I wake up. I look around the small cave I call home. I look at my mother, curled up next to me, and head outside. I turn and look behind me, at the moon above me. It seems to be only a little while until morning. I should go back inside, but I don’t.
I wake up. I open my eyes and sunlight burns them. I quickly get up and go back into the cave, hoping Mother hasn’t woken up yet, so I can sneak in before she wakes up and finds out that I fell asleep outside again. I peek inside and see she is still asleep. I quietly pad inside and lie down.
My mother wakes up and sniffs the air. “Meili (pronounced May Lee if you were wondering), were you outside again tonight? I can smell fresh air on your paws”
“Yes mother,” I sigh.
“Meili you have to know when to come inside! When it gets colder it will not be good for you to be outside like that! You might get sick!”
“I know Mother, I’m sorry. It was just the moon was so beautiful-“
“No excuses, Meili. That’s what you say every time.”
“But it’s true every time!”
“Meili you just have to be more careful! It’s the cold season now and you know that it’s always hard this time of year. You know it’s all right to do that in the warm season, but as it gets colder it becomes more unsafe. If you wake up during the night, just please stay in the cave!”
“Alright,” I sigh.
“It’s time to go out and grab breakfast. Stay close to me so I can keep you warm.”
We head outside and look up at the short stalks of bamboo, just shooting out of the ground, growing back after a long season of being eaten.
We head deeper into the forest, until I can’t see the cave anymore. I turn and see my mother running towards a particularly large stalk of bamboo. I run to catch up, and see that it wasn’t the bamboo she was running towards, but the panda behind it, which I hadn’t noticed.
I understand that this panda must be my father, which I know from the stories when I was a cub. I know about every scar he has. But I had no idea he was so big! He’s taller than even Mother!
I run towards them and skid to a halt beside Mother. I look up at Father.
“Maui this is your daughter, Meili”
His gaze softens when he looks at me.
“Meili,” he says my name quietly, padding closer, “you look so much like your mother.” He glances at Mother.
“Father,” I say quietly. “I have heard so much about you!” I look at him excitedly
“I know about that scar,” I say pointing a claw at a small one on his front paw, “you were climbing a tree to get the leaves at the top of a bamboo stalk for Mother. Her favorite is the tops. And you fell off the tree, just managing to grab onto the branch with that claw,” I point at his front claw, “And you try to grab onto the branch to haul yourself up to with that paw,” the scarred one ,”and the bark scratched it. Then you fell out of the tree.”
I look at him, waiting for a reaction.
He breaks into a grin. “You know your stories” he looks impressed.
I grin back up at him. “Why are you here? You wouldn’t just come to visit me and Mother. There must be a reason.”
“There’s trouble in my group. A panda needs healing, and our healer is not there. I assumed you would be here, since Meili had only just turned 100 days old, and you being a panda that likes to make roots and stay there,” he looks at Mother, “I need you to come, you were our old healer.”
“Of course I’ll come. But what will we do about Meili? She is much too young to stay alone, and too young to come with us!”
“She will come with us. I can take care of her”
I follow the conversation with my eyes, looking from Mother to Father. “I want to come!”
“But-“ Mother tries to protest.
Father breaks in, “There is no other solution. I can carry her with me.”
Father stays for the night, and we leave the next morning, bright and early.
I skip along the path, humming to myself. “Are we there yet??” I ask for the third time.
“It’s not even midday yet, Meili!” Mother says, “You have to be patient! It’s a day-long journey.”
“Fine,” I drag my paws. “I’m hungry.” We had left too early this morning for breakfast.
“We are almost to a resting place, with a lot of bamboo to eat.” Father says. “We will be there when the sun reaches the tips of the trees.”
“All right,” I sigh
I start running again, catching up to Father.
“What are the pandas like? Are they different from us?”
Father looks at me. “They are the same, as in black and white, but they have different personalities, just like us.”
“Tell me about them!” I say excitedly.
