Imagine, if you will, that you are staying in the River View RV Park in Vidalia, Louisiana. Your companions are your wife, Sandy, and one of your dogs you’ve chosen to bring along on your trip – a little yellow-brown mutt named Pippin. It’s been a busy morning working inside your trailer, so the dog needs a walk. He’s an old dog – almost thirteen years – and he needs his exercise. Lately you’ve noticed how he’s changing. His muzzle is turning gray, and he can’t jump down from the higher places anymore. And his legs shake sometimes like he is shivering. For the umpteenth time you think to yourself, “He’s got Barkinson’s Disease!” and you smile to yourself because it is so typical of your jokes. Not too funny… and told way too many times. You can hear your twenty-something daughters groaning within your head. “Failboat, Dad!” You are embarrassing them again – and they aren’t even here.
So, you bundle up, knowing it’s cold outside, and decide to take him for a walk.
You hike across a field and straight up the levee to the river. Well, not just any river. THE River. The Mighty Mississippi River. And today it is looking very mighty indeed. Looking across nearly half a mile of fast running water, you can see Natchez, Mississippi on the other side. The water itself is cresting at 56.6 feet today. You know this because every day the digital sign next to the bridge shows the water level. You also know that this is eight feet above the flood level of 48 feet. The Mississippi is swollen and deep and angry. Large logs and other types of flotsam rush past, and what shoreline there is, is covered with branches, leaves and the trash of humans. The river barges fighting their way upstream look like they are hardly moving. If you walk upstream you can actually walk faster than the barges can move under the Natchez-Vidalia Bridge far above you.
But you aren’t headed in that direction. As you reach the river walkway at the top of the levee you choose to make a right turn instead – downriver, and in the direction of New Orleans and the ocean miles away. Your hands are in your pockets due to biting cold, and the moisture from your breath is clearly visible on this cold gray morning. You puff your way southward.
The Mississippi is cranking. That’s because hundreds of miles north, states like Illinois and Missouri have seen rains that are unheard of. Lots of inches of rain, and steadily pouring for hours on end. That water has to go somewhere. Eventually it ends up down here in Natchez, and then makes its way down to the Gulf of Mexico. But along the way, it manages to break out beyond its banks and levees, flooding little towns like West Alton, Missouri along the way. There is a lot of misery along the river these days.
And so, you continue on, heading south along the walkway toward the flood that is currently happening at the River View RV Park here in Vidalia. Up ahead you can see that the entire southern part of the park is under water. To your right, the park is now a decent-sized lake. Endless rows of RV power plug-in stations stick out of the silvery water. To your right, a half dozen play structures are nestled between the trees – but there are no kids because it is way too cold out, and one would need a boat to get to them, anyway. The primary colors of a geodesic dome sorely lack cheer against the steel water of the lake. The monkey bars have no monkeys today.
As you look ahead, you can see that the concrete path ahead dips downward as you get to the south end of the park. It is here, in a low spot, that the Mississippi has burst free. Just two days earlier, when you last were here, the path was completely submerged – the river’s contents spilling into what you’ve come to think of Lake River View. But today, the river has receded a bit, and the sidewalk is now an isthmus – a white stripe leading through the lake and submerged trees on either side. The waterline floats just barely below the level of the sidewalk, and every once in a while, a small wave from the river side of the path laps water up and onto the walkway. It looks like fun, so the three of you continue on your way.
Okay, you aren’t me anymore, right? Now you are a squirrel. I know that’s weird, but I can do what I want, right? I’m writing this.
Yes, now you are a squirrel. And this morning, you’ve awakened in some warm little snug place of your own – maybe in a hole in the bank somewhere, or in the knot of a tree. And you are thinking to yourself, “Damn, it’s a cold-ass mother out there today!” So, you snuggle down a little bit tighter in your hole for a bit of time and you are very thankful for your warm place in the cold world.
But then you get anxious. Hell, you’re a squirrel and there is squirrel-stuff to do today! There are nuts to be gathered, or small shoots of greenery down by the river to nibble on. There are branches to run along, and and birds to scold. So, you climb out of your hole and down the trunk, and out into the cold light of day.
The place where you live has greatly changed. Many of the trees you used to climb each day are now surrounded by water. Everything is damp and gray, and the wind is wicked cold as it blows up the river. You look down at yourself and you appreciate the long gray and brown and black hairs of your beautiful fur coat. It has always kept you warm, even on a day like this.
