Coyote tree

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

fallen white oak

It was early spring. In the last light of evening, as the quacking calls of wood frogs were giving way to spring peepers, a coyote ghosted down off the ridge and followed the small creek that ran for a little way along the edge of the woods before disappearing into a sinkhole.

Something was different. He stopped and sniffed, trying to puzzle it out. He smelled fresh sawdust and gasoline, yes, but also the moist earthy spoor of rotten tree — a lot of that. As if some enormous coyote, its gut full of fur and seeds and scales and all manner of indigestible things, had stopped to leave a massive calling card.

fallen white oak trunk

The truth was almost as massive and hard to digest: the great white oak had toppled, splitting open near the ground. Many of its limbs were as big around as regular trees, and at its base it was half again as wide as a coyote is long. A small limb next to the humans’ trail had been cut — that’s where the sawdust smell had come from — but otherwise, for once, they seemed to be leaving it alone. One massive limb had jabbed into the earth at an angle and broken off, and now it made a very convenient — in fact, an irresistible — ramp up onto the fallen trunk.

fallen white oak crown

Quick as thought, Coyote was on top of the toppled giant. The smooth plates of its bark felt very agreeable, and as he nosed about, he saw and smelled not a tree but a maze of paths, all of them leading back to him. Mice, squirrels, weasels, chipmunks, fishers — nothing can resist the open highway of a log. If he waited here long enough, they would come to him.

coyote scat on white oak 1

But that’s cat thinking; Coyote doesn’t hunt like that. Any path that is too obvious can make him vulnerable to his ancient enemies the wolves, whose own lack of imagination had doomed them here in the East, and most other places besides. Coyote didn’t take over by being predictable. No, an obvious walkway like this is good for one thing and one thing only: saying hello to other coyotes. And so he did, and hopped down, trotting off without a backward glance.

coyote scat on white oak 2

A few weeks later, he happened by again, and remembered his missive. He climbed up onto the tree to take a look, and sure enough, there was a reply — a long one! He read it carefully. It said, I’m a nursing mother, I’m eating well, and I can kick your ass. He thought about it for half a minute, then left a short, neutral response — I’m still here — scurried down off the tree, and trotted rapidly back the way he came.

coyote scat on white oak 3

It was late autumn before he returned to that end of the valley again. The tree was still there, and though it had human odor all over it, at least three more coyotes had been there, too — the half-grown offspring of the mother who had left a message earlier, perhaps. There was a sort of uniform character to their odor, as if they’d all been dripped on by the same tree — which a family would be, of course. The oak itself had lost a great deal of its pungency, and his paws detected a bit more give in the bark. He squatted once again. Though in life this tree was what foresters call a wolf tree, with its huge spreading crown of crooked limbs keeping sun from getting to other, straighter, more marketable trees, in death it was definitely going to the coyotes.

For the April Fools edition of the Festival of the Trees, “humorous trees,” at Vanessa’s Trees and Shrubs Blog. See the complete details.

me with fallen oak

Dash away all

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

“What the hell are we going to do with all these?” I asked, staring at the eight freshly severed heads lined up in the blood-stained snow. Their eyes had filmed over and the moonlit shadows of their antlers stretched like a phantom woods across the tundra. “They won’t keep,” said the sniper. “The magic has ruined them, as it ruins everything. Watch.”

He took a salt shaker from his pocket and sprinkled each of the heads. The effect was almost instantaneous: first the fur and then the flesh melted away, leaving nothing but the bones. The snow around them turned white again as we watched. I felt the hair rising on the back of my neck.

“This is your first time, isn’t it?” he asked. I nodded. The antlers were branched icicles now on skulls of crystal, skulls that shrank, antlers that withered, as if the temperature around them were 200 degrees warmer than it was. The skulls grew rounder as they shrank, and the gleaming teeth turned sharp as knives.

“These ones never actually belonged to the Caribou Mother,” he said. “They are the children of Sanna — the Inuktitut name for Sedna. That’s the kind of evil we’re up against here.”

The Iraq War veteran bowed his head. “Thank you for this victory, Jesus, temporary as it is,” he said. “I am your crusader.”

I shifted uncomfortably and looked at the ground. Some of the best soldiers in our unit happened to be pagans. We had signed up to defend North American airspace against terrorists, and that’s what the recruiter assured us we’d be doing. Rumors of a holy war had been dismissed as just another paranoid conspiracy theory from society’s perennial malcontents.

