Thursday, May 28, 2015

Bird Brain Joins the Gang

“Hey, Cor. Mind if I hang with you and your boys awhile?”
“Get lost bird brain, this is an exclusive club.”
“Awww, man, have a little compassion for a lonely fellow. It's hard not to have a flock.”
Cor’s friends squawked in derision but only Cor replied. "Murder, bird brain. We're a murder."
“Look. I'm not trying to bring down your image. I'll do whatever you want. I just want to be part of the gang.”
“Whatever I want? Okay, bird brain, here's what I want, go play in traffic!”
“Yeah, absolutely. Think of it as an initiation.”
“An initiation? Alright, I’ll do it.”
“I bet you won’t. You're too chicken.” Cor strutted a few steps.
"Hey, bird brain,” someone jeered from the back of the group. “Why did the chicken cross the road?" The comment was followed by a chorus of cackles.
“I’m not a chicken, I’ll do it.”
“You have to do it at rush hour, bird brain, when all four of those lanes are busy.”
“And you have to be on foot, no cheating. That’s a hard and fast rule.”
They didn't have long to wait. When the traffic was heaviest, he hopped to the edge of the highway and began to run.
Drivers honked and cussed, but he didn't notice. He just ran. Everyone who witnessed his sprint across the road agreed that they’d never seen a crow run so fast before. His skinny bird legs were a blur.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Slow Cooker

I hefted the slow cooker off the table and inspected it. It seemed to be in fine condition.
“Can I plug this in?” I asked the woman counting change. She’d just sold a huge amethyst crystal to someone for less than ten bucks and had a dozen more lovely rocks on a nearby table draped with silk scarves.
“Absolutely,” she smiled. “There’s an outlet on the left side of the garage there, right next to the snow blower.”
I squeezed between a table of books and a smaller table studded with dozens of Celtic medallions. Several of the books caught my eye and I paused. It was obvious that someone had made a serious study of astrology, pagan religions, lucid dreaming, and animal totems. I repressed my curiosity and continued to make my way towards the electrical outlet. The last thing I needed was more books. No, what I needed, if anything, was the slow cooker I held tucked under my arm. I pushed past several more tables, wedged myself behind the snow blower, plugged in the slow cooker, and waited for it to warm up. Sure enough, it was in fine working order.
“Sort of a strange garage sale,” I said as I counted out eight dollars.
“All of this belonged to my Aunt Liza,” the hostess said, waving her arm in a grand gesture that seemed to include, not just the garage sale, but the house and property, as well. “She passed away a couple weeks ago and we’re just starting to sort everything out.”
That was more than I wanted to know and her chipper tone in the face of recent death made me uneasy. I nodded, tried to look sympathetic, and held my hand out for my change.
“She was a little screwy, if you know what I mean,” the woman volunteered. She twirled her hand next to her head when she said ‘screwy’. I frowned. “Oh, she wasn’t even my real aunt, just one of my mom’s gal-pals, you know?” Did I hear a note of defensiveness in her tone? I hoped so. I disapproved of her attitude.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said as I accepted my change. I didn’t mean it, though. I was sorry for late Aunt Liza, who surely didn’t deserve such casual disrespect.
I returned to my car and set out on a series of weekend errands, but I couldn’t shake Aunt Liza from my thoughts. I imagined her as a free-spirited, grey-haired hippie. She probably hadn’t had any children of her own, I decided, and her friend’s disrespectful daughter must have been the closest thing she had to “next of kin”. It seemed sad to me that all of her crystals, books, and jewelry held no sentimental value for anyone. If I’d had an Aunt Liza, I would have kept three quarters of what was being sold on the card tables and shelves filling the garage and driveway.
The next morning, I washed and dried Aunt Liza’s slow cooker and set it on the counter. I couldn’t wait to come home from work to eat a hot, home cooked meal! I loaded the inner crock of the cooker with vegetables, seasonings, and water. I wished I had stew meat, but I’d pick some up the next time I went to the store. Ten hours later, I opened the door to my apartment, weary from a long day, and walked into a cloud of mouth-watering, beefy aroma. I’d never had better stew! The vegetables were toothsome, the flavor was rich and satisfying, and the beef was tender and succulent. It wasn’t until I’d finished my second bowl of stew and settled in with a novel, that I remembered I hadn’t had any beef to put in the slow cooker that morning. Could that be right? I shook my head, trying to clear my fuzzy memory. Had I put beef in the stew? Well, there was beef in the stew, so I must’ve put it in, I decided, and went back to reading.
Three days later I loaded boneless pork ribs in the slow cooker and, remembering my confusion over the beef stew wondered how I could’ve been so absent minded. I made a point of focusing on my task as I washed and prepared vegetables then layered them over the pork. I shook in several herbs and spices, but wouldn’t add the barbeque sauce until I was nearly ready to eat. My mindful focus carried into my work day and I felt less harried and frantic than usual. The day passed pleasantly and when I returned home, the aroma of slow cooked pork made my stomach rumble. Before taking my coat off, I fetched the barbeque sauce from my refrigerator and prepared to pour it over the contents of the slow cooker, but when I lifted the lid and the steam cleared, I saw that the meat was already heavily basted with sauce. I put the lid back on more firmly than was strictly necessary, backed away from the slow cooker and stared. What the heck? This time, I was certain that my food had been tampered with. This wasn’t a symptom of my absent-mindedness. My food preparation that morning was still vivid in my memory, and besides, if I had been the one to add the barbeque sauce this morning, it would be charred black along the sides of the crock by now. It wasn’t charred and probably hadn’t been in the cooker for more than two hours. Who had been in my home, I wondered, and why were they adding things to my dinner, but leaving no other evidence of their presence? I glanced around the kitchen, then stomped around, examining every room, every door, and every window for evidence. Nothing was damaged. Nothing was missing. There was no sign of a forced entry. I stomped back to the kitchen, lifted the lid from the slow cooker and double-checked. Yep. There was barbeque sauce on my pork ribs. I set the lid back on my dinner and toyed with the idea of calling the police. I could just imagine that call. Hello, I’d like to report an intruder who’s helping me cook. Yes, sir, whoever it is put beef in my stew and sauce on my pork ribs. Right. That wasn’t happening.
“Something weird is happening, Aunt Liza,” I said, pointing at the slow cooker with the bottled barbeque sauce that I still held. I almost giggled, then, but took a ragged breath instead.
“Of course something weird is happening, dear.” I jumped, startled, as a transparent woman took shape in front of me.
“What the…” I stumbled back a few steps and bumped into the counter behind me. The apparition chuckled. She had long, grey hair that she wore in thick braid pulled over one shoulder and there were tiny, bright flowers embroidered down the front of her peasant blouse. I couldn’t see her feet, but she wore a long tie-dyed skirt that swirled as though blown by a gentle breeze.
“You have to expect weird things when you cook dinner in a witch’s cauldron,” Aunt Liza said.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Jack With His Head In The Clouds

