They were driving back from a documentary about farmed salmon, a topic that Janet was vehemently passionate about, sometimes overly so in Gary’s private opinion. Especially when the topic arose, or didn’t arise—at which point she’d force it into small talk—during cocktail parties hosted by his fellow professors. He didn’t always appreciate the zeal with which she sometimes sounded off; it appeared to him an exhibition of self-righteousness. But outwardly, he genially supported her causes. Gary was, after all, a wilting sort of person who avoided confrontation with the same extra sensitive caution one might undertake trying to lay a sleeping baby in a crib.
“So then Dexter says the BC Ministry of Environment isn’t going to get involved unless fish start dying. That can’t be true, do you think?”
Gary pursed his lips, glancing across at Janet in the darkness of the car. “Sorry, what are you talking about?”
“Well, I thought you were talking about the fish in the film, now you’re talking about Dexter down the lake?” he felt a cranial nerve snap from his wife’s frustrating habit of conversational leaping, but he kept his voice level. “You can’t just switch topics without notice and expect me to follow along, I have no frame of reference.”
She stopped talking, her lips turning downwards into a disapproving frown that upset him because this meant she felt he was in the wrong. It didn’t seem entirely fair to him that he was always the opposite of right when he expressed an opinion about her behaviour. But, as it was, the silence was sharp enough to cut through his irritation and chop it up into guilty pangs. He didn’t want to be the first to relent, but she knew he would eventually. “I’m sorry,” he said, when the quiet began to sting. “It’s just hard to follow you.”
“Never mind,” she said, looking out the window. It was a tone that hinted towards a strong suggestion he ought do everything but.
He let the breath escape through his lips like a balloon squeezing out air. “What was the issue, with Dexter?”
“It’s nothing,” she said, her jutting chin showing that she was being the bigger person. He stewed all over again, but remained silent. His fingers kneaded the steering wheel, and he navigated the car down the dirt road, coated in a slick frozen layer of snow, that lead to their lake house. Gary fell into deep contemplation regarding the work that needed to be done around the house that weekend. He debated whether to spend his Saturday chopping fire wood, or putting together the bookshelf in the downstairs rec room. If he attempted both, he would likely miss the football game.
Janet jumped back to the conversation so that she could make her point. “To think they’re feeding these fish using corn,” she said, shaking her head. “And all those other GMO substitutes? It’s just disgusting.”
“Never mind,” she said, looking out the window. It was a tone that hinted towards a strong suggestion he ought do everything but.
Gary swerved suddenly, caught off-guard in the dark tunnel vision ahead as an object flashed into the headlights. It was large, and dark, an unmoving mass that startled in him into instinctive action and whatever it was, it had narrowly missed their Volkswagon’s wheels.
“What in the world was that!” cried Janet, already on the verge of hysterics.
“An animal,” said Gary, mouth drawn to a grimace as he slowly pulled to the shoulder of the road and thrust the gearshift into neutral. “I’m going to go have a look.”
“I’ll go with you,” she said, sounding stricken. Gary felt a pit in his stomach, as he cut the car engine and stepped into the road. He left his wife manically wrestling with her seat belt; blocking her from mind entirely as long-time couples often have a tendency to do. The night was cold, and his breath was visible in shadowy clouds that enveloped him as he retraced their direction. Whatever it was, Gary prayed it was dead.
It was a medium-sized animal, clearly not a dog or a deer, as he’d imagined. When he were close enough to notice the tail, he heard the crunching of Janet’s footsteps behind him. She let out a moan. On the ground, writhing, was a beaver, bleeding out slowly from a gash in its side. It’s big dark eyes were glazed but open, and the big buck-toothed mouth of its cartoonish hamster-like face was frozen in a gasp. It stared at them, panting, before letting out a cry that sounded like an infant baby. It was such a human noise it sent chills through Gary’s body.
His wife was sniffling behind him and he told her, kindly, that she should go wait in the car. “What are you going to do?” she asked him, her voice pitifully reflecting the animal’s vulnerable gaze.
He looked around. He had absolutely no idea, but felt compelled by a sense of urgency. “We need to put it out of its misery,” he said, knowing this much. She nodded behind him. “How?”
“I don’t know!” he said, his voice rising. He was trying to think quickly, without losing his train of rationality. “A big rock, or?”
“You’re going to beat it to death?” cried Janet. “Gary, you can’t do that. There’s got to be an easier way.”
He closed his eyes together tightly, rubbing a hand vigorously across his forehead as though he were polishing a crystal ball to reveal the answer. He played out the scenario in his mind and knew his wife was right. He pictured it not dying right away; just watching him with that look of frightened pain as he applied blunt force trauma to a living creature. His stomach churned. “I know, I know,” he muttered to himself. Finally, he stood up from his squat with his thighs burning and his fingers numb in the winter night. Janet was staring at him, just her eyes peeking from her knitted scarf, her hands clenched deep inside an oversized pea coat. “We need go home.”
“We can’t leave it!” her wail was muffled by wool.
