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