I hit the raccoon on the road. Twenty-five years ago I was driving home alone late at night in an old couch-like Buick or Pontiac or Oldsmobile, trying to make it to the off-Reservation house where I had recently ended my marriage. We had enacted a youthful and destructive mutual mythologizing-- he was my primal man, I his white goddess. Bernie is a Seneca Indian of the Iroquois Nation and I am a white Presbyterian minister's daughter. We had no idea of who each other was or what we were doing. It didn't work, nor could it have. Finally I had recognized that and ended us definitively.
It is still one of the hardest things I've ever done. I was very young and marriage to an Indian man had been part of my lifeplan for almost a quarter of that life. Through intermarriage I thought I was fighting old racist traditions in both of our families. Admitting defeat was difficult. My family had been appalled that I was crossing lines of race, class and culture. His family didn't like it any better -- our child brought whiteness into the family bloodline -- but my half-blood, two-heart baby was the only son in that generation, and once we were actually married, they fell in love with him. Marrying into the family was something they could eventually accept, but never my divorcing out of it.
My husband's grandmother Elida was a reservation wise woman, a canny combination of old ways and new, half protector of Seneca tradition, half bingo queen. Elida and her family were members of the Turtle Clan, so the turtle was their totem animal. Elida placed a curse on me for divorcing her grandson. She called me on the phone -- on the phone -- and shook turtle rattles through the lines, chanting in Seneca, then translating so I'd know what she'd done. Her curse was that I'd never be happy after leaving her grandson. Bad luck would follow me, especially in love. I laughed and hung up on her, half charmed by the anachronistic AT&T curse. Within an hour I had a flat tire a few yards from the house. Animals, bad luck, and vehicles -- turtles, failed romance, and flat tires -- coalesced.
I didn't believe in her curse, I claimed, but car trouble and love trouble did seem to follow in the years after that. Somehow I wrecked the Pontiac my car-racing new lover had given me. My financial marital problems years before had begun with the purchase of another Pontiac, with its Indian chief profile on the blue high-beam button. That new lover accused me of cheating on him (I wasn't) and chased me around the house. I had to wall myself up in the bedroom and call the cops, who had to call in their dogs, he was that crazy. As I said, animals can help. They try their best. Twenty years later my beloved collie died while trying to save my failing second marriage. The problem was too big even for Alfie.
Somewhere along in there, I quietly asked an Indian friend if his own grandmother could take off the curse, which did seem to be working. She'd never liked Elida anyway, so she lifted the curse with a counter-curse against Elida, but I don't think it worked. Elida had strong Love Medicine, stronger Hate Medicine.
I hit a raccoon on the road, a quarter of a century ago, a woman driving home alone at night, always afraid that the old car would break down in the dark, almost smelling home in the far distance around an S-curve. Black eyes gleamed back at the car-eyes and then that terrible thump, more like hitting a dog than a raccoon. Suffused with sorrow, I turned the car around to see how badly it was hurt. It was slowly crawling across the road. I couldn't get out and comfort the raccoon or take it to a vet, so I would have to end its misery, but there were no houses nearby from which to seek help--or a tire iron. I decided to run it over again, finish it off. I thought it was a way to take responsibility for what happened.
This was a big raccoon. My tires seemed to rise way too far off the ground, once, twice, front and back. When I turned the car around to look, it was still crawling. Bloodied, stunned, it heaved toward the weeds at the side of the road. So I did it again. This time it seemed flatter, less lumpy. I was sure it must be dead. Heaving the car around again, I said the word No! out loud in the murderous interior. I had run over the back half of the raccoon three times and it was still crawling, its determined front legs hauling the flattened mass of the back half of its body, trailing blood and organs in its wake. And as it crawled, it looked at me.
Next, I whipped the car around again, desperate for one last chance, just in time to see the bloody mass disappear. What could I do? Wake people in the middle of the night? I went home. No one was there and I couldn't find anything like a baseball bat or a tire iron and I didn't own a gun. I told myself there was nothing I could do, I was helpless to stop its suffering now -- it was only a raccoon -- but the truth was I was afraid, cowardly to the core. I did not sleep easy for the next few nights, so I went to the reservation to learn how to apologize to the animal soul I'd offended. The Seneca system of totem clans led me to hope I might find someone with knowledge of a ceremony to perform. Indians are supposed to know this stuff, yes? In fact I knew where I was going: to Elida.
Elida listened to my story with wry contempt and a strange affection we warring women shared in those final years of her life--she could not banish me utterly because I was BJ's mother. You better go talk to Albert, she said. Albert was Elida's long-time companion and partner in life, ancient, wrinkled, quiet, observant, toothless. He never had much use for me, but I felt safe with him. Once during a traditional Longhouse funeral ceremony, I'd had to remain behind at someone's tar-paper shack. Albert was there with some men who were drinking beer. Albert didn't drink. A small black and white TV blared in the background, and I sat in a corner with my half-blood baby in my arms. Late at night they began speaking in Seneca. I thought they were talking about me, the scrawny white girl my husband married. The TV was playing an old Cowboy and Indian movie. When the Hollywood Indians came screaming across the screen in war paint like right-proper savages, the air grew edgy. Though my fear was paranoid, it was real. But even if Albert didn't like me, I was in a sense a member of his family, and he would not let anything happen to me.
