Peak Life

google images:Colorado Mountains

google images:Colorado Mountains

I wake with a start, anxious, then remember: all it takes to be a success, according to Mrs. Shenks, my third grade teacher, is learn the steps and practice deep breathing. Anyone would see you have what it takes and you’ll go far. I try to remember that whenever I wake up in a cold sweat and find the front door pigeon flap on the tent moving and Tommy no longer snoring next to Mrs. K. That I’m the one who wakes up is par for the course. At least I know how to breathe deeply at 14,000 feet, so I slide on flip flops and grab the night vision goggles and head out. A flashlight would be helpful, but the light could let anyone watching know I was outside the tent. Why that bothers me, since we’re alone, I don’t know, but the thought that someone could be watching makes me leave the flashlight behind. Still, the night vision goggles keep my eyes from fogging up, so that’s something.

Mrs. K is up gargling by the time Tommy and I get back to the tent.

“Did my baby wander away again?” Mrs. K buries her nose in Tommy’s breast feathers and talks baby talk. He squawks and flaps his wings, but I know he loves her, too, regardless.

Four years on the Peak and counting. Not a word from the Capsize Foundation in all that time. You’d think since they sponsored and financed the hiking experiment that sent Mrs. K, Tommy and me up this mountain that they might like to know how we’re doing. You know, that the two women and the bird they abandoned on this 14,000 foot Peak are still alive and all that.

Mrs. K and I had been sporadic traveling companions after we’d met on a week’s tour of historic ghost towns of the Southwest. Seemed natural we’d team up since Mr. K was a workaholic who never traveled and I wasn’t going to let being single keep me from traveling. Still, I almost didn’t come on this one when the Capsize Foundation announced that Tommy, a pet bird in a cage, would be our traveling companion. Hike up a mountain with a pet bird in tow? Didn’t make sense to me, but what could I do? Mrs. K was keen to come. Probably because she was distraught over Mr. K’s unexpected fatal heart attack, but she wouldn’t make the trip alone with just Tommy, so I gave in and agreed and here we are.

The plan was, we’d hike up, Tommy riding in style in a floating, feather-light cage attached by tether to the pack mule. We followed the GPS to the camping spot and the tent they’d set up for us. The tent was a big part of the experiment, probably more important than Tommy or Mrs. K or me. It’s one of those specially formatted movable dwellings that are transparent in the sunshine and opaque in the dark, even with a fire burning inside. It’s impressive how they designed a tent that has a working loo, particularly on a rocky peak.

After we spent seven to ten days on the mountain, The Capsize Foundation extraction team would arrive in the high meadow and air-lift us out. So they said. The three of us were in ok shape when this trip began but we weren’t the outdoorsy type who love to camp and scale mountains or rub two sticks together to make fire. Still, the money was good and it would be a short term lark, right? I’ve always thought most people can stand most things if they know it’s for just a few minutes. Famous last words.

We’re long past the decision to stay on the mountain, but there are times when those early days play over and over in my mind like the repeat button on a You Tube video.

“Here’s what I think,” I’d said on about day seventeen, “let’s just leave the tent where it is and hike down.”

“Through that?” Mrs. K turned a slow circle in the center of camp, her arm outstretched, her index finger pointing to the dusty, foggy clouds that billowed 360 degrees around the peak, “That is not normal and I’m not setting a foot into it.”

The clouds or whatever it was had been there since we got up on day four. On the edge of the horizon but never coming in close to us; while above us, brilliant sunshine or rain or clouds or dark of night, but always those clouds on the horizon. It was weird.

“And anyway, we were promised a helicopter ride down,” Mrs. K turned back to the tent door, “not another hike.”

Just as I suspected. Mrs. K was mostly rejecting the idea of more exercise.

I had other concerns. We were down to the last of the provisions. What would we eat if we stayed? Were any predators lurking in the forest ready to make us their dinner? None of those concerns would be lessened if we started hiking down. Did it make sense to start down and miss the helicopter? I could go on my own and send help back, but what if I didn’t make it? Mrs. K and Tommy would be left up here by themselves. So it was decided. We’d wait on the helicopter. As well as news about what had happened down below that had made the never-ending-fog-clouds.

We held out as long as we could before eating the pack mule, but sacrifices had to be made.

~

google images: Colorado Mountains

google images: Colorado Mountains

“It’s one year today, Tommy,” we’d followed a fox and caught two rabbits, “good job on spotting our dinner.” I bagged the rabbits and headed back to camp in the warm afternoon sun.

“We’d be in big trouble if you weren’t so good at finding us edible wildlife, Tommy,” a hawk cried somewhere far off and Tommy flited from my shoulder and darted ahead, “you’ve have to admit my knife skills are well-honed. Had to be, to keep up with your instincts.”
We’d done ok in the last year. I’d slowly let go my big-predator-anxiety since we never saw or heard any big animals. Tommy and I were out exploring most of every day while Mrs. K puttered about the tent like happy homemaker. The one thing that never changed was the billowing-dusty-foggy clouds.

“I’ve never seen such clouds, Tommy” I stood on a hill just up from camp, a gentle breeze riffling my hair and Tommy’s feathers, the sun warming the tops of our heads. “Did you see the clouds of ash when Mount St. Helens blew?” I shaded my eyes and looked west, “Gray ash everywhere.” I turned back north, “But if it’s ash or smoke why does it stay around us but never get here?” We turned and headed south to Camp. “Something strange has happened down there, Tommy.”

~

We made it through the days and nights and those few minutes experiment for good money stretched into years and here I am, mountain climber extraordinaire, my shape firmed down to Senior Prom size, while Mrs. K, who rarely moves outside Camp, is bulking up to major predator size. Tommy, well, Tommy just keeps going, alert and strong.

