DECEMBER (Drifting)

Mistletoe in DecemberFor most of autumn and early winter, the weather has acted crazy. Since Thanksgiving Day no more snow has fallen, but the rain seems never to end.

For the most part, Mistletoe now is healed. Though still unable to jump from limb to limb or climb among a tree's most slender branches, now at least she can climb to the fork of a nearby Red Maple's trunk, and perch there like a real squirrel. Besides eating corn from the cornfield, now she can dig and eat nuts that earlier she cached. Each night she sleeps curled in her bucket at the base of the Pin Oak tree.

In the predawn hours of this particular morning -- on the day referred to by humans as Christmas Eve -- outside the bucket there is nothing but darkness, rain and wind. And now, Mistletoe feels her bucket move...

Of course, during the whole month Mistletoe has been living here, never has her bucket moved. Mistletoe lies in the darkness, her muscles taut and her mind alert, the sound of rain splattering upon her bucket. However, nothing more happens. Just rain and wind and darkness. Eventually our squirrel sleeps again.

The next time the bucket moves, it's a much more violent lurch. The end with the spout on it tilts toward the sky and Mistletoe finds herself lying against what always has been her back wall! Raindrops pepper through the spout.

Mistletoe's only thought is to escape. Taking hold of the spout's rim with the claws of her front paws she stretches toward the opening. But just as her head and shoulders pass through the hole, the entire bucket tips forward and Mistletoe feels the front half of her body plunged beneath the surface of ice- cold water!

Frantically she withdraws back into the bucket, causing the vessel to tip back to its former position, with the opening toward the sky. Two inches of frigid water now pool inside the bucket. Mistletoe's warm, dry den no longer exists.

Huddling quivering and confused in the darkness at the bottom of her bucket Mistletoe's keen sense of balance tells her that the bucket is rotating round and round, and bobbing up and down. Again Mistletoe tries to exit through the spout, but again the bucket tips over. Withdrawing the second time, in the bucket's bottom she now finds four inches of icy water!

Certain substances emit stronger odors when wet than when dry. That's the way it is now with the rusty insides of Mistletoe's bucket. Now the penetrating odor of rust once again sickens Mistletoe and fills her with unspeakable terror. It's the same odor as the metal slinky-toy in the Alexanders' attic, and the rusty insides of the garbage truck's holding area. Fear and sadness and aching cold, and the oppressiveness of the odor of rust saturate every pour of Mistletoe's soul and body.

When at last the milky glow of dawn lights up the spout-hole in the bucket's "ceiling," Mistletoe once again pulls herself upwards. This time, however, she does not try to draw herself all the way outside; she just pokes her head from the hole and looks around.

No forest, no pasture, and no open cornfield. Only muddy water...

The previous night the river had risen from its banks and flooded Bryant's Woods; beneath Mistletoe's bucket the water had pooled deeper and deeper until the bucket had floated upright. On stormy floodwater the bucket had sailed through and out of Bryant's Woods. Now, surrounded by uprooted trees, driftwood, corncobs, and a thousand unnamable items washed from fields, forests, and riverside garbage-dumps, Mistletoe's bucket is carried down the river on brown, cold, swirling waters. And who can say in what district, county, or state Mistletoe now finds herself?

Though in some places the floodwater sweeps across low-lying pastures and fields, and in others it swirls through bottomland woods similar to Bryant's Woods, Mistletoe's bucket always keeps to the river's middle current. Sometimes our squirrel peeps from her prison just long enough for her to see that she is passing through completely unfamiliar territory. Seeing this, she lets herself sink back into the icy water inside her bucket -- and let herself be carried even farther downstream, entombed in her latest rusty trap.

At noon, on Christmas Eve Day, the rain turns to snow and the wind grows even stronger, whipping up waves that churn the bucket and knock it from side to side. Inside the bucket, Mistletoe's terror grows, because now from time to time when the bucket rises onto a wave's crest the wind catches it, setting it on its side as it slides into the waves' trough; when the next wave overtops the bucket, water gushes through the spout. Slowly the bucket is sinking. Six inches, seven inches, nine inches... and all the time, inside the bucket, Mistletoe floats in her own river of sadness.

