The Squirrel Eaters
by Jen Sexton-Riley
Table of Contents|
parts 1, 2, 3, 4
In Charlotte’s dream, she rose from her bed and looked out the back window. In the moonlight below, three solemn rabbits, two large brown ones and one slightly smaller greying one, stood around the boiling pot on the fire pit, taking turns stirring something golden with a long stick. The bubbles in the boiling pot sounded like a lullaby.
In Godfrey’s dream, a sound in the garage startled him from sleep. He poked his head through his bedroom door to see the door of the extra freezer swinging open. With a dry, musical sound like garden wind chimes, one skeleton after another began stepping out of the freezer, stretching their arms and legs, blinking their eye sockets and clapping their limbs around their ribcages in an effort to warm up. Ducks. Squirrels. Rabbits. Squirrels. Chipmunks. An osprey. A bear. Squirrels. Squirrels. Squirrels. So many squirrels.
In her father’s dream, his bow was warm and covered in cocoa-colored fur. The structure of it felt like bones beneath skin, and as he pulled back the string he could feel the bow itself tensing its own layer of muscles, readying itself for the effort of loosing the arrow.
After a bleary, timeless period of stalking through sunlight and green shadow, he spotted some movement in the trees ahead. He raised his bow and noticed that fur now also covered his pulling hand and his arm halfway to the elbow. His quarry stepped into a clearing ahead and revealed itself to be an enormous squirrel skeleton of a deep emerald color, at least the height of his hip, with small leaves and tendrils bobbing here and there at its ribs and pelvis and sunlight pouring through its translucent limbs. He took aim, closing one eye and exhaling as he loosed the shaft.
His arrow missed, sailing clean between two ribs and embedding itself in a tree trunk beyond the creature, which swung its skull around toward the sound of the arrow’s small impact. It then turned back to peer toward the arrow’s likely origin, narrowing its eyeless sockets as it searched the shadows without seeing him.
“Godfrey? Godfrey, where are you?” came a small, crackling voice and an anxious grinding of teeth from somewhere near his right ankle. In a deep hollow between the roots of a massive fir tree, a walkie-talkie lay, its tiny red light glowing in a world of green. “Godfrey,” said the voice, “he promised. Godfrey, come home.”
* * *
How strange to live somewhere for so long and have no real sense of the general topography of the place. Godfrey turned over the map of the neighborhood and surrounding woodlands, then he spun it sideways. Okay, here was the house. The garden of the old and probably only minimally predatory Mr. Bell should be way down there through the woods at the bottom of the yard, so the best way would be to go out of the garage, turn left and stick tight to the foundation of the house. Stay flat. Stay keen. Then a quick sprint across the open side yard, to the edge of the woods. Just a brief moment without cover.
He would skirt the wooded property line all the way down the long, green slope of the back yard, past Charlotte’s boiling pot, past the family’s vegetable patch to the start of the woods. A narrow path would lead deep into the woods, past the old well and a brush pile. A short distance after that, Mr. Bell’s stone wall should just barely become visible through the trees to the right.
The shadows in the garage were becoming hungry, consuming first the rakes and hoes hanging from their row of nails on the wall, then the extra freezer and the wood pile. Now, as the last of the sun’s light through the garage window became orange and then red, the shadows extended their tongues to taste the front of the hutch. It was time.
Godfrey folded the map neatly, creasing it into a sharp rectangle between his paws and the wire floor. During Charlotte’s regular evening sessions of “Is there anything you need, Godfrey?” he had managed to pantomime a pencil and a pair of her father’s grey woolen socks with the reinforced red heel and toe. A focused chewing session had done the trick to remove the entire toe portion of one sock and add two small new holes in the stretchy woolen material, one on each side.
Godfrey now closed his eyes and wriggled his way headfirst into the sock, pushing his head out through the now-open toe and pushing each of his forelegs through a chewed armhole. In this way he made a tight-fitting vest, which could also serve as a whole-body pocket in which to carry his map and other necessaries while hopping across the landscape.
Godfrey lifted his chin and slipped the folded map down into his new garment, stowing it snugly against his chest. Then he hopped up and down violently in place to ensure the map would stay put. It did. The other sock could serve as a bag in which to carry the plants he was sworn to retrieve. He could only hope they would fit inside.
As the last few rays of light colored the garage ceiling russet, Godfrey aimed the pencil through a hole in the hutch’s front wall of wire mesh. He slowly worked the eraser end toward the simple hook and eye closure which secured the front door of the hutch, keeping him inside. Dropping the pencil was not an option; he dug his nails as firmly as he could into its glossy yellow paint.
As the eraser made contact with the hook, he shoved upwards as hard as he could. After a couple of angle adjustments, he heard the satisfying sound of the hook swinging free and rattling against the hutch’s outer wall. He gently lowered the hutch door and hopped out, feeling the cool cement of the garage floor through the thickly furred undersides of his feet.
A firm push on the free-swinging garage door and Godfrey was out in the world entirely on his own, a brand-new experience. He was determined to stick to his plan: dart low and long beside the shadowed foundation of the house toward the back yard and its enormous slope toward the woods, but he found himself flattened and gasping for breath instead. He hadn’t taken into account the effect of the enormity of the sky.
The sky. He had fallen out of the sky. It seemed to want him back. He felt it watching, whether through its many pale evening stars or through the piercing eyes of unseen birds of prey, he was not sure. Godfrey closed his eyes, shook it off, and ran.