“I guess I should have paid more attention to Nova or Nature on PBS, Tommy, ‘cause I sure thought there’d be coyote and bears and deer on this mountain; maybe elk or caribou,” I stooped and picked up the butcher knife and gutted pheasant we’d caught, “but none that we’ve seen.”

Tommy landed on my shoulder and we wandered along the creek, “I agree, Tommy, we’ve done fine. Lots of rabbits, squirrels, fox, fish, badgers, beavers. Just nothing BIG.”

“You’re right, Tommy, best to stay positive.” Tommy saw something move and darted off toward the brush at the edge of the tree line.

He may not be concerned, but I am. Lately we seem to be running out of small, foraging animals and Mrs. K is getting some warped conscience at this late date about eating meat. And why do most of the animals Tommy and I hunt down these days look like a skewed image of how they should look? Plus, the flavor is off, whether we steam or roast our kill. Weird. Just like those fog-dust-clouds.

This winter went like they all have. Not too bad in the climate controlled tent. It’s mostly a matter of positive thinking through the cabin-fevered weeks. Tommy and Mrs. K are happy enough to sing duets, which do nothing for my clogged sinuses, believe me. Food’s an issue by the time we get to late spring as the trench I dig in the snow, just outside the tent door and use as a snow-pack food locker, starts to run on empty. On snowy or foggy or overcast days, the tent stays opaque which really stretches out the irritation since the three of us can’t see outside, so we end up staring at each other, hours on end.

I’d had all I could take this week so I spent yesterday sitting on a boulder on the edge of the snow covered high meadow bundled up with a blanket over my jacket of beaver pelts. It’s cold enough my eyes are starting to dry out and I’m feeling numb but I don’t move. I stare into the sky for some sign of life. I figured out long ago we were not in any airline flight path though I held out hope that maybe Google Earth knows something is going on up here. Or perhaps the astronauts on the ISS since it orbits the planet about every ninety minutes. But it’s too high up, apparently. Ironic. We’re so high up no one knows we’re here.

Still, I’m hopeful that some life, somewhere, still exists. The recent storm seemed to clear off the last of that foggy, dusty, acrid cloud that has obscured the scenic overlooks for years. Those clouds were with us so long that it seems surreal they’ve finally floated away. Whatever it was, surely just North American was affected, or maybe just Colorado. Wouldn’t our Peak have crumbled away if Armageddon had decimated all of Earth?

God and I have regular conversations about this. And about all the eternal issues. Usually when I’m out and away from Camp. God isn’t someone Mrs. K is used to talking to. Tommy and God are genial friends, which is fine, but sometimes a girl just needs a one on one with the Creator, if you know what I mean.

“So, anyway, God, as I was saying yesterday,” I make my way alongside the creek, checking for signs of fish underneath the ice, “if life is going to continue and humankind is supposed to go on, it’s going to take more than just the two sets of ovaries and the bird living on this mountaintop,” I find a good spot and carve a hole in the ice. Then dig in my rabbit skin pouch for one of the worms I found burrowed into the ground under a layer of leaves and pine needles in the forest and hook the worm on my hand-carved pole, “it’d be an immaculate conception. Which is totally doable in my book.

“I’m fit. I could parent.” Not that I was all that interested in parenting in the “Valley Days” as I refer to our previous lives, but life moves on and one adjusts. “I’m up for being the new mother of mankind, God.”

Back at the tent, I casually bring up the subject while I clean up my hunting knife.

“No thanks,” Mrs. K says, “Tommy’s enough for me.”

He just squawks and hops away through the pigeon flap.

“Now you’ve upset him,” Mrs. K fusses, “all this talk of kids.”

I doubt Tommy is upset in the way she thinks. He tells me he always wanted little cheepers to bring home the worm to and he’s been denied the natural order of things as well. I don’t tell Mrs. K this. She has a jealous streak.

“Not just to have a kid,” I say, “Mankind. Human beings. Those creatures God made in his image.”

“Humph,” Mrs. K huffs, “can’t see what good that would do since it was human beings that left us here,” she uses a paring knife to sharpen a twig into an eyebrow pencil. I found a bush with branches that have a black, soft inner core that does quite well as eye make-up. The day I made that discovery was a big one in terms of keeping Mrs. K on an even keel. Putting her best face forward is important to her.

“But then,” she critically examines her eyebrows in the small mirror, “I suppose you can’t really blame God for what people do.”

I pull on the moccasins I made from grey pelts from fox kills in years one and two, grab my bow and arrow and head toward the High Meadow. Tommy likes to float on the air currents there.

“See anything moving, Tommy?” He lands softly on my shoulder and I trudge north through knee-high snow drifts ‘til he darts ahead and starts circling.

It’s good hunting with Tommy going into a long discourse on the differences between marmots, prairie dogs and squirrels. I gut the squirrels and stick to my position on the subject. We’ve never found a marmot on the Peak.

Mrs. K is watching for us as we return to camp. Tommy and I get quiet. I try to stay out of the relationship between Mrs. K and Tommy. She says she isn’t interested in raising any children but boy does she fuss over “my little sweetie” or “my baby” as she refers to him.

Tommy and I are more of an equal partnership working together to make this life doable. I don’t think Mrs. K would have survived in the wild on her own. Well, to be fair, I was clueless when all this began, but hunger and cold can make one inventive.

“There’d better be some berries or herbs or grasses to go with whatever you two killed out there,” Mrs. K tosses plates on the table and slams the skillet on the stove.

