AUGUST (The River)

Mistletoe in AugustOn Peace Hill, Mistletoe had been an expert at living among such upland trees as Hackberries, Black Walnuts, Black Locusts, Honey Locusts, Red Maples, and American Elms. However, in this woods -- this bottomland woods on the edge of town called Bryant's Woods -- the trees are of species Mistletoe never has seen. Here grow Shagbark and Pignut Hickories, Pin Oaks, White Oaks, Mulberries, Beeches and Black Cherries.

Mistletoe doesn't possess the special talents and knowledge needed to use these particular trees as food. Certainly this woods must harbor fruits, nuts, berries and other things a squirrel can eat; but how does a squirrel who's never seen these things know what's edible? On this first day of August, Mistletoe's first full day in Bryant's Woods, our squirrel find herself very hungry...

Late in the afternoon, Mistletoe discovers a hole in a big Shagbark Hickory. Since it's similar to the Sycamore-den on Peace Hill, for the first time since arriving in this forest she finds herself feeling glad about something. However, the very instant she pokes her head into the hole she smells another squirrel. Then squirrel-paws scrambling on tree-bark are heard. She looks up and sees the old, high-ranked female named Sumac rushing toward her, flicking her tail threateningly. Terrified, Mistletoe races to the forest floor and disappears into the woods.

This is just the first of several such incidents, for gradually Mistletoe learns that in this woods all the den trees already are taken by other squirrels. In the end, she settles for a weather-beaten leaf-platform. In it she feels vulnerable and uncomfortable, but she is far too discouraged to repair it.

Moreover, on Peace Hill, Mistletoe had known each of her squirrel neighbors. She had been keenly alert to the fact that some squirrels ranked higher than she, and some ranked lower, and always she had conducted her travels and behavior with the strictest attention paid to that ranking. On Peace Hill, Mistletoe had ranked higher than every other squirrel younger than she.

However, here, she sees that even squirrels much younger than she hold their tails high and confidently move from place to place, for they know where to hide if danger threatens, and they know where to find food... Thus even when Mistletoe meets squirrels younger than her own offspring she feels inferior to them... In fact, in this woods, Mistletoe feels inferior to every squirrel.

Now come a long series of days, each day feeling like a week or a month to Mistletoe. Though sometimes by luck Mistletoe finds a mushroom, some berries, or maybe a nest with eggs or young birds in it, such finds are rare. As the days pass, our squirrel grows skinny and ratty looking. She is a low-ranked, cowering, slinking rodent just barely surviving.

Sometimes at the edge of the woods Mistletoe perches high in a Cottonwood tree, gazing toward the east, across the open pasture. From here she sees that to the north lies a large field of corn, and to the south there's an even larger field of wheat. The river flows along the woods's western boundary, so Bryant's Woods is a kind of island surrounded by water and broad open spaces. There in the Cottonwood, Mistletoe yearns to leave Bryant's Woods, to find Peace Hill, or at least somewhere better than here. However, as would be any squirrel, she is terrified of the idea of crossing open fields; for, in open fields, if trouble arises, where is a tree to climb? Days pass, and Mistletoe's yearning to leave only grows.

******

By the end of August, no longer can Mistletoe bear to stay in Bryant's Woods. At long last desperation and hunger call forth in her a piece of wisdom with which she was born, but which until now she's never used. That wisdom declares this: If on one side of a river life is bad, then swim to the other side...

On Bryant's Wood's western side, now Mistletoe thrusts herself into the wide river.

It'll be a long swim. With eyes fixed on the opposite shore, Mistletoe swims toward the sun, even as the river's current sweeps her downstream. On and on she paddles, the muscles in her legs and back soon starting to ache. Weak with hunger, soon both her energy and her spirit run low.

On and on and on and on and on and on and on... Where is the opposite shore? Water splashing into nostrils... can't keep mouth closed... swallowing water... feeling sick...

Out of the eye's corner something floating is glimpsed not far away. It's only a waterlogged piece of driftwood but Mistletoe swims toward it, places her front paws on it, and it barely keeps her head above water as she rests.

