NINE YEARS AGO
Stay away from the humans.
That’s what Mother would have said.
Z’Nia knew what would happen if even one of them saw her.
Mother had warned again and again: They will track you, and they will kill you. Daughter, you must stay away from them.
Z’Nia had always obeyed. Until today. Today, she was drawn toward danger like a honeybee to sweet nectar. From far off, she had heard the low pitch of an adult male, the higher tone of his mate, and several voices that were shrill and noisy. The humans had brought their young, and Z’Nia wanted to see them.
She moved closer, carefully planting each step on solid rock. She knew a single loose pebble could skitter down the hillside and give her away.
No one will hear me, she promised herself.
Nor would she let them see her. Her appearance would startle them, at the very least. Thick reddish-brown hair covered her body, all but her face, her hands, and her long-toed feet. And when she stretched to her full height, she could tower over most bears. Mother had once called her beautiful. But humans would not agree.
They attack out of fear, her mother had said. And they fear anyone who looks different.
Z’Nia felt certain the humans would fear her.
She was a Tazsmin, perhaps the last of her kind. Though she'd lived alone since her mother's death some years before, she often imagined Mother at her side. Within her mind, Z'Nia replayed their old conversations. She pretended to hear Mother's voice each morning, reminding her of work to be done. If Z'Nia needed advice, Mother offered that, too. And when the loneliness seemed almost unbearable, Mother's imagined presence eased the pain. A little.
Yet, Z'Nia sometimes felt a longing that she didn't understand. She knew only that today it drove her to spy on the humans, something her mother would never have allowed.
So when Mother's voice warned her once more to stay away, Z'Nia defiantly answered, I can take care of myself.
She moved in a low crouch, gliding from one shadow to the next, until she could see them. Two adults and three children. A family. Perhaps, like her, they’d wanted to be outdoors after a week of rainy days. And so they had climbed to this beautiful spot.
It was really just a meadow. In summer it would have been filled with wildflowers, though few remained this late in the autumn. The grassy field was surrounded by gentle hills that stretched upward to meet the sky. For anyone standing in the meadow, the slopes would cut off all view of the outside world. They would transform this ordinary meadow into a secret place. A private place. A hollow within the hills.
It is perfect, Z'Nia thought.
She hid among the boulders that crowned the eastern ridge. From there she could observe and listen, her back warmed by the late morning sun.
She watched with interest as the adult male led two of his young to the center of the field. He threw a round object toward them, and one of the children tried to hit it with a club.
Is it a game? Z’Nia wondered.
Long-forgotten memories crowded her mind: her mother tossing seed pods, Z’Nia chasing after them. This might be similar play, she decided.
Z'Nia saw the adult female spread a blanket, set out food, and tend to her youngest cub. Then the woman called the others to join her, and they began sharing a meal.
Z’Nia’s mouth watered as the wind brought the scent of apples.
Mother and I shared apples, too, she remembered.
But apples would not satisfy the hunger she felt today. It was companionship she wanted, not food.
She remained still, her eyes darting back and forth to view the scene below. She had often watched humans from a distance but had ventured this close only once before. That time, when she was a cub herself, a young boy had seen her hiding near a forest path.
“Monkey!” he had cried.
His parents had laughed, thinking he’d made a joke.
Later, Z’Nia’s mother had explained the boy’s mistake. Z’Nia had laughed, too, at the notion of humans confusing the highly developed Tazsmin with a monkey. But she also learned a lesson that day. She learned to avoid being seen.
Human cubs can be dangerous, her mother had warned.
She had explained about their sharp eyesight and curious minds. While adult humans usually ignored what they could not understand, Mother believed their children still had a sense of wonder. And like the boy on the forest path, they wouldn’t hesitate to call attention to something out of the ordinary.
Z'Nia remembered her Mother's advice.
Be wary of all humans, she'd said. And that includes their young.
The buzz of a passing insect snapped Z’Nia’s thoughts back to the present. She frowned at her carelessness.
I must remain alert, she scolded herself.
She was squatting uncomfortably behind the largest boulder on the hilltop. It concealed most but not quite all of her over-sized body. She was relieved to see neither of the adult humans looking her way. The two older children hadn't noticed her either. Unfortunately, the smallest one did.
Head cocked to one side, he stared at her boulder. His gaze traveled past it and then returned. She froze. Smiling, he looked toward his parents. As he did so, Z'Nia slid behind the rock. Surely this tiny cub would think he had imagined her.
Z’Nia could no longer see the family in the hollow below. She might have crept away. Certainly, that's what Mother would have advised. But a wave of stubbornness swept over her.
I will not leave until I am ready, she thought. I want to know more about these humans.
Even to herself, Z'Nia found it hard to admit her true motive. What she really wanted was to hear the playful cries that brought memories of her own childhood.
She closed her eyes, leaned back against the rock, and imagined being part of a family again. Lost in the welcome images, she soon forgot about staying alert.
And then something startled her. A low sound, not threatening in itself, but unfamiliar. Her eyes flew open. Without turning her head, she let her gaze slide to the left, then to the right. Apart from a single crow scrabbling for seeds among the rocks, nothing within her field of vision had changed.
The sound came again, a soft chuckle, much like the song of a gurgling brook.
Alarmed, she whipped her head to the side and stared into a pair of bright blue eyes. There, within touching distance, stood the smallest of the human cubs.
He laughed aloud.
Z’Nia shrank back, rigid with fright. A human had found her.