She’s looking wild-eyed. Tommy flies to her shoulder and bobs and peeps. Mrs. K doesn’t calm.

“Juice. We need juice,” she throws the melamine bowl into the sink. It bounces twice, quivers on the counter and falls face down on the floor with a clunk. “Red juice,” she digs in the silverware drawer for the butcher knife and draws it across her palm, leaving red dots. “Juice,” she licks her palm. Tommy squawks and flies to the back of the sofa.

~

“Tommy and I agree, God. Mrs. K is losing it. Big time.” I pull feathers from what looks like a cross between a pheasant and a grouse. “What we need is thunder and lightning or a deluge that threatens to invade the tent. Anything. Something that will distract her.” Some event that will stop her thinking about the never-ending-sameness in Camp.

“Which was part of my point, God, in talking about continuing humankind,” I bag the bird and the feathers separately and head downhill toward Camp. “Immaculate Conception would certainly change the subject and make us think about something other than just the three of us. Plus, I kind of like the idea of being part of something big.”

I didn’t see it then, but before we came to the Peak, I just went with whatever came along. And now that I’ve had to make the choices needed to survive, well, living a safe and easy life just seems dull and meaningless.

“Back to Mrs. K, God; any change of subject would be a good thing about now.” Tommy and I had to get tough to survive, but Mrs. K lives in Camp as if she was in town. With a grocery down on the corner. Pretending we’re not out in the wild. Every now and then she starts to crack under the strain. Mostly she holds it together, but this time it’s not looking good and I have no clue about a solution.

“Not that the three of us are the best plan for continuing the human race, but if we’re all you’ve got, God, then Mrs. K needs a little help here, don’t you think? Ok, that’s all I’ve got to say.”

There are days when God’s a better conversationalist than Tommy, but this isn’t one of them.

~

Mrs. K was first out of the tent this morning. A rarity and rarely a good thing. The sound of her leaving breaks through my sleep and kicks off my adrenalin. Something else is different, but I’m not sure what. I try to figure it out while I get sleep out of my eyes and get muscles and brain synapses moving. I sniff and listen and it comes to me. It’s warmed up some because there’s the sound of water running. The snow pack is melting and beginning to flow. The solemn quiet of snow is always hard on Mrs. K and noise usually gets her thinking differently. Ok, God, so you were paying attention yesterday. Thanks.

Well, it’s a different day all right. Now Mrs. K’s wild-eyed in her negligee, outside the tent, her arms straight out like a totem pole. Come to think of it, she’s about a thick around the waist as a good sized totem pole. Tommy’s fluttering around her, peeping and squawking.

“Take me, Oh Great God Of The Peak,” she tilts her head back, eyes closed, “give me wings to soar these heights to another plane of existence.”

“Tommy’s the one with wings, Mrs. K,” I inch carefully towards her, “besides, I’d be lost without you.”

Her ranting and my cajoling goes on for some time and then, without warning, she puts her arms down, straightens her nightgown and marches into the tent, singing “Morning Has Broken,” in her Cat Stevens voice. Tommy and I both take a deep breath and give each other the “thank God” look.

Spring moves on which means berries and wild grasses and we get closer to warm summer days with more fish in the river and bright sunshine that brings out my freckles and turns Tommy a lighter shade of pale. How long do birds of his kind live? I don’t like to think about it. Mrs. K really dotes on him.

~

There’s something red floating in the top of the pines. Could be just a sun flash across my eyes from staring at the sky too long, but Tommy squawks and darts around. He sees something, too.

“What do you think, Tommy?” I move through the summer grasses toward the tree line. Then stop. I’m totally exposed here in High Meadow. For the first time since the early months on the Peak, I’m frightened. There might be another person around. The hair on my neck stands up and my arm pits get wet. Tommy’s yakking at me to hurry up, but I change my direction to an angle that will put me at the tree line sooner rather than directly under the tree with the red and white flapping top.

I going to have to climb I decide, as I make my way through the pines. Whatever it is seems caught near the top of a 40 foot pine and Tommy’s not horse enough to get it lose so that it can fall to the ground.

“I can’t just leave it there without knowing what it is, Tommy. And where did it come from since we’ve never been in a flight path before?
“Did you hear a stray plane?” I move through the undergrowth with one eye on the tree and one on the ground, “I didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary.” There’s no sign someone walked away from this.

“You’re right, Tommy,” I stop at the foot of the tree with the red top, “I have to ascend.” He thinks it’s safe to climb the tree next to the flapping object. I breathe deep and start climbing (thank you, Mrs. Shenks). I can tell it’s some type of cloth. A parachute?

Definitely a parachute. I yank but it’s stuck, so I keep climbing and try to pull it up as I go so I can see what it’s caught on. Other than tree branches.
It’s caught on the best looking dead man I’ve ever seen. Well, the only dead man I’ve ever seen. “Wow. He’s a beauty.” Could be it’s just been too long since I’ve seen a man, but boy, do my ovaries react. Muscled, trim, tanned, slight dusting of five o’clock shadow; this guy could be a movie star. Wait. That’s what they said in the thirties and forties. Now they’d say, this guy could be a model. For Ralph Lauren’s Men’s Wear. Or People Magazine’s Sexiest Man of the Year.

“From the funny angle of his neck, I’d say it’s broken, Tommy.” Now that’s a shame. We could have really used a man up here. Tommy tells me to get it together and keep moving.

“Sorry, Tommy. Got distracted there.”

I work the parachute up and back so that I can get the stuck part exposed, then wrap the cloth around the guy to give him some protection from the fall. Can’t hurt him but why abuse his loveliness? Using my knife, I cut the part of the parachute that’s hooked on the tree and down he slides, a butterfly in a silky cocoon.

