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Tonk and the Battle of the 200
By John Inman
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 John Inman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn Which We Meet Our Protagonist ...
It all began on a day when the sullen California sky brooded with approaching storm. Tonk, a young squirrel of good family, who just happens to be the hero of our story, watched as the clouds slowly gathered above his head. He bit back a giggle when his lush tail, infused with electricity, suddenly bristled and crackled like autumn leaves.
It was on this day that a human child pressed an eye to the family's door high in the oak tree, straining this way and that against the bark to see inside. Tonk's uncle Jamis ran around the hole like a hare, panicked beyond sensibility by that horrible eye peering in at him, and then flung himself through the door with a frightened squeak, shot past the startled child, and flew up the telephone pole on Juniper Street, where he stayed for hours. Where he stayed, in fact, until Sister Ruth, Jamis's mate and Tonk's great-aunt, decided it was stupid to run from an eyeball, even if the eyeball was attached to a human child, and shamed the old squirrel into climbing back down to the street and back up to the hole in the familiar old oak tree that had been home to Tonk's ancestors going all the way back, or so it is told, to Tonk's great-great-great-great-grandfather. The child was gone by the time Jamis returned, of course, because a human child's attention span is even more limited than a squirrel's.
At the best of times, squirrels are not the bravest or most intelligent of creatures. This is simply a fact of Nature. But squirrels are certainly among the most innocent, and as everyone knows, there is incredible adventure to be found in innocence. Ask anyone who is innocent, and he or she will tell you so.
Oftentimes, as on this day (after the excitement was over, of course), Tonk would lie atop the weather vane on the carriage house and gaze off to the End of Things, as he liked to call it: the gray, flat expanse of nothingness that lay at the very brink of the western horizon. Sometimes it glittered in the sun like beaded dewdrops on a string of spider's web in the garden and sometimes it was completely hidden beneath a bank of fog like hanging acorns cowering behind sheets of rain. For hours Tonk would sit and ponder this nothingness, wondering at the triangular creatures he could sometimes see skating across the silver surface of it, although they did not look like creatures at all, really, but more like the engines the humans made that ran and growled and puffed like living entities, but in truth were not living at all. The engines served the humans, that much was obvious, but where they came from, neither Tonk, nor anyone Tonk knew, could say. The engines, like those vast expanses of empty horizon, simply were.
Squirrels do not call themselves squirrels, of course. The reader must understand this. Squirrels speak of themselves as Tethin, the guardians of all else that walks, crawls, or swims upon the earth. It is the Tethin's chattering song that warns of danger and gives fear a voice for those with no true voice of their own or those who cannot attain such lofty perches and all-seeing purviews of the landscape around them.
The Tethin have no concept of bravery or cowardice, but all of Tonk's kindred, going back to the beginning of the species, once carried and still carry a profound sense of duty to the myriad of creatures that share their world. This sense of guardianship over their fellow creatures is innate, to be found even in the youngest of the Tethin, and their sense of duty is a gift to all creatures, be they counted among the strong or the weak, predator or prey.
All creatures, that is, but for those calling themselves human.
This was not always so.
There was a time, long, long ago, when the Tethin considered the humans to be a part of their protectorate as well, but that time has long passed. Too much pain and injury have been inflicted upon the Tethin by the humans who share their planet. The Tethin, perched high in their trees, no longer care what might happen to the humans that hurry this way and that beneath their feet, chasing themselves and each other like Uncle Jamis in one of his fits of panic. The only emotions that have survived the Tethin's suffering at human hands are fear and mistrust, and the Tethin avoid the humans, and the ground upon which the humans walk, because of it.
Only Tonk, among the Tethin, still looked down upon the humans with wonder.
All others, in their fear, and yes, anger, looked away.
* * *
Tonk was named for the sound a pine cone makes when it falls from the tree and strikes the hollow roof of a human's traveling machine parked at the side of the street.
Tonk rather liked his name, although he was a bit surprised that his mother had dredged up the imagination to think of it. She was not the most imaginative Tethin Tonk had ever run across, and the rest of those in Tonk's circle of family and friends were no better.
Tonk's family, you might be interested in knowing, was a veritable beehive of distant and close relations: cousins, uncles, aunts, third brethren twice removed, and grandparents with so many greats and great-greats before their titles that no one truly knew where they sat on the family tree at all. Every one of those relatives lived within chattering distance of Tonk, their nests scattered here and there about the oak tree standing in the front yard beside the great, sprawling house on this rose- and-hedge-covered lot on Juniper Street in the city known to humans as San Diego.
