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Sikhi groaned and clutched at his ribs. Shakily, his vision returned to normal. Lying flat on his back, he took a deep breath. Stars were suspended like bright grains of sand in the pitch-black sky.
As he sat up, he winced. The initial impact had shaken him up, but after a few deep breaths and moments of calm, he regained his grasp on reality.
About fifteen feet away, concealed within the underbrush, a pair of eyes glowed in the shadows. They weren't angry or violent. Their pupils dilated and irises wavered.
They were frightened.
Sikhi could tell that whatever was hidden in the forest was scared of him. The boy relaxed in relief. Now, in the dark, silence of the night, Sikhi was once again curious.
He didn't stand up. He slowly slid backwards, never breaking eye contact with the glowing orbs in the bushes. The further he moved away, the more the eyes softened. When he was a safe distance from the edge of the forest, he tucked his knees to his chest and sat still. The stone tiles chilled through his thin sleeping robes. His white fingers numbed in the night air. Subconsciously, he wished he had worn gloves. Upon further thought, he remembered that he didn't even own a pair of gloves, so that, at least, made him feel a little better. Even so, nothing could deter his interest in whatever stared back at him.
It was completely silent, save for the occasional trickles of the wind chimes. It didn't seem like the eyes planned on moving any time soon. They locked onto the boy, making sure he didn't make any sudden movements.
And he didn't.
He just sat there, surrounded by the sounds and sights of night. The full moon shined brightly at its highest point. All around, the temple was silent, ethereal in its solitude. The staring contest continued.
Sikhi moved to scratch behind his neck, and, immediately, the eyes darted back into the forest.
He returned to his normal position, knees tucked into his chest. Then, he waited, and after a few seconds, the uncertain eyes returned.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said softly.
He held out his hand.
"It's okay. You can come out."
The eyes darted back and forth, weighing the proposal. Timidly, a black nose poked its way out of the bushes, followed by a wide-set pair of eyes. The distinct shape of an arrow manifested in the moonlight as its owner became visible.
The young sky bison inched forward with its six legs, one step at a time. All the while, it kept careful sight of Sikhi.
It really was a young one; stubbed horns barely protruded from its large head, a head that was still too big for its body. Still, its sheer size baffled Sikhi. For such a large animal, its padded feet connected quietly with the tiles. Timidly, the bison closed the quiet distance until it was only about an arms length from the sitting boy.
When Sikhi reached out his hand, the bison retracted back, but after a few moments, it cocked its head to the side and examined the gesture. Its large, wet nose wriggled and tickled Sikhi's hand as it sniffed. Deeming the kid in sleeping robes to be a non-threat, the bison sat up straight. Its paddle-like tail laid flat behind it on the stone tiles.
The sky bison looked directly into Sikhi's eyes. They didn't just examine him; the eyes searched through the boy's past. The creature looked through Sikhi with a non-human sense of purity. He felt as if the simple eyes gathered every word he said, every action he ever committed. He felt as if the eyes, in just a few moments, understood him better than he understood himself. Beyond the trivial things like physical traits, things that can be discerned at first glance, the young sky bison looked through him and discovered his life's intent, the nature of his aspirations. Even with the power to understand Sikhi's nature in its purest form, the creature, unlike a human, did not take advantage. It did not use its knowledge to manipulate.
Intellect, reasoning, self-awareness, and complexity: these are traits that define a human being. They are the realities that set human beings apart from the rest of the world. The truth is; humans have the capacity, within their actions, to perform not just good or evil but good and evil. While intellect, reasoning, self-awareness, and complexity define what it means to be human, perhaps more so than any of these traits, the struggle between good and evil within the soul defines what kind of person a human chooses to be.
The young sky bison, no more than three years old, evaluated the light and dark within Sikhi.
