Originally the Spirit Tree did not have a way to communicate. I had a talking squirrel character who acts as its representative. However, my agent at the time really hated the idea of a talking squirrel, so I came up with a way for the tree to communicate through the carvings on its bark. I like that better.
You can judge for yourself whether the squirrel deserved a place in the story before he was brutally written out. I’ll expose my revision secrets by presenting the scene where the squirrel first showed up.
First Draft: The Squirrel
Crack! Splintered branches and wet leaves rained down on them, and Martin was engulfed in a whirlwind of sharp claws, white teeth, and wet fur. He beat the animal off, screaming manfully, until his arms were beating at empty air.
“Stop, stop!” Hannah cried, taking his arm. “It’s just a squirrel.”
Martin peered through his arms. A small black squirrel stared back, twitching its tail.
“I never saw a squirrel fall out of a tree. Maybe the lightning or fire hurt him.” Hannah bent down, moving in slow motion, to take a closer look. “Easy, little guy.”
Martin jumped behind her. “Watch out! It could be rabid. I think it even bit me!”
The squirrel sniffed banefully. Then it said, “I most certainly am not rabid.”
Hannah leapt to her feet, stumbling backward into Martin.
The squirrel worried its hands and continued creakily, “I wouldn’t have bitten you if you had been more polite. This is my home, you know.” The squirrel chewed its words, spitting them out with great concentration.
Hannah reached out again, looking as if she meant to pass her hand straight through the little animal. The squirrel hopped backward. “You … you talk.”
“I do now. I didn’t until that lightning struck. Pardon me if I’m a little hoarse, but. I understand English well enough after listening to you humans jabbering on for the past twenty-five years. You all talk entirely too much.”
“What are you?” Hannah asked, wide-eyed and unsure. Martin couldn’t bring himself to address the pointy little creature yet. “You can’t be a squirrel. You can’t be talking.”
“What else would I be? In fact I’m the animal watcher for this tree. You call it the spirit tree, I believe, but its spirit has existed far longer than your destructive school traditions. Violent creatures, you are. Stomping and crashing, slashing with your knives and shouting with loud voices. All the same.”
Angry, Martin found his voice. “I’m not one of them. I tried to help!”
“You’ll have to do better than that.”
“Me? Some watcher you are. I was trying to stop those kids from carving it. You should have bit them!”
“I watch. I don’t guard. The curse will bite them harder than I ever could.”
“Yes, the curse. The moment this tree was defaced, this town was cursed. The curse follows all who are complicit.”
“You cursed them?”
“Not I. The witch. I was cursed along with the tree to be its watcher. And not them.”
Hannah waved her arms. “Hold on. Texting spirit trees, talking squirrels, a curse, now a witch?”
“Yes. A witch cursed the town, and the curse remains until the tree is healed.”
“You mean my brother is cursed? We’re cursed?”
The squirrel paused. “Unless you can heal the tree. The tree has spoken – maybe you’re the ones meant to lift the enchantment. And I’ll help you. Twenty-five years of acorns is far too many. I am as cursed as the rest of you.”
“No.” Hannah closed her eyes and shook her head. “This can’t be happening. I must be dreaming.”
“Then I’m dreaming too,” Martin said.
“This can’t be real. I’ve got to get out of here.”
“You can’t leave me with this creepy little thing!” Martin called after her, but Hannah had already swung a leg over her bike. She hurtled down the hill in a spray of mud. He lost sight of her in the trees and driving rain before she reached the bottom.