The day had long since ended, and the night had reduced the trees to silhouettes. Two small shapes darted through the treetops. One after another, they would touch down on a branch with barely a rustle and leap away by the next second. They were headed towards the edge of the forest. There, a towering pine held the nest of an old blue jay. The two figures, squirrels, stopped to rest in a cranny before they continued.
“So... how do you- er- we do this?” asked one of the squirrels. The other held her face in thought.
“Same way I always do, I guess. Climb up there and show off my lovely little claws. We can stick him in the lake after.” She looked up at her companion. “But I’ll handle the dirty work. You,” She said while prodding the other’s nose, “little Min, will keep watch.”
Min swatted her sister’s paw away. “That’s all I can do? I don’t just want to be dead weight, Harper.”
“I’m serious. If some bird-brained lackey hears, I’ll be too busy to notice. Besides, you can carry the real dead weight later.” Harper let out a quick laugh under her breath.
Min shook her head at her and turned to look in the direction of their target. If all went well, Big Blue would be dead in a short while. The other jays would be busy with the power vacuum, and the squirrels could gather food in peace for a while. If things didn’t go well...well.
Harper straightened up. “Last chance for questions, we need to stay quiet on our way up. Especially near the top.” She looked expectantly at her sister. Min furrowed her brow.
“Are you sure you can do this?”
“Done it before, haven’t I? Just watch my back, and get out of there if something goes wrong. I’ll be fine.”
Min took a deep breath. Things would be fine. She stood up, ready to take off. “Let’s go,” she said, “before something spots us chattering.” Harper nodded, and they scampered into the dark.
Soon enough, they were staring up at a vast evergreen. It dwarfed the trees surrounding it and blocked many of the stars with its immense boughs. The woods seemed utterly silent like everything was staring at the tree in awe. Nonetheless, they could not afford distraction. Harper signaled for Min to scout ahead.
Min took one last look at her sister and began to scramble up the trunk. As she gained altitude, her movements became rigid and skittish. She flinched whenever her tail brushed against the bark. At any moment, she could get swooped up in the talons of an owl, or mauled by a martin. What if Big Blue knew what they were planning? What if he was already waiting for her, flanked by ferocious feathered fiends? It was getting hard to breathe.
At last, she neared the top. The branches had thinned out enough that she could see out over the landscape. She swiftly swiveled her head, searching for the nest. Her heart stopped when she saw him. Her claws dug deeper into the tree. Wedged in a forked limb lay a neat tangle of plant matter. In the middle sat a fat, scruffy blue jay, dozing away.
Something tapped her shoulder, causing her breath to hitch. It was Harper, who had been trailing behind her a short distance away. Once Min had a chance to calm herself Harper gestured for her to perch on the next branch up and stand guard. While Min got into position, Harper edged toward the side of the nest. Big Blue stayed fast asleep.
Min scanned the sky for danger, but so far the coast was clear. She chanced a look down at her sibling. She was balanced on the brim of the nest on all fours. She leaned back, preparing to jump. At the last moment, she glanced up at Min and nodded. Then she lunged.
Harper hopped off of the ledge, somehow managing to soar in the space of a few inches. She landed on the bird, and immediately shot a paw towards his beak. Big Blue was jerked out of his beauty sleep and tried to jab his beak in the direction of the culprit. This only made it easier for the squirrel on top of him to seize it shut. She threw her other arm around his throat and used her long teeth to snap at his eyes. The blue jay clenched them tight. He tried to buck the rodent off his back, and with an unusually forceful twist, succeeded.
Big Blue pounded his wings, crying out with a screechy jeer. He escaped to a few feet away from Harper flew after him. She clutched the bottom of his tail and pulled him down, as though trying to climb the feathers. The two crashed down hard enough to leave the branch shuddering from the impact. Harper scrambled to pin down the bird by the throat. She kept her nails buried in his neck as he lost consciousness.
“Stop! Please!” he said as his voice slowed to a rasp.
Harper stared at him. In time, his body went limp. Once she was sure he wouldn’t try to wrestle his way free, Harper flipped Big Blue over. She grabbed his shoulder with one arm and his upper wing with another and twisted. She twisted until a delicate pop rang out. Her job finished, Harper closed her eyes and wiped her brow.
Min had zoned out a while ago. The sound of the dislocating wing snapped her back to reality. She gazed at the crooked remains of the bird who had for so long been the scourge of her community. He had taken the local blue jays, who were at least solitary thieves, and organized them, turning them into an unstoppable nut-stealing force. “And now,” she thought, “he’s dead.”
