Note: We’ll be posting the series excerpts one at a time in the next several months. Part IV is being published by Moon Willow Press in August 2017.
Chapter 19: Beaver Night
Three days later William, taking his turn at steering, was amazed that at every bend of the river a new vista opened: they would be passing a field ablaze with goldenrod and autumn asters with the early September sun hot on their heads and then shoot around a corner into the dank cool of a forest. It took them a whole day, swamping themselves five times, to master the art of turning corners. The steerer had to lean fiercely into the paddle to keep the current from forcing them against the opposite bank, while the bow person executed a twisting thrust sideways. Once they settled down, there were marvelous things to see: shadows of salmon swimming upstream to spawn, a bat falling off a branch to swim blithely across, does leading their fawns down to drink and, once, a mother mink standing on one side of the river trying to persuade her kits, screaming on the other bank, to jump in and swim across.
During what had seemed an endless portage and then having to learn the river’s vagaries, things had not been going well between them. Clare had always been excitable, losing her temper easily; but her flare ups had always flared down quickly. Even in their most harried passages through marsh and mere, she had never stayed angry for long. But on this trip down the Ander, which they had looked forward to as their last holiday before submitting to apprenticeship, Clare had been out of sorts for two whole days.
Now she sat in the bow, slashing away at the water to express her disgust with the world in general and William in particular. She found his comments maddeningly stupid, and she kept telling him so until he clammed up entirely. He hadn’t said a word at all since they had stopped o catch crayfish and eat some of yesterday’s marsh shoots hours ago. William had seen some delicious looking high bush cranberries, but hadn’t bothered stop for a snack. Even Foxy was perturbed and, having given up on the day entirely, was curled up among the packs with his nose hidden beneath his paws. It was going to be a grim holiday, thought William, for all the autumn sunshine, if Clare was going to act like this. Not seeing any point in stopping to set up camp, he kept on paddling even when dusk was full upon them.
Clare’s shoulders ached, but she wasn’t going to say so. If William was idiot enough to keep paddling after dark, she wasn’t going to tell him. Let him plod along, the stupid oaf: who did he think he was, giving her orders? Worn down by her hostility, he didn’t warn her when he saw sodden tree trunks all along one stretch. It was so dark now under the steep banks that he didn’t see a thick and almost entirely submerged branch lying right across the river until they banged into it suddenly. Neither his strong paddling nor her thrusts from the bow could prevent them from crashing broadside. The full force of the current held them tightly against the log. They weren’t quick enough balancing their weight. The longboat capsized, pitching them into the fierce current.
Clare, opening her mouth to shout angrily at William, swallowed water. She felt herself propelled downward, as if by enormously strong hands. She tried to hold her breath. She didn’t have much left! Her tunic tore as a branch dug into her, but she couldn’t catch hold of anything. The current seemed much more powerful underwater, pushing and pulling her down until her lungs almost burst with her attempt not to swallow. She was drowning! She tried to think of prayer, but was too frightened of dying in this narrow tunnel. But she would soon, with her shoulders jammed this way! She couldn’t help opening her mouth to gulp. But she was breathing air, not swallowing water, even though the rest of her body was being sucked down by the river current. Frantically kicking, she thrashed her shoulders and inched forward. She rested briefly, gasping fetid air, then kicked and thrashed again. Maybe she was dead already, trying to get out of her coffin. But her body would have none of that, and kept on forcing itself inch by inch into the darkness until she found herself leaning against some kind of muddy, fibrous platform.
She couldn’t see anything, but she could breathe, and her lower body had come free. She hauled herself out of the water and crouched on all fours. When she tried to straighten up her head bumped a low ceiling made of the same fibrous material as the platform. There was a clicking and clacking, very loud, from nearby. The chattering was coming from something else than her own teeth. She wasn’t alone, but she felt cold down to her very bones and realized that, having escaped drowning, she could freeze to death in the pitch black hollow!
Clare went still all over. She had been trained for marshland emergencies, and knew she had to think hard, right now, to save herself. She could feel her soggy, tattered uniform lie heavily on her back, which stung with scratches, so she probably wasn’t drowned. But she had to get herself warm before figuring a way out. She sensed movement, something dragging itself across the floor toward her. Before she could get herself into a defensive posture, fur rubbed her from both sides. It was warm and dry and smelled musky, like what she used to smell on muddy river banks when beavers were courting.
Beaver! With their enormous teeth they could easily kill her. But they had stopped her shivering and had settled on each side of her in a comforting manner.
Later, Clare realized she must have huddled in the Beaver lodge all night long, for it had been the dawn filtering through the willow roof that helped her figure out how to escape. The current had forced her into their upstream door. Beavers always built a backdoor opening downstream. As the sun came up she saw the two of them. They would not look her in the eye, but turned their heads delicately away as they moved from her side. Not wanting to offend them, Clare averted her gaze too, concentrating her mind on gratitude as she carefully inched her way across the platform. Below the little cave that was their front porch, she saw pond water glistening. She held her hand up in a silent blessing then slid into the water, swimming out flat to avoid any quicksand lining the bottom.
