The Decoy Squirrel

I spent most of my free childhood with my nose in a book. I have quite a few now, in numbers approaching the thousands, and historically reread the majority of them in a year.  In childhood this was best achievable by spending every weekday of my summer vacations the same way; motionless in a chair with a book perched open across my knees.  Time becomes immaterial, as you are wrapped in a silent cocoon of concentration, focused on gleaning every last drop of meaning from the words.  I really do love books.

The summer I turned 11 brought no changes to this well established pattern of behavior.

I woke around 9 every morning, put something on toast, and went to search for that morning’s book.

What my bookshelves usually look like.
What my bookshelves usually look like.

Usually I picked carefully through the little cherry wood shelf across from my bed, already stacked 2 layers deep with books, but carefully re-alphebatized each week.  Sometimes I had to search farther afield.  On my sister’s shelves in the basement, an unknown array of historical and science fiction books stood, dark glossy covers highlighting their mysterious appeal.  They were made even more tempting by the fact that if she caught me touching her books, let alone in her room, I was doomed.

On my Mother’s shelves were books of all sizes and ages.  You could scan through cookbooks with thick glossy pages, or a fabric wrapped one that contained only hand written recipes in faded spidery writing.

A couple of times a year I would pick up James Herriot’s, All Creatures Great and Small.  His stories were full of well beloved animals, and old words that sounded earthy; they were also often too sad to read alone.  Lastly, my Mother’s shelves always contained old mysteries.  In the bright light of day I could read through Agatha Christie or a Jeeves and Wooster, starting at every noise.

My father’s shelves had also become interesting quite recently.  His books weren’t generally old, seldom had pictures or drawings, and were laid under the window seats next to the Encyclopedia Brittanicas, and baskets full of pinecones, each taller than my head.  His books were history and philosophy.  You could find terrifying first hand accounts of Pearl Harbor soldiers, or Devil in the White City, which I didn’t read until I was 24.  The last book I remember him reading was Life of Pi, and it stood next to the stack of Bibles left by door-to-door missionaries.

On this particular day I was seated in my father’s olive green baseball chair, stomach rumbling from missing any conceivable lunch hour.  I had been re-reading Page by Tamora Pierce, and wanted to get the next book in the series, so I pushed to finish the last few chapters.  In fact, I’d waited so long to make lunch, my Father was already home from work and hauling rocks around in the front driveway.  As I stretched, working the kinks from my neck after sitting still for so many hours, I saw a flash of red from the corner of my eye.

The scrawny red squirrels that populate Alaska are adorably inept, and this one was no exception.

Tiny and adorable, the red squirrel has the brain power of a pine nut.
Tiny and adorable, the red squirrel has the brain power of a pine nut.

Thinking back, I’m tempted to say the squirrel’s name was Marvin, but that might have actually his predecessor’s name.  He was the long time resident of a particularly pathetic looking spruce tree just on the other side of the ‘lawn’ my Father had spent two years micromanaging.  He carefully sprinkled it with water himself, and confused the local and migratory moose who tangled themselves up in the ‘Caution’ tape he erected to deter them.  As a point of interest, moose cannot be deterred.

Not-Marvin was doing the strangest thing, and I unlocked back door to get a better look.  This tiny, scrawny, scruffy squirrel was trying to haul a full corncob, green with mold from sitting in our compost pile, up the tree.  First he tried climbing up the regular way, with the addition of the corncob balanced across his face like a tightrope pole.  It fell.  After a dozen more tries, he devised a new plan; I crept off the deck to see him better.  Now he was climbing up the tree, but with the end of the cob balanced in his mouth, extending like a giant nose into the air.  It fell.  After a few more tries, he came up with a another plan; I crept even closer.  Not-Marvin was backing up the tree, neck stretched, corncob hanging toward the ground, when he froze.  After a moment, he dropped it, and scampered up the spruce bark.  Oh no, I thought.  I got too close.  Very quietly I took a couple of steps back, holding my breath.  When he didn’t come back down, I backed up some more, past the deck stairs, and almost to the edge of the lawn where it met the gravel path that wound around the side of the house.

It is a very curious feeling, when you become aware you are being watched.

