CYCLE OF LIFE
(Copyright 2021 by Richie Swanson)
I leaned my bicycle against a big yellow backhoe, and flute notes whirred up the scale, airy and then musical and reedy and fast, ringing with the same frenzied chords I had heard as I had pedaled past woods and streams from Ohio to the Mississippi headwaters to the Rockies to the Olympic Peninsula–a bird too shy to see from my bicycle seat, my mystery thrush, its song vibrating round and round the construction site, rising, sinking, haunting the dusk.
I had ridden ninety miles since morning, and now I plopped on gravel and leaned against a tire of the Caterpillar backhoe, sizing up a sleeping place. Moisture seeped up coolly from Hood Canal, and the cap of an amber moon inched above dark hills, and twinges leapt in my shins–spirits, I wrote in my notebook, little Tinker Bells trapped inside my flesh, fluttering against my bones.
Giant brooding firs dwarfed an industrial crane at the edge of the lot, promising a soft bed of dry needles on the ground, but my spirits did not want me to stay the night. Nor did they want me to ride south in the morning to the Columbia River. My spirits wanted me to climb three miles back to Seatco, sleep in a baseball dugout, turn around in the morning, ride west through Olympic Park and camp on the beach where I had quit my trip last summer.
Whet! went the thrush. Whet! All whet! And I agreed. I’d toss Jimmy Doug Thunder–my bike–into the surf before I’d go back to that beach.
I wrapped my sweater around my legs, chilled suddenly. The moon was full, but a curve darkened the bottom rim, shaped like a fingernail. The shadow of what? A water tower? The crown of mill stack?
The moon beamed white, climbing a full hand above the hills, and the curve got wider, too high to be cast by any building, even skyscrapers. The curve got bigger than any blimp or plane, as black as the air between the stars, as dense as the shadows between the fir trees, and I thought maybe the moon had really lost a chunk, the earth might reel and shake, or Mount St. Helens might erupt again.
But the fir around the lot did not sway. The ground did not list. Tires crunched across gravel, headlights lit the lot, and my spine went slack against the tire of the Cat.
I put up a hand to block the glare of a spotlight from a patrol car.
“Evening, bub.” The powerful white light panned the sleeping bag and tent mounted above the bike’s back tire, the tight-knit stitches Kit had sewed on a rear pannier and my handlebar bag sagging heavily above the front tire.
I tossed my sweater from my legs, so the cop could see my other hand, and he turned off the light and stared from his seat, thick-lipped in a deep shadow, hatless, his nose big and crooked. He waved a silver hand-hook along the width of the lot, clawing the air. “What you doing here?”
“I see that.”
“I came by and saw the moon. I stopped and started to watch. It’s missing a piece.”
“It’s an eclipse, bub.”
I laughed, yipping high from habit, from whooping at the tops of hills, cheering on the way down. I would never have thought of an eclipse, and I tried to smile warmly.
The cop narrowed his gaze and hung his hand-hook down the outside of his door, bracing it above a black-and-white insignia. Seatco City Police. “What you doing here by all this machinery?”
“I rode by and saw the moon and didn’t know what it was.”
“You look pretty damned comfortable.”
A snake leapt up inside my chest, hissing cold and then suddenly hot, but I nodded lamely. “I left the ferry at Port Townsend at four o’clock, and this is as far as I got.”
“You have any drugs with you?”
“You mind if I look in your bags?”
“In Connecticut you’d need a warrant.”
“Don’t mouth me, bub. This is private property, and you’re trespassing. We’ll take your bike apart piece by piece if we want.”
“How far you come?”
“From Ohio. My girlfriend died, and I didn’t know what to do. I decided to buy a bike and ride across the country.”
The cop watched me as I drew my knees to my chest, his face backing slowly into the darkness of the car, his eyes deep oval pits. I had told him a string of lies, and I wished I had not.
“Let me see your identification,” he said.
I walked to the car, and he took my license in his hook and glowered at it, his face pulling roughly from a blunt chin, his scalp bulging beneath a buzz cut, not a hint of hair on cheeks that sucked meanly above yellowed teeth. “You’re from Ohio, and you got a Connecticut driver’s license?”
“My parents live in Connecticut, and I went to college in Ohio.”
“Did you graduate?”
“Magna cum laude.”
“Don’t, bub, I hear stories every day. Don’t wise-ass me–or any officer.”
“What’s your name?”
“You want to read it, it’s right there, and it’s not bub, I’ll tell you that. You think it’s bub, sound out the syllables, see what you get.”
His arm popped out straight, and the hook nearly clipped my waist, wiggling, pointing at the backhoe. “Sit back there! Wait! Don’t say a word!”
His window glided up. A yellow light came on in the car. He bent his head seriously.
I went to the Cat and propped my ass against the step of its cab. Me and my mouth! Water-treatment tablets were the only drug in my bags, yet I had sassed about a search.
And Kit was not dead, I had not graduated, my bike was not new, and my eyes were probably bloodshot from riding, bleary as if I had been toking all day. I got off the Cat and sat on the gravel. I begrudged private property, and I looked it. My hair was long and curly and tangled, ratty, bleached as blond as a beach bum’s, and my hat had come from a ditch in North Dakota–a grain-elevator cap spotted with tractor grease and mud. My tee shirt was as thin as the brown paper towels from public bathrooms, dotted with holes from sun and sweat and flecks of dead skin. My shorts were a pair of white, cotton, cooking pants I had stolen while I had worked at Howard Johnson’s, and I had cut them so short with my Swiss army knife they did not always hide my balls. But my shoes were cool–black Rogues from Hungry Hill Cycling Catalogue, streaked with red bolts of lightning, though worn in places to the mesh that held them together.
The cop lowered his window, and I got up again.
“You’re quite a little guy to be out like this,” he said.
Five-one, one-hundred twenty pounds, my license said. But I nodded quietly.
“You got a light for that bike?” he said.
“I strap a flashlight on the front bag,” I said.
“You can’t camp here, you know.”
“Any place in town?”
“Forest Service land five miles south.”
“Thank you very much.”
“I’m coming back, and if you’re still here, you’ll get fined, searched and charged for whatever we find. Stay out of construction sites, and when you get caught, keep your lip to yourself.”
He held out my license in his hook, and the aluminum clicked sharply as I took it.
He scowled, and then his car bumped slowly out the lot and sped up the hairpin turn toward Seatco–a two-cafe town, no fast food or supermarket yet, just old company houses turned into private homes, and a main street with mostly empty stores and a low concrete rain roof above a central sidewalk, and log booms on the canal and enormous billows of yellowish smoke that had spewed from a thimble-shaped stack, smelling dry and poisonous like cigarette filters, gluey like burning chipboard.
Gears ground down the road, and a log truck blatted around the hairpin turn, followed by a stream of cars. Five miles down the highway in the dark? With no shoulder and cedar branches hanging from banks?
I started toward a portable toilet to pee, but it stood out in the moonlight between an office trailer and a truckload of rebar, and I wouldn’t go near those things. I went down to riprap, and I saw the gap in the moon had waned and grown lopsided, fuzzy. Its reflection wobbled in the water, and I felt cusps of shadow flit down my body, spider breaths hidden in the moist air, tiny waves of coolness, flutters again.
I climbed the bank, and an old beater squealed into the lot, sliding on gravel, a headlight out, its bumper as crooked as the gap in the moon, its body brownish. My sweater lay in a lump, and I walked straight toward it, but the car skidded on stones and stopped beside the Caterpillar before I got near my bike.
A teenager jumped out of the driver’s seat, a head taller than I, a black denim shirt open to a lanky chest. Two more doors opened. A fat fellow with a pimply face and chunky wads of greasy hair waddled around the hood of the car, squeezing a beer can, and a big broad wrestler rose heavily from the back seat, eyeing me darkly, folding beefy arms across a sweat shirt.
“We hear there’s a wise ass in town!” said the driver.
“It must be me!” I said, trying to smile warmly again.
“A bub in town!” The driver walked to me and slammed his palms against my shoulders. I flew back and then scrambled sideways, and he came raising a fist. I stopped and faced him.
“Hey!” I said.
“A bub who goofed on our cop!” he said.
“I didn’t goof on your cop!”
The driver shoved me again, and I caught myself on my heels. I sidestepped again, circling toward my bike, and Meat Arms shuffled in front of it, spread out his legs, settled his weight down into his biceps and boots.
The driver barked at me, his breath yeasty and sour on my cheeks, so close it rushed across my lips. “You come right into our town, and you bad mouth our cop!”
“He’s an officer!”
“You just said cop yourself!”
The driver shoved me again, and I threw up my hands, keeping them open, lifting them carefully.
“What you doing?” I said. “Back off!”
“He’s the one!” said Greasy. “Hit him, Mort! He’s the bub, the wise ass!”
“I’m not wising off,” I said. “I told your cop I was sorry, and I’m telling you too. I’m sorry.”
“You’re assing off!” Mort pumped his fists, snapping his head high. “You assed off to our cop!”
I hustled sideways again, shaking my head no, no, no. Mort followed, I headed toward my bike again, and Meat Arms slouched beside it, leaning against the Cat, watching my feet.
Mort rushed me, and I circled back toward the office and john, and he shoved my shoulders again.
“You assed off!” he said. “Admit it!”
“I’m sorry, I said. I told your cop, and I’m telling you.”
“You goofed on his hand!”
“He said you did!”
“I’m sorry, I said.”
Mort grabbed my shirt, I pulled away, and he stumbled a little, trying to keep up, and Meat Arms watched us with a surly, sleepy gaze, turning his head slowly against the Cat.
Greasy threw his beer can against my elbow. I squatted down and whipped the can backward, wishing its jagged edges into the canal, but they clapped on rock.
Mort came, and I hopped up. He shoved me backward again, and I circled back toward the office trailer.
“Hit the little fuck!” said Greasy. “Haul off! Let the shit have it!”
“Lay off!” I said. “The cop is coming back, and you’re all under age, and he’ll bust every one of you!”
Mort shoved me, and my butt fell against wooden steps, the office. I got up and circled in front of the john, an electric pole, a gray box at eye-level. I saw a loose iron bar lying on the truck, short enough to swing, long enough to block blows. I shot past it and circled toward my bike, and Mort swaggered after me, clenching fists.
Greasy slapped his fist into his palm. “The fuck’s pimping you, Mort! Grab him! Hold him! Pound him! He’s assing you, now ass him back!”
Mort hunched over me, and I threw up my hands again, and he punched my right, hurting its heel. I circled back toward the truck, the bar in my mind a club in my grasp, a split in his brow, and then Meat Arms was off the Cat, past my bike, stepping our way.
Mort shoved me again, and I waved my arms and shook my head no again. Mort shoved me harder, and I flew back and slammed the butt of a fist against the box on the pole. The cover popped open. A phone inside. I grabbed the receiver, cocked it beside my ear and punched its digits, not knowing what numbers I hit. I shook the receiver at Mort. He thrust his chin above me, and I glared up past his Adam’s apple into his big excited eyes, knowing I could reach the bar, swing it fully against his waist and then swing again, aiming for the side of Meat Arm’s neck.
“If you shove me again, I will tell the state police,” I said. “I will tell them your license plate, the make of your car and right where we are. I will tell them, and you will have to deal with them.”
Mort’s shoulder swayed, and he lifted his fists tentatively from his hips, glancing back, and I saw the muscles sink in Meat Arm’s face. I dropped the phone and hurried past Mort, my elbow brushing his denim, the suck of his beer breath hot on my nape.
I stared at my sweater and angled past Meat Arms, glimpsing the swivel of his head, an upward sigh, his body swelling, the dark draining from his eyes and petering into little dots.
Greasy wrinkled up his lips, bobbing out of my way, and I put on my sweater and then my gloves, watching my fingers, afraid they would fumble. I grabbed my handlebars and pushed Jimmy Doug Thunder away from the Cat and car and teens.
The free wheel ticked, the tires crunched grit and gravel, the boys made no sound.
At the pavement I slid the hard sole of a Rogue into a toe clip and stared straight ahead. The highway climbed through a blue-black glow of milk and then curved sharply into a tunnel of giant trees.
I pedaled up, my breath biting tightly beneath my chest, and I climbed unable to see my hands, my front bag, the road, the woods. My tires crackled invisibly against black asphalt, and the sound dissolved into the black smells of thimbleberry, the black of ancient musty moisture, the black weight of black-massive trunks.
The grade gave way, and I straddled the bike, still hearing nothing from the construction site.
Ahead, a white guardrail stood out at the bottom of the hill, and the canal glowed beside the road. The gap in the moon was gone. The eclipse was over. I coasted away.
I slept in a grove of granddaddies a short walk from the highway, and at dawn I packed my bike from my knees, hiding behind a windfall, and screams cracked the air, sounding shrill and weak. Scree! Scree! Scree! I rolled Jimmy Doug Thunder to the edge of the trees and peered up and down a logging road, afraid the boys were finishing an all-night drunk, hurting a bird or animal they had somehow caught.
But the brown beater was nowhere, and fireweed rippled near the top of a stump field.
A woman rose in front of a tent, wearing a copper jersey, or so I thought. She looked along the hill toward the screams, her eyes big and moist and mink-colored, her boobs bobbing firmly, nice and plump and dark-nippled. Her hair swiped her shoulders lustrously, and damn, she was deeply tanned, and her stomach sucked in, flat and supple and dewy-looking. She turned and bent down, and her ass arched, tight as an unripe peach, and she got up again and pulled a burgundy sweater over her head and halfway down her panties.
The screes got loud. Eeee! Eeee!
The woman’s cheeks tensed, ruddy and smooth. Her panties inched against pink blossoms, looking puffy, filled with fur, and a child called from the tent. “Mom?”
I heaved my bike and its damned heavy gear around and shoved the wheels straight down through the trees, ripping brush and snapping twigs. A kid, a family, holy shit! Camped just one-hundred yards above my sleeping place–on what? Their own land?
A mom, a hunk with mink eyes, mink hair, sleek, quiet, sure-footed. Jesus!
I pushed out of the woods, and screes came suddenly close. A young hawk flapped stubby wings, hopping along the highway bank, its breast a fluffy mess of creamy feathers. It screamed toward a dark lump lying half-buried in pea flowers, and I walked to the lump and nudged it with my Rogue, and my foot was warmed by the soggy breast of a red-tailed hawk, an adult.
The young hawk hopped nearer, and its yellow-rimmed eyes bulged at me. Eeee! Eeeeee!
I slid my Rogue from beneath the dead hawk, and I thought of fawns sprawled cockeyed beside roads. Turtles splattered to bloody chips. Flickers crawling with ants. Snakes as flat as tortillas. Possums and groundhogs and beavers bloated and stinking. Dead-lying fox with bloody snouts. Kingbirds stuck in radiator grilles. Pretty little kitties with skulls cracked open. I had grown used to run-over critters the same way I got used to beer cans flying out of cars, R.V. mirrors sticking halfway into shoulders, and the sucking blasts of passing trucks. Uneasily.
I was still four miles short of Forest Service land, and I let go my brake levers, soared down, heard lines for my notebook.
This morning a Mink Woman
looked at death becoming
all but naked
looked through fireweed risen
from the death
of fir, spruce, hemlock, cedar
looked at a fledgling hawk
that will not be fed
while I looked
at its lifeless parent
the Mink Woman
looked at dying,
and did she know?
The two-lane twisted up from Hood Canal and rolled through the national forest, the wren and thrush and tanager sang, and so did I, sometimes lonely love songs, but not always, not much.
The morning fog burned off, and Mount Rainier floated up in the east, immense and snowy, dreamy with blue shadows, and then a four-lane took me west, and I turned south onto Highway 101, hoping to take a month to ride to San Francisco before I holed up in some little town to work and write in my notebooks.
Maybe Kit had been right, always claiming I only wanted to chase my own spirits with my own ink, to scrub my own balls in my own tub, never to surrender: two Februarys ago, she had eased into the dark air of our room in an old Ohio farmhouse, her breasts and stomach and thighs winter-white, hair damp and ravishing, smelling of shampoo, her face slick from a steaming shower, shiny from skiing all afternoon with the men’s cross-country team.
She had slid into bed, had held my hand on my thigh, had stared at the old plaster of our ceiling. “You know what Donny thinks?”
Donny the ski captain, crack student in International Finance. I grunted.
“Donny thinks if you want to bicycle across the country, you should start in June, not in May. He thinks you should fly to Seattle and ride to Boston with the prevailing wind.”
“No, we can start here in May. The Midwest will be flat, and we can build ourselves up across Indiana and Illinois. You can do it, Kit. Come on, come with me!”
“I’m gonna finish my classes. I’m gonna get off this damned Ohio campus, and I’m gonna get back east and do my internship at Nordex.”
“You can take the same classes next fall.”
“You know school’s too hard for me. You know if I quit I won’t come back.”
“Just work until August and meet me in Seattle. Just ride with me down the coast.”
“As if I had no bills.”
“You’ll work and pay bills your whole life.”
“And you’re gonna pay my goddamned interest?”
“I’ll light your goddamned interest on fire.”
I had drawn her close, and she had sunk against me, crying warm tears across my cheek, and my erection had swelled hard and hot, but my gut had roiled clammy and cold, and I was afraid Kit would roll away and cling to one of the long line of Donnys and Larrys and Montys who ogled her, bantering, hanging on her glances and giggles.
Yet she had shortened her internship, had ridden a bus three days from Connecticut to the Olympic Peninsula to meet me last August, and the day her derailleur had broken, she had even chirped secretly in my ear as we had walked our bikes across the parking lot of a resort. “You know, Arden, you’re a morbid bastard, but I like your cock a whole lot better than his.”
A middle-aged proprietor had leaned forward from the open hood of a car, his sweat suit a funny dark beige in the deep shade of old-growth trees, and then clearly not a sweat suit at all, but a big bare belly and a shrunken pud sucking backward into a dull wad of tawny pubic hair as if retreating from the gray Pacific breeze.
I tried to keep my eyes on his face, knowing Kit and I had made an honest mistake, assuming a billboard for Naked Shores had pointed us toward a beach resort named for bare rocks and cliffs.
The man grinned with new white dentures, nodding nonchalantly. “What can I do for you two kids?”
“We have a derailleur falling off a bike, and we walked up here looking for an Allen wrench,” I said.
“We dropped ours in the Hoh River,” said Kit.
“She’s being nice, saying we,” I said. “I put it on top of a bridge and looked at the bike and–”
“In it went,” said Kit.
The man lifted a socket wrench and screwdriver from beneath the car’s hood. “I got these, but no bike tools, but there’s a cyclist here, a German.” He stepped suddenly to a woven-wire gate, moving without compunction, his belly and pud bouncing in perfect time with his jowls. “You should see him, his bike’s loaded down just like yours. He said he started in Anchorage and came all the way down the Cassiar Highway. He said he’s gonna ride his bike clear to Panama, and then he’s gonna sail across the Caribbean on his own boat. He’s gonna go to Nassau.” The man opened the gate and waved his wrench like an usher’s baton, gleaming at Kit, bowing her way. “Go on in, it’s fine. If you want breakfast, let me know.”
