It’s winter 2009. The recession has sent its hungry tendrils into every economic crevice, including my husband’s and my freelance work in carpentry and writing. The consolation prize on the game show of life is that our family is taking yet another hike on a day once reserved for work.
We spring the kids from their car seats and they bounce around the oaks, attracting dust and dried leaves as if rolled in honey, while we adults tackle practicalities: tying laces, cinching backpacks, tightening lids on water bottles.
“Oh!” my husband Dan cries, his head swiveling back to the road as a car thunders past.
There is a squirrel smacked down on its back, completely still except for hind legs peddling the air as if trying desperately to flee.
My shoulders tighten. My rib cage wrenches on my own lungs. Please feel no pain, squirrel. Please don’t freak out, kids. Our afternoon hike has been transformed to a front-row view of death. Pull up a seat kids, a squirrel will be dying before your eyes.
Before the deliverance of death, there is the great biological impulse to live channeled into those two tiny feet pummeling the air. I flinch. The kids gape, slack-jawed. We are voyeurs, peeping through the parted curtain of death, watching helplessly, curiously, for a final exhale.
“Look!” my four-year-old son, Col, points at the spectacle on the road. His two-year-old sister Rose, whose greatest aspiration thus far is to be a four-year-old boy herself, sidles up to Col and repeats, “Look! Look at dat ska-wull!” I search the kids’ faces, which never lie, for comprehension of what they are witnessing. They seem strangely, unexpectedly excited.
The squirrel stops moving and Dan is already walking toward it. “Anyone want to eat a squirrel?” he calls back to us.
I frown at the lifeless rodent splayed on the stark platter of gravel road. Eating roadkill squirrel doesn’t quite align with my culinary aspirations.
“Hell, yeah,” a voice that sounds curiously like mine calls out.
It’s tough times for carpenters and writers. Who are we to pass up the gift of free, fresh meat?
“Make sure it’s dead!” I plead as Dan stands over the motionless body. He holds a garden trowel from the Subaru trunk, ready to finish what’s been started, but the squirrel gives no twitch. Dan picks it up by the tail, that luxurious long fluff of fur that would make a lovely scarf for one of Rose’s dolls, and carries it to the base of a box elder tree. “Daddy pick up a ska-wull!” Rose announces and then makes this her mantra, her unceasing eulogy. No one seems bothered by the one bulging dark eye, sprung out like some sinister jack-in-the-box.
This critter is a common rock squirrel: ground-dwelling, hole-nesting, munches on seeds, berries, buds, new shoots, insects. Lives in colonies and is a frequent victim of roadkill.
The Leatherman – that ultimate tool of spontaneous necessity – is pressed into service. We gather round the creature, watching as Dan uses the tiny scissors to make a neat cut in the skin from anus to chin. There is some relief in that first cut, as the animal is instantly transformed from soft-bellied and cute to something else entirely; though still more biology dissection project than dinner.
The kids miss nothing; not the chute of poop that bulges from the squirrel. They snicker and Col, upon Dan’s approval, proudly removes the dark, moist dropping out of the makeshift butchering arena with a stick. Dan snips straight out to each paw then cuts in a circle around the neck and feet as if tailoring a full-length winter jacket from one squirrel for another. Col’s simmering 30-pound body is uncharacteristically still, eyes trained on his father’s hands. Dan instructs him to grab the skin that lies open like an unzipped jacket and gently pull. Father and son tug at the hide and it releases seamlessly from the body. The squirrel is undressed.
Next, Dan opens the pink belly with the indispensable scissors and nimbly removes the stomach, intestines and kidneys. He reaches past the paper-thin diaphragm to grab the lungs; the tiny gumdrop of a heart is left under the ribcage for later consumption. We lay the organs out in the grass and wonder who will be the first to discover these tidbits. Magpie? Raccoon? Dog? Dan slices open the stomach, revealing a green and brown slurry, and we take turns imagining what the squirrel has been eating. “Clover leaves and tender grass shoots,” I offer. “Maybe a stashed acorn from fall,” says Dan. Col guesses owl meat and Rose, as usual, parrots her brother. “Dat ska-wull eat owl meat!” she announces proudly as if the thought belonged to her.
Col, aching to help, holds the squirrel’s eviscerated body, while Dan saws the head off and crunches through wrist bone with the wire cutter on his pliers. Four paws and a furry head are left behind in the grass. Dan carries the squirrel body—supple with pink meat and now wearing the passable veneer of dinner—to our station wagon. The kids surround the disembodied head, closing and opening the eyelids and sliding their fingers down the slippery yellow teeth. They caress the velveteen fur on the cupped ears, to which I also am drawn, the way I distractedly stroke my own children’s tender ears when their heads are within my reach.
We hike for two hours, up the exposed, red-rock flank of the mesa, and then down the spine of the snow-hoarding ridge top. Aside from the faint, musky smell of animal on our fingers, it feels like any winter afternoon.
Back home, we put the squirrel in the pressure cooker with onions, garlic, carrots, and a generous helping of butter and salt. The famished kids get a first course of noodles but Col leaves his half-eaten. “I’m waiting for squirrel,” he deadpans. As the hot, salty juices percolate, bouncing against one ultra-fresh squirrel body, life proceeds normally. Rose strips naked and Col gives her a horseback ride around the house. Dan washes dishes. I drink a beer.
The kids get the first bite of squirrel meat. And the second, third and fourth. They go nuts for the taste of squirrel and like hungry rioters, leave the table and storm the kitchen, begging for more. Dan can’t pull meat off the bone fast enough.
“Who wants a tender niblet?” he asks, holding up a wedge of dark, pink meat.
“Tender niblet! Tender niblet!” the kids chant, thrusting open mouths upward, desperate for squirrel flesh.
Dan sneaks me a few pieces. It tastes like chicken, though sweeter, richer and chewier.
“Who wants rib meat?” Dan asks.
“Rib meat! Rib meat!” the kids cry, jumping at their father like wild dogs.
They devour the tiny heart and tear every sliver of flesh from the matchstick ribs as if squirrel meat is something in which they’ve been deficient for years. When there is nothing left but the tail, Col runs off with it, gnawing on its whip-like base.
As the next couple weeks come and go, I wonder if our squirrel encounter will come up in conversation. Will Col mention that we ate a roadkill squirrel at pre-school sharing time? Will Rose resume her “ska-wull” chants? We read books featuring squirrels in large, colored photos, but this doesn’t trigger a need to recount that afternoon. The squirrel that came into our lives is gone, lodged silently, solidly in our cells. h