This short story is selected as Story of the Month Jan’2013 and won INR 1000 (US $20)
Editor’s Choice: Short Story – THE Squirrels
There was an obscure town in South India, where stood a house, of many pastel shades clasped in the arms of high compound walls. Within lay a lush orchard of fruit trees that shed its shade upon the house and kept it cool even in summer when the weather was a furnace. Neem, coconut, chickoo, guava, lime, and banana trees stood rustling in the breeze in cordial chatter.
In the dreary hollow of an aged, gnarled neem tree, there lived two brown Palm squirrels. They were handsome creatures, with three striking black stripes storming down their backs. Being diurnal they woke early with the deluge of bird songs and tore madly around the orchard going for the luscious fruits, beating the birds to it. It is a fact that once truly in their elements they are capable of a speed of fifteen miles an hour, as is true of all their rodent counterparts!
They paused to chat with the somber cows in the back yard, dripping frothy drool upon the hay or grass piles left by the milk man. The squirrels sat hunched upon the back of the cows and chatted amicably. Or they listened with awe, to the gossip of the talkative parrots and crows which frequented the orchard, all the while gnawing on tender nuts or fruits.
They often slipped between the swirling grill work of the windows in the houses, watchful for careless tidbits strewn upon the kitchen floor or the dining table .The store room housed luscious fruits, kept to ripen in its gloom and warmth. Grains too were stored in surplus, here. Often when the lids of the grain bins were left partially open by a careless maid the squirrels wriggled into them and ate their fill. They even made quick short trips, to the tree hollow and bin, to conserve grain for the rainy season.
They visited many such houses in the neighborhood, where for most part they were sent scampering helter skelter by a flying coconut shell or vegetable peel aimed at their tiny heads.
In the safety of their own obscure hollow, they often made wise cracks over the ladies they had encountered in these houses. They prided themselves on the many women they had made to squeal in fright.
Some threw things at them, while others stomped their feet or jumped upon tables or chairs for safety. Some women, the more complacent ones saved tidbits for these tiny visitors and awaited them with eager eyes.
This story is about one such lady, and this truant pair of Palm squirrels. There lived a fat lady, in this house of pastel shades, who enjoyed their company so much, her eyes lit with stars at the sight of these little raiders each time they made their debut. The feeling was readily reciprocated by the happy squirrels.
“Chip, chip, chip,” said they, announcing their arrival.
They had just joined her after the morning’s romping in the orchard. She paused with her stitching or reading and flicked pieces of food stuff which she had sat snacking upon. These, the squirrels greedily grabbed between their two soft furry paws. They darted quick looks at the lady, waiting for more. She loved to watch their tiny black beady eyes look this way and that.
She giggled and made weird eyes at them in fun, as they radiantly ran up and then tumbled down the stairway.
“Chip, chip, chip”, she said knocking her tongue to the top of her mouth, trying to make squirrel sounds. They were full of crazy acrobatics all over the floor or while scurrying up the wooden shelves like tiny monkeys and reduced her to spells of mirth.
The squirrels took a holiday, occasionally to the nearby hills. These hills (also known as the Western Ghats) were the abode of their cousin the Malabar Giant Squirrel .The Palm squirrels admired their cousin’s beautiful deep rust brown fur, their own being a dull brown or gray. They sat in awe as he crunched upon exotic fruits which he offered them, and thought the white of his fur below was whiter then milk. They envied his appetite and tried to stuff themselves with all that he spread before them.
He took them scampering into the depths of the forest where they feasted on tender roots and stems. Once an eagle almost swooped down to make a meal of them, until their cousin yelled,
“Flatten yourselves upon the tree trunks! Flatten yourselves!”
And they spread themselves paper thin upon the tree trunks and escaped their predator!
“Phew!That was close!” said their cousin, the Malabar Squirrel.
Later as they sheltered for the night in his palatial hollow, he said,
“Chip,chip,chip” in a gruff, loud tone. “It has been a while since I met our uncle, the Flying Squirrel. Have you two seen him? Has he visited you?”
“Hmmm, no cousin,” they said in unison but quickly added,
“Haven’t you heard? He bruised his wing while gliding and has left to convalesce in the Silent Valley. He lives in a beautiful gulmohar tree with a panoramic view of the forest lake! He was very happy to see us, indeed! We took him neem flowers, leaves and fruits to hasten the healing.”
Since the Malabar Giant squirrel and the Flying squirrel never left the vicinity of the lush forests, the Palm squirrels took to visiting them, instead. They had grown especially fond of uncle Flying Squirrel, though he was a mammal, and hardly a rodent like themselves.
Soon they longed to return to their home town where life was so much more hectic. The quiet of the forest made them weary. They returned to wander through the town’s market place, scampering on the large banyan trees, swinging like flying trapeze artists, upon the varied lengths of the aerial prop roots. They happily chewed upon the fig like buds of the banyan tree.
Presently they were back in the house of pastel shades, with their friend, the fat lady, nibbling away at the biscuit crumbs she doled generously, for she had missed them so! They tore around the house, dancing on the pelmets and swinging on the curtains! They amused and amazed her with their gay assortment of pranks.
A few days later there seemed to be a lull, for the lady found her little friends failed to appear and were occupied elsewhere. She moved from window to window watching them gather thin fibrous material, coconut fiber, feathers that had dropped off birds, soft fronds and dry crisp leaves to their hollow. They hurried to and fro cushioning their cozy niche.
