The Squirrel Eaters
by Jen Sexton-Riley
Table of Contents|
parts 1, 2, 3, 4
“Did you cook these, Dad?”
The old platter’s surface was scored with the decisive marks of many meals, decades of small things being taken to smaller pieces and distributed on circled plates. The center was slightly raised, allowing a moat of dark roasting juices to isolate the featured course: three small bodies in skins crisped to a deep reddish-gold, relieved of the burdens of heads, angular limbs ending in digitless stumps.
“Yes, of course he did. You know I’d never touch anything like that,” Charlotte’s mother said. Her face was lean and golden. At her throat hung an amber lotus pendant on a chain.
“I cooked them, all right,” her father said, striding toward the table and snapping a pair of silver tongs in one blocky hand. “I hunted them, brought them home and cooked them up just for you,” He picked up the carving knife in his other hand and gripped one small body about the hips with the tongs. Positioning the blade above the tight-crisped skin, he paused. “You hungry, Firebug?”
Charlotte was hungry. The scent of roasting meat made her mouth feel cavernous, her abdomen like an echo chamber. Her entire body felt empty, even her arms and legs.
“Well, let’s have your plate, then.” Her father’s knife sawed into the closest of the small roasted bodies, dislocating the glossy skin with a crunch, revealing the tender flesh within and releasing a burst of savory steam. “These squirrels gave me quite a run for my money this morning. They seemed to have other plans at first, but I finally won them over and convinced them to come to dinner.”
Her mother snorted, heaping her own plate with vegetables. “Pfft. Squirrels. Who eats squirrels? Besides, you should have slit little holes in the skins and slipped in some garlic cloves and rosemary leaves, like I said. Right under the skin. Take away that... squirrelly taste.”
“I like that squirrelly taste.” Her father grinned, tossing a bit of crisp skin into his mouth and crunching it like a cartoon alligator. “How about you, Cabbage Moth? Do you like that squirrelly taste?”
Charlotte watched her father heap squirrel meat onto her plate, dense and slick with the juices he spooned up from the platter’s moat.
“Yes, Dad,” she said, and looked at her mother’s face, which regarded her with plain dissatisfaction before twisting into a comic half-smile accompanied by an eye roll.
“Ah, well. You are your father’s daughter.” Her mother spooned a hill of vegetables onto Charlotte’s plate next to the squirrel meat. The vegetables tumbled into the spreading puddle of dark squirrel juice. Roasted red fingerling potatoes. Thick discs of white turnip. Tiny whole onions turned a deep, sugary brown in the oven’s darkness. Slim curves of orange sweet potato and cloves of caramel-colored garlic. “Now eat these up. Straight from Mother Earth to your hungry bones, Wiggle Worm.”
“Speaking of bones,” Charlotte said, mopping a forkful of squirrel meat around in the puddled juices on her plate before raising it to her lips. “You saved me the heads and feet, right, Dad?” Something clinked against her molar as she began to chew. She investigated with a finger before swallowing, fishing something small and hard from between her teeth and placing it on her napkin. It was a tiny, expensive-looking two-toned men’s wristwatch with an expandable bracelet-style band of stainless steel and yellow gold links. Charlotte patted it dry, slipped it onto the end of her index finger and held it to her ear. Still ticking.
* * *
Dinner finished and dishes washed, Charlotte gathered the leftover bits of potato peel and turnip greens beside the kitchen sink into a bowl and carried them into the garage, where Godfrey’s hutch stood. She tucked a couple of slim books under her arm as well. She flipped the garage light on as she entered, and Godfrey blinked at her in the sudden brightness of the bare ceiling bulb.
“Hey, Godfrey. How’s it going?”
Godfrey shrugged. He craned his neck to see what was inside the bowl.
“Just some odds and ends from root veggies tonight, buddy. Oh, and I brought you these.” She held out the books for Godfrey to see.
Godfrey hopped across the chicken wire floor toward the front of the hutch and squinted at the titles. The collection of Aesop’s Fables inspired a sigh, but the volume of local maps got his attention.
“I swiped the map book out of Dad’s bag. I think he uses those when he goes hunting. He has a whole stack of them, with maps of the different forests and wilderness areas, notes about the wildlife that lives there, the best areas recommended for hunting different game, the harvest data for different years, the migration routes and locations of summer and winter ranges, all kinds of stuff. Don’t let him catch you with it, or we’ll both be in trouble! Oh, do you need me to...?” Charlotte pantomimed the action of a hand crank.
Godfrey nodded his head, turned and hopped back into the shadowy depths of the hutch, through a rounded door cut into the hutch’s plywood wall and into his bedroom. He returned with a small, hand-cranked reading lamp. He sat up on his haunches and held it out toward Charlotte with both front paws.
“Aw. You are so cute when you do that,” Charlotte said, unhooking the latch and opening the door. She left it open as she cranked the light 20, 30 times, leaving the switch turned off. She handed the lamp back to Godfrey.
