When she woke next, he was gone. Curiosity overcame caution, and she crept to the bank of the stream, peering over the slope to see if she could make out what enticed and compelled him so. There, in the bend, a small depression, in which was carefully laid a large, black stone, with amazingly flat, matte surface.
She spent some time looking at the stone, trying to figure out what about it made it so different, so special, so magical and unique. Over time, she found the courage to touch it, fingers dipping lightly into the water and disturbing its placid surface as she explored.
No ridge, no pit, no imperfection could she find upon it. The large stone was pristine. Slowly returning to her cubby by the oak, she thought about it. Perhaps it was the flatness, the smoothness of it that he found so alluring. Maybe the color. Maybe all three.
Until the twilight, she considered it, as she braided crowns from strands of wildflowers she’d found along their walks. She had carefully hidden them in the hollow of the oak. He never cared to look her way anymore… she had no worry for his finding them. They were safe until she could surprise him. She smiled to think of it… surely as many crowns, one for every path he had set his foot to… surely they would bring his smile. Surely they would engender something more than a pinch, a slice, a cruelty. She had to believe it.
Hearing his return, she double-checked the cubby and put her back to it, setting her face from him and being invisible. It didn’t take much effort, he no longer looked or seemed to care if she were nearby. Straight to the stream… to the rock… smiling to see it… settling with a dreamy, indolent expression. She remembered that expression… long ago… she used to think he didn’t see how others needed his care. She knew now, he saw it… but nothing more.
He leaned in closer to the rock and sighed… and in the sound of that sigh, the thought found her… oh of course! Involuntarily, she laughed, for the first time in some time, a full-bodied, happy sound. He flinched, but did not turn… she didn’t mind his flinching; finally she felt she knew what she’d misunderstood all along. Turning happily to the tree, remembering to keep all her humming inside, she snuggled into the rough bark and for the first time in months, slept like a child.