Rabies, Attenuated

Once upon a dark and dreary eve….

{Careful, this is drafty….I’m posting it to preserve what I’ve typed so far.}

Rabies, Attenuated.

I am rabid, host to the virus though not possessed by the rage of my guest.

—–

Spring, thirty-some years back, I was as awkward as any middle schooler and though my nickname fit I did not wear it well.  I knew it was intended as an insult.  Nature Boy.  It was an unbidden cloak draped over me by the popular kids, effectively making me invisible to the creatures who most mattered: girls.

—–

When my wife tells this story, her preferred staring point is Boy Scouts.  Back when I was Nature Boy, tending to Peter the Possum, I was also a fledgling Boy Scout.  Before I was eighteen, I’d earned the rank of Eagle Scout.  Decades later, I switched my older son’s alliance to my old troop after an unfortunate involvement with a local troop, a troop experience which can be summed up its death knell event: the Scoutmaster was arrested, allegedly for stealing thousands of dollars from the annual popcorn fundraiser.  Switching troops meant a thirty minute drive, largely over winding farm roads which arced between fields of corn and tobacco, or twisted as they paralleled the banks of meandering trout streams.

The new troop – my old troop – was mastered by a man who had been only a year and a rank ahead of me during my tenure.  It was a troop active in the outdoors, and it was not a den of thieves.  In short, it was worth the commute.

On a late September Monday night, it was the troop’s Court of Honor, a rank granting and awards bestowing ceremony that prolonged the usual hour-long meeting.  Rather than ending at eight, the meeting lasted until quarter of nine.  At that witching hour, the parking lot of the church where meetings were held had fallen into darkness, lanced through helter-skelter by the slash of departing headlights.

Here my wife will pause, as if she needs some excuse for the action I’m about to take.  She emphasizes, “he was driving our son home from Boy Scouts, a distant troop; my husband was an Eagle Scout there and they have that motto: healthy, courteous, kind, thrifty, brave…”

If I’m in the room when she’s telling the tale, I interrupt at this point to reminder her that the Scout’s motto is succinct: Be Prepared.  But I’m not present this time, and she prefers the Oath, by another name.  She continues, “So it’s wired into my husband’s brain to help; he stops to do nice things, just like he still opens doors for me or any woman.  Chivalry – it’s not dead yet,” and here she paused to look around the room, “but, believe me, I’ve set some new rules now.”

At this point, you have to wonder why S, a private woman who rarely steps out of her professional veil while at work, has been outed sufficiently that she even felt the need to explain my affliction.  That all started a week and a day after I’d been bitten, on a Tuesday.  S, then a teacher and Team Facilitator at her school, had volunteered to stay late and serve as a representative teacher during the school’s monthly parent/admin gripe and grin session.  It was out of character for her to email her Principal, J-, especially last minute, to say that she had a family emergency and needed to excuse herself from the evening meeting.  J-, ever the gentleman, wrote back, “Family First.  Take off tomorrow, too, if you need to.”  S drove home in tears, worried – and furious.

The next day she was back at work and felt she needed to explain her sudden disappearance to her boss, who certainly wouldn’t have suspected that her absence was related to a rabid husband.  J- heard the quick version, starting with, “My husband is a Boy Scout,” and ending with, “and now the CDC is involved.”  That was just enough food for thought to set J-’s mind gnawing.

When, one additional week later, S, in her role as Team Facilitator, brought a mega-bag of M&Ms to the team meeting, it was J- who was acting strangely.  S unzipped the large bag, set it down in the center of the table as her ice-breaking gift to the group, then plunged her hand in and withdrew her loot – this wasn’t greed, it was akin to lighting the wick of a new candle before the guests arrive.  Once the bag has been tapped, everyone feels encouraged to grab a handful of candy.  J-, who was in the room as an administrative observer, an affirmed chocoholic with an enflamed sweet tooth, cocked his eye at the bag of candies, but remained motionless, even as the teachers around the table began to deplete the stash.  Very odd, thought S.  J- looked conflicted, salivating as he focused on the bag, yet constrained by an unseen hand.  He was lost in a monomaniac reverie, kept from the M&Ms as though by a wall crafted of invisible bars.

