Death is always a strange, disorienting constant to think of or experience in your life. The first time anyone or anything that I truly loved died was my first cat, Chelsea. She was an orange tabby with a stub cut tail that was cut wrong, so she had a little Y joint on the tip. Chelsea was the absolute best cat–indoor, outdoor, would come running when you called her from halfway across the property. She got bit by a coral snake and after a couple of days we had to put her down so she wouldn’t die miserably. We buried her out on the property and put stones over her to keep the vultures and coyotes from digging her up.
Chelsea may have been the first loved one–outside of my grandfather, who was an actual person and whose death was also very sad for me–to die on me, but she was not actually my first experience with death. What I consider my first, truly visceral experience with death was when I killed a trapped raccoon outside our home.
Something to know about Texas–Death is all around us. Whether by our history of war and violence in the region, our culture of hunting and ranching to put meat on the table, or just those slings and arrows that Hamlet talks about, Texas is full to the collar in death. Our roads are littered with dead bodies that we push to the side or have the county or other vultures clear for us, and we never give it a second thought. Why should we? They’re just varmits.
Out in the piney woods, our property had a beaver problem. They’d migrate down every other season and gnaw down a few trees that my mom would have spent all spring and summer nurturing and making pretty. It was eventually decided that the Rose household would go to war against the dam-building degenerates that would yuck it up in our pond like they were the Kennedy’s coming to Port Hyannis for the summer. So we laid traps, and occasionally went on “beaver patrols”–believe me, my mother, brother and I did our best to have our father use a different phrase, but unfortunately he continued to rally his troops by shouting throughout the house “Time to go on Beaver Patrol, boys!”
On one of these patrols, I was with my father on the porch. He had his hunting rifle with a scope and strap, I had the lousy little .22 pistol we used to kill the raccoons or squirrels that got caught in the traps. We heard a rustle. My dad shines his red lensed flash light in the direction of the sound and we see an armadillo scuttling through the yard.
Now, our primary target was the beaver and their paddle-tailed ilk, but our mission was much like the war in Iraq–we were there for more than just bringing democracy to the middle east. We follow off after it to try and get a better shot. My dad is holding the light on it, so he hollers at me to take the shot so I level the pistol like I was at a firing range and pull the trigger. Now, a red light doesn’t make aiming any easier, just makes it to where you don’t lose all your night-eyes when the light goes out. I must have been at least 30-40 feet from a 1.5 foot armadillo, but somehow I got the poor bastard, right behind the ears. Single head shot. There once was a rustle, but then there was silence.
That was my first, true experience with death–how it is decided with little more than a red light and a 12 year old with rather impressive aim. My dad gave me an attaboy, even relayed the story to mom and my brother as though we had returned from the frontier with a bear pelt. That was the first time I had killed anything, and it honestly didn’t feel like anything. I liked that my dad was proud of me getting the job done and all that, but I didn’t feel like I did anything different than if I had shot an empty soda can with a BB gun. It had just happened–it didn’t feel like a choice.
It would be maybe a year or so until I met that poor, unfortunate raccoon. I had just got of the school bus and was walking up the driveway. Out in the front yard, I can see the cage trap in front of the bird feeder rattling. Mom had put it out there to catch squirrels stealing her precious bird’s lunches and dinners and had sworn ever lasting blood lust against them, as is Rose family tradition with vermin. Only this time, she had caught a much bigger critter–a raccoon. The poor, masked bandit must have been chowing down on seeds scattered on the ground by the bird feeder and had got himself caught–I’ve always wondered, if someone sets a trap with the intention to catch you, do you get yourself caught by being dumb enough to fall for the trap, or do they catch you by virtue of their superior trap making abilities?
I call my dad on the house phone and tell him that there’s a raccoon in mom’s trap and ask what he wants me to do.
“Well, Sam…You got two options: you can wait until I get home and I’ll take care of it, or you can grab the .22 out of the gun safe and put the critter down yourself. Either way, you do not let that raccoon out alive. He could have rabies or other diseases.”
I tell dad I understand and I hang up. I think about it for a while. I know that I am no friend to critters like armadillos or beavers or squirrels–our family would wage everlasting war against them until the rapture itself. But raccoons were different to me. They almost seemed human, with their thumbs and the way they wear masks when they stalk around at night stealing people’s garbage or that one time they stole my dad’s beer chest while we were camping. They were no good thieves, but they were cute, rambunctious little assholes.
Eventually, I decide that providing the little guy a quick, decisive and humane end was the best route. I go and collect the .22 and confirm it is loaded and with a bullet in the chamber. Dad always left the guys loaded in the safe–he taught us gun safety since we were tots and believe that the only difference between an unloaded gun and a useless hunk of metal was the serial number. I go out front to the trap, where the raccoon is chittering and rattling around for dear life. He understood what was to become of him the moment the trap slammed closed. The Rose’s were notorious in the critter community, the stuff of legends and nightmares even.
I level the gun just like I did against the armadillo. In the broad daylight and only inches away from the cage, I was confident I could deliver just a quick and painless death for the poor bandit as I did the shelled one. I pull the trigger, but the raccoon moved suddenly and my bullet lands in its rump. He lets out a loud, pained chittering and begins running around the cage manically, going up, down, all around. It was like a tiny tornado of fur had just erupted within the cage.
Taken aback and panicking myself, I try to aim again and put an end to his suffering. But the poor thing, yowling and gasping in pain, has still enough life left to make a futile, last attempt to preserve his life and he continues to scurry around the cage, not giving me the opportunity to make that final kill shot. Eventually, I unload almost the entire clip into this poor, trash panda, and am left looking at him, barely able to breath, bullet holes across his body. None of them are anywhere that would kill him immediately, but I could tell all of them were bringing him pain.
I feel sick to my stomach. I go back inside to quickly find another bullet to put the poor thing out of his misery. I meant to be humane, merciful, to give the thief some honor in his death like Jesus did Saint Dismas, the penitent thief. I find a bullet and reload the gun and hurry back outside. The raccoon was already dead. Whether it was blood-loss, one of the bullets or just shock, he had died while I was reloading my gun, full of pain, agony, and fear.
When my dad got home, I helped him dispose of the carcass out in the back of the property, where the vultures could get him, but after that I didn’t come out of my room that night. I thought about Chelsea that night, about how even when she was in pain from the snake venom, she got to spend a couple of her last nights with us, how I slept next to her bedside so she would know I was there. That raccoon may have been a boy or a girl, I’m not sure, but it probably had a family, a pack that would have been there if they could to support him or her, let them know they were loved before passing. Death is all around us in Texas, and sometimes we let ourselves forget it, tell ourselves that it has nothing to do with us. Maybe that works for some people. All I know is, I look differently at death after sharing that dark, painful moment with that raccoon. Wouldn’t you?