At night she could trace the pitter-patter of their feet in the ceiling. They were most active between eleven o’clock and two in the morning. Nikka stopped going to bed. She put on her robe and meandered about the dark house, following the sound of their footsteps. She didn’t sleep well these days anyway, between the scurrying sounds and the hot flashes and missing the imprint of her husband’s body next to hers in bed.
She discovered that her night vision was quite good. But she didn’t need it, really. After thirty years, her body sensed the approximate curve of the banister, the edges of the hallway table, the hollows of the bedroom doorway, and steered itself around them. Their footsteps led her along the same path every night. They began begin somewhere above her bed, probably their headquarters, rotate a couple times above the master bath, sprint back and forth above the upstairs hallway, then dart above Ivy’s silent piano. The footsteps always led her, by one A.M., to the east window in Lili’s bedroom. There, Nikka parked herself in the armchair where her younger daughter used to read everything from the nineteenth century and watched. Soon, they poked their bristly heads out from the hole beneath the gutter, scanned the ground below, and shimmed down the Callery pear tree to begin their forage. Their leader always went first. He would pause on the branch opposite the window and look at Nikka sitting there in the dark.
They would cost her about ten thousand dollars in roof repairs; more, if they continued to inhabit the attic. When she called a man about evicting them, he said that it was two hundred dollars to set up the traps, then a hundred for each one caught. Ridiculous! Nikka bought a trap at the Home Depot and stuck it under the tree with a peanut butter sandwich as bait. That night, she rejected the impulse to avoid the gaze of the leader when he paused at the window. She was, after all, in the right. Seconds later, she heard the click of the trap and a furious scrabbling of body against metal. The others, halfway down the tree, darted back up and under the gutter. Nikka went back to bed. With a slight breeze coming through the window and one less four-footed creature drumming on the ceiling, she slept until morning.
She found him seething in the cage when she went into the yard after breakfast. When she crouched to look at him more closely, he growled and swiped a hand at her. His hands were human, the thumbs and fingers grasping the bars of the cage as he glared out with desperate defiance. She went inside and called Amy Lin, who would know what to do.
“Beat him to death with a shovel,” her friend advised. “And stick his corpse up in the tree. That will warn off any friends who want to join them in the attic. I did that with some squirrels who were rooting up my garden and nobody has bothered my vegetables since.”
Nikka shuddered and did not get her spade. She had seen Amy’s squirrels, strung like ghastly Christmas lights on the trellis, and she was not good with blood. Later that afternoon, she threaded a hose through the cage. He refused to drink from the trickle of water. “Go ahead and die of thirst,” Nikka told him. “I don’t care.” He turned his head. Angry now, she turned the hose on full blast and doused him before returning to the house. She decided to drown him the next day.
She was scrambling eggs for dinner when Dr. Asher came around the back door. She had not seen him since Christmas when he had brought her a sack of pecans and a medical book to send to Ivy. Some time ago, forever it seemed, Nikka had seen him every day when she picked Ivy up from his gynecology clinic where Ivy had interned throughout high school. Even then, he had not been a tidy man. Nikka marveled that such a man—unmarried, clothed in a rotation of five ill-fitting stained shirts, with napkins from fast food restaurants sticking out of his back pocket—spent his life examining women’s nether regions. He was even less tidy now. His hair had grown and curled around his neck in gray-brown tufts. He had gained weight but had not bothered to buy new clothes.
“I saw that little fellow you have in your front yard,” he said. The gracelessness, energy and volume with which he spoke had always both irritated her and made her feel sorry for him. She guessed it was a Jewish thing.
“I have an infestation,” Nikka said. “They ruined my roof.”
“It’s like the Native Americans. Since they were here first,” Dr. Asher said, “they would probably say you were the infestation.”
She would not argue with him. She only pressed her lips together in the way she used to communicate her disapproval to her daughters. Of course, he did not notice. He said: “I’ve got one family in my attic and another under my back porch. I figure they live upstairs and downstairs and I live in the middle and we don’t bother each other.”
