Mr. Porcupine looked forward to the first day of winter most of all. It wasn’t so much the promise of snow or the crisp pleasant chill that blew through his quills. Instead it was the day the other the animals would frantically scurry around as they finished their preparations for hibernation. Mr. Porcupine himself did not hibernate. He just preferred to be alone. Well, that’s not entirely true. You see, Mr. Porcupine learned at an early age that many animals in the forest were not very accustomed to playing with an animal as… prickly as he was. His outside was certainly very prickly indeed, but his inside was very tender. He was a gentle creature who just wanted to belong. Sadly, he found it no easier ignoring the sideways glances and hidden giggles of some of the less than generous forest animals as he aged, so Mr. Porcupine withdrew more and more until he found himself living just about as far away as he could bear while still being able to watch the community he longed to be accepted by. But the many long years made this wish too painful to admit to himself, so he began to pretend like he chose this life of solitude. And then, without meaning to, his heart began to believe he deserved it. He tried to make sense of it all by singing a little song to himself.
“My quills are a curse to keep others at bay.
They’re safer the further they are anyway.
For my existence, I guess I shall ever atone,
So it’s better for all if I live life alone.”
But on the first day of winter, Mr. Porcupine would allow his longing heart an indulgence. He would sit on the log that stuck out of the top of the hill near his den and watch the forest creatures below. And in the evening, he would bounce on his log and clap with delight when all the animals would come together for one final dance in the clearing. The Hibernation Festival was almost as big a celebration as the Celebration of the Thaw. Oh how Mr. Porcupine wished to be a part of the festival and he carried an unacknowledged hope that someone, someday, would wish him a “Happy Hibernation”. (Even though he himself did not hibernate. But he thought it might feel nice to be included.) So this first day of winter, as in all the others, he wiggled each quill into place and he licked his paw and tried to pat down the scraggled tuft of hair on the top of his head, while telling himself he didn’t mind if anyone noticed him at all. He then took his usual perch and looked down at the valley below. As he expected, he saw all the animals fluttering and scrambling here and there, back and forth, preparing for their long winter’s nap. For anyone else, this view may get tiresome after a while but not for Mr. Porcupine. In fact, in the third hour, his fascination betrayed him when he leaned out a little too far and the log he sat on shifted ever so slightly, which caused him to lose his balance and topple paws over quills, spinning wildly as he bounced down the hill. The hillside was surprisingly muddy and slick and offered little to stop his descent. If anything, the mud caking into his quills only made him slicker and faster. At top speed he crashed through a berry bush, getting red berries stuck to most of his quills, he exploded through a clump of tall dry grass which stuck to the mud on his back and he smashed a large ant hill, picking up about half the colony. Several sticks and twigs broke off and snagged in his ever growing tangled mess and just before he landed at the bottom of the hill, he bounced off the back of Old Moose, pulling a fair patch of rump fur off his backside which wrapped up in Mr. Porcupine’s own hair and quills just above his head. Old Moose let out a loud holler as flying quills left a bare patch on his hide and Mr. Porcupine landed in a heap of mud and twigs and berries and grass and ants. The animals near the bottom of the hill cackled at this strange sight that crashed into their valley and Old Moose, who otherwise was very kind and respectful, lashed out in hurt and embarrassment at Mr. Porcupine. “HEY, YOU! STUPID MUD BALL! WHY DON’T YOU GO BACK WHERE YOU BELONG?!” Since these were the first words Mr. Porcupine had heard spoken directly to him in quite some time they grabbed his already fragile heart and sank his spirit. Mr. Porcupine stammered out his best apology as Old Moose awkwardly hobbled away backwards, trying to hide his rear.
