Wimsie and I didn't venture out to the islands again. We didn't want to encourage the humans to go out there, because they might decide to get serious about learning to swim, and then they would find the Truffle Tree. So we pretended that the islands were invisible.
One day, Zan waded out toward the nearest island until the water was up to her waist. I was afraid that she was going to try to make it to the island, but she had no interest in swimming. She started poking around and picking up things off the bottom. A little while later, she returned to the beach with an armload of plants. Seaweed. That evening, when she served dinner, the seaweed turned up in our salad. It was salty and a bit chewy, but it tasted pretty good.
"Where did you find this?" Nar asked, holding up a piece of the rubbery stuff.
"It grows in the lake, under the water," Zan said. She pointed at the spot where she had gathered the seaweed. "Over there." Then she glanced around, as if looking for something. "I need a thing that floats."
"What kind of thing?" Nar said, a bit cautiously, I thought.
Zan tried to explain. "A thing that I can take with me, when I'm in the water. A thing to put other things in. Like . . . like a bowl that floats." Nar looked at her blankly, so she gave up. But the next morning, after breakfast, she went straight to the beach to hunt around for something that she could use for a floating bowl. Wimsie and I kept a casual eye on her. These humans were, by far, the best entertainment around.
At one point, Zan crouched down and stared intently at a couple of sticks that were floating side by side near the shore. The sticks had become tangled in a strand of seaweed, which held them right next to each other as they bobbed on the waves. When she had formulated her idea, whatever it was, she headed purposefully toward the river. She returned with an armload of sticks and several sections of vine.
"What's she doing?" Wimsie whispered as Zan put her burden down on the grass.
"I think she figured out how to make a floating bowl," I whispered back.
Zan sat down and began to work her way through the pile of sticks, snapping off all the twigs so they wouldn't get in the way. She laid the sticks in a row, side by side like the ones that she had seen floating on the lake. She had to break the ends off several of them so they were all roughly the same length. Then she wound pieces of vine around the sticks and tied them together, while keeping the whole thing neatly lined up and flat on the ground. It looked pretty good to me. But when she picked it up, it was sort of floppy, more like a mat than a bowl, so she tied a stick across each end for reinforcement. As a finishing touch, she added two more sticks along the sides. Now it had a rim all the way around. When she was done, she had a "bowl" made of sticks, about two feet square. She tied a length of vine to it, and took it down to the beach.
It was ingenious. She put her floating bowl in the water and waded out, towing it after her with the vine. The waves tugged at it, so she tied the end of the vine around her waist so her bowl wouldn't float away.
"It's cute!" Wimsie said, and I had to agree. I was very impressed with Zan's little project. Humans, I suspected, were at least as intelligent as crows, and that was saying a lot. I had seen crows do some pretty amazing things.
Wimsie snatched up a piece of vine that Zan had left on the ground, and she shook it at me, daring me to try to take it away from her. Then she turned and sprinted away, the vine trailing behind her like a long, green, leafy tail. I finally caught up with her and grabbed the loose end of the vine, and we played a new game: tug-the-vine. I weighed more than she did, but she was faster on her feet, and she danced around me as I tried to maneuver. Finally I just dug in, front legs braced and toes splayed, and I waited for her to wear herself out. Fortunately, the vine gave out before I did, thanks to Wimsie's sharp little teeth. It let go suddenly, pitching her over backwards into a clump of flowers.
"Who won?" she said, still lying on her back in the middle of the daisies.
I thought about it for a moment. "I would say that the vine won," I said. Wimsie rolled over, sneezed, and got to her feet.
"Let's go find out what Zan is up to," I said, and we wandered back to the beach.
Zan waded in the shallows for a while, filling her floating bowl with seaweed, and looking at the pretty shells that she found on the sandy bottom. The shells were all occupied by their original inhabitants -- in those days, hermit crabs ran around naked, just like humans did -- so she carefully put them back. The bowl freed up her hands, since she could put things in it instead of having to carry them, and the rim around the edge of the bowl kept the items that she was collecting from falling off. It was a great idea.
Nar was gathering edibles near the river, and when Zan returned to shore, he came over to see what she was doing.
"I knew it would work," Zan said as she transferred the seaweed from her floating bowl to a large clay bowl full of fresh water. She rinsed the saltwater off the seaweed by sloshing it around in the bowl, and then she broke the strands into smaller pieces for salad.
Nar sat down on the sand so he could take a closer look at how she had put the sticks together. "Maybe I could make a bigger one," he said.
