“AHHHH!” Sky, tree, and earth raced around my furry squirrel body as I felt the wind roar my last rites in my little ears. It wasn’t the fall itself that would bring me death; it was the fall onto Jane, the president of the Crum Squirrel Survival State, that I feared the most. I was about to crash into her full speed from the top of one of the tallest birch trees in the Crum Woods while the ground hurtled towards my eyes with each squirrel-length I fell … “AHHHH!”
Finally, gravity finished its work. I collided with President Jane of the Crum Squirrel Survival State from above. She collapsed onto the ground and began screeching while I tried to stabilize my dizzy vision.
“OOOMPH! … GET OFF ME, NEWT!!” Jane shrieked as she attempted to shove me off with her hind paws. Eventually, she kicked me away, and I flew backward into a soft blanket of grass in the clearing, hitting the ground head-first.
“OW! … Urghh …” I groaned as Jane too struggled to stand upright, her fur now disheveled and coated with specks of brown dirt.
“Ah, is this squirrel the chipnapper you sent to chipnap an innocent citizen of our Crum Federation of Chipmunk Sovereignty?” accused Tina, a chipmunk leader of one of the three clans in the CFCS. She took a moment to watch Jane and me struggling together on the grass. “I don’t understand why you’d order him to fall on you like that, though.”
“No!” She took a deep breath and flattened some of her fur, though her eyes were still aflame as she addressed the three thoroughly confounded clan leaders. “He may be a squirrel, but he is an outlaw of the CSSS. I banished Newt about nine moons ago from our state when he committed an unforgivable crime I cannot disclose; I can only say now that he is definitely not a citizen of our state. We have nothing to do with or say to him.”
Having been knocked headfirst into the ground, my brain was in no condition to process anything. For the next few minutes, as I silently begged the pain to dissipate, I could just about make out squirrel president Jane arguing with the leaders of the chipmunk clans. On and on they went. Then, gradually, the world around me came into sharp focus again. My brain began to process what my ears were hearing, starting with a riled-up President Jane.
“-did you not hear me?!” exclaimed President Jane. “The squirrel that attempted to take your child chipmunk was an outlaw acting outside of the sovereignty of the CSSS. I and my state members were not responsible for controlling what black-hearted schemes he was up to. One of our border guards was conducting a routine checkup of our contiguous border through Crum and caught Newt in the act.” Jane exclaimed in response to something Taylor had said.
Taylor, one of the leaders of the chipmunk clans, was not convinced. “Quite convenient that you squirrels would just ‘happen’ upon a crime unfolding by one of your own,” she said, making air quotes with her paws. “And calling one of your own squirrels an ‘outlaw’ is a great way to hide your guilt as a leader for letting this happen under your watch.”
“Jane,” said Tina, “In terms of population, your long-established Crum Squirrel Survival State has the advantage over our recently formed Chipmunk Federation of Crum Sovereignty. Even though CFCS consists of three clans, our combined numbers pale in comparison with the long-established generations of squirrels you now lead.” Tina motioned to the crowd of squirrels above in the birch tree, each branch packed with squirrels.
I noticed most of the squirrels in the birch tree had flattened fur. Still, I glimpsed that some of those squirrels’ fur twitched with tension before I turned my full attention back to Jane and Clan Leader Tina.
“Our current strained-but-intentional cross-state efforts at diplomatic relations rest on the agreement your mother, Trinh, made with us not many moons ago before you rose to President-hood,” Tina said to Jane, a threatening tone underlying her every word.
“How did your mother die again?” Leiden, a chipmunk clan leader of the Crum Federation of Chipmunk Sovereignty, asked Jane. “The last time I saw her ten moons ago, she was doing well and thriving. At the new moon for our recurring full-cycle talks, Trinh was never happier. I remember her telling me about a new stepson in the family? Newt, she called him. But at the next full-cycle talks, you announced that she had passed away, without explaining how. I found it suspicious that you as her daughter had nothing heartfelt to say about your mother that night,” Leiden mused. Turning to her peers, Leiden said, “My CFCS comrades, can we trust her word for it? That neither she nor the state of squirrels she runs had anything to do with President Trinh’s death?”
