So, to recap: Amalia had discovered a delightful surprise in the duck coop one spring morning: a clutch of eggs that one of our ducks, “Precious,” had been sitting on had hatched, down to the last one, and she had eleven adorable ducklings to raise!
A few months later, when these sweet ducklings were now nearly full-grown, we were called out to the duck coop again because of Amalia’s screaming: but the reason was a completely different one.
Since what I was wearing has some importance in this story (well, to me, at least), I’ll mention it now: I had donned some brand-new summer jammies for bed. Seersucker! Lovely pastel colors, cool and crisp, and did I mention, brand-new? I felt cozy and pleased with myself as I crawled into bed, relishing the snugness. I had washed the sheets from our bed earlier that day, and had taken the time to hang them out on the line. I couldn’t wait to relax into the bed and just drink in that fresh scent.
I love rainy nights, and a storm was approaching from the west. The weather radio had informed us of this, though we could see with our own eyes the approaching storm clouds, full of lightning. Full of noise, drama, and lots of moisture. I anticipated raindrops soon hitting the roof, lulling me to sleep. There’s nothing more cozy than falling asleep to this sound, in my estimation! (As long as you’re not in a tent in a state park, and the wind comes up and threatens to blow you away, with the tent and your helpless little ones, but that’s another story.)
I closed my eyes. A rainy-smelling breeze rippled the curtains at the window. . . . and I allowed tiredness from the day to wash over me as I relaxed into the quilts. It had been a long day, and I started to drift away to the Land of Nod almost immediately . . .
That’s when I heard the aforementioned shrieks and cries from Amalia, coming from her bedroom on the other side of the house. What was going on? She should have been asleep an hour ago. I crawled out of bed and stumbled through the dark house to her room.
“I can’t sleep!” she wailed, piteously, from the depths of her blankets, when I called to her. “There’s something crashing around in the duck house! The ducks are quacking like crazy! Why aren’t they in their house, anyway? They are keeping me awake! They are being so noisy! Something is trying to kill them, I just know it! Would you go take care of it, Mom? I’m very tired and I just need to SLEEP!” I ignored the fact that Amalia was more concerned about her own sleepiness than the lives of my ducks, and I hurried away to check out the situation.
The duck house is about a hundred feet from Amalia’s bedroom window, and there should have been no activity out there at all at this time of night, except for the gentle snoring of my ducks safely closed in for the night, as usual. I had asked Timothy to shut the ducks in at sundown as I usually did, so how could there be anything chasing them outside? I went to my 16-year-old son’s room and asked this of him, steely-eyed, pointedly. Though it is not easy to look stern in pastel seersucker jammies.
“I might have forgotten to shut them in. . .” he admitted, thinking hard. “Maybe . . .”
You can guess who accompanied me out to the duck house to check out the mysterious noises. Timothy carried with him a dim flashlight (we have no other kind out here, apparently) and I still had on my new seersucker. We’d go take care of the situation; we’d come back to the house; I’d jump back into bed, and be back on my way to dreamland in a jiffy—no need to change into jeans for this fool’s errand. Right? I walked gingerly through the dew-laden grass, and admired the strange combination of a gorgeous stellar display above, and a wildly violent-looking storm approaching from the west. Flashes of lightning revealed dark mounds of active storm clouds moving quickly towards us. I shivered in anticipation.
“Will you look at those stars?” I said to Timothy, pointing above. “And what a great opportunity to watch this storm approach! Aren’t we lucky to live out here, and to have this excuse to come outside and admire all this natural splendor? Hey! Look! There’s Orion!” We had studied the constellations several times in our science classes together, and I was proud at remembering the locations of several of them.
It’s good to try to find the silver lining in every situation, at least that’s how I view it, and it’s a good thing that I do, too. I’ve tried to teach my children this valuable life skill, as well, though they haven’t all taken to it as readily as one might hope. This habit to see the good in everything is especially practical when it’s very late at night, and you’re tromping around outside in your new jammies, investigating a nameless horror taking place out in the dark. All this when you’d much, much, much rather be listening to the approaching rumbles of thunder from the warmth and the safety of your cozy, well-appointed bed. With the sheets that you just brought in from the line.
Timothy grunted in reply. I couldn’t say for sure in the dark, but I think he was rolling his eyes.
We were close enough now to hear the noises coming from the duck house, and our ducks did, indeed, sound upset and even fearful. In fact, it sounded as if they were tumbling out and were now thrashing about in the brome grass , having abandoned their safe little home. Something bad was in there, alright, trying to get them. What could it be? A weasel? A raccoon? Worse, a bobcat?
