Copyright 2003 - Bruce Gaughran
From the early days of his life, Mikey remembered lying at the opening to their tree-den looking out at the magical world below him; the world he wanted more than anything to explore. He also remembered the many warnings that his father gave him about humans and dogs – a raccoon’s worst enemies. When he challenged his father by asking why they were so bad, his father would say, “Listen to me, Mikey, if you let down your guard just once out there, they will kill you.” But, Mikey didn’t really believe him.
After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, the day finally came. Their mother announced that Mikey and his sister, Theona, could go foraging for food with her that evening. Mikey could hardly believe the great news. Although the only food Mikey cared about was under his mother’s belly, the idea of venturing out into this unknown world was almost too good to believe.
Mikey waited, somewhat impatiently, for the evening to come. While his mother and sister slept, he sat in the den opening with his chin on his paws just dreaming about the upcoming adventure. When mother finally awoke at dusk, she sat Mikey and Theona down and gave them strict instructions on what she expected of them. “First, you must always stay at my side. Do not wander off for any reason. Second, if I give the alarm, don’t ask any questions; just climb the nearest tree, climb up as far as you can, and wait for my return. Finally, when I say it is time to go home, it is time to go home.” Mikey saw his mother look squarely into his eyes, “Agreed?”
Mikey at once nodded his head, but Theona fidgeted a little, walked back to the corner of the den, and sat down. “What’s wrong, dear,” asked her mother, “don’t you want to go out this evening?”
“No, momma, can’t we just stay here and suckle a little longer?”
“Theona, you have known this day was coming for weeks. Soon you will have to leave the comfort of our little home and venture out into that world. You have to be prepared for that day.”
Mikey head butted his sister and whispered, “Sissy – sissy – sissy, what’s the matter Theona, are you afraid?”
Mikey found himself lifted up by the scruff of his neck and placed into another corner of the den. Mother glared at him and warned, “What did I tell you about teasing your sister? I want you to apologize to her right now.”
“Yes, mother.” Mikey turned toward his sister and groaned, “I’m sorry, Theona.”
Mother then said it was time to go. She popped out of the tree-hole and explained how they should climb down the tree. Mother said to descend butt-first so they could quickly reverse directions if danger approached. As the three climbed down, mother kept stopping every so often to look around and sniff the air. Forgetting everything his mother had told him earlier, Mikey decided to crawl past her, but a little nip on the backside warned him to let mother keep the lead.
When they finally were on the ground, mother sniffed the air and the area around the tree, often stopping and going back to a spot she had earlier checked out. Mikey, ignoring his mother’s actions, flipped and flopped around on the ground, yipping and yelling for Theona to come join him. Instead, Theona just clung to the tree about three feet off the ground begging her mother to let her go back to the den. Mother ignored both of them, being more intent on checking out any strange smells in the air.
Mikey jumped on his mother’s back and yelled, “How about a ride, mom?” However, he instantly sensed the tension in his mother’s back – something he hadn’t felt before. When his mother snarled at him, he took the hint and climbed down.
Mikey became more frustrated with all the delays, but decided to play along with his mother. He began to sniff the ground around him and stand up on his hind legs to smell the air. “Wow, what are all these smells, mom? I like this one over here. YUK, I don’t like this one at all.” A moment later, “Hey, this one smells like dad. Theona, come over here and check this out.”
Theona just shook her head and stayed fastened to the tree trunk. Mother finally coaxed her down and Theona became glued to her mother’s side. Mikey gave up on his sister and moved further away from the tree, following his dad’s scent. “MIKEY,” his mother yelled, “what did I tell you about wandering off? If I have to tell you again, you won’t be venturing out of the den for a week.”
“Ah, mom,” Mikey started to say, but saw the expression on her face. “Yes, mother. I am sorry, mother.” He ran up against her left side and rubbed his shoulders into her fur to let her know he was sorry. She turned to her side and licked his forehead letting him know she forgave him. Mikey loved that lick. “Can we follow dad’s scent now, mom?”
Mother walked over to where Mikey had smelled the ground. “Very good, Mikey, you are right; this is your dad’s scent.” Another wonderful lick and Mikey looked over at Theona to see if she was jealous. Mother looked at her daughter and asked, “Theona, do you smell your father?
