OCTOBER (The Visitor)

Mistletoe in OctoberMistletoe, Wahoo, Cypress, Coralberry, Tupelo, Aster, Fescue, Sweetgum, Foxtail, Mimosa, Pawpaw, Mayapple and Mayapple's four six-week-old babies... During dry, crisp, blue-skied October, these are the squirrels living in Bryant's Woods. And now Mistletoe is an accepted part of Bryant's Woods' squirrel society. She is no longer just the hungry outcast.

Since the apple-core incident with Wahoo and the discovery of corn, Mistletoe has regained enough confidence to challenge other squirrels beside Wahoo. Now she ranks higher than Wahoo, Tupelo, Fescue and Pawpaw. And when Mayapple's nestlings become full members of the community, Mistletoe will rank higher than them, too.

Not long after Mistletoe discovered corn, the woods itself had begun producing its autumnal harvest. Gradually she had developed skills for finding and opening beechnuts, nuts of the Shagbark and Pignut Hickories, and the tiny, hard acorns of Pin Oak... Now each day Mistletoe eats her fill; now she keeps busy burying nuts in the ground.

These days, leaves turn colors and fall to the ground. On the first sunny afternoon after the first night of heavy frost, each breeze brings hundreds of tree-leaves swirling toward the forest floor in avalanches of bright color. Falling, the leaves sound like rushing water in a stream -- but always the afternoon air smells dry and crisp.

Even the birds avalanche through Bryant's Woods. Now many species migrate southward toward lands where hard winters never come. Bay-breasted Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, Brown Creepers, Red-eyed Vireos... all moving south for the winter.

Early one morning when white fog lies more densely upon the fields than ever Mistletoe has seen it, our squirrel is surprised to see the male human from the farmhouse silently emerging from the fog and entering the woods. Carrying something long and slender, slowly he passes through the forest, then squats at the base of a big Blackgum tree. All the squirrels who see him flick danger signals with their tails. Some race into their dens or leaf-platforms while others station themselves on the hidden side of their tree's trunk. In the city often Mistletoe has seen humans walking alone early in the morning and she knows how sometimes they pause and rest; now she cannot understand why the other squirrels seem so upset. However, she takes the cue from them and positions herself on her tree trunk's hidden side.

Minutes pass. The sun rises higher and the fog begins to lift. A few birds sing, and from time to time a slight breeze sends red and yellow Red Maple leaves floating earthward. Mistletoe, more or less forgetting about the man who has entered the forest, climbs into a fork in her tree and begins grooming. One by one, other squirrels also leave their hiding places; one or two groom and forage in treetops.

Blam!

Tupelo, the squirrel nearest the almost-forgotten human, falls thirty feet onto the forest floor, landing only a few feet from where the human sits, the shotgun in his hand still smoking. The wounded squirrel screams and raises himself onto his front paws. The rear half of his body is paralyzed and limp but with his front legs he tries to drag himself toward the nearest tree.

Casually the squirrel hunter approaches Tupelo, crushes the creature's head with the heel of his boot, picks up the corpse and drops it into a bag slung across his shoulder. Then, passing right beneath Mistletoe who in uncomprehending horror watches from inside her leaf-platform, he walks to the woods's other side. Fifteen minutes later, just as Bryant's Wood's squirrels once again begin feeling secure enough to start foraging, Mistletoe hears two new blasts from the shotgun...

And never again will our squirrel meet among the forest's trees the male called Sweetgum, and the female called Pawpaw.

******

Blam!

A week has passed since the human's last visit. It's a crisp, sunny afternoon and at least an hour has passed since the human walked into the woods. When the shot rings out, Mistletoe is climbing among her tree's branches gathering beechnuts. And this time she is more than just an observer...

Near her face a twig snaps in two, and all around her shotgun pellets whiz through the dry air. But the human is too far away for a good shot and he's simply missed his target. Terrified, Mistletoe rushes into her leaf-platform, crouches low, and quivers in silence.

The sky is blue and cicadas on tree limbs make droning sounds in warm, yellow sunlight. Mistletoe hears the man below walking through crisp, crackling, fallen leaves...

Blam!

Tatters of mangled leaves spray Mistletoe's face as shotgun pellets rage through her leaf-platform. A pellet splits one of the twigs serving as the platform's foundation, sending wooden splinters shooting into one of Mistletoe's paws. A pellet grazes the left side of her head, plowing a bloody trench from the corner of her mouth to just beneath an eye. Another pellet enters the flesh between the rib cage and shoulder of her right, front paw, ending its journey only when it jars against her shoulder blade. And a pellet severs two toes from her back, left paw.

The pellet that grazes her head leaves our squirrel stunned and unable to think. Mistletoe does not even hear when the hunter reloads his shotgun and takes potshots at three other leaf nests. Sometimes in the past he's knocked squirrels from their nests with this technique...

However, two of the other nests are empty. As the human leaves the woods, walking home across the pasture, it is only Foxtail who lies in his leaf- platform with his spine shattered and his lungs collapsed and useless.

Yes, the hunter really had known better than to try to hunt on a sunny afternoon. Mornings when hungry squirrels are awakening and beginning to forage are much better. And only seldom can squirrels be knocked from their nests. But today had been such a beautiful day and really he had wanted a reason to be outside...

Gradually Mistletoe's senses return. Little by little she becomes aware of a world of blue sky above and dry leaves below, and of intense pain. Her shoulder blade has been jarred so hard by the impacting pellet that the muscles, tendons, and nerves around it throb as if her leg were being mercilessly twisted.

For a long time Mistletoe lies here, blue sky above and dry leaves below. A breeze comes along; she hears Red Maple leaves falling onto the forest floor and she feels her nest swaying in the wind. For the rest of the day she lies in her nest, any movement at all sending pain shooting into her shoulder. When evening comes, the coldness causes her pain to increase.

On the morning of the day after being shot, at last she pulls herself to the edge of her nest and peers into the forest below. Her pain is matched by her thirst. Gazing into the forest below, she feels within herself great conflict. On the one hand, it hurts to move in any way; on the other, she absolutely must quench her thirst.

Thirst wins. But as our squirrel leans over the nest's side, weakened by the buckshot, supporting branches give way and the entire nest collapses. Mistletoe grabs at a branch and holds on briefly, but pain causes her to let go.

Down, down, down she falls, crashing through dry, colorful leaves and brittle twigs. Then all becomes black. When she awakens on the forest floor she lies in a soft blanket of dry leaves.

With almost unendurable pain Mistletoe drags herself into the cornfield. A few days earlier the man had brought his big machines there and the corn had been harvested. Now the field is brown and filled only with stubble. However, the corn-picker has missed some of the corn ears and now finding corn on the ground is easy. Moreover, it's rained, so water pools in tracks left by the heavy machines.

Mistletoe drinks her fill and then gnaws some corn kernels. When darkness arrives, with great effort she pulls herself back into the woods. She crawls into a thicket of Honeysuckle vines. A rabbit is there. Somehow the rabbit understands that Mistletoe means no harm.

Continue to NOVEMBER