On an early summer day, a dog chased gray squirrels. The squirrels scattered and rested, then scattered again as the dog raced through them. Eventually, one squirrel knocked over another. The dog caught the fallen one. It shook and killed its prey.
The fallen squirrel was the father of a newborn. His mate watched as he died. She hid her pup's eyes.
"Don't look!" she hissed.
"Nothing. I'll keep you safe."
"I can't move, mama. You're sitting on me."
By the next day, her dismay over the loss of her mate had grown into a determination that the incident would not be repeated with her child. She vowed to keep him safe in their nest, a hollow cleft between branches.
When her pup wanted to leave the tree for food, she stopped him. She brought back acorns for two from her dead mate's cache. When he wanted to run and play, she pushed him back to the nest. When she caught him hanging upside down from their branch, she scolded him. When he learned to misbehave as she foraged for food, she gave up her work and relied on her sister in a neighboring oak tree.
"You're spoiling that child," said her sister.
"He does plenty," she replied. "But I make sure he's safe when he does."
"How will he grow up? Every time he asks you if he can do something, you do it for him."
"He's safer that way."
A month later, when her pup asked where he could hide nuts for himself, she allowed him to watch as she did it. He didn't go farther than the base of the tree. When a cat came out to hunt at dusk, the neighbors came out to watch. But the mother did not want her child to see. She hid him deep in her nest.
"What was that thing?" he asked.
His mother blocked his view. "You don't need to know. Stay where it's safe."
Her pup protested but he didn't fight.
By the time her pup reached maturity, he'd given up his protests. He'd come to expect that his mother would protect him. Once as his aunt was visiting, she sighted another cat. She showed it to him and took the opportunity to explain about predators.
"Don't tell him about murder!" his mother cried. "It gives him bad dreams."
"But he needs to know," said his aunt. "Everyone does."
"Go back to your own tree!"
In the late summer, the young squirrels left their parents' nests. Her son was the last. She didn't want to let him but she had to admit that he'd gotten too big for their nest. Her child saw what the other squirrels had done to find hollows in trunks and branches. Those were all long taken. He saw the nests others had built from twigs and leaves.
"How can I build my home?" he wondered.
His mother built his home, not too far from hers. All autumn, as the squirrels gathered food for the winter, her child did his best. He roamed cautiously. He was nearly killed when he failed to flee from a housecat. He found acorns all around but didn't know how to store them. He'd only watched his mother do it before, so his caches were easy to find. Other squirrels looted them. As he grew more desperate to gather food, he lost some of it forever as he ranged too far and buried too deeply.
During the winter, his mother fed both of them. They came close to starvation. They were the first squirrels out to forage in the spring. Yet they both lived thanks to the mild weather.
"Mother, how can I find a mate?" he asked one day.
"They're all around. And you're healthy. Why have none chosen you?"
She consulted her sister. Her sister pointed out that the young squirrel had been tested by mates and by rivals. He always failed.
"Help me find him a mate, sister. Please," she begged. It took a long while, but his aunt found a lonely female who was willing to meet the grown pup. But the interview ended abruptly.
"He can't care for himself," the female said. "So how could he care for my children?"
"This is a shame," his mother said. After the female had left, she turned on her son. She cried, "How did you get this way?"
"Well, it took a lot of effort to make him like this, didn't it?" said his aunt.