I’ve had a great life. I’ve created a cozy home amongst the trees and spent most of my time foraging for food. I’ve rarely ventured far from home. . . until the day the old man came.
It had been a quiet spring and was still too early for most vacationers to arrive at nearby campgrounds and cabined resorts. I had heard voices and chaos when the old man and his companions arrived the night before, but I didn’t rise to greet them.
The next day, the sun slowly crested the mountains and by late morning its warmth began to embrace the cool fresh-water lake that lapped at the shore mere feet from my home. With it came a strong odour of frying bacon and maple syrup. I preferred seeds, nuts, berries and fungi. I also enjoyed small frogs and bird eggs when they were in season.
Sometime after noon, when the sun shone stronger on the lake, I noticed the old man for the first time. He was pale in colour, as if he’d spent the entire winter indoors. The few wisps of hair that sprouted from his pink scalp were devoid of any colour, but the sun glinted off it making it look silvery. He reclined on a flimsy folding chair that sagged under his weight, a newspaper spread across his chest as if shielding him against the day. He looked remarkably similar to many others I’d seen occupy the cabin that nestled among the fir trees behind him. Two young boys popped out of the bush and engaged him in conversation.
“Can we go fishing yet, Grandpa?” asked one of the boys.
“Soon,” the grandpa answered. “I’d like to finish reading my paper first.”
“Grandma said you’d take us fishing this afternoon,” the smaller boy insisted.
“I will. Just let me finish the paper, then we can put the row boat in the water.”
“Okaaaay,” the boys sighed in unison and disappeared into the cabin.
“Grandma, did we bring peanuts?”
Peanuts! Whoa! Now they have my attention!
“Over there,” the grandma answered, but I couldn’t see where there was. I heard several noises from within the cabin and presumed the boys were searching.
“Found them!” a young voice shouted. The cabin’s screen door banged behind the boys as they returned to the grandpa’s side, the older boy carrying the bag of peanuts.
I had a penchant for peanuts. They were not indigenous to my area and only appeared with the vacationers. Not all vacationers, mind. Just the ones who knew that some of the local residents are fond of them.
I scooted over to the edge of the clearing and waited. My nose twitched as I inhaled the heady aroma of fresh peanuts. I tiptoed from beneath the brush and froze, waiting to see whether they’d notice me.
“Look Grandpa!” the younger boy shouted. He was pointing at me. But for my twitching nose, I remained motionless.
“That’s a chipmunk, right grandpa?” the older boy asked.
“Does it have stripes on its face?” the grandpa asked.
“Yes,” the older boy answered, crouching down to better examine me. “His coat is reddish with black and white stripes and he has white lines around his eyes.”
“He looks like he’s wearing a mask,” the younger boy interrupted.
When the older boy stood up like a human, he still held the bag of peanuts in his arm, unopened. I took three tentative steps toward him and froze again, willing the bag to open.
“Bring me the bag.”
The boy handed the bag to the grandpa, who used a sharp tool to slash it open, then held the bag toward the younger boy.
“Take two peanuts and put them on the stump. Then step back and see what happens.”
The boy did as he was told, placing those peanuts right in the middle of the old tree stump that sat four feet in front of the grandpa’s chair. My body rebelled, no longer obeying my brain’s cautious commands. Of its own accord, it began to scoot toward the tree stump. Stop! my brain screamed, and my body froze. For many heart-beats, it was a battle of brain over body as I inched toward that tree stump and the delicious-smelling peanuts being warmed in the sun. Before I knew what had come over me, there I sat, on top of the stump with a warm peanut shell in my hand-like paws. I rolled it around, checking every segment for a sweet spot into which I could sink my teeth. When I found it, I sat up quickly, surveyed my environment for danger, and bit hard into the shell. I nearly fell over, the aroma of the seeds was so tantalizing, but I fought to control my desire, and forced myself to eat the first seed daintily. As I savoured the mashed meat sliding down my gullet like butter, I began gnawing on the second one. And, when that was finished, I cracked the second shell.
Moments later, I sat on that sun-warmed stump, empty-pawed, surrounded by a pile of fragmented peanut shell. I cleaned my face, and gave my ears a scrub, then I sat up resting on my haunches, my paws folded neatly in front of me and stared at the old man.
“What do you think boys, should we give him more?” the grandpa asked, extending the bag to the older boy.
Warning bells clanged in my head, as the older boy moved toward the stump. I darted under the brush. When I turned around, the boy was standing next to his grandpa again, and more peanuts sat on the stump.
