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Fiction: Nipmuck Set

By Andrew Nowick

“Well,” she said, reaching into the refrigerator for another beer, “it’s not my god-damned fault, I can tell you that much.”

“I know, Anne.”

“If you had only done what you are always saying you’ll do we would have never gotten into such a goddamned mess. But it never changes with you, does it? It’s always the same sad story day after day, year after year, and I am goddamned sick of it, I can tell you that much…light me one of those.”

He pulled a second Pall Mall from the pack and tapped the end on the table. He put it in his mouth and lit it with his own cigarette. He removed it and turned the burning end toward himself as he reached across the kitchen table. She took it to her lips and inhaled. She blew the smoke out and upward, tilting back her head. Her own pack lay next to the can of beer.

“So, what do you propose we do? Any bright ideas?”

“I’ll call him tomorrow Anne, and he’ll just have to wait.”

“That is not good enough and you know it. Do you really think the goddamned bastard is going to wait until a week from Friday? I sure as hell would not.” There came a point each night when she slowed the use of contractions so that her words became as deliberate as they were slurred. “I mean for Christ’s sake, when were you going to take care of it?”

“Anne, you know how things are.”

“Oh yes, Leo, I know how things are. I live here too, in case you hadn’t noticed. How could I forget for one single, goddamned minute how things are around here? That is a good one, Leo, as if I could forget for one single solitary second.”

A floorboard creaked in the center hall behind the kitchen.

“What are you doing out of bed?”

“I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Well make it snappy mister. You should have been asleep an hour ago. Jesus Christ, can I not have a conversation with your father without you kids around?”

“Sorry, Mom.”

“Little people time is long over mister.”

While they waited for the return creak, Anne got another beer. Leo got up to get his own bottle, from which he settled a measure of scotch into a low, hob-nail glass. They never argued in front of the children; she insisted on that much.

He drank off the scotch and got up again.

“C’mon George, let’s go.”

The dog woke and looked up, uncertain of the invitation.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m going to check the sets.”

“Oh, you and those goddamned traps, I do not know how you can be so cruel. It sickens me, I can tell you that. Jesus, to think of those poor animals dying like that.”

“They don’t feel a thing, Anne. They drown straight off.”

“Oh, like hell they do mister. You cannot tell me that those animals do not suffer; I won’t believe it. The poor goddamned things.”

He walked to the back hall. She followed, pulling the collar of her robe up against the cold of the hall. He sat on the wooden bench and pulled on the wool linings of his Sorrels. Then he pulled the boot-shells over the linings. Tied the laces. He put on his heavy plaid jacket and a watch-cap. He checked his pack for the things he needed: flashlight, towels, and the small axe. He grabbed his gloves and gave his front pocket a tap. He opened the door and walked out. She followed, stopping in the frame.

“Goddamned it’s cold…all I can say is that you had better think of something while you’re out in the swamp killing animals…Jesus Christ, some days I cannot believe what a good-for-nothing I married.”

Halfway down the walk, he turned: “At least I didn’t vote for Nixon.”

“You goddamned bastard!”

Deep within the house, four sets of sleepy eyes opened—even before the door slammed shut.

***
The night was bitter cold. The snow-clouds that had deposited five inches that day were gone. The air was still and deep. The moon was full and already high above the tree line. George bounded ahead in the soft blue snow. He loved the snow. He loved to go out in the snow. And he loved being with Leo. He was a damn good dog, one of the best Leo had ever owned. Even Anne liked him.

Leo walked down the driveway and away from the farmhouse he had inherited from his father. It was the house in which he grew up and it stood on two hundred acres of neglected farmland bordering the edge of the Nipmuck Swamp. They kept a few animals for the children’s amusement, but they were no farmers.

He crossed the road and followed George through a break in the stone wall. He walked west along the wall three hundred yards and the turned into the field at a certain maple tree. George knew where they were going but kept running back to be sure. The moon was bright and reflected off the level of blue snow. Leo made his way over the field. In the very middle, he stopped.

He removed his right glove and unbuttoned the front pocket of his coat. From it he took a tarnished silver flask, unscrewed the top and took a long pull of cold scotch, which warmed in his mouth and throat. The “M” of his monogram caught a moonbeam and glinted. He stood stock still in the silence of the February night. The only thing he could hear was the whoosh of George in the snow. There were no birds. There were no rabbits. There was no wind. There was nothing except the cold, the moon and the snow.

She had given him the flask as a wedding present twenty years ago. When they met in Cambridge, she had though it “charming” that he spent so much time out-of-doors; she had even gone on walks with him in the Blue Hills at Milton. She was very pretty in her dresses and very lively too. That Anne Adams traveled in a small set of exclusive Bostonians to which Leo was excluded did not stop her. She was ambitious in her pursuit, for he was good-looking, intelligent and polite. Without waiting for him to finish his PhD. in American History, she married him. To the marriage she brought her pretty dresses, a waning income, one small Fragonard, and a sharp sense of entitlement.

