What do you do when what you believe is different from what you grow up learning.
***WARNING*** Deals with the death [and killing] of animals.
I came from the country where it was natural to kill certain animals: they were killable or not depending on rules others made, and I hated it, but I existed in it, and college was the first time I truly got away from it.
The campus bustled with students moving in. They went back and forth between brick buildings, with crumbling exteriors, to their cars on the streets, carrying boxes of their things back to the claustrophobic dorms. I was walking into one of the shabbier buildings searching for my room. The hallway had a musty fragrance, all old buildings have, where the copious dust came from the crumbling walls and chipped tile floors, and the upholstery was faded and torn.
I walked into my new room. My new roommate was there building a bookshelf with his back to the door. I hesitated. What would he think of me? While I stood there, he turned around.
“Hey, I’m Noah!” he said as walked up with his hand outstretched.
“Hey,” I said wiping my hand on my shirt before taking his. My heartbeat thudded in my ears; it made me think uncomfortably about the blood pulsing through my veins.
“Do you need any help?”
“If you don’t—”
He was out the door before I could finish the sentence. I ran after him, and followed him down the stairs, and caught up with him as he went through the door into the bright sunlight.
“Over there,” I said and pointed to a black SUV where my parents stood. Before I could introduce him, he was shaking their hands.
“Hey, I’m Noah. Nice to meet you.” While he was shaking my Dad’s hand, he abruptly let go, yelled “Look a beaver!” and pointed. I looked over.
“That’s a groundhog,” I said, and I snorted before clamping my hand over my mouth and thinking desperately of something to misdirect from my faux pas, I said the first thing that came to mind: “they are a nuisance back home, so we kill them on sight.”
Why did I say that? I never killed a groundhog, and I never wanted to.
I remember when my Grandpa, standing, slightly bent, with wispy hair and filthy hands, he was always wiping off on a white rag, called my cousin Russel, thin and lanky as a cornstalk, and I, slightly more round, over to the orchard; he was standing in front of an apple tree growing a few feet above him with branches heavy with small apples. They gave off a sour fragrance almost overwhelmed by the smell of last fall’s leaves piled up in the nearby compost heap and warmed by the summer sun.
Grandpa pulled back one of the branches and revealed a tiny nest nestled in a crook of the tree. He picked me up with large calloused hands, rough beneath my armpits, to look down into the nest. It was a shabby mess with a base of grass, and a cup built up of hairs and fibers. Three eggs lay at the bottom: two small and yellow, and one different.
“See that one with brown spots?” he asked.
“It’s from a brown-headed cowbird. They lay their eggs in other nests and hurt the other chicks.”
He put me down and lifted up Russel.
“Which one of you kids wants to break it?”
“I don’t know,” I said
“I’ll do it!” Russel yelled kicking his feet making Grandpa stumble slightly. Russel picked it up and held it, between two fingers, in light of the sun. Looking up at it, I could see the light shining through the shell and into the inside where the yolk was like an organ swimming in the liquid of a preserving jar on a laboratory shelf. Russel's grin cracked his face like an egg.
“Should we be doing this?” I said taking a step back with my hands up.
Russel looked over, and Grandpa nodded; he let go of the egg and it fell down to the ground and shattered in the grass, and the yellow liquid sunk into the cracked earth while all around us, the clamor of the bird song rang in my ears with a harsh edge.
I walked around looking at the plates pilled with food behind partial glass. I could smell fried chicken, and cooking oil crackling and popping on the wall behind it, and the savory smell of steak, and pizza, and mashed potatoes, and the acrid scent of different salad dressing besides the withered greens under bright lights. Everything that was appetizing found its way onto my tray until it was a strain to keep holding it up. There was a constant buzz of conversation along with the clink of silverware upon plates fading into a pleasant hum in the background.
It was early in the second quarter of college as I met Noah in the middle of the dining hall with the tower of food on my tray, swaying precariously, as the muscles in my arms burned—clink—the plates rattled and scraped against the emblazoned swirling-patterns of the tray, and my arms started to shake. We saw an empty table in the back. I moved forward too quickly, and the tower of food swayed back until I thought the plates would slide down my front; I slowed trying to regain control, and it swayed the other way until I thought it would crash onto the floor with a thunderous clatter, but moments before I lost all control, the table was in front of me, and I placed it down safely with a bang.