As she listened to everything, Jane was as stiff as the largest oak tree in Crum Woods. But the sounds of chipmunks of the Crum Federation of Chipmunk Sovereignty whispering rapidly and pointing fingers at her made her unfreeze. Heads turned to watch her as she began to address the crowd.
“That is a libelous accusation, and I insist that Clan Leader Leiden retract that falsehood immediately,” Jane demanded. “I will not speak on these rumors Clan Leader Leiden has inappropriately brought up.” Jane paused, making eye contact with multiple squirrels and chipmunks throughout the clearing.“I encourage you all to not believe these rumors. For whatever your leaders were thinking while deciding to accuse me of wrongdoing in the middle of our emergency talks, it will not do you any good to ponder what is not fact.” In response, the Clan leaders turned to each other and began whispering to each other, looking slightly perturbed. The air was filled with murmurs of discontent and uncertainty from squirrels and chipmunks alike.
“It’s good to know that Jane’s attempt at dodging justice through lies isn’t working that well,” I thought as I turned towards Jane and the Clan Leaders. Taylor, Tina, and Leiden were still whispering in hushed tones to each other while Jane unexpectedly turned around to catch my eye. A smirk shifted into place on the edges of her lips before she turned back to the leaders and made a kind of thrusting motion towards the ground with her right paw.
I blinked in confusion but almost let out an audible gasp when I noticed nine of her advising committee members stalking the lowest branches of the birch tree. The Crum Squirrel Survival State squirrels were overcome with apprehension as they stared at the three Clan leaders whispering furiously amongst themselves. My fellow squirrels said nothing even as Jane’s nine “advisors” pushed them aside as they had made their way down the birch tree.
Something in Clan Leader Taylor’s chipmunk crowd suddenly caught my eye. Two squirrel parents were fussing over the smallest chipmunk in the crowd. That small chipmunk, upon closer inspection, was Reggie! That’s the chipmunk I had run into who was trying to steal food from my tree hollow before we both got caught interacting together. I was a squirrel, and Reggie was a chipmunk; it apparently looked suspicious enough to bring both of the Crum’s major political institutions to my tree. I tried to make eye contact with Reggie as if I could transmit my knowledge of Jane’s dastardly plot to them through the air, but their ears only flicked towards me in response. They leaned further into their father’s tight embrace and turned their attention to their mother’s frantic, but relieved rant.
“Reggie’s not in a position to help me with my predicament here,” I whispered to myself. “Honestly, they have nothing to do with this. It’s just me, then.” Suddenly, I noticed Jane quickly raising her right arm to the sky and swiping it downwards towards the Clan Leaders. I understood in a rush of dread: Jane was ordering some kind of attack on the Clan Leaders. Following my realization came multiple shadows soaring above me and the synchronized shaking of birch tree branches. I had mentally prepared for the worst at that moment but then heard Jane’s voice speaking the word, “What …,” before she uncharacteristically made a heavy “OOOF” sound.
Unexpectedly, her nine advising committee members landed directly on her. Jane’s muffled screams were barely audible underneath the pile of heavy squirrel bodies. “ARGHH, WHAT ARE YOU FOOLS DOING?! I asked you to attack-” In that moment, I felt vindicated as Jane’s blood-soaked paws were now being revealed to all. To the Crum Squirrel Survival State, most importantly. A myriad of gasps followed Jane’s last forced word, from seemingly every part of the birch tree above me.
Jane was the mastermind behind this plot, and I knew I had nothing to do with it. But with everything she had alleged about my character, I couldn’t allow myself to smile for all to see. Jane might have been exposed, but the rush of justice came and went. What truly mattered to me was that I might now have a chance to rejoin my family, the Crum Squirrel Survival State. Not “justice.”
“Did you just say ‘ATTACK?!’” Leiden demanded with a hint of alarm in her voice.
Tina shouted, “Wait, you ASKED THEM to do that?”
Taylor took a slightly shaky, but firm step forward. She regarded the tips of Jane’s paws visible outside of the pile of bodies. Tina and Leiden stayed where they were but cast disturbed looks at Jane in the same way. A few moments of silence passed as the knowledge of what the leaders claimed resonated throughout the clearing.
