Don Zancanella The Badger

LAST SUMMER I DISCOVERED A BADGER LIVING IN THE FIELD behind my house. If you don’t know what a badger looks like, think of a small, flat bear with a pointy nose, razor-sharp teeth, and large front feet capable of digging fast and deep. Or maybe an ill-tempered subterranean raccoon.

The house wasn’t technically mine—it was a rental my husband Roger and I owned, into which I’d moved after he told me he was in love with a woman named Paige. I wasn’t surprised to learn about Paige. I’d managed to marry a man who was self-centered and abusive so why not add unfaithful to the list. Walking out on him felt more satisfying than letting him walk out on me, even if the place I went to was a crappy little two-bedroom bungalow on the edge of town. As for the badger, his burrow was in the vacant lot between the bungalow’s back door and a stretch of blacktop where high school kids raced their cars on Saturday nights.

You can tell if a hole belongs to a badger simply by its size. They’re usually about the diameter of a dinner plate, with a well-sculpted berm around the rim. The first time I noticed the one behind my house I’d been having trouble sleeping and had gone outside just before sunrise, hiking up the legs of my pajamas as I walked through the dew-soaked weeds. When I came upon the hole I looked inside but couldn’t see beyond the first bend. I figured it must belong to an unusually large rabbit because I knew nothing of badgers and there is in the minds of most urbanized Americans a hierarchy of animals one can reasonably expect to encounter: first, dogs, cats, and birds, followed by rabbits and the smaller rodents such as squirrels and mice, or, if you live in the West as I do, prairie dogs. Which is to say, when you glimpse an animal near your house you’ll consider many other possibilities before the word badger comes to mind.

I heard him before I saw him. It was a fearsome snarl, directed at me because he was coming home after a night of hunting and I was between him and his hole. At first I assumed it was a dog but then I turned and thought “How novel, a badger,” and then, “Shit, I’m going to get bitten by a badger,” by which time I was backpedaling and trying to remove a flip-flop because I wanted something to defend myself with even if it was only a rubber shoe. As I retreated, he began to advance, moving in the odd, low-to-the ground manner I’ve come to think of as badger-motion, like a big hairbrush on wheels. I said “shoo” or “get away,” or something equally inane, and then, just as I was about to scream, he dashed toward his burrow and disappeared underground.

As soon as I caught my breath, my fear disappeared and was replaced by exhilaration. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t get excited about encountering wildlife, especially when it happens in or near town. I think humans have a need to connect to the natural world that is seldom adequately met. You don’t have to be a confirmed nature-lover to feel it—just an ordinary suburbanite who stumbles upon a creature—not a moth or a mouse, but a creature of substance—running free.

At work the next day, I told Sue about the badger but she didn’t seem very interested. I wasn’t surprised. Hearing about someone else’s encounter with a wild animal isn’t much more interesting than looking at a photo in a magazine.

“Have you ever seen one?” I asked.

“I haven’t. Aren’t they supposed smell bad?”

“Like a skunk? I don’t think so. This one didn’t. At least not that I noticed.”

“What about rabies? You’ll be sorry if you get bit.”

“I don’t plan to get close enough for that to happen. I just thought it was interesting. Not fifty feet from my back door.”

During my break, I looked up badgers on the internet and discovered that they are "nocturnal, omnivorous, and reclusive." So I felt an immediate kinship: for the last few months, I’ve been all three.

That night I went down to the burrow again but the badger wasn’t there. Over the next few days, in an effort to get him to show himself, I started leaving food. Half a peanut butter sandwich, some tuna salad, whatever I had on hand. I’d set the plate on the ground at dusk and then back way off, almost to the deck. Sure enough, he started coming out of his hole to gobble it up. However, before he ate, he always surveyed the area with great care. He was as aware of me as I was of him.

At first I wasn’t sure whether to call the badger it, her, or him but eventually I settled on him. I’m not sure why. Is there something inherently male about badgers? Roger was not at all badger-ish. If I had to liken him to an animal, it would be a cockroach. There was a particular hideousness about him. His jaws where like mandibles, his back was like a carapace and when he was on top of me during sex, I often felt as though he had six multi-jointed legs, all of them flailing. They say that when the human race has been annihilated by some human-caused event, cockroaches will inherit the earth. Centuries from now, after global warming has burnt us or boiled us or skin-cancered us to death, all that will remain are the descendants of Roger and his cockroach-mate Paige.

Once my nightly feedings had begun drawing the badger out of his hole on a regular basis, I placed my lawn chair halfway between his burrow and the deck so I could observe. I discovered he liked spaghetti best. It was quite a spectacle—he’d emerge from his hole, patrol the area, feast on the spaghetti with gusto, and then disappear into the trees that bordered the field—where, if the internet was correct, he’d hunt all night. His front feet were enormous. I wished I could see him dig.