To Mr. Porcupine, this whole ordeal proved he did not belong. With his head hanging low he made his way slowly toward the river to wash off his burdens before returning to his den for good. His right front leg had twisted during his descent and the load on his back was so heavy that he walked with a limp. But what hurt more than his foot was the unkind thoughts about himself that were now filling his mind. Insults more cutting than anything any other animal had ever said about him. He was so preoccupied with his self-punishment that he walked right into a tree. The trunk trembled and startled the squirrel family that lived in a hole about halfway up. Mr. Porcupine shook his head as a small voice shouted “Hey, you!” Mr. Porcupine didn’t attempt an apology this time but kept his head down and walked on. The small voice called again. “HEY! YOU!!” Mr. Porcupine tried to walk faster but his leg and his load would not allow it. In another moment Mother Squirrel caught up to him, waving her arms in his face. “PLEASE STOP! OH PLEASE OH PLEASE STOP!!” Mother squirrels’ eyes looked deep into his. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had looked into his eyes, even in anger. But Mother Squirrel wasn’t angry. She was afraid. “If you would please stop sir!” So he did. “Thank you! You see, our young ones are too young to leave the nest, and our tree was attacked by woodpeckers, and we don’t have time to find a new hole to nest in before the snow, and… oh please Sir! I see you’ve collected so many belongings for your hibernation but could I… could I please ask… that clump of fur you’ve collected looks so warm and cozy. It would be just perfect to wrap my little ones in as the snow blows. Could… Would… May I have it?” Mr. Porcupine stood there, not knowing what to say so he slowly nodded. She pushed aside his quills and hugged his mud-covered face, then she wound up the entire clump of moose hair around her tail, and scurried back to her tree, accidentally yanking out a few of Mr. Porcupine’s quills in the process. Mr. Porcupine didn’t know what to make of this, or whether he should make anything of it. So he continued on towards the river.
This was not to be the only time an animal would stop him in his path. Not all were as kind as Mother Squirrel, but all needed something, something that they found stuck to Mr. Porcupine’s back. And Mr. Porcupine was surprised by a joy each time something that weighed him down was taken to help another. The Rabbits needed the tall grass, the Quail and Finches needed the delicious red berries, and Doctor Badger needed some twigs. The Toad Brothers hopped on the large sticks on his back while Father Turtle walked next to him at his leisurely pace and each of them snapped and nibbled at the crawling ants. Occasionally Father Turtle would accidentally nip Mr. Porcupine’s side, but each time he would drawl out an apology. With the last ant gobbled up, the Toad Brothers belched and hopped off, and Father Turtle slowly turned to walk away. But as he shuffled off, he stretched his long neck back at Mr. Porcupine and unhurriedly called out “Ha-ppy Hi-ber-nat-ing!” Even though Mr. Porcupine did not hibernate, it did indeed feel good to be included.
He approached the river with a lighter heart and a lighter load. All that remained stuck in his quills were gobs of mud and two large sticks. He passed by the beaver lodge as the Beaver Clan argued loudly about the best way to fix a leak in their dam. It felt wonderful having something others needed, so assuming this interaction would be like all the others, Mr. Porcupine walked up to the beavers. He waited patiently, hoping they would notice him. They did not. He cleared his throat twice, but they continued bickering. He summoned the courage and spoke, though in his eagerness, his words came out much louder than he meant them to. “HEY, YOU!” This startled the nearest beaver who toppled over and splashed into the cold water. He came out spluttering and glared at Mr. Porcupine. Embarrassment washed over Mr. Porcupine to the tips of his quills and his voice left him again. “Well? What do you want?” The oldest beaver said impatiently. Mr. Porcupine could only reply with a whisper. “Speak up! Whatever you want to say is clearly more important than our winter dam repairs!” “Yeah! Let’s have it, mud ball!” the wet beaver snarled as he shook himself dry. Mr. Porcupine now couldn’t say anything. Instead, he started wobbling his back rather awkwardly, much to the amusement of the beavers, until the two remaining large sticks came loose and clattered to the ground. He sheepishly looked up at the beavers who stared at the muddy sticks and then back at him. Their following laughter was explosive, and their ridicule was cruel. Among slights more impolite, Mr. Porcupine heard, “Dam advice from a mud ball!” “Keep walking pal!” “Why don’t you go back where you belong?” So, Mr. Porcupine picked the sticks back up, slid them into the mud on his back and limped upstream.
