Chapter 28: Into the Clouds
The days passed by, drawn out to tedious length. Seasons were subtle in the jungle. It was a paradoxical place, a setting of flourishing life and explosive growth, and yet lost in time, a place where each day was another hot, humid one, filled with droning insects and still air.
To a young nicheling with nothing to do but eat, sleep, and count the days, this timeless time became unbearable. Despite the dangers waiting beyond the camp's scent markers, word of the river drew the tribe out to investigate. Like Yuki, none of them had seen a waterfall before. Anameis had been right that its discovery would not heal any rifts between Kois and Laana, but for the rest of the tribe it could not have come at a better time. They had been confused, unsure where they stood and how much of the ground had been dug away from beneath them. The waterfall sparked their imaginations and gave them something to follow. At once they felt small in the presence of such a wonder of nature, yet drawn as nichelings are to explore, investigate, and understand. Yuki, of course, followed along. The others expected it of him, and it saved him from the other goings-on within the tribe.
Fear had gripped him at first that they would chase Laana off, or worse that she would slip away of her own inclination, following her guilt. But she remained, though she built her nests on the edge of camp and the other showed their claws and teeth when she walked by. Finding the falls had redeemed her in this small way, and Kois stepped in before the growls and snarls turned into anything physical. But their interactions stayed short and curt, and even Yuki's bad eyes could not miss the flattened ears and flexing claws when they talked. Once, he saw them speaking with low and serious voices, but he was too far away to make out the words, and he had lost his inclination for listening in - every time he did, something terrible happened. Instead he crouched in the grass and followed their conversation by tone and posture. There were no raised voices. Both nichelings had gone beyond shouts, and occupied a calm yet grey land where the only thing to do was speak their thoughts. They parted ways having never noticed Yuki shivering in the undergrowth. He understood a truce had been called, but in the days that followed he was torn between nests, and when he sat with one, he thought of the other, alone.
At least there was still time for fun when Anameis was around. One time, Yuki spotted a trail of insects marching across the camp. He had never seen such a thing, and was none the wiser when Anameis told him they were termites, so he could not resist following to see where they came from. He marvelled at how insects the size of his claws could keep up a perfect line so many nicheling lengths through the forest, over stone and root and earth. When they found the termite's hill, he thought Anameis was joking when she told him they built it. How could insects build a giant stone two nicheling lengths tall? If nichelings could do that, they'd have no need of him to find the mountains - they could build their own! He touched his paw to its grainy side, and saw the holes where the miniscule builders poured in and out. Anameis' interest was a little more immediate - she tried to lick up some of the termites, only to get bitten on the nose, but no sooner had she yelped than she rolled around laughing, and so did Yuki. This must be what it was like to have a big sister, he thought, one who was bold and funny and knew all sorts of interesting things about the world. Was that how Laana saw Reko, when they were young?
But Laana had known Reko all her life, and Anameis was a mystery in Yuki's life, with one paw in the world of adults where he still feared to tread. He had a rudimentary understanding of the meaning of 'rogue-born', but his tribe had not seen a rogue in many generations. In his imagination they were sinister, monstrous nichelings who stalked tribes and stole away those who wandered too far, like land-bound bluebirds. He'd heard plenty of variations of "if you go out there, the rogues will get you!" in his short life. Sometimes they were called the followers of Tata, but that didn't make sense, because Tata wasn't bad, and he knew that deep inside his gem. But if Anameis was the child of such a creature, what did that mean? He was afraid to ask, and Anameis said no more about it.
No matter what he did or did not understand, Yuki found himself pulled closer and closer to that complex world of adulthood. No matter what he wanted, it dragged him away like being pulled out of a soft, warm nest on a cold day. At times he felt his chest, where his second gem would start to grow before emerging, but he found nothing. Still he checked every day, when the whispers grew in his ears. Once it was there, maybe everything would make sense.
Four or five days - Yuki lost count - had passed since the discovery of the falls. Midday's heat found the tribe lying listless, tails and ears twitching. Yuki lay flat out on the ground, watching a beetle the size of his paw trundle around in the red dirt. Its enormous, pronged mandibles swung open, its long antenna searching for prey. From the perspective of the termites Yuki had encountered with Anameis, he thought the beetle must be ferocious as a bearyena, or even an ape, and he lost himself for a while in an imagined kingdom of insects, hidden under leaf and stone and root, where even a one-gem like himself would appear as a vast snowy mountain, more a part of the land than a living creature.
