I wrote this story more than eight years ago now. Exactly how autobiographical it is, I leave up to you to decide...!
THE LEGAL BIT: This is copyright material and may not be copied or distributed in any way without prior permission, © Sam Enthoven 2006. All rights reserved.
When the squirrel came to me for the fourth time, I knew we'd have to talk. I gave up trying to write, got up from my desk, and went over to the windowsill where he was lying sprawled out in the sunshine. His fur glinted orange where the light caught it: he was mostly grey, but he obviously had red ancestry somewhere. For a moment I watched the space below his ribs, pulsing in and out with his every breath. 'Hey,' I said softly, without opening the window. 'What are you doing here, then? Mm?'
The squirrel's eyes, black and impenetrable, met mine coolly. Slowly and clearly, without opening his mouth, he said: 'You know why I'm here. You called me.'
Casually the squirrel then examined one of his claws, giving me a moment to collect myself. I needed it.
It was nearly six months since I'd quit my job to try writing full-time, and I had to admit it wasn't going well. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if I'd made a mistake. My computer's blank screen taunted me day after day, waiting to be filled - and I wasn't filling it. I needed help, I reckoned: some kind of head start. And one had occurred to me.
You know about the bluesman Robert Johnson? Or the story of Doctor Faustus? Over the previous weeks I'd begun to think seriously about making a bargain along the same lines. Fame and fortune, the traditional rewards in exchange for selling your mortal soul, weren't really that important to me: the ideas for a novel, however - something wonderful, that transcended the established boundaries of genre and made people take me seriously - that... that was something else.
Selling my soul was a daydream, really: I hadn't been expecting to get the chance actually to discuss it. The absolute authority of the squirrel's manner was a bit worrying. After a short silence, I opened my mouth.
'You're not...' I paused. The words "the Devil" wouldn't come out. I skipped them, cravenly settling for - 'Er...are you?'
The squirrel did not bother to reply, but turned his body to warm the other side of himself in the sun. His tail twitched once, elegantly.
'All right,' I said, 'what do you have in mind?'
'Well,' came his answer, and the words formed in my consciousness, 'it's really going to be very simple. You can have what you want. I can give that to you. All you have to do is open this window and...' (he hesitated) 'give me your hand.'
'What are you going to do?' I asked. 'How's it work?'
The furry head turned. The squirrel's black eyes glittered at me impatiently. 'I don't have time to piss about,' he said. 'You called, I came, I can give you what you want. So, do you want it - or not?'
I thought about the last few months I'd spent, and the baleful gaze of the blank pages. Well, I thought, why not? I took a deep breath, and opened the window. I saw the furry pulse quicken in his ribs as I reached towards him. Then, with a jump, he bit me.
For a moment I looked down at my finger, hardly believing it, as the small punctures filled up with blood. There was a rumbling in my ears, like icebergs breaking, far away at first but quickly coming closer; the squirrel stood there on the window ledge, poised on his back legs, staring straight up at me, and as the noise became louder and the air darkened around him I realised I was going to faint. In the moment before I fell, his eyes were all I could see.
After no time at all, I woke.
As my senses returned, I noticed I was still by the window. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my back and cool stone through the fur on my belly. Yes, I thought, looking up at myself in the glass, maybe I do need a haircut. Then I realised what I was seeing.
It wasn't a reflection. It was my face in there, looking out. But I was out here, and the window had been closed again. There was no way back in. Suddenly I began to feel very scared.
'I hope you've had your jabs,' my mouth said to me pitilessly. My finger, now wrapped in a plaster, wiggled at me from behind the glass. 'If this thing swells up my typing's going to be completely shot. Now if you'll excuse me...' The window's blinds came down with a zing, and I was alone.
A deal had been struck. An exchange had taken place. Just not, apparently, in quite the way I'd been thinking of.
For a long time I just lay there. The sun moved around the house until the light left the sill. Stranded in shadow with the breeze ruffling my fur, I started to get cold.
Once I'd untangled my feelings enough to tackle the situation one bit at a time, I realized that getting to the ground - without actually killing myself - was going to be a bit of a problem. Just the nearest tree-branch was about three feet away, three times my entire body length.
I ran, making the jump before I could think about it too carefully.
There was nothing beautiful about being airborne. It was all I could do to keep my eyes open as the air streamed into them. The tree lunged at me. I smacked into the branch and managed to grab it before I bounced off. My grip was bad, I was sure one of my claws was going to break, but I held on as hard as I could even though it hurt, and all the time I thought I could feel myself slipping. Gradually, with an immense amount of effort, I hoisted one back leg over the little branch. Then I held myself there, straddling it, determined not to move again. I was crying.
I opened my eyes and saw a pair of hairy grey claws, gripping the bark in front of my nose. I looked up. Another squirrel was standing nonchalantly on the branch. His lips were pulled back, showing his filthy front teeth, and his tail was quivering wildly behind him.
