In the backyard of the little brick house I rent in Charleston, South Carolina, directly beneath my bedroom window, an old cement fencepost, attached to nothing, lists a little to one side.
In the spring and early summer, the fencepost is covered in quivering buddleia blooms. The three petals of each tiny flower on the vine are three different, very saturated colors: one pink, one yellow, one orange—a neat trick of nature, like Mary Poppins pouring different colored cordials out of the same bottle. Butterflies come round the buddleia to feed, the slow flap of their waxpaper wings the very embodiment of summertime indolence.
In the early fall the post is grown over in the star-shaped flowers of the clematis vine, which sprawls voraciously all down one side of our house and blooms white, a flag surrendering the end of summer. Around this time the hot season begins to make its slow retreat: tropical storms are tracked, their orange radar swirls no larger than your fist on the television screen but three hundred howling miles wide out over the empty eastern Atlantic. The birds began to sing again, free at last from an oppressive regime of humidity. The giant walnut tree in the backyard drops its fruit in great salvos on the roof and windowsills and driveway, each walnut in its hard hull landing with a crack, sometimes loud enough to wake me from my sleep. The neighborhood squirrels bustle about like housewives at a sample sale, feverishly crisscrossing fences and yards with stacks of walnuts clutched to their chests, or tussling with each other in the pitchy squeaks and clicks of their rodent language, the scrabble of nails on rough tree bark, the dry shimmy of old leaves shaking. Perhaps they chase each other in play, but in their black walnut eyes I see fervid animal jealousy, their panicked drive for survival.
When from my bedroom window I see him perched on that fencepost, a few months from now, ripping his greedy way through the hull of a walnut, which will look as big as a coconut in his tiny paws, I will watch the quick spasming movements of his head bearing down on the nutflesh, and the eerie stillness of the rest of his body settled back on his plump haunches, his tail curled under him like a Moroccan pouf, until he senses me watching and freezes altogether, one gleaming black pupil swiveling around almost backwards and fixing upon me.
The squirrels will colonize this fencepost all winter; their twitchy breakfast nook, their guard tower. They say the squirrels know a bad winter when it’s coming.
Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.