Long minutes she rests, the river's current carrying her irresistibly downstream, but finally something inside her tells her to swim again, and so she does. Earlier she swam toward the sun so now she swims toward it again.

Now, when an animal lives through terrible moments, sometimes its mind does strange things; the same thing happens with human minds. Thus you must overlook this lapse in Mistletoe's story, for it can only be said that the next thing Mistletoe knows, she is awakening on a muddy bank; she cannot remember how she arrived there.

The riverbank's slick, brown mud glistening beneath the noontime sun... head water-clogged and filled with fishy odors and the mud smell... eyes almost swollen shut and caked with mud... very weak... the heat is awful... sick... Mistletoe drags herself to the top of the bank. Growing before her there' a thick, woody stem of a wild grapevine. She pulls herself onto the stem and haltingly, painfully climbs up it.

Up, up it goes, up into trees it goes, much higher than she had thought it could. High into the top of a tall Box Elder tree she climbs until finally she finds herself with cool, fresh wind streaming around her. How peaceful is the sound of Box Elder leaves rustling in the afternoon wind. Here Mistletoe finds the strength and will to groom herself... she rubs, scratches and licks off the disgusting mud.

From here Mistletoe can see a long way off. Her Box Elder is one of just three trees rising above dense brush growing along the river's bank. Next to the three trees lies a big field of corn. The cornfield's rows stretch to a dark line of trees half a mile away. The wind makes silvery waves in the ocean of tall corn. Understanding that this little clump of Box Elders is no proper place for a squirrel, Mistletoe glances at the cornfield, then at the distant line of trees, then the cornfield, then the trees...

After resting and grooming for most of the afternoon, down the Box Elder's trunk Mistletoe goes. She enters the cornfield and bounds down the alley between two straight, very long rows of corn standing six feet tall.

Now, the open areas between rows of corn deep inside a big cornfield create a strange and in some ways beautiful world. It's fairly easy to travel between the rows, for the land is flat and there are few weeds -- mostly, it's just grayish, naked, shady soil. Flecks of sunlight filter through the canopy of corn leaves and, when the wind blows, sunlight flecks flash on and off all over theoor. The corn's blades are long and slender so they arc above the alley in a graceful, even majestic manner. Above the canopy of green corn blades lies nothing but open blue sky.

Through an endless monotony of green cornstalks Mistletoe travels on and on, long traveling down the same alley. Minutes and hours she travels, sometimes resting, constantly yearning for the safety of a tree. Late in the afternoon turkey vultures fly in circles overhead, coursing lazily on convection currents of hot air rising invisibly above the field. Long, long, long is Mistletoe's journey.

Rouuuwww, rouuuwww, rouuuwwwwwwwww...

The male cicada calls for a mate. Hearing this, Mistletoe knows she's nearing the forest, for cicadas call from trees.

Chuuuuuuuuuk-duk-duk-duk-duk-duk...

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a bird that nests in bushes and grapevines is claiming his woodland territory. His call gladdens Mistletoe.

Through the sound of rustling corn-blades now Mistletoe hears wind in tall trees; she smells the forest's mustiness and feels its gentle moisture. The Wood Thrush and the Wood Pewee call, as do the Orchard Oriole and the Carolina Wren. They are all singing, for now the sun touches the horizon, the day's heat is withdrawing, and the forest's animals are perking up after a too-hot afternoon.

Mistletoe bounds through a thicket of Cane and then she climbs up the first big tree she encounters. Up, up, up she goes, almost dead with exhaustion but feeling exuberant and glad. Right off, high in this very first tree, Mistletoe finds a hole that would make a perfect den. Hardly able to believe her good fortune, she approaches the opening and sniffs.

But, before she can react to what she smells, she hears something behind her. Turning around she sees the old female called Sumac, coming to chase her away...

The river flows in a great curve. In the morning when Mistletoe began swimming, the sun lead her away from the woods to the river's other side. But while resting on the driftwood, she had been carried around the great curve so that when she began swimming toward the sun again, it was in the direction from which she had come. Mistletoe is back in Bryant's Woods...

And now to Mistletoe it seems as if no hope remains in the whole world.

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