NEXT to a properly baked potato right out of the oven, the hottest item on the summer agenda is the friendly skunk that roams the midnight dooryard and pauses in its pleasures to make its presence known. I ascribe this to its exuberance at some discovery, some morsel or tidbit that excited its ecstasy, and not necessarily to the intrusion of man or beast, for the skunk is a modest chap at heart and not given to false advertising, but I could be wrong. ``He woke me up!'' said my roommate, and I responded thus: ``It did make quite a bang.'' Then I reminded her that the world is full of ignorant and unfortunate people who do not know about the bucolic prosperity of having a kindly skunk that comes unbidden to share its joy with the cotter and frau, and thus go through life in lamentable penury. ``How fortunate we are,'' I moralized, ``to have this abiding wealth to compensate for the lack of so many other things deemed essential.''
She said, ``How do you want your eggs?''
``There is nothing in our remote and rural schedule,'' I said, ``which even begins to surpass the gratuitous bounty of the nocturnally peripatetic skunk, and fried, I guess.''
``What do you suppose put him in orbit?''
``Whatever it was took effort prior to the boom,'' I said. ``I did not discern the anguish of a misguided pussycat, nor did I hear a dog retreating in speedy dismay. It might be the poor skunk deluded himself absently en passant and made a fool of himself.''
Thus we discussed the incident at breakfast, and by that time the evidence had dissipated itself from the precinct and the morning was fresh and sweet, dew upon the sward, the birds atwitter, and the sun in radiant good humor. Said skunk would now be back in his den, perhaps remorseful that he had wakened us needlessly, but holding no grudges.
The summer skunk has long been an essence peddler in rural Maine; it is by no means unusual to have one meander about the dooryard and around the buildings during the night - looking for beetles and mice and sundry goodies - and if a cat or a dog, or a petunia that says boo, interrupts the meander, the eventuation is never a secret.
One night, long ago now, we became aware of a midnight summer skunk and I arose to shut the bedroom windows. This helped somewhat, and the next morning at breakfast she mentioned that Gelert, our farm dog of tender experience, had not come in when she opened the door for him.
Gelert wasn't much of a dog in one sense, but in another he was all dog. He came into the house only to eat, and having done that would want out so he could sleep on the back steps. In the winter he slept there just the same, and after a blizzard we would open the door and announce provender, and he would pop out of the snowbank like an Innuit from an igloo. But this morning Gelert was gone and the tincture of skunk was upon the land.
I found the skunk the next day. He was all right, but he had his head stuck in a discarded peanut butter jar. The jar had been on its way to the sanitary landfill but had been intercepted by the roaming beast. Having run his snout into the jar and lapped away the edible residue, the skunk attempted to back out, and thus the facts of the sordid story were disclosed. Stumbling about with his head in the jar, talking to himself about woe and grief, the skunk must have approached Gelert and klunked against the steps. Gelert erred in responding and was so ashamed he stayed away two weeks.
A neighbor told us he spent that time soaking in the brook by his front field. When Gelert did come home he had freshened himself fairly well, but whenever it rained and he got wet he reverted noticeably for a period of about two years.
When I found the skunk behind the barn, still talking to himself inside the glass jar, I realized at once what had happened to Gelert, and I knew the skunk would be sorry as soon as he found out. I went to the shop and brought a hammer and struck a strong blow for freedom. The glass jar broke and the skunk was free, but the noise this made inside the jar left the poor little fellow punchy, and he staggered about for some time, shaking his head.
Then, seemingly recovered, he walked away in stately dignity and I stood with the hammer in hand watching his departure. In the years since I have tried many times to formulate some significant moral from this incident, but I never have.