Leaf & the Long Ice
The wolverine escaped the gray wolves only to be trapped in the tunnels at the glacier’s edge. She had splashed through streams of melted ice, and skidded from one blue tube to another. Now she realized there was no way out. Young but shrewd, Musty was not afraid. She backed into a low cave, and quieted her heavy panting. Only one howler at a time could attack her here, and she was a ferocious fighter.
Musty imagined the pack tracking her to this one place of safety with its narrow opening. How one might crawl, its belly pressed to the ice so it could wedge its body inside. How its fangs would gleam in the dark. Musty held back a deep, snarling growl, and listened. They’ll never make it this far.
But these howlers were excited by the hunt – these tall, gangly wolves wearing shaggy coats that sparkled with snow stirred by alpine winds. Nose to ice, eyes narrowed, they sprinted into the glacier’s maze of tunnels. They padded over scratches made by Musty’s claws, and discovered where she hid. One wolf snarled at the rest to stay back, and flattened itself on the ice, seeking the pungent scent of the wolverine.
A moment later there was a sickening CRACK! as the glacier shifted. Massive icicles showered Musty, and stabbed the howler. Startled yelps echoed within the tunnel as the other wolves scrambled away. At a distance, the pack paced back and forth, waiting and watching. Then the glistening pile of spears fell away. The injured howler staggered backwards, and shook the blood from its back. The pack returned to sniff and paw half-heartedly at the crystal debris, but their prey was now beyond reach, so they trotted back to the brilliant light of day at the tunnel’s gaping mouth. A distant, lone howl from the forest far below the glacier greeted them. For a time, the pack joined in. Then they grew silent. The howlers crossed sheets of glittering ice, and vanished.
Back in the tunnel, Musty clawed her way out.
Far below Echo Peak, an impish, stick creature named Leaf looked up, startled by the mournful call of the howlers. The glare from the white, glistening glacier on the massive mountain’s tip blinded him, so he shielded his eyes, and squinted to see better. A moment later, the cries of the howlers faded away. Leaf did not fear them because he was a Twig. Since he was no taller than a blue jay, it was easy to hide in the fern-like fronds of ancient cedar and hemlock, or be overlooked within their gnarled roots. And he usually smelled like bark or dirt, anyway.
Leaf stood ankle-deep in the cool pond, and studied his toes thoughtfully. He had mashed them deep into the mud, so he could no longer see how curly and root-like they grew. He wriggled each one. At once, bubbles rose to the surface, grew into rainbow-spattered balls, and burst. They made a very satisfying burp! Leaf grinned.
“Hey, Leaf! Watch us! Watch us jump!” screeched two annoying voices from a cliff high above Leaf.
The shouts broke Leaf’s concentration. He looked up, and scowled.
On the edge of the cliff, where the water fell, his younger brothers - twin buds - waved and shouted to get his attention. Teeny leaves had just begun to sprout all over their stick bodies. Their leafy hair had not even uncurled yet, so their heads were covered with knob-like bulbs.
“I never stop looking at you!” Leaf yelled back. Buddy and Burba weren’t sprouts any more. Still, they demanded a lot of attention. The twins had grown so much since the cold season. It’s because of Mumma’s earth-stew and this hot season sun, Leaf decided. The twins now stood chest high to him even though their bellies hadn’t lost their bulby look. Yet Mumma still thought of the buds as young shoots, and so it was Leaf’s job to take care of them while Mumma, Pappo, and Fern were off on their journey to the gorge.
Mist swirled high in the air, and all around the falls. At the top of the cliff a flat, granite boulder jutted out, and split the flow of the water in half. The water unwound like two ribbons. Their lacy splashes murmured fssshhhfsshh as they billowed up, and sank into the pond.
“Watch us!” shouted Buddy and Burba, their voices shrill and irritating.
Leaf searched for his brothers. At last, he spotted their eyes peeking through the mist. Tiny hands appeared beside grins as the twins tried to swirl the mist away so their big brother could see them better. Two orange eyes sparkled like fire. There’s Burba, groaned Leaf. Why do I always feel like I’m sitting on a bristle burr when I see him? Next to Burba blinked two large, golden eyes above a delighted smile. And there’s Buddy, Leaf grinned at his favorite twin bud.
