A Gruesome Tail

Considering the nature of this story it is fitting that the events took place only a few days before Halloween. If you have heart trouble or if you are at all squeamish, I suggest you stop reading now and look for another, more tasteful entry of this blog. If, however, this introduction only makes you more intrigued, then keep reading, but remember that I warned you.

*****

My family owns a cabin on the Washington coast that we often visit. It is a rather Waldenesque place, where bear scat and giant mushrooms are more common than tire marks on the deteriorating logging road that accesses—after a 45-minute drive—the cedar cabin. The rhythmic oceanic break is accentuated by an occasional gust of wind, which shakes the foundational stilts that hold the cabin precariously to the edge of the tall Pacific bluffs. There is no running water, no electricity, no heat save for a rusty woodstove without a proper flue. The rotten decks and crumbling outhouse remain in use in seeming disregard for any notion of safety or hygiene. And it is probably my favorite place in the world.

Over the past 40-years since my father built the cabin, endless amounts of laughter, tears, salt and soot have drowned the yellowed walls with memories. History itself is immediately visible upon entering, and the newest memories are still leaving their mark. Like Heraclitus once said, “Change is the only constant.” That statement holds true for the cabin. Every arrival and every departure sees the cabin in a slightly different state.

This time, when Dad and I arrived, the place was absolutely wrecked. Paintings had fallen off the wall and lay face down on the floor. Beach-combed sundries that normally occupied various tables and altars were strewn about in complete disarray. Heavy containers of balsamic vinegar and sugar had been knocked from kitchen shelves onto the countertops. Strange red berries and unfamiliar foliage were piled in corners and underneath benches. Seat cushions were stained with a disturbing red drizzle that smelled like skunk and there were oval droppings—much larger than the normal mouse droppings—covering every visible surface. The signs pointed towards a culprit that I knew all too well: the packrat.

I knew the creature well because it was less than three weeks ago that I had arrived at the cabin with a group of friends and found the same rodent havoc. The horrors that ensued were still fresh in my memory, but I was surprised and agitated that I might have to experience those horrors a second time. You see, the day after my friends and I departed, my brother had arrived with his rifle. He had purportedly hunted the vicious creature one night, cornered it in the tool room, and shot it in the head, an accomplishment for which I showered him with praise, although he seemed somewhat disturbed by the entire event. Now, seeing the vandalism that had again been perpetrated against our sacred place, I realized something: where there is one extremely destructive, disconcertingly agile, unreservedly aggressive and terrifyingly powerful rodent, there is likely another.

By this time, my malevolent emotions were so strong that I could do nothing but pace the cabin, swearing profusely every time I discovered some new offense. Dad, always the pragmatist, had already begun to clean up. He started by donning gloves, collecting a rather large nest in the tool room and throwing it into the fire, as if to rid the world of such noxious refuse forever. It took a while, but eventually Dad’s ramblings motivated me to stop swearing and start helping.

Over the next hour, we discovered and eliminated two other nests and restored the cabin to its natural state: cleanliness veiled by charming disrepair. I was beginning to feel better. We had finished the kitchen, the living room, the master bedroom and I was working on the bunkroom when I suddenly came face to face with our furry antagonist.

It was not the first time I had seen one of the creatures up close. Three weeks ago, I had been awoken in the middle of the night by a scratching noise in the bunk above my head. Headlamp aimed and wearing only boxer shorts, I inspected the pack rat as it crouched on the edge of the bunk, its flanks rising and falling with every breath, its ears casting huge shadows on the wall, its long, bushy tail twitching with every slight movement it made. The rodent’s body was quite large, about the size of an adolescent cat, and its tail was at least as long if not longer than its body. Taken in a different setting, I thought the animal would actually be pretty cute. It reminded me, as any rodent might, of the guinea pigs I once had as a child. That perception changed a moment later.

Danny, a friend who was sleeping in the bunk next to mine, was disturbed by my headlamp and opened his eyes. When he asked what was happening, I told him that the creature (we didn’t know what it was) had shown itself. Without another word, he rose and armed himself with an old salmon net that was lying under the bunk. I grabbed a broom handle and kept the light trained on the rodent. Then, Danny attacked.

With lightning quickness, the rodent scurried across a featureless wall like Spiderman and hopped into the adjacent bunk. Danny attacked again and this time the rodent ran the length of the bunk and jumped directly at my face. I dodged instinctively, issuing a rather feminine scream, and the rodent disappeared into the darkness of the cabin. We searched half-heartedly for a while, but could find no sign of the animal. That was the last we saw of the creature. Until now.

Dad and I had daylight on our side, and besides that, we were fully clothed. Our plan of attack was crude. I brandished a three-pronged hoe and Dad clutched the broken plastic handle of an old splitting maul. When I felt ready, I lunged at the packrat, attempting to pin the poor creature against the wall. My blow landed on the mark with what I thought was great force, but the rodent darted away unfazed, jumped to the floor and scurried past the stomping foot of my father into an adjacent room. Here it hid behind a pair of old boogie boards that were leaning in a corner. Dad quickly removed the sandy foam while I made a clumsy jab that failed to make contact but succeeded in scaring the rodent into the sauna, a room from which there was no escape.