In another life, I’d have been a good zoologist. Or better yet, a director of wildlife documentaries for public television. That would certainly have been more fulfilling than working in a paint store. “Which do you think is better, Apple Orchard or Sea Mist?” the customer would ask. “I’d go with the Sea Mist but you’re the one who has to live with it,” I’d reply. Compare that to hiking into the wilderness to get some footage of a pack of wolves.

So taken was I with my badger-watching that I could occasionally get through an entire evening without thinking about Roger. But then, almost as if he knew I was beginning to forget about him, he started coming to the house unannounced. The first time it was to mow the lawn.

“I drove by here the other day and saw the grass needed to be cut,” he said. “It won’t take long.” He was standing on the front porch, still in a shirt with his name on it from work. I wanted to tell him to get off my property but he was part owner of it and telling him to get off our property wouldn’t have packed the same punch. Instead I said, “No it’s okay, I can handle it. I’ve been busy.”

“Doing what?”

“Doing whatever I feel like doing. As often as I want.” I didn’t tell him about the badger so as not invite ridicule. He’d have considered it evidence my life had gone off the rails.

“If this place goes to hell we won’t be able to sell it,” he said, shaking his head in disgust. “Of course if you want to stay here permanently, you can buy my half.”

“Once the lawyers get involved, you may not have a half to sell.” I had no idea if that was true but it was the sort of thing I thought one was supposed to say.

“Don't be such a bitch,” he said. Then he went to the garage, got out the mower, and started pulling on the starter rope in a manner I was quite familiar with—a manner that said, “Seeing as you’re a lazy slut, I’m going to take care of this for you but you‘d best stay out of my way.”

I stood on the front porch and watched him cut the grass, marching back and forth and muttering. I wondered what Paige thought about him coming to see me. Maybe he hadn’t told her. Or maybe she was so secure in her position she didn’t care.

After he was gone I went out back and looked for the badger. I didn’t see him but I could feel his presence. It occurred to me then that I liked having something Roger didn’t know about, something that was mine and not even partly his, a secret animal friend.

Roger and I met when he worked at the paint store. But he didn’t like the owner so he quit and got a job managing the plumbing department at a big home center. That’s where he met Paige. I was first attracted to Roger because he rescued me from another guy. But that meant I didn’t evaluate him as rigorously as I should have. By the time I figured out what he was really like we were married. I kept expecting him to mellow, but somewhere deep inside him was a reservoir of anger that was always full. For the last six months we were together, I was genuinely afraid. Split lip, black eye, sprained wrist afraid. After we separated, I felt a deep sense of relief. Therefore I was not at all pleased when I realized the lawn-mowing visit was the beginning of a trend. After work, just when I was sitting down to relax, the phone would ring:

“Is there a bag of fertilizer in the garage or should I bring one from the store?”

“I think there’s some in the garage, but I don’t know how much. I’m heading out to a movie so if you’re coming over, I won’t be here.” I hadn’t intended to go to a movie but to avoid contact with him I was willing to change my plans.

“By yourself?”

“By myself. But feel free to fertilize. Fertilize away.”

When I got home from the movie it was dark but there was enough light from the moon for me to see the white granules of fertilizer on the sidewalk where he’d overshot the lawn. Before our separation, when we’d rented this place to a young teacher and his wife, he hadn’t cared what condition the grass was in. But now he seemed to have an unrelenting urge to keep it manicured and green.

The next day something interesting happened. I was talking to Sue about Roger and she said, “Guess what! I met Paige. It turns out she's taking the same exercise class as me. We were chatting and I discovered who she was. She said some pretty funny things about Roger.”

“Like what?”

“I don't remember her exact words, but it was something to the effect that she started dating him because she wanted a man she could feel superior to. And then as soon as she realized what she'd said, we both laughed. I think you'd like her if you met her. It sounded to me like she's over Roger or will be pretty soon.”

“Ah, now I understand. Paige isn't working out. That explains his sudden obsession with my lawn.”

“I'd stay away from him. You'll end up calling the police again.”

“He comes over without being asked. The place is partly his so he uses that as an excuse.”

“Can't you just go inside and lock the door.”

“That would really piss him off. He doesn’t like obstacles. He hates being told what he’s not allowed to do.”

I was pretending to be unconcerned, but now that I knew Paige was backing off, I was alarmed. He was planning to come back to me, whether I wanted him or not.

