The advice to authors is “write about what you know” and this excerpt does just that. This comes from a partially finished story in which I wove many of my childhood memories and some fiction together. (My life is hardly worth an autobiography and the whole point of writing fiction is to escape to an alternate reality.) My favourite cousin is one of the main characters and I am as well. I wrote this almost fifteen years ago. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish this story. I think it would hurt too much. My plot certainly didn’t involve having him drown in ‘tsunami like waves’ that capsized his fishing boat. Let me repeat: Always wear a life jacket. One of the best things about my cousin was his sense of humour, so I hope this writing honours that. Even if the whole story never sees the light of day, I thought this portion was worth sharing.
*The names have been changed.
Across the back hay field, the distant figure of Travis appeared. He must have been returning from the morning’s checking of mole traps. I waved and bent back over the bushes I had been creeping about, swishing the leaves and the surrounding tall grasses carefully.
“Watcha’ looking for?” My cousin asked as he came near.
“Garter snakes, frogs…” (The possibilities were too endless to name.)
His eyebrows went up in friendly surprise and he crouched down at my level.
“You like creepy-crawlers?” He asked curiously.
“Not spiders,” I gasped with solemn intensity, suddenly realizing that eight-legged creatures could inhabit this foliage as well. “J-just frogs and salamanders and stuff.”
(You know, my tone implied, just cute, harmless critters—nothing really scary.)
“Sometimes snakes fall down inside my traps,” he told me casually, “In fact, I just pulled one out this morning.”
This was cried out with all the tragedy of an opportunity forever lost.
“There’ll be more next time,” he said calmly.
“Could you bring a snake back next time you find one?” I asked eagerly.
“Sure,” he shrugged cheerfully; looking rather pleased to be able to do someone a service.
Two mornings later there was a cardboard box waiting for me on the kitchen table. (Aunt Jane had left for work already, or I imagine this event alone would have caused a ruckus.) Travis sat across the table, liberally spooning out sugar and shovelling in rice-crispy cereal. He smiled expectantly as I danced across the floor. A perfect, black and yellow ribboned reptile coiled under one bottom flap of the box. I plunged my hand in and lifted up the unhappily writhing fellow. His tiny head s-curved and glared at me suspiciously. My delighted face suddenly changed to betrayed disgust as a decidedly unpleasant odour drifted upwards. Travis took one look at my expression and began choking on a milky mouthful.
“Better go wash your hands,” he coughed with twinkling eyes. “Garter snakes can be kinda ornery that way.”
I smiled sheepishly and replaced my unloving pet. Several vigorous scrubbings later, I returned and peered into the box.
“What do they eat?” I asked, mentally building an elaborate terrarium.
“Oh, bugs and frogs, probably.”
Frogs? I thought in despair. Insects were one thing, but how could I sacrifice my other woodland friends to this snake? It was more heart-wrenching than ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ I decided it was time to change the subject.
“What do moles look like?” I asked, remembering the trap where my pet was found.
“Oh, they’re kind of a velvety-grey with little pink feet near their nose.”
“Instead of eyes?” I tried to picture this.
“Well, I think they have eyes, they’re just real small.”
“Oh. Could you bring one back sometime, so I could see it?”
He looked uncomfortable.
“Well, I’d still have to kill him, Jen. Moles are bad—they dig up the garden and make holes that cows can step in and break their legs.”
“Like grey-diggers,” I said, nodding.
With all my love for God’s lesser creatures, I had often gone along with my beloved Uncle Ned to shoot grey-diggers. The hypocrisy of this never occurred to me—nothing my revered uncle did could ever be wrong—besides these were grey-diggers. One didn’t think of them as furry ground squirrels, these were offensive varmints that endangered the cattle. I’d sit on the hill, holding my breath in awe as Uncle Ned picked ‘em off—when they fell it was always far enough away not to see ‘em twitching, and they didn’t scream—not like rabbits.
I loved to go along on these walks with my uncle, walking the fence and moving the cows to a new field or re-staking Gretta the goat to a new blackberry patch. There was always some new discovery or identified species’ name passed on from Uncle Ned’s endless fount of knowledge. My uncle called down the owls for me once, crouching down near the old snag in the dusk of evening. There was a nest in the hollow of this dead tree, and one day he boosted me up to see. Fluffy grey heads, like three little old grannies stared back at me with huge eyes. I was speechless with delighted awe.
“We can’t do this again,” Uncle Ned explained. “I don’t want to spook the mamma owl too much.”
But once was enough.
I also just liked the chance for visiting Gretta and bringing her clover or bending an out-of-reach bough to her perpetually nibbling mouth. But I could never bring myself to enjoy looking her in the eye—those weird yellow eyes with the horizontal dash of a pupil. Horses have the same kind of pupil, but their eyes are dark brown and it is only on the rare occasion when the light hits at just the right angle—reflecting off the plane of their iris—that one sees the dilated slit. Besides, horses could be forgiven anything—even their unfailing habit of farting just as one was currying their rump.
I’m serious. It’s a proven law of nature, all you have to do is just touch the brush to a horse’s hindquarters and “pfffffff…” (Fortunately it smells mostly like hay.) Perhaps this is some involuntary response—like the dog-scratch-leg-kick thing. I personally believe they’ve been waiting, holding it, until just the moment when your nose is strategically positioned. But then, if a bunch of pip-squeaks starting shoving little pieces of metal into my mouth and ordering me around, I’d probably develop some passive-aggressive techniques myself. Luckily horses are pretty dumb.
Yes, I’ve finally had to admit this, even to myself. I still remember the day my Aunt Sue—Aunt Sue the sacred keeper of the flame of the Roy Rogers shrine—actually told me that dogs are smarter than horses. Dogs! Big, stupid, bounding, salivating, halitosis-breathing, poop-factories were actually smarter than horses? She then heaped further offense by adding that pigs were smarter than either. Pigs! I vehemently denied this heresy, but deep down I knew that Aunt Sue must be right. She had kept horses and dogs all her life, (though no pigs), so she should know. My faith was deeply shaken.
As a matter of fact, there had been a time when the pig-genius would have cheered me—as a small child I had “loved piggies.” I have a hunch that, (like all other historical childhood obsessions including Cabbage Patch Dolls, Beanie Babies, etc.) this was a largely parent-generated passion. Several things cute and pink and oinky were amassed for each of my first six birthdays and Christmases. I believe all this was built on the only shred of evidence of my pig preference—that as a toddler playing with my farm set I seemed to favour the green plastic pig figure.
But I soon bought into the hype, and at one point I finally wore my poor mother down to such desperation that she stopped, on the way home from the state fair in Palmer, at a farm. She got out and marched right up, covered with humility, to knock at the door of a perfect stranger and ask these people if her daughter might look at their pigs. I remember standing in the huge, mucky yard while their daughter held up a piglet for me to see—a perfect little pink thing—but I was too terrified by the awesome sight of the immense male hog snoozing just one flimsy wooden slat away. My love affair was somewhat quenched after that.