Summer was coming to an end--the mornings were cold and berries and blossoms were disappearing from the forest. A young chipmunk named Chitter woke late in the afternoon. He pulled himself from his comfy bedroom in the abandoned birch tree hideout as the sun fell back to the horizon.
Soon, Chitter would need to find another way to feed himself, but he wasn't worried. He hadn't been hungry in a long time. He lounged in the crimson rays and the breeze tousled his whiskers. Since the end of Spring, life had been grand--but for one detail:
Below Chitter lived a troupe of squirrels. Not like any squirrels he’d ever seen before, and while he often watched them with amusement, he was also deeply disturbed by their stupidity. A pack of war-lovers, or so they fancied themselves, loudly regaling each other's past exploits; the defeat of the Leek troupe many valleys away, the ritual sacrifice of kidnapped Barley troupe members from the North. It was also said, they never failed to mention, the cave they now lived in had once been home to a fierce wolverine, but Saalo fought it off alone to give his troupe a home. Saalo was their leader.
Chitter had seen none of this. During the summer spent in the birch tree he'd never seen the squirrels do any of the things they claimed, and had been witness to none of their war marches. He was sure they were made up; Saalo with his band of braggarts couldn't fight off anything bigger than the fat squirrel’s own appetite. He'd never seen them climbing trees, supposed they believed it beneath them to leave the ground in search of food. It was strange.
Chitter didn't like their baseless bravado, and the time he spent thinking about it annoyed him as much as the oddity itself. The squirrels could have tracked and killed a herd of buffalo for all he cared, so long as he didn't have to hear about it. He wanted to be rid of them.
One day, in September, something happened that gave him an idea: he found the first fell acorn of the season. Chitter saw it hit the ground, having noticed its fall by chance while bounding between trees, and came upon the first acorn he'd seen that summer. A sign.
Chitter picked it up and took it to where Saalo and his troupe squatted beneath his tree. He ran up a nearby tree until he could feel his weight was keeping him from going further, that he wasn’t as strong as he assumed. From his position in the trees he could make out the opening to the squirrels' cave.
Chitter loosed the acorn with a mighty throw.
It spun through the air and landed with a thud meters from the opening of the cave. Chitter took cover and watched for signs of movement from the cave. Within moments, the squirrels had the acorn surrounded. They danced around it, chanting syllables that sounded like a mixture of their names and the praising noise other squirrel troupes Chitter had heard use when addressing acorns and their mother trees. Saalo, a gray squirrel with yellow teeth and a milky eye, came forward into the center of the circle. He put a paw on the acorn and held up his other paw. The troupe stopped their dancing and chanted a low round of "Saalo, Saalo". The leader swayed for a moment in the praise, then held up his other paw. The squirrels went silent.
"Squirrels of Saalo's Troupe, this is the most important moment of the year. This is the first acorn to fall from the mother trees. It marks the beginning of acorn season, and a period of plenty and strength for us. Other squirrel troupes will not stand a chance against us."
The squirrels cheered.
Chitter rolled his eyes, but kept watching.
Saalo stepped forward and picked up the acorn. He tapped it with furry knuckles and sniffed at it.
"A perfect acorn. Which of you wants to eat the first acorn of the year?"
Several of the squirrels jumped into the circle, biting and clawing as they tried to get to Saalo and the acorn. Saalo laughed.
"Stop, I say! Har, my squirrels, you know we do not eat the acorn until it has been in the ground at least a day."
One of the other squirrels, a shorter, fatter one, spoke up. "But why not, Saalo? I need to have that acorn."
Saalo stood tall then, and the other squirrels fell back and trembled in mock fear to show loyalty.
"It is the way we do things in Saalo's troupe. If you would like to join another, Kuffo, you are free to leave."
"No, Saalo. I will never leave you. Bury the acorn!"
The other squirrels chimed in.
"Bury the acorn! Bury the acorn!"
Chitter watched as they made another ritual out of the burial, chanting and dancing as Saalo put the nut into the ground. He wondered why the squirrels made such a big deal out of the acorns. They tasted all right, but they were no wild raspberry or cherry blossom.
If they had any brains at all, Chitter thought, they wouldn't be leaving their prized nuts in the ground where anyone could take them.
The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced he could make it work. He would play a trick; if it went as it should, every acorn the squirrels managed to gather would be his, and Saalo's troupe would leave in peace, scattered from this place. The way Chitter looked at it, the acorns were a bonus.
