The Recluse and the Raccoon
by Katherine Holmes
The lightning was like raised eyebrows, probably from the heat unless there was thunder far off. The hot flashes of August, a college professor concluded. She was debating with herself on her small manmade beach. As dusk began, she expected a visitor to ramble by. And he had nerve after he’d snitched the abalone bracelet her husband gave her in the Azores.
Since she didn’t like debating with herself; Roberta instead hoped for northern lights. Even if they were only the spectral jaggedness of moist-aired Minnesota, they satisfied her.
She thought that her visitor was admiring that display the other night. But he had taken the abalone bracelet from the dock. The aurora borealis was like a slow scarf dance to her. And her visitor, savoring it, was like a man starting a romance.
Tonight Roberta wore a bikini, a brave keepsake that she no longer wore in the daylight. She was self-congratulatory, wearing it at her age and immersing herself in the lake.
Since these visits had become regular, she had seen skunk crossing her cottage path, their tails like plumy histrionic devices for the theatre. It made her think of after-performance tablespreads and a city theatre crowd that she had stealthily joined. Skunk had the famished look of the fashionable.
The look her women students had. Funny, how they didn’t seem fully formed to her now. It puzzled her because they were fully grown. She must be looking at people from another dimension. She didn’t know how Robert, her husband, could look at them as women. They might as well be defined by scent.
One male student had a stunning physique; he had a classical shock of hair. But when she looked at him, she saw a content grade substantially lower than a mechanics grade. Even he seemed willowy in his dealings, in another zone from Robert. She had him all matched up with a student down the row from him, his counterpart, she imagined, even when she read their papers.
She liked to think that the atmosphere in her classes would allow an aesthetically pleasing match. In the spring, her handsome student was dilatory. A girl was hanging outside the door of her class, a girl whose hair was dyed the red of fallen pine needles. And the girl down the row from him was hiding her unhappiness. A few weeks later, the male student came in with his classic shock of hair hacked off, looking as if he had been trussed. For the first time in years, she lost interest in her students.
While this last year, they were probably speculating about her. Her marriage was not so solid a statement as it had been. A miasma seemed to have seeped into class, a mood that wasn’t altogether hers. It was the problem of being unlovable, a fear that haunted students. Even her son was not reliably faithful anymore, not in the way her tomcat and her Welsh terrier were.
In her work, she was always speculating about the personal lives of people, real or fictional. Out here, she liked a mild smell of skunk. And she liked the bravery of the chipmunk at nightfall, chasing across the moss.
Taking both sides of a debate made her feel dissatisfied. It was like thinking about another brandy and ice cream instead of going to the cottage for it. She would prefer some opposition on the subject of her sweating—whether it was due to the heat spell or to hot flashes.
And now that raccoon bothered her, visiting her property with his gamesy smirks. When he emerged from the woods and the bordering touch-me-nots, he made her think of miniature golf and its obstacles. The object of that game didn’t produce losers. She had no doubt that her raccoon was a male, the animal was so large and thriving. Either these night visits made her shivery or it was the water evaporating from her flesh.
The raccoon had started out as a whimsical reflection. There was his amusing shape, both brawny and paunchy when he shambled towards the duckweed. She began fixing food for him. There were men who, years into marriage, still became enthusiastic for any scrap of food their wife offered them. They would never forage in the refrigerator if they didn’t have to. Loyal laboring men who hadn’t been spoiled by buffets and luncheons. He was like them.
His conduct could be called gentlemanly. He broached their relationship in a sensitive way and the other night, he hesitated at her cabin as if he wanted to come in. After all, she was probably in his territory. But she was beginning to feel affection for the raccoon even if his attitude seemed cavalier. She was afraid of him touching her.
He never startled her. She fell to thinking about antiquated courtships, what she had with her husband so many years ago, shy, dangerous, nothing experiences. The raccoon’s ringed tail was as dressy as a good tie. He usually paused, drawing in the lake air and the view, the petals of moonlight strewn across the water. Tonight he might be making an introspective roof of his fingers. After that, he rambled to the dock where she had set out corn-on-the-cob.
The heat lightening had been a rash asking for rain; the northern lights were the soft strumming of a minstrel.
