the journey home -- © 1996, 2000 ruth pettis

page two

She moved cautiously, with just her eyes above water to make herself less visible from the shore. She spotted Sleekskin on the bank to her right. She caught her breath and kept very still. He hadn't seen her--he was busy sunning himself on a ledge, showing off his glistening brown body to the sky. He was lolling there upside down, letting the early sun warm his belly. Yubash was close enough to see his whiskers twitch and his muscles ripple as he rocked from side to side. She kept watching him as she floated quietly by, letting the tide push her forward as if she were a drifting stick the ocean was sending back to the land.

Her brush with Sleekskin reminded Yubash of the need for caution-- especially in her case. Especially now.

Yubash was the first of her generation to make the trip upriver. She had been chosen not because of any exceptional strength or swiftness, but because her senses were so keen. All of her kin acknowledged how quick she was to notice things that were important to know about, and having noticed, to remember them.

Thoughts of her kin stayed with Yubash as she made her way through the maze of channels in the delta. The trust they placed in her was like a weight she must carry. It was she who must find the route home and spot all the dangers along the way. And always her people would be following her, doing as she did. Yubash swam slowly and considered everything her senses told her. She noticed, for example, a little flicker of shadow playing on the surface of the water just above her. She kept it in one corner of her sight as she went on.

When she stopped at the edge of the marsh grass she saw the shadow still circling, like a mosquito's reflection overhead. But it moved much more slowly, and the source of it seemed always out of reach. Something uneasy in her memory troubled her. She continued on her way, watchful now as the shadow moved away and came back again, always with her as she swam upstream.

She started moving in a straight course, as if heading for a particular place on the opposite shore. At the moment when the shadow suddenly became much larger, she changed direction and dove down into the dark water.

She almost didn't do it quickly enough. Snowhead's claws raked her back painfully, and she had to somersault to get free. Yubash zigzagged to keep her adversary confused but Snowhead had seen this before. The old one had been mistress of the delta long enough to know the route Yubash's people had to take to get home. Just ahead a rock formation jutted out, forcing the river to hurry to keep up with itself in its headlong rush to the sea. As the sea tried to enter the land, it contended with the river right at this point, spinning eddies in all directions. Snowhead rode the thermal winds in easy circles, waiting to see what Yubash would do when she got here. The waiting took longer than it should have and she began to wonder what might taste so good in the lower delta to keep Yubash there so long. She wondered if she should go back and find out.

But Yubash was well acquainted with the sea. She could feel that it was about to tire in its latest skirmish with the land, and go home to brood about it for a while. She waited in the shadow of an overhanging bank. Right about the time she felt the sea give way, she saw that false mosquito shadow again, working its way back down the delta. Yubash shot into the exhausted rapids and sped beyond them. Soon there was no longer any taste of the ocean.

© 1996, 2000 ruth pettis

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