No, he wouldn’t be bothered. His house, five down the street from her own, could be mistaken for a forgotten foreclosure. The neighbors often whispered that Dr. Asher, and not the housing market crash, was responsible for the decreasing real estate value of Elm Lane. The yard was a jungle that had swallowed the driveway long ago. Nobody could know how many animals lived inside the house. There were at least eight or nine cats, by Nikka’s count, who came in and out at will. There was a dog with one eye, and another with three legs. Nikka remembered that the year before last, he had hauled home a lame duck home he found on a fishing trip. Now, there were those raccoons. But Dr. Asher was unable to turn anybody away from his door. Whenever Ivy and Lili came home, he arrived at their door with armfuls of cats and a wheedling tone: maybe the girls wanted to give a poor kitty a home? He knew to visit the girls when Nikka was out on an errand, but they always told her, laughing, about the visits afterward. “It’s just like with his patients,” Ivy said. “Half of them didn’t have insurance, but he took them all on.”
Dr. Asher asked her what she was going to do with the poor little guy in the front yard.
“Drown him in Caesar Creek,” she said.
Dr. Asher shuddered. “Let me take him,” he said. “I’ll release him in Hocking Hills.” Hocking Hills was fifty miles away, an expanse of woods and interstate. She would not be foisting him onto another neighborhood. She agreed and the gynecologist took the rattling growling trap with him.
Dr. Asher conveniently forgot to return her trap. Upstairs, the family who had subsided into timid mourning for twenty-four hours, resumed their nightly romp through her attic. Two days later, Nikka minced her way through the gynecologist’s yard, heeled aside a roost of cats stretching in hedonistic abandonment on the front stoop, and rang the doorbell. Something crashed, someone squalled, the duck quacked, Dr. Asher cursed and came to the door. He opened it a crack, squeezed his lumpy body through, and closed it behind him. “I’d ask you in,” he said, reddening, “but you know—bachelor living. Haven’t had my spring cleaning yet.” It was August. It wasn’t so much bachelor living as too many creatures cohabiting one space. The door had been open long enough to let escape the oppressive odor of piss and sweat and saliva.
Nikka asked if he had been successful at Caesar Creek.
“Sure was,” Dr. Asher said. “Little guy bounded off into the woods as happy as any free creature.”
“Do you have my trap?” Nikka said.
“Oh—oh yes. Wait a minute.” He opened the door a crack, squeezed himself back inside and emerged again holding the trap. She had to tug to take it from him. Back at home, she made another peanut butter sandwich and reset the trap. But that night they came down the tree, sniffed at the sandwich, and skirted around the trap. Sometime after two, when they had returned to the attic and she had gone to bed, she heard a faint rattling in her sleep-clogged ears. But when she ran into the yard the next morning with the giddiness of her girls at Christmas, there was only a sleepy possum in the cage. He did not live upstairs—the family in her attic would not have allowed it—but she phoned Dr. Asher.
“I’ve got a possum,” she said.
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
She spent the afternoon at the public library, researching the art of trapping unwanted household guests. The peanut butter sandwich, she realized, was too pedestrian. They smelled the peanut butter, knew that it had led to the disappearance of their kinsman, and recognized it as something they could find in various garbage cans around the neighborhood. She had to tempt them with something irresistible —something that had neither been moldering in the garbage nor scooped out of a jar. She would vary the menu every evening until each one of them had been caught. Anyway, they deserved a nice meal before they were deported.
Lili called a little after ten that evening, just as Nikka was rubbing a chicken leg and thigh down with butter. Lili recounted her weekend camping trip with her boyfriend Nate, an emaciated young man whose pants were tighter than her daughter’s and who spoke to Nikka as if she could not understand English. Lili chattered about her students—she taught high school English to black children—whom, as far as Nikka could tell, needed a spanking rather than her daughter’s misplaced sympathy. Underserved children, her daughter called them. Undeserving, more like! Half of them were destined to be criminals anyway. But don’t tell Lili that. She was of the mind these days that anything anybody said was racist. Nikka interrupted and said she had to go; she was making chicken and needed both of her hands.