Eileen pulls the last haunch of moose out of the freezer and hands it to Jack.
"Is this from the cow you shot in the garden last year?" He asks, sagging under the weight.
Eileen nods. "Take it to Auntie. She'll give you two bags of flour and an extra turkey she ordered from town. Oh, and eggs. Make sure she doesn’t forget the eggs."

"Pay attention and be careful!" Eileen calls out as Jack idles the skiff out of the tiny cove. He is a good son, but Eileen worries about him. His head is always in the clouds.

"What took you so long?" Eileen asks when Jack returns at dusk. She’s been pacing the beach for an hour, watching for his return.
"Sorry Ma, I met a man from the city. He asked me where the good fishing is round these parts."
"Where’s the food from Auntie?" Eileen wonders, her heart sinking as she scans the empty skiff.
"I never got as far as Auntie's house. I was talking to the man from the city and lost track of time. I’m sorry I’m so late," Jack leans down to kiss his mother's cheek.
"Where is the haunch of moose?"
"Harold, that’s the fellow I met, he told me he’s never eaten moose meat before and wanted to try it. I traded the haunch for these," Jack says, and grins, as he pulls a blue canvas sack out of his coat pocket and hands it to Eileen.
Eileen loosens the drawstring and peers inside the bag. It smells like good coffee, but the beans sparkle. What will the marketers think of next?
“Isn’t it grand?” Jack asks, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
"It's a bag of beans, Jack. I'm very disappointed."
"But they're magic beans! Harold said if we plant them, they'll grow as tall as trees in a single night!"
Eileen shakes her head. “You can’t grow coffee in Alaska.”

Eileen and Jack eat a lot of bear stew that spring, but the coffee almost makes up for it. The coffee, Eileen decides, is the most delicious she’s ever had.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Not Walden

