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The Killing

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July 17, 2011 by wcobserver

I

The game hens we ended up with were as bad if not worse than the Banties we already had, as far as going wherever they pleased and being completely beyond our control. In spite of extreme wing clipping that mostly contained the Bantams, the game hens couldn’t be kept in a pen. If I could have given them back to the people who gave them, I would have, but they had given up their game cock project. One of them remained a patriarch of the mountain, but his partner had moved on, so there was no going back.

Over the next couple of years we had learned to spread chicken wire over the tomato crop to keep out these roaming pecking machines. It seemed a reasonable expectation that summer as the tomato crop ripened in the heat of August that we’d have a great crop. I sat out the big pots on the kitchen counter ready for making ketchup and went to the garden. But as I neared the plants where just yesterday beautiful red tomatoes had been hanging thick, I discovered with skyrocketing blood pressure that one or more ambitious game hens had managed to maneuver underneath the wire. As I moved from plant to plant in disbelief, I saw they had pecked huge gaping holes in virtually every tomato in the field.

These fiends were not of Ahab’s original flock, but rather interlopers of indistinct ancestry. I felt no affection, only fury. I muttered and cursed in the process of harvesting the mangled and gutted tomatoes. So many months planning, sweating, mulching, hoeing in goat dung and pulling weeds on this plot of land to provide a year’s supply of sauce, ketchup, and canned tomatoes—I envisioned all the things I would do as soon as I found the culprits. I would chase them til they fell exhausted. I would herd them into the pond. I would drop kick them across the garden. I would hold them each by turn and thump their featured heads until they were addled so badly they couldn’t remember how to get to the garden.

I caught a feathered movement in the corner of my eye. It was a single hen moving with all deliberation in a nearby row, crawling and clucking from tomato to tomato among the luxuriant vines. Happily pecking away, her russet and green and golden feathers glistening in the brilliant sun, she continued to decimate my hard won crop in front of my very eyes. I was apoplectic.

Finding absolutely no reason to practice restraint for a chicken not even of my own tribe, I left the garden in a rush and raced up the hillside path to the house. I made sure my rifle had a full load of bullets before running back down the hill. At the edge of the woods, I paused to take aim, expecting to see her still nearby among the tomatoes. But she was not there.

II

The hen was not there. Instead, she had – by some remarkable skill of clairvoyance – perceived a looming threat and abandoned her happy pecking grounds amid the luxuriant tomato vines to travel all the way down the garden drive to the edge of the woods near the pond, where she moved along at a steady pace, not running but not pecking at things and not looking back. Who me? A sudden observer would have sworn to her status as an innocent passerby.

Unappeased, I emerged from the shade of the tree line and stood in the garden drive to take aim, not willing to walk closer for a better shot. She might make a run for it or fly into the trees. I was determined to end her cavalier crop destruction. It was a matter of aim and range. I wasn’t a practiced marksman. In fact I had never killed anything before in my life. At 50 yards, I expected that at best my shot would hit her body, that she would flop and squawk and run off sideways. I would have to go down to the pond to finish her off, use up maybe a half dozen bullets before I got a killing shot.

The crack of the rifle echoed through the morning air. Blue jays set up a cry in the woods. One instant the hen was standing there. The next instant, she had slumped to the ground.

I couldn’t believe it. No flopping or squawking. Was she going to jump up and run off any second? I hurried to the spot. Amazed as I examined her still body, I saw that the bullet had gone straight through her coppery head. It took a few minutes to absorb the reality of my stunning success, which I attributed to the venom of my frame of mind, a kind of kung-fu focus. After a few moments of study, and without remorse, I took her to the far end of the land and threw her into a ditch where critters would have an evening meal of her tomatoey meat.

I made a lot of ketchup from that harvest, pecked tomatoes or not. We had worked too hard to discard a bunch of tomatoes just because they had holes in them. Perversely, however, it seemed somehow the flavor was off.  It wasn’t the tangy sweet delicious ketchup I had planned. Maybe I cooked it too long or didn’t add enough sugar or enough vinegar. It was a new recipe – maybe the spices were wrong. As it turned out, the last two quarts of it, still on the storeroom shelves five years later, got poured into the feeding pans at the chicken pen where it was relished mightily by the Bantams and the last of her kinsmen.

