‘Sniff, Sniff’ he felt the change in the air. He stretched his forearms, feeling the chill.
“Hey, don’t push me!” came the voice from his left, and he stared at his little sister Sheila hazily through his newly opened eyes. Jasper turned to his mother, who was resting in the narrow hollow of the tree, while the others continued to suckle. Jasper’s brothers and sister jostled and pushed, each wanting their turn and Jasper moved aside. He was in no rush to fill his tummy.
Born in the squirrel family, Jasper was the oldest in the litter and they all stood a few minutes apart from each other. They were five weeks old and had started seeing the world with their eyes recently.
Alan lay curled up in a corner on his side. The poor fellow had been unwell since last week. Feeling sorry for him, Jasper walked over and reached out to Alan. His body felt stone cold. Panicking, Jasper ran up-to his mother and pushed past Sheila, Merry and Elden.
“Mother, hurry! It’s Alan. He won’t wake up and his body is cold,” he cried, tugging at his mother’s arms. Casting him a questioning glance, she rushed to Alan’s side. The little ones cried out, deprived of their mother’s milk.
Mother reached out to touch Alan and shuddered as she felt the icy cold body. She didn’t say a word, yet her eyes filled with tears. A lone tear found its way out and slid down her cheek.
She walked out while Jasper and his brothers and sister sat inside, unsure of what to do next. They wanted to follow her, but they had opened their eyes recently and were yet to adjust to the light outside. And they were scared of the world that lay beyond these four walls as mother had warned them against predators and the danger lurking outside.
They turned to Alan again as mother came back in, clutching a large leaf in hand. She wrapped his tiny body in it like a wrap and picked him up.
“Mother, can I come with you, please? I promise I won’t trouble you. I will only stay by your side,” Jasper asked softly.
Mother turned to him and nodded. She sensed his need to be with her and she knew she needed him too. The older brother that he was, he turned to his siblings instructing, “Stay in the hollow, promise me. We will be back soon. Don’t ignore the mother’s warnings. Stay away from the door as she always says and remain quiet.”
Turning away, Jasper headed out with his mother who stared at him in quiet pride.
He blinked furiously; his eyes blinded by the brightness. Mother nimbly alighted from the tree with Alan in her arms. Jasper set out hesitantly, one foot following the other.
“Careful little one, hold on hard. Don’t be scared to dig your claws into my trunk,” a voice boomed and Jasper lost his footing. A tree branch moved in a flash to break his fall and Jasper stared wide-mouthed. Rolling off the branch, he landed with a soft ‘Thud’ on the ground and ran to stand beside his mother. How scary this old, gnarled monster is! Or so he thought.
He looked up and down the brown, wide trunk, unable to believe what he had just witnessed. He made out the outline of a face with warm, brown eyes that twinkled and a smile with two front teeth missing. Wide and strong with long branches abundant with leaves, the magnificent Oaktree was a sight to behold! The surface of the thick trunk was crisscrossed with lines and various hues of brown covered its length and breadth.
Jasper looked up to see three faces peek from the hollow and gave them a stern look. The three faces disappeared immediately. He turned to see his mother sad, holding Alan in her arms.
The mighty Oak who had heard the exchange earlier in the hollow, called out, “Why don’t you dig a hole in the back near the roots and lay the little lad down there? That way, he will be with us forever.”
Mother nodded and Jasper ran to burrow a small hole, just enough for Alan. As they laid him down, Jasper found some pebbles and marked the spot. He knew that their brother would appreciate that.
Mother spoke up and said, “Jasper, this is our mighty Oak. Our forefathers including my father lived here and this is where I also met your father. We decided to make this our home and the Oak has been kind enough to let me stay here although your father is gone,” she added sadly.
Jasper recalled his mother’s tales about their father. Their father had been quite dashing and mother had been swept off her feet. Together they had made the hollow their home until the day dad had been killed by a predator. A big, bald eagle had swooped down as he was scouring for food and that was the last time mother ever saw him. How he wished his father were here today!
“It is nice to meet you, Mr Oak. I appreciate how you have taken care of all of us. It’s a gesture I will never forget.”
“Oh ho…A gentleman in our midst! It amuses me to see this little one become the man of the house as soon as he has opened his eyes. Squiggy, God had been kind to you, by blessing you with a wonderful lad for a son.”
Jasper gave his mom a questioning look. Squiggy? What kind of a name was that? His mother sensed his confusion and replied, “It’s what the Oak calls me since I was tiny like you.”
As they headed back to the hollow, mother taught him the right way to dig his claws into the tree’s bark without hurting the Oak and the Oaktree nodded back, encouraging him every way.
Sheila, Merry and Elden were in wait, wanting to know about the world outside. Jasper narrated his encounter with Mr Oak and the young ones seemed to be as mesmerized as he was. The tree was living, breathing and talking, just like them! It seemed like a surreal dream.
As the days passed, mother took them out together, letting them explore the world beyond. She also trained them on how they had to flatten their bodies in defence or curl up, what they could eat or couldn’t, what they needed to learn to save for food, preparing for the harsh winters to come. All of them together took to visiting Alan’s grave daily and told him about their escapades. It felt like he had never left them.