The twins jostled each other on the granite slab to be near the edge, but Leaf didn’t worry about them. He had tied pine cones around them to keep them afloat should they fall. The hot season had begun so early the scales of the cones had already opened and cracked from the heat, their seeds cast out long ago. Leaf had crushed the scales on one side, and tied the cones with tough honeysuckle vines around the buds’ bellies, so now the twins perched on the slab like fat, bristly cones waving arms and legs.
Behind them, a curious cluster of sticks, mud, and stones stretched out between granite cliffs rising on each side of the waterfall. It was an enormous beaver dam built by a colony of goliath chompers – friends of Pappo. A few seasons ago, the chompers had built this dam, and saved Leaf’s home, the Old Seeder. The ancient tree had almost drowned when the river called the Rushing Waters had flooded. Now only a pretty stream slipped out under the dam.
Behind the dam, a turquoise colored lake filled a deep valley in the mountains, and spread out along the slopes of Echo Peak. Near the lakeshore beaver lodges dotted the surface. It was an unusual place for a chomper colony – an alpine lake – but these goliath chompers were loyal friends. Leaf was grateful the colony had made their home here for the chompers kept the dam strong.
“Watch! Watch us!” Buddy and Burba screeched again.
Leaf forced his green, almond-shaped eyes into round circles, stared at the twins with exaggerated interest, waved, and nodded. Bright green leaves – his unruly hair – hung over his eyes. He brushed the leaves aside, and shouted, “Go on then! I’m watching!”
Buddy and Burba stepped to the edge of the slab, held out their arms, and spun circles on the slippery granite. “Look at us!” they yelled. Buddy’s giggles floated with the mist.
Then, with an unexpected side-step, Burba slipped behind Buddy, and shoved him hard. Buddy tumbled off the slab. With a shocked look on his face, he disappeared headfirst into the waterfall.
Leaf sucked in his breath. That Burba! He might snap Buddy in half like that!
With a gleeful shout, Burba jumped into the waterfall, and popped up beside Buddy, who bobbed around coughing in the middle of the pool. Burba laughed and laughed. Ripples carried them to the bank where Leaf stood waiting.
“Did ja’ like my new trick, Leaf? Did ja’?” yelled Burba.
Leaf scowled. “Get out! Get out now!” He dragged the twins up onto the muddy embankment. He untied the vines, and threw the cones into the pond. Buddy scooted onto a flat rock. Burba stood in the mud, wearing a stubborn smirk. Leaf turned to Burba, placed his hands on his hips, and frowned. “That was dangerous,” he growled.
Burba scooped up a handful of mud, and threw it as hard as he could at Leaf. “Then play with us!” he shrieked.
Leaf ducked. “Stop it, Burba!”
“How ’da ya know it’s me?” Burba cried out with an evil sparkle in his eyes. “We look the same, ya know. Ya don’t know it’s me! I bet you think I’m Buddy! How do ya’ know I’m not Buddy! I could not be me, you know!”
Buddy giggled. He had a gurgling sort of voice, and usually grinned and blinked a lot whenever he spoke. “Leaf knows dat ya not me, ya silly. Ya can’t fool Leaf.”
Burba sneered, “You’re just mad, Leaf, ‘cause Fern got to go with Mumma and Pappo, and you hav’ta stay here, and take care of us!” He scooped up another handful of mud. In a sing-song cadence, he marched around in a circle, and chanted, “Fern gets to see Star! Fern gets to see Star! And you doonnn’t!” With an off-balanced whirl, he threw the mud ball so hard he tumbled headfirst into the pond. The mud ball smacked Leaf’s belly, and splattered on his face.
That’s it! Leaf sprang over, and caught Burba’s arm. He dragged him deeper into the pond, and dunked him. Burba fought Leaf’s grip. He clawed at his fist, but Leaf dunked him again, and again. At last Leaf was satisfied, and he let him go.
Sopping wet and spluttering, Burba scampered on top of the rock, and sat beside Buddy, who watched Leaf with an anxious expression.
“Stay there!” Leaf ordered. He crossed his arms, planted his feet apart, and blocked Burba’s path back to the mud and the pond. What a slimerslug! Leaf thought, but he didn’t say it. Burba was right. I should have gone to the gorge, not Fern! But Pappo had told him it was Fern’s turn to have an adventure, and so Leaf was stuck taking care of the buds. They were too much trouble to take anywhere. Bored to brittles by buds in a too hot season. “Time for your nap!” Leaf declared.
“No!” The buds blurted out with a unified shout of defiance.
