Friday, May 9, 2014

What They Saw on the Family Bike Ride

by Jen Hunt, from the archives

"I need to do some exercise every day," he had said upon getting home from work tonight. And this time she believed him, though he had said something similar many times before and given up on it if not two weeks later, then two days. So tonight, instead of the usual routine of dinner followed by the lethargic, dulled conversation brought on by overeating cheap, unimaginative and unwholesome meals--"what do you want to do tonight?"-- "don't know, tired"--they tried having their fun first and leaving the meal till later--too hell with their stomachs or the clocks. Graham said he'd get the bikes ready if Jen readied the kids. They were one and four, easier to pull in a bike trailer than to walk five steps with, that is once you strapped them in, which wasn't always easy since the younger had fits and fights with anything which constrained him, be it a stair gate, reprimand, diaper change table or buckle such as the one which unfortunately had to be used when using the bike trailer Jen had found at the nearby toy store chain, new, for less than half the asking price of the more prestigious brand sold on E-bay by working parents who had used them five times or less. She remembered this with pleasure often as she followed behind Graham and the boys on her bike which she was doing just now, looking at the orange triangle on its low back and imagining it a miniature Amish carriage.

Jen found it much easier to feel alive while biking, awaked by the irregular vibration of the pebbles under her tires and the cool, clear wind that smoothed the face and sent untied hair flapping and dried opened eyes, easier than she ever felt at home, either before, during or after a meal. It was something about the blood, stirred as it was by the pedaling that helped her see better, hear better, think better. This she liked, though about what she thought or heard or saw was usually something of little consequence and wholly unremarkable--or at least that is what she would tell herself. And usually she believed it, at least on the surface, which is where life is lived for those who think the things of life worthless unless one can receive a pay-check for them, and which she, being a stay-at-home mom certainly never was. And because she believed it, she saw precious little. However, on this evening, despite all that she usually told herself, there was something remarkable to see with her pedal-cleared eyes, there, in front and below her, not twenty yards away, down the bank in the curve in the river. Yes, a thing, a happening. One, two or more "things" she couldn't yet tell. "What is that?" she called Graham to stop.
"Can't tell if it's beaver, muskrat or what," she continued. "Down there, on the right by the edge of the river."
And she couldn't either. But whatever it was -- rather, the two were (there were two, now she could make that out at least in the searing shint of the setting sun) they were clearly having fun. Swimming roughly, quite roughly, in a circle the size of a large washing machine and pawing at each other like two playful otters. So much like otters that Graham thought at first that they must be related. Or perhaps they were woodchucks like the ones they often saw dashing for their holes as they passed along the trail at sunset. And for the first few moments Graham and Jen had stopped biking to watch them that was the supposition. "They look as if they are happy to finally have warmer water," said one of them. "Bet it's hard to be a woodchuck in Wisconsin in the winter," said the other both reading their own thoughts and emotions onto the scene.

Only as the creatures bobbed around and around and they got a lasting view the woodchuck theory became increasingly less convincing. For one thing, it was hard to make out anything close to the fur of a large rodent on either of them. Jen was almost certain of this because she had been to Heritage Hill's fur trader exhibit just a few hours earlier for the Memorial Day WWII reenactment where Calvin, the one year old, had been allowed to touched the real things-- beaver, badger and muskrat skins--up close, calling each one, in turn, "Bunny." And another thing, despite what they had imagined they had seen for the first few moments of their current stop, the longer they looked they began to realize that they could not find on either form the happy, upturned faces and obnoxiously boyant bellies one would expect to see in an otter's cousin. The coloring, too, was off--a muddied brown with not a little green in it. Jen was the first to suspect that these were no members of the mammal family at all. But to what family they did belong still baffled. She strained to find a category to fit. Jen found it hard to shake the initial assumption there had been hair on the two friends, and she tried imagining turtles covered in it. Furry Reptile? No, that wouldn't do. There was nothing in any of the many zoos she had visited as a child or now with her own children, in old fairy tales or even in her highschool evolution textbooks with a hybrid like that. And so in their curiousity and in the shade of the new spring trees on the crook of the bike trail as a few, less fortunate bikers passed, oblivious to it all, Graham and Jen stood before the playful, spinning, snipping, flapping, pawing pair and scratched their heads.
It was only after Jen had finally rejected the notion of fur entirely that she could begin to see the figures accurately enough to determine their species, let alone their class or family. It was not that the lighting had changed at all. In fact, it still forced a squint on them both. It was the shift in mental perspective. All categories swept aside, the otter's tail became much longer and more pointy than they had originally supposed, and the otter's belly that they had both tried to make out and failed, had become flatter, larger and more round. The otter's pointed smiling face, impossible to spot previously, had now turned southward and become more boxy, and sharpened at the tip so that the happy, bobbying back-floating rodents could now be seen for what they in fact were--two rather large, right-side-up, clumsy snapping turtles engaged in some form of mating dance. It struck Jen just then how very much the turtles (as they now most clearly could be seen to be) were she and Graham. Slimy, swimming snappers, biting each other and wacking each with puffed, clawed flippers in their Escherian dance for two. This is all she and Graham or the snapping turtles had ever known of love. Or had anyone else, she suspected.
"They're turtles. They're mating. " is all Jen said.
"O my goodness. I think you're right." said Graham who did not say that lightly or often, no matter how often he thought it, which he didn't. He was now equally sure.
"Can you believe it? Mating."
"What is mating?" rang a question from the four year old Jen had almost forgotten. He was tall enough to see past the tall grass down to the spot Graham and Jen had been eyeing and had seen it all along with them.
Jen looked behind here to see a someone on foot approaching. "We can talk about that at home. Later," said Jen.
But when she got home later the question was forgotten in all her dinner preparations and by then her oldest had forgotten as well.