WINTER 2013 (Issue 77)
 

Matthew Gavin Frank

The Ecstasy of the Beaver Tail

for Elena Passarello

When the men with bluish rifles line up along the illuminated railing of the Ozark Bridge, do not marvel at how the bridge’s support cables resemble your own ribcage. Heave air into your lungs—the ones so many biologists compared to dwarf Seckel pears—turn away from the men and from the lights, the gift shops peddling postcards of your cousins, the antique shops peddling lampshades named Mulberry, murals of steamboats and murals of Quapaw chiefs, and, as you hear one shot follow another, the water spouting over your guard hairs, dive deep. Protect your ears with your valvular flaps. Allow the thin film of your eyes to act as goggles—a compensation for your poor sight. Get lost in the soft tangle of the wild celery.

*

You are told you don’t have the capacity for love. That beating in your chest is only the extra body fat. You are semi-aquatic after all. I’m the same way—confusing the thing that warms me for affection.

*

This time, you will not make it. You will devote your tail to supper. A boy will complain Beaver again?! and you will recognize your name, know you’ve heard this complaint before— many, many times.

*

You wake up again in the Arkansas River. You have a new tail. You faintly remember the bullets, the biting. You build a dam against this.

*

In eating you, they take your balance into their bodies, revise, in swallow-after-swallow, their own internal gravities. In fullness, in satisfaction is a shift in force. You wonder if, after eating your tail, their hearts fall to the middles of their bodies—three feet from the crown, three feet from the earth.

*

They are not semi-aquatic. They do not need tails in order to remain standing when hauling their mud.

*

You’ll never know this: that an Arkansas blogger named Lewis&Clark will tell the world that your tail is best boiled in saltwater. That, regarding the cooking of your tail, a man whose last name is Manship will use words like direct heat and open fire and until the meat starts to separate from the skin and peel off skin and tender.

*

You are smarter than all other rodents save for the Norwegian rat, though your heart is so much larger. Your three venae cavae are so much prettier, and your right ventricle—good lord!—is as large as that of the seal. You’ve always felt that those with the capacity to love are often treasured for their extremities.

*

Your tail is in full bloom—like carnation, like pancake batter reaching for the edges of the griddle before the heat stops it in place.

*

You wake up in the river. Miles away, in Texarkana, Scott Joplin touches a piano for the first time. From the bridge, two sisters with fur hats call your name.

*

Our spines are only remnants, essential reminders of an earlier time. Bones stacked like piano keys, if the piano were not standing, but in repose. We eat your tail to remember how our bodies used to be. I can’t tell if this is sweet or gamey, holy or heathen.

*

You remember Thomas Aquinas, but not how you got to Arkansas. Since you can’t read, you remember only the crust of his knuckles, the musk of his collarbones, how he trapped you along the bank of the Seine. He had been reassigned by the Dominican Order to be regent master of the University of Paris. Aquinas was not happy about this. He soothed himself by trapping the animals he found along the city’s river—Red Squirrel, Least Weasel, Leopard Frog, mink—obsessed with categorizing which beasts were a sin to eat, and when. You remember how he studied you by candlelight in his small office at the university, which smelled of glue, parchment, ink, dander. You remember: he kept you in a cage on his writing desk, next to which he penned, “Of fishes, they were allowed to partake of the drier kinds, because thereby the moist nature of the fish is tempered.” He would whistle at you, kiss the air, rule you a fish according to his new ideas about dietary law. Now, even the devout could eat your tail during Lenten Fridays.

*

You will die in that cage, in which Aquinas has mistakenly assumed that the maple leaf ground cover he has laid will soothe you, remind you of the river.

*

The day you die, Aquinas will boil you with laurel and sea salt. He will share your tail with Etienne Tempier. He will write, recording the fifteen signs preceding the Judgment, “on the ‘seventh’ day all the stars, both planets and fixed stars, will throw out fiery tails like comets.” He will not think to associate your body with anything celestial. He would consider your rebirth in the Arkansas to be heretical.

*

You wake up in the Arkansas. From the bridge, two sisters whistle Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” You think of Thomas, the pathetic ground cover he spread over your cage bottom, his hands so careful, so flat, so balanced, the warmth of them so cosmic, they could be tails.

*

Still today, in the Arkansas towns of Lead Hill, Fountain Hill, Violet Hill, Coal Hlll, Gravel Hill, Pilot Hill, towns named for water and towns named for flowers and towns named for flight, and towns named for the industries that killed its residents, in restaurants named Hog Hut and Catfish Inn, Ray’s and Shirley’s, Cotton’s and Cove, Doc’s, Whistlestop, Dee’s and Calamba, it’s Beaver Tail special on Friday with fries.

*

In Rectors Place, Arkansas, in 1850, a man named Beaver will build his family cabin from the local oak and hawthorn. He will build a grit mill, an inn called the Stagecoach, and a ferry to cross the White River, in which you will wake up, swim among the bloated bodies of the Quapaw. Above you, the town will be renamed Beaver’s Ferry, then Beavertown, then Beaver. Confederate soldiers will find refuge here during the Civil War, when they will nourish themselves on your breast, jowl, tail, before collecting three-ring bullets into their hearts.