The weak flashlight was blinking and sputtering, but we peered cautiously into the duck house with it, from a distance, that is, because I was pretty sure I could smell–
“Skunk!” muttered Timothy, as we both involuntarily leaped backward about ten feet. About this time, our wiggly, overanxious, ecstatic-that-we-were-sharing-the-nighttime-with-her Australian Shepherd, Bea, leaped up against our legs, and Timothy and I both cried out, in strange, foreign, guttural voices. Also at this moment, mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds discovered us, and began buzzing crazily around our faces. If I allowed cursing in our house, we both would have been cursing. But no.
As it was, we both held our tongues and swatted at mosquitoes, and Timothy pointed the weak flashlight towards the open door of the duck coop. Sure enough, there was a skunk, huddled in the corner, staring out at us with his unblinking beady eyes. We stared at the skunk. The skunk, in turn, stared at us, belligerently, and positioned itself in that defensive stance that nobody wants to see. Perhaps you know the one. Eyes resolute and focused on its target (us), legs spread, black and white tail lifted. That defensive stance.
I’ve been a Mom for a good long time. (Never mind how long.) Usually, a crisis situation such as this spurs my survival instincts, which then surprise me with immediate, and oftentimes quite creative, action. I amaze myself–frankly–by doing things that I really never believed I was capable of. I’m sure all mothers find this to be true of themselves, too.
But this night was different. I don’t know if it was the freaky mosquito barrage, the fact that I was standing outside so late clothed in seersucker, or maybe because I was just a few feet away from a skunk who wanted to eat my ducks, spray me, or probably both, while I didn’t even know where my ducks were . . . or maybe it was because the lightning and thunder in the west were getting scarily close . . . but my mind was blank. I didn’t know what to do. My instincts, this time, were nonexistent. It was unsettling.
My sober, level-headed son had a suggestion.“We’re gonna have to shoot that skunk,” he said.
Even with all the miseries of the moment descending on me, I balked. Shooting is so—so deadly, so final. “Can’t we just . . . um . . . flush it out of there, shut the ducks back in, and go back to bed?” I whimpered. It was kind of cute—the skunk–in a beady-eyed, fluffy, black and white striped way. It was very small, very young. Kind of like a beanie baby, only stinky, and menacing, and . . . well, okay, not so much like a beanie baby after all.
“‘Flush’ a skunk?” Now Timothy was rolling his eyes. “Are you crazy, Mom?”
I ignored his impudence. “Not us, silly—Bea! She can flush anything!” I pressed. “You should have seen her with some pheasants in the long grass the other day—and she really, really wants to! Clearly!” Bea was twisting and trembling and whining and barely controlling her desire to shoot into that building and go after that little critter. But so far she was staying where I’d insisted that she stay—outside the duck house, sitting at my feet.
“Mom . . .” Timothy’s low, quiet voice sounded skeptical in the dark. Sadly, it’s true that he has witnessed a bright idea of mine go awry, here and there, now and again, and probably he hasn’t forgotten the odd occurrence or two. But never mind that.
Something happened. I’m not sure what. Did Bea read my mind, or did I involuntarily twitch and did Bea intentionally and optimistically misinterpret my twitch as being a command? I don’t know exactly how it happened, but between the mosquitoes siphoning out dangerous amounts of my blood and Bea pushing against me and the darkness pressing all around and the approaching storm, not to mention the idiotic flashlight blinking off, then on, then off, something snapped in this prairie woman’s soul. I gave Bea a look. She took the hint, jerked away from me, and dashed through the darkness into the duck house.
Timothy and I gasped, cried out in dismay, and no sooner had we realized what had just happened, than Bea did an abrupt and startled about-face and was charging back toward us.
For the record: what I was hoping would happen, was this: Bea might have popped into one door of the duck coop, the skunk would have noticed her slavering snout and scuttled quickly out the other door (there are two doors, you see—kind of like a skunk entrance and a skunk exit) blithely hurry away, never to entertain the thought of eating my ducks again. (Ideally, of course, this particular skunk also would have spread the word among its stinky friends: “Avoid that place, do, at all costs!! It’s just not worth it!”) Timothy and I would have herded the ducks up quickly, barely missing being struck by lightning, and hurried ourselves back into our respective beds, taking a moment to look up and locate a couple more constellations first. Can’t you imagine it? It might have happened this way. Anybody could appreciate that this is the way it should have happened.
But it didn’t. Bea was stumbling back to us, wincing and snorting and blinking her eyes miserably; blindly and desperately searching . . . searching for something . . . something soft and comforting, to rub that awful—stinky—painful—cursed stuff, out of her eyes, her face that was on fire . . . and she found it.