Cedar-sided cottages flanked a damp dirt road, and pink and yellow bodies moved inside solarium-style porches. Steam rose from hot tubs, and a woman with sagging breasts and a thatch of sparse red hair came out of a food hall, carrying a tray smelling of vanilla coffee, warm chocolate croissants, sesame-flavored sausage, blackberry pancakes.
“Meals are all you can eat,” said the man. “If you want to stay, I got a cancellation. It’s just fifty bucks.”
Kit looked at the wool socks and sandals on the man’s feet and then boldly up his body, and she was as great-looking as ever–chin raised, blue bandana hanging pert on sun-streaked hair, blond, blue eyes twinkling, shoulders swaying as if she were about to shudder. “You want me to strip?”
The man blushed like a teenager, and the old snake leapt in my chest, and I hurried my bike through the gate and walked dead ahead, gawking straight through windows, looking for the German cyclist. Finally Kit rolled her bike beside me, shining her eyes, and I glared high into spruce and watched little mousey birds–kinglets–dart in and out of gray-green moss that hung like shriveled hair from limbs. And I thought maybe in some myth human hair had been drawn up from corpses underground—had been tickled up by roots and sucked up through trunks–had turned to moss and had been left to dangle and discolor to remind the people below that we could flirt as much as we wanted, could be as jealous and stupid as the trees stand high, but in the end each of us would die and decompose, and though we believed we might ascend to the spirit world, really we wouldn’t get halfway out of the rain forest with our head hairs and body hairs intact.
“What do you mean, morbid?” I said.
“Nothing.” Kit leaned against me, smiling. “It’s too cold here to be nude, don’t you think?”
“Come on, Kit, what?”
She sighed as if we were both at the bottom of a big hill, too tired to pedal up. “You suck me and fuck me, and you howl and come, and then you won’t talk to me. You get up, and all you want to do is look at the trees and listen to the birds.”
I fought anger, pushing my bike past smaller cottages that had no solariums, and whose occupants seemed to share a single, central, hot tub.
“You snug up this morning, and then you break the news. Suddenly you tell me you won’t go back to school, and you’ll never live in Connecticut again,” said Kit.
I watched spruce needles stick muddily to my front tire, sure I had already written her those decisions, seeing myself print the words on an I-miss-you card, remembering the envelope falling through the brass-bordered slot in the lobby of a cinder-block post office in North Dakota.
“You do whatever you want,” she said. “I don’t.”
“What about Sam at Nordex?” I said.
“I can’t wind surf with a friend?”
“And Dennis the tennis boy?”
“You want to charge him for every set?”
I blew wind through my lips, defeated, clearly in the wrong, and then Gart called out from the top of his porch steps. “Hey, hal-lo!”
He smiled a handsome white grin, nodding a clean bronze chin above an Austrian sweater, his hips baby-white from cycling briefs, his dick extra-meaty and extra-long. It curled down from a springy mass of corn silk, and its tip rubbed like a big lazy slug against a rock-hard thigh. “Luke!” he said. “Luke at this!”
“Don’t you wish?” said Kit.
“Shore, shore,” laughed Gart, nodding gamely. “Haff coffee, please. It’s gude. It’s very nice cream here.”
“What about an Allen wrench?” I said.
We introduced ourselves, and he went inside and then tossed down a beautiful silver tool made of a super-light alloy from Europe. I thanked him and propped Kit’s bike against his cottage and knelt down, and Kit sidled across the porch above me, chatting with Gart, smoothing her tone, sweetening her voice. She eased against him gracefully, fingering his sleeve, and he laughed again. “Shore, shore, I really believe you. You come all the way into Naked Shores only to look for the wrench and the wilderness and not at the men here?”
“What?” said Kit. “A guy going to Panama? I want Australia, Asia, Europe. I want to take a bicycle ride, not a day trip.”
“A little girl like you, and all those foreign men who grab eff’ry-ting they want?”
I dropped the wrench through spokes, and the derailleur flopped against my knee. “Kit,” I said, wanting help.
“I think if you take her bags off her bike, it will be more easy,” said Gart. “Mine come off clip-clip.”
“What if you just hold the derailleur’s arm?” I said.
“Shore, shore.” Gart padded down the steps and bent beside me, pressing a thigh warmly against my shoulder. He grabbed the derailleur, his dick swayed heavily. Kit peered down at it, and I smelled musk from his balls, scented soap. I tightened the bolt, and Kit went on eyeing him as he straightened up, and he nodded boyishly at me, his smile tight, his head-hair silky too, as sun-lightened as mine. “Gude, very gude,” he said. “And now you two go to the beach, and you stay together at the backpack camp?”
I shot a look at Kit, afraid she would invite him, and she shot one back, telling me to cool my anger.
“You haff a rope?” said Gart. “Yesterday I rent a kayak, and I paddle in the waves past this camp, and they call it the bear camp.”
“We got a rope,” I said. “We know how to tie our food good and high.”
“Shore, shore,” said Gart. “I tie my food eff’ry night from Anchorage, I put up the bag high. But then there is branches cracking, and a big brown nose pokes from the bush. Mama Grizzly comes, and I haff to make a lot of noise.”
Gart banged make-believe pots in his hands, shaking himself beneath Kit, and she squealed as if I was tickling her, and I leapt up and slammed a fist against his nape. I shoved his back, tripping him at his ankle, and he crashed down, and I dove onto him and cuffed his head, and his spine heaved up, and I drove a knee against it, and I knew I was an ass, and I got up, and he rolled and lunged, but I was already on my bike, flying down the dirt road.
Kit shouted my name, and a lanky guy in his thirties pushed out the gate of his hot-tub station, water dripping from black body-hair, and he eyed me as if to stop me.
I yelled like a fool as I bolted past him, “I haff on my clothes!”
The proprietor looked up suddenly from his car’s engine, and I felt giddy, screaming as I pumped onto the parking lot. “I haff on my shorts!”
I rode out to the pavement and to the end of the highway, and I dragged Jimmy Doug Thunder down the beach and pitched my tent in the backpack site where Kit and I had planned. I had I waited the whole day and then another. I had stayed by a fire in clear view, and Kit could have found me easily, but I never saw her again, and I knew we were too different too blame each other.
I soared down a long steep straightaway and bumped over a railroad crossing, and a low brick building rose between the highway and Willapa Bay, checkered with faded letters a half-story high. NORTH RIVER CANNERY, EST. 1903.
There were workers in slickers outside, and a chunky twenty-year-old with frizzy hair like Greasy rolled a fish tote through a door. But he didn’t waddle like Greasy, and he wasn’t really heavy enough, and I pedaled past and turned down into a parking lot for docks, and I rolled Jimmy Doug Thunder along a bank of beach grass, and I sat against a drift log and ate sandwiches six inches high, fuel for miles ahead.
Fog swallowed islands. A big black mother cloud blew in. Rain pelted down about as cold and hard as hail. I hustled back across the highway and hauled the bike up onto the porch of a general store housed in half of an old logging building, the renovated headquarters of a defunct mill. I sat on a bench beneath a great high overhang and read until a pickup slammed to a noisy stop and backed into a space below me, a rifle mounted in the rear window. A big broad guy with heavy-set arms got out. Meat Arms. He held the driver’s door open in the rain and spoke sulkily into the truck. “That all?”
He clunked up the steps to the porch and saw me, and his lips broadened into a chummy smile. He turned around and went down again, his shoulders swelling in a dark slicker, his feet suddenly springy in black rubber boots. A blur of a blond raised a shapely chin behind the windshield. She stared obliviously up the road, the rain banging and spattering on the glass. The rain gusted in nasty gray clouds, and I would be damned if I would leave my shelter.
Meat Arms bent over a side panel of the truck’s bed and then came up to the porch again, peeling the last two beers from six plastic ring-tops. He stood beside my bike and gazed at my stuff, and then he set a can beside my thigh. He sidled in front of me, and I held my face expressionless, looking down at my paperback.
“I’m Derek.” He sat down, his slicker bumping coolly against my elbow. “I’m sorry about last night. We wouldn’t a’ hurt you, you know. Mort gets like that when he gets drunk, but he always gives up. He always gets too chicken to really wail on anyone who doesn’t deserve it.”
I ran my tongue along my teeth, containing myself, and Derek reached across my lap and popped open my beer. He snapped open his own and put his big groping hands on his knees, wiping off the spray. “Really, my man, you look like you’ve come a long way. Where you from?”
I dug my thumb into the side of the paperback, letting my glance creep to his truck again. His girl seemed to adjust the radio, and his elbow prodded my biceps.
“Sometimes Henry and I work on his uncle’s boat, and we’ll take you out if you want,” he said. “We’ll show you the islands. We’ll see Indians fishing, and whales and dolphins, and we’ll take you to some chicks we know, girls in heat every time we dock.” He pulled away his elbow, and I was afraid I would flinch if I looked in his eyes.
“The cop told us your name, but I forget it,” he said.
“Arden.” I got up and took my wallet from my front bag and stuffed it visibly into my back pocket. I watched him watch me. I walked to the door of the store and grabbed its handle. “Get out of here,” I said. “Get off that bench and stay away from my bike and get down to your girl, or I’ll go in, and I’ll call the state police again.”
Derek put down his beer, gripped the bench, worked his jaws. “You think you can sleep wherever you want, and you can shit wherever you squat,” he said. “You think you’re too cock-sucking good to listen to me, don’t you?”
A door opened down the porch, and a skinny little guy came out, keys in hand–Ash, I would learn.
“Can you get the license plate from that red pickup?” I said.
Ash hurried across the porch and leaned into the rain, a mass of black hair hanging straight down to the butt of his black balloon pants. He read the plate out loud and then repeated it, his face thirtyish, so pale he looked albino. He arched his eyebrows at Derek, and Derek lumbered up and lifted his beer and guzzled. He clunked to the top of the steps and set his half-empty can at the top of the banister. He clunked down and got in his cab and grinned to himself, mildly amused.
His tires screamed and shot a backward splash, and he turned around and gunned his truck out of town, heading toward the Columbia River, and I asked Ash if there was another road I could bike to the Oregon line.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Ash. “I can give you a ride.”
“No, thanks, I started to ride this stretch last summer, and I got cut short,” I said. “I split up with a girl, and I had to quit.”
Ash gave me the same sudden browbeating he had just delivered Derek, but he spoke gently. “Come on in. Bring your stuff.”
I followed him through his door into an enormous, high-ceilinged room that had exercise mats on the floor, an antique chair and desk in a far corner, an old oak bookcase, a new stereo, almost nothing else. White roll-paper covered every inch of the storefront glass, and Ash’s hair was already receding high up his forehead, looking dead from too much dye. His eyes weren’t pink enough for an albino, just bloodshot, quite tall in his narrow little face, and they grew as densely blue as a mussel shell when he reached into a drawer and pulled out a bong. “Have a hit?”
I said no, but he sucked the tube, bubbles gurgled and sang, smoke smelled sweet, and he packed another bowl, and I said yes.
He brought out a jar of water flavored by a lump of apricots at the bottom, the fruits looking like slabs of rotten peach-flesh, stringy with dark fibers. “I’m fasting, cleansing,” he said, and he drained the thin brown liquid as if it were an ice-cold soda.
“You know that guy?” I said.
“He’s been on the beach before, drinking,” said Ash, “but I better warn you, I don’t really know anyone but God.” He lifted his hands palms-up, and his eyes blazed. “I was called here last year, and I’m going to turn this into a meditation center.”
He tumbled head-over-hands to the center of a mat and shed his sandals with two deft flicks of his feet, and then he planted his hands, raised his feet slowly into the air and gleamed at me upside-down. “Seven minutes a day I stand on my head, sometimes more. It gives the evil that builds up in our balls a chance to flow down and spread through my arms and fingertips and then through the floorboards, and then Earth drinks it up, and she channels it into ten thousand forms of water, and I get up, and I don’t worry about desire anymore. All my old girls, they’re nothing, even my ex-wife. I don’t go looking. I just give it up, and God gives me calls. He sent me out the door, and there you were.”
With evil in my balls? Evil from where? I didn’t ask. I had been on the bike two months, gobbling six thousand calories a day, drinking gallons and gallons of water, and as muscles had grown hard, a mountain stream had surged inside me, feeling clear and swift, bubbling with a joy that had seemed improbable, since I had been cut from every high school sport I had tried.
Ash spread his legs and held his pose, looking as trim as a gymnast, and he breathed rhythmically through his nose as his face flushed.
“You ride all those miles, and your body generates all kinds of sarcolactic acid, and it builds up in your balls, and they spend all that time crunched against the saddle, so guys like Derek, they smell you,” he said.
“Maybe you smelled me too,” I said.
He shook his head gingerly against the mat, laughing, “No, I was directed. I felt it. I was moved.” He tucked his head, rolled forward, sat thoughtfully. “I do know that guy. I remember him from the paper. He’s from Seatco. He killed an old man last winter, driving drunk after bars. It was drizzling, and Derek hit the guy in the middle of the road and knocked him onto a sidewalk. He drove that truck all the way to Wenatchee before the cops picked him up, and then he said he thought the bump had been one of those orange traffic barrels. The old guy didn’t have any family, and Derek got off.”
I got up and cracked the door. The rain had stopped, and I saw no red pickup, and the slosh of traffic sounded light.
“We’ll put your bags in my trunk and tie your bike to the top of the car,” said Ash. “You can forget about Derek. I have to go to Astoria for groceries anyway.”
“You’re fasting,” I said.
“Did you see the eclipse?”
“Did it touch you?”
“It’s like that. The breath is on me. It says, `Give this bro a ride, so he can stay free of the beast.’”
A green compact–his karma car–was parked by the dock, and I walked down with him, my mind floating, my eyes gawking from the pot. The bay glowed pearly and white, and thrushes hurled their chords as if through the earliest grays of dawn.
The flute notes dripped heavily through fog. They reverberated through rain-and-sea scent, rang and whirred and sank and seeped down into cinnamon-colored humus. They burst out again and receded as dreamily as the mist in the spruce, and I wanted to tell Ash, but I didn’t. Earth and water, yes. But desire too.
“Don’t ride down to Astoria just because you lost your girl,” he said. “Derek is out there, and he’s real, and a year’s too long to hold on. Let it go. I’ll drop you wherever you want.”
He popped open his trunk, and I said good-bye and rode Jimmy Doug Thunder onto the highway.
Jimmy for Hendricks, Purple Haze, the theme of the junior prom I did not attend. Doug for the fir. Thunder for the torrent down the mountain and the clap inside the surf.
Past town, I climbed a wide, safe shoulder up another long, steep straightaway, and the pot didn’t bother my legs, but mufflers shot bullets, and air brakes jolted my nerve.
An engine revved and slowed behind my back tire, and I stomped on the pedals, swerving onto the grit between the pavement and guardrail.
The green compact idled on my left, and Ash leaned over its gear stick. “Bro, hey, bro!” He saw my fear. “Sorry!” I was squeezed between the bike’s crossbar and the guardrail, and I stayed put. “Here!” He tossed a baggie of apricots out the passenger’s window, and I caught it and saw a couple of joints pressed between the fruit and plastic.
He turned off the car. “I had to tell you,” he said. “I heard a question.” He lifted his chin, his teeth gaped horse-like, his brow rose as delicately as a woman’s. “What if your girl was dead?”
“What!” I said.
“What if she had been riding behind you, and a car had hit her?”
“No one would have asked you to haul her memory behind you forever.”
I rode up and up, feeling his `breath’ on my shoulders, trying to shake it off.
Slopes of forty-foot trees gave way to thirty-foot then twenty-foot then ten-foot trees: over the decades ripsaws then chainsaws then roto-saws then giant digitized scissors had worked their way indefatigably up from the bay-front mill. Logging companies had totaled out the most accessible woods first, and herbicides and modified seedlings had followed in sequence, and there was a forest-education kiosk at the summit.
Well-groomed gravel led across a railroad line and away from the highway, and after two miles I turned onto machinery ruts, and I climbed to a shed and plopped against a wall out of the wind.
Only mid-afternoon. Cold gray clouds soaring above clear cuts. Ephemeral pockets of blue. The Columbia still more than forty miles south.
My gumption had been zapped, and I smoked the evidence, figuring Astoria would wait until morning, and Derek would probably not.
I opened my Hojo’s and thought of a manager trainee at Hojo’s, a chain-smoking brunette a year out of high school, our bodies coated with fryer grease, stinking of omelets and grill bricks and shrimp batter, her moans rising from some separate world of soft-yielding flesh.
I huddled in my bag, stroking myself, and two barn swallows lit on the roof of the shed and bent sleek little eye-masks at me. They tucked beaks against buff vests and gabbled high-speed chatter and decided I was all right, I guess. They caught moths and dragonflies from Jimmy Doug’s handlebars and fed fuzzy-haired young in a nest-cup of mud beneath a rotting eave.
The wind howled from the mouth of the river, and the Astoria-Megler Bridge looked like a long mean son-of-a-bitch, an unshakable monument to the iron wills and engineering geniuses of the Depression era. It was barely wider than a township bridge. Its steep-edged sidewalk was definitely too narrow for swerving. And the top of its far-off grillwork scraped the bottoms of soot-colored clouds. The Columbia! It looked twice as wide as the Mississippi, heaving and spraying like surf, and Ash had said skeletons of the Clatsop and Kathlamet and Chinook still hung secretly in scaffolds on islands, and the crossing to Astoria was at least five miles.
I stopped at a pull-out at the foot of the bridge, and drizzle raised goose bumps on my legs. I put on my sweater and tightened the bread bag tied to the sleeping-bag sack behind my seat, and a pony-tailed blonde coasted in beside me, pretty brown eyes, a touring tan, a loaded bike.
“You’ve come a ways?” I said.
“Ha-ha-ha! Hee-hee-hee!” Winnie tugged her cap low above her eyes, smiling a keen little circle with her lips. “We live outside Seattle, but we started up at Desolation Sound, B.C., and we’re going as far we get.”
Chat rode in, seven-years-old, a cap drawn low like Winnie’s, a thick brown ponytail hanging down a fleece jersey, and then her mom pedaled in, her eyes big and inky and brown, almond-shaped, and her hair flopped in a furry mass on her yellow wind jacket, and I knew her.
“I’m Winnie,” said Winnie.
“Ard,” I said.
“Want to meet my sister and her daughter?”
“I don’t know.”
Winnie’s laugh felt like the stream that ran inside me while I rode, and I let mine spill from my chest, watching Lisha bend again, pulling sweat pants over her scrawny little shorts.
She looked at Chat to do the same.
“You’re brave,” I said to Chat.
“I know,” said Chat.
“I don’t see kids on bike trips anywhere.”
“There were lots of kids on Orcas Island, but they were just Brownies, and this really mean mom made them put on sweaters while they rode away from the ferry, and it wasn’t even cold.”
Lisha held out a pair of rolled-up sweats, and Chat made a face, but she put them on.
“And in goes your friend,” said Lisha.
