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Of Wood Wits, Bisimbi Bi Masa and Speculating Frogs

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ENTRY 503 (14:37 hours)

The three of us had been exploring the Forbidden Greeny Jungle together for years upon years, but today, when the sun was at its highest, OrchidVenom3, MadHatter72 and I parted ways.

It was not an emotional parting. Some would say that it should have been—MadHatter72 has been the best friend of OrchidVenom3 and myself since we three were children in the Great City, and OrchidVenom3 is, as she has always been, the other half of my heart. [1] If it had only been two of us—any two—I think that there would have been tears and hugs and a thousand hopeful good wishes. But we could not do that. If one of us had wept or even touched either of the others…well, I doubt if OrchidVenom3 or MadHatter72 would have walked away. I know that I could not have.

It had to happen. We have discovered many strange plants, insects, birds, and animals together, but all three of us have very different dreams. MadHatter72 has heard of a strange predator to the east of our present location—one that has killed elgorts—and zie is determined to catalogue it to the last detail. Zie has spoken of talking to the Greeny Gorillas and the idioks—the wise and spiritual baboons—about the predator first; they live here, after all, and have greater knowledge than we do. But zie will have to be very determined; given their hatred of technology, I do not think that either the gorillas or the baboons will like the idea of our digital field guide.

OrchidVenom3 wishes to go west for reasons that she cannot quite explain. It pulls her, she says, like a magnet.

"You have a dada soul," I teased her, thinking of the mysterious vines that grow in the hair of a few—a very few—humans in the Ooni Kingdom . No one knows why some people are born with those vines and others are not, though many fear dada people. I don't know why. How can anyone fear magic and mystery?

"Maybe everyone has a dada soul," muttered MadHatter72, sounding a touch jealous. I did not argue; it seemed ill-done to quarrel before we separated. But neither did I agree. MadHatter72 does not have magic and mystery entwined inside hir, for all that zie named hirself after the Mad Hatter from the mythical Alice in Wonderearth fables. Zie has mountains—strong, immovable, unconquerable.

As for me, I decided to head northwest toward the river that feeds Yemeja Lake on the south side of the Ooni Kingdom's Great City. That river is as much a part of the Ooni Kingdom as the lake is, and yet we know nothing about it. The most that the Kingdom does is ensure that the river water flowing into the lake is fresh and clear so that the bullion fish will not sicken or die. We explorers have not even learned if the river has a name in the languages of the baboons or Greeny Gorillas, much less given it one.

It drives me mad having something unknown so close. I cannot simply leave it be. I have to delve into it. I have to know.

OrchidVenom3 laughed when I said where I was going. As if there was any doubt! "Good luck," she said gently. " I hope that you have a fine tale to tell when you return to the City."

From anyone else, this would be a vague blessing. However, OrchidVenom3 has always teased me about my screen name, Nkoririko. [2] "Do you want to relate a legend, discover a legend or be a legend?" she has asked me a thousand times. The obvious answer, of course, is "all three."

That was the last thing that OrchidVenom3 said to me. MadHatter72 stepped aside to give us a chance for private and emotional farewells, which was kind of hir. But all I could think of saying was, "When I return from the river, I will go back to our apartment in the Great City and edit the records—" And I tapped my edition of the digi-guide. OrchidVenom3 says that that my reports tend to sound better once I realize what I need to leave out.

She smiled softly."Yes, and I will be doing battle with akotonshi again in celebration of our homecoming." She loves stuffed crabs but hates grinding fresh ginger for them. And yet she won't let me help. Infuriating woman.

Homecoming. As if we would go back to the City for longer than it takes to edit and publish our records!

[1]I suspect that I will erase all of this later. My love for OrchidVenom3 and our friendship with MadHatter72 are not part of the Greeny Jungle, after all. People reading this field guide will need facts. — written and entered by Nkoririko89
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[2]Not my real name, of course. But it feels more like me than the name that my parents gave me. —written and entered by Nkoririko89
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***

ENTRY 515 (22:28 hours)

I have barely entered the northwestern portion of the Greeny Jungle, but it is crowded with baobabs, all impossibly high , their lacelike branches growing up, around, and over each other in a kind of twisted ladder. Wandering around on the jungle floor amidst those tall and swollen tree trunks made me feel like an ant beside the legs of elephants. Elephants who might decide to step on me at any moment.

Negative thought. Stop it.

