Fingers of rain rap against the window calling for my attention. The wind fusses around the western side of the house. I ignore the sound and continued to count the seconds. I’m making a chocolate cake and the batter has to be mixed for two more minutes. I miss our old microwave. The new one is shiny chrome and sleek but it doesn’t have a timer like the old one. Clunky and white, it graced my counter for 14 years. It was practically an antique when it gave up the ghost and was put out to pasture in the garage. The time is up and as I pour the batter into the pans I hear the thunder slip and tumble down the roof, shaking the eaves before falling hard to the ground. The kitchen warms with the oven and as I place the pans on the rack I know that in half an hour the damp of the house will be chased away by the velvet of baked chocolate wafting on the heated air.
I pour a second cup of tea and watch the trees sway in the wind. They’ll be no walk to the post office on this rainy day and the dog sighs. A profound sorrow overflows her dark liquid eyes as she settles in for a long day of watching the floor for errant food scraps. The gentle hiss of the gas stove competes with the radio turned downed low to filter the manic morning deejays. It isn’t really a cheery radio morning anyway, all damp and overcast. What this day calls for is a gin soaked Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday heroin slurred to sing a chorus or two along with the wind and the rain.
It’s a typical April day full of the showers that are so important to the May flowers. Nothing like yesterday with its new spring sun, wings stretched to warm the winter grass patched and field bare earth below. Though April has only begun it was warm enough to go coatless. I had been just about dying to get out into the garden beds but the weather had not been co operative. Late snow had further complicated things and I was hesitant to remove the layer of leaves I’d left in the beds last fall to protect my bulbs over the winter. The sight of daffodil shoots yellow with frost damage kept me cautious but the weatherman had been optimistic and on his advice I had decided it was time to get my hands dirty.
The afternoon passed quickly and I was soon joined by the willing hands of D. D works the nightshift and he’s looking to get back into some semblance of a daylight life. The yard is just an acre and I thought that a quarter acre clean up of winter leaves, pine cones and various twigs and branches was a good start. It was after dinner and the moon was almost full in the clear sky when we’d finished moving the whole lot to the compost pile that hides behind the pine windbreak. The composting heap still showed vestiges of last fall’s apple windfall and the remains of black walnuts that squirrels had spent the winter feasting on. The leaves caught fire quickly and the white smoke began to roll across the fields in a widening column.
Drawn by the sound of rustling I looked over at the wood frame that I’d constructed to brace the rotting vegetation against. In the fading light I could see the soft grey of a small body huddled beside the pine slats. The dog and D were otherwise occupied closer to the house with an old soccer ball that had blanched with the winter cold. The dog carried the half inflated ball like a basket with the depressed top conveniently clamped in her mouth while D pretended to wrestle it from her. The fire was far enough away from the frightened bit of fur so I moved some loose straw over top and let him be. When the fire died down I figured he would make his way out into the field in search of another bed and breakfast now that the compost pile was in sate of flux after the winter lull.
Using the pitchfork I turned the heap, spreading the winter debris so that the fire could burn evenly. An open burn can smolder for hours. Even though the fields behind our house have only the barest cover of winter wheat you don’t want to take a chance on something spreading after you’d thought everything was done burning.
As I reached the opposite end of the compost heap I saw a second ball of grey fuzz. It was trying to dig under 2 blackened walnuts resting at the edge of the fire. I banked a bit of dirt up to keep it from getting closer to the flames. The walnuts rolled aside and even in the receding daylight it was apparent that something was odd about the burrower. On closer inspection I could see that it wasn’t a mouse but a dark velvet shrew that had made a winter home in the pile.
Just then D passed the tree line and I called to him to come and see the unexpected nature of the compost pile tenant. He headed over and admired the shrew. We talked for a minute about what to do with it and decide to move it away from the fire it seemed so eager to dig under. As D tried to pick it up the shrew squirmed and made a break for the field. Its funny little body was a round bullet flying through the grass and D called to the dog to come and see what he’d found.
Shocked I called out a warning to him, to keep the dog away. A shrew isn’t a rodent. It’s a member of the order insectivora but to a dog it would look like a rodent and dogs kill rodents. I’d once seen a documentary about northern wolves that survived on a steady diet of field mice, raising whole families on them. I remember watching them hop up in the air to land with a pounce on their miniscule prey. Kera was on the shrew in the same way.
D grabbed for her but it was too late. At his command she dropped it to the grass. The little grey body lay shaking, the smooth fur wet with spit and the blood pouring from its neck. Shamefaced D looked at me. “I’m sorry, he said. Maybe it will be alright”. Nonplussed I looked at him and then back at the broken body that was drawing out its last breath in the dry winter grass. D took the pitch fork and moved the dying shrew over to the slate that marks one of the three pet graves under the cherry tree. I could see how limp the body was, liquid in its last moments. “It might get better and crawl under the rock” D said. I looked at the smudge of grey lying on the ground and then back at him. Wordlessly he handed the pitchfork to me and headed inside with the dog.
The yard was almost dark and the satisfaction of my first bit of yard work was gone like the fading light and the life under the soft grey velvet. Later that evening I went out to check the burn. The moon had misted over and the night had turned cold. I could still see the small mound of fur lying beside the stone.
This morning I woke to the sound of the wind and the traffic of rain on the rooftop. There was a break in the downpour when I took the dog out for her morning constitutional but the trees were still heavy with the wet. As we rounded the back of the yard I could see the shrew now a dark bedraggled shadow in the lee of the stone. The wind wound through the trees shaking the resting rain loose and as it fell a murmur like the mock echo of distant applause sounded. An inanimate shrew held no interest for the dog and instead she kept a close eye on the multitude of birds that wove their way in complicated patterns through the air and hopped across the grass stabbed the lawn with the knives of their beaks looking for tasty tidbits in the soft wet earth. The same wind that had shook the trees swung up the yard carrying the smell of the compost pile, fetid with wet and char. The rain started up again before we made it to the back door. As I wiped Kera’s paws I could smell the yard on her.
I put on the kettle and preheated the oven. The rain is still sleeting down hard against the windows but now the smell of chocolate is finally filling the air. The Billy Holiday CD is the perfect choice as I read the paper and finish my second cup of tea. The dog sighs again, eyeing the remains of my unfinished breakfast, half a bagel smeared with peanut butter and honey. I can hear the wind rise to join Lady Day. They sing together, sad and wild…“Keeps on raining, look how it’s raining…Daddy he can’t make no time…”