Beaver and Willow
Alex Byrd Jones
© Copyright 2022 by Alex Byrd Jones
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
My father’s one wish was to be a worldly gentleman, and yet the man couldn’t help himself, he just really hated beavers.
On the other hand, my Dad loved trees, in particular those weeping willows he planted in our back yard. Thus he despised the enemies of the willows, those slovenly creatures that crept out of the creek in the dead of night and munched his darling willows until they silently toppled over on the dewy grass. The chubby, bucktoothed little mammals would then drag the trunks away like long-limbed cadavers, sight unseen, to build their dams or whatever upstream.
I’ve looked up the term for tree murder. They call it arboricide.
It’s what beavers do for a living.
I have not looked up the term for beaver killing. Because, you know, the internet.
Whatever its technical term might be, beaver killing is what my father attempted during that long-ago summer in Atlanta.
It was swampy hot and I was barely six years old.
We lived in a new suburb, in what’s now a posh part of town, though at the time it was known as a thickly forested former pig farm. Rumor had it that some of the pigs had got away decades previous and now their wild, spite-filled ancestors haunted the neighborhood woods, preying on family pets and garden tomatoes.
“If you pee on the tomato plants,” my father told me, “The pigs won’t eat the tomatoes.”
Hardly worth the exchange, I remember thinking at the time.
“But nothing will stop the beavers,” he added cryptically. “They cannot be deterred.”
A Navy man, he’d grown up in Myrtle Beach back when it was a sunny wind-swept beach town with only one Put-Put. He wasn’t afraid of alligators or Soviet submarines. But when he’d plant weeping willow trees in our backyard, he feared for them day and night.
My mother couldn’t see the point.
“Just leave the backyard with no trees, all grass,” she’d say, maybe throwing in a curse word or two. She was French Canadian and liked to talk like a sailor to her sailorman. Unfortunately my Dad really wanted to talk like a literary man. He loved synonyms. Kept a paperback Thesaurus in his briefcase. They’d divorce within the year.
“Beavers are insatiable,” my Dad said, “Voracious creatures.”
I asked him if they actually ate the trees.
“I don’t know, son,” he said ruffling my hair, “I must confess my ignorance.”
“Well who gives a hoot?” chimed in my mother from behind a gigantic fern on the screened porch. “How do you say? This is all a phony baloney waste of our time?”
“I’m afraid I don’t agree. Beg to differ.”
The ceiling fans spun silently above, creating no air movement as far as I could tell. Cicadas, peepers, and whippoorwills played out their sundown music in the forests beyond the backyard.
“Southern sonatas,” my Dad would say.
James Taylor or Bette Midler warbled on lower volume from vinyls back in the living room with its shag carpet. Several years later that same shag carpet would host the world’s largest-known flea civilization, with various flea Charlemagnes and flea Kublai Khans, thanks to the bedraggled flearidden Persian cat my mother would buy on a whim, for something like seven thousand dollars.
My mother took a sip from her vodka tonic and said, “You should just freakin’ poison those beavers, if you hate them so much.”
“I don’t actually hate them,” said my Dad, staring out towards the creek. “The feeling is more ambiguous. Only a fool could truly hate a mindless animal.”
“Only a fool,” my mother repeated ambiguously.
Two or three days later my father called me out into the backyard. The yard seemed like an entire sticky green universe to my infant perception. It was late morning and all the neighborhood lawnmowers were running, at various levels of efficiency.
My Dad handed me a little shovel. A beach toy. Painted improbably blue and yet rusty as well.
I asked him if we were going down to the creek to build a sandcastle.
“No, son,” he answered with a sunny grin, leaning against his own mighty shovel. “We’re going to dig a hole for the new willow.” Splayed out on the grass behind him lay a large sapling with a little burlap sack around its root base. “Went to the plant nursery this morning while you and your mother were sleeping.”
“What about the beaver, Daddy?”
My father explained that he’d come up with a plan to trap the beaver.
“Are you going to make it fall down into a hole?”
“Nope. The hole’s for the new willow. Gotta dig it at least twice as wide and twice as deep as the root ball. Then we’ll fill the hole with creek water before planting the tree.” Gazing affectionately at the prone sapling, he added: “Your weeping willow is a tree that likes to keep its feet wet.”
This last phrase was something I’d already heard my father say in the course of other conversations, and I’d hear him say it countless more times. The man admired this “feet wet” quality in willows. Maybe it had something to do with his own upbringing between the Intercoastal Waterway and the mighty Atlantic Ocean. My father saw the willow as kin, a different species, sure, but essentially understandable.
“What the heck are you doing?” called my mother from the screened porch. “It must be a hundred degrees out there!”
“Eighty-eight degrees!” my father called back, over the rumbling of multiple lawnmowers. “I checked the thermometer a few minutes ago!”