William had held onto the swamped boat with difficulty, since the whole force of the current had poured against its sodden weight. He had managed to shove it along the dam until it spun around and plunged into a pool. It had taken all night to pull it out, build a fire, and begin to dry out, listening frantically for any sound from Clare and Foxy. But there had been no sound from the river except water pounding over the dam and an owl’s prey screaming.
When dawn brought the first pale light he saw an odd sight across the pond. Foxy, head tipped to one side, ear cocked, was sitting on top of a sizeable beaver din, listening to something under his paws. He leaped straight up, yipping joyfully, as Clare exploded from the den and swam strongly across the pond. Filled from head to foot with relief, William forgot all about how furious they had been with each other. Clare, equally oblivious of yesterday’s sour mood, hugged him and cried and, all at the same time, chattered about being rescued by two lovely beavers.
They declared that September day a holiday. The would stay right here, dry out in the sun, and rest from toil and travel. They noticed roils and splashing in the pond. William waded in and grabbed a fat old salmon on its way to spawn, so they sat down to a hearty breakfast. Foxy, foraging along the bank for crayfish, trotted back over to William and Clare, then back to the river, then to them, yipping, until they followed him and saw Clare’s paddle floating. William had managed to retrieve his, but they had worried about carving a new one, which would delay them seriously.
“Sit by the fire and turn your back,” asked Clare.
“Just do,” she replied, but with none of yesterday’s rancor. Then she threw off here damp blanket she’d and swam naked across the pond to fetch the paddle.
“Oh, don’t look!”
“I’m not, but what’s the matter?”
Clare had noticed a crimson streak of blood along her thigh.
“Throw my pack across to me, but don’t look!”
With a sigh of relief, she found linsey coverings, still fairly dry, that she had packed for just such an eventuality. There was a stand of cat tails and she ran into it, gathering a supply of down to stuffed into the covers which, having withdrawn modestly into the sedges, she placed upon her body. Wrapping herself in her blanket, she took time to feel the marsh mud beneath her feet, and to thank it. Then she thanked the cat tails for providing fluff for her womanhood needs. Lifting her face into the sun which, for a few moments underwater, she had thought never to feel again, she blessed the beavers for sustaining her on what had turned out to be the last night of her childhood.
Now that they were having fun together Clare did not feel too shy to tell William about her great discovery. William, who like all Dunlin and Rookery boys and men was not privy to such secrets, felt proud and complemented. When Clare told him how sorry she was about the way she had acted the last several days, he thought how very grown up she had suddenly become. He hadn’t known about the moodiness that could come on at a girl’s time of the moon, especially her first, and was glad to hear that he hadn’t done anything to offend her after all. They decided to take some of the green and white marsh shoots to the beaver dam where the kind creatures, who loved such delicacies, might share in their celebration.
As night came on, they built their fire up nicely.
“Do you know any special songs?”
“There are womanhood ones, but I couldn’t sing those to you – they’re secret!”
“Think of a song then, anything you want. It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to sing something for tonight?”
Clare had a deep voice for a girl, but not unmelodious. She stood by the fire and sang a harvest anthem about coming home to your village, baskets of fruit in your arms and sheaves on your back, rejoicing in the autumn. As if acknowledging the occasion, Foxy sat solemnly at Clare’s feet. When the song was over, William stood up, and, with a solemn air of ceremony, held out a package that had stayed dry in the middle of his bundle.
“On this, your day of celebration,” he said, as he had been taught by Alison, “I present you, Clare, with your womanhood clothing!”
They opened the gift to find a beautiful crimson skirt woven by Alison and embroidered around and around in gold by Jean. There was a white linsey blouse to go with it that the Crane had woven all over with golden netting. To their astonishment, they both burst out crying.
“You must put them on.”
“Oh I will, I will,” said Clare, wiping the tears off her face.
When she emerged from the shadows he caught his breath in admiration. A girl had gone into the bushes but a young woman returned, moving differently within the full length skirt and the golden netting of her new blouse.
“Alison said that if your womanhood came upon you on our journey, you might sing a womanhood song to me and Foxy. Clare, who knew that her great day would not be complete without a proper ceremony, sang about what it was like to be a woman whose body rose and fell with the moon, who knew the coming of love and the tides bringing forth new life, the warm rush of love to the loins and of warm milk into the breasts. Finding himself quite in tune with Clare, Foxy, who at four years old was late in his own development, rose on his hind feet to dance with little trotting steps around her while William, thinking himself lucky to witness these mysteries, looked upon Clare and realized that, as she was now a woman, he was now a man.
Back into the bushes went Clare the woman to don her nicely dried Rookery britches and tunic and emerge once more as a child, demonstrating how to alleviate cramps by hopping around like a frog, plunging them into peals of laughter