“Stand away, boys,” the grandpa said to his snickering grandsons.
I watched the boys shuffle toward their grandpa and sniffed to make certain my environment was safe. Then I dashed to the top of the stump and found five lovely peanuts warming in the sunshine. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that I had eaten my fill. What to do? What to do? I wrung my paws as I pondered a solution.
Hastily, I stuffed two peanuts into each of my very flexible cheeks and trapped the fifth one between my teeth. Instinct told me to scuttle back to my home and return quickly in case more peanuts appeared on the stump during my absence. I chided myself to hurry, but scurrying wasn’t an option. The weight and volume of the nuts slowed me down. While, my custom was to dart through tiny spaces, the mouthful of legumes hampered me. At one point, I became stuck in some branches and had to back track a few inches.
When I finally arrived home, I removed the goobers from my mouth and stuff them into the opening of my burrow. When all five groundnuts were arranged in my pantry, I raced, rather than scooted, back to the tree stump.
At the edge of the clearing, I paused, concerned about the noise coming from the grandpa and his two grandsons. I realized too that the grandma had joined them.
“Shhh! Stop laughing,” the grandma said. “He won’t come closer if you keep up that noise.”
The boys grew quiet. The grandparents didn’t move.
Confidently, I scooted across the clearing and up the side of the tree stump and froze mid-step. What the heck! I marvelled, ogling the heaping pile of peanuts sitting on top of the stump. I couldn’t help myself: I squeaked out loud. I looked toward the old man and his family, then back to the plethora of groundnuts. What should I do? I can’t fit all of them in my mouth. Eight maybe, but, my gosh, there must be twenty or thirty! I took a delightful sniff and pondered my predicament. I know . . . I’ll take as many as I can carry and call for help with the rest.
So, like any healthy, male chipmunk, I stuffed as many peanuts into my mouth as could fit, and lumbered back to my home, along the people path, my chin skidding occasionally on the well-worn trail. At the foot of the tree that crowned my burrow, I extracted the shells and stuffed them into the opening. When I could stuff no more, I yelled as loud as I could, asking my family to come and help me. I scurried around the tree and entered the burrow through a concealed entry. From inside, I tugged each crispy carcass along the corridor to my larder and arranged them in neat rows for later consumption. My heart pounded with urgency.
When at last I erupted from my burrow, five family members greeted me. I explained hastily what we had to do, and they followed me back to the tree stump. At the clearing, I burst into the campsite and scooted up the side of the stump. Come on! I squeaked to the others. When I reached the top of the stump, I froze mid-step and issued one long and plaintive wail. Except for the few shell bits remaining from the first two nuts that I’d eaten, the stump was empty.
I was squeakless, and frankly felt quite deflated. I had begged my family to help me carry an amazing stash of peanuts, promising each of them a share for their help. What a fool! I scolded myself. You promised them the world and now there is nothing! It’s all gone! Sheepishly, I looked toward the underbrush where my family looked on with disgust.
“Are you crazy?” one of them chirped.
“Humans can’t be trusted,” another squeaked.
Two squealed with laughter as they realized that I had been duped. But for one, they turned and left, taking their giggles with them. Even the grandpa and his family laughed at me. My youngest sister had stayed behind, though, and looked at me with her sad brown eyes. I hung my head in shame and embarrassment.
“Boys! Don’t tease,” the grandma scolded.
As the older boy moved toward the stump, I scooted to the shelter of the bush and crouched next to my sister. I’m sorry, her eyes said.
In the next moment, my sister’s eyes became wider than I’d ever seen them, and I followed her gaze toward the stump. There on the top, in the lovely sunshine, sat all of the peanuts once again. I waited as the old man and his family disappeared into the cabin, leaving the beautiful peanuts behind. Hesitantly, I climbed the stump.
I turned to my little sister, still squatting under the brush, and chirped that the coast was clear. In a heart-beat, she was perched beside me. I waited while she devoured one of the lovely goobers, then we stuffed our mouths with legumes and lumbered to my nest. Each time we returned to the stump, I was relieved and grateful to see that the diminishing pile had not been touched.
When the stump was devoid of nuts, and my larder was overflowing, I helped my sister carry her share home. Exhausted, I returned to my burrow and munched on the twin seeds of one last pod, tidied the shell bits into the refuse tunnel, and crawled into my nest for a nap. During that nap and many naps since, I dreamed of the old man who brought the delicious peanuts, but I never saw him again, and I never wondered where he went. Instinctively, I sensed that he’d never return.