AP NEWS

Holiday 2018: Finding the way home

December 23, 2018

Sheila, the elf owl who could only say “what,” had been attacked by a drone when she tried to save her friends, fell almost to the ground but was caught in the nick of time by someone wearing mittens, then placed on a branch in a holly bush.

Whew.

Groggy, cold, and with a sore wing, Sheila slowly opened her eyes and made sure she had a steady perch. She looked around and saw that she was alone and no longer in the middle of the roundabout, but outside of it.

Which is when she said, for the first time in her little owl life, two words instead of one: “What now?”

What had happened to her friends?

Where was Horatio, the unhoppy brown rabbit who could not hop?

What happened to little Yoicks, the gray mouse who was very noisy?

And where was Rikke, the ant-eating skunk who smelled just fine?

She lived with these friends in the roundabout on Highway MMM. They were happy, and safe. Inside the roundabout they had all they could ever want, with food galore and leafy paths to wander through. All of the paths led to a bubbly pond in the very middle. The very best thing about the roundabout on Highway MMM was that no one had any reason to go there because it was a circle that really didn’t go anywhere. Highway MMM had never been finished. When it got to the roundabout, it just went around. It was the perfect hideout for Sheila and her friends.

Or, it was, until now, when she found herself perched a little unsteadily in a holly bush outside of the roundabout. The roundabout was whisper quiet. There was no sign of Horatio, Yoicks or Rikke. As the day faded into a cold night, Sheila shivered behind a holly leaf and even took a tentative bite out of a holly berry, yechhh, and spit it out.

“What-what-what-what-what.” She couldn’t fly to the roundabout because she wasn’t sure which way it was. Besides, her wing hurt when she waggled it. “What is to become of me?” she wondered.

What now, indeed.

Sheila liked a challenge. Her biggest challenge so far in her young life was when she gave up eating mice. When she realized Yoicks the noisy mouse was going to be a good friend, she decided not to eat him. That was hard. Finding her way home couldn’t be harder than that, could it?

From her perch, she could see the edge of the roundabout road. The road itself was pretty much abandoned, and used only by the occasional walker or runner. Across that road in the safety of the inside of the roundabout were her friends, her home and good food.

To get there, she knew that the first thing to do on this frosty morning was get out of the holly bush. She couldn’t fly because her wing was hurt. She was 24 little branches off the ground. She gripped her branch tightly to get a solid start, lifted her shoulders, filled her lungs with air, closed her eyes, and jumped.

Nothing.

She had forgotten to let go, her feet stayed clutched to the branch and did a sort of full circle. She was a little dizzy, but right-side-up.

She tried it again: Grip, lift, fill lungs, close eyes, remember to release the feet, jump.

She landed a lot faster than she had expected. She bumped and turned and bumped again, down the bush, and on to the cold ground. But she landed on her feet. She fluffed herself up a bit and looked around, just in time to meet a big smiling face looking right into her eyes.

“Booowayyyyno. Bueno,” said a raspy voice. “Way to stick the landing.”

A cat, whose face was larger than an entire elf owl, was smiling at her.

“OH-lah. Hola,” said the cat, “I am Josie, the cat of many colors.”

“What,” Sheila managed to say.

“Cat. Me. Gah-toe. Josie, the cat of many colors.”

“What?”

“I am on my way to the promised land,” said Josie.

“What,” said Sheila, out loud, but thinking: “Is this cat going to the roundabout?”

“Not a clue, have you?” asked Josie, still smiling. (Oh no, thought Sheila, was this cat licking her lips?)

But Sheila did have a clue. She was going to keep her distance from this cat of many colors. Cats eat birds. A cat does not have to be very big to be bigger than an elf owl.

This cat Josie’s many colors were browns and yellows and whites, in a series of blotches and patches. One orange blotch went right over her nose and up to her ear. Her other ear was brown and black. Also, she had six toes on her front left foot.

Josie may have sounded like she knew what she was doing and where she was going, but she was relieved to have found this little owl beneath a holly bush.

Relieved because, well, the truth was Josie was lost.

She thought she had found a nice, smooth path to the promised land, but after walking around for an hour or so everything repeated itself. It was her first roundabout. She was walking in circles. She realized this after she passed Sheila sleeping in the bush three times. When Sheila suddenly did a somersault off the bush, plopping down right in front of the cat, Josie figured it was time to meet formally. The cat’s sixth toe was throbbing and she wanted a path that did not go in circles.

Sheila just wanted to get back to her friends on the island in the middle of the roundabout.

Josie looked at Sheila, and Sheila looked at Josie. Neither one blinked until Josie slowly closed, then opened her eyes, the way all cats do when they are thinking. She had been walking for three days and was caught in a storm of frozen rain, and now had been walking in circles after losing her way. She left home after being told by a wise old farmyard cat to “follow your mmmmmm.” That was it, that was what the old cat said before he fell asleep. Josie was good at directions, so she found a sign that said “MMM” and followed that. It wasn’t until she was nearly frozen and certainly lost that she decided that maybe being old and being wise were not the same thing, and that “mmmmm” may just have been the sound of an old cat falling asleep. But here she was, mmmmmmhmmmmm, oh yes, and this little owl must know the way out of here. Don’t owls know everything?

Sheila looked at Josie the cat of many colors and just like that pointed with her good wing in a direction that led across the road, not around it.

“Where?” asked the cat.

“Whaaaaaaaaaat,” said Sheila, and kept pointing. By now it was starting to snow, an early morning snow that was sticky and heavy. It was sticking to Sheila’s wing and to Josie’s cat ears. It was beginning to cover the roundabout road.

