Sean sat quietly on his gathered pile of fallen leaves. The autumn season had truly gotten underway suddenly, and while the sun was still hidden for much of each day by the remaining canopy, the ground was padded with a thick, soft layer. He had to be extra careful to avoid his tiny neighbors’ homes, underneath, and the prints he’d grown used to tracking were now obscured. At the same time, he found the larger creatures were suddenly easier to spot when they were out, and the lairs of tree-dwelling folk were no longer invisible to him.
He was yet again out working on his shapeshifting. At least, in theory. He was observing a squirrel across the now-open glade. The underbrush lay brown, wilted, barren, or at least thinned, so he could watch his friend zipping around, carefully gathering and stowing nuts. Sean was supposed to be focusing on the squirrel so much that he could feel the creature’s very existence. The feel of the ground under him, the tree in his grasp. The sounds he heard. The boy had been told that only when he was completely immersed in the animal’s existence, able to live within the breaths of it, would he be able to allow himself to gain the creature’s form.
Up the tree to gather nuts. Down the tree to bury them. Distracted by one nut, then another, the creature scampered to and fro in a constant state of distraction. His attention was only ever directed to the next most interesting thing.
After hours of exhausting observation, the boy stood. His legs had forgotten their purpose, but he punched the nerves awake gently and hobbled home. Seeing his awkward gait, Grey laughed over the sizzling meat in the pan. Sean returned a pained grin, then walked circles slowly around the fire until his hips regained their flexibility. Meanwhile, water had slowly helped cook up thin slices of venison jerky into slices of lush meat. Wild onions and squash had been cooked into the mix, with a dessert of apple compote ready to heat up once the pan was available. Sean was thoroughly starving by the time he sat.
“How did it go, young man?” Grey stirred the pan without looking up.
“Ask me after I’m fed!” He laughed, and his mentor joined in.
Plates filled and emptied, Grey tried again as the apples finished cooking. “So, did you speak to the forest intimately today?”
Sean blushed slightly. “I told you before, I wish you wouldn’t make it sound so much like bedroom whispers.”
“Only your hearing does that. I simply described the truth. Were you able to open your inner voice so that it could sing the song of another?”
Sean’s head drooped. “You make it sound so poetic, yet all I can seem to do is passively observe until my own legs stop working.”
Grey gently guffawed. “I warned you that would be a side-effect.”
“Yes, but you didn’t mention how painful it would be! And you don’t have to laugh every time….”
“But you come back walking like a stork!” Grey was visibly biting back giggles.
“Good thing you’re NOT the Shapeshifting Warrior. He’d be scandalized to laugh at his students the way you do….”
Grey sobered slightly, grin mostly concealed. “You’re right, I’m sure. He would be a noble embodiment of correctness.”
“Or he’d simply eat me due to my constant failure….”
Grey took a moment to stir the apples, test a bite of apple-pecan goodness to ensure it was done, and remove the pan from the fire. Then he turned to the young man. “Why do you call this failure?”
Sean stood up with a roar of frustration. As startled birds arced up into the sky, he ranted, “I sit for hours on end, every day. ‘Listen to their stories,’ you say. I observe every action they do, and learn their songs. ‘Match your moment to theirs,’ you say. I watch every motion, breathe every breath in time with them. ‘Trust your inner voice and allow it to join with them,’ you say. I do – thinking of them as mate, as parent, as mirror image. I just – there’s always this bridge of separation that I cannot cross!”
He had stomped back and forth on the far side of the fire while he was venting. Even when he kicked one of their sitting stumps, though, he had ensured he didn’t aim the debris toward Grey. In fact, no ire was directed at the older man, not even a glance in his direction. Now that he was done with his angry tantrum, however, he turned toward his mentor, apologetic. “I’m so sorry. You made this amazing lunch for me after helping me in so many ways. I just feel like I am letting you down.”
