Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Last night, I'd gone to sleep, then awakened again and was lying there motionless, thinking about plotting in "Skene". My cat Dinah leaped onto the bed and began crossing the top of the mattress toward her eyrie in the closet. Apparently she thought I was still asleep and didn't see me reach out to pet her on her back, because when my hand made contact, she catapulted forward in terror as if shot from a cannon, a 3-foot upward arc that crashed her head and chest into the closet door. Still in a panic, she scrambled up to her shelf in the closet, then turned around to stare at me, shaking her head and vocalizing loud protest. I, of course, was in convulsions of mirth.

I really didn't mean to frighten her. It probably wouldn't have been as effective if I had intended it.

I lay there thinking about the surprising levitation abilities of some animals. In particular, armadillos have that genetic response to fear and can go straight up several feet when startled -- an attribute you wouldn't guess just by looking at them. And one which must have had evolutionary advantage until the era of semis and highways. Poor dumb clucks.

That reminded me, irresistably, of when we lived in Dilley, Texas (my ages 9-12) and a family of armadillos moved in under our house. The foundation was pier and beam, with a large crawlspace closed off all the way round by latticework, except for one rotten portion at the front of the house where, with judicious digging (now, you would think armadillos can dig like blazes just by looking at them) a large tunnel-like access to the crawlspace was created.

On warm evenings, which occurs about half the year in that locale, my family would go out into the front yard after dinner, between the palm on our right and the magnolia on our left, and sit facing the house. We were on the edge of that small town, and the stars were bright. Mama knew every Greek and Roman myth about all the constellations, it seemed like, and she'd tell us stories as we sprawled back in those metal lawn chairs, staring up into infinity.

These were not the scallop-back metal chairs of the 1950s and 60s. These were an older version, slatted, extraordinarily heavy, with a droopy seat and a bit of bouncy action to them. They came with that rent house, and I've never seen anything similar (or as comfortable) since.

As we lounged, often drifting in long periods of silence, the armadillos would emerge from under the house and amble in our direction, because their foraging route lay beyond us. Armadillos are very hard of hearing and have weak eyesight -- with all that armor, who needs keen senses? -- so if we were silent, they'd come right up to us without being aware of our presence.

We loved waiting until they were at our feet, then one of us would shout and clap hands, sending them into headlong flight. It was hilarious enough watching their shambling run -- again, not something they'd need to do very often -- but the real humor came once they were under the house and bolting for the back, as far away from their entrance hole as they could get. There would be a loud, interrupted series of wooden thuds as each of them hit one of the house beams at headlong pace. We'd count the percussions out loud in glee.

Eventually, the armadillos moved on (wonder why?) and a family of skunks moved in. These were definitely less desirable tenants. My mother had a mortal fear of skunks, and no one was willing to tangle with them in order to oust them from the premises. At night when they emerged, we kept talking to insure they detoured around us on their way to the mercury vapor light at the corner of the REI equipment yard -- a light which drew a veritable insect buffet. I say, "We kept talking" but Mama would fall silent, watching them with deep suspicion, until they were across the road: two adults and three little skunks, with wafts of odor that had now become rather homey to me.

One night, however, Mama was distracted in lighting a cigarette as the skunks picked their way by the palm tree toward their first easy meal of the night. Just as Mama took a drag, my older brother pointed to directly underneath her chair and screamed "Skunk!"

My little brother Bill and I didn't even stop to look. We raced for the front porch, and we had a good lead on Mama because she was a large woman and removing her hindquarters from those chairs took a certain effort. Once on the straightaway, however, she outpaced us. She passed me just as I arrived at the steps, scrambling up them two at a time and reaching little Bill at the screen door just as his hand closed around the handle. She grabbed his T-shirt with both fists, dragged him backward, leaped into the house, then shut and locked the door.

Bill turned and gaped at me, and we both looked into the yard, to see how close the skunks were. Of course, there was no skunk. My father and older brother were in gibbering, shrieking hysterics. After ten long seconds, the door opened again and Mama began apologizing in an abject tone. But now We Knew.


shadocat said...


