Monday, October 20, 2008

After the Flood - Chapter 5

When I first saw my father’s notebooks I myself was a very old man. My father lived to be 127 years old and he was cogent to the end. On his deathbed, in the hospital wing of one of our Guest Houses, he revealed his secret to me.

As I sat next to him, reading in my favorite highback chair, he quietly asked me to come over to his bedside.

“There’s something you need to know,” he said to me in his hushed, weakened voice.

“Can it wait until I finish this chapter,” I said.

“Fuck you.”

“It’s just two more pages,” I said leafing ahead.

“Just get over here!” Dying men can get terribly impatient.

I walked over. He lifted his head and looked around. “Are the doctors gone?”

“They’re all asleep.” We had a team of doctors that lived with us. Well, they had their own apartments in the hospital wing.

“The nurses?”

“Just Nurse Cratchett down the hall.”

He motioned me closer with a bent finger. He looked me in the eyes, he seemed afraid, guilty, I was worried about becoming the recipient of his last confession, or, to be more precise, I was worried that he thought it was time for a last confession, that he felt the end was near.

My father was much more than a father to me. He was my mentor, then my partner, a business partner extraordinaire. He was a genius and we made vast sums of money together. Incredible wealth during a time of global transformation. Catastrophic changes racked the planet and my father and I navigated through them, fearless captain and loyal lieutenant.

Beyond the success, the wealth, the luxury, though, there stood the unprecedented longevity. On that fateful day in his last bedroom, I was 95 years old. We had been together, I mean inseparable, for damn near a century. For three quarters of a century we worked side by side in adjoining offices atop the West Tower. We never left the complex alone. It had been that way for so long I never even questioned it. He even bought a house in Cambridge when I went to Harvard. He moved to Paris while I did graduate work at the Sarbonne.

The prospect of losing my father was no ordinary thing. I don’t want to give you the idea that it was devastating. When a guy passes 125 you had better have come to grips with the idea that this person is going to die some day. If you haven’t, you’ve lost your grasp on reality.

Reality had been difficult to grasp, though. The world was nothing like it had been when I was young. But more on that later, we were at the dramatic bedside scene.

He was looking at me with eyes that lacked confidence, and that in itself was shocking. My father was always the most cocksure man in the room. He saw things differently, people talk about seeing the big picture, that 30,000 foot view, well he had that in spades, but he never flaunted it. He never blustered, he wasn’t the belligerent, obnoxious, know-it-all CEO we so often had to deal with.


He would sit in meetings, quietly taking things in from the end of the board room table, then smile his Cheshire cat smile and tell us how it was going to be, like he was letting us in on a little secret. And people couldn’t resist him. His fiercest opponents were always, ultimately, swayed to his way of thinking, and it was his eyes that did it, those calm, piercing, confident eyes.

At that moment, though, as I looked at him for nearly the last time, that fire was fading, the light had dimmed. So, yes, I was worried, but hardly saddened. We couldn’t have asked for a more fulfilling relationship. Never in history had such a man existed, had such a family as ours flourished so.

How many men get to golf with their great great grandson? To be honest, though, he wasn’t that great. My grandson was a much better golfer than him at his age. When the course we’d built couldn’t challenge him anymore, we had to redesign it and then we had to build a brand new one, another 18 hole track nearly 2,000 yards longer. Again, though, I digress.

In short, my father had lived a full life. Now, I was ready for some prescient last words, but I never expected the impact, the ground-shaking magnitude, of the simple words he spoke that day.

He looked up at me and told me cryptically, as if handing me a key, both literally and figuratively as it turned out, to the most remarkable story I’d ever heard, and, trust me, in this day and age, I’ve heard some pretty remarkable stories. He told me in an uncharacteristically fluttering voice, “I knew it would happen.”

“You knew what would happen, dad?”

“All of it. Everything.”

I stared down at him carefully, with care. I didn’t want him to think I thought he was losing it if he wasn’t losing it. Lord knows how many times that had happened in the last 20 years. He could get pretty offended when people thought he was going crazy. 'Just cuz a guy turns 118 doesn’t mean he’s senile!' he’d shout.

“What do you mean, ‘everything’?”

“Listen,” he said, softer still. “I have a safe. No one knows about it. The men who built it are long dead.” He paused to catch his breath. “I want you to open it…when…not until,” he emphasized that ‘not until’, “not until I’m gone.”

“Okay…” I said slightly shakily.

He pursed his lips and chastised me with his eyes. “Don’t give me that look you little shit, I’m still your father and I’m still sane. I’ll beat your ass.”

That reassured me.

“Where is it?”

“It’s in the New House.”

The ‘New’ House was built 80 years ago. Since then dozens of buildings had gone up on the compound, but we still called it the New House.

“In the basement. Under the stairs.”

“Under the stairs?”

“Are you deaf, you old coot. I said under the stairs, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, but dad, there’s nothing under those stairs, that basement was carved out of solid rock.”

“Sometimes I can’t believe you’re my son. Are you going to have to write this down? I designed that building, you imbecile, I know what’s under those stairs.”

“OK, OK, geez, you don’t have to bite my head off.”

He smiled, “You’re still the same. Nearly 100, one of the most powerful men in the world, and you’re still a stupid teenager.”

I sighed in exasperation. “Right, right.” Like a hadn’t heard that a million times before. “Back to the safe under the stairs, and, if you don’t mind my saying so, a secret safe under the stairs? – really, it’s a bit cliché don’t you think?”

“Fuck you. I was only in my forties, it sounded like a cool idea. And, anyway, it’s worked. No one but me, and now you, knows it exists.”

“So, what’s in it?”

“I’m not going to tell you, you moron, haven’t you been listening.”

“Why not?”

His face turned grave again, embarrassed, afraid.

“I just can’t,” he said. I decided I had to respect that. Looking back now I understand why, I understand entirely. Then, I took it on faith, on the look in his face, in his eyes, on that understanding we had between us. I wouldn’t ask him what it was he had hidden in that safe again.

We sat quietly for awhile before he spoke again.

“You need to find stone 47.”

I’d always wondered why he had numbered those stones.

“Behind stone 47 you’ll find a key. You getting this?”

“Yes, dad,” I whined.

“Take that key and go to stone 98, or was it 99? 98?”

I looked at him impatiently.

“I’m joking, I’m joking. It’s stone 98. You think I’d forget this. It’s around the corner on the wall of my old office.”

“OK. Stone 98…”

“Remove that stone, behind it, there’s…”

“A lock.”

“That’s my boy. Now go open it.”


“I hate to break the news to you, son, but I don’t have all day.”

“Oh, come on…I thought you said…”

“Just do it!” he fairly shouted, as much of a shout as a dying 127-year old could shout.

I had no choice.

I left the hospital wing of Guest House #2 and headed across the 18th fairway of Course #2, what we called the New Course - we weren’t much for creative nomenclature – to the New House.

At that hour most everyone was asleep. A guard sat at the door, he stood when I approached, and as soon as he recognized me, opened the door, greeting me with a nod of the head. “Late night, sir?”

“You said it, Maurice.” It took me awhile to get used to men in their 70s calling me “sir” but that’s the way of the world.

I grabbed a torch and went downstairs to the basement. It was a dark, cold place now, but I remember when I was a child running down there to roust my father from his office. He kept it bright with an abundance of lighting, dozens of floorlamps, little desklamps on filing cabinets and the like to compensate for the total absence of sunlight. He usually had a fire going in the woodstove, that cat of his curled up beside it, even long into the summer. Without it, the place quickly grew damp and chilly like it was now.

I pushed the torch in front of me and sought the stone. We’d long ago shut down the New House, no point in wasting the electricity. And now I can see my father’s ulterior motive – no point in having people mucking around his secret hiding place.

Father left few things to chance.

When I found number 47, I quickly realized this wasn’t going to be quickly accomplished. The stone would not budge. I had to rummage around in the tool shed for a screwdriver and a hammer. I wondered if Maurice could hear me as I chipped away the mortar around the stone. My father and his flair for the dramatic. I finally, prized it loose and, sure enough, found a key in a small metal container with “Hide-a-Key” printed on it. One of dad’s clever jokes.

