Spirit Animals

Originally posted on My Life Among the Eukaryotes, on March 24, 2015.

Four years ago next week, my dad died. People often die this time of year. People who hung on all winter, creaking through the holidays and dragging themselves out to the easy chair for a spot of TV, just give up. It’s a tough time of year. Winter hangs on, spring can’t get a toehold. It’s cold — often bitterly cold — and messy and dismaying outside. Inside it’s messy, too, and it smells funny because the windows have been closed tight for more than four months. 

By late March, my whole place needs a hoe-out, or I need a walk – but I can’t do either just yet. The snow is too deep in the woods, and the dooryard is a sheet of ice. I feel stuck and desperate. Others go into the hospital and begin to tell themselves they won’t emerge, and often they don’t.

My dad had been sick a while; his death was not unexpected. We had time to gather and say goodbye. Five days before he went to the hospital for the last time, everyone was here. We had a big family brunch, we told stories and made small talk and just hung out with him all day. My nephew from San Francisco brought a toy fart machine which had been intended as a gift for his grandfather’s birthday in just two more weeks. The two of them sat together in his armchair next to the big plate glass sliding door overlooking the open hillside down to the paved road. They took turns pressing the different buttons: Toot-a-loo. The Long Goodbye. They wheezed with laughter until tears ran down their faces. It was a wonderful day.

At the end of the day of his passing, I came back to that house, to that room. I was wiped. A kind of stunned vacancy had enveloped us all. It felt like we had powered a cog railway to the top of a steep incline, puffing and straining those last few yards upward, and now we hung in that weightless moment before the balance tips and we are pulled back down, before the very planet takes us back, fiercely, to her own heart. I gazed out at the sere gold fields beginning to show themselves through the receding snowcover.

An extraordinary thing happened. I became aware, first, of subtle motion among the tall thin trunks of birch and popple on the knoll below the house, in the treeline of the surrounding forest. And as I watched, the deer came out for their evening’s browse. Unhurried, unperturbed they emerged, noses lowered, nuzzling into the snow. One here, one there – then a pair, then a doe and four fawns. Eventually, thirty eight deer moved out from the trees into the rich golden light of late afternoon. I had never seen so many deer gathered in the open before. Ever.

Among them was a grown buck – hefty-chested, tall, with regal antlers – perhaps a sixteen-pointer. This huge rack — years in the making — would make a prized trophy, and so it testified to a superior intelligence — to have lived so long in this region where the annual deer hunting season is observed with the ardor and devotion other cultures reserve for sports teams and religious obligations. This majestic animal raised his head and gazed at the house.

I opened the glass door so i could see him better. He saw me, but was untroubled. We stood a long moment, gazing at each other. He extended a foreleg, lowered his head and brushed his jawline along his shinbone. Then he looked a long time at me, and eventually moved off with the herd — unhurried, unafraid.

Since that day, I have often spoken of that encounter with the buck as my father’s true farewell.

* * *

This year, this month, again, I lost someone who has mattered a great deal to me. He lived in the big world, a journalist, a passionate advocate for justice and for the soul of his profession. He leaves behind an enormous global community of colleagues, friends, and especially family: a daughter, two brothers, two ex-wives, and that circle of stalwarts who cared for him and called upon him through the last months of his life.

His daughter opened a Facebook memorial page whose ranks swelled to nearly a thousand in the week following his death. The outpouring of reminiscence, celebration, sorrow and love — perhaps history’s most relentless shiva call — has been like a living thing itself. The stories, the photographs, videos, audio clips, and fellowship among the mourners have cast light and warmth to the far corners of the world. He leaves a footprint in ten thousand hearts.

In my life he has been, by turns over the past forty years, a folk hero, a friend, a mentor, a comrade, a lover, and a guiding light. Our relationship was always episodic, tenuous, but intense and complicated nonetheless. You could say that he was a figment of my imagination, and I was a figment of his. You could say we had compatible pathologies. A city mouse and a country mouse, and in in practically every other way also, two very, very different people, and yet — the heart wants what it wants.

But we had not spoken in years.

He died last Thursday. Pancreatic cancer. I had no idea, though I suspected chemo when a mutual friend posted a couple of recent photos of him which showed a taxed figure in a knit beanie, without his trademark jewfro, or the grizzly nap along his chin-line. My reaction to the news has been unexpectedly complex, intense and ambivalent. Remembering him has been a rough ride back through the gauntlet – exhilaration, appreciation, admiration, affection, renewal of purpose – and (truth:) also anger — at being misperceived, even rage at being invisible.

* * *

Yes, it had been an exhausting weekend. Quite apart from this bad news, we had our umpteenth terribly bitter cold snap, and a close call between my little dog and a skunk.

I first saw the skunk on Friday about forty yards from the house, waddling across the icy crust atop snow still three feet deep — no doubt fresh out of hibernation and hunting for a little nosh. Moments earlier, I had let the dog out to pee and he had promptly hopped over his yard fence to explore the forbidden country of the hayfield. From the porch I watched what I feared would be a slow-motion calamity.