A stuffed horned puffin had his head poking up from Chat‘s front bag, looking like a comic-book bird, his beak much too big to be real either on his actual biological body or his life-sized toy self. His beak was blunt and red at the tip and then clownishly yellow against fat white cheeks that were painted with dashing black flares behind his marble-eyes.
Chat slid him out and lifted him to me. “Want to meet him?” she said. “He has a cousin named Mister Tuffie, but I could only bring one, and Mom gave me Mister Hornie first.”
I shook the puffin’s wing. “Glad to meet you,” I said. “Someday I’d like to see you and your cousin on a real rock on the real ocean, right through real binoculars.”
Chat squealed, squeezing up her shoulders, squirming. “Hey, Mom, he talks to Hornie like he knows him.”
“I’ve always wanted to meet a puffin firsthand,” I said.
And now Chat did it: “Ha-ha-ha! Hee-hee-hee!” She eyed Lisha eagerly. “Can Ard take Hornie across, and then he doesn’t have to go inside my bag, and he can still see the river?”
“He nests in burrows, and he doesn’t mind the dark,” said Lisha.
“But Ard can get across, and then he can give Mister Hornie to you, and you can give him to Winnie, and Winnie can give him back to me.”
Lisha eased an ear band on Chat, kneeling, the mink of her eyes getting deeper, brighter, darker, smoother. It worked some secret in her eyes, I thought, and whatever the secret was, it was as rich as mink, smelled like mink, and her smile rippled and fell away beautifully through her cheeks. “Maybe Mister Ard goes faster than we do, Chat.”
Chat looked at me with a mink gleam all her own. “Hornie likes seals, and if you see one, you have to tell him right away.”
“Before the seal goes underwater,” said Winnie, pulling on a wool cap. “It’s spelled `i-e,’ not `y.’”
Winnie rode onto the bridge’s sidewalk, her jacket billowing, snapping in the wind, a motor home passing her, swaying much too close.
Lisha doubled up Chat’s hair tie. “Tuck it, please, all the way inside the back of your jersey.”
I pointed the puffin at Lisha, “You want me to take him?”
She got up and took my hand between a couple, warm, lovely fingers and the tough leather edges of her cycling gloves. “I saw you already, you know–yesterday–really early. You were just past Seatco, and you were beside the road. You didn’t see me, but you were watching a hawk, weren’t you?”
“Yes, where were you?”
She laughed just like Winnie. “Ha-ha-ha! Hee-hee-hee!” She smiled really nice again, and I put Hornie in my front bag and pulled the zipper tight against his throat.
“Make Ard promise,” said Chat.
“You make him promise, Chat,” said Lisha.
“You pretend he’s alive,” said Chat. “And you don’t talk to him like he’s really not.”
I rode onto the bridge’s sidewalk, bumping across slabs of bark and shreds of tractor-trailer tires. I climbed through a mini-grillwork, the wind slamming my side, battering my ear. I gained the first, small summit and coasted down, wrestling my handlebars. I started across a long, open, flat stretch, and traffic boomed, hitches rattled, log-loads and boats banged, and I couldn’t look back, but I wondered about Chat.
A gull flew up from the sidewalk-wall, perturbed by my approach. It floated up in the wind, yelped, suddenly screamed at my back. I shouted it away, pounding my Rogues against my pedals, and then more gulls shrieked, laughing. Maybe five, ten, twenty above and behind me. Thunk! I felt a jab at my sleeping bag, a brush against my back—the gulls after my bread, a two-dollar loaf, nutty and hearty.
Drivers honked as if cheering, enjoying the spectacle. The hee-hee-hee spouted in me. I made sirens and bells like a fire truck, and the gulls dove and pecked, screaming, flapping my back, and finally the sidewalk climbed through a long steep grillwork, and the gulls banked away.
The fuzz stood up on Hornie’s crown, his beak blew sideways. He bounced in my front bag, and way out above the river a gull wheeled on crimped wings. I saw it coming out of the corner of my eye, and I hunched lower and pumped hard past rusty rivets and green steel. The wind roared through grillwork, a truck blasted by. A crash rang against a beam. The gull dropped to the walk, its white crown crushed down into its eyes, a black wing open, crooked–a western gull. I rode past it. You ride past everything, you know.
I got to the top of the walk, stopped, saw only a few crumbs left in the bread bag. I yanked the plastic bag from beneath a bungee cord, frustrated. My front tire swung, hitting the wall, and Hornie flew out, a blur above the cement rail. I looked down at my front bag, its zipper, the walk beneath my tires, the road. No Hornie anywhere. I looked down at the cold gray chop of the Columbia. The stuffed horned puffin was definitely gone.
I looked back. White sheets of fog raced across the beams, yellow headlights came, no sign of Lisha and Chat. I flew down the sidewalk, and the grillwork gave way to a cloverleaf, and I zoomed around the spiral and shot straight out the bottom. Winnie was straddling her crossbar, handing dollar bills into a tollbooth, and I sailed past her, yelling over my shoulder. “I dropped the puffin!”
“Hornie’s in the river!”
Town was left, and I went right, pedaling like mad to the beach.
I felt pretty crummy, riding out to the far end of Fort Stevens State Park, but the sky blew clear, and I made camp in a really cool beach shelter, a kind of roofless cabin made of giant bleached logs. I watched the sunset and then hid behind an ancient whorl of upturned roots as a big mama raccoon and two kits walked along the surf. They went by nosing the tide wash, and the mama swung her tail into the water, digging into the sand with front paws. A breaker shoved her sideways, and she arched up easily in the wash, dripping, chewing. The little ones joined her, and a bigger wave caught all three, and they dog-paddled on the crest, lifting masks, and they plodded out and dug some more. The moon came up, and they kept digging, and in the morning they lay soaked and dead, and Lisha in her burgundy sweater squatted above the mama, her fingers reaching down into damp sand.
Winnie threw a Frisbee down the beach, and Chat caught it, running barefoot. I stopped spying between logs and pulled on my pants inside my bag, only ten-minutes awake. I sat up and put on my tee shirt, and Chat hung her face over the wall above me. “Where’s my puffin?”
“The wind blew a gull against a truck, and I stopped,” I said. “My bike hit a wall, and he flew out. He went fishing.”
Chat looked at my bike and bags inside the shelter and climbed the wall. Winnie snatched her by her armpits, and Chat’s voice cracked with bottled-up crying. “He stole Hornie! He sold him! You said he did!”
“Stop, Chat, please,” said Winnie. “I said I didn’t know.”
Lisha drew up, and her mink glare pierced through me, sweeping down my tangled hair and sleep-dirty beard and sweat-eaten shirt, and she and Chat turned and walked off, butts bouncing high. Their heads swung around together, their nostrils flared. They flung identical contemptuous glances at me.
“I didn’t sell Hornie,” I said to Winnie. “Gulls chased me up the bridge.”
“They didn’t chase me,” said Winnie.
“I stopped at the top and looked back and my tire swung.”
“And you couldn’t stop at the bottom?”
“I got going downhill, and I didn’t. I should have. I’m sorry.”
“Chat had fun with you, and you hurt her feelings.”
Winnie strode angrily after Lisha and Chat, and I packed my stuff, miffed, watching waves lick greedily at the coons. Western gulls crept to the drenched bodies. One cocked its head, looking at the mama coon’s eyes, I thought. But it flew up, a mole crab in its bill, and I went over to one of Lisha’s hand holes. Another mole crab plowed frantically down, its shell shorter than my thumb. The mole crab had no serious claw, just shaggy little pincers, hairy eyestalks, goofball antennae–and apparently a taste the mama coon had hunted until she and her young had been dashed to death.
I carried my things back across dunes and left on the park road. I got to a stop sign and saw the campground booth, and I figured Lisha, Chat and Winnie had paid the dollar apiece and were at the hiker-bike site. I knew I could find them easily. I sailed out to 101. I sailed all morning, riding a tailwind through Gearheart and Seaside, feeling the days and beaches ahead, three-hundred sixty-three miles of free public shore in Oregon.
A shell shop rose beside the highway, conspicuous blue letters lit up across its picture window. Hornie, Tuffie, Murrie, Snowy, Perrie, Spottie, Hermie here! $24.95!
I sailed on until I noticed a road half-buried by a landslide. I skirted a state chain and followed a narrow lane of crooked and crumbling tar. I bushwhacked down a gulch to a closed beach and explored a cave of sea stars and anemones, identifying species with a field guide. I came out, and the water and sky shone the colors of the primary jay on the coast, the Steller’s, its breast and wings a cloudless scintillating blue. Then the sun glittered a silver path across the sea, and I felt drawn through the light to the other side. I thought I’d soften with the pinks and salmons of the sunset, and I’d turn pearly and gray like the other jay on the coast, the camp robber. I sank down the horizon with the afterglow. I met skeletons down in the dark, spirits who drummed and howled inside the surf, and I danced with giant smiling mole crabs, shaking shaggy pincers around a steaming basket of coon meat.
In the morning I made coffee with water from a seep beneath a mat of monkey flowers. I climbed out and turned onto 101 again, a warm sticky breeze put a hand in my face. Beat on it. Damn it all. The coastal wind was supposed to blow south to Frisco, but here it snapped up my shirtsleeves. The sky grew waxy and pale, and rain clouds blew across Arch Cape. I climbed to a highway tunnel and stopped in its lee. A cold wet a breeze fluffed out the entrance. I yelled into the watery yellow glow inside the tunnel. “You wind, you bastard! You squat where you want! You sleep where you want! Dangle it! Jizz it! Spit it! You mother masturbator–” I let go a savage shriek and then jabbed a silver button on an iron post, and four yellow machine-eyes blinked on a caution sign above a cement arch. Bicyclists inside tunnel when lights are flashing.
I rode onto a sidewalk just as high and narrow as the one on the Astoria-Megler bridge, and dark against a cold wet wall. Headlights came, sounding like sixty Harley Davidsons at once. The sidewalk shook, and six or seven cars burst past, leaving a dripping stench of exhaust. A girl screamed near mid-tunnel.
“Bastard!” Her echo rushed down to me. Ard-ard-ard.
“No, honey,” said Lisha. Unnie-unnie-unnie.
“Dangle it!” yelled Chat. Angle-it, angle-it, angle-it.
“Stop, please,” said Lisha. Ease-ease-ease.
“Chat!” warned Winnie. At-at-at.
Their bike shoes clopped against cement: they were walking, not riding, their breaths bated, loud and sharp.
Carburetors gurgled behind me, fan belts screamed, engine-roars leapt ahead of wheel-whines, metal rang like shattered tin.
“Ai-ai-ai-ai-ai!” yelled Chat. “Mom!”
“We’re halfway, honey,” said Lisha. “Keep going.”
“You made the floating bridge outside Seattle,” said Winnie.
“I hated that bridge.”
“We made the Astoria bridge, and we‘ll make this too,” said Lisha.
“Dangle this!” said Chat.
“Chat, you know about words,” said Lisha.
“Come on, buddy,” said Winnie. “Keep coming.”
I rode up, and Lisha’s hair caught the yellow light, and I braked and got off my bike. She whirled, glared, shrank. The three of them walked on, I followed on foot.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “The sign went off. I didn’t know you guys were in here. The lights must be timed just for riding, not walking. I wouldn’t have been vulgar…really. A couple days ago I almost got beat up by three drunks….near the dead hawk. The biggest guy said those bad things, and I was just venting, shouting in here. I was mad about the weather too, and I really didn’t know about Hornie. Twenty-five dollars! Gulls attacked my bread, you know, but I should have waited at the toll, and I know I should have found you again at Fort Stevens.”
The girls walked on, totally silent. Water dripped, plinking. Freewheels ticked, all our Rogues clopped. Algae on the wall loomed thick as pond-scum beside our elbows.
“I didn’t mean to yell,” I said. “I thought you guys would be miles down the road. I found a great beach yesterday, and I holed up. I saw murres on sea rocks.”
“We saw Tuffies,” said Chat.
The shadow of Chat’s head nodded on the wall past Lisha, saying we sure did and you sure didn’t.
Chat pushed her bike a little faster, and the rest of us picked up our paces too. The yellow glow lightened, the end of the tunnel got whitish, and then the air turned black, rumbling. Two small headlights blinked, and a fifty-ton log-chip truck came toward us. The ceiling seemed to crack, the walls seemed to split, and another semi-truck blatted, shifting behind us. Our shadows flashed. Air horns went off. I leapt inside my skin, and a shadow wiggled up, Chat. The trucks blasted by, chips gusted and swirled, and I saw Lisha hop down, her legs lit by new beams, shoes clearly on the road, a hand on Chat’s rear tire, cupped beneath silver rim, the tire clearly off the sidewalk.
Another horn blared. Tires slid. Lisha rippled up, became a slender vertical wave. She landed, her hand moved forward. Chat’s bike and bags rested against the wall.
A panel truck–a bread truck–swerved back into its lane, brake lights dimming. The driver sped on, honking fast angry beeps, and Lisha ran up the sidewalk, a fuzzy brown shadow. Chat seemed to spring from the wall, Lisha grabbed her hand. They ran after Winnie, and I couldn’t speak, couldn’t shout. Only Winnie had her bike, they ran fine, all of them. But my chest froze, my throat froze. I slid my bike against the wall, grabbed Chat’s bike. I ran outside, pushed it against the guardrail. I propped the bike as firmly as Lisha had, and then I didn’t want to look. Looking was like turning a gaze through a powerful gray breaker, pushing a face against a swell.
No one had been hit, no one bled. Chat had let go of her bike, Lisha had grabbed it and had leapt onto the walk. That was all.
I stepped over the guardrail and into spruce, and Chat was collapsing against Lisha, rolling her face against the burgundy sweater, crying, and Lisha hugged and rocked her, muttering, cooing.
Winnie clapped her arms around me, and she and I collapsed too, leaning into each other, squeezing hard, thankful for the pounding of our hearts.
She and I hurried into the tunnel again, and sawdust blew along the pavement, and I asked if Chat had caught log-chips in her eyes.
“No, I panicked,” said Winnie. “I knew she wanted out, and I just started to run. I ran too soon too fast.”
“That bread truck,” I said. “Your sister.”
We rolled Jimmy Doug Thunder and Lisha’s bike outside, and I woke to the weather. A sheet of drizzle lashed the machine-eyes of another tunnel sign. Run-off poured down pavement, and a gust of spray caught us head-on. Lisha fastened Chat’s raingear, and a cloud sailed in and gobbled both of them. They were as gone as if they had dropped into the sea. I nearly shouted warnings about hypothermia.
“It’s still a big hill!” said Winnie. “Go ahead, Ard, you don’t have to wait. We’re fine. Thanks!”
I wanted to know where they planned to take shelter.
“Nehalem,” she said.
“That’s ten more miles!” I said.
Winnie hustled across the guardrail, red bandana tied around rain hood, and I started up Neahkahnie Mountain, old Tillamook headland where an ancient Indian god known as Ecahnie had tossed steaming rocks into the primal sea, and the first waves had roiled up from fog and foam…
I pumped up into an endless gray soup, heard no engines coming, only wind wailing and tires screaming and splashing beside me. I saw only flickers for taillights, oily dots for headlights. My hands stung from cold, I put on cowhide gloves. The insides got sopped, my Rogues were soaked, my feet freezing. I got off and walked the high side of the shoulder, a side-gust struck. My spokes whistled, my tires slid. I clutched and held the bike, and my Rogues nearly slid from beneath me. I tied a red bandana to an alder beside the road, eye-level above the shoulder. I crossed the highway and tied another to a branch, knowing the girls would see them.
I shoved Jimmy Doug Thunder up between ferns and into cedars. The drizzle did not blow so much in the woods, and I was on state land, a slope broad and gentle enough for two or three tents. I knelt to shove in my first stake and was seized by a stench. A great heap of scat was just past my knee, solid lumps with tiny bumps. It smelled fresh, and I prodded it with the stake. I found pits from berries and scanned around for claw prints, and shoosh. I turned, and water dripped from a vine maple shrub.
The thrush. The tawny little bird had landed so close I might have touched the spots on its breast, and it seemed as beaten by the rain as I. The feathers on its crown stuck up moistly and sloppily, and a thin ring of buff drooped drearily around each of its eyes. Its wings slumped damply against its flanks, and the bird watched me sleepily. It sang a slow high note, peeping like a spring frog, and then Whit! Whit! Whit! The throat puffed out–white, speckled with dark teardrops, washed buff too. The bill opened a tiny crack, and the flute whirred slowly and stopped abruptly. Now thrush was gone too. The leaves of the vine maple bobbed like delicate green handprints, and I saw Chat on the road below.
She bent her head seriously down in a hood drawn tight, and her legs pumped furiously against the wind and grade, swimming in big plastic pants. She pumped past the bandana in the alder, not noticing, and then she took a whale of a breath and stood up on her pedals and humped her way into the gray soup.
I bolted to the top of the road bank, and Lisha pedaled up the road and bulleted me a smile.
“You want twenty-five dollars?” I yelled.
She flicked her chin dismissively. “Did you hear the Swainson’s thrush, Ard?”
“It sang right up here!”
“You saw it?”
“Sure, it‘s everywhere!”
She turned to her ride, face streaming with drizzle, glowing with exertion, and I felt at least partly forgiven, felt her voice linger through my chest and warm the back of my bones and sink into my loins. She knew my mystery thrush–much better than I, it seemed. I still held my tent stake, I wanted to ride after her. And do what? Invite her and her family into the lair of a bear, as the shit might suggest?
She climbed into the soup after Chat, not ready to quit anyway, and I went down and tore my useless markers from their dripping limbs.
I woke in the morning, and the Bastard Wind no longer blew, and the ride up Neahkahnie came easily. I looked down from a pullout, and a sheer basalt face dropped dizzily to beds of kelp, and then a long, yellow, sand spit curved gracefully beside the surf to a distant river-mouth. Sir Francis Drake had supposedly left marker stones here, and Tillamooks had dug clay for body paint for salmon dances, and they had put burial canoes a good twenty miles away, so the dead could raise their heads and get full looks at the immense creator, who in turn trained a jagged gaze imperturbably across the sea.
The Indians had called my Bastard Wind, South Wind, Trickster, Changer, He-who-had-blown-storms-up-the-coast-shaping-and-naming- headlands. But now the real rage stirred and chilled my ears, Bad Mama North. I ate and praised her. I got on the Thunder and blew through a string of towns and around a couple bays beneath a cold blue sky. The city of Tillamook was the seventieth mile from Astoria, and Cape Lookout State Park, the eightieth. I turned in and stopped at a picnic grounds, and Hornie was sitting against a slab of driftwood on top of a table–all alone, brand new, gazing past his red-tipped bill at the surf.
No one played near the waves–no bikes around, no voices.
A spotting scope worth hundreds of dollars stood on a tripod past the other side of the table, and Hornie glared meanly at me. I couldn’t just walk my bike to the next table? I had to linger? To snoop? I had a fantasy? High hopes?
