A new volume of succinct yet stirring stories arrives with the second season of Future Fables. Exploring how the ancient fable form may bring us replenishment, comfort and perhaps guidance for the modern day, celebrated contemporary writers weave yarns that resonate and illuminate in equal measure.
As a senior scribe at Aesop, George Walker has a deep interest in the power of words and the transformative impact of sharing stories.
In this playful, mischievous tale, an unexpected visitor causes a commotion among a scurry of squirrels.
The Seasonal Scurry
by George Walker
You could tell that winter was approaching well before the first snowflakes fell. It was in the furtive glances and the ears pricked in alertness. A knowing hush spread among the scurry, as the task ahead became as clear as the leafless branches of the trees. It was best to pretend you didn’t realise this, of course—that you had no idea that soon the ground would be coated in white and that berries would harden on the trees. (A head start was always helpful for getting the best stocked larder, after all.)
There was always a sense of playfulness to this annual tradition, however. Sometimes you would see a bushy tail bob behind a trunk, and then greet the fellow burrower with a sly question. Something like:
‘Oh, what are you up to at this time of the morning?’
And they might reply:
‘Nothing…nope…just taking in the morning air,’ their cheeks filled with nuts.
Yes, the squirreling away of one’s favoured fare was a task of artful deception and espionage, yet also one of comradery and delight. A touch of good-humoured chiding helped to balance the competitivity, as did a dash of neighbourly consideration. For example, when you discovered that a fellow competitor had merely pretended to store something to throw you off the scent, an appreciation for their wiliness most often prevailed over any feelings of annoyance.
That year, however, something felt different. A sense of suspicion had spread like frost. No one dropped each other hints about where a plentiful supply had been spotted, nor did they ensure there were a few nuts left for the next visitor.
The unease had been growing since the start of summer, when roaring machines had arrived at the edge of the wood and ripped through twisting brambles, their metal teeth gouging at the soil. Now, with the machines long gone, new structures stood silently at the edge of the wood—huge monoliths of stone surrounded by perfectly coiffured gardens. At night their faces lit up with squares of light, winking in the darkness. Many hoped that things would return to normal now that the human’s work had finished, but the houses brought a new resident that no one had foreseen.
The grey squirrel was first spotted by a young member of the scurry, who saw him running across the lawn of one of the gardens. They said he looked and moved just like them, but that he was as grey as a rain cloud.
At first the chief squirrel tutted with disapproval.
‘We’ve had enough commotion this year without such fanciful stories,’ they said, shaking their flame-red tail.
But soon there were more sightings of this unfamiliar character, and after a few days the red squirrels crowded on branches to look at how the new local feasted on nuts caged in metal cylinders, hanging from branches above the lawns, or else darted up to wooden platforms where he would scare off robins to gorge on a selection of seeds. The chief squirrel told the scurry it wasn’t natural to act in such a way—that it wasn’t safe in the gardens and that the woods would serve them just fine, as they always had. Some of the youngsters, however, looked on in awe at how easily the grey squirrel dined.
Finally, the young squirrel who had first spotted the grey-haired resident braved the climb up the fence and dropped down into the garden. She climbed up the strangely angular trunk in the centre of the lawn and crawled atop the platform which held a bounty of delicious fare. As she began to squeeze a golden peanut into her cheek, a voice made her freeze.
‘Just what do you think you are doing?’
It was the grey squirrel, who had appeared just behind her.
‘I, I…just saw this food out here and thought, well, there’s plenty to share,’ replied the youngster, stuttering.
‘Sorry, I think there’s been a little misunderstanding,’ said the grey squirrel, sternly. ‘These nuts are for me. And while I appreciate you have shown a little more courage than the rest of you sat up their staring at me, that is exactly where you should stay.’
‘But, why?’ asked the red squirrel, confused.
‘That’s just the way it is. The gardens are my domain,’ proclaimed the grey squirrel ‘And besides, it’s been so long that I’ve eaten from a branch, it would play havoc with my digestion,’ they said, pawing through the offerings.
‘You don’t eat acorns?’ asked the red squirrel.
‘Well, no, of course not. I’m acorn intolerant,’ said the grey squirrel, ‘My favoured nuts are macadamias—perhaps a Brazil—a peanut like you have there is passable, at a push.’
‘You’re acorn what?’ asked the red squirrel, trying to keep up.
‘Intolerant, dear. Which is how I’m feeling about this conversation, come to think of it,’ said the grey squirrel, rolling their eyes. ‘So, run along now. And please let your fellow red-haired fellows know to stay behind the fence, OK?’
News of the grey squirrel’s incivility soon circulated among the scurry, and any intrigue about him was now replaced by disdain. Rumours crept among the branches that he had been seen plundering hidden stashes, and had been caught hissing into the trees. A passing robin even said that they had seen him wrestle with the human’s cat—and won—but this report was never confirmed.
