As Hermes Trismegistus warned in the Emerald Tablets “Know Thyself” – but within knowing oneself is an unparalleled challenge of making decisions to do things which one might have stated 24 hours earlier that one would never again do.
Knowing oneself is not as easy as it may at first seem. I am still learning this lesson the hard way after 61 years of life.
Over thirty-five years ago, I gave up hunting in the ‘sporting’ sense. The advantage that I exercised over nature through use of a firearm once made me feel as if I had something to prove, but having gotten my fill of killing things that could not shoot back, I no longer felt as if I had anything to prove.
That made me a bit of an oddball, being a Southern boy and all.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly comfortable with guns, and have a cabinet full of them to prove it. I still keep them clean and ready to go. The sawed-off shotgun is locked and loaded with buckshot, in the event anyone gets froggy and wishes to cross my threshold without being invited. And I hit what I’m shooting at.
Thing is – back when, I was simply being pulled in other directions – that is to say, I preferred recording and playing guitar to sitting on my ass in the woods all day long.
Finally I made a conscious vow to myself, I would not kill another wild animal unless I’d be eating it, and only then, out of necessity.
One never knows when plans go awry however, sometimes things occur beyond our control, and the Law of Accident creeps in if only to keep us on our toes. One morning, while going down my drive in the truck, a groundhog crossed – right in front of me. I could not stop in time. I buried him in sorrow beneath an oak tree under which I would often see him standing, surveying his surroundings. Then there was the turtle that was in the tall grass I was mowing, and I chopped her open with the mower blade. I felt horrible, and I buried her, too, in sorrow.
There is lots of wildlife where I live and I enjoy it. Besides groundhogs, we’ve seen foxes, coyotes, squirrels, turkeys, and even many deer out in the front yard.
Seven or eight years ago, I began to make friends with the raccoons, and even started naming them. In the harsh wintertime when food is scarce, I feed them cat food and give them water. They really enjoy that. Sometimes they even get leftovers from dinner. They always clean their bowl and never complain. But they do not like bananas. One little fellow used to meet me at the door and gallop alongside out to the patio where I would feed them. He played with my shoestrings, and ‘helped’ me empty the scoop into their bowls. I called him Crosseyes. Unfortunately, he disappeared when the crazy bitch down at the foot of the hill lit a twig pile “to see if it would burn”, and wound up setting the woods and half of our house on fire.
There’s this one female I named ‘Iffy’, because she was so very leery of me at first, but at some point she decided that she could co-exist with us, and during the winters, deftly found a way into the attic, where she would spend cold days sleeping, going out only at night to forage – or eat whatever dinner I’d have waiting for her. She didn’t make much noise (only sometimes), and not long after the Pear trees bloomed in the Spring, she would vacate.
That is not to imply that she would leave. For the next two months, Iffy would show up on the stone wall out back around 4 pm, looking into the house through the screen door. When I saw her, I’d take out a scoop of food and some fresh water, which she would nervously devour before scampering back into the woods. This would continue daily until, late in May, she would leave immediately after I’d make the food deposit, only to show back up ten minutes later with two or three little cubs. She was very cautious when she brought them, and although she normally had no problems with meeting me at the wall with her meal, helping me pour it into the bowl, and even sniffing my hand, she took a different tack with her kittens, and would growl to them to stay back until I had retreated into the house. At first the kits would look at me as if I were from Mars, and were plenty afraid, but with time they became more accustomed to my presence. Nonetheless, occasionally she would give a short growl. She was telling them that humans were not to be trusted, and that no exception should be made, not even for me.
I suppose that I was the man their mother warned them about.
The kits winter over with their mom during their first year, but strike out on their own after one full cycle of raccoon school. Besides, suitors will come seeking out mom during the Winter, and the quarters will become restless and cramped.
This scenario has repeated for five or six years now, and we’ve all grown quite fond of Iffy.
This year started out no different than any other, and the males had come to see Iffy, but one sounded especially aggressive one evening. After a couple of days, all was normal again.
Recently I noticed that Iffy had not left for the woods yet, as I could hear her occasionally in the attic, and then yesterday I’d noticed that she’d torn the drain grate up looking for water early that morning. I made a mental note to fill up her water bowl that evening – but then around one o’clock that same afternoon, she began making all kinds of commotion upstairs, and I became concerned. I walked out back and called to her through the screen in the soffit of the house. She came to the screen and looked down, chattering. But something was wrong. She was very agitated, and panting rapidly. She was also making a chewing motion with her mouth, and her legs were jerking of their own volition. She would alternately growl and chatter at me, and then writhe.
“Iffy!” I called to her, “What is it girl?” She peered at me through the screen, and behind the glimmering black eyes I saw her pleading for help.
I was looking at her with concern when the thought hit me: desperately looking for water – growling and panting. Then I remembered the aggressive male who disappeared – he had transmitted rabies to poor Iffy, apparently having bitten her while agitated, or perhaps while mating. No wonder he didn’t stay long – because he went mad and died a horrible death.
She stared down at me shivering, and panting. She was becoming possessed, and she was in unimaginable torment. And she came to me when I called.
She came to me… for help.
I inhaled deeply, and slowly exhaled a black sadness.
“Hang on girl. I’ll be right back.”
I walked inside the house, went into my room, coolly reached inside the gun cabinet, instinctively chose a rifle, and chambered one round, a .22 short, hollow point. I walked back outside and looked up at her lying there helplessly. I reached up and stroked her flank through the screen as she panted and whimpered.
I told her I loved her, and then unceremoniously lifted the rifle and shot Iffy through the head.
She never made a sound. The trembling stopped. She was now free of the evil which had only moments ago terrorised her. I watched in silence as the pain oozed out of her, and dripped to the ground at my feet.
Later, with my carpentry tools, I slowly took a portion of the soffit apart, carefully retrieved Iffy, gently lay her on the ground, and stroked her soft fur. There was only the entry wound, the bullet did not exit her skull. Even after so many years, I knew exactly what load to use without even thinking about it. She never knew what hit her. The lights just went out.
Afterwards, I took her up on the hill where, over the years, I have begun a small cemetery for my beloved cats. I dug a grave for Iffy, lined it with dried leaves, laid her inside, covered her with more leaves, and then filled the hole, taking care to place the layer of grass back in the way that I had removed it.
Here I was, burying yet another animal in sorrow. I stood there thinking about my vow to not kill again, and how quickly the unexpected can cause one to eat all of one’s words in a moment.
Iffy was never going to get well, yet she did not know that it was beyond this man’s ability to make her better. However in her time of desperation, she responded to the one human she trusted in the whole world. And I, in return of that trust, had put a bullet in her head.
I felt awful.
I had become the man that she warned her cubs about.