The Green Menagerie

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Of all the ramshackle, makeshift “lounges” I’ve ever spent time in during my decades of crisscrossing every dive and hotel in this dusty land, this was the worst. And the smelliest. I should have braced myself when I noticed underneath the flickering neon “Max’s Comedy Castle” sign, one could still read in ghostly bleed-through letters, “Timmons Truckstop & Taxidermy.” I guess an economy class magician in his sunset years can expect no better:  I took what I could get.

When I first entered the room, my nose was assaulted by the unnatural mixture of smoke, must, urine and cinnamon. I set down in a beaten green velvet wing back and started in on a watered-down cherry soda. The sweetness of the drink didn’t help the odor.

“You’re on in forty-five,” Max informed me. “They’re gonna love ya, Tim. We ain’t had a magic man since before the fire.”

He left immediately, I presumed to tend to the early patrons.

Okay.

I looked around at no less than fifty stuffed creatures in various poses and stages of completion, some on the wall, some on pedestals strewn about the place. Predator and prey were displayed, even a Capuchin monkey. Although the space seemed long and fairly wide, it was crowded and poorly lit by three electric chandeliers.

“Psst.”

I heard it, but didn’t know from which direction the sound had come.

“Excuse me?” I queried. “Is someone else here?”

Max hadn’t mentioned the possibility of anyone else.

I remembered the time in Reno I was relaxing with a perfect martini in my hand when two dwarfs dressed as cowboys, complete with tiny shooting irons, crawled out from under a coffee table. Scared the daylights out of me! Eddie and Vito; they claimed they were brothers. I forgave them for making me spill my martini, and they forgave me for pulling a knife on them. They still send me postcards at Christmas sometimes.

No answer.

I stood up and stepped around a massive, but tattered, grizzly bear, ample enough to be hiding three dwarfs.

“Psst.”

Did the sound come from behind me that time?

“I say. Who’s there? Is this some kind of joke?” I challenged.

Annoyance was creeping over me.

I tip-toed past a couple of jaguars, ducked under an elk head, sidled past two battling rams, and waited.

Just because Max didn’t mention anyone else didn’t mean there wasn’t anyone else. And what was the idea of sneaking around anyway? I might expect a prank or two at a comedy club, but a lunatic?

“Psst.”

“Who’s there? What, are you gonna sing me ‘Happy Birthday’, pal?”

See, one time I heard someone whistling “Happy Birthday” as I was unlocking my apartment door back home in Fresno. I froze! It felt like a bad slasher flick. I could already see the headline in the paper: “The Birthday Killer Strikes Again!” But I wasn’t in any mortal danger. Turned out to be some bum crashed out in the bushes nearby. He high-tailed it when he saw the Gerber in my hand.

This time I had definitely heard it on the other side of the room. This sucker was moving around. Why did this always happen to me?

I crept slowly across the room, needling my way around foxes and beavers and a jackalope.

I drew my trusty blade from my pocket. Had to be prepared, after all.

“Psst.”

Blast it! It came from off to the right. Against that dark paneled wall was the front half of a Texas longhorn. I felt trapped in its glassy stare.

He reminded me of the time in Rio Rancho when some crazy chute boss thought it would be funny to let a bull loose in the middle of my act at the Hot Tamale Rodeo. Got a lifetime ban after I jabbed that beast in the nose with four inches of steel. But you could hardly have blamed me, right?

Surely he didn’t just psst me! This wasn’t Narnia. Someone was playing me for a fool.

“Alright! That’s enough of this, buddy!”

I advanced toward the bull, staring it down, brandishing the Gerber, certain that my tormentor would leap out from somewhere nearby.

“Psst.”

“Come out from there!”

I charged toward the bull, my eyes darting left and right, waiting for the prankster to surrender with arms thrown high, apologizing and pleading for mercy.

Nothing. I waited. I could feel my teeth sweat. Dozens of cold hard stares eagerly anticipated what would unfold.

“Psst.”

Then I saw it, nestled below and to the right of the bull. A Glade automatic air freshener. Apple Cinnamon.

Aw, nuts. I ran it through all the same.

Korkurri

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Jayna stands on the balcony of the bleach white tower. She tucks a stray golden lock under her scarf as she searches the deep green ocean waves that stretch out underneath a foreboding sky.

