I’m dating the Grim Reaper

I’m dating the Grim Reaper.

I’d learned, at last tally a couple weeks ago, of about a dozen deaths in a narrow two-month window; the number continues rising.

I met the man with the foreboding countenance in two back-to-back experiences this week.

On Tuesday, while making building rounds, I come upon a dead pigeon. In my time working with this family, much of it outdoors, I've not yet come upon a corpse.

Gray and white feathers of an adult bird lay everywhere, evidence of a fight. The glutinous gel in the eye sockets inform that it is a fresh kill. Black ants are well in their dutiful way as Mother Nature’s creature disposers.

I cannot bring myself to simply scoop up the bird and slide it into the dumpster. Instinct guides me to return dead animals to Nature, to earth or water or the food chain.

So I search out a burial tool, a narrow and long scrap of lumber from the renovation across the street. I chisel out a bed from the black, rich soil beside a bush.

While I'm laying the bird to rest, a lyric from a Simple Minds’ tune begins playing as if someone had set a stylus on a spinning LP in my head: Mother, I can feel … the soil … falling over my head. I confess the lyric has more do with (present) mother issues, a lyric that captured their heart long ago, than the burial of the pigeon; at this moment they overlap.

The bird receives a proper burial.

And I eye with speculative suspicion a large, brown, fluffy cat who emerges from an opened apartment window 15 feet away.

Then there’s the squirrel.

The next day at work I spot a cat who lives in a building. Not the brown fluffy one. This one's cream-colored … a popular community cat who gets around … an alpha cat and a hunter. I call her Queenie for her haughty attitude of I’m the Boss of You. (personal aside: these attitudes and behaviors are among the reasons I'm not a cat person.)

Queenie is locked into stalking mode. My eyes trace her focus to the source: a squirrel's tail. Emerging from behind the right corner of this painted wooden wall behind which are trash cans.

I observe with detached fascination the dance between stalking feline and the tail barely dusting the dirt.  A tail that, unbeknownst to the cat, is attached to a scrappy and quick rodent.

This confrontation could get ugly so to thwart it before Queenie springs, I step to the other side of the barrier to set the squirrel hastening to safer territory.

I find him deep into the dark corner between blue plastic trash bin and the wooden wall.

Despite my presence and that of an interested cat, he remains seated sluggishly rather than springing off in hypervigilant and hyperactive manner of a squirrel.

His position tucked into the corner and slow reflexes inform of something amiss.

A couple more steps forward finally send him off in a delayed burst toward the nearby tree 5 feet away. Hunter Queenie pursues but the squirrel sprints out of reach.

Rather, though, than continuing bolting upwards out of danger with the familiar scratch-scratch-scratch of pointy claws in crunchy bark, the squirrel comes to a stop in a V-space created by the split of the tree trunk, not more than 5 feet above ground.

He's away from the cat but not wholly safe. So after a chase through the bushes, I grab Queenie and hasten her in my arms to the distant side of the building.

I return to the squirrel. Who has not moved.

He's sitting in the V-space in a quasi-fetal position. With one clawed right paw raised, a gesture of a climb aborted, a climb that could not be.

He's not moving. At all. No external sound or movement registers. He doesn't look well. Perhaps he's sick. Perhaps he ate bad food from the dumpsters, which are super grotty. Or ingested food tainted with the chemicals people dump there.

Perhaps he's dying a gradual natural death.

Whatever the case, instinct instructs never to approach a wild animal who is dying, particularly one who may be sick or poisoned.

So I maintain a distance and with studied eye watch the animal, feeling compassion for any suffering. If I'd had a rifle, I'd have used it.

The squirrel is alive — barely.

After eight minutes or so of stillness (and here, folks, is why you never get close to a dying wild animal), all of a sudden the squirrel twitches. And with an abrupt burst of energy spits out a growl — part hiss and part squawk. The head turns slightly on the unmoving body into a position that renders one eye visible from where I stand.

I remain in his presence for  another 10 minutes or so. To a passerby, the squirrel is dead and postured oddly in a tree trunk.

The vestige of light of life in his eye tells me otherwise.

To my witnessing, there is no movement again. No twitch of an ear. No brush by a tail. No efforted extension of a nailed. No rasping vocalization. No motion of a muscle. No rise or fall of the belly area.

Only the slowly extinguishing flame in an eye.

And my eye in and on his.

With no change to which to bear witness, I eventually leave in peace. And with a chill for it will be my task to return to remove the corpse from the death nest. (I will do so smartly and with a long stick.)

I permit a couple hours to pass; the animal and strange experience never out of my mind. In the interim, I share it with a couple people in the family.

A few hours later I return to the tree with a certain amount of trepidation yet forging onward for work.

And the squirrel is gone.

I search the bushes. The areas around the wall, the dumpsters, the grounds. Nothing.

I ask others whether they'd seen or moved the animal. No.

I peek into the deep smelly trash cans, thinking perhaps someone had picked it up; in the interim, city services had emptied them. I'll never know what happened to the squirrel.

A surreal experience.

It's odd and disconcerting and not a tad daunting dating the Grim Reaper.

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