And so, that is how the yearly tradition of sorting one’s food stores had become wrapped up in doubt and distrust. As the snow thickened, individual efforts became even more urgent, and passing greetings were no longer shared. If the grey squirrel could act so selfishly, what would stop others doing the same?
Some weeks later in the depths of winter, a lone member of the scurry pulled themselves from the warmth of their nest to locate one of their stores. On their way, they peered over the fence at the neat snow-covered lawn. How monstrously flawless it looked—a vast expanse of nothingness. But, in fact, there was an imperfection—a stain on the blanket of white. Embedded into the snow, just below the platform where the grey squirrel came to feed, was a strange round shape, with a grey tail sticking out at an odd angle. At first the red squirrel thought of ignoring the sight (after all, they had been told time and time again that they shouldn’t worry themselves with affairs from over the fence), but their good nature got the better of them.
They returned to the lawn with the chief, the youngster and a few other members of the scurry. The chief gently butted the grey squirrel’s body with his nose as someone shielded the youngster’s eyes. He didn’t move for one, two, three seconds, and then…
‘What on earth is going on? Why are you nudging me like that?’ spluttered the grey squirrel, angry and confused.
‘You seem to have taken a fall,’ replied the chief, relieved and exasperated in equal measure.
‘A fall? Oh dear, well, I’m feeling quite alright now—no need to hang around, you can get back to nibbling on thorns or whatever it is you like doing,’ said the grey squirrel, dusting snowflakes from their fur.
‘Right. Yes. Must get back to that,’ said the chief, irritated, ‘but be careful; more snow is coming, you can’t be laid out here like that again. There are foxes. It’s time to get your stores and hide out for a little while.’
‘Yes, my stores…’ said the grey squirrel. ‘That shouldn’t take me long, they’re just…’ a look of confusion drifted across the grey squirrel’s face as they gestured across the blank expanse of the lawn. A look that was soon replaced by one of panic.
‘I have no idea where they are!’ they exclaimed.
‘What do you mean?’ asked the youngster.
‘I, I have no idea where they all are. I can’t remember. It’s gone! They’re gone! Why can’t I remember?’ asked the grey squirrel, their head darting in all directions.
‘Calm down, calm down,’ said the chief. ‘Let’s think about this calmly, shall we?’
They took the grey squirrel back to the woods, guiding him through the undergrowth. Back at the central nest, they settled him into a bed of moss and let him sleep away his pounding head.
As he slept, the scurry convened. It was a long time since they had met like this, and the atmosphere was frosty.
What if he’s just making it up?
Why should we care?
Shoulda left him to the foxes, I say.
The angry voices swirled above the chief’s appeals for quiet. Never had he seen the scurry so unruly and unforgiving. By the time the voices fell silent, the chief was too exhausted to lead the conversation, but another voice took the lead; the youngster, who had been the first to meet the grey squirrel those many weeks ago.
‘They’re all good points, everyone. All really good points,’ she said, a little nervously, ‘but are we really going to leave him with no food? Is that our way?’
The scurry looked at one another.
‘I say, maybe it’s time for a different tradition,’ she continued, feeling a little braver, ‘that we stop this game of ours. Stop the suspicious glances. The faking. The unfairness. It’s just not fun anymore. There’s enough food for everyone if we just put it all together—everyone, including him.’
The silence thickened as the crowd looked down at their paws. The chief rose to his feet once again and walked away from the nest, and soon the others started to shuffle away too. It seemed the meeting was over.
As the young squirrel let out a cheerless sigh, the chief returned, an acorn in his hand, which he threw into the centre of the ground.
‘She’s right,’ said the chief, ‘a new tradition starts now.’
No further words were said, but soon everyone was gathering their stashes and bringing them back to the main nests at the centre of the wood. Never had the woodland been so animated at this time of year. The sight was extraordinary: banquets piled high with the woodland’s finest treasures—acorns, berries, seeds and even the odd bulb.
As the final bits of food were added to the feast, the grey squirrel emerged, still a little wobbly on his feet.
‘I don’t know what to say!’ exclaimed the grey squirrel, an unfamiliar note of emotion in his voice.
‘No need to talk, just eat,’ said the chief.
‘Splendid, thank you,’ replied the squirrel obediently, ‘Now, any chance of some macadamias?’ they asked, smirking.
Come spring, once the snow and ice had melted, the chief sat atop a high branch, pondering. How cold and inhospitable the wood had seemed just weeks ago—but still the green shoots had come, resilient and dependable.
He thought of the grey squirrel, the fence, the imposing houses, the way the scurry had bickered and fought, but also of how such tensions had so quickly thawed; how just one germination of kindness had grown amidst the cold. Deep-rooted. Instinctive. Enduring.
As a senior scribe at Aesop, George Walker has a deep interest in the power of words and the transformative impact of sharing stories. When he isn’t writing for Aesop’s stores, website, or amber bottles, he can be found working on the draft of a first novel, following tutelage at Faber’s ‘Writing a Novel’ course and years spent filling notebooks.