My first two months in Juneau were idyllic. Fresh from the steel and concrete landscape of my home city, I was intoxicated with the sheer quantity of nature. I’d expected mountains, I’d expected ocean, and I’d expected forest, but there was no way I could have been prepared for the vastness and immediacy of all three. Even when I leaned against the marble columns at the entrance of the state capital building, I was within easy walking distance of wilderness. Mother Nature loomed over me and I reveled in her intimate proximity.
In mid-April, within days of arriving, I managed to rent a one-room log cabin with a curtained bathroom and a sleeping loft. Set alongside a picturesque stream and up against the green-drenched forest, the cabin seemed to embody every rustic daydream of my youth. I imagined myself as a modern day Thoreau, and the stream as my Walden Pond.
I spent the next five weeks learning how to keep a fire burning in the cast iron wood stove that heated the cabin. In between whispered curses, shivering, and repeated jostling of the smoldering firewood, I tapped out the entire first draft of my book. Words flowed out of my fingers and onto the screen of my laptop with an alacrity they’d never shown in a better heated, more civilized environment. The novelty of my situation set free a downpour of words that mirrored the heavy showers of the temperate rainforest outside.  
By late May, the pile of firewood on the porch had begun to dry out and I was finally getting the hang of making fire. Rain gave way to several weeks of sunshine and I put my manuscript aside in favor of adventuring with friends. I was, after all, in paradise and there were ice fields and glaciers, fjords, hidden bays, and beaches. When the rain returned, more of a drizzle than a downpour, I had blisters on top of blisters from the new set of boots I’d broken in. I was weary from too many late night bonfires, too much companionship, and too many miles of hiking. I looked forward to the sedentary task of revising my manuscript, and to the solitude of the cabin, with a giddy sense of optimism.
It took less than a morning of revision to squelch my giddiness and after two days, my optimism hung in tattered shreds. Where had all my lovely words gone? Where were the clever turns of phrase, the layers of symbolism, the rich characters that I’d rejoiced in? They were gone and what remained were only hollow echoes. My disappointment tasted sour, and vaguely rotten, on the back of my tongue. In the long days that followed, I pored over my manuscript, tweaking and shifting phrases and sentences until my head spun, but that vague rotten flavor only grew stronger.
I was a week into revisions when an absent-minded stroll down to the stream beside my cabin revealed that it wasn’t disappointment I’d been tasting all along, but in fact, the rank stench of rotting fish. Several cadaverous salmon bodies littered the stream bank, half-eaten and covered in buzzing horseflies. The sight of empty eye-sockets and putrefying fish flesh sent me stumbling and retching back to the cabin where I brewed a cup of peppermint tea. While helpful in settling my stomach, the tea did nothing to alleviate the stink. Once I was aware of the source, I couldn’t stop smelling it. I couldn’t stop smelling it, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Over the next few days, I stopped working on my manuscript. Instead, I filled the cabin with sweet-scented candles, the flames flickering day and night. I brewed and drank cup after cup of peppermint tea, and I smeared essential oil of clove beneath my nostrils, but nothing blocked out the rancid odor. Nothing washed away the sensation of having that smell somehow lodged inside of me, lingering in my nose and throat. Instead, the stink seemed to thicken and linger, mixing with the sweet scents I tried to combat it with, melding with them until peppermint, clove, and candle wax were inextricably linked, in my mind, with the smell of decay and death.  
I watched from my cabin window as more and more salmon arrived, half-rotten but still swimming, still flapping, still struggling up the shallow stream. I watched them strand themselves in shallow eddies, thrashing against the rocky stream bed where they slowly suffocated. I assumed, of course, that this bizarre incursion of ocean-going fish, and their subsequent deaths, was a sign of something dire. Perhaps the fish were lost, their brains damaged by too much pollution. Or, maybe they were confused by the sonar pings of too many ships. There could be some enormous predator just off shore, driving the terrified fish up stream. By the time I worked up the courage to call one of my new friends, I was more than halfway convinced that I was witnessing a sign of end times.
My worried phone call was met with laughter and a brief explanation of the reproductive cycle of salmon. The salmon were spawning, laying and fertilizing eggs right there, outside my cabin. No, the adult fish couldn’t be saved. No, there was nothing that could be done about the smell. No, there was nobody I could call to come clean up the mess. The dead salmon were an important part of the environmental niche. Wild animals and the flow of the stream itself would take care of the clean-up before winter began. Wild animals? Oh, you know, otter, mink, eagles, ravens, and bears. Bears? Yes, bears. My friend instructed me to keep my distance from the bears, to avoid getting between any cubs and their mama, and to stop trying to cover up the smell of decomposing fish. I was wasting my time with candles and essential oils. It would only get worse before it got better.
I hung up the phone feeling both relieved, and much more worried. On one hand, the dying fish, while macabre, were perfectly normal and natural. On the other hand…bears. Sure, I’d wanted to see bears in Alaska, but I wanted to see them from far away. I wanted to see them from a boat, or a plane, or a car. I did not want to see them from my home.
As though the bears had overheard my phone call, I saw the first two late that very evening as dusk settled over the cabin. In the dim light, the two animals were little more than silhouettes. I watched them lumber gracefully along the stream for at least two minutes before retreating to the sleeping loft where I huddled, trembling, under my blankets.
As my friend had predicted, the smell of rotting fish grew stronger as the days progressed. I also began seeing bears alongside the stream each day. I became more and more isolated, too afraid to make the short walk from the front door to my car when there were bears nearby, and too distracted by the stink and by my fear to concentrate on revising my manuscript. Besides, I rationalized; there was no point in revising something I loathed.
I finally reached my breaking point in July. I’d been putting off leaving the house to go grocery shopping and was down to crackers and a jar of sweet pickles. I spent all morning peeking out my windows and waiting for the right moment to make my exit. Finally, in the mid-afternoon, there was a break in the bear activity. I checked every window twice. Not a bear to be seen. I grabbed my keys and wallet, opened the door, prepared to run the fifty feet to my car, and came to dead stop. There, on the porch, was a porcupine the size of Shetland sheepdog! The creature faced me, blocking my escape route, and with a gleam in its shiny black eyes it began to hum the melody to “Teddy Bears’ Picnic”. With slow deliberation, the porcupine waddled across the porch, down the steps, and into the nearby brush, still humming. I turned on my heel, went back inside, piled my clothes and laptop into my suitcase and walked out of the cabin by the stream, never to return. That place was not Walden, and I was not Thoreau.