It was dark — a moonless night beneath dark clouds, and my run at just before midnight. I did not see her until she was ten feet away, her luxurious black fur glinting in the dim light of far-off sodium vapor lamps, two broad white stripes running from nape to tip of tail. Ten feet away and she was startled.
I had been running near-asleep, my thoughts cascading to place after increasingly nonsensical place, and I was startled too. I have no particular fear of skunks, have lain gladly and quietly in my sleeping bag while they sniffed around my head, but neither one of us had expected the other. I stopped, backed up a few steps.
She was at the base of a thick wall of grass two feet high, mown to the ground at the edge of the path, fresh water flowing into salt behind the grass, the tidal section of the creek swollen with spring tide. There is a species of snail that lives down there, native I think, blacker than the introduced French garden snails that eat my chard, and abundant on cool nights like this. She must have been after them. They would have been an easy meal, and filling, and she surely did not expect a loud, massive figure to come running up to her out of the dark. It was hard to see her gestures more than vaguely. She did not stamp with peremptory forefeet that I could see, but leapt straight up, an alarmed hop a foot into the air, moved toward me, moved back, then turned and ran away from me on the path and into darkness.
I watched her black figure fade into night. I had no way home but to run after her. For half a mile the path was hemmed on one side by fence — a recreational vehicle storage lot’s chain link and then the back fences of tract home yards — on the other by creek. She knew I was coming now and would be ready. Perhaps if I drop all guile as I run, I thought, she will let me pass. No, I answered myself, that is New Age bullshit. A barn owl screeched above me, flew down-creek toward the bay.
A startling meeting, and yet four generations back, or five, my forebears would have treated it with idle derision. How seldom we encounter animals these days, other than ourselves, who can cause us more than inconvenience. We stood on the threshold of the Pleistocene and saw a world full of things that could eat us with a swipe. We killed them all. Short-faced bears and giant cats, fifty-kilogram wolves, all poised to flick away our rude stone-tipped spears and dine on monkey meat, and now a few stray tigers hide from us in the thick woods. Some of the beasts are safely locked away in fossil time, twelve thousand years ago, but not all of them. Some left only yesterday. In 1450, more or less, the citizens of Paris reported a wolf roaming their streets, a female of that Eurasian race that populates the Slavic nightmare myths, roaming the streets a generation after the agony of Joan. Nothing is known of her fate. Did she slink pregnant down to the Seine to drink, then slip away in night? Did les citoyens hunt her down and kill her, or worse baptize her? We cannot know. But a mere seven lifetimes ago wolves walked the dark of the City of Light. My walking out at night unafraid of all but people is a situation wholly new in the history of the world.
All that remains to harm us now are elements: the sun, the sea, rockfall or lightning strike. To some these pose too great a threat. I slept on the ground a week ago, unmolested by all but wind and frost, and felt a bit of shame at climbing in the truck four hours after waking. On the Interstate near the Halloran turquoise mines I saw a Christian fish plaque on an off-road vehicle towed by a HumVee, towed by a Winnebago. “If Jesus had had those in the desert,” I later told a friend, “those forty days would have been no problem.” The old equation has been inverted. The monsters now stand guard for us against those minor elemental inconveniences. We lie to ourselves that the world can work this way for long.
Our world increasingly carpeted with those lies, the sea will rise up to cover them. The skunk and I faced each other on land four feet above the bay. The water will come up, erase this story, engulf a billion other stories, our new world a tale of Atlantean hubris edged hard up against the oil-slicked, ruined shallows. The boats across the chain link will come unmoored, float through drowned streets. The Winnebagos will be homes for fish. I will see this before I die, and I am old.
I ran, trying to discern black against black void. A third-mile up she scratched hard at soil five feet above sea level, in a patch of ivy beneath the chain link fence. The path was ten feet wide, so that is how much berth I gave her. She looked up placidly, her head turning to watch me as I passed.