A squirrel’s body is roughly as heavy as a pair of shoes. I know this because there is a squirrel in a shoebox between my legs, and when I carried him in this shoebox to the car I am currently riding through northwest Washington, D.C., it felt almost as though I was carrying a pair of new shoes.
My sister and I found the small black squirrel under a bush on the street where we live. There was another squirrel next to him, also black, chirping distraughtly at us—that’s how we noticed them. When we walked over to see what was the matter, the second squirrel—the chirping one—scrambled up into the bush and scrutinized us through the tangle of leaves, tail twitching. Our squirrel did not move. It is always a bad sign when a wild animal is not afraid of humans.
You should not pet an injured squirrel. You should wear thick gloves—your mom’s gardening gloves, maybe—in case the squirrel tries to bite you. This is what I read on the web pages I frantically scroll through when I find the squirrel, and continue reading as we drive to City Wildlife, the wild animal rescue center that I found on a different web page after Googling “hurt squirrel DC.” I refrain from petting the squirrel, which lies still in the shoebox between my legs. I keep my gloves on. At every red light, I open the shoebox a crack to monitor the slight rise and fall of the squirrel’s lower body and to make sure that he is still breathing. (I do not know if he is a “he.” I tend to call all genderless objects, even inanimate ones, “he.” My excuse for this behavior, which may or may not be valid, is that I’m more comfortable objectifying men.) A squirrel is a fragile thing. Mine keeps its eyes closed, its tail curled around itself.
I have killed an animal before. Not on purpose, but I have. Two summers ago, in a pine-sweet cabin in the Sawtooth Valley of Idaho, I rolled over three baby mice in my bed while I was sleeping. I didn’t realize until the morning, when I pulled up the sheets to make my bed and they were lying there, three brown-gray bodies, limp and hairless—like they had been pulled that way from their mother’s womb. I cried for two days and my grandmother—my grandmother who grew up in this wilderness and swings shoes at the bats that she finds inside her cabin—laughed. She washed my sheets and put them back on the bed, and at night I lay awake listening for the scurrying of tiny mouse feet, hoping that none would come near.
I open the shoebox again to check on the squirrel. My sister and I have named him Chaco, after the brand on the shoebox. Chaco lies still, barely breathing, on top of the paper towels my sister has stuffed in the bottom of the box for comfort. When we saw him lying by the side of the street, I ran back to my house and grabbed my mother’s gardening gloves and my sister this shoebox. I picked him up with stiff leather fingers and he did not run; he just lay there in my hands quivering.
I don’t think that I would have done this two years ago. I don’t think this because two nights after that first terrible night in Idaho, the mother mouse came back. I pulled back my blankets and there they were: three more babies, alive this time and squeaking, their tiny bodies wriggling. I screamed. My father came into the room. He took the baby mice and put their bodies into a tissue box (they were so small, too small for a shoebox) and put the tissue box outside.
It was summer in the Sawtooths—still, the temperature at night regularly dropped below zero, and we’d wake up to find the hand-washing water in the tin pail outside our door covered in a thick sheet of ice. I knew, and my father knew, that the babies would die. I cried. I pleaded with him to let us keep them on the floor inside the cabin, where they would at least stay warm, where their mother would have a chance of finding them. He refused. I cried a little more, and then I fell asleep. I did not save the baby mice, and in the morning when I ran outside to check the tissue box, they were gone.
I have cried about many animals in my life. I cried in fifth grade when my hamster escaped from her cage in the middle of the night and was eaten by my dog. I cried when my great-grandmother died, and then when her horse died, and then when her dog died, and then when the little feral kitten to which we fed milk died, all in the space of a few months. I couldn’t save their lives, and I couldn’t have tried. But maybe I could have saved my baby mice. It scares me to think that sometimes it is easier to cry than to pull a winter jacket over your floral pajamas, tiptoe outside and carry a tissue box full of baby mice to someplace warm. How much could my tears possibly mean when all they are are tears?
We pull into the driveway of City Wildlife. A blond woman at the desk who introduces herself as Paula hands off the shoebox and Chaco to another younger, woman, who carries the box into a back room and out of our sight without even opening it to check the contents. She shows us the two pigeons that are recuperating in the side room: George and Sally. City Wildlife learned that George was a female pigeon when she started laying eggs, Paula says. City Wildlife puts the eggs in the refrigerator to kill them and then feeds them to opossums, which are protected by the D.C. government.
It would be too easy to turn Chaco into atonement for my empty tears. I could reincarnate my six baby mice in his crumpled body, and his resurrection could be theirs. But the mice are two thousand miles and two years away from Chaco and this moment, and there’s no way to change that. Chaco cannot be atonement for the past, no—but maybe he can be a sort of atonement for my future, a reminder that empty tears are not and have never been enough.
A squirrel and baby mice are little things in the world, but there are many things that we can cry about—things that aren’t little at all. At Columbia, for one of the first times in my life, I’m surrounded by people who do more than cry. A student in my critical theory class discusses Marx during seminar, then raises her hand at the end to tell us about a march for Barnard adjunct faculty rights that is being organized by Student-Worker Solidarity. My freshman year roommate does not cry about homelessness; she talks to the homeless people she meets and buys them food when they ask for it. Next to these people, my attempt to save Chaco feels overwhelmingly trivial. But for me, at least, it’s one step in the right direction. Crying over a squirrel is easier than finding a shoebox, picking up his body, and driving an hour to a clinic that may or may not even be able to save him. But it’s precisely because it’s harder that it is the right thing to do.
At 9:05 a.m. the next morning Paula emails us that Chaco had passed away “some time last night.” The lack of specificity in this description seems somewhat cruel. In the moment when I read the email, I resent Paula for not saving Chaco, I resent the City Wildlife vet technicians for finding it “difficult” to determine “just what ailed Chaco,” and I resent myself for taking this shoebox squirrel out of the street he knew and into a new and terrifying environment for the last 12 hours of his life. I don’t cry. I think about the mother of the six baby mice, about what desperation—what wild desire for life—could have forced her to bring her children into the warm electric blanket cocoon of my bed. I imagine Paula in her white jacket and her receptionist smile, feeding Chaco’s body like a pigeon egg to one of City Wildlife’s injured owls. There are so many ways we have of fixing things.
I forward Paula’s email to my sister. She sends back a picture she took of Chaco in the shoebox, his small dark body pressed up against the cardboard side. His exposed eye looks like a button—it’s open just a crack, staring into nothing. There’s no way of knowing what he saw. And there is some small comfort in this, I think—that maybe the last thing he saw or understood wasn’t the antiseptic white of the City Wildlife vet room, or my stiff gardening gloves reaching down to grab him, but a mosaic of light shining through the leaves of the tree where he lived or the black eyes of his squirrel friend. In my memory this is where I’ll keep Chaco. In some warm, sunlit place, before the fall or the sickness or whatever it was that finally “ailed” him. His eyes are open here—they see everything. His mouth is full of acorns. His friend chirps at him and he chirps back, flicks his pinecone tail back and forth, scampers up the side of the tree, and is gone.