Z’Nia woke early and saw the river settling back to its normal level. She packed food, her perfect pinecone, and an arrowhead James had admired. While he slept, she ducked through the falls and climbed to the top of the gorge. She unloaded her supplies, then returned to get the boy. James didn’t stir when she folded her pouch around him. Even the climb up the banks left him undisturbed.
No longer needing both hands for climbing, she picked up her supplies and set off. Her long, loping strides soon took her far from the waterfall. When she’d covered enough distance that James could never find the way back, she nudged him awake.
His eyes opened.
“We’re out,” he said.
Yes, we are going to find your family.
Z’Nia set him down and gave him some food. The boy smiled when he saw the pinecone and arrowhead.
I brought them for you, she said.
While James ate breakfast, Z’Nia examined the plants covering the forest floor. She fingered a drooping fern and whispered a song that was soft as a gentle breeze. The fern straightened. Its leaves furled outward, greener than before.
She moved from plant to plant, singing her song of healing and hope. She sang to the field mice and the deer, to the tiniest ants and the tallest trees.
A solitary crow settled onto a nearby branch. Aloof, it looked away from Z'Nia and preened its glossy feathers. She sang to it. The dark, glittering eyes turned toward her. She sang again, and the bird answered. Caw.
Another black bird joined the first. Now four bright eyes stared at Z'Nia.
Suddenly, she heard a voice.
“Sha-la loo,” James sang to a cricket. “Grow in love. Grow in peace.”
The cricket chirped in return.
As always, the healing lifted Z’Nia’s spirit.
You sing very well, she said.
“It’s my song. You gave it to me last night.”
Yes, I did. Now you see how I care for all living things.
“Can I help?”
You already have.
Soon, they had to move on. Noticing the crows were following them, she cautioned James to stay quiet.
“Can I whisper?” he asked.
Yes, but very softly.
From time to time, he asked questions. Z’Nia helped him identify trees and explained how birds built their nests. She was showing him a cocoon when she heard a human voice. Normally, she would have run into the forest. But today, she hesitated. She needed to know if she could trust this person.
No more talking, she said. A human is nearby. It may be a good person who will take you home. Or it may not. We will find out.
Eyes wide, James allowed her to carry him.
Z’Nia crept across the paths. Her excellent hearing told her exactly where to find the owner of this voice. Soon, she heard a second voice. She listened intently to their conversation.
Guns! They had guns!
Frightened, she moved deeper among the trees until she reached the most secret part of the forest. But even there, surrounded by the woodland she loved, fear stole her breath away.
James stared up at her. “Were they bad people?”
They have guns, she said. They might hurt the animals. Or me.
He wrapped his arms around her neck.
“I won’t let them hurt you,” he replied.
Z’Nia hesitated and then hugged him back. James would be with her for one more day. She felt joyful but guilty, too.
I am sorry, she said. We will try again tomorrow. I promise we will find the right person to take you home.
Not wanting to return to the cave behind the waterfall, Z'Nia took him to another of her shelters. He slept soundly through the night, though she remained alert. For what, she didn't know.
The next morning, she chose a roundabout route to the hillside where she’d first seen James. On the way, she pointed out vines that could be braided into rope and helped him make a six-foot length. She showed him how to use a fallen log to cross a stream.
Suddenly James pointed at something that lay on the ground. “Oh, no. Look!”
Z'Nia found an injured sparrow, still warm but scarcely breathing. She picked it up. Half a dozen crows flew over to watch as she examined it.
She wondered at their attention. Do they not trust me to care for this bird? I must prove to them I mean no harm.
Seeing the sparrow had broken its left wing, she stroked its feathers until they looked almost perfect. All the while she sang, and the sound of the wind swirled around them. At last, the bird opened its eyes and breathed normally. Z’Nia sent it soaring into the sky.
She watched it for a long time and then sat for a little while to regain her strength. The crows came nearer. The boldest of them even perched on her shoulder for a moment. Z'Nia smiled.
Finally, she began walking again. The crows wheeled slowly above them, still keeping watch.
Z'Nia had traveled miles closer to their destination when she heard a distant crack.
“What’s that?” James asked.
A gunshot, she said. The hunters are not nearby. But bullets can travel a long way.
“I won’t let them hurt you,” he said again.
Z’Nia smiled. Thank you, James. I know you would protect me if you could. But no one can stop a bullet once it has been fired.
“Not even you?”
Not even me. So now we must be extra quiet.
She moved away from the sound of gunshots, but that also took her farther from the hollow. So she circled around to approach from a different direction, all the while listening for human conversations.
Without warning, a flock of birds rose into the air, their black wings flapping noisily.
She wondered, What frightened them?
Then she heard a shout. “There!”
Z'Nia whirled. Some distance away, a hunter raised his gun and pointed it at her. An instant later, she heard a loud bang. Chips of bark flew from a tree a few feet away.
