Andrew’s father was learning to be a squirrel.
“What is your dad doing?” the other kids would ask.
“He’s practicing—” was Andrew’s reply.
Andrew was almost eight years old. He lived in a yellow two-story house. The staircase had a banister he could slide down, when his mom wasn’t watching. The upstairs bathtub had been leaking for almost a year, so Andrew showered downstairs. They had a cat, Adelaide, who brought the family gifts of small rodents from the acres around the house. The backyard was big and sloping, enclosed by a fence that came up to Andrew’s chest. Flakes of blue paint were chipping off the fence, and you could see Andrew’s footholds that he used to vault over it.
“Andrew, use the gate!” his mother would cry from the kitchen bay window where she sat to do crossword puzzles. Andrew’s hands would grasp the top of the fence, and in two steps he’d be over and running down the slightly sloping land, into the trees that grew on the acres behind his house and yard.
This is where he first saw his father talking with the squirrels.
Andrew timed his breathing with his footsteps, in, out, left, right, in, out, left, right. Leaves crunched under his feet like the screams of tiny elves. He grabbed hold of a branch to slow himself, and swung his body around, feeling the sharp bite of the bark in his palm, smelling the moss and the fungus that lived in the trees. His breathing slowed and he ran his hand down the tree before walking on.
He heard a voice to his left, and he walked toward it as quietly as possible—a difficult feat over dry late-September oak leaves.
It was his father, on the ground on hands and knees. There were leaves in his brown-gray hair and a little twig on his shirt sleeve. He was peering up intently at an oak tree, and didn’t see Andrew approach.
“What?” His father cocked his head toward the tree. There was a squirrel, bushy tail spread out behind him, clinging to the bark on the tree. “Ah, I see.” Andrew’s father rose to a crouching position, and Andrew could see he held something in his left hand. His father raised it to his mouth, and holding it in both hands, began to nibble at it–it’s a walnut, Andrew realized—as he would at a piece of pound cake, or a chunk of smoked Gouda cheese.
Andrew watched, fascinated, as his father finished the nut and wiped his lips with his thumb. He then moved, still in a crouch, toward the tree. The squirrel, who had watched Andrew’s father the whole time, suddenly looked at Andrew. His father turned too, just as suddenly, and almost fell over when he saw his son standing there.
“Andrew! What are you doing? Don’t you have chores to do?” He had stood and was brushing off the jeans he wore on weekends, and shaking leaves out of his hair.
“Finished ‘em. What are you doing, Dad?” Andrew asked. He pointed to his father’s sleeve, and his father brushed the tiny twig away.
“Oh, just chatting with the squirrels. They’re great company. You can learn a lot,” his father said cheerfully. “You ought to try it some time.” He patted Andrew’s head and hugged his shoulders. “What do you say we get some lunch?”
“I already ate,” Andrew said. The squirrel had run up the tree into the high branches, and he scanned for it, but it had blended in and disappeared.
“Oh, did you? Well, I’m going to go get a sandwich. Are you going to stay down here awhile?”
“Yeah.” It was the perfect time of day to play in the woods. The sun was beginning to fall, and it was slitting through the trees in places, creating glitter out of the dust in the air. There were places Andrew could see the actual shafts of light, and he liked to stand still and watch them shift and then disintegrate as the sun moved out of place. He liked the way tree trunks went fire orange right before the sun finally set. The woods could never be the same because leaves fell and trees grew and squirrels ran madly like small senile old ladies and the sun never stopped crawling across the sky.
“Well, you know to be back in the yard by dark—”
“Yup,” Andrew said.
“I’ll see you later then. Remember, the squirrels are very interesting. They can teach you anything.” His father winked solemnly. “Just listen to them. Bye, Andrew!” He began to make his way back up the hill.
“Bye, Dad!” Andrew called, then turned and surveyed the trees around him.