Illustration: Anne Le Guern @anneleguern

The city didn’t put stop signs at our suburban corner until I was thirteen. The intersection wasn’t particularly busy. It was, however, just tree-lined enough, and the neighborhood drivers just careless enough, that more than a few quiet afternoons were shattered by wrecks outside. Each time we heard squealing tires and crashing metal, Mom dutifully called 911 and then rushed to help. Despite the reckless driving, no one was ever killed. Pet dogs and stray cats weren’t so lucky. Neither were the squirrels.

Roadkill on our neighborhood’s streets was ever-present. Dad joked about free dinner. Mom insisted we keep the family dog away. She was always looking out for our safety and well-being. Sometimes this meant protective hugs, like after the time a bigger kid sat on me while eating a Klondike Bar. Sometimes this meant harsh words, like when I threw myself out of a moving car. And sometimes this meant saying nothing at all. But it definitely meant keeping us from playing with the street’s dead animals, especially the Squirrel King.

When I was nine, His Bushy-Tailed Majesty, the ruler of the Acorn Throne, was struck down immediately in front of our home. He must’ve been leading a crusade, because his fallen body, smooshed flat against the pavement, was surrounded by a host of chittering companions, a retinue of brave knights. Compared to them, he was huge. And more than that, he was getting treatment I’d never before seen. Staring wide-eyed out our front window, I spied a secret and sacred squirrel-rite: Royal Mourning.

The Squirrel King’s funeral wasn’t the first I attended, though it was the most frenetic. After my childhood friend Caleb was killed by a drunk driver, we stood quietly in church, our bodies nearly as still as his. When it was time to go, I begged to stay near his casket awhile longer, believing he was somehow more alive the longer I remained. The Squirrel King’s mourners had no such illusions: they’d rush into the street, pressing their bodies prone just like their King’s, and after a few moments’ pause, they’d scurry away, into the nearby trees. Soon others would take their place, lying flat to pay their respects before running away, too.

Mom eventually joined me at the window. Together we watched the squirrels grieve their lost leader, me providing enthusiastic commentary and squirrely speculation, her standing behind me quietly. After a few minutes, she gave me a tight squeeze, pulled us away, and said it was time for grocery shopping. I spent most of our trip wondering aloud at the splendors we’d seen. Squirrels must’ve been coming from across the city just to visit our street. Who’d known we’d had such an important resident in the leaves above.

When we got back, the Squirrel King was no more. As much as I wanted to believe his faithful servants had carried him away to be bathed and clad in white, even at that age I knew better: It had been maintenance workers. He was now dressed in Hefty black.

The funeral gradually became one childhood memory among many. I mentioned it in passing to a high school biology teacher, who was intrigued but confused. She was pretty sure squirrels didn’t mourn, and even if they did, it wouldn’t be so ritualistic. Despite her doubts, as I came into adulthood, the story was one of my staples for breaking the ice at parties: Hey, have I told you all about the impromptu yet glorious funeral of the Squirrel King of Elgin, Illinois?

Many years later, during a Sunday phone call with Mom, I casually mentioned the Squirrel King. She chuckled quietly in recognition and then corrected me: Queen. How on Earth would she know? In fact, she explained, the Squirrel Queen wasn’t huge; her loyal companions were tiny. There hadn’t been visiting squirrels from faraway trees, just the same handful of little ones coming down repeatedly. They were her babies. Their prostration wasn’t reverential mourning but instead desperate imitation. Without her, they most likely starved.

On that childhood day, one mother showed her kids what the true horror of death is, and another mercifully didn’t.

Steven A. Miller

Steven A. Miller is a Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Ripon College, in Ripon, WI. His work has appeared previously in Slate, Los Angeles Review of Books, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Times Higher Education. He likes cats and justice.

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