Z'Nia imagined her mother's angry voice.
Daughter, what have you done? How could you have been so foolish?
The words echoed through her mind.
She blocked them out, filling her thoughts instead with details of the work she had to do. She built a fire below the smoke hole and let its blaze warm the cave. Then she wrapped the child in a blanket and laid him near the fire.
When she checked his wound, she found a bump the size of a walnut, still oozing blood. She stroked his forehead and sang a whisper-soft lullaby. As she did so, the sound of the wind rushed through the cave. Z’Nia paid no attention to it.
Her work finished, she sat down to rest at last. But now her mother's voice returned.
A human? Our enemy, here in our home? Z'Nia, how could you do this?
A sigh escaped Z’Nia's lips.
I am sorry, Mother, she replied. I should have listened to you. I should have remembered what happened to my ancestors.
As a child, Z’Nia had learned how the Tazsmin once lived all across the earth. In this region alone, at least five had shared the work she now did by herself. But as men invaded what was once a wilderness, they discovered the Tazsmin. Refusing her ancestors' attempts to live peacefully, men had hunted them down instead. Some of the stalkers were brown-skinned warriors with sharpened spears. Others were pale-skinned hunters whose guns roared destruction from a distance. The result was the same. The majority of the Tazsmin had been exterminated.
Worst of all, a human had killed her mother. Z’Nia would never forget that day. Horribly wounded by a hunter's bullet, Mother had dragged herself home to this cave. She lay helpless and in pain, the glow of the fire flickering across her face.
Oh, Mother, I wish I could help you, Z'Nia had cried.
The wounds were severe, and Z'Nia had not yet reached the age when her healing powers would mature.
But Mother had understood. Just before she died, she cautioned Z’Nia one last time. Never trust a human. They will track you and kill you. Always be watchful, my daughter. Always be safe.
Grief-stricken, Z’Nia had promised to obey. She still repeated that solemn promise each morning: Never trust. Be watchful. Be safe.
Today, when she'd heard the humans approaching, the memory of those warnings had driven everything else from her mind. She had been so terrified that she'd run away, not even realizing she'd taken the boy with her.
Now, Mother's voice returned, furious, accusing. It asked, Why did you bring him here? He is our enemy.
Z’Nia shared her mother's anger. She, too, resented the humans who had shortened her mother's life by decades.
But now she said only, He is a child, Mother. Just a cub.
A human cub!
But still a cub, Z'Nia said calmly.
Mother's voice became sly. I saw your lapse, daughter.
Centuries ago, the Tazsmin had broken away from less civilized neighboring tribes. They chose to give up hunting, fighting for territory, and the use of animals for food. Instead, they focused on caring for the earth and gradually became gifted healers.
Occasional backsliding into fierce, animal-like behavior was common among young Tazsmin of Z'Nia's age. A “lapse” of this kind signaled the transition into adulthood. Learning to focus her thoughts would help Z'Nia avoid such outbursts.
I will deal with it, Z'Nia said.
Alone? Mother challenged. Unheard of.
Z'Nia replied bitterly, I do everything alone. I have no choice.
She shut out the voice that now seemed unwelcome. Then she looked down at the innocent face of the sleeping child, noting again his smooth skin and his golden brown hair.
He is not repulsive, she thought. And he does not fear me.
Most humans would not have allowed the mind-link. Fewer still would have reached out to her.
Suddenly she wondered, Could I keep him?
She had lived alone for ten cycles of planting and harvest, more than half her life. With no other Tazsmin nearby, she had little hope of finding companionship. She would never have cubs of her own.
But what worried her most was that she would almost certainly die alone. No one would hear her last words or perform the Tazsmin burial rites as she had done for her mother. And her passing would mark the end of her species, at least in this region. After her death, who would protect the earth as she did now?
Z’Nia came to a decision. I will keep him.
Excited, she began planning how she could make the cave more comfortable. She would cook foods that might please the boy and weave cloth to make warm clothing for him. Most of all, she looked forward to teaching him about the history of the Tazsmin. Such a bright child should learn quickly.
A sudden movement caught her attention. The boy had awakened. He gazed at her without fear but also without love.
“Where’s my mother?” he asked.
Her excitement died abruptly. She could not keep the child. He needed to be with his own kind. He needed his parents, not her.
Mother's voice returned. You see? He does not want you.
Z’Nia thrust the voice away and linked her mind with the boy's.
You hurt your head and were away from your family, she said. I brought you here to keep you safe. But you will soon go home.
