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The Squirrel Man of Moscow

IN Moscow recently, we were lodged not in a hotel but on a cruise ship on the river. All the hotels were overbooked, full to overflowing. Around our moorings paddled a fleet of mallard ducks, and sea gulls cried and circled, swooping low. Beyond the edge of the river lay woodlands and a park - the Park of Friendship.

Since we had only three days before the final flight to St. Petersburg and then home, we took to wandering in the park, crunching through fallen drifts of gold and scarlet leaves. Robins sang their autumn song while we watched redstarts and families of titmice. Hooded crows hopped along at our feet, and everywhere children in colorful knitted caps were playing beside mothers and grandmothers. The children were friendly, pouring out an often incomprehensible flow of talk, and with them as our guides, we m et the squirrels of the park. They were russet-red as the September leaves, were wonderfully tame, and had very definite tastes. They would have nothing to do with the crumbs left over from our breakfast.

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"Not bread, nyet, nyet!" the children squealed, delighted that they knew and we didn't. Before they could tell us what we should give squirrels, we heard all at once a slow, clear voice call: "Oryekhi! Oryekhi! Nuts." We stared. On a bench in a secluded section of the silver birch glade sat an excessively thin old man. That he was very spare and wore a fur hat was all we could make out, for he was engulfed in squirrels that had perched on his shoulders and knees. He was listening with interest to our con versation. "Oryekhi!" he repeated.

"Where can we find nuts?" we asked.

"Ask them," he said, pointing to the children. "They've learned it all from me."

"Go to the market" they told us. "See, over there."

THE market lay on the edge of the park, beside the metro station. Beyond that was the desolation of high-rise flats, tower blocks, the thundering rush of traffic, and all the bleakness of city suburbs. The stalls provided a splash of color with their fruit, giant pumpkins, felt boots, leather jackets, lacquered dolls, and trays. A bearded young man was selling fur hats, holding up a mirror to the prettiest girls. "You must have this one, just see yourself!" he coaxed, tilting the mirror nearer and bendin g down closer to them.

Next to him, a fierce, black-eyed woman had a stall with a weird mixture of loofahs, forest mushrooms, and a high pile of hazel nuts. She kept up a flood of invectives against the young man, his hats, all those girls, and against the miseries of life in Moscow. So we wanted nuts for squirrels, she demanded in a shrill yelp. Where did we come from? Was life as hard in our country as in theirs, for all their famous perestroika?

We had to cut her short, but her angry yelping came echoing after us as we hurried back to the Squirrel Man. What if he had already vanished or had been a mirage and we never learned how best to feed squirrels? But he was still there and so were his companions. We held out our bag of nuts and he took two, tapped them together - clink, clink. "See, like a little drum. You drum them to you."

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At the sound, still more squirrels came darting from the trees, took the nuts from his hand, held them in their paws to nibble, then scurried away to bury what remained. The man obviously wished to talk. The children listened for a time, then, as if they'd heard it all before, they too scampered off and were soon absorbed in their own games.

"You may wonder why I am so fond of these little animals," he began tentatively, speaking in his slow, careful voice. Were we really interested? We nodded. "I first saw them in Siberia," he began. "I'd forget something of the cold and hunger, watching them. If they could survive perhaps I could, too." Every now and then he paused, calling "Mitya, Misha, squirrel," holding out more nuts. He looked as if he could have done with some himself.

"You'll never see them inflicting cruelty on one another in the way men do," he went on. "You've only to watch how they play together. Soon they came to represent freedom for me - freedom. There they'd go, running along a branch so slender I expected it to break, but it never did. They leapt enormous distances flying through the air. I began to dream of becoming a squirrel myself. When I woke at daybreak, the coldest hour, I'd feel to see if overnight I'd grown fur and tufted ears and a great bushy tail!

Then I'd be able to spring over walls and fences in one bound, free as a bird, free as a squirrel. Can you imagine it?"

