1 PURPLE BERRIES
PHOENIX WOKE UP EARLY AND decided to go look for some food. He’d actually never ventured out of the nest, which was in a hole about a third of the way up a pine tree, but he had poked his head out to watch his parents go foraging. They descended the tree headfirst, so he assumed this was how it was done. But when he got out onto the bark and turned that way, he started trembling, and his left whiskers twitched uncontrollably. He turned himself the other way. The trembling and twitching stopped. He supposed he could descend tailfirst, but that struck him as ignominious. Might there be tasty seeds in some of those pine cones up the tree?
He started to climb—and found he was a natural at it. But the higher he went, the skinnier the pine got. And the bark grew smoother, harder to grip. Then, to make matters worse, the tree began swaying—more than those around it.
Phoenix looked up and saw why. Their pine poked above the others, exposing it more to the wind. But this wasn’t necessarily all bad. The topmost pine cones looked within easy reach, and there was something appealing in the idea of being above everyone else. But on his final push he made the rookie mistake of looking down.
A few weeks ago, as a newborn, he’d clung to his nursing mother,
but that was nothing compared to how he clung to the skinny tree now. The needle-strewn ground was so far away! However, the wind gradually died down, and as the tree grew more stable, his panic turned to disgust. What kind of tree squirrel was afraid of heights? He lifted his eyes and edged upward.
Once perched on the highest branch, he was so pleased with himself that he even forgot he was hungry. What a view! Beyond the woods to the west was a town with buildings and steeples even higher than his pine. To the south, ponds and wetlands glimmered in the morning sun. Rising out of a newly planted cornfield to the north were giant towers carrying power lines on their steel shoulders. To the east, toward the sun, a bridge crossed a boat-speckled bay to a spit of land crowded with beach houses. Beyond that, an endless, silvery sea.
Phoenix looked down again, but this time only three branches down. There was his father, Rupert, looking very stern—or trying to, anyway. Phoenix had assumed his family was asleep when he’d slipped out of the nest, but in fact his father had seen him. However, Rupert
had done nothing to stop him. For much of March and all of April he’d dragged food home for the kits. Now that it was May he figured it was high time they got out and foraged for themselves. But then his mate had woken up, noticed a head missing, and had a fit.
“Get down here!” Rupert said.
Phoenix gulped and started a pathetic, tail-first descent. When he followed his father back into the nest, his mother gasped with relief.
“I thought you might have fallen out and broken your skull!” she cried.
“Hardly,” Rupert said. “He went all the way to the top.”
“What! Phoenix, you’re only ten weeks old!”
“We’re very disappointed in you,” said Rupert. “You could have been picked off up there. Remember what we told you about birds of prey?”
Phoenix’s brothers sniffed reprovingly, but Phoenix didn’t mind. Though his father said he was disappointed in him, the gleam in his eyes said otherwise.
As the weeks went by, it became clear that Phoenix was the pick of the litter. He was the biggest of the bunch, with the most lustrous fur—a luminous
golden-brown on his back, pure white on his belly—and by far the bushiest tail. He was the most venturesome, too, and was first to move out and find a hole of his own. It was only a few trees away. Squirrels generally spend their lives within a mile or two of where they’re born. So he still saw a good deal of his family, often going to forage with his father. The central part of their woods was mostly pines, but the outer fringes had lots of oaks and walnuts and hickories. Rupert got a kick out of showing him which nuts and acorns were best and how to cache them cleverly so birds and chipmunks wouldn’t find them.
Phoenix also became quite popular with his sisters’ girlfriends. He considered most of them empty-headed, but one named Giselle made an impression on him. She had an adorable white blaze on her snout and was always carrying on about a young squirrel named Tyrone, whom Phoenix took an instinctive dislike to. Tyrone was reputed to live in a stump in the north end of the woods, and one day when Phoenix was poking around for food in that vicinity, they crossed paths. To his dismay, Tyrone’s fur was every bit as shiny as his. His tail might have been even bushier.
“Huh,” Tyrone said after they introduced themselves. “I always thought Phoenix was a girl’s name.”
Phoenix’s fur prickled. “You live in a stump?” he said.
“Only when I’m slumming in the woods,” Tyrone said.
Phoenix wasn’t sure what this meant, but the next time he ran into his sisters’ crew, Giselle explained that Tyrone had a second home.
“The attic of a house in town,” she said. “Guess what he does there!”
“What?” Phoenix said unenthusiastically.
“Shinnies down a rain gutter at night and raids the humans’ pantry! You wouldn’t believe the cool stuff he brings back. Ever had golden raisins? Or smoked almonds? Last time he brought back red licorice!”
Phoenix had never had golden raisins, smoked almonds, or red licorice. In fact, he’d never seen a human. When he mentioned this to his father, Rupert assured him he hadn’t missed anything.
“Tyrone raids their pantry,” Phoenix complained.
“Is Tyrone a rat?”
“He’s a squirrel, my age. What’s a rat?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Phoenix did want to know. It bruised his self-esteem to have such gaping holes in his knowledge. He kept pestering his father until one day Rupert, who loved a good laugh, stopped by Phoenix’s tree and called up, “How about a little sightseeing, son?”
If no one was around, Phoenix climbed down his tree rump-first, but with his father watching he used a technique he’d been perfecting of going round and round the trunk at a slight downward angle. When he reached the pine straw, he explained that he’d been checking the bark for caterpillars.
Rupert, amused, led him out the west end of the woods into a dry meadow. This provided more amusement. It was a minefield of whirring grasshoppers that kept making Phoenix jump.
Beyond the meadow was a road. “Hilliard Boulevard,” Rupert told him.