It is the canopy, you see. The branches and leaves of the baobabs let through light and rain—but not enough. It is dark and humid even on the high branches of the trees.

I haven't been troubled by junglemyelitis until now. I hope that I've misdiagnosed myself. It's not a good condition to have while in traveling through the Greeny Jungle alone. Certainly it's not a good condition to have while journeying toward a river that no one from the Ooni Kingdom has ever explored, mapped or named.

***

ENTRY 518 (20:04 hours)

It always startles me when I see a human face shaping and reshaping itself in the bark of a tree trunk.

Of course, I walked over to the wood wit[3]; they usually have something to say, though I don't always understand what they mean. Wood wits seem to enjoy the presence of people (a word which, in the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, definitely isn't limited to humans). How they became aware of other species, much less how to communicate with them, is anyone's guess. Some people think that wood wits use their trees to access the networks of CPU plants, both wild and tame…but I think that's far too simple.

I was eager to ask the wood wit all manner of questions about this portion of the Greeny Jungle, but the wood wit would answer none of them. "You're entering dangerous territory," it said in a whirring buzz filled with echoes. Its face shifted from a stern, implacable man with a disapproving scowl to a one-eyed, elderly woman with long, thick dada hair."You need to go back the way you came."

Just the thought of turning away from the river—my river, no matter that I've never seen it and know nothing about it—made me feel as if I was crushing fragile prisms beneath my lumbering feet.

"I can't," I said, feeling foolish and four. "I need to find the river." Even then it did not occur to me that there might be more than one. "I need to learn about it."

The wood wit hummed, which might have been its way of sighing. It cannot be easy to sigh when you have no lungs. "But does it need to learn about you? That is the question."

"I won't harm anything," I babbled. Oh, I know that it sounds idiotic; it was not as if I had to bargain with a tree. I could have walked away. But my mother, native of the Great City that she is, has great respect for wood wits. I could almost feel the weight of her hand pressing on my arm. Listen to it, Nkiruka. It is older and wiser than us both.

It was the worst thing I could have imagined her saying. For one moment, I felt as if everyone who had ever told me that OrchidVenom3 and the Greeny Jungle and my love of secret, forbidden things were horrible mistakes was speaking with the voice of the wood wit. It was childish and unworthy of a Great Explorer; I knew that even then. But knowing that didn't unsnarl the tangle of my thoughts, quell the sour sickness in my stomach, or prevent panicked sweat from beading my dark brown skin.

You can't turn back, every portion of me seemed to be saying. You've dreamed of this for so long.

"Oh, insidious," buzzed the wood wit. "They're singing to you in your own voice. And from so far away, too."

"Who is?"

The wood wit didn't answer. Instead, the position of the face shifted just slightly, as if it had turned to peer at me. "Before I answer," it said, the buzz becoming less distinct, "could you please do something for me?"

The idea of staying even for a moment longer was repellant. I wanted nothing more than to run toward the river as though an elgort was after me.

But…the wood wit's old-woman face was sick with worry. And it had said please.

I cleared my throat several times, hoping that I would not sound peevish when I spoke. "What do you need me to do?"

"In my branches, there is a nest," it replied. "And in the nest are eggs. The parents were killed by an eagle."

I shuddered, thinking of the giant brown eagles that zoom across the open sky. They're big enough to pick up a deer and carry it away. Hearing that they could get past the intertwined canopy was not good news. "How long ago?"

A whining sound crept into the buzzing voice. Perhaps that was the wood wit's way of saying How should I know? "The eggs should still be warm." It paused. "If I could, I would fetch them before a chimpanzee or another eagle devours them...but I can hardly climb myself."

And so I shimmied up the baobab's high trunk and began searching for a nest. Finding it wasn't hard; sprawling across one of the lower branches was a huge grass-and-mud creation. I have seen many nests in the Greeny Jungle, but they were so much tinier than this that it's like comparing small apartments to the Ooni Palace Tower.

Few animals or birds will go near a baobab, giant eagles included. Even so, I wondered for a few minutes if the wood wit had tricked me into stealing from an eagle nest. Wood wits are intelligent creatures. That doesn't mean that they're safe.

Then I carefully reached into that massive nest, plucked two small, whitish eggs from it, and put them in my insulated food pack.

