The boy Chris hadn’t slept well in the small two person dome tent, curled up on the floor in his sleeping bag with his lanky Uncle Richard, two knapsacks, and a cooler. His uncle didn’t snore, but he murmured every so often, and upon hearing the garbled voice the boy would strain to imagine what interesting episode from the man’s life he was commenting on, and whether he was going to say anything sexy or in any other way interesting.
For that matter, Chris had experienced some difficulty in keeping his own mind quiet, what with the memories of his first caresses of a girl’s leg, Karen’s, pretty as a grownup’s, her skin sleek as a glossy photograph, her thigh, ah her thigh, the texture of peanut butter. From vivid recollection to active imagination being an infinitesimal step for a twelve year old, images of Victoria Secret breasts and hips flooded his head and his hyperalert penis with waves of ecstatic pulsations, though he knew, of course, that Karen wasn’t yet possessed of such wonders. Still, she had pretty, sleek, and tanned legs, and he had touched them, caressed them, and who knows? In a year or two those legs might lead to those other things, and . . . who knows?
But it wasn’t only his uncle’s gravelly mumbling and the wonders of his fanciful early adolescent sensuality that had kept him awake most of the night. Nor could he attribute his sleep deprivation to the dry ground that the tent floor and his sleeping bag did nothing to soften, though that too was part of the problem. No, the main source of his sleeplessness was the passing alongside the tent of the nighttime critters, the snoops, the tireless wanderers, the inveterate foragers and scavengers, probably raccoons but maybe skunks too, some of whom had the temerity to poke and sniff and breathe near his head, sometimes rubbing along the tent’s thin nylon skin and consequently along his back or arm, whichever was touching the wall in the confines of that space too crowded for even Chris to easily crawl around in. If his annoyance with those little furry guys hadn’t kept him in a state of alarmed wakefulness, the image of Karen’s legs might have been confined to sweet dreams and his uncle’s growls to the domain of perpetual silence.
And the sight that confronted him at five forty-five in the gathering dawn under the canpy of beech limbs wouldn’t be holding him in the thrall of pity. And terror.
So this is what raised his hackles just a short time ago, woke Uncle Richard too: the terrifying screeching, the sounds of flailing mortality. Paralyzed with chills at first, he had, once the din ceased, followed an impulse to drag his uncle out of the sack to help him find the source of the noise and they had followed a trail two hundred yards under the guidance of flashlights and Chris had been the first to see the carnage.
Unable to take his eyes off the mangled animal, the boy’s desire to run was thwarted by his fascination with the grim spoilage. Uncle Richard, he said.
He heard the dead leaf shuffle of hiking boots on the messy forest floor, the crackling of dried twigs. He saw his uncle’s lags standing beside him, heard the whisper Jesus.
The boy stared hard. I guess that’s what made the noise, huh? he said.
I guess so. What a beating he took.
Yeah. What a mess.
Uncle Richard crouched down. Look, he said. He pointed to a mild disturbance in the air just above the raccoon’s torso. See the heat rising?The boy nodded. He’s still warm. He’s not been dead for more than a few minutes.
Chris raised his head, directed his gaze to the small patches of sky visible through the treetops. He was blinking rapidly. I know. I heard all the noise.
Uncle Richard stood and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. The boy sniffed once, then several times rapidly. I can smell the blood, he said. It smells like what I’ve tasted, only stronger even. He looked down at the carcass, left the site and returned with a long gnarled stick. He tried to turn the carcass, managed only a nudge before the stick broke. Heavy, he said. He looked up at his tall uncle and asked if he could maybe touch the fur.
Sure, his uncle said gently.
Chris squatted, reached out a tentative finger, touched the fur on the top of the head, on the ear. Lying on its side, the raccoon’s open eye stared at nothing and the boy touched it too. After withdrawing his finger, he hesitated a moment before touching the little teeth in its open mouth, caught in a mute final snarl of pain. He didn’t say anything. Then he touched the fur matted with its rapidly drying fluids, withheld his hand and studied his red fingers, rubbed them together, smelled them. Can I touch its guts? he asked.
He touched it the way he had first touched Karen’s calf, her ankle bone, the tendons behind her knee, with great reserve, with great care, like a pianist touching the keys of the first piano he’s seen after a month of starvation in a desert. It seemed to him strange and mysterious to feel this warm, smooth, rubbery thing, this vital thing, this thing hidden inside a body that contributed to the livingness, the functionality of this creature, now so useless, so inert, so meaningless. He shifted his feet a bit, rested his arms on his knees, his hands dangling. Flies were beginning to gather, to land on the nose, the gums, the drying flesh, the first of the scavengers to begin nature’s work. He stood up, buried his hands in his pockets, raised his eyes, rapidly blinking again, and scanned the forest. A single snort, a suppressed sob, escaped him and he used the back of his hand to wipe a tear from his cheek. His uncle reached around and drew him against his side.
Uncle Richard, he said.
The boy returned his hand to his pocket. Why . . . Why do people feel so bad when an animal gets all wrecked and killed like this?
Uncle Richard studied the boy with raised eyebrows. He clenched his jaw, pursed his lips. I suppose, um, because it’s life, Chris. He hesitated. It’s life gone. You know, it was a life and now life is gone. Zapped. Kaput. Vacant.
The boy looked up at him. Yeah, but it’s only an animal.
Mm hmm. But it used to be a live animal. And cute, right? Raccoons are cute, don’t you think?
Yeah. but he’s sure not cute anymore.
See? He was a cute little guy, full of life, before. Now death has made him grotesque, ugly. Do you think he wanted to be grotesque and ugly? And dead?
Chris smiled. No. Not at all.
Do you think he still wanted to be alive and cute?
Do you think all living things want to stay alive and be cute? Maybe even forever?
Sure they do. Except maybe flies. They could never be cute.
True, true. But I’ll bet they want to kive. Just like the raccoon. Just like you.
The boy watched as the flies zipped around on the carcass. He listened to the waft of birdsong, the calls of distant geese, smelled bacon on the breeze. Do you think he suffered a lot?
Uncle Richard nodded, pursed his lips agaion. I expect so. It must have been pretty bad.
How come people don’t feel as bad when people get wrecked and killed like they do when animals do?
What makes you think they don’t, Chris?
Well, it seems that it’s in all the movies and TV and everything. People are always hurting and killing people, and people who watch all that stuff think it’s cool. And it’s always on television, and in my comic books. And my games. It seems like people really think it’s cool to kill people, but they feel bad when animals get killed. I can’t figure it out.
Uncle Richard stepped in fron of the boy and grasped both his shoulders. You know what, Chris? Neither can I. He drew the boy to him and embraced him, then stepped back, his eyes holding onto the boy’s. He shook his head. I sure can’t either. . . Come on, he said. Let’s get back to camp. We’ll have a bite to eat and then go fishing.
Chris gave a farewell glance to the rapidly cooling carcass and joined his uncle. I don’t think I want to go fishing, he said.
You don’t? Why not? That’s what we came here to do.
Maybe later. I’m really tired. I didn’t sleep much last night. Can I just get in my sleeping bag and go to sleep for a while?
Uncle Richard threw his arm around the boy’s shoulders. Sure, he said. You take a snooze and I’ll go throw a line in and wake you up in two hours. Okay?
Sure. Thanks. He smiled and held the smile the rest of the way to his campsite. He was able to hold the smile so long because as he trod through the ferns and old leaves and broken sticks of that tamed state forest his mind was on Karen, she of the smooth skin and the soft lips, she of the peanut butter thighs and the sweet fingers on his face, and he thought of what he was going to do under the cover of his sleeping bag with only her image to excite him.