Our friend Mia found us and sat down; she leaned forward with her face close to the food while she ate. Then Todd found us, and he slouched down into the chair beside Mia, and when he talked, his hands would emphasize what he said with wild gestures.
I looked at the food piled in front of me, and if I squinted, it looked like the Eiffel tower, rising above the one-story houses on the other trays. I wondered if they would notice. Just concentrate on eating and don’t say anything stupid. The table was silent as everyone focused on the food in front of them.
When the trays were looking far more spacious, Noah looked over at Todd and said, “You should try the bacon. It’s amazing!”
“Sorry, I can’t.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I’m going vegan.”
“I’m proud of you babe,” Mia said as she patted his knee.
For a moment, the veil was lifted, and I was conscious of what had gone into the making of the food in front of me—all the suffering and screaming, and the smell of burning—but they were only animals. They can feel pain, but they can’t think like me; does it matter? But… Why should they suffer for your pleasure? I heard their suffering—a choir of dissonance—clattering around inside my head, but as quickly as it came, it faded away, and I was left with the thought: what would your family think of you?
“Can you get enough protein?” I asked unheeding all the warnings clamoring inside my head—shut-up; stop talking!
“Yes,” he forced the word through pursed lips; his face rigid.
“Do you know what the bible says about veganism?”
I just kept going on, and I felt their eyes on me, and the food tasted like ashes.
I remember when my parents gave me a pellet gun. The first thing I had to do was shoot a bird; no other targets held the same challenge. With the barrel pointing up, I held it close in my arms, and I was careful not to do anything unsafe and give my parents an excuse to take it away before I could use it. When I finally shut the door on the safety lectures, I looked all around the front yard—the coast was clear—I lifted it up and stared down the sights. The black, plastic stock fit neatly against my shoulder; it wasn’t too heavy, but it still felt solid. I slid my palm down the plastic feeling the rough surface of lines etched into it. I didn’t even have to pump it like my BB gun; instead, it took a little cylinder of compressed air.
In the front yard, I hid behind the maple tree next to the gravel lane. The trunk, with ridged bark, was thick enough to hide me from view, and green buds sprang from its branches like seeds from the ground. My tennis shoes sunk into the wet ground, and I caught a whiff of the rank mud. The trilling of one bird was magnified above the rest, with the songs of the others fading into the background cacophony. I loaded up the air cylinder and the pellet but left the safety on with my finger away from the trigger. I lifted it up again and looked down the sights at the bird feeders waiting for an unsuspecting bird.
They flew down and lighted on the bird feeders, the spruce tree, and the ground; and with each one, I steadied the gun as my hands twitched, but they all were bright and colorful, and I could not release the tension from my finger on the trigger. My grandparents had a laundry list of the birds I could shoot, and I didn’t want to think of what would happen if I shot the wrong one.
And then a blackbird lighted upon the ground; it hopped around and caught a fallen sunflower seed; it looked up with one eye on the tree. With tunnel vision, holding my breath in anticipation, my focus only on the bird like a house-cat stalking its prey. I juggled the gun in my hurry to shoot, and the barrel swung up in the shape of a parabola before I could regain control. Finally, I lined up the sights, and I pulled the trigger—clack—it made a weak sound, and the tension was released, and I was left with nothing, and the bird flapped wildly and then was still. I remember walking up and seeing it; its breast moving up and down with labored breaths and liquid eyes that looked up at me pleading. After the second shot, I put the gun in the cabinet and shut the door leaving it in the darkness to gather dust.
The wind blew through the treetops grabbing handfuls of colorful leaves and throwing them into the sky where they fluttered down past me until they touched the ground far below as if they were gently placed. The breeze carried the musty smell of decay from the rotting leaves beneath the endless lines of trees spreading out in all directions around us. I held a different gun: one with more power to kill. Noah and I sat, high up, in a tree stand watching and waiting in the autumn woods.
In a hushed voice, I said, “I don’t think we’re going to see anything.”
“Let’s give it a few more minutes,” he said with the same tone.
“The wind is cold though.”
“That’s the fun of hunting.”
