A story about a girl and her troubles with three animals
|The house smelled of biting odor of skunk self-defense. More accurately, the dog, Whitey, smelled of skunk as he lay on the living room rug exhausted from his springtime romp. Whitey was a natural retriever used to leaving the dirty work to others, not a terrier who took the killing into his own jaws. Nevertheless there had been something irresistible about the pursuit, about chasing the skunk into decaying remains of a fallen tree and tearing through the brittle branches.
The skunk had held her fire--wanting to use her one shot of chemical munition to maximum effectiveness. She let him dig and riggle on his belly until he could almost reach her. Then, when he had trapped himself in the tunnel he’d built, she fired, straight into his face.
Micah heard the yelping as her Whitey struggled to back out the way he’d come, the space too tight to turn around. Dogs have a million times the olfactory sensitivity of people. Does this mean that the stunning smell of skunk is a million times the sinus pain?
Whitey fell, pressing the side of his face on the grass but propelling himself forward with his hind legs. Then he twisted around to rub the other side, his back end still running forward as his front end was lying down. He clasped his paws over his eyes and furiously scrubbed. Pursuing the skunk had been a most unfortunate choice.
By the time Whitey got back to the house the hair on his snout was matted with the dried spray of the skunk and his eyes were narrow slits. Although he weighed nearly as much has her one-hundred pounds. Micah dragged him from the rug to the bathtub and tried to wash the smell away before dad got home. At first the water made the smell worse. She used the same shampoo she used for her own long brown hair, but it didn’t do much. Mostly it soothed Whitey as lathered him, speaking to him softly as he watched her large green eyes. She locked Whitey in the bathroom to go to the pantry to get a can of tomato juice, which she had always been told was a remedy for removing the smell of skunk. The soaked legs of her capri jeans dripped across the carpeting as she walked. She stopped to turn on the radio to a country station. There wasn’t any tomato juice left. But there was a can of Contina tomato paste, and another of store-brand spaghetti sauce. She opened them both and returned to the bathroom.
Micah realized that there were two mistakes she make in locking Whitey in the bathroom. The first was that it had been completely unnecessary since, simply closing the door would have had the same effect. The second mistake was that the bathroom lock was on the inside of the door and now it was only Whitey, and not she, who had access to it. She returned to the kitchen to get an ice pick, to push through the hole in the knob to release the lock, and to change the station to pop music. Whitey still lay in the tub when she got the door opened, although he had shaken water all over the walls. Micah hoped those drops didn’t carry the skunk scent with them, but it was too pervasive to identify whether there were now sources other than Whitey.
Micah dipped her long thin fingers into the can of tomato paste and spread it on Whitey’s face, first like stripes of war paint and then rubbing it in like makeup on the face of a very angry clown, she thought. No, it looked more like a red mud mask. "Welcome to Micah's Doggy Spa," she said to him. Whitey tried to lick it off but it was thick and sticky and he could only get some taste of it. He could not get himself clean. Micah rubbed tomato paste into the rest of his body then set about with water, soap and a washcloth to wash it out of Whitey’s long coat. When she was done, she applied the spaghetti sauce. It added a strong garlic odor to the smell of skunk and both odors persisted when the bath was finished, though fainter than the skunk smell had started.
This was not the first time. A four days before, on the first day of her junior-high-school spring break, Whitey had chased same skunk. The skunk had to go.
Like Whitey had been her coming-of-age gift at 10, and a pocketknife had been what he was ready for at 12, age 14 was the year of the .22 rifle. It was a real gun, capable, she had heard, of shooting a bullet a mile, but was compact, light with no noticeable recoil. The .22 held only one bullet. The stock and barrel were hinged, break-action style. To load it she pushed down on a lever that folded the barrel away of the stock, then placed a bullet in the barrel. If it was the second shot, the casing from the first bullet popped out when the gun came open.
When your gun only fires a single bullet, every shot counts. You can’t perfect your aim by seeing how far the first shot missed and correcting accordingly. Each shot is everything. Locking in your footing, pulling back the hammer, aiming in the pause between inhaling and exhaling, and gently squeezing the trigger straight back at the end of the next breath. From first shot she ever took she felt that each bullet cost something and that with each round the box got closer to being empty. In her practice on plastic bottles she would aim the gun three times, starting from holding it loosely at her side, for each time she sent a projectile to the target. Each careful crack took her five minutes. On her birthday her "boyfriend" had given her a clear plastic box holding 100 rounds, each it its own hole in the box. She had pull a Kleenex between the sliding lid at the tops of the bullets so that they wouldn’t rattle as she walked. She now had 20 left.
Once a skunk’s hideout has been discovered, Micah learned, it moves to a new place. She had only one idea about how to find it. Whitey apparently knew how. She put a long nylon leash on the dog’s collar and set out in the field. She carried the .22 with a bullet snapped in place but the gun still open, and the safety on. She felt safer knowing that firing took four steps: clicking the barrel back in line with the stock, flicking the safety lever off, pulling back the hammer and squeezing the trigger. He never put his finger inside the trigger guard before the butt was on his shoulder and the target was in the sights. She observed the same protocol.
