My first encounter with a raccoon occurred one autumn morning when I looked out the window and saw something large and furry stuffed into our homemade box-like bird feeder. It appeared to be asleep. I turned off the sink, slipped on my sandals, picked out a good stick, and wandered over to inspect the furry bogey that had lodged itself in our bird feeder. Jabbed from his slumber, he shifted and tried to go back to sleep, his head still not visible.
I poked him again.
A little more disturbed, he emerged from his bottomless slumber as I talked to him and asked him what he was doing in our bird feeder, and then he sluggishly crawled out of the feeder, down the tree, and ambled groggily toward a different tree, totally unaware that I was following him. He was a raccoon, a nocturnal creature whose somnambulant movements in the daylight, especially following a hearty meal of sunflower seeds, were mesmerizing. When he was on the trunk of the second tree at eye level, he finally looked over his shoulder and saw me. Stretching his head out toward me, his whiskers rigid, he opened his eyes as wide as possible to take it all in. Then, very deliberately, he turned away with the air of someone who had just been caught doing something very, very stupid and climbed the tree, moving faster the higher he got, lurching like a fat, hairy inchworm and sending a shower of bark down on me.
Then one day my dad brought home two baby raccoons his friend had found abandoned in his garage.
~ ~ ~
The first thing he sees when he finally opens his eyes are the tall, pasty white people gathered around him, rubbing his fur and talking to him. They tower above him and have hands so big he can fit in one of them. So those are the creatures that have been carrying him around and feeding him for days, and these are the voices that have been talking to him for the past week. The light is bright, he is inside a cage, and he is not as warm as he would like to be. They keep saying Einstein whenever they talk to him. Einstein. That must be his name.
When the skinny long-haired one offers him a bottle, he fights his brother (whom they call Newton) for it and sucks ravenously on the nipple until his little belly is ready to pop! Then he crawls away, making it only about a foot before he passes out. The last thing he hears is the one with the big nose calling him The Great Bifurcator because of the shape of his distended stomach when he drinks too much. The one with the big nose is weird.
He begins searching for a way out of the cage. As he crawls around, inspecting the metal bars, he can find no way out. He doesn’t like being trapped. But now and then the humans open the door and let him out. Out is better than in.
One day Newton gets stuck in the bars of the cage and starts squealing like a maniac. Good. Squeal really loud, Einstein thinks as he creeps over to the door and waits by it expectantly. That will get their attention. When the person they call Alex lifts the sheet covering the cage to see what is wrong, he looks at Einstein waiting eagerly by the door and starts laughing. Einstein doesn’t understand what is so funny. He just wants to escape. Maybe Alex is strange, too.
Then Einstein gets sick. He doesn’t like the feeling. He’s still just a baby. He lies buried in his fleece blanket, curled around his aching stomach, unable to keep anything down. His brother continues to bifurcate, but he lies whining piteously as the enormous hands hold him, caress him, feed him. He still doesn’t trust the people. But his distrust fades as he gets thinner and weaker, until the day finally comes that he realizes he is going to die. He doesn’t remember much after that. Whenever he opens his eyes, the skinny person with the long hair or the big bald one is feeding him, and some nights he wakes to find Alex sitting by his cage in the dark watching him, talking to him. That’s when he realizes they aren’t just feeding him. They also care about him.
Einstein wakes up inside the couch. Dark but warm and soft. His little noises of curiosity signal to the outside world that it is time to hide their valuables, anything that can be stolen or chewed or pawed. His fuzzy head forces its way between the cushions, and he blinks sleepily and rests for a moment. Then, he rotates his head, sees his favorite person, and lurches his way out of the cushions like a toddler climbing over a pile of pillows, and shuffles over to the feet of the person, where he sits and surveys the room as he caresses the giant bare foot with his black satin paws.
“Hey, Einstein,” the person Alex says, and he chirrs in reply and looks up at him. Sometimes food follows his name.
