Short Story Author and Poet Russell MacClaren reflects on the direction his life has taken due to the influence of karma.
I don’t think of myself as hard or mean-spirited, just as someone who can take care of business when difficult times and tasks arise.
Was a day when I thought the violence in my life was a thing of the past and my stint as a sniper in Vietnam could be relegated to history. I’m not proud of my country’s role in that struggle, but I endured it, and I share culpability for a war that should never have been, a war which could have been avoided had more of our country’s finest burned their draft cards. My younger brother, Dan, knew we were wrong back in the day. I was short-sighted.
When I returned from Vietnam, I tried to re-assimilate the culture I’d left, but I had been altered irrevocably, and I could do nothing to change that. After being branded as a Vietnam vet, I lived under a stigma. A different set of reactions and skills and approaches were ascribed to and expected from me.
Three years after my return, my father enlisted me in the ignoble task of eradicating a colony of rats at the Mississippi home where he and mom resided. The rodents had became emboldened, ate from bird feeders and terrorized his feathered friends. They were everywhere..
Dad handed me his Daisy air rifle which when pumped ten times became accurate enough and remarkably well suited for my purpose. (The discharge of firearms was frowned upon in the little community where they lived.) At a distance of twenty to thirty yards, these rodents were easy targets. Not all my hits were lethal, but I killed twelve of the fifteen I shot. The others limped off before I could pump up the gun and fire again. Yet after a week the filching of birdseed had ceased. I think I extinctified them and I felt ashamed of my role in their genocide, but I figured killing rats was not as bad as killing humans.
For years after that incident I had no reason to take a life, except on occasional duck hunts—at least not until lately when I bought a house. To understand the story, you have to know the layout of the place. Opening the front door exposes a sixty-five foot-long, five-foot-wide hallway, four bedrooms on the left, cabinets, boxes, tools, construction material, cubbyholes against the outside wall on the right. It offered countless hiding spots and hangouts for my cat, Amber, who loved her secret places there.
In time, however, I noted peculiarities in Amber’s behavior. Her normally fastidious dining habits went awry. Her water was often spilled, her food bowl turned over, and she acted differently while traveling between the hiding places that littered the hallway.
One night, as I walked toward the restroom, I got a flash of a long, thin tail skittering from Amber’s overturned bowls, and the tail wasn’t attached to Amber. Had to give myself a sanity check, but, finally, I surmised some strange critter was afoot.
How did it come to reside here? Monty, one of my house mates, forever left the back door open and went about his business. He also put out cat food for a feral cat he dubbed Donald. To these habits I attribute the infestation that followed, or perhaps it was karma catching up with me, but I soon learned the house had become home to a family of displaced opossums. The woods next door which had been a habitat for birds, squirrels, raccoons, an occasional human vagrant and apparently, opossums had been cut away to make a children’s park, and my friend Monty had inadvertently extended his hospitality to the denizens of that-once-wild place.
Shortly thereafter, Monty left on a cruise to Europe and rented his room to Blondell, a sweet and proper lady who was quite uncomfortable with cats, let alone opossums. Such a critter or even the suspicion of one in the house would have sent her packing. I couldn’t make the pests or their disposal known to her in any way. All killing had to be done on the QT.
I went out and bought the largest sticky rat trap I could find. Touching the glue, I deemed it sufficient to hold a middle-sized opossum. Taking utmost care Amber wasn’t in the house for this venture, I put the trap down beside her bowls. That first night, I heard a thumping and woke to the realization that the trap had done its dirty work. I waited five minutes for the critter to become fully entangled—bad move. When I went to investigate, food and water were scattered across the hallway. Trap and trapped were nowhere to be seen. The victim had to have been enormous!
The next night I put out the second sticky trap, and within five minutes I heard a ruckus. Needless to say, I rushed out to see what I’d caught. This critter, which had a smaller tail than the one I’d seen, was inextricably caught in the glue. I picked up the trap and its captive and disposed of evidence.
Thinking and hoping this had put an end to the opossum problem, I rested easy the next evening. Blondell was working her night job at Harrahs casino when I was again disturbed by a scratching sound. I scrounged up my .22 pistol, really just a glorified pea-shooter, and charged the hall. Two very small, frightened eyes peered at me from behind the cat food. Shame on me. I raised my pistol, Bamm…. It continued to look at me without moving. Bamm, again, then one more shot, before it ran behind a dresser.
Connie, one of my house mates, had just stepped from her bedroom as I fired the first shot. I’d warned her I might have to use my pistol if I saw another pest. She came running towards me with her wide-eyed message. “It’s on the other side of the dresser.” Bamm—another shot, and it scurried across some mops and brooms to find shelter behind a bookcase. I pulled the case from the wall and saw it lying motionless, but I fired again to be sure of my kill. Then I swept it onto a shovel and cleaned the trail of blood as well as the blood that had puddled on the floor around the corpse.
Problem solved—right? Wrong! Two nights later, came a repeat of that performance. From five feet away, I couldn’t miss. This one took three shots. Shovel-action, more clean up….
That was Three! Didn’t want to take chances that there weren’t more, so I laid out three glue traps as well as a conventional “snap-type” rat trap. Three, because I couldn’t find any more of the large traps I’d used, and I doubted a single smaller trap would do. At 11:00 that night, Connie knocked on my door. “We have another intruder!” she exclaimed. This poor sucker was stuck on two traps and while trying to crawl under the dresser had gotten one of them hung on the wood. I eased the critter away from the dresser. Bamm, bamm! —point blank, more clean-up.
Days later, when Five came, Blondell was home—much to my chagrin. But being a man of some resources, I got my dull machete and beat it to death with the blade—not a good vibe. I could feel the critter’s ribs and organs give way as I continued to batter it. It died hard after a brutal beating, but all five kills were pulled off without Blondell’s knowledge.
All this leads me to believe that I’m not a nice person, but I’m fortunate that I didn’t have to depend on my .22 pistol and a dull machete in Vietnam!
Russell MacClaren, chief editor and sometimes contributor to Beneath the Rainbow, grew up in New Orleans Louisiana, participated in sports, did English lit. at S. L. U. in Hammond LA, fought in Vietnam; later he became a scout master, little league coach and Mormon bishop. As a union electrician, he taught in the apprenticeship program in North Carolina and ran jobs in several states–but has since retired.
His writing career took off in 1986 in South Carolina, and he has continued to write ever since: children’s stories, novels, short stories, songs and poetry. Russell has read on public TV, had his work featured in anthologies, magazines, on-line blogs and poetry boxes. He reads in poetry programs and open mikes, has been on the board of two poetry societies and conducted dozens of poetry work shops. He has published three books of personal poetry and is presently connected with half a dozen writers’ groups.