On a warm September night, a girl named Millie Maximus, wearing her favorite blue dress, climbed to the sturdiest branch of the Lookout Tree and hid her-self in the shadows. It was late; the rest of the littlies were tucked up in bed, but Millie was too excited to fall asleep even if she’d wanted to.
Millie held her breath as the Elders crept out of their underground houses and came to stand around the flames. They linked their hands and bent their heads, and Millie’s father began the
chant. Maximus’s voice was low and quiet and rumbly, like water tumbling over stones.
“I am Maximus of the Yare. Would you listen?” her father began.
We will listen,” came the response.
“We are the Yare. We are the hidden ones.”
We are the Yare, repeated the men, their voices deep and soft. We are the hidden ones.
“We live in the shadows. We protect the silence. We guard the secret spaces of the world.” Millie’s mother, Septima, spoke those words, in a voice as high and piping as birdsong.
We live in the shadows. We protect the silence. We guard the secret spaces of the world, echoed the other women in their own twittery voices.
“We are the forgotten. We are the unseen. We are the guides,” said Maximus. Then, as one, the Tribe chanted, “We are the Yare, and we survive.” With their heads bowed, holding each other’s hands, the Tribe stood for a moment in reverent silence, before they closed with a final, solemn “Nyebbeh,” a word that could mean anything from “hello” to “love” or “peace” or “not right now,” when said to a friend or a loved one. Millie held perfectly still, gazing down at the two dozen Elders she’d known her entire life.
Maximus stretched out his arm, poking the tip of a long branch into the fire. Once it had
caught, the meeting would begin, and whoever held the stick could speak.
Maximus was the Leader of the Yare, a tribe of what humans called Bigfoots. When he Passed—“may the day be long-and-long,” Millie whispered—as her parents’ only child, she’d be the one in charge, bound by the traditions that had ruled her life and her parents’ lives and their parents’ lives and the lives of every member of every Tribe that had come before her. She would live her whole life in the forest, hidden away from the No-Furs, which was what the Yare called humans; and the most she could ever dream of doing was intro ducing a new strain of pumpkin or coming up with a new recipe for bread; and the closest she would ever come to the human world was watching Old Aunt Yetta’s TV tapes or listening to the sound of singing when it carried across the water.
The Yare did not sing. They did not yell or hum or raise their voices. They kept quiet, they moved quickly, they blended into the forest, they faded into the back-ground, because these were the behaviors that had kept the Yare safe from human discovery for the past five hundred years. Even their animals were quiet: Millie’s little gray kitten Georgina’s purrs were barely audible, and Old Aunt Yetta’s goat, Esmerelda, hardly ever bleated, not even when Millie was late to milk her. That was the way it had always been, the way it would always be,
and Millie was powerless to change it. It made her furious just thinking about it. “Fyeh,” she muttered in disgust . . . but she muttered it very quietly.
“We all know what’s happened,” Maximus said in his quiet rumble, as the Speaking Stick flared above his head. “The No-Furs have built twelve new buildings . . . and this morning there was a ‘Welcome, New Learners’ banner hanging from two trees.”
“A school,” whispered Aelia. “A school means children. Children are curious. They will be having canoes or those yak-boats.”
Kayaks, thought Millie, and rolled her eyes.
“They’ll dare each other to come across the lake, or they’ll hear us or see us, and they’ll find us.” Aelia began twisting her hands in her apron, and Septima was anxiously nibbling at the fur on her fingers.
Millie, meanwhile, was so giddy with delight it was all she could do to keep from dancing on her branch. A school! Maybe there would be No-Fur girls her age, and she’d be able to hear them—their conversations, maybe even their music. Maybe, maybe someday, she could find some sort of disguise or even a potion to make her fur disappear. She’d long suspected that there was such a thing, to be used in cases when the Yare absolutely had to venture into the No-Fur world. She’d figure it out
and she’d make her way across the lake in a canoe or in a kayak. She’d pre-tend to be a lost camper who’d wandered away from her parents, and she’d meet a girl, and make up a friend, and the girl would hear Millie sing and say, “You are totally amazelling”—“amazelling” was the highest praise a Yare could get—and take Millie to the principal, who would know a ProDucer (as opposed to an amateur one), and then Millie would be where she’d always wanted to be— standing on a stage, in a shimmery silvery dress, holding a micro-phone, singing, while people listened to her, entranced.
Of all the Yare she knew, Millie was the only one who had such dreams, the only one who wasn’t terrified of humans, the only one who’d never entirely believed the stories that the Yare littlies were told.
There was, for example, the tale of the terrible old No-Fur who had a white beard and wore a red suit that was trimmed with the fur of tiny baby Yare. Each winter he would slip down the chimneys of unsuspecting Yare families (he was so small and slender that he could, of course, easily fit). Once he’d gained entry, he would creep around the house piling food and toys and goodies into an enchanted sack that could hold an entire household’s worth of belongings. He would magic himself back up the chimney, then fly away and give everything he’d stolen from the Yare to greedy little
No-Fur children, who would eat up the candy and break all the toys. “So be good,” the Yare would say each winter, “or the Bad Red-Suit No-Fur will come down the chimney and be having your toys in his sack!”