In this temperate part of the world, life for the Tethin was rather lacking in drama and duress.
There was no great hunt for food in the summer to feed hungry mouths in the winter because in this golden land, there was no winter. Not really. Food was hoarded and stored, of course, because that was how the Tethin had always maintained their food supply, but in this near-perfect climate, the storing of food was not a desperate act of survival but merely habit, an inborn need to do things as they had always been done. Here the world was blessed by warm winds that blew from the direction of those mysterious, hazy horizons Tonk so dearly loved to contemplate. And deep in the winter months, when the winds did upon occasion turn cold, the cold did not torment the Tethin long and was not so intense as to drive them into their homes. The Tethin's plush coats and extravagant tails, which they could wrap about themselves if the need arose, were more than enough to keep them warm.
A squirrel's speed, as the reader may know, is a matter of legend. He can fairly fly across the ground or through the treetops in leaping bounds that leave most enemies wondering where he has disappeared to. For squirrels do have enemies, I'm afraid, that are other than human. There are even those within the Tethin's protectorate that seek them out for food. But the Tethin understand that this is the way of animals the world over. Some hunt, and some are hunted. Some feed, and some are fed upon. This is simply the way it is. The natural way of things.
This is not meant to imply that the animal has to like it when he finds himself at the preyed-upon end of the food chain.
Tonk's experience along these lines (those concerning predators and prey, that is) was rather limited. The tabby cat that lived with the humans in the big house had once chased him through the hedge, but Tonk was more than his match in speed. However if the tabby, whose name was Peter, had actually pierced Tonk on that day with one of those long claws he was forever flexing and licking and sharpening as he basked in the warm sunshine on the front porch of the big house, Tonk would not be having a book written about him at this very moment. No, he would be a little pile of squirrel bones crumbling to dust beneath the hedge. Tonk knew this, of course. (Although it must be said that he was, and is, totally unaware of this book, which is probably for the best, since Tonk's opinion of himself is most assuredly high enough already.)
Because Tonk was prone to lying atop the weather vane on the carriage house (behind the big house where the humans lived) and gazing off to that silver streak of unknown horizon in the west and forever wondering what it was, many of his relatives, not discounting his own mother, thought Tonk a bit addled.
Now, if you knew as many squirrels as I do, you would quickly realize that they are all a bit addled in one way or another, but as far as this story is concerned, that little tidbit of information is neither here nor there.
Suffice it to say, addled or not, Tonk was not your average, everyday American squirrel.
Tonk knew this perfectly well, thank you very much, and I don't mind telling you, he was rather proud of the fact.
On this day, while Tonk was sprawled out upon the bronze weather vane, which was in the shape of an egret, he stared out once again at the beautiful mystery of the distant horizon. With his chin propped atop the egret's head and his body cradled comfortably within the egret's outstretched wings, his legs and tail dangling straight down toward the ground, Tonk somehow managed to doze off. It just so happened that on this day, the wind changed while he was dozing. The bronze weather vane, with Tonk on it, silently spun to follow the wind, and when Tonk awoke, he was facing east.
Now, Tonk's thought processes might be slow, like a human train chugging and creeping up a steep incline, but those thought processes did eventually (almost always) arrive at some destination or other. On this day, it dawned upon the young Tethin that were he to travel to the horizon and look back the way he had come, this would be the view that would unfold. The eastern view. And in the eastern view, Tonk could see where he was born, from a distance, you see, and that would make for an entirely new perspective, would it not?
But even more importantly than that, if he were standing at the western horizon looking east, he would be in the place that he longed to be more than any other. The west.
You see how Tonk's thought processes worked? Rather round-about, yes? But does it really matter how you arrive at where you are going? It is more important, certainly, that you somehow manage to get there at all, is it not?
So it was that when the wind tricked him into looking east, Tonk decided, at that very moment, to leave the old oak tree and his family and everything he knew behind and visit the silver horizon to the west where his imagination had traveled so many times before.
How he would reach it, he had not the vaguest notion. It was dangerously far away. And dangerous not only because of the distance, for on every street and every sidewalk between Tonk and the horizon, there were countless humans and their machines, scurrying, puffing out smoke, screaming out sounds.
Lord, Tonk thought, gazing up at the gathering clouds in the darkening sky, one tiny squirrel perched atop a bronze egret and slowly spinning in the wind, if only I could fly.
