Renard the Squirrel
It was early morning when I saw them pitched out of the car. Cars slow at the rest stop so someone can toss fast-food bags into the garbage cans. This time, out popped a couple of chickens.
It shocked me. I always see dogs and cats. Usually dogs. They run around the park area. They're supposed to be on leashes in designated dog runs, but that rarely happens. It was fall, and I was already reminding myself about watching out for dogshit around the fallen acorns.
The morning fog was still hanging. Up at the level of the first boughs, I was looking down on a picnic table and barbecue post. I had a good view of the parking lot. The door opened, and the car disgorged these feathery boluses, these flapping balls of confusion. The car drove off like all was right and well again, and these two expelled birds zigged and zagged, squawked and dashed, and headed for the first available shelter. While it depends on the animal what constitutes "shelter," I could only imagine why they went for the shithouses.
The only chickens I had ever seen were battered and fried or sauced and sandwiched or barbecued in foil or cubed in a salad. So I wasn't much up on the preferences or habits of their pre-meat selves.
These live, whole ones had a curious way of getting around places. They had a head thing going on, like they couldn't just decide on which direction to go, they had to commit to it, physically, by jabbing their beaks out, like they were always telling themselves, "I'm going to walk there and there and turn this way and step that way and walk over there and there."
They were using their wings for balance and flourish (much as we use our tails in trees or on fences or along telephone wires), and they were taking such violently spastic chops with their stick legs that I couldn't imagine how their bodies were surviving the ride. A hard jolt should have impaled them on their own legs or dislodged their bodies and sent them tumbling, like lost luggage, to nesting places in the grass.
Instead, these two birds maneuvered successfully in their fashion and jogged and stumbled off the sidewalk and over the bark chips and through the bushes and into the outhouse, which was not much more than a wooden shack. They went in, but they didn't come out.
The only ones to emerge were two humans, a man and a woman. The man wore a red cap, houndstooth jacket, and black slacks; the woman, a long white dress and cardinal-red pumps and purse. They walked out and kept walking, and I didn't pay them much attention. I didn't know if they were getting into a car or walking down the highway or up and flying away down a corridor of clear blue airspace. I was waiting for the birds.
"What were they doing in there?" That's what I was asking myself, to make a mean joke at their expense, to relieve some of the guilt I was feeling about wasting my time waiting around for chickens to come out of some stinking outhouse: What could they possibly be doing in there?
And, of course, my mind blazed with scenarios, not entire narratives but billboard tableaus. I started thinking about the needs and desires of chickens and the opportunities presented by the outhouse environment and the ways in which the needs and desires of chickens may or may not be roused or aggravated or ennobled by the opportunities presented by the outhouse environment.
The others razz me for getting involved in this kind of thing, external to the normal things squirrels should be doing. I get involved. I can't help it. There's not so much to doing what we do anyway. There's so little to doing what we do that it's a wonder we all don't just seize up and freeze and stare out at the world with desperate longing for all that can never be ours.
Squirrels are like weeds: we grow anywhere-anywhere, that is, where there are oak trees, with whom we share a symbiotic relationship, a relationship that has been pretty successful in spreading deciduous forests and arboreal rodents of the genus Sciurus throughout North America. We're hardy. We're tough. We're resourceful. We're scrabbling opportunists, surviving in a human world. But we're all of a piece. That's all we do is survive. It takes all our energy. But if I wanted to squander my energy, how would I do it? In what way? To what end?
And it dawned on me: the opportunities of the outhouse environment! I would have never believed it had I not seen the transformation with my own eyes! I never understood what it was that I wanted so badly until I saw two birds enter-and two humans leave.
"That's it!" I cried to myself. "I will become another being altogether!"
So I tore down the tree trunk and scurried to the outhouse, and I had only one motive in mind: to do what they had done. I snuck under the wooden walls of the outhouse, into which I had never had previous occasion to go, and found the interior empty.
The place was unremarkable: leaf-strewn cement floor, voluptuously tortured plumbing, water dripping into puddles, three white rectangular blocks mounted to the wall and arranged in a row, and, across from them, smaller stalls occupied centrally, behind swinging doors, by individual abutments which resembled fungi in their smooth whiteness and the way in which they grew out of the floor in narrow stalks and spread out into voluminous caps. Nothing circumstantial seemed to ask of me the performance of a specific task or duty. So I took a deep breath, raised my tail, and snuck out.
Nothing happened. I was the same. I must have overlooked something essential in the process.
So I ran back in and resolved to wait longer for the transformation to take effect. I took stock of my surroundings again and again, looked at this and that, the cracks in the ceiling, the cobwebs in the crotches of pipes. It was impossible not to note the odor, and, when I could stand it no longer, I mustered up a courage-otherwise known as a reckless denial of the degree of emotional investment in an expected consequence-and ran out again.
The fog had lifted. The sunlight had intensified. And I was met with the same low perspective on the world that was the lot of every squirrel and which every squirrel sought to deny or, at least, relieve by ascending the massive trunks that dominated our view, by escaping the boots and wheels and jaws, by living aloft. I could barely take it. Something had gone wrong. I had missed something. I had not done it right. I hadn't waited long enough.
So I tried again.
Why had they shown this to me? Why did I have to see it? I wondered then, and I wonder now. The others say that progress is possible for a few, but, for the rest of us, life is shit.
They also say I'm the same I ever was.
But I don't think I am.
About the author:
David Barringer has appeared on this and numerous other sites. He is someone who should be read often. This story is an excerpt from David's unpublished novel, 'Johnny Red,' another story from which appears this summer in Epoch.