The shrew appeared at the meeting during the lawn ornament motion. Mice are greyish-brown, but the shrew was dark black and looked sleek, a stylishly streamlined little creature with a pointed snout. It moved like an insect, with startling, precise, and unpredictable speed. I saw it skittering along the baseboard, a shadow darting from shadows and, at first, thought it was a large beetle or a wounded sparrow. There was no point in interrupting the meeting and so I kept my mouth shut. Shrews are carnivorous and must devour their entire body-weight in live meat every 24 hours. They are ferocious predators and, if they were the size of a poodle, shrews would rule the world from apex of the food chain. I supposed that the tiny creature fleeing across the floor was on patrol for spiders and ants and house-centipedes.
This happened many years ago and in a different State. At that time, I was living with my first wife and kids in a house that was too expensive for us. It was a big split-level home atop a grassy knoll in a new subdivision called Eden Meadows. A half-dozen families lived in the addition, the lots developed around a marsh where frogs sang in muddy choirs and redwing blackbirds danced from cattail to cattail. The slough, opening its sleepy eye to the sky, and the residential homes around it, comprised a neighborhood that insisted upon a certain elite quality in its residents – the streets and sewer systems had not yet been annexed to the City and, so, occupants of the homes in Eden Meadows were subject to self-imposed restrictive covenants and assessments. A Neighborhood Association was constituted to administer the roadways, the asphalt trail for jogging that encircled the marsh, and to enforce restrictions on land-use and zoning. Each home had its own septic system and water well and there were no curbside sidewalks connecting the homes. It was a quiet neighborhood – a single road marked "dead end" entered the subdivision from the highway next to a landscaped terrace on which a pier of brick masonry supported a sign showing a meadow, represented by a slash of dark green perforated by a little, almond-shaped blue pond. The sign was often the subject of controversy at meetings of the Neighborhood Association – the brick had to be tuck-pointed and the paint retouched and some Association Members thought the sign was too welcoming, while others maintained that it was not welcoming enough.
Sign maintenance was not on the Association agenda on the night of the shrew. The meeting was scheduled for 7:00 pm at Margaret H–‘s home. Margaret’s husband was a contractor, and since the neighborhood association ordinarily gave him a right of first refusal on all contracts for repairs and maintenance, he didn’t attend meetings: it was a matter of recusal. The Association met in Margaret’s rec room in the walk-out basement and we could hear her husband, Joe, watching a baseball game on TV upstairs. I was the secretary-treasurer of the Association and came a little early with my three-ring binder containing the neighborhood zoning ordinance, the restrictive covenants and by-laws, as well as past minutes. It was a fine night and someone had seen wild turkeys in a flock crossing the roadway by the sign. A doe with fawns was at the marsh drinking from its tea-colored water, a very pretty thing to see. We assembled on the porch overlooking the pond, a little hesitant to get down to business because of the cool breeze that swept the mosquitos away, the deep blue of the evening sky, and the idle chatter.
At first, it seemed that there might not be a quorum. At that time, there were seven families living in Eden Meadows and the by-laws provided that business could not be transacted without representatives from five of the households in attendance. A quorum of five was scarcely enough to transact business in any event because Margaret H– had to recuse herself from any discussions or votes involving repair work that might involve her husband. Phil M – and his wife were on a cruise on the Yellow River in China and, so, of course, they would be absent. Vernon, the high roller, was usually on a plane, hustling between his various business interests. Mrs. W –‘s husband was undergoing chemotherapy for an aggressive cancer and so we didn’t expect her to attend. Ralph, the accountant, was reliably in attendance – he was an enemy of all assessments and, therefore, had to be present to protect his pocketbook. Indeed, Ralph was chatting up Margaret and already enjoying one of her beers when I arrived. A few minutes later, Manu arrived, hiking down from his big home on the ridge. Manu was a research scientist and Ralph’s protegee and, always voted with him, but he didn’t reliably attend – usually, Ralph had to importune him to come to the meeting with the threat that the "big spenders" were planning to ram through another assessment. On this evening, no motions for assessment were on the agenda – written notice had to be provided at least three weeks in advance – but Manu’s property interests, specifically his little solar lawn lamps, were an item for discussion and so he had to rouse himself to attend.
Manu shook hands with everyone on the porch. In a hopeful tone, he said: "I don’t think we’ll have a quorum tonight."
Margaret H – said that she had cleaned her house for the meeting and that there were brownies and cashews in the rec room and that it would be a shame if the Association couldn’t conduct business that evening. Manu told us that he had seen William, the corporate lawyer, at his health club and that the attorney had sprained his low back very badly playing squash and, now, was under the care of a chiropractor and neurologist as well and that he was "loopy" with oxycodone pain pills.
"Will he send his wife?" Margaret H – said.
"I don’t think so," Manu replied. Everyone knew that William’s wife was having an affair with her therapist and that she was not speaking terms with her husband.
Margaret went into the house and brought cold beers for me and Manu.