The raccoon mused too. Thoughtfully he chewed, the way people chew food when it is good. Holding the cob of corn in his two hands, he crouched on the dock. The dice-shaking sounds of the crickets grew more intense. Her raccoon wore the swank coat that ivy leaguers once wore; he sported the success symbol of the homesteader, his handsome ringed tail. But he finished eating with a leer, lecherous as male professors who have seen too many young women in the spring.
Her doused skin having dried, Roberta took refuge from the mosquitoes and the raccoon, sliding into the water to her midriff. Soon the raccoon was dabbling his hands at the shore. Lately, her whole body felt as it was weeping. At night, her bed was a parchment of sweat. She felt best in the water.
A young woman often irresistibly prefers a troublesome man over a man who is no trouble at all, and that was how Roberta put up with the raccoon’s company. Besides, he might caution her about trespassers. He retreated clandestinely from voices down the shore. Up at her cabin, her terrier barked at any disruption in the woods.
As she reclined in the illumined water, rerouting minnows towards the raccoon, Roberta felt exposed. The raccoon remained at the shore as if he was realizing that he was seeing more of her skin than usual. Modest in his shaggy tints of gray, he was studying her in the way of a finicky academic.
Lately she wondered what she would be after her change in life. Now she saw that her skin was a conditioned covering, shell-smooth rather than scaly. It wasn’t near having the aged look of amphibians and reptiles.
The raccoon sipped some water and then he paced the shoreline, beginning to approach Roberta and her submerged shell-like flesh. Swiftly, she swished out of the water and sloshed to her beach chair. The raccoon loped along the shallow shore, seeming to leer and laugh at her.
“Where is my bracelet?” Roberta demanded, toughly as she got about extending time for a paper. The whole lake could have heard her. But the raccoon answered to another authority. He paced directly after her as she skittered the spiny flagstones to her cabin, trying not to swallow gnats and her own nonsense.
In the morning, she saw the raccoon sprawling on a branch of pine when she opened her bedroom curtains. Her bed was as half-dressed as she was in a scrap of cotton she’d bought from a small-town department store.
Roberta yanked her curtains together and quickly changed into a raglan blouse of blueberry blue and canvas boating shorts. As she brushed her hair to clamp it back, she heard rapping at the door. There wasn’t time to undo her hair now; it seemed too bushy and tail-like.
That morning, it was going on thirty-five days since Roberta had seen a human face at her doorway. She realized that she had become a recluse and she was afraid that the raccoon was at her door. It couldn’t be her husband unless their terrier had forgotten him. Besides, he usually returned in the evening.
Still, she was taken aback after she unlocked the door. Even though it was the neighbor man, the wrinkles of his skin made her wince, for herself and then for him. He was about her age. Her husband wore a beard so she winced for him, thinking how he may have changed too. That men didn’t think age affected women, that they thought they could have a gorgeous girl, stymied her.
“Mrs. … Dr.,” Giles hesitated. “Have you been listening to any local news lately?”
Though he often chatted with her husband, Giles hadn’t yet used her first name. And then she had kept her maiden last name, which was on the mailbox. Giles probably found that annoying. He was the sort of man society doesn’t come to know, a year-round inhabitant of the bay, a man who hated cities and caused her husband to coin a word: “misopolist.”
“Roberta. Call me Roberta, Giles. Has anything happened?”
Her husband often sensed a contest if not a hiatus with this sort of man. Giles had attended a university in a medium-sized town but he was years away from answering people outside work in any way except how he chose. Physically, he could look down on men like her husband, what the Greeks evidently allowed to happen in their heyday. “A forest fire,” he said. “Just north of Chisholm, Roberta. I wanted to make sure that you folks aren’t building any fires. Especially outdoor ones if your son is sleeping out.”
Her husband wasn’t sure what this man’s calling was although Giles gave detailed accounts of flannel-collar jobs. He had planted berry bushes at roadsides, stocked minnows in lakes, helped along hollows in trees. He could round up a crew that winterized cabins. He also had his own cottage industry making duck whistles, and he could play harmonica with a group of folk musicians.
“I appreciate your telling me about the fire. I’ve become reclusive this summer,” Roberta began to explain. “My son is with his father and he’s on the last leg of his sabbatical. Robert gets to talking, you know, and commits himself to a convention on the other side of the country. Maybe I should tell my new friend Trinculo though. Would you like some coffee?” The man’s wrinkles, like the lines on mollusks, intrigued her. The forest fire might have added some lines since Giles was a volunteer fire fighter too.
