Dinner Menu With Fear, Bears, and Endless Trees

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By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Matthew Olzmann


I didn’t actually think I was going to be eaten by the wild, but you never know. For the past fifteen years, I’d been living in Hamtramck, Michigan, where the “natural” landscape consisted mostly of pigeons and broken streetlights. An abandoned axle factory. Railroad tracks. But I’d recently moved to western North Carolina to take a teaching position at a small college in the mountains, and, here, in Swannanoa, Mother Nature touches everything. The fairytale-like shadows of infinite forests. Kudzu crawling up the sides of farmhouses.

Out here, there are seasons possessed by swarms of one strange insect, followed by seasons possessed by swarms of another strange insect. And then there are the black bears, which in this part of the state are seemingly everywhere. They’ll rip through your trash at night. They’ll climb trees to take down bird feeders. (They love birdseed). They’ll block traffic when they lumber down the road. I have a friend who even saw one walking through the Target parking lot. If you don’t see them, you still know they’re there. The darkness of the western North Carolina night is immense, and when you peer into that darkness, you can only imagine what thunders through it. I tend to imagine things with teeth and claws. They prowl behind the shadows, just beyond the small perimeter of light that circles my house. Or maybe they watch me from afar charting my movements and recording my actions on a clipboard. Or they clean a grill in their backyard, look over recipes, and invite guests to an exclusive dinner party.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment I had to make was not to the actual presence of the natural world, but to people’s attitudes toward that world. I think bears are terrifying, but this is not a widely-held belief in these parts. Anthropomorphization is the act of assigning human-like qualities to nonhuman entities, and it’s fairly common for people to do this with animals. Regarding the bears of North Carolina, I’ve heard people say, “The bears, here, are so friendly” and “they have such gentle spirits” and “they are beautiful and peaceful souls” and “it’s possible to be their friend—they really like people.” I appreciate these ideas. But I don’t really believe them.


In his stand-up special, Oh My God, comedian Louis C.K. says, “I don’t know if we fully appreciate the fact that we got out of the food chain. That is a massive upgrade. Because for every other living thing, life ends by being eaten.”


I don’t know why I imagine bears hunting me with poison-tipped spears, while other people imagine them burning incense and dancing through a massive drum circle of love, but one of my favorite things about working at a college is that I’m surrounded by people who are smarter than me. People with knowledge about the world. People who know how things really work. Perhaps someone here can explain the true nature of animals and—you know—tell me I’m right.

I bring my query to the science department, where Dr. Jessa Madosky, a conservation biologist, says, “Strict animal behaviorists might say we should never anthropomorphize animals and claim they have feelings. I tend to be more generous in my thoughts about that, but there are a lot of images in the media that can give people the wrong impression about animals. There’s one commercial that has polar bears drinking bottles of Coke, wearing scarves, and acting like human families.”

And I say, “So you’re saying they don’t do that?”

And she says, “Yes, as far as I can tell,” then laughs, but cautiously, and I secretly wonder if she’s trying figure out how it’s possible that we could both be employed at the same institution of higher learning.


Speaking of polar bears, whether they’re drinking cola or not, they’re not exactly affable and kind. They’re carnivorous, known to be aggressive, and not only kill people, but occasionally eat them as well. In other words: they’re dangerous. But in 2009, a woman had to be rescued from a polar bear attack at the Berlin Zoo after jumping into their enclosure and swimming toward them. Occasionally, when bears aren’t acting like people, they act like bears.

Even the panda (undisputedly, the most adorable of all bears) is still a bear. In 2006, in Beijing, a panda named Gu Gu ripped apart a man’s legs when the man jumped into the bear’s enclosure. Reportedly, the man wanted to hug the bear. In 2008, a panda named Yang Yang attacked a student at another zoo. The victim was quoted as saying, “Yang Yang was so cute and I just wanted to cuddle him.”


We got out of the food chain, but it’s possible to apply for readmission. No cover letter, CV, or letters of recommendation are necessary. Your materials will be processed quickly. Look: they’ve already completed the paperwork. Congratulations, your application has been accepted.