The next day Chitter was up early, watching the squirrels collect and bury the acorns that had fallen during the night. He watched them all day, memorizing every burial site as they scampered about with mindless joy.
He watched as they held the ceremony to uncover yesterday's buried acorn and was not surprised when Saalo decided he should be the one to eat it, since he'd buried it. None of the others seemed inclined to argue with this logic.
After the night's festivities came to an end, the warriors all retreated back into their cave.
Chitter waited until their loud voices faded into the darkness, then set about his task.
He woke to screams of anger and confusion. He scurried out of his bedroom and onto a higher branch to watch the scene. As he'd expected, one of the squirrels, the one named Kuffo, was running about in a panic, angry that his troupe was laughing at him.
"Where’d you put them? My acorns are gone!"
Saalo chuckled and stood aside, watching with amusement. "Stupid Kuffo, probably just don't remember where you left them."
"Someone stole my acorns, Saalo, I'm sure of it. They might have stolen yours. They might have stolen all of ours!"
The rest of the troupe just laughed. One of the other squirrels, however, became uneasy as he pondered the idea of his acorns being stolen. He sidled over to where he he had one buried and began to dig. The other squirrels watched. The digging squirrel dug some more. But, of course, there was no acorn.
"Saalo? What’s going on? My acorns are missing too!"
The squirrels bounded to places where they'd buried acorns and began to dig. A moment later they began screaming and shrieking in anger. Saalo no longer looked amused.
While this commotion went on, Chitter went back to his bedroom and dressed himself in things he'd procured the night before: moss, pieces of bark, and clods of dirt. By the time he was done, he no longer looked like a chipmunk.
"Someone stole our acorns!" Saalo bellowed. A gasp went through the troupe, as if none of it was real until their leader proclaimed it.
It was time for the next part of the plan. Chitter stood tall on the end of a lower branch, addressing the squirrel leader and his troupe.
"No one has stolen any of your acorns, foolish squirrel king."
Another gasp went through the squirrels. To hear their leader called a fool to his face, to hear his statement so boldly overturned was quite abnormal. Several danced to Saalo's defense, putting themselves in front of his portly frame but refusing to do much else, watching Chitter with apparent fear. Saalo cleared his throat and responded.
"No? Then why aren't they where we buried them? And what business is it of yours anyway, whatever you are? I say someone has stolen them, so someone has."
"I am the spirit of this birch, connected through my roots with all the forest," Chitter boomed, answering the second question first. "And I say your acorns remain where they were buried."
Saalo stood with his mouth open. His troupe watched him expectantly, but he said nothing. Finally, the small Kuffo spoke up with indignation.
"You aren't any tree spirit. Just some moss and twigs. You probably aren't even real. Besides, if what you say is true, why can't we find our acorns?" Some of the other squirrels echoed this sentiment, becoming louder by the second. Chitter silenced them.
"My brothers and I have been migrating East for over a hundred years. There, we will find better growing soil and more direct sunlight. Last night we migrated one tree-step. Therefore, if you only look where you believe to have buried a nut, and move a tree-step West and dig there, you should recover your prizes."
"About the length of one of your tails."
Kuffo sidled over to one of his empty digs and kept a wary eye on Chitter as he measured his move West. Within moments, however, he had recovered the missing acorn and all suspicion was forgotten.
"The great tree spirit is right! Our acorns haven't been stolen!"
There was another frenzy then, as every nut was recovered. Saalo looked bewildered, and he sat amidst the commotion, idly watching Chitter.
"Foolish squirrel king," the chipmunk said, addressing Saalo. This time there was almost no reaction to the insult by the other squirrels in the troupe. Saalo stared, and finally answered.
"It would be smart to bury all your nuts in one place, and keep a watch over them so this does not happen again. We will move when we move, and it is not the duty of trees to look out for squirrels."
Saalo said nothing, only looked around, seemingly regarding the trees about him with new eyes. When he looked up again, Chitter was gone.
In his hideout, Chitter congratulated himself. His plan was going splendidly. He yawned, and went back to sleep.
Some hours later he awoke again. He looked out the opening to his bedroom and saw the squirrels doing exactly as he'd expected. They were still gathering newly fallen acorns, but those they found they brought and threw into a large hole between two trees. A hole dug, apparently, based on his warning as "spirit of the birch." He chuckled, and began to ready himself for his next task.
