Author: Betty Harriman – Third Place Junior Division 2023

Dark gray clouds huddled close together in the sky. A gust of wind blew, making the blades of grass dance. Usually, Eck and their mother would stay at home below the most perfect mushroom, but today happened to be Eck’s birthday.

“With all of these clouds a storm might be coming soon,” Bue exclaimed pointing with her webbed finger at the sky. “Well, I’ll be heading to bed now,” Bue said while yawning.

“Well mother, as you might know since I’ve grown up now, I have no place to stay,” Eck said, looking proudly at Bue.

“Well, you can’t stay here, it’s tradition for a toad to leave on their second birthday,” Bue said solemnly. Even though Eck was scared of being alone, they understood and so they began to leap away.

“Okay, well, be safe out there!” Bue called just as Eck’s body disappeared over the horizon.

“I’ll find myself my own nice mushroom to stay under!” Eck declared. As Eck began to hop around the marsh, they spotted a turtle distracted by some sort of food.

“Hey!” Eck called to the turtle. The turtle looked up from his meal and immediately jumped into the water. Eck carefully stepped on tufts of grass to get to the place where the turtle was.

“Hey! I need to ask you a question!” Then a sudden movement in the murky water caught Eck’s eyes.

Eck stared intently at the spot, “Hello, turtle?” Then it started to move, Eck leaped along the edge of the water, following the movement as fast as they could.

Eck had spotted land ahead and leaped onto it, the turtle surfaced, exhausted, “What do you want from me?” he asked.

“I wanted to ask you if there were any mushrooms nearby,” Eck said, while tapping their foot impatiently.

“Umm, there are some over on that tree.” The turtle frantically pointed with one of his small green feet at a nearby tree. Eck turned their head swiftly to see what seemed to be a mushroomless tree.

“Where are the mushrooms?” Eck asked, turning back around but the turtle had vanished. There was only a small ripple in the water. Eck sighed and waddled over to the tree to investigate, they looked all around and saw nothing but bark and lichen.

“Oh, lichen! I forgot it is a fungus.” Eck remembered, “Well, that doesn’t help me.” They shook their head in disappointment and began searching again. Eck went further into the dense cedar forest. Soon Eck felt their stomach rumble, so they went to search for food; the best place to look was under logs. Their favorite food was worms so this was perfect for them. The leaf litter crunched under Eck’s feet. After wandering around for a little they found a large log. Eck excitedly hopped over and began to push the log with all their might. They tried and tried but it wouldn’t budge.

“Do you need help there, bud?” An unfamiliar voice sounded from behind. Eck was startled and jumped into the air. When they landed, they looked up to see a bird standing there, Eck recognized the feather pattern and assumed she was a robin.

“I do need help,” Eck shivered with terror as they stared at the tall bird that towered over them, “But aren’t you a robin? Robins can and will eat toads!”

“Ha! I’m a robin but I won’t eat you. Even if I tried I couldn’t!” The bird turned to her side so that Eck could see her beak, it was unusually short. Too short for her to even attempt to eat Eck. They sighed with relief and stood up straight.

“Phew! I totally thought you were going to eat me!” they sighed. “My name’s Eck, what’s yours?”

“My name’s Ree!” The robin said as she blinked enthusiastically.

“Well, if you’re hungry you can help me turn this log over.” Eck turned around and looked at the huge log.

“Of course! I sure am starving,” The robin exclaimed. Ree walked over to the log and pushed her head against it, right next to her Eck was pushing against the log. Still with both of their efforts, it wouldn’t budge. Eck looked over at Ree, her originally orange chest feathers looked dull and gray in the shade of clouds.

“Since both of us can’t do this together, you could go get someone. Preferably from the bog, someone who likes worms and bugs,” Eck said, annoyed that they couldn’t turn the log over.

“Sure!” Ree flew up blowing leaves everywhere.

Eck looked up at the falling leaves and sighed, “This is going to take forever!” As the leaves slowly fell, the sky cleared up to show clouds heavy with rain that hovered above. They waited, and waited while staring at the sky trying to determine when the rain would fall.

* * *

“Hello?” Eck turned around to see Ree and a frog staring at them.

Eck stared at the frog and said, “Hello, my name’s Eck, and as you may know we’re trying to turn this log over for food, thanks for coming to help.” Eck paused, “And thanks, Ree, for getting them.”

“I’m Ima! And I’m starving!” Ima licked her lips and looked at the log, “Are you ready?” Eck, Ree, and Ima then walked over to the log and began to push it; with all their effort and energy, it shuffled over revealing a large sum of worms, beetles, and grubs. They all leaped into the crater the log left behind and they began to feast on the bountiful array of food. After they had stuffed themselves full, Eck started to chat about how they were trying to find a nice mushroom to call home.

“Hey, down by the river that leads to the bog there are plenty of mushrooms, there’s probably going to be one that you can live under,” Ima pointed out.

“Oh my, thank you! I better get going before this storm starts!” Eck said, grinning.

“So should I,” Ree put in sadly.

