I try to write a Christmas story to share with my family every year. Here is 2017’s effort.
This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual squirrels is merely a coincidence. No squirrels were harmed in the creation of this story.
As an aid to better understanding of this story, please note that a group of squirrels is call a scurry.
Like the rest of the scurry, Alexander Manning Squirrel watched in undisguised awe as the Tree Guards marched by, their paws moving in silent unison, as if it were a single multi-legged animal passing by rather than a troop of 20 individuals. This aura was no accident. The Tree Guards practiced for hours each day to hone and refine their separate skills and abilities into a cohesive unit that functioned flawlessly as one. The Guard was always comprised of exactly 20 squirrels.
Also like the other yearling squirrels, Alexander’s deepest desire was to join the Tree Guards. In the few spare moments in the day, when he was not working at one of the multitude of endless chores around the scurry that never seemed to end, Alexander would daydream about marching as part of the guard in precision time, taking up defensive positions around the base of the tree, shouting out the alert when an enemy was spotted, fighting fearlessly to defend the scurry against that enemy, even keeping lonely night vigil while the rest of the scurry slept. Alexander thought about little else but the Guard. This suited him just fine, but did not go over so well with his teacher or his parents. As a result, Alexander was frequently assigned to Mess Control, which was just a fancy name for “cleaning up the shells after all the other squirrels have eaten.” As unpleasant has Mess Control was, it didn’t bother Alexander all that much because he could continue to fantasize about joining the Guard while scooping and carrying broken pieces of shell, which occasionally included a slightly chewed piece of the fruit of the nut, which had been spewed out because it was bitter.
Day after day, Alexander carried out his duties, pretended to listen in class and carried out his punishments, all the while hoping and praying that he would someday be allowed to join the Guards. Today, Alexander thought to himself, today is my chance. And he was correct. Today was the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. Every year on the Solstice, one, or sometimes more than one, of the oldest members of the Tree Guard would retire and a replacement for his position in the Guard would be chosen from among the yearlings. This year only a single older Guard was retiring, so only a single yearling candidate would be chosen to replace the retiree. For reasons which had long since been forgotten, there were always exactly 20 members, no more and no less. If a Guard was maimed or killed, a yearling would immediately be chosen to replace him. Other than that, the only way to gain membership in the Guard was at the Solstice.
The selection process was shrouded in mystery, which no one seemed to understand, yet it happened the same way every year. The yearlings would be put through a series of tests, each of which demonstrated the candidate’s skill, or lack thereof, in an important aspect of the Guard’s duties. Each test was monitored and scored by current and/or retired Guards. At the end of the day, those monitors would get together and discuss the results. The scores were never published, but after their conference a new member was chosen. It was all very cloak and dagger, and the mystery of it all only served to pique Alexander’s curiosity and desire to join.
Today Alexander had woken early, which was rare for him, but it did gain him the prized position of being first in the line of yearling candidates. Along with the others, Alexander stretched and jumped to warm up in preparation for the first test – gliding. This is going to be great, Alexander thought. I am by far the best glider in my class. I’ve got this one in the bag. He continued to stretch and jump long after the rest of the group had stopped, more from nervous energy than any actual physical benefit. The head proctor for this test, a grizzled old veteran with only one working eye and three working feet approached slowly, even stately thought Alexander. Alexander prepared his response, certain that as first in line he would be the first candidate to glide. The old squirrel reached the group and Alexander was about to speak even before the retired Guard spoke (which would have been a serious breach of etiquette) but the veteran did not even pause, but hobbled directly to the very last squirrel in the line and tapped him gently on the head – the signal that he was to begin the test.
Alexander was flabbergasted. He had risen very early and even skipped breakfast, for the sole purpose of being in line. And it was all for naught. Instead of being first, it looked like Alexander might actually test last. Alexander was furious and was barely able to hold his tongue. The only thing worse than being last in the group to test was to challenge the test proctors or display a disrespectful attitude. Alexander dug his toes into the bark of the branch, hoping to divert his anger into the tree rather than his face and lips.
