I ran over a squirrel last week. Not the whole squirrel. Just the half of it that wasn’t fast enough to get out of the way of my front left tire.
There’s that instant of panic when you see the creature darting out onto the asphalt, without any of the requisite small-town New England hand signals and dirty looks that humans use — “I’m crossing, okay? Even though there’s no crosswalk, right? Because the lawsuit will be overwhelming, yes?”
And you can stomp on the brake, to give the squirrel a fighting chance, but it’s usually hopeless. The momentum you’ve built up, even at a stately 35 mph, is no match for a squirrelly rodent who tops out at about 5 ft. per second, or roughly 25 mph, in that last desperate flash of panic. You have 10 mph on the poor sucker. Who’ll win and who’ll lose is not in question.
It’s not as if I was driving recklessly. I was moving at more or less the speed limit, eastbound from my home in the hinterland, chugging along on Linebrook Road toward Marini Farm. And up ahead, what do I see but a crow. The crow had found some roadkill, apparently annihilated by some heartless driver who came careening down Linebrook Road ahead of me, but without the same kind consideration for creatures great and small that I bring to the automotive experience.
The crow, pecking at his gory prize, heard my vehicle approaching, and made the sensible choice: He temporarily abandoned his lunch, flapping away to some nearby branch where he could keep an eye out and return ASAP.
But coincidentally, a young squirrel, poised at the edge of Linebrook Road, observing the scene, made an ill-fated split-second decision. He’s not interested in chowing down on roadkill — ick! He’s a squirrel, after all; he doesn’t want guts, he wants nuts.
But he does also want to cross the road.
So he says to himself, If the crow can do it, so can I. I can get out of the way in time.
Like a typical youth, he doesn’t consider his own limitations. Like, for instance, he can’t fly like a crow. He’s not a flying squirrel, is he? What are teenagers thinking?
Accordingly, my car whacked him.
It was a traumatic moment for me. I pulled over, my heart pounding. I needed to collect myself.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a greenish shape, like a filthy upside-down salad bowl, lumbering toward me. Emerging from the woods, a snapping turtle. And no young whippersnapper of a snapping turtle. This was a seasoned, mature snapping turtle. A snapping turtle that had been around the block a time or two.
He paused as he approached my car. He arched an eyebrow. I rolled down my window to hear what he had to say.
“Why did the squirrel cross the road?” he began, his voice husky.
“To prove he wasn’t chicken.”
I had no retort.
“It’s a joke,” the turtle murmured, his turtle mouth curled into a sneer.
He shook his head — peevishly, I thought. Then he looked right at me, one of his little eyes trained directly on me, like an angry grade-school teacher.
“You know how many times I’ve crossed this road?” he rasped. “Cars come screeching to a halt. People get out of their vehicles — Audis, F-150s, it doesn’t matter — and they gather around to help me across. I swear, if I went into politics, I could heal the divisions in this country.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“I saw what was happening here,” the turtle chortled, “and not just today. I mean day after day. That squirrel was what we call a ‘young punk.’ He didn’t want to listen to any kind of advice from anybody in ‘the older generation.’”
I couldn’t help but glance at the half of the young punk’s body that wasn’t squished. I shivered.
“I did what I could,” the turtle sighed. “I went to him, weeks ago. I didn’t have to, I had no obligation to him, but out of a sense of community, a sense of family you might say, the animal kingdom, you know what I mean? I went to him; I said, ‘Look, I’m offering you protection. When you want to cross Linebrook Road, come to me first, I’ll go with you. When I start across, traffic will stop. You’ll be safe. You can come and go as you please. You make a small payment to my guys when they come around, and your problems are over.”
To me, at the moment, hearing the turtle say it, it sounded like a good deal.
The turtle shrugged, at least as much as a turtle can shrug, inside that shell.
“He didn’t listen to me. He was a young punk who wouldn’t pay.”
He nodded at the half-smushed carcass.
“Look at him now.”
I couldn’t help but shudder a bit.
“Turkeys, they get a lot of attention,” the turtle continued. “People stop for them, sure. But turkeys wander around. They don’t stick with one neighborhood. They could help other species get across the road — but do they? No. They’re just in it for themselves. Me, I’ve been here for 40 years. Available to help whoever needs help.”
He began plodding across the road. Then he paused, mid-lane, and looked back at me. His mouth wasn’t curled into that little turtle sneer anymore. It was just a sad, straight mouth of regret.
“But squirrels. Do they listen? No.”
An oncoming Volvo screeched to a halt. The turtle turned back and resumed his slow crawl across the asphalt.
“Squirrels,” I heard him grunt. “They show no respect.”
Doug Brendel lives and drives on Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Look into all his strange multi-species experiences at DougBrendel.com