“All right. Hmm… there is the leader-“
“Her name is Miao. She is very strong and nothing makes her waver. Anything that happens, she knows how to handle it, no matter what. A rival group, not a problem. Trouble hunting, not a problem. Even if the forest collapses, it’s not a problem. She is very serious all the time, and she is always thinking about the future. It makes her a very good leader for our group, because she keeps us in line, especially the younger members. She does have a very big edge, though, trouble trusting people sometimes, and that’s how Lush got hurt.”
“Woah,” I breathe, “she sounds scary. I could never be like that!”
“No, I don’t think you could.” Father replies.
Leaning down, he says, “Do you want a ride?”
“Oh yes I do!” I say excitedly.
I cling onto his back, and hang on tight for what comes next. I laugh as he runs and tosses and turns. The ride is soon over, and I have to get back onto my aching legs to walk to the resting place.
Finally, the sun is at the tips of the trees, just as Father promised. “Are we halfway there now?” My voice drags, the energy from the ride, so long ago, gone, and I realize how tired I am.
“We are a little bit less than halfway, Meili,” Mother says.
“I’m really tired.”
“Why don’t you ride on my back?” Father suggests. “I can walk gently so that you can rest.”
Father’s large back does look very comfortable, I guess. “All right,” I tell him, “but no funny business like the ride here.”
Father chuckles. “Now why in the world would I do that?” He asks, shaking his head.
I climb on, going carefully and cuddling into the thick fur at the base of his neck. “I’m ready.”
Father and Mother start walking. I get cold and cuddle into Father’s fur deeper. I quickly fall asleep.
I wake up blearily, blinking away the sleep. I sit up on Father’s back and I see an entrance to a large cave in front of me. “What’s in there?”
Father leans down so I can climb down. “We’ve arrived.”
I quickly scramble down. “Finally!”
I pad closer and try to take a look inside. Mother tugs me backward. “Why can’t I look?”
“Pandas are very territorial, Meili. If you just go inside, they might think you are a threat. You may get hurt. So we have to wait for Maui to go in first, because they will recognize him.”
As she finishes speaking, Father goes inside the cave.
We wait outside for what feels like an eternity, then Father finally comes back, this time with another panda with him. The panda lunges atMother, and Father blocks him. “This is who I was talking about, Mud! This is Meili and Sky.” He nods his head at each of us as he speaks.
“Hi,” I manage to squeak.
“Sky was our old healer, she can help Lush!”
Another panda comes out of the cave. “So this is Sky?” She says.
“Yes, Miao.” Father replies. “And this is my daughter, Meili.”
I start to tremble and race towards Mother. I crawl under her belly. “What’s wrong?” Mother asks.
“So many new pandas. And they’re so big!”
“I know it’s more than you are used to Meili but we are here to help Lush.”
I slowly crawl out from under her. “Will there be other pandas to play with?”
“Only a few. The only young pandas in the group are the leader’s cubs, because she is the only one that cannot leave the group. Pandas come back to the group when they turn 100 days old.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because the cubs need to grow up outside of the group, so they can understand what life is like outside of the group as they grow up so they aren’t so set in group ways, and can handle themselves on their own. It is tradition.”
“Why didn’t we start going to the group before Father came then? I’m 100 days old now!”
Mother looks away.
“We weren’t going to come back,” I say.
“I just didn’t want you to grow up around so many pandas. At some point you would have to leave, and it would hurt to leave the pandas you had grown up with and cared for all of your life.” Mother said softly, “It hurt for me,” she says even more quietly. She continues in a stronger voice, “coming back, and knowing that some of those that I had known my whole life..” her voice breaks.
“Oh, Mother,” I knew that I was the reason that she had had to leave. I bury my muzzle into her fur, trying to comfort her.
A voice breaks into the moment. “Sky! Come and see Lush! She woke up!”
“Coming!” Mother breaks away and goes inside the cave, I step in beside her.
