Once upon a time there was a child who lived all alone in the middle of a deep, deep forest. They called themself 'I'. I loved watching all the living things around them, plant or animal.
In years of careful observation they had learned exactly what kind of spot the seeds of haircap moss needed to grow, what pattern the emperor dragonflies followed in their mating dance,
and with which gestures momma fox told her cubs to pay attention before she showed them a new hunting technique. Likewise, the animals had observed I, and were familiar with their habits.
Thus the inhabitants of the forest had created an unspoken agreement of sorts, a silent companionship that ensured nothing strange or unsettling happened in their lives.
Sometimes, however, when I ventured too close to the borders of the forest, they came across a group of animals they couldn’t make sense of, no matter how long they watched.
These animals looked a lot like I themself did, but they didn’t behave like them at all.
They were loud. Not loud like wolves howling in the night to announce their positions to the rest of the pack. Not loud like birds chirping their mating tune for hours on end. Just… loud.
They didn’t observe. I was baffled at how little the animals seemed to notice or care when they disrupted the careful balance of the forest. They were strangers here.
They were inconsistent too. Usually, it took I only a few months to understand the meanings of most of the common motions and sounds an animal used to communicate.
These ones, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have any structure at the base of their interactions.
Whenever I thought they had pinned down what the strangers meant by a certain sound, gesture, or tone of voice, one of them acted in a way that disproved I’s assumptions.
On top of that, they didn’t seem to do things for a reason. They climbed trees, but didn’t take anything from the top. They picked plants, but didn’t eat them.
They chased animals and threw snow and built heaps out of sticks and none of it served any apparent purpose.
That made them dangerous.
If an action had a purpose, it was predictable. The bee wanted nectar so she would be in the flowers between I’s feet. The wolf wanted food so he would roam close to the deer trails at night.
As long as I didn’t get between an animal and its purpose, they were safe. But if they didn’t know what the animal’s purpose was… well, then they couldn’t be sure they were out of the way.
Which meant they were potentially in danger.
They also couldn’t know what the animal would do and when, which made it impossible to structure their own life in such a way that there were no collisions between them and the creature.
It meant having to be on edge and alert all the time. It was exhausting.
One day, I wasn’t alert enough. One of the strange animals noticed them while they were digging for roots and mushrooms.
It looked at I, who froze, hoping it would leave once it saw they weren’t a threat.
But the stranger turned around and called something to the others, and soon all five of the creatures had formed a circle around I.
One of them made a sequence of noises that seemed to be directed at I, but when they didn’t reply it quickly turned back to the others.
In the end, the strangers took I with them to their dens at the edge of the forest.
I didn’t know why, but they did notice that the sounds the animals used to try and communicate with them were the same ones they used to talk to each other,
suggesting that they saw I as one of them. Their motions, however, changed in I’s presence, and I couldn’t figure out why.
Time passed. The strangers kept I with them and taught them of words and phrases.
I listened and learned and soon knew the meaning of every word, but that wasn’t enough; they still couldn’t make sense of their hosts.
Sometimes, the motions they made matched the words they said. Sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes the tone matched the words or the motions, or both, or neither.
Some people didn’t make any motions at all, or made them differently, or said the same thing in five different ways. Sometimes words didn’t seem to mean what they were supposed to mean.
It was confusing and frustrating and made I’s head hurt.
What was more, even with that basic understanding of language that I possessed, they still couldn’t detect a purpose behind a lot of the things the strangers said and did.
They were affectionate to some people but aggressive to others, and sometimes changed that for no apparent reason.
They also talked for hours without conveying any meaningful information, but didn’t communicate things that would have been useful for the other person to know.
I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, no matter how long they stood apart and watched.
And stand apart they did. No matter how often the people told I that they belonged with them, their actions never seemed to support that.
And of course the fact that I didn’t recognise themself in the strangers’ behaviour at all didn’t do much to make them feel at home in the village either.
They missed the safety and structure of the forest and the simple but loyal companionship of the animals.
I waited. And one day, they were gone.
By the time the strangers noticed their absence, I was already passing through familiar territory, delighted to find that everything was still the same as when they left.
Not unchanged, exactly, but changed according to the rules. A big oak had fallen and the colony of ants who owned this territory had made it their home.
One supple young birch now stood where before there had been a thicket of shoots. An old vixen rested in a sunny spot near an empty den, her cubs long grown.
When I passed she raised her head and acknowledged their presence with the flick of an ear.
I smiled. Everything was predictable. Familiar. Safe. They were home.