The big bald one is sitting in his rocking chair, and Einstein pauses in the midst of massaging Alex’s foot to watch the big bald one warily. The hiss of newspaper being opened signals the big bald one is immersed in his daily routine, and Einstein’s tiny paws go back to feeling the foot as he waits for something to pique his interest. Eventually, Newton emerges from the couch and joins Einstein.
Einstein is rolling across the floor, wrestling with Newton, when suddenly he realizes that the scrawny creature everyone calls Cat is nearby. Cat’s purpose baffles him. He wants to know more about Cat and becomes fixated on solving the mystery of Cat’s existence. Cat realizes it is being silently stalked by two wide-eyed beasts that it has only previously witnessed savaging garbage bags at midnight and Cat arches its back tensely. Einstein and Newton freeze. Cat could be dangerous. As Cat stares them down, it assumes that since they aren’t moving they have lost interest and goes back to watching the birds out the window. The moment Cat turns its back, Einstein slinks up behind it and reaches his snout up to the wiggling part of Cat and nips Cat’s tail, launching Cat several feet into the air. So that’s what Cat is for. No wonder the people like it so much.
The people let Einstein sleep on the bed during the day. He likes stretching out on the soft covers and dreaming of steak bites. His family is strange: they don’t sleep during the day. But they are always awake when Einstein gets up in the evening and spend plenty of time rubbing his fur, so he is happy. He is happiest when he is ripping things apart, however, which makes them less happy. The skinny one with long hair is especially peeved at him. She stops playing with him. Einstein doesn’t understand. Isn’t he supposed to rip things apart?
Since he is up all night, the people let him go outside, though they don’t let him in until after he scratches on the door for a while. Usually the people are gathered at the table in the morning, studying. He loves it when they are all in one place. He climbs onto the table in their midst and runs from one to the other, stealing their pencils and slinking past their hugs. Alex picks him up a lot. The one they call Mama reminds Alex that Einstein won’t be around forever. Einstein doesn’t understand. No one will be around forever.
As Einstein gets bigger, he goes outside more at night, and when he gets back in the morning he pries pieces off of the door to get people’s attention, so the people get this ingenious idea to cut a hole in their wall and install a small pet door. They put his old cage on the inside to contain him and Newton when they return every morning. Little do they know Einstein is an escape artist. Just as Houdini could contort his body into all kinds of twisted shapes, Einstein is an amazingly malleable wad of fur! The first time he comes in to find himself inside a cage he gets instant cabin fever. So close to his family and yet he can’t go see them! He squeezes through narrow gaps that ordinary creatures his size would have to reorganize their internal organs to fit through and rampages happily through the kitchen and living room once he is loose.
The big bald one is going to have to do better than that.
Every day people come downstairs to find him out of his cage, happily shredding a bag of Cat’s food, and every day the big bald human tries something new to stop him. Duct tape, boards, towels, chicken wire. Einstein rips them all apart. That is one of his favorite things to do, after all. The big bald one can’t keep Einstein and Newton from escaping the cage, and everyone begins making fun of the big bald one. They tell him an engineer can’t stop a furry beast from the wild whose wily instincts have been refined by eons of honing survival tactics. The one they call Mama just laughs at the big bald one and says he can’t even outsmart a raccoon, which makes the big bald one grumble a lot.
Einstein likes ripping things apart and seeing what’s inside, but the people keep all the best things out of his reach. He gets bored and chases Cat (not to rip him apart and see what’s inside, mind you). Why does he chase cat? Because Cat runs. One day maybe he’ll catch Cat. Einstein is not sure exactly what he’s going to do if he does manage to catch Cat, because Cat seems to have a lot of pointy ends. So, he’ll just chase Cat. Cat is more fun than the little bug-eyed monstrosity the humans call Puppy because Puppy barks like the animals that sometimes tree him at night. Puppy’s food isn’t as good as Cat’s food, either.
