Muskrat Love

muskrat love, neighbors

An unexpected bridge between neighbors.

It tastes like liver in pond rot, but only the first time. It’s a large vole. It ploughs marsh muck for cattails. Its flesh is cellular with swamp. I bargained for more. Not essence of bog; wisdom of wetland. In my bones.

I don’t trap. I wasn’t raised hunting. My husband fishes, waist-deep in shade pools while I pack our daughter on my back, current butting my shins, dogwoods raking my cheek. I sling clumsy plinks to the bank while she naps. She won’t remember.

How should I feed my family? I like to grub for food, grip soil and paw up millipedes, claw brambles, strip chokecherry clusters until my blackened fingers smell like almond. The physical of my fiber against the raw world. My daughter at my feet, tweaking beetles. My neighbor chides me. Through summer, he ambles to my fence, thatch of white hair and a moustache like a push broom, but trimmed, that’s Calvin. “You know that’s 39 cents a pound at Walmart.” Jabbing at my onions, eyes twinkling like river silt. I grin and spade over another potato mound.

Sometimes Calvin hands my daughter a tub of ice cream wrapped in a plastic bag. Wordless, his giving a bridge. Then he crosses back to his house and hoses dandelions with Roundup. In September I slash my hands teasing buffaloberries from thorn thickets. I’ve foraged for cattail shoots there, nutty and dank; vital.

By October I have our freezer stacked: quart jars of rhubarb, carrots, and green beans beside half-gallon lunkers of sour cherries and raspberries, glowing like jewels in glass. I’m numb with the work. It’s not enough. I nap and wake with clenched fingers, clutching for more: meat. But not grocery-shelf meat. In my freezer I’ve stashed chickens butchered by friends, a whole lamb rotated through pasture south of town. I didn’t work for those.

I'm no fool. Calvin owns his callouses. He handed us muskrat, we ate it.

Through November, I feed my daughter applesauce from our yard tree, puree from our back-fence plums. I keep a list of her first foods, proof of our life, true as the grip of my hand.

Calvin lines split wood on an overturned canoe behind his garage. I see it from my dining-room table. In a chain-link dog kennel, he stacks cured wood to the top bar. Every week of the year Calvin’s pickup punches gravel through the alley, bed loaded to the gills with wood. He stacks wood in his driveway until I can’t see his garage. Calvin traps muskrat. He’s not lonely; he’s solo. All winter he lives in his garage, woodstove cranking.

In January, I shrug into my husband’s coat, daughter wrapped against my ribs. One chicken left in our freezer, one leg of lamb. I haven’t smelled a river in weeks. Smoke curls from Calvin’s chimney. I ask him if he eats muskrat. He jerks his chin like shaking a fly from his moustache. I ask him for some muskrat. He skins eight for me. Removes the glands. Lugs the critters in five-gallon buckets, knuckles chapped and split. Ice chunks and blood across boot toes.

Muskrat blood is red, but deeper. My first stew tastes like bloody pennies. I soak the next animal. Rinse it, soak it again. We eat muskrat chili with canned garden tomatoes. Breaded muskrat. I freeze muskrat stew in jars and spoon it to my daughter. Summer brown fading from my hands. I write “muskrat” on her food list.

I’m no fool. Calvin owns his callouses. He handed us muskrat, we ate it. Does the meat bridge my visceral gardening gap? Does my sweat run steely with river water because he submerged his hand in reed decay to retrieve the life ensnared there? I want to believe it.

One morning in February I’m taking out the garbage, pinprick stars. It snowed a thick blanket overnight. Outside my fence, a shadow thumps our car. I freeze on the dark porch. It’s Calvin. Clearing snow off our hood, lifting each wiper to brush our windshield. And I know it, in my bones: it’s not the morsel of meat; it’s the meat of the story that feeds us. I inhale snow and woodsmoke. Muskrat it is.