Peter happened to be at the end of the line and was chosen to test first. Peter lived just a couple of branches down from Alexander. Peter and Alexander were not exactly friends, but they knew each other and would frequently scamper back to their home tree together after a day of instruction on the ground, or in one of the school trees. Alexander knew Peter well enough to know that he was not a good glider. Peter tried hard, he really did, but he could never get more than 20 or 30 rods from the launch branch before he landed, if one could call such an action “landing.” Alexander thought it more like falling, with the good luck of landing on one’s feet. (A “rod” was the scurry’s unit of measurement, and was simply the length of an old stick that had been used by the scurry for glide measurement longer than any living squirrel could remember.)
As Peter made his way to the launch branch, Alexander muttered out an encouraging word or two, not because he really meant them, but because everyone else was doing so and he didn’t want to be out of place. Peter took his place on the launch branch, and after a nod from the proctor, launched himself into the air and quickly spread his front legs as far as they would go, catching as much wind as possible in the membranes that stretched from leg to torso. It was immediately apparent that Peter had put forth an excellent leap and he soared for what seemed like hours before touching down into a neat little forward somersault. Even before the ground crew finished measuring the distance, Alexander knew that Peter had just produced the longest glide of his life. “47 rods,” the measurement squirrel shouted. “An epic glide, Peter. Well done.” The other yearlings chirped aloud, the squirrel’s equivalent of the ridiculous sounding human applause. Alexander joined in, not because he was happy for Peter, but because he didn’t want to be singled out for his failure to chirp.
Stanley went next and earned a respectable 38 rods. He was followed by Richard, Jonathan, and Thomas. Bernard followed them, and was himself followed by Gustavo, whose nickname by those who like him was “Gus” and “Tavo” by those who did not. Alexander was so angry for not being first that he didn’t pay attention to any of the other scores. (He later regretted this of course, because this was the only test where the candidates were able to know the scores.) As soon as Tavo touched down Alexander began the short climb to the launching branch. It was a breach of protocol to start without being tapped out by the proctor, but Alexander didn’t really care. He was angry and wanted to make sure that everyone else noticed. Once he reached the launch point, Alexander took an inordinately long time getting ready, deliberately and slowing stretching every leg, flexing every toe and even grooming his short whiskers, even though they were really still too short to need it.
Finally “ready”, Alexander took his place and prepared to launch. He narrowed his eyes to barely open, so that the wind in his face would not cause him to tear up and go wind blind. He crouched into the proper position and waited perhaps a little longer than absolutely necessary, for effect of course, and sprang. Alexander loved gliding. It was freeing. It gave him a sense of freedom and power that no other activity could give. He loved the wind in his face, but of course not his eyes. He loved to watch the ground speed by. He loved the anticipation as he approached the ground – the combination of fear and delight that coursed through him. This glide was going to be perfect!
Except that it wasn’t. Just as he began to uncoil his legs, the horned owl who was watching from the top of the next tree gave a loud call. Every pair of squirrel eyes in the forest snapped immediately up to the owl. Every pair of squirrel ears within range turned to the owl’s tree and tuned into her voice, hoping that this was just a friendly call and not a warning signal. It was just a greeting – the female owl in the tree calling to her mate that all was safe and he could land beside her. Even though the call was benign, the damage had already been done. Alexander mistimed his jump and pushed with his hind legs after he had already cleared the branch, and so entered the glide with no additional thrust whatsoever. Instead of the best glide of his life, as he had been hoping for, Alexander had the worst jump of his life, and more importantly, the worst glide of the day, a mere 22 rods. What a disaster! A guard has to be ready for anything. There were no second chances as a guard, and Alexander knew that there would be no second chance for a better glide. He would just have to be even better at the other events.
