Tiny Fearsome Creatures
I used to lose sleep feeling like I'd never know how to be in the world. I moved into a kind of big old Victorian place with a turret leaning sideways and dark spires extending from the roof like thorns. The kind of place that was last loved by a woman who died alone fifty years ago, and now it's just sinking further into the ground. The pipes leaked, wallpaper peeled, and drywall crumbled. Inside the house I felt like one of those big worms at the bottom of the sea, feasting on the same dead whale year after year. But the rent was cheap. My sometimes girlfriend came and visited me, sometimes.
One day I found a squirrel in the living room. I watched her look around, all eyes and teeth and aggressive clucking. She wandered in and out of empty rooms, digging her way through dusty furniture and holes in the walls. I watched her and she did not leave. So I made her a sandwich.
When I woke up the next morning the squirrel was in a kitchen cabinet with six squirrel babies, all cuddled up in my oven mitts. My sometimes girlfriend came over and I fed everyone tomato soup.
"You probably shouldn't feed them. They're wild animals." My sometimes girlfriend was always saying things like this. I just kept watching the squirrels, the mother teaching her babies to cup tomato juice in their fuzzy paws. "I'm trying to be supportive, but you never should have quit your job and moved out here. I don't even know why I came over. That one looks really aggressive." She pointed to a squirrel at the window, not even one of my squirrels. She didn't understand.
"I know you think squirrels aren't supposed to eat things. I know you're anti-squirrel, which I fully support, but honestly, what's the worst that could happen?"
"I'm not anti-squirrel, I don't know why you'd say that to me." She pressed her hands to her head. "I just think it's weird, all of them living in your house all of a sudden."
"You're the one always saying I should find a community, get involved with the neighborhood."
"That's not funny, Susan."
I started to spend more time at home. Development of the squirrel situation called for high levels of my attention. Every day brought new squirrels and new ideas for how to feed them. I didn't want to miss anything, so I only left the house once or twice a day for groceries. I cooked them pizza. I baked muffins. On the third day I spent seven hours learning to make the perfect ravioli. I became the owner of a pastry brush. I mixed more and more dough until I discovered the perfect combination of egg and flour. After that I made them tinier and tinier so each one would fit into a squirrel paw. The house filled with wafting spices. The oven kept us warm, and for the first time since moving in, I thought of it as a home. As my cooking improved, more squirrels began to appear. My sometimes girlfriend stopped calling. I started to think of myself as a chef.
By the seventh day so many squirrels lived in the house that I could not count them. The population grew so large that they seemed to split themselves off into smaller communities. They gathered their own food, hiding walnuts underneath floorboards and furniture. The bathroom squirrels learned to ferment walnuts in the bathtub. The putrid, briny smell stuck to their fur and others learned to avoid them. The turret squirrels used their claws to rip the wallpaper into the crude shape of stick squirrels.
I could hear them calling objects by their squirrel names, until the squirrel names started to sound a lot like English.
Every night I told them stories. I talked and they nodded along and gradually disappeared back to their squirrel villages. I was alone, except for one remaining squirrel. We sat together at my long dining room table, facing out towards fireflies, and tree shadows, and lamplights in the distance. And then the squirrel began to speak.
"What is the difference between the inside and the outside?"
"The inside is a little warmer, and it's ours." I told him.
"Ours? Who are we?"
"My name is Susan, and...I guess you can be Larry."
"Okay." Larry paused and then asked, "What is the name of my child?"
"You can name him or her whatever you want, Larry. We come into the world without knowing who we are, and then we decide for each other."
"I think I'll name her, Susan." I didn't know what to say, and then Larry asked a harder question, "What is the difference between you and me?"
I didn't know what to tell him. How was I supposed to decide, with no notice, what I was going to be to these creatures?
The next morning, I woke to thunder. Water dripped from the ceiling, pooling at the foot of my bed. I glanced around the dusty room and saw black squirrel eyes. They stared at me from holes in the wall. They'd started building houses along the corners of my bedroom. Walls and ceilings made of crumbling shale they must have gathered from the roof and the ground. I asked them for Larry. I carefully stepped around the structures, my toes sliding on water and dust. The ones who answered said they didn't know him.
Outside of the bathroom I ran into two squirrels dragging a pill bottle filled with bubbling liquid along the floor. Inside they sipped tub alcohol in nutshells. They waved me away when I asked for Larry. I walked down the stairs, and into the kitchen, all the way followed by dark eyes.
I peeked into the basement and fumbled for a light switch that didn't work. From down in the darkness came a high-pitched yowl followed by collective clucking, nails scratching cement, and finally silence. The darkness glowed faintly orange. I closed the door.
In the living room squirrels gathered twigs. They weaved them into an elliptical structure, so tall it almost touched the ceiling. It appeared to be almost finished. I could only glance at its dark interior through several high places. I closed the curtains, afraid of what people would see from the street. Larry stood next to my battered plaid couch, and watching the assembly with a cane in his arms. He was a big squirrel, overweight, with slick fur.
"Susan, I'm a wild animal."
"I'm an animal too, though." He didn't respond and we both stood together, watching. "Larry, what are they building?"
"What is there beyond this house?"
"Outside... of here, well, there are other houses. Lots of other houses just like this one. There're also trees, and more water. And farther out is space, mostly nothing really, we're just one floating speck."
We float together in darkness." I could only stare. "Who is the other like you, who visits you?"
"How do you know about that?"
"We tell our own stories, Susan, we build our own houses."
"I met her before this. I, I guess you could say I loved her, but she doesn't need anyone to look after her."
"Neither do we."
"Of course you do. Without me this house would fall apart. How would you eat? How would you keep that fat stomach of yours? Larry??"