Mink and burgundy glided between trunks inside a grove of spruce: Lisha shuffled in her sweater past a shrub, rump wagging in her, old, beaten, gym shorts. She stopped and lifted binocs, turned and saw me, and I couldn’t really say her eyes lit at the surprise. They had already been burning upward, and now they hardened, granting me a hello, warning me to stay shushed.
She glanced at the scope–birder to birder. I crept to it and looked through and made out a yellow bill lying flat on the edge of a nest, and then two, bright, black beads blinked, showing fleshy rims, and finally I saw a tawny crown.
The flute echoed, but Mama Thrush lay still. Papa was singing somewhere from the back of the grove, keeping his distance, and I raised my head twice as carefully as I had lowered it, never having dreamt of seeing my mystery thrush hunkered down on eggs.
Come here, mouthed Lisha. Clo-o-o-o-ose. Slo-o-o-o-w. Her lips stuck a little, opening, and I eased a Rogue down onto duff, trying to drain breath. I padded to her, and she whispered that Papa was in the myrtle tree right above us, just fifteen yards from the nest.
The male stiffened his wings in a shadow and raised his bill, and the chords floated out in a hush, ringing weakly.
“He fakes it,” whispered Lisha. “He pretends he’s much farther away, not so near as he seems. Do you know about that, Arden?”
I knew the thrush could sound a mile away one moment and right beside the tent the next, and that he could fade from dusk to dark as secretly as a shadow. But I didn’t answer.
We crept back to the picnic site.
“You just camp from bird to bird, don‘t you?” I said.
“I have a biology degree.” She sat on top of the table and set her hands suddenly beside her thighs. “I do fieldwork–or used to. I had a house, and I got so pissed I sold it. No one knows exactly how a Swainson’s thrush does everything, how it breeds and eats and communicates, and way back when Chat was one, I saw Papa Thrush sing like that behind our house. I saw him fake it, and two years ago I got a job with an Emmanuel Myerson PHD, pigheaded hedonistic dink. I told him about the behavior, and he said no, I was jumping to conclusions. But if you look in Auk next fall, you’ll see he tests a theory that the male Swainson’s thrush whispers his song as a possible distraction to predators or human intrusions. You’ll see his name and his name only in the citation.
“I was fed up anyway, trying to plan things. The city rezoned the hill behind our house, and five office buildings and three warehouses took away the woods above my creek. I wanted to fight it, but I had to be with Chat, you know. I was just lucky we had Winnie, because Winnie’s been there since Chat was born. You make a choice sometimes. You fight city hall, or you stay home and play with the little person who makes you happiest.” Lisha cupped her hands above her belly. “I was nineteen, almost bursting with the Chat egg when my mom helped me buy our place, and then this winter the developers said they wanted it too, and I stewed about it. We had dippers on the creek every year, but the new buildings had brought new dumpsters and more predators. Rats. Cats. Dogs. Coons. Crows. The dippers usually became dead meat, especially after the fledglings got out of the nest on the creek.
“I just gave up one night. Chat loves to ride, and so do Winnie and I, and I wanted to see the coast with my girl. I said, `What if we sell the house, get on our bikes and see how far we can make it and where else we can live?’ Winnie had already decided not to teach physical dead to teenage girls who didn’t want to learn it anymore, so she just laughed and put a few more squares of chocolate into her brownie mix. Chat wanted to know if we could she have some Rogue River bike shoes and bring a friend.” Lisha picked up the toy puffin. “I told her she could bring Hornie.” She shook the puffin at the binocs around my neck. “You know dippers?”
Dippers, water ouzels. Slate-gray birds that bobbed on slate-gray rocks, dove head-first into thundering creeks, emerged with larvae in their bills. “Sure,” I said, “I’ve put their antics in my notebook.”
“Just like this one.” Lisha nodded at Chat running on the beach, coming around a point of salal shrubs below us. “She draws pictures of what we see, and then she makes great little headlines, captions.”
Chat held up a sea star with both hands. “Mom, Mom, look, a Dawson’s star! It’s dead! Something killed it! Look, Mom, look!”
Lisha scuttled down a soft sandstone bank, took the star, put in on a drift log and admired it. “You found a Dawson’s star!” She clasped Chat and lifted her high. She kissed her ear and nuzzled her hair with Hornie.
“We found murres, Mom, dead ones, six of them!”
“They were in the sand, they were out of the water. They had sand in their wings! And look–”
Winnie came around the salal shrubs, carrying two upside-down Frisbees piled high with surf souvenirs, and Chat jumped free from Lisha and seized a by-the-wind sailor. “These too! Dead everywhere!” Chat stuck a finger into the by-the-wind sailor, a kind of blue cousin of a jellyfish that had a flap like a sail on top. “Hundreds, Mom!” She shook the sailor like a finger puppet, a tiny crooked sombrero. “I counted!” She shoved the heel of a bright red Rogue–its lightning streak a blazing yellow–into the sand, and she scraped out a straight line. “I made a plot, Mom, twenty steps on one side, ten on each end and–” She saw me and swelled and shrank.
“Hi, Chat,” I said. “Nice sea star. Nice shoes.”
She flung the sailor from her finger. She flicked her ponytail sideways and lifted the Frisbees Winnie had put on the ground. She marched behind another drift log, laid her things out of sight and stood up and glowered at Lisha. “You said you were saving our table for lunch, Mom.”
“Manners, please,” said Lisha.
“You said I would go with Winnie, and you would be making lunch. You said you wanted space to do birds, Mom.” Chat glanced at me from beneath heavy eyelids. “He’s always finding us,” she mumbled.
“He’s riding the same route,” said Lisha. “He was watching a nest with me. You want to see?”
Chat spread her palms stiffly on the drift log and raised an eyelid as if she were seventeen, invincibly bored. Lisha folded her arms firmly, and Chat doubled the dark of her mother’s stare. Lisha raised her chin patiently, and I wanted to nuzzle her neck—taut and smooth and bronze–wanted to nose my way up her cheek and whisper like the thrush in her ear, though I knew it was an odd time to desire a bird woman’s neck, a mother’s neck. Then Lisha dropped Hornie and sprang forward. She caught Chat and spun her around in the air, Chat squealing, squirming. Lisha snapped the spin to a stop, kissed Chat’s head. She blubbered in her hair, slobbered on her cheek. “Chat with love! Chat with ice cream! Chat with Hornie! Chat at the cafe!”
“Ow, Mom, ow!” Chat bucked helplessly. “You’re hurting me, my neck, my leg!”
“Mommy’s doing what? Oh, Chat, who is Chat? Mommy’s pearl? Her sea star? Her treasure? Who does Mommy love most? You! Who fills her heart every day? Chat! Who gives her life? You! Who makes her sing inside? Who, Chat, who?”
“My arm, Mom, my arm!”
“Chat, Chat, Chat, Chat, Chat!”
Chat heaved sideways, kicking, and Lisha slung her to her feet, tickled her sides, and Chat squealed again. Chat laughed. Chat giggled and pried Lisha’s fingers, and Lisha fought counter-tickles. She twisted her hips, dug a wad of bills from her shorts, and Chat bounced up against her, grabbing the money.
“It’s not all for you. It‘s for lunch.”
“Let’s get the bikes.”
Chat flew sideways up the sandstone bank and raced down an asphalt path, and Winnie got up. She had watched things with the air of Mama Thrush, sitting low in the sand, peering, barely moving, and now she walked in a flood of sun, spine erect, eyes twinkling iridescently, lashes fine and fluffy, falling as softly as feathers, thoughtfully, primly almost. She bent down for the Frisbees, and her own scant shorts–lemon yellow–slid above legs achingly slender, rising toward her own set of peach curves.
Clop-clop! Clip-clip! Clink-clink!
Lisha put the scope on the table, compressed the legs of the tripod, tightened its wing nuts, tossed me a look. “You want to ride backward with us?” I heard myself laugh, felt myself blush, flinch, flutter. I could not honestly say, and Lisha gripped her gear with her fine lovely fingers, and then she went after Chat.
Chubby Charlie’s back beside the big choppy bay? Smelling of wheat cakes, sausage, bubbling berries and hot pie crust? A second breakfast or a mid-morning lunch? I ate in cafes on bike trips, but Chubby Charlie’s had looked like a seven or eight-dollar splurge, and my budget was about ten dollars per day. And Cape Kiwanda and Cascade Head waited just fifteen and thirty miles south.
Chat’s sea star had fallen onto the sand, and I found myself retrieving it and propping it against Hornie, who lay on a Frisbee on tide treasures, his wings spread wide, his face plump and blissful–a love-struck uncle.
“Chat got all suped up when we got here.” Winnie laughed, smiling at woods past the picnic area. “The hiker-biker camp’s in its own little place. It‘s got nooks and crannies for sites, cedars like fairy trees, wrens everywhere. We might be here for days.”
I said have a nice trip. I said maybe see you later, I’m walking the beach. I headed down across the sand, and the waves pounded out an agony. Sorrow crashed in. Sorrow howled out. Promise and loss, loss and promise.
Moms and daughters sang in the surf. Aunts sang. They spit, split, sprayed and washed their water songs around one another, swirling entanglements, commingling. And Chat was right. Thousands of by-the-wind sailors lay across the beach, blown from the sea yesterday, their flaps caught by Bastard Wind, South Wind. Their gooey bodies were turning flimsy and dry, and there was endless washed-up kelp, innumerable bits of shattered shells, thirteen dead murres, a pelican wing, and an octopus that seemed to be melting away gob by gob.
I decided to walk the Cape Lookout beach all the way to the headland. But I had not locked Jimmy Doug Thunder, so I hustled back to the bike. I pulled out my lock-cable and stared up the path to the hiker-biker camp, wondering if it were the only way in and out. My cable flew from my hands, falling, bouncing beneath the table. I had to lay down, reach below a bench. I kicked a tire, my bike and gear crashed down. I felt myself turn scarlet. I lifted Jimmy Doug, and Lisha and Chat stood at the edge of the picnic site, Chat stepping my way as lightly as her mother had through Mama Thrush’s woods. Chat bowed her head and held out a dime-sized test, a baby sand dollar smooth and white, etched with five shadowy petals. “I’m sorry I sassed.” Her voice sank quietly, cutting close. “But I’m giving you this. It’s light enough to carry, isn’t it?”
Lisha’s eyes brimmed with pride, and then I got the look I craved, and I pitched my tent and rode with the girls to Chubby Charlie’s.
We came out of Chubby Charlie’s, and the tide had turned the bay into a mudflat, and Chat peeled off her Rogues and zoomed right out to it. She tiptoed around barnacled rocks, her feet dripping black goop. She looked back from a tide stream. “Come on, Arden!” I stood with Lisha and Winnie, watching from the parking lot, and Chat knelt and then looked over her shoulder, her ponytail skimming muck. “You guys!” Her knees sank to her shorts, and she reached armpit-deep into eelgrass and held up a red crab. “Come on, please!” She pushed aside a clump of eelgrass and stared down, and her shoulders danced back and forth. “A brittle star, Arden, right here! I see it!”
“She does this,” warned Lisha. “She gets mad at a guy, and then she flirts.” Like her Mom? “Leave it, honey!” called Lisha. “Their rays fall off, remember?”
“But Arden said he never saw one!”
Chat ran back with a stalk of eelgrass and showed me its yellow-dot blossoms, and then out came Charlie, more broad-boned than chubby, his face slick and white as if it never completely dried out in the moist coastal weather. But he made his warmth with his smile. He handed Lisha a hose, and she sprayed Chat clean, and Chat dangled a foot, hopping, watching me with her bright mink buttons. She stumbled, and I caught her, and she chortled and shook in my grasp. “You want to see tide pools, we’ll show you! We’re gonna live in a house on the beach!”
“I’m not promising,” said Lisha.
“We’re living on the beach now, aren’t we?” said Chat.
We pedaled a few more miles backward on the empty bay road, Bad Mama North pounding fiercely against us. But we rode without camping gear, light and free, cutting through gusts, veering and moving like sandpipers along a windy surf.
“We’re falcons!” said Lisha. “Slicing through a gale!”
“Steelheads cutting upstream!” said Winnie.
A few miles north, High Arch Rock towered above a beach, and we saw a hole near the top, horseshoe-shaped, glinting fish-fin bright.
Winnie looked at Hornie in Chat’s front bag. “Watch him, or he’ll want to fly right through.”
“And make wishes,” I said.
“Like the eclipse,” said Chat. “We camped on that hill, and Hornie said he could fly right to the moon and through the shadow, and he would come out and be a live puffin with a real mom and…”
Chat’s looked at me warmly, and I must have shown my shock. She looked down, working her lips closed, and Winnie mouthed the end of Chat’s thought, “Dad.” Winnie let her look linger, and I felt hollow suddenly, but Lisha had apparently heard nothing, riding just behind Chat’s seat, gazing at the bay.
“You really saw a brittle star?” I said.
“What do you think?” growled Chat. “I made it up?”
She banged her bike against a post at the entrance to High Arch Wayside, and she walked stiffly away.
“Wait,” said Lisha. “Listen.”
“No, I’m going,” said Chat.
“Shush, I said, it’s Missus Clown!” said Lisha.
Cries pierced the wind, and Lisha slid her scope from her rear rack, and I waited until Chat refused before I looked through.
High Arch Rock actually rose amid tide pools, and an oystercatcher screamed from a boulder, bobbing in a hysterical frenzy, its bill an absurd bright orange, ridiculously long for its plump black body. The bill quivered as if it were electrified, and the bird’s eyes pulsed as if they might pop from their sockets, flashing inside two, crazy, molten rings–red, yellow.
A white-haired man came into view, carrying a five-gallon bucket, squatting in waders. A dozen students hunched around him, and then the oystercatcher wasn’t funny to watch anymore. It shot from its boulder, flapped through the horseshoe-arch, flew back around and lit above the class again. Gulls crowded around it, and even from two hundred-yards away, the oystercatcher sounded shrill and desperate.
Lisha strode to the man so rapidly Winnie, Chat and I had to jog to catch her.
The man lifted his face slowly, sitting heavily on a tide rock, his feet submerged in kelp and water, the sleeves of a university sweat shirt rumpled above his elbows. He was at least sixty, square-jawed, keen-eyed, I thought.
“The oystercatcher behind you is acting like it has chicks,” said Lisha. “I think you better move your group.”
The man felt around the water at his feet. He pulled up a wormy red glob and spoke a Latin name and dropped the glob in his bucket. He cocked an ear toward the oystercatcher’s screams and grinned doubtfully. “Oystercatchers are difficult to interpret,” he said.
“Their chicks should be left undisturbed,” said Lisha. “I saw some out last week–at least two hundred miles north.”
“I’m sorry, this is my behavioral science class,” said the man. “We collect here in the lowest pools.”
“People have driven oystercatchers from a lot of beaches in a lot of ways,” said Lisha. “Please.”
The man pulled his gaze hesitantly from his tide pool, and suddenly the oystercatcher flushed, scurrying up High Arch Rock, smashing its bill against gulls. Keek-kee-keek-keek-keek-keek! Gulls yelped, hopping, flying, and three oystercatcher chicks raced across the basalt, fuzzy and ash-colored. A gull pecked, got one, gulped it.
“You’re distracting the parent bird!” said Lisha.
The man stood, glaring, his hands raising a sea star, an immense whorl of rays, from water.
“A sunflower star!” howled Chat. “He’s stealing it!”
The man fidgeted a little, a ray dropped off. He hurried it into his bucket, knocked the rim. A second ray fell.
“We take these into controlled conditions for about two weeks,” said the man.
“You can’t!” said Chat.
“We come back and release them at the exact location,” said the man. “They do well in our tanks. Their rays grow back like weeds.”
Chat looked painfully at Lisha, and my hand flew forward. I grabbed the bucket’s handle, tore it from the man’s grasp. I ran from the pools. Seaweed squished sweetly beneath my Rogues. Pebbles and shells crackled like music beneath them. The man shouted behind me, “Stop, you fools, this instant!”
I hit hard-packed sand and sprinted, and feet pounded beside me–Winnie with another bucket, a student’s. We waded into the surf, and she tilted her catch toward me–three sunflower stars sprawled on top of another, the first a smoky purple, the second a fluid magenta, the third a flaming coral-color.
A swell swamped our waists, icing my balls. I shrieked, and Winnie whooped, “Oh-ho-ho! Hoo-hoo-hee!” We shoved in farther and dumped the stars. “Let those dimwits grow back their own arms!” said Winnie.
We ran from a breaker, stumbled out of foam, saw Lisha and Chat nearing the bikes already, and the professor lumbering in chest-waders way back at High Arch Rock. He was pointing a student toward the buckets we had dropped on the sand, not at us. But we fled as if our necks depended upon our legs anyway, like teenaged kids who had sabotaged someone’s yard at night. Bad Mama North pushed us, and we rode as swiftly as Chat allowed, and she stomped on her pedals, pumping her head as excitedly as the oystercatcher, cheering nonstop. I did my fire truck, sirens and bells and horns, and she and Winnie joined in, and then a plane roared beside us, a twin-engine two-seater so low we squealed. We felt so giddy we raced it a moment, and then the wings tilted, and the blue-striped cab and its red string of numbers flew across a sheep pasture toward Tillamook. Winnie yelled, spotting a trail between shore grasses. We pushed our bikes fast along it and down a bank to the bay, hidden by overhanging spruce. Winnie dug old papers from pebbles, lit them, piled on wood, and we warmed ourselves, wringing out sweaters, and Lisha sat uneasily on a drift log, looking back toward High Arch Rock.
“Let’s go back and do it again!” said Chat.
“It won’t do the oystercatcher chick any good,” said Lisha.
“I hate that man. I hate those gulls.”
“Most of the gulls probably hatched on that rock.”
“The gulls would even gang up on the sunflower stars–if it wasn’t for us!”
Lisha drew Chat close and set up the scope again. She swung it toward gulls flying in a cloud above a mudflat, mobbing something a quarter mile away. Chat peered through, and the cries pitched high, cracking into yelps and barks. The cloud of gulls swirled crazily, tripling its size, and then the white gull-bodies swarmed the flat itself. I peered through the scope, and a blur of sandpipers raced across the mud, tiny splashes leaping around them, specks jumping, disappearing.
Brown pelicans waddled into the crowd of gulls, jabbing pouch-heavy bills at the specks. Great blue herons lashed out as if stabbing fish, and gulls dove at the herons, screaming deep, terrible objections, gull-curses and gull-insults.
Scores of beach crows flew in, strutting about as stiffly as game cocks, too busy eating to speak, and then a whimbrel landed, its bill so backwardly curved I laughed and let Winnie look.
“Did you see applicators on that plane?” asked Lisha.
I didn’t know what she meant.
“Maybe it sprayed pesticides, and this is a die-off of something.”
I didn’t see any haze, any residue.
“Maybe the plane sprayed flats all morning, and it was just heading home,” said Lisha.
