When the calls come in for someone to champion the underdog, shield the weak or uphold the wings of justice, no one looks better in spandex and tights (figuratively speaking), than yours truly. Capture me off guard though, and you are likely to hear screams that will curdle your girdle. I am reminded in particular, of a day when a four-ounce woodland creature nearly shaved ten years off my future.
The house I owned at the time was a 1 ½ story bungalow located in a charming New Hampshire town within walking distance from the center square. It was my first real estate purchase and in spite of its “charming” size, I loved it. The property stood on the upswing of a hill with a driveway and tumbledown garage lying in shadow to the eighty year old cottage positioned higher on the knoll. It was a restful spot where native strawberries shared space with zucchini and squash plants that poured over a stone retaining wall. On the driveway side to the house was the cellar door. It too, once belonged to hobbits, for it was much too small to allow an average sized person to pass without injury. It was a fact that I was reminded of frequently each time I forgot to duck under the thick header beam.
I loved that old cellar. I could stand upright on one side of it but had to crawl on my belly like a sharpshooter in order to even peek into the cavernous depths of the other. The walls were made of stone that weeped each and every time it rained. Everything stored within its protection had to be buoyed by pallets or hung from a hook. One item stored below for safekeeping was a 50 pound bag of wild bird seed intended to feed the many sparrows and mourning doves that sang and entertained us in fanciful flight each sunrise.
It was a Saturday morning, after the weeding and lawn care had been nearly completed, that I took the short walk from the backyard to the lower slope leading to the gravel driveway. Everyone in the neighborhood was outside enjoying the fresh air of a morning in early May. Terri was in the front yard trimming a shrub. John, our neighbor from across the street, had his head under the hood of a car tinkering on a motor. It was a good time to take a break, open up that bag of bird food and fill the feeders. I opened the hobbit door to the cellar and walked in without ducking, adding yet another forehead contusion to the twenty previously received. Once my vision cleared and I regained my balance, I walked over to the platform that held the sack of bird seed. I anticipated a reluctant load and braced myself for the heft needed to lift the fifty pounds into my arms, or toss over my shoulder should a bodybuilder suddenly inhabit my frame. To my surprise, the unopened bag was much lighter than I expected. So light in fact, that I was able to hold it out in front of me with one hand and reread the printed weight. Yes; fifty pounds. So curious, I thought. How can an unopened bag of this bulk, the same bag I placed in the cellar three weeks earlier, be weightless? Time stopped as my brain wrestled with logic. The bag itself offered no theory to the outstretched arm which held it, until suddenly, something from within started to kick and punch in a flurry so fast and furious that I thought for a moment the bag was instead the womb of a poltergeist. I was not going to hang around for the birth. Blood curdling is an appropriate description of the scream that started in my pancreas and exploded from my mouth. A bulging-eyed chipmunk poked its head out from a hole in the top of the bag and echoed my screams before diving to safety through the cellar door. I sent the seed bag twirling into the air like a runaway baton. My screams ricocheted through the six New England states. Terri dropped her pruning shears and came running from around the house; John tossed his tools on the ground and ran across the street. Both were expecting to find the remains of my bloodied body and the axe left behind by a Lizzy Borden wannabe. Relieved to see me in one piece, they asked in unison the same harried question; “WHAT WAS IT?!”
I straightened my back to face them, interrupting only for a moment the Lamaze breaths which thus far had prevented my fainting. “CHIPMUNK!” I replied through jagged gasps and puffs.
My dreams are still haunted by their laughs.