We sat on the porch chairs and looked across the neighborhood. The big houses stood each apart in proud isolation and the woods on the hillsides looked lush and green, dense with shadow in the oblique rays of the sun. Ralph finished his beer. "Well – " he said, " it seems like no meeting tonight."
But no sooner had he spoken, then, we saw Vernon’s gold hummer rolling uphill, moving ponderously as if it were pushing a vast mass of snow and gravel ahead of its fortified front bumper. He pulled the heavy vehicle into the driveway and got out. To our surprise, Mrs. W– was with him.
Vernon was big, with a red face, and he had a loud booming voice. He was an insurance broker well-known for the junkets that he sponsored for his big clients. Once, he had taken a group of businessmen to Ireland to play the old course at St. Andrews with the basketball legend, Bobbie Knight. The story was that Bobbie Knight insulted everyone and was a general pain in the ass until Vernon punched him in the nose and, then, they were all the best of friends.
Vernon called out: "I’m sorry we’re late. We were visiting Georgie in the hospital."
Georgie was Mrs. W–‘s husband.
"How is Georgie?" Margaret asked.
"It’s hard," Mrs. W– said. "Very hard."
"He’s a fighter," Vernon said, "a real fighter that Georgie."
"He’s so sick," Mrs. W– said.
"Well, it looks like we have a quorum," Manu said sadly.
We left the porch went into the house and down the stairs to the Rec Room and Ralph, who was the Neighborhood Association president, called the meeting to order.
Deer were the first item of business. Margaret with Manu’s wife stood accused of feeding the deer that frequented the hills and meadows around the subdivision. Both of them had buckets of dry field corn on the back steps leading to their patios. The stuff was the color of gold and they flung it onto their lawns at the places where the tall, unmown and tick-infested grass edged the sod. The corn lured the deer onto the lawns and the animals had been observed eating chrysanthemums in Mrs. W–‘s garden and gnawing on the bark of the fragile apple trees in Vernon’s orchard.
Vernon said that the deer had to go. "I’ve got a mind to get out my 30 ought 6 and do a little hunting. They’re dumb, destructive critters."
Ralph shook his head enthusiastically endorsing Vernon’s point, but he didn’t say anything for fear of offending Manu.
Mrs. W– said: "They wreck everything. And they carry disease."
Vernon turned to Manu. "What do you think, Manu?"
"Never thought about it one way or the other," Manu said.
"But don’t you feed them?"
"No," Manu said.
"It’s his wife," Mrs. W – said.
Vernon said: "You feed them field corn like that and you might as well put a slug through their brains. That’s a high carbohydrate diet – it damages their guts and, then, when winter-time arrives – as it will, you know –
"Only too soon," I offered helpfully.
"– then, you’ll get to see them starve. They won’t be able to digest woody stuff, not even the sweet bark on my apple trees."
"I’ve been feeding them," Margaret said. "And I’d have to do more research, or ask my husband, if what you’re telling us is true."
"Of course, it’s true," Vernon said. "I’ve been hunting them all my life."
"I don’t know how killing them qualifies you as an expert," Margaret said.
"This is typical liberal bullshit," Vernon said. "You think you’re helping the critters but you don’t have a clue what’s best for them. A deer herd has to be managed."
Mrs. W– said: "He’s right you know."
Vernon made a motion that all feeding of deer be strictly prohibited.
"You know who also feeds the deer?" Margaret asked.
"Phil’s wife, Doris," Margaret said. "In fact, I got the idea from her. She told me that field corn fresh-picked and not treated with pesticides was best for those deer. And, you know, Phil is a pretty good chemist –"
Margaret made a motion to table Vernon’s motion until Doris and Phil M – could be in attendance.
"That’s out of order," Vernon said. "It’s not in Robert’s Rules."
"Don’t be difficult," Margaret said.
Vernon shrugged again and said that he would withdraw his motion so that it could be heard later when everyone was present. He went to the bar, opened the fridge, and took out a Heineken.
A few months earlier, the Neighborhood Association had approved subdividing Manu’s lot so that another home could be built on the ridge.
"Do you have any prospective buyers?" Margaret asked.
"Regretfully no," Manu said.
"Well, we don’t want you bringing in your village from Bangladesh," Vernon said.
"I’m from Bangalore," Manu replied.
"You know, I’m just kidding don’t you?" Vernon said.
"Of course," Manu said. "I’m not sensitive."
"You have it listed?" I asked.
"Certainly," Manu said.
"The price will keep out people who aren’t well-qualified," Vernon said. I noticed a slight tremor in Vernon’s hand as he poured his beer into a tall glass.
Vernon made some remarks about the housing market and Ralph added his observations "from an accounting point of view." Mrs. W– showed Margaret pictures of her grandchildren playing tiny violins.
"They are darling," Margaret said.
After a couple other agenda items, Vernon said: "It’s getting late. I want to discuss the lawn ornaments."
