Monthly Archives: October 2014

Words Reveal What Masks Conceal: An Essay on Halloween

When I was in the seventh grade, my English teacher assigned us a creative writing project for Halloween. We were to compose short stories, which we would then read aloud before the class, coupled with a competition of sorts in which the students would vote on who had written the best one.

Now in my pre-teen years, I was not what you would term the most popular kid in school. Perhaps it was those horrible “Student-of-the-Month” photos of me hanging in the main hallway, which they somehow always managed to take right after gym when my hair was flying every which way, or perhaps it was the oxford shirts and corduroy trousers in which my mother dressed me because I refused to participate in ridiculous wastes of time like school-clothes shopping. It certainly didn’t help that in addition to being smart and studious, I was also very, very shy, which led many to believe that I was stuck-up. I suppose if you’re naturally adept at making conversation, it’s difficult to understand that other kids might not be.

You can therefore easily picture the scene in the classroom that day: the anxious adolescent girl slouched in her seat, sweat drenching the armpits of her button-up shirt as she watched the clock, fervently hoping that time would run out before her turn came. You can imagine my nervousness when, five minutes before the bell, my teacher called me to the front of the class, the last reader to go; my terror as I stumbled up to her desk clutching the half-sheets of paper on which I’d scrawled my assignment. As usual, I had pushed the limits on the suggested length – my story was at least twice as long as anyone else’s – and the only saving grace of this enforced public humiliation, I thought, was that I would undoubtedly run out of time to finish it before the lunch bell rang.

Tucking my loose hair back behind my ears and focusing my eyes firmly on my papers, I began to read. It turned out that reading wasn’t so bad; unlike giving an oral report, you didn’t actually have to look at any of the other students. And it was a decent story, I reflected as I flipped through the pages, concentrating hard on not losing my place. At least my classmates were sitting silently, which made them easier to ignore.

At last I reached the climax of my tale, which was where it turned gruesome. The main character had gotten trapped in a fire, and I remember describing, in disgusting detail, the sizzle of the hairs frying on his arms as the hot flames neared. I remember describing the flames devouring his flesh, great flaps of it falling from his skeleton as his skin seared away. And I remember the silence of the classroom; I remember it breaking, the moans and groans that swelled all around me as I depicted my main character’s excruciating demise, only to be interrupted by the harsh clanging of the bell.

No one stirred; no one rose; no one left. I glanced at my teacher, who nodded. The other students sat rapt while I finished my story, and they applauded when I was done. There was no question that I had won the contest.

I was pleased that my story had gone over well, of course, but it wasn’t until the following week, when other kids were still coming up to talk to me about it, that I understood that I had somehow made an impression that went beyond my gruesome, graphic horror story. It was as if I had revealed that somewhere beneath that classic nerdy exterior was a real honest-to-goodness person, a kid who thought about things like destruction and death, and flames eating flesh, and how best to describe such horrific events.

I’ve never been big on Halloween, myself. I’ve never liked the pressure of having to pick out a costume and then explain why I chose it; I’ve never even understood the appeal of dressing up and playing pretend. I have other ways of exploring my dark side. Nowadays you won’t find me in a starched, striped shirt, or in old-fashioned slacks, but don’t be fooled by the sweats and sports bra in which you’ll typically see me lounging about the house, because that’s not who I am, either. It’s just a costume; an innocuous mask meant to show nothing, to reveal nothing, to suggest nothing. My thoughts are inside me. They can never be exposed by a mere choice of outfit.

Jack-O-Lantern

 

Funeral for Charlie

I absolutely love this story. I think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever written and I’m eternally grateful to Australia’s that’s Life! Fast Fiction Quarterly for publishing it in their Winter 2013 issue. Unfortunately, they had to edit out some of my best lines for length and content, and I didn’t think the published version was quite as good as the original. I did, however, think the picture and blurb they posted with it were hysterical. As the rights have now reverted to me, for the curious, here is the full original story:

FUNERAL FOR CHARLIE

Charlie was dead. It was hard to say what had done him in, but given that his roommates Rusty and Redhead had passed away unexpectedly the week before, my husband suspected environmental causes. Not me, though. I suspected Fishy.

The teeniest of all of our goldfish, Fishy had outlived not merely several new fish, but several entire sets of new fish, of a variety of breeds and sizes. We had often remarked on the unquenchable virility which seemed to sustain his minute form while our other fish went belly-up all around him. When poor Charlie got sick, he took to lurking in a corner of the tank, scarcely flapping his large fins, not moving, not eating; barely even breathing. We had watched him anxiously for days before the end. That night I had slept restlessly. Waking up long before dawn and failing to fall back into sleep, I finally got up and went into the kitchen to fix a glass of warm milk. Flicking on the light by the fish tank, I was startled to discover that Fishy had taken up residence in Charlie’s corner, and was, as nearly as a fish can, sitting on Charlie’s head as if trying to smother him. He quickly swam away but it was too late; I had already seen him. And the next morning, Charlie was dead.