The cave is ginormous! It goes very far back and breaks into many smaller caves, one for every panda with a few extra. The pandas are all hanging out in the middle of the cave. There is a pile of bamboo in the center, picked by many pandas.
I look at my mother, then at the bamboo.
“Go ahead, Meili” she nods towards the pile.
I run towards it, starving from the journey. I take a huge mouthful and start to eat and chew faster than a panda should be able to.
“Slow down, young un’, there’s plenty of time to eat.” An older, male panda came up behind her.
“But I’m so hungry!”
“There is time,” the panda replies, and limps to the other side of the pile and starts to eat.
I finish my stalk very quickly, and lie down for a nap.
I wake up, and I’m not in the cave anymore. I’m with a larger panda, a brown one.
“Where am I?” I ask blearily.
The brown panda turns around. “You are in my cave.”
“Where is my cave?”
“A day’s journey in that direction.” He waves a paw towards the entrance of the cave.
“Why did you take me?” Questions flood through my mind. How much time had passed? We’re Mother and Father alright?
“I took you because I can’t hurt the young, but I needed food, even if it was bamboo.”
“Wait, did you hurt some of the other pandas?”
“I did what I had to,” he growls.
“I need to go there!” I run towards the entrance of the cave, the brown panda lunging for me. I dodge, and start to run again, and don’t stop running until I can’t hear the brown panda’s cries to come back. I think I ran in the right direction, but there was no turning back now. He might see me! I keep running.
I start to slow down, hungry and tired. Sundown was coming, and I hadn’t eaten all day. I still couldn’t see the cave. Maybe he meant a day and a night, or maybe I ran in the wrong direction? I start to worry.
I look for a place to rest. I should go back and see which direction I need to go. I have to get home!
I soon find a hole under a tree, and start to fall asleep.
I wake up, sunlight streaming through the roots of the tree. I remember, and start to turn towards where I think the brown pandas den is, and realize that I don’t know any more. I try to remember last night, but I was so tired last night that everything is fuzzy.
I turn the opposite direction from the hole in the tree and start to walk. I kind of think that I remember some of the things I see, but then again, who knows? I could be making things up for all that I know! There is also still the problem of food. It’s about sunhigh, and I would have eaten a lot by now, back home, and I didn’t have anything yesterday, either.
I stop, starving. I start to look for bamboo, but, not finding any, I resort to grass. The grass is terrible, and I still feel a hungry ache in my side when I eat all that I can find. I start to go on towards what I hope is the den.
I keep walking for a long time, past even sunset, and finally find the den. Thank goodness! I sigh with relief. The other panda walks out and I quickly suck under a bush. He goes to another hole I didn’t see before, and pulls out a stalk of bamboo. I gasp with surprise, and the panda turns around, suspicious. I shrink back further in my bush, hoping that it hides me well enough.
He turns back to his bamboo and starts to eat it, making disgusted faces after every bite.
He takes a while to finish the stalk, but he eventually finishes and goes back inside. I need some of that bamboo. I go towards the hole where I saw the brown panda getting the bamboo. I peek inside, and see only a few stalks, because even that huge pile vanishes after a while. But if it had been Mother with all of the bamboo, I knew she could have eaten it in two days. I guess this panda, with no markings, ate less than the black and white ones that I was familiar with.
I try to crawl inside the hole, reaching for bamboo, but I had misjudged my size, and get some stuck. I really tried not to scream for help, I really did! The brown panda came running out of his den, woken by all the noise I was making. He pulls me out, and I struggle to get away, but he keeps a tight hold on me. He takes me into his den, and puts me behind him. I’m trapped!
After that, I can’t sleep. It ends up being a long night. Suddenly, the panda life up his head, finally awake!
“I’m hungry” I tell him.
“You expect me to be your servant now, do you?”
“You captured me for a reason,” I say, “you could have killed me right then. So if you want me alive, then you need to feed me.”