“No, mother, and I don’t like any of these smells,” Theona whined. The only smells she wanted were the ones in her tree-den.
“Can we NOW follow dad’s trail? Can we, please? Can I lead, mom,” begged Mikey as he gave her that special look – the one that his mother could never say ‘no’ to when he asked for something.
“Okay, you can lead. Theona, my dear, just stay by my side and everything will be fine.”
Theona slid further into her mother’s fur. “Why can’t you two go, momma. Mikey likes this stuff. I’ll just go back to the den.”
Mother turned to her daughter, licked her forehead and ears several times, and Theona calmed down. “Theona, remember what we talked about earlier today. You need to be ready for this. Do you understand, dear?”
“But, I don’t want to leave you – ever, mom. I like our home. I like living with you.”
“Sissy – sissy – sissy, Theona is a sissy,” teased her brother.
“Be quiet, Mikey, or we will all go home right now,” warned his mother. “Now, apologize to your sister.”
Mikey knew his mother meant business by the look on her face. He glanced down at the ground in front of him, “I’m sorry, Theona.” He then walked over to his sister and began to lick her ears.
“Cut that out – that tickles,” Theona giggled and Mikey knew she was okay.
“Okay, Mikey, take the lead, but don’t go too fast,” his mother instructed.
Mikey picked up his dad’s scent and scampered off through the woods. This was the most fun he had ever had in his whole life. He couldn’t wait to go exploring alone.
“Mikey, stop right there.”
“Why, mom, what did I do now?”
“Mikey, you need to always be cautious when you travel through the woods. Remember all those things that your father warned you about? He wasn’t exaggerating. Now, stop every ten feet or so and smell the air. Use all your senses to decide whether it is safe.”
Mikey followed his mother’s example, but didn’t smell anything unusual – nothing that smelled of danger anyway. It was then he noticed his mother was flaring her teeth as she pranced around the air on her two hind legs. “Something is wrong, son. We had better go back now.”
“No,” Mikey snapped back. “I am going to find dad.” He then turned and ran off following his father’s trail.
As he ran, he tried to ignore his mother’s threatening calls and Theona’s pleadings, for there was no turning back now. He knew he was in trouble either way, so he might as well find his dad. Maybe dad would be so proud of his son’s abilities that he wouldn't be mad at him. Besides, this was fun.
Mikey knew he was close; his dad’s scent was now strong in the air. There was also another scent, but he didn’t recognize it. As he rounded a small ridge and ran into the knoll, he stopped dead in his tracks. Less than five feet in front of him was his father, but Mikey could see there was something different about him. He pushed the feelings aside and yelled, “Dad, guess what? I was able to track you all the way from our den.”
When his father didn’t respond, Mikey took a tentative step forward. “Dad, are you sleeping,” he asked, but this time without the same self-assuredness. Why was his dad just lying on the ground? And, what was that red stuff all over his fur?
Right then his mother and Theona caught up to him. “Mikey, don’t go any closer, “she warned. “Come over here right now.”
He turned and looked at her, but then turned back to his dad. “What’s wrong with dad? He looks like he is sleeping. And, what’s that red, gooey stuff all over his body?” He took another step forward and at once knew something was seriously wrong. Mikey felt a shiver run down the entire length of his body – a sensation he had never experienced before, and something he didn’t like at all.
Mikey almost jumped out of his skin when his mother rubbed up against his side. In a slow, controlled voice, she explained, “You’re right, son, your father has gone to sleep. Come along now, Mikey. We need to take Theona home.”
Theona then cried out, “Mom, what is wrong with dad? Isn’t he coming home with us?”
Mom took a moment to lick Mikey and Theona while chittering the way only moms can do when they want to calm their children. As they began to walk back through the woods, mom kept on reassuring them that everything would be fine in the morning.
From that moment on, however, life was never the same for Mikey and Theona. Mikey lost much of his youthful energy and curiosity. His days were now spent foraging for food with his mother and sister. Probably the biggest change, however, was that Mikey never teased Theona again. He was now the one that comforted her when she was frightened and encouraged her when she needed a little push. When the two were out foraging, he never left her side … not for any reason. He had lost someone special in his life and he had no plans to lose another.