SEPTEMBER (The Apple)

Mistletoe in SeptemberPop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop...

Having never heard this sound, Mistletoe's ears perk straight up. She rears onto her haunches, looks toward the sound, and nervously flicks her scalped tail.

Pop pop pop...

With the noise growing louder, a Blue Jay issues its alarm call, then flies away. All through Bryant's Woods a thousand animals grow tense and sit unmoving, alert to any danger that may attend this loud, unexpected intruder. Poised like statues, they wait and listen, wait and listen...

From Mistletoe's leaf-platform at the woods's edge she sees that the noise comes from an old, green tractor chugging toward the woods from the direction of the farmhouse across the pasture. The tractor pulls a wagon on which sits a young female human. Once the tractor and wagon draw near the woods, the girl rises and stands on the moving wagon's flat bed.

Pop pop pop...

Next to the fence between the pasture and the woods, not far from the cornfield's edge, the wagon jerks to a halt; the girl almost loses her balance and she and her father laugh. These are the first human sounds Mistletoe has heard since arriving in Bryant's Woods over a month ago.

From atop her leaf-platform Mistletoe watches the humans with ever-growing curiosity. In contrast to Bryant's Wood's other squirrels, who are confused and very upset by these visitors' arrival, Mistletoe is pleased. The loud humans remind her of happy days on Peace Hill when long ago she was a squirrel with her own family... Now Mistletoe hears the father make his sound:

"Well, Joanie, if we're going to cut firewood, we'd better get to work!"

"Why don't we just sit for a while and look at things?" the girl asks, only half joking.

The father smiles but doesn't reply. He climbs onto the wagon, picks up a chainsaw and hops across the fence. Placing the chainsaw on the ground he then bends over and draws several times on the starter-rope.

Grrrngrrrrrrrrrrrrr...

The chainsaw's noise is much louder than even Mistletoe was prepared for, so she crouches low in her leaf-platform. Elsewhere three Blue Jays scream their danger signals and a fox in its hollow-log den holds its breath; a Kingbird escapes to the far side of the forest and a rabbit hurries deep into a dense Blackberry thicket.

Holding the chainsaw at waist level the man cuts into a hickory-tree's trunk. It's Sumac's hickory... the very den-hickory from which Mistletoe was chased on the first day. Now pale yellow sawdust snows onto the ground and before long Mistletoe smells the sharp odor of freshly cut hickory-wood. A nervous shudder shoots through her body.

The man cuts a large wedge from one side of the tree's trunk and then saws toward the cut from the trunk's opposite side. Within three minutes a loud cracking sound echoes through the forest, the old hickory leans, and the man steps to one side; then with a tremendous groan and an ear-splitting snap the whole tree topples, crashes through other trees' limbs, and, in a storm of ripped-off leaves and twigs, collapses onto the forest floor.

"Bull's eye!" the man yells, slapping his leg in satisfaction. "It fell right where I'd hoped it would... !"

Now the chainsaw silently lies on the ground and both humans walk along the fallen tree's trunk. They talk to one another:

"That trunk is holler most of the way up," the man observes, "but it's got good, solid branches. We'll cut the branches into sections and leave the trunk here to rot."

"It's a shame we had to cut such a pretty tree... " the girl replies with a sad voice.

"Now, ain't you the one always a-wanting to barbecue meals using hickory wood, and don't you look forward just like me to a big fire during the cold months? This old hickory ain't doing nobody no good just standing here. It's our tree and we might as well get some use from it."

For over an hour the man chainsaws the hickory's branches into two-foot sections of firewood. He tosses the logs across the fence onto the wagon and the girl stacks them neatly in a pile on the wagon's bed.

Soon Mistletoe grows accustomed to the commotion. She descends to a fork in her tree for a better view, gets comfortable, and starts her morning's grooming. The forest's other animals, not at all used to having humans nearby, remain under cover, watching, waiting, very fearful of what might happen next. When the humans finish their work and prepare to leave, the girl spots something in the grass near the hollow trunk.

"Daddy, look!"

Having tumbled from the den-hole during the big hickory's fall, it's one of Sumac's three-week old nestlings. Its eyes are only partially open and its body only thinly covered with fur.

"Daddy, can I keep it?"

