The Squirrel Eaters
by Jen Sexton-Riley
Table of Contents|
parts 1, 2, 3, 4
At the back yard fire pit, Charlotte poked with her thumb at the healing bite on her index finger as she stirred her boiling pot of squirrel heads and feet. Boiling was her least favorite part of the process, not only because of the smell but because it felt destructive.
Boiling was the taking apart of an animal, when the driving force behind her skeletal displays was the desire to preserve the creatures, to give them lasting and meaningful presence. A boiling head was less than a squirrel, definitely a step down from squirrelhood.
A skeleton, however, boiled and bleached clean and sparkling white, assembled and glued into a posture of grace or power, wired into place on a lovingly stained and burnished wooden mount and carefully sprayed with three, four, even seven coats of the most expensive polyurethane in the back yard by Charlotte clad in an adult-sized rubber apron with protective gloves up past her elbows and a full-face chemical cartridge respirator, complete with purple cartridges... that skeleton was forever. A skeleton, standing tall and white on the border between life and death, even a squirrel skeleton, was Something instead of Nothing.
“Well, if you’ve named him already, I don’t see how I have any choice,” Charlotte’s mother said, putting down her gardening tools and plucking the flowered canvas gloves from her hands. She smoothed the cocoa-colored strip of fur between Godfrey’s frightened eyes. “It’s going to be okay, little one. You were almost the main course in an osprey’s nest! If that hadn’t happened, you could very well have been on the menu here one of these days. This is just about the only scenario I can think of in which you might be permanently removed from the food chain, you lucky little thing.”
She decided to keep Godfrey a secret from Charlotte for a few days, in case his fluttery new rabbit life decided it wasn’t quite up to all of this drama after all. She sat with him in the rocking chair in her room every few hours day and night, cradling Godfrey against the warm, golden skin of her chest and swaddling him in the fleece of her robe. She dipped one pinky finger again and again into a small bowl of warmed milk and let the rich drops fall into Godfrey’s mouth. She sang to him. She read to him. In this way, he grew just as Charlotte had grown, only faster.
“So, we’re just keeping him forever, then? What about his family?” she asked her husband one evening as she watched Godfrey sleep.
“What about them?” he asked. “If it were up to them, he’d have made his way inside several hungry baby ospreys that day. I’m the only reason there still is a Godfrey. They didn’t protect their boy. I did. They should just be grateful for that.” He stalked away, mumbling to himself, “Who keeps promises to rabbits, anyway?”
* * *
When it became clear that Godfrey was thriving, Charlotte was let in on the secret, and the design and construction of a rabbit hutch began in the garage, because rabbits live in hutches. When Godfrey reached about the size of a tennis ball, he was switched from warmed milk to green pellets from the feed store supplemented with fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen, stale bread crusts and dandelions from the garden, because the eastern cottontail rabbit, Sylvilagus floridanus, can eat adult food at about that size. Charlotte still brought him an occasional dollhouse-sized mug of warm milk as a treat, along with an oatmeal cookie or a little cube of gingerbread when her mother baked some.
In her mother’s dream, the golden lotus pendant grew warm against her throat and sprouted tendrils, gently encircling her neck, working delicate traceries around the complex folds of her ears, and sending a thickening stem over her shoulder, down through the grass at the forest’s edge and into the earth.
She felt them before she saw them in the dream. The Tartary vegetable lambs were all around her, their bodies indistinct within their clouds of wooly inflorescence. Each one cropped the grass within a circle already closely nipped, even though the surrounding woodsy meadow was knee-deep in juicy green growth. A closer look underneath revealed each glossy umbilicus, every one the red or purple color of ripe grapes, which tethered the lambs from belly to earth and limited the grazing to each creature’s small orbit.
“Look who’s all up on her hind legs,” came a voice from the garden gate. She was inside the stone walls of old Mr. Bell’s garden, she now saw, and the old codger wasn’t nearly as debilitated as she’d assumed from his reclusive nature of late. He looked downright sprightly in his pale blue work shirt and tanned hide vest, a tall, pointed cap of the same hide perched on his head.
“Bell, you old liar, I knew you had these lambs in here! I knew it! And you couldn’t even answer my notes or come to the door!”
