When the rain had stopped, Zoe had pulled herself out of the tree-hollow and checked out the place. A few noses-full of the air had told her that there was a water-body nearby. The air smelled of fish, and fish meant water. This place was hundreds of miles away from the sea, and so it had to be fresh water.
Zoe’s mouth began to water. She was famished.
She sniffed again.
The air that carried the smell was blowing southward, which meant that the water-body was up north.
The anticipation of food made her forget her injuries and prompted her to run, but as her muscles tensed, the pain flared up once again. She yelped and turned to check her bruised leg. It was her left hind and it looked a little crooked. She licked it, hoping that the licking would reduce the inflammation and bring the pain down.
Her thoughts returned to the family. Unbidden thoughts came swarming into her mind.
Did they miss her?
Nobody talked to her; nobody gave her treats; nobody cuddled up with her, except little Johnny, but whenever his mom saw him with Zoe, she dragged him away.
She shook her head and tried to drive away those dark memories, but there weren’t any brighter ones to take their place, so they kept slipping back in place.
A sound of something falling into water broke the eerie silence of the place.
The water-body was close. Very close!
This motivated her.
She stood up again, careful of not putting her weight on her left hind, instead redistributing it on the other three. Slowly, she followed the scent. The ground was uneven and every step that she took sent waves of pain through her broken leg, but she persevered. She went around the huge rock that the hollow tree had fallen against. The undergrowth here was rather high. There were shrubs that left you bristling if you brushed past them and there were trees of all kinds, but most of them were pines. The ground was covered with dried-up pine needles.
Zoe carefully found her way through the jungle, wincing with every step, but continuing nevertheless.
In about an hour, she collapsed at the side of the creek. As she sat there and took it all in, she realized that right where she was, a group of boulders had formed a tiny pool.
She dragged herself closer and peered in.
There was fish in the water.
She managed to catch three after seven misses. Terrible performance. But after she had caught one and devoured it with a hunger that she had sustained for almost forty hours, it became easier; and yet, every time she leaped into the water to catch one, the pain that shot through her leg made her yelp.
The pain was bad, but the yelp was good, because it brought her to Ben’s attention.
Ben, who was tying up his catch fifty yards upstream of where Zoe sat, heard Zoe scream.
This was the first time in four years that he had come this far and in all the times that he had been in this place, this was the first time that he had heard a dog. The Whistling Woods, as the outsiders called this forest, were intimidating and forbidding, and nobody ever came in this far. Yet, today, the rain had played havoc and it was impossible to fish in the swirly muddy waters downstream. So he had climbed up to reached this place in search of relatively still water.
When he heard Zoe, he was preparing to leave. But now he couldn’t. Not without checking upon the pup.
So he walked along the western bank of the creek, crossing the ruins of the stone-bridge on his way. It was odd that there used to be a bridge in the middle of these woods. Possibly someone lived here once, he thought absently.
There it was. A yellow Labrador pup!
“Yooohoo!” He called out and waved at Zoe.
Zoe looked up and saw a bearded man waving at her. He wore a hat. She squinted. The hat looked like a woman’s hat. That’s strange, she thought. Here experience told her that humans were generally finicky about what they called fashion, and a man wearing a woman’s hat was definitely being unfashionable.
But it didn’t matter. Right now she just wanted to be rescued, and she couldn’t care less if her rescuer was wearing a dress instead of that grayed out overcoat. The man had a ragged backpack throne on his back and a reeled-in fishing rod in one of his hands that were covered in tattered leather gloves.
She sniffed the air.
The man wasn’t a threat. He was friendly.
All this processing took Zoe less than a second, and she wagged her tail. The delay was imperceptible to Ben. He had no idea that the pup had already analyzed and categorized him. The wagging tail, he knew, was a friendly gesture. Ben had never owned a dog. He was not that kind of a man. He hadn’t married, had no kids, and for the entire world, he was a good-for-nothing bum on the streets.
Today, for no logical reason, he found himself drawn towards the pup.
He stepped over the stone and held out a hand. Hold your hand out, palm up, he had read somewhere. Dogs felt threatened when a stranger approached them and held out a hand palm down.
Zoe looking into his eyes, and held up a paw.
Ben took her paw into his hand, little realizing that his action had forged a bond of friendship between them. He didn’t know it yet, but their souls had connected.
In the forest that people knew as the Whistling Woods, nothing curious had happened in seven long years – then in a single day, two pairs of lives crossed paths and two friendships were formed.
The Furry Lady of the Righteous Path had brought them together.
As Ben bent down to pick Zoe up, she smiled upon them through the canopies of the trees that whistled and sang to celebrate the moment.
——— ¤¤¤ ———
Just outside the Whistling Woods, forces dark and evil were gathering momentum, and the Furry Lady of the Righteous Path knew that she had to hurry.