“You want me to go that way?” said Josie. “You’re coming too, aren’t you?” asked the cat who was not a scaredy cat, but was scared, a little. Josie knew quite well she had to find a new place to live. That old farmyard cat had sent her on her way because there was no room at the farm for one more cat. None of the other cats would say so, but they considered a six-toed cat to be bad luck. Josie was a farmyard cat without a farm.

“What,” said Sheila. Meaning: “Follow me.”

An owl is not used to walking in snow. An owl soars silently above the snow. Not Sheila, not now. Now her little feet were getting cold and her claws were scraping the road, and she was anything but silent. “What-what-what-what” she whuttered.

But she knew where she was going, and Josie the cat of many colors, followed right behind her, leaning a little to the left because of the extra weight on her left front paw, the one with six toes, which left big six-toed footprints in the new snow.

The snow may have slowed the two, but it also hid them. Good thing, too. Sheila and Josie set off across the roundabout, and Josie realized immediately what she had been doing wrong.

“I was going around the roundabout,” the cat said. “You’re going across.”

Sheila, who had never gone around anything, ever, said: “What?”

“Lead on” said Josie.

“YES, LEAD ON.”

“Who said that?” asked Josie.

“What?” asked Sheila.

There was no answer. But they both had heard someone say: “YES. LEAD ON.”

They hurried across the roundabout, walking as fast as they could in the falling snow, which was getting just deep enough so they could feel the road, but not see it. They stopped for a little rest, and Josie used her six-toed paw to brush the snow off Sheila’s shoulder, and she used her breath to thaw the ice that had formed on the owl’s wing feathers. Sheila used her beak to pluck the packed snow from between the cat’s paws. They took a moment to look around, then headed into what they hoped would soon be the protection of the tall grass and trees and bushes and familiar paths inside of the roundabout.

But a dark shadow raced toward them and just about knocked them over. They felt it go by, and they even could see its breath push away the snowflakes, and they heard a whistle.

It was a woodchuck.

“What?”

“A woodchuck, looks like,” said Josie. “I’m not a fan.”

“What,” Sheila agreed.

Woodchucks as a rule do not walk, run or even stand beside a road, or a roundabout. Roads are dangerous to woodchucks, who are slow and big and a bit irritated most of the time. Generally, if a woodchuck comes to a road, the woodchuck turns around and goes the other way. A woodchuck can get run over on a road.

This woodchuck had been following Josie ever since the cat left the farmyard. He had watched as the cat went round and round three times on the roundabout, and paid attention when the cat and the owl made plans to proceed, and then hesitated when the cat and the owl started walking across the roundabout. He had heard Josie say she was going to the “promised land,” and Monty wanted to go there, too. Life was not easy for him on the farm, where dogs dug into his burrow and foxes teased him for his earth-toned fur.

Monty had huge teeth and muscular digging arms and whistle-talked. With every word, he whistled. He was very fast and he went by the cat and the owl because he couldn’t stop. He skidded on the ice and snow and then kept going with enough speed to go all around the roundabout and right back to where Josie and Sheila were standing.

“Sssupp?” asked Monty, who was not irritated in the least, and who thought his nonchalance was his most charming quality.

“What?”

“Not much,” said Josie.

In fact, a lot was up. The trio had halted at the inside edge of the roundabout, only a few feet from their goal. A large ice wall had built up, impenetrable and hard. Sheila couldn’t fly over it. Josie couldn’t go around it.

That left Monty, who was not only cold, he was getting sleepy. It was getting to be hibernation time, and he had been up late following the many-colored Josie around the countryside.

“Follow me,” he said, and started grabbing at the frozen dirt at the edge of the roundabout and the bottom of the ice wall. Monty quickly cracked through the frozen dirt, which he shoved through his back legs. By this time they didn’t know it, but they were very close to freezing. Sheila’s eyes wouldn’t close and she couldn’t blink, and Josie had lost the feeling in all of her toes

Monty was whistling away, and the more he dug, the deeper he got, and the deeper he got, the warmer it got. In five minutes, he had a five-foot tunnel two feet beneath the ice wall before he started going up, up, again, with the little owl and the cat right behind him.

He popped up from beneath the surface, looked around and discovered he was in the middle of the inside of the roundabout, safe and sound, right next to one of the paths that led to the pond. Sheila and Josie climbed out and started down the path, but Monty stayed where he was.

“I’m a little sleepy, I think I’ll take a nap for a couple of months,” he said. And with that, he disappeared into his burrow and immediately began to snore and whistle at the same time.

Sheila knew where she was now, she was home, and this was her path and this was where her friends lived, too, but where were they? The new snow had covered any tracks that might have been on the path, so she just continued walking until Josie made her stop at a big heaving lump in the snow.

Yes, it was a lump, but it was moving up and down and jiggling. Also, it was giggling. As Josie and Sheila watched, the lump exploded and out came a mouse, a rabbit and a skunk. The mouse, Yoicks, was tickling the rabbit, Horatio, who was tickling the skunk, Rikke, who was chasing the mouse, Yoicks, who was …

That’s a bit what a circle is like.

The roundabout animals escorted Josie the cat of many colors to the other edge of the roundabout and pointed her in the right direction, which would have been just about any direction because there were farms and cows and warm hay-filled barns not far away. Surely there was room for a cat with six-toed paw.

“Que,” said Sheila, as Josie disappeared. Good luck, friend.

After wrapping Sheila’s injured wing in milkweed seeds and spiderwebs, the four friends cuddled together at their frozen pond. There was a mysterious muffled whistling sound in the background as they told stories and sang songs beneath the light of the moon about the owl and the pussycat and the wall and the promised land, and if they haven’t stopped, they are singing and dancing and laughing still.

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