We could, even if imperfectly. He listened very carefully to us, then continued. "There was a fellow in the bunk above mine - what could he have done I don't know, for I've never met a better man. He was an expert on wildlife, knew all about Siberian and Transcausasian squirrels, about owls and tigers and snakes and butterflies. `What are you two talking about?' one of the guards would ask, very suspicious. Was it subversive? Then little by little he grew almost interested himself. `These two and their s quirrels,' he'd say, sneering, and yet wanting to hear it all. We were quite harmless, he thought.

"I'd fall asleep muttering under my breath, as if I was saying my prayers. It was a kind of prayer, too: tree squirrels, palm squirrels, flying squirrels.... It helped me to sleep, like counting sheep. The only thought in the camps, apart from your dreams, was your release, the end of exile, the return home - if you survived. You had impossible hallucinations of your sentence being shortened, or reversed, of someone finding that a mistake had been made. Not likely!"

Every now and then he gave us a funny, sidelong glance. Was he wondering if we, too, like the children, were growing restive and wished to sidle off, escaping his talk? He was soon reassured. He held us enthralled. "As you see, I did at last return home. Home's over there," he waved a hand in the direction of the dismal landscape of the high-rise flats. "My wife, Nadya Sergeevna, and I live five floors up. When I found those red squirrels here in the park, it was almost like a miracle. I think they've co me to accept me as a new kind of tree, rooted in one place, at this same seat. The best time in life is when I'm here with them." He was silent for a spell, perhaps reviewing those other years, the lost years.

`SOON Nadya Sergeevna will come hunting for me to take me home," he said. "She's still afraid that I might vanish off again for 10 years, for no good reason at all. I tell her that life is easier now, that we're free from fear, but she can't believe it the way I do. I'm more harmless than ever now, an old man spending his pension money on nuts for squirrels! You were asking if I really know one from the other, of course I do. Look at all their different colors - red, chestnut, bronze, gold, silvery white . None are the same, neither in color nor in character. There goes Parasha, she's the cleverest, with beautiful eyes. And see old Mitya, sitting on my knee. He's not wanting to eat, just to sit at peace with a friend. He's ancient like me. Will he, will I, get through another winter? It'll be cold soon, we can have snow as early as September. Here she comes now," he broke off, pointing along the path.

Nadya Sergeevna was even skinnier than her husband, like a frail, anxious little bird with very shabby plumage. She looked at us gravely, politely, but with a kind of disquiet. We tried to conceive of something that in our country we had never known: the nightmare she had endured of a dawn ring at the doorbell and strangers standing on the threshold who had come to lead her husband away. "Here are two comrades from overseas," he said to her. She tried to say something but could find no words.

"You're chilled," she said. "You've talked too long." She would be afraid that he had said too much.

The sun was setting and the squirrels had disappeared high up in the branches. The man rose up stiffly, gently pushing Mitya off his lap.

`PERHAPS we'll meet again," he said. "Remember, we are much freer now - almost like squirrels, - almost but not quite," he called to us over his shoulder. Nadya Sergeevna took his arm and we watched them going very slowly along under the birches, past the market, then we lost them from sight as they vanished off into the gray anonymity of the Moscow suburbs.

The next day, our last, we went back to the market to buy a final packet of nuts from the ill-tempered vendor. She was still spitting out her resentment against life, politicians, and perestroika. When we came to the park, the seat was empty. "Where is the Squirrel Man?" we asked the children. They had no idea. We left the nuts with them, hoping they'd tell him that the two tourists had come back to see him.

Now when we watch the graceful, darting ease of Scottish squirrels in the beech woods around our home, we hear again that call, "Oryekhi," and imagine the old Muscovite with his fine features. We see the quiet corner of Friendship Park; the swirling leaves; the chestnut and scarlet of the squirrels; the clinking of the hazelnut drum; the old couple moving along, the one who remembered the past and doubted, the other who looked toward the future and believed - free as a squirrel, almost.

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