“Hush, hush, now,” Mr. Bell said, coming closer with a watering can and pair of pliers. “How did you get all undone here? It hasn’t been windy.” With one firm hand between her shoulder blades and the other holding her hip steady, he forcefully bent her body forward like a hinge. She gasped and resisted the frail man’s strength, but her body didn’t respond as she expected to her attempts to struggle. Her thoughts clouded, her intention became wooly, and her movements seemed submerged in warm water. Mr. Bell snipped a small piece of green wire with his pliers and twisted it through her lotus pendant, which he then tethered to a small stake in the ground near her feet.
“You won’t get away with this, Bell,” she murmured through a mouthful of grass.
She woke feeling uneasy, fatigued. Sleep had depleted her reserves rather than restoring them. Her yoga practice only served to nudge the feeling into a soft cupboard of half-awareness somewhere inside, to be digested away to nothing at all by lunchtime. Inhale. Smile. Hands in Anjali mudra. Close eyes. Exhale. Om shanti shanti shanti. Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu. May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all. Tadasana. Mountain pose. Uttanasana. Standing forward fold. Adhiyana sansangasana. Rabbit reading a book pose.
* * *
“So. What’s up with the biting yesterday, Godfrey? Is there something you want to tell me?” Sitting on the pile of firewood next to the extra freezer, Charlotte’s mother held something partially concealed in her hand. It smelled dark and spicy and sweet. It smelled like the darkest, spiciest sweetness in the world, as if it had risen up from the very center of the earth to save the world with sugary deliciousness.
Godfrey approached the front of the hutch and sniffed through the wire.
“Oh this? A carrot cake muffin. Doesn’t that look delicious? I baked them this morning. It even has a little carrot on the top made of orange icing, isn’t that just adorable?”
Godfrey gasped. It was adorable. He snuffled and ground his teeth.
“I said last night I would come down here today to give you a stern talking-to about your little chomping incident, but there is actually something else I would like to discuss with you. I have a proposition for you, Godfrey. If we can come to some sort of understanding, this little icing-covered beauty is all yours.”
Godfrey sat up on his haunches and paddled his front paws toward himself, as if sweeping the details out of her mouth, through the air and into his sensitive ears.
“It can’t have escaped your awareness that my husband and child, you know, your girl Charlotte, are in the habit of eating squirrels, chipmunks, geese, ducks... you know, our fellow creatures. In fact, I think that was actually the inspiration for your passionate and therefore forgivable chomp yesterday evening.”
Godfrey hung his head and lowered his eyes.
“Something else that you probably don’t have any way of knowing is that I have recently sworn off the eating of fellow creatures, inspired by the vow of ahimsa I found myself taking quite passionately and also therefore forgivably at yoga class the other night. Are you familiar with ahimsa? In your extensive reading, perhaps?”
Godfrey sat a little taller. Cocked his head. Squinted. Shook his head side to side.
“No? OK. Ahimsa comes from a Sanskrit root, and it means non-harming. To take the ahimsa vow is the first principle of ethical conduct in yoga. No more meat-eating. No more leather, no more squirrel-eating. I think you get the point.”
Godfrey’s face softened into something like a smile.
“Yes! It’s good, right? Well. I’d really like to take Charlotte and her father along with me on this ahimsa journey, but they are some serious squirrel-eaters. My husband hunts daily. Daily! And Charlotte, well... I don’t think you are aware of this, but every creature that comes into this house, every creature that sheds its life and then its fur, every creature that goes into and out of our oven and onto our plates, ends up boiled gleaming white, reassembled and displayed in little Charlotte’s bedroom. It’s the Zoo of the Damned up in there, Godfrey. You would pass out cold if you saw it. I don’t know how she sleeps.”
Godfrey gulped and ground his teeth. One hind foot thumped twice in quick succession.
“Exactly. Now, I believe Charlotte does her skeleton displays out of some sort of reverence for life, but it ends up a promenade of the bleached bones of death instead. It just isn’t healthy. So I am determined to win those two over to at least trying a death-free lifestyle. And all that starts with you, me and a Tartary vegetable lamb from Mr. Bell’s garden. Have you ever read The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Godfrey?”
Godfrey shook his head.