Eventually, they ventured into the house, but not to amuse or entertain her. They seemed preoccupied, like absent minded midgets, scurrying from room to room, as though at work.
“O!” she said to them grimacing, “no time for tricks and merriment, I see! No time for me, huh, busy boys?”
Then over come with boredom, she laid upon her velvet couch to read her novel and doze. By the time she woke up the squirrel had departed.
The lady of the house began to have misgivings when she found they had not appeared for two days at a stretch. Her loneliness loomed like an eidolon, spreading its dreary pall over the tedious day. O, how she missed the little fellows!
She listened to music from her CD player and tried to go about her house work. She decided to change the sheets in the guest room, and walked into the room, her arms laden with sheets, bed spread, towels and pillow cases.
Even while she laid her burden on the bed, she looked up to a sight that made her aghast. The beautiful tapestry of brocaded, vibrant tropical flowers, which had hung so gracefully at her windows, suspended in sad, forlorn shreds! They hung like the listless fronds of a storm wrecked palm!
Shocked, she screamed and moved closer to the unhappy dangling thing. Melancholic slivers of thread, badly gnawed, hung limply like a deranged piece of abstract art. The lady let off yet another shriek, pained by the realization of who obviously had perpetuated this dastardly act. The two culprits who had been her darlings now zoomed before her mind’s eye as Demons of Havoc!
She shed helpless tears of agony and anger. Her evil temper, that usually lay dormant, flared, as she sought the little executors of this villainous deed. She marched from room to room, with a menacing ladle in hand to lam the scoundrels soundly.
The squirrels, meanwhile, having feathered and cushioned the hollow, lay back engaged in fragmentary chatter. They were ready for the arrival of the babies. They tossed and turned upon the shreds of brocaded fabric, feeling it’s softness steal into their vein’s blood, like a song of life. How they lolled in its satiny, smooth comfort!
Towards late evening they crept out to gnaw at the exposed, juicy, tender roots of trees that stood on the brows of leaves. Scuttling up drowsy trees, they slyly nosed towards the unguarded nest of birds. Bird’s eggs were a rare treat, as were the insects that swarmed some of the trees and shrubs. Returning to the safety of the tree’s hollow, they drifted into a tranquil slumber lulled by the neem breeze.
The next morning they awoke to the throb of a zippy day. They raced up the endless lengths of coconut palms whose trunks were chill with the dew of the night. They jumped from coconut to coconut that hung bunched snugly amidst the waving sunlit fronds. They nibbled the tiny coconuts and threw them down upon the tin roof of the cow shed in daring, happy play. They giggled at the startled bovine s. Exhilarated, they abounded into the house having brushed and glossed their fur upon the bristling grass on the green lawn.
The lady of the house awaited them, dark shadows of anger smeared under her eyes, that hadn’t slept a wink. Her evil temper lay dormant, ready and waiting to flare at the sight of the little scoundrels. She was a molten, seething virago, armed to the teeth, when the two charmers bounced in.
Unable to sleep she had stomped downstairs, the previous night and had set two treacherous snares to capture the naive, naughty, rodents. She sat stiff and straight like a cold statue. When the squirrels flashed a pondering eye upon her, and ruffled their fur at her in greeting, she imparted an acid smile. The sweet smell of a roasted coconut from the trap wafted to entice and tickle the nostrils of these vain and hungry creatures.
Allured by the smell of the bait they ran at lightning speed towards the trap. Once inside, the hard front teeth of the two squirrels scrunched into the crisp sweet coconut as they bit blindly into the kernel. Bang, bang, went the wicked snares! The two little convicts, shocked, utterly frightened and dazed soon peered breathlessly through the rusted slim bars.
A smug vicious look had settled like grimy fog upon the lady’s face. She smiled the cruellest of smiles. The little prisoners shuddered, and looked askance at her. Their tiny black eyes like sparkling beads sought her icy cold ones.
“What have I done, what have I done to deserve this?” lamented a song from a Pet Shop Boys’ CD in the background, somewhere.
The poor mites, somber and dissolved in spirit, eyed the glowering lady piteously. She picked up the traps and peered with, glassy eyes through its frail bars.
O, how neatly trapped were the two detrimental pranksters! “Wow!” she said savagely and clenched her teeth. She watched them restive and squirmy within the confines of their prison. She felt immense happiness that they were at her mercy.
However, the two soft creatures eyeing her so helplessly began to thwart the iron in her heart that craved retribution. The sorrowing eyes begged deliverance. She tried stroking the fuzzy furs with her finger tips through the slim bars of the mouse traps. She thrilled with the touch.
She remembered the quaint toppling acrobats, they often were and the fun hours of frolic they had shared. Her maternal instincts suddenly aroused, she sprung the trap door open, having quite forgotten her thirst for revenge.
Out bounced the liberated two, scampering to the safety of the window sill. Perched there, they stared in wonder at the woman. They had seen the eerie glow of death in her eyes. And too, a muted light of a fatuous tenderness, that had freed them.
“…. Never look back there’s, nothing there to see!” went the words of Gloria Estefan song. The beautiful music wafted like blue smoke into the serenity of this extraordinary day.
Why had she trapped them? And why did she set them free? The Palm squirrels wondered and wondered all day, as they raced round atop the garden wall or nibbled a half ripe crunchy guava. Somehow this strange experience had quite ruffled their calm.
The woman who gazed dolefully at the sad strands of tapestry, held between her fingers, wondered the same.
by Jayashree Jayapaul.