I couldn’t prove anything, of course. But I did examine the body pretty carefully when Bob brought it sadly to the surface in the fraying green net, and it seemed to me as if Charlie was missing an awful lot of scales for a domestic goldfish. There were also some detectable gouges on his underside, almost as if he had been fighting. But it was pretty hard to pin anything on Fishy. He swam about as enthusiastically as ever in his empty tank, now entirely bereft of playmates, but not appearing to suffer from either loneliness or a renewed sense of his own mortality. And if he looked with fond or melancholy recollection at the plastic bridge that Charlie used to like to hide behind, or the fake coral that his brothers had favored, it never showed in his face.

“I’ll be right back,” Bob said, holding his hand under the wet mesh to prevent drips from falling all over the floor.

“Wait, where are you taking him?” I asked, alarmed.

“Um, to the toilet?” he replied, as if it were a stupid question.

“Charlie’s not going to fit down the toilet!” I answered indignantly.

“Sure he will!” Bob assured me. “He’s no bigger than a turd.”

“Are you crazy?!! He’s at least twice as big around as a turd!”

“Not my turds!” Bob answered proudly. “And if those will go down the toilet, this goldfish will, too, you’ll see.”

“Okay,” I said, trying hard to comprehend why we were arguing over this, “Okay, let’s just suppose that Charlie really is no bigger than a turd. He’s still not a turd, he’s a fish. A turd breaks up in the water; a dead fish will not. He will get stuck halfway down the pipe and you will be stuck trying to plunge up dead fish.”

“Listen, sweetheart,” Bob said, his tone bearing none of the affection implied by the term, “I’ve fixed plenty of toilets in my day, and I know how big the opening in the pipe is. That fish is going down, mark my words.”

I marked them and followed him into the bathroom. I bowed my head as he plunked our deceased friend respectfully into the deep. I listened quietly as he somberly activated the flusher. And then I watched as the water swirled away, taking Charlie on one final miraculous journey to the home of his ancient ancestors, to the ocean the abrupt end of his short life had precluded him from ever going to see. And then I flushed again for good measure.

It didn’t take. The water backed up into the toilet, causing Bob to flush again, full red in the face this time.

“He didn’t go all the way down,” I observed.

“There’s probably something else stuck in there,” Bob reasoned.

I made hissing noises that can’t be translated into words before finally spluttering, “That fish is stuck in the toilet! Do you hear me?! Stuck in the toilet. There is a dead fish in our toilet!”

“He can’t have gotten stuck; he was too small. And even if he did, I’m sure he’ll break loose and go down eventually.”

“Break loose? Break loose eventually? No way, uh-unh, mister. I am not peeing on that toilet knowing that Charlie’s in it. And we don’t even know where he got stuck. What if a rotten fish comes popping back up into the bowl?”

“That’s unlikely,” Bob assured me.

“Darn right it is,” I answered huffily. “Because you’re going to get that fish out of the toilet no matter what you have to do. And you know why? Because it’s your fault he’s in there.”

I resolutely returned to the kitchen, accompanied by the comforting cadence of Bob’s creative cursing and the gruesome gurgling of the plunger as it sought to resurrect the unfortunate former member of our household from his watery grave. I sidled nonchalantly over to the fish tank. Fishy was still nibbling a leftover bit of his solitary breakfast, flicking his tail-fin contentedly, his conscience apparently as untroubled as the calm unruffled waters which now surrounded him.

“I know it isn’t really Bob’s fault,” I conceded, now that he was out of earshot. “It’s yours. You may have gotten away with it this time, but now I’m on to you. And you know what else? Charlie might not have fit down the toilet, but there’s no question in my mind that you’ll go down quite nicely. One day, one day, Fishy… whoosh!!” I threatened.

Fishy just spat out his chip of orange fish food and swam carelessly away.

***

I have to offer full credit to boyfriend “Bob” on this one for unintentionally providing most of his own dialogue. In spite of all of the evidence to the contrary, he persisted in refusing ever to admit that Charlie just didn’t fit down that pipe.

We did, however, mutually agree to stop buying fish after that.

***

“Funeral for Charlie” is one of the stories featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past (only $2.99 Kindle, $6.99 paperback). To learn more about it, please visit the book’s webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.

That's Life Fast Fiction Quarterly Publication and Author Commentary: Funeral for Charlie

New Goodreads Review of On Hearing of My Mother’s Death!