A cacophony of voices created a disorganized stream of angry questions, horrified yowls, and a few lamenting caterwauls. The remaining four advising committee members in the birch tree had made it to the lower branches where their fellow nine advisors had previously prepared to kill the Crum Federation of Chipmunk Sovereignty. All made no sound even as the crowd around them did, but hints of bewilderment and eyes of shattered betrayal said it all. Jane, still buried underneath her nine panicking advisors, finally dislodged her unwilling captors; one flew into the air in an arc and the others were shoved backward in a circle shape around her.
Her ears twitched uncomfortably at the continuing commotion, but she managed to stand upright once more and make eye contact with each crowd member after struggling to prop herself up on one leg that seemed unwell. As her eyes passed from group to group, the commotion was suddenly inhaled by a ballooning cloud of apprehensive fear. Taylor, Tina, Leiden, and their respective groups defiantly stared back at her when she made eye contact. But the members of the Crum Squirrel Survival State were all visibly mortified as Jane glanced upward towards the birch tree; some even tried to take a step back on their branches and were barely yanked upright again before they could fall by their neighboring squirrels.
Then I met Jane’s brilliant blue eyes with my own. I remembered seeing an ambitious, annoying-but-charismatic step-sister and friend in the gleaming iris of those eyes. She and I stole each other’s nuts and berries and sometimes shoved each other “safely” into holes in the ground. We were scolded together billions of times by Trinh — Jane’s mother, who was also my stepmother. In other words, we were true siblings even though we didn’t share blood. I never thought she was anyone different until that night ten moons ago. I was abruptly pulled out of my childhood reminiscing when I heard Reggie shout into the crowd.
“From what I’ve heard, I really think Jane is dangerous! She’s clearly demonstrated her willingness to attack Clan Leaders Taylor, Tina, and Leiden. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that nine moons ago, a messenger from the Crum Squirrel Survival State told our Crum Federation for Chipmunk Sovereignty that President Trinh had passed away due to an ‘incurable malady.’ Seems like Trinh suffered something far more violent — from her own daughter,” Reggie said.
The crowd was shocked to hear this revelation, with some ears even beginning to be pulled backward. Amidst the thundering anger of roars and furious yowling, I gave Reggie a slight nod. Turning to Jane, I knew what to say. “Leave. And don’t … don’t come back to Crum Woods. Because if you try to hurt any chipmunk or squirrel, I’ll strike you down with words and,” I extended my claws on both paws, “CLAWS. I have sworn to myself not to use my claws again, but I will if you threaten any of us again.” Jane surprised me with a stiff, halfway nod, and without making eye contact with anyone, she bolted out of sight into the bushy undergrowth leading down to Crum Creek. As I sheathed my claws, the heat in my body began to dissipate little by little, to be replaced by crippling uncertainty.
“Well done.” I heard Taylor and Leiden’s voices and a vast array of cheers coming from above me. As I turned around, the Clan Leaders strode up to me and shook my paw. A newfound acknowledgment shone in their eyes; I hoped that it meant Jane’s lies were now dissolving into the gentle breeze striking all manner of four-legged mammals in the clearing.
Tina was the last to shake my hand. “Newt, am I correct?” she inquired. I sheepishly nodded my head in response. “Well, it’s nice to meet the real you. At least, I hope what I saw this afternoon was the true you.” She paused for a beat before continuing. “I don’t know how the CSSS will deal with Jane, its leadership vacuum, or other internal affairs. But I do hope that with your convictions and, dare I say it, LEADERSHIP,” she said as a second round of cheers and happy whoops permeated the air, “CFCS and CSSS can continue to live side by side in the same woods.”
“Err, yes, I also look forward to the same, Clan Leaders Taylor, Tina, and Leiden,” I replied. As the Clan leaders signaled for their respective clan to follow them out of the clearing towards the Crum squirrel-chipmunk border, I noticed Reggie whispering something to Taylor. Taylor frowned for a moment, but her frown gave way to a tiny smile as she glanced in my direction. Then, Reggie came running over to me.
“WOW, the tea leaves I’ve been able to experience today. And to think all of these life-changing revelations for both squirrels and chipmunks alike resulted from me getting in trouble for ‘accidentally’ allowing myself to be kidnapped by you!” Reggie exclaimed gleefully.
