enjoy every step

      Indi Joharis was glad to be back on solid ground. So glad in fact, that she was down on dirtied knees, rooting around in the spongy, old-growth forest loam. She observed a nest of fibers intertwined amongst the wooden cables of the douglas firs’ root network. Isolating a long, white string, she fed a tendril into her mouth. It didn’t taste like anything. She continued to scour the site in three foot squares until she was satisfied she had not missed anything edible. 
      She moved on. 
      There was little rhyme or reason to her investigation methods. She paraded through endless acres of old-growth forest, basking in the sounds and scenery, until she got tired, or until she spotted an interesting flower, or until something unplaceable gave her pause. She rarely stopped to consider what it was about a place that stole her interest, for as quickly as that question was posed, her mind was invaded by a dozen others. 
      She laid back in a bed of echinacea and hollyhock. Bumblebees went about their business. She watched one wiggle up a flower, plunge its face into a pool of pollen, intently taking its time before drunkenly, impossibly, attaining flight on undersized wings. Indi envied the bee for its meal, and its multitude of dining options. Her stomach growled then, and the mission behind her wandering returned to her. 
      She was hunting for mushrooms to bring to camp dinner. 
      A white-headed fungus peeked out from a bed of pink and yellow lupines. She bent down to get a closer look, noted its gills were still white, and plucked it. “Shaggy mane!” she exclaimed. A few others like it were in the vicinity, and she plucked those too. She resisted the urge to eat them on the spot. They never ate anything interesting at camp, and Indi relished the idea of bringing back enough for everyone to enjoy. Her grumbling stomach would have to be patient. 
      “Indi! There you are. Haven’t you heard me calling for you?” 
       Indi turned to face Michi, her younger sister. The pigtailed girl dropped a brimming sack of mushrooms proudly at Indi’s feet. “I did good, didn’t I?” Michi said. 
“Let’s have a looksee.” Indi reached her grimey fingers into her sister’s sack. “You found a Gypsy!” she complimented, holding up a golden mushroom with a cap like a hat with a large, flowing brim. “Gypsies are special. Since there’s not enough to share, we better keep this one our little secret.” Indi winked at Michi. She took a small knife from her belt and cut it in half. The two of them noshed on the morsel while they inspected the rest of the young girl’s findings. 
      “I did good, huh,” Michi said. 
      “You sure found a lot,” Indi said. “But these, and these, and these,” she said, setting aside several different types of mushrooms, “and these are poison.” Laid out between the girls was a good portion of the fungi that Michi had found. Indi told her sister their names before pitching them aside. 
      “Fly Ama-eatya?”  
      “Fly Amanita,” Indi pronounced. 
      “I like those ones!” Michi complained. “I like their specky heads. They remind me of popcorn!” 
      “Fly Amanita are toxic,” Indi repeated. 
      “How do I remember?” Michi asked. The young girl’s expression was torn in twain. Part of her looked curious, the other part looked on the brink of tears. 
      “You just do. Mushrooms are enigmatic.” 
      “There are no rules. You just have to remember.” 
      “I don’t like mushrooms.” Michi jumped up and down, squashing the fly amanita into a mushy paste. She kicked the other poisonous mushrooms away from her satchel as well, scattering them into the brush. 
      “I will teach you, little sister,” Indi assured her. “You are great at finding them. Here...” Indi held up another type that her sister had found. “This is called a yellow morel. These are so yummy! Go find more of these!” 
      “Okay!” At once, Michi went dashing off in the direction she had come. “I remember where I found it.” 
      Indi called to Michi, “No snacking, little sister! They have to be cooked first!” 