This instance was the most primordial sensation I’ve ever experienced.  The skin across my back tightened, and I could feel hair standing up all over my body.  Very slowly I turned around.  Perhaps ten paces from me, one dark paw placed on a stump, was the largest black bear I have ever seen.  I do not know he was a he, but I’ve seen a lot of bears in my life, and decided immediately this one just looked like a he.

Black bears can be surprisingly large, especially when you're next to one.
Black bears can be surprisingly large, especially when you’re next to one.

He towered over me, half sitting up with his head tilted slightly.  He had glossy, and slightly fuzzy fur, broken only by his nose, and the pads on his paw.  Which I could count.  In one ear were punched two identification/study tags.  I almost broke out in a sweat but suppressed it.  Ear tags on bears mean tracking, either for scientific data, or recording bad behavior, including aggression toward people.

In that moment I desperately wanted to not smell like prey.

That's a tracking tag, not bling.
That’s a tracking tag, not bling.

I lowered my eyes and took a step back, foot barely clearing ground.  He didn’t seem aggressive, just curious, but it is a very uncomfortable thing to experience, knowing that in the eyes of a carnivore, you are food.  He leaned a little farther over the stump.  I took a few more steps back, passing the stairs; sometimes someone forgot and locked the knob instead of the deadbolt, and I really didn’t want to be trapped on the railed porch with a bear.  He didn’t move until I had slowly backed myself down across the grass almost to the corner of the house.  With one last look at my surely curious behavior, he lifted his foot from the stump and turned down the gravel path around the garage.

I raced up through the rock garden on the other side of the house.  The front door is dead center and recessed, and I wanted to reach it before the bear did.  To my surprise, the garage door was wide open, and I cleared my corner of the house at the exact same moment he did.  I froze, but the bear merely paused, looking into the dark recesses of space, before casually ambling his way in.

In the distance I could here rocks striking together.  Somewhere down the curved driveway my father was moving stones, organizing the lowest maintenance landscaping achievable.

“Dad!”  I gasped, but no sound emerged.  My mouth was as dry as brittle leaves in Autumn.

“Dad!”  I ran down the driveway, and that was how he saw me, shaking with the aftereffects of adrenaline, and gasping for air.  He dropped the rock.  “Dad!  Dad!  There was…I couldn’t…in there…can’t breathe, bear…bear… there’s a bear in the garage! ” “What?!?” He said, and placed a hand on my shoulder.  “Stay here.”  He pelted back towards the house.  I took a deep breath and followed him.

Bad choice.
Bad choice.

I came around the bend just in time to see my father running full speed into the garage.  My mouth fell open; he ran back out moments later.  “What am I thinking?  There’s a bear in there.”  He shook he head sharply. “Dad!”  I screamed, pointing behind him.

And there was the bear, calmly pulling a big white bag of trash.

He paused when my father, standing six paces from him, whipped around.  “Hey!”  my father shouted, pure outrage and umbrage.  The bear took off, and my father, possessed by who knows what, took chase.  They headed back toward the side of the house, then took a sharp left and circled the truck in the driveway.  The bear galloped on four legs, my father followed on two, and the trash bag left behind a trail of chicken bones, paper napkins, and vegetable peelings wherever they went.

In the aftermath, for of course the bear had gotten away, my father and I stared at the waste, and torn up ground that marred his usually immaculate gravel.  He got a new trash bag from the house, and I got gardening gloves from the garage before we rolled the door shut.  We cleaned up in silence.  “Do you want to help me in the driveway?”  He asked.  “Sure”, I answered, and we walked back down to his wheelbarrow full of rocks, each rounded, and bigger than my two fists together.  We worked quietly as I’d ferry him a stone, and he decided exactly where to put each one.  “Aherm, Bett?”  “Yeah? ”

“Don’t tell your mother I ran into the garage to follow a bear.”

I popped my head up to look at him, and the wholly sheepish expression on his face made me smile.  “Sure, I managed, before both of us cracked into grins.  And so it was, that when my mother pulled into the driveway no more than a minute later, she found the two of us bent over in the stone, clutching our sides and laughing so hard we were crying.

Sincerely,

Bettina

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