The moonlight soaked the field. It was cold, but Leo at last felt warm. After a few minutes of stillness, George doubled back and inquired. Leo took one more pull and replaced the flask.

“OK, I’m coming.”

They crossed the field and passed through a leafless stand of sumac. On the far side, the land dipped down and met the largely frozen Nipmuck. The new snow forgot all boundaries between land and water. Early that morning—before the snow—he had set six conibears: four three-thirties and two two-twenties. Probably four would now be under ice and snow. The other two had been set in moving water. They were spaced at irregular intervals over a distance of a mile. It took him an hour and a half to check the first three. Clearing snow and chopping ice. Nothing. He left the sets as they were.

The forth was set in a run encircling a beaver den. The den entrance was on the far side where the water was deep so he had found a spot closer to land. Here the water was not frozen, just slushy with snow. He balanced on thin clumps of crunching grass to reach the set. But before he got there, the moon showed a dark silhouette under water. He saw that it was an otter. Leo had trapped plenty of otters in his life, but never in a beaver run. It didn’t surprise him all that much when he thought of it.

He removed his gloves and began to work. He undid the wire from around a small tree on shore. He coiled it and removed it from the stake chain. He put the coil in his pack. The side stakes had been pulled from the swamp bottom in the struggle and he had to hold the chain to keep everything from drifting. Using the stake chain, he pulled the trapped otter close to shore. It was slow going. The thing was very heavy and he slipped twice, stepping into the icy water. George watched eagerly. At last, Leo stood on shore, his feet freezing and his hands raw with cold. Before pulling the otter up, he freed it from the trap.

After hauling it onto the trampled bank, George sniffed while Leo looked. It was a magnificent animal. Five feet long and certainly fifty pounds. In the moonlight the brown coat shone darkly. Leo crouched and ran his hand along the coat beginning from the silver chin hairs. He smiled. An otter’s fur was invariably softer than he remembered and this softness caught him up every time. His hand then reached back and felt the whiskers. He pulled at them thoughtfully…just magnificent. He turned the animal over and traced the other side. No nicks in the fur, no damage of any kind. He removed the towel from the pack and wiped the icy wet from his hands. Then he wrapped his hands in it, rubbing them together. George, meanwhile, had settled out of his excitement and sat nearby.

Leo stood and looked out at the beaver den. It was large, imposing, with logs jutting out from the snow. The mound was lined with shadows. He knew that deep within, the beavers were asleep. They were not out tonight. It was too cold and too late for them to be out. And that’s why he liked the otters. The solitary otters were always out playing and exploring.

He stowed the conibear in his pack. He hoisted the otter over his right shoulder, and grabbed the tail in front, providing a kind of balance in the pulling down of it. He’d check the other two sets in the morning.

George led the way as they took a different route through the woods to reach the road. The otter grew heavier as Leo moved on. Twice he stopped and changed shoulders. The night seemed later and colder. The moon had arched and set below the tree line, though the snow was still bright and blue. His hands had come back, but not his feet. They stung. At the road, he walked in a tire track while George whooshed to the side.

The barn was equally cold, but without benefit of the moon. Leo turned on the light and put the otter on the floor. He put his pack next to it. He told George to lie down. Then he drank the remaining whiskey.

Using heavy wire, he hung the otter by his two hind feet from a low beam. He made circular incisions at each foot, cutting the skin but not the flesh or bone. He cut the skin from the right hind leg to the anus, and then cut the left side in the same manner. The skin pulled nicely from the legs. From here, he slowly pulled the pelt down the carcass, as if removing a sock. There was almost no blood. He stopped in order to cut away the urine gland, which he did carefully. It was also necessary to cut away some of the more stubborn ligaments. The pelt peeled away from the head with one further cut around the mouth and one last gentle pull. It had taken ten minutes.

The pelt was now inside out. He pulled it over a stretching board and then nailed it in place. He ran the two-handled fletching knife over the skin to remover the fat. This also took ten minutes, after which he leaned the board against a wall. He removed the hanging carcass, wrapped it in a large plastic bag and put it in a wooden bin. He fastened the eyehook. He shut off the light. The dog followed him out of the barn.

He walked to the dark house, tired and ready for bed. He sat on the wooden bench in the back hall and took off his Sorells and wet socks. He rubbed his feet for a minute, stood up, and took off his coat and hat. As he opened the kitchen door, George ran between his feet and tangled them together. It wasn’t until he had closed the door behind him that he saw the bright burn of her cigarette tip in the dark.

“Sit down Leo, I have one or two things I would like to say to you.”

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