Mildred is excerpted from the recently released ebook Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, in which Fleda Brown and Sydney Lea each write essays about a given topic from the perspective of longtime poets. The broad topic here: Wild Animals. Fleda’s chosen subject: a coon in the crawl space.
When she comes to the water, we don’t see her. We don’t see her when she goes. We hear the splashing, we see the paw-prints, the five long claws. She lives under the cottage. We see where she enters. With our allusive and complicated brains, we decide to make her stand for what was there before we were. She is probably not the same raccoon. They live only one to three years. We give her an imagined continuity. We name her Mildred after Mildred Osborne, the now-deceased next door neighbor, for no reason other than to keep the Osbornes around a while longer, although the new people, new for the last 10 years, are better neighbors, that is, they take the kids out on their jet skis and fast boat, which we refuse to own, ourselves.
Mildred has babies upstairs in our cottage crawl space. John, the carpenter remodeling our kitchen, says he hears scuttling and scuffling above his head. Our other neighbor, Lou, says we should set a trap to catch “Mildred” and drown her. There are too many “Mildreds” getting into trash buckets, he says.
John says we should get poison or something. Or shoot her. I think maybe my sensitivity is too precious for their older world. I think of my father and his brother, out with their shotguns killing crows, squirrels, anything that came along, as if the world would last forever. I remember him tilting the leftover paint thinner toward the water, pausing as I yelled, “No! Not in the water!” and his reply, “Oh for Pete’s sake, it’s only a little!” The signals sent out by the struggling world had not yet reached him. Or he wasn’t listening. When he was young, what was a little kerosene in the water? Who wouldn’t clean paintbrushes there? He was only one generation removed from the clear-cutting of the northern forests for timber. When his parents bought the cottage, there were only a few young trees starting back around the lake—the old ones had been felled and floated to the sawmill.
Maybe it’s not fair of me about the shotgun. We kill animals in much worse ways now. We cage them and murder them by machine. We eat them without having any sense of the reality of the living, breathing presence of the animal we’re eating. There’s no fairness, no contest of gun and human wit against animal stealth and sharp senses.
I call the SPCA. The young woman tells me they can’t come get a raccoon. She tells me to soak a rag in ammonia and to play loud music near the crawl space to drive her out.
I forgot to say Mildred got into the cottage by crawling down the chimney. And then up the stairs. I think I will drive her out, then crawl in and get her babies, put them in a box, and take them to a place where she can move them elsewhere. I soak the rag and set it just inside the crawl space. I can see nothing in there, in the dark. I get my little red radio and tune in the loudest music, which turns out to be Christian rock. All night in my sleep or semi-sleep, the Christians are letting me know they are here, and up to date.
The morning mist is rising and there is Mildred pacing the roof of the cottage. She sees me. I imagine she sees me although raccoons have very poor distance vision. Maybe she senses me. We look in each other’s direction for a long minute, two mothers who have responsibilities that wrack our bodies, that hold us to our bodies, to all of our bodies, to the body of the world, no matter what. We know each other. We know nothing of each other. I continue with my plan. I block the opening to the fireplace. I get a cardboard box. I go upstairs and open the crawl space. It is very dark in there. There is loud scuffling and hissing and miniature growling beyond the range of my flashlight. I don’t know how old the babies are. They may be almost ready to leave the nest. They may have grown very sharp claws and teeth. I back out of the crawlspace. I take the ammonia-soaked rag with me. I have already turned off the music, which was still blasting in Jesus’s name.
I go downstairs and remove the piece of steel that we use to close up the fireplace in winter. I set aside the bucket I used to hold it tight against the fireplace opening. I go back out in the woods and watch the roof, where Mildred is still pacing. I tell her without speaking that she can go back in. I tell her I give up. She lumbers to the chimney and slowly lowers herself. I don’t know how she knows except maybe the draft of air rising now. I am anthropomorphizing to claim she understands me. We are mortal enemies who read the signals, each of us, to save our skin. When she is all the way in the chimney, she stops and looks at me again before she lowers herself out of sight.
I’m trembling with the suddenness of the transition, with my sudden change of heart. I call it that, imagining that Mildred sees it as that, as my magnanimity, but is really only fear, which is certainly the other side of desire. Desire is reaching toward as well as trying to avoid. Pulling toward or away. I understand that these are the twin engines that try to keep us going forever. It does not matter that I understand this. Mildred is gone the next day, and has taken her babies with her.
I tried to write a poem about her, about that time. I’d say it was a failure. Often the most dramatic moments, the ones loaded with narrative and image and intensity, the ones that people say, “You should write a poem about this!” don’t work out for me. I’ve written many narrative poems that seem pretty successful, but I think it’s that they snuck up on the narrative. It’s the head-on effort that defeats the poem. Maybe it’s the idea of “poem” taking precedence over the moment itself that freezes the moment so it can’t open to the unknown. Maybe the telling gets to sounding like a braggart in a bar. Not enough reverence for the actual and true.
Someday I may find that I’ve approached Mildred from an angle where she can’t see me and maybe I can’t see her. There will be a furry shadow that goes somewhere I wouldn’t have thought. That will be the poem. That will be the real Mildred.