From where we are standing on the Fifth Street Bridge, we can see an oval body stream through the sluggish water of the Conewango Creek. “What’s that?” my partner Anthony asks. “A rat?”
Anthony grew up in Brooklyn. To him, every wild animal is a rat.
It’s true that there could be rats here. Norway rats—or “river rats” as those who live in blue-collar river towns like ours call their undesirable neighbors—can often be found on the creek’s banks. But this isn’t a rat. The body makes a V-shaped trail in the waves, with a long scaly tail snaking behind it. Then a soggy shape, smaller than a house cat, crawls onto a tiny island that has almost dissolved in the water. It balances for a moment, and crouches low, its dark fur spiked with water. It gazes upward its small eyes shiny beads in the sunlight. It’s a muskrat.
We are out for our first real walk since spring has fingered its way through the long winter. The skunk cabbages have uncurled; the forsythia bushes sport bright yellow flowers. The air is cool, not cold, and the sun is bright, teasing us with a promise that warmer days are ahead.
It’s been a long winter. I have lived in the snowbelt of northern Pennsylvania most of my life, so I am used to snowstorms where accumulations are measured in feet, not inches. I dress in layers in preparation for mornings that start out near zero but afternoons that climb into the forties. I bundle up against the Arctic winds that dip down from Canada. I get snow tires and learn to predict the slide of black ice on the roads.
But what I have never grown used to is the lack of sun, the weeks upon weeks where gray clouds cling to the sky, and this winter has been especially dark. My aging father has been in and out of the hospital. A local pastor was reported missing the week before. A friend’s husband has been diagnosed with stage four kidney failure. “We don’t want him to go on dialysis,” she explained, looking exhausted. Later, I will find out why. Those with kidney failure who do go on dialysis have less success with a transplant.
And, at home, we are nursing a dying cat, although neither Anthony nor I want to admit that our beloved three-year-old Lola is dying. Idiopathic chylothorax. When I say the words out loud, I mispronounce the diagnosis every time. Her chest cavity is filling up with a fatty tissue that is pushing against her internal organs so it’s hard for her to breathe. It’s very rare.
Idiopathic. “Of unknown origin,” our veterinarian explained.
I may not understand chylothorax, but I know what idiopathic means. We don’t know the cause. We also don’t know what to do. It also means there’s nothing we can do.
I am thinking about Lola, as I outline the muskrat’s tail in the air with my finger, trying to show Anthony the difference between a beaver and a muskrat. In the sixteen years we have been together, I have often found myself explaining differences in the world of nature: a wood duck may have similar colors to a mallard, but it has a hooded head; a coyote is much bigger than a red fox; a song sparrow has streaks across its chest while a tree sparrow sports a small smudge. Today, I add that in spite of the name, the muskrat is not related to the rat, that it was named because of the scent glands near its tail. I stop before I can add that muskrats were important in the history of America’s fur industry, before I start sounding like a textbook.
I fell in love with the muskrat at a young age. Our small local library had a set of children’s books by Thornton W. Burgess. His series, set in a pastoral world of Smiling Pool and Laughing Brook, featured such memorable characters as Jimmy Skunk, Sammy Jay, Bobby Raccoon, and Billy Mink, who were personified with human characteristics. But my favorite was Jerry Muskrat, a mischievous trickster who rarely listened to his mother. He wasn’t bad, really. Yes, he did get into trouble with traps set by the farmer’s boy, but he also went on a journey to save Laughing Brook, which had dried to mud and sludge because of (horrors!) a beaver’s dam that was built further upstream. I knew, of course, that real muskrats didn’t wear rolled trousers with a hole cut out for a tail, so I found picture books with real photographs, showing round balls of wet fur with partially webbed back paws. It was through these books that I learned that muskrats ate cattails and water lilies, and could stay underwater as long as fifteen minutes—a feat that seemed incredible to me considering I had timed myself, and I could only hold my breath underwater for a mere thirty seconds.
Given my introduction to the muskrat in books, I wanted to see one of my own, so I nagged my brother until he took me to a pond located about an hour from our home. I was disappointed when we didn’t see a muskrat, and only mildly entertained when a beaver appeared, who, when I slid and fell into the water, splashed its tail, warning off his peers that a human presence was near. Even at that time, I thought the beaver was a show-off, sort of like the kids who stationed themselves by the door when the teacher left the room to act as lookouts. When they spotted her in the hallway, shouting “Teacher!,” they always looked so pleased at the attention they received. I didn’t want to see a show-off of a beaver—I wanted a muskrat.