He gets up, and goes to the entrance of the den. “Don’t try to escape, little one, I can catch you.” He says menacingly.
Suddenly, this is all too much. Anger flows inside of me, and I run to the entrance. He catches me in a flash and puts me back into the cave.
I groan in frustration. I sit down as the panda comes back with food. Two stalks for me and one for him.
“Don’t you need more food?” I ask. “I eat more than you and you’re older than me!”
“Well, I’m a grizzly bear, and we don’t need as much food as pandas do.”
Everything in my mind clicks. The fur, the food, not liking bamboo! “What’s your name?” I Ask him, wondering if bear names were like panda names.
“Breeze” he answers. “And yours?”
So his name is a little like panda names, but I’ve never heard of a panda named Breeze before. “Meili,” I reply.
“Meili,” Breeze tries. “Interesting…”
“When can I leave?” I ask, eager to escape this bear’s den.
“I don’t know. When the cold season is over.”
“But that’s in three moons!” I protest. “You can’t feed me for that long, especially in cold season!”
“You will find food for both of us.”
“Me?” I squeak. I can barely find food for me, let alone both of us!
“Well, do you see anyone else in this cave?” He asks sarcastically.
I groan, but then realize something. If I go out to get food for us, I can escape!
“Don’t think that I’m going to let you go out alone, though. You can’t be trusted, with the little stunt you just tried to pull.” Breeze grunts.
A new plan starts to form in my mind. If I become trusted, maybe he’ll let me out on my own, and then I can escape!
I start to put my plan in action. One day, a half moon later, as I am eating, something that Breeze had said came back to me. He had said my name was interesting.
“Breeze,” I say through a mouthful of bamboo, “why did you say my name was interesting?”
He looks surprised by the question. “That was my mothers name,” He says quietly.
“What happened to her?” The question slips out before I can think about it.
“She died from a sickness, 4 seasons ago.”
“I’m sorry,” I don’t know what else to say.
He turns back to food, and so do I.
I have decided that I have to escape soon. My family must think I’m dead. I haven’t seen Mother or Father in a moon!
I start to plan out my escape. I’ll walk out of the den, going out confidently. If you’re confident; no one will question you. Fathers words ring in my mind. He said that during Find the Panda once. Then I’ll head out in the direction that Breeze pointed out, so long ago. I already have an excuse if Breeze asks why I’m going that way. I saw a patch of bamboo this way yesterday. I’ll run away before he can protest.
The next day arrives, and I wake up early, so that I can pack some food with me the first day. I go out, and steal some bamboo from the stash. I grab the biggest leaf I can, and crack the bamboo into smaller pieces so that I can wrap them in the leaf.
I wake up Breeze, to tell him that I am going out to find food.
He turns over and mutters, “I don’t feel like getting up. Bring back more than usual. I’m starving.” I don’t think he even realized what he was saying!
I grab my bamboo, and head straight out of the cave, heading away from the food hole, towards home.
The sun is up now, and I’ve eaten a lot of my bamboo, but I think there’s still enough for the rest of the day. Breeze had said that it was a day’s journey.
I stop for a rest. I need a break from walking. I rest in a bamboo patch. I sit down for a while, then I start to pick a couple more stalks of bamboo. I never thought that journeying could make you so hungry! I eat the rest of my bamboo, then I’m on my way.
At sunhigh, I see something up ahead. I dash forward, curious, but stop to quickly when I see what it is. I pad forward slowly, to look over the edge. It’s a deep crack, about 4 or five pandas could stretch over the top, big pandas too.
How will I get across? I ask myself. I sit down and stop for the night, several pandalengths away from the edge of the cliff. I have no wish to fall down the edge of the cliff. I gather up some leaves and moss to create a warm place to sleep. I settle down to sleep.
At around moonhigh, I wake up with a jolt. I have a plan.