I then had to go around the corner and repeat the process with stone 98. This time there was a rectangular metal piece affixed sidewise with a small handle, which I pulled. The plate came free with some difficulty and revealed the lock, it still shone like new in the shaky torchlight. I inserted the key, turned it and heard a loud click. A roughly three foot by three foot, but by no means square, section of the wall snapped out of place. It was a great piece of handiwork. The rounded stones fit into place like puzzle pieces, and the hinged door swung open easily.

There was the safe. A combination safe. He had not given me any combination.

Cursing, I made my way back to the hospital. Father must have heard me stomping down the hall because he had a childish impish grin on his face when I stopped next to his bed.

“The combination?” I said.

“Be patient. I’m not dead yet.”

I miss him dearly, of course, but he could be a real pain in the ass.

“Did you close it up?”

“Yes, dad.”

“Was Maurice there?”


“Good man, Maurice. Did I ever tell you I knew his wife?”

This was one of my father’s favorite euphemisms. He had countless lovers, if that is indeed the proper word for it. Concubine doesn’t work either. They were more like playthings, hors d’oeuvres, carnal snacks.

You see everyone knew he was a breeder, that he wasn’t sterile. So, women would come to him in the hope that he could impregnate them. Often their husbands brokered the deal, they were so desperate for children. There was The Test, certainly everyone took The Test, yet people still wanted to make sure. Trust, but verify, right? And, my dad was almost always willing to oblige.

“No, dad, I don’t think you did,” I deadpanned. “And, how did Maurice feel about that?”

“Oh, he was most grateful. ‘It took a load off’ he had said.” He snickered, “It took a load off me, too.”

“You’re a dirty old man.”

“And you aren’t?”

He had me there. The temptation was too great, unbearable. What would you do?

“So, what’s the combination?”

“Hold your horses. We need to talk seriously. I have important things to tell you.”

“What did The Manic-Depressive say when he pushed his son on the swing?”

“You told me this joke 40 years ago in Lyon. I don’t know how you’re going to manage without me, you feeble-minded nincompoop.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“You doubt me? You dare doubt your father after all these years.”

“So, what’s the punchline…”

“’Ennui…Ennui-eee’. Now, can we get serious?”

He had the schooling of a peasant, but the memory of an elephant.

“OK. What’s so important that you had to wait until your deathbed to tell me.”

“Listen to me.”

“I’m listening.”

“One word.”

“Yes, what is it?”

“Are you sure you’re listening?”

“Yes, I’m listening!”

He paused for effect, raised one finger, and said, barely able to restrain the laughter…”Plastics.” He thought he was hilarious.

“I thought we were done with the jokes.”

“It’s not a joke, it’s a line from a great movie.”

“There are no movies anymore, dad. There are no actors, hell, there hasn’t even been any film for more than 40 years.”

“So, I still remember them.”

“Yeah, you and about 10 other people in the world.”

That seemed to strike home, and the smile faded from his lips. The laughter died in the room, and the silence became oppressive. If I hadn’t known all the moisture had long dried out of the old cur’s tearducts, I would have sworn I’d seen a watering in his eyes.

“You’re right,” he said glumly.

“A rare concession.”

“Well, you’re going to have to be right a lot more often. You’re not going to have me watching your back anymore and things are only going to get worse.”

The mood of the room had changed entirely. The stillness of the night grew more obvious. The darkness, the lateness of the hour, our alone-ness, all contributed to the proper ambience, at last, for our important exchange.

He sighed and I could see his exhaustion, he let his guard down and for the last time I noticed that dejected countenance of his, his “sad mask” I used to call it. It would come and go, fleeting, yet now it lingered.

“No film. No tape. No compact disks, DVDs…floppies,” he scoffed.

“No, dad, they’re all gone. Things for the history books.”

“Except there are no history books.”

“No historians,” he added flatly.

“Not exactly the highest priority.”

“No, probably not. Not yet, at least. But there will come a time. And, now that I think about it that’s part of what I want to tell you.”

He had my attention.

“In that safe are documents, files. There are tape recordings and videotapes, but I had to make transcripts of those when I realized there weren’t going to be any of the devices needed to play them left. They’re there in case you ever track one down. Mostly, everything is recorded on paper. The old-fashioned way.”

“No gold doubloons?”

“You know as well as I do that all the gold in the world is worthless now.”

I smiled inwardly at how much we’d made selling gold short and then going long on grains. One of our masterstrokes.

“Look, I’ve done some things I’m ashamed of,” he said as if he were reading my mind. We destroyed people. Sure, they were going to die anyway, but still it wasn’t very nice. Laissez faire and C’est la vie only go so far.

“There are things in that safe that I want to explain to you. I’m not trying to justify myself, I don’t think, in the end, that I ever had much choice in the matter. They chose me. It was my fate. You, though, and everyone else, I’m sorry to say, are the ones that are going to have to do the hard work, and you should know, you should be aware of how this all came about, this dying off.”

“You know how? I mean, sometimes I suspected something…”

“You did?”

“Well, you always seemed to know too much, to be too farsighted, as if you could see the future.”

“Ridiculous! You’re just saying that now because I told you.”

“No, honestly.”

“Stop. You always did have to be a know-it-all. Just like your mother.”

I shrugged.

“No matter. It all really doesn’t matter at this point. I just want you to know. I want you to know what happened and why I did it. And I don’t want you to judge me too harshly. Out of everyone, everyone who’s left, even most everyone who’s gone, I respect your opinion the highest.”

“’Most’ everyone?” I asked.

“You’re still a competitive little bugger. Sometimes I thought you enjoyed all this a bit too much.”

“Life is suffering. It’s better to suffer less, I’ve always felt.”

“I suppose that’s been a good way for you to look at things. But, you have to change, you have to teach the rest of them to change when they come back, if they come back. It’s the only way we’ll get back to the way things were, to a better way if we are to believe, if we are to believe them…”

He trailed off. “Who?” I asked. “If we are to believe who? Who are them, I mean who are they?”

But he wouldn’t answer. He just shook his head. That was one of the secrets I was going to find in the safe, I would have to wait. He simply handed me an envelope and whispered, “Not until I’m gone.”

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Feline, Aquiline...Punchline? - Chapter 4

Heading into the woods was a bad idea. But, then, I hadn’t had many good ideas in awhile. It took less than five yards for me to find my first patch of stinging nettle, no more than ten before I’d plunged headlong into a thorny mass of blackberry vines.

Why did I not turn back you might ask. To which I’d reply, there is no turning back. Pithy? Yes. True? I don’t know. I was confused, that much I do know.

I barely knew which way was up. The burning white welts from the nettle made my feet throb. I broke off long fern fronds and tried to fashion makeshift shoes out of them, but those would quickly fall off. I thought about lying down and simply waiting until morning. The prospect, though, of stumbling out of the woods, onto some residential road, or worse, some residence, barefoot, bleeding and hungover in the harsh light of day, kept me stumbling along in the sheer hope that I could make it home before dawn. Eventually, I came to a gully, and I followed it thinking it looked familiar, thinking it might have been the gully we’d seen on the way in, my deer friend and I.

I figured if I followed it down I might recognize the spot where we’d entered, plus, it was heading down, it would ultimately lead to the water. As I tripped my way across stones and roots, though, a peculiar thing happened. It appeared I was no longer heading downhill. Somewhere along the way the creekbed had switched course on me, for I was most definitely now walking uphill, whereas I had been most certain I had been heading downhill. This threw me for a loop, if I couldn’t trust gravity, if I couldn’t trust water to run downhill and find its lowest point, then I was lost.

Truer words had never been spoken, and I did indeed speak them. I said to myself, at least at that moment, I thought I was saying to myself, that is, only myself, I said those simple, sad words, “I’m lost.” Most unexpectedly, from out of a nearby bush, came a response

“Just keep going,” said the bush.

