Part I: The Beginning
WHEN I WAS SMALL, I had dreams of the zoo.
Putting mammoth-sized kibble in a bowl for the elephants, communicating with gorillas by hand, making sure the seal got her little fish. The painful, but necessary vaccine, the shot that might put a suffering tiger out of an agony that, even in the wild, would have caused Mother Nature to shake her flower-crowned head, uttering three plaintive words: I am sorry.
At the zoo, this is what they want the visitor to think: every animal is special, each one has a birthday, the pandemonium has been left behind. No one talks about death. Not before the big show.
My first day on the job, my boss handed me a hammer and an icepick to demonstrate his swing.
“This is really good,” he said, showing me his approach. “If you show one bit of hesitation,” his hammer hand wavered above the pick head before hitting it askew, “you’ve got pulsing brains and squealing kits, kids, calves, what-have-you all over your hands.” He handed me the tools and stared at me with pride. I clutched them to my chest like books for the first day of school.
“Sir?” I said.
“I need you to cull the otters. Those pups are out of control.”
I stared down at the icepick, with its dried bits of blood from a previous slaughter. Some flaked off and fluttered away in the breeze.
“I’m—” I said.
“Your shoulders remind me of myself as a young man,” my boss mused, impressed.
I am a woman. Practically a girl.
“Remember,” he said, “don’t freeze up. If you freeze, they’ll be on to you. Then where will you be.” It wasn’t a question and my mind wasn’t to wander there.
Minutes on the job, and I was alone. I approached the sunny otter pen, a tool gripped in both hands. Down on my knees, near the otter day pool, I peered into the damp maternity den protected by a flimsy chicken wire barrier. Twenty-five pups, fifty glassy eyes, stared at me.
“Hello,” I whispered, putting my fingers through the wire. A freshly nursed pup approached and put his paw on mine. I tried to imagine it reduced to a piece of abject flesh, still quivering from the death blow.
I suppose there’s an argument for genetic diversity enhancing the survival of captive species, or that culling serves to protect the very beings it kills, because (oftentimes, out on the range) it does.
I’m just saying I can’t do it.
First, I opened the cage, and then I moved to the enclosure door. The slick and soft swarm, mothers in the lead, moved as one, and I watched them waddle off—tentative at first—into the surrounding woods, unsure of what was next, and what would greet them when they arrived, and if it would be better than me at the door, icepick in hand.
I wouldn’t have lasted long at that mid-tier zoo if I had tried. I released half its population before my month-end’s review, and when I was caught, the keepers put me in an unmarked van and drove me into the foothills with nothing but the clothes on my back.
“See how you like it,” said a pimply co-worker as he slammed the door shut, implying that I would surely die, or likely come close out there in the great unknown; at least in the zoo, there are fish feedings, hose baths, and, when it’s time to die, the boss pens it into his calendar like all civilized members of society do. Scouts had been sent out to corral the wild fugitives, but to no avail. Not a flipper, nor a trunk, nor hide, nor tail to be found. All had vanished in one fell swoop. And now, what about me?
I wandered the hills in search of my life, not a quarter to my name.
Eventually, I made it out of there, and walked down to the old church on Crimson Row, across from the railroad tracks, to take a look at the community bulletin board where new jobs were posted. There was a flyer for the zoo: “Wanted: Zookeeper. Must have: strong shoulders, good swing.” My eyes glided over the options—meat grinder, boot shiner, a smattering of graveyard shifts at the town’s one gas station—and then I saw it:
“Wanted: Park Ranger. Preferred qualifications: Bear behavior management control.”
Not long ago we all had a real problem: invaded trash cans, broken into tool sheds, chicken annihilation. In the newspaper, I remember, a nonplussed Mrs. Rasa on Waterloo Street said one night she went into her kitchen only to find an adolescent bear eating a ham sandwich at the table like a lonely old man.
It was like once one bear told the rest of the bears about the perks of town-life, they just couldn’t get enough of it. And who could blame them? Us humans too grew tired of the trees, the plains, the earth.
Our original reaction had been swift: menfolk bringing out their shotguns, women hoisting up the traps. But there were viable, environmentally-conscious alternatives, some of us said, and that is how I came to be trained as a park ranger.
You might look at a girl like me and think, “Ranger? More like lifeguard, at best that girl with the impressive pony tail who serves you your soft serve down at the Food Shack or Tasty Freeze.” And while it’s true that, like light and sound, my hair has a certain wave length factor and I’ll paint my toenails if I’m feeling blue, the condescension towards young female stereotypes will have to stop there.