When at last the tractor and wagon return to the pasture's far side, the forest's birds and squirrels come out to look at what has been done. Skunks, raccoons, opossums, and the fox will survey the damage when darkness comes.

It is not known what happened to Sumac and her remaining three babies, for they had been in the den of the old hickory when it fell, and the tree landed with its den-hole against the ground. Neither can it be told what will happen to the baby squirrel who fell from the den. It's needs are very specific -- it needs Sumac's milk. And it needs to live wild in the forest.

******

While her father had worked with the chainsaw, the girl had thrown something onto the ground next to the cornfield. Of all the animals in the woods who saw this, only to Mistletoe had it been an event important enough to remember. It reminded her of the many times she had seen humans toss garbage into the green trash-can on Peace Hill. Thus, no sooner than the humans are out of sight, Mistletoe climbs down her tree to look for the girl's discarded thing, hoping it might be a greasy corn-chip, or maybe an oily French-fry with tomato ketchup on it, or maybe even a crumbly Twinkie.

Yes! An apple core. Mistletoe has eaten this kind of food before; her spirits soar. Greedily stuffing the core into her mouth, she rushes with it into the lower branches of a Catalpa tree at the woods' edge.

But even before Mistletoe begins gnawing on the core, Wahoo comes climbing up the Catalpa's trunk, expecting to have the food for himself. Wahoo is an aggressive, year-old male who more than once has chased Mistletoe from food and good perches.

However, this time Wahoo is in for a surprise. He remembers Mistletoe as an inferior, cowering, insecure individual who runs from any threat at all. But now something new is going on inside our squirrel's head. Having this apple core reminds her of an earlier time when she enjoyed plenty of food, and when it had been she who knew where all the good hiding places and trails were, and she who had been of a higher social rank than most other squirrels. In those days, if a young squirrel like Wahoo came along, it would be she who flicked her tail in defiance and as a warning, and he would have run away!

Stopping on a limb three feet from Mistletoe, Wahoo looks covetously at the apple core in Mistletoe's mouth and flicks his tail threateningly. However, to his vast surprise, our squirrel does not drop the prize and run away. Wahoo watches as Mistletoe gnaws on her core, looking Wahoo straight in the eye, and giving the impression that she's deciding that this impudent young male is hardly worth worrying about. Behind Mistletoe, for the first time in Bryant's Woods, a stiff, deformed tail stiffens with unmistakable resoluteness; and now she flicks it.

Getting the message, Wahoo turns and bounds away. Clearly, times have changed. Now Mistletoe outranks at least one other squirrel in Bryant's Woods...

******

While Mistletoe finishes eating the apple core, the old, high-ranked male whose name is Cypress comes into the area, traveling on the forest floor below Mistletoe's tree. It's lucky for Mistletoe that earlier it had been Wahoo who wanted the apple core, and not Cypress, because for huge, aggressive Cypress, Mistletoe would have dropped the core and run.

Slowly, with the bearing of a squirrel who knows that he is king of the woods, old Cypress passes through the bushes at the forest's edge, saunters across a small corner of the pasture and enters the cornfield. He chooses an eight- foot tall, green corn-plant and climbs up its stalk. Mistletoe has no idea at all what Cypress is doing, so she watches his every movement.

Midway up the corn stalk an ear of half-ripe corn juts from the stalk. With his back paws firmly grasping the stalk, Cypress takes the ear of corn into his front paws and teeth, tears away the ear's green shucks, and gnaws the exposed, juicy, yellow kernels...

Mistletoe hardly believes her eyes! If corn can be eaten right off the stalk, then in this huge field there must be enough food to keep a squirrel from hunger forever!

Without waiting for Cypress to open a second ear, Mistletoe scrambles down the Catalpa's trunk and bounds toward the cornfield. Soon she, too, is opening with her claws and teeth the shucks that envelope a juicy ear of corn. Of course, for the inexperienced Mistletoe, the shucks do not part from over the kernels as easily as they do for Cypress. Nonetheless, it's not long before Mistletoe is filling her stomach with sweet, fresh corn. And this is just the first of many such ears of corn that she will enjoy.

On this September morning, on the same day the humans cut down Sumac's den- hickory, it looks as though Mistletoe's luck may be changing for the better...

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