It was only then that I realized what I should have spotted long before—that it was getting dark. And we Explorers have learned that between bush cows that steal our equipment and supplies while we rest, Carnigourds which grow behind everything and which eat anything that comes close enough, and the occasional rampaging elgort, sleeping on the ground is not the best idea. So I moved to another branch and bound myself to it for the night. I hope that the foodpack will keep them warm overnight.

Tomorrow I will have to find a bird that won't mind the smell of a human and that will accept the eggs. I must reach the river.

[3] Field guide entry (uploaded at 19:13 hours)

Wood Wit

The wood wit is often viewed by non-Explorers as an intelligent spirit that lives in older and larger trees, effectively functioning as the tree's personality. So far as I have been able to discover, the wit—which may be wise, kindly, mischievous, troublesome, or outright hostile—is the more developed form of a hive of endosymbiotic and eusocial creatures that, in their less mature form, resemble adult beetles.[4] The shift from barkskin beetle to component part of a wood wit can happen at any time during the life of the tree; wood wits have appeared in trees ranging from saplings to the oldest tree in the Ooni Kingdom. How the hives of beetles fuse with the tree is unknown to us; questions about this were deemed offensive by the wood wits to whom I have spoken. —written and entered by Nkoririko89back to text

[4] Field guide entry (uploaded at 19:45 hours)

I have dubbed the immature form of wood wits "barkskin beetles"; they have an uneven grayish-beige shell and, more than anything, resemble knots and twists in the tree trunk in which they live. I must emphasize that the barkskin beetles are of the same order as the wood wits (fEb-hUr ), even if they look quite different. —written and entered by Nkoririko89.back to text

***

ENTRY 519 (16:23 hours)

Tricked! Tricked by a wood wit!

There is a large flock of birds around here, but none of them are willing to accept anything that smells remotely like a human. I haven't even dared to risk the eggs on such an experiment. And I can hardly hurry toward the river while trying to incubate a pair of eggs; they'd be smashed to pieces.

The wood wit looks insufferably smug.

***

ENTRY 528(21:04 hours)

I never would have thought that it was difficult to keep eggs warm in the middle of a humid jungle.

I have never been so conscious of being a City girl.

***

ENTRY 543 (02:27 hours)

I wish I knew if the eggs were all right or if I've inadvertently cooked the chicks before they hatch.

***

ENTRY 561 (04:12 hours)

The eggs have hatched at last! Praise be to Joukoujou!

The hatchlings are not very prepossessing. They have black feathers that resemble hair, shiny black eyes and enormous beaks. Still, they are alive, and that's more than I've expected for the past two weeks.

After I questioned it thoroughly, the wood wit admitted that the chicks will take a year or two to reach maturity. However, it said that they should be able to fly, run, or ride on my shoulders in four weeks, and that they may rejoin their parents' flock two weeks after that.

I have a feeling that most of my discoveries for the next month will involve gathering and cataloguing fruit, insects, snails and slugs…and then feeding the specimens to two hatchlings. Useful, of course. And it certainly increases knowledge.

But my hunger to reach the river grows more demanding every day.

***

ENTRY 562 (17:16 hours)

Six weeks have passed since my last diary entry (though I've made an abundance of field guide entries about insects, fruit and where to find both), but at last I am journeying toward the river again!

Or perhaps I should say that we are, for the birds, which I have dubbed emerald go-away birds [5] have come with me. Since I don't know how to tell what sex they are, and since, for all I know, they could be non-binary like MadHatter72, I have given them names that can be for both boys or girls: Ekene and Udo.

I took my leave of the wood wit with some relief; I am weary of its tricks, and I am not pleased by what has happened to my hair. The wood wit, for its part, was not happy that I was returning to my original goal.

"Why won't you tell me why you don't want me to find the river?" I asked. I tried not to sound petulant, but I am not sure that I succeeded. As I said, I'm tired of being tricked.

I expected justifications, or at least excuses about why it had stalled me for six weeks (!) by getting me to hatch and then raise two birds. But all it did was shift back to the stern and disapproving male face while whirring softly (the equivalent of mumbling, perhaps?) that the journey would change me forever and that what I was planning was not wise.

"I'm an Explorer of Knowledge and Adventure!" I snapped, feeling as if I'd stuck my hand into a patch of stinging nettles. "No one ever thinks what we do is wise!"

The wood wit hummed. Once again, I thought that it might be sighing patiently. "At least keep the birds with you."