He flipped the switch to check that it was indeed charged, illuminating his face from beneath with sudden drama, throwing a long-eared shadow on the hutch ceiling like a winged creature. He immediately switched the lamp back off to conserve as much light as possible for reading later.
He held the lamp in his paws as Charlotte opened the paper bag of pelleted rabbit feed. She scooped a portion into the sawed-off coffee can her father had screwed into the plywood wall of Godfrey’s hutch as a feeding station. “Your water bottle looks okay,” Charlotte observed. She sat down on the pile of stacked firewood next to the extra freezer and looked at Godfrey.
Godfrey looked back at her, his bulbous eyes reflecting the garage’s shadowy interior. He stayed perfectly still until he couldn’t hold her gaze anymore, and then looked away with a whisker twitch and quick grinding of teeth.
“Godfrey, is there anything else you’d like to have? Some music, maybe? A mirror? A drawing pad? Do you like to draw?”
Godfrey shook his head left and right. He gestured emphatically toward the book of maps with both from paws.
“More books? More... map books?”
Godfrey nodded, his long ears bouncing.
“What about... a radio? A walkie-talkie? I know. I could give you one of mine, and leave three or four other ones out and about. In the woods and stuff. I don’t use them anyway. Maybe you could make some friends or something. Must get lonely down here.”
Godfrey froze. He looked at Charlotte intently. He hopped closer to the open door, nodding slowly, holding her gaze. Charlotte reached out and closed the door, latching it.
“Okay. I’ll see what I can do, buddy. Oh! And I came across this. Any use for this?” She held an index finger up to the chicken wire that separated Godfrey’s face from the rest of the garage. Around the first joint of her finger was the tiny wristwatch, still discolored from the roasting pan.
Godfrey sniffed the air. The wristwatch ticked in the long silence before Godfrey reacted.
* * *
“Godfrey bit me!”
Charlotte slammed the door behind her, holding her finger before her eyes. One fat gem of blood oozed from a snipped-looking wound next to the nail of her index finger.
“What? He actually bit you? Why would Godfrey do that?” her mother said, dropping to one knee. She examined the finger and threw a disbelieving look toward the door to the garage, then rose and dragged Charlotte by her uninjured hand toward the kitchen sink to clean the bite. “This must be some kind of misunderstanding. Let’s get some antiseptic on that. You don’t know what kinds of microbes he’s got teeming in that little chomper of his.”
“That cotton-tailed rat,” Charlotte’s father said, heading for the garage. “I ought to stew him up, the ingrate. After all you do for him. Was this before or after you fed him? Or were you reading to him again? Did you put ideas into his head?”
“Dad, I’ll talk to him. It was... it was probably a misunderstanding. Mom’s right. I was... I was talking about carrots. He probably misheard me. He must have thought my finger was a carrot.”
“He misheard you? With those ears?”
Charlotte’s mother dried her hands, patted Charlotte’s shoulder, turned toward her husband and padded across the floor. Her bare feet came to a neat stop against his wooly grey socks with their reinforced red toes. She rose up on the balls of her feet to meet his eyes with her own.
“I’ll take care of it, honey. You know me. I have a way with rabbits.”
“Yeah, I have a way with rabbits too,” he growled, wringing the doorknob in his palm and releasing it. “It involves onions, garlic, new potatoes, a splash of white wine...”
“Come on, now you’re upsetting Charlotte,” she said, tucking a stray lock of hair behind his ear and tugging at his chin whiskers with mock sternness. “Now, go on. Go on and do whatever it is you do and let me handle this toothy gentleman.”
“Gentleman, my Aunt Leonard,” said Charlotte’s father, grumping off into his den to do whatever it was he did.
* * *
“Godfrey Daniels,” cried the weird-looking man on the screen. The audience laughed.
They were watching a black and white movie called Never Give a Sucker an Even Break projected through a hand-cranked machine on the side of a downtown building. Someone had painted a white rectangle onto the red bricks like a movie screen, complete with the illusions of painted curtains at the sides pulled back and held with painted golden ropes, but the grid of mortar and bricks still showed in the flickering expanse of the long-dead actor’s projected face.
Everybody in town was gathered in the parking lot, many wrapped in blankets or seated on soft chairs they had carried from home. The ones without chairs sat back to back and watched the movie with their heads turned sideways. Every so often a couple would stand, stretch and switch sides so as not to get stiff necks.
“Godfrey Daniels! You hear that? That’s where you got your name, little man!” Charlotte’s mother stage-whispered, poking Godfrey in the chest. Godfrey looked bewildered.
“You guys named him after the man in the movie? The man with the funny nose?” Charlotte, too, was confused.