III

Killing wild things that seemed to threaten something of value was standard routine in our early years on the hill: a possum in the chickens, a raccoon in the corn, and poisonous snakes anywhere. Copperheads were our particular concern with young children racing around in the woodland yard. Stealthy and well disguised, copperheads seemed to possess a particularly belligerent attitude so that once you crossed their path, they would just as likely come after you as go the other way. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. I was moving a brush pile once, grabbing limb after limb to throw onto the cart when I realized I was eye to eye with a fat old copperhead. It was coiled, watching me. Later we figured I would have been bit except for the fact that it had just shed its skin and its eyes were still filmed over. The husband dispatched that one.

The neighbor in the cabin across the road told us he’d gone to crawl under his house to check on his water pipes and discovered a mass of copperheads. It was spring and they were probably breeding, and probably had spent the winter under there where the old rock foundation wall made it snake user friendly. We had heard the long session of gunfire over there earlier and wondered what he was into. I felt mildly concerned that so many snakes were dying at once, but for copperheads it didn’t make me sad.

In the early days, another neighbor had gone hunting on the field just west of us that backs all the way south to the edge of the canyon. He came back with a timber rattler that was as long as he could reach holding its head up above his own. We had never seen big rattlers around our house, but once I had arrived back from town just after dark, parked in my usual spot, and headed into the house when I heard this hissing sound. I thought it was air leaking out of one of my tires, and went back to the car to listen at each tire in turn. When I got back around to the driver’s side, I found the noise located near the front tire. But it wasn’t the tire. There was a rattlesnake coiled and rattling its tail at me. I hightailed it to the house and husband came out to kill it. I probably set my feet out of the car within a yard of it.

One day after I was living up here alone and Morgan the One-Eyed Wonder Dog had taken over the responsibility of running the place, I heard a special bark coming from her out by the compost. The other two were barking too, although more in the excitement of joining Morgan than from any information of their own. I heard the rasping sound but thought it was cicadas. I got about halfway between the porch and where the dogs were barking before I could see the subject of their frenzy: a large rattler coiled and ready to strike.

IV

I ran back into the house for the gun and then returned to call off the dogs. Being duly proud of their discovery, of course they were loath to back off their prey. I had the snake’s head in my sights but by then Morgan had decided to try a bit of lunging toward the big fat coiled up shiny thing, now that Mom was paying attention. I had to put that do-as-I-say-or-there’ll-be-hell-to-pay tone in my voice to get her to back off. Even then, she grudgingly gave up only a few feet. But it was enough for me to feel safe in squeezing off a round.

The snake reacted immediately, dropping out of its ready-to-strike position and writhing around on itself. So I knew the bullet had found purchase. But where? At least it didn’t race off across the yard. I approached cautiously, and then stood with the dogs a few minutes at a respectful distance until I realized it had died. A careful examination with a rather long stick revealed that my shot had gone straight through its eye, a shot I could probably never duplicate, one of those “feel it with your body and mind, grasshopper” moments you can’t think about and do at the same time. It reminded me of my first killing with the drop-dead chicken.

On reflection, I considered its beauty — nearly six feet long and as big in its midsection as my forearm, the black body interlaced with brown markings glistening in the sunlight. Its shiny scales overlapped with amazing flexibility and precision. The bone structure of its face, the part not cut through with my bullet, led a thin ridge on its cheek in a delicate line toward the tip of its dangerous mouth. I buried it in the compost.

Less than a week later, another frenzied barking erupted, this time on the north side of the house by the front porch. I recognized the sound. It seemed to be the same snake — same size, coloring, the rasp of its rattle abrading my eardrums. This time two cats sat in attendance along with Morgan, all of them positioned a few feet apart yet within striking distance of the coiled reptile. I grabbed the gun.

