Being in my 20s feels like I’ve been tossed into swampland after traveling down a waterslide for twenty years. I had thought I was headed towards a ball pit, all that time in the waterslide, but now I’m knee deep in algae and effluence, wading under a thundery sky and trying to ignore the glowing yellow eyes peeking at me from between the trees, heffalumps and woozles, and at the same time coming to terms with the fact that, either in spite or because of the waterslide’s rigid, frictionless structure, I’ve no real identity.
To be clear, I don’t actually live in a swamp. I live in Alexandria, Virginia, which is too blithely whitebread to be a swamp.
Life’s not all bad in Alexandria; I manage to afford rent on a good-sized two-bedroom, which I share with exactly one roommate, Sonny. I work a stable nine-to-five job in graphic design.
‘Stable’ was never my goal, exactly, but when you emerge into the swamp, you tend to cling towards the first stable structure you find.
And another perk, now that I’m on a roll with gratitude, is that I live right behind the wonderfully verdant Lacey Woods Park, so I can talk with my friend Carey whenever I want.
I first met Carey the summer after I graduated college, three years ago, on a walk through Lacey Park. I had been eavesdropping on the various whispered conversations between squirrels and birds, occasionally catching onto language like ‘berries’, ‘nuts’ and ‘nest.’
Most small animal conversations aren’t so interesting; the tiny critters don’t usually move past the themes of mating, foraging or fear. I of course prefer larger quadrupeds as conversationalists; but Lacey Woods, alas, is not the Amazon, and there were no wry jaguars or indolent tapirs to strike up with.
I had had just about enough of pea-brained buggards and was going to head home for the afternoon, when I spotted a chubby, brown rodent trundling along the river bank.
“Hey,” I called out. “It’s gonna storm soon, isn’t it? Do you think the creek will flood?”
The beaver twitched its head, then slapped his flat black paddle on the river bank. I knew he meant, ‘Come down.’
I was wearing really uncomfortable shoes at the time, a pair of boxy New Balances not fit for the woods; mud squelched through the thin soles as I trundled down the muddy slope, grasping onto overhanging branches for support. When I was finally in front of the beaver, he was gnawing on a thick stump, for no discernible reason.
He sort of side-eyed me while his front teeth were deep into the stump.
“Crick khan flud, meks no diff-rence,” chittered the beaver with a mouth full of wood.
“Pardon?” I asked, leaning in closer.
The beaver gnawed a few moments longer, then backed away from the tree and fixed its beady black eyes on me.
“I don’t care if the creek floods, I worry about the river.” He said this through a series of clicks and chits. And I understood.
“Well, you better get upstream then, your family might need you.”
The beaver snuffled and chuckled, “My family knows my priorities are their priorities.”
I wasn’t sure what the beaver meant; I’m still not sure.
We talked more; he told me his name, something very beaver-specific for which human vowels and consonants are useless. I named him Carey.
As I settled into a routine of morning walks through Lacey Woods, I grew decently close to a few other creatures. Sosa the squirrel, for instance, who has the most naturally kind heart of any one I’ve ever met; he’s always offering me food and knick-knacks from his expansive store of supply.
Carey and I, too, encountered each other more and more, usually in a small corner of the creek off the footpath. At first these meet-ups felt like chance, but then an eerie regularity developed which, I think, neither of us wanted to break.
So for the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve taken my breakfast by the creek in Lacey Woods Park, joined by Carey and occasionally some other woodland friends. Conversation ebbs and flows, as it tends to with creatures you’re comfortable with.
Mostly I listen; sometimes I’ll ask questions. Rarely do I insert my opinion.
One time, when Sosa joined us, he offered me acorns to top off my peanut-butter-and-jelly bagel. I would’ve accepted, but Carey gave me a sonorous warning.
“Don’t try to consume what you weren’t designed to digest,” Carey huffed.
Sometimes I think Carey deals in proverbs and parables, like Jesus - issuing veiled statements of eternal truths, wrapped in homespun logic.
Other times, when I’m mildly repulsed by the orange patina on his teeth and the stenchy musk of his fur, I tend to think his wisdom, perhaps, is not necessarily borne of virtue; he’s a beaver, three feet long and eighteen inches tall. He’s bound to see the world differently than me.
Still, on those misty mornings by the creek in Lacey Woods, as Carey talks to me about the work he’s done the prior night - weaving branches, gnawing trees, spending time in his den with his family - I sense something eternally beautiful. Maybe I just admire his industriousness, which seems like a gift.
Sometimes I want a promotion at work; sometimes I want a girlfriend. I have come across neither in my trek through the swamp of the real world. Carey tells me I can only control so many factors in the quest to attain my desires.
Just work hard, Carey says, and don’t try to be a creature you’re not. The real you will always come out eventually, and the lie will cause more hurt than any initial benefit.
I actually didn’t need Carey to tell me to just be myself; I’m a terrible actor, and anyway, I don’t have the energy to pretend. Sometimes I think that’s why I struggle amid the other swamp denizens. Because I can’t play make-believe.