So I told Albert about what had happened with the raccoon that night. We'd never had a real conversation. He listened, not looking at me, seeming not to acknowledge my presence. So I was just wondering, I blathered, if there was, you know, something I could do to, you know, um, make up for the thing I did? You know, like a kind of apology? a reparation? something? I stopped talking. It had been hard to learn to do that but I'd gotten the hang of it over my years with these people. Shut up, already. The silence was long, long. And then Albert said, No, there really wasn't anything I could do. Nothing? No, nothing, he said. And then he looked at me, his eyes as piercing as the raccoon's in the headlights, and he said, exactly, "You have not yet heard the last of that raccoon, white woman." He actually said that.
I left, convinced there was some ceremony he was withholding from me as a punishment for being white and female, for wrecking their bloodline which was obviously not all that pure anyway, hell, I could see white in this family face, black in that one. "Pure Seneca" with a name like George? Some Frenchman got his gonads into their DNA way back. And what's all this bloodline crock anyway? That's racist. I don't care which side is saying it, it's wrong. And that toothless old ring-tailed son of a bitch, what did he know? These people have fallen so far from their own grace that they think playing bingo is spiritual. And then I thought: ring-tailed? Where did that expression come from? And what was Albert's clan? Was there a raccoon clan in the Senecas? I didn't know. (There isn’t.) You have not yet heard the last of the raccoon, white woman? You've been watching too much TV, Albert.
There I thought I'd left the entire matter, though the raccoon came back to me now and then in dreams: eyes in the headlights, guts on the road, its front paws looking much like human hands dragging it off the berm. My luck with vehicles continued bad through my broke years, though I graduated from Pontiacs to VW Rabbits, vapor-locked in mountains and deserts. Finally my income rose and my cars improved, and as the years passed so did my luck in love. The curse seemed to have lifted, though whenever something went awry my lover and I would joke that the Great Raccoon had returned. Then my dog died and the love died too. Nothing to do with raccoons, just our own stupid selves.
Years ago I bought a stone cottage on the shale cliffs of Lake Erie in order to find sanctuary, to escape untenable love and the hailstorm of responsibility that comes with an 80-hour work-week while being matriarch of a multi-generational family that includes ailing elders, grown children, step-children, and grandchildren for whom I would like to be more than a shadow they will not remember. The cliffs are my refuge. I am a role model for many young women who look at me as embodying a well-lived life, fully autonomous, graced, happy, but I know my life is out of control. My personal relationships with men and with women are usually a shambles of misunderstanding and betrayal. At the cottage I escape it all.
But the raccoon has returned. The land at the cottage is owned more by animals than by me: bats, mice, and raccoons. Every dusk, clouds of bats spiral from under the eaves in the dusk, frightening visitors, delighting me, returning at dawn. Mice make nests in my clothing drawers and I let them, much to the disgust of my half-blood, two-heart son who finds my notions of a peaceable interspecies kingdom silly. And the raccoons are everywhere, although we seldom see them. I told myself that allowing them to run free is my way of making up for what I did those many years ago, but the truth is that once again I've been careless and murderous.
In the cottage next to mine several years ago, my neighbor and I were cleaning out his fireplace, preparing to light the first fire. As we cleaned out years of debris we heard a screeing. Bats, I said to Karl. He looked skeptical. No really, it's bats, I said to him, certain I knew that subtle rustle of tissue-thin wing. I'll light the fire, I said, and they'll fly out and find a different place to nest. The blaze came up too fast. The screeing turned to screaming and over the next hour, long after we stopped the fire, those babies dropped a plopping death-rain from the chimney. Burned and crazed, they tried to crawl out. Choking on smoke and guilt, I consigned them to the fire.
I turned to my favorite animal poet, Maxine Kumin, who told me that I must cap my chimney immediately because raccoons would certainly make nests in mine, too. I was going to do it. But there were no animals nesting in my chimney that spring, and some domestic disaster or other -- I don't remember which one -- made me postpone. I made a note to myself to do it the following spring. But the next year, my children decided to open the cottage for me early as a surprise. They started a fire in the woodstove and by the time my granddaughters came running to tell them the stove was screaming, a raccoon was ablaze in there. My friend Chip managed to drag the melting raccoon, still alive, from the stove. He killed it with a rock and buried its smoking corpse. Burning with guilt, I performed my inadequate penance, capping the chimney when I got back, teetering on a ladder on the steep tile roof and trembling with shame.
The next season my makeshift cap had been ripped off by a raccoon who nested her babies in the stovepipe. I did not kill them this time. I lured the mother and babies down the stovepipe and into cages, a delicate, slow, smelly procedure. The irate mother hated me as much as Elida, trembling with rage and staring straight at me through her mesh prison. It's all right, I told her, I won't let anyone hurt you. She answered me with a quiet hiss, and then shit through the cage onto my foot. An environmental control man from the county took the raccoons to be freed in the hills high above the lake.
The new chimney cap is secure. I tell myself I've done what I can. This season, like last, they say that some of the wild raccoons are rabid, and warnings in the papers and on the radio say to steer clear of them. I want to hear the last of the raccoon, but when I listen what I hear is screaming in the woodstove, and when I look, I see the vision of paws, hands that look human, burning as it drags itself out of the stove, onto the night highway, then off the berm into the far field.