The Tale of Irtica
A Sai of Love

This story was one of two 'Sais of Love' I wrote for my writer's group. The term 'Sai of Love' refers to a story no longer than 1667 words that contains a particular batch of arbitrary elements, one of which was chosen by each member of the group. Those elements are as follows:

What would you come up with, given these conditions?

His feet hurt, yet he wouldn't stop digging. The foremost thought in his mind became: The longer I dig, the more energy I burn. If I dig long enough, the chestnut won't restore my lost energy. I'll have been digging for nothing. To say nothing of what I could have done with the time I'll have wasted. I might have found a dozen chestnuts instead. Slowly, this line of thinking became a question: Why am I digging? Why does this one chestnut matter so much?

One part of him told him he was right-he shouldn't be digging; he'd already wasted so much energy for nothing. Another told him that he must never give up, must leave no nut unturned; that as he had planted this nut in the ground, it was his responsibility to retrieve it, no matter what the cost…for if he didn' might well become a tree.

Whereupon he discovered that, all this time, he'd been digging at the roots of a chestnut tree. The whole tree had grown since he began to dig, and he was making no more headway now, and for nothing, and he couldn't begin to fathom the time and energy he'd lost…

Irtica woke in the shelter and solitude of his drey. He had built it, four months ago, in a chestnut tree. The connection had never meant anything to him until now.

The idea of a squirrel who hated trees was absurd inside and out. Yet Irtica found himself taking that route, as the winter proceeded and he was forced to spend ninety percent of his time cooped up in his own, continually haunted by the idea that a nut he himself had buried the autumn before last had produced this tree, however nonsensical it was to imagine a tree growing to full size in so short a time.

When the signs of spring finally came, he was among the first to return to full activity. A few of the brawniest males harassed him, thinking that he meant to compete with them for the first females once they awakened. Truthfully, he was just glad to be out of that horrible tree. His first week was spent building a second drey in the rafters of an old garage-the sort of thing that could never spring from neglected food. After that, he dismantled his former home and entered the race for a mate.

As in so many fields, the mainstream of female squirrels were unimpressed with his now lean frame, and favored those males who had spent this preliminary week bulking up from their near-hibernation. A few, though, were attracted to the unusual and the outliers, and Irtica was one such. By his third day of pursuit, he knew the very girl he wanted.

She was a sleek, slender squirrel whose soaring leaps outshone the rest. Her reach was fantastic. She struck one as would some translucent section of sky, a spry, silent springer, the singular squirrel possessed of the strength and speed to skid down the closest sycamore's limbs and soar smoothly to Irtica's chosen garage's shingles. She visited occasionally, giving Irtica chances to explain and explore his subtlest thoughts, and thus to amass superior understanding himself.

Nuts are sacred, he explained to her. Each nut is like a soul being torn between warring forces-whether to be eaten and thereby nourish a living being, or to grow into a tree and provide services over the course of years. The second option, he explained, while good, is far from preferable, as it takes quite a long time and a lot of water and sunshine before it can be accomplished, and still longer before the tree decays and becomes absorbed, in the long run, by animal life, a goal that can be much more properly achieved by simply eating the nut in the first place.

Having heard all of these radical ideas expounded to fullness, the female promptly left him, calling him a tree-hater. Worst of all, she took up residence not far away with a large mate, and appeared to greet Irtica whenever she had a spare minute.

He fell into sorrow.

It was too late to acquire a mate for that spring. There were, however, opportunities throughout the year, and the weather was warming, so Irtica became cheery again. He believed that his ideas about nut gathering must be improved before he could win the mates he wanted.

He started with the simpleminded theory that the problem lay in separating oneself from one's goods. To bury a nut was, therefore, wrong: it was far better to eat them as they came. Irtica therefore buried nothing, ate nuts compulsively, and became very fat. He tried his utmost to remain agile in that condition; it was not to be, however, and he soon gave up the notion. His fat left him quickly, one of the benefits of an active life. With that, it was back to burial. A methodical sorter and thinker, when Irtica applied his gifts to the art of nut burial and retrieval, his theories flourished. Now, more than a tree-hating crackpot, Irtica became a guru. By the autumn, he had perfected a system by which he ambitiously meant not to lose a single nut to memory decay. The winter would test his system mercilessly.

