Published on December 16th, 2013 | by Timothy Thomas McNeely0
The Holly and the Ivy, Part 3
Three squirrels and two children ran along the branches of the holly tree, up and down adjoining limbs, most always careful to avoid the prickly leaves. They climbed to nearly the top of the tree, briefly poking their heads out to see the giant walls, windows, and roof of Amos and Beatrice’s house in the distance. Felix, Oliver, and Esther Squirrel showed the children how to bounce whole bunches of berries down off the branches so they crashed through the leaves below. Amos loved this.
The rain trickled through the holly leaves above them. They played tag on the branches and a game called red berry (which involves holly berries and lots of dodging, and only Felix got berry juice on him). When the rain began to penetrate the canopy too much, they climbed under the Squirrels’ ivy house, right near the tree trunk, and talked a while.
They were just about to play hide and seek when a voice from the ivy house called them in to supper. “Time, all of you. Come inside!” he said. They ran pell-mell back to the kitchen door and reentered the warm squirrel home.
The kitchen was even more full now than when the children first charged into it, what seemed like hours before. Mrs. Squirrel was moving from end to end, putting final touches on everything, and several other animals were helping prepare the many dishes.
“That must be their daddy,” Beatrice thought, looking at the large squirrel hurrying from room to room carrying hot dishes as Beatrice stood there taking off her coat.
“Don’t forget to wash your hands,” she told Amos, just as he was about to run off, hand in hand with Felix, out the door to the dining room. He groaned, but turned around.
The others in the kitchen were a mother chickadee named Fiona, with a baby bird in her arms, and a pair of light brown mice. “Hello there,” the chickadee said to Beatrice, catching her staring. Beatrice couldn’t believe the colors of the chickadee mother’s feathers, which displayed tiny variations on brown and red, mottled with white. At the same time, Beatrice was trying not to look at the mice. She thought mice were a little scary.
“Would you like to hold Silas?” the chickadee asked her. “He’s the happiest chick you’ll ever meet.”
“Oh, thank you! Yes,” Beatrice said, happy for the distraction. She took up the chick a little awkwardly, then looked down at him. “Hello, Silas. How are you?” Silas squeaked a happy chirp at her and smiled a baby bird smile.
Fiona Chickadee introduced her to the two mice, John and Julie, who were newly married, she was told. “Congratulations, and pleased to meet you,” Beatrice said politely, looking in one and then the other’s whiskery faces as best as she could.
John Mouse, after shaking Beatrice’s hand, stepped back a bit, and looked over his nose at her. “I think I’ve seen you before,” he said. “Yes, I know I have!” he said excitedly and clapped his hands together.
Beatrice looked puzzled.
“From the house, aren’t you?” John Mouse said, trying to clarify.
“Yes,” she said, still not understanding. “This tree is in our yard.”
“Well,” he smiled. “Awkward, isn’t this?” he said and looked around, seeking support for his observation.
“Why?” Beatrice asked.
He ruffled his whiskers down like a beard, “Hmmm, well,” he said. “We live under your back porch, I guess. Where all that lovely wood is stacked. We just got the lease.”
“You live under our house? Oh. Ew!” Beatrice blurted without thinking, backing away a bit and holding baby Silas tighter so he squeaked again. “I mean, oh. I’m sorry,” she said, gathering herself.
“Don’t worry about it,” Julie Mouse said, stepping in front of John from where she’d been chopping vegetables. “He’s just excited to meet a real human.” Julie Mouse’s kind voice sounded almost like a whistle. “John, why don’t you go check that everyone’s glasses are full,” she suggested to him. She gave a frowning look to his back as he went out with a large pumpkin seed carafe.
“Um, is it nice, the wood pile?” Beatrice asked Julie, recovering herself.
“Yes, it’s very nice,” she said and smiled, front teeth flashing.
“Supper!” Mr. Squirrel said, interrupting any more conversation.
They all found their way out of the kitchen.
