“Kee-yum on,” she cooed in her annoying, cloying baby-doll voice, “kee-yum on an’ get some!”
She was holding a handful of shelled walnuts, the kind you get in the baking aisle at the grocery store. She hunched over in what she imagined would be a position of invitation, staring up into the tree with her wide, bug-eyes and toothy smile, and watching intently as the observer above her cocked his head from side to side, measuring up the situation.
“He’s not gonna come down with you standin’ there,” my father drawled lazily. It was interesting, but when my father was doing “country” things, his Georgia drawl got heavier. When he was in our company, he spoke more like we did, with little or no trace of a drawl.
“Oh,” she groaned, “all right. I’ll put it down at the bottom of the tree.”
She, of course, was my mother. I sat on the ancient, tired concrete slab that was our front porch, and watched as she padded over to the huge tree overshadowing our tiny front yard and poured the nuts out onto the ground in a hollow between two tentacles of root matter that webbed throughout the yard just beneath the rich soil. He, being the one to whom my father referred, was a big, fat, well-fed gray squirrel. He was at the top of the trunk of the tree, just beneath the canopy’s umbrella of that great and self-impressed tree, clinging to the bark and skitching his irritating little squirrel screech at us.
My father slowly dragged on his cigarette, and shook his head.
Somewhere up above the squirrel, the blue jays began their ruckus too. “Hush!” my mother admonished them, “You’ll scare him away.”
“They’re not going to scare him,” my dad patronized.
It was an interesting conversation, believe it or not. My mother worked most of that morning to try and coax that squirrel down. She set out the nuts and the squirrel would stare at them until she came back in the house. Then he’d skitter down and snatch one and then scamper back up the trunk of the tree.
And the blue jays would come in and take the rest.
“He doesn’t get any of them!” Mom protested, “They keep taking them!”
I chuckled. The autumn was fading toward winter, and the skies got heavier and heavier as the humidity began to clear the air. Every morning a dense layer of frost settled over everything to warn us of the impending slumber of the earth, caking over grass, rooftops, car windshields and what was left of the leaves on the towering trees. It would vanish with the sizzling caress of the sun every day, but came again at night, silent as a stalking cat, swooping over all the unsuspecting landscape like a bird of prey. It was a busy time for critters like squirrels and blue jays; they were readying for the months of lean to come with scarce food and frigid nights, or were preparing for their long winter’s sleep in a warm, dark den or burrow. So, if there were walnuts left lying around on the ground, everything within striking distance was going to take them.
In this case, they were squirrels and blue jays.
I think it’s funny that my mother hated rats, mice and shrews, wasn’t all that fond of hamsters and guinea pigs, but adored squirrels and rabbits. What the difference was, I can’t tell you. For some reason, the squirrels were “cute” and the mice and rats that occasionally shared our home with us were “ugly” and “creepy”, eliciting violent shudders as the “willies” shook their way down her body. So, she didn’t have a problem feeding the squirrels that took up residence in the tree over our yard. But the blue jays weren’t welcome to what she set out for them.
I think they knew that, because they tormented her relentlessly. Whenever she came out of the house they’d scream at her in their raking, rasping caws like miniature crows disguised as beautifully colored birds. They followed her to the car and crapped on it. They came from all the other yards to harass her, and would settle in what seemed like clouds on the limbs of the great knotty guardian of our house and shouted their bird obscenities at her.
Just like they were doing now.
She came back and sat beside me on the porch to the chorus of yells from the caterwauling jays – which quieted when she sat down – and watched the squirrel.
He eyed her carefully, moving in those jerking, jittery motions that low-on-the-food-chain animals use to make sure nothing’s going to eat them before their next meal. She sat huddled with her balled hands in her lap; any weather below about 70 degrees was cold to my mother. She hunched over her legs and watched the twitchy rodent take a couple of short, rapid half-jumps toward the food.
Then the jays came down in a single-file line and each one picked off a mouthful of nuts in a swooping arc that came down then back up again, vanishing into the leaves of the tree to laugh their midget-crow laugh as my mother wailed at them. The squirrel skittered up the tree again, then turned and twitched his tail a couple of times with his head toward the ground, watching what was left of the nuts.
Every time he moved toward the nuts, the jays would strike, a neat and organized line of fighter pilots performing at an air show, darting at high speed to the ground to gather the walnuts and then swooping gracefully up into the tree, each to their own branch, and burst out laughing in their wicked bird-laugh.
