APRIL (Changes)

Mistletoe in AprilIn April, Mistletoe is a testy, grouchy squirrel. On a recent morning as Hawthorn clambered out of the den, one of his legs brushed our squirrel's head. This so annoyed Mistletoe that she actually bit Hawthorn's foot. Another time, just because Cocklebur awakened, turned over and disturbed Mistletoe's rest, she growled at him threateningly. And day after day our squirrel's dreadful temper grows worse...

Finally the day comes when Loblolly no longer can stand it. He leaves the den with no intention of returning. On the cable-TV wire he crosses above Chesterfield Avenue, passes through several trees, and then climbs high into the Silver Maple next to the Taylors' house. He's had his eye on an old leaf-nest here, one abandoned by a squirrel last year. Now he'll patch it up and live in it himself.

The very next day Hawthorn also takes off. In a Hackberry beside Peace Circle Park he also finds an old leaf-nest and moves into it. Now neither he nor Loblolly will have to suffer more of Mistletoe's abuses.

With high-ranking Cocklebur, it's a different story. One day as Cocklebur returns from gorging himself on tree flowers and expanding leaves, on the big horizontal limb above the den he meets Mistletoe, and she's growling and looking mean. She's jerking her tail stiffly, laying back her ears and making it very plain that from now on no squirrel other than she is welcome in the den.

Cocklebur is not used to such low-ranked squirrels as Mistletoe barring him from where he wants to go. Hardly paying attention to Mistletoe's threats he starts to brush past her. However, the moment his plan becomes clear, Mistletoe gapes wide her mouth, bares her sharp teeth, and snarls. Long seconds pass, her eyes blazing with rage, and then she lunges at Cocklebur. Cocklebur draws back, more from confusion than fear.

However, they don't fight. Something in Cocklebur tells him that resisting this female's crazy behavior would be pointless. Besides, the weather has grown pleasant so maybe he, too, would be more comfortable in a leaf nest... Cocklebur simply turns tail and leaves, not to be seen in these parts soon again. Now Mistletoe has the whole Hackberry den all to herself.

During the days that follow, Mistletoe allows no squirrel, no matter how high its rank, to come near the den. One day, not knowing how unwelcome he is, a year-old male wanders across Chesterfield Avenue to sniff in the leaf litter beneath the den-Hackberry. From her perch on the big horizontal limb, Mistletoe spots him, flicks her tail stiffly, then rages head-first down the Hackberry's trunk. The young male, knowing trouble when he sees it, tries to escape across the street, but a car is coming so he ends up running along the highway's curb. He trips over a discarded Coke can, and with a loud "oomph!"falls flat on his face.

He pays for his clumsiness. When Mistletoe catches up, she bites him at the base of his tail, and her bite isn't just a little nip. Her sharp teeth cut clean through the tail's skin, shattering the bone.

In such a way Mistletoe bestows upon the hapless squirrel a tail that for the rest of his life will follow him a little crookedly.

******

In Mistletoe's belly, for many days a certain fullness has grown and grown. And so, on the forty-fourth day after our squirrel mated with Ginkgo, that fullness drains from her body and pools into the nest beneath her. On this day, in the moist darkness at the bottom of the tear-shaped den, Mistletoe gives birth to three pink, hairless baby squirrels.

Each weighs less than an ounce -- about the weight of eight pennies. Their eyes are not yet open and still they are earless. They're helpless and completely dependent upon Mistletoe to keep them alive. It's a good thing that Cocklebur, Hawthorn, and Loblolly have left the nest, for they'd only be in the way. Of course, that's exactly why nature has made Mistletoe so hard to live with the last few days...

If earlier Mistletoe was a storm full of hate and meanness, now for these three tiny creatures she becomes a fountain of love and tenderness. Now she spends many hours curled around them, keeping her soft underbelly placed so that the babies can suck milk from her.

The warmth in Mistletoe's body flows into her babies by way of her milk. The babies return that warmth by snuggling their naked bodies against her soft underbelly. In such a way, during these days Mistletoe knows a feeling as great and beautiful as any animal ever can.

******

Lying in the darkness at the bottom of the teardrop, nestled next to her young, Mistletoe hears certain sounds. In the den's darkness she cannot see her babies, but she hears them sucking milk and breathing.

On cold nights when April's winds blow, the old Hackberry's branches knock and scrape against one another and the straining branches moan and pop. These noises carry all through the tree's body. To Mistletoe inside the tree's trunk, they seem to come from all directions. Sometimes, when the wind is greatest, air streaming through thousands of slender twigs makes an eerie whistling inside the den. However, these sounds only increase Mistletoe's sense of being cozy and safe.