"Yukiiii!" A shadow fell over him, and the beetle scurried away. Yuki looked up to see Kuku standing over him, Prinu at his side. "You want to come to the falls?"
"He's only coming because he knows Rara will be there." Prinu gave his cousin an affectionate headbutt on his big digger's paw.
Kuku gave him a playful cuff in return. "Can I help it if she's fierce and beautiful?"
"I'll come along!" Yuki looked back at Kois. She sat by the camp boundaries, her great paws stretched out before her. Laana was out of sight again, likely off looking for berries. She rarely rested in the daylight any more, even when there was nothing to do.
"I'll come too."
Kuku and Prinu looked over their shoulders at what Yuki saw in front of him. Donnu slowly walked up to the little group, his head low and ears slightly flattened, but his eyes firm and intent. A row of fresh pink skin down his flank was the only trace of the bearyena's attack after Anameis' healing fruit did its work.
"You want to go?" Kuku said.
"I'm the only one who hasn't seen the waterfall." Donnu scuffed a paw in the dirt. "And I... I don't want to be afraid any more. I want to see it too. Can't we all go?"
Kuku's initial hesitation died off fast when it dawned on him he'd have a fresh face to show off the falls and all his discoveries to. Meanwhile Yuki told Kois about his plans, and when she was satisfied he had a safe escort, they set off.
Yuki had been down this path several times over the last few days, and all its little quirks and features were by now familiar sights and smells. Even if he hadn't known it, the smell of nichelings and their pawprints in the dirt told him the way. Most importantly, the strongest of the tribe had cleared out the dangerous plants. He had wondered more than once if Laana's confession altered their fortunes, and this relative safely was their reward.
Donnu, though, had never seen this path before, and he jumped and startled at every new sight and sound. He kept close to Yuki, shadowing the more confident cub. "Yuki?" he said. "I'm sorry I was scared of you before."
"When-oh." Yuki remembered the twin's wariness around him after Laana's first encounter with the vine, as though they thought he'd brought judgement on the tribe. Did they fear Laana now instead? But he wagged his tail in acknowledgement of the apology. "It's fine."
"It's not - it's my own fault. I've always been scared." Despite his two gems, Donnu was only slightly taller than Yuki himself, and his low, scurrying posture did nothing for his perceived size. "I didn't even want to go to a new island. But Prinu did, and I didn't want him to go without me. And Kuku kept talking about how Yuki always travels with twins, and you know how he is." He punctuated his comment with a quiet yet amused purr. "I was just going with them, following what they did, you know? But then..." He looked back over the new pink skin that marked the bearyena's bite. "It's funny. I should be even more scared now. But now something bad's happened to me, nothing else seems scary any more. And I don't want to be scared any more, or just follow along. I want to see what's out there. What's it going to do that it hasn't already done?"
But despite his newfound bravado, Donnu's old habits took over again when he shrunk back at the sound of the falls, until Yuki ran forward to show him there was nothing to fear. In truth he still didn't like to come close to the slippery cliff edge, but as long as he kept away from there, he'd found he enjoyed exploring the gorge. After days of heavy jungle heat, the spray was a blessed cool relief, and the cliffs beside the falls contained enough hiding places to keep a young nicheling happy for days on end.
He left Donnu to his exploring, and Kuku to show off to a bored looking Rara, who had been patrolling the cliffs. He tried to listen in, but their voices were dulled by the waterfall's roar, a sound far louder than it should be, and he drifted away to sniff at moss growing on the cliffs that rose up into misty heights. Rearing up on his hind legs, Yuki tested his footing upon the lower ledges. By now, Kuku's voice had become a distant murmur. A new voice spoke to him now, a chorus whispering in his ear upon the verge of hearing. It was the waterfall, he told himself. It was only the waterfall, its thunder coalescing into what he mistook for words urging him upwards to the snow.
Looking up, he recalled the cliffs back home in the cove. Those had been dark rock, strewn with seaweed upon their lower reaches. Here they were formed of white limestone, and ferns and vines grew wherever they could cling to even the tiniest of footholds. But they were alike in so many ways - rough and craggy, with just enough of a slope that, if you were very careful, you could find a way to the top. (The seers would never let him try, but that never stopped his imagination.) He clambered on top of a boulder, pondering his next move, ears twitching at imagined sounds. But he would not be afraid. Donnu wasn't afraid, so neither was he. He reared up again...