“Hey!” Harper whispered. “I’m gonna toss him over the edge to save time,” she said, “Then we’ll drag his body to the water and vamoose.” She looked at said body. “Get down here and help. You look like you need to talk, anyways.”
Min bounded down a level and landed softly. She sighed. She was positive that she was feeling something, but she didn’t know what. It couldn’t be grief. She hated Big Blue.
“Yoohoo, little Min. Let’s move, we need to dump this guy,” said Harper. “Go grab his feet, I’ll take the head. We can walk along the split up to the edge, then throw on the count of three.” She moved to pick up the considerably grosser top half. The eyes were still open.
Min walked over to the feet. “How did you do that?” she asked. “I mean- I know how. I saw.” She looked down. She couldn’t make out the individual needles.
Harper looked up. From here the sky was visible, yet it was still murky due to the sliver of a moon. The stars stood out in the dimness. It was dark enough to hide in but light enough to see through. If it weren’t for the events that had just unraveled, she would have called it a perfect night. Still, it was pretty good. She bit her lip.
“I don’t want you to feel guilty,” she said. The two started making their way toward the edge. “We’re helping everybody survive, aren’t we?. Winter’s a lot easier this way. Besides, you didn’t lay a finger on him.”
They had reached the ends of the twin branches. Min and Harper heaved the corpse overboard. They watched as it tumbled below, bouncing out sight. Then, a noise appeared in the distance that made their hearts drop. It couldn’t be.
A scream cut through the calm. It might have been a hawk if not for the time. It was too high pitched to be an owl. They couldn’t see where it was coming from. They needed to run, now, but where?
“Cripes!” said Harper, “I think Big Blue called for backup.” The screeching got louder. A blur of blue and white nosedived between the squirrels. Min dashed towards the safety of the inner branches where the blue jay couldn’t notice her. Harper tried to follow, but the bird plunged down again. He alighted on the limb with a thud. Curling herself down, she backed away.
Even though they were about the same size, the blue jay radiated intimidation. His head twitched to and fro like he was watching her from all angles. Step by step the wood thinned beneath her feet. If she was going to make her escape it had to be soon, or else there would be no more branch. Harper peered back at her sister’s hideout. Mercifully, Min was still there, mostly concealed by the needles; unfortunately, she was about to launch herself at the bird.
Min pounced. The blue jay nearly toppled over on impact. He thrashed until Min let go. Whirling around, he faced the other squirrel and charged. Harper tackled him before he could reach her.
This yanked the bird backward. Wings fluttered, trying to regain some balance. He took to the air. Harper dangled from his frenzied form. Min desperately rushed after the runaway fowl. She was too late. The pair rose up, up, and away from the tree. Every flap loosened Harper’s grip.
Her paws slipped. Min gaped as her sister plummeted. She tried to call out, but her mouth allowed nothing but a weak squeal to escape. Harper, unhindered by any boughs, descended rapidly. Limbs and tail flailed, searching for anything to hold on to.
“Go!” she yelled. There was no reason for Min to get hurt. She continued to fall until she hit the ground. Her tiny body hardly made a sound. The wilderness hushed.
The blue jay wasted no time moving on to his next mark. He knocked Min down to the branch below. Pine needles pricked and scraped her skin. As soon as she recovered her footing she clambered down the side of the tree. Several times the weight in her stomach caused her to stumble and trip. Min collided with the ground panting.
Where to go? Where to go? There was no time to get Harper’s body. She wasn’t even sure that she could stand to carry it back. Traveling through the trees was out of the question, not with that jay on her trail. Instead, she sprinted through the underbrush.
Min wasn’t sure how long she ran for. Gray indigo now tinted the sky. A strong wind blew, and her legs gave out, leaving her slumped against a protruding root. Exhaustion and sorrow bore down on her. Hopefully, the blue jay gave up. She couldn’t budge if wanted to. What was the point?
It shouldn't have happened like this. Harper would still be here if she didn't jump. Or if she was faster. Or if Big Blue stayed quiet. Or if he just never existed in the first place.
Her train of thought carried on like this. It was simpler to be angry than sad. "Not one part of tonight needed to happen, and it wouldn't have if the blue jays didn't start it all," Min thought. Numbness set in as she began plotting. She didn't care what it took, they would pay.