He wonders exactly how far he can get Cat to launch itself into the air. Cat is especially jumpy because it thinks there are snakes everywhere since it had the encounter with the black racer near the door a couple weeks ago. Whenever someone picks on Cat and makes Cat think there’s a snake near it, Cat is suddenly floating five feet above the ground. Maybe Einstein will bring a real snake inside and see how far Cat will spring into the air. They will like him more if he brings a snake inside and makes Cat fly higher than anyone else has. Everyone gets really excited about snakes, especially Cat.
Cat is the best.
Except the stream! The stream is better than Cat! Why didn’t he know about this place sooner? The people take him to the stream and he splashes in the water, jumps up and down, and then crawls out into the deeper parts. It is hard to swim because all of his fur floats to the surface, so he just sort of drifts around in the deeper pools. The one with the big nose pulls him through the water by the tail and calls him a raccoon barge. What is wrong with the one with the big nose?
As he sits on the shore feeling the smooth rocks, the humans flip big rocks in the water and toss him a little wriggly thing. The wriggly thing skitters around and is hard to catch, but once he does, he smells it and it smells like something he should bite so he bites it and it cracks and he discovers that the squishy inside part of the wriggly crunchy things tastes delicious.
One of the wriggly crunchy tasty things pinches Newton’s hand, and Newton squeals and snaps at the wriggly crunchy tasty thing that is waving pincers at him. So, they pinch. Einstein will have to be more careful. Newton is still sulking as Einstein carefully observes the next wriggly crunchy tasty pinchy thing the humans toss to him, trying to identify the pinchy parts as he readies to seize it in his jaws. He pounces and bites and snaps it in half. Einstein likes this. He gets to tear something apart that he can eat. His two favorite activities wrapped up in one wriggly crunchy tasty pinchy thing.
Eventually Einstein can’t escape the cage in the morning, though he’s not sure if it’s because he has gotten chubby or because the big bald human has finally outsmarted him. He doubts he has been outsmarted. After all, Newton keeps getting out. Newton is wily.
One day Newton climbs the cabinet to get to Cat’s food bowl and when Alex grabs him he snarls and tries to bite Alex. Einstein watches, shocked that Newton would attack people. Newton doesn’t understand that these people are family. You don’t bite family. Einstein needs extra hugs after that. He doesn’t spend as much time with Newton and one day, Newton stays in the woods and Einstein comes back by himself.
Some mornings Einstein gets back from his nocturnal outings, and Alex picks him up and holds him like a baby, cradling him in his arms as he plays with his soft little feet and laughs at him. Einstein grabs the giant hand and tries to communicate that he wants to run through the house and destroy something, and every moment Alex is holding him is a moment he isn’t able to climb the walls and break things.
Sometimes Alex rolls him around on the couch as if kneading a ball of dough—but this ball of dough has a jaw full of sharp teeth! Einstein gets rolled so much he excitedly jumps up and down and chirrs, psyching himself up for an attack. He never does attack. He’s just bluffing.
As Einstein explores the living room in the afternoon, chirring and biting the blinds over the window and wondering where Cat is, he realizes Alex is engrossed in his books and stealthily sneaks toward his desk. When Alex realizes that it has gotten awfully quiet and looks around, he finds the little burglar in the process of reaching up with his open jaws to seize the stereo remote.
Alex knows! Einstein has to move fast! He snatches the remote and flees, running like a fat purse with legs, scrambling onto the couch as Alex stumbles out of his seat, alternately laughing at Einstein’s reaction and yelling at him to drop the remote. If Einstein can only make it into the couch, the remote will be reduced to its most elemental particles within seconds and Einstein will be very happy! When he does a swan dive into the gap of the cushions, he makes it out of Alex’s grasp. But once in the darkness he realizes his mouth is empty. He looks around. No remote. Looking back, he realizes that the remote was knocked out of the corner of his mouth when he dove into the couch and now it is sitting by the entrance of his den. He reaches a little black hand out of the den and grasps for the remote. Alex laughs. Alex snatches the remote before he could drag it into his den.
Einstein will get it next time.
One day Einstein discovers that the couch is made of the same stuff as things. And stuff can be ripped out of things. He begins pulling and picking and tearing and biting and having himself a rollicking good time until people finally open the couch and fuss at him for ripping out all the stuffing. As they clean up the stuffing stuff they discuss whether they will be able to get him another home—but he doesn’t hear the rest because Cat has just walked by.