Leaf scowled, and then issued a dare. “All right, then. No sapsuckers! I’ll eat them all myself!” He marched off at once on a path that wandered between enormous trees. “Come on, both of you, whoever you are!” he yelled over his shoulder. “I might even tell you the story about Pappo and the rover on the Long Ice. If you race me to the Old Seeder, I promise to tell an extra long story!”
With a surprising burst of speed, the buds shot past Leaf. They hopped over sun-spotted ferns, and ducked under flat-topped mushrooms. In no time at all, the twins reached the wandering roots of their home, a massive, towering tree – the Old Seeder – the tallest tree in the forest.
Burba shouted, “I’ll get to the knothole first!” He shoved Buddy into the moss between the roots, leapt on the trunk, grasped the deep furrows in the bark, and scuttled up the Old Seeder as fast as a beetle escapes a woodpecker.
Leaf pulled Buddy from the soggy moss, and brushed him off. He gave him a quick kiss on his head. “Go on now, Buddy. It doesn’t matter who’s first – it only matters who climbs the best. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Danks, Leaf,” burbled Buddy with a hopeful expression. “I’m best, right?” With slow and painstaking movements, Buddy picked his route hesitantly like a praying mantis walks – swaying back and forth, and never looking back. Being afraid to climb was a funny way for a Twig to be, but Buddy grew dizzy when he looked down from their knothole, and so he preferred to stay inside.
Half-way up the trunk, they reached a weird-looking knothole. It was huge, twisted, and looked like the fierce face of a grizzly. Stuck in its center was a small door with a round window. Just outside the knothole, Burba hung over the side of their porch-branch, and smirked at his brother’s progress. Finally, Buddy pulled himself up on the branch, and blew a relieved spit-bubble. “I’m here!” he announced proudly.
“Great!” muttered Burba. “Come on, Leaf. We wanna’ hear about the rover! Pappo and the rover!”
As Leaf opened the door, the twins dove through the knothole, and tumbled across their large hollow, which was stuffed full of moss chairs, woven flax rugs, and sun-spotted pillows. They snatched sapsuckers and berry cakes from the cupboards, and shoved them in their mouths at the same time.
Leaf enjoyed a moment alone by the door. There was a cool breeze from the glaciers of Echo Peak. The view is awesome this high up! Leaf could see the twinkle of the waterfall and the turquoise lake behind the chomper dam. He gazed at the rolling Blue Mountains on the other side of the Wide Valley, and smiled, remembering his friends, Rustle and Feather, and their adventure together. And, of course, the goliath chompers had built a gigantic dam over there, too, but since the horrible flood, the colony had moved here. The wide valley! The popper fields! Now that was a journey!
Leaf sighed. He stood on tiptoe, and tried to spot the gray, burned trees of the North Forest and the deep gorge where his friends Star and Moon lived, but it was too far away. The vast forest only turned to a drifting, green haze on the horizon. Leaf shivered at the memory of being chased by swarms of barkbiters, but then he laughed when he thought of the brightly feathered Cappynuts twins. I bet Ruffle and Tuffle are having fun guarding the South Forest from barkbiters!
“Come on, Leaf!” yelled Burba. The twins sat by the cupboards with expectant expressions, and globs of sapsuckers stuck on their fingers.
“Yes, yes. A story,” Leaf said with a resigned shrug. “A long one.” He grabbed some blue petals, dipped them in an acorn filled with water, and tossed them to the twins.
They patted their faces, dropped the petals to the floor, and rushed down a narrow tunnel that led to their own small hollow. Burba trampled on Buddy’s feet as he squeezed past so he could be first in bed. On the headboards of their large, rocking baskets Mumma had woven a chipmunk for Buddy, and a porcupine for Burba. In their hollow, sunbeams pierced tiny knotholes, and crisscrossed through golden dust stirred by the buds’ scampering feet. Fluffy dandelion heads skittered across the floor. A collection of Twig Branch dolls made from different trees like hemlock and maple sat on shelves dug out of the soft, scented cedar. The buds lay on their bellies, and bunched their soft, leaf-woven quilt-covies tight against their chins, ready to be frightened out of their wits.
Leaf sat cross-legged on the golden-grained floor. He grinned wickedly. “Ready?”
With wide eyes – golden and orange – and nervous grins, the buds nodded.
Thank you to Jo for sharing. You can find more Leaf stories and more about Jo at www.twigstories.com