Bourbon Penn 28

Born Blind

by Jeffrey Ford

I had a lot of questions and a few observations about the king of the squirrels. Right off the bat, it struck me as peculiar that the king of the squirrels wasn’t even a squirrel. It was a guy – Nads Werkly. Wouldn’t you have a problem if we crowned a cobra to be king of the humans? How about a hippo or a prairie dog? That wouldn’t be right. My take was – you’re telling me all the squirrels got together and decided to crown Nads – a fellow whose only other claim to fame was that he could fit his entire fist into his mouth – Werkly as the leader of their society? Their civilization?

The most obvious question had to be, “Why would anybody want to be king of the squirrels – skittery, chittery, scrabbling, acorn-thieving, dirty little creatures? I don’t know if you know this, but acorns are as bitter as the tears of Carthage. Gray rats with poofy tails. I heard they carry rabies and once they’ve invaded an attic, they could be murder to get rid of. They get in the walls of your house and make a racket to chase the ghosts. I’ll give you this, they were cunning, very shrewd. But it was all to no end. There was no aesthetic I could discern. The whole sad affair was devoid of morality or reason.

To take on the role of royalty, Werkly dressed in a felt hat with a red feather, a la Peter Pan, a tunic, also in green felt, and beneath it a pair of red leotards. His shoes were cheap green slippers. He was constantly in conversation with his squirrel minions, barking orders, cajoling them along to greatness, the only problem was, I never saw a squirrel within 500 yards of the guy. In other words, the squirrels seemed to want nothing to do with him. He claimed he could marshal hordes of them, and each follower operated specifically to fulfill his whims. “We manned the battlements against the demon army at Morton’s Station,” was a claim I heard him make. Morton’s Station, by the way, was an abandoned gas station on the way out of town. From the way he recounted the tale, it became clear that the so-named demons were merely fireflies.

I’m sure his wife found the whole charade extremely embarrassing. I mean, just the outfit alone – he looked like an escapee from a poorly illustrated fairy tale book. He had kind of a big square head and red cheeks like they’d just been fluffed. His eyes never really focused on anything. It was the strangest affect. Somewhere along the line, she learned to laugh at the whole thing. Have a half dozen wines and let the idiot do his thing. She must have loved him way down deep to stay with him and deal with his illustrious reign, be his squirrel Queen, if only in his imagination. Life, though, had its sand traps and traffic jams a decade long.

Some people shunned the entire family, Nads, his wife, Sharon, and their daughter, Simone. When they’d all show up at a backyard barbecue in the neighborhood, my wife, Iris, and I would always try to engage at least Sharon in conversation. Nads, with that triangle of a hat, would be off, calling to his legions in their special squirrel squeak language he explained to me one night when I was out walking the dog and ran into him down by the river. He was all excited. There was some big squirrel goings-on that night. He stopped only long enough to give me the basics of the squeak language. When we saw Sharon at a party soon after, I told her I’d run into her husband down by the river one night. I asked if he’d ever described the squeak language to her. She looked at the carpet and shook her head as if in apology. She said, “He’s got squirrels on the fucking brain.”

“What’s with the squirrels?” I asked. “Why squirrels do you think?”

Sharon slugged back the rest of her drink, and said, “He told me that when he was a kid, he had a pet squirrel, Mandolin. He’d caught it in a trap and kept it captive on a very long thin rope made of paperclips strung together and attached to a small felt collar around the creature’s neck. It lived in the trees at the boundary of the woods. He’d go back there every afternoon in the summer, sit at the ancient picnic table and feed his friend nuts. Until, of course, Mandolin’s leash got fouled in the branches and hung him halfway between an oak and a hemlock.”

“It died?”

She nodded.

When I looked at her again, she had tears in her eyes. “It’s tough,” she said. “Sometimes, I just want to put a big stone around his neck and push him into the river, other times I think of how he used to be.”

All well and good for Sharon to remember him how she liked, but I went to high school with Nads, and trust me, he was a class A tormented weirdo. He got no end of a hard time from the other kids in school. He was ever retiring, pale, keeping a secret from the world between him and himself. He was beaten, betrayed, laughed at, scorned, robbed for lunch and money. Honestly, anyone who went through what he did would have gone over to the squirrel side. I do recall one moment of triumph for him in all those years. In gym class, he was matched up against one of his main tormentors when we were doing wrestling. Obviously the gym coach, who always had either one hand or the other in his pants, coach Gable, was a sadist.

Nads’s opponent was Ray Biurka, who in 9th grade had homemade tattoos on his arms his girlfriend had done with ink and a straight pin. One was just the word SHIT. He usually wore a piece of bike chain around his neck and a leather jacket. Ray was so big and so cut with muscle that one day at a little league game the opposing team’s coach said, “Hey, check that kid’s driver’s license.”