An hour later, Indi and Michi returned to camp. They carried a burlap satchel filled to the brim with various mushrooms. Both of them wore beaming smiles caked with spongy fungi and dirt. Their Callings hovered behind them peacefully, both airborne, a flitting avian-type for Indi and a fluttering nymph-type for Michi. 
      “Where did you go?” one of their fellow campers shouted at them. 
      “Did you catch something?” another asked when he saw their satchel. 
      “Rabbit, I hope,” the first one said. “Is it a rabbit?” 
      “Better!” Indi cheered. “We brought you something special!” 
      “Is it a pig?” 
      “You know my sisters wouldn’t hurt a fly,” their brother, Odis, interjected. 
      “Fly amanita,” Michi said. “Those are poison. I stomped on them.” 
      “It’s not an animal, silly,” Indi told them. She up-ended the contents on a table next to their cooking station. “They are mushrooms.” 
      “Mushrooms! Gross! Good thing we already ate!” One of the boys took his arm and brushed the selection of mushrooms to the ground. Then he kicked and stomped them, as Michi had done to the poisonous ones, until they were ruined. “I hate mushrooms. I’d rather kiss an azighra!” 
      “They’re enigmatic,” Michi said, butchering the word. 
      Indi turned away to hide her tears. Why? She didn’t understand. What was it about her that made them treat her this way? They were all nice to each other, but mean to her. Would she ever fit in with these people? Did she want to? 
      Odis took the rampaging camper by the collar of his shirt. “You’d rather kiss an azighra, eh? I’ll grant you that wish!” He overpowered the boy and dragged him kicking and screaming from camp. Indi glimpsed the helpless look on the bully’s face, and her brothers twisted into something terrifying. Indi began to sob. Odis chucked the boy roughly to the ground before returning to his sister’s side. He helped her salvage what remained of the decimated mushrooms. 

