She comes to us in late summer, a starving creature with tattered tail and dull coat. My four-year-old squats down beside her, and she scuttles close to him, her tiny nose taking in his scent. She raises to her haunches, and looks at him with big eyes.
“Be careful. She’s a wild animal. You don’t know what she’ll do.”
Rabies! I think. She has Rabies or Lyme disease! She will leap on him and bite his face into shreds of flesh! I crouch to his level and give the squirrel a dirty look, preparing to battle her should she harm my one and only.
But the squirrel, perhaps too exhausted with survival to feel fear, lets my son touch her fur for an instant before she scampers just out of his reach, then resumes her prayerful pose.
“How do you know it’s a girl?” Xavier says.
“Well, she has breasts full of milk—look.” The swollen nipples hang heavy from her front. “And a big belly. I think she’s pregnant,” I say.
I feel sorry for the old girl and wonder which sleek dandy swinging from the Cottonwood knocked her up then left her to gather food for herself. Bastard. She isn’t the sort of woman a man would hang around for, I concede. Squirrel eyes usually gleam; our squirrel’s eyes are flat, black pins in a thin skull. She boasts no tawny red, creamy silver or sable fur of the usual Colorado backyard squirrel; her coat tries for lusterless barn-board gray, and fails.
“Poor thing,” I say.
“Mama, can we feed her?”
He stands up, knowing somehow, to back away slowly so he won’t scare her, and is already inside scouring the kitchen for rations before I can answer. The squirrel moves to the shady grass, then takes refuge a little further out under our Blue Spruce.
Diligent, ignoring me, Xavier scoops a handful of walnuts from the perennial bag on our kitchen island and puts them in his favorite Lightning McQueen bowl.
“I’m not sure—”
“Squirrels eat nuts, Mommy.”
I mumble something about “expensive nuts” and “need them for my smoothies,” while my son carries them and a plastic dish of water out to the patio’s edge.
He sets them down and begins calling her. “Squirrely, I have some food for you.” He doesn’t move, this child, who usually tears through life. She does a kind of twirly dance across the lawn toward him, edging closer to the proffered breakfast with each spin.
Xavier picks up a nut, and, hand extended, offers it to her.
“Oh, no, don’t!”
But the squirrel darts forward, also ignoring me, and daintily plucks a half-walnut from his fingers. She jumps into the grass, unnerved by her own daring, and devours the nut, turning it this way and that in her claws until it has all gathered into her cheeks.
“See, Mama? She’s nice.”
I smile at my baby viewing squirrels as “nice” rather than “nuisance.”
“Look,” he whispers, putting his small fingers on my arm, as she hitches back to us. He offers her another nut, which she takes, only this time she doesn’t run away, but sits near him, eating, watchful.
This amazing drama plays out daily for the rest of the summer, and within a few weeks, we see that Mama Squirrel is looking better for the extra care, though as Ani DiFranco says, she is not a pretty girl. The torn, scraggly tail doesn’t mend, and she is still beleaguered, but she now sports a squirrelish figure, round in the right places, and has grown in a sleek, steely pelt. We don’t know where she has stashed her babies, but they are out there in our neighborhood somewhere, hidden away from foxes, coyotes and mountain lions.
Other squirrels get wind of the walnut stash, and when Fall arrives, we have a little gang of them slinking across our patio in the mornings, hoping for a handout. One of them, an obese, ruddy male the size of a rabbit, gets cocky and starts tapping on the glass of our sliding door as soon as he sees lights go on in the kitchen. Harley-dog, our Golden, boxes on the other side of the pane, batting at the unfazed squirrel with as much aggression as his puppy nature will allow. The squirrel taunts him, then swivels back to us, waiting for the nuts. I begin to be worried about rodent problems and hear the disapproving voice of Wild Animal Control in my head. I tell Xavi he may not feed them anymore.
“Not even Squirrely?” he asks.
I allow it, though we see her less and less these days. When she does show up, she’s scared—not of us, but of her Titian brothers and sisters, who chatter at her and hate being shooed away by me. She’s turfed out by the superior, smarter rodents, and I tell Xavier so, using the opportunity to acquaint him with “nature red in tooth and claw.”
The last time we see Squirrely, it’s a lovely October day, and she takes nut after nut from Xavier to the large planter at the edge of our patio where she carefully buries each one. I see why the other squirrels are winning the evolutionary battle against her if she’s not even bothering to hide the nuts she gets so easily.
A few weeks later, I am out in the wild section of our yard doing some late fall clean-up, when I find her, dead and decaying near my compost pile. I know it’s her by the fur color and that battered tail, a little flag of familiarity even in death. I cover her with leaves and dirt and say nothing to Xavier, though I would if he asked me about her. I think I know that for him, right now, one squirrel is as good as another and he makes no distinction between the special squirrel he gave love to and the glossy beasts who chatter across the fence tops yelling at the dog. They are all “Squirrely” to him, thin or fat, red or gray. The point was not the squirrel itself, but the feeding of the squirrel. And though I have forbidden it, the bags of walnuts deplete quickly in the winter months that follow, suggesting that the Mesa Heights squirrel population will live to scurry through another Spring.