The squirrel and the portal to death


After having a long conversation with my friend Robyn Kanner, I walked up Seattle’s Westlake Ave and came upon a squirrel that had been run over by a car. It was alive but half of its body was crushed and it was dragging itself around by its two front legs. I immediately realized what I’d have to do, but first I looked around in hopes of finding a rock with which to carry out the job so it wouldn’t have to be so intimate. I couldn’t find anything of use and so I looked at the squirrel, repeated “no no no no no no no” in my head, closed my eyes and brought my heel down hard. I expected a crunch or a pop but there was little resistance.

That “no no no no no no no” was empathic, of course, but also in response to the fast and abrupt widening of the portal and for a few minutes I felt high with adrenaline and then walked silently while the tear between this reality sat open.

When I was a kid there was this squirrel that kept getting into the bird feeder and so I shot and killed it with a pellet gun. I’d used the squirrel’s status as a pest to rationalize the action, but I know now that I did this because I was young and curious and wanted to kill something to see what it would be like. My subconscious knew this years before I was ever able to acknowledge as much consciously. For weeks I was haunted by nightmares in which I was overwhelmed by vengeful squirrels falling from the sky.

A few years later my mother had taken a CPR class and so when we saw in the distance a car that had freshly crashed on 95 she pulled over to see if she could help. It was the same car we’d seen weave and pass at double our speed a handful of minutes before. Walking toward us was another driver who had checked out the scene and behind him was the twisted car and two young men 30 or 40 feet in front of it. “Nobody can help them now,” he explained.

While in Serbia I saw a man get hit by train.

On that same day, I watched a cat casually walk up to another and kill it with little fanfare in a park.

Not long afterward, while working on a veterinarian’s farm, I would help to euthanize a goat the vet had in his family for over a decade. I held the goat while the IV was injected and I pushed the plunger. I buried her in the middle of a downpour while listening to Verdi’s Requiem.

In the midst of each of these encounters I was overwhelmed by this inner silence where I felt all other noise get sucked away in an instant. We live our lives in one dimension while death sits waiting in one parallel to our own and these encounters open the portal between it and us. A bit of that death energy seeps into our world and reminds of what’s coming. Some see it and never want to see it again, so they structure their lives and experiences to avoid these revelations at all costs. I’ve always found the encounters oddly peaceful, but some instinctual inner restraint used to keep me from looking too far into the portal — something inside would warn of contamination if I got too close.

Then my father died. When he finally went he was so skinny compared to how I’d long known him. The cancer really hollowed him out. He’d been so sick for so long and we’d been waiting and waiting. He was in hospice care but just wouldn’t go and so finally he was in this facility where he died in a small bed. I’d just gotten back in from a trip for work when they called to tell me he’d died. I went in and saw him there where he looked at once asleep and startled and his fingers looked like those on Nosferatu’s shadow, extended like fleshy faucets.

The morphine makes you delirious and thirsty; my sister once saw him try to suck water out of his fingers near to the end.

I held onto those stiff fingers and talked to him. Seeing him free from pain was liberating. I had thought this inevitable moment was going to be scarier—that being in proximity to this would annihilate me—but sitting with him and looking into that portal was liberating. It opened up that day and, unlike with those encounters before, it never closed. While distant, that parallel universe now forever feels within reach and for whatever reason the prospect of falling in no longer strikes as frightening.

I admire Robyn because she is so good at going to new places and doing new work and maintaining an edge. I told her that she’s brave and that I admire her so much because of that.

“It’s not even bravery,” she told me.

“I’m just not afraid to die.”

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.