*

When felling your own oaks and hawthorns, your tail supports you, allows for the chewing. Enables your teeth, the uprooting. When swimming, your tail flips in four directions, acts as a rudder. To the men on the Ozark, the water’s surface will, for a few seconds, bear the mark of the cross, the crossroads. You are diving deep, but not deep enough.

*

And Aquinas will write, “on the ‘eighth’ day there will be a great earthquake, and all animals will be laid low.”

*

Your tail was once 6 inches long, is now 12 inches long; was once 4 inches wide, is now 5; was always ¾ of an inch thick, from Aquinas to the Arkansas. In this thickness is a consistency that tries to wedge itself into the crevices of memory. Still, every time, you forget that your tail has been eaten and eaten.

*

Aquinas Catholic Church in Washington County is 77 miles from the Ozark Bridge. Aquinas University in Fayetteville is 60 miles from the Ozark Bridge. The average distance from the beaver’s tail (where it meets the body) to its heart is sixteen inches. That’s fourteen bites.

*

You imagine our hearts in the centers of our bodies. You imagine, correctly, that you are swimming in a river beneath a bridge that arcs within a town called Middle.

*

The hill people sprinkle your tail with spicy vinegar, spread your meat with the mush of purple hull peas, and peas called black-eyed, and field, and Crowder, and Lady, soak your juices with soda biscuits, chase your musk with persimmon pudding. You wake again to the water, fluttering with the awareness of having decorated so many mouths with the flattest end of you. Arkansas again.

*

Meriwether Lewis writes, “Killed ... bever ... near a Cottonwood tree near the river.... Shore-- the leaves of the Cottonwood were much distroyed-- as were those of the Cottonwood trees in it's neighbourhood. I therefore supposed that it fed on the folage of trees at this season, the flesh of this anamal is a pleasant and whoalsome food-- they resemble the slowth very much in the form of their hands, or fore feet. their teeth and eyes are like the porcupine.” This is bulk of his day’s journal entry, and though you are consumed, you consume Lewis. Clark picks his nose and wipes the detritus on a sliver of kindling. It pops in the fire. Together, they eat your tail from a platter of bark, argue over the split, who got the larger portion. Clark snores. Lewis tries to find sleep. He blinks at the sky. His eyes are better than yours, but they don’t have that wonderful film. The stars throw their fiery tails. Like Aquinas, like Arkansas, he can’t stop thinking about you.

*

This world needs to be tamped down, thought Zeus, when he enlisted Hermes to attack the arrogant beaver, who had been bragging of the beauty of his fluffy tail, declaring it more worthy of reverence than the gods. Hermes jumped into his chariot, and crushed the beaver’s tail, again and again, beneath the stone wheels. The beaver sank into depression, until Athena spoke to him of the sort of balance that depends on a flatness.

*

Do you still feel the weight of those wheels? Tell me, Darling, does time confuse the weight of pain with the weight of comfort, until all that remains is weight itself? Cry me a river. Chew me a branch. Dream your body aromatic with carrots.

*

You wake up. This is not the river, but the lake named for you. On your way to the surface, you pass a crappie trying to couple with a spoonbill catfish. You’ve learned not to shake your head. You swim toward the shore, the local sheriff pacing on the deck of his pontoon boat, screaming something about security into a megaphone. Overhead, the buzzards circle, release their shit like rain into the lake. News reporters squat on the roofs of their Winnebagos, their flashbulbs exploding, focused on a family of three struggling to water-ski in the shadows of the limestone bluffs. You too stare at the gray-haired patriarch with the sunburnt belly as he calls, “Chelsea!” to his daughter, “Be careful!” His swimsuit is red with white flowers on it, hemmed just above the knee. Because you can’t read, you will not know that the New York Times will report on August 18, 1993, of this very “Chelsea! Be careful!” or of the heat the reporters called “wilting,” or the sunset swim the father and daughter shared, the lovely way his body arced from dock to water like collapsing bridge.

*

They will not report on the ways in which their boat unzipped the lake like an earthquake, how you could tell that this man spent his childhood eating your tail for supper—maybe even complaining about it—, about the way he stared at you, pointed you out to his daughter, whispered something into her ear. You will think he is speaking of you, and not the lake, as you overhear him tell the reporters, as he’s toweling off, “I just wanted to come home,” muttering, “to the Beaver.”

*

There is Aquinas misjudging you again. There is the winter when you warm yourself with maple leaves. There is Clinton, two years later, hiring an intern fresh out of Lewis and Clark College, forgetting the suppers of his youth, making policy, chasing tail.

*

You know: love is all about sustenance, excision, sacrifice, tasting good—allowing the toughest part of you to stew and stew until it softens.

*

From the shore of Beaver Lake, you watch the family of three disappear into the house in which they’re staying. The reporters have left, and so has the sheriff. They are turning off their own ovens, own TVs. They are drooling onto their pillowcases. You have outlasted all of them here.

*

Smoke comets from the chimney. You watch the house until all the lights go out. You’re longing for something, but don’t have the language to take a stab at it. You have your instinct, and your poor vision. You watch the house until the planets are usurped into a greater darkness. You clean your tail with your hindfeet. You gather your mud.