As this blog post’s title suggests, this isn’t a story that ends well, but for those unfamiliar with Old Irish, I’ll slap a big CW for animal death on this one. Because this is the tragic, heartbreaking tale of Naoise the Squirrel.
(For those who are familiar with Irish, yes I know Naoise should be in the genitive there, but idk what the genitive form is, so bite me.)
I’ll start at the beginning: on Friday, I moved house. This is, in and of itself, probably worth a couple of blog posts, but for me to have written about it would require me to be even vaguely organised with my blog, and as we know, I am not. (I’ll probably talk about it more in future, though.) I’ve moved from my parents’ house in SE London to a house in Cambridge that I share with two friends of mine – one, a library assistant, the other, a PhD student. It’s a nerdy, folky house full of Pratchett fans who make history jokes, and I’m very excited about the year ahead.
The house, as a whole, is in a better state than we remember it being when we looked around, but there are still areas that are distinctly shabby or neglected. The garden, in particular, has been given no attention whatsoever in the past year. It could charitably be described as a ‘project’, by which we mean that there is a lot more in the way of brambles than anything you might term a lawn, and the rooms at the back of the house (including my bedroom and the dining room) are cast into near-permanent shadow by some overlarge trees.
Fortunately, my housemate Lee is keen on gardening and looks forward to making the whole place less of a jungle, but since they’re currently in Iceland on a research trip, the garden will languish unloved for a little while longer.
The wild state of the garden means that it’s home to a number of small beasties, and others come visiting. For a start, there’s a black squirrel (a rarity in England) and a grey squirrel (far more common), whose relationship with each other we can’t entirely determine – do they like each other? Hate each other? Hard to say.
Then, on Saturday, we were heading out to go and look at bikes when we encountered a baby squirrel, sitting on the driveway, chattering and trembling in a way that suggested the poor beastie was terrified. And why wouldn’t he be? He’d wandered out of his greenery-filled home into a scarier world that opens onto a fairly busy road, and he was only a small creature. Now there were two humans staring down at him – although I have to say, he did not seem in the least bit scared of us.
The little thing came right up to my dad, who became somewhat concerned about his plight. Was he lost? Injured? Did he need help? We summoned Lee to come and potentially scoop him up, or at the very least to appreciate how cute he was, but after he bounded away under the van we concluded he was probably fine and would find his way home eventually.
I knew it was unlikely to be the last we saw of him, and I was right. On Sunday, I was wandering around in the garden when I saw him nibbling away at some fallen fruit on the ground. Again, he didn’t seem in the least alarmed by my approach – chittered a few times in my direction, but otherwise carried on about his business. I took a few photos on my phone, thinking that I’d need to come out with my DSLR and try and get that high-def squirrel content at some point, and then I left him alone.
Not, however, before remarking to my housemates that if he was going to live here, we should probably give him a name.
Later on Sunday, I was upstairs when I heard Lee reprimanding some manner of beastie outside – “Get away from there!” Intrigued, I came down to see what was going on… and discovered them engaged in an intervention between a small, sleek black cat that had come to visit, and the squirrel currently perched in the tree above. Quickly, I joined the battle. Normally, I would be delighted to see a visiting cat, and this one was very cute – but the baby had become my priority. I couldn’t let him get eaten by a cat and stand idly by.
We gave the cat a stern talking-to, hoping to dissuade it from trying to eat him, but it was persistent, doing its best to dodge around us to get to the tree. Eventually, Lee managed to chase the cat up to one end of the garden, while I stood guard around the tree, waiting for the squirrel to come down and run to safety (he being too little, it seems, to hop from tree to tree the way the adults do).
I thought we’d succeeded when he’d made it to the ground and was heading off in the direction of where I’d previously seen him lurking, but the second the cat wasn’t in sight the small beast seemed to completely forget the danger he was in, because he stopped to eat. Running for his life and he stops for a snack! “Lee,” I called to my housemate, still in a stand-off with the cat, “I think our small squirrel son may be too stupid to live.”
However, we counted it as a victory when we successfully chased the cat out of the garden (not something I would ever normally do; I fear he’ll never come back now), and the baby squirrel was unharmed.
“We can’t stand guard forever,” Lee pointed out. “The cat’s going to come back.”
I know. I knew. It was inevitable. And the little squirrel’s sense of danger seemed to be massively underdeveloped, as evidenced by his total fearlessness towards humans. Besides which, it didn’t look like he could run particularly fast; he had no chance of outrunning a cat. The dark visitor was small, probably not much more than a kitten, but speedy – and the squirrel was tiny and not nearly quick enough.
But for now, we had protected him. Our small squirrel son was safe. Stupid, but safe.
“We probably shouldn’t name him,” I said. “We’ll get attached, and it’ll only make it harder when he gets killed by something.”
“True,” said Lee. “Though I’m already emotionally invested in his fate now.”
Despite my determination not to get attached, I had to agree. I was invested from the second I saw that tiny creature on the front drive – and I’d already started calling him Naoise, after the hero of Longes mac nUislenn, because while he was cute to look at, he didn’t seem great at recognising obvious danger signals or avoiding situations that would inevitably result in risk to his life.
Maybe I doomed him.
Maybe it was just inevitable anyway.
Shortly after lunch on Monday I went into the dining room to retrieve my plate and looked out of the window at the garden. There, clearly visible against the greenery, was a fox. My heart stuttered. Naoise, I thought – but it was too late. In front of the fox was a small, twitching grey body, still trying to run away, but unable to do so.
I felt sick. I ran to the back door, yanked it open, yelled as loud as I could to scare off the fox. What was I hoping, that he’d leave the dying body of the squirrel there so that I could stand helplessly over it and wonder if I wasn’t so incompetent, whether we could have saved him? I wouldn’t have had a clue who to call, whether there were any rescues that would care about a wild baby squirrel. I just – yelled. Because I had to.
And the fox snatched him up in its jaws and ran off.
I hope it was quick, and painless, but I don’t think it was. I’m haunted by the image of his twitching body, trying to run away; by the knowledge that I couldn’t have saved him even if the fox hadn’t taken him. I knew it was inevitable, that if anything it’s better to have come so soon so that we don’t spend days trying to protect him from a fate he can’t outrun, but I didn’t think I’d witness it.
Like I said, maybe I doomed him with the name. Maybe Conchobar the cat called Eogan mac Durthacht the fox after we chased him away. Maybe naming a little beastie like that after a character who gets brutally murdered was not the best way to ensure his survival.
Or maybe foxes and cats just like to hunt stupid baby squirrels who haven’t the sense to run and hide when a predator comes into the garden, and named or not, he was marked to die.
Either way, RIP Naoise the Squirrel, eaten by a fox on 26.08.19. You were small and stupid and we loved you. I hope you are enjoying squirrel heaven, eating all the snacks you want without fear of cats or foxes.
Our poor, small, stupid son.