Mr. Mathers hadn’t always been the scoundrel who stalked squirrels. Initially, he just observed their presence, and then progressed to commenting to his wife on their numbers. He had enjoyed their antics before he had a lawn of his own, but soon after buying the house he recognized their power to destroy. He opened his windows to make unusual clicking sounds with his tongue, hoping to catch their attention and redirect their focus from digging holes in the grass. Mrs. Mathers thought he might have erred in his translation. Perhaps they took his clicks as invitations, she suggested. He grumbled, but with a smile.
Mr. Mathers determined to be more methodical. He filled the holes with seed, covered them with a thin layer of soil, and hid it all under straw. He playfully sprayed the squirrels as he watered the lawn. Sometimes he would make machine gun sounds as he held the hose in one hand and the nozzle in the other. Once, he collected acorns and put them in baskets and distributed the baskets around the edges of the yard. It was a gift of goodwill. “We all have to eat,” he said.
The squirrels took the offering. And the next morning, he woke to find his lawn was shredded, the new growth ripped apart by their little paws. They had buried every damn acorn.
And that’s when Mr. Mathers turned against the squirrels.
Next he lined the perimeter of the yard with a platoon of plastic owls.
“They’re an eyesore,” Mrs. Mathers said.
“They’re a necessity. Squirrels are terrified of owls. They’re weak animals. They won’t step within an owl’s territory. Watch, you won’t see a single one as long as the owls keep guard.”
The following day, the lawn looked like the cratered moon. Two squirrels lay asleep in the middle of the yard, exhausted from their night exertions. The plastics owls looked on with wide eyes and speechless mouths.
And then the owls went missing a week later.
Mr. Mathers stormed through the yard, assessing the carnage of grass and the absence of the guards. He cursed loudly.
Bennington, the neighbor, asked “What’s the trouble?”
“The owls are missing! The owls are missing!”
Bennington’s son was raking the yard and stifled a laugh. His father grabbed the boy by the collar, nearly dragging him to their house steps. Mr. Mathers, confused, did what most people do when they lack answers—he looked up. There, high in the pine trees surrounding the yard, seven fake owls occupied their solitary branches. Bennington was still gripping the boy’s collar, but Mr. Mathers thought he heard the boy’s laughter now mixed with his father’s. Mr. Mathers’ brow lowered as he realized his enemies walked on four legs and sometimes just two.
Those furrows became permanent. Mr. Mathers escalated his tactics to slamming the screen door to scatter the vermin, to howling as he sprinted into the yard empty handed—then, eventually, armed with a rake.
It was midsummer when he swiped the rake like a Viking. The broad weak plastic of the rake caught the squirrel full on its side and sent it spinning through the air until it collided with the fence in a sickening crack, dropping onto the stem of a hydrangea. It hung on the hydrangea like a towel on a line. Moved with regret, Mr. Mathers tenderly picked up the slack squirrel by a front paw. That’s when the squirrel lifted its head, and its black eyes met his brown eyes and he later swore the damn bastard growled before sinking its fangs into the soft thin space between thumb and forefinger.
Mrs. Mathers did not approve her husband’s squirrel abuse. At first she recognized the attacks didn’t just hurt the critters, but hurt him, too. But, she soon grew concerned, for he had begun to take a pride in the punishments he doled. By October, he was brooding on the critters at dinner, over coffee, as he settled into bed at night.
His latest idea was most worrisome.
Mr. Mathers had crafted a special invention, tailored to his enemy. He stacked a dense pile of acorns like a great pyramid, and over the pile was a board set on an angle, propped up by a stick with a line of twine tied to it. On the board were thirty spikes, superglued strong.
“They don’t just sell this sort of thing,” he said to his wife.
“I’m quite aware,” Mrs. Mathers said, shaking her head.
The lawn had gone bare from their torments, and he decided to start from scratch. He would sod it all. Mrs. Mathers warned him the squirrels would just tear it apart.
“There won’t be any left to do the tearing this time.”
For hours, he lurked behind a line of boxwood. If one squirrel approached, he waited. This wasn’t built for just one squirrel. On that October day, with his spikes and string, he set to wipe out a whole generation of the beasts.
Word must have spread, for eventually half a dozen squirrels had gathered and were nearly swimming in the pile, and a dozen neighbors were watching from the street.
“Where did he even find spikes like that?”
“That can’t be cheap. Those materials add up.”
“Is he just going to pull the critters off and compost them?”
“He’s not really going to impale squirrels?”
But he did. Content with seven, he pulled the line and the trap was true. There was a groan, and Mrs. Mathers, watching from the window, didn’t know if it was their neighbors or the dying squirrels who did the groaning.