The candidates were allowed a few minutes rest before the next event – a tree climb. The yearlings would gather around a tree, and at the signal would scamper up as quickly as possible. Whoever reached the top first was the winner – there was no second place. As the group rested and waited, Alexander began to cheer up. He was a shew in for the tree climb. No one could beat him at climbing, including most of the current Tree Guard members. Not only was Alexander naturally gifted as as climber, he had spent the last month or more studying every tree that was even remotely likely to be chosen as their climbing tree. He knew every branch and every nook of every sizable tree in a 75 rod radius from the master tree. This was going to be a piece of cake!
Alexander’s preparation paid off. The group was lead to a sizable oak about 30 rods out. Alexander had to work to suppress his joy. He had practiced extensively on this particular tree. In fact, this particular tree had become a sort of refuge for Alexander when he needed some time away from the other squirrels. Come to think of it, that had happened more and more recently. As he had worked with feverish determination to prepare for this day, his friends and even his family had begun to treat Alexander strangely. No one seemed to understand the importance of this day. Alexander had become convinced that the scurry as a whole was ganging up against him. At first this had hurt Alexander’s feelings, but then he realized that their attitude must surely mean that he was the one to beat in the trials, and he redoubled his efforts to be more ready than any squirrel had ever been, or would ever be. He, Alexander Manning Squirrel would be a legend in his own day, and for generations to come. He was going to be so awesome that they would name a master tree after him.
Alexander eyed the tree carefully, planing his route up. This would be a wonderful triumph! The proctor counted down from 5 to 1 then shouted, “Go!” At the last moment, Alexander decided to skip the first branch on his chosen route and jump directly from the ground to the second branch, saving himself a precious couple of seconds. He not only wanted to win, to redeem himself from the abysmal showing on the glide, he wanted to utterly crush every other candidate. He wanted complete, total, undeniable victory. Although the distance to the second branch was long, Alexander had jumped that far before, and was supremely confident that he would make it, and he was right. Except that he wasn’t. He cleared the first branch easily, and also the second. In fact, Alexander jumped too far, missing the second branch by more than half a rod. He twisted desperately in the air, hoping beyond hope to perhaps catch one of the thinner branches that came into view near the apex of his trajectory. He did catch one, but it was way too thin to hold his weight and Alexander felt himself falling back to earth.
Falling? Falling? Squirrels do not fall out of trees. It was unthinkable for a squirrel to fall out of a tree. It just did not happen. A squirrel falling out of a tree, any tree, was akin to a bird falling from the sky, or a fish falling out of the water. It just did not happen. Except that it did, and Alexander was the first squirrel to fall from a tree in the last three generations. He felt every eye on him, frowning, jeering, laughing, but he didn’t care.
By the time Alexander hit the ground he had righted himself and turned the fall into a forward roll and immediately jump again, back to the first branch that he should have made for initially. He climbed and scurried and jumped as hard and as fast as he could and reached the goal near the top of the tree with a very respectable time, but still later than 4 of the other candidates, besting only Tavo and Jonathan. He had been so focused on his own climbing that he did not even see who had gained the top first, but Alexander did not even care. He should have been first – nothing else mattered.
The rest of the day was a nightmare for Alexander, as he struggled through, and lost, every single event in the trials. Jonathan won the jumping contest. Richard, with his long legs and extra folds of membrane easily won the acorn carry, depositing a record 27 acorns at the feet of the proctor of that contest. Even though no one was supposed to know the exact scores of each contestant, everyone knew anyway, and knew that Richard had broken the previous record of 25 acorns, which had been set may years back by Alexander’s own father.