I bet you wouldn’t guess that my position requires a certain amount of psychic-kinetic telepathy, fine-tuned and inspired from the finest of world traditions—Hinduism, Navajo spirituality, Indo-Chinese Buddhism, multi-dimensional deep geometry.
This sounds like a fairy tale, I know, but there is training for free. Or, rather, nearly free. I did my mandatory ranger internship with Bob, a spiritual ranger, who taught me the ways of the land. A real salt-of-the-earth type, is Bob, with a penchant for a god that resembles mist more than man, something that is everywhere but nowhere, like a heartbeat you’ll spend a lifetime feeling, but never see.
Bob says we all have innate powers, that we’ve just got to ask ourselves—the purple or blue aura within—if what we have is really what we want.
You don’t have to take peyote or hash or anything. You’ve just got to ask.
The trick is, most people never do.
Spirituality appeared to play to my skillset—letting the wild animals roam. After a few weeks with Bob, I saw my soul flicker into rainbow right behind my eyes.
Before the zoo I was serving soup at a buffet. Before that, I was a daycare security guard. When they asked me in my zoo interview why I thought I’d be good I said the first thing that came to mind: “I guess I just identify with the animals. Like, I guess I always have.” I was thinking of Koko, maybe the Lion King. I came across as profound.
I thought zoos would be a little more about passion than what the experience turned out to be. But passion, Bob would say, is the feeling of shame in disguise. Passion is an angry fire when all you need for guidance is a flame.
Passion: it’s the thinking that says what you have isn’t enough, when what you should be thinking is, “I don’t need more than a change.” A shift in perspective, is what I’m saying.
“What do you want?” Bob asked, “A bonfire that burns you up, or an illuminating flame?” Flame being key; flame being you saying, “I’m one little sea turtle in a sea of sea turtles and truth to a sea turtle is revealed in the now, the present, the flame in my little sea turtle eye that is always right there within.” Flame being good, the touch, the taste, the feel, the earth, the here, the now, the you, the me, the metaphor of all this being revealed by us merging on this very page.
Inter-species telepathic communication training means you must undergo the process of deep spiritual awakening. And in my town, it’s not like you can retreat to the foothills of the Himalayas to do this. My awakening happened on a seat cushion on the floor of Bob’s RV in the woods.
“Think of it like this,” Bob said in a state of deep tranquility (for Bob is always in a state of deep tranquility). “You have the levels of consciousness, which initiates profound respect for the world. You’ve got your electromagnetic field expanding into space. You’ve got your interconnectedness to objects in the exterior. You’ve got your transcendence (that feeling that you are an eagle, perhaps, flying over the universe); and you’ve got your marriage of personal experience to the wide angle shot of transcendent intelligence beyond the exterior.” Bob ticked these off with the fingers of one hand while working the snack bowl with the other. Snacks are what keep Bob going. Snacks and napping, like the red Nepalese panda.
This was my first step on the path to enlightenment: realizing the bear was the organic energy bringing me back to the source of life, both outside and within; bear as flame; bear, my own tiny fire.
Once you are open to the possibilities, it doesn’t take long to inhabit them, to cultivate an ability to “see.”
Did I want them, these possibilities, this trust in the divine? Oh, yes, I did, for there are clues of its existence all along the way. I recalled what I learned during my month at the zoo:
A penguin doesn’t swim, it flies underwater.
The smallest bones in a whale (those of the ear) come from the gills of ancient fish.
A stretch of DNA found in the genes of fruit flies is shared between toads, mice, and humans, and that, as one naturalist discovered, within the wings of certain moths he could reproduce the letters for a line of Roethke’s poetry:
“All finite things reveal infinitude.”
It wasn’t that the bears had just started speaking, it was that they always had. Our town’s bear raids reminded us of this. The bears were speaking, and it was time to listen.
Part II: The End
Synaesthesia is the fusion of the senses. Psychoanalysts would like you to think this occurs on a special case-by-case basis (the opera singer who sees colors for certain notes, the housewife who hears bells when her foot touches the ocean), when in fact we all have this primordial ability. Think of the wind: don’t you actually see wind before you feel it, up there in the leaves? Don’t you smell rain before it falls?
