The day before Thanksgiving found me on the phone with the oil company at 7 a.m. because it was 48 degrees in our yoga studio. Sometimes it’s hard to feel abundant in November -- the 4:15 sunset, the hard, dead gardens, the encroaching dark and cold. Then Carmen started shrieking in my ear:
"Mommy! A raccoon! A raccoon!"
"Shhhh, I’m on the phone," I hissed, striding purposefully into the other room while apologizing to the oil lady.
But it turned out our eagle-eyed 5-year-old was right. There was a raccoon in our back yard, shambling around the chicken pen, wreaking havoc and destruction. By the time my man ran out there with a baseball bat, three hens were dead and one was flapping feebly in its death throes.
The scene slowed and took on a strange, movie-like quality. I saw Tim -- clad in muck boots, a down jacket, and his underwear -- banging the wooden Louisville Slugger on the side of the red chicken house. Watery sunlight trickled through bare branches as the remaining chickens squawked. Then the intruder appeared again -- black-masked, emitting eerie mewling noises.
Something was not right with this raccoon. It skulked sideways, mangy coat rippling, one eye black and beady, one dried-up and sightless. A calm descended over me, all my senses sharpened. I thought of the Stanley Kunitz poem about the coon hanging spread-eagled on the screen door: "... its pointed snout pressing in,/ and the dark agates of its bandit eyes/ furiously blazing.
"The chickens! Are the chickens OK?" Ava kept asking.
"Girls, get behind me," I directed. While Daddy ran up to the attic for his .22, the murderer emerged from the scene of its crime and shuffled towards us, lumbering bear-like over the frosted grass, surprisingly fast. It was heading for the giant maple in the front yard. Carmen screamed like a banshee. Our old dog charged, all her hackles raised, and the bushy prowler turned towards her with a manic chirrup.
"Get the dog into the house," I shouted, as if anyone else but me was responsible. Carmen kept on screaming, using the powerful vocal chords that have shocked our neighborhood since she was two weeks old.
Now in long pants, my frontier man reappeared with his grandfather’s gun in hand. I herded children and pets into the house as he popped the brass bullets into the magazine and stalked around the corner towards the coon like Pa Ingalls hunting down a wolf on the prairie. We huddled inside the living room, Carmen’s white face pressed against the window.
I didn’t watch. A dull shot echoed, followed by two more in quick succession.
"Is it dead, Mommy?" asked Ava. I peered out and there was the coon lying like a heavy fur pelt on the grass, still twitching, its long, rodent-like teeth exposed. Finally all was still in the pale November light.
Nothing like taking out a rabid animal before breakfast.
I cooked French toast but no one had much appetite. Sniffing, Carmen asked for some books to "get her mind off the chickens." Our household settled into its familiar routines in a quiet daze, half-numb with the relief that follows any violence. But when Tim called Brattleboro dispatch to report the raccoon to Animal Control, the officer seemed unfazed.
"Just double-bag it and put it in your trash," he instructed.
That night Ava had trouble falling asleep. "I’m scared another raccoon will come," she said. Furious, Carmen yelled , "Ava! Don’t talk about it! I don’t want to think about it!" I lay in bed between them for nearly an hour, snuggling until their fidgets stopped and their breathing grew heavy.
The last lines of Kunitz’s poem "Raccoon Journal" looped through my head:
"They watch me, unafraid./ I know they’ll never leave,/ they’ve come to take possession." Indeed, there was something possessive about the coon -- how it killed half our flock in a matter of minutes, how it charged at my husband as he raised his gun, how oddly fearless it was in the broad daylight, nocturnal beast come forth with its hunger. We’d had a visitation from the shadow world, a feral transgression swaggering around the yard, shaggy nightmare invading the domestic sphere. Lucky we could put a bullet in this one and chuck it in the swamp, then drive to Grannie and Pop’s for a Thanksgiving feast.