“Well, will you look at that,” I said, again mostly to myself, “it’s a talking bush, and it’s not even on fire.”

“I’m no bush, you imbecile,” said the bush. Bushes could be real dicks, I understood, so I was trying to figure out how to break it to this bush, who was clearly in denial, that he was, in fact, a bush, when, from out of said bush, hopped a big black crow, as if they come in other colors.

“Oh,” I said, “You’re right. You are a crow.”

“No shit,” said the crow, “Now just keep going.”

Not wanting to belabor the issue, I took the crow’s advice, put aside my doubts about gravity and the other immutable laws of nature, eg, animals can’t talk, etc. and trudged on up my rocky gully. It grew rockier and rockier, steeper, too, until I was no longer walking but rather climbing, finding handholds and footholds and pulling and pushing myself upwards while the crow occasionally flew by to caw, “Just keep going.”

At one point, on a narrow ledge, I stopped to catch my breath and take a look around. I was surrounded by trees so couldn’t see, not that I could have seen much in the darkness, but I did get the sensation of altitude. I felt very high, in other words.

The crow hopped down next to me from some rock above and said, well, you can probably guess what he said, he said, “Just keep going.”

Ever compliant, I took a deep breath, sighed, and continued my climb. I don’t know exactly how long this went on or how high I went. I kept putting one hand in front of the other like an automaton, until, with very little warning, the terrain leveled off. Flattened, actually. I was suddenly standing on flat ground, a sort of mesa.

Somewhere in front of me I heard voices. The crow landed at my feet. “I know, I know, ‘just keep going,’” I said looking down at the black bird, who merely grinned and with a flourish of his wing ushered me in the direction of a stand of trees. I walked where he had pointed, pushed my way through the branches and entered a room, what amounted to a room, at least. It had all the appearances of a room, but I would not take notice of that until later. I was too flabbergasted by what lay before me, or who, no, what. That is to say, I’m baffled still, it was the eagle and the cat, sitting calmly together, a bottle of scotch between them.

“Oh, hey, you’re here. Good,” said the eagle, casually.

I said nothing. I stood motionless.

“I’m sorry,” the eagle said, brushing his forehead with his wing in display of absent-mindedness, “where are my manners? You two don’t know each other.” Then aiming his wing my way then the cat’s, the eagle introduced us, “Human, Cat. Cat, Human.”

“Hey,” I mumbled, raising my hand halfway in a lame attempt at a greeting.

The cat stared at me and then turned to the eagle, whom he glowered at reprovingly.

“What’s he doing here?!” the cat spat at the eagle.

The eagle cackled, no other word for it, really. He was in his cups, trashed, loaded, in short, he was high as a kite. Laughing, he bent over to take a sip from the shotglass of scotch that sat in front of him on a large flat rock that served as both table and chair for the bird.

The cat sat, legs crossed, on a tree stump opposite the eagle who dipped his beak into the shotglass again, looking for all the world, like one of those kitschy desk fixtures, the bobbing bird perpetual motion machine.

I tried to get my bearings by studying my surroundings. This room, this den in a copse atop a mountain was outfitted with the latest gadgetry. A flatscreen TV hung from one tree, the dull light and slight hum from a computer came from a rolltop desk built into the fat trunk of the largest tree in the room, the focal point, the nexus, if you will. The eagle watched me, amused, as I turned one way and then another, my jaw dropping further with each new sight. Who knew an eagle would need an espresso machine.

I looked around for wires, light switches, what did he use for electricity.

“Wi-fi, hi-fi,” he slurred nonsensically, and then broke into drunken laughter.

The cat just shook his head and said, “He’s such a lightweight.”

“I’m fine. I’m fine,” the eagle said in response, still giggling as he dried the tears of laughter from his eyes with a wing. “You’re just a bad influence.”

“I don’t get it,” I said, “What’s this all about?”

“Yes, ‘Mr.-I’ve-Got-A-Plan,’” the cat barked sarcastically. “What is this all about?”

“Relax, relax. Jesus, cat, you sure are a spoiled-sport.”

“Don’t you blaspheme in here,” replied the cat.

“That’s rich coming from you. It’s bad enough I’ve made this deal with the devil, I don’t need you mocking me,” the eagle was straightening up, gently brushing his chest feathers with his wings and parting his white head feathers with one carefully placed talon as he examined himself in one of many mirrors hanging from branches around him, much like you’d find in a parrot cage, I thought.

“Easy,” said the cat, “Don’t say something you might regret.”

“Oh, I’ve done that already. I did that the minute I opened my door to you.”

“Um,” I started.

“No ‘ums’ from you, human. This bird and I aren’t finished.”


Oh no, I thought, not again. But, the cat was too fast for him. “Yeah, bird. You may be the lion of the skies and all that, but my folks own terra firma, so save your huffery puffery for someone whom gives a shit. Now, we had a plan and I don’t remember any human being any part of that plan.”

The eagle squawked, “Yes, we have a plan, you wicked furball, but plans change. And, if you’ve got a problem with it then you can take it up with the Big Bird. I don’t think you’re in a position to negotiate.”

“Don’t give me this ‘Big Bird’ crap. I see right through this ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine. You two are cut from the same cloth.”

“Birds of a feather,” I chimed in.

They both turned to stare at me.

“Again. What the fuck is he doing here?”

“Get a grip, kitty, and I’ll lay it out for you,” said the eagle calmly, seemingly all sobered up. “We need this guy.”

“We need him? The way you told me the story was I needed you guys and you needed me, now ‘we’ need him,” he pointed at me derisively with his paw. “There’s a whole lot of ‘needing’ going on. I don’t like ‘needing’. I like having, see.”

“OK, Cagney, holster that paw of yours. Think about it, we need someone on the inside or all hell is going to break loose.”

“That’s not my problem,” the cat said glibly.

“Oh, but it is,” countered the bird.

They stared grimly at each other. I’d never been in a treehouse where the atmosphere was so tense. I broke the silence by asking, “Is someone going to tell me what’s going on?”

The bird slowly looked away from the cat. I’d broken the spell. He turned to me, stared with his icy eagle eyes and said, without a trace of humor in his voice, “We’ve taken matters into our own hands.”

I let those words sink in before asking, “What does that mean, exactly?”

“You remember the first time we met?”

“Of course, hard to forget.”

“Well, we believe we can no longer rely on your kind to take care of the planet.”

“You’re serious,” I said dubiously.


I looked from the eagle to the cat. He, too, looked serious. I’ve never seen a more serious cat.

“So, what’s your deal?” I asked the cat.

“I’m on the lam,” he said.

I looked back at the eagle, who said, “Computer fraud.”

I looked back at the cat, who said, “It’s a long story.”

“You can fill me in later. So, what the heck is this plan of yours, and how am I supposed to fit in?”

“We’re going to sterilize you,” the eagle said, a bit too cavalier for my taste.

“Excuse me?!”

“We got the idea from the deer,” said the cat. “It happens to them in Connecticut all the time. They’re really pissed off about it.”

“Can’t say I blame them,” I said. “So, what, am I supposed to be your first then, your guinea pig?”

“No, no, that’s not it at all,” said the eagle. “Besides, we have guinea pigs for that. Everything’s already been tested. FDA approved. We’re ready to roll.”

“I’m happy for you.”

“Easy on the sarcasm, pal.”

“Well, excuse me for not sharing your enthusiasm. Unless I’m mistaken, you’re talking about the elimination of humankind.”

“No, no, no. Christ, you’re such an alarmist. We’re just talking about thinning the herd. It’s really the most humane solution.”

“Sounds more like a final solution. Hasn’t this been done before?” I said bitterly.

“Come on give us a little credit, we’re not animals,” said the eagle. “We know what we’re doing.”

As you might imagine, this was deeply troubling.

“Don’t worry, we can make sure you’re safe,” said the cat. “We’re just going to spay and neuter the worthless people. Give you a taste of your own medicine.”

“Who decides who's 'worthless'? Who gave you the right to play God?” I queried the eagle, who just shrugged indifferently, there are few other ways to shrug, I know, yet his bespoke untold righteousness, confidence, and apathy, too.