Crack—we heard a stick breaking in two as if something large had stepped on it, and then the leaves rustled, and then we heard crunching steps as if something large was walking on the underfloor of dry leaves.
“Over there!” Noah said jabbing two fingers to the right; I looked in the direction he was pointing and saw, walking out from behind towering oak trees growing close together, a deer as it stopped and bent its head nuzzling the leaves out of the way, with its snout, to reach the grass beneath.
“Take the shot,” I said.
“No, go ahead.”
I lifted up the gun and looked through the scope. Seeing nothing but the deeply ridged bark of an oak tree, I looked up and adjusted my aim until I saw the deer in the scope. The crosshairs wobbled drawing mandalic like designs in the air as my hands shook violently.
And I remember the long days of summer when school was out, and the sun, high up in the sky, burned down on the cracked soil while we toiled endlessly in the long lines of green with the acrid smell of wilted leaves burning in our nostrils, and I remember one specific day, in late summer, when the air was hazy with dust from the combines consuming everything in their way far across the fields of mud-colored stalks as we harvested corn in my Grandpa’s garden by pulling down on the ripe ears until, like the breaking of a neck, they snapped off, and we threw them into a tote. Heat rose in waves from the sun-baked ground, but it was cooler beneath the dappled shade of the corn stalks. It was the evening of summer vacation and the end of freedom, but I didn’t know what I found beneath the corn stalks that day would make me glad to go back to school and forget that day entirely.
Something had found that ear of corn before my eyes ever fell upon it. And I ran, with it, back through the corn suspecting nothing of what was to come.
“Grandpa!” I yelled.
“What?” he said; through the corn stalks, the sound was muffled, but it was coming from the end of the row. I ran towards his voice.
“Careful! Don’t run me over,” he said.
“Look at this!”
“What do you got there?”
My cousin Russel ran out, “What’s going on?”
“Something’s stealing the corn,” I said.
“Yes,” Grandpa said, “Something’s been in the corn at the bird feeder too. I’ve put a trap down. Maybe we’ll catch it.”
Russel and I looked at each other knowing what the other was thinking: a mystery! We ran back through the corn looking for more clues.
“Over here,” Russel said.
“What is it?”
I looked over and saw the scene of the crime. In a small circle, the cornstalks were broken and laying on the ground. With my mind’s eye, I drew chalk outlines around them that the clumped and cracked earth made impossible to do with real chalk. Their leaves looked like they had been through a paper shredder, and the ears were chewed up like they had been put in a pencil sharpener. A few kernels lay strewn over the ground like gold teeth.
“Who would do this?” I asked.
We looked over at our neighbor Grace, back arched, with hands in the dirt next to the small, blue house with long, white hairs blowing in the breeze.
“I don’t think so.”
“Yeah, she’s too old.”
“Look at this,” I said pointing at the ears of corn, “No human would crudely chew the tips and just leave them.”
“I don’t know. Maybe there were many of them.”
Russel looked down at his feet with his lips scrunched at the side of his mouth. Then his head jerked up so fast that I was surprised he didn’t get whiplash, “Stakeout!”
“We do a stakeout. It only comes out at night, or it would have been seen. We wait and catch it in the act.”
“We can put up a tent and camp out!”
The sun outlined the trees in the West with a golden aura as I burst out through the back door of my house and surveyed the landscape for the best place to put the tent. My grandparents garden was right beside our house. Further on, there was a shed with tan siding, a shiny metal roof, and one large door that rolled along the ground with a protesting screech when it was opened. And even further still, the orchard of apple, pear, and plum trees went back in neat rows until they ended just before the chaos of the woodline.
I started setting up the tent between the garden and the shed when Russel ran up.
“Not there,” he said.
“What’s wrong with this spot?”
“We’ll be right in their path if they come from the woods.”
He pointed to a spot nearer my house and a few hundred feet from a tall maple tree. Beyond that, across the flat middle yard, I could see my grandparents’ house surrounded by an assortment of different sheds and lines of trees whose tops swayed in the breeze; it looked like a prison compound with small, barred windows, and the lines of trees fencing everything in before, obscured by the house, sheds, and trees, the land fell away down to the ditch which followed its way along the bottom of the hill before plunging into the woods. My whole family called it the compound, and that is how I thought about it.
