Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Life and death

I just came back tonight from a weekend visit to see friends and relatives on the opposite coast. One relative was having cancer surgery; I learned that another now has cancer; a close friend may have cancer; and over the past several months, my 92-year-old mother has had a succession of small strokes.

At the same time, one great-nephew celebrated his third birthday, and another, formerly the youngest, is now six, and a third, now 13, was thrilled to confide to me that he’d gotten his first kiss from a girl earlier that day.

So I spent some time thinking about life and about death.

Last night at 6:30, my much-loved brother-in-law came home and announced that there was a skunk caught in his trap (I grew up in the woods), and to be aware of that skunk and not to go near it. I didn’t know where the trap was that we shouldn’t go near, and I forgot to ask why he had a trap in the first place — what was he trying to catch? — although I did remember he said he’d been trapping squirrels and shooting them and he’d been giving the squirrel meat to some foreign man locally, until the foreign man’s friend finally told him, in English, that the foreign man had now had enough squirrel to eat and didn’t want any more.

Late at night, at 10:30, after hours spent playing pinochle with my mother and sister and my 38-year-old nephew, I went outside on the porch of the house to check on the weather because I was hoping not to have to drive through snow on the way to the airport in the early morning. It was bitter cold — 38 degrees; bitter to me, after 30 years in L.A. — and raining, and I was confident that it would turn to snow.

Which made me think of this skunk (was it a skunk? I wanted to see) and even moreso reminded me of my father’s having told me when I was a boy that he’d come home and found that Sophie Paulsgraf, our neighbor, had left her dog chained up outside in the snow, where Dad saw the dog shivering and miserable, so Dad marched over to the Paulsgraf house and told Mrs. Paulsgraf that she ought to be ashamed of herself, whereupon Mrs. Paulsgraf followed him outside and let the dog into the abandoned car it was chained to, so it could sleep inside. Which brought me back around to the idea of this animal, this skunk perhaps, caught inside a trap, a cage, in the cold rain soon to be snow, all night, until morning and then whatever my brother-in-law would do with it.

I got my adult nephew to go look at the animal with me. I got an umbrella — he had a hoodie — and he got a flashlight. We didn’t draw too close — we were careful not to draw too close — until finally the beam picked out the markings of the animal, deep furry black with white tracings, an animal larger than I would have expected, about the size of an overfed midsize dog, and it was definitely a skunk. I told my nephew that I couldn’t bear the idea of leaving it in that wire cage all night, exposed to the rain and cold and snow. I assumed that left to itself, it would burrow under cover — but caught in this cage, there was no protection in the offing. At the same time, we couldn’t approach to release it, because we’d get sprayed.

“I can shoot it,” he said.

“Yes. Please,” I said. Because that was what my brother-in-law would do in the morning anyway; better to do it now, and spare the animal a night of torment.

My nephew, an experienced hunter, went inside to get one of his rifles. He came back out with it and started to load it from the porch, a safe distance where he’d shoot from, while I’d cautiously approach from a side angle, down below on the ground, training the flashlight on the skunk so my nephew could see the target, trapped in its cage, just off the edge of the driveway in the brush, the site of what had sounded like dozens of squirrel murders.

I watched the animal intently from about twelve feet of distance, heard a *pop* and saw the animal flinch. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The animal had been hit, but was still moving. I said to my nephew, about his gun, “What is that? That you’re using?” I was afraid I knew.

“Air rifle,” he said.

“You’re using a pellet gun??” I said. “To kill a skunk?!?!” Growing up, I’d known kids who shot each other for fun with pellet guns.

He assured me that this was “high-powered” as he pumped the stock several times to work up air compression to take another shot.

He shot the skunk again.

“Still moving,” I said.

So he shot it again.

“Still moving,” I said.

So he shot it again. It lifted its eyes to look at me. “Still moving.”

He shot it again. The animal’s eyes caught my flashlight again.

“I’ll go get the other bullets,” my nephew said, while I mentally corrected him:  These weren’t bullets, these were pellets. Bullets were what I had expected.

He came out with new pellets.

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“The others had flat heads. These are sharp.” He showed me. The expectation:  These would penetrate better.

I resumed my position and he shot the skunk again.

“Still moving,” I moaned.

He shot it again. Each time it got shot, the animal jumped. Clearly, it was getting hit. He kept shooting it, and it kept moving, and I kept repeating its movements back to him. I lost count after twelve direct hits.

“Dear God,” I said.

“I keep hitting it!” he said.

I tried to think of another way to kill the creature without getting sprayed, something quick, but I couldn’t come up with anything. I was surprised that it didn’t make a sound. Not a squeal, which I’d expected, not a grunt or a groan — nothing — but in my mind’s ear, I could hear it all.

My nephew shot it again. I saw the skunk spasm again, and this time I smelled its spray. Maybe it was dead. I’d heard that they always spray when they die suddenly, in the way that a hanged man will shit his pants.

But no, the skunk moved again.

By now, I was struggling to stay calm. “Can you maybe come down here and shoot him in the head? His head is pointing at me.”

“I’m shooting it in the head.”

“You’re shooting it in his flank. His eyes are staring at me.”

My nephew came down off the porch, away from the railing he’d been using as a gun rest during this very long, very slow ordeal. Now he took up a station beside me, pumped the air rifle again, and shot the animal in what we took to be his head.

We paused. That should have done it.

Then the skunk moved again, but more slowly.

“For God’s sake,” I said.

My nephew, reading my mind, explained why he couldn’t use a more powerful weapon at this hour in these woods and with these laws.

“Okay,” I said. “Please shoot it again.”

He shot it again. It made another movement. We repeated the pattern some more — “Please shoot it”; the shot; the skunk moving again — until finally, finally, there was another burst of skunk spray, an awful silent fog of odor that washed toward us as we backed away.

“I think it’s dead,” I said. “But let’s give it a minute.” We waited, then waited some more, then decided that it had to be dead — I hoped to God it was dead — and went inside.

This quick mercy killing had taken almost an hour. It was impossible to sleep after that.

My own test for cancer is in a couple of weeks.


3 Responses to “Life and death”

  1. Dan Says:

    I wish that hadn’t been so well written — it was harrowing.

  2. Uncle Rich Says:

    I had my MRI the other day. Will learn the results next month, after I get some more bloodwork. Or, if the test looks bad, the specialist will call me to come in sooner. I hope your test is just routine, Lee, and that the results are good. What a drag it is getting old.

  3. Lee Wochner Says:

    It beats the alternative! (At least for now.)

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