–Small acts of kindness soften the soul.–
“Let’s go over to Harvey’s,” I suggested one Sunday afternoon soon after moving to the country house.
“Who’s Harvey?” asked Brian (8).
“Harvey is our neighbor,” I explained. “You’ll like his place. He has lots of animals.”
We walked down Church Road toward Rabbit Lane, past Russell’s arena, and turned up the dirt drive to Harvey’s log-sided house. No one answered my knock at the door, but I thought it would be alright if we looked around at Harvey’s animals. We smelled the animals before we saw them: skunk. No doubt about it. A wrinkled, water-stained sign wired to the cage read, Stay Away.
We circled a wide path around the skunk cage, never catching a glimpse of the animal, then came to a big wood-and-wire cage with tall forked branches standing like trees inside and a plywood shelter box in the upper corner. Two timid eyes peaked out at us from the dark inside, followed by a black button nose, long whiskers, and a white-and-gray masked face.
“A raccoon!” Laura (3) shouted with delight.
I took the lid off a rusty can that sat next to the cage, and handed some little hard biscuits shaped like bones to the children. Erin and Laura were a little frightened, but Brian poked a biscuit through the wire into the cage. The adorable raccoon emerged from its dark box and climbed down the branch. We watched, enchanted, as the animal gently took the biscuit in its paws, moistened the biscuit in a water pail, and scuttled back to its house to nibble in peace.
The quiet, magical moment burst into excitement as all the children poked more biscuits through the wire, coaxing, “Here, raccoon. Come on little raccoon. Come get a delicious biscuit. Here you go.” To our surprise a much bigger raccoon peeked out from the darkness of the box and scrambled down the tree-branch. It grabbed a biscuit in each hand and sauntered over to the water pail, rinsing and munching while we watched.
The excitement was more than Laura could contain. “TWO RACCOONS!” she screamed, sending the larger animal scurrying back up the branch into the safety of its dark, cool box.
“Laura,” Brian complained. “Don’t scare him away.” But he was too enthralled to really be angry.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” I reassured her. “He’ll come out again when he’s ready.”
A voice called out cheerily from behind us, “Why, howdy there, youngins!”
“Harvey!” I called out in reply.
Harvey was one of the strangest looking men I had ever seen. His face was almost completely covered by a thick, white beard that hung from his hidden chin in a mess of tangled curls more than a foot long. His wispy white hair was about that long behind his head, which was shaded with a misshapen hat of rough, sweat-stained felt. The children were timid at first and stepped behind me.
I clapped Harvey on the shoulder, “Good to see you, Harv! I thought I’d bring the children over to shown them your animals.”
Harvey bent down and said in a gentle voice, “Hiya, kiddies. Do you like the raccoons?”
They nodded their heads shyly, staring, and not knowing what to think of my new friend.
“You kiddies come on over here,” Harvey said in a soothing voice. “I want you to meet Lucinda, my favorite pet.”
Harvey’s small, moist, blue eyes twinkled under the brim of his old hat. Something about his voice, his eyes, and the softness of his smile told them he was safe and kind and good. They relaxed a little and cautiously stepped out from behind me to follow Harvey.
The old man led Laura and Erin slowly by the hand to the cage not far from the raccoons. I couldn’t see anything at first except an empty box and an overturned water dish. I jumped when the dish moved.
Harvey laughed wheezily and said, “Lucinda likes to turn her water dish over and hide inside. I think she’s playing hide-and-seek with herself.”
Just then a little black nose poked out from under the dish, and Harvey said, “Come on out Lucy, and meet our new friends.”
As if understanding the old man’s message, Lucinda waddled out from under the dish. The girls drew in their breath with sudden fear as they saw the black bushy fur and the unmistakable white stripes. Lucinda was a skunk!
“It’s all right,” Harvey chuckled, noticing the girls tense up. “I’ve raised Lucy since she was a tiny little kit. I’ve never de-scented her, but she’s never sprayed me either.”
