We gun it off blacktop onto a small strip of gravel road. Peg-legged truck shaking on the ridge. Early morning moonlessness. Limbs curve across the windshield, stars behind them gleaming like broken glass. We skid in the truck side-to-side and barrel down the washed-out ridge.
In the back of the truck, we’ve brought what we need. Shotguns. Tannerite. A trailer loaded with an ATV. The truck feels like a small boat on a storm-ridden sea, and as mountain-sized waves loom and build, all I can do is white-knuckle the sides and hope not to be tossed.
The three of us—Clint, my brother-in-law, Brian, my younger brother, and me, the last three men in our family—are driving on a Saturday to our old family land to clear it from beavers. The creek along the edge of the property gets dammed every year or so, and the floodwaters drown the woods and threaten, if the winter rains fall too heavy, to flood the cabin. Clearing beavers is a two-step process. In the morning, we blow the dam. In the afternoon, we kill the beavers as they try to rebuild.
Land needs tending. For the ghosts of old to wander, houses need to stand. Killing beavers is a kind of prayer, a lowering of the head to what once was. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.
Clint hops out, unlocks the big metal gate and walks it open as we drive through. The old metal groans as he closes it behind us. It bangs against the post like a judge. The sun is coming up, and the warm glow of morning wraps around us.
“God, it’s early,” Clint says. He unwraps a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit from the wrapper. I can hear him chewing it.
“That smells like shit,” Brian says.
“It’s so damned good. I bet it even smells good to Sammy.”
“Not at all,” I say.
“Bullshit. You know you would eat it right now if Sarah didn’t sniff your breath when you got home. You want a hashbrown?”
“Can vegans eat hashbrowns?”
“I’m trying not to die,” I say. “Fuck me, right?”
“Everybody dies,” Clint says. “Might as well enjoy yourself. That’s what I say.”
“That doesn’t really smell like enjoyment,” I say. “It smells like death to me.”
“Yeah?” Clint says. “Just wait till you smell it later.”
The road splits. There’s a big lake in the middle of the property, and the road circles on a berm around it. Beer cans sit rusting in the ditch. Shotgun shells are crushed on the road. It’s our land, but people always poach on it.
Brian leans forward above the steering wheel to look up at the sky. He’s hungover. Bloodshot, swollen eyes. A scar along his chin that he won’t talk about. I can smell the night before on him. “Look,” he says, pointing.
Above the tree line, two hawks tumble to the earth, embraced and circling, talons latched onto the other. Their bodies plummet. They could hit the ground like that, in embrace. Their deaths wouldn’t matter. Nothing would change. We would all forget we even saw them by the afternoon.
Brian and my father died last year of a heart attack. He ate steak and drank beer every night of his life. One month after the funeral, I quit eating meat. I quit drinking every night. Brian saw it as a kind of betrayal. “Are we not going to go hunting anymore?” he said. “What about fishing? You’re not going to eat fish? You can’t tell me fish have a soul.”
“The mercury,” I said. Sarah’s mom was having memory problems. The last time I saw her, she didn’t know my name.
“What the fuck are you going to do?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
Even last week, he tried to rub it in. “I guess it’s just me and Clint this year.”
“That big soft heart you’ve got now.”
“It doesn’t mean I’m not going to blow up a dam. It doesn’t mean I’m out of the family. It doesn’t mean I’m a damned stranger now.”
“Could have fooled me.”
This is the first beaver clearing without Dad, and while his and mom’s house has been cleaned of most of his stuff, the cabin has not. We unload the cooler and the guns from the back of the truck, and it’s almost like we’re unloading this year on top of last. We forgot to take the trash out last year. In the metal trash barrel are plastic bacon wrappers and Styrofoam trays for meat, beer cans crushed and fading from the sun, Dad’s empty can of dip.
We back the ATV off the trailer and stack the canisters of Tannerite, a small explosive, in the back. In the low light it feels like we’re moving through water. Clint tips the edge of the hash brown wrapper to his mouth, wads it up, and tosses it into the back of the truck. He opens the cooler and cracks open a beer and guzzles it.
I drive us in the ATV onto the trail near the creek. Water flooded woods. Fallen trees. Huge patches of woods lay bare and open, jagged and splintery like they’re piercing the soft belly of sky. Even pines, trees beavers don’t usually touch, have thick scrapes of bark gnawed off at the trunks. It’s an infestation so bad that I have to remind myself that we came last year, that last year happened at all.