“J-.”

“J-?”

S waved her hand at the man sitting next to her.  Again, “J-?”

“Yes.”

“J-, I bought the M&Ms on the way to school.  My husband hasn’t touched them.”

“Mhmmm.”

He didn’t move.

“J-, I don’t have it, it’s ok for you to eat the M&Ms.  Really.  You’re safe.”

“You’re positive?”

“Yes.”

And even as J- reached a tentative hand into the darkness of the bag, S realized everyone else around the table, those who hadn’t thought twice about gorging on the candies, were staring at her, wondering whether they should tuck a vomit-inducing finger past their epiglottis, or if the tension alone would prompt a spontaneous disgorgement.  Each one of them wanted – needed – to know what disease, exactly, afflicted her husband.

“Please relax,” calmed S as her gaze ran around the circled teachers at the table, “it’s just rabies – and I don’t have it.”

Silence.  Except for J-, crunching away on a gob of M&Ms, his lips flecked with colorful bits of candy shell.

“Just rabies.  Only rabies?  That’s reassuring,” murmured one of S’s fellow teachers.

“Look, I really don’t want to get into this, but I can tell this meeting isn’t going forward until I explain.  Here goes… My husband is a Boy Scout.”

—–

Well, it is true.  I was a Boy Scout and I did earn my Eagle, but I was hardly a model of perfection.  A mottle on perfection would have been a more accurate description.  When I was learning my knots, I studied the noose.  When I could navigate with a compass, I avoided the blazed switchbacks and forged my own trail, sometimes getting lost in the process.  If there was a Playboy magazine hidden under the seat cushions on the back of the troop bus, it might have been mine.  Yes, I open doors for women – how better, in this dark age, to impress a lady and gain her favor?  In Scouts I learned the Cardinal Rule shortly after memorizing the Motto & the Oath: It is better to ask for forgiveness…and you know the rest.

On the Monday night I’ve come to think of as ‘inception,’ I wasn’t a Boy Scout.  I was a tired father of a Boy Scout with a half-hour drive ahead of me.  Two of my younger kids were in the truck with me when I retrieved Angus, the eldest, from his Court of Honor.

The four of us were chatting, or maybe we were singing along with Zeppelin, I can’t recall.  They say that when a trauma is burnt into your mind, you lose the moments beforehand, like they’re flashed out of existence, burnt away by the white heat of the blitzkrieg event.  I’m sure we turned left off of the Oregon Pike, slipping immediately from highway to byway, and thirteen mile to go.  Those roads were always dim, except where they passed in front of a farmhouse.  Stop signs, road apples, road kill, potholes, and gravel patches decorated the narrow ribbon of asphalt between a succession of Amish farms.

Left, right, left.  Right.  Every turn marking time in the cadence of an inevitable progression, a process too far gone to have any hope of averting the fatal moment.  The truck turned left again, onto Warwick Run Road, passing a large Amish house on the right.  To my left a fence ended abruptly and an open field of fescue, clover, and milkweed spread rampantly along the road.  To my right, the house and kitchen garden ended where the fencing and the ranging of the livestock began.  As the truck moved forward with increasing speed, I was cautious because the few-hundred-yard straightaway dropped off into a perilous zig-zag of curves, and it was at this juncture where, a few years prior, I had struck and killed a doe while driving in the same truck, but in the opposite direction.  Now, in the darkness, the truck was moving at only 25-30 miles an hour when the little terror emerged.

In retrospect, when describing this momentary snip of time, a reasonable expression of the account demands a point by point iterative telling.  The reality was far more fluid, less staccato.  But when that creature emerged onto the road – THAT moment – is the moment when the burnt-in memory somehow began, when it was etched, engraved, carved in the soft granite of my mind.

