JANUARY (The Snow)
big jump, four legs spread wide, tail streaming afterwards... Our squirrel -- her
name is Mistletoe -- sails from the Black Oak toward the house, for an instant almost
flying through dark, early-morning sky.
Landing lightly at the rooftop's lower corner, she silently bounds for a few seconds along the green metal gutter, then leaps into the Sugar Maple. Scrambling downward through the tree's black maze of leafless branches and twigs, in seconds she reaches the resting spot on the trunk four feet above the ground. Here she clings, her whole body pressed close to the cold bark, her fuzzy tail pointing straight toward the sky, nothing between her and the sunflower seeds on the ground but fear.
For, somewhere inside the hedge of Privet bushes there may be something dangerous hiding, something like a cat which in half a second can rush from the shadows and kill. As Mistletoe waits, glancing from side to side again and again, all the time she is aware of this:
Something in this new day feels strange. The morning's icy air tingles with anticipation. Every wild creature on Peace Hill and in the entire city must smell and taste and feel this troubling something.
So busy, so busy, so busy is every bird visiting the Alexanders' feeding station. The Carolina Chickadees, the Tufted Titmice, the Blue Jays, the House Finches, the Mourning Doves, all stuffing themselves as if never again will they have a chance to eat. How greedily these birds push and peck at one another and nervously flit from spot to spot.
The weather is not good. At 8:00 o'clock on this unsettling morning the sky grows darker, not lighter. However, even as Mistletoe clings to the Sugar Maple's trunk, this hard-to-talk-about feeling in the air is crystallizing into something understandable. Yes, out of this fearful-looking sky, carried on bone-chilling breezes that just now are beginning to stir, there begin to fall amazingly large, widely spaced snowflakes.
In slow motion they fall, not hurrying to reach the earth at all. Soundlessly they shatter onto the ground, leaving powdery, white splotches looking like teaspoons of white sugar dumped for no good reason. Because the ground is frozen, the snowflake-powder doesn't melt.
The Alexanders' backyard is surrounded by a dense Privet hedge and tall trees. Since Jan, the mother, loves to watch birds from her kitchen window, just outside her window stand two bird feeders and a birdbath. One feeder looking like a basketball-size, four-sided, plastic lantern dangles from a low-arching branch of the big Hackberry. The second feeder is just a wooden tray nailed to a post stuck into the ground.
Mistletoe's favorite visiting place is beneath the second feeder. That's because this is where, every morning, Jan scoops out a heap of store-bought sunflower seeds. As soon as she returns inside Cardinals and Blue Jays swoop down and gorge themselves. But these are messy birds who often knock as many seeds onto the ground as they eat. Therefore, if a squirrel noses into the spongy carpet of empty sunflower-seed hulls that for years has accumulated below the feeder, it's always easy to find a few unopened seeds! And how plump, and oily, and tasty those wonderful sunflower-seed kernels are...
All at once Mistletoe leaps onto the ground. Through the falling snow -- it's coming down much harder now than just a minute ago -- Mistletoe makes her way onto the sunflower-seed-hull carpet.
Within seconds she snuffles up an unopened seed, rises onto her haunches, and with her front paws rotates the flatish seed until it's right for biting into. Instantly her sharp incisors split the seed coat, the pale kernel plops onto her tongue, and the two seed-coat halves drop unnoticed onto the ground, adding themselves to the ever-deepening carpet.
Such is our squirrel's appetite that even as her cheek-teeth grind the sunflower kernel into oily pulp, she searches for another seed. She finds one, eats it, and then finds another and another. And now the snowflakes are smaller than before, but coming down much harder, and the wind blows leaves across the lawn.
Dark images among snowflakes, something fast-moving, maybe something dangerous... Ears lain back, eyes wide with panic, tail jerking, in an instant Mistletoe is back on the Sugar Maple's trunk, poised to escape even higher... But...
False alarm. Only a noisy flock of House Sparrows streaking around the house's corner, then settling into the Privet hedge. Nothing to worry about. Once the heart slows enough for our squirrel to think, back onto the ground and the seed-hull carpet she goes.
Soon the whole backyard fills with the hissing of millions and millions of small, dry snow-pellets showering onto frozen ground. The pellets bounce into Mistletoe's eyes and onto her sensitive whiskers, and wedge themselves in her fur. Now entire trees shudder and sway in the wind and the snow comes in fast-moving waves. All this sound and commotion fills Mistletoe with an urge to find shelter, to be someplace quiet and familiar, to be in her home...
Up the big Sugar Maple's trunk she goes, then through the limb-maze, then the big leap, the run along the gutter and finally with a short hop she lands on the cable-TV wire leading from the Alexanders' house. At first the going is easy but away from the house's shelter, above Chesterfield Avenue, Mistletoe finds slippery ice encrusting the wire, and now the wind rages with anger and spite.
Too late Mistletoe understands that her claws are no good on ice-glazed wire. Too late she comprehends that in this wind it's impossible to turn around and go back.
For a long time Mistletoe hugs the swaying cable, the furious wind whistling around the wire, growing ever stronger, snow stinging her eyes. Finally, very slowly, she begins pulling herself forward. What else can she do? How she wants to turn back. But, there's just no...
Thirty feet above Chesterfield Avenue's pavement a mighty blast of tail-twisting wind rips our squirrel from the wire. Like a helpless gray rag she's carried for long seconds suspended in nothing but angry wind, blowing all the way onto Mrs. Taylor's lawn.
Her bushy tail has saved her. Like a small parachute it has carried her sideways in the wind, from over the highway, to drop her onto Mrs. Taylor's grass. A thin-tailed cat or a big dog wouldn't have survived this fall but our Mistletoe is just shaken. Now more than a little shaken our squirrel streaks toward home, straight across the street's slick pavement, and she's lucky no car is coming.
Soon Mistletoe feels beneath her paws the old Hackberry tree's familiar, warty bark. Up, up, up she climbs, all the way to the den-hole beneath the big, horizontal branch. She is upset and desperately needs to be with her den companions. How she needs the security and safety of home!
The instant Mistletoe pokes her head into the den-hole's darkness, she feels better, smelling familiar odors.
Inside the old Hackberry the den is shaped like a ten-foot-long teardrop that's narrow at the top but ample and flat-bottomed below. Pulling herself down the den's narrow neck, Mistletoe feels the ridge of hard, smooth wood pressing against her back, and dry, crumbly heartwood sliding beneath her belly. These familiar sensations calm and please her.
Reaching the den's bottom, her companions' odors blossom around her. Just by sniffing she knows that all the other squirrels are here. Chickweed and Blacklocust smell dry and warm, but Cocklebur's scent is that of a wet and upset squirrel, so the storm had caught him outside, too. Yes, all the feelings and aromas and sounds of home are here, and they are good...
Now inside the den floor's darkness Mistletoe curls into a ball that touches all the other balls of gray fur there, and exchanges feelings, warmth and odors with them.
Before our squirrel sleeps, more than once she chuckles softly, and contentedly sighs.
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