We biked back along the bay road and scoped from the edge of the pavement, taking closer looks. Terns had joined the gulls, and plovers and killdeer and oystercatchers ran with the sandpipers—eating poisoned prey? The tide was rising, a kingfisher hovered above water. Even swallows and robins hunted the mud, pecking prey that popped up like grasshoppers—worms, snails and bugs? Wiggling as they died?
Chat grabbed my wrist, yanked me from the scope. She let go and ran down to the shore. “Hey, birdies, hey-ey-ey-ey-ey-ey!” She waved her arms. “Get out of there! Ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai!” She threw chunks of driftwood at the mudflat, they splashed hundreds of yards short. The birds gorged on. “Are you good at throwing, Ard? Winnie is! Mom is!”
Chat bent in chest-high weeds and pushed her hands against an old dingy, trying to upright it, so we could launch it. Her eyes begged us to help, and Winnie looked at Lisha and then at High Arch Rock. “The tide’s getting too high for collecting,” she said. “That guy could drive the road any minute.”
Lisha called to Chat, “I’m not sure about the plane! I’m only guessing!”
“You’re lying!” Chat stormed back to us and crammed Hornie down in her front bag. “Why are you, Mom?” She jerked the zipper closed and mounted her bike, glaring, daring Lisha to reprimand her.
“I want to be mindful,” said Lisha. “What did we really see?”
Chat rode off with Winnie, nearly crying again, and Lisha gulped quietly, watching them, and then I pedaled beside her, and I thought some silent pregnant mystery pumped inside her, and the more I wanted to know it, the sadder it tugged inside my chest.
She bowed her face behind a fluff of mink, and I asked about the birds.
“Ever read Rachel Carson?” she said.
“The pesticide might cause the birds to lay eggs too thin to support embryos. It might make birds hatch defective chicks. It might leave time bombs ticking inside the birds.”
“Is it legal to spray a bay in Oregon?”
“Absolutely not. But now our president’s from Hollywood, maybe what’s real doesn’t matter.”
We crossed a bridge, and Lisha looked anxiously up a river. Chat had stopped riding. She was lying prone on a dock by a row of tug-like boats, spreading her arms, exhausted. Lisha and I turned in at a gray-wood sign, Stearn’s Oysters, and we flew past a low-slung building.
Winnie waited on a dirt landing. “Her head hurts,” she said. “Her legs ache. She’s really seriously pooped.”
Lisha started after Chat, crossing a gangplank, and a man came out to the deck of his boat, runny-gray eyes beaming from hollow dark sockets. The old snake leapt in me. He was too old to ogle Lisha, at least forty-five, thick-faced in a frayed wool shirt, and he curled meaty fingers around a rail, smiling, cheeks grizzly with stubble.
Lisha squatted on the dock above Chat, and he eyed her ass, and I felt like the gulls objecting to the heron. I felt a bolt, a scream inside, and then the man looked at Winnie standing behind her bike, gazing boldly beneath her crossbar and up her legs and shorts, and she snapped at him. “How’s the oyster business?”
“Rotten, you want to know the truth.” The man dangled a crawdad-like tide bug over the boat’s rail–pale as a scorpion, limp as a waterlogged roach. “Ever seen these little son-a-bitches? They’re the locusts of the tide. They dig into the flats so much they choke out everyone’s oysters. We go out for oysters, and we don’t get any. We get about a million of these instead, these lousy, frickin’, ghost shrimp. Ever try to eat one?”
He lifted an oyster basket overflowing with the shrimp, and Lisha looked at him, her eyes rising prettily. “Don’t you spray?”
A deckhand came suddenly to the boat’s rail. “Who’s asking?” He was Meat Arms, Derek.
The dark slicker. The swelling shoulders. The dark glare.
He glowered down at Lisha, and she got up, glancing at the license numbers on the boat’s bow. Derek skirted the rail like a big sloppy bear. “Ever been out to an oyster bed?” he said. “You know anything about it at all?” He banged down metal steps, stepped hard onto the dock, and Lisha snarled beneath his chin, rearing, her spine curving fiercely. “What’s wrong with your kid?” he said. “This isn’t the park, you know. The park’s down the road.”
Chat popped up to her knees, her eyes wet and wide, her mouth twisted in fear. She grabbed Lisha from behind, and Lisha batted her hands backward, keeping her away.
Derek crossed his meat arms in his slicker. He locked up his jaw, spread and planted his feet. He glared from daughter to mother, waiting. “What exactly you asking?” he said. “That’s what I want to know.”
“Nothing!” I started across the gangplank to the dock.
“Hell, she ain‘t.” The old shrimp man stepped to the plank’s opposite end, and I stopped halfway across.
“Lise.” Winnie spoke the nickname softly, cautiously from the landing. “Chat, Arden, come on.”
“Just wait,” said Derek. “Everyone wait here a minute.”
“I know you, don’t I?” I said.
Derek stared at me like I was very small, a sand flea to swat, and then his face didn’t look beefy or surly or calm enough. His lips looked too yellow, his slicker too loose, his eyes beaded up wrong. Lisha pulled Chat past him and bee-lined it toward the old shrimp man, snapping her chin, and the shrimp man shuffled out of her way. She and Chat crossed the plank, and he scowled after them, hating them, and then we busted away on bikes again.
Bad Mama North blew us down the bay road.
“He looked like the Seatco guy,” I said, “the Meat Arms guy.”
“He reeked of booze,” said Lisha, “blew it all over.”
“Did he look like he knew me?”
“Not to me, no,” said Winnie. “But I didn’t really see.”
Chat glared dead-ahead, eyes drying, teeth set hard, grip tight on handlebars. She stayed to the right of Lisha, pedaling hard, and my legs wanted to double our sprint, but Winnie wouldn’t pass Chat, and so I wouldn’t.
An engine hummed behind us, churned nearer. We kept our heads down, our tires straight. A muffler coughed, and an old van went by, a garden goddess painted on its side, and I thought to flag it down, and then there was only exhaust left, echoes of sputters.
Radial treads whined behind us…roared…blasted…a white-haired woman in a new purple pickup.
A buzz approached…a sedan…a man in a sport shirt, maybe a sales rep…he looked disinterested.
Chubby Charlie’s stood like a long yellow cottage below the road, a dining deck in back. Pull in there? Hide? Wait? Eat again?
We rode by. We turned onto the park road and pedaled the asphalt trail into the hiker-biker camp: our tents were still zippered-up in what Chat had called our two “cubby camps,” scant clearings in dense trees and luxuriant ferns.
The girls had left a kind of an altar on their site’s table, tide treasures, and Chat stared tensely, checking that everything was still there. She sat beside Lisha, sprawling her feet, still exhausted. She watched Winnie crawl into their tent for clothes, and Lisha snuck me a look, adult to adult, and I wanted to know if she had heard the deckhand’s name, if he had smelled of beer or whiskey or what, or if the boat license had been from Washington. But I didn’t understand this new look from Lisha yet, if it meant to stay quiet or not, and then the little voice floated up with warm curiosity. “Arden?”
“Were those guys the mother masturbators?”
We ate dinner at camp, and then Winnie walked to the beach with two new cyclists, sunset-watchers, and I left Lisha powwowing with Chat about a change in plans—leaving as soon as possible, climbing Cape Lookout in the morning. I went out to the park road, and a brown beater was parked up by the turn to the main campground, and I was seized by a silence, a chill, a terrible joke. The rear plate looked green on white, Washington, and the car seemed the same un-shining shit color as Mort’s had in the moonlight. It was a gas guzzler’s like Mort’s, an old American bomb, not a soul around it, and it just sat there, getting darker in an evening shadow, and I tried to focus my binocs on the plate, afraid it was really Mort’s, and the captain was Greasy’s uncle.
I started into camp again, but Chat was doodling at their table, drawing in a shaft of sun, her ponytail blazing, and Lisha was lit up too, reclining, staring at salmonberries as bright as enamel beads. A thrush fluttered up, swiped some, and Lisha’s smile leapt, and she was as pretty as the thrush, as quiet, as lithe, as gentle mostly, and my day with her had caught me like the thrush, and I turned and went back to the park road.
A gray-haired woman was hunched outside the beater, patting a black mutt, coaxing it into the car. She was short-armed, big-boned, harmless-looking. She got in and drove toward the park’s exit, and I listened as the car-noise faded as she drove up switchbacks. And then the sun flooded the hillside of spruce, and thrushes popped peeps everywhere. Their peeps dripped down the green, launched into chords, and the chords rang through the old growth up the cape. They cut into the dusk clear past San Francisco, sliced into Mama North too, whirred and echoed to Alaska. If you had been one of the first, great, colonial, bird guys–Audubon, Swainson, Wilson, McGillivary, Steller–you would have heard the flutes beside every beach, across every river-mouth, backward into the continent, along the thunders of every mountain creek.
And now the thrushes sang deeper in the darker dusk. The chords rang louder, sadder, longer, more beautiful, tingling me. I laughed at myself, felt Lisha’s smile ripple in mine. I went back to Lisha’s table, the flutes leapt on. They shattered the last fuzzy light in camp, and she and I shared this look. We knew if you felt the chords under your skin, you didn’t dare speak, you just let Chat sleep with her head on Lisha’s lap.
The flute-notes burst into crescendos. The peeps popped between blackened trees, dripped and plinked as if landing down upon a huge, placid lake. They plinked and died, and the night quieted to surf-thud and flame-hiss, and Lisha whispered hello.
“What did you mean, the thrush isn’t everywhere anymore?” I said.
She lifted Chat in her arms, carried her into their tent, and I listened to zippers zip and bags rustling, and then Lisha came back and sat with me at the fire, her hips brushing my Hojo shorts.
“Swainson’s have been at some places for centuries, but now they’re gone,” she said. “You could ride down to Kings Canyon and listen at Whitaker’s Forest, and you wouldn’t hear them there anymore. You’d get shut out at San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys too. You could go to certain places at Yosemite, and you wouldn’t find them there either.”
I didn’t like her drift, her “you” sounding singular, like she wouldn’t be there listening with me, but I leaned against her, asking why the thrush was gone from some places. She goosed my knee, shook her heavy hair, nearly bounced from the bench. “Sometimes it seems too simple. In Monterey, settlers planted Monterey pines, exotics from Europe and Africa, and now you won’t hear a Swainson’s anywhere on the Monterey Peninsula.”
Chat called from their tent, “Monterey?”
“Honey, I’m just talking with Ard,” said Lisha.
“Ard, my dad’s from Monterey!”
“No, Chat,” said Lisha.
“We might even make it to Monterey, Ard. We might even ride the whole way. Have you ever been there?”
“I said no,” said Lisha. “Stop it, please.”
“It’s still eight-hundred miles, but we’ve already been five-hundred!”
Lisha drew her fingers from my knee, eased herself up, nodded good-night, and I padded through a darkness as dark as the inside of the walk-in freezer at Hojo’s, no lights on. I felt my way into my tent and bag, and the surf-thuds howled in my chest, pounded through my hard-on. I tossed and rolled and curled myself up, and I heard too much from their cubby camp.
“But you said so, and so did Winnie. You both said it.”
“No, we did not.”
“You said we could go to Monterey if I could make it.”
“You know I can make it, Mom.”
I got up, draped my bag around my shoulders, felt my way out of the woods. Stars lit the picnic area, and I sat on this morning’s tabletop, recounting…
The thrush’s nest…
Bear Poop Camp…
Blue Jay’s Beach…
Mama Coon Beach…
Ash’s eerie horse-face…
Screaming Hawk Hill…
Only one-hundred twenty miles in five days!
Suddenly Winnie stood up from behind this morning’s tide-treasure log, rising in a scant glow from a small fire. The two new cyclists stood, leaning eagerly to her. She shook her ponytail no, and the two guys headed down the beach without her.
“What you doing?” she said, and I giggled with her.
“Thinking,” I said, because I wouldn’t say I was brooding about her sister.
Her laughter slowed, softened.
“Chat was talking about Monterey,” I said.
Winnie settled her hands in her jacket. “Maybe tomorrow’ll help. We’ll take forever, climbing the cape, and when we get down to Pacific City, Lisha’ll want to call someone about the plane. Chat and I will find a playground, other kids, I hope.” She looked down the beach and fingered her ponytail wistfully. “Those guys are animals, Ard, palominos! They’re three weeks from New York and three back to Virginia!” She chuckled, nickered. She gazed after them, seemed to let it go. “I wish I had the right tweezers. I’d give ‘em to Lise and have her pluck Monterey right out of Chat’s mind.”
And in the morning Chat snuck up behind me as I oiled my chain. She grabbed my sweater, laughing like Winnie, and she handed me a drawing of a sunflower star glued with bits of moss and lichen that resembled the nubs on a real star, pincers that numb both enemies and prey.
A souvenir, she had written above the star, and below it, Better Lookout!
I folded the drawing inside my plastic map pocket and thought of a game of my father used to play with me. “True or false, I’ll carry this all the way to San Francisco.”
“I don’t know.” Chat pulled me behind a cedar stump, plopped to her knees, giggled: two banana slugs clung to each other on an alder trunk, looking definitely luckier than I had been lately.
“Mom!” yelled Chat. “MOM!”
Lisha came over and looked down: each yellow slug had a shiny little ridge on its head like a penis. The slugs were immersed in silvery slime. They wiggled tentacles in a kind of super-slow ecstasy.
“True or false?” said Chat. “They’re stuck together.”
“Enough,” said Lisha.
“True or false?” said Chat. “They have teeth, and to get unstuck they chew off the boy’s part.”
Lisha carried Chat longwise against her hip, looked over her shoulder. “Dump a bucket, see what you get?”
“True or false, Chat’s as smart as her Mom,” I said.
“False, smarter!” said Chat.
We rode up switchbacks in fog, and banana slugs crawled on the moist pavement. Chat stopped at each. “True or false, we should carry it across, or it will be a slug pancake, not cooked enough, runny.”
“All right,” said Lisha. “Don’t make fun.”
“This one will become slug yogurt, true or false?”
I let Lisha deal with Chat. I left them, pushing hard around hairpins. I climbed past Winnie, and my lungs tasted tangy with spruce, fresh, free. I got to the summit, and the zenith opened blue, and a low bank of fog rolled south down a beach, wisping away into sea-gleam, and I saw clear to the Golden Gate, the hell with any guy in Monterey.
I sprinted down, pounded into Pacific City, passed an insanity of twitters and whistles, the Parakeet Cafe, its porch an aviary. I knew my friends would eat there, and Lisha would probably use the phone booth, and I could leave her a note, carve her a message in the face of the coin box. But I flew on, the cape road gave way to 101. The highway climbed easily through sheep pastures, my legs drove me through Neskowin. They drove me across Cascade Head and down into Lincoln City, forty-five miles so far, hungry for Newport or Waldport by evening. I coasted beside a busy sidewalk and into a concrete picnic area that was squeezed between five-story hotels. I gobbled a sandwich, and a boy screamed on the beach beneath me. He lifted himself up from sand, maybe three-years-old, mustard on his face, a corn dog crooked in his hand. He sobbed my way, face red and puffy, innocent blond curls, little blue beach suit trimmed white below his knees. His French fries lay fallen at his feet, and a woman whirled on a blanket and yanked his arm. He jerked sidewise, and she slapped the back of his head—crack! He jolted forward, wailing, and a foot stung my ass, and I flew from Mom, scrambled across my floor. Her eyes dripped tears, her teeth jutted. “Stay in your room! Don’t come out!” The door slammed, the walls shook. I climbed onto my desk, threw open my window. I jumped out and got on my one-speed–Blue, I called him. I rode.
I climbed from the table and boy and hotels, sprinted beside a din of traffic, and then cars spilled nonstop from the south end of Lincoln City. They roared at bolting speed, curving through a marsh, and I turned onto a lane at the Siletz River and tied a red bandana to a street sign. The girls were too far behind. They would never see the bandanas, especially not in the heat of such traffic. The hell with it. I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t know where I was riding, just out of the noise. Gates, walls and mansions were on my right, shore pines on my left. I stopped and tied another bandana to a bough. I pulled the knot tight, trembling. Who cared if the bandana was an impossible idea? I rolled the Thunder through pines, horsetails and gorse. I came out to a drift log that lay as tall as my chin on a sandy riverbank, a chunk of an ancient granddaddy with a virtual garden of rainforest growing on its topside. Cedar and spruce saplings, ferns, oxalis, even something that looked like owls clover. Lisha would know…
But piss on my woman problems. My mom had never known her dad, you know. She had made up stories, inventing him, festering inside his absence, but her circumstances had never made my ass or cheeks less sore, or her screams less painful.
I hunkered in the lee against the drift log while Bad Mama North worked up her afternoon rage, promising me Waldport easily by nightfall, maybe even Cape Perpetua. I finished my lunch in peace. I calmed myself, watching a slow blue tide creep up the black-mud estuary. I read, resting, and now something else screamed. Savage and shrill. Ceaseless. Behind me. I stood cautiously, turning. Ak-ak-ak! AK-AK-AK! A falcon glared sulkily from atop a shore pine, a blue helmet-strap clearly on its face. A peregrine? Perrie? He had nearly gone instinct during the DDT days, but here he screeched just twenty feet away, stooping and glowering as if he might swoop over the top of my head. He launched himself like a blue missile. He struck a duck-bird in midair, hitting it as explosively as a line drive smashing a pitcher’s face. The prey shot backward and plummeted toward the water, black feathers flying, its red-webbed feet hanging helpless. A pigeon guillemot. The falcon dropped to it, snatched it in talons. Carried it instantly toward the beach, blown by Bad Mama North.
A pigeon guillemot. Usually the most peaceful seabird you could see on beach rocks. Usually it sat on a ledge, nodding like a dove, gaping open a funny red mouth, whistling a reedy sea-trill that crooned some secret only to the guillemot beside it.
Innocent like my mother before her father left, and no one told her what happened.
Innocent like the boy before he dropped his French fries.
I got out my notebook:
I stretch and warm my legs.
I write on pulp-become-paper,
and my life and its ways
from death and its ways
only if I look, like the Mink Woman,
at dying, and I do not know.
So shrill the flightless fledgling screamed
from the highway bank,
the red-tailed young
cracking cries like Chat’s,
her father where?
The father evidently not knowing
nothing sustains you
until the Mink Voice sings your name.
“Arden, crazy man, what you doing here?”
I snapped my notebook shut, and she steadied her bike against the stump, and I felt all my gaze, all my joy at seeing her, fly into her mink ink, her pretty pools, and she sat and put a hand on my thigh, giggling, pouring hot sparks into my leg.
“We just got a ride,” she said. “A pickup truck.”
I caught her giggles.
“I made calls and got about one-hundred runarounds, and finally I gave in and called a really old contact,” she said. “She knew a wildlife cop in Pacific City, and the guy met us and then brought us almost all the way through Lincoln City. Chat and I froze, riding in the bed with the bikes, but right now she and Winnie are working on triple-scoop sundaes at Captain Clyde’s.
“I thought I saw a falcon from the porch there, and I told them I had to go see. I rode toward the marsh, and there were your bandanas.
“The feds’ll check out that boat and plane. They’ve been finding pesticides up and down the coast. They’ve been looking for sprayers for years.”