Popping out of the field, dancing across the cone of vision presented by my headlights from my lane into the opposing lane, was a mink.  We live in the woods, our property bounded by a stream populated with small fish and the mink who prey upon them.  One of our dogs, Baylee, discovered a mink’s winter cache of dead panfish and she’d dutifully retrieve one cold, flat carcass each time we let her out to pee in the forest.  She thought this was a lovely treat for us, and clearly cared less for the mink’s thoughts about her depredations.

Braking as the beast stopped and stared down the headlights, I focused.  Big Nope.  I was wrong.  Too small for a mink, and not the right color.  Mink are a deep, polished chestnut brown, sometimes ranging toward walnut-stained as they approach black pitch.  They’re long, at roughly 24 inches.  And, though rarely seen, they are sufficiently abundant to be a Pennsylvania game species regularly taken by fur trappers.

Must be a weasel.  I’ve seen these several times, dead.  There’s a diminutive skull in my childhood collection.  Once, I was watching a cute, frazzled little bunny hop around in the mown grass I can see from my home office window.  The rabbit, a young cottontail, would bound from one tasty morsel here to another there, content and as oblivious as I was.  Our yard, if it merits the term, is a small square of weedy, but mown, turf hemmed by the house on one side and by three dense walls of briar, bramble, and poison ivy on the others.  From the shabby lawn’s perimeter, as the rabbit, nose twitching, delicately gnawed in a sprig of clover – much as a child would draw in a strand of spaghetti – a dark flash erupted, a darting extension of the shadowed wood beyond the briars.

The bunny toppled, then righted itself, but was flung on its side by nothing that I could see, as though it was seizing, grand mal.  The rabbit lept skyward, turning as it landed, but before it could rebound, the shadow sprang from the grass and clamped itself with relentless finality to the back of the rabbit’s neck.  Not a scene from Beatrix Potter.  Both animals spun and twined in the grass, rolling like rough dogs at play until the rabbit settled, kicked, and kicked, and kicked against nothing until it settled into death.  Then it slid into the brush, drug by an invisible killer whose short body cut a wake through the grass, but couldn’t be seen for it.  That was the only live weasel I’d barely seen.  Very small – too small to be the creature blocking my way now, in the third hour before midnight.

As my foot pressed harder against the brake, and as my mind tottered between the too-large mink and the too-small weasel, the mask registered in my nearing lights as we slowed and drifted past the animal.  A bandit come to greet us on this dark road.  A masked bandit, that sable fur, the middlin’ size.  Sure it was a ferret, a perfectly tame, pet-store variety ferret.  A polecat, really, and out here between the fields.  Abandoned.  Poor thing.

Ferrets were one of the many animals I kept, both as a kid and, later, in a college apartment.  I grew up with a menagerie best circumscribed by what it lacked: a chinchilla and a caiman.  Later in life, I would come to learn that folks kept sugargliders, but back then the exotic I was missing most was a chinchilla, followed by a little bathtub gator.  Present were schools of fish, slathers of newts, an army of frogs, a pack of dogs, a babysat Macaw, a slither of snakes, the neighbor’s horses, a horde of gerbils, plus hamsters, rats, mice, guinea pigs, cats, and often a ferret or two.  And I had read Sterling North’s Rascal, so I’d always wanted a raccoon, but my father was against them on account of rabies.  “Any raccoon out in daylight has rabies; shoot it.”  I had to settle for the opossum, which made up for its relative lack of intelligence by having a prehensile tail and the decency to hang from my wrist like a pendulum when I wanted to show him off.

“Hey kids, a ferret!”

The truck lurched to a dead stop.  One nice thing about back roads after dark is a general absence of competing traffic.  Blinkers flashing orange, I shifted into reverse.  The ferret was fifty or sixty feet behind me, and safely in the other lane.  Navigating with one eye on the ferret in my sideview mirror and the other peeled for any car that might approach me from behind as the truck drove backwards in the darkness, we snuck up on the ferret, unawares.  That should have been a clue that not all was well.  Like a deer in the proverbial headlights, this ferret in the flashers seemed incapable of movement.

