Our mouths are full of blue corn chips when we see the hit. We pause our chewing to mumble and point out at the dark, windshield wipers batting at the rain. We are sure we saw something. Saw something rush out on the road and into the headlights of the car ahead.
“Possum?” I wonder aloud to my husband and son.
“Cat maybe?” my nearly nine-year-old son asks. “Or dog. What if it’s a dog? What do we do?”
“Raccoon,” I say, with what might be construed as a bit of glee, or hope.
We are on our way home after stopping for chips, and ice cream and are just past the courthouse, and church. Past the last stop light before the bridge across the river. Before the park where thick forest starts on both sides of the road, and if you look hard enough through the trees you can see the river, even at night. You can see head lights or moonlight reflecting off the surface – wide, and flat and seemingly slow moving, but with a scary undertow. But tonight the rain is heavy and the night so dark that there is no hint of river.
Raccoons. There are things they do that bother me. There was the time camping at the lake. Just me and the dog. It was the first camp trip with the dog, and I wasn’t sure how it would work. Hadn’t anticipated raccoons.
When I tell folks about the dog and the raccoons, they think the dog was harassing the raccoons. She is on the big side, a golden lab retriever mix. But it wasn’t that at all. She was in a cage just outside my tent, I thought that might be a good idea. She whimpered, and whined, and carried on. I assured, and admonished, and shushed from inside the tent until finally, in exasperated frustration, I unzipped the tent to really give her a good what gives, and saw the racoons. One nearly the size of a small bobcat clutched the mesh of her cage. Eyes red in my headlamp. The dog curled up in the far corner. The raccoon looked at me then sat down on his haunches. When I looked around, I saw in the bushes, and along the branches of the vine maple that overhung the picnic table, eyes. And tiny claw tipped paws -full of dexterity – more like hands than paws. I flashed my headlamp round the campsite and back into the cedars. A whole damn herd, or a gaze, as it’s called, had come calling.
I took the dog out of the cage, and brought her into the tent. It seemed as good an idea as the cage. Like it might work. And it did for a minute. Then shadows. The raccoons were circling the tent. The dog whined, and yowled, louder, as the shadows got bigger, whimpering, and pushing back up into me. This went on until a good lunge from the dog nearly tore the tent apart. The back of the truck with its canopy was next. I gripped the dog by the collar, and we made our way to the truck where she happily leapt in, and I hoped for the best. To the raccoons I waved my hands, and hissed, and they mostly scattered, though not far. I could hear squeaks from the picnic table, and snuffling in the bushes, and out by the shore of the lake. Small little splashes. All night long. But they left the dog alone, or gave up, or maybe had enough fun for the night, or had satisfied their curiosity.
“They didn’t even slow,” I say. “I mean what if it was a dog or something?”
Because we would stop for a dog. Sure, we would do that. That’s what I tell my son. We would stop for a dog. I am thinking of the ice cream, in the bag, sitting on the back seat. The ice cream that will melt if we stop. And I want to be home – not out in the rain and the cold. The people in the car ahead must have heard the thud, must have been curious what it was they hit? If they didn’t bother, why should we? And if we did bother what exactly would we do? I mean it’s risky to go out onto the highway in the dark.
I watch the tail lights disappear over the top of a hill.
I think about the time I was nursing the boy. An infant still. Before his first laugh even. When the furthest I’d gone yet was into the sun of the back yard, the boy caught in the crook of my arms. I’d walk the gardens edge, near the apple trees, and under the shade of the cottonwoods. Everything was green and newly formed. The tomatoes barely turned from blossom, and the apples tiny, and hard, and green. I’d try to imagine my son picking ripened apples, or pulling carrots, or young sweet peas. Tried to picture how his hair might grow, maybe yellow and fine, or reddish, and curly, and thick. Tried to imagine his laugh, or voice, or the things he might say. What kind of person he would be. All the things we would teach him. All the things we’d pass along. What we loved. What we cherished and valued.
Raccoons climbed up to the nursery window that day. It was hot, and sunny, and I was rocking, and nursing, and watching the cedar boughs bend in the little bit of wind when I heard the scratching. I held my son close as I stood up to look out the window. Raccoons. Two of them. They were trying to stand. Lifted their noses and squinted, little hands in the air as if they’d come to say hello. We live in a log home, and the raccoons climbed the log ends that stick out past the side of the house. They were trying to leap from the top log and onto a small ledge that would get them close to the nursery window. It was barely four inches thick, the ledge, but they were trying. I leaned out the window, and whisper yelled, and tried to throw something to dislodge them down to the hard ground below. Without waking the baby. What did they want, I wondered? How could I ever leave the baby alone in his room with them trying to get in?
Once, when camping along the California coast, deep in the redwoods and scrub oak, or not so deep as we could hear the distant fall and crash of waves of the Pacific, a friend and I slept in the back of her car. The seats were folded down, and all our gear was stashed atop the roof. The cooler even, strapped with bungie cords and rope to the top of the car. We woke to the car swaying as if a mighty wind blew but quickly realized, raccoons. A gaze of them trying to get the cooler off the roof of the car. Tearing at the cords. Pulling apart what they could. We shone flashlights into their eyes, and they stopped and looked. We shooed, and hollered, and they reluctantly left. We sat quiet in the dark, and listened for their return, and eventually fell asleep only to be woken again by trampling across the windshield and roof. So we decided to leave. Drove off with the raccoons still on the roof.
I suppose I tell these stories to share my discomfort. Like the way raccoons come up to the our kitchen door. They ramble through the yard with the flowering cherry trees and lilac bushes to get there. Past the apple trees and cottonwoods. Through the garden. They come on the porch, stand on their hind legs, and look in. They knock things every which way. Try to open the compost bucket or the garbage can that holds the dog food. They disregard the boundaries that have been set up between us and them. They’d come right in the back door if I left it open. Anyways, I keep telling my stories about raccoons to anyone who will listen, try to get them to tell their stories, try to get us all on the same page.
Not so long ago, when we went camping with kids, and they found a raccoon high up in a tree, somewhere between the bathroom and the campsite, I flashed a light up into his eyes, and saw the little red beady things stare back. I told kids to be careful. Be careful, I said. He’ll ripe your face off. Tear your eyes right out of your sockets. Yes indeed. Really nothing like this has happened. Not yet, but it could. Who knows? There is that possibility. Who knows what raccoons are capable of?
And just the other day on the radio? I listened to the host recount his encounter with raccoons. As he cleaned out the trunk of his car. They were in the bushes nearby. Made him feel uncomfortable, he said, though they didn’t actually do anything. But he left. Moved his car. He told of a local newspaper columnist too – how one of her most popular columns was about a raccoon encounter. About how, one night, a raccoon stole a duck from her backyard, and how she recouped the duck. Pulled it right from the little devil’s paws. The raccoon got aggressive on her, and she fought it back with a broom handle. In the end she won. She told a story too, one she heard from a friend, about a gang of raccoons that attacked a woman jogging. Somewhere. Couldn’t remember the details, but they nearly killed the jogger. She was pretty sure.
Anyways, I tell these stories so often my son starts to repeat them. He asks to hear about the raccoons that came to visit when he was little and lived in a crib. Tells the story as if he remembers. As if he knows.
“I hate raccoons,” he says, shouts almost, with near glee, from the back seat of the car. “They’re creepy.”
I nod my head, and pass him the bag of chips. We drive on into the opaque of a cold rain, ignorant of what we might know if we looked deeper into the dark. If we could see clearly. We drive past the flashing stop lights. Up the highway home. Following the slow moving river, out there somewhere, vast and full and tangled with dangerous undercurrents.