A children's book for grown-ups by Jon Evans

July 17, 2007

2. Patch's Family

Patch's mother was named Silver, because high summer sun made her fur shine that colour. She had a marvellous drey high up a spruce tree, carved out long ago by a woodpecker, and since extended into a two-chambered home full of bright things. The journey along the sky-road to her drey did not take long. When Patch looked inside, he saw a hundred colours glittering in the sunlight, shining from bits of metal and glass set into Silver's walls and floor. But his mother was not there.

He could tell by the faintness of her smell that no squirrel had been here in some time. There were two faint traces of scent, several days old; that of Silver, and that of another squirrel, a musky scent that Patch did not recognize. A scent that made his tail stiffen as if danger was near.

Patch stared into his mother's empty drey for a moment. It wasn't normal for a squirrel to abandon her drey for days, not in the middle of winter. And he hadn't seen Silver for three days. Not since all the acorns had disappeared from the earth.

Patch ran back to his own tree, and then to the maple tree next door, to his brother Tuft's drey. He ran very fast. He was hungrier than ever, and he was beginning to be very worried. He was relieved when he looked into Tuft's drey and found it occupied. Tuft himself was not present, but Brighteyes was, and their babies, and it was clear from the smells that Tuft had only just departed.

"Hello, Patch," Brighteyes said weakly. "Would you like to come in?"

Patch entered. Brighteyes was curled up with her babies in the drey's deepest, warmest corner. The last time Patch had visited, a week ago, this had been a den of noise and chaos, with all Brighteyes' four babies running and jumping and playfighting. Today they lay weakly beside Brighteyes, and the once-shining eyes from which their mother had taken her name were dim and clouded.

"Uncle Patch," the littlest baby said, in a piteous mewling voice. "Please, Uncle Patch, do you have any food?"

The other children looked up at Patch with bright, hopeful eyes. As hungry as he was at that moment, if he had had an acorn, he would have given it to his nieces and nephews. But he had nothing.

"I'm sorry," Patch said, ashamed. "I haven't found any food for days."

"No one has," Brighteyes said.

"Have you seen Silver?"

"No. She hasn't come to visit since the food ran out."

Patch considered. "Is Tuft out looking for food?"

After a long moment Brighteyes said, very quietly, as if she were admitting something terribly shameful, "Tuft has gone to the Meadow tribe."

"The Meadow tribe?" Patch asked, confused. "What for?"

Brighteyes said in a voice hardly louder than a whisper, "To accept their offer."

"What offer?"

Brighteyes stiffened with surprise. "You haven't heard?"

"Heard what?"

"You spend too much time on your own, Patch. If you talked to others more you wouldn't always be the last to know."

"The last to know what?"

"The Meadow tribe has offered food to Treetops squirrels. But only if we join their tribe."

"Join their tribe?" Patch looked at her, perplexed. "Join the Meadow? That's not possible. We're of the Treetops. We can't become of the Meadow."

"They say if we swear an oath of allegiance to the Meadow tribe, if we swear by the moon, then we will become of the Meadow, and then they will give us food."

After a long moment, Patch asked, his voice now as hushed as that of Brighteyes, "Swear by the moon?"

This is not the place to explain what the moon means to animals. Suffice to say that an oath sworn by the moon is even stronger than an oath sworn on blood. Such an oath can never be broken or unsworn.

"Yes," Brighteyes said, looking away from Patch.

"Tuft has gone to swear by the moon to join the Meadow tribe?"

"Yes. We will all go. We will all swear. Tuft will bring back some food for the children, and when they are strong enough they will go and swear themselves."

"You can't do this," Patch said, shocked. "You can't leave the Treetops. You can't give your children to another tribe."

"We must. We haven't any food, Patch. You see how weak my babies are. No one else can help us. Silver is gone. Jumper is gone."

"Jumper is gone? Gone where?"

"No one knows. No one has seen him in days. Like no one has seen Silver. Or any of the other clan leaders."

"The King," Patch said. "We'll go to King Thorn."

"The Ramble is too far. Even if the King sends help, it will never reach us in time. My babies are starving, Patch. My babies are dying. The Meadow is our only hope."

After a moment Patch turned away, unable to face Brighteyes, and said, "I wouldn't have let this happen to you."

"Don't say that. There's nothing Tuft could have done. There's nothing you could have done if I had chosen you instead."

"There is. If I had known. I know another place to get food."

"Then why are you hungry?" Brighteyes asked.

Patch hesitated. "It's dangerous. It's in the mountains."

"In the mountains? Are you mad?"

Patch was saved from answering by the appearance of his brother Tuft at the entrance to the drey. Tuft held two acorns against his chest, but he looked perilously thin, and weak, and tired.

"It's done," Tuft said. His voice was grim. "I have joined the Meadow."

Tuft carried the food in to his family. As the children devoured one acorn, Brighteyes and Tuft and Patch stood around the other, staring as if it glowed.

"This one is for you," Tuft said to Brighteyes. "The Meadow gave me one for myself when I was there."

Patch knew Tuft was lying.

Brighteyes said, "We'll share it. All three of us."

Patch wanted a bite of acorn so much that his whole body trembled with desire.

"No," he said faintly.

Tuft and Brighteyes turned to him, amazed.

"I will go to the mountains," Patch said.

Right away, before the acorn's temptation became too great to deny, he turned and fled from his brother's drey. He ran straight down the maple trunk to the ground. From there Patch ran north and west. His hunger was a searing flame within him.


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Jon Evans is the award-winning author of the thrillers Invisible Armies, Dark Places (aka Trail of the Dead), and The Blood Price. See his web site rezendi.com.

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