Yard Patrols

Without fruit, branches
of family trees become
stories seldom told.

After so many years, the doves in the blue spruce are not the original pair. Offspring of offspring, perhaps, or opportunistic squatters with soft gray feathers and faintly blushed hints of dusty rose on bright cloudless days, faintly brushed hints of dusty lavender on overcast days. An ideal nursery structure, the spruce’s stiff, sharp needles discourage marauding crows and red-tailed hawks. Squirrels shun the sticky sap bleeding from splits in the bark, sap that baptizes the tree in strong terpene scent.

At first, the doves startle at my yard patrol, a check before letting the dogs out. But soon they learn the routine and their departure from the ground becomes less panicked. They observe from nearby trees or the roof’s edge until the dogs are inside again. They resume their hunt for fallen seeds or nesting grasses.

High-pitched cheeps alert me when the eggs hatch. Patrols take longer. I look for baby doves in their first forays away from their birth-branch. The parents supervise from a safe distance as I scoop up one or two fledglings from the bare dirt and return them to the spruce. The youngsters awkwardly scramble-hop branch to branch back to the nest.

I haven’t imprinted them the way the parent doves do, yet they are subtly imprinted by touch alien to their kind. As they speckle with new feathers, they never take wing in frightened flight as quickly as other birds.

Three steps away,
they watch till I wave arms like
a deranged windmill.

From the althea, something drops to the ground with an alarmed whistle and zips into the cover of planters and loosestrife. I’m not sure what I’ve seen.

Coffee cup in hand, I settle on the back step. Most of the brew is gone before a tiny tricolor head peeps from between planters. We regard each other until the ground squirrel is satisfied I’m not a predator. Harmless. An encounter cost it part of its tail, held half-mast high as the rodent darts across the sidewalk and through the chain-link fence.

Brown open pods from last year spike out amid this year’s blossoms. Hairy seeds still cling inside many of them, food for birds and the little stripeys. Blooms drop, and new green pods swell. The community of ground squirrels forage in the shrubs and along the fences where morning glories, weeds, and native grasses drop seeds. The half-tailed stripey favors the althea, but as summer spins toward fall, it no longer performs the alarmed aerial launch from the branches. At my greetings, it pauses to eye me, then finishes picking seeds from old pods and newly opened ones. Cheeks bulging, it moseys along a branch to the trunk, to the ground, then leisurely scampers away.

Who was she? An aunt?
What crime in her lonely chats
with wild animals?

Either I missed its presence on my patrol or it wandered into the yard just as I went to open the back door. A melee ensues between my dogs trying to catch the invader and the groundhog suddenly outnumbered by snarling, barking canines.

They chase it around the brushpile, but it slews toward the side fence on the third circuit. The dogs think it’s behind the pile again. In its rolling gallop, the long claws patter softly on the hardened clay soil. The groundhog freezes—I’m too close to the pushed-up fence section where it came in. It rears, stares.

I point to the gap. “Hurry up! Go! Go!”

The dogs are still nosing the back of the brushpile. The groundhog looks in the direction I point, then back at me. Seconds suspend forever. It’s puzzled, uncertain how to interpret words, gesture. Then it drops to four, wriggles under the fence, and vanishes into the woods.

The dogs arrive by my side. The brindle girl wags her tail, approving my diligence in keeping the home turf safe. The younger girl gives me—bipedal usurper of the chase—a Cape buffalo glower. The blond boy found a chunk of branch and lost interest in the quarry.

Happiness: better
a stick in mouth than critters
too dodgy to catch.

The brief flush of yellow segued to golden brown overnight. Dry, papery rain is the sound of the ash rapidly dropping leaves weeks before the oak and maple change colors. The leaves form an isolated drift on the yard’s south side.

It’s after midnight. The bigger dogs do their business quickly, then go back in the house to sleep. The smaller girl always dawdles. Now she stands rigid, head tilted and looking down in her I found something strange posture. I thumb on the flashlight and wade through crackling leaves to investigate.

Neither baby nor adult, the juvenile opossum lies in classic “playing ’possum” curl, lips drawn back from tiny teeth, saliva oozing from mouth. A tangy musk surrounds the young marsupial, the wild and foul glandular odor of fresh death.

I leash-lasso the dog. My light skims over the prone creature, and blood gleams on its flank. The juvenile truly is dead.

As I take the dog inside, I debate whether to toss the body in a trash bag for disposal or give it a night flight into the woods for owls or the occasional passing vulture. This is, after all, a repeating drama in every woodland theater away from the presence of humans.

Grief for life cut short
shadows cold reality—
cycles of life, death.

I return with a lantern, a piece of old blanket and a trash bag.

The critter is gone.

My flashlight reveals nothing in the yard. The ash-leaf rain hinders listening for the rustling rhythm, movement. Then, a faint tink of chain link against metal post.

The animal tries to climb the fence. Useless back legs tangle in Virginia creeper. It momentarily struggles to free itself but concedes defeat to the shackling vine.

I talk to it, pitching my voice low and mellow, an audio caress. Delicate dark ears edged with white twitch as I compare the juvenile’s gray awn to a beautiful Malamute husky I once knew. Mindful of its teeth, I gently stroke its shoulders with a slender stick. It opens its mouth with a brief huusssss, but the hiss is the calling-for-mother sound rather than a warning.

Oral tradition:
grew herbs, spoke to animals—
hanged for witchcraft.

I ease knotty vines from its legs. Without obstruction, purple bruising shows on skin between clumps of blood and saliva-wet hair. There’s an odd offset to its spine just above the hips.

Talking. Stroking. Slowly moving my hand closer.

Talking. Stroking. The stick no longer needed. The opossum sniffs my fingers.