His humiliation continued through the Alert challenge, where the candidates give a warning chatter as loudly as they can, and the one who chatters the loudest is the winner. Alexander did well for the first few rounds, and in the final round the only competitor remaining was Bernard. This one was in the bag, Alexander thought. I can certainly best Bernard. As the signal came Alexander took a great gulp of air and prepared to give a chatter so loud that it would dislodge the owl who had ruined him in the gliding contest, shaking her loose without warning and without pity. As he drew in the air, Alexander’s draw was so powerful that it carried with it a butterfly, a small little orange and black one. (Funny how one remembers every detail of utter humiliation but can recall only hazy memories of a victory.) Alexander choked, literally choked, on the winged demon and managed only a squeak that could not even be heard by the spectators a few rods away.
Alexander was heart broken. He, Alexander Manning Squirrel, had been beaten by a bug no bigger than a spring nut. Beauty had indeed bested the beast, which is how Alexander now viewed himself. He wasn’t Guard material. He had failed to win in every single contest so far, and there was one more to go. Alexander clung to the smallest sliver of hope, hoping beyond hope that he could win the final contest – Sentry Duty. This challenge was the most unique, and arguably the most important, contest of them all. A Sentry’s job was simple – stay awake all night and watch for signs of danger. If danger arose, the Sentry had to make an instant decision on how to deal with the threat and then put that plan into action. The Sentry might decide that the best action was to lead the danger away from the scurry. He might drop to the ground, making enough noise to be noticed then scamper off, drawing the predator after him. The Sentry might decide that the entire scurry needed to be on alert, and if so would give a loud chatter, at which Alexander had miserable failed, so as to wake the whole group. The Sentry might even decide that the best action was no action at all, and would remain motionless, allowing the threat to simply pass by, not suspecting or detecting the Sentry.
Above all, more important than gliding, jumping, climbing or yelling, the most important job for a Sentry was to stay awake – all night long. The Sentry was trusted to be awake and alert, so that the rest of the scurry could sleep soundly, knowing that they would receive ample warning of any danger. A Sentry had to be completely trustworthy, because the life of the entire scurry was literally in his paws.
Well at least I will win this challenge, Alexander thought to himself. I’m so angry that I probably won’t sleep for a week anyway. At least I won’t be totally humiliated. For several hours, Alexander’s anger keep him going. He thought back to every failure, not just today, but as far back as he could remember. His disappointment in himself rankled within him, festering like a thorn in the paw. He deserved to be in the Guard, he thought and muttered to himself. No one had worked harder than he had to prepare. He had frequently skipped the evening meal, which was as much about socialization as it was sustenance, so that he could study yet another climbing tree or work on his acorn carry or practice his warning chatter. He was certain that Richard, the winner of the acorn carry, had never missed a meal in his life! He, Alexander, however, had missed many in his quest for the Guard.
Alexander would have loved to be able to pace back and forth, but a Sentry had to remain totally motionless. In the forest, motion is an invitation for predators of every kind. The squirrel’s natural coloring blended very well with tree trunks, and a motionless squirrel was almost impossible to distinguish for the tree itself. And so Alexandr sat, and fumed, and hated himself and everyone else. He was the best of them all! Why couldn’t anyone see that??!! Why was there even a contest? Everyone knew that Alexander was the best. Why even bother? What was the point? All his work, his preparations, his sacrifices would be in vain if he didn’t make it into the Guard.
Alexander hated every thing and every one. He hated the sun that had long since set. He hated the moon, which cast a few shadows on the forest floor, some 10 rods below. He hated life. He hated squirrels. He especially hated owls. Alexander hated everything.
Squirrels don’t cry. It’s not that they can’t cry – they have tear glands and ducts similar to many mammals, they just don’t cry. A squirrel that cried was like a caterpillar that failed to transform into a butterfly – like the one that had cost him the win in the Alert challenge. Squirrels simply don’t cry. Except when they do, and Alexander began to cry. Tears formed a track from the corners of his eyes, down to his nose, where they either dripped on the branch or followed the curve down around his chin. Squirrels don’t cry, except when they do, and Alexander cried.
