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Vison, the Mink
By Jean Craighead George, John George
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1949 E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
All rights reserved.
Vison, the mink was born a fighter. Scarcely an hour after his birth on that third day of April he fought for his first desire—food.
Vison looked like a locust-pod, curled against the warm body of his mother. An occasional shiver went through him as his body began to accept its new environment. The air came rushing through his nose and lungs. The grass of the den was sharp and stiff against his skin. He cried. The mother mink lifted her tired head and looked at the uncomfortable Vison. This son had uttered the first life wail of the brood. He was now fighting past his three sisters to suckle. She watched his tiny legs struggle against the grasses and moss as he shoved his sisters furiously aside. Squirming and angry the small son clutched her and fed as if vanquishing a foe.
A daughter stirred against her forepaw. The mother mink gently pushed her to her body, but the feeding Vison protested. With flexing feet and thrashing body the young warrior fought for an unchallenged feeding position. It was not until he was satisfied and sleepy that the whimpering sister could feed undisturbed.
Vison's mother watched this with curiosity and pride. She had raised many litters on the shores of Muddy Branch in Maryland, but never before had she nursed such a tempestuous kit. Here was a young warrior who would grow into a dauntless outlaw of the wilds.
It was spring beyond the dark corridors of the mink den. The longer hours of light and the warm winds had opened the leaves of the willow trees. In every low damp valley where the trees stood, a haze of yellow-green foliage colored the glades. Beneath the willows the moist earth yielded to the relentless pressure of the bloodroot sprouts. And there was still another change in the woods tonight. The mother mink, having given birth to her young, did not come out to eat. Deep in the earth she lay, sleeping with them through her usual evening meal. Her fast this night, like the song of the first frog chorus, was a sign of spring.
Swinging gently on a ruddy twig of a red maple tree near the mink den, sat the cinnamon-brown wood thrush, Hylocichla. His breast was feathered with dusky flecks of tan. His long tail dipped as he watched the strands of sunlight coming through the trees, for insects that sought these streamers of warmth. Suddenly he ceased his watch and lifted his head. Like the purling of the full stream, like the carolling of gold bells, the immortal song of the wood thrush floated peacefully and easily through the haunts of the glade.
To Hylocichla, this was more than a burst of joyous song, more than a feeling of gladness. It was his way of announcing to the woodland that he had returned to his home, that he wished to spend the summer here, and that he was prepared to defend this territory he had selected as his own. And the cinnamon-brown wood thrush was calling to Mustelina, his bright-eyed mate.
The serene carol of Hylocichla, unrivaled in power and beauty by any other woodland song, drifted to the ears of the mother mink. To her the melody was the prelude to the full bloom of spring, the frogs in the swamp, the spawning fish in the river and stream. It meant new and abundant food for the mink and her family. She stirred deep in the nest under the knitted roots of the sycamore tree and gently nosed her sleeping kits.
The dawn following the birth of the young mink, Vison's mother left her brood and came down the passage to the brink of the stream.
Here she stopped. With darting glances she surveyed the damp woodland for enemies or prey. She rose to her hind legs to look over the pepper-root and dog's-tooth violets. With the swiftness of a snake she glanced from one wisp of movement to the next. At times she sniffed audibly as if to be sure that a rustle in the dry leaves was no more than a circle of wind. When she had assured herself that there were no warning scents on the air, no movement unaccounted for in the grasses, she slid from the door of her hideout and disappeared into the cold waters of Muddy Branch.
She crossed the stream, swimming a few inches beneath the surface of the water, and slipped to the bank without moving a leaf. Here she took a narrow trail that led to a low rock shelf. It overhung a quiet backwater where the suckers lay still and logy in the leaves and silt of the stream bottom. For an instant she paused to locate the fish, then slid from the shelf and slipped beneath the water. A bubble streamed past her eyes as she plummeted toward her quarry.
While she was fishing, a male mink on his way to the Potomac River passed the den where Vison and his sisters lay sleeping. His sensitive nose told him of the young mink, and of the departure of their mother. He acted immediately. The mink darted down the tunnel toward the smell of the nest.
The prowling stranger might have been Vison's father, an errant carefree warrior, who took his mate in late February and then left her to care for their offspring alone. Or it might have been the male from the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal who often came to Muddy Branch to fish. Whoever the stalwart male was, he was not paying a call of devotion to the kits. He had come to destroy the helpless animals that lay sightless in the grass and fur-lined den. His approach was as silent as it was swift, his quivering nose leading him down the tunnel to the nest.