After work, fearing he’d call again, I turned off my phone and drove to the public library where I asked the librarian if she could help me find some books about badgers. For some reason she assumed I wanted children’s books. In a matter of minutes she came back with Wind in the Willows and a picture book called Bedtime for Frances. She was so pleased to be able to help me I couldn’t bring myself to tell her they weren’t what I had in mind. But it didn’t really matter. The main reason I went there was to avoid Roger. The books were just to keep me occupied while I killed time.

“Do you want to check them out?” the librarian asked.

“Not yet. I’d like to sit down and look at them first.”

“That’s fine. If I think of any others I’ll bring them over.”

I started with the picture book. It was about a little girl badger named Frances who kept coming up with new reasons not to go to bed. Like many animals in children’s books, Frances had almost no animal characteristics—she was simply a child with fur. Next I opened Wind in the Willows. Before I’d finished reading three pages, I realized I’d read it before, when I was a child myself. It all began to come back to me—how Toad tells Mole not to bother Badger because he’s a recluse and a grouch, how Mole goes to visit him anyway and is welcomed into Badger’s home, and how Badger eventually helps them defeat the weasels and stoats. Once again the characters dressed and talked like humans but in this book, I had a sense the author knew something about real badgers, acquired from actual encounters in the wild. When Rat and Mole show up at Badger’s door, he says, “Who is it this time, disturbing people on such a night? Speak up!” But as soon as he realizes who it is, he welcomes them inside. It reminded me of how my own badger seemed suspicious of me at first but then became more tolerant of my presence. Of course I’d helped things along with plates of food.

Both books made me think about anthropomorphizing—how often we all do it and how difficult it is to avoid. My badger didn’t wear pajamas and sleep in a human bed, but I certainly pictured him thinking about the world in ways not so different from my own. Surely he mused about the weather and about the tasks ahead of him on any given day. Surely he had memories of his past and, if not hopes in the human sense, then something like desires and fears.

When I got back from the library, Roger’s car wasn’t there, but the side gate was open. Once again, he’d been doing yard work. However, this time I wished I’d been there to stop him. For some reason he’d run the mower across the field almost up to where the badger lived, stopping only a few feet short of the burrow. I felt sorry for the badger. He’d probably been terrified to have such a loud machine come so close to his home.

I put out some spaghetti but he never showed. I hoped he’d gone hunting early, before Roger arrived. It occurred to me that even if a human had no lawn mower, no weed-whacker or rake, it still must be disconcerting for a creature to have its face at ankle-height. A big part of how we relate to others is based on looking them in the eyes. With a dog or cat we crouch down or pick them up in our arms when we want to really communicate. I wished I was brave enough to lie down in the weeds and approach the badger on his own level. But I was afraid I’d get my nose bitten off.

Later that night, when I was getting ready for bed, Roger called. I picked up because if I hadn’t, he might have decided to come over yet again. He’d have said he was worried about me and I definitely didn’t want that.

“Thanks for mowing the weeds,” I said.

“You’d just let ‘em grow, wouldn’t you?”

“It’s a vacant lot.”

For a moment I considered telling him about the badger—I wanted him to feel guilty about disturbing it—but I knew that would be mistake.

“I suppose you were at a movie again," he said. "Maybe next time I can come along."

"Roger, that doesn't make sense. Why don’t you take Paige to a movie?”

"Don't talk about her. Do not."

At lunch the next day, Sue said, “Paige is coming here this afternoon. We're going to class together. This is your chance to see what she’s like.”

Before she arrived I spent some time in front of the mirror. I knew we’d be sizing each other up. But she wasn't as attractive as I expected. She had a pretty face but needed a more appealing hair style. On the other hand, compared to her I dressed like a frump.

“I’m probably more fascinated to meet you than you are to meet me,” I said as I shook her hand. “When you live with someone for six years you lose perspective. I’m curious about what another person thinks.”

At first she seemed taken aback but then she shrugged. “He's okay. But we don’t share many interests. I guess I’m not even sure what his interests are. One thing I’ll say, he needs to get rid of that temper. I can’t imagine how you put up with that.”

After she was gone, I found myself feeling almost sorry for Roger. Paige was less tolerant than me, as well as better at perceiving his flaws. It seemed obvious she was nearly done with him. He wouldn’t take well to being told he didn’t measure up.

I went home looking forward to my upcoming day off. But when I woke up the next morning Roger’s car was parked outside. Apparently he’d decided that one way to keep me from avoiding him was to start working on the yard while I was still in bed.

He puttered around for an hour or two, cleaning out gutters and repairing the garden fence. Then just before noon I looked out and saw him uncoiling the hose in an alarmingly purposeful manner.