'Bloody 'ell!' the grey managed finally, once he'd got his laughter under control. 'Call yourself a squirrel? That was the worst bloody jump I've ever seen!'
'I'm not really a squirrel, actually,' I tried to reply. 'Something's happened to me, I don't understand what, but somehow I've been-'
'Don't tell me,' said the grey, with ineffable contempt, 'you're another bloody wannabe writer.'
I stared up at him, amazed.
Enjoying my shock, the grey looked at me down his snout. A wicked glint entered his eye.
'Nasty drop from up here,' he observed, changing the subject. He looked at the beckoning concrete below the tree - then suddenly flexed his back legs, shaking the branch in a way that made my stomach lurch. 'Ooh yes,' he cackled delightedly. 'Bouncy, too. You don't want to be staying on this too long. You fall from up here, you'll be splattered all over the place. WHAM! Pizza! Hee HEE-!'
'Please.' The words were forced out of me in helpless gasps of air as I was thrown up and down: 'Please... do you mind? I'd prefer it if you didn't... do that. It's dangerous. I might-'
'You're pathetic,' he crowed, bouncing. 'Totally pathetic! Aren't you? Hmm? Aren't you?'
The branch kept shaking. My claws were losing their grip. 'Oh god', I said. 'Please stop. I'm slipping...'
'Say it!' he shrieked.
'Say it, you little turd!'
'All right!' I said. 'I'm pathetic-'
'I'm pathetic! Useless! Please!'
He stopped bouncing and the branch gradually slowed. His tail curled into a question-mark shape behind him. Then he leaned over me. From where I was lying, with my chin flat on the branch, he looked about a hundred feet tall.
'You know what?' the grey said. 'I meet people like you all the time. You all fall for it, the oldest trick in the book. And you know why that is? It's because you're all the same.' He sneered down at me. '"Transcending the established boundaries of genre,"' he echoed, grimacing. 'What utter bollocks. But you talk it, all day, and still complain when you find that somehow you never actually do anything. Christ, you lot don't hardly know you've been born.' He paused.
'Now,' he went on, 'here's what you're going to do. You're going to turn around, run the length of this branch, and do that jump again. Right back up onto that windowsill where you came from.'
I looked round. The leap would be upwards this time. My legs - all four of them - began to quake.
'But - I can't,' I said. 'It's... it's just too far.' I shook my head. 'I can't do it.'
'Oh dear,' said the grey, with exaggerated surprise. His hairy lips parted, showing his teeth. His tongue flicked across the sharp fangs. 'In that case, I'm afraid there's only one thing to do. I'm going to have to put the "puncture" in your "punctuation" for you - wannabe.'
He leaned forward. Gently, I felt his teeth fix around my ear. His breath was hot in my head.
'Oh god. No, I can't-'
His grip tightened. Each point of his teeth was pressing, biting.
'No don't, oh, please. I-'
The pain started, bright and savage, and-
The fifth time the squirrel came to me, I could see he still wanted to talk. Well, I thought, why not? I stood up from my writing and went over to the windowsill.
'What's the matter?' I said. '"Squirrel's block"?'
'Please,' said the squirrel, dipping his small head, crestfallen. 'How much longer?'
For a moment, I let myself feel sorry for him. He looked thin. His tail was limp, quite bald in places, and the wound to his ear was swollen and livid. His pulse was weak and feverish, more like a shiver than the pump of his life's blood. Pathetic.
'Your stories weren't much cop, were they?' I said, grinning at him. 'It's a good job you've got me to do all the hard work for you. You'd be nowhere otherwise.'
I watched as his furry shoulders sank inward.
'Mind you,' I went on, 'if the novel does well, it's just possible the publishers might actually be up for putting your stuff out, one day. You know: early works, or...' I searched for the word. '"Juvenilia."'
His little black eyes were looking away from me now. He lay down on all fours, trapped there but not wanting to hear any more.
'If that happens,' I said, trying not to laugh, 'I give you my word that I'll pay you the appropriate royalties. Which would you prefer, by the way? Salty? Or dry roasted?'
'I can't go on like this,' he said. Suddenly he looked up at me: 'I won't.'
The defiance in his small black eyes was surprising. But it didn't last long. As his words hung between us, I watched the glint of it slowly shrink down, then finally die out.
'There,' I told him. 'Mrs Franklin at Number 23 puts out a fresh croissant for the birds every tea-time. You'd better hop to it if you don't want the others to get there first.' I reached for the blind. 'Go on, piss off. Some of us have work to do.'
I let the blind go with a zing. I sat back down and looked at the screen again.
Now, I thought. Where was I?
© Sam Enthoven 2006
Note: This story first appeared in August '06 in the excellent free short story magazine LITRO.