My head was churning, a plan emerging from the froth of excitement that was eclipsing a mundane ride homeward.  My dear wife, the science teacher, hovered on a knife’s edge when it came to animals.  She loved them, her brown dog, Baylee, foremost, but critters in general.  Often when a student brought in a soon-to-be homeless animal, S provided a new, or at least temporary, home – ours.  We’ve harbored a red-eared slider, a bearded dragon, and several fish.  She countenanced our first visit to the local bird shelter where we adopted our used bird, a black-masked Nanday Conure.  We housed miniature shrimp and a dose of algae in self-tending ecosphere; the three shrimp appear to have entered the early years of placid immortality, grazing, swimming, and relaxing.  Beyond the house, we also kept a yard full of chickens, guinea fowl, and ducks, plus the more or less wild turtles and frogs that inhabited our small pond and suffered for it: frequently netted and petted, before being released again.  We kept darn near anything except cats and snakes.

I had already introduced the notion of adopting a ferret several months ago, presenting this as a step down from my real goal.  What I really wanted, especially after reading Cosmo with my daughter, Alex, was an African Grey.  The edge, the edge – I was dancing on a razor’s edge.  S was certain that our menagerie, which included four children who, on testy days could make a loving parent question whether they were domesticated or feral, had reached its maximum limit.  The vampiric conure, named, appropriately, Bandit, by his former owner, had crossed the threshold of her tolerance.  Yes, the bird loved me, chugging and vomiting for my benefit, as if I were his mate.  Gay bird.  Let anyone else try to sneak a finger through the bars of his cage and there would be a thrashing of wings, screeches of the possessed, and a black beak gnashing as it tore flesh from the unfortunate finger.  Really, I tried to explain, the bird was a sweetheart who simply valued his personal space.  But S vowed to take in no animals more aggressive that the shrimp until something larger, something red in tooth and claw, had shuffled off its mortal coil.

I, contra my beloved, had no taste for these options of death or stasis.  A menagerie must grow to thrive, and here, presenting itself, was a ferret.  It was a homeless ferret, with perfect timing.  I was ready to adopt.

There was, and I should mention this as a possibility, a slim and slippery chance that I misattributed S’s stand against further encroachment by pets as stemming from our toothy conure with a condor-sized attitude.  Perhaps it was the worms.  Over some previous night’s dinner I had tentatively raised the notion of worm farming and while S’s response was tepid, I didn’t feel it was definitive.  I ordered the farm, the coconut coir, the books, and, finally, two thousand worms, shipped direct from Uncle Jim’s much larger worm farm.  Within months the population boomed, exploding as these wrigglers dined on our organic refuse.  Soon the worm farm was belching out that stray percentage of worms with the hearts of knights errant.  What’s one percent among ten thousand, twenty thousand?  I didn’t stop to do the math, nor did I notice more than one or two crusty worms lithified onto the tiles like Vesuvian victims, perished yet persistent for all time.  S, it turns out, discovered several dozen more every three days when she swept and mopped the floor.  And she noticed the fruit flies.

Although we still maintain the worm farm out in the garage, where fluctuating temperatures dampen the worms enthusiasm for thriving, S’s limit on house-worms was reached the afternoon she stooped to scrape mummified worms off the tile floor and leaned her long, dark hair into a fresh spiral of flypaper, golden and extremely sticky.  I’d surreptitiously dangled the coil of flypaper under the overhanging lip of our dry sink in hopes of taming the horde of flies that danced over the worm farm in a mating frenzy.  After tangling with the fly paper, S was not only NOT in an amorous frenzy, but there was a new determination to her desire to shrink the population of our home by at least several tens of thousands of critters, and, unequivocally, to add no more.  It was a bad day for the menagerie.

That night on Warwick Road, my plan to dodge the prohibition on new animals, evolving instant by instant as the truck backed toward the unblinking ferret, was simple.  Catch the ferret.  Bring it home.  Tell S I had every intention of dragging it downtown to the Humane League (where it would be executed by lethal injection if not promptly adopted) as soon as my schedule permitted.  Meanwhile, her dog and mine would both befriend the ferret.  I’d float the unlikely possibility that the ferret might kill and eat the conure – a sure temptation.  Then, somehow, I know not how, in the commotion of life in our household, S would fall for the ferret.  It would become her second best friend, after her brown dog.  And though it would be her friend, it would follow me – arched and popping – around the house and shop while I worked and S was off at school.  Perfect.

