The trapper takes $475 to get squirrels out of our attic.
It’s the first summer of the pandemic, and the squirrels have invaded the roof above the second floor through a gap the soffit. I’ve heard them running back and forth in the ceiling for days. I look for a service that wouldn’t poison them, and call one place on a Thursday. They promise. They talk about peanuts and non-lethal traps and relocating the squirrels where they can live and be happy.
The trapper comes on Friday and screws three traps to the roof shingles. There’s a large trap and a small one, and one on the other side of the roof that I can’t see. He says to call the office when there are squirrels in the traps, and he’ll come and collect them.
I see one in the large trap and call Friday night. On Saturday I hear scurrying and the snap of one of the smaller traps. One squirrel dies in custody, one that got in the small trap. It was terrified and fought until its heart gave out. The trapper says that happens sometimes. He says once the squirrels are gone, he’ll patch the holes in the shingles and repair the soffit so no more will get in. He says I won’t need to call a carpenter; he’ll do the work and it’s included in the price.
He says he takes the live squirrels to a lady in Monkton. I wonder if there is actually a lady in Monkton who lives in a place with lots of trees, a lady with an easy smile, a big belly and undyed hair, and handfuls of peanuts and unending love for squirrels. I want to believe this, but I don’t.
It’s a cruel world. I see squirrels in the road all the time. Hawks and foxes get them. One time on the way home from work I hit one with my car. I pulled over and took his body out of the road. He was heavy and warm. I put him under a tree and said I was sorry. I cried all night.
My father’s family ate squirrels during the Depression. I am a child of squirrel eaters, from a time when there wasn’t enough meat and most people in the U.S. were too skinny instead of too fat. think my grandfather would laugh at me for crying for squirrels.
You take their little sweaters off, he told my dad, after he’d shot them. My father said when he was a little kid, the idea of skinning the squirrels made him sick. My grandfather was impatient with him and pushed my father away when wouldn’t help get them ready for stew. My grandfather loved me and loved poetry and was proud when I started writing.
On Sunday, the trapper comes and takes two live squirrels out of the traps and loads them into his truck.
When he leaves, I find another dead one in the yard. Not hidden. I’m trying to imagine how it died. It crosses my mind that it was dead in one of the traps, and the trapper just lobbed it off the roof when we weren’t looking. I had said I was sad about the squirrel that had freaked out and died in the trap, and maybe he was hoping I wouldn’t notice another fatality. I both can and cannot imagine the trapper throwing the dead squirrel into our yard and leaving it on the grass.
Female. Lying as if resting, soft, very newly dead. Flies smelling her before I can, getting to their work quickly in high summer.
I take what I call the cat burying spade though I have never buried a cat in my life; only their ashes, because my cats have all died in a pet hospital and been cremated like my father. I dig a hole under the pine tree. Push the roots aside. Tuck the squirrel in, in a circle. Allow myself to ease her tail around her body with my fingers. A wreath, ouroboros. I cover the body with damp clods of soil, gently press down, but not too hard.
I want to live outside in the yard now. I’m angry at the house for tempting the squirrels with warm wood and bendable soffit promising them a life under my roof, chewing and shitting and washing the faces of their young while the rain pattered outside, listening to monsters under their room, smelling our cooking, telling themselves stories about what we might mean.
They have no frontal lobe, I remind myself. They have no stories.
When he was older, my father named all the squirrels in his yard. He loved them, and bought dried corn to feed them. When he died, I found a bag of the corn among his things. I kept it for many years, and one day after a winter storm, I scattered the corn on the frozen top of the snow for the squirrels.
But right now, blue jays pick over the broken peanuts and shells on the roof, scattered by the squirrels when they were trapped. I hate the blue jays and the trapper and myself and I feel like I will never eat another peanut in my life.
The next year, in the fall, I buy a bag of cheap roasted peanuts. The bag is enormous, like a pillowcase. I throw a handful of the nuts onto the back porch. I start making smooching noises before I do this, so the squirrels know the peanuts are coming.
This is my repentance. I see their footprints in the snow. The cats are fascinated when the squirrels come up on to the porch to set about munching on the few peanuts I leave there. The cats stay inside the house. The squirrels watch us with dark, wary eyes, and eat the peanuts without knowing there’s nothing to fear from me.
Jennifer Keith is a web content writer for Johns Hopkins Medicine. Her poems have appeared in Sewanee Theological Review, The Nebraska Review, The Free State Review, Fledgling Rag, Unsplendid, and elsewhere. Keith is the recipient of the 2014 John Elsberg poetry prize, and her poem “Eating Walnuts” was selected by Sherman Alexie for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2015. In 2021 her poem “Cooper’s Hawk” was a finalist for the Erskine J. Poetry Prize from Smartish Pace. Keith’s chapbook, Truant Season, was published by Apathy Press Poets in 2022. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland and plays bass for the band Batworth Stone, whose second album, New Potion, was released in 2023 and is available on Bandcamp. https://batworthstone.bandcamp.com/