by David Schuman
It was in the grass. He thought it was dead. It seemed as if it had been there for a while, like the grass had grown around its body. But it wasn’t dead. It quivered as he drew near.
‘Go climb a tree,’ he said to it.
He nudged it with the edge of his flip-flop. It sprung up as if shocked and landed on the top of his foot. As he tried to shake it off, it bit. Then it fell from his foot and ran across the yard. It pressed itself against the fence.
He reached down to touch the bite and then thought better of it. It was more of a pinch.
He went inside.
‘A squirrel just bit me,’ he announced.
‘What?’ his wife said. She sounded sceptical and accusatory at once.
Dolly looked up from the table.
‘Maybe it has rabies,’ Dolly said.
His daughter was a sullen and frightened girl. She perked up at any suggestion that the world wasn’t as safe as her parents assured her it was.
His wife dried her hands on a towel. ‘Maybe you should call someone,’ she said.
‘Animal control,’ said Dolly. She was the authority on disasters. She ordered preparedness pamphlets from government websites.
‘Is it bad?’ his wife said. She folded the towel and put it on the counter. She patted it.
‘It’s more of a pinch.’
‘Let me see,’ Dolly said. She came around the table and looked at his foot. ‘It’s bleeding a little. If there’s blood it isn’t a pinch. It broke the skin.’
His wife squeezed the bridge of her nose with her thumbs.
‘I’ve got to get ready,’ she said. ‘I’m showing a house in a half hour.’
‘Go on,’ he told her. ‘I can handle this.’
She walked out of the kitchen, testing her hair with her fingers.
He took a waffle out of the freezer and slotted it into the toaster.
‘Aren’t you going to call?’ Dolly asked.
‘I’m going to eat this waffle first,’ he said.
When his wife came back into the kitchen he was eating.
‘There’s coffee,’ she said. She took some earrings out of the junk drawer. She kept her favourite pairs in there, for some reason.
‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘I’ve got juice.’
‘I’m going now,’ she said.
‘You should go around the front,’ he said.
She became so easily annoyed.
‘It’s still out there,’ he said. ‘In the yard.’
‘The squirrel. He was sitting near the fence.’
Dolly rushed to the glass doors.
‘God,’ she said. ‘I think there’s something wrong with it.’
‘It looked OK to me,’ he said.
‘You’d better call someone,’ said his wife. Then she left, using the front door. It hadn’t been opened in a while. It made a crackling sound. It had warped in its frame and needed sanding.
‘Do you need the number?’ said Dolly.
‘I’ll call information,’ he said.
‘It bit you,’ said the man from animal control, reviewing a fact. The man had a sweater on over his coveralls. It was the kind of colourful sweater that men of a certain age receive as gifts from their families.
‘Right here,’ he told the man, pointing down at his foot.
The man didn’t look. His concerns were animals.
‘Was it doing anything strange before the attack?’
He thought that was a strange word for the man to use, but he supposed it was the right word.
‘It was just in the grass,’ he told the man.
‘It ran away, but only to the fence. See it over there?’
‘I see it,’ said the man. ‘Can you remain in the domicile while I fetch a few things from the van?’
The man came back with a long net.
‘Where’s the other thing?’ he asked the man.
The man looked at him quizzically.
‘You said you were going to get a few things from the van.’
‘I meant one thing,’ the man said.
Then the man went out through the glass doors and put the net over the squirrel. He flipped the net and bounced it to make sure the squirrel went into the bottom. It seemed easy.
It was Saturday, so he’d be alone with Dolly all day. He asked her what she wanted to do.
‘Don’t you want to wait for the results?’ she said.
‘I doubt they’ll be in today,’ he said. ‘The animal control guy said he’d never heard of a squirrel getting rabies.’
‘They’ll have to cut its brain out to be sure,’ said Dolly. ‘And a tetanus shot. You’ll need one of those.’
‘I had one last year,’ he said. ‘The thing with the pruning shears.’
‘Oh, right,’ Dolly said. She turned back to the TV.
‘We’re leaving this house today,’ he told her.
‘OK, OK,’ she said. ‘I’d like to go to the cupcake shop and I’d like to drive down and see the whale.’
Her mother wouldn’t like the cupcake idea. Dolly was getting doughy around the middle. ‘She can be weird or she can be chubby,’ his wife had said more than once. ‘But she can’t be weird and chubby.’
He told Dolly OK and to get ready.
‘I am ready,’ she said.
A small whale had been attempting to beach itself near Sandy Hook for the last three days. It was on the news. When the whale got close to shore, groups of volunteers would coax it back out with their hands and gentle chanting.
On the half-hour drive he stole glances at his daughter. She had chocolate frosting in the corner of her mouth. A few years ago he would have reached over and wiped at her lip with the pad of his thumb, but she was old enough now to keep her own face clean. Thirteen was a hard age, he understood, though it hadn’t been particularly difficult for him. The drudgery of school, yes, but mostly he remembered the bright summers, the smell of chlorine, the snap of a ball in a glove. It was easier, maybe, for boys. If you had an interest in sports and could throw and catch, it wasn’t hard to get by.