Margaret asked me to read the neighborhood resolution about lawn ornaments: "Be it resolved," I read, "that no homeowner shall install any sort of lawn ornament – such as pink flamingos, garden gnomes, Afro-American jockey-boys, whirly-gigs, or cut-outs of people’s behinds as they stoop to work in their gardens."
Manu had a half-dozen silver-colored tubes inserted along his sidewalk. The tubes contained solar energy cells and, during daytime, collected sunlight so that, after dark, they emitted a soft, bluish glow.
"I don’t see how my solar lamps fit that definition," Manu said.
"It’s a slippery slope," Vernon said. "If we allow those solar lamps, next thing people will be putting up plaster Virgins in painted bathtubs."
"Or a Ganesha," I said, winking at Manu.
Manu pretended not to see me.
"Those are scientific, energy-conscious lamps," Manu said. "They aren’t lawn ornaments."
(The shrew emerged from under Margaret’s pool table and darted across the open floor to the baseboard.)
"Where did you get them?" Vernon said. "Can I ask where you got them?"
"Why does it matter?" Manu asked.
"But where did you get them?"
"Walmart," Manu said. "Walmart lawn and garden store."
"That’s my point," Vernon said.
Margaret said that Phil M – had one of those solar lamps stuck into the sod at the corner of his backyard patio.
"You’re gonna table this one too?" Vernon said. He grinned malevolently.
The shrew ran into the middle of the floor, changed direction, and ran over Vernon’s tennis shoes. Vernon was startled and almost dropped his beer and, for a moment, he gasped loudly. Then, he rose, spun around and chased the shrew. The shrew was desperately exploring the baseboard for a crack or hole, panicked and darting back and forth along the wall. As Vernon approached, the shrew shot across the tile in the direction of the gaping char-black mouth of the fireplace. At the brick rim of hearth, the shrew paused. Vernon stooped, grasped the handle of a little iron shovel, set upright in a metal rack with a poker. He swung the shovel down, narrowly missing the shrew. The shrew whirled in a tight circle and made the mistake of fleeing across the open tiles away from the hearth. Vernon’s next blow caught the shrew and crippled it. The little creature went crooked, dragging itself sideways, until Vernon swatted it again, the flat of the shovel cracking down on the animal.
The shrew rolled over on its back and its tiny nose twitched and, then, was motionless.
Vernon put the shovel back in the rack and rubbed his hands together.
"Hey, that was my pet," Margaret said.
"They’re vermin," Vernon replied.
"I agree that they don’t belong in the house," Margaret said, "but..."
"No, they don’t belong in the house," Manu said. "That’s for sure."
Vernon pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. "Do you want me to dispose of it?"
"No, no," Margaret said. "I’ll get a paper towel and take care of it. I’ll have to cleanse the floor. You crushed it."
"It’s not crushed," Vernon said. "Just dead."
"Maybe, he’s stunned," Mrs. W – said.
"Dead," Vernon said.
"Well, after all that excitement," Ralph said, blinking his eyes nervously, "I move we adjourn the meeting."
Vernon said: "Aren’t we gonna vote on anything tonight?"
Margaret said: "Apparently not."
"Well, then, we haven’t accomplished anything," Vernon said.
"You’ve accomplished something," Margaret said to him.
We ascended the carpeted steps from the lower level up to Margaret’s living room and porch. The dead shrew lay bereft on the tiles, suddenly the focus of everything that had happened that night, a black and abject reproach.
It was dark and humid outside, insects chanting over throb and boom of the frogs. Some small creature cried-out, a shrill sound that wheezed for a moment in the air and, then, ceased. We stood on the driveway next to Vernon’s humvee. Mrs. W – went to the passenger side of the vehicle but the humvee dwarfed her and she didn’t seem tall enough to reach the handle to open the door. Vernon was distracted and seemed to have forgotten about Mrs. W –.
The edge of the woods and reeds around the marsh were eloquent with flashing fireflies.
Mrs. W – began to cry. Her shoulders shook and she put up her hand to touch the side of the vehicle. Vernon, who was kicking at the wheels of his hummer, hurried to her side.
"I can’t get in," Mrs. W – said. "It’s too high."
"I’m sorry," Vernon said. "I made a mess of this. It’s my fault."
He pulled the door open.
"Don’t cry," Vernon said.
"I’m just thinking of when we were first married," Mrs. W– said, "My Georgie brought me a bottle just full of fireflies to set by the bed. And, now, he’s so sick."
Vernon put his arms around her and hoisted her into the big vehicle.
Each firefly made an intersection in the darkness, a point signaling in the night according to some secret law.
Vernon pointed up to Manu’s house on the ridge.
"I can see your solar lights," Vernon said.
Marking the edges of his sidewalk, the lights glowed with a cool, bluish radiance.
"I guess that’s not so bad," Vernon said. "It’s okay."
Manu said: "They’re very serene."
"You know," Vernon said, "we have to get along out here in Eden."
"I know," Ralph said and the rest of us agreed with him.