Once I was invited to pet a cashew-eating porcupine.
“Stroke away from his head, along the spine,” the porcupine keeper said. “It’s quite safe but if you rub him the wrong way, you’ll remember the pain forever.”
“What happens if I rub him the right way?”
“You’ll remember that forever, too. The softness – exquisite, improbable softness.”
I doubted that. “You first.”
Without hesitation, the man in denim jeans and a fleece vest caressed the animal. “See? Nothing to fear. It’s the opposite of what you’d expect.”
The docile, oblivious porcupine sat on a tree stump and ate from a clear plastic, toaster-sized container, chewing one cashew after the other. The same cashews I buy at Costco. Holding each nut with both hands, the animal looked happy and content. He just happened to be armed with thirty thousand barbed spikes.
“Maybe he’s used to you. What if he’s scared of me and shoots quills at my eyes or throat?”
“He won’t. He can’t. That’s a myth. The quills would release easily if you tried to bite him – not that you would – or rubbed the wrong way – like I’ve warned you not to. Just stroke like this, away from his head. And avoid the tail.”
I extended one finger toward North America’s second largest rodent, after the beaver. I made contact and pulled back as though I’d touched flame.
“Rapid movements might not be wise. Just pet him.”
I looked at my fingertip. Felt it with my thumb. Satisfied that everything was fine, I reached for the porcupine. And petted until my perceptions altered. The porcupine was as soft as a baby rabbit.
I broke into a smile.
And kept petting.
And my mind turned to other fears yet unconquered, like love and death and a thousand other things.
Dave Gregory is a Canadian writer who worked on cruise ships and sailed the world for nearly two decades. He is an associate editor with the Los Angeles-based Exposition Review. His work has most recently appeared in The Sunlight Press, After the Pause, and The /tƐmz/ Review. Please follow him on Twitter @CourtlandAvenue.