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Zajai and the Butterfly

On the banks of the Locksmehr River, in a clearing in the forest, there once lived a human girl named Zajai. While the boys of the village fished and hunted with the men, Zajai and the other girls helped with chores in the home or in the nearby fields. Like the other girls, Zajai never stepped far into the forest. She knew that it was full of fierce creatures and harmful spirits, and that it was easy to get lost in there.

Still, she would listen wide-eyed when the elders told stories about that other world. And sometimes she would go just a little way in, gazing among the giant trees and wondering what she might find if she pressed farther on. One day as Zajai was sitting outside her home, she looked up and saw a big swallowtail butterfly hovering right before her. Sunlight danced like diamond reflections on its shimmering blue wings.

"You are the most magical creature in the world," Zajai said dreamily. "I wish I could be like you."

The butterfly fluttered its wings and dipped as if in answer, then slowly flew toward the edge of the clearing. Zajai stood up and started after it, imitating its lazy flight. Among the trees she followed, swooping and circling and flapping her arms. She played like this for a long time, until the butterfly passed between some thorny vines and disappeared. Suddenly Zajai realized she had gone too far into the forest. There was no path to follow, and the leaves of the tall trees made a canopy that hid most of the sun. She could not tell which way she had come.

"Mother! Father! Anyone!" she shouted. But no one came. "Oh no," she said softly. "How will I find my way back?" Zajai wandered anxiously about, hoping to find something that seemed familiar, something that might point her in the direction home. After a while she heard a repeated tapping noise.

"Someone must be working in the forest," she said hopefully, and she followed the sound. But when she got close, she saw it was just a woodpecker. Zajai sadly shook her head. "If only you were human," she said, "you could show me the way home."

"Why would I have to be human?" asked the woodpecker indignantly. "I could show you just as I am!"

Startled, but glad to hear it talk, Zajai said eagerly, "Oh, would you?"

"Can't you see I'm busy?" said the woodpecker. "You humans are so conceited, you think everyone else in the Lands is here to serve you. But in the forest wild, a woodpecker is just as important as a human." And it flew off.

"I didn't mean anything bad," said Zajai to herself. "I just want to go home."

More uneasy than ever, Zajai walked farther. All at once she came upon a shack, and sitting within it was a woman weaving a net. "Oh, wise one!" cried Zajai joyfully, addressing the woman with the term proper for an elder. "I'm so glad to find someone here. I was afraid I would die in the forest!"

But just as she stepped into the shack, the roof began to flap, and the shack and the woman together rose into the air. Then Zajai saw it was really a mirage created by a mystical griffin who had sensed Zajai's fervent desire to find help. It flew to a branch above. "Don't you 'Oh wise one' me!" screeched the bird. "How many of my people have your relatives hunted and killed? How many have you cooked and eaten? Don't you dare ask for my help!" And it too flew away.

"The animals here all seem to hate me," said Zajai sorrowfully. "But I can't help being a human!" Zajai wandered on, feeling more and more hopeless, and hungry now as well.

Suddenly, a fruit dropped to the ground. She picked it up and ate it greedily. Then another dropped nearby. Zajai looked up and saw why. A band of tree monkeys was feeding in the forest canopy high above, and now and then a fruit would slip from their hands. "I'll just follow the monkeys," Zajai told herself. "Then at least I won't starve." And for the rest of that day she walked along beneath them, eating any fruit they dropped. But her fears grew fresh as daylight faded and night came to the forest. In the
deepening darkness, Zajai saw the monkeys start to climb down, and she hid herself to watch. To her utter amazement, as the monkeys reached the ground, each one changed to the form of a human.

Zajai could not help but gasp, and within a moment the monkey people had surrounded her. "Why, it's Zajai!" said a monkey man with a friendly voice. "What are you doing here?"

Zajai stammered, "I followed a butterfly into the forest, and now I can't find my way home."

"You poor girl!" said a monkey woman. "Don't worry. We'll bring you there tomorrow." "Oh, thank you!" cried Zajai. "But where will I stay tonight?"

"Why don't you come with us to the festival?" asked the monkey man. "We've been invited by the Lord of Monkeys."

