In the summer of 2000, my family grew 11 acres of alfalfa. My four sisters and I were in charge of opening and shutting the water gates and stopping up the million-odd gopher holes. “If you see a gopher,” my dad said, “hit it over the head with your shovel.” I thought it sounded like delivering a hard lesson in Providence, but…well, here you go. I wrote this story with my old Southern accent in mind, and it’s best to read it that way.
It was my sister Jenny’s fault. She didn’t kill the gopher, so I had to. I was sixteen years old and I’d never killed anything bigger than a cockroach, and now I was scarred for life. The gopher was, too.
It all started when I found Jenny in the field, trying to get rid of the gopher by scaring it, running at it in her barn boots, yelling, scooping it up in her shovel and flinging it high in the air so it landed back in the mud. By the time I got there, Jenny had the audience of two other sisters, and the gopher looked like a cake of mud with bits of fur sticking out, but it wasn’t at all scared. It didn’t even act like it had a brain. I’ve heard of cats born with their paws on upside-down; maybe this gopher was born not knowing he was supposed to be terrified at the sight of four girls armed with shovels.
I decided to take charge. I said: “If you don’t kill it, I will.”
Jenny said she wouldn’t. Erin said she wouldn’t. Lacy would have, too, if she’d been there. Actually, if she’d been there, she would have given the gopher a bath and named it Fuzzy. As for Kate, she was only ten and couldn’t even swing her shovel. So I did.
I gave the gopher a whack on the head that would have made Jack Bauer’s terrorists tell me all sorts of things they’d never even done. The gopher reared up real slow, teeth showing and blood seeping from a crack in it head. It had brains after all.
Jenny said: “Ew.”
I forget what Erin said.
Kate started crying and told me I’d done enough.
I didn’t mean to actually kill it, honest. I guess I figured one good whack would make the gopher leave our field and spread the word in gopher land: “I’m never going back there again!” I mean, I’ve been hit in the head before. Not by a shovel. Actually, it was by the garage door, the big one, and technically, I hit it because I was the one who stood up under it when it was half open; the door just stood there. But you know, I’m alive. So I thought if I could just repeat the lesson of the garage door, only with a gopher and a shovel, then we might be getting somewhere. This gopher could live to tell the tale—maybe a couple inches shorter—and when his great-grand gopher babies asked why a piece of his skull was missing, he would say, “My son, the prudent gopher foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished.”
Well, this gopher passed on and was punished. Or actually, he was punished, and then he passed on, because now that I’d started, I couldn’t just stop, so I kept on swinging that shovel.
I committed murder. In cold blood. Gwen Burrow, in the alfalfa field, with her little sister’s shovel. In front of three witnesses, too. There wasn’t nothin’ noble about it. Not like they called me “Gopher’s Bane” after that. They just called me “Gopher Killer,” which is almost as bad as “Baby-Killer.” They wanted me to do their dirty work for them, that’s all. Because the next time a gopher waddled into the field, they called me.