"I don't need a bigger one," Zan informed him, and she dumped the water out of the bowl, put the seaweed in it, and covered it with a lid.
"But if it was big enough, we could sit on it, and float out to the islands," Nar said. "Just to see what's out there."
Zan shook her head. "You'll need some pretty big sticks."
"I'll find some." Nar stood up and headed for the river.
Wimsie and I looked at each other. I could see that the same thought had crossed our minds at the same time: They're going to find the Truffle Tree.
Nar was as good as his word. He scouted along the riverbank and the surrounding hills, looking for bigger sticks that he could use to build a bigger floating bowl. By lunchtime, he had assembled a pile of good-sized "sticks" on the beach, including tree limbs, driftwood, and even a couple of small trees that had lost their grip on the riverbank and fallen into the water. He made one more trip for some vines, and then he stopped just long enough to have a quick lunch.
I was glad for the break in the activity. Supervising Nar was hard work; back and forth, back and forth, it was like watching a bird build a nest. I really hoped that the damn thing wouldn't float with them on it, because I was starting to have a bad feeling about those truffles. I mean, if the truffles had made us crazy, what effect would they have on Zan and Nar? The humans were already a bit goofy to start with.
I was barely able to get a snooze in before Nar went back to work. Just as Zan had done, he laid his "sticks" out one at a time, right next to each other, after breaking off the roots and smaller branches so they wouldn't get in the way. Then he bound them together with the vines, which was tricky, because the trees and branches and pieces of driftwood that he was using were all different lengths and so thick that he couldn't break off the ends that were sticking out. That made his bowl at least twice as long as it was wide, with ragged-looking ends. It didn't matter what it looked like, I told Wimsie. If it floated, we were in trouble.
When it was as good as he could make it, considering what he had to work with, he dragged it over to the water. Zan, Wimsie and I plopped down in the sand, and we munched on the popped corn that Zan had made for the occasion while we waited to see what would happen.
Nar pushed his big floating bowl into the water, and then he tried to climb on. It flipped over, dumping him into the drink, and hit him on the head as it came down. Worried that Nar had been hurt, Wimsie whined and looked over at Zan, who had clamped her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. I chuckled a bit, but I almost felt sorry for Nar. After all, he had put a considerable amount of effort into making that damn thing. Still, I was hoping that he would give up on it.
He didn't. When he had recovered his wits, such as they were, he asked Zan to hold one side of the unstable bundle of sticks while he carefully climbed on from the other side. It didn't flip over again, but it wasn't quite big enough to hold his weight. He inched his way to the middle of it, but even there, the water lapped over his legs.
"It would work," Nar said stubbornly, as he sat on his half-submerged bowl, "but I would have to use bigger trees. A couple of big ones fell down along the river, but they're too heavy for me to drag over here." He slid off his bowl, and it started to drift away.
Seeing his disappointment, Zan offered a suggestion. "You could put some more trees on top of those," she said, pointing at the bowl, "the same size, but going crossways, like I do with the rushes for our beds."
Nar brightened at the idea, and he waded after his bowl and dragged it up on the beach. The following day, he put another layer of driftwood and small logs on top of the part that he had already built. Feeling inspired, he even added a layer of rushes, to make it more comfortable to sit on. But when it was done, he found out, to his dismay, that it was so heavy he couldn't move it by himself. I'm glad I was there, because I learned a couple of new human words that mean, generally speaking, "I'm really angry right now." With Zan's help, he managed to slide it down the beach and into the water. We all held our breath as he climbed aboard, but this time, it supported his weight. "If I make it bigger, it will hold both of us, Zan!" he called out triumphantly, and he rolled off it and shoved it back to shore. He used a piece of vine to tie it to a big rock so it wouldn't float away. For some reason, the whole apparatus reminded me of a crane's nest, except, of course, that cranes don't tie their nests to a rock.
Zan looked at the huge, multi-layered bowl. "It's not really a bowl anymore," she mused. "We need a new name for these things." She thought for a moment. "How about . . . a raft?"
"Whatever," Nar said over his shoulder as he went to get more logs.
Nar's enthusiasm eventually produced a raft that would hold all four of us. And even if it hadn't, I would have swum right alongside it, because I wanted to see what the humans would do when they found the truffles. That was something that I didn't want to miss.
When Nar was satisfied with the raft, he tried to figure out a way to propel it. It would have been silly to just sit on it and let it drift around. First, he tried to push the raft along with a sapling that was long enough to reach the sandy bottom. That worked fine in the shallows, but further out, the water was deeper than the sapling was long. He pushed the raft back to shore, and then he sat there, completely stymied.