You can tell Ms. Dinah I also had a similar "fight or flight" reflex last night; let me elaborate.

I have been reading "Devil In The White City", a story that is partially about Lil Gator's infamous relative, and partially about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. and how they intersect, etc.
Last night was a very slow night here at work, and I did a lot of reading. As luck would have it, my time here was up after I had just read a particularly gruesome passage. My co-worker had to leave earlier that evening, so I wouold be going to my car alone.

We park in an alley behind a building that was built after the Civil War--- as a matter of fact the whole neighborhood is chock full of old Victorian buildings, and after dark it looks very "Whitchappley". Anyway, it was so hot last night, a thin layer of steam was coming off the asphalt, making everything even eerier than usual. I ventured out into the alley, firmly grasping my cane, determined to whack any would-be serial killers where the good Lord split-em, when suddenly, I heard a squeaking sound (it was probably a mouse or a rat). I, for the first time in 2 years, jumped about 2 feet, and then raced to my car at break -neck speed!. I jumped in, locked the car door, and peeled out of the alley as fast as I could!. When I finally calmed down, I was a hurtin' for it---still, it's nice to know there's still some adreniline in there when I need it!

Oh, and on an entirely different subject, I've been watching the news about this whole Utah mining incident with your "Sago" poem in the back of my mind...Read this in Salon today, and thought I'd send it your way (but you've probably already read it)

Dinuh said...

Fanx 4 ur empafy, Shadocat.
Let me no if u want hep wif killeen doze rats R mise.

Maggie Jochild said...

Well, Shado, Dinah got to the PC first. But I echo her thanks. I had not read the article on the Utah mine disaster yet, though just did (plus some of the excellent comments).

One of the wimmin's music performers I went to see in the Bay Area literally every single chance I got was Robin Flower, who usually performed with Nancy Vogl, Joan Balter, and/or Mary Wings. Robin had a strong blueglass musical background and, as I remember it, a partial Appalachian heritage. At every concert that I can recall, she performed not only "Which Side Are You On?" by Florence Reece, but also "Join the NMU (National Mining Union)" by Aint Molly Jackson. Both of these union-loving songwriters came from the infamous Harlan County coal mining struggles. Florence Reece's song ends with:
Us poor folks haven't got a chance
Unless we organize

Florence used the same basic tune that Aint Molly Jackson had written for her ballad "Join the NMU" (a.k.a. "I Am A Union Woman") a generation earlier. Woody Guthrie himself said Molly Jackson was the female Leadbelly. I find her song haunting, and sing it often.

You can read about her at Aunt Molly Jackson
-- at this site is a precious recording of her talking about her organizing, revealing her rich Kentucky accent, followed by someone else (unidentified in the clip) singing an authentic version of "Join the NMU":
The bosses ride fine hosses
While we walk in the mud
Their banner is the dollar sign
While ours is striped with blood

And, since you referenced my poem, although it is online at Wordgathering, I'll reprint it here. Thanks so much for the connection, Shado. I hope Robin Flower knows what an impact she had. Even more so, Aint Molly.


Four of the air masks failed he says
Twelve men, eight oxygen packs
I shared mine with an older man
I don't know why I lived

While I was in surgery, my friends
decorated my room with pictures
Things from home, Xena toys
They cheered when I was wheeled back in
I could not recognize two of them
Later a nurse asked me about
the plastic sword; I told her
I had no idea. The only number
I could write was seven

My memories were still there
but my pathway had been erased
like ant trail pheromones wiped away
Years afterward I come up against
a void in the map
beyond this point are monsters
If I push on
the tunnel will clear
On the other side waits
remembrance, mine once more

We bury the dead with their memories
still encoded inside their brains
No spark to light the way again
No air to fill the sails

Maggie Jochild, 28 April 2006, 7:28 p.m.

Blue said...

LOVE this.

I linked - okay? If not, let me know and I'll un-link.