"I will," I said, thinking that it seemed a useless promise. Udo and Ekene love the nest that they've made of my hair so much that they refuse to abandon it for very long.

[5] Field guide entry (uploaded at 17:18 hours)

Emerald Go-Away Bird

A large bird, about knee-high on the average adult woman, of the taxnomic order a-dIrO-a-togre-bi. It has hairy green feathers over much of the body, glossy purplish-red feathers on the back, rear and tail, and scarlet feathers on the undersides of both wings; the scarlet feathers are only visible when they fly, which occurs very little. Most of the time they prefer to run or climb from tree to tree, only occasionally gliding from tree to tree or tree to ground. Both male and female Emerald Go-Away Birds have a green crest on their heads, a ring of bright red skin around each eye, and what looks like white eyeliner surrounding the red skin. They have a cry similar to the gray go-away bird that lives near the Ooni Kingdom, hence the name. The Emerald Go-Away Bird prefers insects that live in trees but will eat fruit sometimes. They are sociable birds and most—though not all—prefer living in flocks of thirty or more. Diurnal.

Note: If you are anywhere near such birds,under no circumstances eat fruit from a baobab that has a wood wit. It will make your hair long, thick, pliable but immensely strong, and absolutely irresistible to Emerald Go-Away Birds, who regard it as ideal nesting material. As the birds cannot bite your hair off or pull it from your head—and believe me, they will try—they will simply reshape the hair on your head into a nest. They will not be dissuaded from this no matter what you do, and Emerald Go-Away Birds are heavy. Also, the effects of the baobab fruit are immensely slow to wear off. I have experienced them for the past three weeks; so far there has been no change. —written and entered by Nkoririko89.back to text

***

ENTRY 563 (23:57 hours)

Almost seven hours have passed since the last entry. I've bound myself to a baobab branch; Ekene is perched above me and Udo is sitting on my head. Both are sound asleep. In the interest of science, I must mention that Udo snores.

My muscles have become deconditioned in the past six weeks. Everything aches. Even my hair hurts. I burn for sleep.

But I can't.

Something is watching me. I can feel it.

***

ENTRY 564 (11:34 hours)

It's still watching. And still silent.

I hope it's not a panther. I haven't seen any lemongrass to rub on my skin for ages. (Why does lemongrass ward them off? Of course they hate the smell, I understand that…but panthers skin their prey.)

At least whatever is watching is not an elgort. There would be a trail of wreckage in the jungle if it were, not to mention screeches of rage that would claw at the bones of anything alive.

But there is one piece of good news! I spotted the river about an hour ago after climbing to the topmost branches of a baobab. It's close—maybe two to three days to the northwest, a silver knife slicing through the jungle.

If only OrchidVenom3 and MadHatter72 were here. Half the fun of making discoveries is having some one to share them with.

***

ENTRY 591 (08:07 hours)

I have finally reached the river. It's immense. I can't even see the other side; it's shrouded in mist.

Perhaps only another Great Explorer could understand, but when I saw the riverbank, I laughed out loud. And then I started dancing.

Now, I am a terrible dancer; I can't keep the steps straight even at the best of times, let alone after I've been walking for days and am near collapse. And I'm sure that my family in the Great City would have been horrified at the disreputable state of my clothing—stained and torn, without a single mirror remaining. But none of that mattered as I turned my face up toward the tangled canopy, visualized, in place of branches and leaves, a cloudless blue sky, and spun about in one dappled sunbeam like a small child drunk with rapture.

***

ENTRY 592 (19:03 hours)

This river and the land around it are teeming with life! There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of fish, frogs, turtles and water birds hereabouts. I could live here for the rest of my life and not run out of things to learn!

Ekene and Udo don't like the river, though. They pull at my hair and clothes (which was amusing the first few times and has since become an irritant) and bite my shoulders and wrists (which was never amusing at all). They seem intent on keeping me away from the waters of the river—which is ridiculous, as I have to go near it to study it. How I wish that they could talk as so many other creatures in the Greeny Jungle can! It would make things so much simpler.

One thing that is not irritating—that is, in fact, eerie—is their cry. Of course, their normal cry sounds like the word for "go away"; that is where their name comes from. But now the call sounds like a cross between an ululating wail and a frantic shriek. It sounds…yes, almost as if they are speaking.

I do not think that they are speaking to me.

