Chapter 4 (Partial)
Into the Tidendal Woods
Some miles away from Alf’s homestead and months before Punzel and Arne’s arrival, a mysterious and frightening illness was spreading among the woodland creatures.
The warm fingers of the early spring sun reached through the budding branches of the forest, gently prodding the animals and plants to awaken to the rites of nature’s renewal. Snow drops, always the most anxious of spring flowers, poked their dainty heads through the warming soil to greet the new season. They heard the sounds of busy saws and hammers as the woodlanders repaired dwellings damaged by winter. Dainty curtains and linens flapped in the crisp breeze as spring house cleaning was in evidence throughout the land. No self-respecting person, or creature, would think of playing before house duties were completed.
Along the forest riverbank, tufts of grass turned from light to dark green, enriched by the sun’s vital rays. The river flowed swiftly over gravel and logs and slithered around huge rocks and sandbars, carving a serpentine trail through the stirring forest. At one bend, a collection of fallen logs calmed the churning water. Anchored to these logs was a network of branches that gave shelter to a colony of green frogs. Torv, a teenage member of the colony, was hopping along the beach picking up twigs. He stopped when he saw his friend Lucia trip over a tree root. She blinked her large round eyes at him and plopped down on a rock.
“I’m not paying much attention to what I’m doing this morning,” Lucia muttered. “I guess it’s because I have a lot on my mind. My aunt hasn’t been feeling well. Last night I talked with Maria and Rose. They said their parents have stomach aches like my aunt. It’s beginning to sound like an epidemic, but none of us younger frogs are sick. I wonder why?”
Torv dropped his pile of twigs and sat down beside her. “Even though we are small, we are the first to notice when something in the river isn’t right. Let’s ask the otters if they have heard of any sickness in other frog colonies. They travel further along the river.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea,” Lucia replied.
Then, suddenly Lucia threw up her arms. “I’ve got it! Something in the water could be making the older frogs ill. Oh, what’s next! It’s bad enough living close to a couple of blue herons. She isn’t too bad, but he’s a rogue. He stands on that sand bar so quiet and still, pretending that he’s looking for a nice fat, juicy fish. Then, ZAP! He grabs one of us. He has NO conscience at all!”
“Look, here comes Bertil.” Torv stood up and waved. “Maybe he can tell us what’s happening to our elders. Uh, oh, he looks kind of excited.” The river otter’s sleek head broke the water’s surface and he bounded onto the bank near Torv’s pile of twigs. “What’s the matter, Bertil?” asked Torv.
“I have bad news.” The tawny otter shook his head. “The older frogs are sick in the colony by the tannery. They have been poisoned! Is anyone ill in your colony?”
“Yes,” they cried. “Many of our elders
are sick. Are they being poisoned, too?”
“Yes. I think food poisoning is most likely the cause of their illness and that tannery is responsible,” Bertil scratched his head. “The tannery uses strong chemicals to process leather. The acid waste from those chemicals was dumped onto the ground last fall and it seeped into the river water this spring. The insects in the water have absorbed the poison and then the frogs eat the insects. If your elders are sick, the poison has already traveled this far from the tannery. I must find out what food is poisoning the older frogs and swim downriver to warn others of the danger.”
“I knew it was something in the water!” Lucia jumped up ready for action. “We want to go with you. Let us tell the others and then we will be right back.” Torv nodded in agreement.
“Okay, but please hurry,” urged Bertil. “I have a feeling we’re already too late to help any water creature that lives downriver from the tannery.”
Bertil’s news spread like wildfire and before long Lucia and Torv were back, along with several of their friends. The young frogs had asked their parents for permission to go along and Ralph, Torv’s friend, told Bertil, “My father said that the spitting wattle bugs have had a very odd flavor this spring and they are a favorite of many older frogs.”
“Well, I’ll be!” Torv did a backward flip. “They must have poison in them. All we have to do is taste the spitting wattle bugs and if they taste bad, we’ll know how far the poison has spread.”
“That’s a good idea, Torv,” praised Ralph. “But we must warn everyone to spit them out after tasting them or we will get sick too.” The spitting wattle bug would be their test of safe water.
Bertil and the abler older frogs promptly constructed two twig rafts, each woven with wood vine. All agreed that using rafts to float with the river’s current would save their energy for the return swim home. Meanwhile, the young frogs found strong sticks to act as rudders and packed baskets with dried bugs from the winter’s storage. They weren’t taking any chances on river food. By late morning the rafts were finished. As soon as the food baskets were secured, the sailors pushed off from shore and the rafts were immediately swept into the river’s current.
Shouts from shore carried wishes for
a safe journey and a speedy return.