The marksman laid a hand on my shoulder. “The Pentagon can say what it wants,” he said, “but this is a war we Christians have been fighting for 2000 years. It took centuries just to kill off Saturn! Declaring December 25th as the birth of our Lord and Savior did little to fool the forces of darkness — the longest night of the year still occurs just a few days before, despite our best efforts.” He sighed. “This Santa character is a real shape-shifter. Give me a Sunni insurgency any day.”

He squinted at the faint pink glow that signalled high noon in the High Arctic. “Welcome to the War on Christmas.”

Video by Rebel Virals (hat-tip: Rachel Maddow Show)

For readers from outside the U.S. who think I might be exaggerating just a bit, see “Jesus Shoots Santa in Controversial Lawn Display.”

A game of checkers

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

He will be killed and she will be killed and everyone except for me will be killed as a Muslim, as an alien, as an intellectual, as a homosexual. And I stroke my chin and chuckle in agreement with whatever crude thing is under discussion to cover a sudden watering of my eyes, because shit, they’ve just caught her with a bomb, the policemen say.

They march her in handcuffs up to the table where the commander and I are playing checkers, my silver coins against his gold (plastic is too precious). I am unable to look at her and she does nothing to acknowledge me, whether from contempt or because she wants me to live, I don’t know.

The commander prescribes his usual panacea: one bullet. They take her away. I pray to the ground in which I somehow still believe: open under my chair, swallow me whole. But it doesn’t. The moment passes. I relieve the commander of another gold coin.

*
If you haven’t yet submitted anything to qarrtsiluni for the Words of Power issue, which Beth and I are editing, you have until next Monday.

Beta versions

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

SCENE: The local brewpub at happy hour, back corner of the bar.

COMPUTER GEEK: Wow, he sounds just like my ex-husband: good for a while, until you start to notice all the glaring imperfections. Total alpha.

BIOLOGIST: Oh yeah, mine too! Everything had to be done his way, didn’t matter what it was. Alpha male if there ever was one.

COMPUTER GEEK: Tell me about it. The quicker I adjusted every fucking thing to his modus operandi, the smoother things went. For a while. If I kept my eyes shut and put my fingers in my ears.

BIOLOGIST: Yup. And of course the problem is I’m a bit of an alpha myself, and he couldn’t handle that. Called me the the b-word to my face.

COMPUTER GEEK: Don’t be too hard on yourself! You don’t strike me as an alpha at all, though I suppose we’re all a little rough around the edges. Still, I like to think of myself more as a beta… and that’s definitely what I’m looking for in my next man. Must. Be. In. Beta.

BIOLOGIST: Well, I’ll go along with that! I’m definitely looking for a beta this time around. But I don’t mind admitting that’s because I’m an alpha. Someone has to be! Who’d keep all the betas in line, otherwise? Not all alphas are bad — just the ones that, you know, aren’t any good. (Laughs)

COMPUTER GEEK: Oh, well, I guess that’s true. Can’t have a beta without an alpha!

BIOLOGIST: Exactly.

COMPUTER GEEK: Still, don’t you think that, ideally, we should expect to get a little better at this each time? Relationships, I mean. I’d hate to think that anyone’s just stuck in an alpha version forever, doomed to make the mistakes with the same kinds of men over and over.

BIOLOGIST: Are you saying the beta pattern represents progress? I hadn’t thought about it that way before. To me, they’re just different ways of interacting, different social styles. But you’re right, come to think of it. As they get older, every alpha does eventually become an beta, or worse.

COMPUTER GEEK: Worse? You mean better! The beta stage is when you start to get real public participation, assuming we’re a public beta. The more people you have testing you out, the faster you’ll improve.

BIOLOGIST: I guess that’s one way of looking at it. Age certainly does mellow us out — or wear us down, I’m not sure which! And I’m intrigued by this idea that the beta stage is actually what we’re designed for. Some of the new research on human aging does tend to back that up. I think traditionally we’ve just been so focused on the reproductive stage that we’ve tended to ignore the vital social roles of, for example, non-breeding females.

COMPUTER GEEK: (warily) I’m not sure reproduction is quite the metaphor I’d use, but whatever. The important thing is that you have a pretty flexible architecture to begin with. If someone’s stuck in alpha, they just aren’t reaching their full potential.