“These eagles have a very lofty opinion of themselves,” the cat countered from his side of the table.

“So, let me see if I have this straight. You guys are going to systematically eliminate, what? Half of the world’s population?”

“Oh, way more than half,” chirped the eagle.

“Yes, yes, much more,” echoed the cat. “We’d like to see it come down to the tens of thousands, maybe less.”

I was stunned. I rubbed my temples trying to grasp the magnitude of such an occurrence.

“The ‘wild kingdom’ is very excited about this,” said the eagle. “It’s polled very well in all the key demographics.”

“Especially the predators,” purred the cat. “The big cats are stoked. I mean, the Great White hunters were one thing, but now these photo safaris, whole families out in Range Rovers snapping pictures all the time, no privacy. And, don’t get them started on National Geographic, they’ll talk your ear off.”

“And the fish!” exclaimed the eagle. “When we started talking about this with the farmed salmon…well, it was like the wildest feeding frenzy you’ve ever seen. They can’t wait to make a break for it.”

I pondered all this, trying with what little brain power I had left, still coming down from that possum dope as I was, trying to imagine the consequences.

“Have you guys thought this all the way through? This plan sounds sort of half-baked.”

“Oh, no, it’s completely baked,” smiled the bird. “Look you don’t have to like it. It’s going to happen one way or another. The Big Bird and I just thought it would be good to have one of you in on it.”

“In on it?” I asked suspiciously.

“Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be generously compensated.”

“Compensated? How? Is there an eagle bank somewhere, in the Caymans maybe?”

“Very funny. Think of the opportunities. You’re being very fatalistic about this.”

“We are talking about the end of civilization as we know it,” I said gravely.

“Honestly,” said the cat, sipping his scotch, “it’s not entirely civilized now is it?”

“Think of it as a ‘Do-Over’,” said the bird as he patted me on the shoulder with his wing. “It’s a chance for a fresh start. Trust me…you need one.”

I stood up and walked around this strange room. I paced around the stone table as the eagle and the cat silently watched my movements. I felt hunted.

“Why me?”

“Why not you,” replied the eagle. “My boss told me to go get a human, and you were there that day philosophizing and contemplating the infinite and shit. So, I figured you were as good a mark...I mean, candidate, as any.”

I stood there looking down at the two of them. The cat uncrossed his legs, leaned forward and said, “For what it’s worth, I’m on your side, dude. I think it’s too risky to bring a stupid human in on the job.” He poured himself another two fingers.

“Well, it’s not your decision, is it,” snapped the eagle. “It’s not as if you can walk at this point.”

“I don’t understand what you can want from me. What can I possibly do? And why would I want to do it? Why don’t you just go find someone else.”

“It’s a little too late for that,” said the eagle. “Don’t worry, it will all work out. We’ve thought of everything, trust me.”

I had a really hard time buying that. I must have looked as skeptical as I felt. “Come on, sit down, have a drink.” He flew over to a cupboard and came back with a highball glass in his claw. The cat poured some scotch into it.

I looked at them each in turn, suspiciously.

The cat raised his glass. The bird raised his head and gave me a strained smile.

I lifted my glass reticently and took a sip.

“You’ll feel better about this in the morning,” the eagle tried to reassure me.

“It’s a lot to get your head around, we understand that.” He dipped his beak into his glass. The three of us sat there in silence, weighing each other up. The cat still seemed displeased I was there. The eagle eyed the cat and then gave me his disingenuous grin again. I was baffled, befuddled, so I drank some more. There we sat, or, for the eagle’s part, stood. The cat on his stump, me on mine, the eagle shuffling his feet on that stone table, the scraping the only sound in the room.

I started to feel woozy. The eagle watched me carefully, then glanced at the cat. I turned to the cat and he looked kind of fuzzy, I mean fuzzier, you know, out of focus. My head felt very heavy and then all of a sudden that hard flat table was rushing towards my face.

I awoke on my lawn, my son leaning over me, shaking my shoulders, telling me to wake up. It was nearly dark.

“Mom’s been looking for you.” I slowly lifted myself into a sitting position, held my head in my hands and tried to rub out the cobwebs.

“What time is it?” I asked my boy.

“It’s dinner time, come on, Mom’s waiting.”


Only dinnertime.

What a dream, I thought, and then I felt the lump on my forehead.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Trippin' with Deer - Chapter 3

I was out in the yard gardening, and I got sleepy, so I decided to lie down on the lawn. We live out in the woods, our lawn is shrinking, the trees and vines and ferns are slowly creeping in towards the house. I’d been engaged in the futile task of weeding. We decided we didn’t want to use chemicals, so our lawn looks like crap. I was exhausted and discouraged. I knelt and then lowered myself onto my elbows and then turned, collapsed and looked up into the cloud-bespattered sky. Lost in incomprehensible contemplation, I fell asleep.

I awoke with a deer leaning down over me, his face close to mine, his big brown eye stared unblinking. He had bad breath. He opened his mouth wider, and spoke, “What do you think you’re doing here?”

“I’m resting my eyes,” I said.

“You’re sleeping.”

“No, I was just resting my eyes.” It was now dusk. I looked past the deer’s antlered head to see a sky gone gray and gloaming. He was probably right, it seemed I had been sleeping.

“You people have beds for that. In there,” he motioned towards the house with a jerk of his schnoz.

“Excuse me, but I think I can rest wherever I want,” I told him. “This is my lawn.”

He turned his impressive head, gave me a cold stare with his other big brown eye and said slowly, “You people.”

“What about us people,” I replied, somewhat offended, and lifted myself into a sitting position. Debating a deer from your back isn’t exactly negotiating from a position of strength. One can feel cowed by a deer, as it were, especially if said deer is towering over one’s prone body.

“You people,” he continued, “You have beds and couches and carpeted floors. You have television and blankets and heaters and cozy pajamas. You have cupboards and a refrigerator and a freezer and an oven. You’ve got all the food you could ever want stored away just waiting to be eaten – so much you can’t even eat it all, it rots and you throw it away. You have all this in that sturdy, dry, warm house of yours.” Again with the jerky schnoz.


“So! So, get up off the grass and go inside!”

“What if I said I didn’t want to.”

He pulled his head back and fixed me with another cold stare before saying, “What are you, five?”

“I’m just saying this is my house, my yard.”

“’My, my, my…me, me, me’, it’s always the same with you people, you just don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

“You prove my point.” He moved his feet, and started to turn. He was shuffling away when he looked back and said, “You’re lucky tonight’s a special night and I’m running late, otherwise, I’d stick around and teach you a thing or two.”

“Is that a threat?” I’d never been threatened by a deer before.

“Yeah, it is, pal,” he said trying to sound menacing. “I’m in the mood for a good old-fashioned ass-kicking. My horns have come in, I’m rutting and musky and haven’t been able to get any satisfaction. Oh, I try, and I try, but I just can’t…oh, you get my point.”

“I sure do.”

“Just go inside where you belong before I change my mind and mess you up.”

“He took a few more steps and I yelled after him, “Late for what?”

He turned and grunted back at me, “Huh?”

“You said you were running late, what exactly does a deer run late to?”

“Dude, it’s St. Mid-Vernal Solstice-mas.”

“St. what?”

“It’s the biggest party of the year.”

His “mood” had quickly changed. He dropped any ass-kicking pretenses and was now, suddenly, in a festive mood. I took a moment to examine this change. No longer the glowering mug, antlers in intimidating declensions, no tense shoulder and tight-lipped mouth. His head was tilted back, a radiant smile filled that formerly tight-lipped but certainly still foul-smelling mouth, and his eyes were lit up like a Christmas tree, so to speak. The quick transformation piqued my curiosity.

“You’re going there now?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said haltingly, perhaps foreseeing my next question.

“Can I come?”

He took a deep breath and sighed, his happiness evaporated into consternation. “I don’t know,” he started. “I don’t think it’s really the done thing. I mean I’ve never seen humans there before.”

