There is company just beyond the light of his campfire; Snufkin has a certain sense for these things, lifting night-eyes to scan the woods around him. Everything is gray in the daybreak, hard to make out, but he still finds what he’s looking for.
“I know you’ve been following me since I left town,” Snufkin says mildly. He stirs the pot of stew with a patient hand. “There’s plenty here for the both of us if you’d like to join me.”
After a moment, someone drops down from a nearby tree. He pads over the leaves and forest litter without making a sound and settles down an arm's length away from where Snufkin is sitting. His legs are folded up, arms draped over his knees, as if he absolutely needs to be in position to nap at a moment’s notice.
Snufkin smiles. His usual reaction to this particular creature is fond amusement, and tonight is no different.
The Joxter tilts his head, blinking slowly. In the low light of pre-dawn, his eyes are very dark; or it could be his round pupils, swallowing up all the blue.
“H’llo, Snufkin,” he says, voice a lazy stretch, like taffy left out in the sun. “You don’t mind the company?”
They’re two of the same, and Snufkin knows his father would leave without ire or hurt feelings if Snufkin asked him to. As it is, though, “Not at all. I won’t be alone for much longer anyway. Spring is here, and it’s only two more days to Moominvalley.”
It’s unnecessary to point out, because the Joxter is probably familiar with the way himself by now. Since meeting Snufkin there two years ago, an adolescent son he had never known about, the Joxter has made it a point to spend at least summers in the valley. It’s common ground for them both, an easy place to navigate newfound family or peel away for time alone or time with friends.
Sometimes the Joxter leaves early, too restless to sit still, and Snufkin doesn’t begrudge him that. They always cross paths again on the road at some point, or in some faraway city or unmapped village, so there’s never any true need for goodbyes.
Snufkin is beginning to think his father is keeping loose tabs on him. This early morning is a perfect example. He just can’t think of why, when they both know Snufkin is self-sufficient, and has been since he was very small.
“Three days,” contests the Joxter, chin sinking down to rest on his knees. “You don’t sleep enough.”
Snufkin ignores the remark comfortably, passing him a bowl of the finished stew. His father gets most of the meat in his serving, and Snufkin most of the vegetables, and they’re both content as they tuck into the warm meal.
The peace lasts for about three minutes after that, and then a sudden frantic voice from overhead has Snufkin jumping in surprise.
“You there! Little snufkin! Won’t you help me?”
“Oh, dear,” Snufkin says, setting his food aside and climbing to his feet. There’s a bluebird swooping in frantic circles above his camp, and it can hardly calm down long enough to land on the arm he offers as a perch. “Slow down, my friend. What’s the trouble?”
“A snake came in the night and tried to eat my nestlings,” the bird cries. “My neighbors helped drive it away, but it upset the nest, and now my babies will fall!”
Alarmed, Snufkin skirts the fire and starts to run, without pausing even to grab his hat. “Lead me to it, and I’ll do my best to help.”
The bird takes flight and stays low, eye-level. The Joxter is keeping pace beside Snufkin on silent feet, curious and watchful.
“I forget that you can speak to birds,” the Joxter says. Birds avoid him, as do most small creatures, because he’s as much a predator as a snake in a nest. He knows better than to eat any of Snufkin’s companions, and generally has stopped offering to bring food to Snufkin’s campfire unless it’s fish. “How is it that you learned? It all sounds like chatter to me.”
Snufkin keeps his eyes on the bluebird so he doesn’t lose sight of it, even as he explains, “When I was young, there was no one else to talk to but the birds in the trees. After a while their music began to sound like language. It helps that I’m a good listener, I suppose.”
The Joxter doesn’t say anything after that, and it’s only moments later that they reach the bluebird’s tree. A quick glance doesn’t reveal any nests in precarious positions, so it must be on a higher bough. Snufkin spares a moment to wish he had had time to pull his smock on over his undershirt, because his arms will surely get scratched on the way up.
“I should do it,” his father says suddenly. “I’m the better climber.”
“They’re frightened enough as it is without you prowling around their babies,” Snufkin retorts, and eyes the lowest branch, which is still well above his head. His father has more than a foot of height on him, which lends itself to a handy solution, and he turns to wave the taller creature over. “Give me a boost, please. And then wait for me down here so you don’t send anyone into a fresh panic.”
Grumbling under his breath, the Joxter hoists Snufkin up enough that he can grab the branch and pull himself the rest of the way into the tree. Snufkin calls down his thanks, and the bluebird lands on his knee.
“This way,” it says, “not much farther! Oh, hurry!”
Snufkin follows it up easily, thanking all the warm afternoons he and his friends spent playing in the trees around the valley, because the experience certainly helps. His grip slips a few times, and once a branch bends beneath his weight, but he makes it to the nest without incident.
Right away, Snufkin can see the danger. The small bunch of branches the nest was safely built into are broken, the skirmish with the snake causing what was stable to lean hazardously to the side. The little ones inside have picked up on the bigger birds’ distress and their shrill cries work straight through Snufkin’s heart.