He yelped and stumbled back to the ground, catching sight of a slender frame, white fur, and three green gems. "Laana! I'm fine! I just wanted to see if-"
Yuki rolled over, to get a better look at the lanky white nicheling standing over him. "Oh, Kirro!" He clambered to his feet and licked a paw, looking away with what he hoped was a nonchalant gaze. "You didn't scare me."
Kirro wasn't alone. Iskome was by his side as usual, and Tanu had tagged along. Yuki was surprised for a moment to see no Anameis with them, but he recalled that she had been keeping Laana company more often than not. "Looking for a way up?" Iskome said. "We were going to try. You should come too!"
"Nothing else to do," said Kirro. "There's no fish down there."
"You just can't catch them!" Tanu showed off his claws.
Kirro looked ready to comment back, but Iskome stepped between them. "Come off it. I know there's no fish." She rubbed against Kirro's side, and turned her attention back to Yuki. "What do you say? Let's go! I'm bored!"
Though the cliff face seemed an intimidating wall at first, they found that four nichelings working together could make slow but steady progress. It was not always easy progress - in places they scrambled single file across ledges too narrow for them to walk without pressing their bodies against cold rock. Several times they leapt over gaps, one so wide that Iskome had to lift Yuki by the scruff and jump, while his legs dangled in open air and he squeezed his eyes tight, trying not to think of spray-misted air and slick stone.
But he had been right in his guess - with a little effort, the cliffs were climbable. They sloped backwards, forming a steep but passable stairway into the treetops, and Yuki marvelled at how each ledge and terrace was its own miniature garden. Life clung to every surface in the jungle - ferns and grasses and shrubs, even stunted trees, grew from every crack and hidden space. Everywhere he found new sights - a hidden blossom here, a secretive insect there, all flourishing in their own little worlds.
They had been climbing long enough for Yuki to notice the shadows change with the sun when Kirro hauled himself onto a wide ledge and stared out into the distance. "Oooh," he said. "Look at this!"
Yuki climbed after him with a push up from Iskome, who followed behind, with Tanu taking up the rear. Stepping up to Kirro's side, he saw what had provoked such a reaction. They had risen above the rainforest canopy, that distant ceiling that blanketed them for so long, and emerged under a clear, bright sky. Even the breezy air no longer pressed down upon them. But most striking of all was the canopy from above, a carpet of rich green stretching to a far away horizon, marked only by the river's course as it sliced a meandering trail. Here and there a few taller trees broke free, rising higher than their peers and swaying in the wind. "It looks like you could walk on it!" said Yuki.
"I think I'm flying," murmured Kirro. He looked down at his paws, as if trying to verify if he really was.
"We have to show everyone!" Yuki took a few tentative steps out to the edge, claws splayed. But despite the heights, this was not the wide open fall from his worst dreams. The closest treetops brushed up against the ledge, their branches so close he could reach out and touch them, maybe even walk upon the moss coated beams. Up close he could see that they too were their own hidden worlds of forking paths, and wondered if this was what it was like to be a bird.
"I'm not going back without food!" Tanu turned away from the scene, and Yuki heard a loud crack as he ripped a branch from a nearby berry bush with his teeth. It was laden with fat, pink fruits.
"You could live up here," said Iskome.
"Nobody to bother you, and all this to see," agreed Kirro.
They shared the berries, and drank from rainwater pooled in crevasses, and when they were done eating they draped themselves over the ledge, cooling off in the breeze and savouring the open air after so long in the oppressive understory heat. A deep sense of peace descended upon Yuki. His body ached from the climb, but it was the pleasant tiredness of a day well spent. All was quiet again, the ringing in his ears reduced to waterfall spray and the quiet rustle of leaves in the wind. The same sense of calm had clearly fallen on the others, too. They lay still, but with not with the bored, heat-stricken listlessness of before. Their gems shone with newfound gleams, and they purred in quiet contentment.
"You know," Tanu said, rolled over onto his back with his legs in the air, "I could stay here."
"Me too," said Iskome, who lay flat on her stomach while Kirro nibbled and groomed her ruff. "I don't mind if we never find snow. I'll sit up here."
"And think about being a bird," added Kirro.
