Artemis of the River Bottoms

I’m biking the river bottoms with my son when we encounter an elderly hiker on the trail. He wears a wide-brimmed hat and has a German Shepherd held firmly in place by the collar. Not wishing to spook the animal, I bring the knobby tires of my mountain bike to a halt.

“Hold up, son,” I say with a raised hand.  The stranger has a twinkle of mirth in his eye like he has something to share.

“A coyote just crossed right where you’re standing.”  He speaks to me in an excited whisper.  “I think he’s to the left of you in the trees.”

I peer into the bramble but can discern only shadows.  I’ve seen maybe a half dozen coyotes in my life.  It would make the outing special if the boy saw one.  Intelligent and shy creatures, they always slink along obliquely to the lives of people and are quick to disappear.

The German Shepherd, a handsome beast in its own right, seems neither concerned nor excited by the coyote’s presence. Impatient for the walk to continue, she lunges forward slightly and her muscles ripple. The dog and I lock eyes with one another. As a letter carrier, I have encountered countless dogs and can assess their body language instantly. This animal seems well-trained and unaggressive, although not exactly friendly. There have been a few scary moments in my career when I’ve accidentally placed himself in close quarters with the breed. The intelligent dogs always sized me up silently, barking in warning only after I flinched. I would stumble backwards out of their yards, shaken and grateful not to have been mauled to shreds.

My gaze wanders over the expanse of prairie grass to the lazy current of the Minnesota River just visible over the cattail reeds.  It’s a lovely day–sunny, but not excessively hot.  Cottonwood seeds dance in the blue sky like weightless ballerinas.  Next to the fishing, biking these single-track trails with my son is probably my favorite activity.  We usually spot some interesting wildlife, whether it be river otters or swans.  This is a place of magic. 

I’m about to bid farewell to the stranger when the coyote emerges from the waist-high grass.  I hold my breath.  The perky-eared animal pauses on the trail and appraises us for a moment before darting into the thick wooded cover.

“It just passed behind you,” I say pointing.

The old man whirls around but the animal has already vanished.  He ushers his dog forward, anxious to be out of our way and away from the coyote.

“Did you see it?” I ask my son.

“Yeah, I saw it.”

“It had a nice coat, real thick.  They get a bit scraggly by the end of summer.”

He nods and I smile back at him.

We continue our ride and soon we’re enveloped in the shade of the river bottom forest. The charcoal-gray elms are sickly in appearance from constant flooding and green nettles cover the otherwise bare ground on both sides of the trail. Our presence alarms a whitetail deer along the perimeter of Long Meadow Lake. The scared doe keeps running ahead of us until she’s tripping in the duckweed muck of the slough. I’m anguished at disturbing the animal and feel relieved when we finally get around her. An hour later the boy and I stop for a snack, using the trunk of a toppled cottonwood tree as a bench.

“Are you going to be able to make it back?” I ask.

His face is flushed and he’s still catching his breath.  The boy has an enormous capacity for endurance, but I’m worried I’ve pushed him too far today.  He’s only seven.

“I’m fine.” The boy takes a big swig of water.

I stare at the olive river meandering behind the trees as Miles munches on Goldfish. It’s getting toward dinnertime and I’m anxious to get home before dark. I realize with chagrin that I have to work tomorrow. The job bores me. I try to remind myself that I still need the money, but it’s a hard thing not to take for granted. Each day I die a little bit, and the struggle is to not blame the people I love for it. I only hope that when the day comes that I am nothing, they can understand and forgive me.

A horn sounds and I see the great, long bulk of a tugboat barge come into view. It takes up two-thirds of the river and the water sucks away from the shore as it passes, caught up in the vacuum of the goliath engines. We watch together in silence as it chugs by and disappears again around the bend in the river.

“You ready?” I ask finally.

He nods and we start pedaling back towards the Sibley House where we started.

I look behind to see the boy is lagging and I stop for him to catch up.  I almost wish I had a rope so I could pull him.  Our return journey will take a lot longer.  His young legs are clearly gassed, but his expression tells me he’s still having fun.  We’ll get the ride done with some encouragement.  We always do.

We’re on our final mile, when up ahead I see something I can’t quite believe. It appears to be a woman jogging on the trail. The sun happens to be setting behind her, illuminating her blonde mane and muscular body in a fiery aura. A ray of sunlight strikes my eyeballs from between the triangle formed by her pubis and thighs. It’s almost a religious experience. I’m seeing God between this woman’s legs. She seems preternaturally large, becoming more so as she bounds closer in high socks like a goddess out of mythology. I hold it together as best I can as she draws near, not wanting to seem like a creep. The boy and I stop to let her get by. She passes and I give her a nod while respectfully averting my gaze. She’s a good six foot, four inches tall and looks like she could complete an Ironman Triathlon.

It takes a while, but the boy and I make it back.  He has to stop and rest a couple of times.  I’m putting the bikes on the racks when I see the woman again.  I’m surprised she’s caught up to us already.  She paces anxiously by her car as if something is wrong.

“Can I help you?” I ask.  “Are you ok?”

My desire to be chivalrous is irrepressible.

“Here we go,” she says holding her shoe.  “I just couldn’t find my key.”

I smile politely and return my attention to the bikes.

“This is my first time running here.”  She takes a step toward me.  “The bugs weren’t too bad.  I was worried about the bugs.”

“They get so thick you can hardly see sometimes. Especially towards sundown. It’s good to have a gator, otherwise you’re swallowing them.”

She seems ecstatic from her run.

“I’m going to come back here,” she says.

“It’s a great place.  Have a good night.” 

She appears to be in her mid-twenties. I’m grateful she even speaks to me. I used to be able to run sixteen miles like it was nothing. I can hardly look at her she’s so beautiful. Her friendliness flatters me, but it has nothing to do with my own attractiveness. She sees the boy and thinks I’m nice, a father figure, someone who is harmless. She would be right about that. I have the bikes mounted and climb inside the Subaru. I sneak a final peek at her stretching before I put the car in gear.

“She’s very fit,” I say to my son. 

His facial expression in the rearview mirror is relaxed and innocent. I feel a bit guilty about my lascivious comment.

When we get home, I tell my wife about the coyote on the trail and the tugboat.

Three days pass and I cannot get the woman out of my head.  I long to see her again, even for a moment.  I confess my fantasies to my wife as we lie in bed.  My words, as I’m saying them, seem stupid and inadequate.

“So you saw a hot jogger,” she says dismissively. 

“It was more than that. . . .”

My voice trails off.  She has her back to me.  There’s no point.  I switch off the lamp and go to sleep.

I’m being chased by a pack of dogs in the forest. My heart pounds up into the roof of my mouth. I keep looking back as their baleful howls become louder. Behind them, I see a blonde warrior woman on horseback with a raised spear and shield. I’m stumbling through the flooded timber, black mud sucking at my heels. I remember the doe in the woods and tell myself I’m dreaming, but it’s all too real. I feel the spear penetrate my rib cage and I go down. I’m paralyzed now and I can feel the cold iron shaft rubbing against my spine. She’s over me, clutching the spear for leverage with a knee on my back. She turns me on my side and I get a glimpse of the knife blade nearing my throat, the circling hounds with thick foam dripping from their ugly jowls. . . .

Soaked in sweat, I awake with a hard-on and a gasp.

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