The rafts would steer to the side of the river for the taste test whenever spitting wattle bugs were sighted. The answer was always the same: “These bugs taste yucky!” After a while the wattle bug sightings grew fewer and raft travel became monotonous. Bertil, never one to be bored, would swim below the rafts to investigate shadowy rocks surrounded by waterborne roots and undulating vegetation. His intrusion sent schools of small fish or minnows into hiding.
In mid afternoon, the river knifed through a tunnel of branches. Inspired by Bertil, the shipmates decided to make up a game of their own.
“Last one through the tunnel is a toad,” croaked Torv.
Suddenly the rafts were transformed into centipedes as every frog took up the challenge. Webbed feet splashed from the sides and rear. Even Torv’s feet could be seen flapping in the water. Ralph’s raft was in the lead at first, then Lucia’s raft took the lead. Excitement abounded! However, the race came to an abrupt end as the tunnel narrowed. Bong! The rafts collided sending everyone sprawling. Arms and legs bumped heads and bodies. After untangling themselves and checking the food baskets, they found that all was intact. All agreed that it had been a great game and declared the race a tie. (Young ones on a serious mission sometimes need to bolster their spirits with a good diversion.)
Beyond the tunnel the river broadened and flowed at a more leisurely pace. The gentle motion invited the weary sailors to stretch out and relax in the late afternoon sunshine. Soon they fell asleep. Bertil swam for a while, but then he too relaxed and flipped on his backside to float and gaze at the puffy clouds playing tag overhead.
Meanwhile, unseen from the river below, the mischievous, black raven, Kiergaard, hid in the overhead branches of a birch tree. He had spotted the voyagers while hunting and impatiently waited for the rest of his band to join him. When they had assembled, he whispered, “I’ve spotted a bunch of frogs down on the river. What say we have some sport and give them a good scare?” The ravens’ hunt had been successful, leaving them in a good mood. Eager for fun, they nodded in agreement, and when Kiergaard gave the signal, the flock dove toward their quarry. Pandemonium ensued as the startled frogs awoke to the sound of the raven’s flapping wings and then the little green bodies leaped into a watery retreat. Sharp claws scratched the twig rafts as the heavy birds tried to land on the small, rocking crafts. Below, the water was charged with foam as the frightened frogs propelled themselves downward toward the safety of the river bottom.
Watching his friends’ plight, Bertil yelled at the ravens, trying to distract them, but the ravens were giddy with pleasure and chose to ignore him. Bertil frantically searched for another way to divert their attention. He spied several pebbles on the shore, picked them up in his small paws and hurled them as hard as he could. He hit three marauders and missed two. Not bad, he thought, but I can do better. He mustered up more energy and let another stone fly. Conk! This rock struck Kiergaard on the side of his head. The blow was too much for the raven leader. Badly shaken, he signaled his band to retreat. The game no longer amused him.
Bertil was jubilant as he watched the ravens fly away. “There they go!” He pounded his chest in jubilation as the young frogs returned to the river’s surface. “It was fun seeing them chased away by me, a little otter.”
The green chorus echoed his enthusiasm. “Hurrah for Bertil! Thank you for saving us.”
“It’s all in a journey’s work.” He smiled a very satisfied smile. “Let’s be on our way before they decide to return and give us another try.”
As the long shadows of the woods enveloped the light on the river, the adventurers spied a bunch of spitting wattle bugs swimming around a cluster of marsh marigold shoots. Lucia noticed the fading daylight. “This will be our last chance today to know if the poison has spread this far downriver.” She snapped up a skittish bug with her graceful tongue. “This tastes no better than the rest.” She spit it out in dismay.
Beyond the marigold shoots, they found shelter for the night in a hollow formed by the roots of a gnarled willow. Exhausted and hungry, Bertil invited his friends to sample a stew of steamed roots and lemon grass instead of the dried bugs. To the newly initiated it tasted weird, but they were hungry and ate it all. During the meal, Ralph voiced discouragement.
“We have traveled quite a distance and have found no safe water,” Ralph complained. “It seems like the poison is traveling faster than we are. I vote that some of us return home in the morning.” It was agreed that Ralph would lead half of the frogs back to their colony and the rest would continue downriver by raft to warn the next frog colony of the poison in the river. Each group would use the shore’s cover of dense overhead branches to avoid attracting the ravens. Ralph felt sure they could convince the elder frogs to move their colonies to a site upriver from the tannery where the water would be safe.
Bertil had made his own plans during the night. Over breakfast he told Lucia and Torv that since he no longer had to continue downriver he wanted to look for a new home with clean water elsewhere. Lucia and Torv decided to stay with Bertil. The colony frogs, anxious to get an early start, wished the trio good luck and departed on their separate ways.
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