It was already mid-December, but the last round of fallen leaves still covered my sister’s backyard. I was in town for a visit, and she asked if I’d help her collect them. We togged up and headed out into the balmy winter afternoon.
While she gathered the various instruments of the task, I surveyed the yard. The leaf layer wasn’t thick; I could still see grass under them all and they’d curled up their edges, which would make easy raking them into fluffy mounds. Not like some places where the leaves mat down flat, clinging to the ground like a second skin. Those are really difficult to deal with, I thought. It also wasn’t windy. Where I’m from, it seems leaf raking and wind go hand-in-hand, so swirls of leaves fill the air as one tries to corral them in one place, then shove them fast into bag or can. This would be much easier than that, I mused.
I felt pleasure at the idea of raking my sister’s yard. First, I was glad to be of help while her husband was away on sabbatical. Also, it’d been some years since I’d last raked; my husband and I moved to the plains where there are few trees and the wind takes care of what minimal leaves they shed. I missed it, among the simple tasks I enjoy for their immediate satisfaction. And too, raking is something I associate with my father, who died nearly a decade ago. He’d rake the leaves into piles for his four children to jump in; we’d throw armfuls into each other’s hair and sometimes stuff a handful down my brother’s shirt. My father would end up raking twice as much, even with my sister and me helping with our miniature rakes. And when it was done, he’d light the leaves afire out in the alley, luscious-smelling smoke wafting high in the autumn air.
These memories came to an abrupt end when I nearly stepped on it. A dead squirrel lay outstretched right in the middle of the yard. I shuddered at the sight, noticing that it looked more asleep than dead. It must’ve fallen fairly recently, I reasoned. Or perhaps the moist air here was keeping it fresh. Where I’m from it would’ve dried out in a day or two.
Just then my sister emerged from the dark garage, bearing a gigantic rake in one hand and dragging a voluminous and mysterious green tarp with the other. I called out “dead squirrel!” waiting for her expected response.
“What!?” I could hear the horror in her voice.
“Yup, dead. It must’ve fallen from the tree.”
“No, gross! Where is it?” she asked, slowly walking over.
“Right here,” I said pointing at it and backing away. She looked quickly, nearly gagged and turned right around.
“How did it get there?” she whined, turning back to see that we couldn’t just work around it. “How could a squirrel fall from a tree?”
“I think that’s how they die,” I said matter-of-factly. “They get old or sick and simply fall when it’s their time.” I thought I recalled my husband explaining this to me once. “But whatever, it’s your yard, so you have to get rid of it.”
“Gross! How???” she whined again. I was unrelenting.
“Get a shovel and fling it into the bushes.”
“Eeee—ew!” But she saw nothing for it, and hang-dogged it back to the garage.
When she emerged again, she carried the shovel. Approaching the dead body gingerly, she got within a few feet of the poor thing, but stopped short, howling how she couldn’t look.
There were some young men playing hoops catty-corner from the back fence. We could hear them calling out as they scored. I said I’d be happy to ask them for help, saying that men have no problem with dead stuff. It’d only take them a minute. But she wouldn’t hear of it. She sidled up to the thing once again.
“The sight of it makes me sick!” she wailed.
“Don’t look at it!”
“How can I fling it if I don’t look at it?” she asked in despair.
She took another run at it, moving in closer this time. I could see that she just might do it, so backed up out of what I thought would be her flinging radius. I gave her a wide berth and encouraged her.
“Just fling it right back there, into those bushes,” I said, pointing. “It’ll be long gone by spring. No one will even notice it back there. It’ll be a nice sort of burial ground for it,” I added to comfort her.
“Maybe I could throw it into the neighbor’s yard?” she wondered aloud. I couldn’t believe my ears. My elder sister, so proper and just, considering launching dead squirrel detritus from her property to her neighbor’s? I knew she was hurting.
“You can’t do that. Come on, your back bushes there will do just fine. You can do it.”
Grimacing, gagging and eyes a bit teary, she went for it. She placed the shovel next to the limp body, then suddenly, shutting her eyes, lifted and hurled, as she let out a bit of a shriek. Time held as I watched the thing fly in an arc through the air. I wondered if it would indeed end up over the fence or if it was just going more straight up and would land back in the grass. As it sailed by, I saw that it would fall short of the fence and clear the grass; my sister had done it! Just as I was about to whoop for joy, what I couldn’t predict, happened.
My sister’s throw had somehow managed to land that squirrel carcass not under but in the bushes. It caught by its forelegs in some tight branches and hung there, head resting on its chest, hind legs straight down beneath it – a kind of miniature crucifix silhouetted against the late afternoon sky.
My sister couldn’t believe her bad luck, and moaned that the thing would hang there, plaguing her all winter. I tried to reassure her, telling her that her aim had been impeccable, and that the squirrel body was hardly noticeable hanging among the branches. And surely, it would soon enough dry up. In fact, I wasn’t at all sure this was true, given how moist it was here, but saw no reason to mention it.
We turned away from the darkened icon and started in on our intended chore. I raked at first, with her demonstrating the collection system she’d cleverly established. Instead of smashing armfuls of leaves into can or black plastic bag, she loaded them onto the big green tarp, which she then dragged to the street. After transferring the leaves from tarp to gutter, she explained, they’d be picked up by special leaf-collection trucks supplied by the city. The city recycles all those leaves into useful mulch, a much better idea than burning them, I thought, even while harboring some longing for their magical aroma.
As we raked side by side, just as we had as children and then as teenagers before we both left home for college, I thought of my father. And how he might just then be with us, delighting in a moment so alive with his legacy. And I thought of the squirrel, whose falling death made an adventure of leaf-raking for two sisters, and a tale to tell of the elder’s uncommon valor in the commonplace.
She’s like that, my sister.