‘Do you know we’re in the middle of a major age of extinction?’ Dolly said. ‘Bigger than when the dinosaurs died, even.’
‘That’s interesting,’ he said.
He meant it. He himself often thought along those lines. For example, was evolution still happening to human beings, and if so what would they look like in a million years? He recognised that, at the rate things were going, it might be a moot question. It wasn’t something he was going to discuss with Dolly, who worried enough as it was.
‘People always tell you something bad is interesting when they don’t intend to do anything about it,’ she said.
‘I don’t think there’s much I could do,’ he told her.
If only his daughter’s disappointment was bred by smaller things. He wanted to make her happy.
The wind whipped off the ocean and tugged at their jackets. He pulled his collar up. A gust lifted the hair off his forehead. He felt vaguely heroic, approaching the beach under a sky of steel. Like someone out of a World War Two novel. The sand was coarse and grey, littered with twisted pieces of black wood. It was winter sand. But winter was still a few months off.
A few huddled groups were scattered on the beach. Primarily they wore parkas but a few were in full-body wetsuits. There was only one person in the water, a surfer straddling his board about a hundred yards from shore.
A young woman jogged toward them purposefully. Her jeans were soaked up to her thighs. She had a red eager face. She squinted as if she were visualising her ideals.
‘He came in, but now he’s back out,’ the young woman said. She shouted to be heard over the wind. ‘This is my third day.’
‘Do you sleep here?’ Dolly asked. His daughter was hugging herself against the cold.
‘Sure,’ said the young woman. ‘We take turns combing the beach with flashlights. Twice last night we had to push him back from shore. Nobody’s helping. The Coast Guard was here, and then a guy from the aquarium, but they gave up. We’re the only ones who believe he doesn’t really want to die.’
The flush was dissolving from the young woman’s cheeks, a blossoming played backwards. He thought the worst part of being grown was realising how inevitable everything is. He thought how astonishing it would be if he grabbed the young woman and kissed her. He pictured his daughter’s astonishment.
The surfer came up from the beach, carrying his board. He was bearded and thin, with wet ropes of silver hair down his back. He stuck his surfboard into the sand near them. On the bottom of the board was written, ‘This machine kills fascists.’ The surfer put his arm around the young woman, who shivered into his embrace.
‘He’s out there,’ said the surfer, pointing at where he had been. ‘He’s right out there, waiting.’
They peered at all the grey water. Something broke the surface. It looked like an inflated plastic garbage bag bobbing up. There was a spray, like a sneeze, and then it went under. Along the beach other groups were pointing and calling out.
‘You’ve seen a whale,’ he said to his daughter.
You could divide your life this way, he thought. I have not seen. And now I have. This must be what birdwatching was all about. Or maybe everything.
‘He’s not really a whale anymore,’ said the surfer. ‘He’s been touched by man. A whale’s one of those things not meant to be touched by human hands.’
‘He’s like a dog, then?’ said Dolly.
‘Something sadder than that,’ said the surfer.
‘Michael teaches economics,’ the young woman said.
The whale bobbed up and blew again.
By the time they got back it was dark. His wife had come home while they were gone, but left again. There was a note on the kitchen table that she was meeting with her memoir group and wouldn’t be back until late. She’d drawn a sad face, which meant she hadn’t made a sale. Along with the note, she’d left takeout menus from Angelo’s and the Chinese place. Dolly said she wasn’t hungry and went to her room. She kept several bags of chips in her closet and candy bars in her nightstand. He didn’t know how she came by these things. She never asked him for a dime.
He heard her settling into her bed, and then the growls and percussive gunfire of the zombie game she played whenever her mother was out. He took a jar of pickles out of the refrigerator and fished inside with two fingers. There was only one left, and it evaded him. He thought of Dolly as a baby, how he’d been the one who could rock her to sleep in his arms with a pattern his wife could never master. One, two, dip, bob. One, two, dip, bob. The deep reward of her eyelids beginning to flutter and relax, like the feathers of a settling bird. He remembered the squirrel and rolled down his sock. The skin around the bite was inflamed and tender. But he felt the same.
At the beach a single tent was luminous against the night. Inside, the young woman and the surfer made blunt love. The whale, within shouting distance but forgotten for the moment, turned seaward.
On the other side of the world, a tiger padded into an encampment. She bore the smell of shit and meat. In her teeth were strands of lung, liver and intestine, offal of her own young. She entered the light cast by the fire. The tiger’s muscles slid beneath her stripes like prisoners behind bars. The three men warming themselves, poachers, stood with shock and fear. This was the very beast they’d stalked for days, whose cubs they had found in a hole beneath the roots of a fallen baobab and eviscerated on the spot, taking what they needed and leaving a small pile of wet guts where each had slept. Now the tiger had come to rip them down and tear out their throats. They found themselves unable to run. Their rifles, leaning against a tree fifteen feet from where they stood, were like distant things in a dream. The fire popped loudly and they heard the heavy shuffling of their elephants in the woods.
And then the tiger, like a house cat, rolled onto her back and offered her heart to her hunters.