Another story—even more terrible—claimed there was a No-Fur as small as a speck of sand with wings and a little white dress, so tiny that she was almost invisible and could fit through mesh window screens. This horrible creature would fly into the bedrooms of young Yare and scoop up any coins or shells or pebbles or small toys they might have left lying around their bedrooms. Then she’d slip inside of their mouths and yank out one of their teeth as punishment for not putting their things away. “So be good,” the Yare would whisper, “or the Bad Fairytooth No-Fur will come through your window and be having your toys and your teeth!”
Every spring, said the Yare, the Neaster Bunny No-Fur would come hopping through the fields, pretending, for reasons that were never clear, to be a large rabbit, leaving exploding painted egg-shaped bombs hidden in the grass and stealing all the candy in the village. (Almost every Yare had a sweet tooth, so this story was especially scary to the littlies.)
And every summer on the Fourth of July, the No-Furs would celebrate a holiday they called the Banishment of the Bigfoots, with terrifying and
noisy displays of fireworks that would shatter the peace of the summer evening as the No-Furs roared their approval and drank beer, and honked their car horns at one another.
Down below, the meeting continued.
“Could be it’s not a school,” a Yare named Marten was saying. “Could be it’s another camping-ground.”
“The sign said ‘Learners,’ ” Aelia hissed.
“So a learning campground,” said Marten. “Where they send the littlies to learn about camping.”
“I saw targets.” Aelia sounded like she was about to cry. “Targets for learning to shoot at us. That’s what they’re learning.”
Millie shook her head, thinking it was much more likely that the targets were for archery and not Yare-hunting.
No-Furs are dangerous, was what little Yare learned . . . but Millie had never believed it. She didn’t believe a grown No-Fur could fit down a chimney or fly through a window or go hopping around a meadow dressed in white fur with-out anyone noticing. Besides, what would No-Fur children want with Yare toys, which were all handmade, carved from wood or sewn from scraps of cloth? She had seen TV shows on Old Aunt Yetta’s laptop—or “ top-lap,” as it was known to the
Yare—and sometimes they included commercials. She knew that No-Fur children had electronic games and flying scooters and keyboards and microphones and parents who’d listen when they said they wanted to be singers, not just stay stuck in the woods for the rest of their lives.
Millie kicked at the tree trunk, feeling familiar frustration rising. Septima glanced up, her brown eyes narrowed, and Millie shrank back, hiding herself in the shadows. “Sorry,” she whispered, and patted the Lookout Tree by way of apology.
“Could be it’s temporary,” said Darrius, whose youngest son, Frederee, had just had his barnitzvah ceremony, officially becoming an Elder. “Maybe they’ll only be there for the fall—like a campout, you see—and then they’ll be going back to where they were.”
Yare voices rose in a babble of squeaks and whispers. Maximus reclaimed the Speaking Stick. “One at a time,” he murmured, lifting and lowering his free hand in a gesture Millie knew all too well, a motion that meant “be quiet.”
Melissandra yanked the stick out of his hand. “Why are we waiting?” she demanded, without bothering to lower her voice. “They’re too close. It’s too risky. We should be packing already. We should be far-and-far away by now!”
“I cannot leave my garden,” said Old Aunt Yetta. “My mother, and her mother before her, spent their lives on that garden. Even if I took cuttings, it would be long-and-long before I could be growing what we need.”
Just as every clan had a Leader, each clan had a Healer, who managed the supply of herbs and barks and leaves, and each clan had a Watcher, a Yare tasked with keep-ing track of news of the No-Fur world. In Millie’s Tribe, Old Aunt Yetta was both Healer and Watcher. She kept the Tribe’s single top-lap computer, and an ancient tele-vision set, on which she watched the nightly news shows. Millie knew, from careful questioning, that the Yare got on-the-line with the help of something called Why-fie Modem. They got electricity by hooking into the outlets of an old campground. A single extension cord buried in the ground powered the whole village—and something called a “shell corporation” paid the bills.
All of that was known to the rest of the clan, but what the other Yare didn’t know was that Old Aunt Yetta sometimes enjoyed watching more entertaining options than just news . . . and sometimes Millie watched with her. They were both partial to a program called Friends, about attractive young No-Furs in New York City. But Millie’s absolute favorite show was called The Next Stage, where regular, not famous No-Furs sang or danced
or did gymnastic tricks and tried to win a million dollars.
“And our buildings!” said Laurentius, a young Yare whose voice still wobbled and cracked when he spoke. “The new lodge . . . the pens for the goats . . . we’d be needing to start all over.”
The Yare village was mostly underground, a series of burrows and warrens and tunnels dug into the hillside. Everything aboveground was carefully camouflaged with panels of leaves and branches attached to pulleys that would come down and disguise doors and pens and windows with a single tug.
“So we stay here and wait for them to find us?” This time Melissandra didn’t even bother trying for the stick. “Those children will be trying to come over here. And our littlies will be wanting to go over there.” She glared at Maximus and Septima. “Or, at least, one of them will.”