I thought of the captain and his runny alcoholic eyes, his deckhand, and I grabbed her hand, my first time, meaning to be serious, cautious, and then she turned, and we leapt together. Our lips leapt, our tongues leapt, our breaths leapt, our laughs leapt, and she rolled her face against my chest, feathering fingers beneath my sweater, and her hair brushed my chin, my throat, and I nibbled my way to her nape–a hot hammer booming in my chest, pounding as if to bang through my skin, aching in my fingers, burning and wagging in my cock.
She hung her smile close, “I liked yesterday, your staying,” she said.
“Chat liked it too, but you were gonna be long gone, halfway to California today.”
“You’re just like Mister Thrush. You get a little close, you think you can whisper and fool me.”
“What kind of falcon did you come to find?”
I leapt at her wry smile, licked it, pecked it, raked her mop, found flaring nipples, rising breasts, and she stroked me once, ran a single finger up my Hojo shorts–and got up and stepped away! I nearly howled. She looked back across the marsh at a house-peak, a third-story window, and then toward town, Captain Clyde‘s, and I knelt and kissed her shin, and her fingers dug into my hair, and then breath boomed.
An animal down the bank. A sudden snort toward the Siletz’s mouth.
“Shit,” said Lisha.
A doe thrashed on mud, her head popping up, snapping back in panic. One foreleg stamped the bank, and the other flopped sideways–its bone shattered, its fur and flesh strung loosely.
Lisha and I sat on the sand. We made ourselves small and quiet. We studied each other.
The doe lifted her snout, flexed black nostrils, dripped red spots across her white throat-spot, gawked up at us.
“She just got hit,” said Lisha.
“Want to call another ranger?”
“To pick up road kill?”
Lisha found a club of driftwood and dug a camp knife from a pannier, a retractable five-inch blade. Her stare asked if I agreed, and she seemed too sure to doubt. The river was still rising, and all kinds of things would bite and sting her from the water, or the doe would drown, or if we hauled her higher, dogs or coyotes might come.
Lisha carried the club like a baseball bat at its handle. She rumpled a cheek, braced herself. She stepped down the bank, and the doe lurched back. It snorted again and slapped its head fiercely against mud, and Lisha swung, and the skull cracked. The knock thudded clearly. The chin slammed down. The snout lay flat–and then rose. The doe sniffed and blinked. The almond-shaped eyes slid sideways as if through a heavy glue, and Lisha raised the club above her head. Her shirt and shorts flew up her body, the club banged down, the bone crunched again.
The chin lay still again. The throat lay still. The front shoulders were barely out of water.
The doe opened her eyes with a dry, gray gaze. Her black lips convulsed along her teeth. Her white-rimmed nostrils spit and sprayed blood, sucking and blowing air.
The head rose again, and I took my turns reluctantly. The club was half water-logged, at least five-feet long, so heavy and thick I wore my leather gloves, swinging it. We crowned the doe three more times each and dragged her where the bank wasn’t so steep. The mud was too soft for kneeling, and I sat behind the doe’s head, straddling it, cradling her mouth, and Lisha sawed the throat. The cut gushed scarlet, and we watched it until it stopped dripping.
The deer shook beneath me, softened, slackened. Lisha laid a hand against the neck and then the ribs. We climbed the bank into Cold Mama North and walked toward the drift stump, and I slung an arm around Lisha’s back.
“I sure fucked that up,” she said, and I thought of a ground squirrel I had passed on Highway 2 in Montana. It had squirmed with its nose mashed against the shoulder, barking high cries and prolonged yelps, and I had nearly crushed it with the heel of my Rogue, nearly rolled a tire across its head, so it would mercifully die, but I had been on the Blackfeet Reservation, and I had felt no right, and I had lacked Lisha’s courage.
“It would still be suffering,” I said.
Her tee shirt was sopped and muddy, and she tore it roughly over her hair. She wrung it out–her boobs wet and shiny, white melons in her tan, nipples upraised and slick. She looked at me directly, brooding, mink tufts in her pits. She grabbed the bra I had hung on her handlebars while we had smooched and slung it on. She pulled on a clean shirt, sat against the stump, and I lowered myself gingerly, afraid to nestle, and she drew her knees stiffly to her chest.
A flute started upriver, the thrush in a slow-singing mood, its chords loud and chilly and dense. The bird sallied above the Siletz, hawking bugs in the sunlight, wings fluttering, shedding tawny-yellow flashes. Lisha stared at it and then seemed to sleep. Her head slumped against my shoulder, her breasts rose and fell, and I got hard again and wanted to kiss away a pinch at the side of her brow, a terrible tight clamp.
Her eyes flew open. She stared around the end of the stump, and we heard a bike crash down.
“Whoa, wait!” yelled Winnie.
“Mom said twenty minutes, not all day!”
“Knock, knock!” called Winnie. “Company!”
The stump shook, and then Chat danced along the topside, stepping through the miniature cedar and spruce. “Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! Found you! Uh-huh! Uh-huh!” She did big-city rap steps, hips jerking in her Lycra shorts, shoulders popping in an electric-rose windbreaker. “We knew! We knew! You two! You two!” She jutted her chin. Her red Rogues pivoted around a sapling. She sang to Winnie. “Told you! Told you!” She jumped down, and vultures flushed above the river, alarmed by the thud.
A dozen or so floated up in a low-lazy circle, their black wings tilting heavily up, skeletal eyes skulking in featherless red heads.
Chat ran toward them, looked down the bank, spun, ran back and threw herself into Lisha’s hug. “They’re eating a deer, and it’s still alive.”
“Let’s go see,” said Lisha.
The doe lay well above the water and mud, its head flung sideways on sand, and vultures flushed up as we padded toward her. She raised her head wearily and twisted it backward at us. Her ears grew wide and tense. The vultures has scraped gashes open in her rump. Her throat-gash bled. Her black gaze bore into me. I found the club again.
“Don’t!” said Chat. “We’ll just watch it! We’ll just sit here! Can’t we, Mom?”
“A car hit her, honey,” said Lisha.
“So? They hit the slugs too!”
“She’s going to die, and you’re scaring her, shouting,” said Lisha. “We’re all scaring her. We’re making her suffer longer.”
“We don’t have to scare her! We’ll just keep the buzzards away! It’s like you always say, leave the animals alone! Don’t bother them!”
“We wish,” said Winnie. “We try for that.”
“No, you guys never do!”
The doe pushed herself along with her rear legs, crawling on her chest and stomach, her shin now detached from her wounded leg. Her head dropped, she panted. She snorted, her ribs heaved up. I swung the driftwood club, the skull cracked. Chat cried out. I hit the head again, Chat moaned. Lisha drew the knife up the neck, cutting the juggler this time. Blood sprayed out, and Chat yelled into Winnie’s jacket, hugging her.
Lisha stabbed the windpipe hard, sawed the stubborn cartilage. Bubbles rolled out, pink and viscous. They rolled down the neck onto the sand, and the doe worked her jaws, gnashed her tongue, huffed. Her ribs pounded in and out, and her nostrils quivered and dripped. She spit her last bubbles and shut her eyes, and then her nostrils quieted too.
Chat took the club from me. She nudged the doe’s shin in place with it, laid it beside the doe, and then everyone put drift sticks and twigs, rocks, by-the-wind sailors, limpets and other shells in a circle around the deer.
Chat sat and tucked her knees against her chest like her mom, and she watched the deer and vultures, gulls and crows gather on the opposite shore. Winnie sat beside her, and Lisha snapped a down vest over her burgundy sweater, getting ready to stay too. “Chat wants to be extra sure,” she said.
“How long?” I said.
“I don’t know. We do the weirdest things around you—dump scientific specimens, bully bullies, flip out in tunnels—and this.”
Her eyes seemed cool, and her voice felt like a cold splash, as if I were somehow accused. But she lifted a cheek, and I kissed it.
“I’ve seen enough,” I said.
I rode onto 101, and my legs drove me on. I vowed to wait somewhere, but I got in my hundred before dusk fell.
I slept hard on a headland, and the sunrise winked gold through fog, copper on waves. Sea lions barked, and I heard California, smelled its coast as I imagined it–whiffs of guano, straw-colored cliffs. I tried for another hundred. I rode to Florence, crossed the Siuslaw, climbed into wooded dunes, and the thrush flashed above me and flew along a side road. It dove into a hedge, I turned and went after it. I stopped, and the tawny bird peered from dead-brown leaves, blinking moist black eyes, and I saw mink, pretty pools. The flute whispered, and I wondered where Lisha had camped.
The hedge ran discolored, looking poisoned along a side road as far as I could see. I walked my bike and watched thrushes gobble filmy-black berries, the fruits bloated, stained with strange metallic spots. A big broad sedan veered slowly and pulled up beside me, and an old man wrenched a quick smile and stared out his window through binoculars, watching waxwings and robins fly into the bushes.
“My wife tried to tell the goddamned county to take their state-paid poison and sell it back to the herbicide factory,” he said. “She begged the boy who drives the truck to stop at our place and have coffee instead. Have Marion berry pie instead, have prawns, King salmon for Christ’s sake, just don’t spray.”
Harold Hahlsberg had a bald and bullish head and knuckles furry with soft gray curls. He lowered his binocs and thrust up bulbous eyes, a hawk nose, big smooth cheeks and thoughtful lips.
“But a neighbor-girl always rides with the spray-guy. She meets him right about here, and they drive toward the beach. So, he has…shall we say…other things on his mind?”
Harold pushed open his door and planted heavy leather boots on the pavement. He got up slowly, groaning, a blue work shirt and red suspenders pushing tightly against a big belly. He settled his back gingerly against his ten-year-old Chrysler.
A grosbeak flew in, and he took out a pocket notebook, licked a finger, moistened a pencil and added the species to his list.
“I don’t think I’ll tell Dellie I saw it here in the dead zone,” he said. “I’ll just tell her I ran into one of you cyclists, and I saw you watching, and I stopped. She’ll like that.”
Birds ate and ate, but none coughed or keeled over, and we guessed about the active chemicals and their impacts.
“I’ve been traveling with a woman who would know,” I said. “She knows all the birds. I’ve ridden all the way from Ohio, and she’s been the only one.”
Harold raised his gaze toward the highway as if he expected she might ride up.
“She’s at least a day behind, riding with her daughter and sister,” I said.
Harold puckered his lips to himself, looking past 101 to the blue crest of Coast Range visible in the east.
“When I was your age, I started to work in those hills, and then I signed up to fight Hitler and Japan. I went to France and targeted artillery and came back, and whenever the logging bosses wanted to build a road, they hired me. Their engineers would figure the lines, and then I would show them what their gismos missed. I could eye up the grades and see how the trees would fall and where they would hit and how they would break. I could see where the log booms would snag on rivers and trucks would sink in mud. I learned that in the war, and so I always had work. And then I saw too many strikes, too many big takeovers, too many mills closing, and I quit.”
“And?” I said.
“I never married, and it never bothered me at ‘tal. But one morning after I retired, I walked onto the beach, and Dellie was standing there with a scarf whipping around her face, all worried about cries she heard up in the clouds.”
Harold imitated the sound, screaming like seabirds.
“Dellie’s a flatlander, and she was so busy looking up, she didn’t see me coming. But her laugh bounced as free as the waves, and I told what the cries were. Know how I knew?”
“Once in the woods I knew a bucker who heard a peep in a bough. He found a chick that had fallen with a tree, and it looked like a murre, but everyone knew murres don’t live in the woods. The cookhouse gals knew I was a little crazy about birds, so they brought me warm milk and bread and an eyedropper, so I could feed it. But the way the bill was, I asked them to take some cod off the ice, and I cut it up and mashed bits with a fork. I fed the little thing with my fingers and kept it alive almost a week.”
Harold swung open his back door: Hornie, Tuffie, Perrie, Murrie, Snowy, Spottie and Hermie stood arranged in a box on the seat, beaks and bills stuck over the edges as if the stuffed birds clamored to get out.
“Know which one has to nest in old growth?” he said. “And cries inside the clouds on its way out to sea to fish?”
“The bird mom already told me,” I said, “the marbled murrelet.”
“Dellie will love it. She’s in Portland now. She’s in the hospital, getting a hipbone scraped, and she wants these in her room. You go out to the beach past our place, you see how many of these species you can spot.”
“How far is it?”
“Who cares? You get to all that smog in California, you won’t be able to breathe anyway. Just go out and see. You’ll see a no-spray sign, that’s our place, you can leave your bike there.”
“Can I use a water spigot?”
“Sure, camp in the backyard if you want. Just leave me a note and tell me what birds you saw.”
Harold lowered himself onto the driver’s seat, swung his rigid knees, squeezed himself behind his steering wheel again. He grinned good-bye, and I went down his road, and there beside his no-spray sign stood a second. A big flat slab of hand-painted driftwood. House for sale by owner.
A hip scraped–of what? Why were they selling?
The place was a gem, too sweet to give up. The yard was fenced by fishnets strung between driftwood posts, and the house was the yellowish gray-green of beard-moss in conifers, had two small stories, cottage-like peaks, big picture windows. Blue and pink hydrangeas hugged the house, and a hummingbird zoomed from coast lilies in front to foxgloves in back. A riot of sand roses engulfed a crumbling shed, and no one had mowed for weeks, maybe no one could. I walked through a line of shore pines and followed a creek to a massive beach, nobody anywhere, and the surf looked like it broke across a reef, so Chat would probably have tide pools to explore.
I walked back to the mailbox–Harold and Delena Hahlsberg. I had the right place, maybe the perfect place. It needed work, but it was the last place on the road, four or five acres, and it had at least two bedrooms upstairs and one down. Harold had stacked cardboard inside a burn barrel, and I cut some into little signs.
I rode the seven miles out to 101 and saw only four other houses, three with swing sets, possible playmates, and I thought if anyone could turn the dead hedge green again, I knew who.
I rode back toward Florence, found a red shirt discarded behind a guardrail, tore it into strips, hung the flags on mileposts with my signs.
True or false?
House to buy, four miles?
Lisha’s house, three miles?
Chat’s house, two miles?
Winnie’s house, one mile?
I pitched my tent in the back yard, and in the morning I pointed slabs of driftwood along Harold’s Creek to the beach. I walked and sang my way along the surf, crooning, longing, and I saw no one until Far Woman Rock towered above the sand, a single sudden sea stack, her face sheer like Neahkahnie, her blue schist gaze sunken beneath protruding eyebrow-ridges, tilting slightly up, gazing north.
Yellow blossoms on red stems grew thick around ledges and up and down her fissures. Sedum and dudleya, the flowers were called. They created a rock of impossible fragrance. A love rock. A quiet rock. A rock always listening to the surf. A patient rock with eyes so penetrating and ancient they gazed right through the next headland up the beach, Siltcoos Head, and clear through the entire length of the Coast Range, I thought. Far Woman Rock had spotted a flatlander in Portland, Dellie in the city. Had drawn her here to Harold and had sent the thrush to draw me down Harold’s road. Now maybe she would wave a red flag to Lisha as Lisha rode the highway.
But I walked back to the mouth of the creek, and I knew Lisha wouldn’t come, and then a flat gray spot raced silently along the foot of a dune. It slid behind beach grass and drift logs, and finally it stood still on sand, a plover. It crouched down, its plumage so ghostly its shadow was easier to see than its body.
Flies swirled up from sand, and the plover snapped at them. I crept nearer with binocs. Whistles! Peeps! The plover wheeled skinny black legs, charging with its bill thrust forward. It lunged, bit another’s tail. The birds fluttered up and then down, and I missed any field marks on both.
I hoped for a snowy, and I sat against a hump of sand, made myself small, waited. The sun climbed high, and little oblong shadows lengthened from nubs of wood, bits of shells, stems, verbena and even the mini-ridges of wind-scallops. But none were from plovers, and I scanned hundreds of yards of beach grass. Still no luck.
So, you see, Arden,
it boils down to this.
If you see the plover true,
she comes to you,
but if you’re wrong,
the Mink Mom
stays as silent to you
as the logs in the dunes.
Or maybe it’s either way.
you crave her forever,
but Snowy or not,
before you finish your try.
Peeps again! Two snowy plovers clearly in view! The right dark dashes showed on brows and breasts, and then Winnie knelt up from beach grass–she had been lying flat, watching since when? She had her own binocs, you know, and she crept so gently the sand seemed to rise to her palms and knees. I crept to her on my hands and knees, eating giggles again, and her glance flickered amber and then got anxious. “You think Lise got mad about someone bothering the oystercatcher?” she warned. “Wait until she finds out you’ve been sitting on top of a snowy plover family.”
But I saw only sand and pebbles, and heard only surf, a crow overhead, Chat. “Winnie! Arden! My tire’s bald! It’s gonna go flat!”
We hurried and met her behind the dune. And Lisha too, and everyone set out on the most delicate mission ever in beach grass. We crept on all fours, stifling all noises, even whispers. We stopped behind a log, and Lisha passed the tripod to Chat, and Chat laid the retractable legs on sand, her hands remarkably poised, little versions of her mom’s hands, artist’s hands. She poured a dire look to Lisha. You do it. Lisha nodded. Go on. Chat grasped a wing nut, the bolt clanged, a plover cried. Chat’s face snapped, caved in, and Lisha sculpted air, sliding beside her. She laced fingers with her, and silently they turned the nut and drew out the lowest legs together. Winnie mounted the scope just above the log, aimed it and winced as if she had been wrong all along, and she and I had seen nothing. Chat looked through, and then her eyes lit triumphantly. I found it!
Not twenty yards from my old sitting place, two obsidian beads and a black bill glistened in a vague low arch of something hopelessly pale–a snowy hunkered as flat on a scrape as Mama Thrush on her nest.
“Cool!” shouted Chat, and plover chicks blew like dandelion seeds across the sand, running, vanishing.
We hustled out of the beach grass and hopped log-to-rock across the creek. Winnie congratulated Chat, and Lisha ran fingers down my forearm and tapped my wrist. “Now you’re finding us houses? And Mister Snowy?”
“Mister?” I said.
She told about Snowy, how the latest surveys had found the species raising only one-hundred broods on all the fore dunes on beaches from Fort Stevens to Cape Blanco. “But he won’t be listed as endangered for another ten years,” she said.
“Him?” I said.
“Oh, yeah,” said Lisha. “Uh-huh.” She jutted her chin like Chat dancing on the nurse log. “Their eggs hatch, and the mama bird makes Mister Snowy do all the work. She lets him catch the food and feed it to the young. She lets him haul the poop sacs out of the scrape. She lets him fight off the coons and crows and foxes all by himself, and she goes off with a second guy. She lays a second clutch, and sometimes she actually leaves Mister Two and starts in with Mister Three.”
Chat squealed, and we followed her and Winnie to the surf, where Chat chased receding foam. The surf rumbled as if creeping on soft toes, and then it pounded on galloping hooves, and Chat leapt from spray. She braced her feet in a churn and raised and shook a fist, shouting at the Endless Beyond, Blue Jay’s vast and eternal ocean. Come on, Mister Pacific! Come get me! Dare you to knock me over! Try, just try!