Halfway down the passage his murderous trip was checked. The tunnel became narrow and small and his large body could not squeeze through to the nest. He struggled a moment against the packed earth, scratching the clay with his claws to enlarge the passage. Aware of his cornered position in the den of a mother mink, the prowler became uneasy. He slipped back to the mouth of the den to look for the mother. Excited and tense he peered from the small entrance and listened to the sounds of the woods. Specks of dirt clung to his whiskers and his black eyes glittered as they searched the stream bed and nearby forest floor.
At this moment Vison's mother emerged from the water and loped down the trail toward her den. The male, unable to see her, returned to his digging. He worked his way several inches closer to the kits and then once more swept back to the mouth of the den.
There he looked into the startled eves of the mother mink, who was racing eagerly up the bank to her young. She saw the male the instant he saw her. With heaving flanks and gaping jaws she lunged at him. Her whistling scream penetrated the woods. The male wheeled and fled. With the speed of a cottontail he vanished into the brush, for despite his larger size and vantage point he had not only been caught by surprise, but by a mother mink at her den.
The enraged mother sped down the passageway. Her small body sprang easily through the narrow neck of the tunnel into the nest. Quickly she read the scent signs that told her the male had not entered and that her young were safe. The sight of the sleeping kits calmed her trembling body and as gently as thistledown she settled herself around them. Occasionally she remembered the murderous traveler and, lifting her flat pointed nose, she would hiss down the tunnel.
Many days passed before Vison was more than an ugly, naked animal. His eyes were tightly sealed and his red body was wrinkled and curved. His feet were so thin that they were transparent, and his tiny ears lay back from his head like pink buds. But with time and the flow of milk into his body, he grew and changed. The blond fuzz that had covered him at birth became a velvet mantle. His young misshapen head grew slowly into the graceful ovoid shape of the mink, and his feet began to look as if they belonged to the long narrow body. He also found a greater strength and moved more freely over and around his sisters.
Four or five weeks later when the woods were no longer white with the dogwoods, Vison saw light. A pin-point hole opened in his sealed lids. He blinked and it spread. By the next morning he could see. His mother was gone and he was alone with his crying sisters. Vison looked at their fuzzy bodies, reeled unsteadily and then stumbled off to investigate the dome-shaped home with its earthen walls and dark roof. A strand of grass popped up before his nose when he stepped on it. Vison suckled the scented blade.
When his mother returned she found her son sleeping alone. Gently she lifted him by the scruff of the neck and placed him back among the warm bodies of his sisters. The blade of grass, still in his mouth, dragged behind him. As she took it from him, he opened his bright eves and gazed at her. Her son could see.
His domination of the brood continued unchallenged. If he had been the precocious kit of the litter before, he was now the devilish bully. When he wanted to feed, he reared and thrust his sisters aside as he plunged heedlessly toward his mother. While he ate he fought, reeling and kicking to hold them away as he took his fill. Only when swollen to capacity would he permit them to feed unmolested. The others resigned themselves to their place in this small social group. They permitted Vison to rule them. A docile sister, even smaller than the other two, always waited until the others had finished before she fed. She grew more slowly than the others, and the mother mink often looked at her as if wondering if she might lose out in this battle for survival. However, she was not coddled or favored, for if she could not hold her own in the life of the den, she would not be able to meet the tests of the woodland. Ferocity, aggressiveness, and quick-wittedness were the measures by which they must live. These were the qualities that would carry them through their youth to maturity and parenthood.
One day the mother mink brought the chewed meat of a small minnow into the den. Vison pounced upon it with curiosity while his sisters stood aside and watched. He sucked at the fish as he had his mother, then stood up and looked at her. The new food was good but not completely satisfying. He returned to his mother.
After this incident Vison noticed that his mother often left small tidbits of strange food around the den. From time to time while she was gone he would mouth these pieces, gradually learning to enjoy the new flavors and the gamy juices. Timidly, the docile sister would find herself a small leaving. Crouched away from the bouncing Vison and her two bigger sisters she would hungrily suck at the food. Then because she was always hungry she cried, and because she cried, she was left out of the tumbling fights of the other kits. She soon became as unimportant to the strong active Vison as the grasses in the nest. Already he had learned to respect vigor and strength.
The strange food arrived in the den with more regularity now, and Vison's mother often ate her meals with her kits. He watched her tear a frog apart and eat it. Sometimes he would pick up part of her meal and shake it from side to side. Then one day he found he, too, could tear it open.
That day no warm milk came from his mother when he suckled her. Vison fought and protested, his anger mounting into rage. He stood up to his full height and screamed at his mother, circling her with his forepaws dangling and his fur raised on his neck. She watched him for a full minute then reached out and knocked him across the den with her strong paw. The swift blow cooled his temper. Sprawled on the ground he looked around the den for some place to go, something to do. Lying halfway in the tunnel, he saw a mouse that his mother had brought. In one twisting movement Vison sprang from the grass and leapt upon it. He ate eagerly.