But it did happen. It is happening. We’ve floated rudderless. I’ve bailed Brian out of jail twice. The last time, he crashed his truck into an elderly couple’s living room and tried to drive off, but the truck got stuck in their flower bed. Each time I bailed him out, on the ride home at six in the morning, him too drunk to talk and his eyes shining dull in the traffic lights, I chewed him out. Think about your wife. Your little girl. It doesn’t do any good. Nothing does. I’ll get him home and his wife, Ashley, will sit down with me to try to sort him out while Brian goes to sleep in their bed. She bounces their baby girl on her knee and worries.
The three of us really only know each other through our wives. It’s like trying to know what’s in a windowless building just by looking at the outside: anything could be in there.
Clint cheated on my baby sister, Laurie, three months ago at a work conference in Fairhope, Alabama. I know because Laurie told Sarah. They have a two-year-old named Becky Anne. Laurie’s trying to forgive him. They started going to the Presbyterian Church in Brandon that has a Christian-based therapy program. The therapist says they need more Jesus between them, as if that means something. As if that could help. As if anything could be between two people besides space.
Beavers are tenacious and fruitful. Downstream, beavers make more beavers. Once young beavers come of age, they get kicked out of their home. Resources are too scarce. They go upstream and build their own dams. In that way, they spread themselves against the current. In that way, they’re an every year-type of problem.
I’m not immune to problems. I have made a conscious effort to try to be good, thinking that I have spent much of my life not. In short, since Dad died, I don’t know how to navigate the world of manhood anymore. It’s an admission that in itself makes me feel queasy. Beforehand, it was easy. Be there for your family, be good at your job. Get drunk, eat steak, have a chew while the game’s on. Find your small team and love them.
It hasn’t been enough. I have veered toward something else, something bigger, and though I see it as a veering toward, my friends and brothers see me veering away. I am edging close to forty and want do something worthy. It shows itself especially on the tennis court. I don’t just want to win. I want my opponent to unravel, to launch balls in frustration over the fence, to feel exposed. I want him to know that the faults in his tennis game are also the faults in his life. Last week, I nearly came to blows with a fifty year old man in knee braces. After he called two of my shots out that were clearly in, I drop-shotted him to the net and sent forehand after screaming forehand directly at his gut. I hit him twice. At set point, I stopped him mid-toss to ask him what the score was. It was a cheap move. He double-faulted and lost the game, refused to shake my hand at the end. Still, in me there is a hope that I showed him what’s wrong with himself, that I made the world a little better.
The dam is easy to find. We park along the sour mud of the bank, take the shovels out and begin to dig. With three people instead of four, the work goes slower. It’s noticeable and, I’d imagine, on everybody’s mind. The dam comes up to about waist high, but it’s wide. On the other side, the water builds up and hisses through the sticks.
I try not to think about Brian in his jail cell. Cold metal, blurred vision. The elderly couple sleeping in their beds when his truck barreled through their wall. I try not to think about Clint at his work conference. The drunken sweat. The smell of a stranger’s body. His phone accidentally calling my sister in the middle of it. Instead, I try to think of a body suspended in cool water. So deep that it’s dark. Soundless.
Twenty pounds of Tannerite go in the holes. We stand far back and Brian shoots.
Sticks and dust explode. Water splatters in droplets across our faces, and the ground beneath our boots rumbles. Fire and light. Pluming dust. Small particles that patter in the creek. It’s a beautiful feeling: exploding something, taking what is and, through force of will, ending it. Already, water flows through. We smile at each other in the haze. We are brothers, all.
The problem now is that I feel like I live in a zoo. All the old levers of wildness that I used to pull when I was younger turned out to be not levers at all but bars in the cage. Drunken sex, skinny dipping at midnight, all-night binges. The communion they offered was really isolation.
Brian lights the coals in a chimney and Clint opens up a beer and hands it to me. I drink a sip, wanting to drink back to when drinking made me feel a part of something, not separate. “Cheers,” Clint says and raises his beer. We all do. “To James Washington.”
“Cheers,” we say and we drink. The beer tastes like poison. I can’t get around it any more, what it’s doing to my insides. I can feel my liver every time I take a sip.
Even achievement has grown tiresome. I coach high school basketball and teach AP Latin at a rich kids’ school in Ridgeland. We’ve won back-to-back state championships even though we’re undersized. When my team makes me angry, I blow the whistle and make them run windsprints. Their shoes pound against the hardwood, their breaths pulse deep and quick. In classes, students listen to everything I say. The power’s not good for a person.
