I had not planned to transfer that morning, but a blur of motion outside the kitchen window caught my eye: a squirrel scrambling across the snowy backyard, desperate to reach the trees.
Without that stimulus I might have stayed where I was for many more years. I'd been biding so long here in this woman's mind, tucked up neatly just outside her consciousness, that I almost melded with her. Never before had I stayed so many years in one being, but she had much to teach me about the way of her kind in their world.
I came to her when she was still young, and I immersed myself in her as she matured and married and raised her children. I did not impinge on her life, except perhaps for leaking a bit of my restlessness into her. Yet her species was so compelling that my longing to be elsewhere was almost stilled.
She was intent on the squirrel now, and its urgent striving for safety aroused my long-dormant need to be on the move. The little beast's panic engulfed me and I felt the straining of sinews in the powdery snow that hindered its progress. Almost it reached the shelter of the trees, and its jolt of hope shook me.
Too soon! A flash of red, a flurry of legs, a moment of pain, and then…then I was the fox, savoring the squirrel's hot blood, delighted with my kill. Her mind was primitive and carried a sense of burgeoning life that I recognized from my time with the woman. This vixen was with child. Three kits grew within her, protected by her sharp teeth and warmed by her thick fur. I debated moving into one of them, but they were snug in their cocoons and barely sentient. I stayed with the fox, and as one we moved through the woods.
The remnant of the squirrel's body dangled from my mouth and tickled my nose until I found a place to cache it in the snow under a fallen tree. I marked it with my scent, laying claim to it. The snow had its own scent, cold and clean, reminding me of something I could not bring to mind but sensed I should know quite well. The sharp sweet richness of the pines, decaying leaves under the snow, birds in the air, a cat, flowing water, deer scat, all overridden by the metallic human stinks—I sorted all these scents out naturally, without effort, using them to chart my way back to the den. Deep earth, roots, worms, the smell of safety. A full belly, the warmth of my tail across my muzzle. I slept.
Time passed. Sometimes danger intruded into the fox's life: coyotes would kill me if they could, and I feared the swift noisy beasts that would run me over though I scurried as fast as I could across the wide hard human path. But there was beauty also, in the moonlight's dense shadows on the snow or the sun's warmth at the den entrance, and in the rustle of leaves in the wind.
When little birds started to build nests, my restlessness reawakened. The kits were growing large now, crowding each other inside their mother. Birth was near, but I had no desire to witness parturition again. The woman's labor was still fresh in my memory, though she'd had help and the vixen would whelp alone. It was time to watch for another host. I had to move on, always on.
I lapped water one day at a sparkling brook that flowed into a pond, grateful for the easing of my thirst. Small ripples near the water's edge attracted my attention. Tiny insects, nearly mindless, whirled on the surface tension, dancing their brief lives away. They were little more than impulse: eat, eat, fight, eat, mate, eat. I left the vixen and flitted from one bug to another, until I found one that dove under the water to lay its eggs. Under the muck and mud I found a frog, sleepy still with antifreeze in its blood, waiting for spring. I slid into its miniscule mind and endured until the end of its hibernation.
The waters warmed fractionally as the sun rose higher each day. The thick layer of ice thinned and shrank from the shore. Still I waited, dreaming froggy dreams of moist heat and the snap of insects on my tongue. I dreamt my memories of yearlong summers, of thunderous beasts with ferocious teeth and the small terrified creatures that fled from my approach; I dreamt of choking dust and ash and a sky on fire. Eons passed through my memory as I lay dreaming, reviewing the parade of new species that arose one after another to take their place on this world, only to die away when their time came. I galloped on the plains, climbed the new trees, burrowed under the soil, swam the seas. Flying was a fierce joy, eating a pleasure, the company of like beings a solace. I hunted and was hunted, spawned and died, over and over, until at last all that was left was memory and the urge to move on. Long ago I had given up grief; all things come to an end.
Most of all, as I lay suspended in the frog's hibernation, I dreamt of the woman. Many years I had lived in her and much I learned. Her kind is dangerous, strong beyond its knowing, yet curiously fragile. Gathered together in their billions they may destroy their planet, or reach the stars. It is too soon to know. And my task was only to remember, not to foretell.
On a spring night, when the moon was dark and the ice not yet completely thawed, I stirred, the restlessness upon me once more. I stretched my webbed toes, beat the water with my fine strong legs, and swam to the surface. My throat swelled like a glistening glass bauble, and I joined the chorus of males calling for their loves. Our voices echoed in the darkness.
Suddenly there was light and tremendous noise. The water churned with heat. Frogs scattered, my host among them, but I remained, hovering bodiless between air and water. There was a glow, quickly quenched, deep under the surface. It pulled at me. It pulled hard, and yet I resisted. This lovely world, so full of life, had much still to offer me. How could I leave so soon?
And yet—and yet, I approached. The hard rocky intruder, orb-shaped and still warm from its fiery passage through the air, beckoned to me. "Come back," it called. "It's time. Come, come!"
I caught a swirl of moving water and floated toward the orb. How pleasing it was, how familiar. A portal opened, and a faint but powerful scent drifted toward me. I could not help myself; I was drawn in. The portal closed. I found my place, the one reserved for none other but me, and the long restlessness was soothed at last. I opened my mind to report the terrors and beauties I had known during my sojourn on the watery world I was leaving. As the orb rose slowly out of the pond and past the atmosphere, I recognized the cold clean scent of open space, and I came fully back into myself. The dreaming was over; the probe was done. It was time go home.
In the dim before dawn
The white pines slumped
The birches groveled
The willows sagged.
The pond held no gleam
Lifeless under sullen ice
Silent save for the sibilance
Of what fell from the sky.
Was it snow that weighed them down
That lay so heavy on the boughs
That hushed the wind
That burdened the land--
Or endless wordless grief
For what we have done.
The news from Japan, Chernobyl,
Three Mile Island.
The air we can’t breathe
The waters we can’t drink
The soil we can’t till.
In the dim before dawn
A grey world woke
Under a grisly sky.