And so, you go about a your morning agenda, because a squirrel’s work is never done, and soon you find yourself scampering along the riverwalk, vaguely aware that some big critters are coming toward you from up the path. Stopping briefly in the middle of the walk, you raise up your front feet – perch back on your hind legs for a moment, and realize that two of those critters are people. The other one is a hunter. Behind you is endless concrete walkway with water on each side, and nowhere to hide. Freedom is in front of you… but so are they.
And so, you do it. You run directly at them – a dog on a leash and two people carelessly chatting right in your path. The humans are completely unaware of your plight – but the dog is well aware of it.
This is Mistake #1.
You zig. You zag. And you make a beeline for a narrow strip of grass just to your right. A narrow path of nature – mud and grass between cold concrete and icy cold river. And as you veer, the dog does as well. There is a low growl, and a flash of yellow fur and sharp white teeth. Your heart is ticking loudly in your ears and you dive, just missing that mouth full of flying spit and cruel intent.
And you are past. But you are FREAKING OUT! There is still a lot of path in front of you, and the nearest tree seems miles ahead. You are exposed out here in the middle of nowhere, and certain death is at your heels. So, you don’t know what to do. And, without really thinking about it at all, you dig your feet in, spin 180 degrees and run back in exactly the wrong direction. Back toward danger.
Eyes bulging, his collar cutting unmercifully into his throat, the dog is in front of you and you find yourself back in the very same predicament. You can’t think clearly, the heartbeat in your ears is now a wild roar, but somehow you dive to the left this time – only to feel something clamping down across your neck and shoulders. Pain! Like you’ve never felt before. And panic. You are lifted off the ground and you are being shaken violently from side to side. Your heart is about to burst and fear rises up inside of you like a cresting wave.
Alright, STOP now! This is really too much to deal with, right? You are NOT the squirrel anymore. You are me again.
And you are shocked and staggered by what has just happened. But you aren’t that surprised.
Why not? Because you know the fluffy little dog that sleeps at your feet each night is a killer. Sure, he has the nicest disposition. Gets along with other dogs. Friendly with people – especially children. Man’s best friend.
But, you’ve seen the cold, calculated way he will sit at a gopher hole back home – catlike, frozen – for the longest of times, patiently waiting for his prey. You’ve found him before, jaws locked tightly around the bloody necks of numerous chickens who have dared to fly over the fence into his territory. You understand that thousands of years of wolf ancestry never got bred out of your pup. Countless bowls of kibble will never satisfy a good, healthy blood lust.
So, when that crazy squirrel, lunges past you the first time, you aren’t surprised as you watch your once, geriatric dog immediately dart after it. You look at your wife, shock and disbelief on her face as this scene plays out, the handle of the leash reel locked tightly in her hand, line playing out like she has a twenty-five pound bass on the hook. We are both yelling and stumbling and completely at a loss of what to do.
And suddenly it is over. Thank God, Pippin has missed. He’s run out of rope, and you laugh nervously at what has almost happened. Only to have that laugh cut short. You watch in horror as the squirrel suddenly stops, spins and heads back at you. What the hell is he doing?
This time – too late. Pippin is at him again, twenty-five pounds of suddenly very youthful sinew and muscle is lunging forward. You watch in anguish as powerful jaws clamp down on this poor, terrified creature. The hunter has the hunted down – pinned on the ground – jaws opening and closing as he tightens his grip. You scream as loud as you can, “Pippin!” And as his head comes up to shake the life out of that squirrel, your cold flat hand comes down on his butt. Hard. I mean, really hard.
How do you know? Because your hand hurts. It’s cold, and the impact of hand on mutt not only stings, but also aches to the bone in the frigid temperature. But it does the trick! Big brown eyes look up at you in shock. “What did I do to deserve that?” they seem to say. “How could you?”
But the jaws open and the squirrel hits the concrete. It wrenches itself into an upright position. You hear tiny nails scrabbling on the surface of the sidewalk as the squirrel bolts across the walk. And as it nears the side of the path, you and your wife look at each other in horror as it slows down only just slightly… and then slips into the water. You can’t believe it! The squirrel is fucking swimming!
Okay, you are the squirrel AGAIN. Sorry! But its important that you feel this.