At least, that is what we thought, but when we entered the room there was no sign of the thing. Closing the door behind us, we searched everywhere, but turned up nothing. It had somehow escaped. I thought it may have squeezed through an invisible opening in the wall and emerged into the tool room, so I went and searched for it there. Again, the creature was absent. I was beginning to think we had lost it, that it would turn up later in my bed, gnawing on my flesh as I slept. I was half relieved that we wouldn’t have to deal with it for the moment, but I knew that it would only remain hidden until we were not around to prevent it from causing further destruction.

I was pondering this distasteful predicament when I heard Dad calling from the sauna room. When I entered I saw that he had a notion of where the beast might have hidden. Standing on the highest bench of the sauna room were three sections of metalbestos insulated stovepipe. Each section was three feet long and they were all standing on end. It was almost inconceivable that a rodent could climb into one of these seamless pipes and even more unlikely that it would be able to get out. But the phenomenon we were dealing with was no ordinary rodent. Slightly tilting each pipe open at the bottom, we caught a glimpse of the creature’s furry tail. We had it trapped.

The most obvious tool for eliminating this creature was resting on the sauna stove: large rocks. A few of the stones fit perfectly down the stove pipe and when Dad dropped eight or nine of them in there, they nearly filled the pipe to the brim. We were almost certain that our biblical execution had been successful, but just in case, we plugged the top of the stovepipe with a metal bucket. In this way, the disturbing remnants of our brutal actions were kept out of sight, hidden in the depths of a hard and heavy cylinder, for the next few hours.

Other projects required our attention and we focused on constructing a railing for the new set of stairs (Danny and I had built them), which led to the outhouse. The transition from destruction to creation restored balance to our emotions, but we could not ignore the contents of that metal tomb forever.

Twilight gleamed on the ocean’s surface as we inspected the stovepipe. Tilting the bottom open, we were surprised to discover that there was no sign of the creature. When we shook the stovepipe violently, I heard a miniscule rummaging from inside that could only have come from something that was still alive. Trying to ensure that this poor life was speedily dispatched, I plugged the bottom of the stovepipe with another metal bucket and turned the entire thing upside down.

What I had now created was some torturous form of a giant rainstick. The music this instrument produced was neither beautiful nor calming, and I felt sorry for any creature, no matter how sinister, that was forced to endure the hell that occurred within that tube. The remorse I felt was intensified greatly when we took the tube outside, stood it on end, and peeked beneath one of the buckets. There, curled in a protective ball that rose and fell with every shallow breath, was a severely damaged packrat. Its amazing tail twitched like a heartbeat.

It was obvious what had to be done, but seeing the poor creature lying there in a defenseless state, I was overwhelmed by emotion. I have killed plenty of fish and my fair share of mosquitoes, but something about killing a mammal was disturbing. I was reminded of my guinea pigs, of how I had cried for about a week when we found them slaughtered one morning—the neighbor’s dogs had dug under the fence of their cage and massacred every last one. I remembered how painful that experience was and I felt sympathetic towards the packrat, but I also remembered the destruction this creature had caused and I knew from experience that there was no other way to deal with it. Still, I shied away from the act.

“I’ve never killed something like this before,” I said to Dad, a hatchet hanging loosely in my hand. He didn’t say anything, just motioned for me to remove the bucket lid. Like any good father should, he shouldered the responsibility for this gruesome act and I was thankful that he did. When I removed the lid, he pointed the end of his broken axe handle at the animal’s head and stabbed it downward with alarming force. The sound of a shattering skull made me wince. There was no movement after that. The thing that had terrorized our cabin was finally dead.

Whatever pain the animal felt was dispatched instantly with Dad’s precise blow, but the ripples of solemnity that he and I now felt reverberated throughout the night.

“It was one hell of a tough animal,” said Dad with reverence, grasping the corpse by its tail and raising it out of the pipe.
“A worthy adversary. Sorry for having to take your life,” I said to the limp body. It was a variation of what I used to say to fish. “Thank you for your life,” I used to say, “We will enjoy the meat.” But we had no desire to eat this catch. A passing eagle or a raccoon would enjoy the meat though. Dad tossed the corpse into a mossy gulley where it would soon be found by a thankful scavenger. And with that, the battle was over.

Every so often, as we prepared and ate our dinner, Dad and I made reverent comments about the animal. Otherwise, we simply enjoyed the soothing sound of breaking waves. I could see why my brother had been disturbed when I talked to him. Dad and I were both very affected by the experience and our feelings seemed to last throughout the night. We hoped, desperately, that there were not any more packrats hiding in the cabin.

Over the course of the next few days, we saw no signs of further infestation. The gravity of the experience began to fade only through palms pressed to drawknives and cedar dust clumping in our hair. The deep-rooted pleasure of work, the relief of creation, pushed our austere moods away.

*****

There. I told you it was gruesome. I must apologize to anyone I have offended with this story, but you could have stopped reading it at any time. Also, I warned you. If you are an animal lover, you may criticize the characters’ actions, but don’t forget that the characters are in fact animal lovers themselves, and that they considered their actions necessary. If you are a hunter (or a pest control specialist), you may chuckle at the arguably infantile sense of guilt that the characters experienced as a result of their actions. In that case, I say you are a heartless devil without morals. If you appreciated the story, then thank you.

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