Iowa Writes

NATE MCKEEN
Excerpt from "Wild Kingdom"


Do woodland beavers attack? I wondered.  I never saw anything about it on Wild Kingdom.  And although the thought came to me in a calm, disembodied voice, it was at the center of a rising panic: it was black night. The current pulled hard; I was struggling to keep my head above the water. My lower leg was wedged between two logs beneath the surface. And everywhere, out of the darkness, were circling beavers, slapping their tails unseen within inches of my head. 

The sound painfully compressed my eardrums.  I worried about their claws.  My arm hit one in the side as I tried to tread water.  I'd seen beavers here before, no shit, that must've been sixty or eighty pounds.  The moon was new, and that meant the only light was the pale shimmer of starlight on the water, and the beavers would appear and leave silky centers of ripples that I could hear more than see.  Their swimming sound was shadowy.  Then a hard flat attack of the black surface, smashing the reflected stars.  I could feel the water churning with the current of their swimming. It was their power in the water that scared me, and the slick sheen of where they had just been. And I was going to have to go under to free my leg.  People die in current like this.  With beavers.  Who knew?

Do woodland beavers attack? I wondered.  I never saw anything about it on Wild Kingdom.  And although the thought came to me in a calm, disembodied voice, it was at the center of a rising panic: it was black night. The current pulled hard; I was struggling to keep my head above the water. My lower leg was wedged between two logs beneath the surface. And everywhere, out of the darkness, were circling beavers, slapping their tails unseen within inches of my head. 

The sound painfully compressed my eardrums.  I worried about their claws.  My arm hit one in the side as I tried to tread water.  I'd seen beavers here before, no shit, that must've been sixty or eighty pounds.  The moon was new, and that meant the only light was the pale shimmer of starlight on the water, and the beavers would appear and leave silky centers of ripples that I could hear more than see.  Their swimming sound was shadowy.  Then a hard flat attack of the black surface, smashing the reflected stars.  I could feel the water churning with the current of their swimming. It was their power in the water that scared me, and the slick sheen of where they had just been. And I was going to have to go under to free my leg.  People die in current like this.  With beavers.  Who knew?

We had parked Kara's truck at the gate across the trail.  We were meeting Jeff and Bill over at the campground, but they weren't there yet, so we thought we might as well hike out to the old point. It was a county park, along the Cedar River, with the obligatory weeping willows and close-cropped blankets of lawns curled around streams and snarls of bramble and woods.  The flood plain is what we have to work with for public land around here.  North of the park, just past the shooting range, was the old jeep trail.  A quarter mile down this trail, and another quarter mile through the woods, there was a point at the crux of the Y of the river, split to the north by a big, uninhabited island.

We ducked under the gate, bullet riddled signs reading "Public Hunting" and "No Motor Vehicles Beyond this Point," and crunched down the gravel of the old road, past the washout from the flood in '93 that the county had decided not to repair.

We were both in shorts and T-shirts, me, tennis shoes, she, moccasins. I was impatient to get down to the river for sunset, and walking ahead. "I left the flashlight in the truck," she hollered ahead to me.  "It's too late to turn back now!" I shrugged, the truck still in sight over her shoulder.  We laughed and entered the woods.

These woods had changed.  There was no longer any remnant of the walking trail, wide and carpeted with wood chips, that used to be here, and the narrow old foot trail that led down the river to the point was gone in a tangle of thorns.  Deeper into the woods a giant downed cottonwood used to rest on a rise, but that rise was now a dry streambed, drifted in with sand.  The river had cut through here to the washout, piled logs in stobby snarls ten feet high.

We found the old point, though, the place we all used to come to in high school to watch the river flow. It used to be beach but now was cutbank, a sand cliff of exposed roots.  The main channel of the river now ran to the left of the island we faced, instead of the right, like I remembered. What used to be a little beach and an eddy now was a froth of current.

We left the point and wandered through a maze of dead cedar trees, spiny and shaded out by the fast growing maple suckers. We hopped across to a sandbar, crossed the river to the island, and, walking in the long grass beneath the cottonwoods, we disturbed a group of nesting herons; they dropped silently from the trees above us to the meadow before us, and then in a flutter and squawking, storked off down the river.  Kara's hair glowed golden in the slanting sun. It occurred to me that this was almost a date.

[...]

more

About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


NATE MCKEEN

Nate lives and writes in the Five-Minute-Flood-Plain in Iowa's Cedar River bottom. He holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa, an MS in environmental studies from the University of Montana, and an MA in poetry writing from the University of Northern Iowa. This essay first appeared in The Iowa Review, Fall 2009.

This page was first displayed
on May 21, 2010

Find us on Facebook