Each year I feel more lost in the stuckness of high school. There’s no other way I can say it. I feel myself aging, but my students are always seventeen years old. I am the only thing that changes. I talk about Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. I talk about Cato and Brutus, whose goodness I praise. All of their pale, soft faces. Listening, eager to please. Their wide clear eyes. What good is greatness when, like Caesar, a thousand paper cuts can cut a man down on the Senate floor? What good is goodness if an army is outside? What good is bravery when, like Cato, all you use it for is to rip out your own intestines with your hands? What good is being good when, like Brutus, all it gives you is a smile as you fall on your sword? What good is living if time doesn’t move until the last second ticks off, if all living is is a long march to becoming alone?
Brian grills bacon-wrapped dove breasts and jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese. Two Portobello mushrooms for me. Constantly, he opens to lid to look at them, moves the breasts around with his long-handled tongs.
“They’re never going to cook if you keep opening it,” I say.
“He’s cooking them with his eyes,” Clint says.
Brian acts like he’s handing me the tongs. “You want to cook?”
“You want a crust on it, don’t you?”
“If you want to cook, cook. If not, let me do it.”
Clint opens another beer and he takes a can of dip out of his front fishing shirt pocket. He takes off the cap and takes a pinch out and puts it in his lip before offering the can to Brian, who takes a small pinch and puts it in his mouth. He jokingly hands it to me.
Brian has a way of drinking a beer like he’s biting into it. He’s on his fourth of the morning. His mouth opens and the tips of his sharp white canines poke out, and when he drinks his throat opens and he guzzles down a quarter of the can. He tongs the dove breasts and burps quietly. Although it’s fall, the air is warm and sticky, as if the blown dam has evaporated and the beaver musk is in our lungs. I’m glad I didn’t see any beavers this morning. Beavers are foreign creatures to me, and, to be honest, make me uncomfortable when I see them—their flat tails, their sharp teeth.
“You want another beer?” Clint asks. The one I’m holding is half-full and lukewarm.
“I’m good,” I say.
“Here.” He stands up off the cooler, opens it, and fishes out another beer. I drain half the lukewarm beer and take the new cold one. I can feel Brian watching me. He wants to say something.
“You got any hot students this year?” Clint asks.
It’s a question I get too often from grown men. I used to say, “They’re seventeen. They’re children.” Now, my canned answer is, “They’re all genius models.”
“Haha,” he says. “How much do they pay you to say that?”
“Not enough,” is my canned answer.
I can feel the beer sloshing around in my belly. It always feels so good at first.
“Brian,” I say. I see him looking at me, wanting to say something. “What did you get into last night?” His eyes are red. He didn’t sleep.
“Not much,” he says. “Stayed home. Watched a movie.” Lately, friends will drive by his house on their way to work at five or six in the morning and text me, tell me that they saw him on his front porch, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. Five in the fucking morning. Used to, I thought he’d be out at the bars. Now, I think he just stays home and drinks while his wife and child sleep.
“One of those all-night movies?”
“Did you watch every Star Wars movie ever made?”
He tongs a few doves over and drops my mushrooms with his fingers onto the grill. He licks his fingers and drinks again. “I watched Braveheart.” It was Dad’s favorite movie. “I think I watched it twice.”
We eat and drink and clean up after ourselves, cramming the beer cans and spit cups and paper plates down the trash barrel. We pile back into the ATV with our shotguns in the back. The leaves are golden and the woods are loud. We park a hundred yards away from the blown dam on the mud of the creek and trek quietly through the bramble.
We split up near the deer stand where Brian killed his first deer, a ten-point buck when he was eight. I remember it only because he still has the picture on the refrigerator, blood smeared on his face smiling next to the animal. Brian and Clint drift from me in the woods, their gun barrels pointed to the ground.
We set up down the banks of the creek. Though we’re all in camo, I can see Brian and Clint’s hunter orange glowing behind the trees like two small, foreign suns. Where the dam was, beavers busy themselves with rebuilding. They’re everywhere, fifteen to twenty of them. Their brown bodies glisten, and their snouts poke just above the water as they swim their pointed sticks back to their home. They’re panicked, traumatized. One stands hunched on the bank near the dam, looking around as if surveying what once was, trying to make its rodent-mind imagine what could have caused this.
A shotgun blasts. Then another. I eye a beaver swimming and fire at it. The shot scatters across the water, and the beaver ducks under. My stomach is electric. My insides are hollow and singing. All around, gunfire explodes.
There on the bank, the same beaver sits, alarmed but still. He hears the gun blasts, tries to picture the old erupted home. He tries to think of how he could have avoided this, what steps he could have taken, what challenges he can lay on his family to keep it from ever happening again.
I fire at him. The beaver tumbles over. The shot tears off a chunk of his wide, flat tail. The animal screams and sits up. It’s big. It sniffs its tail and sees me.
