In the summer of 1992 a rabies outbreak was spreading throughout New York, travelling against the current of the Hudson River, up from Northern New Jersey and the well-monied Westchester and Rockland counties, toward the backwaters of the state’s rural northern hamlets. I grew up in a Queen Anne Victorian nestled somewhere in between.
In the late seventies, at the height of his career in cocaine sales, my father purchased our home from a newly retired professor. An aging hulk of intricate woodwork and imported wallpaper, the house sat an acre back from the banks of the Poestenkill Creek, where my younger brother and I would sit, watching all manner of flora and fauna float towards the Mt. Ida falls, less than a mile downstream.
On the brink of adolescence, my brother and I were experts in local ecology, at least the parts of it that interested us. Summers before we had spent following the creek wildward, lunching on saltines and a shared thermos of ginger ale as we watched beaver colonies construct dens, tracked the daily changes in tadpoles swimming in forest puddles, and observed neighborhood teens smoking and drinking on the rocky banks, from behind the cover of dense fern and pine.
My brother and I shared a bedroom on the northwest corner of our home’s second story. Directly outside our room’s row of counterweighted windows was the high throne of the animal kingdom, a wide crotch of black walnut, from which limbs spanned endlessly skyward. In late summer dusk I’d torture my brother with stories of imagined danger just beyond the street rattled panes. At the edge of sleep, I’d tell him I could see a set of eyes there, between the tree’s trunks, staring in at us. In the hour of rabbits and bats, wind rustled arbor turned to hands and knives, the blurring outlines of nature harboring the evil which resulted in milk carton photos.
I can’t help but think it was our shared familiarity with intrusion which lent a palpable sense of horror to the cruel tricks I played on my brother. It was impossible to live in that house and not feel the grip of some strange vortex of feral energies. There, we existed in a perpetual twilight of human and animal nature. Something or someone always lay in wait.
One Saturday morning, when I was six and my brother four, the two of us watched cartoons shortly after dawn as our mother slept off the night before. We heard repeated thumps, which, being too young to understand as a possible source of danger, thinking it may be our father returning home from some mystery errand, we ran toward. We saw a man, a rail-thin, wild eyed stranger, standing between the outer and inner doors of the entry way. As we made eye contact with the man he shouted at us, his words muffled by the thick wood and glass separating us. He punched through the sidelight and stretched an arm toward us, toward a key ring on a table nearby.
By the time we woke my mother, and she called the police, the man had forced his way into the house. We watched from behind the dining room’s entrance as my mother beat the intruder unconscious with a cast iron pan. When police arrived the man was pleading, screaming that he lived in the long-vacant house across the street with his friend, John Belushi, who had died one month prior.
We were once visited by a cloud of bats. My father’s call to the Department of Environmental Conservation resulted in a caravan of rangers and biologists forming an encampment in our living room. The animals in our home were Battenkill Brown Bats, a species listed as endangered at the time.
Our house was situated on a strip of road where a city street became a county route, where the speed limit changed. We existed in between the city and country, the post-industrial wreck of a factory town and a semi affluent suburb. As children, we were in walking distance of low-income housing projects named after presidents, civil war cemeteries, new sub-developments named after geological features of the region, and a half-way house, whose residents often found their way into our home.
One incident involved a sweaty man disrobing as he ascended the stairs toward our bedrooms, leaving a trail of salt-wet clothes in his path. He was nearly naked by the time he was chased from the hallway, and back into his temporary residence.
The most affecting intrusion occurred one evening when I was six years old. I opened the front door upon hearing a knock. A young woman waiting there kneeled down to ask me if my mother was home. Just as I heard a parent’s footsteps behind me, a cluster of masked men wielding guns swarmed toward me screaming “Freeze FBI!” The kneeling woman whisked me up the stairs, where my brother was already in bed. She read us a story and tried to answer our questions about what was happening and why she was there. One year later my father was sent to a federal prison in Duluth, Minnesota, nearly thirteen hundred miles away from us.
