We used to keep a taxidermied squirrel in our living room when I was a kid.
“Squirrelly,” or the slightly more original “Squirrelly-Man” as he was sometimes known, had been shot by my stepfather and then mounted on a thick cross-section of tree trunk that formerly had a Budweiser beer logo shellacked onto it. Squirrelly sat up on his haunches in an alert, curious position with his fluffy tail neatly shaped into a question mark behind him. His eyes were bright and glossy, his nails were sharp, and his coat was soft.
At first I was excited when we brought Squirrelly home. Now I had the opportunity to be close to a creature that formerly eluded me with its speed and agility. Even better was that Squirrelly helped fulfill a portion of my own personal Disney-fueled dream. I loved movies like “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” not for their predictable being-rescued-by-the-handsome-prince plotline, but because all the little forest creatures wanted to be around those ladies. All one of them had to do was begin to sing, and flocks of bunnies, squirrels, and fat little chirping bluebirds would alight on and around them and gaze in adoration at the poor, persecuted girl with the sweet and melodious sounds emanating from her mouth.
I couldn’t sing to save my soul, but I had tried standing in the yard on many occasions—singing earnestly until I was hoarse—waiting for creatures to gather eagerly around me. There were rarely bunnies in sight; the squirrels rushed up the trunks of the tallest trees; the fat little bluebirds (as well as the cardinals, robins, finches, bluejays, starlings, and crows) remained high in the branches or—the worst insult of all—flew away.
Squirrelly’s arrival brought new hope to this endeavor. I would place him in front of me in the yard and sing loudly to him with my arms outstretched in hopeful anticipation of an avian audience. “See?” I would croon imploringly, to all the animals in the vicinity: “This squirrel loves my song. Come and listen with him!” I eventually grew bored with my lack of success and moved on to utilize Squirrelly in other ways.
My family was rather poor, and at times the only meat we had was whatever my stepfather had hunted: deer, rabbits, squirrels, and grouse were the most common animals in our crockpot and at our dinner table. I felt incredibly guilty about this, and worried about the psychological effects it might have on Squirrelly. Soon it became a personal mission for me to give him a good life in order to make up for the one that got cut short as a result of my family’s need for food. I would stroke him tenderly, carry him around with me as I played so that he wouldn’t feel lonely, and whisper encouraging things in his ear. I wanted to reassure him that getting shot hadn’t been his fault. I couldn’t tolerate the thought that he might be under the impression that he’d gotten caught because he was a slow squirrel or a stupid squirrel.
Squirrelly particularly liked to play Barbies with me. He was skilled and willing to fill in for boyfriends, husbands, brothers, large dogs, and horses given my dearth of Ken dolls and Barbie pets. Within moments he could go from holding the most beautiful Barbie in his arms and kissing her passionately to serving as the valiant steed who would carry her far, far away to a different kingdom where a new king and queen would take them both in and adopt them.
Squirrelly and I dreamed of real escape, too. Sometimes we would stand out in my front yard, putting ourselves on display for car and pedestrian passersby. I was convinced if I just nailed the facial expression that conveyed the perfectly balanced combination of hopefulness, innocence, and pathos, someone would have mercy on my stuffed squirrel and I. They would jump out of their car and urge me to hurry, hurry! Get in the car!
I wouldn’t have to explain about my stepfather and his cruelty. I wouldn’t have to assure them that I was actually a nice and helpful girl and they would not regret adopting me. I wouldn’t have to ask if I could bring Squirrelly. All this would be understood the first time my new parents and I looked at each other, and Squirrelly and I would jump in the car, never to set foot on Lawman Ave. again.