Yuki, sitting with all four legs tucked into his body, perked up his ears. "But don't you want to see the snow?"
"Yes," said Iskome, "but..."
"I don't know if there is snow," said Kirro.
"But I know-"
"Listen, I wanted to see it too," said Iskome. "But maybe we won't. I wish we would, but if I'm here it's not so bad."
"Yes, why should what your aunt said make a difference to me?" Tanu said.
Yuki's tail lashed across stone. For a moment, he stared at Tanu in silence. One of his ears twitched, and he uncurled his paws from beneath him, his movements slow and stunned. His teeth were bared, his hackled raised, and all without thinking of it. "What do you know about Laana?"
Tanu scrambled to his feet, taken aback by Yuki's outburst, and their eyes met, each unsure who was more startled. "What do I know? I know we nearly drowned because of her!"
"Tanu..." Kirro said.
Yuki's legs shook, and a rush of light-headedness threatened to bowl him over, washing him away in a torrent of anger. "But she's sorry! She found the waterfall! And you don't even know why she did it!"
"Why do I care why she did it?" Tanu bared thrust-forth fangs, crouching to Yuki's level and dragging his claws across stone. "We're all trapped here! We can't go home and it's her fault! And-"
"Tanu!" Kirro shouldered into the space between the snarling nichelings, Iskome close beside him. His tufted tail lashed back and forth as he drew himself up to his full height. Despite his scrawny frame, he loomed over Tanu, who backed off, outnumbered.
"Are you...?" Iskome bent down to Yuki's level, giving him a quick nuzzle.
Yuki didn't react. His heart felt ready to break free from his ribs. His tongue was heavy, and all he could manage was a stricken, wordless sound. He was supposed to find the snow. Everyone wanted him to find the snow. But all everyone had done was tell him where to go, from Laana faking her signs to Anameis encouraging him to sneak off. And every time, it ended with another argument.
On any other day, he'd have nuzzled Iskome in return, and they'd climb back down the cliff and forget about it until the next time. But he couldn't, not again, and he bolted from her side, past Tanu and up the cliff, trying to clamber up a steep, rocky face to the next ledge.
"Hey, what are you doing?" said Kirro.
"I'm going to the top, like I wanted!" Yuki's paws scrambled for purchase over smooth stone. They were going to drag him back again, they were going to have another fight about it... he knew it was pointless to go on, but he cared about nothing else. And how could he, when he knew Tanu was right, but thinking about it sent another wave of fear slicing through his thoughts?
"Hold it," Tanu said, and Yuki braced to be pulled away, but instead felt a lurch as Tanu pushed his head underneath him, lifting him up to the next ledge. Puzzled, he regained his footing, but before he could ask, Tanu went on. "Do you think I want to have to tell Kois you fell to your death? She'll smash my skull in! If you've got to keep going, I'm coming with you."
"I suppose that means us too." Iskome brushed her tail over Kirro's back. "Come on, let's go."
The way up the remainder of the cliff was not the bold, excited climb from earlier. Yuki pressed on, forcing himself upwards on sore paws and strained muscles. His breath came short and shallow, and he refused to rest until Iskome reassured him they would not turn back. Even then, whenever he stopped, he found himself gripped by an overpowering urge to continue. Unable to settle, barely able to keep still, he pushed himself onward. Afternoon turned to evening, yet still he could not stop.
Higher they climbed, into misty skies where fog clung to their pelts and condensed into cold dew. But at last the cliffs levelled off, turning to steep, rocky slopes. Though still exhausting to climb, their pace quickened without the constant backtracking and testing their routes, until at last they found the top of the waterfall and the forest that grew beyond.
In the fading light, Yuki saw a silent world, a forest of mist wreathed, moss draped trees. Slowly, he lay down, freed at last from the mania pushing him onward, gazing up at the thin, gnarled trunks. Damp smells of fog and greenery filled his nose, but he saw not a trace of animal life. In the jungle, birds and insects called day and night, yet here they were conspicuous only by absence. This was a world of root, leaf, and stem, where the only sound was the waterfall rushing ever downward. The cold seeped into his body, but finally he lay still. He could not say what calmed him, any more than he could say what drove him to come here. He knew only that today's work was finally over.
"Look," he said. "Clouds and mist and cold rain, like Ki-Roku said. This is it. This is the mountain."