First, he went south, to where the nearest stream burbled, and collected pebbles. He picked the roundest ones, and put them in his mouth. His cheeks bulged before long, and he returned to his birch but did not climb it. Instead, he dug at its base and made a tunnel. He hollowed out a section of the tunnel more than the rest, so it could serve as a storage place for the pebbles. He went back to the stream and got more, returning several times throughout the day to deposit the pebbles into the tunnel. Then, just as the sun began to set, he dug to lengthen his tunnel so it would come to an end beneath the acorn cache the squirrels had dug.
Then he was almost eaten alive.
His tunnel, as he dug it, suddenly opened up. He'd dug right into an already hollowed-out area beneath the ground, and squeaking he fell face forward into it, landing on a soft, furry surface. In the darkness he heard a growl, and the ground shifted. Chitter scurried up the side of the wall to find his tunnel again, but slipped and fell once again onto the ground. This time, however, it was hard and smelled of dirt. From behind him he felt hot breathing. Then a gutteral, stony voice.
"Why do you disturb my sleep, rodent?"
Chitter felt sure that what he'd found was a bear, presumably in the midst of hibernation. His mind spun.
"I'm very sorry sir - but I came here to wake you up. The forest is missing you, you've hibernated so long."
The bear sniffed. "But I've only just begun, haven't I? The air smells like fall, and so I've only just begun."
"No, sir! You've slept through winter, and spring, and summer, and here it is fall again. I've heard tell all throughout the forest how everyone has been so happy the bear hasn't come out of hibernation this year, and they've been out of control. I should find the bear, I told myself, and wake him, so that he can restore order to the forest. And so I have!"
It was, of course, an invention of necessity. The bear had most likely just begun his hibernation, but if he was tempted by the idea of all the easy pickings in the forest perhaps he would let Chitter alone.
The bear sighed thoughtfully. "You speak truly, rodent?"
"Upon my tail."
"Hmm. You may speak true. I am, after all, quite hungry."
Before Chitter could respond, a giant paw had reached out of the darkness and grabbed him.
"Perhaps I shall eat you first, rodent friend, and then I can restore order to the forest. Hmm?"
"Ah, yes. You could begin with me, but then you wouldn't be able to feast on a fatted troupe of squirrels."
The bear's grip loosened. "Oh?"
"Yes. You see, they occupy a cave..."
Saalo stood with his troupe as they filled in the hole they'd made, then chose two of the band to guard the acorns through the night, so that if the trees moved again they would know where the acorns lay. One of the ones he chose was Kuffo. Chitter watched all this rather calmly from his position in the birch. He'd been expecting some sort of night watch; had, in fact, suggested it, but the squirrels had proven themselves time and again to be stubborn, foolish beasts. When it came to the acorns, however, it seemed Saalo refused to take any chances.
Before he encountered the bear the next part of his plan was simpler. But, since bargaining with the giant beast he wondered if perhaps it all might work out better for him in the end anyway. It was funny how sometimes things worked like that.
By the time it was full dark, Chitter was already just below the acorn deposit, having had to dig a tunnel that would circumvent the bear's den. He clawed at the earth above him, and a stream of acorns poured forth. He pushed them back down the tunnel to where he had dug out a separate storage area, and did this until the acorn deposit was a large air pocket within the soil. Then, putting the pebbles he'd collected earlier into his mouth, he brought them to where the acorns had been and left them. Soon he'd replaced every acorn with a pebble.
The next morning similar sounds of confusion and anger woke him. Chitter hastened to put on his disguise. Outisde, the squirrels in Saalo's troupe had uncovered the pebbles filling the hole instead of the nuts they buried. Kuffo was irate.
"Saalo! Someone's stolen our acorns and put pebbles in their place!"
Saalo waddled from the cave. "Did you stand watch all night long, Kuffo?"
"And did your companion?"
"Then how could anyone have stolen our acorns and replaced them with pebbles? Hmm?"
"I dont' know! But these are pebbles, Saalo."
Chitter, as the birch spirit, boomed at them: “They remain your acorns, foolish squirrels."
The troupe looked up into the birch. Kuffo snorted. "Oh, the tree spirit again. Here to tell us these pebbles aren't pebbles. Well hey, even I'm not that dumb."
"They are pebbles now, yes. But they were acorns first."
