Killing

 by Rigdon Holmquist

House Mouse Mus Musculus

Length: 3-4 inches Weight.4-.9 ounces Color: white, gray, brown or black Gestation: 19-21 days Number of Young: 3-14 per litter, 5-10 litters per year Lifespan: 2-3 years, average <1 year due to predation

The house mouse is a wild animal, though they nearly always live in association with humans. They are considered a pest and are known to carry deadly diseases. The house mouse has also been domesticated as a pet.

***

            Caring for the chickens was a dangerous chore. Before lifting the rusty steel-strap latch on the weathered wooden door of the hen house, my sisters and I always made sure we were armed with a large stick and that we had a plan. One of us would distract the hens by pouring a can of grain into their trough, the other would begin the search for eggs in the nesting boxes and the third would handle the rooster. This fellow was big enough to knock anyone of us over and would usually take his best crack at it whenever he had a chance. Every trip to the chicken coop was war. Today I was assigned to the distraction detail. As I leaned into the half-empty barrel of cracked wheat to fill my old Hills Bros. coffee can with feed, I was startled by something skittering along on top of the grain. “Hey a mouse!” I shouted and the chickens were forgotten as our three heads bent over the barrel and watched the little rodent run terrified laps in the grain. “I’m gonna catch it” I said and ran back to the house for a leather glove. I have no idea how that mouse got inside the barrel to start with, but it certainly could not get out, and soon I had it pinned against the side of the barrel with my gloved hand. I clutched it in my fist, but then dropped it reflexively when I saw its little white teeth sink into the leather covering one of my fingers. The second time I trusted the glove’s protection and hauled the dusty mouse proudly into the house to show my mom. She was appropriately appreciative of my accomplishment and firm in denying my requests to keep it.

“What should I do with it then?”

“Well, we don’t want it to keep eating our chicken feed, so you should probably kill it.”

I was excited by the prospect. Whatever it is about little boys that is attracted to killing things came fully to life. But then I didn’t know how. I had seen my Dad stomp on them before, but this one was in my hand;  if I set it down it would get away. So I flung it against the ground as hard as I could. It didn’t die, but it didn’t skitter away either. It laid there trying to move, but its legs wouldn’t work quite right. I lost all my excitement. It was squeaking and not dying. I picked it up and threw it again, but it still squirmed. For a moment I stood there, horrified that the creature was so easy to maim yet so difficult to kill. I picked up a big rock and threw it down with both hands. The mouse’s eyes bulged out of their sockets and it stopped squirming.

That is the first thing I remember killing. I have seen lots of mice die since then, killed by human traps and poisons and boots, but this one hangs in my memory as the moment I consciously began participating in death and life.

***

Rainbow Trout Oncorhynchus mykiss

Range: Native to Western N. America, transplanted to nearly every other continent Color: pink, green, silver, with variation according to habitat Record Size: 3 ½ feet, 48 lbs. Maximum Lifespan: 11 years

The rainbow trout is a prized sport fish among anglers. They are voracious eaters, feeding on just about anything that they can fit in their mouths. They are capable of living in saltwater as well as freshwater, though sea-going rainbows are often called steelheads.

***

            It was one of those summer days that you think about in the wintertime and find yourself warmed just by the memory. My Dad, my little brother, my brother-in-law and I knew just how we were going to use it. We got up early, loaded our fishing tackle into the back of our little white Chevy Cavalier and headed for the river. The plan was to fish for a couple hours that morning and then head back home and accomplish something useful, like hilling potatoes or weeding beets. My Dad hooked a small rainbow trout on the first worm he tossed in the water and we knew our plans were not going to workout. The Dearborn River is one of the beautiful things I have known. It gathers its waters from little streams flowing off the continental divide in the Scape Goat wilderness. Where it flows through those mountains, it is cold and frothy, but once it leaves the The Rockies and begins to wander through the foothills, it slows down and it’s waters warm pleasantly. By the time it runs under the bridge at highway 200, it has settled down to a clear blue-green flow that allows a fisherman to wade all day without numbing his limbs. And that is what we did. Out of the reach of cell phones and soon out of sight from the road we four fished the river.

For the first hour or so, I was quite unsuccessful. The others were hauling in fish in a steady cadence, but I didn’t have a nibble till I figured out I was the only one using a gold colored hook. I switched to a black hook and baited it with a fat grasshopper. Almost immediately I had a fiesty rainbow trout flopping in the gravel next to me.

Sometimes we fished next to each other, sometimes we were all out of each others sight. Sometimes we stood next to each other and watched the schools of trout darting around at the bottom of a deep green pool.

About halfway through the day I caught a nice rainbow, fifteen or sixteen inches long. I held it up and hollered across the river at my Dad, “Biggest one for me today!” He looked up and then kept fishing. His had all been pretty small so far. I took my Leatherman out of my pocket and holding the fish tightly in my left hand, gave it three quick thumps on the top of the head. Its body vibrated furiously for a moment in my hand, the way they do when you hit them in exactly the right spot, and then life left it. I set the fish on the ground for a moment and unfolded the blade out of the Leatherman. With the fish held belly up, I put the point of the blade in the anus, then slit open the fish’s abdomen. I cut it’s tongue free of the lower jaw, inserted my thumb in it’s throat and tore out all the entrails in one piece. My Dad let out a little whoop across the river and I paused for a moment, the fish in my right hand, it’s entrails in my left, to watch him land another trout about equal to mine in size. Then I felt something moving against my left palm. A gentle pulsating movement. I looked closely at the small clump of organs. I could make out the miniature lungs and liver and I could tell that it had been a female fish because of the two masses of eggs attached to the intestine. But the movement was coming from the heart. No bigger then the end of my pinky finger, that heart was beating.

I fish for a lot of reasons. A desire to kill fish is not one of them. But when the water swirls around my legs and the river’s currents tell me where to go; when I am lost in the cadences, then the killing is participation.

 

***

Holstein Cow Bos primigenius taurus

Color: black and white Mature Weight: 1500 lbs. Birth Weight: approx. 90 lbs. Milk Production: up to 25 gallons a day Production Life: typically about 4 yrs.

Holstein dairy cattle are among the post productive breeds. There are more than 19 million Holstein cows in U.S. dairies today. A typical cow will produce 23,385 pounds of milk, 858 pounds of butterfat and 719 pounds of protein in a year. Holsteins can also be used for beef.

***

            My eight blonde-haired blue-eyed sisters and my one brother showed up to greet me at the airport dressed in matching white T-shirts. Each shirt had a number on it (which represented their place in the birth order), one form or another of the slogan “welcome home Rigdon,” and a customized marker drawing of my cow. When I had left home two years earlier, my milk cow Lolo stayed behind. While I was gone my favorite joke to make was about the girl I had waiting for me with big brown eyes, long eyelashes and a nice body weighing in at about a thousand pounds. They couldn’t bring Lolo herself to the airport, so they made do with the marker drawings. After hugs and pictures and some of that awkward feeling of trying to get to know people you know really well but haven’t seen in a long time we all piled into our big green van and headed home as the complete Holmquist family. Complete for the first time in 24 months. As we pulled into the driveway of our little ten acre farmstead, I saw Lolo grazing placidly out in the pasture. Next to her was a large Holstein steer whose name was Giacomo. The last time I had seen him, he had been just a spindly legged calf hardly able to walk without tripping over his own lankiness. We had bought him just before I left home for Lolo to raise with the excess milk she produced. Now he stood about six feet tall at the shoulder and I guessed he weighed  close to fifteen-hundred pounds; butcher weight for a steer.

“Where do we keep the shells now?” I asked, pulling the magazine out of my semi-automatic .22 caliber Westernfield rifle and checking the action. I don’t really remember the conversation that took  place, but somehow it had been decided that  I was to be the one assigned to pull the trigger. My little brother handed me a box of American brand lead point .22 shells. I loaded six of them into the magazine tube and slid it into place. We walked out to the pasture, and my Dad fired up the old John Deere tractor we had borrowed so we could move the steer once he was dead. Giacomo had lost some of the tameness he had as a calf when he used to follow my little sisters around the barnyard. Now he won’t let people get any closer then six or seven feet. He doesn’t run, but just backs away. Standing in front of him I wait till he swings his head back around to look at me, then I squeeze the trigger. He doesn’t even flinch. At first I think the gun must have misfired, but then I see blood begin to ooze out over his right eye. The .22 caliber rounds don’t do much damage unless they penetrate the brain and I missed it by a couple inches. He starts backing away and shaking his head a little, turning as he moves so he is no longer facing me.

“That gave him a headache,” said my Dad.

I circle around so I can get a good shot at his forehead but he keeps turning and backing. Finally he swings his head around to look at me again. Pop! He still stands there.

“You hit him the same place again” someone said.

This time Giacomo takes a few steps away and shows me his backside. For some reason he doesn’t know that he is big enough to simply run over the top of me and have done with the whole business. I send my little brother around to the other side of him so that he will stop turning and I can get in front again. Now his head is lowered, like a bull does when he feels threatened. I take my time, controlling my breathing, pressing the butt of the rifle gently against my cheek. The sight moves slightly up with each breath I inhale and back down again as I exhale. I let it fall between his eyes and squeeze again. No reaction. He stands there still staring at me, blood running over his eyebrow. It has started to come out his right nostril as well. The logistical part of brain starts thinking “you should have loaded all fifteen bullets into the magazine.”

People are saying things. One part of me just wants to hand the gun to my Dad and get out of there. But some other part knows I have to kill him. I have to now.  I lift the gun again. Pop. Four shots in exactly the same spot. I start to feel panicky, there’s is no way those bullets should be hitting there, three inches to the right of where I am aiming. I move the site over his left eye and a fire another quick shot. His knees fold underneath him instantly, his fifteen-hundred pound frame thumping to the ground.

Eating is a fundamental part of killing. So is pulling the trigger. I do both things, but they  come with a very different feeling.

***

Targhee Sheep Ovis Aries

Wool Production: Ewes yield a 10-14 pound fleece Weight: Rams 200-300 pounds, ewes 125-200 pounds Birthing Cycle: Ewes typically birth in late January or February

Targhee Sheep were developed as a breed by the USDA in the early 20th century. They are primarily found on farms and ranches in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. They are a dual purpose animal that can be used both for wool and meat production.

***

            In September 2002 my dad deployed with his army medical unit to Wertzberg, Germany. During the eight months he was gone, my mom and I did a lot of the outdoors chores together. I was twelve years old, just big enough to carry a five gallon bucket of water using the lift-swing-step method. When it snowed I could load two or three of them onto a sled and pull them out to the horses, pigs, goats and chickens that were the residents of our barnyard. When the pigs escaped, Mom would help me round them up  and shoo them back into their pens. We would pound each others thumbs while trying to repair the fences they broke; neither one of us quite had mastery of the hammer at that point. But we muddled along okay and were kind of proud of ourselves for keeping things from the brink of chaos. When the end of January rolled around it was probably that pride that influenced us to take on a bunch of bum lambs. Keith Giles had an unusual number of bums during lambing season that year and he just didn’t have time to take care of all of them. We ended up with seven. Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing uglier than a newborn lamb. It takes a good three weeks for them to become at all attractive. When they are born they are so skinny and bedraggled I don’t really blame the ewes that decide they don’t want their baby around. We named the seven we got after Hobbits. There was Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Rosie and Hamfast. They started out in the garage, but soon found their way into the much warmer basement of the house, where I built a little pen for them out of a big cardboard box. They were very cozy all snuggled to together underneath the heat lamp. Then they started dieing.

Lambs are very fragile, so it is expected that some will die, especially when they have been rejected by their mothers. But these just started dropping off inexplicably and within two days only Pippin was left. He had been livelier the rest all along, but now he was showing the same symptoms the others had. He stopped moving around. Soon he was too weak to stand and then too weak hold his head up and then too weak to do anything but lie limply and struggle to breath. When I set him in my lap and rubbed him vigorously, life seemed to creep back into him. So I took him upstairs, sat by the heater vent and rubbed him. His new lambs wool was exquisitely soft and warmed quickly under my touch. Sometimes  he would struggle to lift his little head and open his eyes. When he did, his eyes were rolled back in their sockets. I attempted to coax some milk replacer into him, but he was too weak to even swallow. My rubbing kept him alive for a few hours, but gradually I felt the motion of his diaphragm grow weaker  and weaker. When it stopped, the little body got cold despite all my rubbing. It wasn’t till later I learned that lambs die when you mix their milk replacer too richly. I had misread the label on the package and given them twice as much powdered milk as they needed every time I fed them. I had killed them.

I can deal death; sometimes on accident. I can also work against death. But the fact is no matter how well I can command death into action, it will never respond to my order to surrender.

***

Prairie Rattler Crotalus viridis

Length: Up to 5 ft Diet: Typically small mammals Range: SW Canada, W. United States and N. Mexico Reproduction: Viviparous Lifespan: Up to 15 years in the wild, over 20 years in captivity

The Prairie Rattler is the only venomous snake in the western United States. It’s bite can be fatal if not treated immediately. In Indigenous American mythology, rattlers were used as the emblem of a powerful deity. Today, some Christian sects use them ritually.

***

            The sun had already set and I was now in the long twilight of a Montana summer day. The sun, though it had dipped below the horizon, continued to display its brightest reds, pinks and purples. There would still be enough light to see by for another forty-five minutes or an hour. I placed my hook in one of the eyes on my fishing rod and reeled in the the line till the rod bent with enough tension to hold the hook firmly, then crawled up the river bank and started ambling along the worn cow path that led back to the car. The cottonwoods of the river bottom rustled lightly, and the water running next to me made gentle sounds. Delicate orange sunset light tinged everything, softening the world’s edges. I hummed quietly to myself, kicking up dust in the path as I walked, then pleased with the tune, started singing since I was the only one around to hear. As I warmed to the melody, my audience approved and I increased the volume. Then death brushed my leg. Somehow the fangs missed my flesh. A slow-motion millisecond. I see the arrow shaped head between my legs. Adrenaline jolts me into the air. The lithe body gathers itself, I am moving, moving. My heartbeat is nearly as fast as the buzzing rattles of the snake, now coiled fifteen feet away in the middle of the trail. My panic picks up  a long cottonwood branch. The snake tries to strike again, the stick smashes the thin brown body. It pulls itself into a tight spring, the branch snaps in half as it comes down, crushing vertebrae. It slithers brokenly for the tall grass, large river rocks replace the shattered branch in my hands. The adrenaline tearing through me keeps me moving frantically. I know it must be dead by now, but I keep throwing. My throat  is raw, though I don’t remember the sound of the yells. Last time I fished that river there was still a pile of stones marking the spot.

When you meet another killer, death becomes a tool of survival. I am not often close to my own death, or anything else that deals it. This time, killing seemed like the only option.

***

Whitetail Deer Odocoileus virginianus

Weight: Bucks 130-290 pounds, Does 90-200 pounds. Rut: typically late September through early winter in North America Predators: Wolves, Cougars, American Alligators and Jaguars

Whitetail deer communicate with each other using sound, scent and body language. Each fawn has a distinctive bleat recognized by its mother. When fawns are born their sex can be determined by the pattern of spots on their back. Males have spots in ordered lines, females spots are randomly scattered.

***

            A few does and their yearling fawns move across the hillside. Judging by the setting sun, they will probably be my last chance at filling my tag this evening. They are a good 300 yards away; a long shot, but not impossible. I steady my rifle on a nearby fencepost and peer through the scope, placing the cross-hairs ever so slightly above the shoulders of the largest doe, compensating for the drop the bullet will take as it covers the longer distance. It is October and the hillside, like the barley and hay fields around me, have taken on the brown hue of fall.

A few months ago, they had all been green. The hillsides had a few wildflower blossoms, typical of Montana prairies, and the fields were lush. My job that summer was to keep them that way, shepherding water from the Sun River through old concrete head-gates, into deteriorating irrigation ditches and onto the fields. I spent most of May, June and July’s daylight hours roving these fields, covered in the mud, lonely, watching the barley and alfalfa photosynthesize, with only the cows, coyotes and deer to keep me company. The freshwater from the river gave life to the thirsty prairie. The saltwater of my sweat  and sometimes my tears kept the water running.

The rifle kicks against my shoulder and the acrid smell of the gunpowder fills my nostrils. I hear the bullet smack into her body and she humps up. The other deer take off over the crest off the hill.  She doesn’t move. The sun, setting over the distant mountains, tints the landscape in blue orange shadows. The horizontal light makes the world a painting, every detail sharply contrasted, too perfect to be real. Lying there, she is beautiful. Her long neck curved back, blemished only by the dark pool at her throat. Spread out below us I see the land I know, the land she knows, the land that knows us. We are a part together. I unsheathe my knife and I am startled by her fawn. It stands ten feet away, its nose quivering, eyes wide.  It jumps back and circles around and comes close again. It stares a moment and then disappears into the dusk.

I don’t know if I am old or wise enough to talk about sublime experiences. But if I am, what I have just described was my moment of sublimity. It started with irrigation, but culminated  with killing. Bathed in setting sunlight, death was the connection between me and what made me.