Finally, the squirrel twitched and the jays swooped like a gang of hoodlums, taking what they wanted in their looting raid, a group of airborne Vikings pillaging the walnuts nestled at the bottom of the tree, and my mother couldn’t take it anymore. She charged them, waving her arms at them futilely, moving with all the dexterity of a sand-barred flounder and shouting “Shoo! Stop it! Go ‘way!”
They burst out louder than ever, mocking her, raising a cacophony that actually echoed down the street in their mirth and taunting of her. She stood at the base of the tree and stomped her foot in frustration, putting her hands on her hips.
That’s when the rock came dropping out of the tree and plunked down just inches from her, zipping just past her nose and making her jump back, startled.
She stared at me wide-eyed and incredulous. “Did you see that?? That bird tried to hit me with a rock!”
I was dumb-struck – no easy feat, just ask anyone that knows me well. I was astounded; the birds had launched a counterattack against her, and even gathered weapons to do it. Clearly, these were no ordinary birds; they were the avian mafia, angered over her attempts to cut in on their action. The message was clear: butt out or sleep with the chickadees.
“They’re smarter’n you think they are,” my dad drawled. I had to look and see if he was chewing on a hay stalk and wearing overalls.
“That’s impossible,” I spat. “Birds can’t use w
“They’re smarter’n you think,” he reiterated, and leaned against one arm propped on the front door jamb. “They’re damn smart.”
“Yeah? We’ll see,” I said, and stood up. “Put down some more nuts, Mom.”
I braced myself, straightening my pants and tussling my hair out of my eyes. I watched my mother as she again approached the tree – much more gingerly this time – and set out another handful of the oily bait. I got ready, hunching down in my running back’s stance as she retreated hastily from the tree with the bag of nuts in one hand and the other held over her head.
As soon as that squirrel moved, I knew the birds were going to drop out of the tree, and when they did … I was going to be hard on them and get one of ‘em.
I was tensed and ready, the squirrel assessing the situation, the jays quiet and positioning themselves on the branches above.
The squirrel moved. The jays launched. I sprang.
It was a blur, a flurry of motion and noise. I cried out like an Apache warrior, hurtling myself forward at break-neck speed on a perfect trajectory for the line of jays as they floated down toward the fresh pile of booty. They hadn’t counted on my sneak attack; they were busy watching my mother and didn’t see me coming.
I knew I had them.
As I raised my arm to swat the leader out of flight he turned up his wings, hitting the air brakes, and twisted his deft tail to one side. His body pitched sharply and lightning fast to my left and he arced over my shoulder, leaving me flailing and beating empty air as he casually picked the pile going the opposite direction. He wound up the tree on the other side and vanished into the tree’s canopy above me.
But I wasn’t done yet – I hit the brakes and turned quickly in my black wallabies, charging the other direction, roaring as fiercely as a 13-year-old boy can. As I approached, limbs flailing and beginning to lose what little control I had over my gangly, about-to-hit-a-growth-spurt adolescent body, they banked smoothly as one to my left and arced down just ahead of me. I tried to accelerate and they stayed barely, maddeningly, frustratingly out of the reach of my fingertips as they picked the pile of walnuts cleanly from the ground and spiraled around the massive tree trunk up to the safety of the branches.
I couldn’t adjust.
The smooth bottoms of my shoes slid like I was on ice, and I flailed my arms trying to regain balance. I toppled head-first forward, shouting not with rage but fear now as my feet each went their own individual ways and my head pulled my body over my center of gravity forward. In a panic, I dove, trying like hell to avoid the wild bramble of a rose bush that grew just beside the porch, and fortunately I made it … and smashed the top of my head against the unyielding, immovable asbestos stalwart of the house.
I was jarred immediately backward onto my rump, all the air whooshing from my lungs in a furious rush that left me gripping my ribs in agony and writhing on the dirt, grass and leaves of the lawn.
There was a gasp from my mother, who stood up to see if I was all right, and a burst of hissing, wheezing laughter from my father. As I got up, the uproarious racket of the jays, laughing and teasing louder than ever before, rained down on me for minutes. It died down about the same time I got my breath back.
“Are you okay, son?” my father chuckled.
I nodded, ashamed to meet his eyes.
“I guess they’re smarter’n you think, ain’t they?” He smiled at me. I couldn’t help but smile back.
“Yeah … yeah, I guess they are.”
And then a rock dropped just inches from my face.