She tore back up Harold’s creek after Winnie, eyes gleaming as she burst by. “The tornado before the crash,” said Lisha. “The boom before the bust.” Chat and Winnie pitched tents on a bank just shore of Harold’s shore pines while Lisha and I readied a chicken for a beach fire. Lisha had bought a big, fat, organic bird Lisha at the brown-rice grocery in Florence, and I held it upside-down on a Frisbee on a drift log as she slathered sweet-cream butter on the pinkish-white skin. The chicken slid, our hands brushed. Our noses nicked, our brows met. I felt our heat still nicely there.
We strung my metal lock chain through the chicken’s gut-cavity and walked round and round, holding opposite ends, swinging the bird above flames, and Lisha said no, no, they would not try to find Chat’s dad on this trip, he might as well live on the moon.
“I got lucky the first night at a freshman ecology camp in Monterey,” she said. “I got Chat.”
She pulled the chain tight together, swung it above flames. Her toes curled in sand, her smiles flashed, her chin angled high. She talked about dune birds and dune plants, possible ranger-jobs around Florence, schools, and I knew I was a little drunk on how her warm and girlish tone smoothed into sureness and science and then hedged and softened and floated on sudden giggles across the spatters and smells of the browning skin and dripping meat.
“I don’t know about tomorrow,” she said. “What about you, Ard?”
A laugh rolled in me, broke, tumbled out. The sun was dropping behind her, its waning rays now caressing Far Woman Beach, home of the true lover’s leap, and I saw only the night ahead.
“Mom! Arden! Look!” Chat ran up, holding a skeleton key pinched between two fingers. “Winnie was looking around the yard, and I saw it hanging on a nail behind the garage.”
“Hand it here–and now,” said Lisha.
“I think it fits the back door of the house.”
“Don’t even tell me you tried it.”
“I didn’t. You know I wouldn’t, but I went past the door, and it looks like it. We could go in just once. We could see the inside.”
“No, you know better. I know you do.”
“You said my room could be upstairs, but how would I know if I don’t see it?”
“We’ll see it when we make friends with the owners.”
“But then someone else will see it first. They’ll come in a car and buy it before us. We should just wait until that old guy comes back.”
Chat stared at me, looking for an ally, and I said I didn’t know how long Harold would be gone, or even the name of Dellie’s hospital, and then gulls yelped and circled above the chicken smoke, landed and begged, told us dinner was done.
“Come on, we have already brought the Hungry Ones too close to the plovers, haven’t we, hun?” said Lisha.
“I wish we had real meat,” said Chat. “A real campsite. A real anything.”
Lisha and I walked with the chain and chicken and mess pots, and Chat lagged behind. I turned and asked if she wanted to get wood for a new fire, and she picked up driftwood and flung it into the creek. We got to their tent, pitched on the bank opposite Harold’s shore pines, and Chat pouted and sat away from us. She leaned supine against a steep bank, rubbing her ponytail back and forth in pebbles and sand. “Mom, you always said I could tell you when I was too tired, and I didn’t want to ride the next day, remember?” she said. “I want to stay tomorrow. I want to see our house.”
“Ard has permission to camp here, but we don’t,” said Lisha. “We have yummy-yum cakes and berries for breakfast, but then only peanut butter and some bread and crackers for food tomorrow.”
Chat turned to Winnie who was bending above the stream, scrubbing a pot as if she heard nothing, and did not feel Chat’s stare. Chat snarled and sighed. She stared at shore pines as if she might by sheer will see through the darkening trees and into Harold’s house.
The thrush’s flute shattered the dusk, a gray-brown bird shape raising its bill in a blurry-fuzzy gap between pine boughs. It sang directly in line with Chat’s gaze as twilight collapsed around its slumping wings. Its peeps and plinks cut down through the evening chill, and Chat lay limply, arms and elbows slack on the bank. She wore only a tee shirt and shorts, was certainly cold, and though she had developed muscled thighs and calves, she seemed as thin as a sheet of bark, very dark, weightless, defeated.
“True or false?” I said. “We’d all like to see inside the house, but if Harold came home, he’d call the cops.”
Silence. No stir.
Lisha tugged my beard, yanked a tangle of my hair. She pinched my neck, getting up, and then she soft-toed her way to Chat and pulled her up. They walked down the bank and ducked inside their tent. Winnie went in, and I crossed a shoal and stepped across riffles. The three said goodnight, and Lisha’s voice floated after me, and the darkness rose from Chat’s bank, clinging to me. I moved through the pines to the yard and slung my ass inside my tent, just as defeated as Chat. I left the tent’s screen open, stretched my legs outside and watched clouds blotting stars and soaring north high in the sky. But down here there was no breeze, only echoes of surf-booms, and the house loomed black, its windows gray and opaque. The garage stood by itself, a one-car remnant, and then Lisha was out there, turning toward its back wall, returning the key, and she soft-toed over, and I took her hands, welling shyly. The floor of the tent was puffy with grass, sharply cold, and it set us to giggling as she lay beside me. I gasped, trembling, shivering, touching, and she had the ease of softness, the plush of fur, moist, and she wrapped me murmuring, her flesh lean and strong and flexing. She spoke worlds with her murmurs and breath, and she rolled off me, stole my sleeping bag, pulled it over her body, her nose and eyes. I plunged after her, and she offered her throat, tossing her hair, singing in my ear. “You think you’re Mister Snowy?”
I clutched and massaged her hips.
“He jumps on her back and kinds of runs in place with his little black legs,” she said. “He kind of claws her with his sharp little toes, and they rock and get so intense they crash backward against the sand.”
I hung over her lips, still tasting, aching, still stark-raving ravenous for the smart little wiggle of her smile. “You saw this, the flying backward? How?”
“I knew what to look for.”
“One night, you think you get all my secrets?”
“Yes, all of them.”
She sighed, deliberated, nestled.
We could not get enough, could not stop, and we heard the thrush’s flute cut the murky navy dawn.
“The Birds of the Northwest Seashore,” she said. “The Birds of the Pacific Dunes. The Birds of the Pacific Rainforests. The Birds of the Cascade Streams and Mountains. You’ve seen those books?”
“You’ve seen one of them in my hands.”
“My mother wrote them. She knew the guy in Pacific City too.”
“Your mother?” A great many things made sense at once, especially everyone’s abilities. “I ‘d like to meet her.”
Lisha popped me in the gut, a playful punch. “You love me here in this yard? Without a condom? Without any job? With hardly any money?” She kissed me and lay back again. “You’ll meet my mother over my dead body,” she said.
She grabbed the nearest sweater, my grungy gray wool, and sprang from the tent, pulling it on, and it jumped up her peach-curves as she sprinted across the yard and through the pines. I put on her burgundy sweater, my pants, found her shorts beneath our bags. I grabbed them and my binocs and chased her down the creek as she pursued cries racing through heavy, sagging clouds. High-pitched barks. Fleeting, zooming yelps. Marbled murrelets. Murries. Fog birds. The cries were already distant, fading in the overcast toward the sea when I caught her.
Lisha looked up longingly at the sky and put on her shorts. We walked, holding hands. We squatted together, looking beyond the creek for snowy plovers on sand.
No shadows yet to see. The shallow slick of the creek’s mouth, the sea and the far-off horizon seemed solidly stratus-gray, the air sneaking pale-watery light into the dimly whitish world. We knelt and scanned empty wind-scallops on sand. She fisted beach grass, yanking it with her sudden beautiful muscle. The grass grew all along the dunes, and she said it was called European. “The states and feds planted it beside roads and river channels to block blowing sand,” she said. “Now it spreads into the plover’s habitat as stubbornly as those roses taking over Harold’s shed. It gives the foxes and other predators cover, easier pickings.”
An engine hummed from the direction of Far Woman Rock–hummed and whined and revved. Suddenly a pickup sailed from a rise of sand as if from a stunt-ramp, flying above the creek, its radiator grille a big, silver, gaping mouth, its body white, spotted with rust. The truck banged down and sped along the surf a couple-hundred yards in front of us, its driver oblivious to us as we stood, his elbow cocked out his window, his chin high and beardless in my binocs, his eyes fixed ahead in a booming pulse of heavy-metal rock.
Another engine roared and blatted. A yellow convertible flew across the creek, a relic from the sixties. It slammed down in soft sand, and its tires sank and spun and went nowhere. The horn blared, and four…five…six dogs jumped out and ran toward us, barking. Lisha pointed at a plover as it shot up and down and spread itself flat, an old bird trick, a distraction, and we strode away from it, clapping at the dogs to come to us, not the bird. A shepherd-sized mutt charged Lisha, its snout big and black. It snapped near her thighs, and we stood still, and other dogs caught up, jumped and barked at us. We shouted stern commands, but a pinscher-mutt with thick powerful hams raised surly yellow eyes, baring teeth by my shins, and a retriever-mutt pushed in close, butting its nose against Lisha’s crotch and then mine, sniffing our love, wagging its tail, slobbering drool.
A young woman stood in the convertible, hair blond and wind-whipped, sweater-blouse snake-tight, ruby, rayon. She glanced at us and then stared over the windshield down the beach, her foot still on her horn. She threw back her head and smiled at two black dogs the size of miniature collies running zigzags across sand. They looked like some kind of sheep-herding breed, and they worked together, paws and ear-tips white. One shook something in its bite, and we moved toward them, but the shepherd-mutt and some kind of chocolate longhair raised ruffs, hunching and growling. I kicked at them and saw one of the herder-mutts drop a ball of fuzz across the sand. The herder-mutt leapt straight up in the air like a fox, pounced forward and then ran circles, dangling a chick from its front teeth. The second herder-mutt circled around the first, had a chick too, and I pounded with anger. We had seen no-vehicle signs at the beach’s official access. Now I threw sand, shouting at the bigger dogs before us, and the girl in the car swigged from a plastic pop bottle and raised it as to say right on, beat your way through them and come on over.
We walked against the bigger dogs, and they puffed themselves up. The pinscher snapped at our knees, Lisha swung her binocs. The pinscher yelped. I swung mine, coming down across the pinscher’s spine, and it spun away. It and the retriever ran toward the girl, who screamed their names, pulling her foot off her horn. The pinscher and retriever ignored the girl, turning toward the herder-mutts as they sprinted now along the tire tracks left by the pickup. The four dogs joined two smaller dogs running along the surf, chasing gulls. We hustled to the girl, she swung drunkenly to us. “My cock-sucking boyfriend said we could fucking make it down this beach and back, and he would fucking haul me out if we got fucking stuck, and now he keeps going like he’s got his dick stuck up his fucking ass, and he has to pull it out all by his fucking self.” The girl shook her head angrily and sat on top of the driver’s seat. She took a drink, crossed her arms and watched her dogs again. “They don’t fucking hurt anything. They want to play. They want to run. They fucking love it out here. This beach is their fucking favorite beach ever, I think.” Her drink through its plastic bottle looked like orange soda and smelled like candy and gin. “Except for Cork and Yank. They bit a beach cop last week. He wanted to search me, and they went after his heels, and he fell on his ass.”
She laughed and smiled, and her eyes got almost as large-looking as her wild fluffs of hair. Lisha stared up her, seeing what? Her imitation gold necklace? Hickeys? Eye shadow and lipstick? Skinny cheeks and jeans super-snug on bony hips? Her white and pasty stomach showing above her belt buckle?
“Your dogs just killed at least two snowy plovers,” said Lisha.
“No, my dogs are good dogs,” said the girl.
“We saw chicks in their mouths.”
“You think birds are more important than humans or what?”
“The beach is about the only place where the plovers can live.”
“Then they’re pretty dumb birds, aren’t they?”
Drumbeats sounded through the surf-thud, carried by sudden cold gusts. The pickup was revving and coming back slow, avoiding the dogs as they gathered around it. Lisha looked behind us. Chat and Winnie were coming from Harold’s, pacing through beach grass, and we headed their way, saying nothing else.
We cut through plover territory, paw-prints everywhere. We topped the last dune, and Lisha turned and aimed binocs back toward the convertible. The boyfriend was out of his truck. He and his girl were kneeling, shoving wood beneath one of the convertible’s tires. Lisha spoke the plate numbers to me, and the girl must have felt her eyes on her. She and her guy turned and stared at us, and Lisha sidestepped purposefully and studied the truck’s plate. The guy stood at least six-feet, walked broad-hipped and spindly-armed, four or five years older than the girl. He carried a marbled liquor bottle, and he shouted at the dogs, but all of them kept running along the surf, nipping and playing. He hitched up his shoulders as if to say fuck it. He sat on the bumper against the tailgate in front of his truck’s plate, his shirt swanky purple, his hair auburn, his brow high and angular, bored-looking. He drank, and the girl sat next to him and flipped us the bird.
“What did they do?” Chat pulled beside Lisha. Her voice sounded afraid, but she imitated the shoulder-hitch, glaring across the sand, and I was glad the truck would get stuck if the guy tried to drive it to us.
“Let’s go,” said Winnie.
“They killed at least two plover chicks,” Lisha said again.
“We’ll get ourselves to Reedsport,” said Winnie. “We’ll call there.”
We went back along the creek, and rain fell in big scattered drops, feeling warm, sliding heavily down my skin. The wind picked up, and drops stung and chilled us. Lisha went to their tent, grabbed a bag and stuffed it.
“They sicced the dogs on you?” said Chat.
“No, they just let them loose,” said Lisha.
“And they got the chicks? Killed them?”
Lisha nodded yes, holding tears, I thought. She yanked a tie string, the string slipped. The bag in its sack bounced backward and tumbled into the creek. Chat flew down the bank, snatched it, lifted it toward Lisha. Barely wet. Saved.
Chat snuck a cautious look downstream.
“They have no idea we’re here, and I know they won’t walk this far,” I said.
“Then why do we have to leave?” said Chat.
“Because it’s raining, and we want to be dry,” said Winnie.
Winnie had started a fire before she had heard the horn, and now she was hurrying, blowing flames, cooking wheat cakes. She gave me one, and I took it in my bare hand and wolfed it, going to my tent, suddenly starved, exhausted. I lay on Lisha’s bag, which we had brought into my tent in the middle of the night, and I listened and heard no engines.
Lisha ducked in and dropped off her stuff sack. She helped me break camp and load my bike, and we went back to the pines: Winnie had Chat’s bike propped upside down, the rear tire spinning through the brake pads, the bald spot a flesh-colored on black tread. The sisters stared at each other–something forgotten, unready to go.
The rain gusted only slightly in the pines, and no one could see into them from the beach or road, so Lisha popped off the wheel. She pried the tire from the rim, spread its walls open, found a pea-hole. But I had just the thing for her. I had spent a winter evening, cutting an old tire with a hacksaw, trimming a patch, and now it fit perfectly down between Chat’s gum walls, and Lisha kissed my ear in thanks.
We put Chat’s bags on her bike again, and Winnie rolled its tires back and forth across the ground, testing the patch.
“Chat?” said Lisha.
She wasn’t in the grove.
Not around the house or garage or road.
We saw her from the edge of the pines, kneeling back by Winnie’s fire, piling new sticks on old coals, bending her face from the rain.
“Put it out, please,” said Lisha.
“Time to go,” said Winnie.
Chat looked up slow. She took her time standing, twisting her hips in her Lycra shorts. She fussed with her ponytail, her hair ties all set, her ear band and gloves on, her electric-rose jacket zippered up to her chin, her Rogues tied tight. “Please, can we go into the house, Mom? Just once? Just walk through? Just see it for two little minutes before we go?”
“Those people, Chat,” said Lisha. “Those dogs.”
“We can just kick those guys off our beach.”
“We’re only getting colder, wetter, honey.”
“If they won’t come here, we could just wait until this burns out. Then we can go inside and dry off.”
“You get his sweater, and he gets yours, and what do I get? Nothing! No place! No room! No house! I don’t even get to look inside!”
Lisha hurried to her from the edge of the pines, softened her tone. “How about this? I can’t see us living here, not where plovers get mobbed, and everything else can get run over. But I’ll do for you, Chat, you know I always want to. You know I love you most. You know I always will.
“Let’s go back to Florence. The wind’s blowing that way, and it’s only half the miles than to Reedsport. We’ll get a new tire faster, and then we’ll go to that little hotel that we saw, and we can let all this pass.”
I had a vision of warm sheets, showered skin, wet ravishing mink–while Winnie and Chat were out, shopping in Old Town. “I’ll throw in,” I said.
“We can call the number on Harold’s sign,” said Lisha. “We can stop in at a realtor’s and see what they know about all the houses for sale around here.”
Everyone agreed, and a rain-howl soughed through the pines, hurrying our consensus. We hit the pavement past the driveway four abreast, sprinkles and gusts at our backs. The drops seemed lighter, and a cusp of blue glowed inside buttery gold cloud-edges, then lapsed, but we peeled off sweaters and jackets anyway.
“Hey, my tire bumps funny!” said Chat. “Ka-lump…ka-lump…ka-lump-a-lump-a-lump!”
Winnie hummed the Lone Ranger song, the end of the William Tell Overture. Chat sang it with her. “Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum-dum-dum-dum-DUM-DUM.” We got to the dead-hedge corner, and pickups boomed past on jacked-up tires, hauling dune buggies, speeding on 101. RV’s and sedans and station wagons went past, all-terrain vehicles strapped and chained to trailers, florescent pennants blowing from roll-bars and handlebars, plastic fenders shining moistly in a thin mist. A Saturday convoy.
Winnie and Chat crossed 101 and climbed the opposite shoulder single file while Lisha and I waited for more traffic to pass.
“Really think we can get a room?” I said.
For the first time since the dogs had killed the plovers, Lisha flashed her wonderful smile. “No.”
We rode across 101, and Lisha pedaled ahead. A strip of the red shirt flapped from a milepost on the left, and she pointed at it, her finger dancing up, and a thrush flushed from her right, rising from the shoulder-edge. It flew straight above the shoulder almost to Chat–an insect its bill? Going to feed fledglings? Traffic lulled, and I passed Lisha, nodding to the pullout ahead, and I stopped where the bird had swerved into bushes. I turned, and Lisha’s bike shot from beneath her, and she flew in the air, her feet oddly above her. Her shirt fluffed up, showing her stomach. Her bike crashed, skidding, bags flying, and her head thumped like a softball against a windshield, and she flew backward above a raised convertible-top.
Tires screeched, the yellow car whipping a U-turn. It sped south toward Reedsport, and Lisha lay across the northbound lane, slack and motionless, a trickle of blood coming from her mouth.
And so the Bastard Wind blew into the Orphan Wind into the Death Wind into the Love-lost Wind into the Ultimate Wind I mistrusted and loathed and had to learn instead to feel as the wind without its own life, no meanings or portents, the wind I tried to understand as the result of ocean currents, the Coriolis effect, gravities, temperatures and the revolutions and curves of Earth we ride and die upon even if the wind seemed the one who brought the rain and turned us onto the highway in the same direction as the girl drove drunk.
