Chapter OneTHE VILLAGE NEAR THE FOREST
Hidden in the valley, close to the forest where all the animals lived, lay a small village. The red brick houses with their thatched roofs and black shutters were built in neat little rows. They lined the cobblestone streets like little soldiers at attention. Some of the houses had small stone walls built around the gardens. Others had thick, green hedges where mice and hedgehogs lived. You could imagine what the gardens looked like in the summer with their colourful flowers, buzzing bees, lively birds, and butterflies fluttering from branch to branch.
Now, in the winter, the flowers had withered and the leaves had fallen from the trees. The birds and bees were sleeping and snow covered the ground, hedges, trees, and rooftops. Little snowdrifts piled up against the windowsills. Puffs of smoke wafted from the chimneys as icicles hung from the rooftops.
The village square stood right in the middle of the village. There were benches scattered throughout the square. The cobblestones that paved the square were now covered with a light dusting of soft, white snow. A grocery store, a bakery, a butcher shop, and a post office lined the square.
It was a cold and cloudy afternoon. The villagers, bundled in warm coats and woollen hats, hurried from one store to another to buy gifts for their families and friends. They were preparing for the approaching winter solstice celebrations. Colourful decorations were displayed in the windows next to all the shiny, new gifts.
The church, built with grey stone walls and stained glass windows, stood to the left of the square, proud and tall. A few children sat on the church steps laughing and playing. They were dressed in brightly coloured winter jackets and warm fleece hats and scarves. If you stood at the top of the church steps and looked down the main road, you could see the treetops of the forest in the distance.
The village's main road led directly past fields and meadows to the forest. The forest was a beautiful and peaceful place. The villagers and their children often visited the forest on a Sunday afternoon, escaping the hustle and bustle of day to day life in the village.
In the distance, Miya, a young girl who lived in the village, skipped along the icy road that led to the forest. She was dressed in a bright blue winter jacket and wore a white woollen hat on top of her curly, brown hair. She had a cozy scarf wrapped around her neck to keep her warm. Her cheeks were rosy-red and her eyes shone brightly, because she was very excited to be going to feed the animals in the forest. Miya dug her hands deep into her big pockets to keep them warm from the blustery wind. As she walked along the lane, she clutched a small bundle under her arm.
While she skipped along, she whistled a happy tune and looked around. The grey, wintry sky looked cheerless. It seemed that the trees, bare meadows, and frozen ditches were waiting for warmer times. A cold gust of wind blew across the fields. Miya shivered as she got closer and closer to the forest that protected the bleak and frosty meadows.
Miya's mother had taught her how to respect animals and the environment. This morning, she had given Miya a few old loaves of bread and some stale biscuits to put out for the animals, so that they would not go hungry. Her mother had told Miya to look after the animals and help them in times of need. She had also told Miya that sometimes in the winter food was scarce for the animals, and it was kind to help them. Miya had taken her own lunch too, because she wanted to spend some time exploring the forest. Maybe she would see some of the animals. She loved animals, and she always dreamed of meeting them someday.
Anxiously, Miya looked up to the sky and noticed that the clouds were dark. In a threatening manner, they hung low over the deserted fields and trees. Snow would fall any minute. She quickly marched towards the forest before it started to snow.
Miya slowly entered the big forest, overwhelmed by the tall fir trees. She felt protected as the trees closed around her. There was an icy mist among the trees, and Miya shivered. As Miya looked up at the treetops, a single snowflake fell on her upturned face. She giggled. That was cold!
It was eerily quiet, but occasionally a bird cried out to tell her she was not alone. She quickly scattered bread and biscuits across a small clearing. Every time she put more food out, she noticed that the old bread was gone, and she knew that the animals had found it. Miya smiled. This made her very happy, because she knew the animals would not be hungry.