“Alright,” he says softly, “there’s no need to fear. I’ve got you.”
He works the nest into the cup of his palms and holds it carefully. The bluebird directs him to a new place for it, a hollow in the trunk that a squirrel helpfully surrendered, and Snufkin can only breathe easily again once the little nestlings are squared away inside.
“Thank you!” half a dozen birds seem to say at once, coming to perch on his arms or the branches around him. The mother bird adds, “To think what might have happened if I hadn’t found you— !”
Pleased with the positive outcome, Snufkin says, “Don’t think of might haves. You and your nestlings are safe and that’s all that matters. I’m happy I could help.”
He leans back to make room for yet another perching bird, shifting his footing as it flutters by, and something snaps beneath his boot. He realizes with a second to spare that he’s about to fall, and then there’s no time to grab hold of anything before the birds are shrieking in alarm, and gravity is snatching hold of his shirt and tugging him backwards, and Snufkin’s mind is blank with fear—
But he doesn’t hit the ground. He lands much sooner than that, against something much softer.
Snufkin blinks, reorienting himself, and finds himself halfway down the tree, tucked securely between his father’s arm and chest.
“Ah,” the smaller snufkin says, more relieved than anything. “Thank you.”
The Joxter picks his way down carefully. His dark fur is raised, tail like a bottle brush, and his claws are caught in Snufkin’s shirt. He doesn’t let go until the ground is firm beneath their feet, and even then it takes him a long moment to decide to set Snufkin down.
“Next time,” the Joxter says slowly, “I am climbing. I would rather scare the little birds than watch you break your bones.”
Snufkin has to work not to roll his eyes. He’s a little hardier than that. It wouldn’t have been the first time he fell from a tree, and it surely won’t be the last. Not as long as there are little birds who need favors.
The Joxter seems to sense the repressed eye-roll and his own eyes narrow. The pupils in them are slitted now; Snufkin doesn’t think he’s seen them like that since the day they met, the day Moominpappa introduced them to each other and the Joxter startled so badly he dropped one of Moominmamma’s best teacups.
“A twenty foot fall is not nothing.” The Joxter’s quiet tone has taken a sharp turn. “If I hadn’t caught you—“
“But you did,” Snufkin says, his own hackles rising. These might haves again, and right after he told the bluebird not to think of them! “And I said thank you. There is nothing else to talk about.”
“We could talk about risking your life for an animal. A bluebird,” the Joxter says in distaste, “one of a hundred thousand bluebirds. What’s next? Will you help an injured creep cross the river? Save a squirrel kit from a landslide?”
An argument, Snufkin realizes, his stomach turning sour. He has witnessed this uncomfortable scene a dozen times before in a dozen places, a child and their parent screaming at each other in marketplaces or city squares.
The Joxter is taller than him, bigger, sharp where the Mymble’s blood made Snufkin soft. His voice is usually low and unobtrusive, a storyteller’s voice, but it sounds so different in anger. Snufkin wonders what it will sound like when he is shouting the way those other parents shouted, and a very cold feeling slides around inside him.
But Snufkin never learned how to back down. The orphanage matron tried to teach him but those lessons didn’t stick. Whether it’s park keepers, or the traveler who came through the valley last year and thought they could get away with calling Sniff simple, or his own father, Snufkin stands his ground.
“There could be a hundred thousand snufkins just like me,” he shoots back. “Better snufkins, even, who can play more than just guitar and harmonica, who have never been invisible and never gotten lost and never fallen out of a tree. What makes me worth so much more than that bird?”
The Joxter surges a sudden step forward, and all of Snufkin’s courage deserts him. He ducks his head, missing his hat dearly, and braces himself for furious hands.
They don’t come. He opens his eyes.
His father is crouched in front of him, hands in his lap, eyes round and hurt. The anger, if it was ever anger, is gone. When he reaches out, Snufkin is ready for it this time, and he doesn't move away.
The Joxter's dark paw lands very lightly on Snufkin's auburn hair. It's a gentle touch, and then it's gone. The Joxter pulls back and straightens up and does a tidy disappearing act into the trees. Snufkin loses sight of him within moments.
It's just Snufkin and the worried birds and the rising sun. Their comfortable breakfast feels like it happened a year ago.
He wraps his arms around his middle and stares at the ground. He doesn't like arguments, for all that he can be contrary and difficult when his principles are fringed upon, when his personal boundaries are broken. Pulling up fences and signposts is one thing, but fighting with words? Just talking with words can sometimes be too much, let alone fighting with them. There is a reason he tends toward silence and solitude.
"If I didn't have birds to talk to, I wouldn't have anyone," he murmurs miserably. "I'd drive them all away. All except dear Moomintroll."
The name is like a balm, and Snufkin lifts his head to the north. Two days— less than, if he pushes himself— and he could see Moomin again. The one person whose welcome he's never had to doubt.
Snufkin rushes back to the camp to pack his things. If he's hoping to run into his father there, he's sorely disappointed. But that's only if.