Millie hung her head as her mother huddled into Maximus’s side, hands working at her apron. Maximus’s voice was calm when he said, “Our Little Bit will do as she’s told.”
“Do as she’s told?” hissed Melissandra. “Nyebbeh! How many times has she run to away? How many times has she almost been discovered? How many times will you let her be putting all of our lives at risk before you do something?” Melissandra’s eyes were wild, her fur bristling on top of her head and hands and shoulders.
Millie tucked herself in even closer to the tree trunk. She didn’t want to think about the times she’d slipped away from her parents, in the forest or down by the water, drawn by the sound of No-Fur voices or just the knowledge that they were near.
“Let’s not be losing our heads,” Maximus said in his soothing rumble. “There are measures we can take with-out abandoning the village. We can cancel Halloweening.”
Millie bit her lip, hard, before she could yell “No!” and give herself away. Halloween was the one time of year that the Yare were allowed to venture out into the No-Fur world. Maximus was the one who had started the tradition, after years of Millie begging and pleading and—yes—running to away.
For the last six years, each September, Maximus would pick out a town within a fifty-mile drive of the village and scout it carefully, making sure there’d be enough children in costume that a half dozen smallish Yare wouldn’t stand out. On October 31, the Yare littlies, practically vibrating with excitement, would climb into the old school bus that was kept specifically for the excursion. Maximus, disguised in a trench coat and gloves and a big, floppy straw hat, would drive them to the town and park on the outskirts, and the littlies, chaperoned by the grown-up Yare who were
themselves interested in the No-Fur world, would be given the night to trick-or-treat. The Yare Elders—most of them female—would peek into the No-Fur houses or examine the No-Fur fashions, and discuss what they’d seen. (“It’s called a French manicure,” or “still stainless-steel refrigerators.”) The littlies would dash up and down the No-Fur streets with their pillow-cases, to join packs of human children and gather pounds of candy that they’d carry home on the bus.
Every year, unsuspecting No-Furs would remark on the excellence of the Yare costumes (“You guys look so authentic!”). Every year, puzzled No-Furs would turn to their partners, asking, “Was there some Bigfoot movie I missed?” It was heaven . . . and now it was going to be taken away. She felt tears slip out of her eyes, soaking her face-fur.
“But we won’t move,” Maximus said. Millie sighed in relief. “Not until we know what kind of danger this presents.”
“We should be having spies!” This from Frederee, who’d forgotten to take the Speaking Stick. His parents glared at him. He whispered an apology, then took the stick, then stood in silence, realizing he had nothing else to say, before handing the stick to his father, who passed it to Old Aunt Yetta.
“Spies are not a bad idea,” Old Aunt Yetta said. “We should be knowing how many of them there are. How many grown-ups and how many littlies. If it’s really a school or something else, and if—”
“I’ll do it!” Millie hopped down to a low branch, then jumped lightly to the ground. The Yare looked at her, wide-eyed and startled. A few of them gasped. Septima gave a shriek of dismay (a quiet shriek) while Melissandra got a smug, I-told-you-so expression on her face. Millie ignored them both, as well as the Speaking Stick, as she stepped forward into the firelight’s glow.
“Please,” she said. “You know I’d be the best for this. I am the littlest of the littlies. I’m knowing everything there is to know about the No-Furs. I could pretend . . . or shave my fur . . . you could dress me up . . . maybe a hat, or a bonnet or such—”
“Millietta,” said Maximus, pronouncing each syllable of her full name gravely. Millie bowed her head. She didn’t have the Speaking Stick, she wasn’t fully grown, she wasn’t even supposed to be there or have been listening . . . but she couldn’t keep quiet.
“Why are we having the fear of them?” she demanded in her silvery voice, sweet and warm and clear as the tones of a triangle, or a crystal glass struck with a spoon, the voice the other Yare thought was so strange. “What have they ever done to us?”
“They kill us!” Melissandra shrilled. Millie saw that her father was nodding, probably remembering the movie he’d shown her, of a Yare, long-and-long ago, who’d been hunted and hurt by the No-Furs.
“But not these ones, Papa,” Millie begged. “Maybe No-Furs other places, other times, killed Yare, but these ones haven’t done anything, and maybe they never would. Maybe if they just got to know us . . .”
“Nyeh!” said Ricardan, and stomped on the ground for emphasis. “This is foolishness!”
Old Aunt Yetta was looking at Millie sadly, and Frederee, who was just a year older than she was, was staring at her with his mouth hanging open. Even Darrius, who Millie didn’t think was that afraid of the No-Furs, was shaking his head.
Maximus pounded the Speaking Stick once on the packed dirt. “We will watch and wait,” he declared, in a voice that let them know that the meeting was over.
As the Elders whispered a closing blessing, Millie closed her eyes, waiting to feel her father’s strong arms lifting her and feel her mother snaffling at her cheek-fur and whispering in her ear, Millie, how could you and Don’t you know better and, worst of all, When you are Ruler, you will have to Set the Example, Millie, you can’t keep behaving like this or wishing for what will never be.