And then Tonk thought, Well, maybe I can.
Wouldn't it be amazing if a person, or a squirrel, should begin an adventure because of something as simple as the shifting of the wind and the turning of a weather vane? And wouldn't it be amazing, too, if in the face of one tiny squirrel's profound innocence, even the impossible could be made to be not really impossible at all? Well, that, dear reader, as you will see if you continue reading, is exactly what happened.
Chapter TwoSeeking Wings
Tonk spoke first to his mother, who was at that moment sitting on the edge of a stone bird bath in the front yard with her tail standing straight up behind her, as squirrels always do when rapt and in fine fettle and having a good time. She was shelling a peanut that one of the human children who lived in the big house had dropped on the lawn. Tonk's mother loved peanuts, not an uncommon thing among her race, as the reader undoubtedly already knows.
"How does one go about learning to fly?" Tonk asked, leaping up to perch himself beside her, his eyes bright with excitement, his eager face reflected in the tiny pool of water at his feet.
Tonk's mother, whose name was Button, looked at her youngest son with a patience she didn't really feel and said, "What is this silliness, Tonk? The human children are gone. There might be more of these wonderful peanuts scattered about. Stop talking silliness and go look. I'm not giving you mine, you know."
"I know. But how does one learn to fly, Mother?"
Button nibbled at the peanut with obvious relish, then begrudgingly turned her attention back to her son. "Only birds can fly," she said. "And bugs."
Tonk blinked. "So I should ask a bird, then? Or a bug?"
Button rolled her eyes. "My son, the genius."
And with that, she was gone, the peanut tucked in her cheek, sort of like a human mother scurrying from a restaurant with a doggie bag full of goodies. Goodies, by the way, which she had no intention of sharing with her offspring or anybody else. In less time than it takes to tell about it, Button was perched on the limb of the oak tree beside the hole she called her front door, with her back to her son down below, and finishing up her peanut in peace.
Tonk supposed that, since bugs could only communicate with other bugs, all of them being dumber than spit, then it would be pointless to try striking up a conversation with one, and since he was sitting on the edge of a bird bath already, a bird was likely to come along sooner or later, and that supplied a much more promising prospect. But to what sort of bird should he pose his question? Not just any bird, or course. Birds can be very sarcastic at times. Unfriendly. Tending to look upon any species that cannot fly as inferior to themselves. Like squirrels. What they would think of a squirrel who wished to fly, Tonk could not even guess.
Should he ask one of the tangerine-throated house finches? Or perhaps a lemon-yellow oriole? Sometimes orioles could be friendly enough, with their little piping voices and their tendency to bow to whomever it is they are speaking to at the moment, be it bird or squirrel or any other member of the animal kingdom, short of a cat. Crows and blue jays were vulgar and as apt to dive-bomb your head as look at you, all the while cursing you up one side and down the other, so Tonk thought neither a crow nor a blue jay would be a very good choice of bird for striking up a conversation. And mockingbirds were just flat-out impossible to talk to, changing languages as they did in the middle of every other sentence. One of the large black and white birds that smelled of fish and faraway places might be inclined to speak to a lowly squirrel, since they didn't seem to be snobbish at all, but it was rare to see one alight in the yard by the oak tree, and Tonk had never seen one sitting on the edge of the bird bath.
What did alight there, at that precise moment, was a catbird. Plump and fluffy and charcoal-colored, with little orange spots at her throat and rump. The catbird ignored Tonk completely and, lifting her skirts high, waded into the deepest part of the bird bath, which really wasn't very deep at all, then proceeded to splash and laugh and scatter drops of water over a four-foot radius, and over one slightly startled squirrel as well.
Blinking back the deluge, Tonk said, "Good morning, madam."
The catbird ignored him, continuing with her ablutions, which she seemed to enjoy very much.
Gamely, Tonk tried once more. "It's a beautiful day, is it not? It must be lovely to fly high in the sky on a beautiful day such as this."
The catbird stopped what she was doing and scanned the sky above their heads. "What in the world are you talking about? There is a storm coming. But aside from that, can't you see that I'm trying to bathe? Didn't your mother ever teach you any manners?"
"I'm sorry," Tonk said, truly abashed. "My mother taught me several things, but none of them concerned the bathing of birds."
"Then your mother was remiss, was she not?"
"Yes, madam, I suppose she was."
Excerpted from Tonk and the Battle of the 200 by John Inman Copyright © 2011 by John Inman. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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