Tommy inspects the silky package while I climb down. Neither one of us has ever seen the logo on the parachute. It’s similar but not quite the same as the logos on the camp items we have from The Capsize Foundation. It has been years, though. Things could have changed. Assuming this is still America and assuming The Capsize Foundation still exists. At least we now know mankind still exists. That’s kind of a thrilling thought, all on its own.

He has no ID but there’s what must be a cell phone. Technology has sure advanced since we’ve been gone. It’s light-weight and probably does all sorts of things. “Too bad I can’t get this thing to work. The face on the front lights up and keeps asking for a password.

“I’ll bet there’s some sort of tracker in this gadget,” I search the pockets and zipper pouches on Mr. Beautiful’s pants and jacket. He traveled light: a foil pouch of dried food, a water bottle and a Swiss Army knife. I could have used that over the years.

Tommy’s confident someone will be looking for Mr. Beautiful.

“Agreed, Tommy,” I straighten up and look around at the sunshine, wavy grass, birds twittering, pine branches swaying in the breeze, “tracker or not, someone will come.”

google images: summer in the meadow

google images: summer in the meadow

~

Mrs. K is adamant the gravesite should be near High Meadow, not near Camp.

“My hair needs washing,” Mrs. K announces as I get Mr. Beautiful situated on the litter I made ages ago from two birch poles and covered with braided water reeds, “I just can’t attend a funeral today.”

“That’s ok,” I stoop down, my back to the litter and pick up the poles to start dragging it to the graveside, “Tommy and I will give Mr. Beautiful a good send-off.”

I know if the grave is away from the tent, Mrs. K will never go there. She never leaves Camp and she isn’t fond of funerals. Must remind her of Mr. K. Tommy and I and the nearly nude Mr. Beautiful head up the hill. I wouldn’t normally think of burying a guy in just his boxer shorts, but we can’t afford to bury anything that might be useful. And anyway, dust to dust. What does it matter if the dust is clothed?

We get Mr. Beautiful in the ground and covered up. I roll a big rock over as grave marker and Tommy perches on top of it to sing a final farewell. He does a really good “Danny Boy.” Knows all the verses.

~

The whop-whop-whop racket of the helicopter as it lands in High Meadow startles all of us. We’re just kind of frozen for a minute and then we start moving fast. So fast that Mrs. K is right with us a couple of yards beyond Camp as Tommy and I head for High Meadow.

She realizes where she is and doesn’t come any further, “Can you see anyone?” Mrs. K yells, “good thing I washed my hair Tuesday.”

Tommy flits ahead but comes back to say the logo on the helicopter is the same as the parachute.

“Yeah. I got that.” I’m prepared. I hope. Swiss knife in one pocket and gutting knife in the other. Just in case.

The pilot stands by the helicopter as two men in business suits head our way. I stop and let them come to us.

My ovaries aren’t jumping at these guys. Got it out of my system, I guess. Or just not attracted to any and everything in pants. Tommy agrees that’s probably a good thing.

The guy apparently in charge does his best to show they aren’t a threat. He’s all smiles and knows our names and says he’s so glad to see us.

This is suspicious.

“Mrs. K, I presume?” he holds out his hand as we reach Camp where she has retreated to the tent doorway, “So nice to meet you.”

“Come in, come in,” Mrs. K flutters and smiles and pats her hair, tries to smooth down her dress, which is hard to do. That dress fit three sizes ago.

Tommy and I are quiet as Mrs. K gets everyone settled with something to drink and finally perches on the edge of the kitchen chair, all perky looking as if this is the week’s excitement.

“So you see, after the accident in Dr. Wilson’s lab, and his death and all, well, the project just got shut down. Lack of funds and interest, you know.” Mr. In-Charge stops to take a drink of berry juice and tries to smile. That juice is tart.

“Wait a minute,” I say. I try to unclench my hands. Stay calm. Breathe deep. Mrs. Shenks would approve. “You’re saying we’re in some project? Under a dome?”

Mrs. K and Tommy both look blank.

“Like the Truman Show?” Now I’m yelling and that sets Tommy off. He zips around the room, squawking.

Mr. In-Charge is nervous, “No, no.” He sets the glass of juice down on the floor and wipes his hands on his trousers, “Well…yes. Except no cameras!” He leans further back on the sofa as Tommy buzzes his right ear.

“We hiked up here,” I haven’t yelled in years and it feels good, “THERE WAS NO DOME!”

“Ah, well,” he looks pretty sheepish, “you weren’t to know about the dome so it was activated once you had climbed onto the part of the mountain that The Capsize Foundation owns. Obviously, we regret you were forgotten.”

I sag back against my chair. Tommy and I are speechless. He flutters to the countertop and squats.

Mr. Along for the Ride, who turns out to be Mr. Attorney, finally speaks up, “You’ll be well compensated, of course. “ He goes on about liability waivers and transportation back to civilization and the great contribution we’ve made to research, yada, yada, yada.

Tommy and I just stare at each other. We’ve been in a protective bubble. My great survival in the wild outdoors was all a sham.

~

Civilization is far more irritating than I remembered. Noisy and dirty and crowded. And that’s just at The Capsize Foundation compound. We’re debriefed and poked and prodded. They run tests and more tests and are careful to make sure we have any and everything we might want.

We check out medically and psychologically, surprise, surprise. Turns out Mrs. K needs a “little medication” which will help with her weight and her coping abilities.

Tommy is quite elderly, they tell us. They think he’s lived longer than other birds of his type. They’ve given him a large, new cage and a friend and he seems content. I’d like to discuss the whole experience with him but he’s busy. Chirping to the female in his cage.