A bear will stare at you from the other side of a log, eating a doughnut from the garbage can you’ve placed in a forest clearing as an offering, and you’ll both be thinking, “And now what?” You’ll be keenly aware of everything within your periphery while maintaining a laser focus on that which is before you—the smell, the touch, the feel of the bear. The bear reaches for a second doughnut and puts his chin in the other paw, gazing at you pensively. You focus even harder, while maintaining an electric connection to the outer parts of your circle, and think-speak, “Do you—do you like the jelly?”
“I like the jelly,” the bear replies. He gives a gruff cough, like he’s clearing his throat, and reaches for a third.
“What else do you like? What do you prefer?”
“Prefer?” says the bear, I think, mockingly.
“Like the most,” I say.
The bear pulls out an old apple and throws it over his shoulder, and then hoists himself up to rummage the upper half of his body through the garbage can.
“Like chicken. Like grape. Like moose. Like lamb. Like doggy. Like kitty. Like peanut. Like chocolate. Like pie.” He lifts his snout out of the trash and stares at me hard. “You have pie?”
“Tell me about pie,” I say, sliding off my rock and coming quite a bit closer, feeling a connection. “What is pie?”
The bear looks at me like I’m stupid, then stands up tall on his haunches with something behind his back, smiling.
“What have you got there?” I ask, inching a little closer.
“PIE,” booms the bear in our heads, and throws one into my face.
“Ha ha ha,” hoots the bear, loping away, stopping to look over his shoulder every once in a while, watching me as I pull sticky rotten chunks of it from my cheeks, my mouth, my hair.
Overall—gradually, painstakingly—things begin going well for Bob and I. I become successful in achieving regular communication with the bears (touch and go, I tell Bob, touch and go) and I get a partner, a girl named Trudy. So, the menfolk put away their military grade weapons, and the wives shackle their bear archery compound bows within their mahogany tea chests, and there is a calm that settles over the land, a kind of genuine trust.
Some mornings, Trudy will sit on the hood of her Jeep, and I on the hood of mine, and we’ll talk, just talk, talk about anything.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” asks Trudy one day, and I said, “How can you not?” and from some far distant, deep pocket of the woods I swear I hear the trumpet call of a long lost elephant, sounding its plaintive cry—the spirits of the woods, the ghosts of my past.
“Trudy, I’ve done some bad things,” I say, moving over to the hood of her Jeep. We like to wear our bathing suits on hot days in the forest, but with our boots on, in case we have to jump into the foliage. Trudy keeps a skinning knife in her left boot, and I keep a little gun on my right. “I’m not sure this world is made for me.”
“Have you killed anyone?” asks Trudy, peering at me over her sunglasses.
“Gosh, I mean, I don’t think so,” I say. I’m thinking about how I released all the zoo animals, or poured hand sanitizer in the soup, or made a four-year-old stay in their cubby hole because they wouldn’t stop crying, and the other four-year-olds had me cornered.
Trudy snorts and leans back on the windshield of the Jeep, unimpressed. “Call me in five years when you’ve killed a guy. Maybe then I’ll believe you.”
The trick to bear control—the trick to keeping any wild creature at bay—is to make it feel important in its own habitat. You make a bear feel like a woodland king (or queen), that bear might not be interested in an old lady’s larder, her gunked-up honey jar, her little cat named Beans, and her small run of chickens.
You give bears a wide berth. Communication should happen at all limits of your receptive fields. Sometimes you find yourself conversing with a bear through binoculars, one half-way up in a tree.
Human to Bear:
H: You look big up there. How big are you, Bear?
H: That’s right! One big bear. Maybe you are the biggest bear?
B: Big bear.
H: What did you do this morning, Big Bear?
B: Trundled. Put Little Me into the trash dump. Waited for police to give me Little Me back. Found Little Me had raisins in mouth. Punched raisins out of Little Me’s mouth. Ate raisins. Here we are!
(There are two Little Me’s in branches overhead, peeping around their mother’s head.)
H: Do you think you love Little Me?
B: What do you mean?
H: Love? Like, you would die for Little Me? Because you care about Little Me so much? Little You, I mean?
H: What do you care about, think about, most?
B: Space. Sleeping. Berries. Flesh. Doughnuts. PIE, of course.
H: But what about Little Me? Don’t you care about Little Me the most?
(Big Bear looks over her shoulder and eyes her cubs.)
B: We will see …
H: You are very strong, Big Bear. May I call you Biggest Bear? You are the biggest bear of them all. So sophisticated.
B: Yes! Rawr!
You make a bear feel important in the forest, they are liable to stick to the trees.
