Kryo sprinkled some more water over the patch of mushrooms at his feet. The mushrooms grew around the base of a giant toadstool, the roof of which loomed up above his head. There were many giant toadstools in this area with patches of mushrooms growing around their bases; this was where he and his tribe of fellow squirrels grew mushrooms for food.
The giant toadstools and mushrooms were both pastel pink. In fact, everything around him in the forest was pink. Outside their farm of giant toadstools and mushroom patches, there were pink trees, pink streams, pink bushes and ferns and other, naturally-growing giant pink toadstools. Overhead loomed a pink sky filled with fat pink clouds that looked like cotton balls. He lived in a pink forest.
Kryo paused in his watering when he spotted a grey mushroom amongst the pink ones. He put the watering can down and reached over to pluck out the grey mushroom. Instead of a healthy pastel pink with supple flesh, it was wrinkled and greying at the edges. Kryo sighed and dropped the sick mushroom into the basket at his feet. As he straightened up again, he spotted another couple of diseased mushrooms among the patch of healthy pink ones. He sighed and proceeded to pick those out too. Sick mushrooms infected the healthy ones, so they had to be gotten rid of as soon as they were discovered. He had been discovering sick mushrooms at every patch he'd worked at in the last couple of days. At this rate, the patches would only produce a handful of edible mushrooms each by the time they were ripe, a few weeks from now.
Standing on the edge of another patch of mushrooms, under the roof of another giant toadstool near the one Kryo was working under, was one of his close friends in the tribe, Pavra. Like him, Pavra was also a squirrel. He looked up at Kryo and called over, “How ya doin’, Kryo? Find some dead mushrooms?”
“Yeah, Kryo said tiredly, holding up his basket of sick mushrooms.
Pavra shook his head and held up his basket as well. Kryo could see that it was filled with even more sick mushrooms than his one. “At this rate, we’re gonna have nothing to eat by the end of the month!”
“I know, Pavra, I know.” Kryo sighed again and went back to watering the mushrooms. Their mushroom patches had been slowly sickening for a long time. The problem was worsening, with more mushrooms getting sick by the day, but no one seemed to be eager to do anything real about it. They had lived this way for too long, and they were hesitant to change. All they did was rigidly stick to how they had always farmed the mushrooms and hope that the next batch would yield a little more than the last.
At each of the mushroom patches around them, there was one squirrel watering. They were appointed shifts every day for watering the mushrooms. The mushroom patches ripened every couple of weeks. This patch was due to ripen in around a fortnight, but it was already very depleted because every day more mushrooms became sick. The squirrel tribe’s last batch of mushrooms was already rapidly dwindling as the days went by. Even though it was morning and breakfast time had been right before Kryo’s shift, his stomach still grumbled. The adults had started to eat less food so the children wouldn’t go hungry.
As he moved around the patch of mushrooms to water another edge, a tinkling sound reached his ears. He looked up curiously and saw that the bells set into the underside of the roof of the giant toadstool were ringing. These bells rang when the tribe leader, Bance, called a meeting. There were bells hanging from the underside of every giant toadstool. They rarely rang because the tribe’s schedule was so well established that they didn’t need unscheduled meetings like this. Kryo exchanged a quizzical glance with Pavra, who had also looked up from his mushroom patch. Together, they picked up their tools and headed back in the direction of their camp.
Their camp consisted of dens carved out of pink rock that circled a clearing in the middle. All of it sat under the shade of a particularly large giant toadstool. When Kryo and Pavra reached the camp, most of the tribe was already assembled in the clearing. Kryo nodded at Pavra and went to find his wife and daughter, Cinnamon and Marmalade. They were sitting next to each other near the middle of the group of assembled squirrels. He snuggled down next to them as Bance, the tribe leader, leapt up on the tall rock at the head of the clearing and began to talk.
“Fellow squirrels, I have called a meeting today to address the problem of our sick mushrooms, which is getting worse by the day.” He raised his head to look at the giant toadstool looming above them. Was that a slightly wistful look Kryo saw in the old leader’s eyes? “I have decided that we need to take action against it right now. Merely hoping that the next batch of mushrooms will be more successful, and stubbornly sticking to the traditional methods that we have always used but are obviously failing us now, will kill us before long.”
A grim silence filled the clearing. Kryo squinted up at Bance, the tiny body of his daughter Marmalade squished between him and his wife Cinnamon. What was the old leader suggesting?
Bance continued to talk. “I have decided that we need to do two things. One, to go to our neighbouring territories for help. Two, to venture into the unknown land to the north to see if the soil there will yield better results than our own.”