With a heavy heart, Mr. Porcupine slid into the chilly river and shivered as the water ran over his body. He sat in silence, waiting to be cleaned so he could “go back where he belonged”. But when he thought about where he belonged, his den on the top of the hill was not what came to mind. To his surprise he saw the tree of Mother Squirrel and her younglings, snuggled in the warm tuft of moose hair. He saw Old Moose who spoke so harshly to him, but only did so out of his own pain. He saw the Quail family that collected berries from his quills. The Rabbit family that hopped around him so quickly as they gathered the grass from his back for their burrows. Gruff Doctor Badger, and the Toad Brothers and kind Father Turtle who nipped at his sides and wished him a Happy Hibernation. And yes, even the Beaver Clan who dismissed him so quickly, even they came to mind. Whether it was always easy or whether everyone wanted him there or not, this valley was where he was placed and these animals were those he could help. This was home. This was where he belonged. At that moment, the two sticks dislodged from his back and floated downstream. He paddled after them, hoping not to cause more trouble for the beavers. However, the sticks lodged themselves tightly in the gap, filling the hole and sealing most of the leak. Peaking over the dam he saw that the beavers had gone to the Hibernation Festival and had given up trying to fix it for the evening. So, Mr. Porcupine turned and rubbed his back around and around and over and over, causing clumps of mud to cover the sticks and the remaining gaps. He giggled to himself as he admired his admittedly amateur dam repair work. “It’s not such a bad thing being a mud ball!”
Mr. Porcupine reentered the valley with new eyes. Now clean of his burdens, he waddled back to the valley and stood to the side of a big tree and watched the dancing as the Hibernation Festival was in full swing. A few animals saw him, and he noticed their same sideways glances as before. It still stung, but in a different way. Although he wished they would, they didn’t need to care for him for him to care for them. Then he saw Mother Squirrel on the other side of the dancing circle, twirling around with her young. He caught her eye and she raised her paws in delight! She slipped over to Mr. Porcupine and hugged his face again. She kissed his forehead and led him by the paw over to her family. She introduced him to her little ones and her mate. They all thanked Mr. Porcupine for his gift and Mr. Porcupine stood with them, watching the dance. The young squirrels even got him to twirl a time or two. Throughout the evening a few other animals came by and to varying degrees acknowledged Mr. Porcupine’s contribution to their winter survival. The beavers could be heard making a few rude comments from across the circle. They never would acknowledge the service Mr. Porcupine paid them. But Father Turtle came over and spent a few minutes talking with Mr. Porcupine about their irregular hides and they found that they had much in common. After all, an animal with sharp spines and a reptile with a hard shell must have been designed to become good friends. The Hibernation Festival went on until the moon rose directly above the clearing, and as the party ended the unmistakable snow bearing clouds began to roll in. The animals all said their goodbyes, and many wished Mr. Porcupine a “Happy Hibernation”. This time he wished them the same, even though he himself did not hibernate, because it truly was wonderful to be included. Mr. Porcupine waved goodbye to his new friends, and he even waved goodbye to the beaver clan as he turned and limped his way back up the hill. His limp would never quite leave him, but he didn’t mind. It would always remind him of the day he fell into his community, and the gift it was that his burdens were used to help them in their time of need.
At the end of winter, on the first day of spring, the day of the Festival of the Thaw, Mr. Porcupine wiggled each quill into place and straightened each hair and licked his paw and tried to pat down the scraggled tuft of hair on the top of his head, while thinking of the community he would be glad to see again. Then, carefully this time, he made his way down the hill to the valley. Stopping along the way to poke some berries on his quills, gathering some fresh grass for the rabbits, collecting a few choice beetles for his good friend Father Turtle, and carrying a branch in his teeth full of acorns down for whoever else wanted a spring morning snack. Even the beavers would be welcome to the branch. As his feet hit the grass of the valley again, before welcoming his friends back as they awoke from their long sleep, he sang to himself a new song.
“My quills are a gift that can bring others near.
My heart will now rest in this love, not in fear.
To bless them from my burden, making right out of wrong,
This is how I now know that it’s here I belong.”
The featured image is courtesy of Jacob Dyer on Unsplash.
Adam wanders through the arts as a vagabond. Though he “still hasn’t found what he’s looking for” he seeks to pull on the golden thread that has been woven through our stories, trusting that it leads Home to the Author of our souls. Adam and his wife Sarah have 3 children and live in Northern Colorado. His writings (and a few other things) can be found at his website.
This is beautiful. Thank you. You have blessed me more than you know.
Thank you very much for saying so Jen!
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