“Oh, come on, please.” I begged and then changed tack, “How many of these things have you been to before?”

“Well, just one, come to think of it.”

“See, how would you know if it’s never done. You have no idea of the historical precedents.”


“There may have been humans at any of the countless number of these St Vernal amases that happened before you came along.”

He thought. A deer trying to think is sort of pathetic, he looked like a deer caught in…oh, nevermind.

“No. I gotta go,” he said, changing speeds and ambling towards the forest. This guy toggled through emotions like flipping channels.

“Wait!” I shouted after him. “Take me with you.”

He stopped. “OK, OK, already. Hurry up and come then.”

“Wait let me go grab my shoes.”

“Forget it, I don’t have time.”

“It’ll take two seconds.”

“Always two seconds! Listen I don’t have ‘two seconds’. Come here and climb on if you want to go with me. Otherwise I’m gone.”

I hesitated for a second, took a quick look back at the house and then ran over and climbed onto the back of the deer. I used his horns like handles, two joysticks for an incredible video game.

“Hold on,” he said, and we started tromping through the woods. It was slow going and quite awkward, especially when he had to make little leaps over fallen trees and branches that littered the forest floor. He was stronger than he looked for he managed to navigate this decidedly unflat terrain with skill and minimal huffing and puffing. It wasn’t a short trip, either. We went off, I’d reckon a half mile uphill, past our neighbors, whose houses I caught bouncing glimpses of through the trees. Then we turned into an unpopulated section of the forest, preserved open space. We went about another mile, although distances were hard to judge with all the detours and twisting and turning we made before we descended into a deep gully, at the bottom of which we turned north or west, it’s not possible to say now in retrospect as then, we turned right anyway and followed the gully up a gradual grade. The cover became increasingly thick, branches leaned over us forming a canopy, so it seemed we were walking through a tunnel, branches pulled at my clothing and left shallow white scrapes tinged with pink on my exposed arms and feet. It grew cold. Ahead I could hear a low rumbling and as we grew closer and the noise grew louder I could see the flickering of many small fires. At length we pulled into a clearing. What I saw as I looked around took my breath away, my heart beat fast and irregular. I felt dizzy.

The forest opened up into a sort of natural amphitheatre. Seated, standing and milling about on the hillside were a variety of animals, and, as it turned out, insects, too. And, I thought I saw a cat. There were groups of deer clustered about fires. Torches burned, six, seven feet high forming a rough square on what would have been the stage at the base of the hill.

The deer lowered his head, knelt on his front legs and I dismounted unsteadily. The ground beneath my bare feet was soft, cool and mossy, it felt like a moist blanket and as I walked upon it, my internal disarray evaporated. I felt calm, relaxed, almost at home, despite the fact that the scene before me continued to present bizarre images very un-home-like. A group of raccoons near the stage were the first to notice me and they began chattering amongst themselves, pointing at me with their little arms and sharp claws. One of them ran off in the other direction, climbing the amphitheatre’s hillside until I lost track of him amidst the crowd and confusion.

I took it all in. The deer stood next to me.

“Pretty cool, huh?” he said.

“Yeah,” was all I could muster. I noticed a low mound that described the circumference of the stage, at the back of which, the side facing the amphitheatre was a smaller hill, a miniature version of what stood opposite. On closer inspection I could see rows of snakes, a cloud of bugs hovered over them, walking closer still I saw slugs, giant yellow banana slugs, leopards and mossbacks, salamanders, too. Frogs hung from blackberry vines, thousands of little green amphibians resting on and clutching new blossoms as if they were life-rafts. Fighting a tingling revulsion, I stooped down to see beetles and pillbugs swarming and squirming all over each other by the millions in an orgiastic mass. The light of the lamps from the back line of the stage behind me lit the sight before me and illuminated now, in shadow, crawling on the skin of the writhing rising snakes, which stood cobra-like as if waiting to strike although in rhythm, they swayed to some vaguely heard music, and on their skin silhouetted in the torchlight was a line of spiders. They crawled up and over the swaying snakes marching in unison, lockstep.

Behind me I heard a commotion. I turned to see a great black bear come bounding down the hill, leaping over fires and scattering groups of possum, raccoon and deer alike.

“What’s the meaning of this?!” he shouted before he had even walked around the stage. Through the rows of flames I could see his glaring eyes, wrinkled fur around his muzzle, the spittle flying out as he roared in my direction.

My deer began trembling. “Oh, oh,” he muttered.

“Who brought this guy here?!” the bear bellowed, slowing to an angry walk now, his muscles bouncing as he made his way around the stage. He approached us, stood on his hind legs so I had to tilt my head back to look into his eyes, yet I couldn’t hold their gaze for long. Neither could the deer, he bent over the mossy stage floor, absently pawing the ground, hoping, I supposed, to go unnoticed. By doing so, though, he only succeeded in making himself even more noticeable. Every eye and antennae in the place was tuned on the bear.

“You! Deer!” the bear glowered at the deer’s neck. “What’s up with this?!?!” his massive paw pointed threateningly in my direction. It was as big as my head.

“Well,” the deer mumbled, still looking down.

“Look at me!”

The deer did, sheepishly.

“Did you bring him here?!”

“Um, yeah.”

“Jesus Fucking Christ! How many times do I have to tell you assholes we don’t want any fuckin’ people here.” He turned to the crowd assembled before him on the grade, “Listen, folks, the next stupid fuck to bring a human here is going to have to answer to me. No more of this crap!”

He returned to all four paws. He gave me a condescending once over, then turned and walked away. “You! Possum,” I heard him say, and saw him point in the direction of a circle of creepy-looking pink-snouted creatures. “Dose him up.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the deer.

“Don’t worry about it,” the deer whispered back, “He’s a big blowhard, wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

I didn’t quite believe him. “Hey, what did he mean when he said, ‘dose him up’.”

Before the deer could answer, the designated possum waddled up to me. “Here,” he said thrusting a waxy orange wafer in my direction.

I leaned down and took it from his dirty claws. It was wavy, like a warped record, though not nearly round, it’s scalloped edges felt smooth in my fingers. It had not been cut or molded I thought as I stood and examined it in the flickering firelight.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked.

“Eat it, you ignorant prick, what else would you do with it.”

What else indeed. I turned and looked at the deer, he nodded in assent, calmly, with a little smile showing at the corners of his mouth so I felt a bit reassured but also a bit pressured. I looked back down at the possum, who looked back up impatiently. “Well…we’re waiting,” he said sharply. The deer, too, gave another nod of his head, urging me to take it. I’ve always been a sucker for deer pressure. I put it in my mouth.

“Chew it well and Don’t throw it up!” said the possum.

Great. It was not warm, it wasn’t soft, nor particularly hard, it wasn’t sweet or bitter, it wasn’t much like anything and after five seconds of chewing it felt as if I wasn’t chewing anything at all. I made the motion of swallowing, but I might as well have been swallowing a gas for all I felt floating down my throat.

I raised my arms and looked back and forth between possum and deer, as if to say, “All gone.” Then I turned to the crowd on the hillside and a dull roar rose in front of me as if they were cheering my swallowing. I felt good. It was the first time I had been applauded for taking a drug.

Eventually, everyone stopped paying attention to me, and deer and I started walking through the crowd towards his friends. I followed his bobbing brown tail as there wasn’t room to walk side by side. Fantastic sights surrounded me. In addition to the groups of animals on the ground, the trees were filled with all types of birds and squirrels and chipmunks. There were crows and robins, seagulls and starlings; woodpeckers even, perched in pairs. They were all clustered like to like, one tree filled top to bottom with sparrows, the next with hawks.

Grayish balls hovered in the air. I thought at first they were smoke, yet they moved side to side, up and down, diagonally even. As we walked under one I could hear a buzzing, and I saw these were groups of bees and hornets, yellowjackets.

I returned to the less inspiring view of my friendly deer’s ass, his ears perked straight up as he stepped cheerily towards ten or 11 lounging deer. There were males and females, antlered and not. A few fawns but mostly adults, the largest and most impressively antlered of which stood as we stepped into their circle.

