Maggie Cepis

Laurel Nakadate 

A Neighborhood Death 

In the video, there is a little girl wearing nothing but saggy, pale pink cotton underwear, holding a dead squirrel. She stands on a white sidewalk, surrounded on either side by green suburban lawn. She looks about four and has brown shoulder length hair that is one part bed-head and one part summer sprinkler. She is joyful and radiates pride. She smiles up at the camera. She has big toes that are longer than the others. She holds the squirrel, or squail as she calls him, under his arms, his back against her chest, like an oversized medal or an undersized shield. His arms stick straight out, as if he’s saluting or sleep walking. And then, she announces to her father, who is shooting the footage, “It’s a squail. It’s dead! Whee! Tickle, tickle, tickle.” And she turns around and spins her charge as if he were in a dream he might have had when he was alive, the one where he is flying. The one where he is a flying squirrel. And so, after death, this squirrel finally achieves his dreams and after death this little girl becomes the marionette director of this animal’s fate. Like a Pilates instructor, she leads him through exercises, leg lifts and stretches. She warms him up and checks under his tail. And then, her father asks her, “ What are you going to do after this?” To which she responds, “I’m going to put him right here,” and she places him on the sidewalk that leads up to the front porch of her childhood home, and she tucks his little arms so that they curl in toward his belly. He appears only to be sleeping. She arranges him, like a mortician, lovingly preparing a body for a wake where it needs to be seen by loved ones who wish it were alive. And her father says, “Why is the squirrel dead? Do you know?” And the little girls says, “Because Ivy, Ivy ate it.” And then the little girl lifts his limp body again, and throws him over her shoulder, as if her casualness could undo the finality, as if her sing-song rhythm could get her the green light for an endless dead squirrel play-date. Nothing the matter here, nothing to be scared of here. And then, her mother appears, from down the sidewalk and pretends to be dismayed, though it’s obvious that she isn’t, it’s obvious that she is one of those rare parents who allows her children to interact with the natural world without fear. And the little girl says, “Do you want to touch him? He’s my friend. I’ve got two animals, a dog and a squail!” Then the parents call the family dog into the frame and we see a guilty, white muzzled greyhound slink into the shot. Her name is Ivy, as we’ve already learned, and she looks concerned, barely allowing herself to be petted by the mother, looking no one in the eye. She knows she is a killer. And then she is gone, back inside the house, alone with her shame, safe from the camera, getting ready for her afternoon nap—something she values even more now that she is older. She doesn’t dream of flying like the squirrel, she dreams of running, like most dogs, and so she dreams the dog dream template and in her predictable dog way. She is content, and moves her legs in her sleep because that feeling, that moving-your-legs, running feeling, is the same whether it’s dream or fact. “Sweet baby squail, sweet baby, sweet baby, sweet baby, sweet baby” the little girl says, back on the front porch. She caresses her squirrel and honors his body and then the video begins to end. Her mother runs off camera and her father announces that she needs to put him down. There is mention of a bath. The little girl ignores her father and just nods the squirrel’s head up and down and up and down yes, yes, yes. She announces, “Look, he’s nodding his head!,” and she grins and looks up at the camera, as if she is wiser than her four years, as if she understands that this is hilarious and dark and everything the future holds, that she is not responsible for yet. It’s as if she is trying this on, this world where death rubs up against a neighborhood and settles at the foot of a family home. It’s as if she can cuddle tragedy until it gleams with make-believe hope. Making believe is a bauble that she can remove when this video performance ends. Her father repeats, “Time to put it down someplace where it is going to stay forever now. We’ve got to bury it.” And then comes the part that breaks my heart. She says, “No, I don’t want to bury it; I want to touch it tomorrow.” Her father says, “No you don’t want to touch it tomorrow, there is no touching it after this.” And somewhere in the neighborhood a car starts and we hear its engine turn over and we take one last look at this little girl and this dead squirrel as she opens his legs one last time, to look at his belly and for the first time, during this two minute and forty second video, we see the girl show fear. She drops the squirrel’s legs, recoils and wipes her hand on her thigh, and walks towards her father. He says, “It’s time to take a bath” and asks her to say goodbye to the camera. She walks towards the camera and waves goodbye and we see the light behind her eyes and we feel hope inside in the most innocent and vulnerable and sparkling-new-star-is-born-in-the-Milky-Way way. She begins to exit then runs back to the squirrel and says goodbye. And her father says, “Okay, thanks,” and she says, “I will touch it again, but I said goodbye.” and she disappears into the house, and the camera zooms in on the dead squirrel. And we feel love for this squirrel. This dead squail. Because she loved it, because this little girl, in too big underwear loved it on a summer afternoon, barefoot, somewhere in suburban America and lead us into the darkness and allowed us to feel joy.