In the freezing cold and rain, he ran barefoot over the stone tiles to rescue Sidd from the jagged cliff. As a child, he felt a great urge to help lost or injured animals. At one point, at least a dozen lemurs secretly found refuge and warmth within Sikhi's room. The boy respected nature. He loved the way the leaves of the trees rusted into shades of red and orange at the onset of autumn. It was beneath this tranquility that he preferred to meditate.
The little sky bison saw all of these things within the boy. Sikhi spoke softly.
"You almost scared me to death. If you wanted to meet me so badly, you could have just done so like a normal person."
He grimaced and placed a hand to his bruised ribs.
"You sure know how to give a warm welcome. And, I have to admit, out of all the strangers I've met in my young life, you certainly are the strangest."
The bison calf remained silent. It sat up straight directly across from Sikhi, who pondered his own words.
"Now that I think of it, I'm probably just as strange of a stranger to you as you are to me. I've never met a sky bison before. That being said, it seems equally likely that you've never met a human before, either."
He smiled warmly.
"If that's the case, then it is my pleasure to be the first."
He held out his hand.
"I'm Sikhi, by the way."
The young sky bison's brow furrowed in confusion at the boy's outstretched hand.
"Oh," said Sikhi ashamedly, "I forgot sky bison probably don't greet each other by shaking hands. How do you greet each other, anyways?"
When he said this, the creature's eyes lit up. The sky bison sprang up and knocked the boy to the ground. A large tongue lapped at his face like a diabolical slime monster with a mind of its own. Beneath the soft, white fur, Sikhi laughed and attempted to push the licking monster off of him.
"Gross! Get off of me!"
The boy raked and clawed his way out of the furry prison to no avail. Meanwhile the sky bison sat contently on the squirming kid.
The night was beautiful.
Aside from the muffled grunts and curses of Sikhi attempting to break free, all was silent. The stars shined overhead like twinkling grains of sand. The sky bison craned its neck and peered into the vastness of the sky. The grey wisps of clouds had a soothing effect. The gentle autumn wind that rolled over the forest also calmed the little sky bison. It took a long, drawn out sniff of the world around. The smells and scents of the temple infiltrated the bison's subconscious. It could distinctly sense the lingering presence of fruit pies, moon peaches, and steamed rice.
Its stomach grumbled audibly.
During this moment of stillness, Sikhi finally slid out from underneath the mass of white fur. Gooey saliva shined like wax on his head.
"It's during moments like these that I thank the Spirits that I'm bald."
His facial expression was not one of amusement.
"So that's how you bison-folk treat each other? With a glob of saliva and near suffocation?"
The bison calf seemed to smile wanly, but this expression was broken by another grumble of its stomach. It looked down at its empty belly with forlorn eyes.
Sikhi's annoyance melted into understanding; he recognized a hungry stomach when he saw one. Never one to turn down anybody in need, Sikhi thought of ways to help the exceedingly strange new stranger.
"You know, if you're hungry, there's plenty to eat in the temple. I could go get something for you real quick if you just stay put."
Sikhi got up and began to cross the mosaic tiles of the meditation pavilion, but he noticed the hulking shape of the sky bison following from behind. He rolled his eyes and turned around.
"Listen. I like you. I think you're great, besides the fact that you may have broken more than one of my ribs, but I can't let you follow me into the temple. Trust me, it's not that I don't think the other monks will dislike you or anything. It's just that you physically won't fit."
Sikhi put a hand on one of the bison's shoulders.
"You have six legs, a big head, and a giant tail to lug around. You've got to weigh what, at least a ton? Just trust me, the hallways are way too narrow. Wait here, and I'll bring you some food so your stomach will stop growling."
The boy, once again, turned to leave. He walked about fifteen steps and turned back around to face the sky bison cloaked in moonlight.
"Don't move," he whispered.
He dashed over the tiles, up the winding spiral of stairs, and through the long dark corridors. He knew the temple like the back of his hand. He knew the twists and turns even in the barely visible light. When he reached the end of the final hallway, he burst through a large wooden door.