“Haven’t you eaten dinner yet, Ma?” Lili asked, concerned. “It’s ten-thirty.”
“The chicken isn’t for me,” Nikka said, peeling the skin of the chicken back to sprinkle some salt beneath. “It’s for the raccoons living upstairs. They aren’t being lured by the peanut butter anymore.”
“You’re cooking a meal for the raccoons?”
“You don’t remember you have a mother until ten-thirty at night. I have to cook now,” Nikka replied, ignoring the question. They will be getting up to play soon.” She hung up and put the chicken in the pan with several cloves of garlic and a cup of broth. When it was done, it smelled so good that she could not resist tearing a piece off the end. She arranged it on a plate with a sprig of rosemary and put it in the trap.
“Guess you got them all now, Nikka,” Dr. Asher said the next evening, when he came by after work to collect her quarry. “You can have some rest.”
“I still hear noises in the attic,” Nikka said.
“These old houses make a lot of noise on their own,” Dr. Asher said.
“This house was built in 1980. That’s not so old,” Nikka said. Then she bragged a little. She told him about her research, about the chicken, cooked fresh right before they woke up. She planned to braise some spareribs tonight. His face got redder and redder beneath all that hair. Sweat beaded on his forehead. He took a couple deep breaths.
“You cook a meal like that and all the animals from miles around will come and get caught in your trap,” Dr. Asher said. “I guess you’d better put away that trap now, Mrs. Lee. I guess you got everybody out of your attic now.”
She didn’t correct him about her name. Why fuss? It was best to leave people to their assumptions. She said, instead: “I still hear the noises. I can count feet. There are two more at least.”
“How do you know this one—” and Dr. Asher pointed to the outraged raccoon at his feet—“came from your house? It might have come from mine. Sounds like that chicken smelled good enough.”
“I watched him.” Nikka pointed to Lili’s bedroom window. “I sat by that window and watched him climb from under my gutter and down that tree.”
“These are lives you’re playing with,” Dr. Asher said.
“This is my roof they’re playing with,” Nikka said. “Do you want to take him or not?”
“I believe it’s a her,” Dr. Asher said, lifting the cage and peering underneath with expertise. “And she’s a mama. You can see her teats are still distended.”
Nikka knew, watching Dr. Asher croon to the hissing animal as he walked down the cul-de-sac toward his own house, that he would not be taking this one to Hocking Hills. He walked carefully so as not to jog the cage. Lili had walked like that once when she was in junior high, holding a cardboard box with a baby mole in it. That summer, moles had overrun the neighborhood and gotten into the drainage system and the neighbors had pooled money to hire a mole catcher at the rate of a seventy-five a head. When the baby mole had appeared in the trap at the edge of their lawn, Lili had begged to purchase its freedom. The neighborhood agreed, provided that Lili release the mole somewhere far away. Lili had forked over seventy-five dollars of her babysitting money and swooped off with the mole.
Lili named the baby mole Arabella, and lined a cardboard box with old pillowcases. She told Nikka that she was going to release Arabella in the nature preserve and left the house with the box. But Nikka had known you were never so careful with things that you didn’t mean to keep and call your own. When Lili was at school the next day, she had looked in her daughter’s closet while Lili and found Arabella snoozing in the hamper.
So when Dr. Asher’s rusty station wagon pulled out of his driveway and out of the cul-de-sac, Nikka went down the street to investigate. Half the cats swarmed about her ankles as she approached and the other half hissed and retreated. She rounded the back corner of the house and peered under the porch where a passel of raccoons feasted on cat food out of a porcelain serving dish. And presiding over one end of the dish, a fat matriarch, was her raccoon. She sat on her haunches, her ample belly spilling over her feet, the black nipples still distended. She looked Nikka straight in the eye and continued to eat. She yawned mid-mouthful, baring a glob of masticated cat food and sharp white incisors.