A small, but furious storm nears, and Rustin is out there. Earlier he took the hydro-skiff out to meet this anomaly and discover more of its nature.

Fifteen years as weather-keepers of Magorria has brought many storms over its coasts, but nothing like this. It is approaching too rapidly. Hearing the transmitters crackling in the tower, she rushes over to the crystal console.

Falkyn, is that you? Respond, Falkyn,” she intones through the mouthpiece.

“Cork…” Static. “Cork…” The reply is choppy and muddled. “Leave!” More static. “Warn the…” More static. “True, Jayna! They’re real!” Then nothing. Nothing at all.

Jayna scans the crystal displays. No sign of the Falkyn.  Its com-signal is gone.

What could he mean? Cork? Does he mean Corkan? That’s a hundred leagues away. Why was he shouting?

She flips a series of red switches and signals the Capital Tower.

“Hightower, this is Magorria Weatherhouse. Acknowledge!” Jayna sends out.

After a moment, a response crackles through.

“Magorria Weatherhouse, this is Hightower. We hear you.”

“We have a situation.” Jayna bites her lip, unsure how much alarm to raise.

“Proceed, Magorria.”

“I’ve lost contact with Falkyn. Captain report is incomplete. Garbled communications.”

“What about the storm?” the Tower queries.

“No further information. Proceeding at 45 knots. Never seen anything like it. Storms don’t move this quickly. And, Carl?”

Jayna rarely breaks formality.

“I’m listening, Jayna,” the Tower answers.

“Something’s wrong. Rustin kept saying something about Corkan. I couldn’t understand him. He said to warn them. Or someone. He said that ‘they’ were real. Then he cut out completely.”

“How fast is the Falkyn?”

“About sixty knots,” Jayna responds. “It should arrive ahead of the storm.” I hope.

“Keep monitoring the storm. Report back if you hear from Falkyn, or if anything changes.”

“I will. Over and out.” Jayna switches off the mouthpiece and scans the crystals again. The storm has quickened its pace. How is that possible?

***

The skies darken and the approaching dusk brings portent of the fiercest maelstrom Jayna or anyone in Magorria has ever witnessed.

Suddenly a blip appears on the crystals. The Falkyn, Jayna realizes. She attempts repeatedly to establish transmitter contact, but no one answers. The skiff should be close enough to see, she reasons.

Standing, Jayna peers out over the blackening sea and spots the mottled red hull of the Falkyn, racing full speed – not toward the dock, but straight for the coastline.

Jayna dashes through the door and down the steps toward the beach just as the Falkyn plows into the shore, sending rocks and seabirds flying in every direction. She reaches the skiff just as it finishes grinding to a halt, and scans the bridge where Rustin should be.

She sees only what remains of him. Twisted black shapes are strewn about.  She heaves and empties her stomach into the sand.

Then she understands. It’s not a storm coming. It’s a swarm.

The Korkurri have returned.

There is no time to waste. Jayna runs back into the Weatherhouse and calls for the twins.

“Koltus! Kastia!”

“We’re here, Mollom!” her son answers.

Her voice is resolute. “Go to the vault! Take your sister and lock yourself in it! Now!”

She shepherds the children into the vault, reminding them how to activate the seals.

“Is it the storm, Mollom? Why aren’t you coming? Where is Daka?”

She cannot answer their flurry of questions. Jayna looks down at their creamy faces, their lavender eyes framed with curled ebony locks.

“Trust me, children. Wait. No matter what you hear, no matter what you think, don’t come up till three days have passed. Be brave.”

With that, she shuts the door and darts back up to the crystal console.

“Hightower! Respond, Hightower!” she shouts into the mouthpiece.

“Proceed, Magorria.”

“Rustin is dead! It’s not a storm, Hightower. Repeat. This is not a storm!”

“Come again, Magorria. Transmission not understood.”

“The Korkurri are coming. They’re almost here. You must mobilize the defenses. This is an emergency!”

“Jayna, what’s wrong?”

“The Korkurri! Mobilize the defenses!”

“The Korkurri are a myth, Jayna. What do you mean Rustin is dead? What’s going on?”

“Listen to me!” Jayna pleads, realizing they will not.

