Toby Olson

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He had been having what he perceived as problems with the red squirrels, who were known to eat into houses, there to create havoc in a man’s walls and belongings. They seemed intelligent, but then all animals seem intelligent to those who come into close proximity to them and watch them, even bees, though they are not, properly speaking, animals. The goldfinch pecks delicately at the thistle feeder, an eye out for the stray cat that might leap up to catch and devour it; the lowly vole, only a baby, he saw nibbling at the cheese carefully in the set trap; obviously, the coyote. There were a few too many around these days, seldom seen, though he had seen one in the early morning, at first light, staring back at him knowingly in the side yard.

He was a scientist of some sort, a retired academic, very specialized, and only a few others understood his work, and these he saw as competitors and avoided them. Thus he was alone when it came to talk about what for him were serious things. Recently his wife had passed away, or died as he chose to think of it, and he had mourned her, though he didn’t think he missed her. She had become little more than an irritant to him late in their marriage. She was buried just a short distance away, near this summer home she had loved but had spent little time in until she fell ill, being on the road a good deal. He seldom visited her grave with flowers, as was the custom. “It was as if she just closed up shop,” he’d often said, aware that he couldn’t really know that, having retreated into his study for work as she wasted away, tended by the various nurses he had provided for her. Actually her death had occurred four years ago, in the city, and recently meant little to the man these days. It might just as well have been ten years or more.

His study door faced a small wooded glade, pine trees the lower branches of which were denuded of needles because the thick canopy above prevented enough light for sustenance. The study itself was its own building, a few yards from the main house and facing away from it, away from his wife when she was among the living, when many phoned but few came to visit, though some did from time to time. His daughter did, but no one visited his study, until the squirrels came.

The squirrels looked good. They were small and compact, a dusky red; their fluffy tails stood tall and vibrated when they paused on a limb for reconnoitering or the dismantling of some nut or cone gripped between forefeet or in tough little jaws. They were he supposed cute in their boldness, pausing to look hard at him as he strolled out for work in the mornings, but he thought they had evil intentions. And they made a racket, often interrupting his concentration, which had often been interrupted enough recently by any number of random thoughts and sounds, he supposed because of the complex difficulty of his current project. He’d hear the squirrels scampering across the study roof, and he had seen them leap athletically from the peak to the small balcony outside the second floor bedroom of the main house, the bedroom in which he had found his wife dead, almost two years ago now, though it seemed much longer.

There was no evidence of their presence inside the house, at least he didn’t think there was. But animals had gotten in, mouse droppings at the backs of drawers and in cabinets and a few desiccated bodies in traps in the pantry when the house was opened for the season, before the cleaners came through. And he had found a ragged edge of clapboard near the rear door, a chunk gnawed away, teeth marks he thought. The house was tight, but it was no fortress, and there were recesses below porches and decks at the stone foundation where he had not checked and felt he had no convenient way to do so. He had been handy when his wife was alive, but he had given up on most outdoor work now, leaving it to others. Some were efficient, but none as meticulous and careful as he had been.

The house was called a farm, Gay Farm, his wife had named it well before the term was suggestive, but there was no farming. It was one of a number of places set on land that had once been a farm, long ago, before it was divided up into five acre parcels, he thought in the nineteen-forties, though it could have been earlier. They’d bought it in the fifties, then had watched as other “estates” had grown up around them, houses with garages made to look like barns, manicured lawns. No academics, but professional men and their families from the city, there only for weekends, which suited him just fine. They’d spent their long summers there for over forty years. Well, at least he had. And now it was half the year, and in the last two that had grown to be an even longer time. He hardly remembered their winter apartment when he was away from it.

He’d tried the few things others had suggested, a Have-A-Heart trap, cayenne pepper, the hottest grade, even a brutal rat trap. He’d placed the Have-A-Heart in sight of his study, and a squirrel had indeed entered it, only to carefully lift the nuts from where he’d stuck them down on the trip-switch with peanut butter. When its mouth was full, it gave him what seemed a cynical grin, then made its exit with the spoils. They had ignored the rat trap completely, and though he’d sneezed and his eyes had watered when he’d mixed the cayenne with bird seed and poured a mound on the flat bed of the feeder, only the birds had gone away, while the squirrels ate copiously to no effect.

