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

October 10, 2007

81. The Endless Empire

"Where are we?" White asked, wonder in her voice, after they had feasted on grubs and wildflowers, and drunk from the stream that flowed out of the underworld.

"I don't know. Not the Center Kingdom," Patch said. He was sure of that much. The air tasted different here, and the trees were taller, and the human trail that led alongside the ruined building was dirt rather than concrete. It felt so much better to be again beneath the sky. Even his tail and his many wounds felt better.

"We're north," Silver said, looking at the sun as it soared towards its apex, and the direction from which they had emerged. "Far north. We travelled a long time beneath. I think for days."

Patch called to mind his recollection of how the world had looked when he had soared in far above the Center Kingdom in Karmerruk's claws. North, past the island of the Center Kingdom, rivers thrust their way into an expanse of land that had continued all the way into the dim horizon. They must have emerged into one of the green patches in that memory landscape. Silver was right: it was a long, long way back home. They would have to cross a river and traverse uncountable miles of forbidding mountains.

The three squirrels drifted south along the human trail, mostly because movement helped them feel less like lost refugees and more like travellers making their way home, avoiding the thick sky-road above for fear that other squirrels lived there and might view them as interlopers. They soon reached a place where the dirt had fallen away into a narrow gulch, revealing a curving brick slope beneath.

"That's it," Silver said softly. "That's where we were."

It was a dizzying thought, that they were now witnessing from the outside the same Croton Road that they had travelled within for days, that the Kingdom Beneath, which had felt like a different world, was in some places separated from daylight only by the thickness of a brick.

"I smell squirrel," White said sharply.

Patch sniffed. She was right. And there were rustling sounds coming from beside the path. The three squirrels turned, stopped dead with amazement, and stared. The two night-black squirrels that had been scampering through the undergrowth came to an equally nonplussed halt.

"Who are you?" the female black squirrel demanded.

"What are you?" asked the male.

"We're squirrels!" Patch said, outraged.

The male black squirrel looked at him skeptically. "I've seen a lot of other squirrels, and none of them looked anything like you three."

"Don't you have albinos here?" White asked.

"Albinos?" the male asked, repeating the word without comprehension. "We don't even know what that is."

"I heard once there are gray squirrels to the south, in the Archipelago," the female said thoughtfully. "Is that where you're from?"

Patch wasn't sure how to answer that question, so he decided to fall back on basics. "I am Patch son of Silver, of the Seeker clan, of the Treetops tribe. This is my mother Silver daughter of Strongtail, of the Watcher clan, and White daughter of Streak, of the Runner clan. We are all of the Center Kingdom."

"The Center Kingdom!" the male exclaimed. "I've heard of that. You're right, it's in the Archipelago."

"I told you so," the female scolded him. "You never believe me."

"Pardon me," Silver said, "but with whom do we have the honour of speaking?"

"Oh," the female said, embarrassed. "I am Dizzy daughter of Silent, and this is my mate Grubhunter son of Tallclimber, we're both Gobbler clan."

"Of what tribe?" Silver asked.

Dizzy and Grubhunter exchanged looks. "It's not like your Archipelago here," Grubhunter said. "This is the Endless Empire."

Explanations soon ensued, on both sides. From what Dizzy and Grubhunter said, the Endless Empire had no tribes, like the Hidden Kingdom, although for the opposite reason. The Hidden Kingdom was tribeless because there were not enough trees for squirrels to congregate in those numbers: the Endless Empire because its expanses were too vast and borderless for tribes to make any sense. Squirrels simply moved on if they had any trouble with their neighbours, so no tribes had ever been formed. Some squirrels of the Endless Empire clustered in loose little clan-groups, but many just lived with their families or even alone.

It didn't sound dangerous. There were owls and raccoons at night, and occasionally foxes and dogs by day, but according to Dizzy and Grubhunter, this corner of the Endless Empire was a safe and easy place to live. They doubted any other squirrel would trouble Patch, White and Silver as they travelled south to the Archipelago, although many would stop them from curiosity.

"It sounds better than the Center Kingdom," White said wistfully, watching Dizzy and Grubhunter scramble away through the underbrush towards their drey after saying their goodbyes.

Patch looked at her. "What do you mean?"

"It's safe here. And they don't think I'm cursed by the moon. They don't even know what albinos are."

"Do you want to stay?" Silver asked.

White looked at Patch, then looked away. She did not answer.

The uncomfortable silence was broken by a totally unexpected voice from above.

"Good heavens," a voice said in Bird. "I think I know you, squirrel. You with the little white patch on your forehead. Do you remember me? Do you know where my home is? I'm looking for my home, and I can't find it!"


Anonymous Rakie said...

daffa! i'd forgotten about him! oh bless, now patch can help him find his home too. :D

do you really get black squizzels? i've never heard of that, that's brilliant. btw, i think the male squirrel's name changes at one point - he's introduced as Leafcutter but then referred to as Grubhunter.

very cool chapter!!

October 11, 2007 at 1:46 AM  
Anonymous briangc said...

Aren't Fox Squirrels black? I think they're also a lot larger than regular Grey Squirrels too. Dunno if these two are Fox Squirrels though.

Jon - Have you ever heard of Brevard, NC? They have a rare breed of white squirrels there that are not albinos. Here's a link to the story:


I live in SC and travel through Brevard often...so I've seen them myself. Pretty neat to see.

October 11, 2007 at 7:40 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Rakie: oops, you're quite right about the name, I'm about to fix. Black squirrels do indeed exist, though I'm tweaking reality slightly here, as you get them more in Inwood (northern Manhattan) than in the Bronx.

Brian: Brevard white squirrels - wow, I had no idea. That's great.

October 11, 2007 at 11:04 AM  

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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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