It still feels surreal, these gray skies and salt crusted roads.
Veer off this beaten path and land into a hidden dell, deserted by nature, oppressed by the wintery fist of iron and ice.
The fallen snow, mostly melted, flank the barren trees huddled in shame at their seasonal nudity. The celebration of gold, bronze, and copper festival scarves has faded into the barren starkness of whip-like branches combing the frigid wind with the desperate clutch of a frantic person as their partner leaves them for the last time.
Only the prickly pines retain their clothed dignity, their bottle-green, wizened leaves more of a spiny deterrent in comparison to their broadleaf companions which had once sported soft, welcoming chartreuse and fuzzy avocado hues. Swaying in their aloof finery, spruces and conifers shudder and whisper disapproval at their deciduous neighbors and their careless lack of forethought for the future ice and frost.
At least, the loss of leaves implied the loss of weight -hisses the slender branches and naked trunks.
A gray blur slips through the virginal snowdrifts, punching a familiar pattern into the untouched and shy powder. Quick, yet delicate, the fuzzy visitor pops behind a tree trunk, playing peek-a-boo as it darts up the tree like an errant shadow.
Suddenly, a head peers around the trunk, a fluffy gray tail flutters in anxious consideration. Cheeks stuffed to twice their normal size, the cautious creature freezes, beady eyes seizing on any hint of movement. Seeing none, it scampers back down the trunk and hop, hop, hops across the snow, it’s tail trailing behind like a banner.
Another squirrel arrives on the scene, far enough away that the first doesn’t yet spot its unwelcome company. Perching on its hind legs, the second squirrel uses its dexterous paws to grapple its acorn as it efficiently shells and devours its prize. The first fiercely attacks a special patch of ground, digging furiously before depositing its full-cheeked winnings into storage.
The second squirrel spots its neighbor. It hops closer, cautiously approaching the first which noticed the non-stealthy approach and advances.
The chase is on.
The first squirrel swiftly sprints across the ground, the second zig-zags and disappears through the bushes -the first hot in pursuit. The bushes rustle in discomfort, then back out they dash. Aiming for a tree, they ascend, swirling round and round the trunk in an elaborate attempt at hide-and-seek. At the top, the second squirrel runs out on a thin branch and leaps to a pine.
Like a hat knocked askew, the plop of snow falling off the branch throws the whole delicate frame off-balance. The unweight branch springs up in rebound -just in time to meet the first squirrel which lands with the precision of any Olympic aerialist.
The chase continues out of sight, the branches rustle and finally still. And not a moment too soon.
First, a large shadow sweeps through the glen. Then the soft whisper of wings, the delicate kiss of talons to wood, and the soft creak of a branch announces the arrival of resident enforcer as he alights on the sturdy perch of a shivering oak. Folding its long wings with the practiced motions of an elder folding the newspaper, the red-tailed hawk shuffled briefly, getting situated juuuust right. His sharp gaze scans the ground, the nearby trees, the sky and the environment as he shrugs his feathers into position, puffing with a deep inhale that rustled and fluffed his breast-feathers like an overstuffed winter jacket.
Aside from the swaying trees, silence and stillness abound. Expectation scents the air and like motorists approaching a parked police vehicle, the resident prey appears on its best behavior and remained out of sight.
Unperturbed, the hawk settled in for a long stake-out. Still as a statue, he dozes lightly -or appears to zone out from boredom.
In the far end of the glen, a pair of milky white ears rotate like the periscope of a submerged submarine. A fuzzy pink nose sniffs delicately at the air. Whiskers quiver in the wind. All asking the same question.
Is it safe? Is it safe?
A coin figuratively flipped, the questing creature lopes into the glen, its long furry ears alert to the slightest sound. Pale white and covered in soft fur, the midsized rabbit cautiously appears, quivering and nervous. Pausing, crouching, waiting for the proverbial hammer to fall. Another hop, a startle at the plop of another clump of snow.
Is it safe? Is it safe?
Finally, purpose overcomes fright. The rabbit bounds through the snow away from the safety of the bushes and streaks toward a patch of exposed grass. Hungrily, it nibbles, grabbing a mouthful and wobbling its jaw in frantically paced chew and chew and chew. Snatching another mouthful, the ears continue to swivel.
Too bad, the rabbit neglected to look up.
The hawk watches with piercing alertness and singular focus. Silently untucking his wings, he watches for the perfect moment before launching into the air.
The rabbit grabs another mouthful.
Coasting downwards with increased velocity, the hawk folds his wings for the DIVE.
Something -a premonition- jolts the rabbit to the swiftly approaching predator. Meal forgotten, the rabbit bounds through the snow as if the hounds of hell are behind it.
The safety of the bushes -so close and yet so far- are nowhere in reach. Instinctually, the rabbit zags.
Wings outstretched, the talons extend, the hawk lands. A screech cracks through the silence.
A flurry of flapping feathers and the hawk’s beak stabs down. The stain of red blemishes the snow.
The hawk flaps his wings, dragging his catch into the partial shelter of a low hanging pine branch. Hidden in the shadows, the hawk folds his wings once more.