A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

The King Who Loved Squirrels
by Kim Burnham (Aug 2010)


         All was still and silent.  Nothing stirred, not even the slightest breeze or whisper.  The only light came from the thumbnail moon poised above the silhouetted spires of an enormous castle of gray stone.  In front of the castle, lay a sprawling network of un-trimmed hedges and walkways littered with tree branches and other refuse, nondescript in the darkness.  Beyond the castle lay a forest smudged in blackness.  The small windows on the upper spires of the castle were eye-like with long dark stains beneath them like the tracks of a thousand tears.

         Suddenly, a curious-looking rodent with a long furry tail scurried under a hedge and made for a side entry to the castle.  The creature was in a hurry, but moved quietly.  He had a book in his mouth as he headed for the servant’s quarters, which had the size and flare befitting a small castle in its own right.  He climbed up to the entry and slipped carefully through a doggy door.  As soon as he was inside, he looked cautiously about.  Even though it had supposedly been a very long time since these quarters had been occupied, he wasn’t taking any chances.  The doggy door was much larger than him and he didn’t want an encounter with any of the wolves that had once passed through this portal.  The strange looking creature found his way upstairs through a maze of cobwebs and debris and scampered all the way to the upper story and then through a hole that led to the attic.  He made his way up the nearest wall of the dark and dusty attic and to the rafters.  He wrapped his tail around a small peg in the ceiling and pulled himself upward.  Then he pushed open a hatch that had not been visible until he opened it.  He shoved the book through the opened hatch.  Then he leaped to the floor, paused to listen in case anything or anyone had heard the small thud and then retraced his steps carefully.  Soon he was out of the house and on his way through the spacious and un-kept grounds, beyond the fava bean fields and out into the forest.


         It was a cold and very windy early spring day in Wellington.  But there was nothing extraordinary about that.  Situated on the Southern tip of the North Island of New Zealand placed the city of Wellington in a wind tunnel of sorts.  Immediately to the South was the Cook Strait, named after the famous British explorer who was the first European to map these regions.  The Cook Strait ran West to East between New Zealand’s North Island and South Island and formed a natural channel for the ferocious “Westerlys” that often blew this time of year.   The wind whipped up white-capped waves among the turquoise blue waters of the strait and kicked up gusts along the craggy cliffs of the Southern end of the North Island and bent the wild grasses along the gentle inlets of the Northern end of the South Island.  All of this is a windy explanation as to why men in Wellington wore fedoras if they wore hats at all.  And why the grandchildren at Nana and Grandpa’s house all played inside today.

         Nana and Grandpa lived on Salamanca Street in Wellington just a couple of blocks down a steep hill from the university.  Their house, like so many in Wellington was a multi-level structure built against the vertical hillside.  They lived in the lower story and rented out the next two with their own separate entries from steep steps.  They lived directly across from a park with lots of grass, a fountain and a rugby field.  The park was the only level piece of ground to be seen for a mile in any direction.  Nana and Grandpa’s male grandchildren, Jarom and Ethan were enjoying watching a rugby match in the park through the living room window.

         “Ha ha,” laughed Ethan.  “He really clobbered that guy.”

         “How is that guy getting up?” said Jarom.  “If that were me, I would still be laying there.”

         “If that were you,” said Ethan.  “I hope you would be about two hundred pounds heavier and a whole lot meaner.”

         “No kidding,” said Jarom.

         Grandpa stepped into the room.  “Do you know how to tell if an older man played a lot of rugby when they were younger? 

         “They look real mean and growl a lot?” guessed Ethan.

         “There aren’t any, because they never lived that long?” guessed Jarom.

         “First of all, they will probably have a limp.  But the sure way is to look at their ears.  They will be misshapen and scarred from the scrums.  Guys will grab anything they can get their hands on in those.”

         Ethan and Jarom looked at each other, unconsciously put their hands over their ears and said, “Eeewh.”

         Nana and Grandpa were tending all six of their grandchildren for three days while their parents went off to visit Rotorua.  Rotorua was a tourist town near the center of the North Island.  It is somewhat the equivalent of Yellowstone National Park in the US.  There are natural hot springs and geysers.  It lacks the mountains of Yellowstone but makes up for it with Maori culture and tourist farms where you can see sheep get sheared in less time than it takes to get only your noggin sheared.

