The interpreter was placing Cheezies in a flimsy plastic box. Three twisty day-glo fingers, that was about right. He struggled to align the fussy lid and gently lowered the box next to the boardwalk, being careful to prevent the Cheezies from falling out the rat-sized round holes at either end. There. Four traps, evenly spaced. He wiped the greasy orange powder from his fingers using a tissue and tossed the balled tissue toward a trash can. He missed by a mile and had to step down onto spongy ground to retrieve it. Back at the boardwalk he paused to shift the last trap with his foot, pushing it further beneath.
A woman spoke. “Rats?”
He looked up.
The woman was slim and outdoorsy and was holding yellow-jawed tree calipers in one hand and a blue metal tube in the other. He had spoken with her once before but didn’t know her name. She was an assistant professor from a nearby college, a dendrochronologist. Today she was accompanied by a pair of students, one male, one female.
The interpreter said, “Oh sure. We’ve got rats a-plenty thanks to the bird feeders. A city politician and his kid had a major freak-out a few days ago when one crossed the path in front of them. As of this morning I’ve been assigned the role of exterminator.”
The professor extended her hand and surprised the interpreter by hauling him back up onto the boardwalk. She said, “This is Dustin, and this is Sharon. They’ve chosen to do their honours independent projects in dendrochronology.” Dustin was roundish with red-framed glasses and short spiky hair. Sharon was pale and thin with long sandy blond hair parted in the middle.
“Good choice,” said the interpreter. He waved his arm at hundreds of acres of forest. “Have at it.”
They didn’t move. The professor pointed at the trap. “What do you use? Warfarin?”
“Uh, something else, orange stuff.” The interpreter had purchased the Cheezies at a convenience store a few doors down from the hardware store after failing to purchase rat poison.
“It’s a nasty way for a creature to die.”
“That it is.” He changed the subject. “Where are you planning on working?”
“There’s a relatively recent burn area somewhere along the middle loop trail." Sharon held forth a clipboard with a photocopied map. The burned area was an irregular polygon shaded grey.
He knew of the burn, although it wasn’t very recent. “That fire was twenty-five or thirty years ago. It’s all grown back.”
“That’s why we’re studying it. It’s bound to be different than the surrounding areas in unexpected ways. Care to come along?”
He had nothing pressing to do. He could lie to his supervisor later.
As they left the boardwalk and stepped onto the bark-mulch loop trail, the professor asked, “How long have rats been a problem?”
He was tempted to say, “Since the dawn of time...” but replied, “On and off. If we got rid of the feeders, they would disappear. The Great-horned Owls and coyotes eat them though, so there is a balance. It isn’t really much of an issue in my opinion, not worth the bother.” He was more than ambivalent about poisoning rats. He had a soft spot for Rattus norvegicus. His first real pet, after predictably short-lived goldfish and dime-store red-eared sliders, had been a hooded rat named Daisy.
He was given Daisy when she was a few weeks old, as much head as body. When he was home from school she lived in his shirt pocket. When she grew too big for his pocket she learned to ride on his shoulder, nestled beneath his collar. She came when he called her and would strain to cling to him if another tried to pluck her away. She loved Cheezies. She died when he was eleven, his first death of a loved one. He cried for half a day.
Thus he wasn’t altogether disappointed in failing in the day’s primary objective as specified by his supervisor, go to HomeMart and purchase rat poison, which was to be placed in the box traps kept in the storage shed and distributed in likely places along the boardwalk. Apart from the unpleasantness of killing rats, he worried that the poison might work its way up the food chain. Cheezies had seemed a reasonable stopgap compromise, the only flaw being the lack of a receipt for rat poison to hand in to his supervisor, who was a stickler for paperwork.
“Here’s the place,” said the interpreter. They had arrived at the grey-shaded polygon.
“Pick a tree, a big one,” said the professor.
Sharon patted a tall, gently leaning pine. “Is this one okay?”