INVESTOR (two stools down): I’m sorry, ladies, I couldn’t help overhearing a little of your conversation. I have to say I am fascinated by your interpretation of alpha and beta values!

(Biologist snorts)

I’ve always been told that you should go for a high alpha and a low beta, but it sounds like you’re saying the exact opposite! What other performance factors do you look at?

COMPUTER GEEK: Well, uh, it depends. Some people just look at adoption rate, but I’m a purist: I’m looking for elegance, I’m looking for simplicity, I’m looking for ease of use…

INVESTOR: (slides over to the adjacent stool) Tell me more!

BIOLOGIST: (in a loud mutter) Why the hell are males always so obsessed with performance? Do you have any fucking idea what we were talking about?

No contest

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

All at once, wholly and decisively, he shook with laughter. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been thanked so many times in one day just for doing his job and keeping the peace. The ring of protesters broke into smiles. God is great, someone murmured.

Such a useful slogan, he thought: impossible to disagree with in spite of, or perhaps because of, its utter meaninglessness. What was greatness apart from God? What do we know of God aside from the fact that he exceeds our comprehension? But to say “God is great” is to acknowledge our own powerlessness — and in that acknowledgement, to question the permanence and even the validity of all human institutions. Therein lay its power. This nonviolent army was no less militant than the holy warriors of Saladin.

God is great, they began to chant in unison, and at once felt the warm glow of kinship from their shared smallness. It felt good to relinquish authority to a higher power, and what’s more, their political opponents now risked becoming the opponents of God himself. The policeman had seen all this in a flash, looking into their fervent, self-righteous faces; that’s why he’d laughed. But after days of tension, it was a relief to lay the baton aside, take off his helmet, and tie a green ribbon around his wrist. God is great! said one houri-eyed young woman with a green headscarf. God is great, he agreed. Who could possibly quarrel with eyes like those?

This is the eighth post in an ongoing online game of Consequences. Each successive entry begins with the closing lines of its predecessor. Entries are 250 words long, and are linked thematically. The series started with Hydragenic and was followed by Patteran Pages, Porous Borders, The Middlewesterner, Feathers of Hope (Pica), Blaugustine, and Small Change. [Updated to add:] The series continues at the cassandra pages, 3rd House Journal, mole, Ivy is here, Feathers of Hope again (Numenius), and Velveteen Rabbi. The series concludes where it began, on Hydragenic.

Errata

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Page iv, Acknowledgements: For “All the lovely ladies at Square Peg’s Round Hole in Crested Butte, Colorado” read “Carla, without whom none of this would matter”
Page 2, line 34: For “incessant screaming” read “frequent, energetic vocalization”
Page 8, line 3: For “heavily sedated” read “diagnosed with ADHD”
Page 14, line 11: For “Napalm Death” read “Bruce Springsteen”
Page 18, line 56: For “used” read “experimented with”
Page 23, line 5: For “two six-packs and a defective condom” read “a full moon”
Page 27, line 42: For “severe depression” read “the blues”
Page 31, line 10: For “anger management classes” read “continuing education”
Page 34, line 61: For “Harley-Davidson” read “second mortgage”
Page 36, line 4: For “restraining order” read “separation”
Page 36, line 22: For “social services” read “relatives”
Page 42, line 51: For “drug mule” read “adventure tourist”
Page 43, line 14: For “prison” read “group therapy”
Page 49, line 1: For “hair implants” read “Promise Keepers retreat”
Page 51, line 34: For “heart attack” read “wake-up call from Jesus”
Page 55, line 35: For “a lonely female professional with low self-esteem” read “the new love of my life”
Page 57, line 70: For “layoffs” read “voluntary redundancy program”
Page 62, line19: For “harassment” read “witnessing to my faith”
Page 66, line 27: For “stoned” read “self-actualized”
Page 73, line 8: For “relatives” read “elder care facility”
Throughout: Replace dashes with semicolons

Begins with B

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I’m lying half-awake, thinking for some reason about the letter D. Does the bulge face right or left? Since it’s the first letter of my own name, you’d think I could remember, but after weighing both options, my sleep-fogged brain decides that a left-facing D looks much more natural. Facing right is what Bs do… right?