Byron Edgington (http://www.byronedgington.com/), author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying and Life, has posted his review of On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened on Goodreads. I read it yesterday, and his remarks about the book are so kind that I’m still blushing – in fact, his only complaint is that the book is too short (see my comments following the review):

“Here we have an extended essay/memoir on surviving a parent’s psychosis, inventing a life and then learning of the death of the long-forgotten parent many years after her passing. It’s much too easy to compare such works as Ms Schafer’s to other neglected childhood fare: Jeannette Walls ‘Glass Castle,’ Christina Crawford’s ‘Mommy Dearest’ etc. Too easy, because the parents in those memoirs cannot be easily forgiven; they can only be easily explained. Their cruelty stems from ambition, neglect, the depredations of poor parenting skills. Ms Schafer’s mother, on the other hand, offers a much more subtle, we might say inexplicable source of her wanton neglect and cruel treatment: mental illness and its untreated ravages.

Lori Schafer is an accomplished writer at the apex of her craft. Her images and reflections shimmer on the page: “grilled cheese and tomato…butter-brown bread…’ including good alliteration and excellent use of sentence length variation, she keeps readers moving forward. “The sidewalks were empty. I was empty.” Beautiful stuff.

Transitions are well done, despite many flashbacks and oblique references. Only one time, at an end chapter, and a reference to ‘Lila’ did this reviewer lose the thread, but then it picked up again.

Schafer’s use of a fictional device inside her memoir is very well done. She writes as ‘Gloria,’ to explain the horrors of a childhood in crisis, while giving herself a bit of remove as the writer. It’s an excellent device, and it works very well. It’s also entirely understandable. Much like any child will have an invisible friend, or a security blanket, Schafer has Gloria.

The writer’s voice stays consistent throughout, shifting with subtlety between the teenage, angst-ridden Lori and the determined older Lori living in a car in Berkeley and making her own way. “I was learning,” she writes, scraping for bottles and cans in Berkeley “…like the poor man’s Santa Claus.”

There are a few loose threads: We’re never told what happened to ‘Sandra Johnson.’ Indeed, none of the siblings’ lives are explained. There’s a reference to Schafer’s own concern about being poisoned, a thinly-veiled worry that she might have acquired her mother’s mental illness, but this is not addressed or enlarged. We don’t hear about mom’s own family history, or what may have contributed to her instability, only that ‘Judy Green-Hair’ is a serial marrier. Just open a vein, as they say; readers want more details.

Indeed, one critique of this memoir may be that it’s too darned short, that readers want to know much more about who this writer is: how did that young woman survive all she did? What resources did she uncover in herself? How’s she doing now? Has she finally found ‘a safe place?’

Wordsworth wrote, ‘…the child is father to the man,’ and we must assume he meant mother to the woman as well. If so, at the end of her fine memoir, Lori Schafer pays tribute to that young mother of herself. This is a good, fulfilling memoir. I just wish it was longer, darn it. Four stars, only because it’s too short.”

Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life

Although it’s not an unqualified five star review, I’m really very pleased with it because Byron’s feedback actually gave me a great idea. It’s true that there are certain parts of the story into which I do not delve, in particular, regarding my mother’s family history, or what ever happened to my sister. I can’t provide answers to those questions simply because I myself don’t know the answers. My mother’s parents died when I was too young to know them; I don’t remember her sister and was merely acquainted with my uncle. I know very little about my mother’s life before me, and virtually nothing about the rest of her family. Likewise, my sister and I fell out of touch even before I left home, and as to Sandra Johnson, she’s a mystery that will forever remain unsolved.

But at no point do I ever make any of this clear to the reader. Most people, I think, see “family” as constituting a group of people; a set of relations with whom one shares varying levels of affection or bonding. For me, “family” meant Mom. She was it; there really wasn’t anyone else to fall under that heading. So it frankly never occurred to me that I might need to explain why I wasn’t talking about those larger family issues. But, of course, Byron is absolutely right; readers will be curious about those aspects of the story, and even if I have no real answers to give them, I like the idea of explaining why.

And this, of course, is one of the beauties of independent publishing. I’m not bound to someone else’s contract, or to a print run of thousands of copies that are already stacked and waiting in warehouses. So why not add another chapter? Even with my current crazy schedule, I can probably even get that done before the release date, and start fresh with an improved version of the story. A good idea is a good idea – even if it wasn’t my idea!

So thank you, Byron, for taking the time to detail what you thought was missing from my book. Your feedback is greatly appreciated, and I hope you’ll be glad to know that someone is listening.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It Happened by Lori Schafer

On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened

by Lori Schafer

Giveaway ends November 23, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Squirrel Revolution: A Whimsical Look at the Effects of Human Activities on Our Furry Little Neighbors

Sheriff Wiggins scowled and hung up the phone with a bang and a sigh.

“What is it, Sherriff?” his scrawny young deputy Sam inquired automatically, gazing dreamily out the window as if his thoughts were roaming among the tree-lined streets of the town.

“Pete Grundy says he saw a funny-lookin’ squirrel,” the Sheriff answered.

The deputy guffawed, his attention abruptly reclaimed. “A squirrel?”

“A squirrel,” Wiggins affirmed. “Claims he saw it run and then jump clear across Old Logjam Road, from one side to the other, without touchin’ ground.”