This time I was nervous — out of breath, trembly. The cats, who in general don’t take orders from anyone, didn’t care about my hell-to-pay tone and moved away sideways only after all due deliberation. Then the snake started to move and I had to fire twice, getting a body shot the first time and only in the second shot hitting the head. It took longer to die, a spectacle of writhing and attempted escape. I didn’t feel good about it, not that I felt good about the first one. It occurred to me they were probably a mated pair, perhaps traveling toward some favored hunting ground. I wondered how many of these fabulous creatures could be left, with more people moving into these lands and dispatching them as I had done.

I’ve since learned that timber rattlers are considered endangered by many, although they haven’t officially been placed on any list. I determined never to kill another rattlesnake. I no longer have small children up here to protect. The yapping dogs can be brought in the house until the visiting snakes pass through to wherever they are headed. They were here first, and unlike deer do not fare well around human kind.

V

Other snakes, well, maybe I’d kill a copperhead. And I would kill a black snake if it became a pest, like several I’ve dispatched from the chicken house. My dad’s mother found a big one once in her chest of drawers and, not wanting to spoil her nightclothes folded there, she lifted it out with a hoe before taking it outside of her Cane Hill home to chop off its head. She hated them for what they could do in her hen house. I thought of all that when I came home one late summer day and went to my little office off the bedroom. My youngest cat, who typically accompanied me to the office and then vultured on my computer monitor to supervise my work, stopped at the office doorway and refused to come farther. She was acting strangely, her eyes fixed on the shelves in the corner of the tiny office. I examined the shelves, thinking there had been a small furry offering left for me somewhere nearby. Nothing. Still staring. More searching. Nothing. The cat, no doubt annoyed with the stupidity of her owner, elevated her warning, issuing a low growl from her delicate throat.

At her urging, I turned myself fully to the shelves, using a broom to sweep under them. I examined each and every shelf. Finally, following the direction of her intent stare, I looked at the top shelf near the ceiling. There, carefully camouflaged between the manila envelopes and file baskets, was the rather large head of a very healthy black snake.

My normal activity in those days had been to leave the house open all day, both the kitchen door on the east side and the solar porch door on the southwest, thus airing out the premises and providing unfettered access for the cats and dogs—and apparently snakes. The top shelf location, cleverly selected for optimal cold weather snake condo housing, added barriers to removal. I didn’t want to get bit because even a non-venomous snake can impart diseases like staph. And I didn’t want to risk a sudden aggressive move on the snake’s part precipitating a ridiculous female-type shrieking and freaking out reaction on my part.

I put on my leather work gloves and got the hoe. I used the hoe to try to drag it down from the shelf. Everything else came down — a rainstorm of envelopes, packing materials, a box of old Christmas cards — but not the snake. Its body leveraged between the wall and the back of the shelf, the snake had no intention of leaving its newly purchased real estate. Strong words about its unacceptable intentions and widely known rules of property ownership, me being the one paying the mortgage and so forth, made little impression on the snake. Even stronger words muttered to myself about getting serious helped bolster my courage to the point that I dragged over my desk chair and stood on it to reach up and grab the intruder by the neck. Immediately there were coils of its long body wrapping forward to choke off this violation of personal space. My second hand went mid-body to thwart that move. Then I had it, although it took another few breathless moments of pulling to get its length entirely free from the shelving. We made a quick journey out through the solar porch and across the yard to the back fence before I threw it into the grass with a stern warning about further in-house visits. I estimated the length at about six feet. Until colder weather, I began closing the solar porch door.

VI

Killing sometimes was an act of mercy, like when a kitten asleep behind a car tire lay flopping, screaming and convulsing when a quick backing up departure for town crushed part of its body. The .22 brought a swift end to its suffering. Another kitten had to be shot when I discovered a hidden injury under its back hip had maggots clear to the bone. Non-emergency euthanasia was deferred to veterinary services, especially in later years when improved financial circumstances made such luxuries more accessible.

There was a particular cat who arrived here with his brother, the brother being one of those yellow cats with their characteristic easy-going lay-around-to-get-petted attitudes. We christened the brother as Elmo James but we had a hard time finding a name for the other, as he had a wild thing going on so that he never quite got on the same page as the rest of us. He was gray striped, with clear green eyes. Finally I tried a variety of sound combinations to see if he would respond to any word, and it seemed he liked the sound of “reecer.” So we called him that in his early days.