Two questions pounded me again and again like waves against a break wall.
“Did you see the driver deliberately turn the wheel? Did you see the car move into the shoulder and hit the bike?”
I had answered them about one-hundred times. “No.”
State police had pulled over the boyfriend as he had turned his pickup onto 101 six miles south of the accident, twenty minutes after it had happened, and they had found the girl fourteen miles south five hours later, passed out in her back seat, her car stuck on another beach. The police had charged the guy immediately with driving while intoxicated and later with giving alcohol to the girl, sixteen, who had either passed the scene of his arrest unseen or had avoided it by driving Forest Service roads and re-entering 101 at a different intersection. She had apparently started home to Portland from Harold’s beach and had turned at the dead-hedge corner, and in court she lowered her stare and weakened her voice and said no, she had not recognized Lisha, she had been too drunk to remember where she had driven or what she had hit, but she thought dogs had jumped on her lap, bumping the wheel, and after the bicyclist had swerved into her, she had fled in panic.
Involuntary manslaughter. Fleeing an accident. A night in jail. A one-year probation for her driving license. Classes in chemical dependence. Returned to her single mother. A nightmare haunted me nonetheless, any time of day, anywhere. The girl bared incisors, squirmed in handcuffs, barked from a cage in back of a patrol car. “Bust us? Narc us? Fuck you, you assholes, fuck you!”
Chat barely spoke, ate nothing. She would wake before Winnie, sit outside their hotel in a long sleeping shirt, and as would I ride in from Harold’s, she would look through the cold gray air of the mornings as if I or nothing else really existed.
And Far Woman Rock said shit about it, nothing too. I walked to her every day, and the surf sang swirling-descending howls and backward-dying sweeps around the hem of her skirt, and the blue schist gaze stared up the beach as if she might still see through the woods to Lisha riding past my flags on the highway. And one day a government pickup finally pulled up. Chat got out, hugging the box of ashes to her chest, and I turned and gnashed teeth, unwilling to stand and cry before her anymore.
She poked my elbow from behind and pressed my tire patch against my arm.
“Whip it, you want,” said Winnie.
Into the endless indigo, so Lisha might pack the patch for a bike trip on the other side of the world? I stuffed it into a pocket, and Lisha’s mom–Alicia–Allie–carried the box two-handed and walked in canvas field pants and a high-collared wind jacket to the open tailgate. Her eyes behind silver-rimmed glasses remained dull, blotted, bleary mink. She set the box down on the tailgate, heaved, spit gasps, and Winnie braced her. Chat’s face froze, caving in, and she wriggled against the truck’s side panel, and Allie writhed, clung to Winnie, and Chat and I moved to her, and we all looked down at the box, and we had no more words than the sea stack above us.
Allie coaxed the tight-fitting lid from the box, and a puff of gray powder blew down the beach, and she cried out. She sobbed and shook as she had at other places during the last week–the hotel’s parking lot, police station, the lawyer’s office, Harold’s driveway, the Forest Service office that managed Far Woman Beach.
“It’s not Mom!” Chat flew to her, shaking her head no. “It isn’t really! The ashes really aren’t!”
What if I had just waited for the girls after the deer had died at the mouth of the Siletz? Kept the tire patch to myself? Used Harold’s key to go in and call the police?
What if I hadn’t passed Lisha after seeing the thrush on the highway? Or if I had been braver about the drunk boyfriend? If I had walked up to him and glared at him as testily as Chat glared at me now?
“You could come with us,” said Chat. “You know you could.”
To Seattle to take a ferry to pour ashes into Lisha’s favorite bay in Puget Sound? And then into the dippers’ old creek and into childhood streams and Ruby Beach, her favorite, and Desolation Sound where their trip had begun? Allie’s shaking welled up too sharply in me, knifed down too deeply, and when she spoke, I heard her daughter’s voice, and so I would not.
Winnie stuck Lisha’s blue-enamel camp spoon into the ash and bone-bits and shoveled some for me into the little stuff sack that had held Lisha’s binocs on the trip. We wrote Lisha in the sand and made a circle of driftwood, feathers and shells. We wrote love messages in the sand. We watched waves slosh the sea stars on the hem of Far Woman’s skirt, and heard the thrush whirr lazily from the woods. Bad Mama North blustered and blew the flutes away, and the three of them got in the truck’s cab. I stood crying, and Chat climbed over Winnie and held Lisha’s scope and tripod out the passenger’s window. I shook my head no, and Chat dropped them at my feet, and then the truck headed out, and the cut came, the rip and gouge.
A stare burned cold against my nape. A puffin stood stiffly upright way atop Far Woman Rock, nodding a big orange bill at me, tucking black wings solemnly, looking mutely down. Tuffie, Hornie’s cousin, the tufted puffin. The blond tufts were easy to see through the scope, curling and blowing beside the white face mask, and the red rims round the yellow clown-eyes looked puffy and runny and sad. Tuffie blinked and waddled through rock grass to the sandy hole of a nest burrow, and she stopped and spread open her wings to dry in the sun. Allie’s guide told me she had just one chick, and I felt Lisha, you know, felt her breath hover all around, her gaze close silently and invisibly on me.
I slept on sand just above Far Woman Rock, and in the morning I knocked, and Harold called me in from a room past the kitchen, his legs propped in an old leather recliner. Hummingbirds flashed dazzling gorgets at feeders outside his window, but he wrenched his hawk nose angrily, gripping the arm rests as if to squeeze out the stuffing. He ran a palm roughly across his hairless head, bit knuckles, chewed and tugged their white fur. “If only you and those girls had waited in here! I wouldn’t have cared! You could have gone in there and got my gun!” He jerked his head toward his bedroom, his closet. “I wish I could do something! Anything!” Dellie was scheduled for more tests in Portland, but he would take me south to Coos Bay and put me on a bus. “You can still reach Frisco. You can be there tomorrow night.”
I got on an eastbound coach instead and rode numb inside the rhythm of the diesel-churn, and once when I woke, the Mississippi shone suddenly gold beside the bus, lit by a falling sun, impossibly broad, smooth and sky-colored. The bus turned off Highway 61, climbed through a valley and pulled into a truck stop for a rest stop. I got out, and there in the noise beside the interstate I still wanted to see the luminous blue river and hear her slow-whispering flow. I had camped beside her in May, and now I craved her quiet lap of water and hoped her peaceful colors would pour into me. I let the bus go without me. I carried my bike box into a back lot and slept that night in sweet clover as high as my chin. The breakfast cook called in sick, and I worked there that day and many more. Too many years. But only autumns and winters. Every spring trucker-friends dropped me deep in the Chihuahuan or Sonoran or Mojave Desert, and the Thunder and birds and I flew north along the high rocky spines of the west, through the canyons and across mountain ranges. And one year I even got as far as a pipeline road where a glacier dropped ice-blue chunks into the sea, and I saw through Lisha’s scope both Hornie and Tuffie and their funny orange bills on the same sea rock.
And another year I was headed there again, camped beside a milky glacial river, rolling around a woman’s tent, smitten by her French-Canadian accent, and flute notes rang outside, and I hissed a shush so hard at Francoise she pulled away from me.
I had met her several days south in a campground in Banff, drawn to her slow smile and the squiggles of stray hair beneath her long-visored cap, and we had bicycled through Jasper together, and she had talked freely about the loneliness of teaching junior high school hundreds of klicks outside Quebec.
Her eyes darkened irritably, but the whirring rang in a hush, and I crept to the door-screen, and the thrush raised its head in an aspen shrub, craning the buff wash across its throat-spots, staring sideways through the netting.
“Sorry,” I said, “it sounds really far, but it’s really right here.”
Francoise blew a hair-squiggle from her eyes and glared at the top of her tent. “I wish you would go out and get swallowed up by the mosquitoes,” she said.
“You do me like crazy, like you mean it, and then this bird makes you squirm like a rat. You have a girl at home, I think.”
“You have a wife, I think, and you won’t even tell me.”
I told Franci about my summer of premonition and loss, and how Winnie had given in and had taught physical dead again while raising Chat. Franci pecked me, yawned and rolled farther away. I lay there hard and then shrinking and lamenting, and the chords whirred up the scale and shattered the lingering dusk.
No real night came in mid-June so far north, and as Franci slept, phews dripped and leapt, peeps plinked, flutes rose, rang, careened and circled, got louder, jumpier, and I dozed and woke and stood amid the whirr-whirr-wheers, and then the river-foam looked newly bright.
Puffballs floated from a willow-bar, racing across sand like plover chicks, and the seeds sailed south on a cold breeze, and I turned that way too.
Franci pedaled north toward Misty Fjords, and Jimmy Doug flew down through Prince George, Williams Lake, along the Fraser River’s gorge, and I rode through Vancouver and onto a ferry and through Seatco. Screaming Hawk Hill seemed about the same, not replanted yet, purple-pink with fireweed, moony at night, foggy-cold and subdued by the glassiness and the sighs of Hood Canal at dawn. An antique shop stood in place of the meditation center, no one knew Ash at Willapa. But his voice followed me as I climbed out of town. No one would have asked you to haul her memory behind you forever. And the wind pummeled me on the Astoria-Megler Bridge. And the machine eyes and message remained at Arch Cape Tunnel. Bicyclists inside tunnel when lights are flashing. And I shouted into the same yellow watery glow. “Anyone in there?” And the echo came from the heart. Where-where-where?
I camped in a cubby camp and climbed Cape Lookout at dawn, and a thrush lay dead on a switchback, and I picked it up. Its neck rolled across the edge of my grasp, the head hung lithely. The thrush-toes tickled and scraped my palm. The feathers warmed my fingers, and the bones were brittle in my clutch. I blew ants from its eyes, probed and parted the teardrop spots on the breast. The belly was mussed, its skin tough and worn–a brood patch–a mama thrush.
I carried her in my front bag, turned a few miles before the dead-hedge corner and walked the Thunder along official Forest Service trail to Far Woman Beach. I burned the thrush privately at Far Woman Rock. Her feathers singed and puffed black, and her flesh sputtered, smelling like dark-oily fowl, and Tuffie was still there, peering into Mama North. I watched the ashes blow, and then I scoped the blue schist eyes of Far Woman Rock and the fissures on her cheeks–when the Bastard Wind brought rain from the south, warm tears ran on the cold rock, and the more the faint traces showed, the chillier the beach got, the more the mist shrouded Far Woman. The fatter grew the rosette leaves of sedum and dudleya. The taller stood the rhubarb-colored stems. The brighter and waxier shone the yellow petals. The redder stretched the delicate lines of their pistils. The thicker and broader their carpets spread across rock.
The flowers gave me at least a shred of consolation.
I pushed the Thunder along the damp sand by the surf and then up along Harold’s creek, and I found at least one of Lisha’s wishes had come true. Sturdy metal posts, sturdy yellow ropes and Forest Service signs blocked the way to dunes and sand on the upper beach. SNOWY PLOVERS. ENDANGERED SPECIES. NO ENTRY. NO VEHICLES. NO DOGS. NO FOOT TRAFFIC.
I walked the bike to the house, and she sat right there in the overgrown yard, foxglove and angelica brushing an old burgundy sweater, mink mop falling across her collar. She eased forward from her rump, the wool slid up her tan, and she tossed back her head, looked through the pines, rocked and seemed to talk to herself, to convince herself. I walked Jimmy Doug up the driveway, and she got up barefoot and padded my way–the same quiet poise–the same, lean strong legs. Her smile inched up into ruddy cheeks, and we squealed and disbelieved and then hugged and giggled and disbelieved again.
“I got out of college, and the house was for sale,” she said. “Allie didn’t agree at first, but I pouted and laid out my reasons. I told her what I would do, and she signed on.”
Her lashes inched up, her eyes brooded. “Whenever I got a break from classes, I drove over, and I felt her here.”
“Sometimes a bird appears from nowhere, and I feel her rush back,” I said. “I feel her watching.”
She took my hand, yanked my arm, pulled me into the garage and lowered two mountain bikes from a row hanging on ceiling hooks. “It’s not only home,” she said. “It’s a depot.” We pedaled inland along hot gravel roads and past logging gates. We around security booths and crossed the Coast Range. We started into the Cascades in a sunny glare and soared down a root-bumpy trail into the shadow of giant trees. A bandana was tied on devil’s club, and we bushwhacked past it, and Chat pointed the scope from the forest’s under-story.
A teenaged owl gawked down from a granddaddy fir. It wiggled its neck sideways and craned its gray-downy head slowly up. It absorbed us into its wet-black eyes and blinked tediously. It swiveled its face as if to ignore us, and then hoots boomed. O! Oo! O-ow! Oo-ooo-o-OW! Bills clacked, and Mama or Papa landed on the limb, flapping chestnut wings speckled white. Spottie the old-growth hunter. The northern spotted owl. Listed as endangered earlier than even the murrelet or plover.
The two owls whistled and barked, and a tawny lump passed between talons. The teenager ate, and Chat beamed her mother’s gleaming smile, vapor rising in the cold forest air.
We rode the trail to a tie-die scarf hanging in a hemlock sapling and hiked up a slope, and she got out a climbing harness and rope. She tied knots with Lisha’s beautiful fingers. She looped the rope around a Douglas fir and climbed the tree swiftly, smoothly, all strength and instinct. She went up nearly to the fir’s crown and cinched herself to the trunk. I stepped back and lifted binocs–the harness was suddenly empty. The bough above it bobbed. The wind moaned up there. The bough swayed, and she knelt on top of it and reached into a mass of twigs and shifted sticks and lunged suddenly. A rodent squirmed in her grasp. She had it by its tawny neck, and it screamed and scolded and leapt free. It sailed down fleshy-nose first, feet spread, long-tailed, redder than the thrush, a red tree vole, and it landed and raced on a bough, and I lost it.
Chat came down and sat in a spot of sun, cupping her knees, barely containing her joy. The Forest Service had sold the logging rights to hundreds and hundreds of acres around us. But no trees could be cut within ten acres of an active nest of one of Spottie’s favorite foods, and this was the thirtieth she had found.
Her smile leapt at me, but I showed my anxiety, the coolness in my gut and dry dread in my throat. Maybe I was too old for what she wanted of me, and I suddenly looked it.
Her oval eyes narrowed. Two rangers rode horses down on the trail toward the bikes, and we slid behind a blow-down, propping our binocs across its bark. A man sucked in salt-and-pepper cheeks, pulling up his reins. He bit the top of his beard, looking down at our gear, and a broad-hipped blonde my age swung off her saddle, and the two commiserated, their voices reaching us in low mutters. They spoke into walkie-talkies, and I bristled, and Chat checked my shoulder, her grasp stubborn. Her hand on my shoulder convinced me stay still until they reported coordinates, the locations of our bikes, and they clopped away on their horses.
“Clinton’s goons,” said Chat. “Stooges, Freddies. It took them years to agree to look for voles, and now they do it by walking transects between trees. They just scan high for nests and look low for resin ducts. They say they save taxpayers liability money by keeping their government boots on the ground, but I told you about the public land they offered Humco before this tract. Seven-hundred-year-old spruce by the coast! The murrelet happens to need it, so they sold Humco the rights to the spotted owl’s home instead! Over my dead body!”
“They `verify’ my nests. They already know my name from their forms.”
“All right, but forget `over your dead body.’”
She looked at me as if I better get over my willies. “More than ninety percent of the old growth is already gone.”
I shrugged. “I wanted to give those two rangers hell. I’m still sorry I didn’t give the drunks on your mom’s beach hell.”
She nudged her chin back and forth on the blow-down. “Allie gave my grandpa hell once before I was born. Then he got in his car and ran himself and his girlfriend into a wall at ninety miles per hour. So, I never got to know him either.”
She made herself small, drawing her shoulders into her silence, stepping around all the downed timber.
“Didn’t Allie do some kind of work for the Forest Service?” I said.
“Not anymore!” She flung a smile over her shoulder, lifting a leg above her crossbar. “She consults and feeds us activist money on the sly.” Chat sprinted away bow-armed, hair flying beneath her bicycle helmet. She turned onto a logging road, stood up on her pedals and humped up a steep grade. Five guys as scruffy-looking as I popped out from a trench behind a barricade of root wads. Point men. They called her Scour, swooped around her, eyed me suspiciously.
Willow with dreadlocks, a long unkempt beard, friendship tongs around skinny wrists.
Hope with camouflage paint smeared on his face and little pendants of driftwood hanging from his ears, nose and lips.
Decoy with a shovel in one hand and a microbrew in the other.
Fern with tattooed shoulders, muddy coveralls, wooden flutes in his breast pockets.
Rage with a pointy nose and sunken brow deep beneath a high-hooded sweatshirt.
Chat laughed her way past them, ducking beneath lines of tape that marked a cutting zone, and she and I walked into the quiet of old growth. She handed me a harness, and I tested a rope hanging at the base of a fir, yanking it, looking up. The damned rope disappeared through branches, extended higher than I could see. I stepped back, and spots of blue shone between treetops, and white buckets and red and yellow stuff sacks hung from a tree-sitter’s platform, five or six sheets of plywood. Limbs as thick as old-growth oak supported it, and smaller platforms with single-person tarp-tents emerged gradually in the dark greenery.
“You hear a chain saw start, it probably has a seven-foot blade,” said Chat. “That means you have about forty seconds before one tree falls on another. That’s why we make every platform look occupied, so the Hungry Ones have to delay and look everywhere before they cut, so they don’t kill one of us, so we don’t have to charge them with murder.”
I climbed and flopped backward. My feet groped for webbing, a branch clubbed my head. My knee smashed against bark, my fingers cramped. I fumbled with the prussic knot and slid my way higher. My heart hammered. My lungs gasped. My head lightened as I were biking a Colorado pass, getting dizzy from mountain sickness. But the air kept smelling sappier and greener, and a Swainson’s thrush fluted chords from below. Varied thrushes buzzed low-calming drones halfway up, and a tiny songbird with a brilliant yellow face-patch whispered zeedle-zeedle-zeedle from the top. Hermie the high-canopy hermit warbler.
I pulled myself onto the big platform, and it swayed like a boat suddenly let loose in a flood. Bad Mama North lashed a tarp behind me, slapping plastic tubs of food and books, and I lay flat and gathered my courage. Stump fields and tree farms stretched for miles below, the trees too thin and air too warm for Spottie. A river too-little shaded for salmon shone beneath a four-lane. White dots glinted in the sky in front of the gray ocean haze, probably helicopters bringing cops, cameras and wind-blasts from rotor blades that could snap crowns in half.
A sitter hung long legs from her platform, needles on freckled cheeks, a sprig of evergreen behind an ear.
“Son of a bitch!” Winnie waved, steadied herself, peered down. “What now, Chat? Did you send a recruiter to the Arctic Circle for him?”
I shouted down toward Chat through massive boughs and gigantic drapes of moss. “You rat, you said she was home building a new house!”
“She is!” The rope tightened, and Chat pushed her mink mop up through a bough, smirking. “True or false? We call this grove Lisha, and we will stay with her until we know the Hungry Ones will not cut her down!”