***

ENTRY 597 (05:08 hours)

My hands are shaking as I try to input this, and my heart is pounding so hard that it feels as if it will break my ribs. I'm far from the river now (and beyond grateful that most creatures in the Greeny Jungle avoid baobabs) but I don't know if I'm far enough away to be safe. I don't even know if I can be safe any longer.

Let me pause for a few minutes to breathe, and then I'll report on what happened. But I don't know when much of this started. The digi-book says that my last post was at 17:28 hours…but how long did that conversation go on? And when did I start running? I've lost track of time.

It was dawn. I remember that. The sun had just begun to lighten the sky, and I was gathering fish and water plants from the river—toothed hornweed with spines that move and bite of their own accord, thick clusters of shellflowers forming tiny green islands on the river, and so on—busily writing down everything I could as fast as I could.

Then I heard a loud splash and the panicked screams of the go-away birds, and I looked up.

I don't know how to describe what I saw. My first impression was that I was gazing at a woman (even darker than me!) with long white braids, and she was wading through the river toward me. Only when she drew closer did I realize that her "braids" weren't hair at all. What should I call them? They were too thick to be tendrils, and they did not try to grasp anything as tentacles might. Did they give light, or did they help her measure how close things were underwater? I had no idea.

Then—I don't know how to explain it, but she flickered as the wood wit's face had. For a moment, I was looking at…something…that was moving but that seemed to be made of rock. Its eyes were dark, not like human eyes, but like jungle midnights. No sun, no shadow, just a color bereft of all light that surrounds you so completely that you can't even see your own hand. And things lurk in the midnights, watching you to see if you will be suitable prey.

The rock-creature flickered again and became something that I…

I don't…

It didn't look like anything on our world. It didn't look like anything that could exist on Ginen. I can't even tell you what it resembled, whether it was humanoid or animal or bird, beautiful or ugly. It was from beyond any reality I can imagine. Trying to concentrate on its looks makes me feel as if my mind is clawing itself into bloody chunks. And I can't stop thinking about it. I can't stop.

It's all right. I'll get through this. I will.

When I saw the creature change for the second time, I covered my face and shook. What a time for the hallucinations of junglemyelitis to hit!

Then I felt a cold, wet hand touch my right wrist. I lifted my head—I would have had an easier time lifting a building, o!—and looked at the being who had touched me, hoping that looking at it yet again would not banish my ability to think forever. I looked only because I remembered the midnight in the living rock's eyes; I knew that if I did not gaze at it, losing my reason would be pleasant by comparison.

It was the woman with the white tendrils for hair. Now that she was closer, I could see that she was covered in fish scales, ranging from a brownish-black to a purplish-blue. It suited her well. I felt like a fool for having been so frightened.

Then she spoke in a deep, steady voice. I felt as if I was hearing the river speak and not her. "What are you doing here?"

She did not sound pleased.

"I—" Absurdly, I wished that I looked more like a Great Explorer and not a rag-wrapped stick with birds in her hair. "I am an Explorer. I came here to learn about the river."

Light flared in her eyes—like the monitor of a CPU plant flashing that it's on. "It is not yours. It is mine and my…"

What was the word she said? Brothers? Sisters? Siblings? Or was she speaking of her species? Whatever it was, it twisted and went wrong. Hearing that sound made me feel as if my bones were full of broken glass.

And yet I was not sure that she wanted to hurt me. Perhaps I could convince her to listen.

"No," she said, and I could hear a door of stone and iron slamming shut as she spoke. "Your kind do not belong here. If you wish to learn about the river, you must come with me."

If? If I wished to learn? A mountain lifted from my heart. I did not even question when she pulled me into the river; I did not doubt that I would be able to swim across if she wished me to.

The birds disagreed. Ekene beat my arms with his wings, and Udo pulled the hair at the base of my neck, forcing me to stumble backwards. Before I knew it, I was back on the muddy riverbank, gazing at the woman. Childhood stories about beings—Bisimbi Bi Masa—who inhabited rivers and deltas were beginning to creep into my mind.

She gazed at me without malice, but with a dreadful satisfaction. "Come with me," she repeated. "I have touched you, and the river has kissed you. Neither can be undone."

I am ashamed to admit it, but the only thing that I wanted to do was run away. I grabbed my bag of supplies and food in one hand and this digi-book in the other and began shinnying up a nearby tree, certain that she, so much a part of the river, would not follow.

