“The thick, heavy clouds passing in front of the sun made Mikayla’s shadow drift back and forth between soft and sharp contrast as she sat looking out over the strange surface. She came from a prominent family — her grandfather had been clan chieftain for most of his life — and it was obvious from her posture and constant regal expression that she had been preened for leadership since she was a pup.
“A breeze caught in her gigantic, bushy tail and it swayed to the side among the grass, flattened now on one side by the rush of air. The White Oak Clan would be electing new leadership within the week. Little doubt had surfaced that she would be the squirrel next elected chieftain… until, that is, the previous few days. Unfortunately for her, another had stepped forward and was gaining support. A roguishly handsome squirrel with a tail so luxurious and magnificent that-”
Maddie, the school teacher, cleared her throat from behind the group of tiny, captivated pups. The chieftain stopped mid-sentence, tearing his eyes away from his beautiful tail, to shoot her a hard look, which lingered momentarily, his own sentiment of distaste mirrored in her expression. He let the look linger for just a moment, but then, when he started to speak again, the disdain evaporated, returning to the joyful, confident tone he had been using.
“Yes, it was me,” he stated. Several of the pups giggled, but most waited intently for his story to continue. He obliged.
“I had come forward to challenge her for leadership and she began to grow worried, so she decided to perform a desperate feat to secure the clan’s favor, she had pushed out into the forbidden lands in search of food.”
At the mention of the forbidden lands, several of the pups gasped or exchange looks with their friends.
“I know,” the chieftain said, looking at the pups that had gasped. “It seems a very strange thing to do, but you must remember, things were different then. It was a time before I built our strong and organized military. We were on fairly level footing with the Ivy Patch Clan and we often suffered raids on our supplies, leaving us without enough to survive the winter, unless we counter-attacked. Squirrels rarely died in the raids, as that was not our way, but they might as well have, as losing food, meant that some squirrels would starve and freeze during the long winter months.”
A small pup in the front quietly raised her hand, her body shrinking in nervous anticipation.
“Yes, little one?” the chieftain asked, “did you have a question?”
“Why do,” she started, her voice a barely audible squeak, the chieftain had to lean down close to hear her, “Why do they hate us so much?”
He smiled. Not a cruel or patronizing smile, but the smile elicited by nothing other than a reminder that there was a time when we were all so innocent and naive.
“It has turned now into a certain level of disdain, but it didn’t start that way,” he said, the smile slowly disappearing as he explained. “It started as a need to survive.”
“Legend has it,” his eyes shoot quickly back to Maddie, “there was a time, long ago, before the forbidden lands existed. There was enough forest for all the clans to forage in, and enough food to go around. Then, strange noises started to come from a region of the forest and many squirrels that went there never returned.”
“The forbidden lands,” another young pup gasped.
“Exactly,” the chieftain nodded, “these became known as the forbidden lands, and you must never go there.” As he said it, he let his eyes pan over the group, making lingering eye contact with a few of the onlookers, to make the point that he was serious.
“Mikayla decided,” he continued after a moment, “that the legends were wrong and that if she proved that the forbidden lands could, again, be foraged, then the clans would again live in peace.
“She was wrong, of course. The White Oak Clan only knows peace now through military might. The Ivy Patch doesn’t dare steal our food now and, in fact, they pay us some of the food that they collect to leave their dwindling numbers alone.” He said this last proudly, puffing out his chest and standing tall. Most of the impressionable pups mirrored his pride, but his glance drifted towards Maddie, who still looked on with thinly-veiled disdain.
“Anyway,” he started again, “Mikayla had found her way to a large, flat, open space almost as wide as the branches of that oak over there.” He gestured as he spoke and many of the pups glanced at the tree, listening.
“Only that wide, it stretched off into the distance in both directions with no end in sight, like a river that ran in a perfectly straight line. Instead of water, though, the surface was made of an even, hard material, the likes of which you have never seen. It was black, harder than earth, and almost as hard as granite.”
Their little faces were full of wonder now as he pushed on. “Not a single plant grew in that open space, just the unnaturally flat, black surface, all the way across. Even Mikayla, who was convinced that the legends were a lie, hesitated at the edge and looked on in fearful awe.”
“How do you know?” interrupted Maddie.
“I beg your pardon?” asked the chieftain, trying his best not to grimace, it was a highly unattractive look on the face of a squirrel, with their huge front teeth and all.
“How do you know what my sister did when she was out there?”
“Well,” the chieftain said, straightening uncomfortably under the expectant gaze of the pups, “I was coming to that.”
“Mhm,” grunted Maddie. The pups didn’t seem to notice.
“You see, I saw her head off into the forbidden lands and followed her, to both see what she was up to and make sure that she didn’t take any unnecessary risks. I wanted to keep her safe, you see.”
The sea of pups nodded understanding. Only one among the gathered stared at him, unmoving — the school teacher that had been forced to take her class on a trip to hear a cautionary tale about the forbidden land from the chieftain himself. It was no accident that he had chosen this story to tell, he was tormenting her for the fact that, even now, half a generation later, she still looked at him with suspicious contempt.
“As I pushed my way out of the bushes and saw her sitting there,” he continued, pausing just a fraction of a beat after the word “pushed.” Nobody but Maddie noticed.
“I started to hear a distant rumble. Mikayla heard it too, because her ears pricked up, but then, before I could call out to her to stop, she started running. A huge object moving faster than anything I’ve ever seen — faster than eagles, even — came roaring over the surface and struck her, not deviating from or slowing on its straight, thundering path one bit as its strange, circular legs crushed her bones into dust and plastered her skin to the hard, black surface. She was dead instantly.”
A startled, terrified stillness settled over the pups. He paused a moment to let the image sink in. Then said, “I don’t think she suffered, dying instantly like that, but for a long time, if one went out to the edge of the surface, they could see her big, bushy tail, still held to the ground at the base by her skin. Every time one of those speeding beasts — the guardians of the forbidden lands — would thunder past, her tail would catch the wind and flop back and forth, as if waving a warning to stay away.”
“Leaving you,” interjected Maddie, “unopposed in your rise to power.”
“Yes,” stated, the chieftain. “Yes, then I became the chieftain of the White Oak Clan.”
After a brief, meaningful look passed between the adults, hers glimmering with sadness, his glinting with anger, he continued, “so, my little pups, the important thing to remember is that the legends exist for a reason. They are there to protect you, and you should obey their wisdom at all times.”
Through gritted teeth Maddie said, “Everyone thank the Chieftain for taking time out of his busy day to talk to us.”
“THANK YOU!” the pups sang out in chorus, their shocked, horrified silence already forgotten.