So he bought a gun. It was not a real gun. Weapons of that kind were not allowed, but a Crosman Air Rifle, a Model 2200A Magnum, not a toy the literature said in its for-use warnings. A can of Beeman Ram Jet silhouette pellets came with it, “shoot safely, be careful” printed in small lettering on the metal cover, twenty-two caliber. The rear sight had “windage and elevation adjustment screws” and the front one was described as something special, a glowing green tube, minuscule, sighting through which accuracy would be enhanced. Though a teacher of physics, he had never in his life shot a gun, and so he studied the literature carefully, taking account of every warning and schematic. Then he put the weapon aside, unloaded and with the safety on, leaning against the wall near his study door. The days or weeks went by, and he continued with his studies and scrib-blings, and before he knew it it was late June and warmer and the few red squirrels in residence had grown into a larger number. He thought there were smaller ones now, possibly young offspring, though they were as loud and raucous as were the adults. And they stared at him and clacked in the same way as he entered his study each morning, and one morning, his work not going well at all, he decided it was time to try to shoot them.

They were out there, scampering along horizontal limbs, pausing at times to work at nuts and cones, their tails vibrat-ing, mouths open when they clicked out those irritating calls from deep in their narrow throats, and he went to the door and closed it against the screen, then lifted the weapon and loaded a Beeman Ram Jet pellet into the port and shot the bolt. Then he lowered the forearm and began to pump. Ten pumps maximum the literature said, so he counted six, a muzzle velocity of between four and five hundred feet per second. He had tried to calculate the effectiveness of those numbers, had the figures, but no idea of their meaning when it came to accuracy and flesh penetration. And how will I ever hit them, he had thought, they’re so small.

He opened the door quietly, then pushed open the screen and stepped out slowly onto the path fronting his study. A squirrel was looking at him, sitting on a limb, suddenly tense, about thirty feet away. It barked out its ratcheting call, a warning to others, or an accusation, he thought, at his presence there. Then he lifted the rifle, pushed off the safety and sighted through the glowing green tube and fired, surprised that there was little sound and no kick, only a pop when he pulled the trigger.

I’ve missed, he thought. The squirrel scampered along the limb. But then it paused for a moment, then fell like a stone, landing in last year’s leaves and matted brush, half hidden by weeds under shadows the limbs cast down. He could see the downy white fur on its chest and belly, like a cat’s, he thought. They’d had a few cats over the years. And he could see the rapid pumping, as if a small desperate engine were inside it. And there was, its heart or lungs. Then the pumping stopped, and it lay still. He watched it for a few moments more, then clicked the safety on again and turned and went back into his study, stood the rifle in its place, and closed the door.

He had thought to move it, take it further out into his property and cast it away, once its body had cooled and stiffened into rigor mortis, not wanting to touch it when it was still warm. Do squirrels go into rigor? He didn’t know. But every morning when he came out to his study for work it was still there, possibly a little shrunken. He would sniff for the smell, but there was none, and he left it there. Then on the fourth day, or was it the fifth, it was gone. He looked hard at the spot where it had rested, thinking it might have altered in color in death and be difficult to see. And he looked too at other spots near that one, in case he had mistaken location. He stepped closer, moving beyond the path and into the wood, but he found nothing. It was gone. Probably some foraging animal, larger than it was, a raccoon or a skunk, even a stealthy coyote had taken it away for food. Then, after a few days, as one might only finally become aware of the silence of a periodic bell, he noticed an absence of sound and realized that all the squirrels were gone. He stepped out to the study path, stood still and listened. In the past, when they had left the wood temporarily, for an hour or two, he’d been able to hear their chattering at a distance, but there was nothing now. He could hear the soothing warbles of birds, even a faint groan of traffic from the distant highway, but no squirrels. Were they somehow aware of him and the weapon he had used to kill one of their kind? It seemed a very intelligent thing for them to have done, going away like this, since the weapon, only an air rifle, and the killing itself had been almost silent and he had seen no others watching the event. He went back into his study and tried to work again, but it wasn’t a very good day for that, so he retreated into the house to catch the first evening news program, but that wasn’t there either. It was only two in the afternoon. Perhaps the clock in his study had gone haywire.

