The thought came only a half-step behind the realization that the perfect, gloss-fluffy darling at my feet was a corpse. Indeed, antifreeze was so clearly the answer – and my inner dialogue so certain, too – that I didn’t interrogate the theory until several seconds later.
The inner interrogation didn’t take long. If the chipmunk had been sick, he probably wouldn’t have been away from home, and would’ve perished underground and been subsumed beyond human notice. If he’d been struck by a vehicle, he’d be injured—but this body was eerily perfect. If he’d been attacked by a hawk or other predator, ditto the injury, besides which he’d likely have also been eaten.
Mere paces from two different parking lots, death had come as a surprise. He’d had enough time to take refuge in the jagged lee of a sidewalk-fissure, a last desperate instinct, or a final slip into habit. Maybe both.
So: antifreeze. That was the answer.
No one had posed a question.
Having conquered death in three syllables, I let the knot between my shoulder blades soften. Confused startlement gave way to pity, which quarreled with self-consciousness, denial, and refusal, before resigning deep in my rib cage as a sprawling, sorrowful ache.
I wondered how many moments ago the chipmunk had been alive. It couldn’t have been long. He lay on his side on a patch of dark soil, spine to the sidewalk, half-curled, limbs limp, mouth partly open. His lustrous fur caught the summery wind, and the silky rippling only underscored the stillness beneath the auburn fluff and racing stripes. How many moments ago had this little form contained a consciousness? Something desperate to stay in the world of lush grass, warm sunbeams, and sweet-smelling surprises waiting beneath parked cars? Something terrified of human beings, but oddly defiant of housecats watching just beyond screen doors? Something playful and chattering, obnoxious and neurotic—something, really, not so different from myself?
The moment of transition arrested me. It’s one thing to understand things mechanically: the birth, the living, the dying, the death. But it’s the being dead just afterwards I can’t make sense of. Not eschatologically, mind you, and not medically, and not thermodynamically. Chronologically—one moment, life; the next, void. The sprawling ache beneath my ribs does not understand. Comprehension skips a beat, like a poorly-cut bit of film, or a missing page, or the staggering recovery when you expected one more stair.
How many moments ago? How long since it mattered where this creature stopped to rest? How long since mattering became nothing more than a matter of matter to matter, ashes to ashes, dust to dust?
This essay was written in February 2018, in Madison, Wisconsin. I’d come upon the chipmunk the previous summer and the image stayed with me.