There’s a black bear in the poem “Twilight” by Henri Cole. The speaker of the poem sees a bear in an apple tree and says, “Come down, black bear,/ I want to learn the faith of the indifferent.”

“Indifferent” might be the best description I’ve come across. Despite my tendency to imagine bears as vicious hunters and my neighbors’ tendency to picture them as joyful hippies, there’s the possibility that bears actually don’t give a damn. They’re animals who just want to eat berries and roots and occasionally fish. And then be left alone. Still—


I too want to learn the faith of the indifferent. To eat what I want and not care. To be left alone because I’m the swiftest, most powerful animal among these trees. At night, I go to the grocery store. It’s open twenty-four hours and everything shines in neat little rows. I’m the strongest thing in the wild. I buy onions, potatoes, and jalapenos. I take it all home. There’s a skillet. There’s a flame. There’s always salt. Everything is fine, I tell myself. I eat what I can, because I still can.


MATTHEW OLZMANN is the author of two collections of poems: Mezzanines (Alice James Books, 2013)and Contradictions in the Design, which is forthcoming from Alice James Books in November, 2016. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Necessary Fiction, Brevity, Southern Review, and elsewhere.


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This Wild Life

By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Renee Simms

The children wriggled and cursed in the old SUV, summoning me to exhortations about proper car-riding behavior. “Y’all know better!” I warned. I turned down whatever music was playing. I did these things while I watched traffic conditions on 30th street, which, if you’re traveling east in Tacoma, has a precipitous, San Francisco-esque drop. As you drive, you will feel your fingers tighten against the steering wheel once you realize that you can’t see beyond the approaching precipice. You’ll slow down, and that’s when you’ll catch a glimpse of it—the entire Puget Sound. You’ve got your bluish water and snow-capped mountains, the old barges dotting the coast. Porch lights wink from houses pushed far into the hills. This view is tantamount to falling in love.

Driving west, though, it’s all uphill. That’s the direction that I was traveling. My Rodeo was, at the time, twelve years old. I liked the vehicle just fine even though its manufacturer was a company best known for making good lawnmowers. As the children teased each other and bucked in their seats, my Rodeo stayed focused on the road. She climbed the hill with all her inelegant noise: a sound like cicadas trapped inside the engine.

“Do not call your sister names,” I said, or something close to that. Perhaps, I told my raucous kids to “Shut up.” I don’t recall. It was late and I was tired, plus my night vision is poor and there was very little light. The sky had a moon so slight that evening, you could say that it wasn’t even there. When we reached the top of the hill, I stopped to turn left onto Union Avenue. I waited and waited and waited. Each set of headlights that passed by blinded me for a couple of seconds. Finally, there was a break in cars and I completed my left turn. This is when I saw the delicate fawn in the street.

The fawn tottered on its pencil legs, froze, then bounded away. The poor thing probably saw us before we spotted it. Nocturnal animals like deer have what’s called tapetum lucidum, a layer of tissue over the eye that reflects light and gives them good night vision. I pounded my brakes and swerved the car. We stopped within inches of the deer. “Ohhhhh!” my daughter said. “Where is its mom? Why is it all alone?”

“I don’t know,” I said. My heart thumped in my chest. “It’s a rough world out here in the animal kingdom.”


According to its website, the state of Washington’s Department of Fish & Wildlife gets phone calls each year about orphaned fawns. People stumble across the fawns curled up in tall grass in the woods, seemingly alone in the world. Usually they are not alone. The mother-doe is hidden nearby where you can’t see her. She keeps a watchful eye on her offspring, but the range she allows her young to roam is far and wide.


After we settled down, I drove my children back to the 1920s cottage that I was renting near the university where I worked. The kids were visiting me for one week. They lived most days with their father, my ex-partner, whose home was just outside of Phoenix. Like the animal we’d encountered that night, my children were seemingly without a mother during most of that year. I’d decided in May to take a two-year, visiting faculty position in Tacoma. My ex and I decided that the kids would stay with him during the first year of my appointment. It only seemed to make sense. From the time I got the job, I had less than twelve weeks to find a place to live, to move from Phoenix to Tacoma, and to prepare to teach three classes. There was no way that I could also uproot my children and enroll them in a school system I did not know.