Einstein arrives at the table to hear a discussion about a raccoon the next day. Apparently, the night before, one of his wild cousins got into the chicken coup at dusk and the skinny one with the long hair, not knowing there was a raccoon inside the coup, closed and locked the coup door. Trapped with an all-you-can-catch buffet at his fingertips, the raccoon gorged himself all night. They found him the next day curled up in one of the nesting boxes surrounded by feathers and legs, so fat he couldn’t even run from them. They seem upset and don’t rub Einstein’s fur as much as yesterday, but after some time they begin to laugh about it and play with him again as he burgles their belongings.
Einstein spends more time outdoors every night. He climbs trees, digs through the leaves, and meets some wild creatures from the woods. When he gets back, people rub his fur and talk about bugs a lot, but Einstein doesn’t mind. Bugs are just part of the wild, and he belongs in the wild, just like he belongs with his family.
To keep him occupied sometimes they put Cat’s food pellets into a little bottle and then give it to him. It drives him crazy. Why do the people like driving him crazy by putting everything just out of his reach? He chases the bottle across the floor, clawing at the opening, struggling to get the pellets that are coming out one at a time. He glances at Alex and chirrs, wondering why he can’t just have all the pellets now. Alex sighs and walks over and dumps them all out for him. Then Alex sits and pets him and talks to him for a long time. Einstein lingers once he is done, then moves on to tastier things.
The pet door is closed. This time no one opens it. Einstein scratches at the door for a long time and chirrs inquisitively, urgently, plaintively. Eventually he stops. It will be late morning soon, he is tired, and there are creatures that might find him if he is still around during the day. Barking creatures.
So, he leaves.
He walks up the gravel driveway, sniffing the air, trying to figure out where he is going to sleep today. He really wants to sleep in the couch, but the couch is gone. When he looks back, he sees a person standing in the window, watching him walk away. He becomes distracted when the chaotic autumn breeze bursts his way, filling the air with hundreds of scents, and he turns and moves on. The forest will be a great adventure.
~ ~ ~
I stood by the window that day, watching Einstein walk away from our house for the last time. My parents said we couldn’t keep him, and he was bringing mites into the house, but I didn’t want him to go. He wasn’t ready. He was too used to a human life, too used to being pampered and cared for. And he had been cared for very well. We had tried to teach him to hunt crawfish, and he had learned to eat them, but he wasn’t very good at catching them yet. He needed more practice. He was nocturnal and sticking to that pattern, and we didn’t have anywhere to keep him anymore, so there was a part of me that knew it was time, but I still didn’t like seeing him go.
He would be better off in the wild where he belonged rather than being torn between our house and the woods. He would make friends and live in the trees. At least that’s what I told myself as I stood by that window long after he was gone, thinking about how out of place he looked walking up our gravel road into the woods, how much I just wanted him to come back so I could play with him again.
I finally walked away from the window and went back about my business.
Einstein was a joy while he was around. Even my brother, who didn’t spend as much time with the raccoons (unless he was inventing names for them with odd words he had found in the Oxford dictionary), described Einstein as a supernova of happiness in our past. When the supernova faded, we all noticed the absence. I felt it keenly. I tend to get very attached to things as lovable as Einstein. He was more than a pet, with more personality than a dog and more wits than a cat. I would miss burying my face in his thick fur and letting him feel my cheeks and ears with his smooth little hands, miss his little noises when he was exploring the room, miss him trying to steal my stereo remote, miss the tumultuous rascal running circles in his cage when he came home every morning.
Late at night when I’m the only one up, I sometimes turn on the porch light and watch the occasional raccoon visit our bird feeder. They never stay for long. After only a few minutes of munching the remnants of seeds, they leave. But now and then a particularly furry raccoon visits and stays longer than the others, and if I am at the window he will watch me while he eats, not quite as shifty as the other raccoons.