I see the squirrel rummaging under dusty roadside oaks, just a moment before we park our car. Its fluffy tail is the color of winter: chestnut and pale sandy browns like cold, wet earth flecked with the white of lingering snow.
Dan and I spring the kids from their car seats and they bounce around the oaks, attracting dust and mud and dried leaves as if they were rolled in honey, while we adults tackle practicalities: tying laces, cinching backpacks, tightening lids on water bottles.
"Oh!" Dan cries, and his head swivels back to the road as a car thunders past.
There is the squirrel, smacked down on its back on the gravel road, completely still except for hind legs peddling the air as if trying desperately to flee.
My shoulders tighten and it feels as if my rib cage is wrenching on my own lungs. Please feel no pain, squirrel. Please don't freak, out kids. But Holy Moses! Has our afternoon hike been transformed to a front row view of death? Pull up a seat, kids, a squirrel will be dying before your eyes. But before the deliverance of death, there is the great biological impulse to live, channeled into those two tiny feet pummeling the air. That moment of limbo is prickly, like a thousand needles brushing my skin while life passes like a lazy, afternoon shadow. We are voyeurs, peeping through the parted curtain of death, watching helplessly, curiously, for the moment life turns on a dime and exhales forever.
"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-wirll!" I search the kids' faces, which never lie, for comprehension of what they are witnessing. They seem strangely, unexpectedly, excited.
These kids are no strangers to the death of wild animals. Col has seen many deer and elk reduced to neatly-wrapped, white packages in the freezer. With his adult knife, and standing on a chair, Col will belly up to our butchering table and hack away at a piece of ruby flesh while one of our generous friends reminds him, "Watch your fingers, Little Bud." Some of these ungulates have been felled by their Daddy's rifle and some, like this squirrel, by a miscalculated bolt across a road. The last road-kill deer spilled out of our friend Jojo's truck right into our wheelbarrow. Soon the uncensored animal--thick tongue lolling, eyeballs stuck open, dirt still in his hooves--was hanging from our garden arches, dripping crimson blood onto my mint patch. Dan slit the animal down the middle, guts plopping neatly into the wheelbarrow like teddy bear stuffing. When the wheelbarrow tipped and sloshed Col, forever underfoot, with offal juices, Dan wiped Col's face with a big sleeve and kept working.
The squirrel stops moving and Dan is already walking towards it. "Anyone want to skin and eat a squirrel?" he calls back to us. Coincidentally, I had just read an article in one of Dan's bow-hunting magazines about how tasty these little mammals are, and though I've been butchering and cooking and eating wild meat for ten years now, squirrel has never made it into my lexicon.
"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 freshly killed meat?
"Make sure it's dead!" I plead as Dan stands over the motionless body. He holds a garden trowel from the car trunk, ready to finish up what's been started, but the squirrel gives not a twitch, not a flutter. 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 shade of a box elder tree just a few yards from the road. "Daddy pick up a ska-wirll!" Our two-year old daughter announces and then makes this her mantra, her chant, her unceasing eulogy as we begin to process this squirrel. No one seems bothered by the one bulging dark eye, sprung out like some sinister jack-in-the box.
This critter is a rock squirrel (Spermophilus variegates). Common, ground-dwelling, hole-nesting; munches on seeds, berries, buds, new shoots, insects. Lives in colonies and is a frequent victim of road-kills.
The leatherman tool, which has served in a pinch before (sawing deer antlers from a putrid cougar-killed skull or slicing an armful of succulent stalks from a stinging nettle patch), 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; not a drop of blood falls. There is some relief in that first cut, as the animal is instantly transformed from a soft-bellied and cute, furry mammal to something else entirely; though still more biology dissection specimen than dinner.
The kids miss nothing, not the chute of poop that bulges from the squirrel while Dan is clipping skin with scissors. They snicker and Col, upon Dan's approval, proudly removes the dark, moist dropping from 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 begs to help. His 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 beautifully from the chest and around each leg until it is flayed like a cape around the squirrel's neck. Dan looses the neck free and the squirrel is undressed.
Next, Dan opens the pink belly--rounded like Rose's toddler paunch--with the indispensable scissors and nimbly removes the stomach, intestines and doll-like kidneys. He reaches past the paper thin diaphragm to grab the lungs; the heart is left under the ribcage for a culinary treat. He lays the organs out in the grass and wonders who will be the first to discover these tidbits. Magpie? Raccoon? Dog? Col suggests we take the garnet-colored liver, the size of a large strawberry, home to our cat, who is often the recipient of an elk liver snack when we're flush with wild meat. Dan slices open the stomach, revealing a green and brown slurry, and we all take turns imagining what the squirrel has been eating. "Clover leaves and tender grass shoots." I offer. "Maybe a stashed acorn from last fall," says Dan. Col guesses owl meat and Rose, as usual, parrots her brother. "Dat ska-wirrll eat owl meat!" she announces proudly, as if the thought belonged to her.
Col, still 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 leatherman 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 subtle, but believable veneer of dinner--to our family 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, looking for signs of spring. Aside from the squirrel blood staining our fingers, it feels like any late March afternoon.
Back home, Dan puts 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 explains. Dan and I suppress giggles at the oddity of that. 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 pokes around the kitchen. I drink a beer.
The kids get the first bite of squirrel meat. And the second, third and fourth. They go nuts for 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 of squirrel meat and it tastes just as you would imagine: sort of like chicken, but sweeter, richer and chewier.
"Who wants rib meat?" Dan asks.
"Rib meat! Rib meat!" the kids beg, jumping at Dan like wild dogs.
They devour the heart and tear every tiny sliver of flesh from the matchstick ribs. When there is nothing left but the tail, Col runs off with it, gnawing on the base of the whip-like appendage.
As the next couple of weeks come and go, I wonder if our squirrel encounter will come up in conversation. Will Col mention that we ate a road-killed squirrel in pre-school or when he chats with grandparents on the phone? Will Rose resume her "ska-wirll" 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 in our cells.