The entire episode made me squirrelly (National Post, January 14, 2004)

Everyone wants to know: Would I display grace under pressure, courage under fire? But few of us willingly seek out jobs or situations to test our mettle. If you choose soldiering or firefighting or policing, where your mettle stands a good chance of being tested, you probably have a pretty fair whack of courage already.

I always knew I lacked courage, it was just a question of how much. Forget war or burning buildings, where my faintheartedness would be a foregone conclusion. No, my curiosity dwells on heroism of the more Lilliputian variety. Would I give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a total stranger, for example? Would I -- I am acrophobic -- climb a ladder to the roof to rescue a stranded kitten? That kind of thing.

Recently my mettle was tested, and my mettle is an abysmal failure. It turns out that I am indeed graceless under pressure, craven in the line of fire. Worse, the very events that covered me with ignominy conferred honour and nobility on my husband. Hear my tale of shame, reader, but if you have never suffered the shock of a fat, black, fire-crazed squirrel, frantically caroming like an escaped balloon over, in, and around your household effects before your stupefied eyes, think carefully before casting the first stone.

Upon our arrival at our country house the weekend before the holidays, I unpacked and took a nap while my husband lit a fire in our hybrid fireplace/wood stove. When I awoke, he told me that as the kindling caught and the flames leapt, a squirrel fell down the chimney into the flame. (We'll call it Squirrel One for reasons that will become clear.) Without thinking twice, my husband opened the stove's thermal glass doors. Panicked, One ran amok, bashing into windows, trailing streaks of ash and blood up and down the walls, until finally -- my husband having opened the porch door -- One ran outside.

I was grateful to have been spared the entire episode. Squirrels are hideous rodents, vicious when cornered. Nibbling nuts on the deck railing, they contribute entertainment value to the rustic scene, but they're still wild animals. Inside your home, they arouse atavistic terrors beyond one's control*. (*Note: I will be playing this 'beyond my control' card come Judgment Day.)

As you have doubtless surmised, there was another squirrel in that stove. It must have hidden until, late that night as we watched TV, we heard the ominous clack and skitter of tiny claws, and there it was! Squirrel Two! Aaaaaagh!. We rushed to open the doors. My job was to chivvy it outside with a broom. I brushed the floor like a psychopathic curler whenever it skidded near me, but to no avail. Pocket rocket Two zipped and flew like a badly programmed Scud missile, over and under chairs, tables, and countertops. I watched and listened to his mad scrabbling with mounting horror. Finally he fled into an open air vent. Two was now somewhere in the entrails of the house. If he died and putrefied in there ... aaagh!.

We bought a humane trap. We put peanut butter and seeds in it and lined it with fir needles to make it smell woodsy. We left it attached to the air vent and went home. Our caretaker was to check the house every day. But Two was still in the vents when we returned the following Friday.

Company was coming. I churned with dread. Without much hope my husband decided to check the basement once more, and O happy day! He found Two -- dead -- in a shallow storage closet, and disposed of him outside. Luckyluckylucky ... until ...

My husband took the guests' children off to ski, and as I knelt to the kindling, I merrily posed the fateful question: "Care for a fire?" Oh yeah. As in an extremely bad low budget horror movie, the fire took hold and -- whump! Three dropped down the chimney into it. (Well, I say Three, but in fact we later decided it was One, come back in search of the defunct Two.)

Instinctively* (*see note re: Judgment Day), I shrieked, "Don't open the doors!" Yes, reader, I would have let Three/One die to avoid freaking out at another lunatic rodent flying around my home. If he squeaked I would've ... would've ... would've ... But I was mercifully spared further agonizing choices. Three/One fled back up the chimney, then seconds later fell down again, smoke-asphyxiated due entirely to his own recklessness.

So there you have it, jury. Both of us lit a fire. Both saw a squirrel fall. We both acted instinctively. My husband opened the doors to save the squirrel's life; I kept them closed to spare my sensibilities. He is a kind-hearted hero; I am a cold-blooded killer.

Which, do you suppose, are you?

© National Post 2004