Gable smiled and blew the whistle. Nads came running out, appearing a nervous wreck, but submarined his opponent and took him out at the ankles. Once the bigger wrestler was down, king of the squirrels was all over him, chittering and squeaking. No one could believe Nads’s victory, least of all Ray, who had to be helped off the mats.

There came a time, though, when Sharon just didn’t make the neighborhood party scene anymore. I guess it got to be too much to take. Who could blame her? Without her there, there was no Nads or their daughter. Weeks and weeks went by, and I thought about him only twice. Once, right before falling asleep on a windy night, I saw him in my imagination flying toward the setting sun, holding his felt hat on against a rough headwind. The second time (I forget what I was doing), I imagined him having one day simply come to his senses, renounced the squirrel way, and slipped back into his dim, placid existence. A year must have passed and, I can tell you, by that point, I was giving Nads and his family zero thought. Then, one night there was a knock at our back door.

I could hear Iris answer it. Next I knew, she was entering the living room with Sharon in tow. I sat up from my recliner and straightened my shirt and hairs. Immediately, I could tell the queen had been crying. She was pale and wrung-out looking, her hair stringy, unwashed. Iris helped her sit on the couch and then asked if she’d like some tea. Sharon shook her head.

“I thought you guys had moved,” I said. “I haven’t seen you around in a year or more.”

Tears came to her eyes and she made a strange yip noise like a tiny puppy. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Nads has finally gone off the deep end.”

Iris said, “Well, take it easy. And please tell us about it. Maybe we can help.”

Meanwhile, I was thinking, “What do you mean, finally?”

“About a half a year ago, I started to hear bumps in the walls, like something was moving behind the sheetrock. I told Nads and he told me it was his spies. They were keeping an eye on me. At night, you could hear them running from the basement to the attic and back. It gave me the creeps. By this time, Nads had built a kind of platform in the big oak in our backyard. He slept there all the time. He said he felt trapped inside, especially in the bed with the covers pulled up. He slept out there all winter. I thought he’d freeze to death.”

“Sharon,” I said. “You need to commit him. He’s out of it.”

“He needs help,” said Iris. “Does he have a doctor?”

“I know. I know,” she said, nodding, “but the other day, I told him, I wanted a divorce. He said he wouldn’t give me one and that if I mentioned it again, he’d have the squirrels take Simone and imprison her behind the walls.” Here, she started really bawling.

“Don’t tell me,” I said.

Sharon nodded. “I thought it was a bluff. But then they came for my baby. Pouring out of the fireplace, coming up out of the toilets, eating a hole in the basement door and flowing like a river of gray into the kitchen and living room.”

“You mean it’s all for real?” Iris asked.

“He said if I call the cops, his legions will consume both me and Simone.”

There was silence. To be honest, if half of what she was saying was true, I wanted nothing to do with it. That’s when both Sharon and Iris turned and looked at me, like, “Well…?”

A bad feeling was released inside me. “I’m claustrophobic and I don’t like squirrels,” I said.

“You pussy, let’s go,” said Iris.

We took my car. The whole ride, I was praying that at least Sharon had a gun I could use. In the meantime, Iris was drilling her for specifics. “Do you ever hear your daughter screaming from behind the wall? What room is that mostly in? Does she say anything? There was a whole barrage of questions. She said she did hear Simone, calling out for her from within the walls. Mostly in the second floor hallway (there were three stories.) As we pulled into the driveway of the big old place, Sharon mentioned that from the sound of Simone’s screams, and how they travelled in the walls, they made a kind of music. “The squirrels move her constantly, quickly, and as they speed from one spot to another, her cries for help are stretched out and sound like an aria.”

“Look,” said Iris. “The lights are going on and off all crazy.”

“They’re fucking with the electric. They do it sometimes. It’s pretty disturbing.”

“Awesome.” I said.

We were in the kitchen, the lights were going on and off, and Sharon wondered if we wanted coffee. Luckily she had a perk pot and a gas stove. We all had a cup and waited for the lights to stop blinking. There weren’t many pleasantries exchanged before I asked if she had a gun.

She shook her head. “I don’t believe in them.”

“I hear you, but if I ever was going to believe in them, it might be now.”

Just as I was about to ask Iris and Sharon what exactly they expected me to do, the Simone express came warbling, wavering, slithering within the walls. The rumbling of a hundred feet, the brushing on sheet rock of 25 tails, the chittering, etc, and the occasional clunking where one of the girl’s shoes or a shoulder or her head caught the butt end of a 4x4. The sound was like a beautiful siren going off. As it receded, the notes were stretched to breaking and took some time to fade.