During the first two weeks of the babies' lives they stay curled in their nest, awakening only to take milk. In their third week, fur starts covering their bodies. Gradually their eyes and ears open. Only after nearly a month will they open now in latefully.

Often Mistletoe must leave the nest, for now she must eat not only for herself but also for her young. She must eat nuts and seeds and buds so that her body can make milk for her babies.

Last month Jan Alexander had been in the hospital, so she had not kept her bird feeders filled. Now she's home, however, and now each morning she leaves plenty to eat in the feeders. As she convalesces she spends many hours sitting at the kitchen table, watching birds and squirrels. One morning, as Mistletoe perches below the sunflower-seed feeder, an April shower comes along. With the first drops, Mistletoe bounds to beneath the birdbath next to the big Sugar Maple, where she finishes the seed she'd been cracking open. This done, she climbs into the Sugar Maple to begin her trip back to the den.

Now in late April the trees' leaves have fully expanded. On a limb beneath a dense canopy of leaves, Mistletoe finds a nice place sheltered from the rain - - a good spot in which to rest. And the spot is comfortable indeed. In fact, it's so comfortable and dry that our squirrel pauses, look around, then lowers herself for a rest. These April showers come and go so quickly, so maybe she'll just stay here until it ends... Atop this limb she can lick her paws and scratch her underbelly and maybe even stretch out and take a brief nap... The babies are asleep and don't need her at the moment... Restful here... Cozy... Time to snooze... Only the bushy tip of Mistletoe's tail sticks out from beneath the leafy canopy...

Aaaaaaaa!

Exploded from off the limb, Mistletoe crashes through branches! Falling! Pain!

A few days earlier the female Cooper's Hawk began migrating northward from southern Mexico. Now she's tired and hungry. Sailing above this city when the rain began, she decided to land in a certain tree on a certain hill. During her descent she saw the tip of Mistletoe's tail sticking out from beneath the leafy canopy... Now with needle-sharp talons the Cooper's Hawk has stripped the fur and flesh from the tip of Mistletoe's tail...

On a tree branch across Chesterfield Avenue the female hawk cranes her neck over her powerful chest to see what kind of small mammal she has succeeded in capturing. A sense of frustration flushes over her as she realizes that all she has is a fuzzy nothing, hardly bearing enough flesh to think about.

On the ground, Mistletoe lies sprawled on her belly, her head bent as if she were listening to something deep inside the earth. The end one-third of her tail no longer is bushy and soft, but now is a stiff, bloody finger of bone. The Cooper's Hawk looks down from her perch, sees the disabled animal, and leans forward preparing to plummet on swept-back wings toward her prey, but then another actor comes onto stage: It's Tinkerbell, the German shepherd living next door.

Aroused from her mid-morning sleep by Mistletoe's scream and the sound of our squirrel crashing through layers of leaves and brittle twigs, Tinkerbell can't believe her good luck. For a long time this old dog has wanted to catch a squirrel, so now through rain and wet bushes she slips and slides into the Alexanders' feeding area, breathing hard and barking.

Mistletoe can't figure out what's happened. But Tinkerbell's enraged barks chop away at her numbness. Slowly and with pain our squirrel begins to understand that something has gone terribly wrong.

Bark!

A barking dog signals danger...

Bark bark!

In Mistletoe, the need to feel tree-bark beneath paws, to escape upward...

Bark bark bark!

Tinkerbell runs right up to Mistletoe, then almossquirrels at flips over her own front legs when she puts on her brakes. A squirrel should run, Tinkerbell supposes, not travel in circles clawing at the air like this crazy creature does. This screaming, clawing thing with a bloody tail could be dangerous! What does a dog do with a sharp-clawed squirrel that doesn't run away?

Hysterically Tinkerbell barks and barks, and bit by bit our squirrel understands the world around her. As Tinkerbell barks and the Cooper's Hawk watches from across the street, Mistletoe drags herself through pouring rain toward the American Elm's trunk.

"Hey, what are you doing, Tinkerbell?" Jan Alexander stands in the kitchen door.

Tinkerbell, pleased to have brought a human's attention to the bizarre situation, considers her responsibilities fulfilled. Profoundly relieved and with a huge smile on her face she gallops up to Jan, ingratiatingly licks her hands, turns around and barks at Mistletoe once more.

"Squirrels again!" Jan says, shaking her head. "First one in the attic and now this poor thing with its ugly tail... "

Soon Mistletoe descends toward the bottom of her tear-shaped den. She wraps herself around her babies. Her tail hurts. She is very upset. The den's black air smells of wet fur, fear, and warm blood...

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