From a journal Trudy and I penned together in hopes of recording our park ranger expertise for future activist generations:
Environmental Sustainability Mind Melding Best Practices – Field Notes from Camp
“Should you and your partner experience periods of sustained, albeit comfortable silence, such as during the eleventh hour of a standard shift and the bears have gone quiet, try to mentally swap visualization scenarios that trigger your overall well-being and transcendence into the universe. For instance: a foggy walk along a Scottish moor at dawn; being swept away by the ocean into a phosphorescent cave; drowning, but not dying; falling down an elevator shaft only to land in a pool of clouds.”
My favorite visualization:
“Walking beside a lake in the moonlight. The breeze is as light on your skin as a purr. Cattails are gently swaying, and a weeping willow’s drooping branches part to reveal the center of the lake (which perhaps is a lagoon). A white horse is swimming in circles. Swimming, and swimming, and swimming.”
One day Trudy kisses me. We are on the hood of her Jeep, splattered in mud because both Jeeps’ tires get stuck on our way out to camp. I don’t even know I want to be kissed, but then it’s happening, and so I rest my hand on her muddy thigh. She tastes like milk and Wheat Thins. It doesn’t go much further than that, but Trudy says, “I’ve been wanting to try that forever,” and I feel myself blushing.
I think: people change, values transcend, the mask of personality slips away to reveal the real you, the real everyone, which leads to endless revelation and understanding. I find myself floating away, yet tethered at the same time. The earth wants you for as long as she can.
“Do you … want to get a pizza later?” I ask, shuffling my feet around and staring at my toes. “My treat.”
Trudy stares at me, then pulls out her skinning knife and started doing impressive knife moves in the air, like a circus performer.
“Just no soup,” I say, “I can never eat soup again. I know that’s a little specific, but, I’ve just seen a lot of soup in my day, and, let me tell you, soup isn’t pretty, not if you’ve seen what I’ve seen, which, to be honest, is a lifetime’s supply of soup—good soup, bad soup, but, mostly bad soup—and no one needs that, not until their like, ninety, and I’m barely eighteen, so you can just imagine why this is a definite line for me, I just don’t see myself crossing it any time soon.”
Trudy flings the knife up in a little somersault, catches it by the handle, and then hurls it with all her might straight into the trunk of a tree several feet behind where I sit. When I turn around, I see that the blade is pinned dead in the middle of an etched-out heart, with our initials in the center: T & Z.
“Or soup,” I say. “Soup, or, whatever. Whatever you want, I’d give it a go, I’d try it again.”
These are days of levity—the wide-open skies, being in love, and talking to the bears. I log my progress on the back of a wasabi-granola bar box that Bob puts out for recycling.
Pie in the Face:
Saturday: Attempt 1, miss
It is a typical downward trend most weeks, and when the bears’ aim misses, I take it as a sign of nonchalance and boredom, as though the excitement of antagonism is wearing off.
All this puts me in a good mood, like I am finally me.
Logging my progress in Bob’s RV, I think: My soul is an elegant tiara casting rainbows on the moon’s reflection upon a pool.
I say to Bob:
“My soul is an elegant tiara casting rainbows on the moon’s reflection upon a pool.”
“A+, girlie,” says Bob, pulling dandelion petals from his fluffy, curly hair.
I mean, you starting thinking you are happy: I’ve got a job, a girl, I’m saving up for a boat (because I was saving up for a boat)—all that which comes with stability, localization, and understanding your part.
But it seems like only a few weeks go by, and everything changes. It’s almost too fast to grasp.
“Ever hear of polycarbonate-disorbon-triclosus-telehexidron?” asks Trudy, picking dirt from under her long nails with the knife. “I heard about it last night, on the news.” She begins to clean out her teeth, getting at something lodged in the gums.
“Polycarbonate-disorbon-triclosus-telehexidron?” I say. “Of course. It’s the junk in the ground everyone is talking about. At least the rich people. The energy barons, and such.”
Trudy nods. “Nature’s fuel candy. The Baron Brothers. Time to get in on the ground floor, if you know what I mean.”
“No,” I say. “What do you mean?”
Trudy hands me a flyer she has pulled from the community bulletin board:
5 PM SHARP
The Baron Brothers: Prospecting to Prosper
Come one, come all!
Dress to dance, luau, limbo, and shake it.
The Rusty Spittoon, Crimson Row, don’t forget!!!