It was mid-July. Summer was in full bloom, and he thought he was probably finished with a piece of research and had written it up, so he decided to take a good long morning walk around his property, something he had not done for a long time as he remembered, to see how things were going out there. Years ago, he had cut various paths through the acreage, a thing his wife had wished for, but that he had put off, not intentionally, until she was too infirm to make use of them. Now they were grown over, almost invisible, and even when he walked to where he remembered them being, he found nothing. But what he did find, near sunset, near the base of a locust tree among other trees, in a shallow valley, as if built there by fairies, was a grave. And he thought immediately, standing over it, that it must be the squirrel’s grave.

It lay in shadow at his feet, but it seemed clear, even seen through shadow, that it had been tended. Acorns and green pine cones edged the small oval, and dull purple buds had been sprinkled across the mound. He thought they were pale asters, forgetting that they bloomed only in the fall. My wife’s grave should look so good he thought, there in the old cemetery nearby, that he had not visited for a long time, though he was unable to feel quilt about this neglect. Jenevive had been her name, an architect until she fell ill. Could it have been a neighbor finding the desiccated corpse and burying it here? But people, unlike animals, did not trespass in this enclave of small gentleman farms that were farms no longer. Maybe it had been a child, the burial of a cat or small dog. He remembered the way his daughter had buried a kitten when she was that age, how awkwardly sincere she had been. He had fashioned a small white cross to stand at the grave-head. But here the burial and tending had been meticulous. There was no cross, but then squirrels are not Christians he thought. He wanted to dig the grave up to be sure, but the sun was failing and it was time to get back.

The next day after a troubling morning of fruitless work, he went back again, but had trouble finding the spot, and it was mid-afternoon before he located the stand of locust. The grave was the same, though the pale purple buds had opened into flowers, then quickly wilted. He lingered there for an hour, looking down at the small graceful mound and before he left found a large dead branch and worked it into the ground beyond the miniature forest’s brink as a guide post. It isn’t even a grave, he thought, as he ambled back through the acreage toward his study, so deep in musing that he lost his way and only came to himself again when he was standing at the blank rear wall of a neighbor’s garage, one of those designed to look like a small barn.

Sitting in his study two days later, after two hours of work and few notes, he thought of his long life and of the squirrel’s shorter one that by another species-measure might well have been as long as his. Gathering cones and nuts and information, build-ing small houses in the trees as he had built theories and composed papers. His wife too had built houses, among other things. How similar our lives might have been he thought, even had I not killed him, or maybe it was a her shot down he suddenly realized. And the next afternoon he took a folding director’s chair, a gathering of flowers and a tall drink of bourbon in his hand and headed out again, finding that his feet had made a path over time and that, though its way was circuitous, it led him back to the grave without detour.

After brushing away the fallen twigs and leaves, he cut the green stems with his pocket knife then arranged the flower blossoms, of various colors, around the small mounded oval. Then he went into the trees and gathered white and grey stones and used them to form an enigmatic figure, possibly a physics formula, on the mound itself, and after he had pulled a few weeds that seemed too close and was satisfied with his work, he sat down in the chair just a few feet away and sipped at his drink and gave thought to the squirrel’s gone life again and to his own. The thoughts were random, many forgotten soon after their mental articulation, though a few drifted away then returned again. What is it I want here? Is life so precious? If I don’t remember this squirrel, who will? That pumping of its chest or lungs, then stillness. Am I a participant or only a witness? Did the squir-rels really do this?

And over and over again he went back, taking seeds, a trowel, his lunch, a notebook, at one point a sleeping bag, his liquor, even the Crosman air rifle once, only to laugh when he discovered it leaning against a tree. It’s of no use here at all, he thought. He brought a few miniature pots containing single flowers he’d planted in them back at the house and once a garden rake to clear the area more thoroughly. He left the director’s chair among the trees, rather than lugging it back and forth. And he dressed the grave with meticulous care each time, having cleared a space around it so that weeds would not penetrate its inviolate space. It became sacred to him, though he didn’t think he was religious in any way. And it became quite beautiful too, like an elegant formula beckoning him to that study desk where he was spending little time these days. He slept on the ground overnight, then sipped from the Thermos of warm coffee he had prepar-ed before coming. At dawn, the grave with its stone and flower dressing glimmered in the early light, and he imagined himself kneeling in the dew, praying softly for the one he had so recently killed.

The days went by, and one day his daughter called and left a message, and the following evening, listening to the message again and hearing her voice, he realized how much he missed her, so he called back and spoke to her.

“Why don’t you come out. It’s getting on to August and the flowers are in bloom.”

“It’s September,” she said. “Where have you been?”

