Looking for Squirrels, a Love Note

Nonfction / Scott Russell Morris

When I walk in the woods, I hope to see squirrels. I seek them out, peering into the canopies, cocking my ear for sounds of their passing. When there are no squirrels, every rasping leaf is a disappointment, but when there are no squirrels a keen awareness consumes the walk, their absence creating a lingering magic: things unexplored cling to the hidden side of every mossy trunk.

So this afternoon, as you and I walk through a new-sprouting spring forest outside Frankfurt, holding hands and chatting, I look for squirrels as we talk about the friends we’ll reunite with in America, the winter we’re leaving behind in Kazakhstan. You mention that we’ll probably never see our Kazakh friends again and I turn my head to follow a sound, but it’s just birdsong. We wonder if my books will sell as we cross a country bridge. We sit on a bench and listen. What if we can’t have children, we ask each other? What if the tumor in your uterus and the emergency surgery to remove it ruined that for us?

I remember the Kazakh hospital room, yellow walls and blue light, everything dim, almost midnight and you’ve been in the operating room for hours. They won’t let me come down to see you and I cannot communicate well enough to ask for details, and then they wheeled you in, your skin pale and freckled like a ripe pear and, despite the nurse’s warning, I held a cup of water to your lips and you choked a little, screaming from pain at the new scar in your abdomen. Only months ago, but still it feels like a lifetime behind us, except when compared to the lifetime ahead of us. A lifetime for which we don’t know what to expect. That we don’t know the future hasn’t changed, but rather, our assurances have. For all our plans, for all our predictions, for all the times our lives have looked how we thought they would, we never really knew what would happen. And that knowledge is what we are aware of now as we cross over a pedestrian bridge, a commuter train passing underneath, the forest still reaching overhead.

A year from now, we will not have to wonder if we can, we’ll know that we can. And two years from now, we’ll not be considering what we can do, but what we could do. We’ll be thinking of all the things we have done and wondering what we will do next. But for now, there’s just this quiet moment waiting for tomorrow’s flight home, and I remember out loud for you a walk through an English forest.

I was walking ‘round Grasmere lake, blue bells blooming ankle-high, and the late sun barely breaking through high mists. I wanted so much to see England’s endangered red squirrel and to know if I should buy you a ring or break things off. Recounting that memory, I wanted you to see it, too, because even though I didn’t see a squirrel by that lake, in my looking for them, I saw instead a narrow road lined with purple flowers and wild garlic winding its way through an emerald hillside, a near-perfect explanation of the Romantic Sublime, an image, I knew even then, that would be perfected not by the presence of squirrels, but if you had seen it with me, the same way you are now seeing these German trees with me, our hands clasped in calm composure but our eyes open and aching for any oracular detail.

Scott Russell Morris is a PhD student at Texas Tech University and holds and MFA from Brigham Young University. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, The Chattahoochee Review, Proximity, and elsewhere. He is very fond of squirrels.