Amy Boyes is a music teacher and mother in Ottawa, Ontario. Her writing explores teaching and parenting and the places where they intersect. Her work can be found in the Piano Professional, American Music Teachers’ Magazine, the Humber Literary Review and others. Her first book, Micro Miracle, was published by Signature Editions in 2019.
Death and the Maiden
The racoon lay on his side, his nose turned up as his body stiffened. I pulled my four-year-old away and stared, astonished that this could happen within city limits, within the confines of the Ottawa Greenbelt. The Greenbelt isn’t even a real forest. Yes, original pine and cedar towered over us. Mossed covered rocks jutted out at angles dictated by retreating Ice Age waters. Ferns grew unbidden, unaided by a gardener’s hand. The forest wasn’t so artificial as an Olmsted masterpiece, but it wasn’t a real forest either. A real forest abides by the laws of nature only. Silence dominates; traffic doesn’t hum. Arborists don’t remove trees fallen over hiking paths, nor trim branches that whip the arms of taxpaying joggers. Civil servants don’t wring their hands over potential lawsuits should a rotten birch blow over onto a cross-country skier. Wild animals wander through. Hikers are not horrified to encounter a coyote or even a dead raccoon. These things are expected in a real forest.
So, I was shocked by what I saw, surprised that animals die in urban parks, affronted that someone from the National Capital Commission hadn’t made it their business to tidy things up.
My daughter and I had been enjoying our walk, “our meander,” as one might describe it. She had grabbed a stick and starting poking at things that interested her as she sauntered and stumbled over rocks and roots.
“What’s this?” she had asked, prodding a sizeable birch with her stubby stick.
“A tree,” I replied.
“A different tree.”
“Woah! Look, Mom! Look!”
“Yes, it’s a baby tree, isn’t it?”
My daughter was happy to shuffle along, sinking into the softening snow, scanning the sky at the sound of aircraft. I loved watching her explore. Everything was interesting to her.
So why did I shelter her? Why did I turn her around and point her to home? It was only a dead raccoon lying under the trees beside the trail. Its coat looked sleek; its body, healthy, though that could be post-mortem bloating. I supposed raccoons must die of old age like any other creature, but I wondered if it was diseased. The coyotes had left it be and they know their carrion.
I pitied the raccoon even though he may have been the same raccoon I scared off my back deck last summer by banging a pot. His body was a reminder of death’s indignity and nature’s cruelty, so I turned my daughter away. I didn’t want her to be frightened or even curious about death. I didn’t want her poking the corpse or asking questions, even though death is part of life and she’ll have to learn this eventually. That she doesn’t know about death now, at the age of four, is evidence of how different her childhood is in comparison to mine.
I grew up on a Manitoba hog farm. My father raised pigs for Maple Leaf and I knew from the youngest age that the pigs were not pets. They were meat, if not ours, then somebody else’s. Despite this, I loved animals, not the meat animals, but the cute ones. Cats, dogs, rabbits, or goats—these animals existed to be adored.
But as time went on, even these animals’ lives were brutally extinguished. No matter how fluffy or soft their coats, or sweet and gentle their eyes, they too died, sometimes horrifically as is often the case on a farm.
When I was five or six, we had rabbits, floppy-eared bundles of wonderfulness, handfuls of fluff. My sisters and I played with the baby bunnies by the hour. One tragic day though, our dog, Alicia squeezed past the flimsy wooden door of the rabbit granary and killed all the rabbits. She didn’t eat them. She just killed them and moved on.
My older sister hit Alicia and yelled, “Bad, bad dog!” but Mom stopped her. “Alicia just did what dogs do,” she said to our tear-stained cheeks.
We got more rabbits after that, but it was never the same. A few years later, we acquired goats. In theory, goats eat anything, so we loaded up their pens with surplus swiss chard from the garden. The next morning, the goats were dead, stomachs bloated, legs up in the air, eyes wide with shock as if they couldn’t believe either that leafy greens would usher them into eternity. I wasn’t much more than seven or eight years old at the time, but I was quickly learning that animals died.
And then there were the still-borns in the farrowing barn. My sisters and I loved visiting the pigs’ maternity ward, as my dad called it. Newly born piglets would huddle under a heat lamp and we’d stroke their soft backs, marveling at their cute snouts pointing up to their mother. But it was inevitable on a hog operation that a few pigs wouldn’t survive. Still-borns again reminded me of life’s fragility.
On other occasions, animals were injured, then put out of their misery. I remember crying over a hurt bird as a child, a wounded kitten as a teenager. But eventually, I grew indifferent; it was easier. Now, as an adult, I don’t want a pet despite the allure of a well-trained golden retriever trotting alongside its owner, a spring in its step, the sun on its back. It’s all too sad.
So, is that why I shielded my child from the raccoon? Did I want to protect her? Keep her innocent for as long as possible? Do I want her to love animals unconditionally, without bracing herself for their eventual demise?
I wish I knew where the balance lies, how to teach about death without horrifying, explain without traumatizing. I suspect, however, that I did my child no favours by hiding the fact that raccoons die alone in a snowbank, their noses pointed away from their decaying bodies.
From the Editor:
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By In Parentheses in IP Volume 7
32 pages, published 1/15/2022
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80 pages, published 10/15/2020