A few weeks later, Jasper was left in charge of his siblings as mother was out looking for food. He possessed all the leadership qualities and dealt with a firm hand.
‘Hiss, Hiss’ the sound seemed to be coming closer. Jasper was worried and his brothers and sister hid behind him. They knew that snakes were their enemies, but they were unsure if they should continue to stay put or move out.
And move out but how? The main door was where the sound was coming from. Jasper looked about and spotted a narrow slit on the other side.
“Merry, Elden, Sheila…quick. Let’s get out of here. We can’t go out of the main door as I am sure that the snake is lying in wait right there. Here, let me help you.”
He pushed them forward and watched the door nervously. There was a black shadow looming outside and he realized they didn’t have much time.
Suddenly, big yellow eyes peeked in and they all screamed loudly. Frightened out of his wits but left with no choice, Jasper lunged forward. The snake’s fangs glistened in the thin stream of light and Jasper knew that his time had come. He turned back to see that Sheila and Merry had left and Elden was almost out through the slit as well.
The snake’s fangs were just about to dig into his back. He closed his eyes and held his breath. Praying for easy death, he heard a sudden ‘Whoosh’ and saw the snake being tugged outside by a tree branch. Yayyy, our dear Mr Oak to the rescue, was his first thought.
The snake was not one to give up without a fight, but the Oak was very strong. The snake bit him many times and he didn’t even flinch. He continued to pull the snake, getting him to loosen his hold and finally flung him far away into the bushes.
And then he roared, “Don’t ever come back here. These are my little ones, don’t forget that!”
The snake turned to look at the tree and wordlessly slithered away.
When mother returned home in the evening, they narrated their adventure with the snake and gushed about Mr Oak’s bravery. Mother was extremely touched by his love and said she knew her babies were in safe hands.
Time passed and as the season changed, mother passed away. She had outlived most of her species and a grave was dug up next to Alan’s. It was a constant reminder to them of their mother’s and brother’s presence.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter came turn by turn and soon Sheila moved away into the dense forest with the love of her life. Merry was the wanderer and loved exploring new lands. He travelled for the major part of the year and only stayed home for three months, during the winter.
Elden preferred his own company and Jasper spent most of his time with Mr Oak. The tree was very learned as he had lived through centuries. Mr Oak had once mentioned in passing that he was more than three hundred years old and Jasper had just stood with his mouth agape at that. How Mr Oak had laughed then!
One day as Jasper returned home, Mr Oak called out to him and said, “Little one, you see those acorns lying at my feet? Do me a favour please. Please plant them in the surrounding soil, I don’t want them to be eaten up by other animals. This is the legacy I wish to leave behind. We all know that my time is almost up.”
“No, don’t say that Mr Oak. You are and will remain my BFF. I don’t know whatever I will do without you,” Jasper cried, hugging him.
“Little one, I have lived a full life with no regrets. I know that we will be Best Friends Forever. And remember this, even if we’re apart, I’ll always be with you. Now hurry up and do what I have entrusted you with.”
Jasper quietly picked up the acorns and did as he was asked. He just felt sad to see Mr Oak go, although he knew that he was practically ancient.
As he turned back and looked at the tree, he couldn’t help noticing how the leaves now seemed dull in colour. The lines on the bark of the tree were more pronounced and it was a grey-brown shade. The Oak was racked by cough some nights and their hollow shook when the wind howled in bad weather. There were cracks in the walls and termites crawled along the tree roots, having a field day. It just seemed so unfair that it had to be this way…
Days turned into weeks and the Oak’s health worsened. He was shedding leaves although it was spring and the air was warm, fragrant with new life. Jasper tried to cheer him up by spending hours talking to him. But in his heart, he knew that it was only a matter of time. Mr Oak seemed to be losing strength every day and more than that, he had lost the will to live.
“Little one, I think it’s time for you to go and find yourself another home. There is another Oaktree, my cousin, who lives a few hundred meters from here. He has sent a message that there is room available for you if you want it.”
“No, I am never letting you go Mr Oak. I will stay here with you and mother and Alan.”
“Don’t be silly. You will be right here. And you can visit anytime. It’s spring now, but I won’t be here to protect you soon. And someday, you will fall in love too and start a family. It is the right thing to do.”
Jasper knew that Mr Oak was right and reluctantly packed up his belongings. Merry and Elden would understand, he knew that.
The new tree was a young chap, only a hundred and fifty years old. He was full of stories too and Jasper liked his new surroundings. Yet, it wasn’t the same. Because his heart craved Mr Oak.
As he woke up the following morning, he felt the urgency to visit Mr Oak and sensed that something was wrong. He rushed to the spot and was desolate to see the sight that awaited him. The tree was wheezing, each breath a struggle. One last leaf struggled to hold on.
Mr Oak turned to Jasper and said, “You came. I knew…you would. Look, the acorns!” And then there was no more. The last leaf fell to the ground and all was silent.
With tears filling his eyes, Jasper picked up the fallen leaf and caressed it. He turned to the acorns that he had planted earlier. And saw that new, tender shoots were sprouting from the ground.
And he recalled his best friend, Mr. Oak’s words again, “Even if we’re apart, I’ll always be with you.”
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