And me? Well I’m healthier and more fit than I’ve ever been, considering. Hooray for me.

Tomorrow’s the final ceremony in our honor and then they’re springing us loose. That is if we want to go. They keep saying that. I see the light in the researchers’ eyes at the thought of more poking and prodding. I’m torn. I feel like everything was a sham, yet I have this urge to go conquer mountains. Flee civilization. And something keeps nagging at me to not just walk away without getting a big settlement. Just in case. Of course the settlement would be even bigger if I’d stay, which in my book is more reason to get out of Dodge. When they want to pay you stay, something’s weird.

Mrs. K is more centered than I’ve ever known her. Other than the fact she’s preening like a male peacock around that little pea hen, Dr. Foster, who’s been handling our re-entry into the real-life world. He seems quite taken with her as well. He blushes every time she calls him Dr. F.

~

It wakes me in the night. This knowledge that I did accomplish more on the Peak than I ever thought possible. That I’m no longer captive to the Peak. Unless…I want to be. And there it is. I want to be. Not the same Peak, necessarily. And not under a protective dome. But out there. Somewhere on a mountaintop in the true, wild world. Using the skills I learned. Carrying forth Mrs. Shenks teaching: breathe deep and learn the steps. You’ll do fine.

“Thanks, God,” I turn over to go back to sleep, “I needed that.”

Except I can’t go back to sleep. I keep thinking of unsaid explanations and innuendoes. Like when they said I was fit, “considering.” And the slipped phrases when the researchers and technicians forget we’re within hearing distance. Finally I get up and head down the semi-dark halls toward the lab where Tommy is living it up in a big fancy cage with his new feathered friend.

Voices come to me around the corner of the long hall, “…cloned wildlife…..food source…..species of bird ….living long…..unusual pheromones…..Mrs. K…..manipulated weather.…. the human psyche……aging process…”

The voices trail further away as I reach the lab. I’m pretty sure I’d just as soon not know all the details of why we were there and what they were doing to us. If those years taught me anything, it’s that you make life what you want it. No point in negative thinking.

I’m careful as I push open the door. No people inside. Still, I try to be as quiet as possible as I make my way over to Tommy’s cage. He’s snoring. I’ve missed that sound.

“Tommy,” I whisper and rattle the side of the cage, “Tommy.”

He fluffs himself awake, yawns and stretches.

“I’m leaving tomorrow. Headed for another mountain, somewhere. I don’t know where, but I’ll get you out of here if you want to go with me.”

He looks me straight in the eye and tilts his head like he always does when he’s about to give me his opinion. But then he squawks half-heartedly, shivers his feathers back in place, snuggles closer to his new companion and drops his head on his breast. He’s snoring pretty quickly.

I stand and watch for a bit. He’s my fellow survivor. My co-hort. My only bird friend. Maybe he wants to retire and enjoy the good life. He was always able to ignore both Mrs. K and me when he wanted to.

“Goodnight, Tommy.”

~

“Look here, Tommy, a postcard!” Mrs. F reads the address, peers at the postmark and turns the card over to study the photo, “She’s sent us a photo! She looks so capable in those animal skins.”

She adjusts her glasses and looks closer, “I believe that’s a hawk on her shoulder,” she says as she turns from the open door, “and of course there’s a knife dripping with blood. She’s just killed something.

Wonder who took the photo? She’s smiling so she must be happy whoever she’s with.”

Mrs. F pushes against the big wooden door to close it, “Just wait ‘til Dr. F gets home and sees this.” And somewhere deep in the huge, comfortable, beautifully appointed house, Tommy squawks and flaps his wings against the safety of his cage.

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Death and the birdbath…

Bing images

Bing images

Mother loves birds. Wild birds on PBS Nature specials. Tiny glistening, quivering Hummingbirds at the back yard feeder. Plain sparrows with their nest in the top leafy branches of the big apricot tree in the back yard. Fluttering and flouncing brilliant black Starlings that glitter emerald in the sun as they wash off their latest dirt bath in Mother’s birdbath, their gold beaks a bright beacon . Oh, she fusses about the dirt they leave behind, especially if she’s just cleaned up the bird bath and left it full of fresh water, but they’re birds and they’re welcome. She whispers to the Phoebes; coos at the Doves and click-clacks her tongue at the Wood Peckers.

She does not have the same affinity for feral cats. She treats them as interlopers who invade the bird space that is the back yard. She fusses like a mother hen when they slink across the grass to the birdbath, or when they lay in the shade of the apricot tree, their ears deaf to the warning of sparrows that screech in dismay. Anytime she sees one of those feral cats, Mother taps against the window or rushes out the door, sudden wings to her feet and cane, yelling to startle them into bolting to the fence where they squeeze under to safety.

I’ve gotten accustomed to Mother’s irritation at the cats and I’ve started chasing them away as well. Don’t get me wrong. I like cats. We usually had one in the house when I was growing up. What I don’t like is Mother’s stress and her fussing over the unwanted cats. And I figure if the cats are going to take it seriously that this yard is off limits, then the people that live in the house need to be unified in their feral cat approach, right?

I was rinsing dishes at the kitchen sink after lunch today when movement in the yard caught my attention. I looked out the window in time to see the younger black feral cat take a three foot leap into the birdbath. The entire event couldn’t have taken more than three seconds. He leapt, was coated with water that dripped off him and the sparrow in his jaws, steadied himself for a brief moment, then was down off the birdbath and headed across the yard towards the fence. Lickety-split.