Eck wondered why Ree was sad but brushed it off. “Well then, thank you all!” Eck then joyfully leaped away from them, making large, long strides to the bog. Then they reached the river that led into the bog. Eck bounded up the last stretch to the river and saw the most beautiful, perfect mushroom. It would fit them nicely. Eck looked at the surroundings, then froze as they recognized that this was the part of the stream where Ms. Marsh lived.

Ms. Marsh was a huge and mean muskrat that ate amphibians like frogs and toads. She was feared by almost all. She was so bad that children got told stories of her and her strong appetite for anything. Eck was raised to stay far, far away from there.

“Excuse me?” A voice sounded. Eck spun around to see none other than Ms. Marsh. They began to leap away as fast as possible. Eck looked over their shoulder and saw Ms. Marsh chasing after them, determination in her eyes as she sprinted towards Eck. Eck turned back around and put in their last burst of energy, but it was not enough, the noise of Ms. Marsh’s run was right behind Eck. They closed their eyes in fear and felt sharp teeth graze their foot. Eck opened their eyes and screeched. The muskrat skirted to a stop and jerked Eck’s leg over which spun around Eck and wrenched their leg. They trembled in pain then kicked hard, hitting Ms. Marsh in the face, knocking her unconscious. Eck limped away in fear and pain past the bog and back into the cedar forest for safety.

There, among the tall trees lay the body of Ree, fallen on the ground. “Ree!” Eck yelled in distress as they leaped over, forgetting the pain in their leg. “Ree! Oh, Ree are you okay?” Rees’ dull eyes gave no expression but pain. Eck frantically searched Rees body, they saw a bent wing. The twisted limb looked so unnatural. “Ree! Your wing, it’s broken!” Eck said solemnly. “My mom will help you.” Eck quickly put the large bird on their back, but they collapsed under her weight. Eck knew what they had to do; Eck left Ree and strode over to the bog, “Ima!” They called.

“Yes?” Ima answered from within the tall grass. “Oh, Eck I thought you were—” Ima started to say, relieved, but Eck cut her off.

“No time to wait; Ree has a broken wing, we must take her to my mother. She can heal well!” Eck and Ima rushed to the forest without saying another word.

“Ree!” Ima said as they pulled up to Ree.

“I can’t lift her alone; I’ll lead you to my mom’s house!” Eck and Ima worked to pull Ree over to the marsh as fast as they could. They were careful not to pass Ms. Marsh’s territory as they walked by the river that led to the bog.

“I know this is probably not the right time, but I just wanted to apologize for telling you to come by here. I heard Ms. Marsh yelling in anger about a toad who had narrowly escaped her. I was worried for you, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get you hurt, I really didn’t,” Ima confessed.

“Oh, it’s fine; it was partly my fault, I didn’t recognize Ms. Marsh’s land. I forgive you.” Ima sighed with relief, but then looked at Ree and frowned, their friend was greatly injured and needed care. “Right up here!” Eck led Ima up to the mushroom; they had recognized their old home.

“Bue!” Eck called, “Where are you? We need your help Bue!”

Bue appeared from her moss bed, “Oh my, Eck who is this? What has happened?”

“No time to explain, Mom. She needs healing!” Bue obeyed and began to heal Ree as Eck and Ima explained their whole story. Bue had also healed Eck’s injured leg with a maple and pine salve she created.

“Hello?” Ree mumbled getting up from the makeshift bed Bue had created.

“Ree! Oh, you’re okay! What happened?” Eck asked.

“Oh, I slipped and fell out of a tree. I-I last remember seeing the clouds. Has it rained?” Ree said with a hint of pain in her voice. All of the animals quickly looked at the sky and saw the clouds now probably so full with water they would spill out their rain any time now.

“No, it hasn’t. What were you doing up in a tree?” Ima asked. Ima stared at Ree’s limb; it was put in place with a stick wrapped around cobwebs, and then leaves to act as a sling.

“Well, I’m embarrassed to admit but, I’m looking for a home, too.” Ree shuffled her legs and looked at the ground.

“Well, I’m also looking for a home!” Ima laughed out.

“Coincidence?” Eck giggled, “We all are!” The group laughed and laughed. “We could all look for each other’s houses together!” Eck suggested.

Then the group agreed and Bue took an approving glance and said, “Then go ahead, before this storm starts!”

* * *

Ree, Eck, and Ima thanked Bue, then took off and arrived at the bog to find Ima a new home. “You should get a home near the cedar forest so we can all live close together,” Ree suggested. So, they went to the very edge of the bog, and they all began to search between tufts of grass for a nice home.

“Is this good?” Ree asked, showing Ima a small mud indent between two grass tufts.

“Eh, I’m not sure that it has enough privacy,”

“Oh,” Ree said disappointed.

* * *

“What do you all think of this?” Ima pointed at a hole in the mud that seemed to go deep.

“Try it out!” Ree laughed.

Ima shoved her head deep into the hole, “Wow!” Ima said in awe. “It’s huge!” Ima began to tug and tug her head out. But her head was stuck. “Help, my head; It’s stuck!” Ima yelled. Simultaneously Eck and Ree tugged Ima out. “Thanks!” Ima said with gratitude. “Well, I guess this one won’t work.” Ima chuckled while shaking the mud off of herself.