The thaw that year eroded landforms familiar to Irtica. Various things had changed from autumn to spring, causing him to lose track of one nut in a hundred; he revised his ideas accordingly and continued to apply them. By summertime, he was attracting squirrels in their first or second years, begging him to instruct them. He did so happily, and found that he was an exceptional, if somewhat overbearing, teacher.

Ironically, the more time he spent establishing his reputation as a desirable companion, the less time he had available for courtship. He did his best, and even managed to father a few children (without ever knowing it). He had yet, though, to win the true affection of the petite female with the huge reach in her leap.

By the following year, he was famous. The year after that, he attracted the attention of the U.S. government. Trapped by a literal dragnet, he was hauled off by humans and fully expected to die. Instead, he was taken from his home of Peoria, Illinois to a bureaucratic facility in Chicago. There, a lean middle-aged man offered a bribe, rather than the threats he'd expected. Food stamps-nuts, seeds, bread, fruits, cheese-in exchange for nothing more than modifying his teachings. "The art of how and when to bury nuts is fine…we just don't want you teaching young squirrels how to remember where they buried them."

"Really? Why not?" he asked timidly.

"It endangers the future of numerous tree species. Most of the trees that western gray squirrels eat in nut or acorn form depend on squirrel dispersal for steady growth. Whereas, if you reliably dig up and eat every single nut you plant…"

Irtica was astonished. "You're environmentalists?"

"We receive funding from environmentalists, along with many other sources. We're concerned with everything, Mr. Irtica."

Irtica didn't further question his good fortune. He accepted the copious food stamps he was issued, and didn't listen to those who claimed the agency that had taken him in had a more sinister ultimate agenda. "People will always be threatened by changes to the status quo," he said, shrugging. And, rather than continue a watered-down form of his teaching, he retired from it entirely.

No one knew for sure why he had retired, or what his next step would be. Squirrels are social creatures who let news get around, and from what opinion got back to Irtica, he learned that a hero such as he was considered could not be expect to return to a simple life after retiring. And they were right.

He went to the sleek female again. She was willing to speak to him seriously again. She asked him if it was true that he had accepted a pay-off. Reluctantly, he confessed that he had.

She was impressed. She proposed to him that they milk this windfall for all it was worth.

And, for the first time, she agreed to be his mate. Whereupon-friskiness ensued.

Together, with the help of a friendly local pit bull, the two trained to be swift, agile, stealthy, and resourceful against any and all potential captors. They would dodge around the dog's yard, with certain easy escapes declared off-limits, and avoid her repeated tries to nab them. As the dog was well-fed, she had no trouble restraining herself from finishing them off when they were caught, and after several months of this, the two squirrels were nearly unassailable.

This done, they went into teaching together. No longer would they stay in one city or even one state. Their fame only grew, and, known as the ninjas of the squirrel world, they spread Irtica's methods of seed retrieval all over the American Midwest. Their services, and even the honor of their presence, were highly valued everywhere.

The government came for them again. Many times, in many states, in many ways. Baited shacks in the woods. Trained agency dogs. Sharpshooters. Even gray squirrel plants, bearing poison and begging to sniff under Irtica's tail. With the help of the sleek female who was now his permanent mate, he avoided all these attempts.

With that, the two sent a messenger to the local FBI branch, trusting that the people who were seeking him, whether FBI or not, would get the message. They wanted more.

They wanted their own farm.

They wanted a place in Kansas where they could grow sunflowers (and harvest their seeds) to their hearts' content. They wanted a place where they could grow their own trees, along with any kind of crop they fancied, and trade them for all the nuts they could eat. Where they could invite as many squirrels to live as they wanted, and set the rules for themselves.

The government sent him a letter saying that they were doing their best to make the deal possible. The letter was laced with a potent contact poison. Irtica's mate was killed.

Irtica was not heard from again after that. Some say he built a drey at the top of the tallest pine tree he could find, and stayed there for as long as he could, eating pinecones when he was hungry and tossing those he had no room for into the wind. Some say he never touched the earth again.

There are still squirrels around here whose ancestors were taught by Irtica and his mate, and they still remember his method for retrieving acorns and nuts with one hundred percent accuracy. They're afraid to use it, though. It's not that the government cares anymore. It's that they now believe there's something unnatural about any system that's too perfect. It doesn't have a place in a world where trees depend on squirrels, and squirrels depend on trees, and loves depend on lovers. Better to do things the old way.

Teach the kits, though, just in case.