He thought for a moment. “In my study of course, working.”

She drove out from the city the next day, arriving in time for lunch, which she had organized and packed up before leaving. A seafood salad and fresh lettuce and avocado, and a baguette. He seemed quite hungry, eating every morsel quickly. Then she made coffee and they sat at the kitchen table sipping from their stone ware mugs.

“Why don’t you come back home?” she said at last.

“It’s getting late. Soon it’s going to get cold, and besides that you’re all alone out here.”

“Home,” he said.

“And the children miss you. So do I.”

“Come with me,” he said, knowing vaguely that the argument he had in mind was no good argument at all, then rose from his seat and heading for the coat rack near the kitchen door. “I want to show you something.”

They passed his study and headed down under the bare pine limbs. There was a slight chill in the air, but the wind shifted and the breeze was warm. She walked at his elbow, glancing up at him from time to time, her light coat open, and when they came in sight of the locust stand, he quickened his pace and she had to quicken hers to keep up. Where is he taking me? she thought.

“Over here,” he said, when they had entered in among the trees.

“What is it?” she said. He was looking down near the base of a locust tree, but there was nothing there, only fallen leaves and twigs and a few white and grey stones scattered on the ground. He looked around for his chair, but that too was gone. Who? he thought. They must have taken it away. Surely it’s the right tree. He bent over slightly, looking for any evidence that he might find, but there seemed to be none, nothing but leaves and stones and a few flower petals blown here on the wind. He knew enough to be slightly embarrassed.

“It’s a beautiful spot, isn’t it? I wanted you to see it.”

They lingered for a while, for as long as seemed appropriate, just standing there and looking around and listening to the warm breeze shushing in the branches and leaves above. Then she took his arm and tugged lightly at his sleeve and they set off back to the house.

The next morning, after her fitful night, she suggested that they go to the cemetery to see her mother’s grave, and after breakfast she got his old car out of the garage.

They drove there in silence, parked in the small lot, and then set out walking among the gravestones. It was an old cemetery, their plot off in a far corner, one of the last to be sold. Much like the last reservation available at some venerable hotel, he had often mused. They stepped among trees, then came to the brief clearing and paused.

“Why, it looks just beautiful,” his daughter said.

Weeds had been pulled out at the rectangular perimeter, and in their place sat low pots spilling with petunias, vinca, and portulaca. At the head of the grave itself, which had been raked of leaves and twigs, mounds of colorful stones, nature’s pine cones and picture book acorns were placed carefully below the broad granite marker. And to the side of her mother’s grave, at the foot of which they now stood, the second reserved spot had been weeded and raked too, prepared with a similar care.

“Jenevive,” her father said softly.

“Yes?” said his daughter, standing close at his side.

He thought for a moment before speaking.

“Your mother, of course,” he whispered. “Beatrice, my wife.”

“She’s gone,” his daughter said, but he was not listening.

He was looking around, searching for something. A chair, he thought. Then he saw it. It had blown away and now rested an its side against the rough stone wall at the cemetery’s perimeter, just a few yards from where they stood, from which vantage he was now vacantly gazing. This place is prepared for another, he mused, after a time. And that time came in only a few weeks that could just as well have been years. Then he too was gone, without noting his own gradual passage.

They held a grave-side service, his daughter, her husband, and their four children. At the side of the stone and her mother’s name, fresh lettering had been cut, his name, and below it the words Scientist and Teacher, Loving Husband and Father. Under her name was only the one word, Architect, which was quite enough, for she had been a woman of some renown.

When Jenevive and her family returned to the house and stood forlornly in the kitchen where he had made his morning coffee, they heard a cacophonous clatter in the distance beyond her father’s study, but didn’t know what it was. “Just mockingbirds,” her husband said, but it was not that. It was the red squirrels, who had returned again now that he was gone.

They were scampering along the bare limbs and branches, chattering, ripping at cones and nuts, making those sharp war-bling sounds deep in their narrow throats. And they were calling out to each other in their foreign language. It was as if at times they were laughing at his name, among the last to know of it. But that of course is ridiculous. They were only squirrels after all.


Toby Olson’s most recent novel is The Bitter Half. His new book of poetry, Darklight, will appear from Shearsman Press in 2008. Olson lives in Philadelphia and Cape Cod.

This story is included in issue #40: Animals. Copyright © 2007 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.

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