Little Lives by Mary Sansom
My father practiced a kind of frugality with creatures, refusing to waste any of them because he understood they all had a purpose -even vermin. He did not like to kill the unwelcome visitors that appeared in our house though my sisters and I begged him to. At most, he swatted houseflies and mosquitoes, those carriers of disease.
In the summer, flies and mosquitoes and wasps and mud daubers found their way in through the gaps at the top of the windows or the tears in the screen door. The stinging insects built nests of gray paper or mud on the front porch and under the eaves. Mom knocked the nests down with a broom, but at 4 foot 9 inches she could only reach the ones on the porch. Dad refused to tear them down because he said the wasps and mud daubers kept down the flies and mosquitoes. We liked to say the truth was he was too lazy to make the effort, but in reality, Dad had a deep intuition of nature.
My sisters and I ignored the wasps and mud daubers until they began circling our heads. Mom and Dad had told us again and again, “If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.” We did not panic when we were in the same room as a wasp, so long as it did not come too near.
As I lay on my bed reading during the summer, I kept an eye on the highly temperamental wasps. When frustrated or angry, they emitted a metallic buzz like a small aircraft flying low overhead. Their abdomens, which curled toward their thorax when they flew, appeared to be made of gunmetal and delivered a sting about five times as painful as that of the blue-sheened mud dauber.
I wouldn’t move just because a wasp was nearby, but one time, when it looked as if one planned to land in my hair, I slammed my book down and ran screaming into the living room.
“What’s all that racket?” Dad asked as I ducked and dodged the wasp.
“There’s a wasp after me,” I screamed. “I can feel it in my hair.”
In a leisurely fashion, Dad picked up a newspaper to divert the wasp’s attention. Then he steered it to a window where it knocked about, trying to get out. As it crawled unsteadily across the glass with its wings pinned back, Dad trapped it against the window with an empty glass. He slid a piece of cardboard underneath and, tipping the screen door open, released the wasp.
Our father did not believe in poisoning ants even when they amassed on the windowsill and swarmed across the kitchen counter. Even when mice left their droppings in the silverware drawer, he preached against poison, fearing birds and other wildlife might eat them and in turn be poisoned and poison.
Our father railed against rats, which we did not have, because they bore disease, but he was fond of mice, especially deer mice with their brown backs and white bellies and feet. He trapped mice inside little cages and took them back on the hill to repatriate them, but there were so many to be transported that my mother was forced to take matters into her own hands.
She bought Terro for the ants, pouring the sweet gold liquid onto a piece of cardboard. She bought D-Con for the mice, placing the yellow boxes on the back porch and underneath the kitchen sink where we kept our pots and pans. She supplemented the poison with mousetraps, baited with peanut butter and Colby cheese, her favorites.
Though my sisters and I liked mice and tolerated wasps, we feared and despised spiders, especially when they stood between us and the commode. As soon as I opened the bathroom door, I scanned the floor for their brown or black bodies. I had a peculiar horror of smashing one with my bare feet because the floor was a brownish concrete. This phobia carried over to the living room linoleum. The dark-green diagonal pattern made it difficult to spot a spider and more difficult still to follow its trail as it scurried away. I wasn’t so skittish in the bedroom and kitchen with their off-white linoleum.
More than once I threw open the bathroom door to find myself face-to-face with a big brown spider. Then the dance of the arachnids began, something that was part fumbling waltz and part man-to-man defense. I stepped tentatively to the right, and the big brown monster skittered in the same direction. I stepped forward, and it scuttled back. It moved forward, and I stepped back, holding myself, for I had waited until the last minute during a commercial to go to the bathroom. Then the spider charged, and I fled, slamming the door with a whoosh.
When I returned, I wore shoes and brought both sisters for reinforcements, but it had disappeared. I peed holding my feet up, while my sisters stood guard. Other times I opened the door, and the spider stood there, undaunted. Then I got a broom or a can of hairspray or Raid to move it along. Sometimes I chased the spiders from room to room with a broom, only to have my father intervene and rescue them. He used a piece of cardboard to scoop spiders out of the tub and got mad if we killed them.
“You don’t want to kill spiders. They eat the flies and the wasps,” he said, but he never mentioned the fact that the more the spiders ate, the bigger they got. As far as I could tell, all three seemed to co-exist in perfect harmony in the corners and cracks of our ramshackle house on Wilson’s Creek.
Once he parted the weeds with a stick so I could see the long path a snake had made. Another time he took me to what we still called the garden, though it had been grown over for ages, and showed me a rabbit’s nest hidden in the tall grass.
My father was quick enough to catch a spider, quick enough to catch the skinks that whipped along the house’s cinderblock foundation in the summer. He liked to point things out to us, calling to us to come and look, but he never told us what he had. He liked to surprise us.
“Girls, lookie here,” he’d call from outside.
“Go look. He’s calling you,” said our mother when I didn’t budge from my book.
Once he parted the weeds with a stick so I could see the long path a snake had made. Another time he took me to what we still called the garden, though it had been grown over for ages, and showed me a rabbit’s nest hidden in the tall grass. The mother, who Dad said would be back to take care of the babies, had dug a shallow hole and lined it with her own fur. Dad brushed away the dried grass that covered it and pushed back the down to reveal the babies, which looked like eyeless gray embryos. He quickly replaced the camouflage and let the weeds fall back into place, and as we turned away, there was no hint of the life that lay beneath the ground. I knew that I could never find the nest again on my own.
My father had the vision to see brown fur and feathers against brown bark, to sense the movement of little lives underground and underwater and in the dark, to see life in the weeds and in the thick green leaves and in the bole of a tree. Beyond that even, he had an animal awareness of the comings and goings of creatures outside our house, while the rest of us moved from room to room unaware.