“That ol’ Pete,” Sam smiled, chuckling and shaking his head as if reality really was sometimes more amusing than dreams.

“Come on,” the Sheriff ordered. “We’re goin’ to check it out.”

“Why, Sheriff!” Sam answered in disbelief. “You know Grundy shoots whiskey daily startin’ at noon.”

“Sure ‘nough. But it’s only nine,” the Sheriff replied, angling his clean-shaven chin towards the clock on the wall.

“Since when do we concern ourselves with critters like squirrels?” the deputy demanded suspiciously, his eyes narrowing like a magnifying glass attempting to focus a beam of sunshine into a ray of kindling fire.

“Since Grundy asked me to, and since I owe him a favor,” Wiggins replied flatly, his manner clearly indicating that the discussion was closed, leaving Sam to wonder under what circumstances and in what capacity the Sheriff had found himself in the debt of the town drunk. “Besides,” he added, in somewhat conciliatory fashion, “I been meaning to set up a speed trap on that road for a while anyhow; it won’t hurt us none to keep our eyes open while we’re out there.”

Their watchful eyes nabbed numerous speeders, but no peculiar squirrels, only the rather ordinary ones who rushed heedlessly across the highway in an effort to evade the vehicles which, resplendent and rickety alike, cruised recklessly around the curves of the road as if it were their own private racecourse. When the daylight at last began to dim underneath the generous canopy of trees, and suppertime was drawing near, Wiggins decided to collect his antsy-pantsed deputy and call it a day. Sam had wandered off a little ways into the wood; was taking a leak at the base of a tough-looking shrub when the Sheriff heard him calling softly, “Come and take a look at this, Sheriff.”

Wiggins snorted, stamping his foot impatiently. “You got nothing there I want to see.”

“Not that!” Sam replied in a huff, hastily zipping up his trousers. “There’s a funny creature over here.”

At that, the Sheriff stepped over the guardrail and strode the dozen paces into the wood to join his befuddled deputy. Squatting on the ground not ten feet in front of them, staring intently at the strangers, was a bushy-tailed brown squirrel. The Sheriff nearly scoffed; made ready to call Sam a fool for having a conniption over a common squirrel, when he, too, noticed that there was something strange about it. Its face was all wrong. Its eyes weren’t off to the side, but on the front of its head, like a cat or a dog. And it didn’t look at you like a squirrel normally did either, the way their eyes never seemed to focus on anything, but more like a larger animal might, as if it recognized you for what you were.

The Sheriff and his deputy both stood gaping for a time at the oddly formed creature, until at last, evidently becoming bored with the contest it had so obviously won, it bounded nonchalantly away, leaving the two men standing dubiously dumbstruck at the edge of the darkening forest. Finally Wiggins nodded to himself as if in affirmation and said, “Let’s go,” to Sam, who at once hurried toward their waiting cruiser and its reassuring promise of punctual homecoming.

Wiggins had just cranked the engine when the whoosh of rubber rolling rapidly over asphalt assaulted their ears from around the bend right behind them, forewarning them that another speeder was approaching. Tensely they waited in anticipation of the day’s last catch, Sam quickly raising the radar gun to clock the offender. But when the unfamiliar sedan flew past them in a flurry of dead leaves and loose pebbles, the Sheriff didn’t punch the gas, but instead sat gazing at the road in an apparent stupor until Sam elbowed him in the arm.

“Come on, Sheriff, don’t you wanna nab that guy?” Sam prodded anxiously, perplexed by this unnatural ruffling of the Sheriff’s usual unbreakably calm demeanor. “Looked like an out-of-towner, even!”

Wiggins paused before speaking, removing his hat and running his fingers distractedly through the fine bristles that lined his short-shaven head. “Thought I saw something,” he said finally, reaching for his holster and stroking it as if for reassurance. “Flyin’ up over the road as that car went by. Like a small animal jumping. Jumpin’ on awfully big legs.”

***

The Sheriff spent most of the following day on the old-fashioned telephone at the stationhouse, playing unmusical tunes with its big square buttons while he scratched notes and doodles in the margins of his giant desk calendar. Who did you call about deformed squirrels? Luckily he had a buddy in the capital, who, with no small reservations, cleared him to talk to his buddy at the capital who might know something about someone who might know someone he could maybe talk to about it. Sam’s amusement with this prolonged process had wilted by late morning, and by mid-afternoon, he was heartily bored.

“Come on, Sheriff,” he whined, peeling the chipped ivory paint from the windowsill while Wiggins sat fiddling with the phone cord, on a seemingly interminable hold for the nineteenth time that day. “Let’s do somethin’, huh? What makes you think anybody cares about the squirrels around here, anyway?”

The Sheriff silenced him with one finger as the phone burst briefly into life. A moment later he was holding his hand over the mouthpiece and gloating, “Washington cares, that’s who. They’re connecting me now.”

