Mitalee had never felt this way before. There was a horrible tightness in her chest, as if a wall of bricks was pressing down on her. Her breathing had turned heavy and her heart was pounding. It was as if she had just completed a hundred-metre dash.
But Mitalee hadn’t been running. That was the odd thing. She had been walking—unhurriedly at that, halting every now and then, staring up at the trees, parting bushes and rummaging through piles of leaves. It wasn’t the kind of activity that would set anyone’s pulse racing, yet her heart was hammering like a railway engine in her chest.
It was a perfect morning at the Rose Garden. The air was fresh and cool and the sun was shining from a clear blue sky. It was the kind of day that should have inspired a spring in Mitalee’s step and a song on her lips. But that wasn’t the case. Her thoughts were as far removed from song and dance as could possibly be. Tears were welling up in her eyes instead, blurring her vision. She felt empty, drained, as if something deep inside her was missing.
It was true. There was no doubt about it now. Snowdrop, the white-headed squirrel—the creature she adored, the one she loved most in the whole wide world—was missing.
It had all started the previous evening. Prickles of anxiety had stabbed her like sharp needles when she noticed Snowdrop’s absence from the fountain. Every day, as the sun dipped in the sky, Snowdrop and the birds of the garden collected at the fountain to slake their thirst and exchange banter. This was a custom at the Rose Garden, a cherished tradition, and for as long as Mitalee could remember, Snowdrop had never missed an evening with his bird friends at the fountain.
The squirrel’s absence had troubled Mitalee. Although she had stood rooted by her window, staring at the fountain, the furry head she had hoped to spot amongst the feathered ones of the birds hadn’t turned up. The light had faded and the birds had flown to their roosts in the trees. Hunting for Snowdrop in the dark wasn’t possible, so Mitalee had woken early, rising with the sun. She had searched the garden, examining each pile of leaves, each bed of flowers, each bush, each tree—but there was no trace of the squirrel.
Wow-Wow, Mitalee’s dog, had accompanied her, padding at her feet as she roamed the garden. Strangely, Wow-Wow had started to whimper as her search had gone on. This had puzzled Mitalee. Could her dog have noticed the absence of the squirrel too? If he had, then his mournful response was peculiar, as the animals were sworn enemies. Snowdrop’s favourite pastime was playing tricks on the slow-witted dog, whose dim brain was no match for the squirrel’s cleverness. Mitalee wondered why the dog was whining instead of thumping his tail in celebration.
Surprisingly, Mitalee had found no sign of the birds either. This again was odd, as the day was just the kind that birds loved—with a blue, blue sky and a bright, warm sun. They should have been making merry with chatter and song. But this was not the case. A troubling silence bore down on the garden like a dark cloud.
The missing birds had prompted Mitalee to wonder if all the other garden creatures were absent too. But the thought had lasted barely a moment, because all about her was life and movement: damselflies hovered, flashing silken wings; butterflies flitted; grasshoppers bounced; bees buzzed; ants marched; caterpillars feasted; spiders spun their sticky webs; and lizards basked, enjoying the morning sun. The garden was its bright, happy self—except for the birds and her beloved Snowdrop.