"You're saying someone turned them into pebbles."
"Yes. I did."
"Well then who - oh." Kuffo fell silent, and Chitter could feel the uncertainty of the troupe. Finally, it was Saalo who spoke.
"Why do you torment us, great tree spirit? Did you not tell us to bury our acorns in one place? What have we done wrong?"
"You chose to bury your nuts close betwen two of my brothers. They spoke to me, concerned, saying 'If any of these nuts is not recovered, a new tree will grow between us, ripping our roots out from beneath and strangling our trunks.' And while I was sure you squirrels would recover your nuts to the last, the trees begged me to take action on their behalf. So I turned your acorns into harmless pebbles and they were satisfied."
A sigh passed through them. "What do we do now?" murmured one of the other squirrels.
"However," Chitter said, and waited until their attention was firmly on him again, "If you take these pebbles to the stream just south of here, and put them in the water, and wait until the sun is high above you, your acorns will be returned to you. And perhaps from now on you should keep your acorns somewhere other than in the ground, because I cannot control the fears of my brothers. Your cave should serve well for it."
Saalo bowed, saying, "Thank you, oh great tree spirit, for your kindness." When he looked up again, however, the spirit had gone.
"Now, squirrels of Saalo's troupe, we bring our acorns to the stream!" From his bedroom, Chitter tried not to laugh too loud. He waited until the last squirrel with a mouthful of rocks was gone, and went to visit the bear.
Saalo's troupe returned in the early afternoon, obviously discouraged. They approached the birch tree, and their leader addressed the place where Chitter had appeared before.
"We have done everything as you have said, oh great tree spirit, and yet our acorns remain pebbles. What have we done wrong?"
But the tree spirit didn't appear. Saalo asked again and again, and still Chitter did not come from his bedroom dressed in moss and bark. Finally the fat squirrel gave up.
"Listen, squirrels of my troupe. We will simply have to forget the acorns of our last two days. Collect all the acorns you can from today, and we will store them in the cave as the tree spirit suggested."
"But Saalo, the pebbles didn't turn back into acorns," Kuffo said, "What if the tree spirit was lying to us?"
"Even so, wouldn't you rather we kept the acorns within sight than leave them in the ground one more night?" The troupe murmured assent. Another day's nut collection began. Chitter watched it all idly from a high branch on a maple tree. He was impatient for the sun to fall again.
Some hours later, the squirrels carried their nuts to the cave, piling them inside the entrance. It was dark. Yawning, the squirrels entered their home one by one. When the last one had disappeared into the opening, Chitter held his breath.
It would happen soon.
He didn't have to wait long. Moments after they entered, he heard the growling roar of a bear, and the screams of a whole pile of squirrels certain they were about to die. They poured from the cave opening, scattering in all directions. Saalo was the last to emerge, trying hard to keep up, but his slow fat body couldn't propel itself any faster. He got three or four body lengths from the opening before a giant claw reached out and scooped him up. Chitter tried to imagine what was happening inside the cave, and a part of him wished that the story about Saalo had been true, that he had single-handedly beaten a wolverine and was now doing the same to the bear. However, as the minutes passed, that outcome became less and less likely. He felt sorry for Saalo then, as the leader was left alone to fight a beast he could not possibly defeat. His troupe had left him to die.
Then, something happened that Chitter had not expected. Saalo walked gingerly from the cave, speaking back into its mouth as he did so. "Of course, mister bear. Thank you for having me. I'll visit again soon." The troupe leader bounded away into the forest.
Chitter came down from his tree and approached the cave.
"Of course you are. You thought I'd eaten him, and now you want to know why I didn't."
"Well, chipmunk, I wasn't hungry."
"But before, you said--"
"I wasn't hungry then either. You see, I was just about ready to begin hibernating, but the constant racket those squirrels made above me kept me awake. Then you showed up, and tried to tell me I'd been sleeping for a year when I hadn't yet slept for a minute. I thought I'd scare you off. But when you started talking about these squirrels and their cave...I had to see for myself. I do think this cave will serve me better for hibernation, especially now those noisesome critters are out of the way. By the way, chipmunk," the bear said as he emerged from the cave, "my name is Hank."
"My name is Chitter."
"Well, Chitter, I think it's safe to say that we're both about to get some peace and quiet."
The young chipmunk nodded, retreating to his birch, replying with the first thing he thought of:
"Thank the tree spirit."