That is the day the Mathers were looked at differently on the street. Now, when he was in the yard or walking the circle of their street, children were told to come inside, to leave that man alone, to get away from the windows. To children, Mr. Mathers was the creature in the sewer, the madman in the woods.
On Halloween, children tossed roadkills onto his lawn as they thought he slept. But he didn’t sleep much. He had watched from the attic window the onslaught of carcasses—it was over thirty—and wrote the names of the criminals in his little black notebook.
“They’re hardly criminals, Harry,” the police deputy told him. “It’s just a bit of vandalism.”
“That’s how it starts. Slippery slopes.”
The officer promised he would talk to the boys. Mr. Mathers demanded to see the report when it was completed.
Officer Charlie sent a lightly worded letter to the parents of the boys in question, suggesting they might be interested in ride-alongs so they could see the dangers of suburban nights. Nobody took him up on the offer. A week later, Officer Charlie wrote to Mr. Mathers to declare the case closed.
As the police wasted his time, he spent that time laying the new sod.
Sod doesn’t take a genius to lay, but it does require a patient mind with an eye for detail. Is the tile of grass unspooling evenly and touching soft soil? Are you minding the seams that must be imperceptible and civil keepers of each piece’s turf. They must cohabitate for a time, get to know each other before settling their edges and growing together as one. Have you watered the soil so it allows the sod a gentle bed, watered to within a drop of its fill? “The role of the sodder,” Mr. Mathers would tell his wife, “is to nurture all those vulnerable blades.” He wagged his finger to the living room. “You can’t leave them to themselves, nor can you trust the rain. Nature will get you. Every time, it will get you.” He lectured to a fireplace full of old ashes. Mrs. Mathers was reading her magazine, feet up, absently nodding.
After three days of attentive unrolling, aligning, pressing, watering, his lawn was a glorious rebirth. And, all that time, the squirrels never so much as flicked a tail in Mr. Mathers’ vicinity. He had crushed them.
“I won,” he told his wife.
“Mhm,” Mrs. Mathers mumbled as she licked the tip of her finger and turned the page.
The three days of sodding had made Mr. Mathers a tired man. As the sun set, the shadow of the roof stretched its reach across the new lawn. He drank cool water on the back porch and silently watched the dark sink into the perfectly laid lawn—full and flat and soft and new. He slept well that night.
And as Mathers slept, the animals went to work.
They had been deliberate in their planning and process. Shoulder to shoulder, they marched across the lawn, looking down to assess the patterns and seams. In the dark they couldn’t see much, but this was not work fit for renegades, nor would it be the work of renegades. They peered to the side to see whether the line held, whether the heads were facing the ground. There was rigor, focus. Hardly a sound was shared.
They dropped down on all fours and started rolling the pieces. Working backwards, they curled their fingers under the edge of the sod, pulled, and rolled evenly and clean. When one strip was rolled tight and true, they moved on to the next one. The night was long, but when they settled into their beds just before the sunrise, they stared at the ceiling, exhilarated.
Mrs. Mathers woke before her husband that morning. In the dark with dry eyes and without her glasses, she reached for the wall to guide her to the bathroom. She rinsed her face, squeezed two eye drops into each eye, and pressed her fingers to her eyelids. Her eyes glistened like dew. She patted her face with a towel and put on her glasses. The sun was rising and its light broke just over the backyard fence and made their pines glow. The light slid through their needles and skimmed the bare brown dirt stretching across the whole of their yard.
“What in the actual hell?”
The window glass was cool against her warming forehead. Her breath fogged islands under her nose. She stared so long and hard her eyes lost focus. All was a haze of brown and light.
She moved her head back and wiped away her nose fog. Through the pane her eyes settled on the smooth naked soil.
She called to her husband again, but still he hadn’t entered the room. She slowly stepped away from the window and stood in the doorway. Their bed was empty.
Facing the bedroom window, Mathers was shirtless but boxered. His hands pressed against the sides of the window frame as he leaned to the window, pushed himself away. For a moment, Mrs. Mathers wondered had he begun some new exercise regime.
“No.” His head shook with a vigor that tested the constraints of tendon and ligament.
“You’ll hurt yourself, Harold.” She put tender hands on his rigid shoulders. Tears were dropping down his face.
“I’ll get them. God as my witness.”
He beat the frame with a fist. The glass shivered but didn’t break.
“They ate every goddamn blade. Down to the core, you see?”
“Who’s they?” She stepped back, crossing her arms, and raised an eyebrow.