“Good work, schmuck,” he snapped at my deer. I do not think his name was Schmuck.

“Relax,” he said. “You saw him get dosed. It’s no problem.”

“’No problem, no problem’. It’s always the same with you.” And he looked disapprovingly at my deer. Four big brown eyes locked momentarily and then lit up as they both broke into smiles.

“Whatever,” said the big deer, laughing. Then he turned to me and said, “Enjoy the show.” My deer looked back at me, grinning broadly.

“Is this great, or what?”

“It’s pretty amazing,” I said.

Just then a hush fell over the clearing, all twittering, chattering and buzzing stopped. Even the crackling fires seemed hushed.

“What’s up,” I whispered to the deer.

“Look up,” he said with a nod towards the sky. Way in the ether, minute specks crossed in front of the full moon. More and more became visible as they grew larger and more distinct. Circling birds, massive wingspans, taut and tottering as they steered themselves closer and closer to the ground below. They never reached the ground, though. One by one they found perches atop the tallest trees until the last, the largest, the most impressive, slowly, carefully circled and descended in a flapping of wings and tailfeathers onto the tallest tree, which stood directly behind the stage, dead center.

When he went motionless the amphitheatre erupted in motion, sound and excitement filled the air. The festival, this St. Midvernal solstice, or whatever my silly deer friend thought it was called, had officially begun.

Chirrupping started slowly, pianissimo, from the small birds, one tree adding to the next, followed by the chirps and squeaks of the tree-rats, I looked for them and they stood in rows with their asses to the assemblage, chipmunks and squirrels flicking their bushy tails in time to the symphony. Shrieking seagulls and a percussive caw caw cawing from the crows were quickly augmented and deepened by a lowing bass, the usually disturbing, belching rutting calls of the deer were now coordinated and oddly mellifluous mixed with the background of countless ribbeting frogs and the rest of this animal music. The crescendo was reached with the banging of metal trash can lids. The raccoons paraded in step towards and around the flaming stage, in teams of two they worked these crude cymbals, one holding the lid the other striking it with a golf club, old rusty irons.

Forming a second concentric ring around the stage were the possums each holding dinner plates of various shades and sizes in one hand, and a single chopstick in the other with which they beat out a staccato pulse, not dissimilar to my own, my blood coursing mambo-style through my veins as my ear heard these rhythms and joined in un-asked or, on reflection, asked, perhaps, by my “dose”.

With the possums and raccoons doing clockwise and counterclockwise circuits around the stage, at some unseen signal, the gray squirrels and the brown chipmunks clamored out of the trees and entered the fired square. They organized themselves quickly into a sort of quadrille, their numbers dancing each with each and then alternating intermixing around the stage, creating the effect of an earth-toned kaleidoscope, yet instead of dead crystals, living fur made up the ever-moving design.

I watched and waited for the next remarkable thing when from out of the sky came a piercing cry. An eagle was plummeting, careening, wings pinned back, beak thrust forward in an attitude I fully believed meant the death of something, squirrel, mouse or that small raccoon positioned inside the square. Flapping his wings and lowering his talons, the eagle landed in a spot quickly vacated by the frantically exiting rodent dancers.

With a puffed up chest and the air of a conquering hero, the eagle cleared his throat and prepared to address the crowd.

This bird looked familiar.

He hopped around the stage a bit checking out the scene from the level of the common beast, then he raised his eyes and his voice which easily reached to the farthest reaches of the amphitheatre, even to the cheap seats where the field mice and moles sought glimpses through telescopes cobbled together from soda bottles, compact mirrors and old eyeglasses, most missing a lens yet oddly appropriate up there amidst the riff-raff and refuse.

“It is with great pleasure that I welcome you here today,” smatterings of words came out in monotone and in one breath, so that the first ended with ‘pleasure’ then ‘you’ then ‘today’. The effect left the listening in the utmost expectation of the next phrase, like the anxious recipient of a Morse code message.

“Our great friend, up there watching us, he too is happy we have been able to get together again.”

Chirps and shouts, howls and tumult, nary a catcall, greeted these words, as all present seemed to shout their assent, raising paw, wing and forelock skyward in salute.

It was then, at that very moment when uniformity seemed complete, that I noticed, and though it may sound improbable in such a diverse, eclectic setting, what I noticed was immediately incongruous. There sat, neither shouting nor meowing his agreement, neither raising paw nor wagging tail in any formal signal of allegiance, there sat, and you may have surmised it already, there sat – a cat. He sat calmly smoking a cigar, oblivious to the brouhaha surrounding him, and he was surrounded. He sat in the very center of the hill, the best seat in the house, one might say. He was directly opposite the great eagle that perched still atop that massive red cedar. He appeared to be flipping through some papers, a green eyeshade on his head. At one point he pulled a short pencil from behind his ear and jotted down some notes.

Back on the stage, the eagle continued, “We must never forget,’ breathy pause, “why it is” breathy pause “we began” breathy pause “assembling like this.”

Again a roar of assent, absent a cat’s.

“So, without further ado, LET THE BATTLE BEGIN!” He shrieked and lifted off as the last word left his mouth and echoed around him as he rose to his spot in the trees, next to, but not above, the Alpha Eagle.

“Battle?” I was puzzled. In all the craziness, in the approach, entrance, even in my brief, intimidating encounter with the bear there had been the undercurrent of a festival, carnival, in short, a party. So, what was this talk of a “battle”?

Sure enough, though, as soon as the eagle had left the field, teams of raccoons scurried around the stage, which, I could see now, was not a stage at all, well not in the theatrical sense – it was a ring! I mean to say, a boxing ring. Two teams assembled kitty-corner, they stood around a short stool. From the far side of the woods, cheering began, and a ruckus ensued, a moving ruckus, and as this roiling wave approached it was clear there was one figure at the center of it all. Stepping carefully but calmly, and wrapped in a bath towel upon which had been crudely emblazoned the single word “Rocky”, a raccoon of immense size stepped between two torches held apart by those in his entourage and he confidently entered the ring. Arms held, relatively, high to receive the cheers erupting now in the entire stadium. No sooner had the cheering subsided than a new round of shouts and caterwauling began emanating from the woods on the other side of the ring. A similar parade progressed to the other corner where a noticeably smaller, albeit, visibly muscular, raccoon, arriving with much less fanfare, removed his towel, a towel upon which one could only read, were one close and equipped with one of the moles oracular magnifiers, the words “Property of Holiday Inn”.

The two raccoons danced around the ring, throwing short jabs, and, well, mostly they just threw short jabs, it was really all their bodies could muster.

A raccoon wearing a fedora moved to the center of the ring. He held a megaphone made from rolled up aluminum siding in one hand, through this cone he now shouted, “Your attention please!”

The crowd stilled. It was in this stillness that I began feeling unwell, or rather, it became harder for me to focus on what exactly was happening. I remember the introductions, the scrappy challenger was indeed known as “Kid Holiday” although no one was certain why he took that name.

The fight itself was a blur. I saw nothing that looked even vaguely violent. Frankly, it appeared the two raccoons were doing a comic representation of a boxing match, like they’d seen one on TV, but didn’t quite understand the purpose, or maybe couldn’t believe what they had seen was real. There was so much cartoon violence they had witnessed through the windows of those humans’ homes, they refused to accept the fact that people really did that to each other, so they had created this innocuous facsimile.

In between rounds, buxom deer and possum and raccoon carried around street signs on the back of which were spraypainted the number of the next round. So, one half of the crowd would see “4,” “5,” “6,” and the other half “Speed Limit 35 MPH,” “Not a Through Street” and “Yield”.

At one point, I looked over at the cat. His green eyeshade hung low as he consulted his notes, and he still had a nub of the cigar wedged into the corner of his mouth. He looked up and I saw he was very pleased with himself, a wry smile slanted beneath his pinkish triangular nose. He was quite an impressive feline, although it did appear he’d seen better days. His light brown fur was matted in parts, and, one could not be certain that at some point, it might have been white, like it was dirty or poorly dyed.

