Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Squirrel
1. The crazy people who live next door to my sister’s boyfriend have a four-foot-tall marble squirrel in their backyard. It stands on stone haunches with a massive marble acorn in its paws. My sister says you can see the squirrel from her boyfriend’s bedroom window.
“Jim, the guy next door, was out there carving it for weeks,” my sister’s boyfriend says. “My friends and I sat on the back porch in the evening, had a few beers and talked about the Pistons and the Lions so it looked like we weren't watching him. But who couldn’t? That squirrel has paws big as your fist and it’s holding that huge freaking nut.”
Chiseling fur from stone. I imagine the process, how there must have been too much dust, too much noise in the staccato of metal against rock.
“Then one day he stopped working on it," says my sister's boyfriend. "Now it just sits there and birds piss on it.” He shrugs as if the squirrel should have been meant for some higher purpose, posted at the center of a fountain in Milan or in front of a church. Our Lady of the Squirrels.
I wonder what it's like to wake up in a room where you can look out the window and see a four-foot-tall squirrel peer back at you from one yard over. What sort of omen is a squirrel at six in the morning?
2. I want to take their side, the
squirrels, though the fireman said they gnawed into my attic. But I
pride myself on being a nature lover, try to imagine my house as a
squirrel must, a very large tree with an attic and air
Yet I will miss those photo albums, all black from smoke damage.
It could have been worse. There's a
small hole in the middle of the attic floor, where the blaze started
over the garage. I could install a fireman's pole. I
always wanted one.
I think of my friend who believes in past lives. What if that squirrel was a reincarnation of uncle Clarence, the one who smoked and gave me stale crackers? I think of Kafka. What if I woke up one day as a squirrel? How would instinct feel? Perhaps there would be a thought in the back of my mind, a quiet notion of “I shouldn’t be doing this” that I'd have to ignore in favor of my gut needs. It’s instinct after all. So what was the last thought of the charred squirrel they found, the one that had been chewing on electrical wires like they were licorice?
But identification with the squirrels doesn't work. I'm still dreaming them flat on the road. Maybe if I think of them as children. Tiny uncontrollable children with tails. I was a child once and chewed on things that should not have borne tooth marks. I gaze out the window at two squirrels running back and forth across the yard, playing soccer with a crab apple. I imagine myself running with them, even though that smoke stench still clings to my skin.
I chew on my pencil for a while.
3. I saw the squirrel fall from a telephone pole, prey to the cold spell of gravity. On the sidewalk it did not move. I looked at it, a brief corpse, stood there for too long as cars passed. I didn't expect to see death on a spring day, and even then it was short. A plop. Small bones broke but I could not hear them. I thought that experience should be louder, like a crash of plates or a cat’s freak yowl. More cars passed. I wanted to do a nice thing, cup the soul in my hands because it would have felt soft like fresh pine needles. I wanted to know if there was a place squirrels went when they dropped from poles. I wanted to know if there was a hymn I should sing for a squirrel, a song of sky and trees and iridescent beetles. I imagined the squirrel turned albino with tiny gold wings, an angel chewing on its halo.
4.That summer my friend Andrew was in love with the German exchange student who taught us to say squirrel in German. It sounded like Ish-un-shen. You had to put your tongue to the roof of your mouth for the first syllable. Ish. It came out like a hiss. I could say it correctly before Andrew could.
“Good job,” said the German exchange student, patting my hand as if someday I’d be in Berlin and this would come in handy.
Andrew looked at me, annoyed, and kept practicing.
The German exchange student pronounced "squirrel" like it had two syllables. Squir-rel. After a month she still couldn't economize the word to one beat.
It was the summer I was in love with the Brazilian exchange student who played tuba in the high school band but didn’t teach us much of anything. He laughed at my jokes, shared cotton candy, and didn't hold my hand on the Ferris wheel at the county fair. I was disappointed since the whole town was lit up, almost pretty, and hand-holding would have been appropriate.
Both of our unassuming loves were gone by the end of the summer, leaving Andrew and me to sit alone together in a coffee shop.
“I need to get a CD of some tuba music,” I said.
“Ish-un-shen,” Andrew replied. I didn't have the heart to tell him it still wasn’t right.
5. She didn't have children, just a garden that she tended as closely as an infant. Every afternoon she weeded, watered, troweled until each leaf was in order. But over time her hands became like roots, tough and inflexible, and the garden grew rampant. The neighbors called it “English style” so as not to be rude. She sat among winding vines and kept a bowl of sunflower seeds at her feet for the squirrels. She spoke to them though they were flighty, but after while some paused and cocked their heads as if listening. They chattered a response to her problems, and she nodded as their answers became words in her head.
That is why she ordered a pizza for the squirrels—they were friends, and she thought they should be treated as such. She asked the delivery girl to open the box and lay it in a patch of grass in the middle of the yard. The girl shrugged and received a sizable tip.
