Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Sniper and the Raccoonteur

"Limber up your body. Take a deep breath. Loosen your shoulders. Relax your arms. Make sure the safety's on. Now, close your eyes. Imagine that raccoon. Bring that gun up to your shoulder, doin' all that in a sort of state of zen. Open your eyes. Take the safety off. Take another deep breath..."

It was one of the Loyal boys, from up the road, giving us a rifle refresher course. We'd known it was time for a visit to the Loyals when that raccoon came around. Oh, we didn't know it was a raccoon at first. We had the predator pegged as a fisher-cat, since they're known to kill for sport. SOMEthing had been killing our chickens, biting the heads off, and leaving the bodies behind. SOMEthing had taken, of the last two weeks, four of our precious laying hens and our prettiest bantam rooster. SOMEthing had ripped the heavy metal-and-wood cover off the big wooden brooder box, killed all the month-old chicks and left their bodies strewn about the barn before getting into the hen-pen and smashing all the eggs in the nest boxes. SOMEthing had to be done--and done in.

Right about the time all those chicks were killed, a workman at the house across the road stumbled upon a mama raccoon that had taken up residence inside an unused chimney. A day later, we saw her ourselves--creeping toward our henhouse in broad daylight, bold as brass. (At first we thought the creature was rabid, to be moving in daylight like that, but then we remembered the workman's words and figured it was just a mama being hungry.) We watched her movements carefully, then ran outside to scare her off before she could snuff out another chicken's life. That's when we called the Loyals.

We knew the Loyal boys would have ammo. Many's the clear, golden peaceful afternoon lull shattered by their distant reports. Target practice and hunting are two of their chief joys. By tacit agreement, we don't raise a fuss about their uninvited, unauthorized forays into our "back thirty," and they return the favour with helpful observations: "seen a lot goin' on back know you got three dens full of coyote pups?" "Them loggers are doin' a real nice job on that cut. Your place is lookin' pretty good."

Every town has a houseful or two of Loyals. Nobody's quite sure how many live there at any given time. The dooryard is bedecked with two sodden, elderly armchairs that the trash-haulers never pick up. How the ancient house is still standing, nobody really knows. It's not that the place is trashy or the people don't care--just that their luck runs out often and they're too busy surviving to waste time with a lawnmower or a bucket of paint. As The Piper says, they're just "good people trying to get by."

When that raccoon sauntered up to the henhouse, we knew it was time for a little Loyalist meeting regarding the right to bear arms. We two peace-loving women had seen four fine, fat hens wasted, chicks decapitated and eggs smashed, to say nothing of that poor, lovely little rooster. I've yet to meet any farmwoman who can abide waste, especially when it comes to eggs and hens. We'd reached our tipping point. It was time to borrow and bait a trap, clean the .22 and scare up some ammunition.

It should be mentioned, here, that The School for Wild Girls was still in session. KyedPiper had returned to her island home, but Katya--our Russian-born erstwhile farmhand--was still with us for a few more days. When we returned from visiting the Loyals, it seemed like a good time for another Wild Girl lesson: target practice.

Katya was dubious. "I just don't feel comfortable with guns," she protested, even as she lifted the rifle and peered down the sights. The Piper set up a can--recently emptied of refried beans--on the ground in the middle of a clearing. As per the Loyals' instructions, we marked off the paces on the ground and practiced relaxing, breathing, and doing the "zen hunter thing."

The Piper took the first shot, by way of demonstration. At twenty paces, she planted her feet, took a deep breath, shook the tension from her arms, visualized the raccoon, carefully took aim... and missed. She took another shot and grazed the can. Her next two shots parted the grass in the distance. I tried, too, with similar results. More bullets were loaded into the barrel and the rifle was handed to Katya for her turn. Standing there in thin city-summer clothes and borrowed wellies, she went through the little ritual, taking extra care and time to be sure of her aim, protesting all the while that she didn't like guns and really wasn't too sure about all of this. She pulled the trigger. The bean-can did a little somersault in the air. The Piper and I cheered. "Beginner's luck..." said Katya, still dubious. She took aim again...and punched a second hole through the can, making it dance up and land on its side. We shouted and cheered. She emptied out the shells and put two more bullets in the rifle, aimed a third time, and...hit the can dead center. Then she did it again. Four out of four. "When that raccoon comes back," we said to Katya, "you have the job."

