Muskrats & Mallards

Fri, 04/22/2011 - 1:59am

My mother put on the Today show school mornings; we did not have to leave the house until the local news and weather brief that came on at 8:25 had concluded. One day in April 1961 they were broadcasting not from New York but from South Carolina. A re-enactment of the firing on Fort Sumter had taken place and the discussion was of the hundredth anniversary of the event that made a reality of the long simmering Civil War, that deadliest of conflicts.

My memory is in color which is nonsense as we had black and white television well into the 70s. The shot was across the harbor, toward a bit of land that did not look like much, perhaps from the perspective of the Union warships.

But we were on Block Island; I was in elementary school with a green history book that outlined the exploration and early settlement of the New World. More to the point, we were well into the celebration of our 3OOth anniversary, practicing, it seemed daily, for the school production that would take place the end of May. Our mothers were making us “colonial” dresses and bonnets, to be gussied up with stiff organza collars, cut with pinking shears. We were dancing the minuet for pity’s sake, and Today was in South Carolina!

In retrospect I truly did understand the Civil War had been a very important time in our history, I did, but a part of me — I was only in elementary school — feared the commemoration would somehow steal our thunder!

Other things happened that year. A Russian cosmonaut circled the globe, in space, which was not at all amazing to me; they went to the moon in my story books, and stopped at space stations on the way back. It must have been a very big deal, my parents bought a picture news magazine, Life or Look. My classmates, or the loudest, all seemed to get Look and/or Life; we got National Geographic; they talked about TV Guide, we had the supplement to the Sunday Journal. It was not glossy with color pictures but it had articles as well as listings; TV Guide seemed, honestly, silly. My mother once said I was never a child.

It is April and it is raining. It is not especially cold, but it is wet and raw, sobering as the greening yard is not quite yet green enough nor soft enough to counter the gray damp.

This has been a purple flag day, with the surf higher in the afternoon than it was in the morning when the boats were cancelled. White foam crawled up the east beach and salt spray mixed with fog, erasing the far side of the Great Salt Pond, leaving on impression of Billy Jones’ Point hanging in space, or at least at the edge of the island with nothing but sea and sky behind it. Everywhere the earth is waiting for sun to burst open, and instead, it gets gray mist.

The wind abated, the thunder ceased, the anger of the rain eased. It is the time of year it is not so cold that the heat comes on often, especially when the thermostat is set quite low and it makes the house feel colder than I know it is. Still, it is a while before I venture out, not wanting to see how deep the puddles are, how much water has cut the road, how much more than my little mallard pond is filled with water and sand and gravel run down the Mansion Road.

Last spring there was a muskrat — or two — by that little pond as well, a glossy creature who dove and hid as soon as he noticed my presence. I hope he was not the same one crushed on the road one day, a victim of the increased traffic and drivers who do not recognize the furry fellows for what they are.

There is a spot on the Neck Road where the shoulders are especially wide and a swath of grass where the pavement used to run, hugging a hedge barely protecting the house behind it. There was less traffic then, the privet was much lower when the road was much closer.

On the other side of the road is a ditch to a culvert below a grassy bank where I have been seeing a muskrat for weeks now, puttering around, ducking for cover when I slowed to admire him (no, I do not know he’s a “him”). They are not native to Block Island, like the deer they were imported, by a young man who thought they’d be a fine addition; they would feast on the grasses starting to encroach upon the ponds and they could be a cottage industry of sort, trapped for their fur that was still sewn into coats.

When I was little and the land was clearer than it is today they had some success. We would see their houses, mounds of muddied twigs built in little ponds, and see their slow moving bodies plumped by the grasses and reeds they devoured. They were trapped and their pelts sold.

They are not to be made pets, they bite badly when frightened, but I like, still, to see them, their little faces coming up out of the water to see if all is clear, and scurrying off when they perceive it not to be.

The mallards and the muskrat both inhabit that bit of grassy land. They have both been at the edge of the pavement, starting to cross, as I have approached and neither has had the sense to turn around. I stop and tell them they are lucky it’s me.

Three hours later — a lump of fur lies on the wet dark road. I do not like rodents, but I elevate muskrats to real animals and seeing one dead makes me sad. Perhaps it is the knowing that my uncle brought them here so long ago, or the bed times stories my father told of Mr. Muskrat, before I was seduced by the notion of trips to the moon. It was foggy and I stopped but did not get out of the car, perhaps it was not a muskrat. If it was I hope it will be gone by morning.