With that explanation he reached his finger through a hole in the chicken wire and gently scratched Lucinda’s furry head and upturned snout. She was obviously pleased at the attention, and made funny noises that I would have called purring if she were a cat.
Harvey gazed at the skunk with smiles of love and tenderness, as if she were his own infant child. The animal we call skunk was never again just a skunk to us; she was Miss Lucinda, Harvey’s special friend.
Something else moved then, but not in a cage. The ring of fat on the old man’s stomach suddenly shifted, and a bushy light-brown tail emerged from under his shirt. This time we all started.
“Oh,” said Harvey. “He was so quiet and content I forgot all about him.”
Harvey eased a creature out from under his shirt where it had been comfortably napping against Harvey’s warm body.
“What is it?” Erin asked, as much in awe of this new animal as of its resting place.
“Who is it,” Harvey corrected. “This is my pal Charlie. He’s a chocolate skunk. You’ve never heard of a chocolate skunk? There’s lots of kinds of skunks, you know. Blacks and chocolates and albinos. All kinds. Charlie, here, can’t spray, but I don’t think he would even if he could. Here, child; you hold him.”
Before Erin knew what was happening she was holding a skunk, a bushy, brown, chocolate skunk named Charlie. His soft paws grasped her fingers in a friendly way, the way a baby holds your finger with his whole hand. Charlie reached up to touch his cool, moist nose against hers. She giggled at the sensation, but also at the thought. Brian, Laura, and I all watched in awe, not knowing for a moment what to think.
“He likes you,” Harvey announced. “Charlie is very selective. He doesn’t kiss just any girl he meets—only the special ones.”
Erin blushed as Brian burst out laughing. Kissed by a skunk, a skunk named Charlie, no less. I could certainly think of worse things with a skunk.
Erin said to Brian just then, “Why don’t you go make friends with the skunk in the Stay Away pen.”
Harvey took us on a tour of the rest of his place, what we came to call the “zoo,” where we saw foxes, deer, goats, sheep, ferrets, rabbits, and hundreds of birds of all kinds, including pea hens and pea cocks, pigeons, jungle fowl, and loud cackling guinea hens.
“Guinea hens make better watch dogs than dogs,” Harvey observed. “They make an impossible noise whenever a stranger approaches.”
What a place! Harvey invited us to come back any time, even if he wasn’t there. He operated a tannery in a cinderblock building behind his house. Rows of pelts hung from high-strung lines: cougar, wolf, fox, skunk, beaver, deer, raccoon, pronghorn, coyote, rabbit. Enormous 200-gallon vats with dark, foul-smelling liquids sat squatly and randomly around the shop. How ironic that a man who loved living animals had found himself making a meager livelihood by tanning dead hides brought to him by others.
We invited Harvey to dinner months later, on a cold November Sunday. Brian and Erin giggled at his repeated Mmmns and Ahhhs as he savored Angie’s meatloaf and baked potatoes. He kept thanking her for the “delightful” meal. Harvey especially enjoyed the fresh whole wheat bread with butter and honey. He praised Angie for grinding her own wheat and making her own bread “in this pitiful day and age of bleached, processed loaves of air.” After dinner Harvey told us a story of when his father, Jim, played a joke on the rural route mailman.
“I’m sure you seen it. In the country, the mailman (or the mail lady, as the case may be) drives a reg’lar car to deliver the mail, only it’s not completely reg’lar ‘cause the steerin’ wheel is on the right side, as opposed to the left, so he can open the mailboxes and stuff the mail, convenient like, without having to lean all the way across the car and through the opposite window.
“Now, unlike you new-comers (no offense intended, of course), us old-timers all had large country mailboxes, big enough to fit several shoe boxes. So when the mailman had parcels and packages, he could just leave ‘em right there in the box with the letter mail.