*

In video after video I see faces tense with hatred, spitting all the insults that polite society still permits: Socialist. Communist. Terrorist. Muslim. A man going into a rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania holds up a monkey doll with an Obama sticker wrapped around its head like a minimal turban. It’s Curious George — a strange mascot for those whose native openness to new and different things was stifled, I imagine, decades before. “Gonna bring Obama in with me today so he can hear some TRUTH,” says the man, his swagger, his accent, and the slightly adenoidal quality of his speech familiar to me since childhood.

*

Big bulge, little bulge. We belly up the bar in real America. What’s on tap? Bud, Bud Light, Miller, Michelob. Is that a can of Guinness down there? I ask. I’ll have that. Conversation falls silent. What’s that taste like, anyway? asks the female bartender, seeing what the men don’t: that I’m perfectly harmless. Well, I don’t know — it tastes like beer, I say, tilting the glass to slow the foaming black waterfall. The way beer was meant to taste, before someone decided it would be cheaper to sell flavored water. Someone says something in a low voice at the end of the bar which provokes a chorus of guffaws. Bitter, I say, as I swagger over to a stool at the other end of the bar. Smooth and bitter.

*

The American people are angry, the candidate says hopefully. And in truth, his opponent’s unflappable demeanor is really beginning to annoy him. The familiar knot forms in his belly and begins to burn. He rolls his eyes and grimaces. People are angry, he says again, his voice trembling with conviction. Well, that’s certainly true of the people he’s been meeting lately, those idiots from small towns who love their guns way too much and pray to a God who looks like an older version of themselves — a Great White Father. His opponent continues to spout his idealistic claptrap in calm, methodical tones. He blinks furiously. The American people are angry, yes, but don’t call them bitter. Bitterness is for losers, for people who have no way to strike back.

*

The campaign worker travels all the way from Texas to volunteer in Western Pennsylvania, where people share her outrage at abortion and the homosexual agenda. Somewhere in downtown Pittsburgh, let’s say, a couple of black teenagers spot the McCain/Palin bumper sticker and begin to point and laugh and make rude comments. Her windows are rolled up and her doors are locked, but she’s pretty sure she hears the word Bitch. At the next light she pulls down the sun visor, flips open the mirror, and can barely recognize her face, pinched, livid. Why are black men always so… angry? She pulls into a parking spot beside an all-night automatic teller. Must… sleep… soon… she thinks. She watches in horrified fascination as the point of a fingernail file approaches her cheek.

Missed

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

“Are you there? Hello?” The voice breaks a little on the final oh. The sound of a foot scuffing against pavement. “Talk to me!” The distant wail of an ambulance — or is it a coyote? The paper’s been reporting more and more of them in the area, killing housepets and alarming the parents of small children.

“Hello? Hello?” Yellow light and the smell of curry spill from a window over on the far side of the parking lot. The figure at the pay phone is a dim outline in the deepening dusk. It doesn’t sound like any of the neighbors.

“Are you there? Listen, I can’t even tell if that’s your breathing, or just something on the line. Hello?”

A very long silence this time. Then in a low voice: “Just one word, O.K.? One word. It could even be ‘goodbye,’ if you that’s what you’re thinking. Just so I know you’re alive, and I’m not talking to myself.”

A car swings into the parking lot, illuminating for a couple seconds a hunched figure whose elongate shadow tracks across the face of the building like the hand of a backwards clock.

The car door slams, and the footsteps quickly retreat toward the far entrance, followed by several minutes of silence — or what passes for silence around here. It’s not a bad neighborhood. Most of us work long hours, come home, and fall asleep in front of our televisions. Weeks can pass between encounters even with the people across the hall; it can be hard to know whether a given neighbor is still there or not.

“Listen.” The voice finally resumes. “I’m sure I’ve given you plenty of reasons to give me the silent treatment. But this not knowing whether you’re there — it’s hard to take. I don’t know where you moved to. I don’t know…. Oh, hell!” The clink of coins falling into a metal well. “You people are thieves!”

Another long pause, then one final, resigned “Hello?”

The once-familiar sound of a pay phone returning to its cradle seems almost as anachronistic now as the clip-clop of a horse. Who are these people without mobile phones or Blackberries, traveling alone through their lives? “Hello,” you whisper to no one in particular. Such a funny little word! “Hello.”

The Animators

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Sparked by Natalie’s postcard, “blinding light.”

