He Was Gone

See, the thing about our garden, was that it was quite the cherished thing. Some families worship football season, throwing Super Bowl parties to rival the festivities of Bacchus himself. Some families worship their pets, showering plump Golden Retrievers with topnotch chew toys and grain free duck meat, until, of course, a youngling gets a bit too overzealous and decides to share his Snickers bar, as well.

For my family, the item of mass celebration happened to be our garden. Summer was a time for picking baskets upon baskets of cucumbers, zucchinis, tomatoes, squashes, and the like from the bug infested dirt pit in the center of our backyard. I can’t say I took part in the frenzy, given my slight disposition towards cleanliness and fear of eight-legged, lethal behemoths, but I did have superb second hand experience, in the form of eating said vegetables.

I can say, with certainty, that the tomato sandwiches were divine. Layer a swath of mayonnaise on a fat slice of golden-brown toast, two ripe, maroon tomato slices leaking juicy innards on top, followed by a solid sprinkling of salt and pepper and the occasional sprig of dill or basil, and you have yourself a rather hearty meal.

My parents cared for our garden as if it was their firstborn heir. So, when a head of lettuce showed signs of rodent teeth, they were certainly wary. When a complex web of underground tunnels began to pop up, all inextricably leading to the garden, they went on alert. And when they noticed sly Peter Rabbit burgling their green bean patch, its beady black eyes shimmering with larcenist’s delight, it became a Code Red situation.

My father busted out the peanut butter.

He dusted off the old metal trap, slathered it with the crunchy spread, and strategically placed it beside the tunnel exits leading to the garden.

“When you catch something, what are you going to do with it?” I asked my dad one night, over a tomato sandwich.

He coughed down a homemade pickle, slapping his fist against his chest. He didn’t look at me as he spoke. “Well, I’m going to take it in my truck to the corner of Orren and Abbington and let it loose in one of the cornfields.”

Wary, I glanced at my mother. Suspicion grew like vines through my chest as she shook out a spattering of salt onto her sandwich, avoiding my gaze.

“Mm-hm,” I agreed, and the conversation veered elsewhere.

So, you can quite imagine my thought process as I sat at my desk, mindlessly practicing the Chain Rule for derivatives, when I saw a glimmer of movement out of the corner of my eye. I glanced up, mind still working through the value of the slope of the line tangent to the curve. My eyes were drawn to the wicked metal contraption lying beside the garden, a murderous, sunlit guillotine. Perhaps it was just a prison for the thieving bandit until he could be done away with by my father, but it might as well have spelled death out itself.

A small body ran about the cage, thrashing desperately against the sides. He stilled for a moment, his chest heaving with exertion, before throwing himself against the entrance to the trap with as much force as he could muster. The trap’s door jerked open a centimeter, then fell shut, and the small body slid down the metal in hopeless anguish. He didn’t want to die.

Before I knew exactly what I was doing, I was slipping on a pair of flip flops and traipsing through the grass, careful to avoid ankle-length weed patches. It was tick season, after all, and Lyme disease didn’t strike my fancy.

As I approached the cage, the ground squirrel scurried with even greater desperation, beating against the doors with unbridled terror. He had a family. I couldn’t do this to him! Then, as I came within a few feet, he froze. The black stripes along his back jerked as he panted, the only indication that the little fuzzball was still living.

I stooped down beside him, and for a moment I stared into his wide, black marble eyes. I liked to think a sort of understanding passed between us. Then I dismantled the trap’s door and opened it as far as I could. For a few moments, the ground squirrel remained motionless, as if to say, “Thank you for saving me from my untimely death,” then he ran off as quick as his stumpy little legs could take him, darting like a lightning bolt across the lawn, before disappearing behind a clump of weeds.

He was gone.

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