“No, silly. That’s W.C. Fields! Godfrey Daniels is just one of his catch phrases,” Charlotte’s mother explained. “Every time he says that, everyone knows he really means ‘God damn!’ but he doesn’t have to actually say it. Back in the olden days, when they made these movies, people didn’t like to see a man swear on a movie screen. Now I guess they probably don’t mind as much.”
“But why would you name Godfrey after saying ‘God damn’? Oops. Sorry,” Charlotte said, clamping her hand over her mouth. Godfrey giggled.
“I named him that,” her father turned around and said, “because that was what I said when he fell out of the sky.”
It had been late spring, but with the cool air and the litter of last year’s leaves still crackling dry beneath his feet, he thought it might as well be another October. He was hungry. A hungry hunter was a keen hunter, and the two squirrels cooling in his shoulder bag added their loose-limbed weight to his philosophy. The smell of them, the tangy iron of their little measures of blood and the musky animal scent of their newly stilled bodies excited his own blood, his own interior animal. One more would fill the old platter for tonight’s meal.
Some hunters scoured the woods for nine, ten hours in a day, felling 20, 30 squirrels like heavy raindrops and stuffing their freezers with them. This sort of hunter fed the family a week or two on one marathon hunt. What, did these guys hate being in the woods? Did they love their families so much that they couldn’t bear a daily hour or two alone in the breeze and birdsong, the leaf-crunch and mud-suck, an hour or two every single day to sink back down into their animal selves? Chickenshits.
Ahead, high-pitched wails of protest erupted from the heavy brush cover. He raised his bow. Whatever had made the sound was too far ahead to have been spooked by his approach. Something else had startled it.
A few breaths went by as he waited, a hungry statue. A heartbeat of tense stillness became an explosion of feathers and fur from the brush. Three cottontail rabbits came barreling out helter-skelter, running into each other and everything else as they ran with their heads craned skyward.
They weren’t running from anything. They were in pursuit. Above their heads and gaining height with every labored wing beat, a worn-looking osprey clutched a tiny young cottontail in traditional osprey fashion, held tight between its giant gargoyle’s talons, facing forward as if being taken on a sightseeing excursion. The little rabbit was kicking wildly, its hind legs flailing. So tiny. Couldn’t be more than a day on earth with its eyes open.
The adult rabbits zigzagged, taking futile but impressive vertical leaps at the osprey’s receding belly. The high-pitched rabbit cry of despair filled the forest, three throats’ worth.
“Why, you unsportsmanlike piece of crap,” he said, spitting the words into the leaves, training his bow on the osprey’s pale breast. He loosed his arrow, and instantly heard the THUCK, cry and tumbling crash of a struck bird falling to earth. He ran toward the sound.
The osprey was a clean kill, and possessing greater weight than its tiny prey, the big bird had fallen upside down to the forest floor. It landed with both x-shaped talons pointing straight up, presenting its struggling victim belly up as well, still stuck in the back and sides with all eight black daggers.
“All right, little man,” he said softly, kneeling in the leaves. “We taught him to pick on someone his own size, didn’t we?” Cries of pain issued from the tiny creature as he unstuck the eight points from the velvety body. Then he noticed the arrow. The shaft had flown true and delivered the sought-after kill shot only after passing through the improbably tiny target of the little rabbit’s ear. Predator and prey were stitched together by death in this unexpected way.
“Godfrey Daniels, what luck you’ve got today,” he said, rummaging past the two squirrels in his bag to find his shaft cutters. “I don’t know if you are the luckiest sumbitch I’ve ever seen or the unluckiest.” He clipped the shaft just above the tender ear, sending a shudder through the trembling body, and lifted the rabbit free in one palm.
“Okay, my man. You’re saved. Oh dear, I think we’re going to have to look after those holes he gave you, though. We’ve got something for that.” Another rummage produced a canteen of water and a handkerchief. He cleansed the bloodied fur as best he could, smearing a fingerful of homemade herbal salve into the rabbit’s injuries and binding him around the body with the rinsed cloth.
Looking up, he saw the three rabbits standing around him in a semicircle.
“Look, your little one here is messed up. He’s got some holes in him. I need to take him back and get him fixed up, and I’ll meet you back here when he’s better, okay? It’s going to take a while, though. At least a week. Otherwise he’ll get all infected out here.”
The smallest of the rabbits, a slightly greying one with a delicate face, stomped her foot rapidly and threw a look of fear and distaste at the bow and quiver.
“Yes, I know. You know me. But it’s truce day for me and rabbits, okay? I’m helping your boy, here. No rabbits for me. Now squirrels, on the other hand, if I could just get... one... more...”
Above, a row of squirrels on a branch watched the scene with interest. In a gesture both precise and graceful, the bow arced straight upward and loosed one arrow. One squirrel fell from the row and landed neatly at his feet. The other squirrels cried out and scattered.
“Nosy buggers,” he said.
He looked to the rabbits. They were gone.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Jen Sexton-Riley