There came a day when the squirrels had all the sentences.
It was tradition to feed the squirrels that lived on the university campus. Paths looped around sheets of lawn protectively pinned down along the edges by omniscient grandparent trees. It was autumn and bits of lunchtime sandwiches and stale popcorn after football games seemed welcome by the squirrels preparing for winter.
The people making the offerings were mesmerized by their ability to tame nature with leftovers. They showed their friends. They brought their small children who would squat low and wait patiently in the grass, hand outstretched, as a squirrel materialized and plucked the favor out of the child’s pudgy fingers with its own slim-fingered, razor-nailed paws.
But on a regular Tuesday, one squirrel did something different. It looked up at the strange creature offering residue and condescension, left the peanut and took the “Do you want a peanut?” instead.
It went unnoticed until later in the day when a young couple brought some burnt half-loops of cinnamon roll they had unwound from the outermost circle of the pastry.
The woman leaned over and attempted a sing-song “Do you want a treat?” but only managed an odd silence followed by the loud belching out of the single word, “treat.”
She quickly covered her mouth with her hand, all hot-faced embarrassment, and the man lead her away through the trees that popped and snapped with an unfamiliar energy.
Squirrels have different vision than humans. They can see the thoughts that trail behind us and usually disperse harmlessly into the air. So they began to take those sentences too.
If you were jogging and thinking about what to cook for dinner, they took your, “I’m so tired of spaghetti… what is wrong with me, some people have nothing to eat.”
If you were heading to an exam, they took your “Constantinople was the capital of the Ottoman Empire from 1453–1923.” They took his, “I don’t love her anymore,” and their, “What is a quasar?”
And one lucky child had her, “I don’t think I can do this” snatched by a squirrel as it leapt from branch to branch right over her head.
They couldn’t be stopped because squirrels are invisible when they choose. They sit up on their haunches like granite holding its breath. Their glossy, vacant, midnight eyes scan the landscape for a burial plot. When you blink, they snap sharply around, cutting the air recklessly like the flipping last foot of film on a movie reel and run off with your words trailing behind them.
You stand there slack-jawed and silenced looking down at the peanut on your open palm, or opening and closing your mouth like a cod flopping in the hull of a boat.
It was unclear why the squirrels buried the sentences. Most people thought it was just out of habit or perhaps it was going to be a particularly harsh winter for communication. Some hoped they would sprout and grow into blossoming paragraphs but they didn’t know that sentences can only grow down through the soil into root-like anchors that the ground will never release.
A few people overcame their shock quickly enough to lunge after a thieving squirrel while it was stuffing sentences into its overflowing cheeks. The squirrels were always too fast to be caught but sometimes were startled enough to leave fragments or scrambled letters behind. This usually resulted in more harm than good as people would end up yelling things they didn’t mean, like “I _ate you god____ squirrels,” and “I need the nodes to call back the cukes!”
Some of the most desperate people would hold a spade in each hand and spin their arms like a whirly-bird to dig up and try to recover buried sentence fragments. They would then furiously shove them down their throats only to vomit up a word or two and splutter out a pile of the smaller, lighter punctuation.
In their desperation these people often became violent squirrel hunters by developing machine guns that shot periods and deadly comma boomerangs, and by sharpening exclamation points into the most interjective of knives.
But the squirrels adapted. They stopped burying the sentences in the ground and began to hide them in plain sight where no person ever looked.
Sentences ran along tree limbs like Christmas lights. They were the wires between telephone poles, where birds rested on “mothers” and “frightened” and “quizzically” and “mustaches.” They were shoved in supermarket shelves between the cereal brand names.
The most brazen squirrels would steal a sentence and then use it to replace the plantaris tendon in the victim’s calf. It is the longest tendon in the human body, so there is plenty of room, especially in a small font.
The world got quieter. Eventually people adapted because although they were angry, they hadn’t really been listening to most of the sentences anyway.
Also, any real objection was futile because the squirrels had taken all the screams for help.
The buried sentences continued rooting and spreading into underground manifestos and the squirrels retrieved the sturdy “lyrical” and “instinct” and wove their winter nests in the highest crooks of the grandparent trees.