Once my dog spied the skunk, he ran toward him, barking. The skunk stopped mid-waddle and stood looking at the dog, and I saw its fur puff up, and (horrors!) the tail rise. Oh gawd, dog. No, please! In warmer weather I’d have skimmed the hay-tops like a skipped stone to get between them in time. But the icy crust on which they scrabbled could not support my weight, and the depth of the snow cover would have mired me to the thighs. So I could only watch, fingers crossed. To my great good fortune, the dog was intimidated; and the skunk, recognizing the limits of his aggression, eventually turned and waddled away.

But I opened my kitchen door on Saturday morning to go tend my barn animals only to discover a night visitor — the self-same skunk — feasting on the sunflower seeds below the two bird feeders I keep by my kitchen window. I yelped and swore and retreated to the kitchen. Skunks are terribly nearsighted, so I must have seemed to him a great, hulking, ranting blur. He raised his head, his little black nose swinging left and right as he peered at me. I slammed the door. I looked out the window to see if the noise had sent him scuttling off. But no.

He was trying to stuff himself into one of the tunnel holes made by red squirrels in the snowbank below the bird feeder. He rammed his head and upper body into one hole, squirmed and wriggled, but he was too round. He pulled himself out and tried the other one. No better luck. Nosing around, he came across the pile of seed hulls and began to forage once more. I went up to straighten my bedroom and strategize. After chores I set a Hav-A-Hart trap with a chunk of stale bread and peanut-butter as bait. I opened a side door to the front porch and most carefully set the trap down about 15 feet from the skunk.

But he ignored it. All day he nosed around my end of the porch, oblivious to the banquet I had prepared for him. Twice I opened the kitchen door to yell at him, to scare him off. But each time, he raised his head, peered, and waddled toward me instead. FYI this is alarming behavior in a skunk: normally passive, timid and retiring, a skunk who doesn’t flee is often rabid.

As 5 o’clock approached, I began to worry that he wouldn’t be caught before I had to leave for a dinner date. I worried that as dusk settled, he would be impossible to see. I worried that a neighbor or a stranger dropping by of an evening would set him off. Then as I watched him from the window, he found his way into a window well and curled up under the dryer vent. Oh well, I sighed to God. Thy will be done. I went to dinner.

* * *

Coming home later, I could see in my headlights that the trap had been sprung. Oh frabjious day! All I had to do now was drop a tarp over him, and wait til morning to call a friend with a .22 to end the suspense. Confident in the conventional wisdom that skunks in a trap won’t spray because they can’t raise their tails, I stepped out on the porch and switched on the overhead light. I tipped the trap slightly to get a better look.

Turns out the conventional wisdom isn’t true.

Jesus Mary and Joseph: my eyes watered, my throat closed over, i couldn’t get back inside fast enough. It’s brutal, that stench. Sulfur, excrement, flesh rot, every gut-torquing aroma in god’s arsenal seems condensed in the odor of a skunk at close range. And it carries. It gets into the weave of the denim of your jeans, it settles like a heavy fog on your hair, your parka, your shoe-tops. It finds its way into the house on drafts that come through chinks and ill-fitting fixtures. Before you know it, it’s everywhere. And it hangs on. And on. And on.

* * *

The next day, after the fellow with the gun had come and disposed of the skunk, and three days into mourning my departed friend, I laughed out loud about him for the first time since his death. I’m not sure how the idea came to me – but the time of year is a plausible prompt — late in winter, when i always think of my father’s passing, and the events surrounding that moment, including that extraordinary tribute of the deer.

I thought suddenly, What if that skunk was d–? What if that funny, homely, waddling beastie who meandered across my field Friday afternoon, balking when confronted by my dog, only to reappear Saturday at my kitchen door; and who, when I banged the screen and spoke loudly and sharply to him, lifted his nose to peer at me, nearsighted, and waddled toward me — what if the skunk was d– actually come to say farewell in a ceremony like the ceremony of the stag that had helped me let my father go?

I laughed. He would come back to me as a skunk — something with a warm coat, a waddling, ill-proportioned critter — a bit of risky business, genuinely charming. But — oh, my! — such an ill-considered incarnation! I thought of his father, saying to me with a sigh once long ago — my boy is very smart, but he flunked Women 101. D– had also possessed a Yippie’s flair for the pointed gesture — incisive, humorous, pungent…. Returning as a skunk could well have seemed to him like a great idea at the time.

And, supposing for a second that this is not as crazy as it sounds even to me, how did I receive the visitation from this dearest emblem of my youth? Why, I trapped him! I left him outside overnight in sub-zero windy weather, half-hoping he’d freeze to death. And when he didn’t, I had him taken out and shot.

Oy god please forgive me. And d–, if that was you — rest in peace. I regret nothing, now, except my failure to reach out to you at the very end. Because, in the end (what end?), after all (so far…), I did and do and probably always will: Love. You. Madly. Farewell.

— hlf/vermonter

One thought on “Spirit Animals

  1. What a lovely reminiscence! Such a pleasure to read, these contemplations of yours. This bittersweet post is especially poignant in its observations of lives human and animal, majestic and brutal. Also like your usage of the Hav-a-hart trap, similar to my own.

    Liked by 1 person

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