Middi probably would kick Mark's ass in a one on one, Emily mused as she lay on an insulated blanket beside the koi pond and fed the fish. Funny she should stick up for me when I was so stand-offish with her. While Paris gobbled at the pellet she'd given him, Shanghai moved to within an inch of her hand, and she slowly released the food to him as a reward for coming so close. Shanghai was largely white, with a classic red circular spot on his head and black step-stone spots along his back. As she carefully drew her hand back, Oslo pushed forward and butted her hand aggressively, arcing through the surface of the water. Emily smiled, thinking that Oslo might be one of those koi who could be encouraged to leap out of the water at feeding time. On his next lap, she fed him a pellet. He snatched it from her fingers and darted away, with Sydney, Juneau, and Waikiki racing after him.
The fish that were named after cities had eaten enough, and the ground was cold. Emily rose stiffly, shook out the blanket and folded it, and put it back in the deck chest on the porch. Playing with the fish had been her reward to herself for bundling all that bedding into garbage bags and stuffing it into the mini-dumpster. She looked at the koi pond with its water lily pads, miniature papyrus, and horsetail reeds for another span of contented time, letting the glinting colors of the fish please her eye.
The weather forecast called for rain beginning later in the day, continuing through the weekend. Today was the last day that Emily had the liberty to walk in the woods and leave a New Year's gift for her secret friends. She went inside the house and pulled the package of hot dogs from the meat drawer at the bottom of the refrigerator. There were only three left, but that were plenty. These she sliced into thin slivers and wrapped in a paper towel to put in her coat pocket, along with the last of the green grapes.
Emily walked up the grassy slope to the wooded area at the end of their property and opened the gate in the fence that led to the forest. The city of Port Laughton owned this forested stretch between the residential area of town and Bradshaw Evans State Park, and the homeowners at this end of town paid a pretty penny in real estate premiums to allow them access the park. Not all the neighbors were willing to pay for access, and as a result, this stretch of woodland wasn't used as hard as others, say, for instance the land behind the University. Quiet and private, the edge of redwood and oak forest suited Emily well. Listening for the sound of any possible intrusion, she walked carefully and quietly along her favorite path, her steps cushioned by the mat of oak leaves. She slowed as she approached her sitting place, a little dell sheltered from sight by Douglas firs and some dogwood trees she'd sneaked up here and planted. Each step was taken more quietly: she didn't want to startle her little friends if they were visiting.
Inching forward, she sniffed the air, which was redolent of evergreen and leaf mould. She leaned to look into the dell, moving as slowly and unalarmingly as she did training her fish to eat from her hand. The little band of forest friends was not present, and Emily drew in a deep breath that was mixed relief and just a little regret. She didn't see the visitors often, it wasn't good to see them often, but they had grown so big since she first encountered them, and she wished she could see their progress and know that they were all safe and healthy.
A golden brown sandstone rock jutted from the eastern side of the dell. Emily sat down on it to look at the floor of the forest, to see if her friends had been here recently. A small scattering of dirt and disturbed leaves by the base of a fir might have been one of them digging for a grub or earthworm. After the rains came, the worms would be plentiful under the layer of leaves, and her little buddies probably wouldn't stop by, but her New Year's gift would see them through until the worms rose. Near the rock, she scattered the slivers of hot dog and the grapes, pocketing the grape stems. No one could know that she was feeding them; everyone else in Creation would have a fit if they knew she was encouraging the presence of four young skunks.
Last May, Emily had been sitting on this very rock, enjoying the sun as it broke through the fog and warmed the hillside, when a slight rustling noise brought her attention back from a daydream about building a log cabin on a wooded hillside somewhere, a cabin that could be heated by a fireplace, perhaps with a view not unlike this one. Thinking that a rabbit or squirrel might be approaching, Emily had held still, breathing only shallowly. Over the log under the Douglas fir came four little skunks in a row. Mentally, Emily went over the contents of her pantry storage, and came up with only possibly one six-pack of canned tomato juice, and another of small breakfast-sized cans. She was certain that it would not be enough to neutralize the odor when she was discovered by the skunks and sprayed. And oh, if a baby skunk could spray her, what was their mother going to do?
However, the baby skunks appeared not to be aware of her as they nosed and scratched under the log on the side closest to Emily. One found -- a beetle? -- and crunched it up enthusiastically, her tiny teeth visible. The other three sniffed her mouth and went back to their own investigations. As they waddled closer to her, Emily held as still as she had ever held in her entire life. The largest of the babies stopped, sniffing the air. This is it, this is how Emily gets to buy new sneakers, new slacks, new shirt, new sweater... The black and white furry animal rose to stand on its little hind feet and peered in her direction. Emily held her breath and tried not to make eye contact. Then the beastie had simply dropped to all fours again and gone back to foraging. Emily held still as a tree while the skunks scuffled around the dell, even to the point of heedlessly pattering over her toes, one after the other. She watched their single-line progress as they left the dell and wandered away up the hillside, disappearing into the ferns and low tangled ivy. They seemed so small to be out without a mother. Obviously they were old enough to find some food, but would they be able to find enough?