So, instead of spinning my wheels over how I would bring the children with me, I planned for their year without a mom. We all have certain details about parenting which we covet. I knew the details that I paid attention to might be overlooked by their father while I was away. So before I left, I investigated babysitters and talked with relatives and friends about how they could help us watch the kids. I made sure the woman who braided my daughter’s hair had my ex’s cell phone number. I purchased school supplies for the upcoming year. Even after I was gone, I kept in touch with the kids’ school teachers via email and phone. Although I would not be there in the flesh with my children, I was still around keeping a watchful eye.


Deer are a uniparental species. The father deer, the ones with the big, scary antlers, are around to make the babies and then they’re gone. You will not see them hanging out with doe or fawn. If you spot a male deer in a herd, chances are that every deer in that group is male. Fawn are cared for by their mothers only. The mama deer do everything for the babies, including eating their droppings and urine so that predators won’t catch scent of them.


What surprised me most about my decision to leave my children in Arizona was the reaction of my friends and relatives. You would think my kids didn’t have a working, able-bodied father who loves them madly. “You can’t leave them with their father. Their father? Children need their mothers,” one friend said.

“Why don’t you take them with you? Your students will babysit the kids,” another friend said.

Each person I consulted was well-intentioned. They were expressing genuine concern for my family’s well-being. Still, the tone of alarm in their voices and the repetition of frightful scenarios like the ones my father liked to put in my ear, made me doubt my own decision. For example, my daddy insisted I research the sexual predators in my neighborhood so we’d know who was watching the kids walk to the school bus stop while I was away. I told him that we’d lived there for nine years without such information.

Other people’s fears and doubts became my own. As a result, the hardest part of my year away from my children was not the months when I was on a mountain and they were in the desert; it was having the courage to leave them with their father in the first place. I was trusting that I was making the right decision for everybody involved. The conventional wisdom was that I was the primary caretaker and needed to live in the same house with my children. But I was also a provider, and taking a job that increased my income counted as taking care of my kids, too. I can’t imagine that a man in my position would have been counseled the same way about this transition. I can’t see him being told that moving to a new city while single-parenting and starting a new job was a sane or normal balancing act. In the end, I decided I would not multitask in this way. It was hard to trust my own conscience about this. Then there was the actual moment when I had to say goodbye.

We said our farewells in mid-July, two days after movers loaded my boxes onto a twenty-two foot straight truck. My shipping order included the usual domestic items, like linen and dishware, but also fifty small and medium-sized boxes of books. The only furniture that I took from the Arizona house was a bed and writing desk. Their absence—the way the bookshelves and floor had visible gaps of unoccupied space—was, by the time the airport shuttle arrived, the only evidence that I was leaving. The rest of the house was intact. My ex had even moved back in for this one year. A clear light came through the windows that morning. Its brightness made me hopeful even though the shuttle driver, who was five minutes early, had robbed me of final moments with my kids.

My son was the first to rise from the couch and walk in shiny athletic shorts and no shirt to where I’d paused at the door. At eleven years old, he stood nearly my height. His thin body and sway-backed posture at one time reminded me of an apostrophe. Now, as his shoulders broadened over a small waist, his upper body resembled an inverted triangle or wings. We hugged. My daughter, who was six, ran up and wrapped her thin arms around my thighs. Then I embraced my ex. For a brief moment, we were a family huddled near our home’s threshold. In the next second, I would be through that door and inside the blue airport van. I wouldn’t see my kids for the next three months.

The other difficult part of leaving was accepting that my life could be full of similar curveballs in the future. I had never anticipated divorce; nobody does. Similarly, it never crossed my mind that I would have to take a job in another state in order to care for my kids. Nor did I think I’d be single in my forties, that I’d have to think about my safety at night or how I present at private parties where everyone else is coupled-up.