It was an extra-large pizza, half cheese and half green peppers and mushrooms because she thought most squirrels would be vegetarian. The squirrels were polite, dragged slices from the box neat as ladies at tea. Some ate in the overgrown grass, but others hefted their lunches and scampered up trees as well as they could. A few squirrels tore off tiny bites and ran away to bury them, then scurried back for another nibble. Fifteen minutes later the box was empty, but there would be pizza to eat all winter long.
6. When it rains too much the drenched squirrels in my backyard look like weasels. I wash dishes, the tea stain that won't come out of my favorite mug, and gaze at weaselly squirrels gorging in the bird feeder. I'll have to buy more sunflower seeds. But maybe not. The squirrels eat them before cardinals have a chance. I'll have to buy all the birdseed now, along with dish soap and teabags, but he never drank tea. It takes twice as long to do dishes with one set of hands since there's no one to dry, but Mom said dish towels spread germs. Maybe I'll be healthier now.
In the rain all those drenched squirrel weasels cling to my bird feeder, don’t let go. I wish I had that kind of greed. I give in too easy, don’t want a fight, so he got the stereo that we both paid for, took the new computer monitor and left me the old one. The world is full of rain and weasels and only me to clean my tea mug, but perhaps I’ll like it better that way. Beyond the bird feeder, the squirrels, the line of trees with branches like grabbing fingers, a blue car floats down the road. I want to think it looks like hope.
7. Black eyes stare at me from a crack in the woodwork. I don't ask how the squirrel got into my wall because it's already there behind the ugly wood paneling that makes me feel like I'm in a giant shellacked tree, but the squirrel must be what I heard scratching around for the past two weeks, and explains why I found a box of cornflakes poured all over the kitchen table and a bag of chips mangled on the counter. No wonder my cat has been going crazy.
I look for holes in the wall behind the couch and stereo, find nothing until I peer behind the china cabinet in the dining room and see the spot of darker darkness. I imagine the squirrel like a cartoon character dragging throw pillows through that hole, squeezing them miraculously small until they pop out on the other side so the squirrel can arrange its quaint nest in my wall. I stop thinking such cute things when I remember I want the squirrel to leave, and that desire would make me a hapless bug-eyed villain like Elmer Fudd or Wile E. Coyote, another tormentor of all that is sweet and treacherous in nature. I imagine the squirrel pelting me with acorns like bullets, but it ate all my chips and spread cornflake crumbs across the kitchen floor which still crunches when I walk.
I buy a rectangular trap and bait it with a chocolate cupcake because it seems appropriate. When I go to bed I dream my trapped squirrel smiling innocently in the cage until it takes a giant wooden mallet from behind its small back and hits me over the head. Half asleep, I ask myself why not give up now and move before I become hopelessly evil, before I stockpile crates of TNT and big black globe-shaped bombs? I hate that wood paneling, anyway.
8.My boyfriend came from South Korea when he was four to live with his aunt in Cleveland. Her American husband did all the paperwork. Everything was fine for twenty-seven years until the phone call from his aunt. She'd found his birth certificate from Korea in an old shoebox, and said there'd been a little mistake. His uncle had misread the certificate when filling out the crate of forms that bridged his way to the states.
“I was born on May second, not February fifth.” He twists a coffee cup in his hands and stares out the window. We watch a squirrel in the backyard climb up the maple.
“You got to drink and vote before you were supposed to,” I say. I always thought he looked young for his age, even when we were in first grade. He was cute but short.
“You’re older than me now,” he says.
“I've always been older,” I say. “And I like younger men.” I sip my coffee.
Outside the squirrel runs down the tree then back up.
“I’m a Taurus and not an Aquarius,” he says. “Taurus people are stubborn, inflexible, and greedy.”
“You lost your virginity at twenty instead of twenty-one. Doesn’t that make you feel better?” I pat his leg to suggest a more constructive activity.
“People born under Taurus make good farmers.” He glares at me. “Farmers,” he spits.
“You're still a great accountant.” I pat his leg again and think he should fall under the sign of the squirrel. It should be a constellation, another zodiac symbol. Squirios the Squirrel. A sign for people who are resourceful, creative, independent, excitable, possessive, and forgetful. An indecisive symbol, earth and air. Why not? Certainly on a clear night you'd be able to find that star squirrel arranging and rearranging itself in the sky.
9. While sitting in the hospital cafeteria, I read an article by some Harvard-trained scientist who claims squirrels can’t see cars.
“Nothing corresponds in nature,” he says. “The squirrel blocks the whole car out. It doesn’t even register in their visual field.”
“Four years on a PhD for that?” says my sister who reads over my shoulder.
We drink free coffee and eat day-old donuts, waiting for news on my father who had a heart attack. Our mother called with the news at nine this morning. At ten the cardiologist showed us Dad's heart on a computer monitor designed to make everything seem less real, more like a business presentation or the before-and-after pictures in a cleaning product commercial. Dad is awake and in ICU, can hold our hands with groggy fingers, but only one visitor at a time is allowed. We alternate like kids on playground swings. Mom is with him now.