“We’ll come back,” he explained, patiently, unsure if this was what he wanted to do. He stomped back towards the car, kicking snow off of his boots, and she followed reluctantly.
“What are you going to get from home?” she asked. “A knife? You’re going to stab it? Gary, you can’t do that!”
He didn’t reply, opening the car door and closing it on her objections. He waited as she fumbled her way in beside him, wringing her hands for warmth. “Sweetie,” she began, changing tack like an expert sailor. “Let’s think about this. Maybe we can crush up all of our ibuprofen into a canister of water and feed it to the poor thing.”
“Sweetie,” he replied with more than a hint of passive aggressive sarcasm, “that’s a terrible idea.” The car engine revved to life and he swung them back onto the road fast enough to leave skid marks in the gravel. He glanced into the rear view mirror, though he didn’t know what he was expecting to see. The dark lump lay illuminated beneath the wash of stars above. His wife stared out the window and the tension in the car was as real as if there’d been a baby elephant riding in the back seat. Gary decided it was time to step up, and it was a defining moment of his adult life. Inside every mild mannered man is a hunter waiting for a chance to take the wheel. “I’m going to get the gun,” he said, simply.
In the darkness of the car, Janet turned and stared at her husband’s solemn profile. She opened her mouth as she took in her husband of 22 years and for several seconds before she found her voice. “What gun?”
The gun, as it turned out, was an old .30-06 rifle that Gary had inherited from his father after he’d died. It was in a gun case, locked in the basement, and had been there for so long that he’d nearly forgotten it existed. This had, ironically, been a conscious effort on Gary’s part. The gun was nothing to him but a bitter symbol of his childhood, and recalled early memories of forced experiments into manhood, which he’d endured with an overbearing older man. Gary really had no recollection of not telling her that they owned a gun, and was fairly certain she knew.
“Never!” she cried adamantly, amazed by the revelation that her husband owned a rifle. And that it had been sitting in their storage room, where she’d spent many afternoons rearranging and organizing. “Do you know how to use it?” she asked, her anger overshadowed by more immediate fear.
Gary didn’t appreciated the mystified lilt of her words as they rose in the end into dubious exclamation. “Of course I don’t know how to use it!” he told her, frustrated that she knew him so well. How wonderful it would have been to say, “Of course I do!” instead. They coasted down the last hill before the hidden driveway on the corner, beside the reflective caution sign at the side of the road. He pulled into the narrow, pine-tree canopied driveway that led to their attached garage.
Janet ignored his frustration, or more truthfully couldn’t help but play into it with a certain amount of private satisfaction. “Well then how are you going to know how to use it?”
Gary was feeling harassed at this point. He wished she’d learn to just trust the process. “I’ll figure it out,” he mumbled, extracting his long limbs once again from the car and heading up the steps towards the front door. “I managed to keep myself alive for 64 years after all.”
“Oh, yes. I certainly had nothing to do with that!” she called after him, as she sat in the car to wait for his return. She watched the door close and patted her hair unconsciously.
In the basement storage room Gary waded through boxes that were like an overgrowth of lily pads, as he pushed his way towards the gun case. It was stacked behind a teetering pile of miscellaneous household items including a broken kitchen chair he’d once meant to fix, bags of kids clothes and a handful of out-of-date English textbooks. freeing the case without being knocked unconscious by a wave of junk was in itself a miracle and he propped it up on the wobbly chair. He unclasped the rusty hinges that made a faint popping sound, and unveiled the rifle, which was sitting like a gleaming sword unsheathed, atop a raglan cloth. It appeared to him in the moment as a menacing relief. This, surely, would solve the problem at hand. Beside it was a small box of unopened bullets. He checked the contents and satisfied he shut the case again and jogged with it up the stairs to the car.
The gun case was pushed in through passenger side door in the back seat, before he returned to his and slammed the driver’s side door.
“Why didn’t you put it in the trunk?” Janet asked him, sounding hysterical. “It might go off and shoot you in the back of the head!”
“It’s not loaded!”
“How would you know!”
Gary realized that he hadn’t actually double checked that it wasn’t, but didn’t say anything and pressed his lips together. On the ride back, both of them darted glances into the back seat as though on it was resting a bomb, slowly ticking down to zero. Once parked again by the side of the road where the animal lay, Janet left the car without a word. He could hear her murmuring soothingly to the animal. The noises the beaver made fell in volume to a gurgling, baby like murmur. It seemed to appreciate his wife’s company.
“Is it still alive?” he asked her, after opening the case in the backseat with the car light on. He’d hoped it wasn’t, but she told him it was, and that he should hurry. There was no command in her insistence, only concern.
Gary muddled his way as quickly as possible through the loading process, his fingers shaking with nerves. The last time he’d held this gun was in a nearly erased memory of a half-hearted bush expedition. He could have only been twelve-years-old at the time. As he fought with his mind for the memories of his father’s impatient instructions, he saw how similar his behaviour was to his old man’s. Holding his breath to steady his hands, he dropped the bullets into the cartridge, which he managed to disengage from the main part of the gun after some significant jiggling. He thrust the cartridge back in and felt enormous satisfaction at the resilient click. He picked up the weapon, feeling its weight in his hands, his fingers pressing against the smooth wood. He fumbled with the lever on the side of the gun until, finding his fingering, he pulled back and the cartridge snapped closed into the carrel. He remembered that he needed to unlock the safety, and so waited to do so until he was next to the animal.
