When I called my friend Victor, I simply said, “I have a bad animal story.” He instantly knew he would have to console me, though at first he laughed. “You’re laughing? How can you laugh at something like this!?” He was thinking, of course, of the time he had helped me clear out a ton of junk from underneath my porch and we had come across a petrified dead squirrel that he initially thought was a piece of wood. I took one glance and knew better, as I ran shrieking from the storage space. The poor squirrel looked as if death had surprised him, as he was frozen into a shape that resembled a miniature Tyrannosaurus Rex.
I told him this story was worse, much worse. I had arrived home from the gym and started to turn the car into my driveway. I immediately spotted a young groundhog scaling a low retaining wall. He stopped and stared at me and I paused, admiring and greeting him. He scampered over the wall and back down into the yard. I then drove further into the driveway and promptly heard a high-pitched squealing. I had felt the impact with something small at about the same time, and my heart sunk. Turning my head to look toward the end of the driveway, I saw another young groundhog struggling to pull himself along to get away from the car, badly injured and unable to run. I watched, horrified, as he made it to the end of the driveway and turned at a front flower bed and toward my front walk.
I’d been seeing the pair of them — brothers, or so I imagined — for a few weeks now. They must have a hole nearby my front door, probably under this large, overgrown bush. I had seen them running down the front walk, scooting underneath the bush, and I had seen telltale signs of half-eaten plants. Once in a while I’d spot them hanging out on the walkway, near my front door. They were young, about the size of large rats, nowhere near the giant fat groundhogs one typically saw in the summer.
And now — now I had just killed one of them. I felt horrible. It was an accident, of course, just an awful accident. But it didn’t matter. Why hadn’t I checked the driveway before I barreled in? But who really does that? I had been busy looking at his twin, and didn’t bother to wonder where the other one was. I hadn’t even remembered that they typically moved around as a pair.
While in the shower, trying to wash away the memory, I recalled the other animal deaths I had witnessed in my life. Just a small handful, but all painful.
There was the time when I lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the late 1970s, when I accidentally ran over my own kitten. My biker boyfriend, Artie, had come across him in back of the Harley dealership where he worked. It had been abandoned and, come to think of it now, was probably feral. The little guy was crazy, so because of that (and my violent cat allergy), he lived outside and we fed him.
We were on our way to meet up with some friends and were in my car with the motor running. The kitten kept running up to the car, no matter what we did. We kept trying to shoo it away, toss it into the yard, anything.
When I tried to back out of the driveway, the kitten ran straight for the tires, and I ran him over. Never had I been so distraught or inconsolable. I remember sitting on my couch wailing hysterically, with Artie doing his best to console me.
Even when the animal’s passing was natural and I had nothing whatsoever to do with its demise, I couldn’t fully cope with it. Boo-Boo was my friend Victor’s beloved cat, and Boo-Boo (full name Sai Boo-Boo, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Indian spiritual leader Sai Baba) had bucket loads of personality (kind of a grouchy old man, really) and terrorized at least a few neighbors and clients. When Boo-Boo died, at an advanced age, I wrote a eulogy and attended the funeral at Victor’s family home in Southie, but could not bring myself to look at the body.
Though it wasn’t directly my fault, I took full blame when a backyard squirrel met his demise at the hands of a birdbath bowl that came crashing down off its base after he must have perched on it for a drink. There was no bottom piece to hold it in place, so it had to balance on top. I tried to center it so it would be secure, but clearly it wasn’t. I actually found the poor squirrel trapped underneath it, still alive, and moved the bowl so he could try to crawl away, though he was very badly injured. I’ll never forget the look of fear in his eyes when I approached him and maybe, possibly, the look of gratitude when I freed him, though I felt ashamed for what I felt was complicity in the crime. I was so traumatized by that incident that I actually called the town animal warden to come and dispose of the squirrel, which he was kind enough to do. The benefits of living in a small town.
Then there was the sin of the father. This was possibly the toughest one of all, given my love of birds. I was visiting my parents, and my dad, deeply immersed in the frustration and difficulty of having to care for my bed-ridden mother, had grown annoyed at the birds nesting in an air-conditioner in her room. She of course wasn’t in any danger and probably couldn’t care less about the noise. There was another window that was being used with a stronger unit, so there was no reason he had to suddenly remove this older unit from the window at the height of spring nesting season. But, as I realize now, his insistence upon taking immediate action was a symptom of a more pervasive illness. He was feeling powerless. I understand that. But even more powerless was the baby bird whose nest he disturbed.
I had helped him remove the air-conditioner, so I unfortunately had a front row seat to the carnage. As he started destroying the nest, the image that burned itself into my mind forever was of this new baby bird, fleshy and vulnerable, crying and reaching out for its mother, who I saw hovering in the sky nearby. The mother bird was also powerless, unable to help her offspring.
My dad, not immediately registering the situation, said in disgust, “see, there are even insects in here,” and continued to brush everything from the window sill onto the ground far below.
My fight-or-flight response immediately took flight into the bathroom where, door locked, I proceeded to cry hysterically for a half hour. My father will never truly understand why I reacted in that way. It wasn’t just the single act of killing a baby bird and destroying its nest. Baby birds die all the time, often at the hands of other animals, or due to weather, or to an accident or to any number of natural events. In my mind, this was clearly a metaphor. There was innocence being destroyed in the course of life’s harsh reality, and my own innocence was being brushed aside hastily and with no remorse, along with the nest and its fragile new life, onto the cold ground. In that moment, I felt as vulnerable as that baby bird.
The telltale sign of critters in our midst.
All of these incidents flashed through my mind like a news reel as I walked to the front porch to retrieve the mail. I glanced out the window. About two-thirds of the way down the front walk laid the young groundhog. In trying to make it back to his hole under the bush, he could only make it that far. Shit. Profoundly sad, I went to get a shovel and a bucket. I would bury the poor guy underneath my giant blue spruce, the same place I laid to rest a dead bird I found years ago.
I stepped out the front door at the same exact time that his brother appeared at the front of the walk. As I started to walk towards the dead animal, his alive and no doubt frightened brother started running towards me. My mind raced. Did he see his brother lying dead on the ground? He surely must have, as he ran right past him. Was he going to attack me for killing his brethren? I am not privy to the inner lives of groundhogs, to know whether they even have a sense of unjust death or of revenge. But I wasn’t about to stay and find out. I retreated back onto the enclosed porch, as he ran right near me to scurry quickly behind the bush.
Once again, I called Victor. Would the groundhog come back to retrieve the body of his brother? Do they do that? Should I wait for a while? I still felt horrible. He assured me again that it wasn’t my fault, that it was an accident and how could I know that he was underneath my car? We spoke of animal customs, animal awareness, elephant graveyards and other such topics. He told me to go ahead and bury him and the sooner the better, while I still had light.
The burial took place under the blue spruce. The groundhog had looked so peaceful in death, just lying there on my front walk as if asleep. This time I looked carefully. As I took in his peaceful countenance, I became more peaceful myself. Far less distraught and focused on my task, it was easy to push him into the bucket and easier still to dig a small hole in the large open space underneath the 60-foot pine tree. I placed pinecones on top, with a stone to mark the grave.
I think now of the surviving sibling, alone in the world with no brother to frolic and play with. I wonder if I will see him again, and I know that if I do, I will be forever sad. He is alone now in the world, an only child, like me. My heart goes out to him.