Bushy Tales
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Bushy Tales

Squirrels I Have Known

Not the squirrel in question.

Actually, it was only one squirrel. The year was 1986. The place was….not important. Suffice it to say that it was too far north to merit map recognition. A place of mostly hostile conditions and weather that was worse. The ‘summer’ consisted of 1 week of mud sandwiched between 2 months of plague-level insects, all of which bit, stung, or got into your nose.

We lived in a trailer, next to the largest swamp in history. A bog for winged demons and the occasional flock of birds. The only lovely things about that place were the sparse friendships of like-souled people — also in misery — and the endless parade of flippant creatures.

We lived in their space, and they told us about it. There was the stressed out martin, a large weasel-like creature, fur-bearing, and when not fishing or killing rodents, he expended his energy to avoid snares, traps and bigger predators. This particular poor fellow spent half a day up a tree until he realized that our four dogs barking violence at him could not reach the tree he had shimmied up. He calmed himself, insulted them telepathically, and went on his way.

There were the endless flocks of birds who had no business being up here. But it was a flyway from the northern nesting grounds, and the lake was not yet polluted. So there were raspberry dipped finches, chestnut chickadees, and evening gross-beaks. There were blue-jays the colours of morning-glories and forest smoke. There were emerald-striped mallards, and noisy, naughty, loons. There were deer and moose and bears — trotting through, well, their living room. But the creature I remember most of all was a little grey squirrel….

He somehow chewed his way through the flooring of the trailer and moved in about a month after we did. We did not know this of course. My mother’s efforts in those days were spent primarily on constant cleaning because there were always mouse droppings everywhere. I’ve often suspected that the large white tank outside was not full of propane, but bleach. Incensed the unending infestations of mice, my mother had emptied the western arsenal of rodenticide when she received the advice that a saucer of honey would lure the mice with sweetness and kill them like a pre-historic bog-trap.

She put her children to bed, set out the honey saucer, and unwound with a book. In the final sweet silence of a long day, she heard a tiny, determined licking noise coming from the direction of the saucer. Triumphant at the thought of the rodent’s demise, she shot her gaze over to the kitchen. There, at the edge of the plate, careful NOT to entangle himself in the precariousness of the sugar ooze, stooped a little grey squirrel, lapping up the honey. My mother, I assume, was too flabbergasted to move, so she watched the little chap finish his dessert, and dismiss himself from the kitchen. I was not there to meet him at this time, but each time I did see him escape, it was between the the cupboard bottom and the kick plate. He squeezed himself under the cupboard door and into the abyss. So, I assume, he did so on this occasion.

As the weather cooled to a temperature that even furry mammals found distasteful, the squirrel made himself at home in our home. My father pulled a book from the shelf one day, only to be showered with dog food pellets and chicken bones. His bookshelf had a handy couple of inches that made an excellent, discrete squirrel larder. After all, winter was coming. This particular larder was cleaned up, but the squirrel was undeterred. He discovered that storing food was not as serious as for other squirrels, for this squirrel residence was restocked weekly with many delicious things.

Fruit was a favourite; not thick-skinned fruit like oranges or bananas, but apples and pears. It was insanely convenient for him to wait for us to retire, and then to drag a whole pear into his temperature controlled twilight zone under the kitchen cupboards. How do I know this? Because after a little while of stealing fruit from the basket on the counter at night, he brazenly stole it during the daylight hours. I imagine he reasoned that we had not snuffed him yet, even though we were very aware of his pilfering, so it was unlikely we would do so even if we saw him abscond apples in full view.

And that is how we met. Midday and bright, the kitchen was deserted except for him. He was already on the floor, a small, edible something in his fist. I froze, partially questioning the reality of the situation. He looked me straight in the eye, cocked his head to the side, and scampered into his exit.

We soon became accustomed to our 6 inch roommate. We developed an inter-species short hand. If there was no available food for him at night, he would communicate his annoyance by throwing cutlery off the dish rack and onto the floor. At 2 am. Wanting to communicate our annoyance, my father flashed up his billion candle power flashlight and stomped down the hallway into the kitchen. The recounted story was that the squirrel ricocheted off several kitchen surfaces before diving to safety. He did not throw off cutlery again, no matter how lacking in apples the fruit basket was.

Squirrel seemed to miss us when we were gone. After returning from a 2 day absence, there was squirrel poo on the counter; not the floor, or the table, just the counter. Squirrels don’t like change, apparently. So our relationship became less about humans ‘owning’ space or things and more about humans as guests in space owned by the squirrel. There came an understanding, a give and take, a equilibrium.

As the winter wore on, the forced air heating system lost the daily battle with the -40 winds outside. To make the most of the overheated but under-blown furnace air, we took out the metal vents. Since the openings were nearly flush with the frigid walls, it was unlikely that a human would plant a footfall into the void and twist an ankle.

This development was the apogee of domestic bliss for our roommate. The furnace ducts were a 5 inch diameter and they connected every room in the trailer. It was the ultimate squirrel subway system. Soon after the vent removal, there was a ecstatic scampering under the floor boards. He popped up in a different room each time — a look of delight dripping from his whiskers. Now he could have a quick lunch in the kitchen and then depart directly to scale the bedroom drapes. Which he did. Or, he could leave the library larder and explore the curious surface of the entryway washer. Which he also did. I surprised him there. Good living was catching up to him. He looked like an overstuffed pear in a fur jacket. I was only 2 feet away, be neither of us minded anymore.

For all of his antics, he did do us the service of keeping away mice. Perhaps he intimidated perspective rodents wanting to move in or maybe they just could not navigate his elaborate entry system, but, we never had mice when he lived with us. That was a pleasant break.

That spring, my father changed jobs and we had to move. Worried that the new occupants would not necessarily have the same liberal interpretation of ‘shared living space’ we did, my father spent 2 days sealing every possible crevice under the trailer. The last few days in the trailer were sad. What would become of our little larcenous friend? Could he still survive without groceries and gas heating? Had we sentenced him to starvation or hypothermia?

The night before we moved there was a familiar skitter across the kitchen floor. My father threw up his hands in defeat and declared that whoever got the trailer got the squirrel. But knowing what I knew about our friend, I think a more accurate statement would have been: ‘Whoever moves into the trailer, the squirrel gets to have.’

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Stories from My Time(s) in Non-Urban Spaces

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Asha Alaric

Asha Alaric

Bleeding Heart or Misanthrope. Depends on the day. Book hoarder. Coffee snob. Loves animals, plants, and at least 9 people.

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