I’d told my daughter the night we saw the deer that the animal world wasn’t quite like ours, that it was unpredictable and dangerous. “Sometimes a fawn is just on its own,” I’d said. But the truth is that we are just as vulnerable as animals that walk on cloven hooves. This becomes most clear when we’re stripped of institutions like marriage or when we experience health problems or economic insecurity. It’s when our bodily functions fail us or we’re hungry without knowing when we’ll eat; it’s when we’ve been physically harmed by another person that we recognize life’s brutal underbelly. Sure, we erect boundaries between civilized society and the wild side, but these boundaries are easily crossed and civilizing tendencies require our constant attention.


Deer are mostly vegetarian, although they will eat meat on occasions. Some of the vegetation that can attract deer to your yard are dandelion, clover, wheatgrass, mushrooms, and other fungi. If you want to keep deer out of your yard, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests deer-repellant landscaping. Shrubs which deer don’t like to eat include globe thistle, lavender, oregano, rue, pine, birch, fig, trillium, lilac, and yarrow.


A friend in the Midwest recently told me about a family of deer living in her mother’s backyard. She used this story as an example of the way that nature was making its return to this urban area that has been in decline for several decades. It was a way to paint the picture of a crumbling city and infrastructure. “Can you believe it? Living in the backyard!” she said. I was struck by how the appearance of deer were interpreted by my friend and how differently they are seen here in my neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t have deer living in my backyard, but they sure bounce through it on occasion, and I’d wager that my neighbors consider deer as part of the area’s charm. Living close to wildlife means different things depending on a person’s context.

Take the deer I saw this summer in the South on a college campus where I attended a writers’ conference. The deer were considered by most writers as magical and spritely, as evidence that we were in a pastoral setting conducive to ideas, instead of the crammed cities where so many of us live. The deer, for their part, pranced in and out of our view as if the college campus was their world and we were in it by happenstance.

I have summers without the children, now, which allows me to attend professional events like writing conferences. My kids live with their dad in the summer and they live with me during the school year or nine months out of the year. It’s an arrangement that works, but again, it’s one I didn’t anticipate years ago. As I walked this latest conference one night, I saw a herd of deer near a tree. There were at least seven or eight of them huddled together. I’ll admit right here that I was slightly drunk, but I’m pretty certain of what I saw. As I walked closer to the animals I saw young and old deer, mostly doe, and one gargantuan male. As the doe and fawn nibbled the grass, heads down, the antlered deer kept his eyes on me as if saying, “Keep it moving, woman, and don’t step any closer.” I was in awe. The next morning, I told another writer who’s a good friend and poet and he said, “That’s incredible! The males rarely hang out with females and fawns.” He was right. That’s what I’ve read to be true about these creatures of the forest and woods. But stranger things, I imagine, happen all the time.


RENEE SIMMS writes fiction and essays which have beeen widely published. She is putting the final touches on a story collection, Because We Were Miles from Home, while teaching and parenting outside Tacoma.

Out in the Woods, Away Out There

nature exhibit
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Kate Haas

Until the bear came along, I was doing fine with nature. Shafts of sunlight were falling on the red huckleberries lining the trail, setting them aglow like tiny rubies. All around me, huge, craggy Douglas firs reached toward the sky, their limbs draped with moss, and giant ferns carpeted the forest floor in every direction. My family and I were deep into Olympic National Park, ten miles from the nearest paved road. This is the forest primeval, I thought, gazing at those massive trees. The murmuring pines—well, firs—and the hemlocks. I felt an unwonted surge of affection for good old Longfellow.

Let me be clear: the forest primeval is not my natural habitat. I grew up in the suburbs, the child of New Yorkers. Our family adventures involved the wily nabbing of city parking spaces en route to the ballet. On the few occasions that my parents took me hiking, I trudged along reluctantly, nursing a strong sense of grievance. What was the point? I complained. Why walk through the woods for no reason, only to turn around and walk right back out? Couldn’t I stay in the car with my book?

Sure, I loved my Quaker summer camp, where I learned to build a fire and use a compass, earning a “woodswoman” badge for acquiring these skills. I appreciated nature, all right. But for the most part, mine was the bookworm’s comfortable, vicarious appreciation. I savored descriptions of Heidi’s beloved Alpine meadows; the vast, mysterious swamp in Girl of the Limberlost; the cave-riddled coast in Island of the Blue Dolphins. From my vantage point on the couch, this was great stuff. But deep down, despite that badge, I wasn’t truly woodsy. And I never would be.