“The Baron Brothers?” I say. They’ve been on TV, but are from a far-off city. Not our little town, surrounded by the woods. “I don’t know, Trudy, don’t you think they are kind of … bad?”
“How else do you think we’re going to make cheddar?” says Trudy. “Sitting out here, talking to these bears? You’ve been pie’d in the face twelve times this week! Is this the life you want?”
But it was. It was definitely the life I wanted. Everything was finally starting to make sense.
“I’m down by three pies total this week compared to last,” I say, producing my log. “That’s an over twenty percent decrease in one week, don’t you see what this means?”
“OK, what does it mean?”
“It means they’re getting bored! They don’t want to do this anymore, or, they won’t soon!”
Trudy glares are me. “That’s right. They’re getting bored. They won’t want to do this anymore.”
“What are you saying? Are you suggesting … wait, what?”
Trudy takes my hand. “Come with me to the Rusty Spittoon. We’ll have fun! We’ll get out of these woods. We’ll feel young again!”
But I am young. Except for this day, I’ve never been old a day in my life.
The Baron Brothers ride into town with a group of teamsters herding mules from Louisiana, each hauling a cartload of power drills and hydraulic engine parts.
“Chattel,” says a Baron Brother, by way of explanation.
The town folk cheer when the Baron Brothers lower themselves from their own elegant steeds, and a bartender from the Rusty Spittoon clad in a bikini top and mini skirt takes the reins.
“Thank you, doll,” says one of the Brothers.
“Nice horsey,” says the bartender, tiptoeing away in her high heels, leading the horses to a water trough.
One of the Baron Brothers sucks on his finger and then holds it up in the air.
“You feel that, Brother?” he asks his brother. “That’s the feeling of money that sticks.”
The other Baron Brother claps his hands together. “Sticky money!” he says.
The townsfolk hoop and holler at this. It seems to make them go wild.
“Whoo hoo!” whoops Trudy. We’re both in our swimsuits and outdoorsy boots, the only celebratory outfits we own. One of the Brothers is already eying her.
“Let’s get this party started, what do y’all say?” shouts a Brother, and everyone cheers before heading inside the Rusty Spittoon.
“I’m here to talk to you all about capital, investment, and that bountiful, beautiful, milk-filled teat, Mother Earth,” says a Baron Brother. “Do you know what it is you are sitting on? Just sitting on down here?”
“What is it? What is it we are just all sitting on down here?” we say in unison. Well, I don’t say it. I whisper it.
“Poly-di-, carboni-, tricli-, idron,” mutters us all, trying it out on our lips. It is hard to say in unison.
“PDTT for short. Yeah, she’s a mouthful. But let me just say, you’re gonna want your mouth full of this, sure as there’s a God above, smiling upon us.”
Beer mugs clink in solidarity.
“That’s right! Love that sound! That’s the sound of—” He walks over to the cash register and reaches his huge arm over the bar, and we all hear the brrrring of the drawer’s bell as it shoots open. “That’s the sound of money, honey.”
Trudy is clapping and laughing and basically crying she’s so happy. I’ve never seen any group of people so excited all at once and all together before. I look around for Bob, but he’s nowhere to be found. He’s probably in the woods, foraging for morels and setting free the mice that were live-trapped in his snack pantry.
“Trudy,” I whisper, “this guy is creepy. Look, I think he sharpens his fingernails, they are super pointy …” They are each one-inch long, like talons.
“Shhhh, he’s trying to explain something,” hisses Trudy.
I look over and one Brother is flinging the bartender up into the air and then catching her like she’s a baby. You can see her underwear up her skirt and between her legs, and she’s giggling. Then the Baron Brother tosses her over to the other Baron Brother and they start throwing her back and forth and people are jumping up and down in their seats and on the tables. The bar owner, Big Jim, looks like he might cry. I quickly wipe away a tear, like I’ve just got something in my eye.
I move myself over to the bar and drink from a lonely Tequila Sunrise. Trudy is dancing a barn dance with one of the Baron Brothers. His mustache is huge, and holds time with the music, like a conductor. He twirls her around and she spins like a whirling dervish. He elongates her backwards over his knee.
The other Baron Brother comes over to me and leans against the bar; he’s sweating from all the barn dancing. He plucks the maraschino cherry right out of my glass and winks. I slide dubiously away. He slides towards me, with purpose.
I go back up to Bob’s RV later that night, well past sundown. I can’t be alone, but I can’t be with Trudy. I feel the weight of my own personal cosmos bearing down—it is black and coated in mercury.