After everyone was seated – squirrels, mice, chickadees, and children – an old squirrel, grayed and stooped, was ushered in by Mr. Squirrel.
“Sit by me, Grandma,” Oliver said.
“Can I sit by you?” Felix said.
“Sit by you,” Esther mimicked, with feeling.
“You can sit here by Oliver, Mom,” Mr. Squirrel said.
“Oh, thank you,” Grandma Squirrel said, and looked up for the first time.
“Oh, my!” she exclaimed, seeing the children for the first time. “People! People! Hide the food! Hide the children!” She tried to stand up and escape.
“Mom, Mom,” Mr. Squirrel stepped in, placating. “I told you we had guests you’d be surprised to see. Somehow they followed Felix home. And look, they’re small. Sit down, Mom. Let’s eat.”
“Alright. Alright. People. Goodness me.”
“Happy Saint Nicholas Day, everyone,” he said as he took his place.
“We called him Saint Nicholmouse when you were growing up,” Grandma Squirrel broke in.
Mr. Mouse gave a blessing, raising his nose up to the sky. Then they ate. There was tulip bulb soup, mushrooms and dry bread, kale and cress salad, a cheese and walnut paté with crackers, and apple and orange slices for dessert. It was a feast.
“So what are we celebrating again?” Mr. Squirrel asked at one point, as if he’d forgotten already.
The young animals all said, “Saint Nicholas Day,” together.
“Saint Nicholmouse Day,” Felix said, and laughed at his own joke.
Beatrice and Amos sat silent. They’d never heard of that holiday before, much less celebrated it. Beatrice had a vague notion that “Old Saint Nick” from the story was maybe this Saint Nicholas.
“And why do we celebrate that?” Mr. Squirrel asked the group, sounding a bit like the children’s own father.
“Because it’s December 6?” Felix offered.
“Presents!” Oliver shouted.
“Because he was kind to everyone and gave gifts,” Mrs. Squirrel interpreted her son.
“Yeah,” Oliver said. “He even gave gifts to all the animals, too. Mrs. Nuthatch told us that in school.”
“Right,” their father said. “But why?”
The adults around the table were smiling, sitting back and enjoying the quiz. Half the reason they celebrated Saint Nicholas Day at all, of course, was because it was far enough from the depths of winter that they were still awake – though none of these animals hibernated, they did get drowsy, and Christmas was a quiet time, just for family.
“Because he just wanted to?” Felix guessed.
“He knew people needed things?” Beatrice ventured. Mr. Squirrel smiled at her.
“Because he wanted presents, too?” Amos said.
“When Nicholas gave gifts, he didn’t expect gifts back,” Grandma Squirrel put in.
“And our gift to each other tonight is company, and spending time together,” Mrs. Squirrel said, “Even if you might get presents later.”
“Right,” Mr. Squirrel said. “Nicholas gave gifts to care for others who didn’t have very much.”
Beatrice spoke up again and said, “We give gifts to others, too, but at Christmas time. Most people do.”
“I’ve heard of that,” John Mouse chimed in, excited. “And you have a Thanks Day like we do, as well. Right?” People fascinated him.
“Thanksgiving?” Amos asked.
“Yes. That’s it.”
“It’s like our Saint Francis Day, I think,” Fiona Chickadee piped up.
“Yes. Right,” Mr. Squirrel said.
“Can we go play again?” Oliver interrupted his father.
“May we please be excused,” Mrs. Squirrel prompted Oliver.
“May we please be excused.”
“Yes, you may,” Mrs. Squirrel said. “And you two,” she said, turning to Beatrice and Amos. “It might almost be time for you to go home. We don’t want you to be late. So don’t go far.”
“Aw,” Amos fussed.
“Aw,” Felix also fussed.
“But you can come back, right?” Oliver asked.
“Yeah!” Amos and Felix both yelled.
“Probably,” Beatrice said, looking at Mrs. Squirrel to see what she thought. They went outside to play.
Read “The Holly and the Ivy, Part 4″ here.