Sam listened with greater interest while the Sheriff recounted the story of the two squirrels to the party in Washington, wondering if they had already sent for those men in the white coats to fetch his boss when the call was over. But the conversation seemed peaceable enough, and the Sheriff satisfied as he concluded, “Yes, I sure will do that. Yes, I’ve got the number. Thank you, sir.” He returned the big plastic receiver to its proper place, rubbing his ear in discomfort as he did so, and then tilted back in his chair and gazed thoughtfully out the window that Sam had so lately been denuding while the deputy fidgeted in his boots, awaiting an explanation.

“Well, what did they say?!” he finally exploded, when none was forthcoming.

The Sheriff didn’t answer, but merely continued tilting back in his chair, and then leaning it forward, and then back again while the floorboards creaked irritably beneath his shifting weight.

“How much do you know about evolution, Sam?” he said at length, bringing the chair to a halt and last giving the flooring a rest.

Sam shrugged. “Not much,” he admitted.

“Well, I learned about it in college,” Wiggins replied casually.

“You mean in those two years you were at State?” Sam scoffed.

“Those two years is what made me a Sheriff, and you a deputy,” Wiggins answered scathingly, causing Sam to cringe and blush. “Matter of fact, I learned all manner of useful things in those two years. See, every so often in nature there’s a mistake called a genetic mutation. Most of ‘em are bad, but every so often they’re advantageous to the creatures that get ‘em, and they have lots of babies and pass those traits on to all their children. You know, like with giraffes. The ones with long necks could get better food, so nature kept favorin’ ones with long necks until they grew into what you see today. Get it?”

Sam nodded, his self-esteem blissfully restored.

“Well, what do you suppose might happen if there were somethin’ in a creature’s environment that was real dangerous? Maybe it’s a deadly disease; people who were naturally immune to that sickness would outlive the others, wouldn’t they? And then pass their genes on to their kin, making them immune, too?” Sam nodded again, thinking that maybe you did learn some pretty interesting things in college after all. “An’ if the disease was bad enough, and widespread enough, eventually only the people who were immune to it might be left. Now what do you suppose is the most dangerous thing in the world to a squirrel?”

Sam thought a moment, scratching his skinny thigh nervously with spindly fingers before his face lit up in comprehension. “Rabies!”

“Well, that’s not a bad answer,” the Sheriff conceded. “But most often you don’t find ‘em dead from rabies, do you? You find ‘em dead…”

“…on the road,” the deputy finished the sentence, face glimmering with the hope that he finally understood the point of the Sheriff’s protracted speech. “So a squirrel that grew big legs could jump high over a road and wouldn’t get hit by cars.”

“Exactly!” Wiggins replied. “And you know what else? I been thinkin’ ‘bout that other funny squirrel we saw, the one with eyes up here, that looked right at you?” he said, gesturing towards his own steely grays. “See, that ain’t natural for a squirrel. A squirrel is a prey animal; I mean, other creatures eat it. And normally a prey animal has eyes on the sides of its head, so it can see all around it, like, and tell if somethin’s comin’ after it. Predatory animals, like a wolf or a lion, they got eyes more facing forward; they get better depth perception that way, which makes ‘em better hunters. So if a squirrel’s got eyes in the front of his head, I can only think of two reasons for it. One, it helps him figure out how close cars are, and how fast they’re comin’, so he knows whether it’s safe to cross the street or not.”

“You always see ‘em runnin’ back and forth, like they can’t decide!” Sam interjected excitedly.

“That’s exactly right, an’ that’s how a lot of ‘em get hit. They start goin’ and then stop.” He paused. “The other possibility is that maybe the squirrels are learnin’ to hunt.”

“That’d sure be a sight,” the deputy said with wonder.

“It sure would,” Wiggins replied, gazing out the window again in troubled contemplation, as if wondering whether, even now, a giant squirrel with big teeth and a bigger appetite was approaching their small and poorly defended shack.

“But wait a minute, Sheriff!” Sam exclaimed after a thoughtful moment, tearing the Sheriff away from his disturbing fantasy. “What did Washington say about it?”

Sheriff Wiggins waved his hand dismissively. “They said they were trained squirrels of a different breed from some travelling Russian circus. Said a bunch of ‘em escaped into the wild, and that it was nothing to worry about.”

Sam resumed his struggle to comprehend the Sheriff’s complacency, scratching his leg even more vigorously before moving on to his hairless chest. “But if that’s all it is, then what’s the big deal? They’re just foreign squirrels.”

“The big deal, Sam,” the Sheriff replied, his steely eyes glinting, “Is that they told me to call again if I saw any more like it. Now when did anybody in Washington tell you to call them again unless it was somethin’ really serious? Russian squirrels, my ass. I’d sooner believe that ol’ Pete Grundy went on the wagon.”

***

Agent Matthews scowled and hung up the phone with a bang and a sigh. “There’s been another sighting,” she said gruffly to her colleague, who was intently scrutinizing a complicated computer graph at the desk beside hers.