The next day, as soon as I wake up, I put my plan into action. I leave a pile of rocks where I start and scan the cliff edge, looking for a strong tree or something that can hold my weight without breaking. After a while, I’ve trecked very far, and start to head back to where I started. I start to dig up a tall tree that looks like it might be able to make it across. I start digging. It’s worth a shot.
After I finish digging up the tree, I have to push it to get it to fall. Digging has taken me a quarter moon of long days of work. It was an old tree and it came undone very slowly, little by little it let go, until there was nothing left to dig.
I push it by the edge until it reaches the cliff, and I give it a steady push really quickly so it reaches the other side before it can fall. It reaches the other side, but just barely. It gets thinner towards the end, so I’m not sure that it will hold my weight. Only one way to find out.
I start to inch my way across the tree, little by little, until I’m towards the end. I hesitate a bit too long on the last step, and CRACK! the tree cracks, and I fall towards certain death.
I wake up with a headache, and the tree on top of me. I slowly inch myself out from under the tree, and check for anything broken. My leg is hurting a lot and swollen, but I think that it’s only sprained. I start to make a pile where I fell, of rocks and sticks. If I’m going to climb back up, I’d better know which side to climb back up, so I don’t end up on the side I climbed from.
I make a shelter in the tree’s branches, because I can’t climb back up until my leg is fully healed. I eat the grass and small shoots of bamboo until there is no more. By then, I no longer have to limp and my leg isn’t swollen anymore.
I start to strategize a way to climb up the cliff safely, and on the right side of the cliff. I see a few ledges, but I have to figure out a way to climb up from ledge to ledge. The ledges are too far apart to jump, and I don’t see any other way to get from ledge to ledge. Unless…
I stripped one of the thickest branches from the tree, one that supported me when I was walking across it. I lean it so it reaches the first ledge, and climb, this ledge is big enough, but the ledges get smaller as they go up. I lift the branch, and lean it on the next ledge. I do this for two more ledges, but by then the ledge becomes too small for me to lift and move the branch anymore. There are only two more ledges, and I think I can jump to them! I gather all of my strength in my paws, and jump! I reach the next ledge. The next ledge is further. I gather again- and drop.
I land hard on my back paw, and I hear a crack. I wasn’t as lucky this time. My paw was broken. I try to remember what my mother had said to heal broken bones. Has she ever said anything about that? I don’t know.
I strain my memory, trying to ignore the pain in my paw. I remember! She said to wrap the paw in comfrey when she had seen Lush, the hurt panda. I start to look for comfrey, and find it in a small crack between the floor of the cliff and the cliff wall. I take some, and with difficulty, I am able to wrap it around my paw. I take all of the comfrey leaves so I don’t have to come back here. I take the leaves in my jaws and walk back to my makeshift den.
Over the course of my healing, I developed a plan. The next moon, my paw is healed and I am able to put weight on it. This time, if I fall, I will fall into a large and fluffy pile of leaves. I start the climb again, leaning the branch. When I get to the last jump, I gather all of my strength and jump. I land cleanly on the ridge of the cliff. I jump up and down once I’m far away from the edge. I walk in the direction of the cave, hoping that Mother and Father are still waiting for me after two and a half moons. I’m now almost 180 days old, which is half of a year!
I walk quickly in the direction of the cave for two days, and I finally come into view of the cave! I walk quickly inside the cave and look around. It’s empty! They must have moved on without me! I use my nose and scent to try and see where they went and how long ago. I finally scent them by the entrance, but it’s very stale, probably a quarter moon old! Oh no! I groan inwardly.
I start to follow the scent, knowing that my Mother would have never left my Father, espec with me missing. She wouldn’t live alone, not ever. I walk quickly, hoping that Lush and the cubs would keep them from going faster than I could go. If I walk quickly, I can reach them in 5 sunrises.
