I probably should not have attended. Just because you feel badly about the “dear departed” does not necessarily mean it’s appropriate for you to show up at the funeral. For example, if you happen to have some measure of responsibility for the dear departed’s departure.
Which in this case, I guess I did.
I did not personally assassinate the chipmunk. My cat did the deed. My cat, Hercules Frank Brendel, is a skilled hunter, but a gentle giant: too much of an innocent to kill what he catches. He faithfully patrols our 200-year-old house, inside and out, with an unswerving devotion to a single, simple mission: Any uninvited creature must be chased and caught, then dropped, chased and caught again, then dropped again — over and over, until, inevitably, the weary little critter gets away for good.
Herc’s sister, Queen Anne, is in charge of insect invaders. She’s too classy to swat at anything bigger than a dragonfly. But Hercules is fiercely efficient at scaring off Mammalia, Reptilia, and those feathered, winged, egg-laying vertebrates. He does not murder the mice. He does not slaughter the snakes. He does not finish off the finches. He just pummels them, like a feline Rocky Balboa, until they decide to go somewhere else.
It’s a shame, in a way. Herc has the cool of a hit man. He could make it as a killer, if only he had the instincts to take it all the way. (He seems to have a particular contempt for voles — which doesn’t bother me, because so do I.) He bounds into the meadow behind our house and emerges with a furry, squirming mouthful. He marches to the part of our backyard that he has designated as his own private Roman Coliseum, and he proceeds to play with his prey. I must say, as a city boy, there’s something deeply pleasing about knowing that the rodent being smacked like a soccer ball this afternoon won’t be crunching the cashews in my kitchen cabinet tonight.
But this week, Hercules made a little error. He was off his game a bit. He momentarily lost his light touch. Perhaps as he prepared to carry his latest victim out of the meadow and into the backyard, he somehow tripped in the tall grass, or stumbled over a stone. Maybe he was a bit hung over, after staying out too late the night before with the cat from across the street, slurping Sam Adams empties tossed out by rude drivers on Randall Road.
Whatever the reason, Hercules did something unfortunate.
He chomped a chipmunk.
Bit a bit too hard. Crunched a crunch too crunchy. Snapped something in that little guy’s anatomy that wasn’t designed to snap.
So when Hercules dropped it in the backyard, it went thunk.
I’ve been accused of heartlessness when it comes to wildlife, but this was not an easy moment for me. Chipmunks are cute. Everyone agrees that chipmunks are cute. Whoever thought up “Alvin” was brilliant. So when Hercules marched out of the meadow to the Coliseum with a chipmunk in his teeth, I already felt a bit of a catch in my throat.
But when I realized the chipmunk had already passed over into that great burrow in the sky … when I realized that this little guy had stuffed his cheeks with goodies from my garden for the last time … when I realized that my cat had snuffed out a universally beloved, iconic, cartoonish, delightful symbol of playfulness, cheer, and happy-go-lucky nonchalance…
Well, I had no choice. I had to go to the funeral.
It was a small affair — I mean, the attendees were small. It was a big affair in terms of number of attendees. Clearly the deceased was greatly loved. There in a circle around the grave were his five children from the summer litter; four slightly larger children from the spring litter; ten adult children from last year’s litters; nine more from the litters of the year before last; and of course, one very weary widow. There were lots of little sniffles, and plenty of moist, red-rimmed little eyes, as the little chipmunk clergyman squeaked out some tiny Scriptures.
I stayed well off in the background. I didn’t care to be seen at all. Unfortunately, however, just as the service ended — right after the eight little chipmunk pallbearers had lowered the little chipmunk coffin into the ice cream carton-sized hole in the ground — the grieving widow caught a glimpse of me. She never looked away. She turned her steely little eyes on me and marched all the way up to me in her tiny black dress, her tiny black veil quivering with each step of her tiny black Diego di Lucca heels.
“You have some nerve,” she rasped.
“I’m sorry,” I replied quietly.
“It’s too late for apologies,” she answered sharply. “You let your cat out. To commit murder.”
“I don’t think it was technically murder. Murder is intentional. I think this might have only been——” I gulped. “—chipmunkslaughter.”
“Uh huh,” she grunted. “Once a cat, always a cat.”
She turned and stalked away. For a moment, I didn’t move. Then, suddenly, I heard the whirr of sleek feathers cutting through the air. A beautiful blue-gray Cooper’s hawk swooped out of nowhere, grasped the chipmunk widow in its talons, and lifted her into the sky without so much as a pause.
The widow shrieked at me as they disappeared together: “I suppose this is your bird, too!”