I kicked the tent in the direction he was pointing, slowly moving it towards the new spot, and sighing heavily. Finally, after agonizingly little progress, Russel came back and helped carry it the rest of the way. We nailed in the last stake before the sun disappeared behind the trees. Then we made a quick supply run to the garage. It was cooler on the smooth concrete floor, and the corners were obscured by the shadows of the late evening. We stocked up on flashlights and rations, and Russel grabbed something shaped like a crescent moon but stashed it in his pocket before I could get a good look at it. And I found my animal survival guide with camouflage cloth spine, yellow netting on the cover and a small compass hanging from a string at the bottom of a wooden box. Within the book, there were glossy pages with pictures of animals like bears, mountain lions, snakes, etc., and instructions on how to survive deadly encounters with them. I thought about taking it with me, but none of them lived in the Midwest, so there was no reason to. Then we took the supplies out to the tent, and we sat outside talking and waiting.
Dusk edged in around us unnoticed until night had fallen, and the trees were black against the sky. We sat in the prickly grass; the ground was still warm from the sun. The wind carried the ghostly sounds of wind chimes that hung in rafters and odd corners of the compound and the nauseating scent of sewage from the ditch beyond. As it blew past us, it caught a single leaf, and the leaf scrapped against the bark of the maple tree lost in the darkness far above. There was no moon or clouds that night, and though the stars were bright, they were remote as if the sky was made of glass instead of air. The night dragged on.
“How long do we have to wait?” I asked.
“Shh!” he hissed, “If you keep talking so loud—forever.”
“Do you think we’re safe?”
“With this,” he pulled out the object he had stashed in his pocket which turned out to be a pocket knife, “no one will bother us.”
“Should you have that?”
“You going to snitch?”
“No, I was just asking.”
“Wait!” Raising up his hand, he closed his eyes and turned his head to the side.
“What do you hear?”
On the edge of the woods, there was a snarling scream. Then the sound of two bodies colliding in the air with a thump and another snarl slowly fading away. I scanned the woodline looking for any movements behind the curtain of darkness, and I strained my ears until every sound was magnified. The summer night was alive. It buzzed with the sound of a million insects like a high-voltage power line, and the frogs sang like an alien choir in the muddy ditches that wound their way back through the woods until they poured their foul-smelling waters into the sickly-green river. In the day, we would have charged into the woods to investigate, but all our courage was lost among the trees shrouded in blackness. And then I heard another sound.
The sound of many padding feet loping along on four legs getting louder and louder as they approached the tent in the darkness.
“Get in the tent!” Russel yelled as he grabbed a flashlight and a chocolate bar while jumping in head first.
“Wait!” I hissed out, “We have to get all the food!”
“You’re on your own."
The sound was getting nearer. I frantically grabbed everything I could see and threw it all in the tent before jumping in myself.
“What about the other flashlight?” Russel asked.
I jumped back out while Russel started zipping up the tent; the sound was so close now I was afraid they would come upon me at any moment as I grabbed the flashlight, and I flew back into the shrinking opening before Russel zipped it shut with a final jerk. We sat in the darkness breathing heavily. I wiped my face on the sleeve of my shirt. We gulped in one more breath of stale air before the sound was outside the tent before the padding feet passed by in the direction of the corn until the last one passed dragging along a heavy object dully thudding against the uneven ground.
“Do you think they can get in?” I whispered.
But the fabric of the tent seemed like a poor barrier. I imagined long claws and razor-sharp teeth ripping the thin cloth to shreds, and I wished I was behind solid walls. The leaves of the cornstalks rattled in the breeze whispering the rumor of the coming beasts until, with a stronger gust of wind, they seemed to tremble with fear. Snap—the beasts pulled down one of the stalks. We could hear them gnawing, tearing, fighting over their victim.
Then a far worse sound brought me back to the tent: one of the beasts chittered right outside as the fabric moved inward like a breath of wind was pushing it, but with a snuffling sound.
“What is it?” I whispered as my voice squeaked, and I clamped my hand over my mouth.
“Shut up,” he snarled.
We heard claws scraping fabric, and I knew there was a large, salivating maw outside with only the thin canvas between us. Russel reached towards it.
“What are you doing?”