As Phoenix reached out to test Hilliard Boulevard’s ominously black surface with a paw, Rupert yanked him backward. There was a terrifying roar as something enormous whooshed by in a blur.
“See it?” Rupert asked.
“That was a human?”
Phoenix couldn’t believe how huge the humans were, and how fast. But Rupert explained that the human was inside the contraption. When another similar contraption roared by, Phoenix again missed seeing the human inside.
“What are they doing in those things?” he asked.
“Trying to squash us,” Rupert explained.
“What do you mean?”
After scanning the sky for birds of prey, Rupert led him along the side of the road till they came to a grayish stain on the pavement. Only when Phoenix made out the ringed tail attached to it did he realize it was the remains of a raccoon.
“Do the humans do that to squirrels, too?” he asked, appalled.
“Ask your great-aunt Flo,” Rupert said with a sigh. “Sweet as the day is long, Uncle Frank was.”
Phoenix’s great-aunt Flo was a legendary figure in the woods, so wise that squirrels made pilgrimages up her white birch to ask her advice. But this was the first Phoenix had heard about her flattened mate. Gruesome
as it was to think of, it only intensified his desire to see what these human assassins looked like.
Rupert climbed a fencepost, looked both ways, and hopped back down. After scanning the sky, he gave a nod, and the two of them dashed across Hilliard Boulevard. On the other side they made their way along the shoulder, weaving through thistles and milkweed and trash. Soon another road crossed the first—another Hilliard Boulevard, Phoenix assumed. They turned right and pattered along underneath a hedge as sparrows and wrens twittered overhead.
The hedge ended at a third Hilliard Boulevard. This one was square-shaped and full of the monstrous killing machines, though here they were parked diagonally and were mercifully standing still. Giving them a wide berth, Phoenix and his father started across a stretch of grass where every blade had been chewed down to exactly the same length. There wasn’t a deer in sight, but there must have been scads around.
The two squirrels stopped at a chain-link fence that separated them from the most horrifying creatures Phoenix had ever seen. Some were splashing around in a square pond. Others were lolling on the grass.
“Humans?” he asked in a hushed voice.
“Their watering hole,” Rupert said.
The humans were not easy on the eye. They had no tails at all, and some dreadful disease had eaten away most of their fur. Rupert explained that their furlessness accounted for the gaudy rags they wore around their midsections.
“You’d think they’d cover up those bellies, too,” Phoenix murmured.
“They’re great eaters,” Rupert said, pointing at a crowded concession stand.
Phoenix’s nose quivered.
“Hungry?” Rupert asked.
Phoenix was always hungry. They circled around behind the stand, where Rupert pointed out a line of large containers where the humans dumped food they didn’t eat.
“May we have some?” Phoenix asked.
“Help yourself. But you might want to look before you leap.”
Rupert tried not to smile as he watched his son hop from a bushel basket onto the rim of one of the containers. Phoenix pulled out something odorless and held it up.
“Newspaper,” Rupert said. “Inedible.”
Phoenix jumped to the next container. This one was half full of savory-smelling things. But as he was about to drop down for a feast, he spotted a grayish worm wiggling among the goodies. When a creature came slithering out of the mound of food, Phoenix nearly tumbled backward. The worm was its tail??! The creature wasn’t oversize or repulsively furless like the humans, but there was something nasty about its cropped gray coat and beady eyes and pointed snout. Worst of all was
the naked worm-tail. Phoenix turned and dropped back down to the ground.
“Lost your appetite?” Rupert said, succumbing to his smile.
“There’s this disgusting thing in there!”
“You said you wanted to see a rat.”
They headed home, Rupert nicely entertained, Phoenix’s horizons sufficiently broadened for one day. When they got to the final Hilliard Boulevard, there was no fencepost to climb, so Rupert crept to the edge of the hard, black surface and pressed his ear against it.
“All clear,” he pronounced, and they dashed across.
* * *
That evening, as Phoenix was settling into his nest, he heard tittering and poked his head out of his hole. Down below, one of his brothers was walking with one of his sisters.
“Where were you?” Phoenix asked.
“Watching Tyrone,” his sister said, looking up dreamily.
“What an aerialist!” his brother gushed.
“What a squirrel,” his sister said with a sigh.
This left a sour taste in Phoenix’s mouth, but it also piqued his curiosity, and late the next afternoon, while he was nibbling some purple berries, he spotted Giselle’s silvery tail in a posse of young squirrels heading north. He shadowed them. They stopped at the edge of the woods and stood around chattering. When the sun began to set, they ventured out under the open sky, climbing a split-rail fence and sitting in a row on the top rail. Phoenix snuck over and climbed onto the lower rail. Beyond a dirt road was the cornfield he’d seen from the top of his parents’ pine.
Suddenly Giselle cried, “Look, there he is!”
Phoenix figured the game was up. But she wasn’t looking down at him. Nobody was. They all seemed to be focused on the steel pylons rising above the cornfield. Squinting, Phoenix made out a figure on one of the power lines stretched between two of the towers.
It was definitely Tyrone, his bushy tail silhouetted against the darkening sky. The mere thought of tightrope-walking at such a height curdled Phoenix’s stomach. And Tyrone did more than tightrope walk. He burst into a sprint, racing the whole length of a cable
from one pylon to the next. The squirrels on the top rail shrieked with delight. A catbird perched on one of the fence posts whistled in admiration.
“Is he the most stupendous squirrel ever, or what?” cried Giselle.
As the squirrels joined in a chorus of agreement, Phoenix felt as if he was going to be sick. Really sick. Were the purple berries poisonous? When a retching sound escaped him, the squirrels on the top rail all peered down.
“Hey, it’s Phoenix,” said one of his sisters.
“What are you doing here?” asked one of his brothers.
“By the look of it,” said Giselle, “he’s puking.”