The first half of the walk between my apartment and campus goes downhill through a slightly shabby, crowded college-town residential neighborhood that is much improved by the presence of large, shady trees lining the sidewalk. Almost at the bottom of the hill, my walk takes me past a tree whose owner has decided to feed squirrels. The tree is close to the sidewalk on the left as I walk toward campus, and it has two trunks that diverge almost at the ground; nailed to each of these at about the height of my chin is a wooden box about ten inches by ten inches, with an open face looking across the sidewalk to the house of the probable squirrel-feeder and the bottom surface forming a tray, which usually contains seeds or nuts or such. Many times I’ve forgotten that I’m nearing this tree as I walk to campus in the morning, and many times I’ve been jolted by the explosive scutter of squirrels evacuating the feeder as I approached.
Yesterday this didn’t happen. Yesterday, I didn’t think about the approaching feeder until I was right on beside it. Remembering it, I turned left for a glancing look as I passed. And I came eye to eye with a squirrel.
It was sitting atop the farther of the two boxes, right about at my eye level, frozen in that twitchy way that largish rodents sometimes freeze when they’re threatened, as though you might go away if they don’t do anything cute. It was a fox squirrel, I think, rusty gray above and just rusty below, fixing me with a pair of black, shining eyes.
I stood still and looked at it. It twitched its tail.
Then, incredibly, it jumped to the other box, just a foot or so from my face. I could see its handlike little paws gripping the edge of the box, paws that called to mind words like “cunning” and “clever”. The black little eyes stared at me, blank and shiny as freshly-washed chalkboards. The squirrel made a twitchy advance, then backed off, then advanced again. I tried not to move; but this was unnerving.
It advanced again, and I must have stepped back a fraction – the squirrel made an instant U-turn and scuttered up the tree trunk. I was left blinking at the feeder box, listening to the sounds of traffic on the street at the end of the block.