His hand continued to inch towards it. I had to scare it somehow before he did something stupid. But what could I do? And I remembered from the animal survival guide that you need to do something to scare bears away, but what was it? I tried to remember the picture of the black bear and what it said on the page next to it. What did you do when walking in bear territory. I saw the words in my head: make loud noises.
I sucked in a breath of stale, humid air and yelled at the top of my lungs, “GET OUT OF HERE!”
Everything stopped; everything was silent—what had I done? It hadn’t worked, and now the beasts were aware of our presents, and they were surrounding the tent silently. And then there was a loud explosion of dirt, leaves, and cornstalks flying out of the way as all the beasts ran out the corn and past the tent.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said, but I spoke too soon.
One more ran by dragging something behind it; I could hear the scraping sound of rough leaves against the grass; the cornstalk was reaching out desperately with all its leaves to hold itself back from being pulled into the forest. And then we were left with only the muffled chorus of bugs and frogs.
“Let’s go,” Russel said.
We each grabbed a flashlight, and I tried to unzip the tent. The zipper was stuck in the fabric as I tried to force it praying it wouldn’t rip while sweat fell into my eyes, until, with a final effort, it came loose, and we were free.
I felt the chill air on my sweaty face, and the sounds intensified as I left the tent hands first, the grass was cold on my palms. Russel followed close behind. The area outside was covered with shredded corn stalks and half-chewed ears of corn. I surveyed the massacre with the clinical eye of a detective, but Russel was already running towards the house.
“Wait up!” I yelled after him. Then I started running in the same direction as a guttural scream arose from the woodline. We ran towards the nightlight on the other side of the house; it shone with a pool of light, and the shadows stretched out like feelers reaching for us. I held the flashlight up in front of me, and I swung it back and forth over the fast-moving terrain as twisted shadows rose up in my periphery, and, with each one, I prayed it was only a shadow as I destroyed it with the light. And then Russel stopped dead.
The maple tree sat squat in front of us with its knotted, climbing rope hanging from a horizontal branch and swinging around slowly in the night breeze. Something chittered in its shadow. We slowly moved the lights from the flashlights down to rest upon it. Two round eyes flashed like yellow lantern lights, and behind the eyes, something large and round standing on its hind legs. We didn’t stop to see what it was; we took off towards the compound.
The dull thuds of our running feet changed into crunching sounds as we hit the gravel lane. I strained to hear anything behind us, and, almost imperceptible, I thought I could hear the padding of four feet loping along after us. Russel reached the front door. He tried to open it, but it was locked.
“What do we do?” he asked.
“Around the house. Maybe we can lose it.”
We ran back between two sheds until the ground suddenly fell away into a steep slope: the grassy hill leading down to the ditch was now a cliff over a dark abyss. We turned sharply right and followed the cliffside past the bird feeders with poles leaning in different directions as if they were melting into the ground past the deck with the eyes of all the ceramic animals watching us and to the two oaks growing by the side of the house where we stopped to catch our breaths. The safety of my house, its siding yellow in the light of the nightlight, beckoned from across the yard. There was no sound behind us except for the chirping of crickets.
“I think we lost it,” Russel said.
“It’s a straight shot to safety from here.”
“No, I’m tired of running. I’m going back,” he said as he slowly inched around the side of the house back towards the way we had come.
“Wait!” I crept after him, “Wait… Did it get quiet?”
“It is quiet.”
He continued inching back along the house; I followed him as we passed the deck again pleading with him to come back with me. Suddenly, we heard a sound like bone on metal.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,”
“No,” his flashlights clicked on and he moved the pool of light along the ground trying to find the origin of the sound. The seconds ticked by as the sounds became more frantic until his light fell on a rectangular box with chainlink sides, and yellow teeth within gnawing on the metal. “Somethings caught in the trap,” he said.
We edged closer being careful to not make any sudden movements. A masked, oval face and a round body with a striped tail became visible. Cloaked in shadows, the raccoon hissed at us from the far corner of the cage.
“Is that what was chasing us?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he kicked the cage and yelled, “Not so scary now are you!”
It recoiled but found more walls guarding its escape.
“I think we found our thief,” I said.
“One of them, at least.”
“Let’s get out of here before more come.”