Not obeying her mother who had told her to come straight home, she wandered deeper and deeper into the forest. She was very curious about the animals. After a while, Miya could hear her belly growling. She was hungry and tired. She sat on the frozen ground. it was covered with pine needles. Miya opened the package she had brought from home, pulled out a sandwich, and ate it. When she had finished her lunch, she lay back, snuggled into her warm jacket, and stared dreamily up towards the sky.
After a few minutes, Miya felt she wasn't alone. Slowly, she turned her head and jumped up in surprise. In front of her sat a squirrel. His paws were crossed in front of his chest, and he had a frown on his furry face. The little animal glared at Miya. She stared back, a little astonished.
"What are you doing here?" asked the squirrel angrily.
"Well, I ... I ..." stammered Miya, stunned. The animal was talking.
He swished his bushy tail, and he yelled furiously, "Leave our forest! Now!" With those unfriendly words, he ran off, into the bushes.
Miya watched in amazement as the squirrel ran away. She sighed. For a moment she just stood there, not sure of what to do. She had just spoken to a squirrel. Rather, he had spoken to her. This was a significant experience. The squirrel had told her to leave immediately. Miya had to decide what to do. She wanted to be friends with the animals and didn't want to make them angry. But she also wanted to explore the forest. Of course, this was their place, and if she wasn't welcome, well, she should leave quietly.
With a shrug of her shoulders, Miya decided it would be better to listen to the squirrel and go home. She picked up her belongings. Being careful she didn't leave any garbage behind, she turned to walk to the edge of the forest. Thinking about the experience with the squirrel, Miya walked and walked.
After a few minutes, Miya stopped and looked around. Nothing seemed familiar. She wasn't sure which way to go. She turned right, took a few steps, then paused and started walking in the opposite direction. Miya did not recognize where she was. With a sigh, she miserably sank onto an old tree stump and groaned. "All the trees look alike. I think I'm lost."
Miya sat there for a few moments and wondered what to do next, when she heard a commotion. Her face brightened. It seemed that there were more people from the village visiting the forest. She wasn't alone. Miya jumped up and started running towards the direction of the voices.
Chapter TwoMIYA MEETS THE ANIMALS
Boy, how she ran! She leapt over the fallen trees, crashing through the bushes, and she fell. She scrambled up again, scraping her hands and knees. Once in a while, she stopped to listen for the voices. Ignoring her bruised hands and scraped knees, Miya continued to run until she reached a clearing in the woods. Here she stumbled upon all sorts of animals. Standing there, eye to eye, she was as surprised as they were.
The squirrel, whom she had met before, stepped forward. He was moody and did not like the humans. His cousin, who lived in the village, had told him stories about the villagers and the other humans in the city. They were all bad stories. It seemed that they did not think about the consequences of their actions. The girl was one of them!
The squirrel moved forward and said angrily, "Hey! Why are you here? Didn't I tell you to leave?"
"Well, yes ... yes you did," stammered Miya. "But, but ... I got lost." She burst into tears.
"Oh, little girl, ne'er mind 'im," spoke a crackly, old voice.
Miya looked up and blinked. Through her tears, she saw a big black crow with shiny feathers standing right next to her. With his dark, friendly eyes, he looked her up and down. His enormous yellow beak pointed towards the squirrel. The crow seemed to be a gentle and kind old bird.
"That squirrel," the crow said. "Well, he's just a grumpy old guy."
"Humph," said the squirrel, turning his back to Miya and the crow. He stomped towards a clump of bushes, where he sat brooding.
Miya nodded, her brown curls bouncing up and down. She sniffed and wiped her tears on the sleeve of her blue coat. She pulled her white hat tightly over her head. Then she looked around curiously.
There was a cluster of old tree stumps that stood to one side, covered with a sprinkling of soft, white snow. Right beside the tree stumps was a hollow tree trunk with a layer of velvety, green moss. In one corner, near an old, gnarly oak tree, a few of the smaller animals huddled together nervously. They shifted from one foot to the other. They stuck their sensitive, little, black noses in the air to smell if the girl was a good human or a bad one.
