He was an old man who lived somewhere in New Jersey, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, and it happened to him one day that he would speak at length with a squirrel about the meaning of life.
Now, the old man was tall, gaunt, and stolid, and in his face there showed a rather remarkable physiognomy – a furrowed brow, brooding eyes, an avian nose, and pouted lips, all of which spoke to a fretted mind. And, truly, beneath the surface of these sullen features was the spirit of a man who might well be called depressed.
However, it might also be said that the old man had reasons to feel this way. His children did not visit him, his wife was deceased, and he now spent his days in idle solitude, doing things which afforded little value to him or anyone else: reading the newspaper, feeding the birds, going to Church, and watching television (exorbitant amounts of television). And, truth be told, all of this was compounded by the fact that, with each passing day, he became more and more conscious that his life was nearing the end.
At the ripe age of eighty-one, the curmudgeon – the hero of our story – had become a creature of habit. His mornings invariably began early with a cup of joe and newspaper in hand, and often culminated in a walk to the park, his local haunt, just a few blocks away from home. It was his custom to bring with him a pocketful of birdfeed, especially during the late winter and early spring when he believed the birds needed it most.
After he arrived, he would sit on a wooden bench off the asphalt pathway which wove through the park beside a lonely fig tree, which had never grown to more than a couple of feet. To the old man’s quiet joy, the birds knew him and flocked at his feet whenever he came, and he fed them – warblers, blue jays, sparrows, robins, pigeons, and swallows – indiscriminately. While he sat with hands dug in his pockets, watched the birds bob and hop to and fro, and cast handfuls of feed onto the soil, it gave him time to think, to reflect on his long life.
In these quiet moments of the morning, broken only by the soft chirping of the birds, thoughts and memories would come flooding back to him, of his wife and marriage, of his life’s work and career, of his children and parenting, and of death and religion. He missed his wife, her easy laughter, her gentle heart, and thought of her often; he missed his children, their bubbly smiles, their airy spirits, and prayed for them every day; he missed his yester self, his young strength, his lost gladness, and wished for better health, though he knew in his heart it was failing. He thought about the meaning of his life, what purpose it had served, what purpose it had left him, and these thoughts that haunted him he never could resolve, and these, above all, he blamed as the source of his unhappiness. Why he suffered, why everything came to dust, why he must continue to live, he could not understand.
Then he thought of the birds. None but a pigeon did he recognize, and that, only because it had a stump for a foot, which it had probably lost in some terrible accident. It hopped and fluttered on the soil in an awkward sort of way, and it stirred up awful pity in the old man to see such a poor creature chip away at the feed. He thought about how cruel a creator must be to allow for such needless toil and impairment. It had even once brought tears to his eyes – tears that he had not shed since the death of his wife years ago – to think that he and the bird were no different, that they each were the butt of a laughless joke played by the universe.
But the bird was different; that he could see. The bird could not be bothered by poisoned thinking, the bird could not but be unconcerned, and the bird could not be anything but happy. Why then could he not be like the bird? That is the thought that plagued him now as he looked on at the blockheaded creature, when, at once and without warning, a clear voice called out to him. It spoke thus.
“Rats with wings if you ask me.”
The old man gave a start, he swung his head hither and thither, and he grew confused when he thought that not a soul was near. He scratched his chin, settled back into his seat, and squinted suspiciously at the pale sky, where the sun peeped behind wispy swaths of cloud, sure that he had imagined the noise. Then came the voice again as clear as any.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with rats. Close cousins of mine, really.”
The old man leapt to his feet, to the consternation of the birds below him, and he searched and scanned the area about him, going so far as to check beneath the wooden bench where he sat but a moment ago.
“W-who said that?” the old man spoke somewhat heatedly.
A quiet filled the air, and only the bird tweets now met the old man’s ears.
“W-who said that?” the voice repeated at length.
The old man’s eyes widened and his gaze followed the source of the sound until it landed on the base of the lonely fig tree, where there sat perched on a mound of mulch a lonely squirrel. She was munching open the shell of an acorn, which she must have lugged off from somewhere. The old man watched the squirrel for a minute while she twisted and nibbled at the nut and paused every now and again to watch him. There was something mesmerizing about the squirrel the old man thought, something marvelous about the way she seemed to stare at him through those beady eyes, those pools of stillness. She bosomed the nut and spoke to him.