Gentle readers, I could see that she was grinning wickedly, even in the midst of her misery.
If you’ve never smelled fresh-from-the-critter skunk spray, lemme tell you, you ain’t never smelled skunk spray. That whiff of roadkill skunk spray? Not even close. We caught fresh spray full-force now, as Bea rubbed it all over my brand spankin’ new, pastel, crisp and cool, soft and comforting, seersucker jammies.
Timothy was incoherent–laughing and gagging at the same time, and moving away from me and Bea as quickly as he could in his irritating spasms of mirth. In the lightning flashes (now perilously close), I could see the tears running down his cheeks. Otherwise, I’m quite sure he would have given me an “I told you so” lecture. Poor Bea! (For the record, she didn’t touch his jeans.) Like all other creatures around here, for comfort and solace, she sought the softness and tenderness of . . . Mom. Not to mention Mom’s new seersucker jammies.
“Get off—get away—Bea, leave it! Leave me!” I gasped, trying to push the dog away.
“I’ll go ask Dad to get his gun,” Timothy called—from a distance–in an “I told you so” tone. You know the one. And he disappeared into the darkness. “Better turn that flashlight off, to save the batteries,” he shot back, laughing. Easy for him to say. I swatted mosquitoes away from my face with my free hand. I was trying to keep Bea at arm’s length with the other hand. I looked up at the stars, miserably.
Oh, look. The big dipper.
It was several long minutes before Timothy came back out, and then many several more minutes before my good husband Bryan stumped out with his gun. “What’s he doing, taking it apart and cleaning every piece?” I muttered to my son, ungraciously. I had long since stopped looking for any silver lining. This just proves, folks, that there’s not always a silver lining to be found. Just don’t tell my kids I admitted that. Furthermore, I was wondering if life without ducks would be so unbearable, after all. Fat raindrops were beginning to fall, soaking me through to the skin. I could almost feel the skunk spray combining with the rain and running in rivulets down my legs, forming steaming, stinky puddles at my feet.
Finally, the troops were assembled and we all took our places: Bryan aiming the gun toward the open door of the duck house, and Timothy and me standing behind Bryan and the gun, plugging our ears with our fingertips. Bryan’s next utterance cooled me to the core. “I don’t have my contacts in—I can’t see what I’m doing,” he said, matter-of-factly, waving his gun around, as if it was a daily event for him to stalk around with a gun, in a nearly-blind condition. “Timothy, you’ll have to aim the gun for me–I’ll pull the trigger.”
“I don’t have my glasses on,” said Timothy, “Mom’ll have to do it.”
I stared at my men in the darkness, through rain-soaked hair, still clutching my pathetic flashlight. I was incredulous. A flash of lightning illuminated their placid faces. “What? You’re both half blind?” I asked. “I didn’t even want to shoot the skunk in the first place–and now I’m going to have to aim the gun?!”
“Yeah, well, your ‘flushing’ plan didn’t work out so well,” said my son. Cheeky boy. I would have smacked him, if I smacked my kids. Which I don’t. But I sure wanted to.
Geez, I was sunk, standing between two near-sighted men without their glasses, one holding a gun, the other rolling his eyes. I had no other options. I held the flashlight, which blinked off. Then on. Off. On. Off. A sharp crack of thunder made us all jump.
So, all you skunk-lovers and skunks’-rights activists, you’d better stop reading right here, ‘cause we shot that skunk, and we didn’t shed a tear when it gasped its last breath, either, or shot its last, belligerent parting spray at the walls of the duck house. It took all three of us to do the deed.
Afterwards, however, there was no way we could get the ducks back inside their house when it was so freshly skunk-sprayed, so when we finally limped back inside, it was to a restless night for me, wondering if my vulnerable little ducks would make it through the night out in the yard. I don’t think Bryan or Timothy lost any sleep. Bea slept like a log—a very happy, grinning log–though she was confined to the porch.
Post-story: Bea was publicly ostracized for at least a week after the Skunk Event, but she never looked happier. And the skunk spray washed out of the seersucker completely, much to my surprise and delight. And the ducks were all still alive in the morning, though it was a good week before we could coax them back into their house. Not that I could blame them.
The seven ducks that Precious hatched out are now half-grown, and have so far escaped being eaten by any local predators, though they insist on spending the nights out on our little pond, with the rest of the flock. It’ll not be long, though, until it’s too cold even for ducks to be comfortable outside at night. At that time, they’ll cluster together in their house for safety and shelter, and I will sleep better once they do.
But come winter–incidentally–I’ll be wearing flannel, not pastel seersucker.
- On the Risks of Shooting a Skunk in an Enclosed Area
- My Garden in October