By Tamara Dean
Featured Art: Willows and White Poplars by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot
In the shower she takes a swig of beer, sets the bottle on the edge of the tub, and begins prying leeches, flat and large as house keys, from her cold toes, the top of her foot, her ankle. She places three in a line next to the bottle, where they lie motionless, though alive. Thinned blood threads over her feet. When she and Neil moved to the country four years ago, miles downriver from his family’s farm, he taught her to peel off leeches rather than douse them with salt, which he said might make them vomit and spread disease.
An hour ago, when she capsized, she didn’t feel the leeches take hold. She was alone. It was dusk. She looked up to greet a pair of bats when the kayak teetered, hit a tree recently fallen from the riverbank, and flipped. After a long moment, she surfaced. Sputtering, dog paddling, adrenaline-jarred, skin-tightened, throat splicing eddies, heels churning mud. She held the kayak and wrestled to free it from the current and the willow it was pinned against. She imagined herself the puny accident bystander who suddenly has the strength to pull a giant, unconscious passenger from the wreckage. Even so, she worked half an hour to bring the kayak ashore, roll and empty it. Near dark, she returned for the paddle. More splashing, spitting, gulping, sinking in mud. More leeches latching on.
Fewer than three there should never be. That’s what she has heard about kayaking; a trio is certain safety. But this is their river, the vein pulsing through their backyard, a fish-after-work river, dunk-in-to-cool-off river, watch-herons-silently-hunt river. Never a dangerous river. Yet it hasn’t been itself recently due to the rain, deluges of three to five inches per day until it paused for the weekend.
Her sandals, beer, hat, and glasses are halfway to the Mississippi now. The only cargo she saved, a cell phone in a plastic sandwich bag, she threw down in the hall when she got home. She stripped and left wet clothes on the floor, too. The bathroom light is on, but the rest of the house is dark. She hasn’t heard from Neil since he let her off at the bridge this afternoon. He had errands to run, a meeting to attend, a sick friend to see about. She doesn’t know what he had to do. They are the furthest thing from leeches. Never wanting to seem needy, they go their separate ways as they please.
Neil convinced her to bring the phone, although there’s no cell service in their valley. Once ashore at the accidental put-out point, she stood barefoot and dripping on a man-made resort beach, tourists on their lanterned porches listening as she tried to call him, pretended she got through, asked for his help, muttered oh for god’s sake forget it then as if they were having one of their flash-lightning fights before a guy from Chicago walked up and offered to drive her the mile home. The guy draped a towel around her shoulders and helped her into his SUV. He smelled like shredded memos and lemon balm. She smelled like the swollen river.
When she turns off the faucet she hears the front door open. Neil will step over her wet underwear and phone. He’ll walk to the bathroom, pull back the shower curtain to look at her the way he always does, and ask what happened. What she is eager to tell him: The guy who drove her home hit an owl that was diving for a rabbit in the road. A medium-sized owl, she doesn’t know what kind. She saw the white underwings rise and flap and felt the body bounce off the grille. She flinched. She figured the guy and she would register surprise together, exclaim about the owl, stop to see if it would live. After all, they might have shared a part in a small death. But the guy kept driving, talking, talking about securities fraud prevention. He didn’t even know he’d hit the owl. She stayed quiet. She shivered from the air conditioning and worried about soaking the leather seats. Though he had said the leather didn’t matter, she understood that it did. Though he said he would rescue her any time, she understood that he wouldn’t.
Neil walks into the bathroom and they smile as if they’ve met by chance. He hands her a towel. The leeches number six now. She scoops them up and puts half into his open palm, then leads him out the back door. They wait while their eyes adjust to the dark. Then they go to the river, wade into the tattered moonlight, and release the creatures back to the mud.
Tamara Dean’s stories and essays have appeared in The American Scholar, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Seneca Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a book about sustainable living, The Human-Powered Home, and bestselling textbooks on computer networking. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has received fellowships from Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, Mesa Refuge, and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre.
Originally appeared in NOR 14.