“Where?” Collins answered, creasing his eyebrows into an arch that wiggled like the lines connecting the plot points he was examining so closely.

Matthews slapped a spot on the map that hung on the wall beside her, frowning as if she found it irritating or even offensive.

“That means it’s spreading,” Collins declared unnecessarily, glancing back at his graph and its dancing maze of circles and arcs. “Almost every state now. What kind was it?”

“Them,” Matthews corrected him, pressing her temples as if to stave off an impending headache. “The jumper and the one with the funny eyes.”

“Both in one place? That’s odd.”

“The Sheriff who called said it was on a busy rural thoroughfare. Everyone in town takes it as a shortcut to the next town over. He’d set up a speed trap on it.”

“Sounds conducive to both varieties, then.” Then, dropping his voice to a troubled whisper, Collins inquired, “No more of that other kind yet, are there?”

“Not yet,” Matthews replied in an equally hushed tone, discreetly leaning towards her partner as if confiding a top secret. “Speaking of which, we should head up to the test site before the trials are over.”

It was short ride on the elevator from the orderly cube of fluorescent-lit underground offices to the dim, thickly-forested surface where the site had been constructed. A man in a loose, long-sleeved lab coat stood hunched over a clipboard taking notes. He was wearing violet earplugs, presumably to cut the loud rumble of motors that echoed like a pride of full-grown lions chasing a fleeing gazelle. But when he saw Matthews and Collins approaching, he signaled for a stoppage, and the two sedans, two pickup trucks, and two motorcycles that had been revolving in great loops around them shuddered to a halt.

“Did you get him yet?” Collins queried.

The operator consulted his notes. “Eight times. At least once with each vehicle.”

“And?”

“No effect,” he smiled with obvious admiration.

“Where is it now?” Matthews inquired, scrunching up her nose as if trying to pick up its scent.

“On the inside, at the west end.”

The agents lifted their binoculars and directed their gazes accordingly. The test site was an oval track, constructed of thick asphalt and built in the midst of a dense wood that had been domed and walled round about to keep out curiosity-seekers who might venture this far into the forest. Even as they watched from their vantage point in the center, they observed the crane dumping the pile of acorns on the outside of the track, while the various vehicles resumed their ceaseless race around it. In a few moments, a bold squirrel emerged snuffling at the edge of the wood, evidently smelling the nuts across the way, and sprinted across the road just as one of the pickups was approaching. All three of the observers flinched as the furry animal was brutally crushed under the truck’s heavy tires, its body toppling backwards in the windy wake of the two-ton machine. But even before the vehicle had rounded the next bend, the squirrel had shaken itself and was on its feet again, resuming its race to the other side of the road as if it had merely lost its footing.

“Remarkable!” the man-in-charge exclaimed as they watched a heavy metal cage plop precipitously down on the animal as it frisked about the pile of acorns it had mastered through its desperate courage.

“I still can’t believe that it could… that it could function like that,” Matthews said with awe, slapping her fingers against her forehead as if trying to force her brain to comprehend what was happening.

“It is incredible,” the supervisor agreed. “But not entirely without precedent. Didn’t you ever have a hamster as a child? Those creatures can flatten their bodies enough to crawl underneath a door.”

“But this…!” Matthews interjected, wiping her sweat-fogged glasses with her blouse. “This is an extreme adaptation, isn’t it?”

“Extreme circumstances produce extreme measures,” the supervisor theorized with affected superiority. “What manner of animal survived following the asteroid which drove the dinosaurs to extinction? Small furry mammals; ratlike creatures. And what is a squirrel but a glorified rat?”

He smiled complacently and went back to his notes as Collins and Matthews turned to go. But halfway to the elevator they heard muffled yelling and looked back to find the supervisor frantically waving his arms in order to catch their attention. “Wait, I nearly forgot!” he shouted over the noise of cars that was again resonating throughout the dome. “The litter that she bore last week. It seems that she’s passed it on.”

The agents gaped, their mouths hanging open like ill-conceived flytraps. “The offspring are the same?”

“It appears so, now that they have grown. But they would have to be, anyway, to have survived in the womb during the trials, wouldn’t you think?” Again he smiled broadly, as if pleased with the impressive accomplishments of his subject of study, while the agents retreated towards the elevator.

The following week, Matthews and Collins were still puzzling over the data from the track when another call came in from Sheriff Wiggins.

“Yes, Sheriff,” Matthews answered breathlessly. “Have you seen any more of those odd squirrels?”

“No, not those,” the Sheriff responded. “But a real funny thing happened night before last. You see, I got a call from Ol’ Lady Teasdale asking me to come out ‘cause she’d run over a squirrel. Squished it good, she said. Now if it were anyone else, I’d tell ‘em to go hang, but she’s a dear, tenderhearted thing – the kind that calls the fire department to fetch a cat out of a tree – and she was real upset, cryin’ and all ‘cause she’d hurt a poor defenseless creature, so I said I’d go.”