A few months later, on one particular Friday after signing mortgage refinance papers, driving home in pouring rain, and carrying in an armload of mail, groceries, briefcase, and more, I elbowed the heavy door shut as I hurried into the house. Too late, I saw a gray and white streak as Reece raced out the door. I knew the door hit him, but it took a few seconds of throwing things down on the table and cabinets before I could look closer. There, on the floor by the door, was a four inch long narrow column of fine gray and white fur.

I looked out the kitchen window. He sat near the porch, twitching the now furless four inch section of tail in a wondering way, as if to try to figure exactly what had happened. I paced the floor. The soft fur column which had been the end of his tail rested benignly on the cabinet. Could they sew it on?

It was a long drive to town, more rain, football traffic when everything still came north on Highway 71. Reecer howled in the cat carrier. No, they couldn’t sew the hide back on. Hundreds of tiny capillaries and nerves would have to be reconnected. Instead, they would amputate the exposed bone. Cringing, I considered the long postponed neutering we had planned for these kittens – not such kittens now at six months.

Go ahead,” I said, tired and toughened by the trauma of it all, “and neuter him while you’re at it.”

And so he became Reece’s Pieces. We chose not to keep the pieces.

VII

Reece also frequented the pond, not just because it offered dragonflies and lizards, but also because he enjoyed walking in the shallow water where he stalked frogs. He seemed unconscious or at least unconcerned that his feet and legs became wet. (This principle held when he would decide to investigate a half-drained bathtub.) It wasn’t unusual for a day to pass without Reece being in the house, all while Elmo James loitered on the couch.

Elmo’s take on life was to shmooze it up with petting as often as he could get it, so persons passing by the couch might find themselves suddenly solicited by a friendly paw, as if to say, “Hey wait a minute, didn’t you forget something?” Elmo fulfilled his life duty by holding down the furniture.

So it was unusual when Reece ran through the kitchen late one morning and then disappeared into the depths of the house. With no subsequent reappearance, an investigation ensued. Room after room, in all the familiar spots, Reece could not be found. Finally, in the back corner of the closet of the farthest bedroom, there crouched Reece’s Pieces.

Blood covered his face, which was swollen horribly around the right eye. The eye itself was puffed shut. Blood oozed from the eyelid. The side of his face from the nose to the ear was strutted three times its normal size, misshapen and discolored with blood. He stared at me with his other eye and let out a miserable yowl.

I picked him up, certain even before I looked closely that he had been snake bit. There were two small spots still bleeding, one about a half inch above his eye where the skin was torn as if the end of a fang had hit a glancing blow against the hard skull bone. The other bloody spot was on his eyelid. The spots were about one and quarter inches apart, not a small snake. It was a long drive to the vet.

“Rattlesnake, I’d guess,” the vet remarked as he began cleaning up the blood and shaving hair around the punctures. “There’s not much I can do—the venom is already in his system. Say, isn’t this the same cat …?”

We exchanged glances as I nodded.

Examination revealed the amazing fact that the eyelid puncture had occurred with the eye open. The fang hooked the eyelid, but had missed the eyeball. Still, with a load of venom released into such a restricted area, the vet warned that he would probably lose the eye.

“Biggest danger is infection,” he said, injecting a hypodermic of antibiotic. “Snakes carry loads of bacteria.”

Two difficult weeks followed, holding Reeces down to clean the wounds and force antibiotic down his stubborn throat. His stubbed off tail switched in aggravation during each doctoring session. Gradually, the swelling disappeared, the hair grew back, and within a month everything was back to normal including his eye which suffering no permanent damage whatsoever.

VIII

It was about six weeks later when he failed to show up one evening. With memories of snake bite fresh in mind, I went out the next morning to find him. I searched the yard, the pond, the woods on all sides of the house. No Reeces. I argued with myself that he had stayed out before and came home when he pleased. Surely nothing was wrong now.

