The Hard Winter
It was a hard winter in Dimwood Forest. Tem-peratures were low, snows deep, nights long, and the winds sharp. Most forest animals remained tucked away in their underground homes, burrows, and caves, sleeping or eating the food they had stored the summer before. It was that way, too, with Poppy and Rye, who kept close and warm deep down among the roots of their old snag, a tall, broken tree stump.
Poppy, an elderly deer mouse, had curled herself up into a plump ball of tan fur, her tail wrapped about so that it touched the tip of her pink nose. She was chatting with her husband, Rye, about some of the events of the past year: their good life together; guiding and watching their children grow and begin families of their own; her visit to her old home, Gray House; renewing acquaintances with relatives; and happy times with Ereth the porcupine.
As she talked, Rye, a golden mouse, was lying on his back, eyes closed, paws beneath his head, tail occasionally twitching. He was listening to Poppy even as he was contemplating a new poem, something about the cold winter and the past summer.
"It's no good," Rye said quite suddenly while coming to his feet.
"What's no good?" asked Poppy, thinking he was referring to her talk about the family picnic last autumn.
"If I'm going to write anything decent about winter," Rye declared, "I need to get out there and experience it."
"It's awfully cold," Poppy reminded him, perfectly aware that such practical notions would make no difference to Rye, not when he was thinking about a poem. "I think there's a storm."
"Won't be a moment," said Rye, and he headed for the steps that led to ground level. When he reached the snag's open entryway, however, the storm's bitter cold struck with such force that it momentarily took his breath away. Not to be deterred, Rye pushed through the snow that had drifted in, and stepped outside.
It was difficult to see anything. The snow, bright and whirling, made the land indistinguishable from the sky. Even the forest trees appeared to be trembling shadows. As for sound, the only thing Rye could hear was the yowl of the wind.
"Wonderful . . . ," he murmured, even as he shivered and stepped forward, sinking deeply into a soft, powdery drift.
He brushed the flakes from his eyelashes, and they danced before his eyes like tiny, sparkling diamonds.
"Beautiful," he murmured.
Rye began to burrow forward with his front paws. As he tunneled into the snow, the sounds of the wind faded. The light turned a dull gray. The cold softened. It was as if he were in a cocoon made of winter.
Suddenly he halted. Embedded in the icy tunnel wall was a perfectly preserved green leaf.
"Oh my!" Rye whispered, gazing at the leaf with joy. "It's from last summer!" Rye remained looking at the leaf for a long while. Only when his toes started to become numb did he turn and scurry back down into the snag.
"I think I've got a good poem," he announced as he returned to Poppy. "I'm going to call it Ice Leaf.'" He threw himself down on his back and closed his eyes.
After a few moments he asked, "Do you have any more of your mix?"
"What mix?" said Poppy.
"That peppermint, elderberry, and honey mix. You know, for coughs."
Poppy's brow furrowed. "Why?"
"Slight tingle in the old throat," muttered Rye, as he concentrated on his poem.
That night a fierce new storm swept in. The wind roared. The temperature plummeted. The two mice snuggled together for warmth. From somewhere far-off they heard a fox baying and an owl hooting.
Next morning, when Rye woke, his throat was very sore. He was coughing, too, coughing badly.
Excerpted from Poppy and Ereth by James Avi Copyright © 2009 by James Avi. Excerpted by permission.
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