Ascentia and Stella knew that the time had come. They placed Bran's sleeping body on a cot and carried him to the spring while the moon was still high. Slowly they lowered him into the water, and together they all three submerged.
Bran opened his eyes. The walls of his stone and wood room were gone. He looked around. The tall green grass, the sun-dappled trunks of trees outlined in a brilliant blue sky, the sound of bird song was everywhere. He smiled, sat up, saw the river, the sun like diamonds dazzling the surface of the slowly moving massive body of water. The continuously changing lights, the cool breeze, the sound of the birds, the rustling of the trees, all of these things were causing him to become very fond of this place.
He thought of Stella. As he was thinking this, a bird, a small finch, came down from the tree. He landed on the rock in front of him. The finch stood still while staring at him. Perfectly still. This bird felt familiar.
He sensed he wasn't alone.
He turned and saw a spotted leopard laying a body's length away. She closed her eyes and then opened them. It was a greeting. He stood and noticed that his own feet were paws.
She spoke, "Yes, Bran. Look around. You remember this place, right?"
He looked around again. This place, this conversation was familiar. He had been here before. But like a dream, the memory of it came in bits and pieces.
Then he looked back at her and said, "How did this happen. I was a man and now a cat?"
"The answer to that question and everything else can be found up there." She looked up and completed the thought. "In the arms of a tree."
She went on. "My father taught me that everyone needs a secret place, a secret garden in her mind. A place in which everything in that world is a friend. That world must be a place made of memories that create a feeling of happiness. A place that is safe and strong."
She continued as he shifted her gaze to his left, looking at the river. "Do you remember this river? We bathed in her waters near the cave many nights ago. This place is located in our thoughts. But also it is a real place. This is where I went to last night while you were sleeping under the light of the full moon. It was here that I found the source of your wound and also the cure. All this occurred while you slept."
Stella walked over to the tree and looked back at Bran. "Now, it is time for us to do the healing work. Come."
She jumped onto the tree's wall and shimmied up into the branches. He watched with amazement as she disappeared. Then he heard her faceless voice. "You coming?"
He stood and walked over to the trunk. It was like looking at a very tall round rock wall. He lifted his pad of his paw up and stared as he let the sharp claws appear. Then he released the claws for his other feet. He crouched as he saw her do and sprung into the air. He was several body lengths away from the ground hanging on the side of a tree. This was astounding. He picked up one paw and placed it higher. Like a pick axe it held. He lifted himself with ease and placed his next paw into the bark. And up he walked.
When he got into the branches, he heard her voice. "Here. Look to your right."
He did, and there she was a few body lengths away laying in a bowl of leaves held by woven branches.
He stepped onto the branch and walked with perfect balance to the bowl. He sat.
"Stella. How is all this happening? Cats, giant trees, the river. It is so real."
"The answer is here in the tree. Look around." She replied.
As he sat there, he felt the branch moved with the breeze. The leaves clattered around them like hands waving. The lights change from white to yellow to green in strobe motion. He was falling into sleepiness. He laid down. As he did, Stella relaxed her body by extending her paws forward, allowing her muscles to stretch and then lay next to him. The two, side by side, purred.
That is when he heard a voice from the wind.
"Look whose back boys." He was surprised how the voice came from that of an old man with a smooth, kind raspy throat filled with laughter. The voice sounded like his grandpa down in the village.
He opened his eyes and sat up.
The leaves clattered.
He looked down and saw Stella looking up at him, "Keep listening."
The leaves clattered, and the raspy voice continued. "You have been away a long, long time. But nowhere you are back in my arms."
Bran cleared his throat. "When was I here before?"
"Remember when you were small," the leaves clattered, "you spent your afternoons exploring the forest near your mom's home cabin. You climbed into the branches and explored the world of birds and squirrels. Remember how you felt like you had come home."
Bran thought about this. Yes. He did remember. He remembered how he had climbed the trees in his mother's forest yard and would sleep in the branches. Sometimes he would go out under the full moon, and after climbing, he would sit still to see the stars poking through the leaves. By the thousands.
Owls were his tree mates at night. During the days, the crow would talk back and forth among themselves. And then, there were the finches. Many small birds would gather around him. And when they spoke in their little voices, he felt happiest. As he would walk through the woods, day or night, memories of the birds filled him with a sense of awe.
The owls made him feel comfortable in the darkness.
The crow protected him with warnings during the day.
The finches. They were like family. They made him smile.
Now, here in the arms of this tree, he sensed warmth, protection, and adventure.
The wind blew harder, and the leaves spoke with more images.
A memory came to him: A blue spirit cat and a boy facing each other in the snow on the edge of a forest. He was sad and confused that day. Why had all those animals died and been left to rot? Such a waste of beauty, that little boy had thought then. The blue cat had felt what he did. Lost and confused.
He remembered. He felt sadness for the cat, and he extended his hand to comfort him by caressing his furry head. As soon as he touched him, the cat stepped forward and magically entered into his own body. As a boy, he felt great power surging through him. The power was grace and strength, but also grief. The cat's thoughts were melted into his.
Bran looked around and with his eyes in the tree, saw all the leaves shining green while waiving light and shadow, holding him captive to remember.
He felt the cats grief like his own. Only it wasn't his. It was someone else suffering.
It was then that the boy stopped climbing the trees or wandering through forests like they were friends. The boy stopped feeling the wonder. He felt only sadness in the forest. From that time to this, the trees, and the entire forest was only a source of wood and food.
But now, as the tree was talking to him, he saw how shallow his thoughts were. This tree was filling him with endless power to do whatever he wanted. To be anything he dreamed.
And then it came to him. The cat that day had walked up to him to greet him as a friend. Not to torment him, but to aid him. The same cat is who he is now.
How did he become a cat? He had just asked Stella. Because a cat had become his friend. Because, cats and trees like each other. The cat brought him to this place and for a good reason. Bran was the one who could change the village. The village where people had lost their love of the forest long ago. The cat chose him back then because the feline saw that this boy was soon to be the leader of these people who had just destroyed and wasted the lives of so many forest animals.
The leaves clattered more.
Bran blinked his eyes a few times to bring his thoughts back to the changing colors and to this woman cat. This lovely cat. His friend.
He looked up into the branches, and there they were. Hundreds of finches looking down at him. He closed and opened his eyes. They chirped among themselves.
He has come. She has brought him. We are saved. They were saying.