Wiggins paused to take a deep breath while Collins and Matthews bent over the telephone like children preparing to bob for apples. “Now here’s the strange part. When I got there, it turned out she hadn’t exactly run over the squirrel; it was more like she had parked on top of it. And she was jes’ standin’ there starin’ down at it lyin’ quietly under the wheel, so I says to her, ‘Well, I don’t see that there’s much we can do about it now ‘scept give it a decent burial. If you’ll be so kind as to lend me your keys, Ma’am, I’ll, uh, release it and set free its heavenly soul.’ And that makes her stop cryin’ so she hands over the keys and I get in the car and reverse it a couple of feet, and Ol’ Lady Teasdale starts screaming so loud I think I’ve run over her foot so I stop the car and jump out.

“When I get to her, she don’t look hurt, but she’s still hysterical, shouting, ‘It’s a miracle, Sheriff, a miracle! Call the pastor!’

“ ‘Wait a minute now,’ I said, ‘The pastor’s probably busy workin’ out his sermon for tomorrow, so let’s not disturb him unless we’re sure we got to – what miracle are you talkin’ ‘bout here?’

“ ‘The squirrel, Sheriff! It just jumped up and ran away, not even hurt.’

“An’ I looked down and sure enough, that squirrel was nowhere to be seen. I checked the ground an’ I checked the car an’ I checked all around the yard an’ I even checked the bottom of the old lady’s shoes but that squirrel weren’t nowhere. And the weird thing is that I know I saw it flattened there under that wheel, and, as a matter of fact, I pulled out a little tuft o’ grayish-brown hair from her tire, which proved we weren’t both seein’ things. I even searched the driveway for a hole that it mighta been layin’ in, but there wasn’t one, and her tires were solid, too. And I jes’ plumb can’t understand how a simple ol’ squirrel could survive that kind of crushing unless it had like, a rubber skeleton, or organs that could flatten themselves, or move out of the way when they wanted to, or somethin’ sophisticated an’ unnatural like that.”

Matthews and Collins examined one another searchingly. “Well, naturally that’s ridiculous,” Matthews said shakily into the speakerphone, her voice barely inclining to a whisper. “There must be some other explanation. A rational one,” she added hastily.

“Well, I am sure glad to hear you say that, Ma’am,” Wiggins replied with feeling. “Because I tell you what, I’d be darn scared of a squirrel that had eyes like a wildcat, could leap over a two-lane highway in one jump, and not even be injured by a ton of metal lyin’ plumb on top of it. With as quick as they make babies, creatures like that would overrun the country in no time,” he concluded sagely.

“We appreciate your call,” Collins snapped, cutting off Matthews, who was on the verge of agreeing with the Sheriff. “Call us again with any other news.”

The clash of the phone being reinserted into its base rang out in the comparative silence that followed.

“I think maybe you were right,” Collins said slowly, after a long pause. “Nothing else we’ve tried so far has worked. Maybe there is something to be done with the owls.”

“Everybody likes owls!” Matthews exclaimed hopefully. “But if they evolve to catch the super-squirrels, won’t they become like, super-owls?”

“That’s a chance we’ll have to take,” Collins answered grimly.

“Just imagine…” Matthews said faintly, almost dreamily, “All this, a result of people driving automobiles. Automobiles driving evolution!”

And back at his office, Sheriff Wiggins was installing bars on the window of the stationhouse and saying to his deputy, “I don’t care what you call it, Sam. God, Nature, evolution… it sure does work in mysterious ways.”

***

Originally published in Separate Worlds, June 2013.

Cover photo attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mandj98 and http://animalphotos.info/a/

I actually had the idea that sparked this story a number of years ago. I don’t recall how I came up with it exactly, but one day I started thinking about the evolutionary process and how it relates to the impact of man on the environment. There’s no doubt that humans are greatly, if not solely, responsible for the extinction of a large number of species, hunting and habitat destruction being two of the primary means by which animal and plant life have gravely diminished in a world in which humans have become predominant. However, if there’s one thing that evolutionary theory teaches us, it’s that life is incredibly adaptable. Remember learning in school about the changes that took place in the moth population during the Industrial Revolution in England? Within a very short space of time the predominantly white moth population became a predominantly black one – because moths had a greater chance of survival when they were better able to blend in with their new, sootier environment. And they reproduce quickly enough to put those physical adaptations in place in the blink of a human eye.

So it seems reasonable to suppose that similar changes would occur in other species whose environments have been severely impacted by human activities. Indeed, it may be those species that are best able to adapt to a human-dominated landscape that will continue to thrive into the next century. The ant. The cockroach. The pigeon. The squirrel.

I actually think it would make for an interesting scientific study, if anyone were sufficiently motivated to do it, to monitor the world’s population of squirrels and track whether they’ve adopted physical or cognitive adaptations in response to alterations in their environment. We think we know how squirrels behave. We see them running halfway across the street and then suddenly scurrying back when they see a car coming, which is how they get hit half the time. But what about the ones we don’t see, the ones who are too smart or too nimble to get caught in traffic? What if there really is something else going on behind the scenes? Look out! It’s a Squirrel Revolution!