Killing never sat well with me. My first deer was a doe. I killed her next to her fawn who sprinted into the woods when she heard the shot. I didn’t cry but I didn’t feel joy—not like the joy on Brian’s face in the picture—when my father dunked my head in the animal’s blood-filled ribcage. I felt cold, absent. I knew nothing of the life I took.
There are other worlds that I can never access. Death is a closed door. To usher it in, to welcome it and run towards it in all its uncertainty—like Dad did, like Brian is doing—is an act of betrayal. A betrayal of the ones they love. A betrayal of life itself.
While the beaver I shot swims across the creek, blood trails after it in a dark cloud. Thick, strong neck. Long, yellow teeth. All around, the gunfire booms. The air smells.
My body turns sick with the smell. Downstream, a beaver bursts into a spray of blood and fur. I can see Brian behind a tree, grinning big. It’s a vacant, harsh smile, the skin on his face pulled back across his cheeks. Clint cannons dumbly. All is constant input. Death lies on the banks of the river.
The beaver I shot climbs onto the bank. It charges across the grass. It is fast. I squeeze the trigger and the gun barrel booms. The dirt beside the beaver craters and plumes, splatters into the creek.
“Shit,” I hear myself say. The beaver leaps at me. I strafe away, raise the barrel. The beaver’s long torso glistens. Its tail is ragged. At once, I feel the weight of its long body careen against me, its claws at my calf. It bites into my thigh.
Its eyes are wild and red, depthless in its anger. Its head shakes back and forth. Blood seeps out from my skin and torn clothes around its teeth. I grab the beaver behind the neck to try to pull it off. It’s in me. Pulling rips the flesh. All the world is pain and panic. “Help,” I say. Beavers lay dying on the creek. The guns blast on.
Its teeth sink further in. I can feel it near the bone. I can’t stand. I lay my leg against the ground and beat the barrel of the shotgun against its head. “Help,” I’m screaming. “Help me goddamn.”
My gun fires. My ears ring. My whole body has gone cold. My shoulder. A piece of it is gone. The shirt is gone. The skin is scraped to a smooth crater of blood and muscle. The beaver is gnawing. Blood is pooling under me. I can smell myself.
Something releases. Brian is there.
His knife is in his hand. He slashes and stomps the beaver against the ground. He squats and knifes it dead.
I can feel him in the ground. He looks at my shoulder and touches my shirt.
“It’s okay,” he says, and he looks me in the eye, not side-eyed but whole. When he looks at me, he sees me. When he looks at me, it’s as if there is no space between us. “Goddamn. Just hold on.”
I want to scream. I want time to stop. To end, bleeding on a bank. Clint stands above me. “That’s an artery,” he says, looking at my leg. The leaves above are washed clean of color. To stay alive precisely here, to never live forward, to never have to remember, to never go away. Their eyes watch me. My shoulder, my thigh, bleeding out in the open. Seen. Alive.
They lay me across the backseat of the ATV. On the bumps, my head bounces on the cushion of the seat, and I can see just outside of the roof to the limbs as they scrape by. It looks as if the limbs are holding on to something. My clothes are heavy, and everything burns. I can hear Brian and Clint talking. “I’m sorry,” I try to say. But there’s nothing in my throat.
I know what will happen next. We’ll all forget. We’ll forget the binds that tie us together. We’ll forget the land that holds us, the land that reared us. The moment is already gone. Today will be another day that we’ll never speak of. On crutches, I’ll sing in my zoo about the Rubicon. I’ll sing of Brutus leaning on his own sword, proud that he could die a good man. I’ll sing of Antony leaving his men to be slaughtered so he could go be with the woman he loves. I’ll sing it out in the place where nothing changes, wishing I was bleeding on the bank.
Or I will walk through the door, and I’ll close it behind me.
Either way, this bank will become another tyrant. I will know, beneath the drudgery, beneath the stuckness, that there is a place where death lives. Grafted skin and blood transfusions. Styrofoam burning in a trash barrel. Eyes that never meet mine. Where the river runs is the place where nothing is forgotten. All around us the creek is rising. Out in the woods, the water recedes.
Schuyler Dickson is a farmer and writer who lives in Houlka, MS. He earned his BA in Southern Studies from Ole Miss and his MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern, where he won the Distinguished Thesis Award. His work has been selected as a StorySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story, a semi-finalist for Black Lawrence Press’s Big Moose Prize, and a finalist for the Tartt First Fiction Award. His stories have appeared in JMWW, Split Lip Magazine, PANK, and New World Writing, among others. He can be found at schuylerdickson.com.