As she walked Micah tried to imagine how she would do what needed to be done. She had swiped the rifle only to shoot bottles set on the ground or on top of fence posts. She'd never hunted an animal before. She'd never trained the sights on anything breathing. Her goal was to kill it quickly, efficiently. Actually her goal was not to find it, to search and find that it had relocated where it could not be discovered, and that neither she nor Whitely would come into contact with it again. Whitely pulled lightly at the leash, occasionally putting his nose to the ground which she hoped was an effort to pick up a scent.
A shot in the head would work, wouldn't it? But people survive some brain traumas, though with their personalities changed. She didn't want to encounter the skunk at some point in the future mentally disabled, loping, mumbling to itself and arbitrarily releasing fits of its toxic chemicals. This was the peril of having only a single shot. It had to be perfect. Through the lungs, she thought. Death might not be quite so instant, but it would be sure. With two collapsed lungs it would suffocate quickly and if she happened to pierce through its heart, it might be even quicker.
As she was thinking about these things Whitey gave the leash a sudden jerk and it slipped from her hand. The dog ran on ahead about a hundred feet and stopped, his front legs straight, leaning back slightly, looking at the ground, barking loud woofs. As the girl inched closer she could see that Whitey was focused on something in the grass that seemed to move the blades, something tan or brown--a pile of something? She heard a loud chatter, part crinkling, part growling, part rattling.
A snake, Whitely had found a snake. "Whitey!" she called. But Whitey didn't turn his head. "Whitey, come here!" Still the dog's attention didn't break. The girl picked up a stone, a piece of gravel, and hurled it at Whitey, bouncing it off the side of his chest. "Whitey!" Whitey remained fixed and barking.
The girl crept closer still. She saw the snake was at least four feet long and must have been about two inches across at its widest. Although it was mostly tan it was covered with a geometric pattern in blacks and browns. And the sound. Was this a rattlesnake? She had heard that there were rattlesnakes in the area but had never seen one and hadn't really believed it. But that sound, a throaty, hissy, rattle. What if it struck Whitey? She reached down and grabbed the leash from the ground and firmly pulled Whitey away. She tied the leash to a small tree and went back to look at the snake.
She’d had a dream once in which she came to realize while hiking that the whole landscape was filled with poison snakes, camouflaged with the rocks, the fallen trees, and the dead leaves. Everywhere they were waiting out in the open yet hidden. That dream had ended as she realized that there was no escape and nothing to be done. She was in a world full of snakes that had let her travel blissfully unaware until she was surrounded, until, even if she ran from some, she would run into others. There was no question whether she would be bitten. The only question was which of the snakes would get the privilege.
Was this such a creature? If she did not strike it now would it come back to strike her on some walk with the dog on another day? Was the fact that in this first even encounter she was carrying a loaded rifle a sign?
As she looked at the animal she thought about how big it was, and how long it must have lived to reach this size. If she shot this snake, how long would it take another one to reach this size? She was no expert on snakes and if this one wasn’t poisonous, what a waste it would be to shoot it.
She clicked the barrel and stock into place, raised the butt to her shoulder and flicked off the safety. The snake was just a few feet away. She knew she could not miss at such a distance and that a gentle squeeze, straight back, would send a bullet straight though its head. She hesitated, uncertain. Micah had thought she would be able to shoot the skunk, in a sad but clear-eyed realization that she and it simply could not continue to live in such proximity. She had less certainty about the snake. Maybe the same thing was true. Maybe it wasn't.
She stepped back four long strides. Then another. At this distance she could feel in her heart that her accuracy matched her confidence. It was, at this range, with so small a target, moving slightly back and forth, up to God. If the shot hit, it must be right for it to do so.
She steadied her pose, brought the rifle to her shoulder, flicked the safety off and pulled the hammer back. She felt for her own breathing so she could anticipate its rhythm. She aimed at the snake’s head at the bottom of an exhale. She closed her eyes, opened them at the bottom of the next exhale and aimed again. One more breath and she squeezed the trigger, straight back. A pop and the snake began slowly riggling and twisting. It riggled and twisted and almost knotted itself for almost a minute before it stopped moving.
Micah went back to the house and looked up what a Prairie Rattlesnake looks like. It has a flat head. Its scales look dusty. She looked up Bull Snake. They look a lot alike, but a bull snake has a narrower head looks more like an extension of its body then a separate part and its skin is not so dry looking. She read about it. When threatened it makes a sound it its throat like a rattler. False rattlers, they are sometimes called. They eat mice and young rats and are generally peaceful, non-threatening and not dangerous except to pests. Her heart sank.
For more than a week she went back every day, hoping to find its body gone, hoping that some other animal had found it and scavenged what was left food. If it was someone else’s meal, she thought, it would not have been so much a waste to have killed it. If you carry a gun, she decided, you are simply bound to use it.