He placed bird feeders in sight of every window, so he could watch birds while he was eating breakfast and getting ready for work. One frosty morning, as I shuffled past him at the kitchen window in his undershirt, he turned his chin toward me, never losing sight of the object in his vision, and half-whispered, half-hissed, “Come here, Mary.”
Rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I trudged to the window, where Dad nodded toward a sight so astonishing that only a split-second miracle of timing allowed me a glimpse: a great horned owl perched atop a snag along the creek. His gold eyes stared at me with a mixture of curiosity and disdain. He stood at least two feet high, and when he took flight, his wingspan was every bit of five feet. In the unfolding of that majestic feathered cloak, autumn seemed to give way to a soft snowfall.
One wintry night, Dad beckoned me to the living room where I leaned over the back of the green-plaid couch and watched out the window as two fat possums waddled up and gobbled the food in the cat’s dish. The cat watched big-eyed, paralyzed by predatory ecstasy and disbelief.
Some people found possums disgusting because they ate road kill. It didn’t help that the road kill was usually their own kind, making them cannibals to boot. But Dad worried they would get run over in the middle of their midnight feast.
He spoke sadly of the malicious ignorance that made people run down a possum lumbering into the brush or crush under their bald tires a black-and-yellow diamond-backed terrapin just one breast stroke away from sliding its carapace off the asphalt to the safety of the weeds.
“I don’t know what would make a person do something like that,” he said, falling silent, for he pitied, too, those who destroyed the God-made world.
My dad never drove past a terrapin without stopping so one of us could cross it to the other side. After a summer rain when the terrapins emerged, he drove more slowly and carefully than usual from our house to the mouth of the creek, where it joined Rt. 52. We were all adept at turtle patrol. We girls rode in the back, on the lookout for the helmet-shaped silhouettes. When we saw one, Dad stopped the car. When I was the one next to the door, I exploded out of it, after looking both ways, of course. I sprinted for the turtle, snatching it with one hand and depositing it on other side of the road, sort of like suicide drills at basketball practice.
Once he brought us a baby terrapin, unremarkable except for its miniature form. Another time he rescued a baby possum, which he handed to me, saying, “This is for Mimmy Liz,” a childhood version of my name. Since he was mine, I named him George, after the curious monkey, and Nixon, after the scorned president. George couldn’t hang by his tail, which had been damaged in the incident that left him orphaned. I fed him milk with a doll bottle and bathed him using Johnson’s No More Tears Baby Shampoo. He had the snappiest black eyes I’d ever seen and wore a constantly amused expression. He was full of hijinks, too, and didn’t know the difference between climbing up the legs of our jeans and climbing up our bare legs. Once he crawled onto Dad’s ankle and inside the leg of his pants, sending him hopping barefoot around the living room to try to shake him loose. As George got older, I fed him live moths which he snapped out of my fingers. Their wings left a pale yellow residue.
My father could not abide any kind of cruelty, which is how he looked at hunting for sport. He felt the hunter, being adequately rested and nourished and out only for entertainment, had an unfair edge. He lumped dogs and cats in the same category as the hunters who wouldn’t stay off his property, which he posted with No Hunting and No Trespassing signs.
Once when he was watching TV at night, he heard a shot echoing in the hills behind our house. He grabbed a shotgun from behind his bedroom door, and in five strides was out the front door and off the porch. He raced toward the fading gunfire, stopping at the edge of the yard as if held by an invisible electric fence. At the perimeter, he stomped around like a troll with the rifle held at hip level, panting and whining from the exertion it took to keep from raising it.
“Rollen, Rollen,” my mother barked from the top of the cinderblock steps. Cats and dogs and hunters, he could have shot them all. They chewed up the wildlife and tore up all of nature. The dogs pounced on young squirrels, leaving them bleeding to death in the dirt road, their fluffy tails ruined. The cats dropped moles onto the porch, their backs damp from having been clamped between teeth and tongue. They looked like the black slippers of a fairy princess. The cats gave them a chance to revive before pouncing one last time. Maybe this was why Dad scolded me for kissing the dogs and cats on the lips, a familiarity I enjoyed behind his back.
One summer Dad came into the bedroom with a baby rabbit cupped in his hands. He nodded to me to put my hands out, and I put my book down to comply. The rabbit appeared perfectly fine, but it was breathing rapidly. As I examined it, I noticed a bloody patch on its neck where the cat had ripped the fur away, exposing raw muscle. The rabbit’s respiration increased, culminating in a deep shudder as all the fear seemed to flow out of it, and its eyes filmed over.
I wasn’t surprised at the turn of events, and neither was Dad. I had seen enough injured rabbits over the years to know they were delicate creatures that easily went into shock and died. I knew what to do next. I wrapped the limp body in a nice washcloth and put it in a snug box. I found Dad’s Army shovel and dug a hole in the front yard underneath the shade of the maple tree as a horse fly dive-bombed me.
I slapped it away but not before it bit me on the back of the neck where my hair was damp from sweat. I felt the welt rising as I nestled the cardboard coffin in its grave and raked the dirt back into place. I stood over the freshly turned earth and made the Sign of the Cross. I said the Our Father aloud, my prayer punctuated by the buzzing of the horse fly as it circled my face. I crossed myself again, and as the fly’s light feet touched down on my forehead, I screamed and ran up the porch steps and into the house, slamming the screen door behind me. I retreated to the bedroom where I had lain my book face down on my pillow when dad summoned me to see the baby rabbit.
I scanned the room. A mud dauber clung to the window screen, contemplating freedom beyond the thin wires it clasped in its wispy feet. I checked both walls next to my bed to assure myself they were spider-free. After a minute or two, when I didn’t see or hear any wasps, I settled back into my reading, vowing to rescue the confused intruder after I was through.