You’re wanting to know about the crucified squirrel. But first, here’s what happened to my Christmas lights.
I lived in Iowa City, in a second-floor walk-up over Iowa Ave. Without any warning, November was here. Late fall in the Midwest is like if the planet Venus ends up shoved to the back of the fridge with the celery and other things nobody wants until it gets soft and bruised, and then what do you do? You don’t want it. You can’t throw it away. The interminable winter had not yet arrived, but already people walked the streets with a look of surrender. The sun would sort of give up and sink around noon. Then, for hours, it would rain flecks of ice. I decided to take things into my own hands.
At a store in the mall, Christmas lights were on sale. I filled a basket. Brought home packing tape. Crawled through my window, out onto the roof of the porch. Did up the front of the house, at least the second and third floor. It took over an hour. By the end, everything was a-twinkle, you might say, if you happened to talk like a magical elf. Zig-zags. Curlicues. A milky radiance out into the gloom. At long last, the place seemed like somewhere a person could live.
What I had done was not only for me. It’s not like I should have received a peace prize. But when it came down to being a neighbor, there was the sense of having done what I could.
Then, one day, I come home. The Christmas lights are inside, ripped from the socket, tangled up on the floor. On the tangle, a note. Magic marker. Capital letters. Signed by a person I never had met. The husband of the woman I thought was my landlord. He seemed overcome by rhetorical questions. Hadn’t I realized the risk I had been taking? To go out on the roof? What about the liability? If Christmas lights were so important, why hadn’t I asked?
Look, I get all of this now. I pay on a mortgage. I’ve seen my children bleed. But, at the time, I was what? Twenty-four? All I knew was someone came into my home, and destroyed all I had in my life that would shine.
I checked out the roof. Then, came back, and turned over that same piece of paper. Scribbled out a rebuttal. While I’ve never been up on the law of the land, I was pretty sure a landlord should not just barge in. There should have been a phone call. Arrangements. He should have asked my permission. Who did he think he was, was the gist of my letter. I stuffed it in an envelope, and trudged over to the house, left it in their mailbox.
The next afternoon, I came home to a new note, slid under my door. Same handwriting. But it came out all different. He said he could see my point. He hoped I’d forgive him. I had to, he said, of all things, understand. He had worried. He’d let the worry turn into anger. He wanted me to know that his wife made excellent pumpkin pie. Wouldn’t I come over to enjoy some with them? Pie! The nerve. It was beyond comprehension.
So, the crucified squirrel. In October, walking home, I noticed a squirrel on the side of the road. Killed, almost flattened. Then, in the next block, another. I would not own a car until many years later, so, in those days, doing anything at all always sent me out walking. Which was how I saw these little casualties, splayed out horrifically, in plain view. Carnage, all over town. But try to mention it, and people would shrug, unimpressed, as if I were reciting the order of months: October, November, dead squirrels on the road. I wanted to be heard. To be known. Admired as a prophet. But people seemed to think I was just someone talking.
That’s when I decided on the crucifixion. A squirrel on a cross would make an impression. I’d bring it downtown, or to some public place. As a statement. An indictment of modern society. Or something like that. I wish I could tell you this was somebody else.
Collecting a squirrel took a shopping bag and a shovel. Back in my apartment, the smell of rot sent my project quickly out to the roof. With rubber kitchen gloves, I completed the task. Nailing two sticks together, and then securing the tiny paws to the sticks. I’d intended it all as a message for others. I saw myself squarely on the side of the squirrel, and, for that matter, of all the small creatures who live near the road. Putting forth the perspective of God. But try to crucify something and keep yourself clean. You can’t. Drive a nail through flesh, and you get implicated. I left the squirrel there on the roof, where the rain kept on falling.
Remember the tangle of lights? And the note along with it? Seeing them, what came first was not anger. What came first was shame. The squirrel. The landlord had seen it! He must have. How to ever explain? But, scrambling out through the window and onto the roof, there was nothing. No squirrel. No cross. Only roof. Only rain. It meant the freedom to write the angry letter I wanted.
All that fall, it seemed like God had been folded, and stored until spring in a box up in somebody’s attic. To pray was to stand in another house, in the cellar, asking no one in particular where that box could have gone.
But what happened in that mess was a matter of grace. Not the squirrel being gone when the landlord arrived. A neighbor might have removed it. Or maybe some weather blew it down to the ground. The squirrel’s absence was only dumb luck.
Grace is more than dumb luck. It’s careless anger getting met by an invitation to sit down with pie. Despite what I’d done, and the words I had said, without even seeking it, I was forgiven. But a gift takes receiving. And this one I hadn’t yet learned to accept. It was asking too much. And so winter set in. The universe kept up its ponderous churn. And from wherever God had been hiding came a soft, tender sigh. The sound of one who’s been waiting.