December 12, 2011
DROWNED MICE AND A CRIMINAL INQUIRY
EAST MONTPELIER, VT – It happened in hunting camp many years ago now, back in the days when we were still young enough to think that some things would never change. If we’d been more perceptive, we might have noticed that everything was always changing. Now even the camp and its members are but a sad shadow. But the discrete memories will linger as long as we do.
The camp perched on the west side of Hopkins Mountain in the Adirondacks, above the tiny hamlet of St. Huberts – named, fortuitously perhaps, for the patron saint of hunters. Hubert, the legend goes, was a wealthy 7th-century French hellrake devoted to [it] le chasse. [it] But while out hunting one Good Friday morning (a blasphemy), he was startled to spy a large stag with a hologrammatic cross floating between its antlers, and a voice assuring him that if he didn’t mend his ways forthwith, he was headed straight to Hell. You can still see his vision on the label of a bottle of Jägermeister. He mended his ways, later becoming a bishop and a saint.
But I digress. There were eight of us in camp for supper Thursday evening, planning the next morning’s hunt, when Baird opted out. He had to go down into Keene Valley, he said, on business the following day, and would be back by supper. Was there anything we’d like him to pick up? Yes, we said: a couple of pies at the Noonmark Diner and half a gallon of ice cream. I asked for peanut butter flavor, but got shouted down in favor of vanilla to put on the pies.
My opinions never were much respected in camp, anyway, even though I was the oldest member – a condition I never got over. Not only was I from away, but I had what were considered elitist tastes in beer and cheese., The default mode of camp in the suds department was either Budweiser (the litterbug’s beer of choice, so I never touch it) and Genesee Cream Ale, “brewed with the sparkling waters of Hemlock Lake.” I preferred, and usually brought with me, the now-defunct Catamount ale, which the camp yahoos pronounced “hoity-toity” and “designer beer.” When I brought once a pound of Roquefort cheese and opened it on the table, I was instructed to take it outside to the open deck and eat it there, if I wished to eat it at all. It did no good to mention that Roquefort was considered a preventive of gangrene in wounds. I was a prophet without honor.
Now and then I managed to get into really good talks with one or another of the denizens of camp. Among them were a city cop, a state trooper, and a New York City detective. One evening, in the course of a conversation with the detective, I asked him how, in an interrogation, he could finger the bad guy with any accuracy. “Easy,” he answered. “The guy who says, ‘I swear to God I had nothing to do with it!’ – that’s your guy.”
Baird, ever the diplomat and seeker of unanimity and concord, returned from the village with two pies – strawberry rhubarb and pumpkin – and half a gallon of vanilla ice cream, which were dessert after a hearty supper of venison loin, baked potatoes, and a delectable sort of gravy called slum-gum. The leftovers, including the ice cream, went into the “Green Monster” on the roofed entry porch. The Monster was a wall-hung cabinet paneled in rodent-proof hardware cloth, which served, depending upon the outdoor temperature, as either a refrigerator or a freezer.
Our usual routine in camp started with breakfast before dawn, followed by a deep-twilight deployment of our forces for the first hunts of the day. Those were usually completed by late morning, and the group would then break up, some heading off alone or in pairs for more hunts, and others back to camp for a quick bite and a nap before the late-afternoon hunts.
I got back to camp alone just about noon that Saturday, and found Baird and my son, Will (whom we call Brother), chomping on cold venison, cheese, chips, and crackers. I joined them for a few minutes, and then asked, “Any of that ice cream left from last night?”
Instantly I sensed a sort of conspiratorial communication between them, a heightened tension like what you’d expect of somebody who’d put a bucket of water over a door you were about to open. “Dunno,” said Baird. “Whyn’t you go see?”
I did. I brought the half-gallon box back in with me – it was soft because the temperature was only a little below freezing – set it on the table, and opened it. Instant revulsion: Floating in the soupy vanilla ice cream were two large, bloated gray mice. They’d obviously died since the night before, of either drowning or happiness. I could tell by my companions’ faces that they had had prior knowledge of their presence, and were all atwitter to see what I’d do.
For a moment or two I thought I’d emulate my father, who’d have plucked the mice out and eaten the ice cream – especially if there was an audience. But my squeamishness overcame me. I returned the box to the Green Monster and downed a few more Doritos.
By supper time I was sure everybody in camp knew about the mice; but nobody had mentioned them, which was suspicious. Carrying the box inside and laying it on the table, I opened a court of inquiry. The investigation ran to motive and opportunity. Everybody stoutly defended himself, and at one point some got a little testy. Finally someone said, “I don’t know what your motive might be, Will, but you had the opportunity, and I think you’re protesting too much.”
“Are you kidding?” I asked. “I swear to God that I had nothing...” Whoops!