***

“Squirrel Revolution” is also available as a FREE eBook; you can download it at your favorite eBook retailer.

Feral Skunk

You’ve heard of feral cats, but feral skunks? True, I’m afraid – if you can’t tell by the smell. In my backyard they like to trade off taking advantage of the well-protected nest in the woodpile. A new litter of kittens with their mom is inevitably followed by a new litter of baby skunks with theirs! This one was on its own, but you can bet pretty soon we’ll be seeing a black-and-white caravan trailing up and down the hill.

State of Micronesia, 2016

My flash fiction story “State of Micronesia, 2016” has been published in Every Day Fiction:

http://www.everydayfiction.com/state-of-micronesia-2016-by-lori-schafer/

I had the inspiration for this story some time ago when I ran across a newspaper article about the Federated States of Micronesia, an island nation which is evidently one of the first to feel measurable and potentially disastrous effects of climate change. There is, in fact, a very real fear that the islands may disappear as sea level rises; this article presents a good summary of the situation as the Pacific Islanders see it: (http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-09-23/pacific-island-nations-theres-nowhere-left-run-climate-change). Now, I have since read contrasting viewpoints – including the view that Pacific Islands that are constructed from coral reefs are in no danger from global warming because the reefs will merely grow as sea level rises, and that the disastrous predictions being made by local governments are motivated by a desire to extort financial assistance from the world’s wealthier powers. However, as such arguments ring to me of the “climate change denial” that is still unfortunately so vocal and widespread, I’m not sure I’m willing to buy the science behind them without greater confirmation of its accuracy than some article somebody posted online.

In any case, I thought it was a concept worth exploring. Because even if the Micronesians are in no danger of losing their homelands, no one can deny that other populations have, in fact, already experienced significant, even culture-altering shifts in their native environments, particularly the Inuits of North America and other arctic peoples. Yet much as we like to believe that this problem only impacts those whose lives revolve around the ice or the sea, it affects all of us. The polar vortex that brought unusual bitter cold across the North last winter, and is expected to again this winter, the ongoing heat and drought out here in California – these are not merely matters of pleasant vs. unpleasant weather. At some point they will begin to affect our ability to provide for ourselves. And how are the Canadians keeping warm when the temperature drops to forty below? By burning fuel. How are agricultural products transported to California’s millions of residents? By fuel-burning trucks. We are not merely battling climate change; climate change itself may actually increase our demands on the planet. And I, for one, am not convinced that our technology is going to be able to keep up with the pace of our environmental destruction.

My story was not well-received by the readers at Every Day Fiction – and frankly even I would agree that many of their criticisms were justified, particularly in the way I’ve portrayed the grandfather character. He is almost a caricature. And I did, in fact, think long and hard about that when I was writing the story. But in the end, that was how I saw him: as an outdated, outmoded, one-dimensional Old World character. Because to me, only such a man would persist in denying what we see happening all around us.

State of Micronesia 2016

Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle

Author, blogger, and all-around great guy Geoff Le Pard (http://geofflepard.com) has just published his first novel Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle.

It’s summer 1976 and hotter than Hades

Harry Spittle, nineteen, is home from university, aiming to earn some money to go on holiday and maybe get laid. He expects he will be bored rigid, but the appearance of an old family friend, Charlie Jepson, his psychopathic son, Claude, and predatory wife Monica changes that. As his parents’ marriage implodes, Harry’s problems mount; before he knows it he’s in debt up to his ears and dealing in drugs. Things go from bad to worse when he is stabbed. He needs money fast, but now his job is at risk, his sister is in trouble and he has discovered a family secret that could destroy all he holds dear. The only way out appears to require that Harry join forces with the local criminal mastermind. Can Harry survive to see out the summer? Can he save his family? Can he regain some credibility and self-respect? Most importantly, will he finally get laid?

Now I’ve been following Geoff’s blog for a while, and it rapidly becomes apparent when you read his depictions of his various adventures that he’s a born storyteller. Still, when Geoff posted the first few chapters of his novel on his blog a while back, I was even more impressed than I expected to be. There’s such cleverness to his fiction – I described it as containing numerous “zing” moments that made me turn pink and a variety of other colors! If you like that style of writing, I encourage you to click the book cover above to be taken to the Amazon page, where you can preview several sample chapters and judge for yourself. Please also note that the paperback is forthcoming if Kindle books aren’t your thing. It may also make you feel good to know that Geoff is donating the proceeds to his local youth charity, Streatham Youth and Community Trust.

I myself am really looking forward to reading the rest of Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, although alas, with my current overabundance of work, it may be Christmas before I get to it. So if you do decide to check it out, let me know what you thought – or better yet, leave a review and let everyone know what you thought :)