I opened the back door and said, “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m going to get rid of that badger for you. I plan to drown it out.”

I was shocked. I didn’t think he even knew about it. The casualness with which he spoke was pure Roger—vicious and nonchalant at the same time. I had a strong urge to get in my car and drive away. But I needed to think about the badger’s well-being as well as my own.

“You don’t need to do that. He hasn’t caused any problems. I like having him around.”

Roger pretended he hadn’t heard me—an unmistakable sign his temper was heating up. I watched in dismay as he dragged the hose to the burrow and shoved it down inside. Then he went back toward the garage where the spigot was.

I came down off the deck, pleading as I went: “Please Rog, don’t do this. I told you, he’s not hurting anything. Why do you care? You have no right.”

“I don’t want an animal like that on our property,” he said, opening the valve. “They carry diseases. It’ll get into the trash.”

By then I’d reached the hose and tried to pull it out of the burrow, but he jerked it away from me and shoved it back in.

“Goddamn it, stop,” I said. “You’re going to hurt the badger. I can see why Paige is losing interest. You don’t fucking listen and you don’t fucking care.”

I didn’t think I’d said anything remarkable, but it was enough to rattle him. He dropped the hose and came at me. “You pathetic cunt,” he said, grabbing the front of my shirt. Then, just as I was beginning to consider how I could avoid getting hit, I heard a scrabbling in the undergrowth beneath the trees nearby, followed by a noise like a garbage disposal chewing glass—a noise that seemed to be coming toward us at a high rate of speed.

Roger’s face was inches from mine and I watched his expression change. His eyes got wide and fearful as the muscles in his cheeks drew back. An instant later the badger made contact and Roger started to shriek:

“Get it off me, get it off. Jesus fucking oh my god get it off.”

His knees began to buckle and he flailed wildly as he went down. I wrenched his hand off my shirt and let him fall. What I saw when I stepped back was a brown ball of fur in a frenzy, tearing at the flesh below Roger’s knee. Roger kicked and tried to scramble away but the badger kept at him. Then suddenly the badger released him and disappeared into his burrow.

Roger remained on his back, holding his knee with both hands. Blood surged through his fingers. “Goddamn it, get me something,” he said.

But at that moment all my sympathy was with the badger. He must have found it upsetting—horrifying even—to see his home being attacked. While Roger lay there quivering, I unearthed a stone and held it above my head. The stone was the size of a softball, just large enough, if I used all my strength, to crack his despicable skull.

“What?” he said.

“What? I’ll tell you what. Leave the fucking badger alone.” Then I tossed the stone aside, turned off the spigot, and watched from the deck until he was gone. I hoped the water hadn’t damaged the burrow much.

That evening Roger called. He said, “I spent half the day at the emergency room. I had to get eleven stitches. Now I need to catch that thing so it can be tested for rabies. Otherwise they’ll have to treat me as if I’ve got the disease.”

“I’ve heard that can be painful.”

“So have I. And fuck you. I’ll be over tomorrow with a trap.”

The instant I was off the phone, I drove to Walmart and bought a pet carrier, the heavy-duty plastic kind with a metal door. Then I cooked up a pot of spaghetti. I placed the carrier near the badger’s hole, put the spaghetti in the carrier, and set up my lawn chair to wait. I wanted to be far enough away to avoid scaring him but close enough to get the door shut after he went in. I sat for a long time. It got dark and the stars appeared. I slept and woke up and slept again. Just as the sun was coming up, he emerged from his burrow. I’d been assuming he was off hunting but Roger and the hose had upset the poor thing so much he’d remained in his half-flooded home all night.

As usual, he couldn’t resist a plate of spaghetti. He waddled straight over to the carrier, spent a few seconds checking it out, and disappeared inside. I was able to sneak up, swing the door closed, and get it latched before he turned. Of course he was enraged. There was growling and spitting and snapping and such furious lunging I was afraid the carrier would break at the seams. But eventually he calmed down. I sat beside the carrier and spoke to him in a soothing voice: “What a handsome fellow you are. I’ll take you out in the country, to a place he’ll never find. If he figures out what I’ve done, I’ll deny it.” But as I spoke I could picture him coming at me, filled with rage.

Before I loaded the carrier in to my car, I looked at the badger through the door and made eye contact. It was intense. I felt like we were communicating, like he knew I cared about him and would do my best keep him from harm. If we’d been in a fairy tale, he would have spoken to me then. He’d have said, “Now that we have vanquished the cockroach man, we can be together forever.” And I’d have said, “If this is the point where you turn into a man, let me suggest an alternative. How about I become a badger? I feel I have the proper temperament and I’m curious about life underground.”

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