“One day it occurred to my old man—God rest his soul—that our mailbox could fit other largish items besides parcels and packages. Of course, we had known for a long time that the mailbox was a perfect fit for plates of goodies or a gift at Christmas time, if we liked the mailman, that is. And if we didn’t like the mailman . . . well, that just never happened in the good old days.
“It just so happened that we did like Richard the mailman. My old man was especially fond of him. In fact, the mailman and him liked to play practical jokes on each other. Nothin’ mean or spiteful, you understand. Just fun.
“So, about Thanksgiving time, on that fine day that he thinks of the potential for combining the Christmas gift idea with the idea of other largish objects that the mailbox could accommodate, my old man sends me to fetch one of our turkeys. Then we go and stuff all 20 pounds of her into our mailbox, real sneaky like, and head off to watch. You could set your clock by the time of Richard’s arrival: 1:10 in the afternoon. So we knew when to stuff the turkey and when to hide.
“When Richard arrived, that hen was mad as a hornet when it stings and as scared as rattlesnake when it strikes. Just as he did every day of the year, come rain, sleet, snow, and hail, the mailman stopped at our mailbox at 1:10 p.m., rolled down the driver’s side window with the mailbox only inches from his face, reached out with the mail in one hand, and pulled down the lid with the other.
“With horrible screeches and squawks, the terrified turkey shot out from the mailbox like a blast from a black powder rifle, right through the open car window and into the mailman’s face and on into the car. Shrieking and flapping furiously, she flew around the car, scattering mail everywhere, and covering the upholstery, the mail, and the mailman with feathers and turkey guano.
“We was rollin’ on the ground, cryin’ and laughin’ so hard it hurt, and you’d a-thought we was dyin’ madmen. It was a good thing the mailman left his gun in the car trunk, or we mighta both been dead. Richard managed to get the turkey out of his car and drove off, shakin’ his fist and cussin’. Then we got to feelin’ bad. We let ‘im cool off for a couple hours, then took the turkey to his house as a Thanksgiving gift. He was a good family friend, and didn’t hold it against us for too long.”
Harvey was laughing hysterically, tears streaming down his cheeks into his beard. We were all laughing hard ourselves. I admit to crying as much as laughing. The children giggled as much at our sobbing laughter as at Harvey’s story.
“Yes siree. Them ‘uz the good old days,” Harvey summed it up, wiping at his small, blue eyes.
Angie sent him home with a whole loaf of warm wheat bread.
When Harvey heard I was sick with the flu, he brought over a pint jar of yellow liquid and handed it to me through the open front door.
“Drink some of this,” recommended Harvey. “It’ll fix you up right quick.”
“What is it?” I asked somewhat suspiciously.
“It’s an old country remedy called kick-a-poo juice,” he explained. “It’s my mother’s recipe, made of apple cider vinegar, honey, and cayenne pepper. It’ll take care of that flu. You’ll see.”
“Okay,” I accepted, “if you say so.”
If it were his mother’s recipe, and if it had worked for him, I thought it might work for me. I didn’t think it could hurt, anyhow. So I chugged the sweet-sour-spicy pint of liquid down, in one sitting. Within minutes I was desperately ill, and wretched in the toilet. The cayenne and vinegar burned more on the way up than they had on the way down. Shivering, exhausted, and miserable, I gave up on life for the day and went to bed.
Several days later Harvey came to collect his pint jar and to inquire as to my well-being. I told him that his kick-a-poo juice hadn’t worked, but had made me very sick, and that I had thrown the whole unpleasant mixture up.
“Well, you weren’t supposed to drink the whole pint at once!” he censured. “It’s medicine! You’re supposed to just sip a little kick-a-poo at a time.”
“Oh.” I said, feeling stupid. “I didn’t know.”
I haven’t dared try kick-a-poo juice since.
The recipe: 2 oz apple cider vinegar (raw, unfiltered, organic); 4 oz distilled water; 2 Tb raw unfiltered honey; African red bird pepper (cayenne), from a pinch to a teaspoon depending on your fortitude.