I’m sitting at the dining room table with a yellow highlighter and a black pen in the same hand. In my periphery Charlie sits down by the back door, intent on something behind me.
There are days in the fall when you just feel alive. The leaves are the color of fire and they make a crunching sound beneath your feet. The sun shines down and warms your skin even as the breeze brings hints of the cold to come. Everything seems new and you can’t help but notice everything that moves.
This is not one of those days.
There is a kind of day where the rain doesn’t look like much and you feel sleepy, somber even. It’s fooling you. It soaks into your skin until it reaches your bones – a constant and cold drizzle. The sky is overcast and gray and you keep your eyes on the ground in front of you lest you step in a puddle and soak your jeans to the knee where it feels like you’ve just had a dip in the arctic ocean. Everything is still, seemingly dead.
This is one of those days.
But Charlie is alert, ears forward and eyes fixed on one spot – unblinking as a statue. The object of his desire – a squirrel.
It’s a well-known fact that dogs and squirrels are at war, though perhaps not among the squirrel population. Charlie, however – he knows about this war. He believes that he himself was there when it began.
The enemy sits on a balcony beneath a red bird feeder, a large maple provides protection from hawks and falcons, but not from ground attacks. He is unaware that his foray into enemy territory has been observed. Charlie is a silent hunter, stalking the enemy as a Native Brave might have decades ago before the great forests were cut down to make way for farmland.
From the blind he’s made of the house, he watches, waiting until the door to the warzone is opened.
All day, the squirrels have been crossing the chain link border into his territory, questing for the precious birdseed that is so easy to find and will fatten them up for the fast approaching winter months. Always in pairs, one looking out for the other. But this one, young, cocky, sure of himself – he’s ventured in alone.
He doesn’t pay attention to the world around him as he stuffs his cheeks full, his bushy tail the only thing giving him away to our eyes.
I stand and so does Charlie, one paw off the floor, tail straight up and eyes fixed on the squirrel. I place myself between him and the door, a dangerous place to be in any war, taking a firm grip on the white vinyl handle. His weight presses on my knee as I hold him back. “Ready?”
I lean into the door, its mild creak of protest does not alert the bandit. His weight presses against my knee as I hold him back, opening the door just enough to stick my leg in, watching to see if I raise any alarms. “Ready?” I whisper again, excitement creeping into my voice. He takes a half step forward, pressing harder against my leg as though he can step through it. I tighten my grip on the handle as his nose flares with the cool fall air. The jingle of his chain link collar, the sign that marks domestic animals apart from the wild – the dogs from the squirrels, does nothing to disturb the thief.
“Go get it,” I hiss at him, moving my leg and opening the door wide enough for his exit. He darts out the door –
He cocks his head, stares at the feeder as though unsure of himself. It easy to get caught up in the thrill of the chase, the heat of battle, and the tension of war. To forget that the person on the other side is just that, a person. It’s also easy to believe – after a morning of failures especially – that the ease with which a plan is progressing is too good to be true. There must be some ambush, some trick about to unfold.
The squirrel is unaware of this new development. Without a spotter he doesn’t stand a chance and as if realizing this Charlie leaps from the deck as silent as the rain falling through the air. Not a sound escapes him as he races to and around the feeder with his head low. The squirrel sees him as he pulls even and drops to the ground, believing he can make it to the fence before Charlie who scrambles to change direction, not believing it stupid enough to try a ground escape.
Before he reaches the fence Charlie nips his flank, herding him away from the chain link border and back towards the old maple tree. There is a ring of metal as they both hit the fence in the turn. It zigs and he zags.
I can hear myself crying out in excitement, unable to tear my eyes from the battle, knowing I don’t want to think of my dog as a killer, and unable to wish he won’t catch it.
I am inexplicably drawn to this struggle for life between my dog and this rodent. the softer part of me hopes the squirrel escapes, but the stronger, more primal part of me wants to see Charlie succeed, wants to see the hunt conclude successfully.
“He got it!” I call for my aunt. She’s been letting him in and out all day for the sake of these squirrels. As he walks toward the house, his trophy hanging in his mouth, head high with victory, I find myself closing the door, not wishing a dead thing in the house. “Good boy!” I call out even as the door closes. “Good boy! Good dog, Charlie!”
I’m excited for him. I can’t stop smiling, grinning from ear to ear with pride in his accomplishment. I feel sort of sorry for the little rat. But he should have known better to venture into Charlie’s territory without back-up. It’s easy, after so many successful attempts, to grow complacent and feel as though one may never fail. Still, he hadn’t truly done anything worthy of the capital punishment that has been dealt him.
Toby, our ancient pot-bellied beagle, makes his way to the door. In his ever royal way, he demands the door be opened to permit his entrance to the outside world.
Casually, he saunters toward Charlie to investigate. The larger, younger, dog stops with stiff legs. This is his prize. I imagine him lifting his lip at the ancient beagle.
After a seemingly harmless sniff Toby makes his move. Charlie didn’t dare challenge him until he made the first move.
Charlie lifts his foot as if to run and, like a dog much younger than himself, Toby lunges for the squirrel’s tail.
Only a few minutes ago I was shouting “Get it! Rip it up!” unable to contain my excitement. Now, I hide my eyes, praying silently that the creature is already dead, that it can’t feel what is happening to it. This gruesome game of tug-o-war is something I wouldn’t want even my first enemy to experience while alive.
As Toby rends the squirrel from Charlie’s grip he tosses his head and, briefly, the squirrel is airborne.
Grandpa pushes past me. “Excuse me,” he mutters as he slips on the blue rubber gloves that food-workers wear. There must always be someone to clean up the battlefield.
The dogs circle the body, challenging each other for possession of the kill, hackles raised in the freezing rain.
“Ah!” shouts Grandpa as he bends over to pick up the dead rodent by the tail. The squirrel’s legs spread eagle, all four of them as though to embrace my grandfather who tosses him underhanded over the fence. I flinch as he hits the ground as the dogs look at Grandpa with a hint of betrayal. We weren’t done playing with that, they seem to be saying.
Charlie stares forlornly at the dead body while Toby has already lost interest. As we both watch, the squirrel flips over onto his stomach and scurries off on his front legs, the back no longer working from the look of it. I close my eyes. The life of a squirrel can’t be good with only two legs.
Charlie returns to the house and I kiss his head. “Good boy.”
As he lies down to sleep I try to finish my homework, but all I can think about is the squirrel. I open my computer and begin to type.
I’m sitting at the dining room table with a yellow highlighter and a black pen in the same hand.