Six years later, while helping my mother in our vegetable garden, I saw a rabid animal for the first time. It was early afternoon when we spotted the raccoon. My excitement about the rare daytime appearance of a nocturnal animal quickly turned to fear as my mother gripped my arm and whispered “Don’t move. It’s rabid”. Its gait was a series of deliberate sideways jerks as it moved across the lawn’s edge emitting the husky whirr of grinding gears. The drunken knot of fur collapsed, voicing a slow churning rattle that dissipated into the afternoon’s breeze.
After ensuring the animal was lifeless, my mother escorted me to the row of buzzing lilacs, where I witnessed the carcass up close. I stared at its wild, sun smoked eyes, eyes I had seen many times before, in men walking the streets near our home, in my father’s friends, in intruders, eyes that were everywhere, but that I had no word for. My mother told me “You see one of these again, don’t turn your back on it. Back away slowly. Come find me.”
While my father was in prison, our Social Services caseworker assigned my brother and me to sessions with a psychologist. Once a month, my brother and I would spend an hour in a fluorescent lit room with a man whose name I can’t remember. He had the sick raccoon’s eyes. Had it not been for those wild eyes, scheming behind his thick glasses, I would have immediately trusted him. He had the sickly sweet manner of Mr. Rogers. He would ask us strange questions that we laughed at nervously. The last time we met with him, we played a board game. It was a game I never played again, where, depending on the square we landed on we were asked questions regarding either our hypothetical sexual experiences or our parents’ criminal activity.
The morning after my run in with the afflicted raccoon, my brother shook me awake. “There are babies crying outside.” There were many babies, raccoon cubs, stranded, crying out from the walnut’s high hollow. From the bedroom window we watched them raising their snouts into the morning’s calm. Pink pedals hung from their mouths, as if to beckon dew from the still air.
That afternoon we stood at the tree’s gnarled base. Her neck craned, staring into the dappled sway of hull-heavied limbs, my mother told us they were calling for theirs. The cries slowly grew louder, hoarser.
Over dinner, we discussed rigging tent poles, using ladders and ropes, or any other possible method of getting water to the cubs. Eventually it was decided we’d wait until morning. We slept with my mother that night, as my parent’s room faced the opposite side of the house. With the door shut and drapes closed, we slept in silence.
The next morning the cries were less intense. Something had changed, and we hoped it was for the better.
After breakfast we found the first jumper. A dog tail’s length of brown fur writhed atop the walnut’s upper roots, each end twisting away from the other. Blood, in various stages of coagulation, shaded the tiny bark-shorn face.
I think about those cubs every day. Every day I watch videos of police shootings. Every day I read about extinction. I read about how the army plans to kill tens of thousands of cormorants in the Pacific Northwest. I read about Palestine. I read about dwindling freshwater. I read about poetry. I think about raccoons.
This is not to say I reduce every catastrophe, every slow genocide, to this one memory, that means nothing to anyone but me. This is not to say I wallow in dark nostalgia. This is not to say I believe the tragedy of man’s inhumanity to be an inevitability. This is not to say I mistake myself for the fallen cub, or a savior.
Later that day we watched the next cub jump. I tell you it jumped because I want to believe it had a choice. I want to believe I could have helped it had it just stayed put. My mother pulled us into the house and called animal control.
As one uniformed man descended the extension ladder with a plastic cage in tow, another officer spoke with my mother in the driveway. Out of earshot, I saw her cry as the man shook his head in slow condolence.
Later that summer I drank my first beer. I gave a man from the half-way house five dollars, which he used to purchase a six pack of Keystone Light. We sat in a clearing near the falls and drank in silence. Towards the bottom of my second can I walked into the creek. I anchored myself in the crags and let the water tug my torso, til slanted towards the weir. The man watched, laughing as he rolled a joint.
This is to say what I don’t know how to. This is to say I don’t know. I don’t know how to be sane. I don’t know how to keep a guarded heart in a rabid world. This is to say I still live somewhere in between, that I was there to witness death, and that this is not the in between.