Late winter on the Bay is wet and windy and cold. I recall staring out the front windows, watching waves crash against the bulkhead and raindrops roll down the glass. The Christmas tree was long gone from its place in the corner. Hunting season was over. There was a lot of nasty weather left before spring and a lot of school left before summer. Life in Point Clear is all about waiting for summer.
Even in my adult life, February and early March are wet spots in my head I have to slog through. As a child, this time of year was when we were most alone. And when I try to remember what I did with my time, I recall waiting for the rain to stop and finally going outside under gray skies and dripping pine needles and side-stepping magnolia leaves cupped with water. There doesn’t seem to be any smell to February, like the rains wash it out. And it’s quiet, and no matter how you dress, the cold of it licks your bones.
Around our house, you never wanted to advertise you were bored. That was as good as asking for a job. Once, I exhibited a small sign of listlessness on a rainy day and was forever after saddled with the job of tending all our animals.
Aside from your typical dogs, cats and rabbits, we had creatures that created unusual challenges. While chickens weren’t the most exotic, they took up the most of my time and resentment. Our rooster, Leghorn, was crazy. He didn’t just crow in the mornings, but all day long and into the night like an insane prisoner. Every day, whether it was sunny out and I had lots to do, or cold and gray, I had to get past Leghorn to check for chicken eggs. One step into his coop and he’d be on me like a convict with feet full of knives.
Leghorn was the scariest, but Sally the opossum was by far the meanest, most evil creature I’d ever brought back from the woods. I caught her in a plywood box trap I’d hammered together, then decided it would be interesting to train an opossum.
I transferred Sally to our rabbit cages and tried to befriend her. But I couldn’t get within two feet of the wire mesh before she tensed up and opened her mouth in that slow way opossums will do, baring a nightmarish set of teeth and hissing like she could move a lot faster if given the opportunity. I tried feeding her everything from lettuce to toads, but she wouldn’t take any of it.
I finally decided Sally was too stubborn for training and should go back to the woods, but she couldn’t free herself and I was too scared to release her. After trying many extraction techniques, I eventually kicked the rabbit cage off its stand, flipped the door open with a broomstick, and ran. Sally waddled away, no faster than ever.
The prize for most chaotic pets goes to the wild pigs. I shot their mother at the hunting camp and felt guilty when I approached her and found she had piglets. I collected all six of them and brought them home. From clear across the highway, where our barn was, I heard them squealing and grunting and rooting up the dog yard. I was amazed at how fast they grew and how much they ate. It wasn’t long before I felt I’d done my penance, and we hauled them to a local farmer.
Of all my strange pets, Smokey, a gray squirrel, was my favorite. I found him in the yard after a storm when he was still pink and hairless and as long as my thumb. Mom put him in a chicken egg incubator where we fed him milk and nursed him along until he began to grow hair and crawl around. Then, Smokey moved to a cardboard box in my room and traveled about the house with me, clutching my head like a strange hairpiece.
Even when Smokey was old enough to leave the house, he continued to sleep in a flower box outside my window and claw his way to the top of my head whenever I was outside. I was reluctant to push him from the nest, but I knew it was for his own good when he had the run-in with Mrs. Brodbeck. She was my grandmother’s age and knew nothing about the pet squirrel two houses away. One morning she walked out to sweep the porch, and Smokey ran up her nightgown. She nearly beat Smokey and herself to death before she got him out of there.
In hindsight, I suppose pets and chores are just the remedy for boredom.
Watt Key’s novel, “Alabama Moon, ” was recently listed by TIME Magazine as one of the top 100 young-adult books of all time. Watt’s next book, “Among the Swamp People, ” will be released in September of this year.
text by Watt Key