“I’d like some coffee, especially if I could have a tray of ice cubes with it. You’ll tell Trink, was it?” He was glad to be offered anise biscotti even if it wasn’t as good as an Italian made it. Roberta had taken to baking rather than driving into town for bread.
“Trinculo is a careful sort,” Roberta replied, standing in the wintry waft of her refrigerator. She had to feed her pets. Thinking about her raccoon fleeing a forest fire gave her a runaway feeling of mourning.
“What word is Robert’s convention about, now that my kids are looking up the word groovyin the dictionary?” Giles asked.
“Probably what my first dispute with Robert was about—the origin of pronunciations. Should we take our coffee outside?” Roberta could smell a mixture of Spearmint and Old Spice about Giles and it reminded her of the pre-Robertian period of her life.
They sat on the edges of rustic willow wood chairs as people sit in hot weather, looking uncomfortable even if the company isn’t awkward. Under the boughs of pine and birch, the furniture proved to be as tepid as the trees.
From where she sat, Roberta could watch the pine near her bedroom window. She said, “I thought I heard forecasts about storms the other day.”
With a turn of his wrists, Giles joggled the ice cubes in the tray. He plopped them into his partially filled coffee cup, letting it spill onto the weathered table. “Storms are the worst kind of rain during these dog days. Lightning is a match and the wind fans the flames. The forest is a tinderbox.”
“But of course that’s right,” she said. “I was wondering how long we should be careful.”
“Depends on the amount of rain, how fattened the foliage gets with liquid. If we get rain and get past it, we shouldn’t be worrying in a week. I’ll bet you’ll be expecting Robert back around then?”
“I’ve been expecting Robert this week all summer. The work of a linguist is as nomadic as a 19th-century immigrant. And now he’s taking our 17-year-old to look at colleges.”
“And he was overseas all winter?” Giles’ eyes widened.
Peering at the pine, Roberta wondered where the raccoon was now. “I spent Christmas in the Azores and spring break on the Isle of Man. Robert says his fisherman blood helped to make his trip possible. I haven’t gotten a sabbatical yet.”
“He was wearing his fisherman-knit sweater last time I saw him. He said you were working on a paper,” Giles said, hurrying another melting ice cube into his cup.
“I was having it published. It was about William Shakespeare. Maybe you’ve heard some of the speculation about him.”
“Even here in the woods, something of that reaches me. I paid attention because of you people nearby. Some don’t think he wrote those plays. And some think he was a fairy.”
“My paper concentrates on Shakespeare’s patron being gay. He was the rich young man who provided for Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare had at least two benefactors. One led a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I. But he was ready to lead an army after he commissioned the history plays. I think the second benefactor, Pembroke, was sweet on Shakespeare. His mother wrote at least one letter about Shakespeare performing at her mansion. And for Queen Elizabeth I who was her friend.”
“So you think one of the benefactors was gay and the other wasn’t,” Giles said.
“Shakespeare said no to his employer in his sonnets,” Roberta said. “It was a matter of great delicacy, writing to his patron. I believe Shakespeare was on the road when he wrote the sonnets. Believe it or not, Giles, William Shakespeare did a lot of kidding around.”
Giles sneered. “Why did you decide those things?”
“Too many of the sonnets are spent persuading the young man to get married.” Roberta said. “Shakespeare’s own son died about that time. It’s possible that the sonnets expressed a father-son relationship on Shakespeare’s side. At some point, and we may not know when, Shakespeare was writing the sonnets to a dark lady who played a keyboard instrument. He was agonizingly in love with her. He was already married. Just a minute, Giles, I’ll get you an ice bucket.”
Returning with tongs and another tray of ice, Roberta added, “It is certain that William Shakespeare enjoyed being with his wife.”
Roberta needed to get into practice for class and she wondered if she hadn’t had a bad attitude towards people in the last year. Loving a few people had made the many pleasant to know. The man before her represented a cloying kind of student, and he probably knew women through his wife. Not wanting to explain Robert’s absence, she had been avoiding such people.
“Giles, do you read fiction much?” she asked.
“Not a lot and probably not much of what you read. I plowed through War and Peace over three or four winters.” Giles said.
He could be posturing, Roberta thought. She saw that the muscles at his jaw were keeping rein on his words. Male students could call fiction frivolous when they switched to their TVs and shows like “Dallas.”