The match had come to some sort of a conclusion. I hadn’t been paying close attention to the clownish flops and wild swings the raccoons interspersed in their minstrel show dancings. Somehow, though, Kid Holiday had dropped Rocky raccoon onto his back. He laid there still, absolutely still, while The Kid pranced around the ring. I would have worried for his well-being; however I noticed Rocky sneak a sly peak to watch his competitor, partner, so-conspirator or whatever The Kid was to Rocky. He snuck a peak and I could have sworn I saw a smile.

A group of possums came out of the woods carrying a litter of tree branches and boughs of cedar between them. The crowds parted silently to let them pass. They set their makeshift stretcher down next to where Rocky had fallen, where he lay prone and motionless, and with great effort they lifted him onto the stretcher. A few raccoons from his corner had to help. Several torches were lifted out of the ground and carried before and beside Rocky’s horizontal-ness as the smaller animals labored in their roles as “pallbearers”. The procession did look like a funeral, the last goodbye to a fallen warrior. All that was needed was someone at the head of the recession holding a bible above his head.

During this spectacle, I noticed the eagle announcer had left his perch and was circling again above the crowd. Noiselessly, he descended, passing over the heads of all present, scattering a throng of bees. It seemed only I saw him, though, that is, other than the bees. As he passed near me, he glanced in my direction, it’s hard to tell in those nanoseconds what one really sees, but as his arc past me, I thought he too registered that flash of recognition I felt. He made one more circle, looked again in my direction then plunged down into the crowd, swooping silently, his talons extended, his target became apparent. The cat was unaware he was a target, still shuffling papers and watching Rocky’s departure. In an instant he was gone. One moment there was a cat, the next only a smoldering cigar butt, and a green-eye shade amidst a handful of scraps and fur.

The eagle ascended quickly, flapping his powerful wings just twice and he was gone, disappeared into the woods, a fuzzy ball clasped in his claws, little furry brown legs flailing beneath the eagle’s feathered belly.

I looked around to see if anyone else had seen this, it seemed this abduction went unnoticed, or, at least, no one let on that they had noticed. Perhaps they all were complicit. I searched for my deer. He was loitering around the fire with his buddies, laughing, joking, clapping others on the back with his cloven hoof. Possums placed orange doses on the deer tongues, they moved on from group to group dispensing their wares, like beer vendors at a baseball game.

I was forgotten, superfluous. Then I grew frightened, for two reasons. First, I needed to get home. I had no shoes, no clear idea of where I was, and, honestly, felt drunk as a skunk. Second, I was the only outsider left. With the cat gone, that oddly anomalous housecat, I remained, the last anomaly. I stuck out like a sore thumb, a sore opposable thumb, you might say.

I decided to leave. All turned around and not knowing which way was home, I headed towards where the eagle had flown off with the cat.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Eagle - Chapter 2

The other day I put my son in the car and went for a drive on the Olympic Peninsula. We ended up at Fort Flagler, an old battery installation with 100-year-old guns positioned high on a bluff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, well, just below the strait, right at the entrance to Puget Sound. I put our peanut and butter sandwiches and the rest of our lunch on a picnic table while my boy climbed on and around the guns. Boys love guns.

Far out in the water I saw two large Coast Guard vessels. As they came closer, I noticed they were escorting a submarine, the top, the sail and foreplanes were visible between them. Soon the sound of airplanes could be heard; loud, roaring jet engines – their noise was everywhere yet they were hard to spot. I did, though, and watched the two military jets make wide circles over the water from the northern reach above Whidbey Island to where I sat, or, to be precise, stood. Standing as if at attention, I watched this display of military power. The sub could probably circumnavigate the globe and who knew from whence it was returning, what it had been doing where. I don’t know much about planes, but from what I’ve seen in the movies, these jets or ones like them were capable of unleashing all sorts of destruction.

I was contemplating the feelings this sight inspired. Ostensibly, these machines and the people who operated them were here to protect me. They were part of our military defense. I couldn’t help wondering, though, defense from whom? Was Japan going to send warships past Pearl Harbor this time and go straight for the Space Needle. Were Russian submarines lurking off our shores waiting for the right moment to strike.

Or, looking at it another way, was this just a show of strength, part of a larger ongoing flexing of the muscles designed to scare off any potential enemies.

All well and good, I supposed, except it seemed to be a rather expensive way to defend such a remote, peaceful and unthreatened stretch of land and sea. Surely, all this was superfluous, or at best overkill. Yes, overkill. Impressive, but a tad excessive to my mind.

As these thoughts were percolating through my brain, a bald eagle flew before me. It appeared, it just appeared, perhaps from below the bluff, one instant out of sight, the next approaching in regal, majestic flight directly towards me. Not fifty yards away it pulled up, flapped its wings, stretched out its talons and alit atop a tall cedar. It now occupied the foreground of the martial panorama I had been contemplating.

There it was – bald eagle, jets, submarine, coast guard vessels – all pieces of a brilliant board, for it was a brilliant day. Vast blue skies, a brisk, clear day at the end of winter, beginning of spring; sun, sky, water, all around me, enveloping me, a speck in a giant gem, the merest pawn on a gigantic, fantastic chessboard.

While recognizing my insignificance in this way, I was still able, it did still occur to me that I had in some small way paid for a piece of those machines. I paid taxes, the government took my money, and this is what they bought. Then, too, if not simultaneously, in close sequence, I considered my place in nature, my place in this world beyond national boundaries, beyond governments and militaries, economies and brutal human competition. Outside society, what was I? Another animal, flesh, blood, eyes, ears – matter, with life, breath; a sentient being.

The eagle stared at me. I thought it did. I felt it, piercing. As he continued to look at me, I looked forward to this moment, this time right now when I would write about what I was seeing and how I felt about it. It inspired a glimmer of superiority. I may be just another animal, but I am capable of thought, analysis. Unlike the rest of the natural world, unlike all other creatures, man alone is able to translate what he experiences into art, well, that may be too strong a word, we can attempt to translate all around us into a vehicle we feel compelled to share with others.

Not only this, though, occurred to me then. It also crossed my mind that among all these humans, I alone was capable of expressing the thoughts I was having, indeed, it was the thoughts themselves that were unique and powerful. So, amidst the sublime natural world was a member of the highest species and I held a place in that species so lofty, and I had arrived at this point, literally and figuratively, I stood on a bluff after a journey of years and experiences that gave me a view and a viewpoint unlike anyone else’s.

It was at this instant that brief apex when my ego, had it been a balloon, would have been inflated to its absolute maximum. It was just then that the eagle left its perch, glided the remaining distance between tree and table, and in a flurry of flapping wings, surprising in both size and volume, landed with grace and skill at the very edge of the table immediately in front of me. Needless to say, I was stunned. The shock prevented me from running, crouching, covering my food, or otherwise protecting myself. After the tumult of that landing, the noise and visual cacophony, if I can put it that way. After all that, there was silence.

Then, he turned his head, and pierced me again with his eagle eyes, opened his beak and clearly said, “Hey, how ya doin’?”

You can imagine my surprise. I replied haltingly, “I’m doing alright. How are you?”

“I’m good. Thanks for asking.”

We stared at each other. The bird craned his neck and looked past me towards where my son was playing. I turned, too. He was still climbing on the old cannons, standing guard like ancient soldiers. He seemed fine; safe and oblivious to the fact his father was talking to an eagle.

“Little boys certainly do like playing with guns.”

I looked at the eagle quizzically wondering if he was being sarcastic. It was as if he had been reading my thoughts

“Yes, I can read your thoughts,” he chirped, “and I’m an eagle, I don’t do sarcasm. Besides it wasn’t sarcasm, it was meant to be disparaging. Snide, you might call it, although that too is somewhat beneath us.”

“Right,” I said slowly and then took a long look around. Maybe there were hidden cameras in those old barracks over there. Maybe this was a joke and a gameshow host was going to pop up from behind those bushes, microphone in hand, a big grin on his face.

