Robert rules the roost

He came last year as a surprise. We hadn't planned on a tenant; we hadn't even considered one. It was only after Robert had moved in that we worried all the usual worries. Would he be too noisy, too messy? Would he be in the way or take away our privacy? We decided on a trial run - we the landlords, that is - because from the start Robert seemed to have an instinct things would work out well. And the truth is, so far he's been right, not the model tenant but close.

For one thing we never see him. He works at night, leaving the house around dusk, returning around dawn. With exactly opposite schedules, we hear him rustling about getting ready to go just as we're putting our feet up. For another he prefers to eat out, with the result that he hasn't been underfoot in the kitchen. Thirdly, he's made no complaints or demanded any improvements.

Over the summer he was away for days and nights at a time. This wasn't our business, but we figured he must be traveling or looking for a mate. With fall he returned and as we headed into December, he began sleeping through the night, around the clock in other words.

It's winter now and Robert is pretty much dead to the world. He hasn't been out, we're sure, because we've checked for his tracks in the snow. Not only that, his serving of cracked corn is left to the squirrels to eat and he hasn't been by the compost heap. The point is, we needn't worry. Everyone knows raccoons sleep tightly if they don't actually hibernate, and he's probably a lot warmer at the bottom of our chimney than inside a damp hollow tree.

He has located himself (is he crouching, curling, or lounging?) on top of the closed damper. Depending on the prevailing drips and drafts and his whim, he shifts from one end to the middle to the other end. We listen for his claws against the metal of the damper, the swish-swash of his fur against the bricks as he rolls over or sprawls about.

Sometimes we hear snoring - more often a softly delicate wheeze. Now and then a cough or a sneeze. The sound of his breathing is soothing; the gentle scrapings of fur against brick keep us from loneliness on wintry days. Truly he excels at sleeping.

He may do a little listening himself. We talk to him along with each other; we talk about him to our guests, who pull long faces and advise instant eviction. Hard rock music at full blast, claims one, is the method of choice to get rid of these delinquent, dirty, nasty-tempered creatures. Unpersuaded, we play him plenty of Mozart and Chopin.

On the hearth, one of these days, I will place an arrangement of dried flowers designed to hide the surprising whiteness within. Indeed we do miss fires in the fireplace, but the unspoken agreement is we'd miss Robert more.

He has (accidentally) torn a 3-foot swath of screening on the porch, his preferred route up and down to his quarters. Last spring brought excited scramblings, thumps, and thuds, and bursts of high-pitched chattering. Unwelcome intruder? Or raccoon romance? (Robert is always Robert. We have yet to deal with the possibility that he's a Roberta.)

These are trivial complaints, though. Outright mischief occurred two weeks ago when he was discovered to have ripped off the woodpeckers. I had refilled their wire mesh holder with a large hunk of suet at $1.06 from the grocery store. I closed the lid carefully with two wire twisters, rehung the holder from an oak behind the house, and noticed the woodpeckers back within the hour feeding.

The next morning the suet holder, still hanging, was minus the twisters and minus the suet. Robert was not a suspect until I found his fresh prints through the snow along the ridge of the porch roof. His tracks between the house and the oak, though, were hidden by a maze of squirrel tracks. Still, there were no signs of people, the holder hangs too high for any dog, and the squirrels haven't the interest or the skill to warrant a charge. The burglary had occurred after nightfall. It was clear enough that the bandit, masked since birth, was Robert. In a raccoon lineup, he would be a cinch, a giveaway; the fattest, sleekest, shiniest coated one of the lot. Pretty frisky too, if fully awake.

It's good to cherish a few dreams and here we'll confess to two, the suet caper clouding them for only a few days. The first is to meet him. To live so close, yet not live with such a free spirit is tantalizing. As I write in the dining room, Robert gives a few gentle coughs 12 feet away in his den. It seems fair, after more than a year, to catch a glimpse of him scaling the chimney (or ripping the screen porch).

The second is of a more intimate sort and isn't likely to materialize. It's just that after we've met him, we'd like to hold him, pat his fur, study his paws and mask close up, give him a big long hug - dirt, smells, and all. The chances are slim, indeed tiny, that Robert would tolerate, let alone enjoy, such an encounter. His instinct, of course, is to be free of us. He would wriggle, scratch, or bite his way loose.

So, he will stay beyond our reach while we remain undaunted, amused by his directness and simplicity, admiring of his wildness, his belonging to the larger, natural, hidden world. We've come to thank him too. For alone and unseen, Robert has reminded and finally touched us with a now keener sense of all that we do share of life together.

I've heard raccoons will den up in the same spot for long periods if they find it to their liking. How about it, Robert? ... Robert? Are you listening? Let's forget the suet, the screens, the lease, and the rent. Our chimney is your chimney. We're hoping you'll hang around a little longer - tenant at will - no paper work and free.

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