“Hey!” I pulled the yellow rubber gloves off my hands and headed for the back door, my heart pounding. He was gone by the time I unlocked the door and got outside. The chirping from another sparrow at the top of the apricot tree sounded pitiful and mournful.

When I got back inside, Mother had come to the window above the kitchen sink.

“What were you chasing,” she asked? She had a Kleenex in one hand and with the other leaned on her cane and searched the yard for some sign of the disturbance. We’d been out to the doctor’s and then to the lab for blood work and she was still wearing nice green slacks and a flowered button down blouse, her hair combed perfectly, her lips the shade of coral.

The house was cool against the hot afternoon, the classical station played Mozart as if the entire world was tamed, with no animals or people dying anywhere. No drought in California or Texas or Oklahoma or Nevada; no famine in Sahel or Sudan; no Christian girls kidnapped in Nigeria; no political machinations at work in Ukraine; no terrorists released in exchange for a missing soldier who might or might not be a terrorist sympathizer himself, no estimated 200 million of the world’s people in slavery today.

“Nature at work,” I said and gave her the details.

“That’s probably a baby left in the nest or the mother who saw her baby taken,” she turned and clunked her cane back to the dining room.

For the next ten minutes I could still hear that remaining sparrow crying in the nest. My ears hurt and I had to tell myself to breathe in and out. This is life. This is the cycle of life. Nature had impacted that little family.

I forgot for a time there, in this air-conditioned, machine and technology propelled life that there’s very little we control. That a cat’s instinct is to eat birds, that mankind’s basest nature is to control and dominate, that our world doesn’t live in a bubble where we can determine the weather and eradicate drought.

What we can do is pay attention to each other, care for the weakest and take responsibility to rise above the worst that mankind can be. Reach to be the best we can be, and by God’s grace leave the world a better place than where we found it. I can do that. And, I can go on chasing feral cats out of the yard, knowing full well, if they don’t get a bird here, they’ll get one next door.

pain and love

Bing images

Bing images

We passed the KTLA5 News van just south of the exit to Isla Vista.  Apparently they were also headed back to L.A.

“Can’t see the water today,” Mother said, her head turned to her window as she looked to the south where the coast was hiding in a bank of clouds and moisture.

“No,” I said.  I looked left to check the fast lane, before moving into it to get around the car that was slowing us down, “but you can’t miss the fact it’s there with all this heavy marine layer.”

Yesterday, the trip north meant short sleeves, air conditioning and sun glasses against the bright sun and beautiful blue sky and water, but today was a long sleeve day, with the A/C turned off and vent air warmed up to 73 degrees.  It was overcast and cool out, 60 degrees at 9:45 a.m.

The Isla Vista murder/suicide tragedy was three days ago.  The town was probably still reeling.  Families decimated and shocked.  People would need jackets or sweatshirts when they took flowers to mark the spot of the tragedies.   And anyway, overcast, cloudy skies made more sense for mourning than a bright, sunny day at the beach, right?  Or maybe the gray sky matched the gray in people’s minds and kept them away from the scene and that was why the News Van was headed back to L.A.

“We never spent time at the beach,” Mother said, her head still turned towards the coast, “I was busy with all you kids, your father needed the car for work, and there was no money or time for trips to the beach.”  She sounded a little wistful at the missed opportunity.

“And when you did get away,” I said, checking the review mirror for a CHP as my speed increased down a hill, “you went to the mountains?”

“Of course,” Mother said in a tone that meant, why would they go anywhere else?  “Your father and I loved the mountains.”

I checked the rear view mirror to see if my visiting brother had anything to add to this trip down memory lane, but he was asleep, his white haired head against the head rest of the back seat, cell phone in his hand, the radio classical music his lullaby.

His week-long visit with his son, daughter-in-law and three grandkids in Lompoc gave me an excuse to talk Mother into taking a trip north.  What a trip of contrasts.  We’d gone from L.A. County to Santa Barbara County, from high rises, acres of concrete, bumper to bumper traffic, houses and small businesses as far as the eye could see, interspersed with strip malls and large shopping complexes, past ocean views, bougainvillea blanketed cliffs and para-sailing and beyond, to rolling green hills sprayed with yellow mustard blooms like dancing sprites over hills and vales that sloped down to the winding ribbon that is Highway 1.

It felt like another world.  It felt like the back of beyond where nothing lived except grasses and hills and dense undergrowth.  It felt hushed and beautiful, fresh and alive.  It felt like another place in time.

It felt nothing like the tragedy and blood and suffering of Isla Vista, where a rampaging, mentally stressed college student had planned for his pain to erupt leaving six dead and thirteen wounded.

Rather, it felt happy.  We found a busy and content family of two school teachers, their two teenagers, a ten year old and a Mother-in-law who just had one lung lobe removed in an effort to eradicate cancer.

They act like they are aware they have each other.   They act like they know who they are.  They act like they understand their place in life.  They act like they will take care of each other.  They act like they will be there for the recovery after cancer surgery; they will be there for each other after my nephew has back surgery this summer; they will be there for my beautiful, seventeen year old great niece as she makes a college choice, they will be there in encouraging my nephew’s wife as she finishes her masters and her doctorate, they will be there to support my nephew as he finishes his seminary work.  It isn’t that their life doesn’t have challenges.  It’s that they are determined to keep their lives simple, hang on to their faith and believe in each other.

How easily that tragic college student with long term self-esteem and mental health issues could have been me, or my brother, or his son, or his daughter-in-law or one of his grandchildren.  I think of the poor choices I made when I was young, that student’s age.  I cringe when I think of how some things turned out. I, too, was a failure.  I’m grateful I learned to move beyond.  I’m grateful there was healing.

