I want to tell you something—something I’ve never told anyone, not even my wife. Not that I was keeping anything from her really. I’d simply forgotten. Just another episode from a busy childhood, too silly or boring to mention. Had I even remembered. Which I hadn’t, until recently. But lately I carry it around with me like an invisible pendant over my heart.
I was at my uncle’s house. One of my mother’s brothers. Most of the family was there, which meant it was either a holiday, a wedding, or a funeral. I remember a sense of trepidation as I got in the car, although that was pretty normal for such a visit. My brother was quite a bit younger than me—a baby at the time, although he’s since died in the army—and I didn’t have much in common with my cousins, not least the color of my skin. So there was never much for me to do.
When I was older, I escaped by helping the adults in any way I was allowed—with cooking, with dishes, with errands to the store—whatever would occupy me. And while that endeared me to my grandparents, it only served to widen the gulf between me and my peers. They saw me as a kiss-ass—an easy jump from my mother’s continued advertisement of my academic achievement. But on this occasion, I was a boy of maybe eight or nine, which meant I had no occupation. I would’ve been perfectly happy to have been left alone, but my mother insisted I take part—less, I think, for my sake than for hers. It was very important to her that her husband and two sons be seen as members of the family. In full. Any hint of the alternative and she would gather us up and shoo us right out the door. This trip, I wouldn’t be so lucky.
I was just starting to fancy myself a budding scientist, after my father, a immigrant of six-and-a-half feet who had paid for his education on his own merit with a basketball scholarship. He wanted me to go into maths, since it seemed to come easy for me and there was money in it—if you tied it to computers, that is. I think it was sheer instinct at that age that led me to hide my inclinations to biology.
That day, my uncle mentioned to us that he had an opossum under the house that he hadn’t been able to clear. Not only was it getting into the trash, which was hassle enough and which had already caused a visit from the neighbors, but it was also damaging the lining that kept the water out of the foundation, lining which would have to be replaced—once the animal was dead. He told us all this because he wanted the kids to know the pellets lying around the house were poison, and that we should stay away from them. Not even touch them, in fact. And we should keep all food in the house, so as not to feed the creature with our crumbs, and we should restrict our play to the front yard.
To my juvenile brain, this seemed like the perfect task to keep me from my cousins. I was certain the animal was nesting, which meant it probably had young. I was also certain there wasn’t a single person in the house who cared an ounce for any living thing they couldn’t kill and eat, and that if anyone was going to save it—and its helpless babies—from painful and pointless death, it would have to be me.
Looking back now, I clearly had no idea how to make this happen, but in the magical mind of a child, that was no reason not to try. So I used a plastic bag like a glove and picked up all the poison from the sides and back of the house and put it in the trash. Then I gathered some chicken wire and some sticks from my aunt’s garden supplies under the porch and took them to the back, away from the other children, where I made a curved container I assumed would be large enough to hold an opossum, although I had never actually seen one in the flesh. All I needed was bait.
I went into the house to get something to eat. I had some sausages and cheese and put a few links on a paper plate and turned for the back door, where my plump Aunt Susan stopped me and reminded me sternly that I wasn’t to take food outside, per my uncle’s orders. She took my plate and replaced it with her hand and led me to the front and yelled at her children to stop ignoring me, which was of course extremely embarrassing—for a child to be called out separately like that. Cousin Ritchie protested, of course. He was several years older and rightly the ringleader. But to be fair, he hadn’t done anything. Not really. Except not make much effort. But then, I hadn’t either.
The others were playing dodge ball, and I joined them. I got hit in the face. But I liked it. It was exciting. After awhile, it started to get dark, and suddenly I remembered the poor opossum and the unset trap I had left in the back yard. My cousin Austin had some candy. I didn’t know from where. I asked for a piece. He made a face like he didn’t want to give it up, but he obliged. I think he suspected I would tell on him if he refused, and that his mother, my Aunt Ellen, would once again scold everyone for being mean to me. One way or another, it was always implied that I was different.
I walked to the back and thought of the best way to use the bait, which I was sure the opossum would want immediately. Because I sure did. But there was no trigger or swinging door on my trap. It was just chicken wire folded to three sides and propped up by sticks. I think my idea was that animals were always hungry. Which is how you always saw them on TV. And that all I had to do was put food inside and wait, out of sight, in the gap between the shed and the back fence, until the opossum came to feed. Then I would pounce on it. How I would cover the twenty or so yards from the fence to the trap before the animal fled back under the house, I have no idea. But I remember I planned to release it in the little field at the end of the road, whereupon I would be a hero to the animal community, whom I had deep suspicions could talk to each other like they did in the cartoons I watched.
Only, when I went round the house to the back yard, my trap was gone. I looked all over. But I couldn’t find it. It seemed clear one of the adults had picked it up. I was about to see if there were more materials under the porch so that I could construct a replacement—perhaps even one with a trigger mechanism this time—when I noticed the door to the shed was cracked open. It didn’t seem like such a big deal. Although I had never before seen it opened. It was always locked, especially when family was over, per my mother’s orders, because that was where my uncle kept his guns.
