ESSAY- Dist<i>herb</i>ing: Rifle turns rage to reconcilation

"I have a gun, you know."

The intruder dismisses me with a glance and goes back to helping himself to my property.

We got the gun in June, husband Harry and I, and our son Jackson spent an afternoon teaching us how to use it. ("Never aim a gun at anything you don't want to shoot. This includes your foot," Jackson said as I casually held the rifle, resting the tip on my leather clog. Oops.)

For over a decade, we've had a vegetable garden. Harry has toiled over that patch of dirt, improving the soil with mounds of horse manure, rotted leaves, and God knows what else. I pretty much stay out of it, except when it comes time to harvest the juicy tomatoes and glistening strawberries, or to clip some sage or mint while preparing supper.

Throughout the decade, our nemesis has been a fat, lumbering groundhog– think Rush Limbaugh in a fur coat. Whenever I spy him in the garden, I storm out onto the porch, hollering, "You little bastid! Get outta heah!"

Perhaps he finds my Boston accent incomprehensible, because he appears neither insulted nor frightened. He finishes up what he's working on, then shambles off into the bushes.

It was remarkably satisfying to discover that I had little trouble hitting the metal target we bought when we bought the rifle. Kling! went the bullet against the bull's eye, sending it into a spin. My son the hunter told me to be sure to aim right for the groundhog's head, in order to kill him right away, so he wouldn't suffer.

Oh, right. That was the point of having a gun: to kill the groundhog. I imagined myself aiming at those little rat-like eyes and hitting the target. Jack said, "You think you could do that?" I said, "I guess so." What I was thinking was: Little bastid. It'd serve him right.

The thing is, another one of the gun-safety rules is that you don't keep it loaded. The next time I saw the groundhog, my heart started racing. I went to the closet and grabbed the gun. I held it out away from myself (and far from my foot) and then remembered that it wasn't loaded.

Oh, right. Bullets. Where did I put those bullets? I picked up the phone and called my husband. He didn't know where they were, either.

I looked out the window. The enemy was long gone.

A few days later, I came upon the box of bullets– but a strange thing had happened. I discovered that when I'd catch the groundhog using our garden as an all-you-can-eat salad bar, I could no longer sustain my anger. Weirdly, owning a gun had brought out some small measure of compassion for our fat marauder.

As summer wore on, I would catch him in the act of biting off the parsley or thyme I was planning to use in the salad that evening. The anger would rush through my body, and I'd mutter, "You know, I could kill you if I felt like it."

I just didn't feel like it.

I don't know why that thought was so soothing, but right away, I could feel my breathing slow, my shoulders unhunch, and my heart stopped racing.

The growing season is, once again, coming to an end, and all that's available (to either of us) are the herbs growing along the walkway. This morning, armed only with the mug of coffee that warms both my hands, I stand at the kitchen door, watching Mr. Groundhog graze on our chives.

Apparently, my comment about being in possession of a gun didn't scare him off, so I whisper, "Bon appétit– you little bastid."