Tic the squirrel did not have a very good morning. His cousin Artie had learned a cool new trick. Artie’s tail had gotten so big that he could now jump from tree to tree without falling down on his nose, as Tic always did. And this morning, Artie was showing off his newfound skill by jumping from one branch to another of the giant oak tree in which all the squirrels lived.
“Look, Tic… yoohoo.” Artie jumped over Tic’s head, disappearing among the leaves.
“It’s your turn next, Tic,” said Piku, who was Artie’s younger brother.
Tic looked wistfully at his short gray bushy tail. Then he clambered to the lowermost branch.
“Come on,” Artie yelled from above his head.
Tic jumped, and for one moment, he felt as though he was flying. However, the next, the ground rushed up to meet him, and there he lay on the soft green grass of the meadow, his limbs splayed.
“Ah! You will be ready in a few weeks,” said Artie. “Want to come to the woods? I am going to practice some more.”
Tic shook his head. All his friends will be there, jumping from tree to tree and showing off their long tails. He will not go to the woods today. He will wait till his tail grows as long as Artie’s.
Off he ran to the village. There he could scamper around the park where the human children came to play, and sometimes some of them dropped half-eaten ice creams and candies, which he loved to lick.
On that lovely cloudless day, the park was filled with two-legged critters. Ah! What was that gleaming under the swing? Surely it was an ice-cream cone, with the buttery portion sticking out of it. And most importantly, there seemed to be nuts all over it. Tic zoomed toward the ice cream, taking particular care not to come under any running children. They wouldn’t harm him deliberately. In fact, the children loved to watch him as he went about his way in the park, looking for knick-knacks and crunching cookie crumbs with his sharp teeth. Even today they were oohing and aahing as they spotted him. That was what he thought, but he was entirely wrong.
“Look… a magpie,” screamed a child on a swing.
A bird had landed beside the fallen ice cream before Tic could reach it, and it is this that had awed the children – a bird of brilliant white and blue feathers with a black head and neck. It tried to pick the cone with its beak, but the thing kept falling to the ground. What’s more, the creamy part of the ice cream slopped on the ground and was starting to melt fast under the hot sun.
“Do you mind if I lick the cream before it disappears?” Tic asked as politely as he could, considering he did not really like the bird that was toying with what was supposed to be his ice cream.
The bird did not reply. Its tail flapped up and down as it continued its efforts to pick up the cone.
“You might as well peck at it,” said Tic. “It’s easier to eat that way.”
“It’s for my babies,” said the magpie. Without further ado, it flew off toward where the ice cream truck was parked, grabbed something from underneath it, and fluttered toward the cluster of trees behind the truck. In a few moments, it came to the ground again, picked something, and went back to the tree – a tall, conical poplar with luxuriant green leaves.
Squirrels are curious creatures, but Tic was more curious than most squirrels. So he left the cone and the melting blob of ice cream and went to the truck to see what the magpie was doing. The bird flew down and picked a broken piece of nut that was under the truck. More pieces lay there. It must have fallen as the ice cream lady generously decorated her cones with crumbs of nuts.
“How many babies do you have?” Tic called behind the magpie, but again, it did not reply.
Do not ever not answer a squirrel, for that will only make it more curious. Indeed he was going to find out the answer by climbing the tree. Tic ran to the ice cream cone, broke it with his sharp tooth into two pieces, took the smaller piece in a paw, and bounded off toward the tree. Hugging the piece, he climbed the tree to the first branch. No, the nest was not on that branch. He looked up. Yes, there it was at the very top, nestled in a fork – a cluster of dry sticks and straws from which could be heard a chorus of squawking noises.
Tic climbed up to the nest but was not ready for what happened next.
The bird screeched at him with its wings spread out. “What are you doing here?”
“I… I came to give you this.” Tic extended the broken part of the cone. “For your babies.”
The bird grabbed it without a word and turned to put it inside the nest, where four eager brown and pink forms began to peck at it. The squawking stopped.
“Thank you,” the bird said gruffly. “But don’t come up here again. My babies are very young.”
“When will they grow up?”
“They will grow up when they grow up. Now go.”
“When can I come back?” Tic asked.
The magpie rushed at him, clicking its beak and flapping its wings, and screeching loudly. It pecked Tic on his head before he realized that he had to run. And so he did run. The magpie was still behind him as he reached the end of the branch. Another peck on his head, and he jumped. He sailed through the air. The nearest tree was a willow, and it was a few feet away.
I will never make it, Tic thought. But the wispy leaves of the willow tree suddenly came within his grasp, and he clung to it. From there, he jumped to the roof of the ice cream truck and to the ground.
“Look, mama… a magpie is chasing a squirrel,” cried a child.
Sure enough, the magpie was still behind him, clicking its beak. Tic ran all the way through the park, climbed another tree, and jumped from tree to tree till he reached the woods at the edge of the village. No sound of wings followed him to the woods. The magpie must have returned to its babies.
“Hey, you have mastered the jump,” came a voice from a nearby tree.
It was cousin Artie.
“How did you learn so quickly?” asked cousin Piku, who had a tail as short as Tic’s.
“By being curious,” answered Tic with a grin, but he did not stop jumping from tree to tree until the sun went down that day.
(Timeline: Prior to ‘The Hedgehog Trail’)
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