Immediately, the clearing burst into noise. Above the racket, Kryo could hear Pavra’s voice. “But we’ve lived here for as long as anyone can remember!” he bellowed. “This is our home!”
“Yeah, we can’t just abandon it!” Other tribe members joined into the fiery debate while Bance stayed atop the tall rock, waiting patiently for everyone to quieten down. Kryo sat there in shock while Cinnamon glanced at him in worry. What Pavra and many other tribe members were saying was true; they had lived here, generation after generation, longer than anyone could remember. Plus, there were also many scary myths and legends about the unknown land to the north, which belonged to no tribe of any kind of animal they knew about. It was said that there were lions as big and tall as giant toadstools, who ripped open any animal who dared tread in their territory. It was also said that if you walked too far, you would fall off a very high cliff into a frozen wasteland of pink rocks that is home to neither toadstools nor streams nor trees. No one knew who these myths originated from, but everyone in the tribe knew about them. True, they were just myths. But there was still an instinctual fear of the north instilled in every squirrel’s heart. Kryo, little as he’d like to admit it, was scared of it himself.
As for going to others for help? One type of animal was not allowed to venture into another type of animal’s territory unless it was a time of great need. Going out for help now would make it crystal clear to anyone who saw them that the squirrel tribe was exceedingly weak right now. That would injure their pride and their territory's safety.
Finally, the tribe quietened down. Bance started talking again. “I know the options I’ve given you may seem ludicrous, but they are the only options we have left. The mushrooms are dying away more rapidly than ever before. At this rate, the current batch of mushrooms will nearly all die before they ripen. There will be no more food by the end of the month. We have already left this problem for way too long. Something needs to be done now.”
The clearing was filled with an uncomfortable silence. Kryo, as was everyone else, was reluctantly admitting that what Bance was saying was true. And plus, Bance had been their leader for a very long time. He was wise and old and knew what was best for the tribe.
“I will be splitting up this tribe into four groups. One to explore and test the unknown land. Two to seek help. One to stay back, to continue to look after our crops; the remaining mushrooms will be enough to feed those reduced numbers." He surveyed the now deathly-silent tribe below him. "To the groups that will be leaving - if you find success, you are required to send a messenger back to notify the ones that are still here.”
Next, Bance allocated every member of the tribe into a group. One third of the children and elderly, as well as a few adults, would go to one of their neighbours, a tribe of deer. The other third, along with a few other adults, would go to one of their other neighbours, a tribe of hares. The last third would be staying back. The rest of the adults would be part of the group going out to explore. Kryo was to be part of the exploring group. Cinnamon and Marmalade would be staying back; Marmalade was too small to travel.
Kryo still felt slightly shocked. Would he really be sent off into a strange land filled with terrifying myths of lions and cliffs? Would he really be forced to leave his wife and tiny daughter? He had to admit that what Bance was making them do would benefit them in the long run. But he still felt very reluctant to leave.
For the rest of the day, the groups that would be leaving packed up and said goodbyes. The group who would be staying allocated duties and established a new timetable.
At dawn the next day, they were all woken up by the tinkling of the bells hanging from the roof of the giant toadstool overlooking their camp. Kryo shouldered his backpack. It contained his food rations - a couple dozen packets of dried mushrooms - and packets of healthy mushroom seeds. He gave Cinnamon a last goodbye hug.
“I’m going to miss you so much,” he mumbled. Two fat tears rolled down his cheeks and fell on the soft auburn fur on Cinnamon’s shoulder. “We’ll be together again soon, I promise. Either we’ll find better land to grow food, or you’ll nurse our mushrooms back to health. I’m sure we’ll succeed.”
Then he hugged Marmalade. She was bawling, her little mouth stretched wide and tears squeezing out from the corners of her eyes. “Why do you have to go?” Kryo could only give her a hasty kiss on the forehead before Bance called the groups together to set off. Even though he was old, nearly old enough to qualify for an elder of the tribe, he was still energetic and agile. He would be leading the exploring group.
As the tribe split into four, paths that branched off into different fates, Kryo looked back one last time. He saw Cinnamon and Marmalade standing next to each other, watching him leave. Cinnamon was smiling a small, bittersweet smile. Marmalade was still crying. Kryo sighed and turned back around. Tears stung at the back of his eyes, but he blinked them away. What they were doing was necessary, he reminded himself. It was for the good of the tribe.
They had put off taking action for too long. It was time for change.