RUFFIN IT: THE BOY SUFFERS A BAD DAY
[This is a follow-up to the piece on Germann last week.]
“Why would anyone want a dumb old rooster?” the boy’s asking me in response to my news that Bob Winship has traded in his fair dog for a fowl. We’re at one end of the pool languishing in tepid water, trying to forget that the air above us is sizzling. The Weather Channel says it’s over a hundred in Huntsville. As long as they don’t specify how much over a hundred, I’ll take their word for it.
“You can’t pet a rooster.” His voice is rising now as the lesson sinks deeper that his dachshund friend Germann will not be at the ranch waiting for him when we spend a couple of days out West with the Winships next week. “He’ll just poop on my head,” I think I hear him say.
My wife and I laugh. “Why would he poop on your head?” I ask him.
“I said hands! Can’t you people hear?” He’s getting nasty now.
“But why would he–”
“When I pick him up to hold him.”
“You’re assuming the rooster will let you pick him up,” my wife pitches in. It’s probably not the right thing to say. Now we’ve generated in his head the picture of an unfriendly rooster, and Bob’s trade gets even more suspicious.
I try to head off the explosion. “He might. Roosters can be fun.”
The tears have started now. “I’ll never see Germann again.”
“Honey,” I say, “Germann is actually closer now than he was.” See, Bob had to relocate Germann to his son’s house in Houston because the dog had come to theorize that trucks and cars roaring along the caliche road out front were mere playthings for him to chase and dodge. Several close calls convinced Bob that Germann would be better off in Houston.
“He might as well be dead. I’ll never see him again. He was my friend.” The tears are coming hard now. “We loved each other. And Uncle Bob swapped him for a rooster! They just wake you up and poop everywhere. Why would anybody–”
The problem is not simply that I’ve finally gotten around to telling him about Germann. He’s already suffered loss today, and his mood was glum when we went into the pool. I just decided to go ahead and pitch on another load of grief, let him handle the double dose and get it out of his system. Intensity as opposed to duration, you see.
Earlier in the day he witnessed the death of one of our squirrels, a young female we called Baby Two (the smaller of two notched-eared females who visit our sunflower seed bowls daily), who had fallen from a hickory and damaged herself quite beyond repair. He sat beside her most of the morning and watched her shallow breathing, begging us time and time again to take her to Uncle Gerry (Etheredge, that is, Huntsville veterinarian extraordinaire). We told him no, that she was too badly injured, that it would be better to let nature takes it course, better for her to pass on to a place of greener hickory trees and inexhaustible bowls of sunflower seeds, a place where it occasionally rains and the thermometer never gets above eighty. He put a handful of seeds before her, and water, and stroked her side until in the early afternoon she took a final breath and died. Then he placed her in a shoe box and had me dig a hole in our pet cemetery for her burial.
“Are we supposed to say anything?” he asked me as I watched him fill the hole.
“It’s a purely private matter.” I left him to his grief.
So here the child is, fists clenched, face streaming with tears, angry at the world because one of his friends has died and the other has been banished to Houston, which to him is a quarter of a mile short of Hell. My wife and I cannot begin to imagine that tomorrow we’ll have to go through this whole thing again when we’ll find on the front porch the thrown-up remains of two baby cardinals a neighborhood cat snatched from their nest in the shrub by the door during the night and swallowed and then disgorged. We’ll have to deal with his tirade against cats and the injustice of nature.
But these are things he must go through to discover that life is not always fair or easy or to our liking. As I watch him stand in silence staring up into the trees that ring the pool, looking for something to be glad of, I am reminded of the marvelous poem by Southern poet John Crowe Ransom, “Janet Waking,” which chronicles a little girl’s first encounter with death. When she rushes out to her pet chicken Chucky’s house one morning, she discovers that “the poor comb stood up straight, but Chucky did not.” A bee sting to the head took Chucky out of the egg binness. Janet kneels “on the wet grass, crying her brown hen / (Translated far beyond the daughters of men) / To rise and walk upon it.” As she stands before her parents imploring them to “wake her from her sleep,” they find themselves unable to explain “how deep is the forgetful kingdom of death.”
We wish we could bring the boy the comfort he needs. We’d like to tell him that he’ll see Germann by and by, that Baby Two will once again come for seeds. But today we’ve said all we know to say. As he looks beyond us, the child searches for solace among the trees and far off in the deep blue empyrean that stretches cloudless and forever, and we know that somehow he will find it.