“Gather around!” 
      A couple hours later, after a meager supper, Indi, Michi and the rest of their camp followed Odis into an auditorium built into the side of a hill. Odis instructed the younger group where to sit. Other prefects like Odis directed their band of young students to their seats, until hundreds of youth were situated. Besides the prefects, none of them knew the reason the meeting had been called. 
      Indi poked her brother in the ribs. “You’re smiling. Why are you smiling?” 
      “You’ll see,” Odis said, and his smile grew wider. 
      “Who is it?” Indi asked him. 
      “Patience, sister!” 
      An excited murmur passed through the audience. The tips of antlers could be seen off to stage-right, partially concealed behind a boulder. There was a glimpse of wing tips, a ruffle of enormous feathers, a clomping of hooved feet. 
      “Who is it, brother?” 
      “Shh!” Odis silenced his sister. The sight had reduced him to something much less than the authoritative prefect. He became a giddy student again, bouncing up and down, fidgeting worse than Michi, and stretching out his clothes. He made odd, involuntary clucks not unlike an egret Indi once saw gulping down a fish. All evidence of his authority and experience vanished, replaced by boyish glee. 
      A winged stag stepped out from behind the boulder. It was at least ten feet tall from hoof to antler. It folded its wings back alongside its hindquarters, but once it had the rapt attention of its audience, it reared back on its hindlegs, fanned out its wings, and with a flourish, sent a gust of wind across the children. The children suddenly found themselves hatless, windswept, and teary-eyed. None more than Odis, who dabbed the corner of his eyes with his sleeve, and then stood to applaud. As the crowd erupted, the Calling balanced on its haunches with wings outstretched and antlers lifted high. 
      His applause was interrupted by the entry of a second beast. This one was fox-like and made of stone. Sunburst and reindeer lichen clung to its sides like fur, giving it a captivating patchwork of yellow and green. Auraed stones circled the Calling in glowing orbits. They created a veil which obscured the view of its entire body. 
A man not much older than Odis walked on stage. His body was rippled in muscle, stretched tall and slender. A mane of dark hair was tied in a knot at the back of his head. The creases of strength in his legs reminded Indi of bald cypress tree trunks. Closely observing his torso, Indi found herself thinking of a chanterelle mushroom. He was the same color and the same shape: golden tan, tapering upward into a V. His shirt clung to him.
      Indi licked her lips. 
      Odis’ applause strengthened. 
      Michi asked, “Who is he?” 
      “That’s James Daniels!” 
      “He has a shaggy mane,” Michi said. 
      James gave the audience a long time to settle down. When it was apparent that they weren’t going to be silent anytime soon, James interceded. “Children! Explorers! I am honored! Please! Settle in! I have some words for you! Please!” He continued to shout in a friendly manner, urging them all to calm down. “Listen to your prefects! Thank you! Thank you! This is a true Explorer’s welcome!” 
      Finally, they were ready to listen. 
      Odis gave one final whoop before sitting down. 
      “What an honor,” James Daniels began, “to see so many enthusiastic climbers. Climbing is more than sport. It is the quintessence, the supreme act, of exploration. One asks many of life’s important questions all at once when climbing. Questions of balance, of risk and reward, of patience, of delayed gratification, of persistence, of trust! It delights me to see you all have discovered the beauty of it for yourselves!”
      Hands had shot up throughout the audience. Many of the children’s Callings betrayed their uncontainable exuberance. They were getting restless already, rushing the stage by ground and air. Indi saw Glyde, Odis’ flying rodent beast, scampering through the canopy overtop James’ winged-stag. The girl chuckled at the contrast. There was not a Calling amongst all the campers’ that wasn’t humorously meek by comparison. A full-bodied giggle escaped when she saw one of her bullies beasts knocked against a tree by a mere flick of the stag’s tail. 
      “Now, children,” James chided lightly. “Would you like to meet Maji?” The winged-stag lowered itself to the ground. Children poured out of their seats and formed a perimeter. Each of them was overjoyed to lay a hand on the massive creature. Those whose Callings could fly perched in Maji’s antlers. 
Indi, through Colibri, took a greater interest in James’ other Calling, the stone fox. The bird hovered in front of it, and then joined in the flight pattern of the still orbiting stones. The fox was amused, and invited Colibri to approach by way of slowing the whir of its protective boundary. Indi’s bird-beast neared, but the fox retreated to James’ side. Wanting to respect its wishes, Colibri kept its distance. Of all the things Indi expected to find in this creature, shyness was not one of them. After a moment, it invited Colibri in again. This time, a complete introduction was achieved. 
      “Naku is a sweetheart, I assure you,” James said. “Pardon her stoney exterior.” 
      A joke? Indi looked up and met his eyes. He held her with a friendly smile. In response, Indi said to Naku, “...I lichen your fur.” The moment was over too soon. The other children had taken notice of Naku, and it was chased back into James’ protection. Maji remained a good sport, but Indi thought she saw a hint of relief when the prefects rose to corral the campers back to their seats. The desire to meet the heroic Callings out of their systems for the moment, James returned to his speech. 
      “The best advice I was ever given: Do not climb for the summit. Someday, someone will reach the top of Great Mountain. That person will not arrive at the summit because they thought of nothing but the top. I have been to the high tiers. I have ascended with better climbers than myself and I have surpassed them, not because I know more knots, was less afraid, or was more driven by my objective. But because I am here, now. This is the only place I exist. You must enjoy every step of the way. Some steps will provide tremendous views, others will be perilous, but each one is one to be savored. You shall not rush. There are no shortcuts. When you set out from First Camp, hold a mammoth cone in your hands, break it open, and enjoy its fruit. When you cross the Gandaki Falls, notice the faces in the ice. When you traverse the Purna Divide, see the river flowing away in opposite directions. When you pass the Sulfurian Flats, be with your breath and nowhere else. One day you will look up and find yourself on the summit! But only if you enjoy each step.” James took a simple bow. 
      Everyone but Indi applauded. 
      Enjoy each step. 
Indi thumbed a loose thread in her poncho. She twirled it around her finger. Vaguely, she heard the prefects make their own speeches and then she half-noticed a commotion around her. It did not escape her notice that the auditorium had quieted, but she preferred it that way. When the light was gone, when the only sound became the rhythmic thrum of crickets, when the cold started biting at her ribs, only then did Indi notice that she had unraveled a few inches of her poncho’s seam. She sighed, truly noticed for the first time that she was alone, and then headed back to camp. 

