A late autumn drizzle floated down a West Auckland gulley, bathing hectares of Granny Smith apples that hung invitingly from the trees in a light mist. Any day now the invitation would be accepted, and a swarm of human worker bees would descend on the orchard and pick, pack, and harvest a bumper crop. But for now, the apples hung there like plump, demure debutantes waiting for a hand—any hand—to pluck them and take them away.
It was dawn, and the first few rays of morning peeped over the easterly horizon, as night succumbed to day. Somber grey clouds smothered the sky, and a gloomy stillness blanketed the land.
Far off in the distance, a barking dog broke the silence, as Ian Sorenson, the owner of the orchard, and his teenage son Nigel walked along a well-worn tractor path, cutting fresh gumboot prints into the mud. From the verdant bush that hugged the path, a fantail appeared, spinning and twirling around father and son, continuously twittering with the exuberance of a small child needing validation.
Side by side, man and teenage boy had walked this path many times together as they worked the land. Today, however, Nigel was following in his father’s footsteps as they squished their way over the moist soil. Dressed in protective hooded yellow raincoats, they walked in solemn silence like monks on their way to perform a religious sacrament. Last rites were about to be given.
Ian picked up the pace as he hit the apex of the curve, fueled by a predatory adrenaline rush. He glanced back, pleased that Nigel was matching his pace. The lad’s ready, he thought. As they rounded the corner, they came upon a small, wire cage trap. It housed a grey possum that cowered in one corner. It hissed as they approached. A short distance from the cage was a steel forty-four gallon drum filled with water.
Ian stopped, indulging a brief smile. He turned and placed his hand on Nigel’s shoulder. “You got this one, son?”
At thirteen, Nigel was almost as tall as his father. He had inherited his wiry frame, grave countenance, and curly brown locks, and on most things they saw eye to eye.
“Of course, Dad,” he replied, his voice cracking slightly with puberty and nervousness.
Ian squeezed Nigel’s shoulder, eliciting a smile on his son’s face. The elder Sorenson was a man of few words, fewer signs of affection, so a hand on the shoulder was a big deal. In Nigel’s imagination, the paternal approbation felt like a sword, and he had suddenly been knighted, accepted into an esteemed group of warriors.
Go forth and slay the possum-dragon, he thought to himself. Rid the orchard, the land, and our kingdom of this pestilence!
“Throw the body in the bush when you’re done. I’ll get the other traps,” said Ian. “Meet me at the creek,” he called out, striding off. “The pump’s been acting up.”
Nigel turned and studied the pestilence. In the damp, dawn light, it looked more like a midget—a misguided troll with a long pointy nose, whiskers, and a furry grey coat—and less like vermin that needed to be exterminated. As he knelt by the cage, the little man-beast hissed again.
“They’re pests. They destroy our crops. They’ve no natural predators. We’re doing the country a favour by killing them,” whispered Nigel to himself, parroting the words, clipped cadence, and rhythm his father always used when the subject of possums came up. For a man earning his living from the land, this litany of reasons was the gospel truth, and he always rattled them off with the ease and confidence of a preacher delivering a stump sermon.
Nigel had been witness to the elimination of possums many times. Only two nights earlier, he had been the third man in a hunting party. His dad had carried a car battery in a makeshift case, attached to which was a spotlight that he would shine across the bush. When it shone on a possum nestled in a tree, its eyes would sparkle like twin stars that had descended from the sky. Matt Kenny, their neighbour, was the triggerman, who owned a rifle with a scope. Crack! A shot would ring out in the night, and the twinkle, twinkle of the little stars would fade into oblivion.
Up close and personal, the possum’s eyes didn’t shine. They were black orbs, inflamed with fear. Nigel stared at the cage and its inmate, impressed by the simplicity of the snare. Under the cover of darkness, the nocturnal thief had been tempted by the apple, entered the cage, taken a cursed bite, and now awaited a dawn execution.
Make it quick, thought Nigel. He picked up the cage and dropped it, entrance-door first, into the forty-four gallon drum. Nigel spun sharply on his heels, knowing he needed to leave now, or his resolve would waver like his knees. He paused, a cacophony of Doubting Thomases chattering inside his head. Shouldn’t you stay to make sure it’s dead? I’m not sure this is the right way to kill it—bash it over the head! Do we really need to go through with this? After all, dad’s probably down by the creek.
Nigel turned and glanced down into the drum. The possum wasn’t playing dead—it was drowning. It clung with its tiny hands to the end of the upturned cage, staring up with an expression of hopelessness and terror. Nigel made eye contact. His guilt gave voice to the animal’s expression.
Please let me go. I’m so sorry. Do I have to die over a slice of apple?
Sighing, Nigel slipped his hand into the cold water and pulled out the cage. Kneeling down, he unfastened the front door and slightly raised the cage so the possum rolled out.
“Piss off,” snarled Nigel, more disgusted with himself than the animal. He kicked the possum, which rolled, staggered, and tottered off like a drunkard into the sanctuary off the surrounding bush.
Down by the creek, Ian was kneeling on the concrete floor of the small shed, a maze of pump parts strategically surrounding him as Nigel entered.
“Uh-huh,” Nigel replied, expressionless. He knelt beside his father, avoiding eye contact.
Copyright © 2014 Stephen Groak
Stephen Groak grew up in West Auckland, New Zealand. A "Westy" at heart, he currently lives in Los Angeles County with his wife and four daughters, and a menagerie of other critters. Stephen earned his BA in English from California State University, Los Angeles, and is currently working on a MA in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. When not working, writing, shuttling his daughters to their various activities, or memorizing pi (3.14159...), Stephen enjoys a game of backyard cricket with his family.