First they used a GPS to find its UTM coordinates. Then they used the calipers to measure the DBH, the diameter. They needed to bore half that distance to the center. The professor unscrewed an end of the blue aluminum tube and hardware fell out. One piece was the core drill, which screwed into a threaded hole halfway along the tube, which became the handle of the drill. A second was the spatula, which had a flattened end curled side-to-side to cup the core sample. The professor showed them how to center and level the drill using the calipers as a square and they screwed the core drill into the tree, palming the blue tube hand over hand. Eventually the radius was reached and the professor inserted the spatula into the core drill as far as it would go. She back-turned the drill and pulled out the spatula. Voila. The life of a tree in quarter-inch stripes.
“Cool,” said Dustin.
The professor said, “Now we nail an id onto the tree.” She reached around and unzipped a fannie pack, took out a flat-topped two-inch nail and asked, “Who has the hammer?”
Sharon dug in her backpack. “Here.”
The professor returned to her fanny pack. She said, “Uh-oh, we forgot the flagging tape.”
The students looked at each other, and then at the professor.
She smiled. “It’s a good thing you’re the driver today Dustin. Do you think you could go to HomeMart and buy two rolls of flagging tape, one green, one orange? Or any two colours, it doesn’t really matter.”
“Okay,” said Dustin.
“You’ll be reimbursed for mileage.”
Dustin shrugged. Mileage was a subtlety beyond his years.
“You go with him Sharon, you have a phone, right?
“You have my number.”
“I do,” she said.
Before they could bolt, the interpreter asked, “Uh, would you guys mind also buying a box of rat poison for me? I’ve run out.” He pulled a twenty from his wallet and handed it to Dustin.
The student asked, “Is there a particular brand?”
“I forget the name. It’s in the garden pesticide section next to the bug sprays, about the third shelf up. It’s a green box with a bad drawing of a psychotic rat.”
“Green box, psychotic rat,” said Dustin.
“Thanks,” said the interpreter. He added, “When you get to the cashier, make sure you remain straight-faced when they make a big deal about telling you it contains poison. Whatever you do, don’t snicker or roll your eyes or say ‘duh’ when they tell you rat poison contains poison. No smiling.”
They stared at him.
“Please pay for it separately and keep the receipt.”
The interpreter and the professor watched the students disappear around a bend.
“They seem like nice kids,” said the interpreter.
“They’re hopelessly in love,” said the professor.
“We don’t really need flagging tape. Dustin and Sharon are in love, but too shy to do anything about it. I thought they needed some time alone.”
“Really.” He cocked his head to study her.
“I try to make a love-match at least once a year. I met my honey in undergrad. We were introduced by a prof. I want to pay it forward.”
“Isn’t that risky? What if it doesn’t work out? College is a hard time to deal with heartache.”
“That’s negative thinking, not my style. You’ve helped out too, sending them to search for rat poison. More chance for them to bond, although perhaps not the most romantic of quests.”
“You never know.”
“What was that about not smiling at the cashier?”
“I didn’t want them to make the same mistake I did.” He told her what had happened that morning.
He had gone to HomeMart and quickly found a box of rat poison. He carried it to the cashier, a young man in a blue vest. His nametag said “Fred.”
Fred scanned the box and a window popped up on the POS screen. Fred went bug-eyed and said, “Whups.” He moved the box of poison out of the interpreter’s reach.
“What is it?” asked the interpreter.
“The poison control officer has to advise you.” Fred picked up a wall-mounted phone and pushed a three-button code. Someone answered. “Poison consult on four,” he said. He turned to the interpreter and smiled uncomfortably. “It’ll just be a minute.”
Several minutes later a gray-haired woman in a billowy skirt pushed into the check-out. She eyed the interpreter suspiciously. “You want to buy a box of rat poison.”
The interpreter nodded.
The woman said, “By law, before you are allowed to purchase rat poison, I have to inform you that rat poison contains poison.”
Few unprepared people have a facile reply for a statement so stupidly obvious. After a few seconds the interpreter asked, “Isn’t that the point?”
“Do you understand? This is poison.”
“I understand,” said the interpreter. “It says so on the box in both languages. I accidentally read the French side first, then read the English side to make sure I had understood the French side. It checked out. It’s poison all right.”
She was unimpressed. “Do you understand that this poison is poisonous to humans too?”
“Yes,” said the interpreter. He should have shut up at this point, but instead asked, “When someone buys a bag of lawn fertilizer, do you have to tell them it contains fertilizer?”
“Lawn fertilizer is not a poison.”