“It’s not a joke,” said the eagle. “There’s no one else here, just you and me.”

I pondered that, staring back at the eagle, trying to make sense of it all. The incongruity of English coming out of that beak made me forget for a minute what an awesome creature this was. Regal, stunning, majestic, and, also, despite what he had said, snide. There were limitations to the expressiveness of his facial features to be sure. One wouldn’t think an eagle would have much “range” to speak in a theatrical sense. Yet, his eyes and the angle of his white-feathered head clearly bespoke a certain disdain.

“Yes, I find you stupid,” he said, “but don’t take it personally. It’s a feature of your kind, the most prominent actually.”

I blinked back at him. This was rich. We’re at the top of the food chain. Hell, if it weren’t for us the bald eagle would be extinct. He would have ceased to be.

“Yes,” he said, “but who took us to the brink of extinction. Do not confuse success with intelligence. Sometimes the bad guy wins.”

“So why are you wasting your time with me, an idiot bad guy.”

“Good question. You surprise me. And, at the same time, validate my visit. See, I was flying around just checking for food, halfheartedly really, I wasn’t particularly hungry, had a vole earlier, just a bit peckish, if you know what I mean. But, I wanted to take a spin on the afternoon thermals. I do love a good afternoon thermal, especially on a day like today. Come to think of it, though, it was more than that. Were I of the human persuasion I might attribute some supernatural reason for my motivation, as if a force called me to leave the nest. You’d call it fate or destiny. Frankly, it just was. Just like it is now. So, here I am now, with you, as I should be.”


“Isn’t it though,” he said.

“The question remains. Why?”

“You show an uncharacteristic focus, I mean, for a man.”

I shrugged.

“Let’s see, I was flying around minding my own business, just being, you know, living in the moment as your sort might call it. I saw that sub and those ships, then I saw those infernal jets, heard them, felt them – beastly things. I decided to touch down and that’s when I started hearing your ridiculous thoughts.”

“The fear of advancing American militarism?”

“That, yes, and your unconscionable superiority, your drift towards a faux moment of enlightenment. It was really too much. You should be embarrassed.”

And indeed I was.

“You were waxing philosophical,” he said accusingly.


He looked at me derisively, as if I should not dare respond to such as he in such a pathetic manner.

He sighed and continued. “Do you think we can let any dumb punk enter the realm of philosophy, attempt to ascend into the rarified air of absolute truth, defining the divine and all that?!?!”

“Surely, there are plenty of us who do.”

“Aye, verily,” he said. “And what a mess they make of things. If only we could catch them all. Fortunately, I found you early before you could cause too much trouble.”

I felt chastened. Belittled.

“Listen, don’t take it too hard. There are thousands like you, you can’t help yourselves, for every Buddha there’s a billion buffoons.”

Buffoon? Eagle or not this was beginning to go a bit too far.

“What makes you so smart, huh? Why are you the arbiter between what is wisdom and what foolhardy. You’re just a bird.”

“How dare you! I am no buzzard, no vulture, lump me in with chickens and pigeons will you?” He huffed and strutted around the table narrowly missing my PB & J. “I, you blathering imbecile, am the bird of Jove, King of my kind, the lion of the upper air. Just a bird,” he scoffed. “I should claw your eyes out.” He lifted a talon and made a motion in the air in front of him. Even at my distance, more than a yard, it was quite intimidating.

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, “I meant no disrespect. But, really, why do you have this power?” He bristled still, so I bumbled on trying to get my point across as gently as possible. “I mean, you, well you certainly are a magnificent bird, and yes, I realize ‘bird’ doesn’t do you justice, it is clearly insignificant, I mean it lacks the import, it doesn’t convey at all the depth of your beauty. But, and I think you might understand why someone like myself, and by that I mean a lowly human, you might see how I might wonder, not being aware of this beforehand, not even knowing, for instance that eagles talked, could speak eloquently even, you could see my confusion. Put yourself in my shoes.”


“Yes, well, look at it from my perspective. Why would any creature in the animal kingdom, even the most kingly, hold it in his purview, that is to have as his responsibility the policing of human thought.”

With that, at the end of my jumbled ramble, he simply stared at me. Disappointment colored every feather. His unblinking eyes showed a trace of pity. The overall result, the feeling he conveyed in look and attitude was one of utter disdain. Gradually, this ebbed and he relaxed, his taut muscles slackened and he grew more thoughtful. He reminded me at that instant of an owl, somewhat pensive. Then with another short sigh, a resignation that seemed to say, ‘Yes, I know you are not worthy, yet I will continue talking to you. I will tell you my secrets and perhaps I won’t regret it.’

“It’s like this, human,” he spat (literally, a small fleck of saliva or vole blood left his mouth). “In the ‘animal kingdom’ as you so quaintly and naively put it, we have achieved what the wisest among you seek to achieve. Nay ‘achievement’ is not quite correct. We are. Do you see? We simply are. I am eagle now just as I was eagle millennia ago. I was eagle when Snohomish first started adorning their totem poles with my likeness. I was eagle when the Asiatic tribes crossed from Siberia to Alaska and came marveling at me. My kin, my kind, are me, you see. We are eagle. We know now what they knew then and I know here what the golden eagle knows soaring over the Alps or hunting in the Himalayas. This is what sets us apart, well, this and winged flight, our breed, indeed, all the species to varying degrees, we all learn from our pasts, no, we are our pasts. All we do is the result of thousands of generations, we possess the collected wisdom of every eagle before us. We don’t feel compelled to write it down, though.”

He paused to let that sink in and gave me a sneer.

“This is all fascinating,” I told him. “I still don’t know why you’re telling me all this. If what you said was true, and I have no reason to doubt one so magnificent as yourself, but if, as you say, you stopped here to stop me from philosophizing, then why are you pressing on. Why not fly away and let me slink off in confusion?”

“Well,” he said, “There’s philosophy and then there’s philanthropy.”

“I don’t follow. You seem to hold a very low opinion of mankind. Why would philanthropy enter into this discussion?”

“That’s a good human. You’re asking all the right questions now.”

I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or insulted. “We were almost driven to extinction, what you say is true. This was disconcerting. What you might refer to as ‘a wake-up call’. It appears we’ve averted that fate for now, but there are gathering threats.”

“This isn’t going to be an environmental polemic, is it? Nature screaming out to be saved from man-made global warming.”

“Global warming, nuclear annihilation, whatever. My ‘philanthropy’ is entirely eagle-centric.”

“Huh?” I scoffed. “What happened to all your metaphysics, existing on a higher plane? This attitude sounds decidedly un-zen.”

“Dude,” he said. “You guys are going to kill us.”

“Not exactly ‘living in the moment’ now are we, eagle?”

“Do you know what ‘extinct’ means?” he parried.

I gave him a flat stare. This wasn’t the direction I thought we were headed. I turned around to look for my son. He was off in the distance now playing with a stick, like it was a sword, slashing it back and forth at the weeds in front of him.

“I gotta go take care of my son,” I said.


“You know you’re beginning to sound awfully pedantic. I don’t need a lecture from you.”

“Fine,” he said petulantly. “Go, then. Go ahead and run away while the planet melts and your country threatens to destroy us all.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Oh, and remember, “I slipped in, “you’re the symbol of this great country.”

“I’m an eagle,” he said puffing himself up again, “We don’t do symbolism.”

“Franklin was right,” I shouted at him, “We would have been better off with the turkey. Oh, and I lot of good you guys did for the Romans.”

“Listen, buddy, I’ve had just about enough of you.”

“So, leave,” I said. “No one’s got you on a leash.”

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll just do that then.”

“Go ahead.”

“I will,” and as he turned to leave, he looked over his shoulder and squawked, “but you can’t say I didn’t warn you.” Then with one muscular burst he left the table and a few flaps of his wings took him soaring. He circled once above me, dropped a turd that came surprisingly close to my lunch, and then flew off into the distance.

I flipped him the bird.

“Man,” I thought. “Who knew eagles were such pompous pricks.”