I started walking toward the front again when I heard the creak of the shed door. I turned.
But no one was there.
No voice. No breath. No shuffling feet. No calls to the house that so-and-so couldn’t find what they were looking for and where was it again?
No one was there. But the door swung completely open all the same. And resting right in the middle of the shed . . . was my discarded trap.
It was just sitting there, lit as if intentionally by the light cast across the floor by the open door. It was blue-dusk then, right after the sun disappears over the horizon but right before total dark, which meant I could still see the workbench and the gun rack and the tools and the lawn mower and the old motorcycle covered in a tarp—but only in silhouette. Why someone would leave a bunch of twigs and chicken wire in the middle of the floor where it could be easily tripped over in a shed without electricity was beyond me.
But there it was.
Waiting innocently for me to step inside and get it.
All I could do was stare. I thought about the opossum. And the babies I’m sure were silently hungry under the house. I had to save them.
I took a few steps toward the door. Just to confirm no one was there. But the only sound was the faint cackle of the adults inside the house and the crunch of cut grass under my feet.
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingle.
I was certain something was in there. Certain. Peering from behind the door through the gap at the hinges. Waiting. As I had planned to.
I don’t know why I kept walking. I suppose the magical mind of a child doesn’t implicitly see the danger.
But my mother’s booming voice stopped me. She was screaming at her brother from the back porch. He’d left the door to the shed wide open again, she said at full volume. He denied it, of course. And all the children were quickly gathered and there was a small inquisition. But no one would admit to anything.
My trap was tossed back under the porch. The door to the shed was closed and locked. And we all had cake, after which I rode home listening to my mother complain to my father about my uncle and his guns and what would’ve happened if I’d gotten my hands on one. She talked as if I wasn’t sitting right behind her. She did that.
A few days later, my uncle called my father. Dad set the phone aside and asked me sternly if I had put the poison in the trash. I was certain I was going to be in trouble. I had been told not to touch it, which was bad enough, but in so doing, I had also sabotaged my uncle’s efforts to protect his house. I said no, which angered my father. I started to cry and he asked again, and I said yes. He spoke briefly to my uncle. Then he hung up and we had a talk about telling the truth. He said what he often said—that the truth was never anything to fear. He told me my uncle wasn’t mad at all. In fact, I had solved the man’s problem where even he had failed. The opossum had completely ignored the pellets on the lawn, but by putting them in the trash, I made sure it sampled them on its next midnight raid. The animal was dead, and my uncle never thought higher of me than at that moment.
From then on, I got a reputation in my family as being a very clever boy.
I wanted to believe my father was right. About truth. I used to listen to him argue about it with my uncles at those family gatherings. We were different from Mom’s family in more ways than one. Dad had a saying he would use. I heard it a lot. No matter what Mom’s brothers came back with—that there was a secret Muslim army hiding in the U.S., that gay scientists suppressed the development of an AIDS vaccine to increase sympathy for same-sex marriage, that shootings and natural disasters weren’t random at all but were targeted specifically to sinners—Dad would shrug patiently and say “It’s easy to be right when you can’t be disproved.” As a young man, I thought that was a jab. I knew—because my father had taught me—that so much of what my uncles believed was utter nonsense and that the only things worth saying were testable, and the only things worth believing were those that survived. Everything else, without exception, was ideology.
I no longer believe that. But it has the iron clad appearance of logic.
Helluva scientist, my father. Industrial chemist. Resented me going into Biology, if you can believe it. The day I told him, he stormed out of the room, hands raised in exasperation, and said it was the end of me. Bombast, sure. But he meant it. Dad was old school. He looked out on a world of chemicals. Atoms and the void, they used to say. Nothing but tiny vesicles of energy that bounced around and came together for the briefest of moments, cosmologically speaking, to make you. But what makes you is never the same stuff. We’re all full of water, but it’s never the same water. It’s constantly cycling. Same for our genes. The set that makes us is just another shuffle of the pool. And after a few more generations of mixing, there’ll be nothing left to uniquely mark you, or me, at all.
All any of us really were, Dad would say, the only parts that weren’t erased by thermodynamics—the heat death of a slowly simmering universe—was whatever we added to the immutable sum of human knowledge. Everything else was a sandcastle at low tide. And Biology barely counted. It wasn’t so much that it was wrong as that it was derived from what was right. And in that sense, it was closer to social science, the gateway drug to astrology (which is what Dad called all religion), than to anything that might count as knowledge.
Bit of an elitist, he was. Didn’t have much faith in ordinary people. Particularly there at the end. He saw my choice as a betrayal of his legacy. Especially after my brother died. But it wasn’t. Not then. That came later. Years later, in fact. On my second and final field assignment, where the seventh case of a perplexing illness changed the very balance of good and evil. He was a little boy, and he led me to the strangest man I have ever met. And I led him to the book of the bright black.
The revised opening to my forthcoming occult mystery, FEAST OF FIVE SHADOWS.