“Too hot!” my mother shouted, before disappearing among the houseplant undergrowth.
With a gentlemanly chuckle my Dad turned to me and said, “Anything over seventy’s like a hundred for the Quebecois.”
I wasn’t sure of what that last word meant, but I assumed he was referring to my mother. Meanwhile I chased grasshoppers as my Dad enthusiastically dug the big hole, filled it with creek water, and lovingly planted the tree. He then trooped into the garage out front and came back with more supplies. A big coil of metal fencing, a thick ball of string, a cowbell, and a shotgun.
“What are you going to do with all that stuff, Daddy?”
father looked genuinely happy. There was a boyish space between his
front two teeth that I had rarely seen before. “I’m going
to get the beaver!”
The metal fence was set up around the young willow like the very thin, very see-through walls of an incredibly fragile fortress.
My Dad then tied one end of the twiney string to the creekside part of the fence and ran the string zigzagging through the yard, around pine tree trunks and dogwoods, keeping the line tight, creating fascinating oblique angles across the grass. He brought the ball of string all the way to the house, just under the master bedroom window. He’d left the window open, and told me to go into the house and come see him from the window. I did as he asked, and he threw me the ball of string from outside, down below. Talk about fun! I caught it on the second try. He told me to wait for him there.
When he came striding into the bedroom, with my mother heckling him in French from behind, he took the ball of string and attached the cowbell to the end. He then hung the bell delicately from the edge of the bedside table.
“Stay right here, son” he said, “Give me a shout if the bell rings.”
He ran back out into the yard, and soon I could see him through the window. It seemed funny that he should look so small. Mom ruffled my hair and looking at me tenderly with her gray-green eyes, said, “I don’t know what that man is trying to do. But I promise you he will never bring that awful gun into the house. Never.”
Many years later I found out that while still in high school, my mother’s favorite cousin Ernest had been killed in a freak accident while removing a shotgun from its casing, on a hunting trip deep in the woods of Quebec.
A Neil Diamond record was playing in the living room. Song, song blue.
“Why should the beaver get shot?” she added pensively. “Trees are nice, but they get cut down all the time. What do you think they make paper and books from?”
I honestly had no idea.
All of a sudden the cowbell shuddered, making a lonely sound, not at all like the bright ringing of jingle bells or the sharp ping of the bell on Ms. Quidley’s desk in my first grade classroom. The sound was like that of a forlorn gull, calling from some distant barrier island.
“Daddy! It’s ringing!”
father leapt into the air with joy. A tall man, well over six feet,
and I had never realized how skinny his legs were. He flung his arms
through the air in a gesture of victory.
Late that night I was awoken by the alarming sound of my mother and father shouting at each other.
I sat up in the dark of my little bedroom, and tried to separate what was happening across the hall from the dream I’d just come out of.
I could hear Daddy screaming, “Where’s the gun? Where? Where is it?!”
“I threw it away!” shrieked Mommy.
“You can’t throw away a gun! Where is it?!”
My mother was sobbing.
“Where is it?! The beaver just pulled the fence down! Tell me, woman!”
More sobbing, and then I could hear my mother say, “I put it in the big trash bin in the garage.”
My father’s footsteps went thudding down the hall, towards the garage.
My mother’s sobs softly died away.
A few long minutes of silence followed.
And then a blast.
sound of a shotgun firing in the night.
Nobody woke me up the next morning. I got out of bed after sunrise and went into the living room to watch some cartoons. After an episode of Animals, Animals, Animals I went to peek in my parents’ bedroom. Mommy and Daddy were sleeping soundly. Both of them snoring.
I thought about the beaver, and the gunshot.
With the sun swiftly rising over the treetops, I walked out the door from the screened porch and into the back yard. The dewy grass soaking my feet and the bottoms of my pajamas.
I reached the place where my father and I had planted the little willow the day before.
But I couldn’t find the tree.
I heard the window opening from my parents’ bedroom window. I turned around to see my beautiful mother leaning out the window.
She called out, “He shot it!”
I looked through the grass around the big creekwater-filled hole. I found fragments of willow bark and shreds of branches, as well as pieces of the metallic fence. No fur, no beaver stuff.
shot the tree,” said my mother with glee on this vivid Saturday
morning. “The beaver got away.”
I was born and raised in Atlanta, and have lived for the past twenty years in Parma, Italy. I work as a high school English teacher, translator, and courtroom interpreter.
I have had some stories and essays picked up by various publications, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Flagpole Magazine from Athens, GA. One of my stories was put up on the site Tales From a Small Planet. Again.. In 2016 I self-published an early YA fanstasy novel entitled "Stella Byrd and the Silver Shadow," which is available on amazon. It's earned some nice reviews..