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Safe for another Day

by William Metcalfe

 One clear day in May, I stood on the steps to my back porch. I looked high into the sky, far beyond the reach of the soaring kites in a nearby park. As it hung in the air, the object of my search, with its extended wings, would look like one. I had hoped to catch sight of that bird whose voracious appetite was evident in the feathers flung on the ground from doves eviscerated by its beak and claws. Who once, after satiating its appetite, dropped the remainder of its meal, the head and front legs of a young bunny, onto our front walk. These hawks came in from the wilderness to partake of the abundance of small mammals and mourning doves that live in our suburban yards.

            In frustration, I turned away from the clouds in time to catch a squirrel’s wondrous leap from our maple tree onto a dilapidated, wooden fence. The squirrels think of this fence as a fast track. I named it so, but they are the ones who use it so. With splinters the length of a pocketknife’s blade, I feel fear if I come near it. The squirrels lack my fear.

            This fast track connects the two maple trees in our back yard with the immense oak that shades the front. Seasonally, the oak provides nourishment for the multitude of squirrels that build their homes in the three trees. As the limbs of the oak and the maples embrace above our house, a squirrel can easily stroll from tree to tree or from tree to roof to tree. But for reasons I cannot explain, most of the squirrel families reside in the maples.

            I also have no reasons to explain why, other than the lingering memory of the availability of acorns, a squirrel will descend from his maple to leap onto the top board of this fence. This railing is less wide than a squirrel’s foot but they race on it as though it were a 6-lane highway with no traffic and no cops. As soon the creature is secure in his balance, he swiftly runs to the end of the fence whereupon he jumps onto the ground to swiftly continue his way over rough earth to the oak. The squirrel thus avoids a tangle of ground ivy and what it might contain that would slow, or end, his progress. Once, the skin of a snake was spotted weaving through this greenery. As the squirrel hurries over the board, his body sways as though he were crossing a deep canyon on a rope bridge.

            Squirrels lack a sense of the vertical, which we humans possess. I see them climbing a tree headfirst, as I would. When they descend, they do so head first. But not me. A squirrel would think that I, feet first, descended backwards. Normality is displayed by the way they walk on a horizontal limb. Their method is familiar to me, but then the damned creature will slip over to the underside of the limb and continue on its way. Pride goeth before a fall, I think, but it never happens to them.

            On this day, a blast of curiosity jolted me into timing the squirrel as it made its way over the fast track. Instead of tracking the creature’s entire trip, I decided instead to focus on its destination. As I mentally timed its run, I turned and saw an obvious impediment to the squirrel’s progress. Perched near the far end of the fence was a large, brown hawk, possibly a Cooper’s Hawk. It was eight times the size of the squirrel and probably eight times as hungry. As it faced our neighbor’s yard, its back was to me. Its immobility suggested a nap.

            As the squirrel approached, the hawk turned lazily in his direction. The faint scratchings of the wood may have awakened it. With his eyes focused closely on the rail, the squirrel didn’t notice the hawk until he was very, very close to its sharp claws. It stopped to raise its eyes and appraise this feathered bulk. When that look didn’t clarify the situation, the squirrel tried to find a bypass near the claws. Fortunately, it didn’t consider a quick nip, which might have driven the hawk away, with or without a lunch. But the squirrel was determined to continue on the fast track.

            For a several minutes, both creatures seemed puzzled by their situation. When the hawk refused to leave, the squirrel turned about and slowly walked away as though in deep thought. He’s smartened up, I thought. But, in unison with my thought, the squirrel quickly spun about and charged the hawk at full speed. This daring maneuver failed to impress the bird. Not a single feather ruffled. Again the squirrel stopped at the immovable claws. Later, I learned that the squirrel’s tail would have twitched if he had thought to intimidate the hawk. Perhaps, the squirrel realized that its signal would be ineffectual.

            Again, the squirrel retreated until it was half way to its home tree. There it stopped again and thought things over. The squirrel gathered his what? I would like to say courage, but I think perseverance was more like it. If a squirrel chews on a walnut shell, eventually it will reach the meat. I think it just wanted to give it one more try. This time its movements were slower, more thoughtful perhaps, as it moved towards the hawk. When the two were united again, the situation was as usual. The hawk remained stationary and non-threatening. The unthreatened squirrel puzzled over the unsheathed claws on the fence.

            After several minutes of apparent cognition, the squirrel turned and wabbled on the fence back to the tree. Without a pause, it leapt onto its trunk to scurry upward and disappear among the branches.

            The hawk missed the squirrel’s leap; it had rotated its head to face our neighbor’s empty yard again. It didn’t even react to my return to our kitchen. I had been standing less that twelve feet away from their point of encounter.

            A week later, I spied the hawk perched on the fence again. This time it had alighted between the two maple trees. While I watched the bird, I spotted a squirrel speeding across the neighbor’s yard as if to get quickly away from the hawk. A slight tremor stirred the hawk’s feathers before it leapt from the fence to pursue its fleeing prey. The squirrel had the head start, but the hawk was swifter. I could tell, from their speeds, that they soon would meet.

            But I was wrong. The hawk overflew the squirrel. Knowing that a return attack was hopeless, it continued on and flew upward to sail above the trees. The squirrel also vanished. Safe for another day.

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