Published in First Edition Magazine, Aug 2009.
Holly clambered up the oak tree after the red squirrel who nimbly leapt over knots in the rough bark of the trunk.
“Slow down!” she panted, as she found a foothold on a branch. But Holly knew that her friend wouldn’t slow down until the family of cats who had been sitting hungrily on a lower bough was out of site. “I think we’ve got away…” she said as she peered over her shoulder and saw that she was wrong. A plump green and purple cat was clawing its way up the trunk and was gaining on Holly, who suddenly recognised the danger that her feet were in.
With a surge of strength, Holly was soon on the red squirrel’s tail, crying out for him to hurry up. Holly’s long blonde hair tangled over her eyes, but she could hear the panicky red squirrel’s outbursts of fright and could feel the splinters of bark that he sent spraying over her with his sharp little claws. All she could do was follow the creature and hope that the cat would run out of energy before they did.
“I can’t go any further!” the red squirrel called from above Holly.
“Why not?” she demanded.
“Because we have run out of tree,” he replied, as he ground to a halt.
It was all Holly could do to stop herself climbing over him, the red squirrel had stopped so suddenly. The clumsy end to her scramble up the oak tree dislodged an apple that she had put in the pocket of her dress after picking it from the fruit tree that was now far below them. It slipped from her pocket and tumbled down the tree, plummeting towards the ground. Of course, between the apple and the ground, was the plump green and purple cat. With a thud, the apple spun into it. The sweet scent of fruit exploded as it burst open over the cat’s head. Holly watched as the its claws ripped out of the bark, its face an expression of dread as it fell backwards, flipping head over tail until it was quite out of sight amongst the leaves and branches of the old oak tree. Neither Holly nor the red squirrel heard the cat land because they were too busy laughing at its misfortune.
“I need to catch my breath,” Holly puffed as she perched on a branch to rest.
“Well sitting around won’t help,” a deep voice slowly said. Holly turned to find a large brown owl sat on the end of her branch, trying to shield himself with a wing from the bright sunlight that shone through gaps in the leaves. His heavy eyelids looked fit to drop.
“Oh, I’m so sorry Mr Owl!” Holly exclaimed, “Did we wake you?”
“No, no,” the owl droned in his deep drawl. “I’ve not slept for eighty years.”
“Eighty years?” Holly repeated.
The owl said nothing, but closed its sore looking eyes and sighed slowly and deeply.
“Sometimes my little brother can’t sleep,” Holly ventured helpfully. “He’s only five. He gets night terrors. He wakes up the entire house with his screaming and wailing, and he won’t go back to sleep. Sometimes he refuses to even go to bed.”
“Do you get those?” the red squirrel, who was now sitting between Holly and the owl, asked the latter. He sighed again and gradually opened his eyes to look out at this new voice.
“No, I do not. I get day terrors,” he yawned.
Holly looked puzzled.
“How can you get day terrors?”
“The same as you get night terrors,” was the owl’s reply.
“But night time is terrible,” the red squirrel said. “All that darkness… you can’t see what’s coming to get you.” He shuddered and almost lost his grip of the bough. Holly caught him as he slid over the side.
“Day time is worse. You can see what’s coming to get you then. I’m sure which I’d prefer.” The owl fluffed up his feathers as he rested his case.
“Now that’s settled, would you mind letting me sleep?” a low voice mysteriously rumbled. Holly looked around, bewildered.
“Who was that?” she asked, looking at the owl, assuming that his wisdom would supply an answer. She was right, and he replied,
“It’s the oak tree, of course.”
“The oak tree?” Holly wondered aloud.
“I don’t need another parrot in my branches,” the voice grumbled. “Yes, that’s me, the old oak tree, whose arm you are sitting on.”
“But, how…?” Holly looked down the trunk, trying to find a mouth, but could see none. “How can you talk with no mouth?”
“Never you mind,” the tree replied. “Now, since you refuse to let me sleep…” and with that, the bough that the three acquaintances had been balancing on disappeared, as if it had been pulled right into the trunk.
Holly, the red squirrel, and the owl all found themselves plunging towards the ground.
Fortunately, they had been chased almost to the top of the tree, which was incredibly tall, so they had time to think about how to save themselves.
“Can’t you help us?” Holly cried to the owl as she tried to fight off her skirts, which were billowing over her head, making talking slightly difficult. “You can fly.”
“I haven’t flown for eighty years -” he started, before he landed on a branch, leaving Holly and the red squirrel to fall by themselves. His voice faded as they continued towards the ground.
Holly was falling at a much faster rate than the small red squirrel, who was so light that he gently floated downwards above Holly’s head. He even had time to pluck an acorn or two from the tree on his way. He happily nibbled on them before picking some more and storing them in his cheeks. Holly looked up at him and shouted.
“This is no time for stuffing your cheeks!”
As she said this, she hit something warm and leathery. Before she knew what had happened, she discovered that this thing was moving. It felt like it was moving upwards. Holly glanced at the ground and saw that, rather than racing up to meet her as it had been, it was now drifting away.
Holly scrambled to right herself and found that she was sitting on a pig. He was flying up to catch the red squirrel, who Holly had quite left behind.
“Who are you?” was all Holly could think to ask.
“Your rescuer, by the look of things,” he snorted.
The red squirrel gently came to rest on the back of the pig behind Holly like a feather.
“Who are you?” was all he could think to ask.
“Our rescuer,” Holly replied.
“Where did he come from?”
The pig cleared his throat and answered for himself.
“I was simply passing by, getting some fresh air, when your friend here fell onto my back. Quite a shock, it was. I saw she had a companion and decided I may as well catch you as well.” The pig soared further upwards and broke through the forest canopy in a flurry of leaves, torn vegetation and snapped twigs, releasing their rich, sappy scent, which followed them through the air as they rose higher and higher. The three of them swept over woods, meadows, streams and lakes, which sat so far below them that they looked like markings on a map. Men sat fishing at the lakes like gnomes in a garden, startled deer gazed at the sky as they passed and froze in wonder, like statues.
As they passed over a cliff and out over the grey sea, they lost height and the seagulls wheeling below them started growing. The waves, instead of looking like ripples, rolled over rocks that used to look like smooth pebbles on a beach.
“What are you doing?” the red squirrel squealed in excitement tinged with fear. Holly noticed what looked like a sharp rock break the surface. It disappeared, though, before showing up again a little way away. Then another broke the surface and sunk beneath. Then more and more and more. There were hundreds of them, taking it in turns to slip out of the surface, then back under.
“What are those? Where are we going? What are you doing?” Holly almost screamed the last part.
The pig grunted and groaned before it replied.
“I’m a pig, can’t you see? Pigs can’t fly.”