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There is a mourning cry the world whimpers out when something dies before its time. It is the sound of cannon fire heard from underwater, the sound of a watch enveloped in cotton, the sound of a tree falling in the woods when there is no one there to hear. It is the furious screech of the unmothered mother, the raised fist of the reviled idealist, whose cries of injustice are only wind.
Imagine the burden, the deafening burden, to bear such cacophony. Day after day, night after night, the tattoo of a thousand young loves, a dozen young lives, a billion countless hopeful dreams, crying out once – just once – then never again. Imagine for a moment that you and you alone can hear. To what lengths would you go to drown out the noise? The noise of a thousand watches, ticking one last time, time and time again.
It was an accident when I ran over the squirrel. I was a new driver. It was a squirrel. There are millions of squirrels out there, and I bet thousands of them die every day, but this one was the squirrel that I killed. I squashed it with mom’s Chevy. Dead.
I don’t know why I stopped the car to look at it – I probably wouldn’t have, had I not been driving alone. But, out of some morbid fascination, I did. Maybe it was because I was thinking about Dad. Maybe it was because I didn’t particularly feel like going to wherever I was headed. I can’t explain it; I just felt my body getting out of the car and decided not to protest. I had been driving fast through the vacant woods, and my prey had thus been smeared across the road spanning a good three or four feet of asphalt. There were bits of fur, but mostly it was unrecognizable as anything that had once been a squirrel. I won’t lie: it was gross.
I might have puked just then, but I didn’t. Something awakened in me, something with power. This – here – was my first kill. There was a life here once, and I had ended it, along with everything that might have been. Here lay some pointless bag of flesh and bone, imbued with the curiosity of life, something discontent with being merely the sum of its parts, which had taken up its flirting eyes and flitting tail and launched its little war against sense and reason. I had taken up these odds and ends. I had put this improbability to rest. I had silenced this malcontent.
My eyes scanned across the body with a surgeon’s knife, dismantling the squirrel, trying to understand its workings. I was ashamed of a numb scientific curiosity. I was the doctor compiling the autopsy report. I was the inquiring engineer examining the clever machination of some designer far cleverer than I. And here – amid the smear – which was the piece that made it move? Where was that device of nature which carried this stain, which powered those flitting eyes? When did it leave? Or, did it linger still with the little warm smudge on this patch of pavement in the woods, with no one to bear witness, no one but me.
The winding woodland road was vacant, so I sat down beside my little smudge. The grey woods were a darkening courtroom, swallowing all sound in deafening, predatory silence. Yet the air was cold and crisp and sterile as a surgeons table, and above, each tree branch floated upward to some point in the heavens, the nimble arches of a grand cathedral, bathed in the final foggy ribbons of the dying sunlight. No one but the trees had come to bear witness to my crime, his funeral.
Under their watchful eyes, the squirrelsmear and I had a heart to heart. We had no quarrel, the squirrel and I. I had never meant to kill him, yet some circumstance of life had driven us into conflict, and I, the larger, faster-moving object, had won out. Poor luck. Poor circumstance. Poor thing. I told him about my life: about school, about Dad being gone. I told him about the things I feared and loved, and he politely listened, never judging, never questioning. In return, I imagined him a little life of his own. I imagined him hard work and a mate and a small patch of dirt to stow away acorns for the frigid months. Left forgotten, I imagined, one of those seeds may have planted a tree. Unwittingly, this tiny, pointless thing had made a tree. Made something to last...
How long do trees live?
As far as he was concerned, forever. Squirrels don’t live that long at all, he told me, and everything is relative. You human-folk live forever too, he added. When you don’t get hit by cars.
When we don’t get hit by cars. True enough. I apologize for that, I said, I doubt you can forgive me.
Oh, you’d be surprised. It’s relaxing down here. I have no one who needs me any more – not even myself. Nothing to be. I suppose I’ll be carried away on your wheels somewhere. I’ve always wanted to travel.
Besides, the whole business of surviving is an awful lot of work, when you’re a squirrel.
There was a murmur in the courtroom as a gust of wind chased through the trees. The arches of my ancient church swayed dangerously, and the trees stood on edge in reverence. They were unreadable as the man behind the surgeon’s mask, the judge behind the bench, gavel raised, poised to strike.
The frosty afternoon had taken the corpse from me. The warmth was gone, and I was fast growing cold myself from dallying with Death. I stood, nodded one last goodbye, and trod through the fallen leaves to the Chevy. As I turned the key, I heard the engine growl - a cry that roared through the fog in rage, to be heard by me, and me alone.
But the engine’s growl ricocheted for miles through the empty woods, blurred by the fog and magnified by the vastness of the solemn forest. Nursed by the silence and the solitude, its twisted echo rang and danced between the trees in haunting chimes: in tones aligned and misaligned and woven and grating, drenching the twilight in bittersweet cacophony. Beneath me, the Chevy lurched into clumsy motion, and unwillingly, I was carried away to resume my trek along my well-worn road. Out the window, for only a moment, I glimpsed the remains of the little grave on the pavement. The tiny squirrel was there and gone, but the fleeting image leapt into my memory and remained. So fragile, violent, beautiful, meaningless. As I left those woods behind, I could feel in my wake the little squirrel, the tuneless requiem. And the cathedral was alive with song, to be heard be me, and me alone.
There is a mourning song the world sings when something dies before its time. It is short and low and sad and quiet, a timid plea for remembrance, for forgiveness, and for respect. It is the tune of the ending, of closing the cover on a well-worn book. It is the hymn of a sacrifice, of a lesson hard to learn and often left untouched. It is every song and every life: never quite graceful, never as planned, but foolish and hopeful, beautiful and pointless, as good things always are.
Imagine the excitement, the impossible excitement, of hearing such cacophony with every inhaled breath, every breeze. Day after day, night after night, the churning song of countless voices, crying and raging, spiraling and laughing. Countless voices throwing their faces to the heavens, yelling out, with all their power: I have lived. I have loved. I have failed. I am nothing. I am everything. I am beautiful.
I was here.