September 1, 2021

The Squirrelherd and the Sound

by Emmie Christie


“Usually the squirrels found one or two space acorns a day. The next day, they found seven.”

Catherine didn’t much care for her job.

It wasn’t that the squirrels gave her any lip. They had dental plans, 401Ks, and the whole caboodle after all. The Sound, though, that gave her the shudders.

The animals dug in the fenced-off area of the forest. A sign warned off any journalists or teenagers of biohazards. Not that any would come by. The government had everyone and their aunt training for evacuation. Catherine chewed a big wad of mint gum to keep herself focused.

One squirrel – she herded 112 of them, she couldn’t keep track of their names – chittered and skittered in a circle, then held up a space acorn as if it held up Shakespeare’s skull. The nut had the extraterrestrial shade, the color of space without stars, a black so dark it seemed to swallow the paw that held it.

The other squirrels all stopped and wrinkled their noses in jealousy. The squirrel turned the space acorn over in its paws, puzzling over it, running its claws over the surface.

The squirrel pushed, then rotated the top of it like a Rubik’s cube. It spun and the animal tapped a swift, complicated pattern over it. This went on for a minute or so, and Catherine steeled herself.

The space acorn opened with The Sound. Or more, the absence of sound, that silence so complete it roared in the ears. The Sound stole some of the green from the trees, some of the mint from her tongue. Catherine unwrapped another piece with shaking hands and stuffed it in her mouth.

The squirrel looked over at her. “Another one for the colonists, eh?”

The Sound continued, sipping in bits of Earth. Bits of the squirrel holding the acorn. Catherine looked away. After a few moments, The Sound stopped, and the squirrel disappeared altogether.

Catherine shuddered. She stalked over to the space acorn, now opened and empty. It showed a bit of New Earth as if through a peephole. She picked it up, making sure her long gloves covered the skin on her wrists, and trudged over to the wall that used to be the inside of a barn.

Behind her, the squirrels resumed digging.

Catherine gritted her teeth. The wall had 49 space acorns taped there, and together they had sucked in all the red of the barn and the solidity of its structure, the green of the nearby forest, sunlight, and even the earthy scent of soil. She hadn’t realized that dirt smelled like anything until its absence. Nothing except the Sound existed there – that inhalation, that isolation – and the space acorns that fit together into a mosaic showing a growing vision, no, a growing portal, to New Earth.

Her heavy shoes and the weights on her arms and legs stopped her from getting sucked in. She found the spot where the space acorn fitted. It matched what the others showed, a section of blue sky and a tree branch. She duct taped the nut in place and the Sound increased, a roaring in her ears, and the trees behind her creaked and groaned. It pulled at her and she crouched low to keep her balance – she’d never had to do that before – and tried not to think about the fact that fifty seemed an auspicious number.

She stepped away, going back to her herd. They dug with a new sense of purpose. Perhaps another would find their space acorn today. The strange element had been discovered by the first squirrel just two years ago, nestled in the Earth’s subcutaneous layer, giving every squirrel speech, and urgency, and desperation.

“Hey,” she called. One or two looked up. “Why do you want to find them, anyway?”

She asked them once a day. Just to see if they’d ever give her an answer. As their squirrelherd she thought she should try. A herder protected the herd; that was the job. And every day they told her the same thing.

“To build the gate.”

The government had made them full citizens, let them apply for any jobs they wanted. All they wanted was to dig.

Catherine could understand the concept of burying herself in a job. She’d worked three part-times through college along with a full-time boyfriend. It had helped her avoid the nights of empty space, when there was just the couch and the flickering lamp beside her, and the inevitable feeling of detaching like a leaf and falling, falling, falling.

At the end of the day, Catherine led the squirrels along the path, back towards their little ten-foot houses with their tiny stoves and fridges. She’d thought the newspaper ad had meant this, guiding them back to their pens like they were still animals without thoughts or feelings. But that wasn’t it, not really. The squirrels traveled to and from the digging area whether she escorted them or not.

She should’ve known. Job descriptions were never accurate. There were always extra side roles that no one else wanted to bother with, the gritty, thankless tasks that, when done right, most never knew about.

* * *

Usually the squirrels found one or two space acorns a day. The next day, they found seven.

The wall took in more of the forest, more of the barn’s structure. A blanket of ivy withered on a tree in ten seconds into a gray, shrunken thing. When she went to place the acorns on the barn wall, she had to crouch for several seconds to keep from being pulled in. Tingles ran down her spine when she looked too quickly at it, as if something had just moved outside the frame.

“Frickin people,” she said. “Who wants this to happen, anyway?”

