Part 1: Chapter 1 - The Center Kingdom

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The Missing Acorns

A long time ago, when humans still lived in cities, on a cold morning near the end of a long, cruel winter, in magnificent Central Park in the middle of magnificent New York City, a young squirrel named Patch was awakened very early by the growls of his empty stomach.

A squirrel’s home is called a drey. Patch’s drey was very comfortable. He lived high up an old oak tree, in a hollowed-out stump of a big branch that had long ago been cut off by humans. The entrance was only just big enough for Patch to squeeze in and out, but the drey itself was spacious, for a squirrel. Patch had lined his drey with dry leaves, grasses and bits of newspaper. It was warm and dry, and on that cold morning he would have liked nothing better than to stay home all day and sleep.

But he was so hungry. Hunger filled him like water fills a glass. The cherry and maple trees had not yet started to bud; flowers had not yet begun to grow; the juicy grubs and bugs of spring had not yet emerged; and it had been two days since Patch had found a nut. Imagine how hungry you would be if you went two whole days without eating, and you may have some idea of how Patch felt that morning.

Patch poked his head out of the drey, into the cold air, and shivered as he looked around. Clumps of white, crumbly ice still clung to the ground. Gusts of cold wind shook and rustled the trees’ bare branches. The pale and distant sun seemed drained of heat. He took a moment to satisfy himself that there were no dangers nearby, no hawk circling above or unleashed dog below. Then Patch emerged from his drey and began to look for acorns.

But what marvels, what miracles, what mysteries are hidden within those simple words!

Squirrels are extraordinary creatures. Think first of how they climb. When Patch left his drey, he went up, not down. He passed the drey of his friend and neighbor Twitch, climbed to the northernmost tip of his oak tree’s cloud of barren branches, and casually hopped onto the adjacent maple tree, home to his brother Tuft.

To a squirrel, every tree is an apartment building, connected not only by the grassy thoroughfares of the ground but by sky-roads of overlapping branches. Tree trunks are like highways to them, even branches thin as twine are like walking paths, and they leap through the sky from one tree to another like circus acrobats.

When he reached the last of the thick grove of trees, Patch paused a moment to look around and consult his memory. His memory was not like yours or mine. Human memories are like messages written on crumbling sand, seen through warped glass. But squirrels have memories like photograph albums: exact and perfect recollections of individual moments. Patch, like every squirrel, had spent the past autumn burying hundreds and hundreds of nuts and acorns, each in a different place. And he had stored all of those places in his memory book. The winter had been long, but Patch’s memory book still contained a precious few pages that depicted the locations of nuts not yet dug up and eaten. He climbed to a high branch, stood on his hind legs, and looked all around, seeking an image from one of those memories.

If you had looked at Central Park that morning with human eyes, you would have seen concrete paths, steel fences, a few early-morning joggers and dog walkers, all surrounded by fields of grass and ice and bare trees and rocks, and beyond them, Manhattan’s endless rows of skyscrapers.

But through Patch’s eyes, through animal eyes, there was no park at all. Instead Patch saw a city in itself. A vast and mighty city called the Center Kingdom. A city of trees, bushes, meadows and lakes; a city scarred by strips of barren concrete; a city surrounded by endless towering mountains. All manner of creatures lived in this city. Squirrels in their dreys, rats and mice in their underground warrens, raccoons in the bushes, fish and turtles in the lakes, birds fluttering through the trees or resting in their nests. At that hour on that day, very early on a winter morning, the Center Kingdom was almost abandoned – but soon spring would come, and the city would bloom into a thriving maelstrom of life and activity. All Patch needed to do, until that blessed time arrived, was find enough food for these last few days of winter.

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