The Smell of Fear


“Hey!” shouted my son, as I accidentally let go of the backyard gate, allowing it to slam closed in front of him.   He had been expecting me to hold the gate open for him since he was holding a large, cumbersome bag of yard waste in front of his body.   We had spent the last hour collecting dead leaves from the window wells of our house.   A summer downpour was expected that evening and we didn’t want our basement to flood, as it had a few years before.

I had fully intended to hold the gate open for him, but when I saw what was lying in the next window well, I was so shocked that my hands had flown to my face and I had lost my grip on the door.  I stood in front of the window well for several long seconds, looking downwards and moaning softly.  It was only then that my son looked down too, but he wasn’t sure what he saw, and he was confused by my reaction.

“What is it?” he asked, fumbling for the glasses in his pocket.  He couldn’t see distances very clearly without them, and the window well was fairly deep.

Although I was initially surprised, I recognized the shape almost instantly.  It was a baby skunk.  I suspected that it was the same baby skunk that I had seen wandering around our back yard a week or two ago.  On that evening, I had quickly backed my way back into the house as soon as I had seen it, dragging our dog along with me.  A baby skunk may be small, but it’s spray would still be highly irritating.  I had wondered then where it’s mother was, and whether she would come to fetch him.  It seemed now that she had not, and in looking for her, he had accidentally stumbled into this window well and been unable to climb back out again.

The room behind this window had often smelled of skunk in the last week or two, and now I knew why.  At the time, I had worried that a skunk had somehow found its way into our house.  But now, it looked like the smell had only come from this poor baby skunk.  Most likely  he had either released his spray after death, or, the more pitiable thought, it had released the spray while still alive, desperate to ward of potential predators as it lay trapped and unable to flee.  I knew very well that there were also a lot of raccoons in the area.

As I stood there looking at the baby skunk, I took in it’s small body, its tiny little feet, and I couldn’t help but feel a wave of sympathy.  How frightened it must have been.  Really, the smell of skunk is essentially the smell of fear, because it will only release its smell when it is frightened for its life.  It’s a very alcoholism distinctive acrid, pungent smell.  I wonder sometimes if humans don’t give off a scent that’s somewhat similar.  They say that dogs can smell fear.  Is that what our fear smells like to a dog?

Although we like to pretend that everything is under control, the fact is that we humans feel fear most of the time.  We fear loneliness, we fear embarrassment, we fear boredom, and most of all, we fear the onset of illness or death for ourselves or our loved ones.  Most of our day-time activities are done to distract ourselves from these fears.  Reading books, watching TV, even by eating, we attempt to distract ourselves from what goes on in our heads when we happen to find ourselves alone, still and silent.

I’ve been meditating a lot recently.  I find I get anxious when I don’t, and so I’ve spent a lot of time recently in the company of all of my fears.  I’m learning to sit still and keep breathing when my chest starts to tighten, when my heart begins to harden, and I begin to relive a painful memory that I’d rather forget.  It’s not easy.  But with time, I learning to make friends with my fears.  When I feel that familiar queasiness in the pit of my stomach, I’m learning to accept it, and even to welcome it.  After all, it’s not like my future is going to be devoid of fear.  Fear will be a frequent visitor to us all.  I might as well get comfortable with it.

And so I continued to look at that dead baby skunk for a few long moments, and allowed myself to imagine the fear it must have been feeling as it sat trapped in that window well, desperate for its mother.  How long had the poor thing been there before it died, I wondered?  How many days of fear and hopelessness had it known?

Finally, my son began to grow impatient with my silence and spoke up.  “Well, what are we going to do with it?” he asked.  “Are we going to leave it here?”

Brought abruptly back to the present moment, I shook my head slowly while at the same time replying, “No, we can’t just leave it here.  It’s going to rain tonight and it will be even harder to remove once it gets wet.”

I paused for another minute or two while I considered how the skunk might be lifted out of that confined space and all the difficulties that entailed.  Should I use a shovel?  Would I even be able to maneuver a shovel in that very narrow space?  I shuddered inwardly.  Does that mean I would have to pick it up with my hands?  And then, feeling that familiar tension in my chest, my stomach turning itself around in circles, I said to my son, “Better go inside and get your father.”

I guess my willingness to embrace fear still has its limits.