Indi found Odis sitting by the fire, poking coals. 
She greeted, “Are we Explorers?” 
Odis pulled out his stick, the end aflame. “Yes?” 
“What have we explored recently?” She took a seat on a stump next to his. Glyde appeared in the knot of a fallen log, eyes gleaming in the firelight. 
Odis said, “Tomorrow we leave First Camp and climb to the first tier.” 
“Have you been to the first tier?”
“You know I have.” Glyde shimmied out from its log. It sat to look at her. Colibri buzzed by him at high speed. It was not kind to play pranks on another person’s beast, but Indi wanted to see how Glyde and Odis would react to the unexpected. Glyde was unperturbed. “What is this about?” 
“Have you ever been someplace where nobody else has ever been?” Indi asked. 
Odis thought about it for a minute. “I suppose, probably.” 
“How about definitely?” 
Odis said, “Maybe.” 
“I bet I have stood in places on the Great Mountain where nobody stood before.” 
“Does that make you an Explorer?” 
Odis nodded, understanding. “Exploring isn’t all blazing trails and venturing into the unknown, Indi. Being an explorer is about rejecting defaults. It is about being curious. Someday, when all of Bastunia has been explored, even mapped, there will still be inner space to explore. That can be done anywhere.” 
Indi considered his answer. “I’m curious, Odie.” 
“You are the most curious, dear sister.” 
A silence stretched between them. Odis went back to poking the coals with his stick. Glyde returned to the hollows of downed trees. Eventually, the cold nibbled Indi’s side again. She unwound the lengthening thread from her finger, inspected the seam of her poncho that she had teased to ruination. Sighing, wordless, she headed to bed. 
 Michi detected her entrance into the tent by snuggling close in her sleeping bag. Indi nestled close to her little sister. She planted soft kisses on the girl’s head. Tomorrow is a big day, Indi thought. When she finally drifted off to sleep, it was to thoughts of exploration. 

 Michi was awakened by the morning chill. She rolled over to borrow her sister’s warmth, but Indi was already up. Perhaps she’s out collecting mushrooms, Michi thought. 
Breakfast was already on. She smelled the sizzling pig. Her mouth watered with thoughts of eggs, bacon, and morels. She braved the brief cold in a mad scramble to get dressed. Outside of the tent, her fellow campers were going about their morning routines. Some read, Odis cooked, some moved through their pendamoto. 
“Have you seen Indi?” Michi asked Odis. 
Odis looked up at her with some measure of surprise. “She’s not in the tent?” 
Michi yawned, stretched, and shook her head. 
“I haven’t seen her.” 
Hmmph. Michi was always missing things by sleeping. She liked watching the sunrise with Indi, she liked cooking with Odis, she liked having a full morning to go slow, but she figured she liked to sleep more. She shrugged and found her seat by the fire. Maybe just a couple more minutes of relaxation. 
On her usual stump was a notebook. She flipped it open and immediately recognized Indi’s handwriting. On each page was a detailed drawing of a plant or fungus. In beautiful calligraphic lettering, or at least better than Michi’s chicken scratch, was information about the drawing in question. Michi flipped through tens of pages of mushrooms, roots, berries, nuts, pinecones, and plants. In the upper corner of every page, Indi had notated poisonous, edible, bland, or otherwise. Michi kept flipping pages, in awe of the notebook's thoroughness, until she reached the last page. 
She recognized her name. She went to Odis to understand the rest. 

year 263
first camp

Odis and Michi, 

I am no climber. I don’t know what I am, but I 
do know that. I am reminded all the time how 
little I know of the world, and I don’t suppose 
I will find out by staying here. These places are all found. 
Our days are all planned. Everyday is more of the same. 
It does not feel much like exploration to me. Please forgive 
me for leaving. There is a whole world out there. I don’t 
know what it has for me, but I think I’ll start with food. 


P.S. This field guide is everything we have found together. 
These are your discoveries as much as mine. Stay curious,
little sis. 

P.S.S. Odie, in The Account, Argus wrote of things lost so that 
others may be preserved. I think I know what he meant.