Cat Story, Squirrel Story, and Epicurus’ Trilemma
Walking to my apartment one afternoon, I saw a blur of white and tan fur, spread out like a miniature cow’s hide, attacking the base of a tree. After a moment, I realized that the white and tan fur was a cat, a particular cat I recognized from its white-and-tanness. And rather than attacking the tree trunk, I realized the cat was actually after a squirrel.
Timidly, I considered chasing the cat away. I say timidly because, over the last two months, my wife and I have developed a kind of friendship with this cat—if friendships with cats are possible—and I felt reluctant to cross my new friend. That said, I couldn’t let what was about to happen actually happen, and so I stomped, perhaps too half-heartedly, toward the cat. I’ve tried this tactic a few times before on strays and it usually seems to work, though rarely as quickly as I hope. Animals are not particularly scared of me.
Looking back, I'm not sure if I wanted to save the squirrel from a terrible death or to save myself from seeing a cat tear a squirrel apart. Nevertheless, my mixed motivations had a clear result. The cat scampered away and wisely, the squirrel scooted up the tree trunk, though only as far as two feet when it stopped.
I could now stop to look more closely at the squirrel. There was something off about it. It was smaller than most squirrels. Perhaps an adolescent, or as my mother might put it, “a teenager” squirrel. Clinging to the side of the tree with its tiny claws and desperate grasp, the squirrel seemed to stare right at me, its little chest pumping in and out, as if it were hyperventilating.
Moments before, I thought, I was just somebody walking home after having forgotten to change over the laundry but remembered to check the mail, and now I was a central figure in a life and death struggle. I looked down at the trunk of the tree, then off to the gap in the nearby fence where I’d seen the cat go, then back at the squirrel. The squirrel had reached a respectable height for such a small creature, but nowhere high enough, given what I imagined were the springing, climbing, and hurtling abilities of cats.
I tried the same stomping tactic on the squirrel, hoping that I would be able to scare it farther up the tree, though I wasn’t really sure what would happen. I supposed the squirrel would shoot up the tree to safety, and from somewhere high up in the branches, stare at me with its panicky, intense squirrel eyes, in a kind of gesture of thanks for saving its life. What I found was that the squirrel barely inched up in response to my stomping. It moved up a bit and around the tree a bit.
Instead of stomping, I found what actually worked was to simply walk around the tree, momentarily out of sight, and to reappear completing a full circle. Each circuit motivated the squirrel to go up another six inches. I repeated this four or five times until the squirrel was about six feet off the ground.
There comes a time for the bystander who has become witness to some public disharmony to consider how long he would like to stay engaged. Where does one draw the line? Does he wait for the injured person to say “I’m OK,” or until someone who seems more concerned arrives? Or until the police come?
In this case, I was growing somewhat dizzy from walking in circles, and if I’m being honest, a bit tired of this thankless task. And the squirrel wasn’t helping me out by moving up the tree any faster. By then, the cat had come back and was staring at me from the concrete drainage ditch where it had settled.
I drew the line there. I climbed the steps to my apartment and I told my wife what had happened. We went out to our balcony, where you could glimpse a partial view of the tree. If you squinted, you could see the squirrel, still and clinging to the trunk, too stunned to venture higher to the first crook.
That night, I heard the shrill cries of a cat from below the balcony.
The next afternoon, I sat in bed reading. My wife came to me, looking heart-struck, and told me she had bad news: the squirrel was dead. She had seen a little body at the base of the tree. Somebody, perhaps a neighbor, had placed a small plastic condiment cup filled with some water beside its body, but the squirrel at this point was clearly dead.
I thought about myself, and then the dead squirrel, and then myself. I thought about how I would have to walk by this particular tree to get to our mailbox or really to access anywhere else in our apartment complex.
The first few times I walked past the tree, I pictured roughly where I thought the dead squirrel’s body lay, and made every effort not to look there. Then finally, perhaps a day later, coming back the same direction, I decided to look. The squirrel was lying face down. There was no blood, but there were a few flies that had started to gather. The smell of death wasn’t that strong.
Every day after that, I made note of whether the squirrel had been picked up or not. By whom, I wasn’t really sure. A group of men from a local landscaping company usually came by to blow the leaves around, but when exactly did they come? They once came on the morning of Christmas Eve, I remember that. Anyway, if they came, I wasn’t even sure they would see it.
Walking that way a day later, I saw the cat, just a few steps before the tree. I was unsure if it would let me pet it, given my attitude the other day, but after approaching slowly, I was allowed to gently pet its head. I glanced over to the base of the tree where the squirrel’s body remained, its tiny arms stretched out, as if it had run a long footrace and dropped suddenly to the ground. The cat didn’t seem interested in it.
This morning, I woke to the sound of leaf blowers and hoped I wouldn’t see the squirrel.