But then, as one does, I met a guy. I’ll call him Nature Man.

Nature Man was a biologist. He liked to lift up rocks and examine the grubs underneath. (He did this on our second date). He talked in near-religious terms about the glories of the ocean and could identify edible and poisonous plants in the woods. He took me bird watching, hauling along a giant spotting scope he’d borrowed from work, through which I watched, in horrified fascination, as a Peregrine falcon devoured a pigeon. (“Way cool, huh?” he said.) Nature Man also played old-time banjo and wrote me love letters illustrated with funny line drawings and watercolors. He planned romantic, themed birthday celebrations in my honor, and he liked to spend rainy Saturdays roaming the big downtown library with me, each of us collecting a stack of books to take home and read companionably on the couch.

There was no doubt about it. I would be learning to love nature.

In the seventeen years that I’ve been married to Nature Man, I’ve logged my time in the woods. I’ve nursed a toddler in a tent and gotten the hang of lighting a camp stove. I’ve grown fond of the scent of citronella candles. Planning a camping trip no longer fazes me, although it does tend to inspire irritation. Why go to all this trouble to haul pots and pans and ingredients into the woods, when we could cook at home in a nice, comfortable kitchen? But Nature Man and our two boys love camping, and I love them, so I keep this thought to myself. Most of the time, anyway. Because once we’re out there, amid those giant trees, out where the mist hangs like a dream over the mountains, and the jade green river churns between ancient rocks, I’m awed, each time, by the sheer splendor of the natural world. And at some point on each of these expeditions, I’m always struck by same thought: without Nature Man in my life, I wouldn’t be marveling at all this.

But in all these years, I’ve never articulated to my husband just how uneasy I sometimes feel in the wilderness. I can’t forget how far away we are, how isolated. And thanks to a ranger program we attended on yet another camping trip, I can’t forget about the cougars, either. Puma concolor, I learned that evening at the park’s rustic amphitheater, roam the Pacific Northwest. They are silent and stealthy, capable of leaping twenty feet from a standing position to land on the neck of their prey, killing it instantly.

I looked around the amphitheater. People in the audience were snuggling with their kids, spritzing on bug repellent, or nodding along with the ranger. No one seemed alarmed. Did you hear that? I wanted to yell. Twenty feet from a standing position! Onto your neck!

The next day, walking along the trail, I tensed at the creak of a tree branch, the back of my neck prickling in dread. Then I looked ahead to Nature Man, pointing out licorice ferns on a nurse log to one of our boys. My husband, I reflected, knew the woods far better than I, and he didn’t seem concerned about being attacked by the New World’s second heaviest cat (after the jaguar). You need to relax, I told myself.

I was successfully following that very advice the next year, the day we met the bear. I hadn’t entirely forgotten the threat of cougars, but I’d pushed it into a small corner of my mind, a little closet where I stash other irrational notions, like my conviction that a headache heralds a brain tumor or that only my will to live keeps the plane in the air. So as we walked deeper and deeper into Olympic National Park that day, I was happily gathering huckleberries for pancakes and musing about nineteenth century poetry.

Not everyone in our party shared my sunny outlook. Unlike twelve-year-old Simon, loping ahead of me in his broad-brimmed hat like a young Indiana Jones, Nate, my nine-year-old, was decidedly grumpy. “Why do we always have to do this?” he muttered. “You should have left me in the car with my Tintin book.”

I repressed the urge to confess that I often feel the same way about hiking. Instead, I told him what I tell myself on those occasions. “We’re a family, Nate. And families do things together.” But there was no denying this particular apple’s proximity to the tree. When it comes to hiking, Nate’s my boy. Nature Man and I had lured him along with trail mix for the first hour. Sparring with his brother on a rustic bridge, re-enacting the encounter between Robin Hood and Little John, had improved his mood after that. But now, just half a mile from our destination, we were out of bribes. “I’m walking for five more minutes,” he said darkly. “That’s it.”

It was at this point that Simon came running back toward us, an expression of alarmed excitement on his face. “There’s a bear on the trail!” he announced breathlessly.

