Hugh Paxton’s blog wrote the following rather heart-wrenching piece a few years ago. It won first prize in BBC Wildlife Magazine’s annual Nature Writer of the Year Awards. I’ve won a couple of other BBC writing awards and I’ll post them when I find them. Found this one in a stack of papers – an unfinished play that I failed to finish 30 years ago and which I really ought to finish.
Here’s the story. It’s true. And it still makes me sad. We’ll be re-visiting Takao in April. Hope things are better when we do!
Flitting like a pale ghost through the pines, the tanuki is all wrong.
The time is wrong. Tanuki (raccoon dogs) are nocturnal. This is mid-afternoon. A darkly overcast day, true, but nonetheless this animal should not be about at this time.
The tanuki’s colour is wrong. Too white, way too white. Its fur is gone, its skin’s exposed, scrubbed raw by frantic scratches.
Its movements are wrong. Unsure, in fits and starts it is circling, wobbling. It hits a tree then patters on, turns, and patters back.
We watch, my wife and I, in sickened silence, her thoughts and mine the same.
“It’s happening again.”
Takao’s odd. It’s a Tokyo suburb, but it’s hilly, out on the city’s western fringe. Takao’s hills are abrupt dragon-back ridges, and the clustered houses nest where they can.
If you, like us, live high on the sheer slopes then you get 1. Views through the Japanese cedars of the city stretching grey, low, rather dismal accross the Kanto plain to the horizon. And 2. Wild Japan with a capital “W.” and a capital “J.”
The two worlds, so very different, come so ridiculously close here.
At night, in between the plaintive honk of commuter trains, you can hear the rootle, scuffle and snorted altercations of wild boar beneath the trees, the thump of a giant flying squirrel landing on the roof, the sweet orchestra of forest insects.
We’d only been here a week when ‘our’ tanuki first visited. It was Spring and the ridge behind our house was alive with night time rustles. The mammals were on the move!
Palm civets, serpentine in their movements, fluid as mercury and questing in pairs, passed through our garden. A solitary badger. The boar were busy.
The tanuki, however, was the most importunate visitor and therefore most swiftly won our hearts.
It would wrestle, bushy tailed, with the compost bin. No matter how deep we sank the foundations, come 11 PM there would be commotion as it fought our green plastic tub into defeat, then scattered the contents in search of grubs.
Each dawn rose on glorious background anarchy – testament to our tanuki’s triumph.
On evening BBQs, when the aroma of scorching chicken mingled with the forest mists, the tanuki would race excitedly about on the periphery of vision, very low to the ground like a particularly bristly welcome mat.
Tanuki, in Japanese myth, are shape shifters, prone to pranks. Our tanuki never assumed human form to rob us of our sake, but it had a delightful antipathy to anythig planted by my mother-in-law on her weekend visits. Particularly tulips. Under cover of darkness the tanuki would not just unearth each and every bulb but fire them off the slopes with a flurry of indignant paws.
Then things began to go wrong.
The compost bin made it through the night untustled. The cursed tulips went unmolested.
Then there came the kitchen raid.
It was awful. By the cooker, surprised by my sudden arrival (and vice versa) was the tanuki. Its haunches were devoid of fur. An abrupt Mohican tuft stood tall on its badly balding head. Comical, but for the gummy, swiming eyes that stared beneath it. The tanuki fled through the open back door weakly. Into the dark.
Our friend, a vet, confirmed it. The plague of mange sweeping Japan had reached our doorstep. The mange is a mystery. There is dark talk of pesticides, dioxins, weakening immune systems. The vet didn’t get into that. Sedate the tanuki, was his advice. “I’ll come,” he said.
We drugged steak. A cat raced off with it in triumph. We drugged more steak. We initiated “Steakwatch” and bought a pistol that fired plastic pellets to repel roaming pets. But for Steakwatch we needed Steakwatchers and our phone is never idle, the email inbox bulges and the fax unfurls long tongues of obligations 24 hours a day. Steakwatch fizzled.
We never caught the tanuki. We fed it. By God, we fed it! But we never managed to catch it. The tanuki got white, pinker, feebler as its remaining fur withered and in the last days, as the vet had predicted, the tanuki, blind, perhaps now mad, emerged by day and it rushed, confused through the pines.
And then? We never saw it again.
There was a sort of sickly, guilty feeling of relief. It was over. But there was also a taint to the Spring. The boar did famously. Our frog ponds seethed with new life.
But behind nature’s glorious exuberance their was a hairless shadow that had once been a tanuki. I’d feel it at my shoulder when I filled the compost bin.
This year it’s happening again.
Elsewhere in Takao, there are no doubt others mourning ‘their’ tanukis, leaving offerings of fried tofu (tradition has it that tanuki are particularly fond of tofu) and hoping.
We’re hoping, too.
Hoping, hoping, that next year this will not happen again.