It happened the morning of Halloween. I was standing on the platform outside Upsal Station, waiting for the train to take me downtown to the same old office job I’ve had for years and years.
I was looking down at my black causal jacket and blue oxford shirt, my black belt and black dress pants, my black socks and black shoes, and I remember thinking: “Is this all there is?” The next thing I knew I was up in a maple tree behind the station watching the other commuters through a screen of yellow leaves. My hands were gripping a branch, except they were no longer hands but paws, each one with four hairy digits and sharp black nails. A bit startled, I stood up on my hind legs and found that my whole body was covered with fur — white on my underside and gray with auburn highlights everywhere else. “How pretty,” I thought. “This is an improvement.”
And then I felt a strange sensation near my butt and discovered an enormous bushy tail emerging from the base of my spine. I twitched it to the left and then the right, and then gave it a little shake, and I was amazed by how perfectly it controlled my equilibrium. “I’ve got to try this out,” I thought, and so I ran up the limb and hopped onto a small branch, and even though it swayed under my weight I felt no fear, no vertigo whatsoever. I scurried back the other way, jumped and clung like Spider-Man to the trunk of the tree. What superpowers I had!
I started scrambling all around the neighborhood, going up and down and across the trees, constantly testing the limits of my new body. At one point I lost my grip. But as I fell earthward my tail automatically jutted out from my body and slowed my descent, and then just before I hit the ground it swung beneath me to cushion my impact. It was like it had a mind of its own. I was so grateful I gave it a kiss.
All this fun-and-games ended abruptly, however, when I encountered another squirrel who, in a rather angry tone, said: “Chi chi chi chi! Cha cha cha cha!” Roughly translated, that means: “Yo, asshole, this is my territory! Can’t you smell my piss?”
Thus did I realize I needed to find my own piece of real estate. I started searching everywhere, and sniffing everywhere, but I couldn’t find a single yard, or vacant lot, or copse of trees that didn’t already have some other squirrel’s pee sprayed around it. I feared I might have to resort to violence. And then it dawned on me: Wissahickon Park!
“Screw this crowded neighborhood,” I thought, “I’m heading for the woods!”
I crossed Lincoln Drive and entered the park near the old paper mill and then made my way northwesterly along the creek. I soon discovered, however, that all the best trees — the oaks and the hickories — had already been claimed. I remember throwing my forepaws in the air and cursing: “There are too many damn squirrels in the world!”
After I cooled down and thought about things more rationally, I figured that perhaps the valley was just too popular, and that I should try my luck on higher ground. So I headed for the ridge and eventually came to a rocky bluff where there stood a large statue of a Quaker. He was wearing a wide-brimmed hat and buckled shoes, and inscribed upon his pedestal was one word: “Toleration.” I took it as a good sign. Sure enough, within fifty yards of that statue was an unclaimed birch tree of medium height. I quickly circled it and peed three times.
I spent the rest of that first day foraging for food and then, as the stars came out, I climbed into my tree and curled up inside a hollow. I was just nodding off to sleep when the distant hooting of an owl sent a shiver through body. “You fool!” I thought. “You forgot all about predators!” Horrific images of talons, and hooked beaks, and torn flesh assaulted my mind. I slept with one eye open all night.
The next morning I immediately commenced work on a proper and safer home, a type of nest called a “drey.” I gathered up bunches of twigs, leaves, grass or moss and carried them into my tree, wove the pieces together and then headed back down for more. Up again. Down again. Up again. Down again. I was like a machine — a little furry machine working without fatigue or any sense of the passage of time. The crisp autumn air was flowing through my nostrils and the sunlight was sparkling through the leaves — ah! — it was positively transcendental. It was like being the main character in a book called Zen and the Art of Drey Construction.
Over the next few weeks I gathered food for the winter so that by the time of the first snowfall I had close to one hundred caches hidden around my territory. Then came the cold and dreary months in which I had little else to do but nibble away at my stores and nestle in my drey to conserve energy. Finally, the first crocuses popped out of the ground, the days grew warmer, and I naively thought I had survived the hardest part of being a squirrel. It turns out, however, that early spring is the hardest part because the food supply is still dwindling and yet the trees haven’t produced anything to eat. Had T. S. Elliot been a squirrel he surely would have opined that March, not April, was the cruelest month. I grew frighteningly thin before the branches finally, mercifully, sprouted edible buds.
And then one warm day I heard the most wonderful sound, a raspy chirping that I instinctively recognized as a mating call. My heart fluttered. I leapt across the ground until I sighted her perched provocatively upon a limb. What fine fur she had. And what a tail! I was in love (or something like that) and was just about to climb up to meet her when I discovered I had competition. Two other suitors were also approaching the tree and we all eyed one another suspiciously. It looked like a fight was about to break out but then the female took off running, leading us from tree to tree and sidling up and down the trunks at a dizzying pace. In the end she chose one of the others and I was momentarily heartbroken. I had to play this exhausting game many times over the next few days before finally winning the affection of a certain female with lovely, almond-shaped eyes.
The long hot days of summer were not nearly as eventful, although I did upgrade my living quarters by moving into an abandoned den atop an old poplar tree. Otherwise, I literally grew fat and happy thanks to an abundance of rain and the expansion of the food supply.
And then one chilly morning in the middle of autumn I awoke with an urge for adventure. Having grown a little tired of the same old seeds and berries I decided to head for the human neighborhood in search of a garbage can with something more exotic to eat. Shortly after entering the neighborhood, however, I was stunned by the sight of two odd-looking schoolgirls standing at a corner. One girl’s face was covered with green and black makeup and the other was wearing a poufy pink dress and carrying a wand. Two women, presumably the mommies, were cradling travel mugs and chatting nearby. “Good lord!” I thought. “I used to be human! I used to have a family!”
I stood upon my hind legs and nervously twitched my whiskers as the faces of my wife and children flooded my consciousness along with a tidal wave of my old human obligations: The house! The mortgage! The job! The walking of the dog!
I took off running. I zig-zagged through yards, bolted across driveways, and sprinted up telephone poles. I flirted with death, scurrying across high-voltage cables thirty feet off the ground and making ridiculous leaps from tree to tree, and rooftop to rooftop. After a while my little lungs couldn’t take it anymore and I came to a stop in front of a maple tree. I was panting wildly and I looked up at the yellow leaves spreading out above me and, for a few brief seconds, I recalled the exhilaration of my squirrelhood.
Then I heard a familiar sound, a low rumble followed by the loud hiss of air being released from pneumatic brakes. The train had just pulled into Upsal Station and I was in the queue to board it, shuffling along on hominid legs while my nearly hairless hand clutched my canvas work bag. I entered the car, found an empty seat, and felt the heaviness of my humanity sink into the cushion. The train began to pull away. I looked out the window and, with a twinge of jealousy, I saw a squirrel in a maple tree leaping lightly from branch to branch.
TOM HUTT is a Master of Liberal Arts student at the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and Cocker Spaniel. He sometimes finds himself envying small woodland creatures.