The headwaters of one of the smaller tributaries of Long Island Sound trickle out of the oak-and-laurel forest of my town, flow fast over a rocky stream bed in deep woods, and then spread out behind a small dam to form a shallow reservoir full of coves and islands white with shad-blow in spring. Two back roads meet on the eastern edge of this pond; the water from a shrubby marsh flows through a double-barreled culvert under one of the roads, and together the remote intersection and the marsh and the pond form one of the best bird-watching places around, a place made all the better by the fact that almost no one else knows about it.
When it’s early June and I realize I have yet to hear a warbling vireo, I go there. Blue-gray gnatcatchers nest there, and eastern kingbirds. Rough-winged swallows and tree swallows gorge on the flies above the water. In late fall and early spring, there are a dozen species of duck, ring-necked ducks mostly, and in the early darkness of January afternoons great-horned owls call to each other.
Two years ago in early May, work was getting me down and my son, who was six, was on the couch with a fever, and so to clear my head I took my daughter, Elie, who was 11, to the pond. It had been a cool, damp day; the sky was starting to clear in the west and the low glare of the sun made it hard to see what was happening on the pond. I picked out the silhouettes of two or three buffleheads, and I could see a Canada goose on a nest on one of the islands. Elie saw a muskrat near the road, and then we saw two otters. I heard red-winged blackbirds and grackles, a black-and-white warbler, a wood thrush, a Baltimore oriole, a downy and a red-bellied woodpecker, a mourning dove, a song sparrow.
Up the road a bit there’s a place where the deer have missed a patch of hepatica, and I walked up to find it.
Elie followed and after a few minutes I heard her call to me, “Papa, come here. There’s a dead bear by the side of the road.”
I wasn’t in the mood for a joke so I ignored her.
“Papa, come here, I’m not kidding.”
I left the hepatica behind and walked back down the road.
Under the trunk of a fallen tree propped off the ground by one of its limbs lay a large dead animal. Road-kill raccoons are as common as robins, and deer carcasses are unremarkable nowadays, but this was something different. It was big.
And it was indeed the color of a black bear.
“What is it?” Elie asked.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a bear.”
I could not tell and I did not want to get too close. We walked back and forth on the road, peering into the woods, but we couldn’t get the angle we needed. Its head was bent under its carcass and the carcass was in the shadow of the tree trunk. Through my binoculars I could see its teeth. They didn’t seem to be bear teeth. And instead of claws, it had hooves. It wasn’t far away – 10 or 15 feet – and Elie kept urging me to move closer so I could see it better. We could smell it, although the odor of decay was not strong. A few flies buzzed it. I suggested, because I’m a concerned and loving father, that if she wanted a closer look, she should by all means feel free to examine the rotting cadaver on her own.
She asked me to hand her the binoculars.
We took turns looking. We concluded the only thing we could conclude: it was a dead cow.
I should point out that there are no farms in my town. Several years ago the police blotter in the local paper would occasionally contain a paragraph reporting that yet again a cow had gotten loose from a particular property on the north end of town, but that was a good eight or so miles away and in any case the would-be cowherds got rid of their livestock after four or five attempts at rounding up the wandering bovines on the state highway. So the source of this particular dead cow was a mystery: No farms at all, no houses within at least half-a-mile, a thousand acres of woods and wetlands before you came to any neighborhoods.
We talked over the possibilities. Suppose, for example, a local homeowner had decided it would be fun to keep a cow on his five acres. (In the wealthy suburbs, where there is ample financial means to ensure that no whim goes unindulged, there are stranger diversions.) Then unexpectedly the cow dies. What do you do? One possibility is that you ask the crew of gardeners who leaf-blow your property clean every week to please take it away. And all they know about disposing of a dead cow is that there’s a place not far away where two small roads meet and if you go there early in the morning or late at night you can dump just about anything without fear of detection.
This seemed plausible except for one detail – the carcass was under a fallen tree trunk that was propped off the ground by one of its limbs. Dumping a dead cow there would have involved sliding it under the trunk. Would a cow-dumper take the time to lug the dead animal 15 feet off the road and then slide it under a fallen tree?
We wanted to call someone, but weren’t sure who or why. The police? This wasn’t an emergency and there didn’t appear to be a crime any more serious than littering.
By now it was dusk and the wood thrush was singing. We had to get back for dinner. At home I called the police and left a message. But no one called back. Two days later I heard that the highway department had carted the carcass away. When I went to check, the dead cow was indeed gone and the gnatcatchers were chasing each other through the branches above the road.