He didn't respond. He only looked with his black eyes and then turned away from me, walked towards the monolith, and disappeared into its gnarled interior. Too small for me to ever reach.
Discouraged, I returned to the kitchen. I felt them with me, all around me,
It seemed that all the squirrels understood English and so, I decided to give them lessons. I tried to teach them to use a fork and knife. I told them about how babies are made, and how to make less of them. I told them to listen to each other when they spoke, really listen. And I told them that I would keep them safe, but maybe they should stay away from the basement, and the living room.
Sometimes I wasn't sure I could keep them safe though. Outside, the rain didn't stop. The basement flooded, drew out soaking wet refugees. They looked thin and weak in the kitchen light. I ran out of supplies for breakfast. I couldn't leave the house anymore, too much was happening. I watched squirrels dancing and performing some sort of ritual behind the couch. Some talked to me, asked about breakfast. A lot ignored me. They whispered to themselves. Each seemed distracted by the rain, inventing ways to gather and store the water.
No one would talk to me the way Larry did. I started to think of my old sometimes girlfriend, the things she used to say to me.
"I love that you're always trying to get more out of life." That was when we were new and permanent. But permanence, like wanting more, is only okay at the beginning of things. And then,
"I used to like the way you'd pay so much attention to me. You're so focused on everyone you meet. But now I look into that focus and it's like you're trying to lobotomize people with eye contact." What did she even mean by that? And then,
"Why aren't I enough for you?" I knew what she meant by that.
What a rising civilization smells like
Shit. There were piles of shit in the hallways. I tried to figure out how to dispose of it properly. I gave them spoons and taught them to fling it out of the windows. The mold was harder to get rid of. It crawled, black and green, down the ceiling. Spots of it added patterns to the wallpaper and when I pulled my hair up to my face, I could smell it on me. Heavy, it resisted scrubbing. When I pushed at the walls, they sprung back at me. I peeled at blackened wallpaper and revealed blooming fungi. At night I saw the squirrels crawled out to gather it. In the dark it glowed a faint orange through their paws.
My sometimes girlfriend showed up again, but I couldn't let her inside the house. She wouldn't understand. She looked at me with wide eyes, raised eyebrows. I remembered the way her eyes got big when I told her stories. She asked me if everything was okay. She shook a little where she stood, two steps beneath me on my front porch. She wondered if I wanted to come over and take a shower. But I couldn't leave, couldn't even stay outside another minute to talk to her. Things were already happening too quickly.
A warning cry
I saw Larry one final time. He wore floral robes made from old pajamas. A beetle exoskeleton tied around his neck. He glanced around before climbing up my legs and arms to speak directly into my ear. It was the first and last time any of the squirrels would ever touch me.
"Susan, your job was never to take care of me. You could never possibly have been my keeper. For I know, far better than you, what it means to live and to die. I have spent my life searching for answers. Why was I born here, in this rotting house, with you? Why did you give us your food, and our lives, only to take them away? I fed my son poison molds. Back then, we didn't know how to tell good from bad. I watched him choke and die at my feet. I listened to your words and looked at your stars and into your face and into the heart of this house and all I have ever met with is darkness. Now my followers are seeking a different path. They've substituted answers for bones and blood. Don't go near the temple, Susan, don't look anyone in the eyes." He crawled away from me and disappeared. I sat on the couch for a long time. Larry did not return.
Larry was dead. His grandchildren were also dead. I didn't recognize any of the squirrels I encountered. The house was growing. I found bodies piled in the attic. Fights broke out. Bedroom squirrels stole the ferment from bathroom squirrels. They got too drunk and attacked the attic squirrels. The living room squirrels learned to domesticate mice. They weaved string harnesses and tied the mice to shale carts carrying fungi, walnuts, and ferments. They killed the mice for food. I tried to free one and was bitten, hard, by a mangy squirrel holding a sharpened bone. It spoke to me with harsh clucking polysyllables I couldn't understand. I couldn't fit in my bedroom anymore. They chewed holes in my mattress and used it to store their mice. They growled at me with foamy teeth. I began to fear for my life.
I thought about her. When we first met each other, we would sit up at night and talk. One night I told her about my childhood dog. He was brown like a coyote and the neighbors shot him. It was late and I cried on her chest, remembering. I thought about those tears absorbing into that strange skin. Maybe once you've been that close to someone, all you can do is try to remove yourself before disappearing completely into them.
Try to Build a Wall and You Will Only Notice More Exposure
I moved myself to a tent in the backyard. I felt safer hiding in the tall grass, watching the world through binoculars. Maple saplings grew wild around me. I watched the shingles fall off my roof like flakey skin. I watched squirrels swell in the windows. I watched the foundation sag and the house tilt. I felt my own skin, dusty beneath my nails. I couldn't tell what was dirt, and what was decay.
One night a big storm arrived, and lightning cracked the yard open. Fire started in the grass and moved to the house, crawling up the faded walls and clinging to the roof like a hungry child.
I watched squirrels jump from windows and run into the night. Flames spread toward my safe space. I could feel the heat of them and backed away in fear. The squirrels and I ran together. I stopped in the empty lot next door and they kept running. I picked up my phone and waited to speak.
"I love you; I don't want to die alone. I don't want to be something on fire. I just want you, to please, give me one more chance."
Is what I would have said, if my phone had been working. If there was someone left on the other side. For a moment, in my burning place, I thought she would come back to me. That I was someone's pet dog and not a coyote. But maybe I'll keep trying anyway, to scrounge for any piece of love I can get before I'm eaten by the world.
Madilyne Igleheart is a writer from Michigan. She graduated with a degree in English from Michigan State University and writes fiction about talking animals and imaginary worlds. When she isn't reading or writing, you can find her hanging out with her pet ferrets.