She phoned him as soon as she saw him enter his front door. “I know you didn’t take her to Hocking Hills,” Nikka said. “You stole my raccoon.”
“She is her own raccoon,” Dr. Asher said. “And I’m pretty sure she came from my house. I have babies living under my porch. You don’t separate a mother from her children.”
“They’ll survive,” Nikka said. “Mine are much farther away than Hocking Hills. But if you are so concerned, take the children too.”
“No,” Dr. Asher said.
“Then I want my raccoon back,” Nikka said.
Dr. Asher refused. He blustered that Nikka had respect for neither nature nor living beings, that there was no reason everybody should not live in harmony together. He said that she had to live with the knowledge that she destroyed lives for materialistic selfish reasons. What was a torn up roof if it still kept out the rain? He was going to get collars and tags for all the raccoons in his yard. The tag meant they had a home and someone who cared about them. And if any of them ended up in that godless contraption, lured by the devil food she cooked in her executioner’s kitchen, she would be bound to return them to him.
Nikka was angry, but when she hung up the phone, she found herself feeling sorry for him. He didn’t know yet that you couldn’t tame a wild thing. Why, you couldn’t tame anybody. He would love and shelter them and protect these raccoons and they would accept his love and shelter and protection without any offer of loyalty in return. They were laughing at him. They settled themselves in the house he had opened up to them while ripping shingles from his roof. They ate the food he served while ripping apart his porch. The day he stopped feeding them, either because he was dead or because he could no longer afford to—how could he made a living the way he doctored everybody for free!—they would gobble him up in his bed with their sharp little incisors. She had seen their eyes in his yard that morning. Beady with entitlement.
She collected her trap after dinner, exchanging only a cold nod with the gynecologist, and set it up under the tree. She prepared Ivy’s favorite meal, corned beef and cabbage, and put it in a lopsided ceramic bowl that Lili had thrown in her middle school pottery class. The next night, she prepared Lili’s favorite meal, an omelette loaded with bacon and pepper jack cheese. The night after that, she made her ex-husband’s favorite meal, brisket on noodles. Each night, they scuttled out from the hole beneath the gutter and down the tree and paused at the trap. They knew that the trap was responsible for the slow disappearance of their kin, and yet, each time they caught the new smells of the freshly prepared dish, they allowed themselves to hope that the meal was just a stroke of luck, a present unattached to trickery or despair. They were children without the self-control to deny themselves the possibility of pleasure.
Each morning, she put the cage in the trunk of her car and drove to Caesar Creek. When she opened the cage, they scampered off into the woods without a backwards glance. Part of her liked to imagine they were seeking out their lost family members. Perhaps, somewhere on the other side of the creek, beyond the quarry where Lili and Ivy used to look for trilobites, wild rejoicing and reunion were taking place.
And one evening, too soon, there was only one squatter left. Whereas only a couple weeks before she had lain awake at night, sweating through her body’s betrayal and infuriated by what had then seemed to be the thunderous crowd above, Nikka now lay awake straining to hear the fall of a single being walking through her attic. That night, she purchased her own favorite meal, Kentucky Fried Chicken. She made a plate for the trap, and brought up the rest in its greasy cardboard carton to the armchair in Lili’s bedroom, breaking the rule she had held her family to for the thirty years she had lived in that house: no food upstairs. She ate with her fingers, the wings first, then a drumstick, then a thigh. She felt herself full but continued to eat until the six pieces of fried chicken were gone. Then she washed her hands and went to bed with an aching stomach without waiting to see him climb down the tree. She was asleep when the trap clanged closed.
