The raccoon doesn’t shy away as I approach. Doesn’t flinch as I raise my rifle. Shows no fear as I take aim. Just regards me steadily, sitting on its haunches with its back against the tree, one hand in the trap like it is dipping into a bowl of potato chips.
The next tree over, another raccoon lies limp but still breathing, its body twisted around the trap as if it had spent the night trying to escape. Clearly, the first raccoon is the alpha, the instigator of the raid on the chicken coop two nights ago that left a carnage of limbs and feathers for my young daughter to find when I sent her out to collect the eggs for breakfast.
I lower my rifle and lock eyes with the alpha raccoon, trying to read its expression, but it is inscrutable. Calm. Implacable.
It reminds me of my old therapist, the one that made me have a conversation with a candle in her office that time I thought my house was haunted. A Gestalt thing, I was given to understand. A therapist’s trick. Pretend the candle is the thing that’s haunting you.
When I had finished talking to the candle, and the candle had nothing more to say to me, the therapist said I had really just been having a conversation with myself, that I was haunting my own house. Such bullshit. I know what I heard.
Inside the house, my coffee is getting cold, and my young daughter is eating her eggs alone in front of Paw Patrol reruns. Resentment rises in me like a noxious tide. I look from one raccoon to the other, wondering which to shoot first. I can see that the alpha raccoon doubts my resolve. What, he thinks a woman can’t fire a gun?
I go on the offensive: “It was the two of you. Working together.”
The raccoon waits for me to continue.
“That explains how you got four of my hens. Why more didn’t escape. And if I don’t shoot you, you and your pal there will be back for the rest.”
The raccoon waggles his free paw to remind me that he tripped the latch on the coop without the benefit of opposable thumbs, that I should have been more conscientious about securing it.
“I’m not the sort to go around shooting animals for no reason. You know you have this coming.”
Under the raccoon’s steady gaze, the rifle feels heavy in my hand. He doesn’t make a move, doesn’t make a sound, but I know what he’s thinking: he’s a goddamned raccoon, and he knows no such thing.
“Why aren’t you afraid? Your friend is terrified.” He looks over at the other raccoon, and I see something soften in his expression.
“If you hold still, this will be quick. I’m not a great shot, but you’re not far away, so you should just stay still and this will be over soon, and we can all move on. Well, not you. You won’t be moving on.”
He looks back at me, tilts his head to let me know I’m making no sense at all.
I start to heft the rifle to my shoulder, then bring it down again. “Just give me a minute here. I need to think. I’m going to have to do something with your body.” I squint at the other raccoon.
“His too. Or hers.”
The black fur above his right eye twitches as if he’s raising an eyebrow: Why the fixation on gendered pronouns?
Unlike the alpha, the other raccoon doesn’t make eye contact with me, just watches him. There is misery and resignation in her gaze, but maybe a little hope too, like there’s a chance he’ll talk them both out of this mess, get the bedraggled woman in the bathrobe to put down the gun and set them free.
“Maybe I’ll toss you and your friend into the road for the vultures. How would you like that?”
The raccoon’s reply arrives as a whisper in my inner ear: Circle of life.
I pause to consider this. “Okay. Fair enough. Vultures have their job to do. I suppose you have a job to do too, and that led you to my chickens. So it’s not really your fault. It’s nature. Your nature. But you can’t blame me either. My job is to protect my chickens. My job is to feed my daughter.”
You mean the poor kid who’s eating her eggs alone in front of the TV while you’re out here trying to work up the nerve to shoot a defenseless raccoon?
“If you were the sole support of a five-year-old kid, you’d understand. It’s stressful. Terrifying. Only me to protect her. No one to protect me.”
Not my fault her dad’s a dick.
For one stunned moment, those seven syllables hang between us in the humid morning air.
I acknowledge this truth with a slow nod. “You’re not wrong.”
The hand that isn’t holding the rifle pushes my hair from my eyes. I am so, so tired. I am hungry. I have to pee. I want to be inside with my daughter, eating eggs and drinking coffee and watching Paw Patrol.
I address the alpha raccoon. “Just one more thing I have to know: Do you have children? You and her?”
For the first time in our conversation, he lowers his eyes. His fur seems to loosen around his bones like an empty sack. The next tree over, the other raccoon has become suddenly animated, snarling and writhing in a frenzied attempt to free herself.
“Oh, good god,” I whisper. “You wait here.”