Rows and rows of fruits and vegetables lined the shelves that encircled the expansive storage room. Bags of grain slumped in the corner. A single window at the far end let through a sliver of moonlight that cast down to the center of the room. The floor was swept and tidy without a single spot to be seen.
Sikhi weighed the options.
What does a sky bison eat anyways?
He glanced past bags of rice and toghum roots. He concluded that a sky bison wouldn't want any calming jasmine tea, either. After passing by multiple shelves, he stumbled upon a large basket full of ripe, autumn apples. The thought of the crisp, juicy sweetness upon biting into the apples made even Sikhi's mouth water; he had already eaten dinner, too. He filled multiple bags with apples and cumbersomely attempted to carry all of them by the tips of his fingers and the creases of his elbows. After all, nobody likes to make two trips.
When he returned to the quiet meditation pavilion, the sky bison was nowhere to be seen.
"What gives? I told you to stay put and don't move," said Sikhi out into the open air.
Wind chimes jingled softly overhead, and as if carried by a gentle breeze, the bison glided out of the starry night sky and curled nimbly to the ground.
"Not bad for a furry monster," Sikhi smirked. "I brought you some apples."
He dumped the bags of apples one-by-one. The sweet red fruits rolled across the flat tiles of the pavilion in all different directions. The boy felt slightly accomplished as there were quite a few apples; enough for ten monks, he surmised.
"Enjoy," he said, crossing his arms in satisfaction.
The sky bison cocked its head, took one look at the scattered apples, and then inhaled deeply like a giant vacuum. The apples were suctioned like grayed dandelions caught in the wind. Sikhi watched with a mixture of surprise, admiration, and disturbance as the sky bison literally inhaled each and every apple within a matter of seconds. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he remembered Tai or Dai saying something about sky bison having six stomachs.
Standing in awe, Sikhi barely reacted in time before the slimy pink tongue lashed out in an act of loving thanksgiving. The sky bison's eyes glistened with happiness. As Sikhi looked into the thankful eyes, his own expression softened.
"You're welcome," he said.
Then a thought occurred to him. Though it was the dead of night, the unexpected events left Sikhi feeling anything but tired. His blood pulsed through his body, and the tips of his fingers burned with excitement. He grinned.
"I want to show you something," he said to the sky bison.
The small boy in sleeping robes rushed out into the cold night. His bare feet pattered over the stone tiles. He breathed in his silent, crystal clear surroundings. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw that the sky bison sat resolutely in the moonlight cast down on the meditation pavilion.
"You don't have to stay put this time!" He called back. "Follow me!"
Immediately, the quick-learning calf flew out of the pavilion and over the dark treetops. White light from the moon and stars illuminated its large form against the black sky as it glided effortlessly with the autumn wind. Meanwhile, Sikhi ran with all his might. His mind raced and reeled as he passed the stone statues standing resolute over the temple. The two young night-goers, one running, one flying, rushed parallel to each other as they created ripples of action in an otherwise motionless night.
Sikhi smiled. His heart leaped.
"This way!" he called to the sky bison.
He veered off course and began to ascend a set of spiral steps that lined the outside of the highest tower. He took a moment to crane his neck and look directly upward; the tower rose up through the clouds far beyond his sight. He put his head down and continued his journey into the heavens. As he climbed higher and higher, the sky bison flew next to him, enjoying the same rush of excitement as the boy. The higher they climbed, the more the clouds fell away, the clearer the air became. Panting, Sikhi finally reached his destination.
The top of the tower was a flat, circular platform with a diameter of roughly fifty meters, made entirely of stone. The sky bison flew in rings above him. It seemed to be fascinated by the clarity of the night sky. Even so, it was completely free, completely comfortable in the air. Sikhi danced lightly on his feet and followed the sky bison as it glided. He, too, was unafraid of the height or wispy sea of clouds that churned beneath.
The panoramic view of the mountains never failed to amaze Sikhi. Ever since he could walk, ever since he could climb the long flight of stairs up to the top of the temple, he always stood dumbfounded, mouth agape at the sight of the mountains that made him feel so small. The vast sky expanded infinitely in all directions as if the world seamlessly fell away. Way above the clouds, the air was pure. Each time he breathed in this delicate air, he felt enlivened, invigorated with wonder. Way above the clouds, the air was always silent. There was never wind; rather, the wind never made a sound, yet it still found a way to make itself known to the skin on his pale arms.
Sikhi hugged his arms together and rubbed the thin fabric of his sleeping robes to create some warmth. The sky bison descended, landing softly in the center of the stone circle. Sikhi approached the great beast without hesitation. The look in its eyes spoke only of bewilderment and happiness at being surrounded by its element.
"I knew you'd like it up here," said Sikhi with a frosty smile. "This is my favorite place in the entire temple. Whenever I get angry, whenever I get confused, coming up here helps to clear my mind."
He stood beside the animal and ran a gentle hand through its long, white fur. He looked out across the vast sea of clouds.
"Monk Sidd tells me that you and your brothers and sisters are the masters of the sky, the last frontier. All of us are prisoners on the ground, while you can go wherever you want in the air."
The young sky bison looked into the stars that were closer than ever.
"And it just dawned on me; why exactly did you tackle me earlier? I remember when you and the rest of the sky bison flew in like a giant cloud. I was camped out in the branches of a peach tree pretty close to where you decided to ram me for no apparent reason. You landed miles away from the temple. Why aren't you with the rest of your herd?"
"What brought you here?"
The happiness in the calf's eyes faded into gloom. The young sky bison looked directly at Sikhi, and as if to explain, scraped its budding horns on the stone tiles. The stubs barely protruded from the white fur, but they were clearly visible.
Sikhi began to understand.
"Oh I see. So you're mother can't look after you anymore. You're too old."
The sky bison nodded in confirmation.
"Well if it makes you feel any better, I never met my parents at all. I don't know what my mother or father looks like. The monks raised all of my friends, including myself, as brothers ever since we could..."
"Well ever since we were born! I can't remember a time when I wasn't cared for by the other monks."
The sky bison slumped on the ground dejectedly.
"We're not too different, you and I. Monk Sidd has been my mentor for as long as I can remember, but the truth is I'm getting older, too. He's taught me everything I know about prayer and meditation, about living a life of purpose, but I keep feeling the urge to forge my own path."
Sikhhi rested a hand on his companion. The bison's fur was softer than it looked, and it seemed to enjoy the tranquil ripples of the wind. Sikhi could feel the beast's heartbeat pounding slowly underneath the mass of fur. The cadence was light and free.
"Now that I think of it," said Sikhi, "I'll bet my friends wouldn't mind accepting a new brother into our group. If you want, you can hang out with us. We do all types of stuff like hide and seek, making fruit pies, and training lemurs."
"I already like you more than Jifu," he added.
The offer brought life to the sky bison's eyes. As if to thank Sikhi, it bent its head down to the stone tiles, almost like a bow. The action was filled with admiration, reverence, and appreciation. It wasn't just a bow; the sky bison remained that way, glancing up at Sikhi in a way that asked the boy to be unafraid. Sikhi didn't understand the gesture at first, so he approached with caution.
"What exactly are you doing?"
The sky bison looked up at him and at the sky that expanded in every direction. Then, it returned to its bowed position. To Sikhi, at this moment the young bison was no longer a furry vacuum but an elder sage. He recognized an enlightened wisdom within the beast, a wisdom that reminded him of Monk Sidd.
The wind picked up.
When Sikhi realized what the sky bison was suggesting, a wave of shock, fear, and excitement washed over him. He felt as if gravity ceased to exist.
"You're asking me to fly with you?"
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