from A Squandered Life / My Dog Ben
Skunks and Porcupines
I did a lot of tramping through the woods with Ben. There was a beaver pond on the north east edge and we would go up there as silently as possible and then just lie down at a vantage point to see if they would come out. I never saw those beavers without waiting. No matter how silently you approached, they always knew and kept still and out of sight until, through some beaver signal, they agreed it was safe to come out again. We would lie there and watch their interminable to-ing and fro-ing as they dragged sections of tree to the dam or to their lodges or to some underwater store for future reference. If they became alarmed again one or other of them would slap their wide flat tail on the surface of the water and they would all disappear once more.
Ben also discovered a couple of other creatures to his personal cost. The first was a skunk. We came upon him suddenly in a little clearing. He had his back to us, but instead of scampering he slowly drew himself into an elegant handstand, peering all the while around his shoulder. Ignoring me completely he knew immediately where the trouble was likely to come from and fixed his black beady little eyes on Ben. There was a millisecond pause and then, before I could say or do anything, Ben advanced for a closer inspection and was rewarded with the briefest of bursts of a fine spray from the skunk's uplifted butt. Ben wheeled and shot off into the trees, shaking his head furiously. I looked back at the skunk. He was now looking at me. I backed up and, without taking his eyes off me, he slowly dropped down from his handstand and waddled casually off into the bush. I found Ben and urged him into some water, but his eyes got inflamed and he stank for days.
Another time, much later, we encountered a large porcupine. Again, before I could react, Ben was in there for a closer look. Quick as a flash the porcupine's tail flicked out and caught him in the face.
That poor dog. He shot away with a mouth full of bristling quill ends. When I found him he was groaning and trying to lick and paw the quills out. Miraculously he didn't get any in his eyes, but he had them in his snout, his gums, his tongue, and the roof of his mouth. I was desperate to help him but hadn't a clue what to do other than encourage him not to paw. In the end I got him to follow me to Harold Lawyer's farmyard where I thought I would find some local knowledge and expertise.
Harold was leaning on his fork, chewing tobacco and the fat with a couple of his farm neighbours. Without moving any other parts of their bodies, they all swivelled their heads as Ben and I came up the drive. “Oh my gawd,” said Harold, without moving. “You two found a porcupine.” “What should I do?” I pleaded. Harold and his pals regarded Ben a little longer, chewing and thinking. “Ain't nothin you can do but pull em out,” he eventually concluded. “There's some pliers over there on the tractor.”
I was aghast. Pull them out? One by one? Me? It was clear that those guys weren't going to demonstrate any local expertise and I numbly went over to the tool box attached to the side of the tractor and dug out some pliers. I sat down on the ground, spread my legs, and got Ben to lie down on his side between them. I rested his head on my right leg and lifted my left over his shoulders and laid it down across them. With my left hand on Ben's head and the pliers in my right I set about, one by bloody one, picking those buggers out. Each one made a little tearing sound as the barbed ends came out.
Ben flinched but never made a sound. “Never seen anything like that,” said one of the neighbours. “Used to have to tie my dog up and wedge a piece of wood in his mouth.” Harold and the other farmer murmured their concurrence, shaking their heads in disbelief. For the next hour or so, those guys stood there, chewing and remarking, as Ben and I went through our shared parcel of hell together. He lay there patiently as I went to the very back of the roof of his mouth to pull the last few shards out. At long last all seemed clear and I let him up. He got to his feet and shook his head, blood spattering from his mouth.
“I swear,” those farmers said as I got up, “Never seen a dog like that.” Harold even broke his stance to go indoors and get a massive bowl of water. “There you go feller,” he said as Ben sloshed and slurped his blood and his pain away. “My gosh,” those guys were still saying as they resumed their still group portrait and Ben and I walked back down the drive.
On another occasion, much later again, Ben and I once more encountered a porcupine (perhaps it was the same one). As before, Ben spotted him first but this time kept a very respectful distance. The porc was motionless halfway up a small tree and I tempted fate by picking up a healthily long and robust piece of branch with which to touch him. He flicked his tail at the branch so suddenly and with such force that I felt as if I'd received an electric shock - the massive jolt coursing down the length of my arm.
I was staggered. Even without the quills that felt like a very serious weapon. WITH the quills, and in your face? I looked at Ben. He was clearly wondering what I was playing at, but my respect for him shot up exponentially.
© 2012 Deacon Martin