Squirrel Watching

A squirrel perched on a branch

The following short story recently went viral in China. I’ve translated it into English, taking some artistic license in the process. You can read it in Chinese here (original author is unknown).

It’s a warm summer afternoon and a mother and her son are sitting side by side in the backyard. The son, at home from college, is buried in a book. The mother’s attention is fixed on the twin oak trees facing them, shading them from the sun’s unforgiving beams.

Suddenly, a squirrel hops down from the branches of the larger of the two oak trees, lands in the bed of mulch surrounding the tree, and promptly darts into the bushes. The mother turns to her son and asks him, “What is that?”

He looks up and murmurs, “A squirrel.” His gaze immediately turns back to the book.

The mother nods thoughtfully and watches the squirrel quiver in the bushes. A few moments later, she asks him again, “What is that?”

He reluctantly raises his head, follows his mother’s gaze over to the same bushes, and frowns. “Mom, I just told you. That’s a squirrel.”

Just as he is about to look away, the squirrel scurries over to the smaller oak tree. The mother points and asks yet again, “What is that?”

The son closes his book shut, “It’s a squirrel, Mom, a squirrel!”

Her eyes, fixed intently on the squirrel, do not notice her son’s annoyed glare. She smiles as the squirrel picks up an acorn and begins to nibble at it. Gingerly, she asks, “What is that?”

The son throws his arms in the air and cries out, “You’ve asked me the same thing like ten times already! It’s a squirrel, what don’t you understand?”

Without a word, she stands up and turns her back on her son. Confused, incredulous, and still fuming, he calls back, “What, you’re leaving?”

She holds her palm up, instructing him not to follow, and walks into the house. He turns back to the two oak trees. Amidst all the noise, the squirrel has scampered away. Sighing, he throws his book down in frustration.

A few moments later, the mother returns. In her hands is a small diary, corners frayed. She opens it up to a specific entry and hands it to him. “Read this.”

He reads:

December 17, 1995

Today, I took my two-year-old son to the park. While we were camped out in the grass, a squirrel scrambled near us. Twenty-one times he asked me, “What is that?” Twenty-one times I answered, “That’s a squirrel, honey.” And every time I answered him, I would hug him tightly… over and over and over. How could I possibly be annoyed by such pure innocence and curiosity…