And she did not, though for many miles I heard her wailing. Her voice tore through me as a quake tears open the earth. Was it frustration that made her cry out? Rage? Despair?

As for what she did—if I am not now hallucinating, I'm very much afraid that I know. I can't be sure. I've seen a thousand strange things since running away, including a pink frog covered in gold speckles that demanded to know what I wanted.

"I want to know how to heal this!" I said, showing the pink frog my arms and legs. Where the Bisimbi Bi Masa and the river had touched me, my skin had transformed into fish scales. I would have thought the scales—a greenish-golden-brown—absolutely lovely if they had not been attached to me.

"Can't be done," said the frog calmly.

"You asked what I wanted!" Petulant and foolish, I know, but if you can't be foolish when talking to your own hallucination, when can you?

"I can't fix everything," the frog said patiently. "One of the Bisimbi Bi Masa must have cried out or you wouldn't be alive. So you won't die, and you aren't contagious. You won't pass this on to any of your children, should you have them. But you're still marked. That isn't going to go away."

I thought of the Great City of the Ooni Kingdom and how we all strive to be as similar to one another as possible. Even the occasional person with dada vines in his or her hair is considered unbearably strange. I could not imagine being, for the rest of my life, a fish-woman with birds in her hair. Nor could I envision how my parents, much less OrchidVenom3 and MadHatter72, would react. The years seemed to stretch before me like an empty desert at noon.

Pushing that image away (and it was hard), I turned back to the frog. "All right, then. I want to know what to make living like this bearable."

"You want simple answers and I haven't any," said the frog. "There isn't any concoction or equation that will keep people from being idiots—you included. Keep going. You're still a Great Explorer, aren't you?" And with that, it vanished.

I suppose I should go look for it, but right now I long for nothing more than sleep. For all I know, when I awake, this will turn out to be a fever dream.

***

ENTRY 598 (10:13 hours)

It wasn't.

***

ENTRY 647 (03:05 hours)

I have counted the cycles of hours on this digi-book for a week; I no longer feel quite so much like Alice in Wonderearth, lost in time as well as space.

Except for the palms of my hands, the soles of my feet, and the tips of my fingers, every inch of my skin has been replaced—there is no other word for it—by fish scales. They don't come off if you scratch them, either. You can pull them off, but that only leaves a gaping, bleeding wound. And the scales just grow back.

Not that I would know.

I don't recognize my face in ponds and puddles any longer, either.

I'm still trying the few scientific medicines I have. There are not many, and I suspect that they are outdated. I've also tried herbal pastes, the kind that we Explorers make to prevent our skin from cracking open and getting infected. No change.

My stomach churns at the thought of being a fish-woman forever. My eyes are swollen from weeping; there have been days when I have been so angry that I could do nothing but scream. And you do not scream in the Greeny Jungle. It attracts unwanted attention.

And I wonder how to face (what a terrible word!) OrchidVenom3. How will she feel? Oh, I know full well that she loves me. But she did not bargain for this.

I do not think that she would abandon me. She has honor. But…would she stay out nothing more than pity? Would her love turn into nothing but resentment and revulsion in the end?

***

ENTRY 648 (06:18 hours)

Three days have passed since the last entry into this journal. I am heading southeast, back toward the wood wit. (The thought of hearing "I told you so" from it galls, especially since it did.)

I am still trying to understand why the Bisimbi Bi Masa—an unscientific name, but what else can I call her?—did what she did. Did she think that if I told other humans about her river, we would poison it as if we were children who knew no better? Did she want me to go back to the Ooni Kingdom and spread this disease? We couldn't have hurt her or hers if we were all dead. And yet if that was the plan, why did she cry out? The frog said that I wasn't contagious and wouldn't die because she did so. (I've never heard of a disease cured by sound waves before. Must research this.) Or did she really just want me to be able to explore the river as she does?

I hate questions that can't be answered.

***

ENTRY 697 (07:30 hours)

Reached the wood wit baobab five days ago. I'm now heading west because…well, I've already fled from the northwest; if I go south long enough, I'll reach the Ooni Kingdom, which I'm not ready to do yet; and OrchidVenom3, MadHatter72 and I spent years exploring the east. I'm heading due west because I cannot think of where else to go.

***

ENTRY 697 (07:30 hours)

Found a stream. Not as big as the Nonexistent River, thank goodness (I may as well call the Bisimbi's river that, since I can't name it without risking the health and lives of others), but still a decent size.