“Why? If this were easy, you wouldn’t need the guidance. If anyone could get this the first time, or even the second, this wouldn’t be so rare of a gift. Why – when you ask me to teach you an impossible thing – do you expect yourself to learn it so quickly?” With that, he handed the boy some apples and pecans, and began to eat his own portion.
Sean relaxed visibly as he lifted his aromatic dish and took a bite. He even smiled as the taste hit him. He allowed himself a moment to simply enjoy it, then finally decided to talk through his experience of the day, as he had done after every attempt. He didn’t get far, though.
“A squirrel?!? You wanted to pick something easy to connect with, so you chose A SQUIRREL?!?” Grey looked truly shocked.
The boy paused, dumbfounded and taken aback. He stammered, “Well, yes, they are everywhere, and you said to start small….”
“I didn’t mean physically!” The older man took a long drink of his water sack, then shook his head and regrouped. “Let me clarify a misconception you apparently gathered. You have a deeply complex mind. You cannot help it, nor should you. You are intelligent, logical, and reasonable.”
“Thank you…?” Sean wasn’t sure where this was going.
“No, no, no. Don’t think of it like a compliment. If anything, humans get so used to refusing compliments that they become oblivious to their own positive traits. Simply embrace your reality. You are an attractive man – this is a blessing and a curse, and irrelevant to our interactions. Similarly, you are an intelligent, reasoning being, and if you realize this truly, you will see both benefits and drawbacks.”
Sean’s mind struggled visibly to wrap itself around this new concept. Attractive…reasoning…these concepts fit together slowly for the younger human. He could have traits that were simply not based on a fellow creature, that were just a part of his own daily reality. That made sense so far. In the first example, he could easily attract a mate if he were to try, but if he were careless a mated woman could become attracted to him, and he could encourage it without intending to. Okay, that part made sense, too. But the latter part….
Because he was logical, he was able to see the positives and drawbacks of any interaction, right? No wait, that missed the point. He was trying to bond his mind to another…so their logic needed to…MATCH his! OH, goodness, he suddenly saw it all clearly. He was aiming for creatures whose intellect acted nothing at all like his! Of course it didn’t work!!
He had been silent for a decent while, but once he realized the point of Grey’s words, the older man clapped in appreciation. “Now you see it. You have to fit the round peg into the round hole, the square peg into the square hole. You have a star-shaped peg with designs! At the very least you need a star-shaped hole to match.”
Relieved but concerned, Sean asked, “In time will I be able to handle the square and round holes too, using your analogy?”
His mentor was nodding before he had even finished listening. “Yes, of course. But you have to know how to complete the connection at all, then also figure out how to make yourself square-shaped in order to connect. No small feat!”
Sean blushed in embarrassment. “Trying to become one with the squirrel today was like trying to open myself to constant distraction. I should have realized something wasn’t right.”
“Well, it wasn’t like I hadn’t tried to tell you already to be cautious. However, like so much I try to impart to you, the correct words are far too simple to convey their own truth.”
“You’ve said that before, but I think I finally understand what you mean.”
“Alright, so then tell me – who out of our neighbors is the most like you, as far as how their mind works?”
The boy pondered everything he had seen and interacted with, from the waterfall upstream with its fish residents below, to the mountain above with its goats, as well as the nearby birds, rodents, deer, and night creatures. The raccoons were a close call, but not quite.
He leaned back, bumping his empty plate. Embarrassed to have forgotten, he excused himself to wash it immediately, along with the now-empty apple tin. Then, like clockwork, he grabbed a thick piece of venison as his nightly offering of thanks to his wolf brothers.
It hit him as he ducked back under the deerskin blanket. He stood up bolt upright, as though shocked. “The wolves!” His skin nearly vibrated in awareness of this truth.
Grey smiled widely. “There you go. Now you’re in tune.”
Sean wanted to pretend confusion at this response, but his soul knew the truth in his words. “I feel like now I know everything I need to do. Suddenly, and completely, it’s just – there. I think I know how to connect, finally.”
“So go do it.”