I’m grateful, this gray morning, that life has given me time to get it right.  And I’m sad for the destroyed families of those six dead and thirteen wounded.  I pray there will be a way for them to recover; that there will be time for their lives to get it right.  Other than just screaming about guns.  Or knives.  It’s a deeper issue than a tool used for destruction.  It’s about value at the very core of our being.  It’s about compassion and forgiveness.  It’s about finding help when damage eats away at the soul.  It’s about love.

“I saw a whale,” Mother said, her eyes glued to the water, as the fog began to lift.

“Where?”  My brother woke, stretched and turned to his window.

We craned our necks to see the beauty of life that continues on.

The End

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

I was sure this was it. I’d been expecting it and here it was. Finally. It had to come in-spite of all the global warming deniers and those right-wing nuts who can’t see the inherent damage fracking will do, plus the war mongers who want to spend and spend and spend building up a surplus of war machines and train innocent young people to sacrifice themselves as soldiers in some unauthorized invasion of a third world country.

At last reality and sanity have been pushed over the edge of the survival cliff. I knew it would happen. This had to be the end. I mean, really, how much more could the natural world take? The fragile ecology is being murdered, stripped bare, decimated by the ugly plundering of big companies. Is it any wonder the world is imploding in on itself?

I wanted to scream: I TOLD YOU SO. At least that was my thought the split second the sky went black. It was 9:03 a.m. and hot. Over 100 degrees yesterday and was headed there today. Until it got dark. Then the temperature went mild. Like it does after a summer rain storm in the New Mexico mountains.

The dark only lasted about a minute or so, which I suppose meant that if you were in a windowless room or in a corridor in the center of an office building, you wouldn’t even know the sun was gone. You couldn’t miss the next bit, though.

It was a like a lightning bolt that lit up the entire atmosphere in bright gold. It was too bright to look at. It glowed from everywhere. As if the light came from inside the room to meet the light outside. And the noise was like a trumpet sound that would hit the guys in the seats in the nosebleed section at the same time and with the same impact as the guys in the front row seats. Everyone heard every word. It was a sound that would wake the dead.

It was loud, but it was also a whisper that seeped down into my ears and jagged at my heart.

“Holy, Holy, Holy.”

I didn’t know who or what was holy. Wasn’t that like some religious thing that people in big old mausoleums of dead religions were always saying?  Maybe I was having a stroke. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you die and I was remembering things I’d done and said that I hadn’t thought of in years. I was seeing dead people, like Grandpa Joe and Aunt Lizzy and my buddy, Larry, who crashed off the pier when we were in tenth grade.

The sky was full of these flying men. They looked beautiful, like the statues of Greek Gods, and they were all saying the same thing,

“Bow down before the King of Kings.”

How could this be? Was the world really coming to an end because of some religious hype? All that stuff that my grandparents and that weird old guy down on the corner tried to tell me?

How could anyone really believe in a vindictive supreme being who liked giving kids cancer? Or who stood by and watched while Tsunamis destroyed entire countries?

I would not give in to this delusion, this hype, this fear mongering.

Why wouldn’t the flashes of my life stop? I was still breathing, so I wasn’t dead. I stood still in the middle of the room. A room that I like dark with heavy drapes. This light, this bright gold was everywhere. I couldn’t see shadows under the trees outside or under the carport next door. Just bright gold everywhere.

The noise of those voices and a rushing sound like thousands of bird wings kept on. My ears hurt and my heart felt pressure like it was trying to leave my body. A heart attack. That’s what this was.

I wiped the sweat out of my eyes. The sky was getting crowded. I swear I could see something like people of all sizes in long robes floating up from the ground.

I blinked. I was nine years old again and sitting next to Grandma in church. The guy down front was saying, “the dead in Christ shall rise first.”

It was like a door opened and truth came rushing out. For the first time in my life, I got it. God was real. He was pure and couldn’t look at selfishness or murder or anger or all the ways we try to hurt ourselves and others. He gave up his own son, Jesus, to handle all the mean, evil stuff in the world. All the things people had done, like mass murderers and despots who killed their own people, and babies slaughtered while still in the womb, I finally understood. God gave me a choice and I decided to be my own god. Most people I knew had decided to be their own god. The whole world was living with the end result.

What was this new feeling? Love? Flashes of blue light swirled around me. It was a pulsing thing that rubbed against my ears and made the hair on my arms stand up. If I’d had any hair left on my head, it would have stood up. My scalp vibrated.

What was the voice saying now? “I never knew you.” Just like that, the pulsing, swirling power around me floated away, as if I had a personal shield that kept the light and the love from moving through me. My heart lurched again and I knew the awful truth. I lived in the black, dark, selfish part of life and I had missed the light. I wouldn’t know the love. I had been dead to truth. Truth was dead to me.

The gold everywhere was being swallowed up by black waves of pain that lived in heavy dark clouds with a smell like a burning garbage pit. Black, ugly monsters flew through the air towards me.

“No!” I jerked and flung my arms up to fight against the black creatures. The thud when I hit the floor and the pain in my hip woke me. The night stand was on its side next to me and the digital clock was on the floor. I picked up the clock. 6:57 a.m.

Oh, my God. What a nightmare. I rubbed my sore hip and dragged myself off the floor. I shook my head, but it wouldn’t clear.

Jake. I tolerated him at work because he was good at the job. I hated the joy and love he always seemed to have. I never let him get any further when he’d offer to pray for me. Maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe there was still time for me to get it right. Jake. Jake would know if God would still give me a chance. I moved to the heavy drapes and opened them to let in the morning light.

