MARCH (The Attic)

Mistletoe in MarchAmong the American Elm's slender, wispy branches they look like glued-on bunches of brown bread-crumbs. On Red Maple twigs they could be clusters of blood-red warts. However, they're just clusters of tree flowers from which small, winged fruits will soon develop. In March, in Mistletoe's town, these are the first signs of spring.

Mistletoe is pleased with these flowers, for nowadays the Alexanders' feeding station is unattended, with no plump sunflower seeds for hungry squirrels. Now Mistletoe must spend very much time searching for caches, and now her caches are getting hard to find. Yes, these plump buds and juicy flowers of American Elm and Red Maple are a blessing for Mistletoe, for they can be eaten.

Today, looking like a gray, fuzzy kite caught in a tree, Mistletoe hangs among the Red Maple's uppermost branches. A cold wind, feeling wet and smelling of mud, causes the tree's big branches to sway like giant tree-arms gesturing grandly toward the sky. However, our squirrel is safe, for her needle-sharp, curved claws firmly anchor her wherever she places her paws.

Again and again our squirrel does exactly this: With her front paws she reaches out, pulls in a twig, and then with her teeth snips off three or four inches of the twig. Then, grasping the sniped-off twig in her front paws, almost like a human eating corn-on-the-cob, she nibbles off the twig's buds. These buds are soft and crisp, for they are filled with green, about-to-unfold leaves, stems, and blossoming flowers. Even the thin, brown bark is soft and juicy enough to nibble. When she's eaten what she wants, she simply drops the stripped twig onto the ground, then snips off another one and nibbles it. If right now you should stand beneath this particular Red Maple, you could count over thirty of Mistletoe's gnawed-on sticks.

After a couple of hours, Mistletoe's stomach is full. She crosses Chesterfield Avenue on the cable-TV wire, leaps into the Black Oak's branches next to the Alexanders' home, and then works upward toward the house's roof. Here she comes level with the attic's ventilation opening. Because she's explored there before she knows that behind the ventilation opening's wooden slats there's a screen wire. She knows she can squeeze between those slats and rest in the narrow space between the slats and the screen wire... It's not long until Mistletoe makes herself at home in that cozy, secret little niche.

As usual, the view through the screen wire, across the Alexanders' attic floor, is fascinating. Large cardboard boxes overflow with old clothes. The boys' forgotten toys and games form an obstacle course, and dusty old furniture and empty suitcases stand forgotten in every corner.

Eventually Mistletoe tires of seeing these things so she decides to continue her journey home. However, as she's turning around to leave, something unexpected happens: Her shoulder rips a small hole in the old, rusting screen wire.

For many years the screen wire has been growing weak and crumbly. Therefore, when Mistletoe paws at the hole, she just makes it bigger. And when she pokes her head through this bigger hole, she tears open a hole big enough for the whole front of her body to squeeze through... It's not long until Mistletoe's fuzzy paws land on the Alexanders' attic floor.

In a wink she scrambles to beneath the first thing she finds -- an old chest of drawers in a corner, filled with old tape cassettes. For a long time she huddles there, quivering with excitement. However, nothing happens. Sitting very still, she sniffs the air and with her eyes searches every corner. Nothing seems to smell or look dangerous... Slowly she works her way across the floor.

The attic's odors could not be more interesting. Never has she smelled pungent cedar-wood, of which the big footlocker is made. For a long time she sniffs it, and then she goes to lick an old pair of leather sandals. She gnaws on one of the sandal's straps, for it is salty, and she likes the salt.

In the floor's middle she finds a coil of thin, metal wire forming a kind of shimmery, silvery arch with both ends resting on the floor. It's something that very few squirrels see during their entire lives: It's a slinky-toy.

Sniffing it, Mistletoe finds it reeking with the odor of rusty metal. Touching it with her nose she causes its tensed coils to shudder and eerily chime. This new kind of weird and unexpected noise sends our high-strung friend racing back to beneath the old chest of drawers.