Without thinking Alexander raised his left paw so that he could clear out his right eye. A Sentry had to be able to see, in order to warn the scurry if or when it was necessary. The moment his paw touched his face, Alexander knew that he had messed up – again. You see, besides staying awake, a Sentry’s most important task was to remain motionless. Motion drew attention. Motion turned scavengers into meals, mice into dessert and Sentries into losers, and that is exactly what happened to Alexander. One of the current Guard, who had been assigned to watch the Sentry challenge, on the lookout for movement, chattered loudly and pointed directly at Alexander. He had moved, and thus had failed this most important of challenges.
Alexander did not even bother waiting for an official dismissal. He climbed slowly down the tree until he was low enough then launched into a perfect glide, out of sight of the master tree and away from prying eyes and ears. Now I get the perfect glide he thought to himself. Now, when it matters no more than a raindrop in a thunderstorm, now, when no one is watching and no one cares. Now I get the perfect glide. For the second time in as many minutes, Alexander cried. This time he didn’t even bother raising a paw to wipe away the tears. Alexander spent the night wandering from tree to tree, jumping from branch to branch. It was a clear violation of the squirrel code, but he didn’t care. Maybe some owl would spot him and eat him and spare him the humiliation that awaited him in the morning, when one of the other six candidates would take his place with the guard. His place, Alexander thought. It should be my place.
Morning came as it usually did, the forest slowly coming to back to life. Birds began to chirp, welcoming the sun. Deer began to forage, looking for the tender, lower branches of their favorite trees, or failing that grass from the meadow. Squirrels began to emerge from their sleeping holes. On most days the squirrels would immediately head out to collect nuts and acorns, but today, this one day only, the entire scurry gathered at the master tree to see who had been chosen to fill the one position that was available in the Guard.
Alexander had planned to skip the gathering, not really caring who would be chosen, quite certain that it was not him. He tried to stay away, but his curiosity final triumphed over his anger and self loathing and he found a perch in a nearby tree to watch and listen. But he was late, and when he arrived it was clear that whatever ceremony was to be held was already complete. Peter, the closest thing that Alexander had to a friend, was standing with the Guards and was being congratulated by the other yearlings. They seemed genuinely proud of Peter, even happy for him. Alexander scoffed to himself. He was a thousand times better than Peter, but it no longer mattered. Next year he would be too old for the trials and some other unworthy, undeserving yearling would take their place, Alexander’s place, in the Guard.
He was about to turn away, but just as he did the Guard’s leader, the grizzled old veteran who had proctored the gliding challenge, look up, staring directly at Alexander. He had thought himself well concealed, but there was no doubt that the old squirrel was looking directly at him. With a small nod of the head, the leader beckoned Alexander to join him. There are a few rules that one might possibly break and get away with it, but disobedience to the Leader of the Guard was not one of those things. With a sarcastic sigh, Alexander made his way to the ground, another perfect glide he said to himself. He scoffed again.
By the time he reached the Leader, the rest of the crowd had dispersed, leaving only the Guard, including the newest member Peter. The Guard sat in a semicircle around the Leader who followed Alexander’s progress with his eyes, remaining otherwise motionless. Alexander sat directly in front of him, not knowing exactly what was expected of him, wondering why the Leader would even care about him in the least.
The entire group sat in silence, waiting for… what? What was the purpose of this, Alexander wondered. The leader was watching Alexander closely – not quite staring, but certainly not looking anywhere else. He glanced behind him and found that the other members of the Guard were also watching him, with that same intense, non-staring look. What was going on here? Was he supposed to do something? Was he supposed to say something? He found no answers in the Guard members’ looks either and turned again to face the Leader. The silence continued until it became uncomfortable, then downright distressing.
Alexander was certain that he had been summoned here to be further humiliated. They weren’t going to ignore his failures in the testing yesterday. Alexander had never heard of anyone being ejected from the scurry, but he had performed so badly that it was about to happen to him. With difficulty he held his emotions in check, and was successful except for his eyes. For the third time in less than a day, Alexander Manning Squirrel found himself crying. It was a motionless, soundless cry, so silent that the sound of his tears on the dried leaves of the forest floor sounded as loud as the crack of a broken branch in the dead of night.