         Grandpa was a tall, thin and slightly stooped man with a touch of gray in his neatly trimmed beard and mustache.  He was a “partially” retired professor of Children’s Literature at Victoria University of Wellington.  The Maori people called the university Te Whare Wananga o te Ika a Maui.  But most of the locals just called it Victoria Uni.  The reason it took so many Maori words to name the university was because the Maori name for Wellington means, the mouth of the fish of Maui.  This is from the Maori legend about a warrior named Maui who caught a giant fish while sailing in a giant boat.  The giant boat was the South Island.  The giant fish he caught was the North Island.  And the fishes’ mouth was Wellington Harbor that surrounded the city of Wellington.  But no one seemed to mind living along the steep and hilly, and often windy, harbor even if it was once a giant fish’s mouth.

         Nana and Grandpa both grew up in New Mexico.  But when they were still newly married, Grandpa took a fellowship at Victoria Uni.  And they had never left.  They raised their three children, Brian, Emily and Sarah there.  But, once they had become adults, opportunities led their children back to the US where they were now raising their own families.

         Nana’s short and curly hair still held a glint of the flaming redness of her youth mixed with brown and dashes of white.  She was as short as Grandpa was tall and her hazel eyes sparkled when her grandchildren were near.  Nana was busier than Grandpa.  But this had been so even before Grandpa “partially” retired except when he was writing a children’s story.  Then he might work through meals with very little sleep.  But he had not written any of these for a very long time, in fact, not since his children had ceased to be children.

         Walter lay at Nana’s feet.  He was Nana and Grandpa’s golden retriever. Walter was over thirty years old.  No one believed this when told.  But it was a fact.  And when someone asked how this could be, Grandpa would answer with one word and no other explanation, and that one word was magic.  Although Walter moved very slowly, his bushy tail still wagged rapidly whenever guests arrived, especially if they were children, and even more especially if they were Nana and Grandpa’s grandchildren.

         Jarom came running into the living room where Nana sat with Walter at her feet.  Walter’s tail wagged happily.  Jarom was the oldest of the grandchildren at eleven and lived in Tucson, Arizona.  He had a curious mind that just never seemed to stop asking questions.  But at this moment, he had a stern look on his face.  Just a few seconds later, Jarom’s sister Becca came running into the room.  She was seven and for her it was her emotions that never stopped running.  For now those emotions had taken a negative turn.  Her face was scrunched up and she was crying.

         “Walter is too a Collie,” whimpered Becca.  “I saw one in a movie.”

         “Is not,” said Jarom

         “Is too.”

         “Is not.”

         “He’s a retriever,” said Jarom with irritation in his voice.  “Not a collie.”

         Nana picked up Becca, put her on her lap and gave her a hug.  Becca had a laugh that could melt Antarctica, but this was not the time.  Nana gave up trying to coach a giggle out of Becca and looked at Jarom. 

         “We have a surprise for all of you  – one that we have been saving.  Today we will show you our secret room.  Go and get Brooke, Ethan, Maddy and Celia and have them come into our bedroom.  Then we’ll show all of you together.”

         The next oldest of the grandchildren after Jarom was Brooke.  She was ten and had a younger brother named Ethan who was eight.  They were both blond haired and blue eyed and lived in Kansas City.  The other two cousins were Madeline and Celia.  Madeline had shoulder length flaming red hair.  She was five and Celia was three with short dark brown hair.  Celia had trouble pronouncing her Ls.  And she and her sister Madeline lived in Cleveland.

         Once they were all gathered, Brooke was the first to speak.  “What’s so special about your bedroom?”

         Grandpa’s eyes sparkled and he giggled slightly.  Nana rolled her eyes and waved grandpa off with a pointed finger before he could speak.  “This is not the secret room,” she said giving Grandpa a stern look.  Then she went to the closet and grasped a knot at the end of a thick piece of rope.  When she pulled, a hatch opened and she laid it against the closet wall.  Then she flipped a light switch on the other wall of the closet. 

         Follow me,” she said with a smile.

         The children followed Nana down a narrow stairway made of unstained wooden planks on a metal frame.  Walter followed slowly behind the children, sniffing each step.  Soon they were in a basement with a very low ceiling.  The basement was filled with books.  It was a children’s library with books along each of the four walls and two rows of bookcases in the middle – all full of books.  But there was more than books.  There were globes and maps and pictures of dinosaurs and castles on the walls.  There were plastic army men arrayed on a tabletop as if in the midst of battle.  There were small plastic dinosaurs and dollhouses and magnifying glasses and rock and seashell collections and all sorts of stuff.  At one corner, a model of the solar system hung with a big orange sun in the middle and planets on sticks around it.  The room was also filled with the sound of the children’s “wows” and sighs and “I can’t believe it’s and with Celia clapping her hands and saying, “Yay, I “reary” “yike” this.

         The children played and read happily in the basement for hours.  After a while, Ethan found a book in a closet at the far corner of the room.  The title said, “The Fall and Rise of Walter the Magnificent”. 