Mistletoe needs five minutes to work up enough courage to return to the slinky for further examination. Eventually her curiosity grows so intense that once more she steps forward and touches the strange invention with her nose...

Exactly at the moment when Mistletoe's nose makes contact with the cold, rusty-smelling slinky, outside the attic an especially strong gust of wind causes one of the big Black Oak's branches to scrape against the house's wooden sideboards. This nerve-jangling noise behind Mistletoe causes her to jump forward so that she crashes headlong into the slinky's silvery coils!

"Aaarghhh!"

The more Mistletoe fights the slinky-monster, the more her legs, tail, and neck become entangled in its shimmering, rusty-smelling, clanging, ever-more-entrapping coils. Somehow our squirrel regains her feet, then runs across the attic floor dragging the terrible slinky-thing behind her. And what an unbearably loud noise the slinky makes   scraping the floor's wooden planks!

Well, a human can hardly imagine how confused, upset and absolutely hysterical a high-strung little squirrel can become. After a minute or so of fighting the slinky-toy, Mistletoe simply collapses from exhaustion and fear. Breathing shallowly, for a long time she lies on the attic's floor imprisoned in the slinky's unyielding coils.

When again her awareness returns, once more she explodes into a furious fit of rolling, kicking and biting at the coil. However, again, this only leaves her in a wretched heap, now with one of the slinky's coils kinked tightly around her neck.

Twice again she comes to herself and fights, but each time she only ends up in worse shape than before. In the end, breathing irregularly and with her speeding heart skipping beats, she lies on the floor completely unconscious and in a state of shock. She does not hear when the attic floor's trapdoor is lowered into the house below and the ladder on the door is unfolded into the Alexanders' hallway. She does not hear these sounds made by two young humans:

"I see what's been making all that noise, Mark. It's a squirrel! It's all messed up in your old slinky!"

"What... ?"

"There's a squirrel up here and it's tangled up in your old slinky. I think it's dead... "

"They get rabies, you know. Don't touch it... "

Paul Alexander, Mark's elder brother, shakes one end of the slinky to see if Mistletoe really is dead. When she remains motionless, the boy cautiously unkinks the wire from around her neck.

"I think I see it breathing," Paul says. "I think it's just unconscious. I'm going to bring it downstairs."

"What're we going to do with it?" Mark asks.

"I don't know."

Downstairs, Paul lays Mistletoe onto the hallway floor. For a long time the boys discuss what needs to be done. Several ideas are considered and rejected before they decide to wrap Mistletoe in a towel and leave her beside the warm-air vent on the kitchen floor. For a while they stand looking down at their motionless, uninvited guest. Eventually Mark returns to the living room to play Space Invaders on his computer but Paul remains sitting at the table, keeping an eye on Mistletoe.

However, nothing happens. After a twenty minute vigil, Paul kneels beside Mistletoe, decides that probably she's going to die and that there's nothing else to do but wait for their dad to return home. Then they'll decide what to do with the body. Paul shrugs and walks into the living room to see how Mark is doing.

******

Through a fog of pain and confusion Mistletoe pulls herself forward, the warm towel slipping off her back, her mind not understanding the images forming before her eyes. Bookshelves, potted plants, chairs, a glowing computer screen, a couch with two boys standing on its seat...

"If it's got rabies, man, we can be in big trouble... "

"Maybe if I can kick the door open... "

"Careful! It's looking at you real funny... "

"If I can just reach the storm-door handle... "

Natural light and cold, wet air flood through the open door and the air carries with it familiar odors. Mistletoe drags herself toward this fountain of hope. She passes through it, stumbles across the porch's floor and as she tumbles over one step after another what a joy are these odors of mud and wet grass...

It's dusk. The wind has quieted down. A cold drizzle's freshness revives Mistletoe's strength. Gradually our squirrel orients herself. Soon she's headed toward the big den-Hackberry.

Descending into the tear-shaped den, she immerses herself in odors and touch that are as familiar to her as anything can be. She curls next to Cocklebur, Hawthorn and Loblolly, stares into the darkness, and at last finds the day's end in sleep.

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