So begins the saga of the squirrel in my room
* * * *
I heard it several nights in a row, tiny squeaks and scuttling coming from somewhere close by. After my last pet died last year, I’ve had no target for an outpouring of my love and affection. My yearnings had recently been duped by the wail of a kitten from my neighbour’s house several nights in a row so I both hoped and feared that this new noise implied new life. One day, when that kitten’s mewls were at its loudest, I stuck half my face out of the curtain to spot it. There it was, grey stripes and bright blue eyes, tripping over itself, face flat on the door-step. The need to cuddle it filled me and I began building the courage to go see it.
A few days later, when I had built that courage, I listened for the day’s peak of mewls again. It never came. Kitty had been repatriated elsewhere never to enter my heart again.
So I tried to remain stoic about these new noises… except it was building a nest. I recognised that it was a squirrel getting ready for breeding season and my heart fluttered. My mind had already gendered him and I wanted to believe squirrels behaved as weaver-birds do: the male builds a nest and only then begins dating (like any reasonable male of a species should do, surely). My emotional investment in this fantasy was strengthened by his mournful cries at night, which I assumed to be calls for a mate.
One day though, while I was downstairs making tea, our domestic worker came down with this large lump of matted brown fibre and said proudly, ‘look, I got rid of this, there were some pesky squirrels around’.
I gaped at her, unable to process what could have happened. I croaked, ‘Put it back! Put it back!’ and she turned heel immediately with a puzzled look at my antics. As she climbed the staircase, I felt dizzy with fear. I stayed put, hoping that by not going anywhere near the nest, the squirrel would build up the courage again to reclaim it.
Days went by and not a peep. Of course, this narrative’s title is ‘Tales’, so as you’d expect the squirrel came back eventually.
Occasionally I’d hear the critter squeal his heart out in the middle of the night. For love, lust, or to tell me to turn the bloody lights off, I would never know. Whatever reason it was, it eventually stopped and so did the squeals. I’d occasionally hear a scuttle so I knew he was still around but something had clearly changed.
Then the tiny squeaks came. They came from the drey, I was sure of it. I ran down and told my housemate and we both scaled a ladder to peep into the tiny hole of an entrance in the drey. It was pitch black so we didn’t see or hear anything but our hearts knew there were babies inside.
It sounded like something was tearing my thick curtain apart. Thinking it was a disoriented cat stuck between the curtain and door, I peeped around and took a look. A single beady eye stared out threateningly. The squirrel had reached the edge and stuck his head out perpendicular to me, staring out of the side of its head. It was that unsettling stare that only prey can achieve: when gazelles spot the creeping lion and stare, completely still, that single eye widened and focused on the enemy. The squirrel and I had a moment. No sudden movements, I told myself, not wanting to frighten it. No cowardice either, as I backed away without breaking eye contact. A few metres retreated, I turned the corner and disappeared, hoping he’d resume his activities without leaving that nest. I wanted him to understand I was friend, not foe, and I might be creeping on his babies but in the least predatorial way, of course.
I was reading my book on a bench in the garden, wrapped up in a story of jungles and thievery when I saw it. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a squirrel standing in the grass staring at me. I turned my head slowly but it retreated a short distance. I tried to make a noise like ‘tchuk, tchuk, tchuk’ as I had practised several times, trying to coax my bedroom squirrel out or trying to put him at ease when we had unplanned bump-ins. It had never worked, obviously, but this time the noise made this squirrel turn from his flight to safety and come inspect me. It ran to its original spot in the grass and stared again. It jumped up the tree until it was eye level with me and stared with the better view. The slightest movement on my part sent it scurrying back but when I desperately tchuked it’d run back to get a better look.
Unphased by me staring at it right in the eye through all these movements, the squirrel kept doing the same thing. Run to the grass: stare. Up the tree: stare. Eye contact with me, bolt back to safety. Tchuk and it’s right back. I wondered whether it thought I was competition and was waiting until I got absorbed in a particularly good anecdote to pounce on me, clawing me to possible death by rabies. Pondering still, he had scurried back to the grassy spot and was watching me with that side stare that only prey can do.
Could it be? Was it him? Was I me? Did we have that moment in my room? He climbed up the papaya tree so we could look closer at each other. Eye level with me, he peeped around the trunk and stared at me with that single eye. Unmistakable. It was him and he knew it was me.
Excited about this recognition and feeling pretty chuffed at my mastery of Squirrel, I got up to get a banana to feed it. He ran to the other end of a parapet wall, about 3 metres from me. I came back and tchuk-tchuked to get him as close as possible and threw a piece of banana, to no avail. I couldn’t tchuk convincingly enough to get him any closer, so I gave up, scoffed the banana down myself and resumed my book.
Barely a few minutes later, I heard a squeak in the grass, like a small mouse. As the squeak got more desperate I heard a scuttle from the trees and I watched as Mr. Stare-Down Squirrel jumped on this mouse and proceeded to… kill it! Marveled by this feat of nature, perhaps peculiar to urban squirrels that must compete for food (my Animal Planet logic was sharp), I went and told my family about what had just happened.
‘Are you sure it wasn’t a baby squirrel?’
I forgot that animals kill their own young for survival. Cursing my selective memory, my brother and I walked towards the patch of grass where the squeaks had come from. Two and a half inches of an immature tail and a little hindfoot about half an inch long. The rest was covered by grass.
So I poked a stick at it. My brother yelped to leave it alone but I retorted that I needed to overcome my fear of dead things. Scared as all hell that it would jump alive again, I unpicked the grass with the stem of a papaya leaf. I could uncover the body from bottom up but when I reached its forepaws I saw in rigor mortis it had tightened its clench on a stalk of grass. Heart heavy and creeped out at myself, I removed the papaya leaf and turned back home. Bedroom Squirrel had committed infanticide.