“It could be if you ate enough. Probably not even a lot.”
The woman said, “Sir. You wish to purchase a poisonous product. It is my duty to make sure that you understand the possible consequences of your purchase.”
The interpreter sighed and said, “Oh for godssakes. I’m buying this crap for my boss.” In retrospect, it may have seemed an admission of intent to murder. He was denied.
The woman snatched the box away, saying, “I cannot permit you to acquire this product because I cannot be sure that you are not a risk to yourself or to others.” And then she vanished among the checkout counters and rows of shelving of HomeMart.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” said the interpreter.
“Sorry,” said Fred, looking at his hands. “There is no appeal until the next poison control officer comes on duty at 2 PM.”
The professor gaped in disbelief. “That really happened?”
The interpreter shrugged. “Sarcasm seldom helps.”
“So what were you using? What was the orange stuff?”
From his pocket he pulled the crinkled plastic bag. “Cheezie?”
She took one, laughing. “That’ll get ‘em.”
“They’re highly addictive, and probably more toxic than Warfarin.”
She took the bag, ate the last two, and handed it back to him. She said, “Now guess which is the oldest tree here.” With her arms she encompassed the forest.
“That one is thickest.” He pointed at a towering hemlock, the tallest of a group of six.
“Not always a sure indicator, but we’ll give it a try.” They pushed through thigh-high salal to get to the trunk.
He took the GPS reading, helped with the DBH and the positioning of the core, but let her drill into the tree. It didn’t take long. She inserted the spatula and pulled out the core, 24 centimetres long. She lay it on the ground, in the triangle between stout roots.
“Count the rings,” she said.
He counted. He said a number, surprised. It seemed low. A tree this big had to be older than that.
“Almost, but you missed the first year.” She stated the actual age.
“Really? Do you know what month it, uh, started?”
“Year is as close as we can get.”
He peered up through the spokes of branches. “I would have guessed a lot older. It looks older. Look at the bark.”
“Hemlocks grow pretty fast,” she said. “Hey, look here, this black smudge.” Her finger was poised on the core sample. “That’s the fire. We lucked out and hit a fire scar. That year the tree would have been...about eleven. We can count backwards to find out what year that was.”
The interpreter already knew what year that was.
Eventually Dustin and Sharon came bustling up the trail. The professor called to them and they bounded through the salal, arriving abruptly. They were flush-faced, beaming, obviously in love. There was a confusion of movements as Dustin held forth a plastic bag containing a green box at the instant the professor signalled a high-five. The bag dropped to the ground and coins rolled out.
“That’s your change,” said Dustin. “Receipt’s in there too.”
They recorded the data from the tree, and then the professor and the young lovers, trailing two colours of flagging tape, ventured deeper into the forest, out of sight. When he could no longer hear their voices the interpreter stepped to the tree of his birth year and wrapped his arms around it. Straining, he walked his unseen hands toward each other with no sense of the distance between opposite fingertips. He hugged the tree hard until the bark's sharp ridges bit into his face. He let go and stepped away, his eye snaking up along the ridges, across sapsucker pocks. “You’ve still got a lot of good years left,” he said.
On the way back to the nature house he detoured to the storage shed. He hid the rat poison on a top shelf behind a weighty ice cream bucket splayed oval by salvaged door hinges that would never be reused.
A few years earlier he had been given a gift certificate to a drugstore chain whose stores featured full-service photography departments. He had worked through a shoe box of ancient Kodachrome slides and selected about twenty-five, which he took to one of the stores to have converted to digital files saved onto a CD-ROM. He copied those files onto a multi-purpose memory stick that he kept in an envelope in a filing cabinet next to his desk in the nature house. He was a stickler for backing up files.
He plugged the stick into his computer. Among the folders, “Birds, Mammals, Inverts, Plants, Weather,” was “Family.” He found the image, a skinny, pink-cheeked boy, his hair summer-bleached. On his shoulder was a hooded rat, leaning out myopically, sniffing the air.
There was a coffee ring on his desk beside the mouse pad. It was the diameter the tree would have been the day his mother had taken that picture, before the fire, when the bark of the tree was smooth and paper-thin. He was fitting the curl of his hand to the ring when his supervisor walked in. He grabbed the mouse to close the window.