Be brave, little one.

Draping the bit of blanket over the juvenile, I carefully lift it from the fence. My voice stumbles—I feel looseness in the broken back—and I fold the fabric into a faux pouch around it. A sigh, a snuggling shift, then a small pale face with liquescent black eyes, tired but trusting, peers out at me.

The wire dog cage in the back of the truck still has blankets and room enough to settle it in its improvised pouch. With a pipette, I give it pain relief—a liquid that permeates mouth membranes, a leftover from the cat’s surgery—then a few drops of water. A tarp over the cage will protect it from predicted rain and provide a cozy den. If it lives through the night, I’ll take it to the veterinary office where I work in the morning, before the pain relief wears off. There, its passing will be eased.

Be at peace, little one.

Unsung compassion
plays out in minute acts when
little lives matter.

How long since it last rained? The soil is no indicator. The backyard is a solid clay-bank, and it cracks into thousands of mosaic tiles when there’s no water for more than a day. Tender trees and plants don’t survive long in it, but the hardiest seem to thrive. The main benefit: fallen leaves don’t require a rake; a broom sufficiently sweeps the yard.

The dogs’ noses spot and squeegee the sliding glass door while they wait for completion of the yard patrols. During the day, they add commentary if I take too long for their liking, but at night, there’s rarely more than nose squeaks.

I kick the brushpile. No rabbits tonight. No opossums, no raccoons use the fence for a thoroughfare. My flashlight catches a pinpoint of white in the leaves. Then another a few feet from the first, this one pale blue. They could be reflections from water droplets, perhaps condensation glittering in miniscule pools, but there’s been no moisture for weeks. Wouldn’t there be sparkles scattered all over the lawn?

Or possibly old shards of broken glass exposed when surrounding clay cracked. But would it twinkle so clearly, so brightly, a star amid yard debris?

Spinneret silk strength
equals steel, enough to hang
a spider wrangler.

Over the driveway earlier today, a leaf hovered at eye level, trembled but did not tumble to the concrete. No trees shade this part of the backyard. The leaf transfixed me with its minor magic, a momentary mystery.

I blew a quick breath, well-aimed. The leaf spun, swung, and the sun glinted on its tether: a long, lone strand of spider silk anchored to the power line running from pole to house.

Solving the leaf’s mystery made it no less enchanting.

I ignore a single impatient ufff at the door and move toward the second spot my flashlight found. If it’s a shard of glass, it’s in the worn racetrack where the dogs dash in a speedy survey before settling down to business or play. I don’t want anyone cutting or puncturing a paw.

I hunker down for a closer look, and twin specks now shine back. Amid the irregular pattern from hundreds of shallow fissures, a shadow defines a familiar outline, a brown wolf spider against dry, brown clay. The splinters of celestial blue topaz are the spider’s retinas reflecting my light. Solving the shining mystery makes it no less enchanting.

A twig serves for ushering the spider from the dogs’ path. It moves unhurriedly into the brushpile’s shelter. Now that I know what to seek, I turn my attention to the white sparkle first glimpsed.

The eyeshine of the other spider is gone, but where it had been, a funnel web stretches back between a fountain grass clump and a garden trough. With a piece of grass, I lightly touch an outermost edge of the web. The spider rushes from deep within the web’s tunnel. She searches but finds no prey trapped, only a trick played on her. As she retreats, I catch a flash of white like distant starlight fallen by my feet.

Time’s wheel rolls onward.
Former offenses become
oddities only.

I used to think two kinds of rabbit entered the yard: the quick and the dead. Over time, a third kind emerged, older rabbits, but whether they are the stupid, the complacent, or the overconfident, I’m not certain. The working of a lagomorph mind is difficult to fathom.

Although I feel sorry for the few the dogs catch and dispatch, I don’t begrudge the dogs for doing what’s hardwired in the bloodlines of their breeds. The brindle shepherd takes her territorial duties seriously. The smaller female blends the protectiveness of a herding breed with the prey drive of a hunting line. The blond mixed boy doesn’t always know why he joins the chase but is happy to run with the girls.

It’s impossible to tell very young rabbits that freezing in place doesn’t make them invisible to the power of canine noses. Most flee when I draw too close to where they huddle. Half-grown rabbits are easier to spot and quicker to run for the woods. A few older ones simply watch my patrols.

There she is again.
Reckon the rowdy hoodlums
are next? chaw chaw chaw

This one sprawls in the grass, but it’s not injured. Its jaws work rhythmically on a patch of clover. It looks up as my shadow falls across it, and the jaws stop, then continue. Yeah, I see you—whaddya want?

“Go away.”

The ears flick. The rabbit stretches, then moves a couple of feet further into the clover. Its eyes are calm and perhaps a little defiant as it resumes the interrupted meal.

“Go away now!” I stomp and wave my arms.

Rather than bolting for the fence and the woods beyond, it takes strolling hops onto the driveway. It raises onto its haunches. Good enough, biped? I’m certain if it had a middle finger, it would flip me the bird.

After about five minutes of rabbit herding, I finally pursue it out of the yard. It will be back. The clover is lush and too luscious to resist once the all clear is given.
I pause on the back stoop before releasing the dogs.

The verdict: guilty.
Judgment on evidence of
a long-eared trickster.

The doves. The groundhog. The stripey. The possum. The spiders. The rabbit.
I don’t take such moments for granted, but I don’t know why they occur, what purpose they serve.

Solving mystery
isn’t required—sufficient
to savor wonder.




“Yard Patrols” first appeared in Issue 2, 2016 of Eastern Iowa Review, a publication of Port Yonder Press, owner/editor Chila Woychik. http://www.portyonderpress.com/issue-2—2016.html

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