She hesitated, remembering the dangers that lay outside her cave. Picturing humans who hunted without mercy, humans with guns that so easily killed, she had to force herself to finish the message.
I will take you.
He stared at her as if considering what she’d said. Then he nodded.
Z’Nia reached out toward him, pleased that he didn't pull away. She gently lifted the hair that fell across his forehead and found a large purple bruise. The bleeding had stopped, however, and the swelling had gone down.
Does it hurt? she asked.
“A little.” He spoke aloud. Though he understood her mind-link, he couldn’t talk to her in that way.
It will get better soon, she told him.
She hummed a bit of her lullaby. The boy looked around.
“What is that noise?” he asked.
Z’Nia knew he could hear the wind, but he would not feel its breath. Yet, she ignored his question, inviting him instead to look at her home. He put one hand on the cave’s cold wall.
“Do you live here?” he asked.
The boy walked around the cave. He examined her collection of seed pods and seemed delighted by an abandoned hornet's nest. He picked up an arrowhead to get a closer view, carefully running his fingers across its chiseled surfaces.
Soon he found her wall paintings. He named each symbol. “Sun … tree … bird … deer.”
Then he came to one he didn’t know.
“What’s this?” he asked.
Amused, Z’Nia saw him pointing to her self-portrait.
That is me. Z’Nia.
“I’m James,” he replied. “Will you put my picture on your wall?”
Perhaps. After you have gone home.
Smiling, he wandered over to stare at the waterfall that blocked the entrance to the cave.
His eyes widened. “How will we get out?”
I know the way. We will go tomorrow.
“Good,” he said. He hesitated for a moment and then asked, “Why can't you talk?”
When I speak aloud, my words are not like yours, she told him. You would not understand. But I can use your words if I speak inside your head. Do you mind?
“No, it’s okay.”
He walked around the cave some more, looking into every crack and corner.
“Where are your pets?” he asked.
“Animals to play with. Like a puppy or a kitty.”
Z'Nia frowned. Had she accepted this human cub too quickly? Why would he expect her to keep pets? The idea of treating animals with such disrespect was hateful to her.
She knew what her mother would have said. Humans are all alike, even the young ones.
Z'Nia felt anger bubbling within her veins. She took a deep breath to suppress it, and the emotion dropped to a manageable level.
I have no pets, she told the boy, struggling to maintain a calm tone. Animals are not toys.
“But you said you take care of them.”
Reminding herself of his youth, she felt sure he had simply misunderstood.
I do care for them, but not as you would care for a pet. I work to keep the earth in balance. Perhaps I can show you.
“I would like to see that,” he said.
His response seemed innocent enough. Z’Nia relaxed. Her anger drained away.
She prepared a supper of potatoes she'd roasted in the fire. After he had eaten, she put the child to bed. The bruise on his forehead had faded. All that remained of his wound was an angry red mark half the length of her finger.
When you wake up tomorrow, it will be healed, she said. She crooned her song again, though she knew the words, in her language, would have no meaning for him.
This time, James sang it back to her, “Lena, sha-la loo. Nara, sha-la loo.”
He said, “That’s pretty. I like that song.”
They are my words, she told him. You would say, ‘Grow in love, grow in peace.’ My mother sang that song to me.
They exchanged a smile and sang the song together while the sound of the wind flowed around them. Then James closed his eyes.
Z’Nia sat up late, watching the firelight play across his face. Again she wished that she could keep him, but that was impossible.
How will I get him home? she wondered.
Humans would be out looking for him. Would they be looking for her, too? Would they have guns? She tensed at the thought. Then she realized only James had seen her. Still, taking him home meant going into human territory, a frightening prospect.
What should I do, Mother? she asked.
But the voice that so often haunted her thoughts now remained stubbornly silent.
Left on her own to puzzle out a solution to her problem, Z’Nia at last decided, Perhaps I can leave him where one of the searchers will find him.
That might work. But with humans combing the forest for any sign of James, she’d still have to avoid being seen. She’d made a big mistake today. The next one could be her last.
She inspected the boy’s wound one more time and found only a faint red line. Though she had never healed a human before, she felt confident she could erase even that last trace of his injury. She touched his head, feeling the warmth of her power pulsing through her fingertips.
Grow in love, James, she whispered. Grow in peace.
She hummed softly, and her song became the wind. It swelled until it filled the cave, wrapping Z’Nia and the boy in its melody.
She rested her weary head against one hand, for the act of healing the boy had sapped her energy. But she never stopped watching that faint red line. It faded, faded, and then it disappeared altogether.
You will be sorry, her mother warned.
But the wind carried her voice away. And the cave was silent.