The screams started as I sat down to write in the three-season room off the back of our new rental house.
It was lower in tone than a cicada, but it had that constant humming quality to it that made it unbearable, like a low-grade headache.
I scanned the yard to see if I could spot where the sound was coming from, but I didn’t notice anything.
It continued for several minutes and then fell silent.
There was noticeable relief when it ended. I felt physically better somehow.
I cracked my knuckles and went to work on a short story that I was struggling to end shortly.
The words flowed out to the more predictable symphony of frogs, grasshoppers and cicadas emanating from the forest preserve behind us.
When the scream started up again a few minutes later, my fingers actually curled into balled fists, and I got up for a better look at the yard.
There, high up on the utility pole at the back of the yard, is where the sound was coming from.
A squirrel managed to get its foot stuck to a hot wire, and it was slowly suffering electrocution.
The silence in between the moaning screams seemed to occur when the squirrel was convulsing and unable to make a sound.
When I finally identified the sound, I was not able to go back to my writing.
Of course I couldn’t rescue the squirrel either. I had no ladder tall enough for the task nor the knowledge of which wires not to touch.
I sat down again, mesmerized by the sound and sight of the slow death of a forest creature.
It’s not often we are afforded this kind of casual look. It usually happens in the blink of an eye when they meet your car tire.
Watching the suffering had that quality to it that makes you slightly uncomfortable. Not nauseous, really, but not quite right. I couldn’t look away from it.
We are so callous towards death these days.
Of course we have always been. We strive against it through medicine and our never-ending quest for the Fountain of Youth and yet we, hawkish and seekers of justice at any cost, embrace it so willingly.
The little woodland creature convulsed until it could draw breath again, then it screamed out to I do not know what.
To others of its kind. To a squirrel god. To anything nearby that could feel empathy. To the universe.
Our own death in America has all the markers of being fairly predictable. If all goes well, we’ll end up surrounded by loved ones in a hospital somewhere in our 80s or 90s. If all goes really well, we’ll be cognizant enough to be able to say goodbye.
Tragedy exists, but there is never enough time to process it.
That’s probably why I stayed around and watched the long, drawn-out death of the little squirrel.
We never get to process tragedy.
The kind of death that comes unexpectedly on a Saturday morning.
By Monday, we’re too immersed in the details of life and our own survival to really understand what happened.
I took my son to see a pig slaughtered last year for the sole purpose of exposing him to the process of making food. To explain how the pork loin gets from the pig into those plastic-wrapped styrofoam containers.
We watched them shoot a pig, and it died violently over the course of about 15 minutes. Yes, brain death occurred quickly, but the pig’s body shook for a long time after the shot was fired.
Later, a farmer read a poem and then slaughtered a sheep in the Halal tradition, slitting its throat until it bled out.
My son stood 10 feet from the little sheep when this happened.
He still talks about it a year later.
We don’t get to process death intentionally.
When we do, it leaves a mark on us.
Death lasts for days and days.
So I watched that squirrel die until it was gone.
And It’s been hard to think about anything but the death of a small woodland creature for the last week of my life.