Ten times ten is twenty and a hundred minus a hundred is twelve. These were small enchanting phrases, to borrow from an old Russian, uttered in my ear as I sanded my desk. I had acquired an oak door from a friend and would use the hole where the knob had been to hold my pencils.
What did you say? I said turning to the wall.
Up in the vent there was a skunk, who had been living under our house, and she peered at me with sweet black eyes. I ducked, thinking she would spray, but she only repeated herself. We sat listening to each other’s silence, me on the white tile, her behind the metal grate.
Okay then, I said concealing my tape measure. How many words can you find with the letters touching each other on a keyboard?
Twenty-one, she said.
And if we make the space bar a wild-card letter?
And if I hit Escape?
All is lost, she said. We have it backwards from the sea.
Here she strode away, claws creating exciting noises in the duct. But I had abraded her Worldview. A little.
A few days later I was repairing a hole in our chicken coop, having buried the remains of the chicken, when she appeared leaning easily against the house.
She drew her tail between her fingers.
The next day there were two chickens missing, the day after that four. I expected sixteen missing the following day but only eight were gone and I relaxed a little. I was pouring a new foundation for the coop when one of her young appeared. A spry little skunk.
This can all go away, he said.
You’ve watched too many mob movies, I answered.
He flared and raced at me with his claws bared but stopped short and scratched an equation in the wet cement. The equation solved for the shortest side of a cube.
We could spray your whole house, he threatened. Every vent, he said tapping his rear.
Your glands are stunted, I said. I put out the poison.
I didn’t see them for months. The gophers invaded the potatoes and I was jamming hoses down holes and conducting low-level spelling bees after dark. One afternoon a snake salesman saw what I was doing and gave me a good deal on black king snakes—nearly the price of a bushel—and for a month I released one each morning when the birds were thinking about other things.
A king finally came back. I never named them. She had a bulge through her abdomen but reeked of skunk. Is Sardinia larger than Sicily? she asked.
I shook my head.
She lay thoughtfully and digested.
Why? I asked.
She ran her purple tongue between the hinges of her jaw.
I read the story you’re writing, she said.
I looked down at my hands.
It is better to mention Dostoevsky by name, she said.