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This week, First Person explores memorable encounters and relationships between humans and animals.
I have three cats; each of them turned up at my door at different times and for different reasons - as cats are wont to do. They all have their stories – cats always have a story – that’s why they get more than their share of YouTube videos. But, you might be surprised that the most interesting creatures to have ever turned up at my door are garden squirrels.
Some time ago, while sitting in my backyard, I looked up to see a restless little character staring me down. He had smelled the basket of nuts that I brought out to snack on. Feeling that it was only polite to share, I threw a plump, unshelled peanut towards him. He attempted to catch it but failing to do so, quickly seized it from the deck, turning it over and over in his delicately dexterous rodent hands. Having carried out a seemingly thorough inspection, he deemed the nut important and perfect enough to store beneath the ground, delivering to me, in the process, a grand lesson in delayed gratification. If only I were capable of such restraint with a chocolate toffee.
After much rumination over several possible hiding places, he dug industriously, placed the nut gently into its bed and feverishly covered it with dirt, patting and pressing until entirely satisfied. Then, he cleverly dragged a maple leaf over the spot to avoid detection and theft of this rare treasure. In my house, treasured chocolate toffees do not last long enough to allow the luxury of squirreling them away for a future toffee famine.
Moments later I felt I was being watched again, and indeed, he was back, a little closer to me this time. He was wildly gesturing with his hands, like some mad conductor directing a boisterous orchestration. The serenade Eine Kleine Nachtmusik came to mind. Noting the elegant white jacket of fur on his breast, I named him Mozart, and now that we were on a first-name basis, I wanted to be a good host and gently tossed another peanut to him. This time he caught it with all the skill of a drum major and after submitting this one to the same inspection, put it in his mouth. Sensing further opportunity, he clapped his hands together beseeching me to throw him another, which, of course, I did. He was able to negotiate another peanut into his mouth in such a way as to be able to carry two at a time. He clapped his wiry hands once more, wanting a third, but this was where, I believe, he encountered an existentialist crisis. He was intelligent enough to know that he could probably get three nuts and this knowledge tempted him but alas, try as he might, there was no combination or placement of them that would allow him to carry them all away. Oh! The curse of knowledge that brings you angst. If only he had been born a chipmunk. After much wringing of hands and actual gnashing of teeth Mozart ate one peanut there and then and carried the other two off to make a bank deposit.
I identify with this conundrum when I mindlessly run into the liquor store without pausing to get a cart and find that I want five of the Shiraz on sale but am only able to carry four without the risk of dropping them. I confess that I have tried opening a bottle and drinking it in the aisle but have been stopped by the authorities whom, I have discovered, have no interest in existentialist philosophy.
Each afternoon, at about the same time, I was joined by Mozart, where we would share a bold Shiraz and a pleasant peanut or three. We were to discover, soon, that we were being watched. Out of the undergrowth came Mozart’s nemesis, Salieri. He barked and spat and drove Mozart off – albeit with a mouthful of peanuts. Salieri stood up on his hind legs, stretching one open hand into the air in a triumphant plea for his newfound booty. This operatic drama would become a daily ritual for us. Only when Salieri grew six enormous breasts did I rename her Sally.
Sally was a diligent mother and would often bring her many kittens to dinner. It didn’t take them long to learn that they could get better service from this human by simply raising their hands as well. Occasionally, I would give them whole walnuts – but only on their birthdays, of course. Well, truth be told, Sally could con me into giving her them far more often, by throwing the peanuts back to me, as if to say, “Come on, Lady, hand the good stuff over, I’ve got kids to feed.”
Then the day came when I went out into the garden and it was silent. The familiar rustling of trees that usually announced the squirrel visits did not occur. I wondered if the hawk I had seen perched in a nearby tree had run rampage on the population. But no, I was to find out that my neighbour, unwilling to share his vegetables with the wildlife, had begun trapping the squirrels, and taking them miles away, releasing them into other territories. I gasped at this news and hissed invective of a different kind upon him.
Inevitably, other squirrels would move into the dead space, as nature would not be evicted so easily from its own home, but as winter also moved in, I came to the realization that I would not see Mozart and Sally again.
Over those last months, I had been struggling with the recent loss of my mother and sister. How could it be that now, I still found room beneath such despair to grieve for two wild rodents? What else had they delivered to my door that had somehow sustained me through those many bleak moments of uncharted sadness? My own existential crisis stooped my shoulders and looking up into a wasteland, took effort.
Weeks later, I heard a scratching at my kitchen door. Sally had found her way back. She was thin and ragged and I imagined, exhausted, but had the energy to lift her hand up to gesture for food. This time she was quite happy with a peanut, but since it was her birthday, I gave her three whole walnuts – she ate them all immediately.
Mozart must have perished: too delicate, gone too early.
P. H. Oliver lives in Cambridge, Ont.