Sonny, my roommate on the other hand, seems to have made a killing off a fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality. He’s one year out of college and just got promoted to Sales Manager at the software company where he works.
When he got promoted to Sales Manager, I noticed he started walking sort of like a duck, with his whole torso - chest and stomach - puffed out and his feet pointed outward. He’ll walk around the house like this, tapping on his phone and occasionally looking up to see where he’s going. I think he got the walk from one of the sales directors at his company.
One Saturday evening in late March, as I’m laying in bed reading a graphic novel, I overhear Sonny talking to some friends he has invited over in the kitchen.
“...a huge weirdo, honestly. Like, a freak. His voice sounds like he bit into a helium balloon when he was little and never exhaled.”
“Stop!” came a female voice, not so much kind as condescending. This was Jenny, Sonny’s girlfriend. Whenever Sonny was present she made a point to ask after me and inquire how my day was.
“You think he sucks, too!” said Sonny, delightfully cackling. “You ever going to tell him how you feel about his shoes?”
“Seriously, enough Sonny,” said Jenny. “He’s just a nice guy who wants to be left alone.” She paused. “His shoes are disgusting, I don’t know why he doesn’t get new ones. But whatever. Let’s talk about something else…”
Other people laughed in the kitchen. I imagined this might be some of Sonny’s work friends, probably all duck-walking sales folk like him; I’d love to go out there and tell them all to get the hell out of my house. But frankly, I’m in my boxers, and anyway, I’m too meek.
I smolder for a few moments, clenching the edges of the graphic novel until my knuckles turn white, and then sit up and go to my laptop. I needed stress relief.
Take that as you will.
The next morning, I tell Carey the beaver that I overheard Sonny mocking me to his co-workers. I say I feel violated; the slander happened in my own kitchen! I tell Carey I want to confront Sonny about the incident.
“Why? Whatever apology he gives will be insincere,” says Carey.
“How do you know that?” I demand.
“Sonny’s a self-developed alpha male,” says Carey. “That means he’s willed himself to power by suppressing his conscience.”
I think about this a moment.
“Are alpha males actually relevant in nature?” I ask.
“Oh yeah,” says Carey. “Anything that exists as if nothing can touch it, and magically nothing does touch it - that’s an alpha.”
About a week later, heading out at 7 a.m. for my usual breakfast, I am surprised to see Sonny by the front door. He’s wearing running sneakers and dry-wick shorts.
“Hey dude,” he says, friendly enough. I uncertainly shift the peanut-butter and jelly bagel in my hand, and say quietly, “Good morning.”
“It’s getting so nice out, right? I’m going to start running in the woods. Make it a morning habit, you know?” He rotates one ankle in the air and seems to admire his calf for a moment. “You’re usually up this early anyway, right?”
“What’s your routine?”
I want to tell a lie, but I’m flummoxed.
“I go to the woods to eat breakfast.”
Right away I realize how strange this sounds. Sonny nods, holding an AirPod centimeters away from his right ear.
“Cool,” he says. He stares at me a few moments longer, then laughs, his eyes shooting an accusing glare, like ‘You’re the one who made it weird.”
He then pops the Air Pod in his ear, turns around and jogs out the door ahead of me.
There is only one path down to the woods behind our house, overgrown with flora; I watch Sonny gingerly enter the woodpath, changing his stride between a shuffle and a leap to avoid the various knots in the path.
I am walking behind Sonny, and the peanut-butter-and-jelly bagel is becoming increasingly soggy in my palm. He’s barely jogging fast enough to keep ahead of me.
For an alpha male, I think, Sonny is not an impressive specimen.
As we carry on the path, I keep on thinking Sonny’s going to turn around and see me following him, and eventually I feel awkward and just look around the woods. High up in the trees, I spot a woodpecker…
When Sonny finally gets off the path, he speeds up fairly quickly, and after about ten seconds he’s rounded a corner and is out of my sight.
I arrive at the cove and take a seat on the biggest stone by the creek, the one I always use, and avert my eyes from Carey.
“Did you see that guy run past? That was my roommate, Sonny…”
“Why do humans run?” asks Carey. “Watching a human run is like watching a duck fly. It’s just barely within their skillset.”
“Running is how some people stay in shape. Like, burn extra fat,” I say. I am, suddenly, acutely aware of my flabby stomach. “I should probably run.”
“You should probably do a lot of things. But probably only one or two actually matter,” says Carey.
I don’t ask him what those one or two things are. Carey’s advice, I have learned, is better regarded from a 500-foot view. He’ll tell you the principles for a successful crop; he can’t tell you what to plant.
One day in late July, Carey is not by the cove. I wait around on the big rock for an hour, eating my peanut butter and jelly bagel and occasionally dipping my bare foot in the water. A woodpecker hammers away overhead.
At one point a small box turtle floats by. She murmurs something which I can’t quite make out.
“Pardon me?” I ask.
“You should be careful, there’s a fox around,” says the turtle, poking her head out of the water.
I shrug, “Foxes don’t scare me.”