         “Hey this looks cool,” he said and handed the book to Jarom.

         Jarom began to read out loud while Ethan read along.  The book was about a land whose king was a talking dog named Walter.  It said that the kingdom had been in full glory but had fallen desolate.  It said that in its glory, the kingdom had been protected by Prince Brian, Earl of Wellington, Princess Emily, the Just and Sarah, the good sorceress.  It also said that one day, the protectors had all disappeared, never to return.  And that when the protectors left, King Walter lost his ability to speak and the kingdom was ravaged by an evil witch named Heartworm.  The next two hundred pages were blank.

         “Those are our parents names,” said Jarom.  “This is really weird.”

          “Find some more pages with writing,” said Ethan shaking with excitement.

         Jarom flipped forward to nearly the end of the book to where a few pages were not blank.

         “No way,” Ethan said.  The two boys motioned to the other children to gather around.  “These characters have our names.  Check it out.”

         Jarom read aloud from the book to all of the children.


King Walter, the talking dog, sat on a magnificent throne at one end of a great hall.  Seated around him were Prince Jarom, Earl of Arizona, and the three princesses, Brooke the Brave, Becca the Compassionate and Madeline, the Really Cool. 

King Walter became distracted for a minute and fondly sniffed the stuffed squirrel chew toy near his front paws.  Then he grew solemn.

“We must cancel the ball,” said the King.  “We know that many of the suitors for Princess Brooke that will come art but pawns of Heartworm.”  The King growled.  “If I coudst just get my paws on her, she would be but an afternoon snack.”

“Nay sire,” said Prince Jarom.  “We shouldst not cancel the ball.  The beauty of Princess Brooke is known throughout the land.  There art many true suitors among them.  To cancel the ball wouldst show our failure to manage the affairs of the kingdom.”

“I think we shouldst cancel the ball,” said Princess Becca.  “We are spread too thin with our knight, Sir Ethan, The Valiant in the Southlands fighting the evil servant of Heartworm, Parvo and his rabid wolves.  He couldst not get here in time to help.  We shouldst cancel.”

“Shouldst not,” said Prince Jarom.

“Shouldst,” said Princess Becca.

“Shouldst not.”


“Shouldst not.”

“A thousand times shouldst.”

“B-but,” said Princess Madeline, trying to prevent the argument from getting anymore ridiculous.  “Surely Celia, the good sorceress couldst cast a protective spell for Princess Brooke.  If she is good enough to make a dog speak and be healthy in old age as her mother did before her, surely she couldst conjure something.”

“Even the powers of a sorceress art limited,” said Princess Brooke.  “I still fear for what shouldst happen at the ball.”

“I do think we might have one chance if we must have the ball,” said Princess Becca.  “What about the other animals?” Surely they wouldst come to the aid of the king if there were a fight.”

“Yea, probably all but the squirrels and chickens,” said Princess Brooke.  “They art afraid of the King.”

“Who cares about the chickens?” said Prince Jarom.  What wouldst they do – peck at the suitors’ toes until they beg for mercy?”

Princess Brooke and Princess Madeline laughed but Princess Becca looked concerned.

“I don’t know why the squirrels art so afraid of the King,” she said.

“Yes, I love them,” said the King.  “Especially with some parsley, sage and some fava beans on the side.”

Everyone laughed this time except for Princess Becca.  She was fond of all creatures, with the notable exceptions of Parvo’s evil wolves.


         Jarom flipped the page but the next one was blank, and the next one and the next one.   And so was the remainder of the book.

         “Wow,” said Brooke.  “There is something really weird going on.”

         Jarom turned the pages of the book back to the first chapter.  There he read out loud, a part about a secret hatch that led from Walter’s Kingdom to another land.  Suddenly, he dropped the book in amazement.  The book described a closet just like the one he was looking at right now in the far corner of the room.  And as he looked, he was even more amazed because there was a hatch on the floor of the closet just where the book said it was. 

         “Where did you find this book, Ethan?” asked Jarom, his eyes wide with excitement.

         “Right here,” said Ethan as he ran to the hatch.  The hatch had a rope attached like the one in Nana and Grandpa’s closet above them.  Ethan grasped the rope and pulled open the hatch. 

         A burst of warm air filled the room, scented with the smells of summer flowers.

         Ethan looked down, sunlight reflecting off of his face.

          “Thou wouldst not believe this,” he said as confused as anyone by his choice of words.

         Walter barked excitedly, tail wagging.

         Suddenly, a voice came from the top of the stairs.  It was Nana’s

         “Come wash your hands. It’s time for dinner.”

         “Rats!” exclaimed the dog.

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