“Don’t press your luck, youngster. It wasn’t you; there was a lot of pain involved for everyone.” I looked away from them briefly. Somehow, my eyes were a little wet with nostalgia. “Including me,” I whispered.
“Oh Newt, I’m sorry! I’m really sorry for saying something inconsiderate to you. I won’t do it again, I promise!” Reggie said. I could feel the sincerity from them in every word, something I hadn’t felt in moons as an outcast from my own family of CSSS.
“Look, Reggie, calm down,” I responded, turning back to face them. They took a deep breath and settled down into the grass. I tried to speak again, but I immediately forgot what I was going to say. Instead of awkwardly staring at an expectant Reggie, I turned my head towards the blazing sun above. Reggie tipped their head to the side in bemusement for a second. We stood in a comfortable silence for a few minutes. Finally, I gradually pieced together in my mind what I wanted to ask them
“Reggie?” I said out loud. They turned to face an unprepared adult squirrel, who fumbled with his initial words before deciding to just improvise the parts of his question he could remember. “So … umm … ummm … Reggie, can you tell me why you wanted me to address you with just ‘they/them’ or your name? It seemed like it escaped your mouth out of the blue before we both had to face our respective states. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought you were male when I first met you? ‘They/Them’ seems like an unusual way to address yourself since it’s a plural pronoun for groups.”
Reggie’s eyes got wider, and they quickly swiveled their neck around the clearing. Their eyes seemed to be looking for someone in particular but turned back to me while tucking their legs into a clearly more relaxed posture in the soft grass. They replied, “I don’t know. I haven’t let anyone know because I’m afraid that my fellow chipmunks might ostracize me for bringing something so unfamiliar into our world … I’ve kept that a secret about myself since a moon ago when I realized this about myself.” They paused and gave me a searching gaze.
“You’re right,” they answered. “It came out of my mouth, and I didn’t even realize that I revealed this to you before you just mentioned it … I guess I just felt comfortable talking to you, even though you’re a different species and belong to a different state than me. Plus, I’ve never met you before today … Huh, why did I do that?!” Reggie mused, with a hint of panic.
“Well, I’m letting you know that I will honor your request even if I don’t understand your personal reasons about … this,” I replied. An uncomfortable pause filled the air. I was afraid of continuing to talk, but something in me let my mouth keep moving. “After seeing you with the guts of the finest squirrel legends commenting about Jane to the entire Crum community’s dace, I know I want to keep in touch with you. And if getting to know you better means using ‘they/them’ pronouns as you asked of me, I will try to learn it. For you.”
A smile briefly formed at the corner of Reggie’s mouth, but then gave way to a deliberately neutral expression. “Thanks.” They got up and did a lengthy stretch, arching their back from head to tail. In the glare of the sun, I saw the three black stripes down Reggie’s back catch the light in a way that dark colors do not do. I was monetarily confused at the sudden sparkle on their back when I heard “I gotta go. See you around, I hope!” and the sound of grass rustling rapidly getting quieter and quieter.
“Looking forward to getting to know you better as well!” I called to the shrinking figure of Reggie in the distance. I could barely make out Reggie stopping in place and turning around to wave to me before they continued back towards their home.
Walking back towards mine, I thought about the lullaby stepmother Trinh always sang to me and Jane at night to help us sleep. “Does Jane remember that?” I thought out loud. “Whatever the World Says (At You)?”
With the sun pressing into my back, I stopped in my tracks as if I was expecting Jane’s voice to answer me. Instead, the sound of the gentle breeze playfully danced through rustling bushes and whistled through hollow trees met my desperate ears. It was a soothing response. I haphazardly decide to turn around and walk back towards the holy patch a couple of acorns throws away from the Crum Squirrel Survival State’s border with the Chipmunk Federation of Chipmunk Sovereignty.
“No, it’s now mine,” I thought. “My home again, I think …” I stopped in my tracks to concentrate. I began becoming more aware of my surroundings, more aware of what I was to do next in them now that this chapter’s ended. At least, for now.
“I’m going to go collect some holly berries I don’t need but kinda want … Maybe I’ll run into Reggie again,” I announced to nobody in particular with a smile on my face.