We brought over a borrowed hav-a-hart trap and set it up in the poultry yard near the hen-house door. We baited it with two incubator-warmed eggs and some old bread smeared with peanut butter. As twilight came on, Katya took up her position, rifle at her side, on the stairs next to an open window. She nervously checked and re-checked the safety, a concern of which we heartily approved. When the chickens started their worried, throaty little "something's wrong" noises, we all perked up and started watching.

Sure enough, she was coming our way--smaller than I expected, but clearly determined. She made no secret of her presence as she picked up morsels of the bread we'd scattered in the driveway for the chickens. The chickens were clustering and drifting closer to the house, watching her warily. She followed them, coming closer...closer... there was the sharp crack of the rifle, and a very surprised raccoon hustling out of the way. "DAMN." Katya looked out at the raccoon, looked at us, and then, wide-eyed, down at the rifle in her hands. "I think I winged it." We cheered again, and joked about how lucky our farm was to have its very own Russian sniper. She took it rather well--good thing, as we now had a compelling new reason to avoid upsetting her!

There was no more excitement that night, but in the morning the hav-a-hart trap was empty of eggshells and full of raccoon. (How the eggshells managed to end up outside, almost whole, while the raccoon ended up inside, I'll never know.) There was no sign of the peanut-butter-smeared slice of bread, but the raccoon was curled up, snoozing.

Katya and I knew what we had to do. The trap might be a "hav-a-hart," but we were there to defend our chickens. This was not the time to coo and fuss over fuzzy wee bright-eyed wild things. We were looking into the face of a chicken-killer. This was war.

We went back to the house, put on boots and gloves, and loaded the rifle. When I grabbed the handle and lifted the cage, the dozing creature came to life with a furious snarl. Heedless, we marched it into the woods, a blue smoke-trail of raccoon curses curling and drifting in our wake. When we reached the back ridge, up near the coyote dens, we set the trap down. Katya, tenderhearted but fiercely practical, murmured words of honor and respect for this creature's vital wildness, then took careful aim and dispatched the raccoon with one clean, quick shot to the head. When all was quiet and still, we lifted the trapdoor, set the raccoon on a bed of moss, and left it to the flies and the ravens, Creation's ultimate recyclers.

The next day, Katya flew away, back to her busy urban life in a warmer clime. On Friday, at the farmers' market, I sold a chicken she'd helped me butcher, and within two hours turned the proceeds over to another vendor for six baby chicks. This is how the circle ought to turn, and this is how money ought to travel: from rough hands to smooth hands and back again, as we offer the best gifts of our labour, pay tribute to the land, and greet each other face to face.

Somewhere in the forest, a predator transforms back into food. Somewhere in a henhouse, a new batch of chicks goes hopping and napping and peeping. Here in our farmhouse, we keep an eye out for both, and thank our lucky stars for Loyal and tested friends.


jen said...

A touching story about peaceful folks having to kill a raccoon.

Mama Pea said...

Sorry you had to go through all the death and destruction. I think losing a batch of chickens to a predator has happened to all of us homesteader/farmer types at least once. I know you would rather have not had to dispatch the raccoon if you'd had the choice. When I found the pine marten in our chicken house amongst the slaughter, he looked up at me with the cutest little head cocked to one side. BLAM! (Sorry, that was very inappropriate.)

Instead of bemoaning the loss of your poultry, you put a very interesting slant to your story. A really good writer's slant.

MperiodPress said...

This was a great story-- and a well, well, written one too. Thank you for that. Will be thinking of you and your chickens and the whole cycle of being--return, exchange, give, receive, provide, protect, proclaim--for a while now before going to bed.