They soon arrived at a large clearing. When the Monkey Lord saw Zajai, he demanded, "Human, why have you come uninvited?"

"We found her and brought her along," the monkey woman told him. The Monkey Lord grunted and said nothing more. But he eyed the girl in a way that made her shiver. Many more monkey people had arrived, all in human form. Some wore animal costumes of
barkcloth with wooden masks. Others had designs painted on their faces with dyes of many colors. Everyone drank from gourds full of ale. Then some of the monkey people rose to begin the dance. With the Monkey Lord at their head, they marched in torchlight around the clearing, beating drums and shaking rattle sticks. Others sang softly or played bone flutes.

Zajai watched it all in wonder. She told her friend the monkey woman, "This is just like the festivals of my own people!"

Late that night, when all had retired to their sleeping straw mats, Zajai was kept awake by the snoring of the Monkey Lord. After awhile, something about it caught her ear.

"That's strange," she told herself. "It sounds almost like words."

The girl listened carefully and heard, "I will devour Zajai. I will devour Zajai."

"Oh wise one!" she cried in terror.

"What? Who's that?" said the Monkey Lord, starting from his sleep.

"It's Zajai," said the girl. "You said in your sleep you would devour me!"

"How could I say that?" he demanded. "Monkeys don't eat people. No, that was just foolish talk of this mouth of mine. Pay no attention!" He took a long swig of ale and went back to sleep.

Soon the girl heard again, "I will devour Zajai. I will devour Zajai." But this time the snores sounded more like growls.

Zajai looked over at the Monkey Lord's mat. To her horror, she saw not a human form but a powerful animal with black fur. The Lord of Monkeys was not a monkey at all. He was a fierce panther! Zajai's heart beat wildly. As quietly as she could, she slipped from her mat and grabbed a torch. Then she ran headlong through the night. When Zajai stopped at last to rest, daylight had begun to filter through the forest canopy. She sat down among the root buttresses of a modwir tree and began to cry.

"I hate this forest!" she said fiercely. "Nothing here makes any sense!"

"Are you sure?" asked a tiny voice. Quickly wiping her eyes, Zajai looked up. On a branch of the tree was a swallowtail butterfly, the largest she had ever seen. It waved at her with brilliant blue wings. "Oh, wise one," said Zajai, "nothing here is what it seems. Everything changes into something else!"

"Dear Zajai," said the butterfly gently, "that is the way of the forest. Among your own people, things change slowly and are mostly what they seem. But your human world is a small one. All around it lies a much larger world, and you can't expect it to behave the same."

"But if I can't understand the forest," cried Zajai, "how will I ever get home?"

"I will lead you there myself," said the butterfly.

"Oh, wise one, will you?" said Zajai.

"Certainly," said the butterfly. "Just follow me."

It wasn't long till they came to the banks of the Locksmehr. Then Zajai saw with astonishment that the boat landing of her people was on the other side.

"I crossed the river without knowing it!" she cried. "But that's impossible!"

"Impossible?" asked the butterfly.

"I mean," said Zajai carefully, "I don't understand how it happened. But now, how will I get back across?".

"That's simple," said the swallowtail. "I'll change you to a butterfly." And it began to chant over and over,

Wings of blue, always true.
Wings of blue, always true.
Wings of blue, always true.

Zajai felt herself grow smaller, while her arms grew wide and thin. Soon she was fluttering and hovering beside the other.

"I'm a butterfly!" she cried.

They started across the wide water, their wings glistening in the sun. "I feel so light and graceful," said Zajai. "I wish this would never end."

Before long they reached the landing, where a path led back to the village. The instant the Zajai-butterfly touched the ground, she was changed back to human form. "I will leave you here," said the butterfly. "Fare well, Zajai."

"Oh, wise one," cried the girl, "take me with you. I want to be a butterfly forever!".

"That would not be right," said the butterfly. "You belong with your people, who love you and care for you. But never mind, Zajai. Now that you have been one of us, you will always have something of the forest within you."

The girl nodded and waved as the butterfly flew off. "Goodbye, wise one!"

Then Zajai turned around and headed home, with a heart that fluttered like a butterfly’s wings.



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