The kids had rolled down their windows as the truck rolled to a stop.  The ferret, stock still, regarded the truck with bright, black eyes.  Even in the night I could see his eyes glinting – I sign of intelligence!  And so fearless.  A bright, bold ferret!  I appreciated those traits in man or beast.  With my foot on the brake, I shifted into park, flashers pumping orange light, as an arterial wound pumps red life, into the post-crepuscular eventide.

The sable ferret in the black mask of banditry held firm in the half-lit shadows alongside my truck.  To his front, yellow beams of the headlights illuminated the road.  To his rear, the taillights cast a faint red glow.  Both the lights, fore and aft, were punctuated by the hazards, blinking, blinking, blinking.  The ferret stood firm, unspooked, curious.  I liked him already, and I shared the briefest outline of my plan with the kids.  “I’m going to catch him.  We’ll see if Steph likes him – if so, we’ll keep him!”

It never occurred to me that I couldn’t catch him.  I was fast enough to catch snakes – garters, black rats, corns, green vines, milks, ringnecks – anything except adult watersnakes, which were fast enough, and mean enough, to chase a human just to bite the human for bothering to exist.  In the muddy Conestoga River those gray bastards would swim toward you, no matter if you were wading, tubing, or canoeing, as though their teeth needed the exercise.  Sure I’ve been bit by garter snakes and a couple of black rat snakes – if they’re common and you pick enough of them up, and if your guard is down because most of their sort are friendly, they’ll get you.  You’re quick.  They’re quicker.  Many times over snakes have turned my thumb, or the web of my hand, into a briefly used pin-cushion, but if I bleed clear, who cares.  Their teeth are so sharp you don’t feel much if you let them release after they sink in.  Make the mistake of pulling on a snake while they have their teeth in you and they’ll clamp harder as you pull them free, and you’ll gash yourself on the little spikes as they drag through your skin.

 

{To Be Continued}

 

gw blog rabies ferret - crop

__________

Of course I know that the toothy grin in the featured image is not the frozen smile of dead ferret.  That’s the taxidermied head of a mink which was given to me by a Scout leader who knew I collected animal parts.  Unusual reputation to have, but it served well and folks regularly shared animals with me as if I carried a billboard: Critters Wanted, Dead or Alive.  The grinning mink will have to suffice since I didn’t get a picture of the mad ferret as it pierced my toes.  Close enough.  Mustela this, Mustela that.  The teeth are the sticking points – so small, yet sufficient to carry slow death when they penetrate the skin.


 

Pishing.   If you don’t know it, then pishing is your WOD, Word Of the Day.  It’s onomatopoetic for the sound made when you pump a P out through your lips, the unvoiced bilabial stop, and flow that stop seamlessly into the SH, equally unvoiced, but fricative.  PSHHHHHH.  Utter pshhhhhhhhh repeatedly and modulate the intensity, adding pauses long and short, so that the noises pique interest as the semi-sibilant sounds bracket the silences.  That’s Pishing.  You do it when birding, nominally to attract curious birds.  It also works with ferrets and other curious animals. Like ferrets, pterodactyls aren’t birds, though they may have had more feathers than the great leathery-winged beasts drawn in the dinosaur books of my youth.  No-one disputes that they were, for a reptile, bird-like.  Protobirdian.  And how would you pish for a pterodactyl?  You’d probably make a raucous ruckus, then duck.  Sort of a like a band jumbled together once annually with musicians culled from the teaching staff, given a song list to work from, two or three practice sessions, then the opportunity for a live performance before the assembled student body, some members of which may or may not have wanted to hurl rotten fruits and veggies at the teachers, regardless of how they played.  Duck!  Somehow this lead to my wife’s suggestion that that the band she played in be called “Pishing For Pterodactyls.”  Her bandmates were not amused, and they opted for “Mischief in the Bump-out.”  S, if you were curious, played the fiddle in that band.