For all I knew, they endured similar privation every summer, but it was hard not to suppose that the coronavirus-induced human exodus from the city had depleted their food supply. Either way, after weeks of encountering their pleading faces perched expectantly on hind legs, white-bellies lean behind gray forepaws folded in seeming supplication, I found myself ordering a 10-pound bag of nuts, soon followed by more after I discovered that a ravenous squirrel will devour as many as 20 nuts in rapid succession.
Shoulder bags chock-full, I walked with newfound purpose. Squirrels came a-leaping from near and far, sinking into the tall grass, then surging into the air, bodies outstretched, bushy tails aloft, before arcing downward again, some gracefully, others like Lilliputian lumbering bears. They grabbed the nearest nut and pulverized it in crunching staccato. The sickliest one, whom I designated a female and named Truffles, couldn’t crack the shells. So I brought her unshelled walnuts, which she ate with quiet, dainty eagerness.
Upon learning that shell-splitting strengthens their teeth and jaws, I began giving her partially cracked nuts, which she worked assiduously to open. After she’d had her fill, she gamboled about with abandon, diving into fallen leaves, rolling in sideways somersaults, and doing impressive aerial flips.
Except in bad weather. If I needed an umbrella, there was no sign of Truffles, while the others appeared as usual, albeit with wet fur. I feared she’d been drenched and unable to withstand the chill. The next dry day, she invariably looked worse for wear, as if she’d been shivering since our last encounter.
One afternoon, an older friend accompanied me to the park, and we stopped for her to rest on a bench. As Truffles approached me on an overhanging branch, my unsentimental friend remarked with astonishment that the animal clearly knew me. Was this anthropomorphic projection? No, according to research, wild squirrels quickly learn that certain people can be trusted sources of food. Considered quite intelligent, they employ complex systems of high-frequency chirps and tail movements to communicate, and sham displays of food-burying to deceive onlookers, suggesting that they possess what psychologists call a theory of mind, the ability to attribute mental states, such as intentions and emotions, to self and others.
Though a wispy layer of fur began to cover Truffles’s raw skin, some remained exposed, and I worried about how she would manage in the cold, suppressing an impulse to swaddle her in my scarf and bring her home.
On the first frosty night, I read that three of four kits don’t survive their first winter, and half of those that do will perish within their second year. Those who remain typically live six to ten years. Truffles seemed destined to be among the short-lived majority.
The next morning, she was merrily seeking a suitable spot to hide a pecan when, with shocking speed, a hawk swooped down to within an inch of her neck; I shrieked, the hawk turned toward me, allowing Truffles to scramble to relative safety, pressed flat against a branch, stock-still. Then came a nor’easter, and my stomach knotted as I pictured her frail diminutive form freezing to death.
In the bright white morning, longing to see her, I trudged through heavy snowfall, wind whipping it sideways into my face, no sign of life in any direction — until there she was, the only squirrel to emerge that day, gazing at me from a low branch. I retrieved a half-walnut from the pocket reserved for her, and she climbed down headfirst, scooped up the nut, and began to munch. As her hunger abated, I too felt nourished.
I live alone, and on most days since the pandemic hit New York in March, I’ve seen no one. With the rare exception of a socially distanced walk, my human interactions are remote. My health, if not as precarious as Truffles’s, is such that if I contract covid-19, it is unlikely to be a mild case. So I am vigilant and solitary, my guest room occupied by 30-pound boxes of nuts.
Aware of Truffles’s significance in my day, friends ask after her. I worry about what will become of her if I fall ill. I love her half-pint spunk, and I’m moved by the nakedness of her vulnerability, no machismo, cynicism or other psychic armor attempting to conceal it, in stark contrast to human denial of our vulnerability in the refusal to wear masks — and the resulting, needless deaths.
You might deem my affection for this inconsequential creature absurd, or worse, in light of all the people lost to the coronavirus. Not to mention the many species on the verge of extinction, while gray squirrels are not even endangered, though Truffles’s life surely was. Indeed, she could still disappear any day, as hawks hover overhead more often lately. However, even after she’s gone, I’ll remain grateful to her.
She ushered me into a covid-free realm of sycamores, sparrows and sky — my surrogate city, with interspecies theater and avian symphonies. She softened my heart amid fearful isolation when it might otherwise have hardened in self-defense. And she made me laugh in a time of unrelenting loss. Among the many surprises of the past year, it turns out that one tiny squirrel can provide tremendous solace.
Pam Spritzer is a writer and hospice volunteer, working on a book about being with people at the end of life, a memoir, and a novel.
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