Chipmunks are slippery little beasts. They may not look it, but those potbellied and pinstriped escape artists can squirm out of just about anything. The claws of an eagle. Rodent traps, lethal and humane. The path of a speeding Jeep, long after all of their chipmunk friends by the roadside have gasped and covered their eyes with their paws.
But that didn’t stop my older brother and me from trying to catch them.
As elementary schoolers, when our family took its annual trip to the Colorado backwoods, he and I made a tradition of engineering homemade chipmunk catchers out of recycled garbage. My brother could drag the design process out for hours, hunched over his graph paper at the kitchen table, protractor and pencils at his side, feet swinging back and forth under his wooden chair—only to sweep away the pink eraser rubbings and Oreo crumbs and thrust into the air the same schematic we’d used for our chipmunk catcher the year before. An empty two-liter soda bottle, strung up to a fishing pole.
For me, the whole charm of the design was that it should’ve taken, at maximum, five minutes to sketch out, ten minutes to build, which is about how long I could tolerate deliberating the details before leaving him to tinker and tweak them on his own. (Should we cut the opening four inches in diameter or five? String it up with the tight green fishing line, or the loose blue one? Stick the bait in a Coke bottle or Dr. Pepper?) Instead, I’d spend my time choosing the bait, a delicate process that my older brother never quite managed to master, but which came as a natural talent for me. As a chubby preteen, chipmunks and I shared a lot of the same tastes: day-old pancakes, raw blueberry pop-tarts, cold pepperoni pizza, all with peanut butter slathered thickly on top.
The joint effort only really began when it came time for construction—which I always rushed through, converting all my brother’s clean lines of mechanical pencil and confidently-scribbled calculations into something that looked like it’d been dug out of a trash compactor. Then, we’d shove the bait inside, rest the fishing pole against the front porch’s railing, and settle in to wait—
—for the chipmunks to take the bait.
Because no matter how much they wanted it, those slippery beasts would scatter at the slightest scare: a hummingbird buzzing past, a car trolling down the dirt road, the slam of the screen door as our parents peeked outside to snap a picture of our perfect failure. A half-hour was frustrating. An entire afternoon was torture. The flies licking at my peanut-butter-greased fingers. The sweat prickling around my neck and down the backs of my chunky thighs. The dust clouds that the chipmunks kicked up when they dove back underground and away from our utterly inadequate trap.
Most unbearable of all, though, was the slow-growing, soul-grating realization that I’d taken my big brother’s hard work and turned it into a duct-taped pile of garbage. It would’ve been easier if he’d gotten angry, like I was—with the chipmunks, and with the creature inside my clothes. But each time the chipmunks zigzagged away from our janky contraption and out of sight, he’d only say, “Aw, that one was so close! But we’ll get it next time, for sure!”
That was what always broke me. That relentless, blameless optimism. And the next dust cloud would drift over, choking, eye-watering, making it hard to breathe. And my disappointment would zigzag into sadness into guilt into anger, every sudden kink in my mood unexpected, and uncontrollable, and terrifying. And suddenly, I’d be the one scattering, and diving back inside through the screen door, letting it slam shut behind me.
It would take another four years for me to recognize these thoughts as depression, then another six for me to start treatment, and even longer for my brother and I to rework the relationship that I’d let fall apart in the meantime. When he’d first seen me in my suffering, his instinct was to try and fish me out—but without me to help him choose the bait, he had to improvise.
“Do you ever,” he might say, hopping up to sit on the kitchen counter while I made avocado toast for breakfast, “do you ever get an avocado with a really small pit, and think, like, yes!” Here, a double fist-pump for emphasis. “Bonus avocado! Because it leaves so much more room for the green stuff, you know?”
“Wow!” he’d sometimes exclaim as we worked out together, making me spasm mid-bench-press. “Isn’t it great when you look in the mirror and see a new muscle? It’s like getting upgrades for your body!”
Always trying to string a line between himself and his self-estranged younger brother, reel me back after I’d gotten swept away by whitewater psychiatric illness, maybe hook me into coming along on some adventure with him, “Like when we used to catch chipmunks as kids, remember, wasn’t that awesome?”
Not that he ever got any bites. Truisms about life’s joys weren’t the right bait for a bottomfeeder like me. Because while I’d sunken neck-deep into the murky silt that is depression, he’d only ever seen it through the water’s rippling surface, distorted by distance, glimmering with his own reflection—and, silently, but not at all secretly, I resented him for that. So I’d just clamp my jaw tighter and wordlessly ignore his reflection flexing at itself in the gym mirrors, or fumblingly slice the avocado in my hand, never looking up. And that raw vindictiveness, slathered in envy, that was something I’d bite down on, relishing the feel of the hook in my cheek, the line snapping taught between us, then snapping altogether.
My brother, though, kept tinkering and tweaking his design. Sticking the bait into different containers. Using looser line here, pulling it tighter there. Cutting out more space for me, for whenever I was ready. He was always the one with the patience for fishing, after all, and he always manages a catch. A conversation. A companion, even, eventually, in me.
And, of course, the chipmunks.
Hours later, they would still be snuffling around the patchy dead grass just as coyly as ever. The pancakes would’ve started steaming up the walls of our two-liter bottle. My brother’s shins would’ve cooked to medium-rare from the searing sunlight slipping under our porch’s overhang.
Then, inevitably, just before sunset, the air would fill with a delighted shriek and the frantic whirr-whirr-whirr of a fishing reel. “We caught one!” my brother would squeal from outside, voice muffled through the window, hauling the fishing pole onto the porch with a chipmunk scrambling around inside the bottle. “We caught one! Come and see!”
I’d sprint to the window, press my hand against the glass, blink away the velvety twilight. Outside, the chipmunk, pawing against the inside of the bottle—my big brother, proudly clinging to this slippery beast that he’d been fishing for, for so long, and finally managed to catch, just before dark.
Joshua Beggs is a graduate from Hendrix College and a current MD candidate at Kansas University Medical Center, with publications appearing in Blue Mountain Review, Hamilton Stone Review, Aphelion, and elsewhere. In his free time, he volunteers as a clinical Spanish interpreter, makes a podcast that his mom says is awesome, and occasionally updates the writing portfolio at his very imaginatively named website, joshuabeggs.com.