As he rounded the house and sprinted across the narrow stretch of exposed side lawn toward the woodsy edge of the property line, beginning his descent to the woods, he spotted something else he had not considered: Charlotte’s boiling pot. A fire glowed underneath, and a swirling, foul-smelling steam curled above it and climbed toward the sky. As it caught his eye, the steam seemed to see him too, and blew straight toward him, as if to betray his position. Godfrey flattened, pinning his ears to his back, and watched, trying to be part of the earth itself, willing his anxious hind legs not to drum an alarm.
Charlotte was nowhere to be seen. Her stirring stick protruded from the pot. A sound of bubbling emerged from deep within, though Godfrey was too low to the ground see the contents. He looked at the house. The windows were dark, except a few on the ground floor through which he could see Charlotte’s mother washing dishes. The coast appeared to be clear. He picked up his sock-bag, took a deep breath and sprinted toward the bottom of the property and the cover of the trees.
It was wonderful to run, even with the sock clutched in his paw and the map secured to his body with the tight little vest. Godfrey could feel that he was made to run, to really run, and although stealth was rule number one tonight, he couldn’t help but cry out a bit in joy and let out a rogue leap here, a wild thrash-out of his strong back legs there, and a cackle in the face of his fear. He was a rabbit, had been born a rabbit and would die a rabbit. Godfrey decided then and there that if the life of a cottontail included running for one’s life, well then, the life of a cottontail is exactly what he intended to live.
Godfrey plunged into the woods and its many shades of green shadows, lost in thought of how wonderful it was to be wild. As he let out a giggle and rounded a hemlock tree, he crashed headlong into an immovable pair of pale tree trunks which let out a cry and sloshed water on top of his head. He tumbled, recovered, and whirled to face Charlotte, returning from the well with a pail of water for her boiling pot.
“Godfrey! Godfrey! What are you doing out here all alone? Oh no, you aren’t running away!” Charlotte cried.
Godfrey sat up on his haunches and presented his innocent palms, shaking his head left and right, wide-eyed. No, no, I am not running away. I am on a mission.
“You’re not running away? Oh, what a relief, I was about to burst into tears, Godfrey. Oh my goodness, what is this that you are wearing! A little sock vest! Did you make this yourself? I was wondering what you wanted with my dad’s socks! Oh, you look so cute!” Charlotte squatted down, cupping her round face in her palms as if to keep it from flying away with the adorableness of it all. “So, where are you going? Can I come?”
At first Godfrey’s heart sank with this idea, but with a moment of consideration it appeared to him not such a bad turn of luck after all. Charlotte was a child; her presence would certainly keep him safe from the stalking, pouncing, tearing, shredding segment of the forest’s population. Her appearance would also inhibit any human hunters he might encounter from seeing him as a possible menu item. He was a little girl’s pet, and wearing an adorable vest, after all.
* * *
Finally, logic told him that Charlotte would be far more able to transport the Tartary vegetable lambs from Mr. Bell’s garden back to the house, no matter how large they might be, than he could manage alone. Godfrey smiled and nodded his head, making encouraging gestures and starting off again along the path. Charlotte left her now half-full pail of water beside the path and followed.
They hurried by the overgrown brush pile, in the shadows of which several pairs of shy, interested eyes picked up reflected starlight as Godfrey and Charlotte passed. The last of the fading light illuminated the tall stone wall of Mr. Bell’s garden off through the trees to the right. Here and there on top of the wall, fierce guardians stood watch. Griffins and horses, mostly, but here and there a dragon, all were in positions of aggression with snarling mouths, bared teeth, wild rolling eyes and brandished claws and hooves. All were fashioned from a shiny, decorative metal that drank up every bit of remaining light and played it across the rolling muscles, manes and feathers.
“Gold!” Charlotte gasped. “Wow, gold! I wonder if Mr. Bell has lost his marbles, leaving them out here in the woods to guard his garden where anyone could steal them?” Charlotte stood on tiptoe, reached up and grasped the legs of smallest of the figures, a young colt facing off against a fledgling griffin. She couldn’t budge it, and ended up swinging from it, both legs kicking above the forest floor. “Oof. Well, maybe not anyone. He must have brought these back from his travels. Oh, I hope this isn’t why we’re out here, is it, Godfrey? To steal Mr. Bell’s statues?”
Godfrey sat up and made a Well, not exactly, but sort of gesture, weighing imaginary options in his two front paws and finding them about equal.
“Not these, but something? Okay. So we are definitely here to steal. Thieves in the night!” Charlotte smiled.
Godfrey nodded, stifling a giggle. He pointed at the garden wall, crouched down close to the earth and pantomimed frantically digging out a plant, roots and all, lifting it from its garden bed, and running away with it clutched to his chest, all the while looking around wild-eyed to make sure no one was giving chase.
“Oh! Stealing plants? What, veggies? Mom grows them right in our garden at home. She would be happy to give you more veggies, if our peels and ends haven’t been enough. You should have said something,” Charlotte said.
Godfrey shook his head from side to side vigorously, and at mention of Charlotte’s mother, he thumped five times in quick succession, waving his forelegs and pointing over the wall, pointing at Charlotte, and indicating an imaginary tall, parental figure at Charlotte’s side.
“My mom wanted you to do this? Wait a minute! Is this about the veggie lambs?”
Godfrey jumped straight up and down in place, nodding wildly.
“Ha! She doesn’t even think I know about them, but I’ve heard her muttering about it! Now I get it! Old Mr. Bell doesn’t want to share, so we’re just going in for the steal. Look at you, doing Mom’s dirty work, you sneak!”
Godfrey felt a little sheepish, but when Charlotte smiled at him, he smiled back.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Jen Sexton-Riley