“Well. It’s a children’s story by Beatrix Potter. In the story, little Peter Rabbit breaks his mother’s rule and slips into Mr. McGregor’s garden to steal some vegetables. He gets away with it, although he nearly gets caught and made into a pie, because the silly thing wears a bright blue coat with huge, shiny brass buttons, which get caught on a gooseberry net. He finally hides inside a watering can and catches a chill, so when he gets home his mom puts him in bed with chamomile tea while his sisters get to eat bread and milk and blackberries.
“You are going to be Peter Rabbit, Godfrey. But without the stupid buttons, without the watering can, and with a Tartary vegetable lamb from Mr. Bell’s garden instead of Mr. McGregor’s lettuces and French beans.”
Godfrey stared at her. She held his gaze. He shuddered, still snagged on the phrase rabbit pie, then he blinked the thought away and made the eager scooping motion again with his paws. Go on, let’s hear it, tell me more!
“On the other side of the wall at the bottom of our property, by the woods, Mr. Bell’s property begins. Now I’ve asked him a hundred times over the years if he would let me see his Tartary vegetable lambs or share them with me, and he swears up and down that I am out of my mind and they don’t exist. He’s not willing to share.
“But he’s a very old man now. He can’t even walk his own property line anymore, and I know this because I have left him a couple of inflammatory notes stuck into his garden wall over the last week or two, and they’ve not been touched. He hasn’t responded to my letters or answered my knocking on his door or calling at his gate or anything in a couple of months, so he must be getting infirm in his age, you know?”
Godfrey nodded, relieved to know that old Mr. Bell would not be likely to chase him down and entomb him in a pastry crust.
“Mr. Bell was a traveler and naturalist in his youth, and he accumulated quite a wealth of strange and, some would even say, mythological plant life in his journeys. They say he traveled through central Asia to hunt down the legendary vegetable lamb of Tartary. Everyone claims it’s nothing but a myth, the Fiji mermaid of the plant world, but I say he brought some back and planted them in his garden, and I say they took to our soil like pigs to shit. I say he’s got a whole herd of Tartary veggie lambs walled up in his garden, and I know because I have heard them mewling. Yes, mewling. They don’t really baa.”
Godfrey made a shrugging gesture and placed his paws on his chest, raising his eyebrows.
“What do you have to do? I want you to sneak down to Mr. Bell’s garden, slip under the gate, use those diggers of yours to unearth a selection of the healthiest looking vegetable lambs, and bring them back here so I can plant them in our garden. That way I can get this family on the right path.”
Godfrey made an expansive gesture, encompassing everyone else who might be better suited to perform such a task, then pointed with incredulity to himself.
“Why you? Why don’t I just break in and steal the stupid things myself? Good question, Godfrey.” She smoothed her hair, closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, then opened her eyes and gazed at him steadily. “It’s very simple. You see, I didn’t just take the ahimsa vow in yoga class. I also took a vow of asteya. That means non-stealing. I am forbidden to steal. But you haven’t taken an asteya vow, have you Godfrey?”
Godfrey gave a sidelong glance and stifled a snicker. He shook his head left and right.
“Didn’t think so. And listen, there’s more in it for you than this muffin, buddy. I’ll tell you what. How would you like to go find your family again? Be a real rabbit? I’ll accidentally on purpose leave the hutch door open if you help me out. Plus, if I’m successful with this ahimsa thing, there’ll be one less nut with a bow and quiver out there after you guys, too, thanks to you. You could be a regular rabbit legend. So what do you say? You in?”
Godfrey’s eyes widened. His jaw dropped, exposing his long incisors and pink tongue. His hind leg began drumming on the wire floor and he nodded his head in time. Yes! Yes!
“Okay, little man. Take it easy. We’ve got a deal. Shake. And don’t you dare bite me, or deal’s off.” She reached one golden hand toward Godfrey, who gripped two fingers in both front paws and pumped them up and down.
“Here, have a look through this,” she said, placing a stack of well-worn, folded pages on the wire floor titled The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, The Garden Museum, St. Mary’s Church, London. “Oh, and don’t forget this,” she added, extending the muffin.
Godfrey seized it with both hands and, without hesitation, plunged his face into the orange icing carrot. As he chewed, she stood and winked at him. She turned out the light and closed the garage door to the sound of high-pitched giggling and thumping in the darkness.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Jen Sexton-Riley