That evening, I searched again. Still no Reeces.

The next morning, I searched again, this time walking carefully through the tall grasses at the edge of the woods. That’s where I found him. He was looking at me, squatting in a position he often held when he waited for someone. I went toward him, talking and calling. He didn’t move. Only when I crouched beside him did he finally make a sound. It was a weak “raow.”

I started to pick him up, sliding my hands under him, when he moved in a pained way and let out a louder “raow.” I wondered if he had fallen or somehow broken a bone. It was only after I held him against my body and pulled one hand out from under him that I started to understand his problem. My hand was coated in blood.

In the house, I managed to hold him and examine his swollen belly. At the center of his belly, two fang-mark holes had deteriorated and spread into a grapefruit-sized section of skin that was black and paper thin. A larger black and red mottled expanse of skin covered his entire stomach area, with fur coming off in my hands. Blood and body liquids leaked through my fingers, wetting the shedding hair and dripping onto the floor.
He didn’t fight during the trip to the vet. He had no strength. Dehydrated, the vet said. Probably hadn’t moved since the strike. Two days he had lingered out there, within spitting distance of the house, and I hadn’t found him. Why hadn’t I been more thorough? Again, a shot of antibiotics and a booster of nutrients. His chances weren’t good, vet said.
“Same cat …”

I shook my head. “Yes.”

At home, all cats were banished from my bedroom with its cool, easily cleaned linoleum floor. He refused food and hid under the bed. He didn’t want milk, cheese, meat, or anything else. I sat with him while I had a quick lunch of sliced cantaloupe and cottage cheese, coaxing him — did he want cottage cheese? No, but at the first whiff of cantaloupe, he became excited. He licked the juice from the plate and tried to bite the cantaloupe, but he didn’t have the strength for chewing.

Minutes later, a quickly mashed mound of juicy cantaloupe held his undivided attention. He couldn’t lick it up fast enough. At first, he ate only a little. But over the next three days he ate more and more, regaining energy from the fluids and nutrients of the sweet melon. By the fourth day, he ate some regular food and drank water. By the end of the month, most of the wound had healed, although a pink scar remained and the stomach hair had only begun to regrow.

IX

A year passed, and then another, with snake seasons yielding no further incident and summer cantaloupe remaining his favored treat. But the experiences took their toll in ways one would not expect. More than ever, Reeces Pieces had become a wild cat with little interest in domestic pleasures. He roamed the woods and slept in the shade of fallen trees. His coat smelled of leaves and pond mud. When stray males wandered onto our land, he sprayed his territory which unfortunately included the kitchen cabinets and other parts of the house. He related to me in increasingly bizarre ways, like perching by my head at the back of the couch to chew my hair and hold my head with his claws.

One particular incident provoked me past my attachment to him, when he sprayed his scent on a plate of freshly fried apricot half moon pies. It wasn’t the first time he had left his mark on food. Finally, I understood that while Elmo resided benignly as the companion he was expected to be, Reeces had to go. He would not make a good pet for anyone. I couldn’t abandon him to the wild. I agonized over the decision. But in a few days, the appointment was made.

On the way to the vet, a trip I allowed him to make loose in the car as his last freedom, he yowled non-stop and desperately clawed at the windows. As we were passing through Greenland, with that unexplainable cognizance that cats seem to possess, he managed to stand on the automatic window button, opening the window several inches where he thrust out his head before I realized what was happening. As he tried to climb out the opening, I forced the window back up and there were a few moments of back and forth as he pressed down on the button, amazingly focused on a last great escape.

But I prevailed and managed to lock the windows, and completed the nerve-wracking drive into town. I choked on the thickness in my throat when I told the vet I was sure of my decision.

“Same cat?”

“Yes.”

Then I stood at the table petting Reecer while the vet injected the chemical that would relax his lithe cat muscles and hold him still until a second injection would stop his heart.

I left him there for cremation instead of bringing him home to bury. It was rare for me to do that, but somehow I could not handle a cat funeral that day. He had more or less been sideways with the world all along, and it seemed he wouldn’t have fit into a grave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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