What I suspected then but now know for sure is this: muskrats are sturdy creatures. They can make their homes in water stained orange with acid mine drainage. They can travel far underwater for food. They don’t even hibernate—instead they make do by lodging together for warmth with other muskrats in their homes, and when they do venture out into the cold, they survive by breaking through cracks in the frozen ice. Naturalists have also noted that they build “push-ups” or tiny lodges by gnawing through the ice and shoving vegetation through the holes for later meals. Yes, sometimes muskrats could be considered a nuisance—their burrowing in banks and dams causes damage to property—but mostly they mind their own business, swimming through the water, their tails as rudders, their front paws clenched in toward their chests.
Perhaps unconsciously I felt a sort of kinship with the muskrat. After all, I was a tomboy, marked by scrapes and bruises, fighting hard to grow up in a rough and tumble neighborhood of boys in a tiny, rural Rust Belt town. Muskrats and me: we were both survivors.
Today, I tell Anthony that it’s odd to see a muskrat in town. Around here, they usually make their homes further upstream where old camps dot the creek and swampland turns into ponds during heavy rain. They usually stay away from people. Skittish and twitchy, they sometimes slap the water to warn other muskrats, but most of the time they simply slide silently through without making a splash. They are also usually crepuscular, which means they are most active at dusk and dawn.
But it’s the middle of the day. Cars rumble past us on the bridge, occasional blue exhaust coating the air. Nearby, kids play in the park, their voices echoing in the river valley. An old man walks his sheepdog along the creek-side trail. Occasionally, the dog slips into the water, splashing. The sounds of the human world are very different than the hum of pond life: the cricket song, the bullfrog’s gurgle, the red-winged blackbird’s sharp trill.
The muskrat seems undisturbed.
“I wonder what it is doing here?” I ask to no one in particular even though Anthony is the only one around.
“Looking for a new home,” Anthony suggests.
It’s possible, I suppose. We’ve had heavy rain. Maybe somewhere upstream its home was washed away. Muskrats actually build two types of homes: they either burrow into banks or dams or they build dome-shaped mounds from sticks, plants, and mud. It’s the second type I am most familiar with, and it’s true that they don’t look very sturdy, that a flood caused by too much rain or a sudden spring melt could dismantle the structure and wash it away.
But both folklore and records of close observation suggest that muskrats are smarter than the weather. Some believe muskrats will build bigger lodges higher off the water in preparations for a severe winter or heavy rain. American naturalist John Burroughs recorded his thoughts on the subject in his observations of the muskrat in his native Catskill Mountains. For weeks, he watched the construction of lodges, and noted that one year, when the muskrats were especially tardy with their buildings, which were not yet complete in December, the winter was mild. He also noted that the muskrats were caught off guard by at least one flood, and that their home was pushed downstream by heavy rain that turned the sluggish pond into angry waters, but this did not shake his awe. “Who can really predict a flood?” he questioned, shrugging off the one-time incident. He remained convinced that the muskrat knew more than we did about the weather, and indeed were better forecasters.
We watch as the muskrat cocks its head toward us, tilts its face to the side as if listening to our conversation. Drying a bit in the sun, its fur sticks up, as if it is a little boy who cannot smooth down a cowlick in his hair. It pushes its paws together as if it is in deep thought.
The next day, our cat will go into respiratory distress and Anthony will make one final trip to the vet’s office. In another week, a search-and-rescue team will find the body of the pastor lodged under the very bridge where we are standing. In two more weeks, our friend will slip into stage five kidney failure and be forced to go on dialysis while waiting for a kidney. These are things that we do not know yet.
“It’s lost,” I say, looking at the water below.
Karen J. Weyant’s poetry and prose has most recently been published in Cold Mountain Review, The Nassau Review, Poetry East, Slipstream, Storm Cellar, and River Styx. Her chapbook, Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt, won Main Street Rag’s 2011 Chapbook Contest and was published in 2012. She teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. In her spare time, she explores the Rust Belt regions of Western New York and Northern Pennsylvania.