Green linen embroidered with the white outline of a squirrel, and five leaf shapes cut from multiple colors of fabric secured to the linen with cross stitches in various colors.
Embroidered squirrel and leaves for the story "An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck" by Kij Johnson

“An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck” by Kij Johnson

An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck

by Kij Johnson

Green linen embroidered with the white outline of a squirrel, and five leaf shapes cut from multiple colors of fabric secured to the linen with cross stitches in various colors.
Art by Nina Miller

In 1974, Georges Perec spent three days observing the Place Saint-Sulpice from various café tables. He logged everything he saw, or tried to. The list is almost fifty pages long, and was published in English as An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. This was one of the books on Linna’s shelves she never got around to before now; turns out it was fascinating after all.

Linna’s alone. Sometimes she’s lonely, but less than she can get anyone to believe, or that she would have believed possible herself, a few years back. Being solitary is a skill set she has learned. She sleeps in the center of her bed, mixes chili paste into all her cooking, makes up limericks to recite to the posters on her walls. Still, even the most robust skill set has gaps, habits to rethink, ways to expand.

Linna’s never really been an outdoorsy person, but there’s always room for change. Her apartment has a small wooden deck with a sliding door that leads out. She has a cylindrical birdfeeder, a tray for food for squirrels, a water bowl. She has a small desk by the door, and a notebook, and a pen.

She attempts to exhaust her deck.

5 kinds of trees, I think? I don’t know any names, so I’ll call them

Now a squirrel is watching me through the glass. It’s flat on its belly on the railing, with its tail laid across its back. The face is heart-shaped. Eyes are edged with light brown fur. The feet that cling to the railing are very long & tiny-boned, pale brown, black between the toes.

A jay flies past, almost touching the squirrel’s back—she flinches. Maybe it thought she was part of the wood? It lands on the side railing, then a second jay shows up & drops to the deck. Another one (#3) joins it, they both reach for the food on the metal tray, there’s a squabble. Two more smaller squirrels come over the railing. One has a thin tail, fuzzy & striped like a raccoon’s. I think it’s a baby! Something startles them; everyone freezes, then runs away.

It was the squirrel on the railing—she did something I didn’t see that scared everyone & then when they rush past her, she suddenly freaks out. Gone.

Count to 90 before a squirrel returns & scrambles onto the bird feeder…now it’s upside down pulling sunflower seeds from the holes & dropping them, not eating them…. Now it’s on the deck, eating them all. Good planning, squirrel.

A wasp flies by like it’s on a mission. What do wasps eat?

What was I doing before the squirrel? Listing trees, that’s right.

Linna thinks that she’ll run out of things to notice. After three days, even Perec was clearly sick of his task. And her deck is hardly the Place Saint-Sulpice: shops around the plaza and a fountain in the middle; all those people and cars. Paris! Her deck is an eight-by-six wooden platform over a tangle of trees and bushes strung along a drainage ditch. Last winter with the leaves fallen, the security lights for the apartments across the way splashed gold light onto her kitchen walls. Maybe bigger animals live in this woodland—possums, raccoons, feral cats, maybe even a coyote—but they don’t make it onto her deck, in daylight anyway.

Squirrels and birds. She doesn’t know anything about birds, except jays are the blue ones, the red ones are cardinals, and the partly red ones are robins. So many brown birds and gray birds and mud-colored birds and stripey birds she doesn’t know. She does some reading online, though after a few days, she realizes that differentiating sparrows is a lifelong labor.

An orange shape drops through the gap by the sycamore, very far away. It’s got to be a ♂ cardinal, nothing else is that color—

A jay drops from the backside of the cylindrical feeder, where I missed seeing it land. Flight path is a regular bobbing pump—with each downstroke of its wings it surges up a foot, then sinks.

A back-capped chickadee, very slim in its summertime plumage. Grackle. Another grackle. Another. √√√√√√√√√√  I lost count

Three speeds of wind in the trees. One tree’s highest branches bob while another one is still. There’s microweather up there, patches of wind .001 mph slower than the air right above it, or a 10th of a degree warmer, because it’s over a tree that collects more heat than its neighbors. Maybe?

Lil Bit is back!

Linna can identify a few of the squirrels by their size or scars, or the fuzziness and length of their tails. Lil Bit is the smallest squirrel, tiny and timid, probably from one of this year’s first litters. She comes alone, early, and backs away every time someone else approaches the food. She was here for a week, then went missing for a few days. Linna was worried about her: cat, owl, Cooper’s hawk—so many things can kill someone so small and inoffensive—and yet here she is again, tough enough to grow a day older, a little bit bigger.

Stumpy, eating all the peanuts, leaving the sunflower seeds per usual. Chickadee. ♂ roseate finch, now its ladyfriend. Bunch of sparrows ♂♀♀♂♀♂ There’s a broken branch in the sycamore that I didn’t notice yesterday but now I can, the leaves are getting brown. It looks like a giant cocoon. What kind of butterfly would that be?

A crow calls an alarm & the squirrels scatter; do they recognize its alarm, or are they just freaking out at the sound?

The trees, the deck, the sky. Squirrels. A juvenile male cardinal, an impossible color that manages to be both red and olive, that is testing every bolt in her deck on the off chance that it is food. Linna is learning to be patient, to watch and wonder.

Linna experiments. Will she capture different things if she types instead of writes, speaks instead of types? She unearths a microcassette recorder she bought at a yard sale, and after an absorbing afternoon, decides her phone app is better. She takes pictures through the glass, blurry except for the hundredth, a crisp little Carolina wren against foliage, pretty as a National Geographic photo. She sends it to her friends. She reads up about phone photography, emails someone she knew a few years back who was a professional photographer. They’re also bored, thrilled to talk. She had no idea how interesting the early days of photography were.

A chickadee clinging sideways to the feeder, gone before I finish typing the words.

A sudden bird in the trees; even knowing exactly where it is, it vanishes the minute it stops moving, perfectly reproducing the outline of a leaf.

Linna has a friends list, the people and things that connect her to the larger world. Her mother and her brother and his family. Best friends from high school, now married to one another, who rematerialized six months ago in an email that said, I don’t know if you remember us? The Gang of Five, her best friends ten years ago, back in Seattle. The friends she texts every day or every week. Calls and videocalls and emails and paper letters with stamps. They talk about the deck, about nudibranchs, about Italian literature, about Yuri!!! on ICE, about learning to bake.

They aren’t all alive, the people on her friends list: her father, for one. Others she’s never met and never will: a musician who made a song in 1984 that cracks her open, fictional characters in favorite shows. They are not—she looks it up—“a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.” But they matter to her. Because of them, she reaches out of herself and into the world. To care is as important as to connect, sometimes.

And they aren’t all people. Lil Bit and the curious juvenile cardinal; the squirrels, the blue jays, the dark-eyed juncos and the tufted titmice and the downy woodpeckers; the Japanese hemlock crowding against the railings of her deck, and the deck itself, which has taken on a sort of life of its own under her steady regard. Linna is alone, but she is seldom lonely.

The sun goes behind the clouds & the colors all change. A decision needs to be made—describe the squirrel on the railing looking down at the ground, or describe the shifting of the colors? So many things— The sun comes back out before the decision is made. The squirrel remains.

Kij Johnson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. Her most recent books are The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe and The River Bank. She teaches at the University of Kansas, where she is associate director for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction.

Watch Kij Johnson and ecologist Jessie Rack in a virtual conversation about “An Attempt at Exhausting My Deck”

Us in Flux is a series of short stories and virtual gatherings that explore themes of community, collaboration, and collective imagination in response to transformative events.

Other Stories