Twilight, and the low dusky form of the woodchuck shuffles past the shed and melts away into the gathering darkness. Not a bent blade of grass to mark its passage, not a whisper of sound. Only a fading retinal imprint and a pulse quickened to a dangerous level, and an unbidden memory that comes at me with bared fangs.
It was long ago in an age where anything that moved fell to our guns, and we oblivious to the carnage that would ultimately haunt our nights let our fingers rest lightly on the safeties. A small knot of armed men moving in loose formation, we traversed a country of short grass and stunted eroded hills, their windswept ridges pleated and creased. Our restless eyes paused for nothing but scoured the dusty land and cloudless skies for movement, all of which was predicated on distance, windage and velocity. Later in life I would again experience that intense attunement but rarely, most often in moments of duress when incoming bullets sang through chain link fences or kicked up dirt with an angry whine, or when in a split second of mindless reaction my pistol cleared leather and in that soft snick a new world opening where anything was possible, if ultimately short-lived. Settled within seconds, but never forgotten.
At my feet a pale piebald shape broke from cover. It seemed entirely without bones or structure, a formless gas-filled bladder whose short legs tore at the grass for traction, and I uncertain what it was other than something to kill quickened my pace until I was within an arm’s reach. In one swift motion I thumbed back the hammer on my single-shot shotgun and leveling it at the center of the spine squeezed the trigger. The blast punched the creature into the grass in a spray of dust and pebbles and sent the stock slamming into my shoulder. And before the echoes of the shot rebounded from the hills the beast was up and coming at me.
For a moment only I stood my ground, and then I began backtracking. Keeping an eye on the animal, I broke the barrel and sent the spent shell spinning into the air and fed another into the chamber. The barrel closed with a metallic snap that did little to mollify my growing panic. The creature, bloodied and filthy and trailing a crimson smear, was a rictus of sharp fine teeth and eyes burning into mine with a hatred so pure and fierce that it terrified me. No no no my mind kept screaming, this can’t be happening, the reloaded shotgun a mere useless appendage, my legs leaden and heavy and the gap between us narrowing with harrowing speed. Time seemed to slow to a ponderous hypothesis based solely on a geometric distance between myself and the wounded animal, accompanied by a fateful tune of my heartbeat hammering in the confines of my ribs. And then my father was at my side, bringing up his shotgun and firing once. The teeth, the glare, and much of the rest of the animal disappeared in a red spray.
The ensuing aftermath was uncannily silent. I studied the dismembered form and asked my father what it had been. A badger, he said. And added that I was lucky it hadn’t torn off my leg. He said next time to leave them alone, to give them all the clearance they wanted.
We left the corpse there, no more than just another unwitting nonhuman form to fall to our deadly ministrations, a piece of bloody meat that moments before had been a sentient being. And moving off went in search of other prey. Where we went, what we killed, or even if we killed, are lost to me now. What’s left, what has never escaped or faded, is the look in the badger’s eye as it came for me, and the sight of its slight broken body left discarded in our wake.
Decades later I saw the same look in another badger’s eye. It was dragging its shattered hindquarters off the road after being hit by a vehicle, its eyes scorching bright, teeth bared, savagely dangerous yet. There was nothing I could do but watch it struggle. Approaching cars gave it no quarter but passed within inches, their drivers’ humanity glaringly evident. My own sanguinary history allowed no room for incrimination.
Until, perhaps, one evening on the southern outliers of the Denver metro area. The sun had dropped below the Front Range leaving a salmon-tinted fire dancing across the peaks, and a rabbit showed in my headlights as a small furry object huddling into itself in shock. My speed was such that I was past it almost before it registered, and for several long moments I watched it in the rearview mirror receding into the rising darkness. Traffic was light but existent. I finally braked, spun the wheel and returned.
It watched me though eyes dull with pain, and wary, too, and yet never flinched when I gathered it up and moved it from the road into a patch of shrubbery. The pair of us remained together until the first stars speckled the eastern skies, when the rabbit unfolding like an accordion stretched and bounded off.
We touch the wild and the wild touches us, if unexpectantly. The inquisitiveness of rabbits and birds lulled me into a state of acceptance, until the woodchuck made its appearance. It seemed to possess a preternatural sense of its surroundings, though I managed to crawl a short distance from it with my camera before it heard some minor rustle of movement. And whirled, glowering with dark beady eyes chary with an uncompromising wildness, inflexibly untamable, ferociously solitary, before trundling off leaving me alone with my camera and the pallid blossoms of the peonies bleeding petal by petal into the deepening darkness.