There is a large pile of leaves in front of the RV. I walk up to it, and it starts quivering. Two binocular lenses suddenly poke out.
“Bob, is that you?” I ask.
“Oh, thank God,” says Bob. “You came back!” He rises swiftly from the middle of the pile, and leaves flutter in all directions, stick out from his fluffy, curly hair.
“Is everything OK?”
“There’s noises coming from …” Bob points a shaking finger into the dark night that surrounds us. “Out there. Noises I can’t explain.”
We stand and listen in silence. I pick up a conch shell left near the side of one of the RV wheels, and put it up to my ear to magnify the sounds of the woods through its primitive echolocation chamber, the way Bob teaches. The wind goes by, but I hear nothing. Nothing but the sounds of the long-forgotten, dried-up sea.
The Baron Brothers immediately blow up a statue of our town’s patroness saint, Eleanora Gustava, an immigrant, seamstress, union member, and librarian, or bibliotecaria, as Eleanora would have called herself. I’m on a snack run for Bob when I hear the explosion. By the time I make it to the town square near the railroad tracks, the smoke has cleared and the Baron Brothers are using mules to cart the rubble away.
“What’s going on?” I ask a nearby police officer, who is admiring the aftermath.
“Welp,” he says, full of satisfaction.
I walk up to the remains and pull out the face of Eleanora, calm as a reflecting pool. I’m in my cargo pants and bikini top, so I don’t have anywhere to conceal the loot. A mule puts his soft muzzle to the back of my neck, moving me along.
“Yeeee haaaw!” yells a Baron Brother and shoots his pistol into the air.
I look back to the mule’s timeless eyes which seem to say I am sorry as he hauls Eleanora’s blown off leg to the trash dump.
The Baron Brothers like to play the git-tar (poorly), and they are always hogging the juke box at the Rusty Spittoon (they listen to Uncle Kracker and “Corn Star” on repeat). Sometimes they dress up as firefighters and put out fires they start on purpose as a show of strength, in order to pick up women. It’s true that our town’s womenfolk have always been drawn to displays of brazen masculinity. The real firefighters are not enthused, but they must show support, because the Baron Brothers’ local approval ratings are through the roof. The Brothers take their chattel and industrial-sized pneumatic drills out into the woods and ignite increasingly larger and longer burning natural gas explosions as they search for PTTD. The bears are only comfortable enough to circle this destructive perimeter—and so the Baron Brothers get credit for that, too. Keeping the bears at bay.
I watch from a bush as Trudy carries the Brothers trays of beer and spiked lemonade from the Rusty Spittoon, her hair up in a beehive. The bears look at the beehive with interest.
“Hssssss,” Trudy hisses at the bears before quickly dodging a gaseous firebomb unleashed from the earth as the Baron Brothers dig deeper and deeper into its crust.
“Yipes, watch out honey,” croons a Baron Brother. “Aaahhhh!” he quenches his thirst from one of the beers and then narrows his eyes at the bears surrounding him.
“Those bears bothering you, Trud?” but before she can respond he aims one of his pistols and fires. He is not actually a good shot and misses, as they lope easily away.
I rush from my hiding spot and shout, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot! Parks Department!”
“Oh no, not you again,” says the other Brother, looking up from the pit. Because both Brothers look exactly the same, I can only guess that it’s the one who tried to flirt with me at the bar, if you can even call his predatory intent flirting.
“I’m part of a municipal initiative,” I explain, but my intervention is already going downhill. “We talk to the bears, you know, with our minds, using kinetic energy. Synaesthesia, fusion of the senses? Ever heard of it? Listen, ask Trudy about it, Trudy is my partner.” We all turn to Trudy, but she is shaking her head violently like she’s trying to shut me up.
“Smells like shee-it,” says the other Brother in response. The muscles beneath his shirt are pulsing, like he’s been getting bigger and bigger, perhaps from some sort of radiation poisoning seeping out of the ground. I think of the way my old zoo boss had shown me how to swing the ice pick. “Now, stand back, time to use high-octane water pressure to release these precious chemicals and make us all a lot of money.” He blasts a firehose stream down the pit’s opening and a black fog emerges—settles into the trees, the leaves, my hair.
I explain to Bob, as we gather more dead leaves for his leaf pile—now as tall as the RV—that I’m really trying to understand things from their perspective, the attractiveness of total, non-rejuvenating destruction. I also explain that I am devising a plan for getting Trudy back. “I think she’s a bartender at the Rusty Spittoon now. I think she might be dating one of the Baron Brothers.” I am humiliated, but hopeful.