She’d seen the news, of course. Watched the simulations. Their town received the transmissions like all the others. The asteroid was coming in thirty years and nothing they threw at it would stop its course. But did that mean everyone had to give up and throw all of their eggs into one new planet? Just throw in the towel, throw up their hands, and throw away any power of possibility that maybe, just maybe, someone could catch a glimmer of genius and figure out how to stop it?

But keeping her head down meant that she had a house on 4th St, and a steady job, and a way to support herself without having to live with someone that thought her body more of a drive-thru than a temple.

Catherine gritted her teeth. The squirrels dug with more urgency, as if their lives depended on it.

* * *

She missed theatre.

She used to herd goats, back before the world lost its collective head. A solitary position, and she had loved when theatre troupes passed through their small town. She missed breathing in the same air as fifty other people in the town square. Something electric zipped through such a crowd, the anticipation of something shared, of a powerful mutual feeling.

Theatre couldn’t happen, of course, when all the actors and jugglers and contortionists now trained with the rest of Earth to live on another world. So, Catherine talked with the squirrels to distract herself.

“Romeo thought Juliet was dead,” she told them. “And drank the poison. And died. And she woke up and saw he was dead and killed herself. Isn’t that sad?”

“Seems unnecessary,” said one squirrel with a red zigzag pattern along his back. She’d begun to recognize them as their numbers dwindled faster and faster. Now there were 70. Zigzag talked more than the rest.

“Well, that’s Shakespeare in a nutshell. Want some?” She offered a piece of gum. He took it.

“This is good,” he said. “The mint. Really strong. But good.”

Catherine fiddled with the empty wrapper. “Don’t you think that maybe all this is unnecessary?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well. What if someone figured out a way to stop the asteroid? Would you stop digging?”

Zigzag was quiet for a moment. The other squirrels continued to dig. They were a little farther away and maybe couldn’t hear the conversation.

“We build the gate,” he said.

“But – why should you have to? You have feelings, too, you’re a person. Not human, but a person.” She tore her wrapper up in strips, then into tiny bits, and let them flutter to the ground. “I know it kills you when you open those acorns. I know it, don’t lie to me.”

The portal seemed to suck more in each day. The leaves hadn’t even had a chance to fall before New Earth appropriated them, a parasite squirming in its guts, draining its lifeblood. The sky had grayed, like someone’s eyes shading when their mood shifted, like when they said they didn’t love you anymore after a few shots of vodka, or like when they traced your scars and asked, “Why didn’t you finish the job,” after a few more.

“Isn’t it better than feeling all of this?” Zigzag jerked his furry head at one of the few green trees left around them. “Isn’t it too much, all the time?” He took out the gum from his mouth. “Like this. Humans must be used to the taste, but it’s so strong.”

Catherine sat up. The saliva in her mouth had pooled; she’d forgotten to swallow while he talked. He’d said so much more than she’d expected. “You mean – you’d rather die? Even if it was for no reason at all, not even opening the portal, but just because?”

Zigzag dug some more. His voice floated to her after a few agonizing minutes. “We woke up like Juliet, and found we had emotions,” he said. “It was too much.”

He refused to say anything more.

* * *

The space acorns didn’t register on any scientific equipment, almost like they didn’t exist until the squirrels found them. And only the squirrels could open them, as if thousands of years of cracking Earth acorns and walnuts had trained them for this moment in history.

Had the space acorns always been there, or had they just appeared? No one knew. They did know that each opened a small vacuum, a tiny wormhole, sending power and life to another planet. Scientists had triangulated the planet’s position and monitored its levels and had found that the more “fuel” – the more color, scent, taste and texture – sent to the new planet via the portals, the more habitable the new planet became. The more like Earth. Like a copy and paste.

And so, the grand mission to build the gate. Awakened squirrels built twelve other gates around the world sending power and life to the new planet, to New Earth, they called it.

Just eleven squirrels left in her herd.

Catherine slogged back and forth from the old barn wall, bracing against the pulling wind, against the roaring silence of the Sound. The portal displayed a clear blue sky, a yellow sun, and green forest. She could jump right into it. Maybe she should. That would finish the job. It wasn’t habitable yet, not yet, scientists said.

Why did she fight this? It wasn’t like she had a Ph.D. in science or astronomy. She wasn’t the sharpest cheddar in the dairy section. Instead of going to college in the city, she’d been a goddamn goatherd, and look what she did now. She held the next space acorn up to tape it in position.

Something caught her eye. Something on the edge of the gate. She stopped herself just in time and didn’t react, just waited to see if it would show itself. The Sound increased.

A mouth. A maw. The trees had teeth. The sky lashed back and forth. The sun was an eye.

She dropped the space acorn and ran.

* * *

She shivered in her house on 4th St. The gray skies and soundless air had spread through the whole forest, pulsing at the edge of town. She didn’t want to go back.