Miya's arrival in the clearing had disturbed a meeting. The owl was the chairperson, and she was very angry. She puffed out her chest and ruffled her feathers to show her fury. This was unacceptable! It was her meeting. She was the important one here, not this little human. She paced back and forth, frowning and blinking.
She stormed at them, "My fellow animals, this meeting has been interrupted! I will not have that!"
"I know, I know. This human seems to be more interesting than I am, and you forgot about me and the meeting," continued the owl grumpily. "And it's her fault!" She waved her right wing threateningly at Miya. "This is intolerable. I am holding a meeting!"
Miya felt guilty and ashamed. She hung her head. This was obviously an important meeting for the animals.
"Now waita minute," defended the crow. He gently patted Miya on the back. "She can't help being here-she got lost!" He waved his wings about, yelling.
"She is a human. You know we don't like humans to come here. She trespassed into our forest. This is our place!" replied the squirrel. Outraged, he swished his bushy tail.
The crow turned to face the squirrel. "We can share this forest with the humans. I see them all the time. They don't do anythin' wrong. They like to sit under the trees in the shade when it is hot. I don't see why we can't share."
"Share? With those humans?! They just leave garbage and break things!" called out the squirrel. He was so angry, he could spit!
"Humans are awful! I know this for sure. My cousin told me. Did you know that in the city, the people put poisonous chemicals on the grass?" asked the squirrel angrily.
The little animals gasped in horror.
"And," continued the squirrel, "they spray the trees with poison as well!"
"Oh no!" called out the chipmunk and the fawn.
"And those cars." said the squirrel. "Well, they smell. And they keep driving even if our cousins run into the street. They get run over!"
"That is bad," mumbled the little bear cub and the young fox. "Really inconsiderate." They glared at Miya.
"I know, I know," the crow shushed his friends. "Not all humans are mean. Look at the people in the village. They give us bread and cookies in the winter. They worry about us. They make sure that we aren't hungry in the winter."
"The factories where they work have chimneys that spit dirty smoke into the air," continued the squirrel, as if he hadn't heard any of the other animals. "My other cousin who lives in the city has breathing problems. It is because of the poisons in the air. The humans call it asthma. My cousin has a human illness."
"Yeah," chimed a small bird. She wiped tears from her little eyes. "A friend of a friend of a friend of mine and her brother got caught in an oil spill. It was so sad. His beautiful white feathers got all stinky and dirty."
"Do you also know that other humans helped the birds get cleaned up again?" asked the crow. "See what I mean-the humans aren't all bad."
"But an oil spill should not happen in the first place!" yelled the squirrel from where he sat. "Like I said before, and I'll say it again- Humans don't see the consequences of their actions."
"I agree with the squirrel," said the owl gruffly. "The humans are trouble. She is one of them. The owl pointed to Miya. "We don't like her!"
"If you don't watch what you are saying, I'll ... I'll ..." said the crow. He lifted his fists and waved them around. The smaller animals gasped in surprise. The crow was usually very calm and gentle, and he didn't get angry.
But this topic, about how the humans treated the environment, seemed to get all the animals troubled and upset.
"Oh, please don't argue," said Miya. "I realize that you don't like humans. I know we do things to hurt the environment. But not everyone is like that." She looked over at the squirrel with big eyes. "I'm not like the other humans. I respect nature, and I love animals," said Miya. "Besides, there are lots of humans that think like me."
"Yeah, right," grumbled the squirrel, crossing his arms and turning away.
"Humph," sniffed the owl, puffing out her chest.
"I didn't mean to interrupt your meeting," continued Miya. "I really am lost and just want to go home." She looked at the crow and asked, "Will you show me the way to the edge of the forest?"
"O' course m' girl, o' course," said the crow standing beside her. He gently nudged Miya's shoulder.
"Not until after my meeting!" hooted the owl, as she stomped up and down angrily. "Not until after my meeting!"
The crow shrugged his enormous shoulders. "Whatever!"
He turned to Miya and said, "You can sit. We ain't leavin' yet."