Reasoning that animals were supposed to be creatures of habit, Emily had returned the next day to sit on the same rock, but this time she had brought chopped-up boiled egg to scatter on the ground by the log. She arrived at the dell about half an hour before the time that she'd seen the skunk kittens, and after emptying the little plastic bag of egg, she rubbed her hand over the toe of her sneaker so that an investigative little animal might come to associate her scent with the scent of food. She was not disappointed. Not long after she composed herself, the soft scuffling sound began, and soon, the tribe of kittens crawled over the log. They found the egg fragments immediately, gobbling them down in seconds. Sitting still for fifteen minutes was no problem at all, not with the thrill of watching the little skunks play after they had eaten the egg crumbs. They'd seemed to be celebrating their good fortune. And Emily had felt the fortune was good for her as well, helping the little creatures live, and had celebrated that day by going to the supermarket and buying four large cans of tomato juice, just in case future encounters weren't so much fun.
There had never been a spraying incident with the young skunks. They didn't come to the dell every day (and neither did Emily) or at the same time (it was more proper for them to roam around foraging at night) but she knew that they were visiting the area regularly. Once, after a long stretch of not sighting them in the forest, Emily sprinkled a fine dusting of cornstarch around the log and their favorite places to dig. She was relieved the next day when she saw a myriad of little footprints around the area where she'd left fresh cut kernels of sweet corn the day before.
The last time she'd seen the skunks there, the kittens had grown to the size of house cats, with long lustrous hair. The distinctive color pattern of each was as good as a name for Emily to identify them. One had a solid white stripe down the back instead of two white ones separated by a black; another's white stripes were quite thin; and the other two had white tips on their tails, though one was much larger than the other. Big Tip had been the kitten to sit up on his haunches to stare at her. Light had been the first one to surprise and delight her by grasping her shoelace in sharp little teeth and tug until the knot was undone.
Emily never tried to touch them; she was well aware that they were wild animals, however cute and cuddly they might seem. The most she wanted of these little friends was to accept her gifts of food and not run away if they scented her.
Indeed, before she left the dell on the second of January, she rubbed her hands on either side of the sandstone rock to leave her smell intermingled with that of the hot dog. As she slowly ambled back to the gate and closed it behind her, sliding the padlock through the latch and clicking it closed, she wondered what would happen in the spring. Would her skunks bring their children with them to the dell? Skunks were capable of having seven kittens at a time. Wouldn't twenty-eight skunks be a bit much?
She'd read a lot about skunks the past summer. All the kinds of things that Mark, her neighbors, the city animal control people, the park rangers, even the President of the United States would have told her to consider to make her stop feeding and encouraging the animals. "They are a rabies vector. They have roundworms and tapeworms. They are aggressive when confronted. They can bite. They carry fleas. They'll eat garbage and break into your trashcan if they can manage it." She knew all those things, but she had also read that young skunks are playful, which she had seen with her own eyes; she had read that skunks are quite intelligent, quite social, and can be affectionate pets. They ate spiders and insects, plant matter and small mice. They were scavengers who helped keep the forest floor clean.
Emily thought they were beautiful, too. Her relationship with the skunk siblings was uncluttered. In return for their trust and their beauty, she needed only give them some raisins or a few dabs of peanut butter -- or a little cantaloupe, which the kittens were willing to quarrel over one morning in July. They didn't worry about who else she talked to the rest of the day, they didn't tell her what she had to do, they didn't dictate how she ought to dress or what hobbies she ought to have. Wild animals could be friends, too, as long as one understood their limitations and their habits. The skunks trusted her in her still observance of them, trusted her so much that they would actually brush against her as they searched the dell for food.
Pulling aside the curtain on one of the front windows of the large dining room, Emily noted that the trash had been picked up and the mini-dumpster taken away. That's the close of that chapter. Do you think the heroine learned anything from this New Year's Eve? I was so upset I threw out close to five hundred dollars' worth of bedding, which seemed like nothing beside my revulsion. Isn't that rather at odds with what I find so pleasing in feeding my skunks? They're not interested in gourmet meals or fancy food dishes, they just want to stay alive. Couldn't I have taken the bedding to a laundromat, and then after it was clean, donated it to St. Stephen's Homeless Shelter down town? Why didn't I think of that?
Well, the idea hadn't crossed her mind because her brain was full of social responsibilities and social gaffes, intellectual company and unappreciated, unexpected animal impulses of the intellectual company. An evening that glittered with diamonds and expensive clothing didn't bend one's thought to the tattered, bearded men who slept in the shadows by the municipal pier, or the emaciated women with shopping carts full of plastic bags and blankets who walked along the streets talking loudly to themselves, wearing gloves with holes in them and trousers underneath faded flowered dresses.
She frowned and turned away from the window. She couldn't remember what was on the menu for dinner, but she did remember that it was her responsibility to make sure that it was ready to set on the table by six, and before she started any cooking, she was going to move Mr. Damn Stein Dwarf into her overnight bag.