"Duck's feet!" Zan shouted, and she stood up and leaped off the raft to the shore.
Nar looked at her as if she'd lost her mind. "What about duck's feet?"
"Wait!" Zan told him, and she ran up the beach toward the river.
Nar rolled his eyes, and then he looked at the sapling that he had tried to use. "Maybe I can tie a couple of these together and make a longer one." I wasn't sure if that would work. Those saplings were pretty flimsy, and if the ends were tied together, the whole thing would be even flimsier. And if it broke, the raft would be stuck in deep water.
We were saved from that experiment by Zan, who returned with a pair of large, fan-shaped palmetto leaves. The leaflets were broad and stiff and overlapped like the feathers on a bird's wing. She attached each leaf to one end of a sturdy stick and presented the finished items to Nar, who was trying to make a long pole out of a pair of saplings. "These are paddles," Zan said. "I think they're big enough to work."
"What do we do with these?" Nar said, looking at them in puzzlement.
"We use them like duck's feet," Zan said patiently, as if she were dealing with a simpleton. "Get on the raft and I'll show you."
I had already figured out what Zan was up to. When the humans were settled on the raft, Wimsie and I climbed aboard, and off we went.
"Push the water with the leaf," Zan said, and she picked up one of the paddles and dipped it into the water. Her effort caused the raft to rotate a bit. "If you push on the other side, the raft will go straight," she instructed Nar. It took them a few tries, but we were soon cruising along at a fairly respectable rate.
It was an odd feeling, moving while sitting still. It reminded me of those rolling caves that I had seen in my strange, truffle-induced dream, the ones that the dream-dogs were hanging their heads out of while enjoying the breeze. The raft didn't move nearly as fast as those caves had, but then again, we weren't in any hurry to get anywhere. We had all the time in the world.
The humans paddled right past the first island, which was low and flat and didn't have anything on it except grass. I was hoping that they would head for Pistachio Island, as Wimsie called it, and then on to one of the other "safe" islands.
That's not what they did. They went straight for Truffle Island, which, from their point of view, was quite sensible. Pistachio Island was small and scrubby, while Truffle Island was big enough to have some good-sized trees. And trees usually meant food, and maybe even some new kinds of food. So I didn't blame them.
We finally reached Truffle Island, and Nar tied the raft to a tree. "Maybe we can distract them so they don't find the truffles," I told Wimsie. She grabbed a stick and tried to entice Zan to play throw-the-stick, but Zan wanted to explore the island.
I nudged Wimsie, and the two of us strolled in the opposite direction from the Truffle Tree. Along the way, we pretended to be amazingly excited over every little thing that we saw, even if it was something that we had back home: strawberries, plums, mushrooms. There was lots of food on the island. We did our best to divert the humans from that little tree, but it didn't work. Nar spotted the truffles.
"Zan! You have to try these!" Nar called out. Zan paused in her blackberry-picking and waded through the long grass to see what Nar had found.
"Now we'll see something interesting," I said to Wimsie, and we padded over to the Truffle Tree, where Nar was standing with a truffle in each hand. He popped one of the insidious brown fruits into his mouth, closing his eyes as he savored it. Then he glanced at the other one, which he had intended to give to Zan. I wasn't the least bit surprised when he ate that one, too. Obviously, the truffles had the same effect on humans as they did on dogs.
"Let's get some, before they're all gone," Wimsie whispered to me. "Those dreams were fun!" The tree had grown more truffles on its lower branches, and she ran over and snatched one of the sweet, creamy treats. So did I, on the grounds that I was eating them in order to protect the humans from them. I regarded it as a noble gesture.
Zan arrived on the scene, and by the time we were done, there were no truffles left on the tree. Not one. It was awesome. The resulting stomach-aches were awesome, too. About an hour later, the four of us lay sprawled on the grass, groaning and wishing we had some ginger root to gnaw on. Ginger was great for an upset stomach. Zan had some ginger back at the cave, but we hadn't seen any on the island, and there was no fucking way that any of us were getting on that raft. Not in the condition we were in. Every now and then, one of us would get up and stagger over to the little spring for a sip of water.
The nausea finally went away, and then came the exhilarating rush of energy that I had been anticipating. The humans did a quick inventory of all the edibles on the island, while Wimsie and I played tag and chased the gulls on the beach. Then everyone got back on the raft, and we took off for another island. We just had to see all of 'em. That's how good we felt. Most of the islands had familiar things on them -- fruits, nuts, berries and so on -- which was nice to know, in case we ran out of something at home. We checked out each island and moved on to the next, and Zan and Nar tried to remember where all the goodies were so they could plan for future excursions.