As they all started to search again, but they had to no longer because Eck found the perfect home! “Ima, come check this out!” Eck encouraged. Ima and Ree hopped over, and Eck presented a grass tuff on top of clay-like mud, the grass curled over which made a private place for Ima to stay.

“It’s perfect!” Ima’s voice was filled with warmth as she hopped over and went in, “I’m going to love it here; thanks Eck and Ree!”

As Ree, Eck, and Ima exchanged goodbyes Eck couldn’t help but feel sorrow and worry, “What if Ms. Marsh comes?” Eck asked Ree as they walked to the forest. Ree remembered Ms. Marsh from the old children’s tales,

“Don’t worry, Ms. Marsh doesn’t even know Ima and Ima is about as far away as possible from her.” Eck looked on with worry clouded in their eyes, “Seriously, Eck she’s going to be fine!” Ree stopped and rested her uninjured wing on Eck’s shoulder, “She’ll be okay!” Ree encouraged.

“Okay!” Eck smiled as the worry faded away.

* * *

Eck and Ree searched among the trees by looking into the sky that was cluttered with branches full of leaves. “Since I can’t fly yet, I need a tree with step like branches,” Ree explained.

“Okay,” Eck continued to search, “That one!” Eck pointed at a large tree with many branches that led up to a very bushy branch.

“I’m going to check it out!” Ree hopped up each individual branch to the branch that looked like it had a great potential for a nest. “Hello?” Ree asked. Eck looked up confused, but Ree wasn’t talking to them.

“Peep!” Something sounded, “Peep!” “Peep!” “Peep!”

A large black bird with sleek, smooth black feathers crashed onto the branch with a fury of feathers, “What are you doing with my babies?” The bird screeched.

“Oh! I-I’m sorry I didn’t realize someone lived here!” Ree replied with fear.

“Well, you better get going now! And don’t come back here!” The huge bird shooed Ree away from the nest with her four chicks with poofy black feathers. Eck assumed that the bird was a raven or a crow who had already made that tree branch her home.

Ree and Eck walked away and started to search again. “What do you think about this one?” Ree then showed Eck a nice branch that had leaves in a circular position which would be awesome for a nest.

“But there are no stairs!” Eck pointed out.

Ree sighed, “Oh, I didn’t realize that.”

* * *

Eck became weary of the clouds above. They had been anticipating rain all day, but it had not come; now it was getting dark, and they had still not found a home. Eck was thinking about what they wanted in a house when they spotted a large tree, with beautiful steps and a branch with leaves that made a circle shape that was big enough to fit Ree perfectly if she made a nest on it. “Ree! Ree!”

Eck showed Ree the huge tree. “This will be wonderful! Thank you, Eck! I hope you find a home that’s close!” Ree smiled hopped up the branches of the tree and began building her nest out of the leaves.

Eck was filled with joy for their friends but was also worried about having to find themselves a home. Eck came around a corner to find a mushroom at last. The mushroom was a large coral mushroom; they leaped under it, but its thick network of stems was too cluttered and it had so many holes that it wouldn’t work to protect Eck from anything. Eck continued to search and search; they came up to a log with a shelf mushroom. Eck waddled up and stood under it, then they looked up to see that it was way too tiny to protect Eck from the elements. They waddled on to see a nice mushroom about the size of Eck’s body, “Finally!” Eck sighed, relieved.

“Excuse me?” A rabbit came from under it, “This is going to be my home!” The rabbit boasted. Eck angrily hopped away.

* * *

“Wow!” Eck exclaimed, striding over to an amazing mushroom. They settled under the rusty orange mushroom and sat. Suddenly, the mushroom began to float up. Eck looked up to see a human! “Eek!” Eck started to leap away; they looked back to see the human placing the mushroom into a basket while smiling with glee. Eck blinked in disgust, “Humans!” They rolled their eyes and carried on.

Eck then came up to a morel mushroom, “I’ll try it out!” Eck said, trying to cling on to any hope. But Eck was too tall and wide to fit under the moral. Eck wasn’t even phased anymore; they just kept on walking. All hope had left Eck’s body when they heard a “drip drop” sound they looked up at the sky as the clouds started to rain. Eck caught a glimmer of red and looked over to their left at the most beautiful, large, red, shiny, and perfect mushroom they had ever seen. Eck opened their mouth in awe. They were stunned by the beauty of it. A raindrop landed on Eck’s head snapping them out of it, reminding them to head under. The pitter patter of rain soothed them as they settled down under the mushroom for a rest.

Eck thought about their day; it had been extended and hard but fortunately they had made two new life-long friends. Eck had concluded that the day had been very successful and that many days from now would also be as successful. They also hoped that in the future Ima would have a nice home, decorated with all her findings. And that Ree would make a beautiful nest that was comfortable. The noise of the rain consumed Eck as they drifted off into the darkness of sleep, peaceful and fulfilled at last.

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