He pointed to the middle of the yard where a gray creature with a bushy tale and acorn crumb mouth looked back at the man pointing from the window.
Mr. Mathers went to the dark pantry, not bothering to pull the light string, and reached for the top shelf with a blind hand. He grimaced with the stretch of it. He pawed at the shelf, and when his hand touched cool metal, he smiled.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting my gun.”
Mrs. Mathers had been ready for this. She dug her fingertips into her robe covered hips, bracing herself in the resolution of a woman who knows her man’s ways.
“You were told not to shoot that anymore. Charlie cited you for it. One of the BBs hit the Bennington’s cat clear in the side.”
The heft of this gun required both his hands.
“I’m not shooting pellets today.”
Her hand trembled as she raised it to her face, covering her mouth. She hadn’t known he owned a shotgun.
“Knew I’d need it one day.” He lunged up again and grabbed at a box of bullets that had been pushed to the corner. “Just let that crossing guard of a cop try to take it from me.”
Mr. Mathers began his hunt in the backyard. His legs moved in the long slow steps he had seen in old war movies. He held the gun lightly but firmly, aimed forward. He searched for footprints in the dewy dirt but could find only one set of paws. All around him were long undulating lines of a rake, stretching the length of the yard. It was masterful. He had never seen a patch of dirt that could only be described as neat.
From atop the fence, two squirrels spun their quarry in their paws as their teeth shredded shells. Mathers raised the gun to fire. He held them in his vision and wondered could both be had in the one shot.
Instead, he lowered the weapon. He looked back to the finely tilled soil, the impeccable dirt. The squirrels did not notice him, focused on their meal as they were. He moved away from the fence and crossed his footprints, moving to the voices he heard coming from the front yard.
The whole neighborhood seemed to have gathered on the sidewalk in front of his home. People in bathrobes, slippers, old gym shorts. Old Luke Abington stood shirtless, his full lustrous beard falling down his speckled chest. Mr. Bennington was dressed for work, but he absently held his white cat securely against his navy suit. His son was next to him, yawning as he rubbed his tired eyes. The crowd spoke in quick words, heads bobbing forward and back to say the same phrases to new people. From their draped sleeves, withered and young hands emerged and pointed in the same direction—Mathers’ house.
Perhaps he should pump the shotgun, he wondered. Perhaps actually fire one into the sky and send the whole neighborhood trembling. Scatter them like vermin.
Before he could decide, he saw his wife walking down their path, mingling with the mob. He knew she’d kill him if he fired the thing. He set the shotgun against the house behind a boxwood and put on a polite face. The little smile he forced made his cheeks spasm in little tremors.
Mrs. Mathers’ eyes were wide, and her head shook side to side. With her open mouth, she was the picture of horrified awe as she saw her husband walking towards them—phony smile, dirty socks, bare belly.
“What’s the show?” He said, forcing a laugh that went through his nose.
Mrs. Mathers pointed above his shoulder, to their home, behind him.
At first his sight was lost in the sun cresting the low broad roof. The golden gleam slipped over the peak and slid down into a sloping pool of green.
“Is that moss?” He asked, shielding his eyes from the shine and stepping toward the house.
The beech trees spread in waves over the roof, keeping it cool and damp even in the summer—a nurturing habitat for moss. That morning, he couldn’t believe the spread of it. From apex to gutter and across the whole half of this pitch, the roof had gone verdant. Then, as he squinted for better sight, Mathers lost his breath.
“It’s not, I don’t think, moss,” his wife said.
Mrs. Mathers placed a hand on his shoulder that was more restraint than comfort. And that was when Mr. Mathers’ vision sharpened, when he realized he wasn’t seeing the softness of spongy moss but thousands of green blades standing at attention as if enjoying the attention of the people below. A field, it seemed, had fallen on his house during the night, and he had slept under the turf as the dew dropped above. There, the lawn lay on his roof like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Need a mower?” Bennington asked as he stroked the cat.
The beech trees framed their branches over Mathers’ home. Two squirrels chased each other in looping circles around a limb and when they reached the end they leapt and landed softly on the lawn on Mathers’ roof. They raced through the grass and lost each other in the green maze, and when each was safely alone they dug until they struck shingle. Then they hopped and scurried, the sod soft under their little pads, to find new places to dig.
Brendan Shea is an educator and writer from Hyattsville, Maryland. Brendan loves folklore, the idea of hiking, and sharing stories with his students. His stories have been published by Bandit Fiction and the Longridge Review. He is represented by Jon Michael Darga of Aevitas Creative. Follow Brendan on Twitter @BeeShea.