Of muskrats and mortality

  • Muskrat

    Michael H. Francis

When I am driving up the dugway toward Logan Canyon I think that if I get going fast enough I can fly upward to where my father will go when his cancer finds the kindness to release him. It seems to be a place over the mountains, in the air above the canyon; and I think that if I get there first and am waiting for him, then he will pass over more easily.

Since I first discovered he was dying, I have been doing this: fusing my memories of him with the mountains, the canyons, the rivers, the desert where I live. I let my eyes play tricks on me. I stare at Utah's mountains until I see my father walking over the pure black Iowa bottomland where I grew up, and I watch as he reaches down to take and study a handful of the rich earth. My father could observe the crows and know when it would rain, and he could cure gall by putting a rock in his pocket. When we were sick, he chased us through the house balancing a hot toddy in his hand. "Drink. It will make you well," he called, as we scattered before him like starlings. He never took a drink in his life, but he knew the medicinal qualities. In his gentle spirit, he kept one field virgin in tribute to the earth and the grasses. During the months he was dying, I ached for this language of our farm, the knowledge that I shared with my first family - the sounds that I had stopped speaking when I left home.

This obsession to feel near, to communicate with my father in the last months of his life, began last winter when Steve and I were out on a walk by the reservoir we call First Dam. I looked across toward the ice-shelf that had formed on the far side and spread toward the middle, and could see two critters hunkered on the edge of the ice, feeding. At first I thought they were beavers, but it was 10 o'clock in the morning, and we were walking along a traveled road; I couldn't believe that beavers would show themselves.

The next day, I went back to the reservoir with binoculars. They were muskrats, and they were there still, huddling in pairs, gorging themselves.

I watched. One slipped off the ice into the water and disappeared. In a few minutes it resurfaced with a fresh load of vegetation from the bottom of the reservoir, struggled up onto the ice, and turned again to its frantic feast.

I began going every day, sometimes two or three times, and I included Second and Third Dams in my rounds. At Third Dam, up the canyon, there were seven, eight, even nine of them feeding at once. I identified their mounds in the shallow waters of the marsh behind the dam.

It got so all I wanted was to watch the muskrats. I made up excuses to leave work early; then, I would call the baby sitter to tell her I had to work late. I lied to my children. In the afternoon, when the older ones came home from school, I told them I had errands to do and that they would have to watch the baby. They moaned; I got in the car and headed up canyon.

Once, on my way to Third Dam to watch the muskrats, I spotted a bald eagle perched on the branch of a log that was wedged in the cattails of the upper marsh. I swung off on the side road and eased out of my seat, leaving the door ajar so I wouldn't scare it. Crouched down, I moved along the bank downstream. Just as I approached the bridge that spans the neck of the marsh, the eagle dipped into the water, grasped a fish in its talons, and rose into the air, flying downstream faster than I could ever follow. I watched it disappear around a bend. I thought it lifted above the ridge again to light in a barren aspen, but maybe I was mistaken.

Walking on toward the ice that jutted out into this wide marshy spot, I counted seven muskrats, one alone and the others in pairs, feeding. Their mound beetled up out of the water about 20 yards away. It looked as if it had been thrown together, rather than built, but I knew it was more intricate than I could perceive from where I stood. Inside, it was sure to have two or three dens and a supply room.

The muskrats' shiny, chestnut-brown fur glinted in the winter sun and their short, thick heads bobbed up and down as they tore at the vegetation they had piled beside them. When one dropped into the marsh, I tried to envision its swim fringe, the bristles on the edges of the toes of its back feet, fanning out in the water, and the skin fold in its inner ear clamping down. I tried to imagine it in the liquid dark, under the ice, tearing at the vegetation with its powerful incisors. I thought of the eagle lifting into the air, farther than I could see, and this common little critter, diving below surfaces where I could never go.

And I thought of my father disappearing into what? The element of death was one I could not imagine - surely it was not water or air.

We owned 160 acres of pure black Iowa bottomland, bounded by Indian Creek, which we dignified by referring to as the "river." While I was in school, beavers built up a dam on the creek and flooded our soybean fields. My father didn't want to kill them, so he and my older brother spent long hours destroying the dam, tearing it apart, limb by limb. Within two days, the beaver had rebuilt it. My father was patient, but the beaver were more patient. Distraught, he called the fish and game commission, and they trapped the beaver out. That would have been the end of it, except that the next winter they were back again.

He loved to tell the story. He delighted in the determination he saw in the beavers; and I know there were times when he stood under the cottonwood in his heavy shoes and bib overalls on the bank of Indian Creek and watched them rebuild their dam, while the water poured over our precious fields.

Another time I drove upriver, I had the kids with me. As we turned to cross the bridge over the marsh, my middle son grabbed at me and pointed to a small, bare aspen on the bank. Perched in the top was what looked like a pygmy owl, staring at us. We stopped and got out. The owl turned to look out at the marsh; we could see the dark, wide, distinguishing slashes across the back of its head. We were not more than 10 feet away and six feet below the branch where it was perched, and I couldn't figure out why it didn't fly, or why it was there in the early morning, next to the road.

Once, riding on the tractor with my father, I was perplexed to see him stop, put on the brake, and step down. We were plowing and there was no reason, that I could see, to stop. He crouched down and crept to the front of the tractor, where he bent over, out of sight. When he stood up, he was holding a bull snake, one hand behind the head, the other at the tail. Sinking into the freshly plowed earth with each step, he carried it carefully to the edge of the field and set it loose in the grass. Another day he might have carried it up to the granary, for a mouser, but he didn't need this one, so he let it go.

Another time, in the spring, when he had been plowing all day, he came in at dusk and I heard him call out to my mother, "Blondie, oh Blondie," he was calling. (My mother's hair had been black; this was some term of affection between them that I never understood.) She met him under the big Dutch elm in our front yard. He was so excited, he was speaking to her even as he came up the little hill to the yard. "I just saw seven deer at the edge of the field, in the shadows of that big stand of cottonwood on the west side, by the dike."

I write my father about the things I see: the muskrats, the pygmy owl, the eagle, the deer that wander down our street after a snowfall. My mother tells me he loves these letters, and he asks her to ask me, each week when I call, if I have seen any more muskrat or deer, and he says for her to tell me that these are things the boys will never forget.

After my mother's last call, I sat looking out the windows at the Bear River Range. I could see myself strolling through a newly planted field with my father. Neither of us spoke. The dream continued: I see him harnessing our work horses and feel his strong hands grasp me securely under the arms and swing me into the air, onto Maggie's broad back where I will ride while he plows. I see him throwing bales from the ground up onto the hay rack. The sleeves of his blue workshirt are rolled to the elbows and sweat is dripping off his fine, high forehead.

When my son slams the side door, it startles me from my dream; in front of me are not cornfields and cottonwood, but the mountains of Utah. At the base of the Chinese elm, a shafted flicker, a Utah bird, is prodding the earth for worms.

For a moment I am confused. My father, the blue-eyed Swede, has disappeared, and I wonder where I am. Then I see Lev's face appear in the doorway and my father's smile takes life on my lips. "Lev," I call to him. He comes to me at the table, and I point out the window, guiding him to the sight of the shafted flicker, to what is sacred in the world.

Ona Siporin is assistant editor at the Western Historical Quarterly and a storyteller. This essay is from her book, Stories to Gather All Those Lost, published in 1995 by Utah State University Press in Logan, Utah.

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