When the kitchen was quiet again, I said, “Really, what do you think I’m going to do?”

“Just go take a look,” said Iris.

“I wouldn’t even know how to begin to get into the walls. Like I’m gonna fit?”

“You can get in there,” said Sharon. “Nads has a much bigger ass than you and he managed. It’s an old place, 19th century. You’ll be surprised by how much room there is.”

“OK,” I said. “I’m not promising anything, but I’ll take a look. The second I feel claustrophobic I’m out and in my car, heading home. First, I’m gonna need some kind of weapon. Where are the knives?”

Sharon pointed to a drawer. I went to it, opened it and pulled out a couple of knives. A cursory glance told me they were all dull as shit, “You got any sharp ones?” I asked.

“With Nads, I didn’t think it was good to have sharp things laying around.” She went to the cabinet over the stove, reached up on her tip toes in order to grab some utensil. “This is sharp,” she said, and handed it to me. It was a gleaming metal cleaver, more for cutting cheese than meat, though. It looked sharp enough, but I had a hard time picturing myself cleaving squirrels as they came at me a dozen at a time. I held the cleaver up to show Iris. She laughed. “Now you’re making fun of me?” I said to her. “Forget it then. I’m not doing it.”

“Come on,” she said and we all stood up. Sharon led the way through the kitchen and out the back door, down a set of concrete steps and then left along the back of the house. We came to a spot that was like someone had built a closet with no door into the structure. Iris shined her flashlight on it, and it became clear that there was a ladder leading up through a dark hole where the ceiling of a closet might have been. Everyone was momentarily speechless, contemplating how fucked up all this was. In that interim, we heard Simone go whisking by, and her song touched me. I made for the ladder. Iris stopped me and gave me a kiss. “If it looks dangerous, come back quick,” she said.

“You mean this doesn’t look dangerous?” I said to her.

“You know what I mean.”

Sharon said, “Good luck. When you chop at the little shits try to chop their feet off, If they can’t run, they’ll just turn in circles and bleed out.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.

Then it was up the ladder for me. I hadn’t been in the greatest shape since my 30s (30 years earlier), so this was a struggle to say the least. I ascended, a step at a time, and once I was completely surrounded by dark, the walls had seemed to move in and I needed to catch my breath. No matter how much bigger the king of the squirrels’ ass was than mine, it couldn’t have been that much. Sandwiched between the wood of the house’s walls, I felt like I was interred alive in a coffin. If that wasn’t claustrophobia, I don’t know what was. I panicked for a moment, shifted my grip on the ladder, and inadvertently dropped the cleaver. Fear pulsed in me, and I had to get out. Without thinking, I went forward instead of backward, and fell into a hallway of sizeable, even generous, dimensions.

I stood up and could finally catch my breath without the constriction of my chest. It was dark, but there were places where light from inside the house snuck through cracks and heating ducts. There was at least a good two inches clearance for either of my shoulders. Off in the distance, up above, I heard Simone being whipped about by the squirrel horde. I knew if I didn’t do something to help her, she’d be dragged to death before the night was through. My better judgment still told me the best course of action was to flee.

It was here that I noticed the disarming aroma that overtook me all at once. It was as if my senses had denied it and chose not to believe in the ungodly stink, but when reality returned, it did so with a vengeance. The smell almost brought me to my knees. A perfume of old tobacco spit, cat piss, the beards of dead men, floating on a base of squirrel shit. I staggered forward, and just when I thought I was going down, I came upon a door. I realized I must have wound up in a secret passageway. There was a bar of welcome light showing from under the door. I knocked.

“Come in,” said the squirrel king.

I barged in, hoping to escape the stench. Instead, it rode in on my shoulders. There was Nads in his getup, sitting behind a desk. He looked up suddenly as if I had frightened him and put his hand on the pistol in front of him.

“Quick, close the door,” he said. I noticed he didn’t lift the gun.

“Nads, far be it from me to stare asquint at your squirrel business, but your daughter is being dragged all over hell and gone. Those squirrels’ll kill her.”

“I know,” he said. “I’ve been dethroned. They’ve stripped the crown from me. It’s all a most vicious treachery.”

“Well, what are we gonna do?” I said.

“I’m sitting here trying to decide whether to shoot myself in the head or go after Simone.”

I thought, “Both avenues would probably lead to the same dead end,” but I said, “Don’t you think you owe it to Sharon and Simone?”

“I’m so alone now. You can’t possibly conceive of what it was like to wield the power I did. And then to have it ripped away? A cosmic wound, an infinite wound.”

“How’d you fall out with them?”

“They finally realized I wasn’t a squirrel.”

The little beasts were smarter than I thought. “Come on. Help me get her from them.”