“OK, girlie,” says Bob, sticking his finger into a rogue pie that had come flying into the clearing earlier that day, and licks it. “Number one lesson for this situation, and this is God’s honest truth: Trudy is bad news. But, even more crucial: she’s a blip.”
“A blip in the universe.”
“But I thought we were all blips in the universe. In the grand scheme, I mean,” I say.
“Not me,” says Bob, as he submerges his body into the leaves, taking the pie with him.
The Baron Brothers hold a townhall meeting, and everyone is there. I sit in the back row with sunglasses on so that no one will recognize me, and so that I can freely stare at Trudy. Trudy holds a large knapsack near the front row, and whenever one of the Baron Brothers requests something, she retrieves it from the knapsack, rushes to the stage.
Trudy hurries to the stage and produces a pencil.
Trudy, having just sat back down, runs back up to the stage, offering reading glasses.
She’s back, holding up a smoking pipe.
The Baron Brother begins puffing on the pipe in his reading glasses and squinting at the crowd.
“I can barely see y’all,” he muses. He pulls the glasses off and flings them over his shoulder. “Now,” he says, “my Brother and I, we see a lot of potential in this little town of yours. We wouldn’t have come here in the first place if we didn’t. And we’ve made some promising progress so far, finding your reserves, really, just getting to the tip of the iceberg.”
I look around, and everyone is rapt. The pencil falls from the podium, and you can really hear it, even all the way in the back.
“But, I’ve gotta be honest with y’all, I don’t think we, my Brother and I, are getting the treatment we necessarily deserve. Now, we’re gonna make y’all a lot of money, and we promise you that, and we never break on a promise, right, Brother?”
The other Brother nods, and the crowd nods, too.
“But,” continues the Brother, and now he shouts, “we’ve got a real problem here! Y’all have a zoo, a zoo Brother, all the way out here in the middle of nowhere, and funding some program for what is this: talking to the bears? Honeys, let me tell y’all right now, that is yourselves ripping your own selves off.”
I feel my bear flame ignite. I focus on the peripheries of the room, with a laser focus on the stage. Night descends beyond the windows, shadows get longer on the inside.
“So, what we will need from y’all, and I need the mayor’s support on this one, is that all this funding now goes to our enterprise, which is the enterprise of the collective – do you get the picture? I’m saying what is good for my Brother and me is good for all.”
“There ain’t no y’all without ‘all’, y’all,” confirms the other Brother.
“That’s right, Brother, and there ain’t no us without y’all neither. We need a collective amen on this one.”
“Amen!” shouts the crowd. The mayor is front-row-center, jumping up from his seat and clapping harder than anyone. I look over a few rows, and there is my old boss from the zoo, going wild, trying to demonstrate to one of the Brothers how to deliver a death blow. I turn my psychic powers onto the orating Brother, to try to stop the madness, but all I come up against is something like an empty house, sealed shut by a cement door. A Baron Brother shouts, “Mask!” and Trudy scuttles back up to the stage with dark rubbery material. He pulls it over his head and it is the face of wolf; brandishing his claws, he begins howling at the moon.
Back at the Rusty Spittoon, I’m nursing a dirty beer. Trudy is my bartender, but she pretends she doesn’t know me. All the men are in wolf masks, ready to fend-off the man-eating bears. Their eyes follow Trudy as she walks back and forth. Someone spills a beer all over the front of their shirt, because it is difficult to drink beers through the mask. Trudy rushes over and dabs up the beer with a rag. The mouths of the wolves are sticky, as though they have been eating pie.
I drive slightly drunkenly back into the woods. It appears to be the middle of the night. Half-way there I see a wolf-ish creature dodge the beams of my headlights, though, judging by its loping gait, I believe it is the mayor with a wolf mask on. I pull up to the RV with a screeching halt. Bob’s leaf pile quivers in the wind.
Inside the RV I find my stash of treasures: the conch shell, the face of Eleanora, our book of mind melding field notes, and an old chap stick that Trudy had accidentally left behind. I put the conch shell and the face of Eleanora in my pocket and head to the campsite where Trudy and I kissed. There on the hood of my Jeep, I contemplate the sky, its zenith; I put on the chap stick and pucker my lips to kiss the face of the moon, so far away, but if I squint, so close. Right before it seems like I might make contact, I hear strange noises coming from the clearing where we would feed and converse with the bears; I think of Bob, hope he’s safe in his pile. Gripping the local saint’s face, I walk bravely past our treed initials and toward the sounds.
