Category B: First Place (2020) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Emily Pham
Title: The squirrel
For my mother
Her eyes were not vibrant or otherwise lively. She did not look so different, though her claws appeared a little sharper than the rest. Her figure stood small, yet she carried the welfare of her siblings upon her back. “A mother figure and source of comfort to family”, she would say. She became a caretaker of her siblings – a task her parents failed to do.
One of the squirrel’s most documented traits is its tendency to hide nuts “for future use”.
Born into a nest of ten squirrels, her parents struggled to provide enough resources to cater the needs of the whole family. Food was either just enough for everyone or lacking. As the fifth oldest in the family, she was responsible for tending her four younger siblings and sacrificed her personal dreams for the sake of their happiness. When times were tough, she would feel utterly helpless, leaden, and unable to move. Yet, when she looks at her starving family, a fire within her begins to fuel. Adrenaline surges through her body, eliminating all the dark, daunting thoughts that fill her mind, leaving one solid thought only. Survival. Survival of today’s hardships to see tomorrow’s potential glory.
Hence, her obsession was born. She began to live for the future, rather than the present. With each passing day, she began saving more and more food in preparation for tomorrow’s use.
Smell is highly developed in squirrels and is crucial to finding food.
The sky was fading and the slight breeze in the air was momentarily trapped in the tall bamboo. Like usual, the crickets sung from within the tall, wavy grasses and the occasional hoot could be heard from the owl going about its daily hunt. But the squirrel smelled unease. Her mind told her of something impending.
The eerie darkness came and she waited. It was an unusually black night. The stars did not emerge and the slight moon was hidden by the angry clouds in the sky. Tension was palpable.
Then, screams erupted through the fields as loud as firing guns, producing a monstrous earthquake of thunder, awakening all the animals from their peaceful slumber. The squirrel knew it. She had smelled it from a mile away. With great swiftness she sped towards the river, screaming to the petrified faces of her siblings. Many fought for dominance over the vessels, baring their sharp teeth at their own scurry. She lowered her head and listened to the chaos. Was this truly the end?
Just then, the horrific cries stopped. Traumatized at the events, she decided to leave her home behind, venturing forwards in search of a new life.
Squirrels have fur that helps them blend in with their surroundings.
When the squirrel arrived in her new home, she was astounded. In contrast, there was an abundance of food and resources available. Vibrant, luscious greens covered most of the land, enriching the air with fresh oxygen that smelled like sweet candy. Seeing this brought heavy tears to her as she remembered how life had been back then. How unfair life was for those who were born at the wrong time, in the wrong place.
She took up work at a local bookshop as an accountant, and as the days passed, life felt peaceful. She worked, rested, was fed and worked, rested and was fed. She was safe here. What more could she have asked for? Nevertheless, this serene atmosphere began to disappear like a passing gleam as she fell into a state of isolation. Unlike her homeland, neighbors were distant, seldom interacting with one another. Everybody seemed to live in their own world – putting up barriers between themselves and those around them. But more importantly, she had lost her voice. In this foreign land where there was a foreign language spoken amongst the group, she felt like a stranger. With each passing day, these distant emotions began to flourish and take over. Who was she? Where did she truly belong in this world?
Yet, the fire in her soul never ceased. Slowly, she learned to talk. What was this language that these people were using and why could they not understand her? Sometimes she felt like succumbing to the inviting arms of solitude, but her wish to see tomorrow’s potential glory stopped her from doing so. After years of hard work, she finally began to blend into the background.
She had children whose lives were seamlessly planned out before they even took their first breath. They were all driven by her desire for them to talk smarter than she could. And they fell victim to the pressure, never knowing why good grades brought so much merriment to their mother. Her youngest daughter, Emily, followed her mother’s wishes to become the ‘perfect Vietnamese daughter’. By the age of six, she was scheduled to weekly piano lessons, tutoring and Vietnamese school. Emily always envied the other kids who lived a “normal, carefree life”, basking in ignorant bliss of what the future held. Yet, she always obeyed her mother who praised her for her achievements.
In year 6, Emily’s class studied the Vietnam War. After learning about the devastating lives of those affected, she could not stop thinking about how much the victims must have suffered. How could they have coped? Suddenly, it had hit her. Running up the stairs of her house, she searched frantically for the thick, velvet album her mother read every night. As she stared at the flimsy book, Emily gently turned the pages to reveal her mother’s hidden childhood. She felt her heart clench as she looked into her mother’s dull eyes and thin, distorted figure. Twelve people were crowded in one room with too little mattresses and food on the table – yet they smiled. At this moment, she finally understood her mother’s unwavering desire for her success. It was also this day that she promised to work hard for her mother’s smile and to remind her of today’s blessings.