What good would she do, anyway? What business did she have trying to do anything at all? A herder protected the herd, but did any of it matter when they would all die one way or another, when her job was making sure they died? She was the kind of person who followed orders, who kept her head down, whose only rebellion in life had been leaving him –

The curtain rose in her mind. She breathed in, imagining that collective inhale of anticipation, of sharing something bigger than herself and her fears.

There was strength, in that unity. There was protection in it. Protection from oneself, and the fear of entropy, of the curse of curling in on yourself like a hot iron and imploding.

She shot up from her couch and ran out the door. Towards work. Towards the portal and The Sound and that thing.

* * *

She hadn’t herded the squirrels that morning, but the last loyal nine had of course showed up, as they had every day. She searched for Zigzag, found him, and breathed in relief.

The Sound echoed through the empty clearing, through the withering trees surrounding them.

“Hey!” she said, to Zigzag, to the rest of them. “We never got used to it, you know!”

They all poked their heads up. “What?” One of them asked, a little one who called herself Becky.

“Us humans,” she said. “Emotions. We’ve never gotten used to them.”

Their heads swiveled, looking at each other. She strode past, towards that gorgeous New Earth, the almost complete portal, and crouched down in her heavyweight boots to keep from being sucked in.

“I know you’re there,” she said.

It surfaced like an impression through a mold. A cosmic mouth and teeth. A monster of a planet sucking at the life of another. A parasite.

“I know you.”

It grinned, and The Sound swept through the forest, reaching further, draining the sound of her boots on the gray earth, the last hint of mint on her tongue, the tackiness of sweat from her palms.

“You’re the same as staring at laundry and trying to get up, but never being able to. You’re the same as feeling a knife cut and wanting it, because it’s a feeling, isn’t it? But it’s not; it’s the same old shit of just wanting to feel, and at the same time you can’t because it’s too strong, too much, too loud!”

It pulled her closer. She stumbled, knocked down to her elbows, but spread her palms on the ground for grip.

“You’re the same as when he said I’m not enough.” She crawled forward on her hands and knees. “The same as when he said I was too much.”

The Sound translated into words. It said, “The asteroid is coming. You can’t avoid it. Isn’t it better to give in now? Avoid all that hurt and suffering? I really just want to help.”

Catherine flipped it the bird. “If it’s all so bad, then you wouldn’t be trying to take it for yourself, you greedy son of a bitch.”

Its eye flicked to the side.

Behind her, in the clearing, Zigzag had found a space acorn. He trembled, holding it, almost dragged towards the portal hundreds of feet away.

“No!” Catherine shouted. “Fight it!”

He rotated it, pressed the complicated patterns, but then his movements slowed. He stopped, hesitating.

“I gave you sentience!” The Sound said. “I show you where to dig! I gave you purpose, where you had none before!”

Zigzag looked at his fellow squirrels. They huddled around him. Some held their paws over their ears. He threw the space acorn on the ground and smashed it with his foot paw.

The Sound shuddered, and screamed, and writhed.

“It’s big enough!” It said and its maw crawled forward on centipede legs towards the portal. “My seeds have grown quite enough for me to come through and consume this world!”

Catherine closed her eyes and thought of theatre.

Every play had a moment where the enthrallment was complete. The actors ceased being strangers and the story held all the gasps of the audience. A moment of too-muchness so that it hurt to feel, but the heart loved it all the more because that’s what it was made for.

She stood up, braced against the pull, unmoving, and the roaring of silence tried to reach through to her, to drain her away, to detach her like a leaf and float her to the ground.

But she stood, protecting the herd behind her. There was strength in numbers, in not being alone. There was strength in the herd.

The Sound – the maw on legs, the intergalactic parasite, the Thing that had wormed its way to Earth – retreated back into the portal. “I’ll come through eventually,” It said in a whine. “Many of my portals sprouted on your planet. My seeds are all grown up, and they lead me to you. I’m your chance of dying early, of avoiding the dread of waiting! Don’t you want it to end?”

Catherine swept her gaze over the squirrels behind her. They glared at the thing, at the Sound. It retreated further and decreased to a low static.

Zigzag said, “Don’t drink the poison, Catherine.”

She smiled. “He’s right. You don’t get to talk to us like that.” She took a step forward. “Not anymore.”

Zigzag came up. The other squirrels followed. The Sound wheezed, and wheedled, but stayed far away from the portal as if terrified of their mutual inspiration, of their collective breaths, of their unity. Catherine and the squirrels tore the portal down.

 

* * *


About the Author

Emmie Christie graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop, class of 2013. Her work tends to hover around the topics of feminism, mental health, cats, and the speculative such as unicorns and affordable healthcare. In her spare time, she likes to play D&D and go out line dancing.

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