Eric Green: Black Jaw, my wife, and the legend of Scarback

Fri, 01/23/2015 - 10:00am

My wife contends that the severity of a coming winter can be foretold by the intensity level of squirrel activity during the fall. So far, November has certainly proven her correct, but there are several months of winter left.

Admittedly, the squirrels that consistently, litter by litter, make their home in our huge split-leaf maple have been unusually rabid in their nest building this year. How so much flora can fit inside a tree trunk is beyond me. The little fellows kept cramming entire leafy twigs into the entrance hole, one after another, day after day, week after week. No idea what it looks like inside, but it must be so plush and extravagant as to make the Belfast Inn look seedy.

On top of everything else, the squirrels have been standing on our porch chair arms and staring in our windows. Just the other day one actually clambered at the glass, little feet scratching, a sound which scared our Maine Coon cat into hiding under the sofa; he is secretly an oversized furry wimp.

This recent crew of black-jawed squirrels are fearless and unusually social with humans, especially the red-tailed version. And destructive: rifling through potted plants, eating tender squash blossoms before they have time to grow into squashes, as well as baby cucumbers, haricots verts and other treats that never did make it to our table. They stole an entire October tomato plant and pulled it into their nest. They dug craters all over the lawn and dooryard trying to impress us with their knowledge of the moon. I wasn't amused; I like the moon to be exclusively in the heavens. They took the nuts and pinecones off our two Christmas wreaths. They even attempted to steal the lucky dollar bill, left untouched for years, from under our cement statue of the Virgin Mary.

As you know, my wife's theory was the ferocious winter approaching; I put it down to the legend of Scarback, which I fully blame on her.

Scarback was a squirrel who was almost killed by a cat attack. We'll never know which of the neighborhood felines got him, but my wife discovered him nearly dead huddled under our discarded Christmas tree last January at the onset of a blizzard. He was making that pathetic cooing sound that breaks your heart. I've tried over the years to save injured squirrels by placing them in boxes away from cats, supplying food and water. They have all died on me.

My wife took a special interest in Scarback during that blizzard, bringing him a thick towel, refilling a water bowl as it froze, and supplying nuts—my favorite mixed assortment that is full of lightly salted cashews, pecans, filberts and almonds. I admit I grumbled a tad about her choice. The discarded tree seemed to protect him during the storm and the gash across his spine seemed to heal, and soon enough he must have made it back to his lair in the maple.

But then something bizarre happened. He (although we never absolutely determined his gender) began to station himself on the rural route mailbox that I had attached to the maple trunk 20 years ago, the tree bark over time having actually grown and incased the closed end by some inches. Scarback began to sit on the mailbox and chatter at my wife.

Softhearted as she is, through that winter, she brought him macadamia nuts, figs, pistachios, pecans and even super foods like goji berries, hemp seeds, bee pollen, coconut. Again, I grumbled a bit thinking something cheaper might revive him just as well, brutal winter or not. Every morning he was waiting on the mailbox. If my wife was late, he jumped on the Adirondack chair and tapped his little paw against the parlor pane. This went on into the beginning of summer.

A common sight during that season was our cat resting below the mailbox and Scarback resting contentedly on top. If I had to guess, I'd say they had become friends. Scarback would calmly walk past our cat within a few feet and, if anything, they would nod to each other as if to say, "She sure is nice, isn't she?" They both understood how good they had it, just as I do. An overly kind and selfless person is something to treasure, even if I usually rank below the cat and a squirrel.

Then one day Scarback began to develop an odd puffing, almost a wheezing, his little belly expanding and retracting unnaturally. My wife felt that her squirrel was trying to tell her something, but of course she had no idea what, knowing only that something was very wrong. Over the next couple days Scarback's demeanor and noises were progressively more desperate, his overwhelming need to communicate obvious. The next morning he had vanished. My wife was distressed as I tried to reassure her Scarback would return. He didn't.

But I think he created a myth. Somehow he spread the word about his divine days in the care of the Goddess. He created a legend and changed the behavior of this new breed of black-jawed fellows, who seem to feel they can somehow unlock the promised land from which Scarback had arisen, the squirrel Shangri-La. My wife hasn't been feeding them, but they seem to expect it. Thus the clamoring at the panes, the staring in the windows. Animals have inexplicable behaviors.

To exercise our cat during the winter, we have a cloth mouse that hangs from a fishing line with a pole to animate it. The rig gets dragged rapidly through the house as the cat, with great delight, attempts to capture the fake mouse. When he does, he growls in a hilarious way and trots off, mouse in mouth, head held high, tail a straight up plume of satisfaction. The game is called, "Get the mouse," and once caught, we call out, "Good boy, you got the mouse! You got the mouse!"

Recently, real mice began eating things in our workshop adjacent to the kitchen. Not good since we had no idea how many mice or what they might eat in the coming months. Cloth-encased wiring comes to mind. Well, after a few, "Get the mouse! Boo, get the mouse," suggestions, our cat sensed the predicament and took up station every evening in the frigid shop. In the eight years of Boo's life there had never been a live mouse in our house.

Around midnight, hugely enjoying the warmth of bed with a northern-blooded woman—our bedroom has no source of heat and thus enjoys a winter-mean-temperature of 46°F—I would empathize with the cat, head downstairs and let him in from the shop to take his place at the end of the bed, tucked closely against my wife's legs. The cat is a worker, but we all have our limits.

One evening I checked on him just before going to bed. He shot into the kitchen, and I knew something unusual had occurred. In the dining room he released the mouse. The mouse ran, the mouse lifted into the air sniffing, the mouse seemed, as Salinger wrote, "with all his faculties intact." As my wife restrained the cat, I trapped the mouse in the corner of the room with a paper towel, opened the door, and let him scurry away outside. The cat could not have been prouder as we praised him.

So that's about it. We have a dead squirrel that created a legend, a seemingly satisfied cat, a mouse who will live another day, and we wait to see if squirrel behavior and winter intensity is linked, December already a dent in the theory.

I wasn't sure how to end this column. I tried three or four different endings and none seemed quite right. And then our cat stood by the shop door, stared at me and cried out. And I knew he wanted me to remember his moment of glory with the mouse—first one in eight years after all—the mouse hasn't returned to the shop because the little test pile of seeds has remained untouched.

Our cat wanted me to praise him again.

And isn't that the way with all of us? Although we are reluctant to admit it, we so need to be understood and recognized as unique. Whatever our instincts, whatever our faults, whatever our limitations, whatever our glories—cat, squirrel, human—we need to feel, for our all too brief time on this earth, that we exist. And we need to believe that because we exist, we must be unique or even special in our own way. And maybe we are?

I'll leave it at that.

Eric Green lives in Belfast.

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