Still no one moved. No one spoke. What do they want from me? What?
Finally, Alexander could stand the silence and the tears no longer. “Sir,” he said to the Leader, “I know that I messed up badly yesterday. I can’t glide far enough, or climb fast enough. I can’t jump very far, I can’t carry very many acorns. I didn’t chatter loud enough to disturb a butterfly and I couldn’t stand still for more than a few minutes.”
The Leader said nothing, but his attention was riveted to Alexander’s face. He seemed to be boring a hole right through Alexander, looking into the depths of his soul, and surprisingly, not turning away from how it had withered until it was shrunken and brown, like an overripe apple on the forest floor.
Now that he had started, Alexander found that he could not stop himself. “I don’t deserve a spot in the Guard. I failed every single test. I’m not worthy to be a part of you, to be in the Guard. But could I at least help in some small way? I can fetch things and carry messages. Please sir, is there some way that I can help?” The tears were flowing freely now and Alexander didn’t even bother to try and wipe them away. It wouldn’t have helped anyway, as they were falling more rapidly than did the river as it spun into space at the falls, just a couple of hundred rods away to the East.
Alexander had been staring at the ground as he spoke, not willing to even glance at the Leader, for fear that he would find in the Leader’s gaze a reflection of his own disappointment in himself. When he did finally raise his eyes, he was shocked to see tears in the Leader’s eyes, not flowing as much as his own, but definitely present nonetheless. The Leader of the Tree Guards was crying! Could this day, this week, get any stranger?
There was a long silence, but it was no longer uncomfortable as it had been, but soothing instead, like the feeling you get right after a spring rain. In the Leader’s gaze Alexander did not see disappointment or sadness, but hope. Alexander was confused, yet it didn’t seem to matter as much as it had just a few moments earlier.
Finally the Leader spoke. “Alexander, why do you think that Peter was allowed to become a part of the Guard?”
Finally, Alexander thought. Something I can get right! He answered immediately. “Because he was the best glider, and scored well in the other challenges.” Some of his anger was fading, so he was able to continue without deception. “Peter is a good squirrel, he’ll be an asset to the Guard.”
The Leader answered. “Peter will be an asset to the Guard, but not because he is a good glider, or scored well on the other challenges.”
What? What did he say, Alexander wondered to himself. “I don’t understand,” he blurted.
The Leader smiled, now. A genuine, friendly, loving smile. “I know you don’t understand, Alexander, but that is just fine. The Guard isn’t made up of squirrels that are great at gliding, climbing, jumping, carrying or standing on Sentry duty. The Guard is made up entirely of squirrels that know that they aren’t good enough. The squirrel that thinks he has earned his way into the Guard is too proud, is too good in his own sight, to learn anything else. The squirrel who might be the best climber or glider is usually the worst at being a Guard. We are a team of imperfect squirrels, who together are able to do what needs to be done to protect the scurry.”
Alexander felt his anger and disgust with himself beginning to fade. There was truth in the Leader’s eyes, and sincere affection in his gaze. In spite of his failures, the Leader really did like him. No, he thought to himself, the Leader loves me. He loves me!
The Leader’s explanation was clear enough, but there was one question remaining. One thing that Alexander simply had to know. “But sir, how did these Guards,” he gestured behind him at the troop, “How did they get into the Guard, if they didn’t earn their way in? How did they get in?”
The Leader smile even more broadly then, a smile that rivaled that of the daisy blooming in the meadow. “They asked, Alexander, just like you just did. They simply asked how they could help.”
There was the briefest of pauses, then he continue. “Welcome to the Tree Guard Alexander.”
The Guard was always comprised of exactly 20 squirrels, except when it wasn’t.