At the airport, my wife left me with two instructions: take care of the garden and don’t feed the wildlife.
“You got that?” she asked.
I assured her I did.
But she had her doubts. It was ten years ago, shortly after we moved to our rural home in Southern Minnesota and she was leaving a city boy alone in the country for the first time.
I couldn’t understand why she was so worked up until two days later when something woke me in the dead of night. Actually, it was nothing that woke me.
There was no breeze, no rhythm of crickets, no hoot of owls. Nothing, only a stillness as empty as that between here and the stars.
I’m no fool. I know when it seems like there is nothing in the wild – it means the opposite. Something is out there, something scary enough to make everything else freeze in its tracks
I grabbed a flashlight and went to the window.
Like most rural places after dark, our yard was bathed in a surreal metallic glow from a light on a pole. One that reduces buildings to short dark blocks and stretches trees painfully across the lawn until they writhe in agony.
It is not a vision for people with an over-active imagination – like mine.
It didn’t take long before shadows shifted in the woods and a specter floated across our yard, rustling the leaves at the edge of the garden.
I squeezed off a high-powered beam of light.
Two eyes burst into green flame.
I had stunned a doe – nailed her in my wife’s flower garden with a mouth full of mums. My point made, I flicked the light off. She sprang into the woods, pin-balling blindly through the trees.
This was big trouble.
I may not be an expert on country living but I understand how things work in the city. If you get robbed on a regular basis – you better start paying protection. So the next day, despite my wife’s warning not to feed the wildlife, I drove to town and filled the bed of my truck with mums.
Each night for the following week, I placed a sacrificial mum at the edge of the woods and sure enough, each morning the garden lay unmolested. What harm could it do?
It worked for a few days until the crickets paused again.
Something else had moved in the woods and from the sound, it was a lot of something else. Again I produced my trusty flashlight and swept the line of trees at the edge of the woods.
A vast army of sinister eyes glowed back at me.
I reminded myself that these were but gentile woodland creatures. Why should I worry? I picked up a book to take my mind off what I witnessed. It didn’t last. Out in the yard, a wheel barrow clanged onto its side. That ended the reading.
Next a lawn chair scraped across the deck and sharp claws scratched at my picture window.
Then the doorbell rang.
Like I said, I’m an inner-city guy. There was no way a couple of furry critters were going to intimidate me. I grabbed a baseball bat and flipped on the porch light and throwing open the door, stepped into a scene from a Disney movie gone horribly wrong.
The doe who started it all leaned against the garage, striking a tough pose. Her left cheek bulged with a wad of mums. As she caught my eye, she spit a contemptuous stream of foul juice onto the deck, forcing two squirrels to dive for cover.
The squirrels chattered their rage at me, as if I were to blame – but soon settled back to feasting on the seeds they had pilfered from the bird feeder. The birds didn’t mind. They lined the patio, drumming their little claws impatiently against the bricks. They wanted their feeder restocked – Pronto.
But all this was peripheral. It was not difficult to see who was in charge – a raccoon.
He was old and fat, gray around the muzzle with flares of white across his temples, looking like a thuggish, woodland version of Jay Leno. He lay on my lounge chair with rolls of fat cascading down his sides.
We sized each other up, each considering his options. Me with my bat, he with his minions. Then with a sigh, almost in disgust, he rubbed his paws together. There was no mistaking the universal sign of – Grease The Palm.
I nodded okay, figuring, all I had to do was make it until the next Sunday when my wife returned. She’s a no-nonsense country girl and no doubt would make short work of this woodland gang. All I had to do was stall until then.
At daybreak, I drove to town.
I always wondered why our hardware store stocked bird seed, corn and dog food by the pallet. Now I knew and was seized by the fear that this racket might be endemic to the area.
So I paid up.
I set out dog food. I filled the bird feeders to the brim. I lined the garden with sacrificial mums and piled heaps of golden corn in the yard, but there was no satisfying the mob.
They took everything and demanded more.
Yesterday was the final straw, a large semi-truck with a forklift bobbing off the tail-gate turned into my driveway. A nervous little guy lowered the forklift onto the gravel and mounted the driver’s seat. He began stacking pallets of feed into my shed.
“What gives?” I asked.
The guy shifted his machine into neutral and fished around for a clip-board containing an invoice.
The paw print on the signature line was unmistakable.
“Welcome to the neighborhood,” he said.