“I can’t. Once they run her around the place 112 times, that’s some kind of magic number for them, they’re going to return here and meet out my punishment for having been an imposter. You can’t stop them. It’s like trying to stop an ocean wave or shoot the wind. The best you could do is run and you’ll never run fast or far enough. I’ve decided to take you with me. I remember you from high school, and you were a shit like the rest.”

The gun was now in his hand and aimed at my heart. “I never did anything to hurt you,” I said.

“You didn’t do anything to help me either.”

“What do you think I’m doing here?”

He got red in the face and with his free hand swept that stupid hat with the feather off his head. “Fuck you,” he yelled. “If I’m going you’re going. I just hope Sharon knows I loved her.”

“How’s she gonna know if there isn’t somebody to tell her? Your actions of late haven’t exactly said amore.”

“I can trust you with that message?”

Before I could answer, the door flew open with a bang and in the beat of a heart it was filled with squirrels, piled up who knew how deep down the secret hallway. The ones in front had their little hands holding up Simone, her red and white polka-dot dress was torn on the left shoulder and the hem had come loose. Her long black hair was a mess, she had a lump on her forehead, and a black eye. Staggering out of their myriad grip, she landed in my arms. It was as if she had the hollow bones of a bird. Like I was holding a dream.

The main squirrel – I don’t know how to delineate him. He looked like all the rest – gray fur, a white front, a bushy tail, little hands on both arms and legs, demonic black button eyes. He stepped out of the gaggle that filled the doorway. He squeaked a few times and the rest of them quieted down. He looked Nads in the eyes and chittered a rasher at him. There was a moment of silence, and then Nads translated for me.

He pointed the gun at his rival and said to me, “This little rat fuck, Meeksi, he says I’ve been found guilty and will be consumed by the squirrels and my soul shall be torn to bits and scattered to the four winds.”

“Is there a chance they might reconsider?” I asked.

“Fuck the squirrels,” he yelled and squeezed the trigger. The shot caught Meeksi in the chest and blew him nearly in half. With his last breath he gave a piercing screech and his followers flooded the room. On their way to Nads they flowed around us like a warm-blooded stream. Tails brushed our faces, tiny sharp-nailed hands grabbed us and pushed off. The gun fired four more times before the sound of its report was replaced by Nads’s screams. Once the initial wave was past us, I lifted Simone and made for the door, stepping around and occasionally on one of the stragglers to the feast. By then there was a fine blood mist in the air and the sound of nibbling was everything.

Simone directed me to a secret door that opened out of the wall into the library, and in moments we were free of the dust and stench of squirrel shit. She grabbed the collar of my shirt, a hand on each side, and brought me close to her face. It was clear she was weak from the jolting and bumping she took in the walls, but she managed to get out, “Did you know that squirrels are born blind?” Her pronouncement stunned me. I thought, “What the hell does that have to do with anything?” “Call me Shadow Tail,” she said, and amid a storm of chittering and squeaking, she lunged for me. The sight of her long orange teeth, snapping at my jugular, allowed me to drop decorum and her on the floor.

Once in the hall, I found my way to a stair that led toward the back of the house. Touching its first step I heard her screech like the old man had, and through my heavy breathing and the clomping of my shoes in the descent, I heard the minions on the move, a thousand padded racing paws within the walls. She sicced them on me, and it spurred me to move faster than I ever thought I could at my age. Down a hall to the kitchen, and I heard them breaking through the ceiling of the stairwell. I hit the backdoor, threw it open, ran outside, grabbed Iris where she was talking to Sharon.

Sharon said, “We’re waiting for the cops to come.”

I said nothing. Iris struggled against me as I dragged her to the car and, once she was in, it took me a little doing to get her to close the door. She thought I was distraught from claustrophobia. It would have to wait till I caught my breath before I could explain I was trying to prevent us becoming steak tartare for Meeksi’s comrades. The car started, I put it in gear, and before I could hit the pedal, they blasted out the back door as if emanating from a giant firehose. Sharon went down beneath a mound of them. A number leaped for the car as I drove away. One landed on the roof, but I made it to the interstate, and peeled him off doing 90.

Jeffrey Ford is the author of the novels The Physiognomy, Memoranda, The Beyond, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Girl in the Glass, The Cosmology of the Wider World, The Shadow Year, The Twilight Pariah, Ahab’s Return, and Out of Body. His short story collections are The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, The Empire of Ice Cream, The Drowned Life, Crackpot Palace, A Natural History of Hell, The Best of Jeffrey Ford, and Big Dark Hole. Ford’s fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies from to Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories and been widely translated. It has garnered World Fantasy, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Nebula, awards and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He lives in Ohio’s farm country in a 120-year-old house and teaches part-time at Ohio Wesleyan University.