It had rained the night before. Loud clouds of water burst from the dam and churned into aggressive white whorls in the creek below. Nikka climbed the concrete steps up toward the top of the dam, holding the trap by its handle. Amy Lin huffed and puffed beside her, somehow appearing fierce despite her old house dress that had a hole spreading above her left breast and the set of yellowing plastic curlers in her hair. She had insisted on accompanying Nikka for this last disposal, to make sure she conducted it in a way that the animal gods would know to never again send another raccoon to 11200 Storybook Lane.
The dawn was gray, not yet six o’clock in the morning, and the only person at the dam was an old white fisherman in cargo pants who whistled at them when they huffed by. “Whoo-ee!” he said. “Will you look at that water? Highest I’ve ever seen it.” He peered at the cable looped around Amy’s shoulder, then at the raccoon who sprawled—resigned—at the bottom of the cage. “Well now. Never seen two young ladies fish with a coon as bait. What are y’all fixing to catch—a shark?” He cackled.
Neither of them had ever learned how to talk to men they didn’t know, so they ducked their heads and rushed past him without response. At the top of the dam, Amy unlooped the cable from around her arm and strung one end through the two sides of the cage. Amy looped the other end of the cable around the railing.
“Can’t we let him go?” Nikka asked.
“You’re too soft,” Amy Lin said. “Letting the last one go is asking for bad luck. We have to teach him a lesson so he tells everybody he sees not to come back.”
Aware of the howl of surprised delight from the fat old fisherman in cargos, they lowered the cage slowly toward the water. Aware of the approaching torrent beneath him, the occupant sprang to his feet and clawed at the sides, rattling at the metal wires, caterwauling like a frightened child. They submerged him in the roaring billows at the foot of the dam. Nikka wanted to take him out immediately—it was enough!—but Amy said to count to ten. Any living creature could hold their breath for ten seconds, she reasoned, and they didn’t want him to think they were soft. Eight. Nine. Ten. They hoisted the trap out of the current and back toward the railing. He sputtered and coughed and managed to swipe a condemning hand at them or at the heavens. Ten breaths to recover, Amy said. Eight. Nine. Ten. They lowered him again. Eight. Nine. Ten. This time, when they hoisted the trap into the air, he lay weakly at the bottom of the trap. Nikka noticed one hand—it was a hand, fingered and all—gripped tightly about one wire. The caterwauling had stopped. There was only a feathery cough.
“That’s enough,” she told Amy.
“Do you want him to learn or not?”
“I know how to manage my own,” Nikka said, coolly. Amy was too bossy. Nikka said she guessed she’d released too many raccoons in the Caesar Creek vicinity. She didn’t want them breeding and taking over the area so that families couldn’t come and enjoy the creek anymore. This is where she had taken her girls for picnics when they were growing up, after all. She guessed she’d release him in the Johnson Nature Preserve closer to home. Amy looked skeptical but then Amy was always skeptical about ideas that were not her own.
But when she got home, Nikka took the subdued animal from the trunk of her car and carried him down the street. She did not ring the doorbell. Dr. Asher would be at his clinic. She left the cage on his front doorstep, where it was immediately engulfed in a welcome party of mangy cats.
Dr. Asher never called. Even when he came by to say hello when Ivy was home for Christmas, he didn’t say a word about the raccoon she had left at his door.
For weeks after, Nikka lay awake staring at the ceiling above her bed, straining to hear a footstep, an animal breath, any sign of life. She fell asleep just when light was beginning to soften her windows, and the sleep was always one of deep exhaustion from waiting. When they came back, though, she would be ready. When they came back, she would check out some cookbooks from the library and cook some really spectacular meals. Recipes she had never tried before. Chicken and dumplings, maybe. Pot-roast. Meatloaf, which white people seemed to like. American meals to catch American beasts.
They said—all the library books and websites she consulted—that animals came home if given the chance. They couldn’t help it. The pull was as primal as the migratory patterns of birds flying south to winter or salmon swimming upstream to lay their eggs. The attachment of mammals was more complex. Their bodies and minds remembered the places where they had known food and shelter. The most sophisticated mammals remembered, even, the places where they had been born, mated, given birth—known love.