My mental closet burst open. Here it was, the confirmation of all my fears. Nature was a dangerous place, after all. Fearsome things did lurk here. If not cougars, bears, dammit all. Instinctively, I turned to Nature Man. He didn’t say what I expected: “Okay, everyone, turn around—fast!” To my astonishment, what he said was, “Let’s see this bear.” Then he kept walking.

For reasons that remain obscure to me, I followed him.

Sure enough, twenty yards down the trail stood a bear. It was black, with a patch of white on its head, and it was looking right at us. What struck me immediately about this bear—beyond the hair-raising fact of its presence—was its size. This was not a large bear. It was on the smaller side. No, I realized, as my heart began to pound quite unpleasantly, it wasn’t actually small. It was a young bear. Quite young.

All of us, even those not particularly cognizant of the natural world, know exactly what goes along with a young bear. Any second, I imagined, the enraged mother bear would burst from the woods. She would maul us and leave us for dead on the trail. Later, there would be a memorial service, and everyone would cry over the family killed by bears, and we would be forever held up as a warning whenever the park rangers give those talks about wildlife.

Simon had followed his father, and now he turned back to me. “See? There really is a bear!”

“Back away!” I said frantically, still fixated on our memorial service. “There’s a mother bear around here, and she’s going to eat us up.”

Nature Man, who was just a few yards ahead, did not appear to hear me. “Nate, can you see the bear?” he asked. “Let me lift you up.” He raised our son in his arms, as if making an offering to the ursine gods.

“Get my baby away from that bear!” I hissed.

Nature Man made a small sound, which could have been a chuckle. Nate said, “It’s been five minutes. I’m not taking another step.”

The bear gave us a last look, then ambled back into the underbrush.

“See, it’s gone,” said Nature Man. “I’m willing to keep walking.”

Simon said eagerly, “You mean, we’ll follow the bear?”

Nate looked even more mulish. “You’ll have to carry me,” he said.

I stared at my family. “You people are insane.”

Nature Man gave me a quick careful look, then hustled everyone back in the direction we had come. A few minutes later, as we walked quickly along the trail, Nate riding piggyback on his dad, my husband explained that he had only advanced toward the bear because he wasn’t sure Simon had actually seen one. And he had lifted Nate up partly for a better look, but also because, when confronted with a bear, you’re supposed to make yourself look bigger, to intimidate it. “And I wasn’t laughing at you. Well. Not exactly.”

Unwilling to be mollified quite yet, I informed Nature Man that he could forget about taking me hiking, ever again. Today it was a bear, but tomorrow? Cougars, for sure, and what next? Vermicious Knids? Wisely, my husband did not argue with any of this, not even my suggestion that Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator’s amorphous space aliens might materialize in the Pacific Northwest. We both knew I didn’t mean it. Love had gotten me out of a book and into the wilderness in the first place, and I would be back in the woods next summer or even sooner. Besides, we were a family, and families do things together. Like get nearly eaten by bears.


KATE HAAS is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.


Fear and Rafting on the Rio Grande

By David Berkowitz/ Flickr

By Zahie El Kouri

We have paddled beyond the point of return.

I am in the left front corner of a rubber raft. The guide has told me that if I jam my leg into the groove between the outside air chamber and the one that makes the floor, I’m less likely to fall out of the raft, so I jam my leg so hard that my left butt cheek aches.

The guide, who is almost certainly stoned, decides to do a safety check. “Everyone raise your oar like this.”

He holds his paddle up vertically, with the wide side toward the water. He does it with a sort of swagger, like this job makes him much cooler than scared city girls like me. I mimic his action precisely, clutching my oar in fear. My husband and his sister do the same, with confidence. My sister-in-law’s partner Dawn holds her paddle up, too, but she holds it horizontally, so the wide side is facing the center of the boat.

“I said this way,” the guide repeats. “You need to look at me.” The guide is sun-leathered and rangy, his hair bleachy-blond.

“I can’t look at you,” my sister-in-law says. “I’m blind.”

This statement comes as no surprise to me, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to the guide either, as we’d discussed Dawn’s blindness with him when we arrived.