The Hole Inside

Bing Images

Bing Images

Couldn’t branch out at tender age
were it not for the hole inside;
Couldn’t risk a verge to the unknown
were it not for the hole inside;
Couldn’t risk propriety’s dress parade
were it not for the hole inside.

Painted on eyes,
colored up lips,
feather soft cheeks
façade for drab,
shriek out for worth.

Couldn’t learn to twirl debris
were it not for the hole inside;
Couldn’t dance in battered sighs
were it not for the hole inside;
Couldn’t sink beneath life’s heft,
were it not for the hole inside.

Painted on eyes,
colored up lips,
feather soft cheeks
façade for drab,
shriek out for worth.

Couldn’t embrace my solitary
were it not for the hole inside;
Couldn’t reach life’s reason
were it not for the hole inside;
Couldn’t find solace in the crush
were it not for the hole inside.

Painted on eyes,
colored up lips,
feather soft cheeks
façade for drab,
shriek out for worth.

Couldn’t escape the putrid pit
were it not for the hole inside;
Couldn’t seek deep healing lift
were it not for the hole inside;
Couldn’t evade death’s cold rattle
were it not for the hole inside.

Painted on eyes,
colored up lips,
feather soft cheeks
façade for drab,
shriek out for worth.

Couldn’t have a far view
were it not for the hole inside;
Couldn’t have found solace,
were it not for the hole inside;
Couldn’t have met the cure,
were it not for the hole inside;

Couldn’t fly on joy’s wings
were it not for the hole inside;
Couldn’t learn love’s embrace
were it not for the hole inside.
Couldn’t have known my soul’s lover
were it not for the hole inside.

Shining eyes clear,
smiling lips and crinkled cheeks,
love and beauty merge at last
with wisdom’s perfect love;
my hole is day by day healed.

Disappearance.3

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

I peel the pages of
memory
like an onion.
Transparent and
dense.

The first boy was cute.
Blond hair,
blue eyes.
We played
tether-ball.
We were eleven.

I moved away,
out of state.
I wasn’t sad.
I had high
hopes. Years
to discover
boys. Right?

Hope was intermittent.
Longing reared its
head; two
pronged with its
twin, loneliness.

Once, I counted up
the boys to men
between grade school
and menopause.

Seventeen.

Most were crushes.
One heated lust.
One love.
One tighly
grasped
dream that
when soured
revealed fake
promises
guaranteed to
disappoint.

Whew! Dodged
that bullet.

Now the seventeen
swim
in a fog that
thickens.
Their draw seems
so far away.
They’ve nearly
disappeared beyond
the horizon.

Is this the meaning
of stability?
This no longer caring,
is this a release
from angst or
just the death of
fertility?

I pry,
I dig,
I concentrate.
I pull at the onion
layers.
I bleed.

Names and times
come.
Feelings pricked
rebound.
I remember the drive,
the longing,
the desire,
the hope,
the fuzzy-headedness;
the frailty
when unrequited –
as it mostly was.

This disappearance
of that urge;
this disappearance
of need, is it
maturity?
Or disappearance
of life?

I don’t kid
myself that
I’ve grown beyond
the need to be loved.

Who has?
Who ever does?

To be honest,
life is easier since
the longings for
boys to men has
disappeared.

I’ll take love
through friends,
through family,
through what I
create;
through the one who
created me and
never left me
for a crush on
some one or
some thing
else.

So, sail away
old crushes
old flames
old loves
old dreams
old desires
old passions
old longings
old pains –
disappear.

I’m fine without you.
I’ve disappeared
into a new me.

Storage Closet

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

Boxes of envelopes;
envelopes small.
Could conceal in the
palm of my hand.
Envelopes long
from wrist to fingertip.
Once white,
grayed;
once red,
paled.

Years stuffed
in little envelopes.
Dust motes fly.

I bend to
drag the boxes
from under the stairs;
trail
across asbestos
tiles.

History’s trail.
Years and years and years
marked by envelopes.
Decades
of effort
of sacrifice
of giving
of planning
of believing.
It’s down to this.

I run my hands through
my hair and ceiling popcorn
kernels dance in the air.

Pretty precise tiny handwriting
floats across the envelopes;
the gift marked,
the giver denoted,
the register
straight,
documented with deliberation.

I recognize some of the names;
Mother’s tales of
busy church life.
I recognize Daddy’s method.
The stuff he stored in neat, tight
packages.
Earlier years
dumped humble-jumble,
before his time here.
No one’s done storage since.
Did organization die with him?

The ghosts of worship services,
classroom flannel boards,
babies and toddlers nursery,
men’s softball teams,
Women’s Dumb-M-U,
Vacation Bible School,
Christmas pageants,
Easter cantatas,
they’re all here.

This life has nearly ground
halted.
The old guard, anyway.

The generations
who began,
succored, labored,
loved,
gave;
now gone.
I’ve seen
epitaphs,
visited grave sides, sang at
memorials.

Yet, life goes on,
similar,
tho’ different.

These old walls
to be painted,
asbestos tiles
replaced,
choir loft converted
to worship band stage;
failing pews faded into
sturdy chairs,
their rows march.

It’s a whole new world.
Strange to Mother’s
ears and eyes.
Different name,
different affiliation,
different heritage,
different style,
yet the same
point.

Worship
Train
Give
Love
Tell
Believe.

So great a cloud of
witnesses
smile,
applaud,
know they
laid the groundwork,
ran their race well.

This place is temporary.
This life is temporary
I remember.

Still, I’m comforted by the
sameness,
the continuity.
I like the purpose I find here.

I know
one day someone will
clear out my
storage closet.

I’m headed for the eternal
just like the generations before.