The first time they outlined their hands with blown pigment, it was a holy thing. With the help of the sacrament they had shifted over, and placing their palms against the stone flank they felt warmth and movement, the charge of spirit. Through this thinnest of membranes they were making contact: the Others’ hands or forepaws were right there. Quick, get the paint!

Each time after that, though, it became a little more routine. The dried prints did not open into new passageways as they’d hoped. They made more prints, but it wasn’t quite the same. The rock began to feel like rock, instead of the living animal they knew it to be. Someone grew violent after ingesting the sacrament and split a boy’s head open before they could subdue him, so they decided to try the ceremony without it.

While most people just sat in the darkness feeling their bladders fill or resisting the urge to scratch certain itches, a couple of men claimed that it was better this way — they had a more direct access now, and if others did not, it must mean that they had violated some previously unknown taboo. Fortunately, their improved access privileged them with detailed knowledge of such things, and they began to speak the beginningless Law.

Now when they outlined a hand, it was to bear witness to one or another revelation. The steadiness of the rock was the whole point. Some things — perhaps most things — eluded contact, except in dreams. Those who knew could teach the rest how to become better dreamers, but it would come at a price, because don’t we have to kill in order to live? The Others were hungry for visions, so it was decided that the acolytes would stay underground and paint the pictures in their heads. They would give up sun- and moonlight for the welfare of the tribe.

The longer they stayed in the bowels of the earth-animal, the better and more vivid their visions became. Children were born down there and grew up by torchlight, clothed in thick pelts from the game they learned to draw without ever seeing it. Their parents marveled at their facility with the increasingly complex tools of animation, but grew alarmed at the obesity brought on by their sedentary habits. Come out into the other chambers, they pleaded. Explore the maze of passageways! That’s what we did when we were your age. But the kids wouldn’t listen.

The old shamans also felt lost. This new generation didn’t sit passively and wait for messages from the other side; they often began by sending messages of their own. The vision room became fully interactive. Those who lived aboveground only visited it four times a year, now, and the cavemen and -women regarded them with a condescension befitting their status as child-like primitives. You are living in a world of dreams, they would intone, eyes bulging, their corpse-white skin bared for effect. Be sure to keep bringing us fruit and game, so we can keep dreaming these dreams for you. A priest would lead them to the frieze of hand prints. Here are the ones who wouldn’t listen. See them reaching. See them trying to be born.

Consumer

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

It was my birthday, and I had been given a live shrew in a box — not for a pet, but simply to admire and to photograph. I was a little disappointed at first that I didn’t get any real presents, but the shrew was an admirably fierce little creature who attacked anything thrust in its direction, and I soon appreciated the wisdom of the gesture: loaning me a fully wild creature, something that can never be owned or controlled. The idea that anyone can own anything — it’s such a delusion, isn’t it? But that’s what drives this mania of consumption imperiling the earth.

I’ll have to wait till morning so I can take pictures outside, I said. I’m sure it will be fine in the box overnight.

But it wasn’t fine. At first it circled the box energetically, but after a couple hours it barely moved, even when I nudged it with a pencil. I remembered reading that shrews have lightning-fast metabolisms, and eat three times their body weight every day. I started worrying that it might die if I didn’t feed it. Maybe I could go out and dig up some earthworms, I thought, but then I remembered that the ground was frozen and buried under several feet of snow.

I had meat in the freezer; maybe it would like some ground venison? But that would take at least an hour to thaw in warm water — I don’t own a microwave — and an hour for a shrew must be like a whole day to a human being. I looked down at my hands, and it occurred to me that my fingers were at least superficially similar to worms and millipedes.

I went back over to the box and wiggled my left pinky in front of the ailing shrew. It perked up almost immediately, rushing forward and sinking its teeth into the finger. I jerked my hand away and stared at the toothmarks brimming with blood. That really didn’t hurt at all, I muttered.

But I don’t like messes, so rather than end up with some ugly, mangled stump, I went out to the toolshed and made a clean cut with the radial arm saw right above the second knuckle, then quickly applied a bandage and tourniquet. I thought about cauterizing it with the oxyacetylene torch, but that seemed like overkill.

The shrew was delighted with the severed pinky. It dragged it all around the box a couple of times, then set to work eating the thing. Soon its sharp little snout was dark with blood, and as I watched I got that familiar rush of warmth I always feel when I know I’ve helped somebody. Happy birthday, I whispered. It certainly seemed spry for its age.