“We’re sending someone over,” comes the reply. “Stay right there.”

She switches off the mouthpiece. Ten minutes earlier she thought the Korkurri were a myth, too. It was centuries ago, the last time they swarmed the land.

She opens an observation window and already she notices the buzzing. The stories always mention a buzzing.

She throws open the Emergency Channel. No time for authorization.

“Magorria! Magorria! Activate the defenses! The Korkurri are here! Repeat. The Korkurri are here!”

She goes on like this for several minutes until she see the transmission core power down by itself. The Capital, no doubt.

The buzzing is louder now. In the distance she discerns villagers scrambling through the streets. At least some have hearkened. She can do no more.

Jayna knows that if the stories are true, there is little one can do against the Korkurri. Their numbers are vast. She finds the glass-cannon in a dusty storage cabinet and hurries to the deepest room of the Weatherhouse, the bath-chamber.

At least my children will live, she thinks as she hunkers into the tub and awaits her fate. They won’t sense them, if the stories are true.

She remembers as a child she was always told to hide in a bathtub when a swirler appears. Hide in the bathtub. You’ll be safe. Why do they say things like that?

She hears their metallic claws ripping through the plastered walls of the tower. Stone and wood crumble and crack all around her as the first hideous shape makes its way into the room.

She fires the glass-cannon, again and again.

If only the stories weren’t true.

One Way Trip

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The wind up here is incredibly strong, more so than I imagined it would be. Only someone in my state of mind should venture off the dirt road and near to the ledge on which I am standing, teetering a bit, but presently resolute in my place on this ball of dust we call Earth.

I’ve thought through all the reasons, for and against. Eventually, a man sees the futility in arguing with himself, locked in a contest for which there are no real winners, one for which nobody truly cares about the outcome. It’s not as if one facet of me will come out the victor, claiming a supremacy of ideas and a certainty that everything will be alright from here on out. No side of me will gain anything by winning his debate, except a totality so thorough that nothing familiar will survive, afterwards.

The time for verbal jousting is over. Standing at the edge of what was once the bedrock of an ancient ocean floor, thrust through the eons up to a towering height, far above the greatest edifices of mortal men, I peer down and take in the vast scene below me. I can clearly make out a river winding like a black slender snake through the rocks in the gorge, even by moonlight. The night-time sun is at its fullest brightness; I chose this night especially for this reason. No blind leap into the unknown darkness for me; that will come soon enough. I want to take in every detail.

I’ve even thought about how long the journey will take. Accounting for wind shear and my general shape, it should take about twelve seconds to reach the bottom, barring something miraculous. I don’t know if this will be the longest or the shortest twelve seconds of my life.

I look down. Should I say something on the way down? It would fall on deaf ears. No one will mark whether I yell “Geronimo” or “Remember the Alamo.” Who really recalls the Alamo, anyway, outside of Texas? No, I think a silent trip is the best. I will see what I will see and it will be over. One can take this sort of trip only once.

I gaze up at the moon, and all sorts of questions start to pop up in my mind. That’s how my mind works. I don’t set about to unravel the deep mysteries or longing queries of humanity. They simply pop up like soda bubbles with little pre-planning. Why does this moon appear so big to my eyes but so small when I take a picture of it? Did we honestly go up there or have we all been victims to the greatest hoax in the history of mankind? If that pale sphere is strong enough to move the vast oceans about, can it in some strange way keep me from hitting the rocky floor and splitting into smaller, more gruesome versions of myself? Now that would be marvelous.

Departure time has arrived. Air traffic control has given the green light, and we are cleared for takeoff. The fat lady has sung and it is time to go home. I can think of a few more metaphors, but I am only delaying the unavoidable.

Is this inevitable? Who decided this was inescapable? Did I lose that debate? No, there is no need to go through the whole thing again. This is not about inevitability. Nothing so final is ever certain at any given time. The future twists and turns at every moment from a thousand butterfly wing decisions rippling like currents with growing or diminishing force, depending on whether you covered your mouth when you sneezed, or whether some girl twenty miles away ran a stop sign. You can go mad thinking about it. All you can do is decide what you are going to do at each moment and hope nothing interferes. I suppose sometimes you hope something will, in fact, interfere; but not today.

