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My senior year of high school was spent in upstate New York, while my father was stationed at West Point. I was a solitary kid, more so uprooted from my community of friends in Japan. My father moonlighted running a movie theater back in the boonies of the academy, away from civilization. I saw Bye, Bye, Birdie there; who knows what else? I would go with him, help in the concessions, attend the movies, or just hang out, usually around the lake on the other side of the tiny parking lot.
It was there I saw my first wild mink, probably my first wild mustelid of any kind. I don't recall seeing a skunk during my couple of years in Colorado, five years before. And it was some time, perhaps years, before I was confident that what I had seen in New York was a mink at all. It was, at the time, an exotic mystery.
The first time I saw it, all I caught was a flash at the corner of my eye, something gleaming, black as asphalt, that slipped along the margin of the lake. Oily and wet, it looked more like a huge salamander than a mammal, and I only saw the flash of shape and color, fleeting as the shine of a fish breaking the surface of the water. As the days passed, I saw it again, and then more often, and finally began to learn its habits and terrain. And yet, still, I had no clue what this lightning-swift creature was, and no one could identify it from my descriptions.
I was fascinated. My zoological knowledge was so thin that I didn't even know there were wild minks, so it wasn't a possibility I considered. Finally someone said, "Well, I guess it could have been a mink..." and I tested that theory with the flawed tools most of us bring to nature observation. An adult mink looked like, well, mink. My mink was always wet from the lake; who sees mink coats soaking wet? This changed her color, shape, and size, and I couldn't see past those changes to the creature. She should be one to two feet long (25-35% tail) and weigh between one and four pounds. That's roughly the size of a domestic ferret, with a higher top end. But ferrets were not common pets then, some forty years ago, so that was no help. I had no concept of how big a one-pound animal might be. My mink was certainly in the range. She seemed much smaller than a cat.
I never got a good look at her, though I spent the whole summer trying. I became obsessed with her, not wanting to catch her, just to get a good look, a real look, a moment, ideally, face-to-face. And it never happened. I would see her slipping through the high grass, a wet flash of black. I would hear her turn abruptly and flee when she spotted me before I knew she was there. I never chased her, never tried to catch her. I began to learn the patience the wild demands, but the lessons came too late for us, and after that summer, I never went back to the lake.
I tried a half dozen times, in the decades since, to write a poem about the magic moment when I saw two weasels playing. It never worked. There are things, I learned finally, that cannot be captured, recreated, or conveyed in mere language. That moment was one of them.
It was my last summer before college. In September, I would return to Colorado, enrolled at CSU as a pre-vet major. That summer I worked as a groundskeeper at the West Point Golf Course, learning more about mowing lawns than I ever needed to know. It's a sunrise job, maintaining the greens. You can reap the other grass at your leisure, but once the golfers arrive, mowing the greens is a huge hassle. So we were out at that hairline moment near sunrise when the dew no longer made the grass too wet to cut. We scattered across the course with our single-spool power mowers (the big four- and six-spool riding mowers were not delicate enough for doing greens) and quickly trimmed the eighteen greens. If there was weeding to be done on the greens, it needed to be done then as well. The greens tended, the urgent task was done, and we would mow the fairways and deal with the roughs at our leisure.
It was while traversing from one green to another, the morning light still more vertical than horizontal, that I saw them, a pair of weasels playing like kittens at the edge of the rough. They were no more than thirty feet away. I don't know if they had become accustomed to the sounds of the mowers and that was why they were oblivious to me, if they were kits too young to know better, or if what I thought of as playing was actually the serious business of courtship or combat. In any case, I saw them when they leaped up together, their serpentine bodies a ginger helix of energy. They struck the ground rolling, rolling out of the tall grasses onto the fairway, and one leaped again, so like a kitten making melodrama that I was sure it was play.
I suppose I watched them for ten or fifteen seconds before they froze, first one and then the other taking its cue from the first, stared at me with glittering eyes like black pearls, and decided, simultaneously, to take their game elsewhere. Fifteen seconds. It felt like minutes. Compared to the strobe-like glimpses of my mink, it was an eternity. And I can see them now, pirouetting on my mind's stage, their bodies almost the yellow of pencils, and almost as small and thin. The least weasel can be as light as a mouse or a bit heavier than a hamster. A big male might reach twelve inches, a quarter of it tail. It's possible, I concede with that in mind, that my "weasels" were actually ermines, "stoats," as they would be called when they aren't white for the winter. Sizes are so hard to estimate in the wild. Who would believe that a big Canadian goose weighs no more than fifteen pounds, about the same as a large tomcat, less than a Thanskgiving turkey?
The closest I ever came to that magic moment, in all the years after, was the scene in Gorky Park when Renko releases the smuggled sables. Two of them come leaping from the cage, twisting and corkscrewing in the air in their joy. There is a purity of freedom and innocence in both visions that I will carry with me forever.