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NOVEMBER
(The Bucket)

Mistletoe in November

The loss of two toes on the hind paw has not been of critical importance. The gash between her lip and eye has left an ugly scar but now this does not bother her. The front paw has been bruised by the shattering twig but it's no longer painful. The shoulder is the thing that still hurts, and it hurts all the time, day after day. Climbing into trees is out of the question. In November, Mistletoe is a kind of animal that Bryant's Woods has never seen.

Not with a squirrel's graceful leaps and bounds but with the stiff, laboring gait of a lizard, each dawn Mistletoe drags herself into the cornfield. This new, man-created animal no longer lives in the squirrel's world of air, sky, and treetops, but rather in the turtle's world of mud and roots, and brown, decaying leaves. Now she is not sleek-looking, but rather a creature caked with mud, like a frog with brown warts. Now she possesses neither the energy nor the spirit to be like anything other than a snake, suspicious and vulnerable on the ground.

Yes, Mistletoe has become a grubby, half-dead animal who eats waste-corn, living among dead leaves on the forest's floor. Out the window has gone her rank relative to Bryant's Woods's other squirrels. In Mistletoe's life, now there is no tail-flicking and no being chased by males; now all other squirrels simply stay away from her. Mud and corn, mud and corn, mud and corn... even the Blue Jays scream when Mistletoe comes dragging from beneath the Honeysuckle thicket.

One day after a big rain, the farmer's hound comes sniffing. Mistletoe is eating corn in the field so when the hound sees her it runs toward her baying crazily. But this thing the hound approaches doesn't dart away like the fox or amble in retreat like the skunk. It doesn't drop and play dead like the opossum, nor does it bound toward the trees like a squirrel. In fact, this unworldly creature seems not be care whether it's caught or not.

The wounded side of Mistletoe's face is puffed up, giving it a crooked, screwed-up look. When our squirrel realizes that the hound is coming, she tries to run, but the sharp pain in her shoulder causes her to stumble and scream. She tries to leap, but only manages to sprawl awkwardly onto the ground.

Seeing this, the hound stops in its tracks, not knowing what to do with such a disfigured, possibly dangerous creature. So the hound simply turns around and skulks away.

******

Mistletoe has been looking for a better sleeping place than beneath the Honeysuckle thicket. Today she finds one next to the trunk of a Pin Oak near the river; it's a ten-gallon metal bucket lying on its side. The bucket's top has a spout in it large enough for a squirrel to enter, and the bucket itself is dry inside. A few weeks ago a mouse carried straw into it for a nest, but now the mouse is gone. Now this bucket becomes Mistletoe's home.

And little does she know that for this new home she must thank the human who shot her. For, this bucket was brought into the woods by the man so that when he hunts he'll have someplace to sit and wait... wait as his squirrel-quarry forget him, and begin showing themselves...

During the nights that follow, more rain than normal falls. Many nights find Mistletoe lying curled in her bucket listening to raindrops drum onto the bucket's metal sides. From inside the bucket the thunder sounds like distant growling or roaring. A corner of the bucket touches the tree's trunk so sometimes when the wind is strongest and the tree's wood creaks and groans, those sounds pass from the tree into the bucket. To our squirrel, it seems as if she lives in the very belly of a forest-sized ache.

However, our squirrel no longer grows overly excited about mere creaks and groans. When the rain patters on her roof and the sky roars, she is content to be dry, and to know that a hunger- satisfying cornfield lies nearby.

******

On Thanksgiving Day, a remarkable thing happens. Much too early in the season, a heavy, wet snow blankets Bryant's Woods. When Mistletoe awakens, though the sun has been up for a couple of hours, inside the bucket there is only darkness. And where are the sounds of wind in trees, and of Dark-eyed Juncos trilling as they forage for Giant Ragweed seeds at the woods's edge? Noticing a dim glow issuing through the spout, Mistletoe draws close and sniffs. Where there should be nothing but air, her snout collides with wet, crunchy snow. She paws at it and a little tumbles into the bucket.

In nature, sometimes squirrels dig tunnels beneath snow, looking for cached nuts; the snow-tunneling instinct is something a squirrel is born with so when Mistletoe feels snow beneath her paws, it feels natural to keep on shoving and pushing and digging forward...

As Mistletoe angles her tunnel upward and nears the surface, the snow loosens. The sound of her paws working in the snow acquires a certain hollow tone. When at last the snow's crust collapses, fresh air and brilliant light flood into her tunnel. Mistletoe had not realized how stale the air in her bucket had become; but now it seems that never before has she smelled air so fresh, so wet, and electric -- as exciting as this air now flooding around her.

Mistletoe pokes her head from her snow-hole and looks around. What she beholds could not be more different from her usual world of mud and brown leaves.

Trees make graceful, delicate silhouettes against the milky sky; how unlike mud-splattered ears of corn and cold puddles of rainwater they are. Breezes shake snow from the branches. This pure whiteness showers earthward gently, silently, gracefully...

From across the snow-covered fields and pastures come crisp and crystalline sounds. At the farmhouse across the pasture, the humans speak to one another:

"You'd better come in now, Joanie," a human says. "We're putting that turkey in the oven any minute. And if you keep playing in the snow, you're going to get a cold, and miss a lot of school."

Later, wind will bring the odor of woodsmoke from the farmhouse's direction. It'll be smoke with a Hickory odor.

Continue to DECEMBER