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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
We had just gotten naked and blazed up, and we were feeling maybe one-quarter ecstatic. Nobody had eaten any refined sugar or wheat for weeks; half of us ate like primitive hunters, and the other half like gatherers. We stood in the cross-hatch-fenced backyard, amidst waist-high grass and cornflowers, and embraced like brothers and sisters, the free nudist Republic of Stanyania. The blot of fur rising out of the foliage, we took for a stray cat, or a possum. A spirit animal, here to salute our company. The muddy stripe wasn’t what tipped us off. Instead, it was the way the creature turned its back on us and raised its hindquarters, took aim.
We fled. Stampeded. Moxie got trampled, a little, and she also got the worst of the spray. Her naked skin burned our nostrils with an odor that the word “musk” did not cover at all — it was not musky, it was not even like the scent of marijuana, but rather akin to death in smell form. Her creamy dimpled skin triggered a nasal alarm that made some atavistic core of our brains want to flee.
San Francisco had only just voted to ban public nudity. We had all gone to City Hall, the whole house on Stanyan St., and we’d torn our clothes off on the steps, flaunted the bodies the state wanted to suppress, all our flab and impurities, our stretch marks and our operation scars. They’d hauled us away, while the Board of Supervisors voted to censure and censor. This, our midnight revel in the yard, was supposed to be a small gesture of defiance, sticking it to the man in semi-public.
We had to make a weird mixture of baking soda and dish soap and scrub Moxie with it, for an hour, taking turns, rubbing with the bath sponge until her skin broke, and then rubbing some more. Moxie wouldn’t look at us.
The next evening, Jamison was walking his dog Abraxas, and the poor dog was soaked with the stink juice, just a block away from our house, in someone else’s garden. We cleaned the spaniel-collie mix the best we could, with a bucket and sponge, then tied him up outside in the yard. The dog kept barking all night, somewhere between a mournful yap and a cry of warning. We kept going out and shushing him, but he would not be quiet.
We named the skunk Henry, then changed our minds and called it Rachel instead. We had no clue what sex the skunk was, or how it would choose to be labeled, and we had no desire to try and examine its nether regions. But if we had to make a decision on its behalf, we wanted to name it female, to honor the divine feminine principle of chaotic fertility.
A few days after Abraxas got hit, a few of us were jogging near the park in the evening, and had a narrow escape with the creature — Rachel — and its apparently inexhaustible musk glands.
We developed a schism about how to deal with Rachel the skunk. Those of us who ate like prehistoric hunters wanted to take direct action, so as not to have to cope with the escalating threat of glandular attack every time we left the house. Those of us who ate like gatherers wanted to try and find some kind of accommodation with Rachel, to find a way to coexist. We had a house meeting that lasted three hours.
Of course, we could just be nudists indoors and put on some kind of thick denim, or maybe canvas, garments when we went out into the yard or the street. But the whole point was to be naked under the sky, to be skyclad. We wanted to feel the wind on our skin, hear the calls of wild creatures near us.
Why bother being naked indoors? You’re still clothed in wood and plaster and glass and curtains. You’re only fake naked.
If it ever came to a fight between the hunters of Stanyania and the gatherers, the hunters would win. We all knew this. It’s the difference between eating nothing but barely cooked red meat and chewing nuts and berries. In such a fight, we would be recapitulating some ancient conflict, in which one tribe that had edged weapons overwhelmed a tribe that had barely mastered digging tools. And yet, the gatherers among us were proud, because we took no lives.
We found the trench under the cross-hatched fence around our yard that Rachel was using to get into our yard, and blocked it with chicken wire, and then with planks for good measure. We reinforced the fence on all sides, so at least Rachel could never get into our little nudist sanctuary again.
But that night, we heard Abraxas barking louder than ever, followed by the sounds of an epic battle. We straggled outside to find Abraxas once again suffused with fumes, and signs that something had attacked our brand new fence, from the inside. This happens in every horror movie — we thought we had locked the creature out, but instead we’d locked Rachel in, with us. Abraxas whimpered horribly, eyes grief-stricken, tail wrapped all the way under.
We put out a trap, a humane one, near where Rachel had attacked the fence, and filled it with pungent sardines, from a can. We let Abraxas indoors, even though he still made us retch a little. At around four in the morning, we heard a crunking sound, like a car where someone is listening to loud bass. The trap was shaking back and forth, where the lid had closed.
I wound up face to face with Rachel, as it squirmed in our trap. It couldn’t turn and spray me, it could only spray the cornflowers behind it. Its nose twitched, its round ears vibrated a little, and its sad watermelon-seed eyes widened on either side of the stripe. I could have sworn it was trying to plead, to explain extenuating circumstances. There is no court of law, no due process for a wild animal. We drove Rachel to the Outer Sunset, out at the far end of Golden Gate Park, and unlatched the cage before sprinting back to our car as if Rachel could carjack us.
When we got home, we washed our hands over and over, stopping and starting. Dawn was only a couple hours away, but we couldn’t even imagine sleeping after our ordeal. We had trapped a wild creature, we had imposed our will upon it, and we were not sorry. We were tired enough to sleep in our clothes, but too tired to fall asleep at all.
And then we heard the sound coming from under our house. A chittering, in the universal language of misery, of abandonment. We got flashlights and poked around. A crevasse led under the side of our house, into a crawlspace that we hadn’t even known about. Down there, a knot of fur quivered in the face of the sudden brilliance.
Rachel had a nest down there, with her babies. She had made this place a home in one way that none of us ever had. We stared at the tangle of skunk babies cowering under our floorboards, and tried to imagine what a prehistoric hunter or gatherer would be thinking or feeling, at the sight of the animal’s young all clustered and helpless.
The darkness under our house was an impenetrable blight. It smelled thicker than normal, as if the air itself were holding our house up. The shapes in the darkness were only sometimes creatures and sometimes part of the walls or struts. They only came to life when the mass of babies moved a particular way, or our beams of light caught a pair of eyes or a mouth. We could almost forget we’d seen anything, go back upstairs and return to blaming the Board of Supervisors for everything.
Someone read on the Internet that if we soaked T-shirts in ammonia, we could drive them out of there. We kept changing our minds, even as we bellied up to the task under the foundations, chin down in the crud, advancing on the nest from all sides with our T-shirts extended. We kept almost backing out, we were groping in the dark even with three flashlights.
“Watch out,” someone said.
“We should just leave them alone for now,” someone else. “Until they’re old enough to leave on their own.” Moxie.
The paradox of the ancient hunter is, as soon as our ancestors innovated weapons, snares and tools to become better hunters, we started on the path away from hunting. Tools and weapons led to farming implements, snares led to domestication of food animals. We snared ourselves.
Moxie had more authority, because she’d suffered more than the rest of us. We all started backing up out of there for real, talking amongst ourselves about ways to be kind to the skunk babies. We had made orphans of these little guys, and we were going to make it right. We were just waist deep in the crawlspace, mostly, when the spitting, whooshing sound, like a pack of wild dogs pissing all at once, filled the confined space, and the weight of our own house seemed to pin us in place, as the bludgeoning stench soaked in all directions.
Charlie Jane Anders’ writing has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Tor.com, Asimov’s Science Fiction, the McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes, Pindeldyboz and Instant City. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award and was shortlisted for the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon awards. She hosts the long-running reading series Writers With Drinks and writes about science fiction and futurism at io9.com.