I wake up early and go to sleep late. After five sunrises, the trail I’m following is more fresh and seems to be only a day old! My pace quickens. When I stop for the night, I dream of Mother and everyone else. I heard them clearly, as if I was right next to them.
Mother says, “Lush, you have to eat these!”
Lush groans. “I’m almost better now, Sky! I’ve eaten so many herbs the past few moons I feel sick.”
“Lush, the infection could come back again, and all of this traveling is not helping. These are herbs for your strength,” I hear leaves rustling, “and these are for your wound.” I open my eyes and realize that I can still hear the voices. I hear Lush eat the leaves, and I hear her groan in disgust.
I pad closer to the sound, and catch a glimpse of Mother’s face, before she shifts away, her back towards me.
I take off at a run, and I run to my mother. “Mother!” I roar joyfully.
“Meili!” She turns towards me, her gaze shocked at first, and then joyful. She runs and curls up to me. I rub my face against hers, just now realizing how much I missed her. I turn to see Father running towards me.
“Meili! You’ve grown!”he says approvingly. I realize that he’s right! I reach just shy of his shoulder now.
“I can’t believe you’re alive!” It’s Mother talking again.
“I woke up and I was in a strange brown bears cave!” I tell her, wondering how to put my experience into words. “But now I need food!” I tell Mother, my stomach rumbling hungrily.
She roars in laughter. She goes to a small pile in the center of the cave. “Grab as much as you want! Every panda has already eaten.”
I grab some food and start eating away, my eyes sparkling gratefully.
Later that night, after I finish eating, I ask, “Where are we going?”
Father answers me this time. “We are journeying to a new home. Foxes had moved into our cave, and we could not live there anymore.”
I nod understandingly. “Well, I hope that we find the right place for our new home.”
And then I remember a question I had for Mother. I turn to her. “Mother, I met a bear named Breeze when I was lost. He said my name was his mother’s name. What did he mean?”
Mother looks at me, surprised. “Well,” she begins, “when I was younger, my best friend was a bear named Meili. One day, I was about to be killed by a large tiger, and she saved me! She was very important to me, and she died soon before you were born.”
“Wow,” I say, proud to be named after someone so important in my life. I can’t believe that a panda as grumpy as Breeze could be so related to someone so important to Mother! I want to ask more questions, but it was getting late, and I retire to my nest, Mother and Father following.
I nuzzle Mother and Father lovingly, and they curl up in my nest with me. Soon my parents are sleeping, their flanks rising and falling in motion. I’m glad to be home, I think drowsily, and then I fall asleep.
(Many Years Later)
I watch as my cubs, Breeze, Maui, and Sky play together in the last light of the day, reminding me so much of Mother and Father, who had passed away a season before. My mate, Wind, watches them lovingly. As the leader of the group, his cubs stay with him in the group, and I’m grateful. I’ve grown so close to everyone else these past seasons, I could never leave. I’m so proud of Wind, who worked so hard for his position, being only half panda. I look at my whole family proudly. Wind and his brown instead of black fur, Sky, who looks just like him, with her green eyes and lighter brown fur. Breeze is a mix of us, he has a pelt like Wind, but soft brown eyes like me. Maui is a tiny copy of me, and as the shyest cub, he doesn’t stray too far from home!
“Time to go to sleep!” I call to them, knowing how lucky I am to have three of them, whom I love so much.
They follow me, complaining, but Breeze asks me for his favorite story. As they cuddle down into their nest, I start the story. “Once upon a time, I woke up in a strange bear’s cave. I’m away from Grandmother and Grandfather for the first time in my life, but I know what I have to do. I escaped the bear by running away! I journey for so long, but I…” They soon fall asleep, and I quietly come out from the den. Wind comes up to me, and lifts up a brown paw to wipe away some moss from my pelt.
“They remind me so much of our parents, especially your father” I say, looking up at him, seeing his brown and white face glowing at the mention of Breeze.
“Breeze, Sky, and Maui are watching from the stars, Meili,” Wind tells me.