after Pilgrim

Nonfiction / Jenn Dean

This is what happens. It is April already. Try and catch the moment every year when spring erupts, or any season, any year, and it’s ten days gone the next time I look. The grass by the marsh shoulder high. Just one year I’d like to see the moment of arrival and departure. If I can catch the second at dusk the streetlamp comes on, why not the moment spring comes?

I’m full of ruth, and purblind. I lived too long with my eyes intentionally averted. If I live with my regret, as Thoreau said, I might live afresh. So I’ll try. My innocence has fallen asleep and I want to wake it. By walking the wild edge of things, by seeing how far out I can lean while still standing on the earth, I hope to find it.

Earlier I had stepped out, the sun slunk low in the west, spangling the clouds with light and a rainbow sat in the sky sideways at the zenith. I’d never seen a sideways rainbow. If it happened once, then surely it must happen all the time. How could I have missed it in all my years? On days like this I quit the house.

I live in a narrow valley next to a trail that leads to a river. I’m bounded on two sides by river, from the south and west. To the east I’m bound by the Cascade foothills. Several steps from my house I pick up a trail that heads straight to the river. The railroad used to take this same path, and in historic homage the way is occasioned with cragged plum and and crabapple trees from pits being thrown out the train windows. The same people who threw the pits also logged the valley by rail, pulling cedar and Doug fir logs like giant splinters out of the body of the mountains.

At the river, the water moves fast, lit by slanting sun, shot through and tumbled with sunlight. The rapids flow over a carpet of rocks that extends onshore. There are rocks shaped like footprints, rocks with hieroglyphic patterns, rocks striped and flat. What they have in common is the polishing of time. They are circular, smooth, rounded. Some have cupreous veins, or are dotted and striped with silver. The sun slants and shadows move downriver. I move on, because today I have a mission.

Over by a county park I leave the trail and like a cartoon explorer, part the tall grass with my hands, and follow one of many narrow animal paths. I duck under branches, wade through horsetail. The trails all lead to the mound. An earthen-packed log jam set down in the middle of a marsh, punned in place by the county. Picture a small hill, a moat around it, a strip of grass separating it from the marsh. Above, fringed cottonwoods, and beyond that, mountains. Below, the slough pours in. The mound is a hillock as grand as any under a Greek temple. Surrounded by evening birdsong, I dangle my feet off a piling, and look out. Sometimes I climb down to arrange myself like a leopard on a bole over the moat.

On the far shore, a lodge woven of pale stripped branches sits like a bone pile. There’s a sense here anything can happen, and will.

Once I found a gutsack in a rocky wash along the river. The ivory lungs and swollen intestines of a rabbit. Formed and furrowed and fringed with delicacy. There was no blood on it, not even on the ground. It was as if someone had set it down from on high and said, look here.

Excrement, scat, bones, guts, I’ve seen a lot on my daily rambles. It’s all intricately detailed, all things formed, furrowed, and excreted, whether by egg or bowel. But by whom or what? Making sense of it defies logic. I start with this. There is beauty and terror so we may as well see both sides of that singular raw coin. We’re one step away from being stripped, our own gutsacks neatly deposited by a predator’s claw, even right here on the mound.

A breeze crumples the skin of the water. I can’t see beyond the reflection of apricot clouds tinged with pale fire, the aquamarine sky, the silhouettes of trees, banks of mud and grass mirrored back, and, if I look straight down, my own formless void.

From this vantage point an entire civilization goes about its free ways. Small brown heads ply the waters, leaving long trailing wakes like barges. No one labors for wages, and no poverty of spirit can be found. Efforts of construction in progress are strewn about the grass: stripped branches, trees and saplings felled helter skelter, as if everyone’s on a coffee break and will return at any moment.

Suddenly the water beneath me in the moat begins to boil and sway, the way it does when the ocean’s surface announces a whale. Ripples swell and knock against the piling I’m on.

A head like a furred wedge emerges, followed by a body, and webbed feet stretched out on either side of a ping-pong paddle tail. It floats three feet away, nose tickling the air currents. It knows I’m there. Stalking beavers is a contortionist’s game: I’m stuck with my body hunched in one direction, my neck crooked the other way and now I can’t move. I see the beaver from the corner of my eye: blades of sepia fur clumped together with water and oil. Button black eyes, teddy bear ears.

Beavers are described in the literature as “affable” and having a “sense of humor.” By what lights did someone come up with these ideas? (I picture beavers coming to the top of the mound at night to do standup comedy—“Thank you very much, I’ll be playing here all week, try the alder…”) If beavers have a sense of humor surely rats do, but no one wants either in their attic. I prefer to believe the beaver is the husbandry of a god full of jest. Why the waffled cross hatching on that pancake size tail, or teeth that grow continuously like a curved sword?

It continues to sniff and float and drift, I could touch it with a stick, but when I turn my head the beaver comes further about then sinks like an anvil. The water bends around it like time around a black hole, and as it disappears it pulls the entire scene with it—the dimming sky, the mirrored surface of the marsh, the apricot clouds, the cottonwood trees, the mound I’m sitting on. It all disappears, slips into the hole after the beaver. Going, going, gone.

Seeing is hard. Annie Dillard wrote that even god can’t catch time in its free fall or stick a nickel’s worth of sense in our days. Like her, I’m struck like a bell, and ringing, all the way home.

Jenn Dean holds an MFA in Literature and Nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars. A portion of her book-in-progress, House of My Sleepless Nights, was published in Salamander, and her interview with the writer Jane Brox appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle. Awarded a Millay Colony residency, she’s been a featured artist in Soundfalls, an evening of music and stories, in Carnation, WA, and a finalist for the Lamar York Non-Fiction prize. Her essay, ‘The Keepers of the Ghost Bird’, about coming face to face with one of the most endangered seabirds in the world, will be forthcoming as an e-book by the Massachusetts Review, and will be anthologized in Trailhead, Literature for the Backcountry (LimeHawk Press). It was a 2016 finalist in the New Millenium Writings Literary Awards.

Born and raised in upstate New York, she lives in the mystical Snoqualmie Valley of Washington State.