But he brought the knife out and pulled out the blade until it clicked into place. He dragged it along the metal, and it made a clicking sound as it slid from one link of the chain to the next. He rattled it against the cage taunting it and laughing as it hissed at him. He poked it in the back, and as it turned around to catch the knife, he quickly drew it back and poked it in the side. He lifted it up above the cage with both hands holding the handle as it hissed and spit with red spots welling through its ragged fur. And the blade descended cutting through the night with the nightlights across the street reflected like sickly, yellow eyes, in the blade, and inches from its head, I grabbed his wrists and stopped the blade from its deadly arc.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!” I pulled him away.
“It’s going to die anyway.”
“What would Grandpa think?”
“Whatever, let’s go.”
I watched him carefully as he leaned over the cage and whispered, “I will see you tomorrow,” before we walked towards the house.
We made it to the front door of my house without any further incidents, and as the cold washed over us from the air conditioner like the opening of a freezer in a hot garage, we tiptoed past my parents’ room and into mine where I fell asleep almost instantly.
We woke up, with the sun already high in the sky, to the sound of Grandpa’s gravelly voice in the kitchen. We jumped up and threw on last night’s clothes. Then we ran headlong down the long hallway and emerged into the sunlight filled kitchen where Grandpa stood in the door.
“We found the thieves!” we yelled.
“Did you? I think I caught one in the trap.”
“We saw it last night,”
“We have to take care of it know,” he said, “You kids run out there, and I’ll get the gun.”
It was warm, but the stifling heat of the afternoon was still hours away, as we ran across the yard, our shoes getting wet from the morning dew, and the flag, in the middle yard, flapped in the breeze that blew in our faces as we traced out our path from the night before. The air was clean and fresh not yet burdened from the dust of the harvest.
The raccoon was still there. It wasn’t gnashing or scratching at the bars; it moved slowly around in a circle warily eying us, but it couldn’t even muster the effort to growl or hiss. It backed away from us as far back as it could go. Russel laughed. Behind it, we saw Grandpa step down the stairs on the deck carrying a long hunting-rifle. The raccoon turned around sensing the new danger and then looked back at us trying to keep everyone in view. I remembered the night before, and Russel's words cut through me like a knife: “It’s going to die anyway.” What had I thought would happen? I wanted to open the cage and risk the sharp teeth to set it free, and I wanted to risk the abuse from Russel and the disapproval from Grandpa, but I didn’t do anything.
Grandpa made us stand a few feet behind him as he shoved the barrel of the gun into the raccoon’s face, but the raccoon recoiled away from it, and Grandpa moved the barrel back and forth trying to find its head while it snarled and bared its teeth at the object inserted, so suddenly, into its space. Something was wrong here—how was this different from what Russel was doing the night before? But what could I do?
“Do we have to kill it?” Russel looked at me like I said the sky was covered in pink polka-dots.
“Yes, it’ll just keep coming back and stealing corn,” Grandpa said.
I stood there. I wanted to run away, and I wanted to run forward, and I wanted to disappear all at the same time, but I looked away, and saw, revealed by the morning light, the winding path of the ditch snaking its way along the bottom of the hill, and I knew, beneath the stagnant, brown waters, its heart was rotting leaves and weeds and living things that sank down and didn’t come back up, and the—bang—echoed through this faux river-valley, and I knew how the land must feel being split in two.
All I had to do was put my finger on the trigger and pull it, and it would be over. The crosshairs moved up and down violently as the deer continued undisturbed by the possibility of its imminent destruction.
“Are you going to fire?” Noah said quietly.
“Are you sure you don’t want to do it?”
“No… No, you do it.”
I looked between the gun and the deer as it breathed out, and the mist from its breath wreathed its nostrils before dissipating above its head. I could snuff out its life in an instant. The minutes ticked by as the deer stood in perfect relief against the background of trees.
And I remembered the egg, and the bird, and the raccoon, and so many others. And I remembered the scummy things I said in college to feel superior to my friends. At that moment, I chose and felt like one person again.
“I can’t do it,” I said with a deep breath, “I don’t want to kill it.”
“I guess we both were convinced the other one wanted to go hunting.”
“Yeah, pretty dumb of us.”
“Let’s just sit and enjoy the morning.”
“That’s a good idea!”