I step out. At the last instant I spread my arms out and pitch forward, a windswept crucifixion in midair, a bird of stone with neither feather nor flight, a flesh and blood tree uprooted from the razor edge of the flat earth we always suspected.

Have you ever had a dream that seemed to be responding to external stimuli in an almost impossible time frame? Or one which seems to take days to unfold when you know you were only asleep for an hour or two? I have always surmised that our perception of time is a fluid thing. I imagine children experience time much more slowly than adults, which is why the ten-minute drive to get groceries flies by when I’m behind the wheel now, but felt like half an hour when I was a child in the backseat back then. If I was ever unsure of my ideas about time, certainty has come crashing in a second after I began my descent. Something about knowing this is my final twelve seconds has caused my brain to jump into dream-fast mode.

The first wave of thought that hits me is regret. Not about what I just did, but a hundred different stupid things that have plagued me from childhood on up through recent years. Like the time I told one girl, who was so excited she had been appointed to the F.A.T. council at school, that she was perfect for the job since she was, you must understand, quite large herself. Yes, those words came out of my mouth before I realized she was talking about the Food Advisory Team and no such correlation had entered her mind until I uttered that sentence. Her face fell, and as I can recall she never spoke to me again for the rest of our high school careers.

Disappointments flashed through, recollected and experienced in a second: a girl who once convinced me to do my first suicide turn into traffic, then later said I should have been braver and asked her out; she would have said yes. I remember an application for high school Hall of Fame recognition that I turned in empty, so sure I would be a shoo-in I completely forgot to fill it out. Another time I backed out of serving in the military mere days before I was to take the oath. Where would I be now had I honored my commitments?

All of it fades and is supplanted by the recollections of all the brass rings I ever reached out and grasped, honors and accolades, scholarships, impossible feats. All amounts to a hill of beans now. It was just glittery trinkets, long since tarnished and dulled. My mind brings them out for one more dog and pony show, so I can remember I was once great among men.

Then a wave of sorrow crashes over me. This is what prompted this journey in the first place. Love lost, friendships lost, missed opportunities, things I should have been better at, time I wasted in vain pursuits. It does raise the question for the thousandth time: why don’t I just resolve to do better from here on out? Why not call a do-over and try to do right after today and the next day? Deep inside, though, I know life has no do-overs, and the ghosts and demons I summoned in moments of weakness will follow me all my days.

My body twists about and I notice the moon so silvery bright, watching me, in turn, grow smaller against the floor of the gorge that must surely be a breath away now. Now an odd thing occurs both to that heavenly body and to me. The shining orb looks bigger than it was when I viewed it from the top of the cliff. In fact, it is expanding even as I continue to fall, taking up more and more of the sky. I notice canyons and valleys and trenches growing clearer as its vastness envelops the clouds and the stars. I can actually feel its light on my body like a tractor beam. Inwardly, I sense the rays of moonlight tugging at my very soul, trying to separate it from this mortal flesh which continues to hurtle toward the jagged rocks below.

Why haven’t I hit the bottom? I wonder this a moment before the thunderous impact of my body against the stony outcroppings lining the bank of the river. I often hear people say they are being pulled in so many directions, or that they don’t know if they are coming or going. Those expressions turn out to be weak approximations of the real thing. For an instant I perceive with horror my head, my right and left ribs, my arms and legs, explode in different trajectories. There is no time for pain, just a split-second of feeling like a human supernova and then…

Then. Impossibly, a “then” proceeds.

I still see the moon. Its beams now course through me and fill me with their light and energy. They pull at me, although I can’t determine which part of me since I am still quite sure I am currently splattered all over a good portion of stone floor. I float upwards as the lunar light pulls me into its embrace, and what took one dozen seconds to cover now takes several minutes as I rise higher and higher, until I can discern the ledge from which I have recently plunged.

Now this mysterious force lifts me over the edge, and I am helpless in its grasp, drifting away from the edge and over the cold hard ground, toward the little tent I have been spending the last couple of nights in. I am like a blown bubble, floating gently in through the front opening. I land softly on my bag, still warm from when I last lay in it. Warmth envelopes me, fills me, and delight seeps into my soul as I realize I still possess eyes. I perceive that they are shut and all is dark. I open them. I am alive, and will be ever more so, afterwards.