As we approached the last island, the one furthest from the shore of the lake, we could see that it was different from the others. The island was all bare rock, with no soil or grass at all, and right in the middle of it was a single tree. Nar tied the raft to a boulder, and then we went to visit the sole occupant of the island. It was the biggest tree that I had ever seen, and I had seen a lot of trees. It had a straight, smooth, gray trunk, and its large, triangular leaves were a shiny silver. The leaves reflected the sunshine in a thousand sparkles of light that had been visible from several of the other islands. Wimsie had been the first to notice the distant twinkling, and we had been curious about what was causing it. Now we knew. The huge, thick roots snaked their way over the rock and down into cracks and crevices, anchoring the tree quite firmly. Tiny seeds that looked like milkweed fluff drifted down from the branches and were intercepted by small black-and-yellow birds with squeaky voices.
"Fuzzies!" Wimsie yipped, and she joined the birds in their game, dancing and leaping around the tree and snapping at the seeds as they drifted through the air. The birds flew around her, chirping happily at their new playmate.
While Wimsie played with her feathered friends, I stared at the tree, trying to think of its name. Something as big and as strange as that tree should be easy to remember, but it wasn't, so I resigned myself to calling the damn thing a Fuzzie Tree.
There was nothing else on the island, not even a puddle of fresh water to drink. After a brief rest, Nar and Zan climbed aboard the raft. I managed to coax Wimsie away from the fuzzies and the birdies and onto the raft, because I didn't feel like swimming home. We headed back the way we had come, but a short time later, the energy crash hit us. I had been expecting it. The humans made it to the closest island that had food and water on it, and that's where we stayed for the night. Zan threw together a big pile of soft grass and leaves for us to sleep on. We grabbed some quick snacks, and then collapsed in a heap on the make-shift bed. As I sank into sleep, I wondered what the humans were going to dream about.
Wimsie and I had the same strange but pleasant truffle-dreams that we'd had the first time: colorful toys, and rolling caves, and humans and dogs playing with each other and generally enjoying themselves. The dreams were familiar in their strangeness and oddly comforting, but unfortunately, they were cut short. Entirely too early in the morning, we were awakened by the voices of Zan and Nar, who were chattering excitedly about their dreams.
"There were huge caves!" Zan said, trying to explain what she had seen. "They were tall, like . . . like termite mounds. And people," she said, using her own word for 'humans,' "lived in them. There were little caves inside the tall ones, and people would go inside them, and the little caves moved up and down and carried the people to different levels of the tall cave. And there were rows of tall caves, with paths in between . . ."
"And big shiny things moving along the paths," Nar said, interrupting her. "They were different colors, and they rolled on the paths, with people inside them. And some of the paths went over big rivers, so big I could hardly see the other side . . . "
"And there were people everywhere!" Zan continued. "Lots of people. More than that herd of buffalo we saw. But the people didn't have bare skin, like we do. They had some kind of . . . fur, or something, covering their skin. And that was different colors, too. But it couldn't have been fur, because they could take it off. And some of the people had different things on their heads . . . "
Nar cut her off again. "I saw caves where people would go in and give other people some little pieces of something, like birch bark, and then they would leave the cave with things like those furs, or whatever they were, that you were talking about."
"I saw those, too!" Zan said. "Some of the caves were full of food, and some had different kinds of animals in them, and there was a place where people were putting round black things on those big shiny things . . ."
"Did you see the big flying thing?" Nar cut in. "People went inside it and sat down, and then it rolled along the ground until it was going fast enough to fly. It was like watching geese take off."
"I didn't see that!" Zan said, disappointed that she had missed that particular category of thing.
We had a hurried breakfast, and then Zan and Nar scoured the island, looking for more truffles. I already knew there weren't any, because Wimsie and I had done a pretty thorough search of the island ourselves after we had eaten that very first batch. The humans didn't rest until they had checked out all of the other islands, which, to my relief, were also devoid of truffles. Finally, they gave up on the truffles and paddled us home, while gossiping about all of the incredible things that they had seen in their truffle-dreams.
I was glad that we had temporarily run out of truffles -- it wouldn't be long before the lone Truffle Tree grew more -- because it would give those two "people" a chance to calm down.
But they didn't calm down. Not by a long shot.
To be continued...