“They should,” says the turtle. She then dips her head back underwater and keeps swimming.
When I get back to the house, I’m moving from angry to panicked; I realize I’ve been taking Carey’s steadfast attendance of our morning meetings for granted. We had never actually verbally committed to meeting, that I recall; I kept showing up to the creek, and he kept being there.
I think I am hungry and go to the kitchen to make another peanut-butter-and-jelly bagel; a quarter of the way through, I start to feel sick from too much peanut butter. I drop the bagel and knife on the counter and head out the door to work.
I land at my desk with a knot in my stomach, which grows darker and uglier throughout the morning. My boss reprimands me for a typo in a client email; the knot metastasizes to my whole body.
I try not to feel worthless but am slowly succumbing, feeling sucked into the swamp, stripped of hope.
When I arrive home from work, I crawl into bed with the lights on and stare at the ceiling.
An hour and a half lighter, as the shadows start to set on the walls of my room and I’m still wide awake, I hear the front door open.
Moments later, Sonny curses; his tell-tale pounding footsteps are now approaching my bedroom alarmingly fast.
I clasp shut my eyes, and he creaks open my bedroom door.
“Dude,” he says, his voice sharp. Reluctantly, I open my eyes.
“You left your bagel on the sink?”
“No I didn’t,” I say, but an alarm goes off in my head.
“Well I haven’t eaten at the house since yesterday, and Jenny doesn’t eat bagels, she’s gluten intolerant, remember?”
I find it grimly funny that Sonny thinks I remember, or care to remember, that his girlfriend is gluten intolerant. Shortly after thinking this, I realize that, oh yes, I had a bagel that morning which I never finished.
“Um, right - yeah, that might be mine,” I say vaguely.
After a few pregnant moments that nearly miscarriage, I add “I’ll clean up in a sec.”
I turn back to face the ceiling, not caring that Sonny is still watching me.
“You eat your breakfast in the woods this morning?” He asks. His voice is softer.
“You saw that dead beaver?”
I blink once at the ceiling, then twist my head towards him. “No? What?”
“By the bridge, near like the end of the trail - where the footpath leads to Lee Highway?” He says. A hint of a smile is starting to spread on his face.
I feel my stomach jerk up to the top of my throat; I ask, huskily, “And it was a beaver? You’re sure?”
“Torn up, like, crazy,” he says, leaning against my door frame. “I could only really tell it was a beaver because of the tail - and the face, I guess. I mean, it was too big a rodent to be a squirrel.”
Sonny is growing more excited as he regards whatever horrified emotions are lapsing across my face.
“No way, you didn’t walk that way? Aw, man, it was crazy, torn limb-from-limb I swear. Like, probably some bear…”
“There are no bears in those woods,” I say, quicker and more panicked than I intend. “They’re all closer to D.C., once you get into - into the Potomac.”
Sonny is full-on grinning now, making no effort to hide his glee.
“Well, it was either a bear or, like, a freakin’ dingo. Know what I’m sayin’?“ He slaps the doorframe. “Dude, I’ll show you. Get up.”
I hesitate, “I believe you.”
“C’mon, roomie, let’s go for a walk!” he says, teasing. “We can get your professional opinion on what went down.”
My legs feel weak as I slide out of bed.
As I follow Sonny out of the house, I notice he seems to be making a concerted effort to stay several steps ahead of me, as if to prevent any actual conversation.
On the footpath I hear voices trickling from the trees, the stumps, the grass, the dirt.
“It’s still around, right?”
“It’s lurking, you know they’re such skulkers, foxes, I think they’re really cowards....”
“There he is - the man - they were friends.”
“Do you think he knows….”
As we approach the end of the trail, Sonny says loudly, “I hope scavenger’s didn’t eat the body already,”
We’re at the bridge now; it is dusk, and barely enough light peeks through the trees to illuminate the creek.
Sonny leans over the edge of the bridge, “Oh yeah. That’s the one. Take a look,”
I approach slowly and peek over the guardrail.
Carey’s head is turned towards the riverbank, and the bottom of his torso is pointed downstream. I realize his body is actually nearly torn in two; the weak but persistent push of the stream is continually threatening to separate the two portions, sending his bottom half sailing off.
“That is some savage nature,” says Sonny, sounding impressed.
At first I feel nothing, which is to say I’m numb, which is in fact a pain in itself, maybe the only kind of pain that’s truly deadly, because when you’re numb you can’t feel reality drilling into your beating heart.
But then I let out a choke, and a sob.
“Carey,” I say, bringing my hand to my mouth.
Sonny looks at me and tilts his head; the familiar, mocking smile is coming back.
“Who’s Carey?” he asks. “You talking about that?” He points at the carcass in the stream.
Voices whisper all around; I can’t tell if they are talking about me, or just talking. I hear conversations, endless conversations, the water keeps flowing over my friend.
Sonny starts to ask me something, too, sounding accusatory, ‘Why do you always come down here anyway?”, but it’s all noise, all mosquitoes in the swamp.
And just how long have I been in this swamp?