veritas have adopted him. He saved my life at least twice and possibly more. He is still learning our language. He knows of, and led us here via, a tunnel passage that does not require crossing the treacherous ice mountain.
“The man next to him is visiting the Veritas. They call him Lion Slayer because, indeed, he actually did slay a lion single-handedly. He, and his wife, Salah Hudah, are from the Great Tribe of Southern Nomads. They aided us in a great war which, I have no doubt, you will be interested to learn more about at another time. Lastly, there is me. I was born here. And, I lived here for a time. I was stolen away and taken somewhere that I now know to be a village of the Z-Lotz. And, my name is Cat Eyes.” She paused, winked and added, “Though I have no idea why I bear that odd name.”
The crowd chuckled appreciatively. When that died down, Cat Eyes continued.
“There are many fine stories to share and we hope to do just that. We brought, Trunk of Tree, tell to our brothers beyond the twin peaks what we have brought.”
Trunk of Tree shook his head. He frowned for a moment and then remembered that they had brought gifts. “Yes. Yes! We have brought you some … gifts. They are …” In a panic, he suddenly realized that he didn’t know, but Fleet of Foot had been carrying the bag of gifts and handed the cinnamon to Trunk of Tree. “Cinnamon. This smells very nice in cooking. And, we brought … “ Trunk of Tree took the next gift. He studied it for a moment and then stared at Fleet of Foot. “Fleet of Foot, can you tell what these pretty stones are?”
Fleet of Foot took one of the slices of mica and turned it this way and that so that people in the crowd could judge its shininess. “This is mica and we are still learning about it. But if you take a very thin slice you can see right through this rock and yet it is still rock. It keeps out the wind and the bugs from one side to the other. It is sharp but not much use for a weapon. Although…” Fleet of Foot paused for just a split second, unsure whether to let people in on the unique weapons they were preparing. “Who knows? It might be useful to make a bridge that looks strong but would break when stepped on, for instance.”
Someone asked, “How did you discover mica?”
Trunk of Tree looked panicked for a moment. He had no idea. But Cat Eyes, spoke up instead. “That is an excellent question. And, when everyone tells our story, you will find that answered. We must hear the story from end to end. And there are more gifts, but I must tell you some critical things first.”
“The first one, and perhaps obvious is that there is another path. You are no longer confined to these mountainsides. It might be that a few of you would venture back to meet your cousins near the forgotten field of flowers.” She paused, waiting for the murmuring to subside.
“Second, the Z-Lotz have things that we never dreamed of. They have devised a ‘Killing Stick’ which kills a person without touching them. They point the ‘Killing Stick” at their victim and there is a loud noise and a bright flash and the victim begins to bleed profusely.”
This time the murmuring did not die down until Gentle Talon’s booming voice echoed off the walls. “Let her finish!”
Cat Eyes sighed. She took a deep breath. “And last, perhaps most importantly of all, the Z-Lotz have a way to … they think something and say it. But when they say it, or perhaps only think it, they make a mark on a piece of thin beech bark. Then, later, someone else can come and look at that mark and imagine what was said. They can hear it softly whispered even though no mouth is nearby.”
This time, the crowd did not react with murmuring. There was dead silence. She reached into the bag of gifts and pulled out the small bit of bark with odd marks and thrust it in the air. “This is what it looks like. The marks are from sign language. But they are only the first sound of that word. I know it’s difficult to understand, but … “
Another voice rang out. “I told you! I told you! “
Now, the murmuring began and swelled as people who understood this concept of the written word and began to successfully explain it to their friends.
The voice of Gentle Talons boomed out again. “As foretold! She is the one! She brings light to the tunnel of ignorance! Welcome home, O lost child!”
Cat Eyes shook her head. What are they talking about, she wondered. There was a children’s story about a lost child who came back to lead her … people … through a long tunnel into the light. Great Bear in the Sky!! That’s just a legend. Do they think I am a prophesy? A leader? A Goddess?
Cat Eyes tried to make her voice heard above the din. “Wait! Wait! I am not a leader or a prophesy. I am just me. I am just … one of you who was stolen but was lucky enough to return.”
Gentle Talons bellowed, “Did you not come through a tunnel of darkness into the light to arrive here?”
Cat Eyes said, “Yes. But so did they.” She gestured to remind people of her companions.
Gentle Talons continued, “But you are the only one who left and then returned!”
Cat Eyes nodded. “True. But I have no idea what ignorance you are talking about.”
Gentle Talons looked lovingly at Cat Eyes and said gently, yet loud enough for everyone to hear, “Is it not obvious, my child? You have brought us the light of knowledge! Once we began excavating the cliffs, we found many tunnels of darkness lined with row after row of strange boxes filled with such leaves as you’ve shown us. All are marked with these same strange markings. But until now, we have never had the light to enable us to understand a single mark. And now we do. You have brought us that light of understanding! Welcome, oh, child of light! Welcome home!”
Cat Eyes took a deep breath to try to calm herself. She felt so many conflicting emotions that she felt for a moment that she would be overwhelmed, not knowing which was her true feeling. And, suddenly, it occurred to her that her feelings were all real. It was not a contest or a race. It was a rainbow to embrace. Her grief about her parents not being here in no way meant she couldn’t feel nervous about what was expected of her or her pride of having spoken well. Nor did the red of the rainbow mean that the green did not exist. In fact, each color made the other colors that much more beautiful. Sometimes I glance at the red and sometimes I glance at the blue or the green. Sometimes the earth sleeps beneath a blanket of snow. And, sometimes it bakes in the hot summer sun. My own feelings change, more slowly than my eyes can dart from color to color, but much more quickly than the seasons turn. And, that is just natural; that is just nature.
Of course, Cat Eyes saw all this in a more visual way; images superimposing themselves upon each other until a balance was reached — an acceptance of a balance between being in control of and responsible for one’s actions — while at the same time feeling the ever-changing flow of one’s heart and just accepting that all of it is nature. All of it is just natural. It was okay for her to feel that she wanted nothing so much as to go back to the Veritas she knew and spend the rest of her days there and also to feel that she never wanted to leave this place ever again. It was even more beautiful than she had remembered it. And, she did know enough about decoding the marks that she could lead them to understand what those many boxes of marks meant. It is okay to feel these things. But in the end, my body can only be in one place at a time. It had better be where I want the heart of my hearts to be.
Cat Eyes smiled and asked gently, “Do you suppose I could share some of your spicebush tea? You might like to try it with some cinnamon.” Cat Eyes felt something shift inside her. She was home and being home and knowing it was all real somehow healed something deep inside her. She was alive. She had survived so much. She realized that she would now be — and always had been — home no matter where her body stood. Someone thrust a warm mug of spicebush tea into her hands. She inhaled both the fragrant spicebush from her childhood and the exotic and novel cinnamon as well. She was home. Home. And — better — she realized that she always would be.