“I’ve been thinking how few animals are given character in literature for adults,” Roberta said. “And during times when people depended so much on animals. Shakespeare included dogs as friends of men. His patron Southampton was painted with his cat. You just reminded me of that short scene with the bear in War and Peace. When Tolstoy introduced Pierre, a huge man with an animal nature.”
Roberta swished her coffee and ice, judging that Giles read enough of War and Peaceto remember the bear. “War and Peaceis so readable with its short chapters, isn’t it? Adult writers have written so negatively about animal nature. And animals are often profoundly faithful.”
“Writers don’t work with animals,” Giles said.
Roberta saw that she had activated Giles’ dislike of cities. “Until lately, she went on, “literature has had the attitude of the ancient Greeks. There are Aesop’s fables and then there are stories about gods turning into animals to pursue women. Or the women disappear because they are changed into an animal or a tree. What do you think of that, Giles? You live all the time with nature.”
“I think those stories are about men who pursue women more than animals do. Aesop gets at the capacity of animals for friendship. Did Jack London get on your reading list?” Giles spoke with the confidence of a man. He wasn’t looking for another answer. He scratched the hackles of Roberta’s terrier.
“Have you ever had a pet tell you she’s in it for the food? I pet her and she smacks her upper muzzle with her tongue.” Roberta was fanning herself with a Smithsonian. She wanted to know if the terrier was staying near her because of the raccoon’s territorial claims. “My friend, Trinculo, is a raccoon. He’s been coming for a twilight snack for weeks now.”
“I might know him. Is he a big fellow, pushing 40 pounds?” Giles might have been a man called away from a poker game to play checkers with a child.
“Forty pounds seems light. Heavyset, for sure, and he’s a petty thief. He stole my abalone bracelet. And he got me to trust him, not the other way around, making moves so to speak. If he was human, I’d say his nature was romantic. But he’s been coming closer to my cabin, Giles. I have to wonder about animal nature. How dangerous could it be, befriending him?”
“Not very dangerous if he’s healthy. I’ve never heard of a raccoon attacking around here. But he might figure out door latches. You lock up, don’t you?” Giles camouflaged a smirk, taking a slurp from his coffee cup. “You know, Roberta, raccoons only pursue females about two weeks of the year. Your raccoon is one-track-minded right now, a hungry bachelor. Sometimes you professors can’t see what’s right in front of you.” Giles scooped up a last ice cube for his mouth. Then he set his cup on the table.
Roberta noticed Giles’s T-shirt was the same dusky blueberry blue as her blouse. She tried to ignore that Giles looked better in shorts than her husband did. “How has your wife been, Giles?”
“My wife got a job in Grand Rapids this last year. She’s keeping a house there. She had a bad case of cabin fever last winter. I can’t leave here though. Couldn’t see what was right in front of her.”
“Did you fight the forest fire?”
“Oh yes. In a few years, there will be raspberries up there. I’ll give you a call if there are any more fires.”
The ice cube in Giles’ mouth made his speech awkward. Roberta accompanied him back to his boat although she didn’t go farther than the flagstone path. The whole lake could see him leave from her dock. Dreading the new school year, disgusted already with human nature, her own included, Roberta went back to salvage the remains of melting ice. There wasn’t another trayful and it would take at least three hours to make more of it.
That evening, Roberta received the raccoon in a bubble-top bathing suit. She was less cautious and had more esteem for her visitor. Though he had come surreptitiously, there was diplomacy in the way he dunked the human aroma from the grapes she put out on the dock.
Thunder sounded in the distance. Roberta gave a raccoon a souvenir of her friendship: a shiny key ring on which were strung the keys to a Volkswagen long gone to scrap metal, an agate ring, and a lone hoop earring. The raccoon smirked and rambled away.
About Katherine L. Holmes
Katherine L. Holmes‘ poetry, short stories, and one-act plays have appeared in more than seventy journals, most recently in ArLiJo, The Manhattanville Review, Review Americana, Cider Press Review, Thin Air Magazine, Mused Literary Review, and Red Booth Review. New Poetry from the Midwest 2016, a recent anthology, contains one of her poems. In 2012, her short story collection, Curiosity Killed the Sphinx and Other Stories, was released by Hollywood Books International. Also published are juvenile novels with animals as lead characters. More information is at her website: https://sites.google.com/site/katherinelholmesauthorprofile/