I smell the bonfire before I see it, I feel the earth move beneath my feet before I see the bear bodies keeping time to the sounds of their chants, chants that I cannot tell are out loud or only in my head. The chants turn to melody as I emerge from the brush, where the flames dance and the bears sway, singing along to a Death of a Ladies Man record on a portable record player, perhaps retrieved from the trash dump near the train tracks in town. There is the statue of Eleanora as well, reconstructed to completion with the exception of her face.
True love leaves no traces
If you and I are one
It’s lost in our embraces
Like stars against the sun
Human to Bear:
H: Do you like this? Do you even know what this is?
B: We love it! This is our new favorite thing.
H: Do you even know what love is, what it means? To truly love someone? To truly lose someone?
“‘Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.’” The weight of a paw is on my shoulder, the words fall from a bear’s own lips.
But there are no words for me.
I pull Eleanora’s face from my pocket and put it in its rightful place upon the statue. There. Completion.
The mood of the bears becomes celebratory. They begin chanting their own chant and shuffling through the forest in their own version of a mambo, improvised, seemingly, on the spot. They sing, high-paw, and engage in the festive tell-tale signs of a hootenanny. Rejected, I turn my face to the moon.
Lost, I careen back down to the Rusty Spittoon. Trudy is alone, sweeping up peanut shells and bottle caps; her beehive is frazzled. The juke box is unmanned, so I stick my quarters in it and sway the way of the bears. I turn and take Trudy’s hands in mine, twirl her, bring her back to me.
So we’re dancing close, the band is playing Stardust
The balloons and paper streamers they’re floating down on us
She says, “You’ve got a minute left to fall in love”
In solemn moments such as this I have put my trust
I can tell that the wolves are peeping in through the windows.
“What do you say, Trudy?” I ask. “Let’s scram.”
But Trudy shakes her head and the disheveled beehive sways sadly in the space above our heads. She shows me her hand.
“Guess I’m engaged,” she says, and shrugs. A wolf claw is tapping on the glass. He’s pointing at his wristwatch, telling me it’s time to go.
The Baron Brothers have set up a parts manufacturing warehouse and are calling in backups for more drill dates. The local townsfolk are pushing for a full-throttle entrepreneurial approach, just as the Baron Brothers have advised. This is the town’s economic boom.
I put my ear to the conch shell—I hear the Shaman drum, the beat of the war path, from centuries past.
Originally, I was worried about the bears. I didn’t know how they would take it, the Baron Brothers’ intrusion of their turf. But the bears—they seem fine. I see them now coming out of the bank, the grocery store, cloaks around their shoulders, a briefcase in paw. They’ve adapted to the changing tides more swiftly than anticipated, and the community has embraced them. Why, the townsfolk say from behind their wolf masks, eating pie thoughtfully, they see something of themselves in those bears when they were coming up. The Baron Brothers appear to appreciate the bears’ change of heart, though, it’s hard to say whether they even notice much beyond the rims of their blasting holes. I walk past the Rusty Spittoon and a bear walks out on its hind legs holding a chain leash clipped to our mayor’s collar. The mayor moves on all fours, but, apparently, has been tamed.
I meander over to the zoo, the painted sign flaking off in the breeze—touch a flipper, get a cone. There is algae growing in most of the day pools now. A bear serves me my soft serve and I say, “How do you like the new job? Do you like the feeling of work? Do you like having a purpose?” and the bear says, “Just looking for a change. Don’t really like answering a lot of questions.” He looks like he’s seen some things.
We eat our ice cream cones (me: one, bear: all the rest) in awkward silence.
I return to the woods, to the RV, to the trembling pile of leaves. Bob is poking his head and torso out of the pile’s center, cocking his ear to what is being carried on the wind. I sit cross-legged on the earth beside him and stare outwards.
“Do you hear it?” he says anxiously. “Do you hear what I’m hearing? All around?”
But I see it before I hear it, smell the smoke coming before I feel the burn.
All the animals I have ever seen, ever released; a roaming zoo, a menagerie of colors on the perimeter going around and around, like a carousel, like an ark upon the sea, searching for home.
Jennifer Lynn Christie‘s short stories have appeared in PANK, Atticus Review, Memorious, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Oregon State University in 2013, and is currently working on a dual MLS and MIS degree in Information and Library Science at Indiana University.