As darkness approaches on Christmas Eve Night, the snow continues and the wind does not lay. Now water inside the bucket pools a foot deep and Mistletoe has given up trying to look outside.

Suddenly an especially large wave raises the bucket so high that when it slides into the following wave-trough it plunges completely beneath the water's surface. Mistletoe finds herself choking, suspended within a watery, swirling, gurgling fountain of upward escaping bubbles...

Breaking the river's surface, she breathes icy, snow-filled air; she is so cold and numb that instead of trying to swim, she just floats with the river's current, barely paddling enough to keep her snout above the water. However, even Mistletoe's luck isn't all bad. This meager swimming is enough to bring her into view of the river's bank, only feet away through the falling snow.

Half dead and only half willing to save herself, Mistletoe swims toward the bank. As if her body had turned to lead she pulls herself onto the slick mud. The odor of mud, in the cornfield so recently a hated smell, now smells safe and even a little hopeful. Within moments the brutal, snow-laden wind casts a thin crust of ice upon Mistletoe's fur.

A weaker squirrel would not survive. Yet Mistletoe now pulls herself up the steep, snow-mantled bank, crawls through a dense thicket of weeds and shrubs, and steps onto a paved, quiet, snow-covered suburban street. As if some kind of unseen force were pulling her forward, she runs down the street's center, and keeps running past one intersection and then another. Because of the snow, there's hardly any traffic at all, so nothing keeps our squirrel from racing on and on.

Finally the street climbs steeply up a hill. At the top, the street ends in a turn-around, but Mistletoe keeps going, passing first through a yew hedge and then across a small, grassy lawn. As she bounds toward her unknown destination very slowly she realizes that now she is in a place very similar to Peace Hill. Yes, what memories are stirred by these sounds of rumbling traffic out in the city, jets taking off at the airport, and the neighbors' barking dogs!

Silhouetted against the pale, snowy night-sky, a great White Oak stands beside a house. It's the only tree around and it grows not far from one of the house's windows. From the window radiates an orange glow and this light frightens Mistletoe at first, yet such is her desire to climb into the tree that she rushes toward the oak's trunk and climbs.

It's perfect. About ten feet off the ground, there's a cavity in the oak's trunk, and it's not marked with the odor of another squirrel. Inside she finds a dry, spacious den. Never has Mistletoe known such a perfect den.

Mistletoe's hours of being inside the bobbing bucket have created inside her a kind of nervousness -- a restlessness and a tension -- that just lying in the bottom of the dark, quiet den cannot relieve. Thus even before she dries and licks the mud from her fur she climbs back to the den's entrance and looks through the hole. She finds herself with a perfect view into the window from which orange light comes.

Inside, humans sit around a fireplace while orange flames rise from burning logs. Watching through the window as large snowflakes fall around her, she becomes almost hypnotized. Never has our squirrel seen fire! It's something that moves and moves, yet never goes away or comes closer... Somehow, watching the flames calms down Mistletoe. Soon she withdraws into her den and sleeps more soundly than she has for many, many weeks.

******

"Edna, there's a squirrel out here."

A human makes its noise. It's a male human, standing on the house's patio. The door behind him opens and another human appears. Mistletoe is not afraid.

"Poor thing!" the new human says. "What's happened to its tail?"

"Probably a dog got it or something."

"Do you think we can get it to stay?"

"If we put up that feeder the Taylors got you for Christmas, it just might!"

Watching from the horizontal limb beneath the den's entrance, Mistletoe sees the humans drive a stake into the ground and then place a large bird feeder atop it. Then with immense satisfaction she sees the female human fill the feeder with millet and canary seed and then pour onto the snow a large bag of sunflower seeds.

As soon as the humans return inside, Mistletoe descends the trunk of her White Oak, stamps her feet, and bounds into the middle of the heap of seeds. Inside the house the humans watch from the window through which the night before Mistletoe had beheld the orange fireplace flame.

And so, on this Christmas Day, a tradition begins that during upcoming years will be repeated time and time again. Feeding the wild animals will become something the people in this house do for the rest of their lives.

And Mistletoe is the first of many, many different kinds of animals that will find satisfaction and a full stomach at this new feeding station on Hope Hill.