An Absurd Number of Squirrels and Other Animal Stories
by Amanda Claire Buckley
I blow my smoke up at the moon like a howl and ask myself: why so angry?
I’m walking home from the restaurant where I work. It is near midnight. I got out late. My path converges with a hooded man and his dog. The street is bare save for us three because it is dark and cold—first day of winter cold, hibernation dark.
Our paths converge and I speed up. I try to keep the man and his dog twenty steps behind me. Our footfalls echo off the buildings—an advantage of city living is the echoes. The echoes can save you, and I listen to hear if his steps get faster or slower, farther or closer. I strain to hear if he kicks a stone or steps on a stick, so I can orient his position without turning to look behind me. I watch his long shadow reach toward my heels. He makes kissy noises and whistles.
It’s for the dog, I tell myself.
I walk faster and don’t look back and I blow my smoke up at the moon like a silent howl in the dead night and ask myself: what do you want?
Earlier in the night, while I folded white napkins and stacked water glasses, I watched three dogs on a walk with their owners converge on the corner outside of the restaurant. Their tails wagged. They proffered their noses toward each other but kept their bodies distant, ready to abandon formation at a moment’s notice. They waited for a reason to stay or go, trust to be established or broken. They waited to see who would break the standoff. They were double agents holding a gun in each hand, aiming at two other double agents who are holding a gun in each hand, aiming at two other double agents who—they pointed their snouts at each other, sniffed the musk for clues and past alliances.
Then there was the flick of an ear—a wrong twitch at the wrong moment—and a snap. The flick of an ear lead to a jump in the air lead to a bark from the ground lead to a bearing of the teeth lead to a retreat lead to a pursuit lead to a chase—their tails wagged at each transition, excited to see where they were positioned in the unfolding game—a check lead to a check lead to a checkmate. The owners apologized and yanked back on their leashes, and the dogs eventually returned to stasis. They resumed their introductory positions where they did nothing but snort and ask why so angry—what do you want? I thought it was playful, but the way the owners shrieked with each lunge tells me otherwise.
I blow my smoke up like a hoot at the moon as I walk home. I blow out a hoot and hope it acts like an echolocation through the night and hope my feathers camouflage myself against the apartment buildings and pharmacies and bars and 24-hour Laundromats. I hope the hoot hits a hunter so I can avoid converging with someone who sees me as prey.
On my way to the restaurant that day, I saw an absurd number of squirrels in the park. I saw a few by the path, a few by the lake, a few under trees, and a few in the outfields of the baseball diamonds, dotting the green-yellow grass like gnats.
It seemed like a bad omen—the way they were out in disturbed droves. There was a palpable anxiety in the scurrying and scrambling of tiny claws over nuts and the vibration of the hairs on their tails. There was a great urgency about which they move through their tasks. They twitched a little more sporadically than normal and twisted a little faster than normal. They seized at the sound of my approaching footsteps.
There was an oncoming blizzard predicted for the next day, I realized hours later.
How did they know a blizzard was on its way when I had to be told?
I suppose it’s like how I know how to hold my keys in my fist at night so I can jam it into the eye of a rapist, blinding him or, at least, breaking his nose. I hold my keys like this whenever I’m in the city at night. I often get out of work late and so I do this almost every night—or at least every night after I spend 8 hours asking men in suits and pearled women on first dates—what can I get for you today? What do you want? Why so angry?
Perhaps the squirrels are the same, the same as people. People sense the oncoming frost and burrow in different ways, but it is the same. We are animals crossing paths, unleashed, but we do not know, because we are the same, who is predator and who is prey. We establish our dominance in different ways—I for one blow the smoke from my cigarette up toward the moon like a roar and stomp with leather boots until I am nearly jogging. I don’t make submissive eye contact. I won’t roll over and show my belly.
I’m sorry if I got your musk wrong. It’s in my nature. It’s a fear that burrowed in my core. It’s a fear that’s collected over the days. It’s a fear collected in preparation for an oncoming winter, dark and cold.
Published March 4th, 2018
Amanda Claire Buckley is a lyric essayist and self-described troubadour. She draws from her experience as a defunct philosophy student, "too dark" political sketch comedy writer, and tone-deaf composer of operettas about circus clowns to appear interesting to strangers at bars. She was awarded a Next Generation Scholarship from the National Storytelling Network in 2015. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Same, The Cadaverine, and Story Club Magazine. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence College.