I should have had enough of rivers by now. But I can't help but wonder…what is there to find? [6]

[6] Field guide entry (uploaded at 9:45 hours)

Mosquito Spider

Spider of the taxonomic order Gat-ehng-gar dI-fee. It is about the size of the fist of the average six-month-old child, is silver-gray and is made of what seems to be living metal; its black eyes are set in a circular nest of hair on top of its head. It has no interest in mosquitoes; rather, it leaps from sac-like nests in trees and reeds onto small animals and birds, draining them of a small increment of blood. One also tried to bite me, but found that the scales on my body are like armor and scuttled away. They appear to be something of an irritant to the crocodile-jawed tiger fish that live in these waters. Tiger fish have jaws like hyenas and can chew through bone, but biting through metal seems to be another matter. —written and entered by Nkoririko89.back to text

***

ENTRY 1285 (15:24 hours)

I have been studying the ecosystem of this stream and its surrounding lands for three months, and I think that I have found more in this fraction of the Greeny Jungle than I had in the previous three years.

***

ENTRY 2069 (15:32 hours)

Yesterday, as I was cataloguing several new insects and arachnids, I heard the rustling of bushes and vines behind me. I turned around…and there were OrchidVenom3 and MadHatter72. My heart soared, and I cried out their screen names in joy.

They were worried that I had come to harm, for Great Explorers rarely stay and study one area, and never for as long as I have. And so they traced me to my last recorded location. Since I have been sending reports from the Stream of Abundance for the past seven months, finding me was not hard.

So happy was I to see them that I forgot about Ekene and Udo (still nesting in my hair, yes) and the scales all over my body. But when I leaped up to greet them, I saw shock and dismay sweep across their faces. I can hardly blame them for this; I have wept enough tears over the latter.

"I am not contagious," I told them with some asperity. "And I am not dying. Now, sit. You have come a long way and you must be tired and hungry. And while I cook you dinner, I will tell you a story, o!"

And so I told them of the wood wit and the birds and the Bisimbi Bi Masa and even the strangle gold-flecked frog. All things I told them, even of my own cowardice. Only one thing did I omit—that I had been dreading their reaction for months.

When I was done, I asked for their own tales. MadHatter72 had found hir predator, a gigantic monkey the size of a small truck. Gosukwu, zie called it. The enemy of elgorts. As for OrchidVenom, she had traveled as far west as she could until she reached a place where the land stopped and endless rushing water began. "Well, not endless," she corrected herself. "But I could not see what was on the other side."

We talked long into the night. MadHatter72 wanted to know why I had not told them about the scales or the birds.

"Because what happened to my hair sounds ridiculous," I said bluntly. "And how could I send either of you a computer message about my scales?"

OrchidVenom3 gave me a disapproving glare. "So you decided I should not have the choice of helping."

"And I thought I was the proud one," muttered MadHatter72.

"I couldn't tell you what had happened, much less that it was forever," I insisted. "I had a hard enough time telling myself." I forced myself to say the next sentence. "I had almost forgotten…until I saw your expressions today."

OrchidVenom3 muttered something about some people being too proud and too stubborn for words, and I braced myself for a quarrel. But nothing happened. I went to sleep last night feeling rather perplexed.

When I awoke—bound to a branch, as usual—OrchidVenom3 was looking over my field entries in her own digi-book. Once she saw that I was no longer sleeping, she began pelting me with questions about this bird and that lizard and the other mammal, laughing as I grew more and more excited. At last she exclaimed, "I think that you've discovered enough to write an entire book!"

I grinned. "Maybe even two."

And then I began giggling. It wasn't as if the idea of writing a book was funny; it was more that I could see a future for myself—one that I wanted—and plan for it. I had spent so long sunk in despair that now I felt as if I'd been ambushed by hope.

But OrchidVenom3 did not laugh."I would hate to have you lose that book," she said gently. "Will you come back to the Great City with us? You can take the time to write it, and then, when you're done, we can come back here." She gazed at me, a nervous smile flickering over her lips.

My eyes filled with tears. Here she was, offering to share my future with me. It was a gift that she didn't seem to know was a gift.

I leaned forward and gently kissed her on the lips. "That sounds like a wonderful idea."

It was really a good thing that we were still bound to our sleeping branches. If we hadn't been...well, OrchidVenom3 hugged me so exuberantly that I think that we both would have fallen out of the tree.