“Step back, hon,” he told his wife, and Janet immediately moved behind him to the embankment. She stood in snow nearly to the edge of her fur-trimmed boots, plugging her ears and closing her eyes. “Be careful,” she told him, still worried that he’d somehow manage to shoot himself.
He aimed the barrel at the Beaver’s head, avoiding eye contact. He could hear it breathing, shallow and raspy. It was making little whimpering cries, while its webbed feet kicked as though he was swimming; scraping ineffectively along the gravel and ice on the road. Gary wanted to get this right the first time, so as not to cause any more unnecessary suffering, and sent a quick prayer that his fluke shot would finish the animal off. Nestling the gun into the crook of his armpit, with the grimacing image of his father staring down at him in expectation, Gary held his breath again, and pulled the trigger.
The crack was deafening, echoing between the tree branches like a lightening strike and down both directions of the still road as if cresting on an invisible wave. Gary’s chest throbbed from the pain of the kickback, which he’d not been prepared for, and the intensity of the moment had nearly startled him into a faint. His head swam as he fought to refocus on the animal at his feet.
The bullet seemed to have done the job and far more cleanly than he’d expected. It was, now, still and restful. Gary felt the blood coursing through his body, he’d not remembered the last time he felt so revitalized and he squatted down, touching the thick mat of fur along the beaver’s back. “Thank-you,” he whispered to it before he felt his wife’s hand on his shoulder. She crouched down beside him, smiling. “You did it, Gary.”
“It’s dead,” he told her, and then realized what she’d said. He turned to her, taking in the soft edges of her face that were glowing in the moonlight. Janet stared back at him with a look he’d forgotten, one that he’d seen when their first daughter Laura had been born, and he was reminded of his wife’s extraordinarily comforting presence.
They watched the animal for a few moments, making sure that it was truly gone. They spoke with open awe about its features, how incredible the claws were on its rodent like arms, and the yellowed stalwart teeth. How slick the fur, and how impressive its thick flat tail. His wife, with her signature creativity, said it looked like a kayak paddle. She stroked her fingers along it’s pine-cone patterned surface.
She eventually stood up again, shivering, and pulled her scarf up closer up around her chin. Gary still felt as though job wasn’t over, likely from the rush of adrenaline still vibrating through his body like 10,000 cups of coffee. He asked, “Now what?”
His wife didn’t miss a beat. “Maybe we could take it home. Find out how to skin it, wouldn’t a nice beaver pelt look good on the wall downstairs?”
Gary didn’t know what he was expecting her to say, but that hadn’t been it and he blinked a couple of times before asking her, “Are you serious?”
“Well, what else do you do with beaver pelts? Maybe we can make mittens! Or maybe Linda would know what to do.”
Gary thought this over. Surely they could find out what to do with a dead beaver in 2014. “We could butcher the meat. I’ve heard beaver meat tastes similar to chicken.” It seemed, at least, that he’d heard this somewhere.
His wife looked up at the sky, weeding out the big dipper with her eyes. “I can’t imagine it would be all that complicated, since skinning and butchering animals has been undertaken by human beings since the dawn of time.”
Gary conceded, “Well, yes, but those people knew what they were doing.”
“They also didn’t have the internet,” Janet replied.
It was Gary’s turn to smile, and he let out a burst of laughter that effectively warmed them both up enough to set about the next phase of getting the animal to the car.
This process proved to be a messy one, as they struggled to get their hands under the animal with his wife at the tail end and Gary cradling the bloody head. The beaver, though similar in frame to a medium sized dog, proved to be a dead weight akin to enormous barbell, and it’s disjointed body was about as easy to lift as a giant sack of boulders. At the point in which they had the body resting on the edge of the trunk, about to roll it in, a car’s high beams caught them in action and Gary shielded his eyes with a blood-stained hand. The truck gave wide-birth around them before disappearing into the night. Surely, he thought, they must have looked a sight, but he felt only a great sense of accomplishment and pride in their efforts. It was a heady rush of excitement, one that made him consider how well they could survive together in the woods, with their trusted rifle.
After a final heave, the animal thudded heavily into the back of the car, blood seeping out onto a tarp they’d conveniently found there. They wiped their hands with the rag from the suitcase after putting the gun back into the back seat as well. Janet patted her hair and then said, as though she’d just popped a pie in the oven, “Well, then. Shall we head home?”
Gary nodded, giving his wife another glance of appreciation before helping her into her seat. She noticed, in the light of the car, that her husband’s one cheek was still smeared with blood. But she couldn’t bring herself to say anything, and instead thanked him as he shut her door firmly. On the way home, they drove in silence, casting shy glances at one another along the way.