By Qin Sun Stubis
Through the years living in the Northeast United States, I have developed a love-hate relationship with squirrels. While I adore their furry look and playful curiosity, I’ve also found them quite purpose-driven and canny, sometimes communicating a touch of dry humor reserved for more brainy creatures.
It first started when we bought a house in Great Neck, New York. Two squirrels discovered a small gap above a gutter and decided to move in with us. They are so fluffy and cute, and they need a place, too, I cooed, enchanted by the idea of living so close to nature. I thought we could coexist happily, but I was wrong.
Squirrels are definitely night creatures, partying above my bedroom exactly at the time when I needed sleep. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and had my firefighter friend, Jim, block the gap with a strip of sturdy mesh while they were out hunting for breakfast. When they came back, they were furious, trying to tear down the contraption with their claws. Hearing the commotion, I ran out, stamping, shouting, and threatening them with a broomstick. They examined me from above with curiosity.
Realizing that I was the culprit behind their eviction, they both looked at me with disgust and began throwing acorns at me like well-placed missiles. I dodged one and got hit by another. “You, you, wicked creatures!” I screamed, expressing my fury.
Ever since that incident, I’ve looked at squirrels very differently. Whenever they stare at me from high above, I grow nervous: How could I tell they weren’t the same ones who took their revenge on me? I was ready to duck and dodge just in case they were still holding a grudge. When I moved to Bethesda, Maryland, I was sure that I’d broken free from my squirrel neurosis. Chances were slim they’d hitchhiked 280 miles just to get me.
I often took pleasure in observing our backyard wildlife and got ac-quainted with the creatures coming to call: chipmunks, cotton-tail rabbits, Goldfinches, Cardinals, red-headed Woodpeckers, a rat I nicknamed “Templeton,” and, of course, many, many squirrels. Some were grey and some black. They liked to skip on top of our fence and enjoy a meal under a Hickory tree or a drink from our birdbath. The Southern squirrels seemed to be quite happy and friendly. I was pleased.
Then came spring and I planted tomatoes in large pots. I watched them grow and flower. I saw tiny tomatoes emerge, get bigger and ripen. And then, one morning, I went out and screamed. My hair was on fire: Most of the beautiful, red tomatoes were half-eaten, hanging pitifully over the ceramic pots!
Who did it? I thought about the evil-looking Templeton, and then the adorable bunnies that looked adorable no more. As I tried to ID the dirty-deed-doer, I started to sew metal mesh “gloves” to cover and protect the rest of my crop.
One day as I sat by the window and worked on a writing assignment, I glanced into the yard. I noticed a silver squirrel. He was walking strangely the way a lion walks before attacking its prey. His front legs were moving very slowly and deliberately, slinking in a straight line toward the pots. I waited for him to pounce onto one of my plants before I dashed out: I’ve caught you!
He ran off, but wasn’t about to give up. He changed strategies and launched a guerilla campaign. Not able to enjoy his plunder anymore, he decided I should not, either. He bit through the mesh, destroying several tomatoes in their protective cages and leaving a pool of red liquid on the ground as a warning. I escalated the war, sewing doubled-layered mesh cages around each precious remaining tomato to thwart his sharp teeth. My tactical ingenuity seemed to be rewarded the next morning when I gazed out and saw the tomato cages bent, but unbroken. Victorious, I was basking in my human superiority when my face froze. One of the plants was yellowing and shriveling.
I ran out and examined the victim. At first glance, it looked fine, but upon closer inspection I found that its stem had been surgically sliced through, bitten off at the base and dooming the plant, an innocent casualty in this escalating war of nerves. I employed every trick I could think of to win the battle, even placing the plants on a seemingly unscalable picnic table to prevent my idyllic backyard garden from turning into a battlefield of defeat.
For two days, all was quiet. I had apparently won through my superior intelligence and the laws of physics. But that assumption ended abruptly when I opened the front door to get the paper one morning. I stopped in my tracks as I spotted something unusual placed on my front steps.
I looked more closely and felt a chill run down my spine. There, like the head of Hannibal’s brother, which the Romans rolled into his tent to terrorize him, was a single, perfect tomato in its protective cage. It had been snipped off and left there as a warning.
Next year, I think I’ll plant string beans.
You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Qin Stubis, a Bethesda, MD resident, is a regular columnist.