“Truly, truly, I say to you,” said the squirrel, “there is nothing more delicious – nothing more nourishing for the spirit – than a good acorn.”
The old man’s lips parted, the knit in his brow loosened, and the look of dismay swept over his countenance. Had his ears now deceived him? Had he finally lost his mind? Had the squirrel just spoken to him? These were the questions that assailed his mind as he shrank away from the speaking sciurine.
“Do not be afraid,” the squirrel added before the old man could leave. “I know what aggrieves you. And I know your heart well enough that, with you, I should venture to speak.”
Dumbfounded and at a loss for words, the old man stared back at the bushy creature, frozen in his feet, but he could not seem to make up his mind about her.
“How curious! How terrible! How ungodly!” the old man thought to himself as he slowly formed an opinion, and at once a tremor of displeasure flitted across his face, indicating something like fiery outrage. He spoke to her through his teeth.
“Confound you, little demon! I’ll play no part in your treachery!”
The old man turned to go, to escape his lapse into madness, and to forget about the whole incident when the squirrel spoke to him again.
“The meaning of your life, old man, what is it?”
The old man’s eyes flashed with fury, and he turned round.
“That is the question which troubles you now,” said the squirrel. “Is it not?”
The old man gaped at the creature in disbelief, and a moment passed while the anger he felt morphed into wonder, intrigue, and alarm.
“Had the squirrel really just spoken those words?” he thought to himself. “And, worse, had he really just listened to them?”
“Y-you horrible spy,” he faltered. “You horrible spy come here to toy with me.”
“Not to toy,” replied the squirrel. “I come here only to speak to you. Heed me, heed me not. That is your choice. I offer you nothing but advice. Turn your back on me but not the truth.”
“The truth!” returned the old man as he now confronted the squirrel and waved a finger in the air. “What can you teach me in the way of truth? Are you not some fit of insanity? Or the devil himself? I’d strangle you before I could hear your truth!”
“You suffer, old man. That much is plain. Strangle me if you must, but hear me first. Listen! No one will take your suffering from you.”
“Suffering!” spoke the old man. “Do not speak to me about suffering! What do you know about my suffering?”
“More than you would acknowledge to yourself,” said the squirrel. “Tell me. I ask you again. The meaning of your life, what is it?”
Here, the old man bent to his knees and laughed with incredulity.
“The meaning of my life?” he spoke. “The meaning of my life? You speak to me about truth and suffering and now about the impossible question! The meaning of my life. Ha! What madness! I suppose you know better?”
“No,” replied the squirrel. “I know only that every man must answer it for himself.”
“And have you answered it for yourself?”
The creature paused for a moment, set down the acorn at her feet, and seemed to peer deeply into the old man’s eyes.
“Of course. Ha! Ha!” said the squirrel with mirth, showing him her buck teeth. “It is the sound of one paw clapping!”
A wry grin rose to the old man’s lips. Never before had he seen a squirrel so cheerful and strange and self-assured; but, then again, never before had he seen or spoken to a talking squirrel. The old man laughed. Surely, he had lost his mind, he thought to himself.
“You’re not making any sense,” he spoke.
“You’re not making any progress,” replied the squirrel. “Listen! Every morning I see you come to the park here. Every morning I see the same thoughts play over in your head. And every morning I see the Reaper which hangs over you. You think you have figured it all out. You think you have made no error in judgment. You think you have uncovered madness where there lies only love. Well, old man, I say to you, you think too much!”
The old man looked at the squirrel with a blank expression as he pondered the meaning of her words. The squirrel continued.
“I do not know what the meaning of your life is. But I do know that in every man there lies an answer, rational or not, articulated or not, simple or not. And, if it is lost, fear not, for it is not far from being discovered. Let this be my parting question: The place where you are, here, now, is it not all right?”
Then, without warning, the squirrel scampered away, never to be seen or heard by the old man again. He watched her disappear across the park, and he slowly took a seat back on the park bench. Soon he was staring vacantly into space, alone again with his thoughts. Time passed, until the sound of the birds chirping at his feet came to his ears. The old man saw the familiar stump-footed pigeon bobbing and cooing as it hopped along the soil, and at once he looked at it in a way that he never had before.
“How precious,” the old man thought to himself.
A wave of sympathy filled his heart. He watched as the bird began to flutter, pick up speed, and rise into the sky.