We’re on the Rio Grande, the five of us: my husband John, outdoorsy and fearless; his sister Liz, a four-foot-ten Krav Maga instructor; her partner, Dawn, an executive with a Manhattan non-profit; and me.

I am full of fear: I am afraid of heights; I am afraid of riding a bike in traffic; I am afraid of getting a concussion while skiing like I did when I was eleven. I generally don’t talk about my fears like a Woody Allen protagonist, but I try to avoid situations where I put myself in what I perceive to be danger. The more rational part of my brain tells me that lots of people go rafting without injury and that I have reached an age where I am willing to give this kind of risk another try. Nonetheless, I am happy for my helmet and my life jacket, and even though I have lost all feeling in my left leg, I jam it further into the raft.

Since neither Dawn nor I had ever been rafting, we signed up for the beginning level trip, a leisurely float down the calm part of the river. When we arrived, though, Liz and Dawn snuck away to change our trip to the intermediate one, which included something called “class three rapids.” I am terrified, but I don’t want to ruin everyone’s fun. Dawn, on the other hand, is smiling, her legs casually resting on the floor of the raft.

The guide says, “Well, just pay attention.” When we approach the first set of rapids, I paddle as hard as I can, against every instinct I have to curl into the fetal position. When we’re clear of the rapids, I see that everyone else in the boat is smiling, while I’m just happy to be in one piece. The next few rapids are the same—fear for me, smiles for everyone else. After the fourth set of rapids, we float along the river for long enough that I am able to take in the greens and browns of the riverbank.

That’s when I notice the large boulder in the center of our path. It is taking up most of the river, but it looks like there’s just enough room on either side for us to get by. Water splashes up the rock and churns around it in a great white frenzy.

“That’s a big rock,” I say to my husband.

“Yeah. Which way should we go?” he asks the guide.

“Oh, we’re just going to bounce off that thing,” the guide says.

“Bounce?” I squeak.

“Just paddle as hard as you can right up onto that rock, and then we’ll bounce off to the right.”

This does not sound like a good idea to me, but I am a lowly city girl who can’t feel her left leg. The rock looms ever closer, and I paddle as hard as I can straight on top of it. My corner of the raft hits the boulder. We bounce once off the rock and land sideways, the right edge of the boat hitting the water.

I am still in the boat! Hooray!

I look to my right. The seat next to mine is empty. John and Dawn and the guide are all in the water. Liz is leaning over the side of the boat, holding Dawn by her collar. John erupts from the water and climbs back in, his leg bloody.

“Dawn’s in the water,” I shout. The water swirls innocently around the raft. John jumps back in the water, helping Dawn clamber back in to the center of the boat, soaked and grimacing.

The guide lifts himself into the raft.

“Y’all took a swim?” the guide asks. “Get a little wet?”

Dawn grumbles.

“Dude,” the guide says, as about to share the wisdom of the ages. “It’s all about facing your fears.”

Dawn whips her head around to face the direction of the guide’s voice. “I do enough of that taking the subway in Manhattan every day while being blind.”

The guide says nothing. John and Liz turn away from him, back in their places.

Dawn stays in the center of the boat, shaking. “Is she going to stay there?” the guide asks.

“Yes,” says Liz. “She’s had enough.”

The guide looks at John, alone on the right side of the boat.

Dude,” he says, “you’ll have to paddle harder.”

He says it to John, but I take the message. We launch again, and I paddle with a new determination. Dawn has navigated New York City blind for thirty years; now she is thrown from a raft in the middle of the Rio Grande and climbs back in. Who am I to be afraid?


ZAHIE EL KOURI writes about infertility, parenting, and the immigrant experience in the United States. She has taught creative writing at the University of North Florida and the University of Oregon Law School, and legal writing at Santa Clara University and Florida Coastal School of Law. She holds an MFA in creative writing from New School University and her work has appeared in Mizna, a Journal of Arab-American Writing and Dinarzad’s Children: an Anthology of Arab-American Literature, Memoir Journal, Brain, Child, and Ars Medica. You can find her on the web at www.zahieelkouri.com.