Your entire body racked with pain, you suddenly sense a release in the pressure about your head and shoulders. The sharp points of pain withdraw some, and the violence stops. You hit the cold ground, and before you know it, you are up and running for your life. Your body is flushed with pure adrenaline – running on the highest octane your system can summon. Your vision starts to clear from an incendiary explosion of pain and color, and you see a tree in front of you. And then comes…
This is the big one, although it takes you a while to recognize it. You don’t even feel the cold as you hit the icy water. Death is behind you again, and salvation in front. Safety – in the form of a tree. You have tiny little feet – feet with sharp claws made for gripping and digging. Not made for swimming. But you don’t give a shit! Survival instinct kicks in, yet again, and soon you find yourself [perhaps ironically] dog-paddling across what seems an incredibly long stretch of water. Will you ever get there? Straining to keep your whiskers above water, you finally reach the tree, and with a lunge – sharp claws dig into the bark before you. Heart pumping, you pull yourself out of the water – your once downy fur coat, now drenched and heavy with water, threatening to drag you back into the lake.
But you are free! Gasping painfully, you slowly pull your bedraggled mass up the tree, fighting gravity like you have never had to fight it before, and finally you get up to the very first low branch. Perched above, you have reached safety. You’ve escaped. You are alive!
And then it hits you.
Cold like you’ve never felt before. Adrenaline gone, used up in, not one, not two, but three massive bursts of energy – your body has to return back to its normal state. Your fur is matted down around your surprisingly tiny body and the cold wind is cutting through to skin and bone beneath it. You shiver violently and you are extraordinarily tired. You have to move. You start further upward.
Past one branch. Past another.
And then out onto another branch for a moment. You can’t catch your breath. So you stop for a moment, the breath wheezing in and out of your lungs. You are very, very cold. And then you are just sleepy. You start to feel yourself nodding off.
And snap! You wake up from a dream.
You’re not a squirrel1 You are a human. Somehow, you had drifted off into this terrible nightmare. You are standing next to your wife and your dog – and you have just witnessed the most terrible thing. In horror you’ve watched your dog grab a tiny little woodland animal in its jaws. It was awful and it certainly didn’t deserve such a fate. And luckily, you’ve managed to make your dog drop it. Now, you and your wife watch it scamper up into the safety of the branches. You look at your wife and you can see that she is overwhelmed with sorrow.
“Oh, god, I feel so bad!” she cries. “I just didn’t expect that to happen.”
You understand. God knows, you understand. No sane person would expect the squirrel to turn around and come back, right? Stunned, you continue on your way – trying to talk it out, trying to comfort one another, trying to feel a little better – until you reach a point in the middle of the lake. The water is lapping up over the walkway and you suddenly realize that, if a barge comes by, you are going to get wet. You suggest that you turn around, because who wants cold, wet feet on a day like this?
Up ahead is the squirrel tree, again. And as you come nearer, you can’t stop your mind from thinking about him. Your mind is spinning.
“Hon,” you say. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to that animal. I mean – I don’t know if it is going to be able to dry itself off. I hope somehow it’ll be okay.”
Your wife is listening, but she looks distracted and is looking ahead. And suddenly she says, “I don’t think it’s going to be. I think that is it right there.” And she points about half way across the water to a dark spot between you and the tree.
You go up closer to get a better look, and your worst thoughts are confirmed. There is the squirrel. Floating just under the water surface. Floating in the green-brown murkiness of space – forearms outstretched.
In your mind, you flash suddenly to every drowning scene you’ve ever seen in a movie. You know, it’s the one where they send a camera guy down to the bottom of the pool with a waterproof rig. He’s weighted down on the bottom so he can point the lens upward. Above him, floating in the soft light and the rippling sheen of the water surface – is a body. It doesn’t move. Arms are outstretched. Once-matted fur has fluffed out again – rippling gently with the gentle movement of the water. Eyes are open and staring. And above that, blurred by the silvery mirror of the water surface is something you immediately recognize.
You. With a ghastly look on your face. There you are up above, image wavering with the movement of the water. There is only you looking down and total silence. If you could hear anything at all, it would just be the sound that cold makes.
And then you snap out of it again.
You look across at your wife and see that same look of sadness reflected in her own face. You grab her hand and hold it tightly. Quietly you both turn and the three of you walk back up the path – two of you with very heavy hearts.