The dam

by Michelle Winters

The better America (Issue IV/2020)

I’m reading the new Zoey Malone: Paranormal Detective mystery under the covers with my UFO night light when Conrad’s bedsprings creak down the hall. I listen for Dad and Rachel’s bedroom door to quietly open and close. The sleepwalking started a few weeks ago, right after we found the dam.

Dad said moving to New Brunswick was a No Brainer. It’s Getting-Out-from-Under, it’s Living-Mortgage-Free, and it means Conrad gets a Natural Childhood - though he’s too young to remember the tiny square of grass in front of our house in Toronto, where a grillion pictures of him got taken on a blanket a little smaller than the lawn. But I know the real reason we moved is that Dad lost his job at the solar panel company.

Conrad is my baby brother, but not my real brother because Rachel, his mom, is my stepmom. She painted a peace symbol on my face at an Earth Day parade about a year after my mom died. She and Dad talked for a minute before she painted her number on his hand. She’s fifteen years younger than him, but he says souls have no age. When Rachel delivered Conrad, she did it holistically, in a plastic tub at home. I could hear her from down the hall, where I sat with her friends, who lit sticks of dried leaves and gave me one to wave around, cleansing the air. “He’s going to be so special,” one of them said to me, raising her voice above Rachel’s screaming. Dad came out at one point, completely white.

It’s so cheap to live in the Maritimes that Dad doesn’t even need to work. He says if he never has to put on another suit, it’ll be too soon. Rachel got a job as a Wellbeing Counselor with a bank here, teaching the staff how to live better through salads and yoga, and Dad will stay home with us. “Rachel’s career is important,” he said, ruffling my hair, “and it’ll give me a chance to spend some time with my girl.”

We found the dam on our first walk across the property. Our new house sits on five acres of land. Dad says he’s going to plant a permaculture garden and told Rachel he’ll go out every day and pick her the perfect clove of garlic for the fancy meals he’ll make. He was holding Conrad’s hand as we walked that day, so I was in the lead, and first to see the mountain of sticks looming up over the hill. My mind raced through all the animals I knew, trying to figure out what could have built it. The only thing I could think is it must have been a witch.

“Ba-dah?” asked Conrad when they caught up, jabbing out his fingers.
Dad hoisted Conrad in his arms.
“Is that a…?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Dad after a second. I couldn’t tell if he was happy or not, “looks like a beaver dam.”
“Beadum,” said Conrad.

I did a presentation at school last year on the beaver and I knew they built dams and lodges out of sticks, but some of these sticks were logs. The beaver is our national animal and is also a symbol of Canadian industry. Their teeth contain iron. For my presentation, I included a picture of a giant maple trunk chewed right through by a beaver, to demonstrate the power of their jaws and commitment to labour. They never get tired of chewing. The beaver is the only other animal, next to humans, who can change its whole environment. I thought I knew everything there is to know about beavers, but I didn’t know they could build anything this big.

“Do you think,” I asked, “that any beavers live there?”
“I don’t know, sweetie,” said Dad, putting his hand between my shoulder blades and steering me back toward the house.
That night for dinner, he made a whole wheat pasta with field mushrooms, lemon zest and parmesan.
“Rachel, I found a beaver dam!” I said when we sat down at the table. “Right down at the creek! It’s huge!”
“Beadum!” Conrad spluttered from his highchair.
“Wow,” she said, giving him big eyes and wiping his drooly chin. Then she looked at Dad.
“Beavers,” she said, raising her eyebrows.
“Mm,” said Dad, raising his eyebrows back and tucking a noodle in his mouth with his fork.
“Jesus, why didn’t the realtor say anything?” she said. “That’s an infestation.”
“I don’t-”
“You know a man in Belarus got killed by a beaver last year,” she said. “Walked right up and bit his leg, David. It severed his femoral artery. He bled right out, standing there in the woods.”
“Rachel!” said Dad, nodding in my direction.
“It has to go,” she said to her pasta.
“You can’t just destroy those things,” said Dad. “They’re a part of the ecosystem. We could end up killing whole species of fish if we get rid of-”
“Well, what do you suggest, David?” she said, “Are you going to pick them some garlic?”
“It’s illegal, you know,” he said. “They can fine you.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll find a way.”

That night, I heard the front door latch after I was supposed to be asleep - sometimes, Rachel smokes cigarettes. But it wasn’t Rachel. It was Conrad. I looked out my bedroom window to see him in his spaceship pajamas, walking barefoot across the property toward the dam. Like a zombie. I ran downstairs and caught up to him before he reached it, but he does it every night now. He wakes up, pees on the floor, then heads for the dam. Dad put up a gate at the top of the stairs and extra high chain locks on the front door. If you get there in time, you can guide him to the bathroom and he does the whole thing in his sleep. Then you can tuck him back in without even waking him. Rachel says it’s stress that’s making him act out.

The toilet flushes and footsteps creak down the hall toward Conrad’s room. The gate at the top of the stairs opens and clicks shut, feet pad down the stairs, the high chain on the front door tinkles against the frame. I run to the window to see Dad heading barefoot across the yard toward the dam. It’s hard to make out colours by just the sliver of moon outside, but I know because I watched him go off to work every morning for all those years, that he’s wearing his blue suit.

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