His sisters were weaned with more grace. They cried when deprived of their mother-food, but put up no battle. They accepted the fact that the mice and frogs were now to be their food and set upon them with growing satisfaction.
Toward the end of May, Vison became restless. The den was crowded and he had explored it to exhaustion. Even the roots, hanging from the top of the den that he boxed and slapped, were dull and uninteresting. He often followed his mother to the mouth of the tunnel. There he would look in wonder at the vast reaches of the forest.
One evening his mother encouraged him to follow her from the tunnel door to the bank above the stream. Picking his way lightly over the leaves and flowers, he came to the water and stopped. Sniffing the swirling pool, he looked to his mother for encouragement. She was drinking deeply. Vison, too, drank the water of the stream, he washed his face, scratched, and looked around him. Swaying above his drinking place was a May-apple. He struck it with his teeth as it swung gently toward him.
Vison's mother watched her son awake to the life of the wilds. She saw him stop his play when a yellow-warbler sang in the branches above his head. She watched him chase a gold-striped bee up the bank. While he played, she scanned the woods for enemies. Satisfied that there was no immediate danger, she started down the stream bed. Vison ran after her, doubling up and stretching out as he galloped through the flowers and fern fronds.
She led him to a woodland pond that was fed by a spring. It drained through a little run that oozed its way to the Potomac River. The run was choked with aquatic plants and waving green strands of filamentous algae.
Vison approached the pond with caution, jumping back as he caught the senseless movement of a pollywog in the water. He came closer, watching the dark creature intently. It floundered across suspended leaves and oak catkins and then sank aimlessly into the dark brown bottom of the pool. Vison stood up on his hind feet at the pond's edge and watched the pollywog drift out of sight. He turned and started to run toward his mother only to see her dive with a graceful arc into the water. She struck the surface without splashing. A few circles ringed the point where she had disappeared. They rocked the leaves on the pond as they passed. Vison whimpered, running back and forth at the edge of the pond trying to locate his mother. Then he slid into the woodland pool. In that moment he found a new world. The water made zigzag designs before his eyes as he swam. Strange shapes loomed before him, and water bugs passed his nose hauling on their tiny oars. Vison spurted after them, circled freely, and then shot down to the dark bottom.
To his right he saw the silvery flash of a small minnow. Making a sharp turn that almost threw him over, he went after the fish. It took a moment for the bubbles to clear from this effort, and by that time the elusive prey had vanished. A pollywog, looking immense and distorted, wriggled past him. Vison was about to pursue it when a puff of mud on the bottom of the pond caught his attention. He learned what had become of the minnow. It had swum into the debris of the bottom, matching its gray-green back with the sticks and leaves. Had it not swished its fins Vison would not have known it was there. He swirled after it once more, but the minnow flashed its tail and darted into the concealing scenery.
By now Vison's lungs were cramped for air, and he turned and swept up toward the surface. As he neared the top, he saw a pollywog floating above him. Straight toward the unsuspecting prey he moved, then clamped the awkward tadpole in his jaws. Vison surfaced and carried his prey ashore. His mother snorted and sneezed her approval from the center of the pond where she was diving and rolling.
The young mink and his mother spent a few more minutes at the pond and then followed the wet trickle through the woods and back to Muddy Branch. Vison approached the stream with confidence. He raced down the bank and dived into the water without hesitating. This time his mother followed him.
In Muddy Branch the underwater world flowed across a clean, bright bottom. He could hear the loud click of pebbles as they rolled over and over in the twisting currents. The stream had hollowed out fascinating labyrinths beneath the roots of trees, and deep channels where the swift water carried him effortlessly on. He saw green underwater plants and snail-covered rocks. As the current moved past the snails, they would become distorted and would stretch into strange forms. Then the current would circle away and the snails would jiggle slowly back to shape.
Vison turned and twisted in the bright water of the stream while his mother fished from the ledge over the sucker pool. Eventually, he grew tired of this new game and came to the rock where his mother was working. There he found the still bodies of four creek chubs. The young mink climbed from the water and watched his mother as she dived into the stream and came smoothly out on the other bank with a fish in her mouth. She returned to the rock with a single stroke that carried her just beneath the surface of the brook. The fish flopped when she placed it on the rock. She stopped its antics with a piercing bite behind the head.
Excerpted from Vison, the Mink by Jean Craighead George, John George. Copyright © 1949 E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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