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Wild life

Bill Meredith

"From ghoulies, and ghosties, and long-leggity beasties,
and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us."
…old Scottish prayer.

(July 2012) At my age, when you get up in the morning and look out of the window it isn’t often that you see something you’ve never seen before; but the laws of probability predict that it should happen once in a while, and it did. About a month ago, I got up, wandered into the kitchen, and stopped in front of the window as I always do. It is not unusual for me to be a little disoriented at that time of day, so I always assume my wife will be sitting in the chair by her desk and will tell me where I am, what day it is, and other useful information, like "If you’d go to bed earlier, you wouldn’t be so stupid in the morning." That day, though, she wasn’t there. I could hear her rummaging around in the pantry, so I decided I should remain calm, stay where I was, and not make any rash decisions until she came back. That was when the bear appeared.

It was a young black bear; I assumed it was a male, because they are more likely to be wandering about this time of the year. He walked casually around behind our car, as calmly as if he owned the place. His manner suggested a big black dog as he walked with his nose low to the ground, sniffing systematically back and forth, but his size, bow-legged posture and arrogant swagger were definitely not dog-like. There was an old, rusty suet feeder hanging on the pear tree; I hadn’t used it this year, so it couldn’t have much odor left on it, but he stood on his hind legs and inspected it. My mind seemed to be stuck in low gear, so I didn’t think to go and get my camera, but I did call for my wife to come quick and see. She assumed from long experience that I had spotted an odd bird of some kind, so she wasn’t in a hurry to respond, but when she got there she did seem to be impressed. Meanwhile, the bear was looking suspiciously at the birdbath when he heard a car coming up the road, and he ran off with surprising speed and disappeared into the Great Forest behind the house. The entire episode couldn’t have lasted more than two minutes.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Two days earlier, our garbage can was upset; I had assumed it had been visited by the raccoon that had been leaving his tracks in the mud by the garage. Then, on the following day there had been a lock-down at the Senior Citizens room while my wife was playing bridge there, because a bear had been spotted wandering around the playground nearby. Being who I am, I started counting on my fingers and realized that we have a surprising variety of creatures wandering through the premises. In addition to the bear, the raccoon, and the squirrels I frequently write about, a rabbit has nested in the patch of ferns by the porch and produced a litter of young ones that can usually be seen hopping about in the front yard and eating clover and plantain leaves. The chipmunk that used to live under the front porch steps has come back. The groundhog that I thought we had persuaded to leave last fall has returned, and dug a new hole under the foundation. I regularly see deer lurking in the woods behind the house, waiting for the chance to munch on our hosta plants. About six weeks ago we heard a gray fox barking by the back door one night. And within the past year I have seen possums, skunks, shrews, at least two kinds of field mice, and something that looked suspiciously like a coyote nosing about in the neighbor’s garbage can. Add to that list several feral cats and an occasional stray dog… and that’s just the mammals. I ran out of fingers and used up most of the toes on one foot, without even counting the various species of birds, snakes, toads, and frogs. It’s a jungle out there.

There was a thunderstorm that evening and the power went off around nine o’clock. We sat in the dark for a while, but it didn’t come back on, so my wife decided to go to bed. She usually has a scented candle burning in the kitchen to chase away other odors and any evil spirits that happen to wander by after supper, so I took the candle and sat down with it in my office. It didn’t take long for the flickering light and the shadows it created to lead my mind off into the past, when I used to spend an occasional night at my grandmother’s house.

It was an old house, and the electricity went off fairly often, sometimes because of a storm but also at random times when a fuse blew out. My aunt and her daughter lived with Grandma, but Grandpa had died the year before I was born, so was no man available to "fix things." The fuse box was in the cellar crawl space, and it was wet there; it wasn’t safe to go poking about in the dark to deal with electrical problems, so we would sit with candles or a kerosene lantern and tell stories. That seems to have been a tradition handed down from ancient times before there was any electricity, and many of the stories were about hunting or being chased by wild animals, or ghosts. The old house contributed a variety of sound effects; in the summer, the tin roof would crack and squeak as it cooled off, or in winter the coal in the fireplace would suddenly shift, crackle, and send up a flare of sparks. If the wind was blowing, the rafters would creak, the windows would rattle, and the curtains would reach out and grab at you. You could always hear mice prowling about, and there was a variety of beetles, moths and other insects going about their private lives; the house was full of ghoulies and ghosties, and something was always going bump. And that was just on the inside; we were out in the country, and all manner of beasties were out there. No one had seen a bear or mountain lion in over 50 years, but they were in all of the stories, and we did have bobcats. You could hear them screaming now and then, especially in the springtime, and they sounded like the last words of a forlorn maiden who was being swallowed by a goblin.

The light came back on after an hour or so, and I had to leave Grandma’s house and come back to Emmitsburg. The house was quiet, almost dull; there were no ghoulies or ghosties, and the only thing going bump was the sound of traffic out on Main Street as loads shifted on trucks coming around the corner. There was still an occasional rumble of thunder off in the distance, but no sign of bears, long-leggity beasties or maidens in distress. Life is tamer than it used to be. Maybe that’s why people don’t pray as much any more.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith