MildredWhen she comes to the water, we don’t see her. We don’t see her when she goes. We hear the splashing, we see the paw-prints, the five long claws. She lives under the cottage, in our life’s shadow. We see where she enters. With our allusive and complicated brains, we decide to make her stand for what was there before we were. She is probably not the same raccoon. They live only one to three years. We give her an imagined continuity. We name her Mildred after Mildred Osborne, the now-deceased next door neighbor, for no reason other than to keep the Osbornes around a while longer, although the new people, new for the last ten years, are better neighbors, that is, they take the kids out on their jet skis and fast boat, which we refuse to own, ourselves.

Mildred decides to have her babies upstairs in our cottage crawl space.  John, the carpenter remodeling our kitchen, says he hears scuttling and scuffling above his head. Our other neighbor, Lou, says we should set a trap to catch “Mildred” and drown her. There are too many “Mildreds” getting into trash buckets, he says. John says we should get poison or something. Or shoot her. I think maybe my sensitivity is too precious for their older world. I think of my father and his brother, out with their shotguns killing crows, squirrels, anything that came along, as if the world would last forever.

I call the SPCA. The young woman tells me they can’t come get a raccoon. She tells me to soak a rag in ammonia and to play loud music near the crawl space to drive her out.

I forgot to say Mildred got into the cottage by crawling down the chimney. And then up the stairs. I think I will drive her out, then crawl in and get her babies, put them in a box, and take them to a place where she can move them elsewhere. I soak the rag and set it just inside the crawl space. I can see nothing in there, in the dark. I get my little red radio and tune in the loudest music, which turns out to be Christian rock. All night in my sleep or semi-sleep, the Christians are letting me know they are here, and up to date.

The morning mist is rising and there is Mildred pacing the roof of the cottage. She sees me. I imagine she sees me although raccoons have very poor distance vision. Maybe she senses me. We look in each other’s direction for a long minute, two mothers. We know each other. We know nothing of each other. I continue with my plan. I block the opening to the fireplace. I get a cardboard box. I go upstairs and open the crawl space. It is dark in there. There is loud scuffling and hissing and miniature growling beyond the range of my flashlight. I don’t know how old the babies are. They may be almost ready to leave the nest. They may have grown very sharp claws and teeth. I back out of the crawlspace. I take the ammonia-soaked rag with me. I have already turned off the music, which was still blasting in Jesus’ name.

I go downstairs and remove the piece of steel that we use to close up the fireplace in winter. I set aside the bucket I used to hold it tight against the fireplace opening. I go back out in the woods and watch the roof, where Mildred is still pacing. I tell her without speaking that I give up.  She lumbers to the chimney and slowly lowers herself. I do not know how she knows except maybe the draft of air rising now. When she is all the way in the chimney, she stops and looks at me again before she lowers herself out of sight.

I am trembling with the suddenness of the transition, with my sudden change of heart. I call it that, imagining that Mildred sees it as that, as my magnanimity, which is really only fear, the other side of desire, and is also desire. I understand that these are the twin engines of our separate beings that try to keep us going forever, that think they can live forever inside every moment. It does not matter that I understand this. Mildred is gone the next day, and has taken her babies with her.

Fleda Brown’s memoir, Driving With Dvorak was published in 2010 by the University of Nebraska Press and this month Autumn House Press is releasing the e-book, Growing Old In Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, a collection of essays by Fleda and Sydney Lea. Fleda also has a new collection of poems, No Need of Sympathy, coming out from BOA in 2013. Her work has won a Pushcart Prize, the Felix Pollak Prize, the Philip Levine Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges New Writer’s Award, and has twice been a finalist for the National Poetry Series. She is professor emerita at the University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. She now lives in Traverse City, Michigan, and is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, Washington.

Photography by Michael McKniff