“How does he know squirrels can’t see cars if he’s not a squirrel?” says my sister.
“Maybe he was a squirrel in a previous life,” I say. You can’t help but think about life and its opposite when in a hospital.
“I bet the squirrels tricked him,” says my sister. “They must know about cars. They’re smarter than we think.”
I shrug. I like the idea that scientists can peer into the minds of squirrels. I believe that squirrels may not be able to see cars, though the notion itself is scary. What can you do if some massive and invisible object is hurdling toward your small body? How can you even conceive of such a thing? You can only stand there until it runs you down.
10. When I worked part-time shelving books, a squirrel lived in the library for a week eating coffee grounds and words. Chaucer had tooth marks. Shakespeare was ravaged. The complete writings of Adam Smith were nibbled to illegible lace. Before it set to work on the writings of Homer, our head librarian called Animal Control. Buzz was a kind man whose head shone like a newly polished bookshelf. He had a bee tattoo on his elbow and set rectangular traps in all the aisles. But the squirrel preferred to munch a century's worth of National Geographic Magazine and a breadmaking cookbook. Buzz said the bait was irresistable to squirrels, but I think some middle school kid had been sneaking it peanut butter and an algebra textbook. I confess to leaving a chocolate cupcake on top of To Kill A Mockingbird, though like everyone else I watched for the hint of a bushy tail or the click of small claws on metal. No one knew where the squirrel nested until I checked the card catalogue that hadn't been used in a decade. There I found the stash of coffee stir sticks, the crumpled Romantic poems, and the curled ball of fur that had gorged on Wordsworth and Coleridge and set itself to dreaming trees.
11. The squirrel had lain on the walk beside my house for three days. Like a plush toy it did not budge. But I couldn't touch it, or even toe it to one side. Ick. So it stayed.
But the fourth day it was on a patch of leaves to one side of the cement. Not squished. Maybe a dog moved it. It didn't look that gross. No ants or flies. And its bed to leaves was orange and gold with the squirrel on top, face down like a faint, like it might yet stand to greet trees.
On the fifth day it had moved once more, closer to the big oak, and I wondered if it dreamt squirrel dreams of heaven, a palace of nuts, an end to the drudge work of hunt and store and bury and find again.
The day after that it was halfway up the tree. Don’t ask how. The fur must have been stuck to the bark like paste. I thought some leaf would drop and hang in the air by the squirrel so it would make sense, but the leaves kept hitting the ground.
The next day that squirrel was just shy of a hole in the bark, a warm dark nest lined with bits of moss and twig. I stared at it for a few minutes before getting in my car, but even the wind didn't ruffle its fur.
The seventh day it was gone, perhaps tucked in that hole. I tried to peer inside from the ground but I'm too short, and I didn't think it was worth getting a ladder to see whatever secret had buried itself in the bark. Some mysteries are best that way.
12. Squirrel can almost be mistaken for beef when simmering in tomato sauce, cubed and browned in a little butter with basil and oregano (always use dried herbs when cooking soups and sauces for a long period of time). My uncle says the danged critters fall out of the sky sometimes and it's a shame to let them go to waste since people eat fish eggs and chopped goose liver and pay a pretty penny for that crap, so what can’t you call food? The squirrel was gorging on his birdfeeder, so it deserved to be dinner. He just had to remove the more unsightly parts and feed them to the cat except for that long green thing, whatever it was. With all the spices and herbs in the sauce, my uncle says squirrel doesn't taste like much of anything. Four hours on the stove and it’s all the same. If squirrels were rare we’d clamor for their tiny haunches at the butcher shop, raise them on squirrel farms force-feeding them corn until they grew to the size of cats, round cats, then we’d ship them off to be processed and they’d wind up in neat cellophane packages, ready to be roasted with hazelnut dressing. My uncle says Elvis dined on squirrel cooked in orange Shasta soda pop, a meal fit for a king, the King, so it’s high time squirrel gained culinary acceptance. I make a salad for myself. He harrumphs and says that’s fine, just means more squirrel for him.
13. Of course you haven't heard of the giant prehistoric squirrels, but I know archaeologists have found skull fragments somewhere in Wisconsin. Nobody has told us yet because some government official must be afraid that a mad scientist would steal giant squirrel DNA and we'd end up in a mess like Jurassic Park, but the squirrels would be furrier and cuter and as big as Dobermans. If you tame baby squirrels they're as docile as any other pet, so we'd have to get the giant squirrels when they were young and not let them go feral, else they'd become a road hazard like deer and moose and elk, the kind of squirrel that could do real damage to your car. It's probably better that the prehistoric squirrel skull is under twenty-four-hour surveillance in some secret lab just outside Madison where the guards snicker stories to each other and feed bread crusts to the squirrels outside, squirrels whose only dream the grandeur of a half-eaten peanut butter and jelly and a bag of chips.