Intent on reaching the hollow, she’d allowed a human to catch her by surprise. How could she have been so stupid?
Instantly, she felt the anger burning inside her. Ancient instincts urged her to stand and fight.
And then she looked down. James stared back at her, trembling.
Worried he might feel the fierce pounding of the blood within her veins, she forced herself to breathe normally. She managed a smile. The anger began to evaporate.
Z’Nia ducked behind a tree. Already, she could hear footsteps pounding toward her.
“What was it?” someone shouted.
“Don’t know. Bear, I think. Something big, anyway.”
She ran faster than she’d ever run before. They’d hear her, she knew, but that couldn’t be helped. All her energy went into escaping this danger. Eventually, she slowed enough to take evasive actions, doubling back on her path and moving onto rocky ground that would conceal her tracks. But she didn’t rest until she and James were well away from the hunters.
Z’Nia paused, breathing hard, to look down into his face. His wide eyes and parted lips betrayed his fear.
We are safe now, she told him. But the day grows short. We must find shelter for the night.
Tears spilled down his cheeks. “You said I could go home.”
I know. Tomorrow will be better.
“I want to go home,” he whispered. He turned his face away.
That night, while James slept, Z’Nia worried. She had been careless today and had barely escaped from the hunters. Her lack of attention had endangered not only herself, but James. That must not happen again.
Just as important, however, was her concern about exposing him to her own anger. Three times she had controlled it, but she feared it would become stronger. If it did, she might be unable to master it. She might even harm James. Unwilling to risk his safety, Z'Nia promised herself she would return him to his family without delay, even if it put her in danger. Even danger from guns.
The next morning, Z’Nia took James and headed away from the hollow. She hoped they’d find help by going in a new direction. And only a few hours later, she heard a chorus of friendly voices.
She sent a message into the child’s mind. There are humans nearby. I think they may help you.
His eyes glowed with hope.
Do you trust me? she asked.
Then please listen carefully. If all goes well, you will leave me now. Say nothing about me. Can you do that?
He nodded again.
“But why?” he whispered.
Because bad men will come for me. They will shoot me or lock me up. Then there will be no one to help the birds and the animals, no one to heal the trees and plants. Promise to tell say nothing about me.
Satisfied, Z’Nia moved nearer until she could see the humans. A group of boys had camped in a clearing. All much older than James, they wore green shirts with bright-colored patches.
An adult cautioned the boys to avoid harming the plants and trees. Instead of building a fire for cooking, he said they’d use a stove to safeguard the environment.
Z’Nia liked his words. She decided she could trust this human.
He will help you, she said. And she told James what to do.
Minutes later, he walked out of the forest, alone and unharmed. In his hands, he carried a perfect pinecone and an ancient arrowhead. He walked up to the boys.
“My name is James Braden,” he said. “I’m lost, and I want to go home.”
Z’Nia watched and listened from fifty yards away. She saw James look into the forest and knew his eyes searched for her. She took care that they did not find her.
The boys seemed excited. They pulled down their tents and packed their equipment. Her vision blurred by tears, Z’Nia watched them march away. She sent James one last thought.
Good-bye. Be safe.
Then Z’Nia went back behind the waterfall. She found some pigments and painted a picture of James on the wall of her cave. It showed him smiling and holding her hand.
I’ll never forget you, she said.
Somewhere outside, quite far away, a gunshot echoed. Z’Nia stiffened.
Would James keep his promise? She thought he would try. But could such a tiny cub understand what she’d asked him to do? Would he remember? Had he told someone about her already?
Bang! Another gunshot, a little closer.
A crow responded with a mournful cry.
The sound seemed to pierce her soul. Z'Nia felt her fury ignite once more, stronger than ever. She sprang to her feet, prepared for any assault. A low growl exploded from the depths of her throat and echoed through the cave.
Her eyes widened in shock. One hand flew to her mouth, as if she might somehow swallow that awful cry. She felt confused. Ashamed.
This is wrong, she thought. Why is this happening to me? I cannot- I must not-
But she couldn't seem to form the words she needed.
I thought you said you could handle this, Mother's voice reminded her.
Z'Nia gasped from the effort of trying to focus. How can I meditate if I cannot think? Tell me what to do.
But her mother offered no advice.
Z'Nia sank onto her knees before the fire. She looked up at the pictures on the wall, mentally naming each one.
Sun … tree … bird … deer.
Finally, she saw a picture of herself holding the hand of a small human child. And it was there she found her focus.
She began to chant, I am a Tazsmin, perhaps the last of my species. I care for the earth and all of its creatures. I am a Tazsmin, perhaps the last of my species-
Z’Nia banked the fire, her hands trembling. She repeated her chant over and over until the urge for conflict finally passed. Then she sat in the shadows, wearily listening to the hunters closing in and wondering if they would find her today.