6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"
http://idahomagazine.com/previous_winners_details.asp?ID=84

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"
http://idahomagazine.com/previous_winners_details.asp?ID=98

"Hot Spring Break "
http://www.idahohotsprings.com/education/hot-spring-break.htm

"Stampede! "
http://www.backpacker.com/january-2010-reader-essays-stampede/destinations/13661

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011
http://idahomagazine.com/previous_winners_details.asp?ID=101

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rocky Canyon (Ode to a Hot Spring)

          With another smoke belching demon breathing down our heels, Nature Fox and I are forced to snowshoe to the very edge of the backcountry road. Hell’s storm troopers, hiding behind jumpsuits and tinted visors barely slow as their snowmobiles scream past, plastic heads swiveling to fix us with an unblinking Cyclops eye, their mechanical steeds leaving a violated forest to choke on burning oil and disregard. The very picture of a serene winter wonderland shattered like so much crystal. Probably causing some stressed wolverine to abandon a nearby den and condemn her pups to certain death. Just another piece of ugly collateral damage that nobody notices.


          Honoring an age old tradition of animosity between those who like to walk, silently appreciating nature’s inherent worth, and those who see wilderness as their own private racetrack, I counter their contempt with a look of pure malevolence. I don’t like you, I spit with my eyes. That’s right, I may be a tree-hugging greenie, but that doesn’t mean I’m a pacifist. I’d love to see one of you get off your lazy asses and say something. I’d stab you in the eye with my trekking pole before you could take one step.

          “Are you glaring at people again?” My wife’s voice interrupts my surly train of thought.

          “They aren’t people,” I explain. “Like Darth Vader, these bastards are more robot than flesh. I can be as hostile as I like.”

          “We’re a little outnumbered. You might want to keep that in mind.”

          “They’re a little outclassed,” I retort. “They might want to keep that in mind.”

          The bad news is that we have to deal with the chaotic intruders for a couple more miles. The good news is that we’ll be camping out here in this winter landscape while our fair weather friends will pack up their machines before nightfall and retreat to the safety of their homes. That, and at one point we will wade across an icy river bare-legged to reach our evening’s destination, a route no snowmobile can possibly undertake, and one I have yet to see any of their riders even attempt. Walkers are simply a tougher breed. Or, the line between stupidity and bravery could be finer than I like to believe. In any case, we should be alone at some point for one hot evening… even with the nightly temperatures guaranteed to drop below zero.

          We hear the building roar of more snowmobiles, only this time ahead of our position, and once again, we barely make it to the edge of the road before the procession of dark machines fly by. A quarter-mile behind the rest of the noise parade, and moving at half the speed, is a solitary snowmobiler dressed all in black. The slender cyborg slows even further and swings towards us at the last second before coming to a sudden halt.

          “Oh, here we go,” I whisper, one hand reaching for my pocket.

          While I’m trying to decide if I should attempt the clumsy removal of snowshoes for the pending confrontation, the dark rider removes their helmet to reveal an old lady with long silver hair pulled back in a ponytail. Despite her age, the woman is a natural beauty, possessing the kind of face that would seem marred with the application of make-up. Deep wrinkles and tan skin betray a life spent in the sun and wind.

          “I can’t even keep up on one these infernal contraptions,” she says breathing heavy plumes of steam and beaming at us with a rosy-cheeked smile. “Even my great grandniece is leaving me in the dust. Still, I can’t imagine not being out here. Does anything compare to all this beauty?”

          “How would you know?” I mutter just loud enough for Nature Fox to hear. The train of thought continues inside my head. How do you appreciate anything with your eyes focused on the trail while your ears and nose are choked with clamor and smoke?

          “What’s that?” she asks, the sweetness in her tone never wavering.

          “He said he’s jealous,” says Nature Fox, half-stepping in front of me. “You’ve probably covered ten times the distance we have… and in a fraction of the time.”

          “Well dearie, if I have learned anything in all my years, it’s that anything worth doing is worth taking your own sweet time. Speakin’ of which, it’s been a long time since I could hack snowshoeing. You walkin’ in to Rocky Canyon?”

          “Yep.”

          “Can you believe what that guy has done? I’ve never seen anything like it. Wish he had built those up when I was still young enough to attempt that crossing.”

          My wife nods her head in agreement. “They’re the best in all of Idaho. Now if we can just keep the jackholes out of there, we should be ok.”

          “Jackholes?” the woman asks, her smile broadening even further. “That’s a new one. But yeah, some folks be itchin’ to trash everything in sight. I’ll never understand it. Anyway, you two have a blast. I better catch up before they send someone back for me.”

          With that, the old lady throws her helmet on and fires up the high-pitched scream of her snowmobile. As she takes off down the road after her comrades, Jamie fixes me with a comically raised eyebrow.

          “Can you believe the nerve of that monster?” she laughs. “I thought for sure we were about to come to blows.”

          Even though I am chuckling right along with my wife on the inside, my response is a dead-pan, “I could have taken her. I’m not afraid to push an old woman down.”

          “C’mon tough guy. We’ve still got some ground to cover.”

          My wife is right. I do feel a stab of envy when we’re several hours into the backcountry, sweating our asses off and carrying heavy loads when all the sudden some damn machine goes racing by. It feels like losing a fight to someone possessing half the strength, size, skill, and sheer will. Of course, I prefer walking because I believe that is how one truly connects with the natural world, but there are times when I wouldn’t mind some of those hard-earned miles to fly by a bit faster. Nature Fox and I can afford the toys, but could never rectify their co-existence with our environmental philosophies. By the time I’m the old woman’s age, they better have invented a silent hover board that is powered by my perpetual sense of animosity, and the damn thing needs to navigate itself so I can float through the mountains paying attention to my surroundings and not the road ahead.

          Despite our excitement to reach Rocky Canyon, there is a building sensation of apprehension as we march ever closer. There will be a toll to pay in the price of agonizing pain before we’ll experience the unparalleled pleasure of our journey's end. An hour after saying goodbye to the old woman, we round a bend in the snow covered road and see the root source of our dread and enthusiasm. Just across the icy river from our position, the steamy Shangri-La of Idaho’s best public hot spring awaits our arrival.

          The super-heated flow originates a hundred feet above the riverbank, cascading down a steep mountainside from one hand built soak to the next until finally joining the cold river. There are seven pools altogether, each one capable of holding three to four people, and all were built by a single man with a heart of gold and some serious determination. Constructed with environmental aesthetics in mind, even from our close vantage point, it is hard to separate the mortared pools from the natural rocks of the drainage. Even as long-time hot spring aficionados who have seen some of the world’s most spectacular pools, Jamie and I are still taken back with each visit to Rocky Canyon. It took a couple of years to complete, and the scope of the project is almost unfathomable, especially when considering how hard it would have been for a solitary individual to lug the necessary concrete across the river during the runoff season.

          At the lowest flow of the season, the current won’t be a huge concern for us, but we still have to be mindful of our footing. If one of us goes down and a backpack is submerged, our night’s trip will be over. We’ll have no choice but to beat a hasty retreat to our truck and its heater before nightfall. Standing on the riverbank, steeling ourselves for the ford, we notice a tent on the opposite bank and a couple of people in the upper most pool. Looks like we might have company for the evening after all. Oh well, experience has taught me that the most hardcore backpackers and winter campers, tend to be good, quiet people. Let’s hope so.

          Moving quickly, Jamie and I set our packs on a frozen tree stump while we strip out of boots and socks. The icy bank is frigid on bare feet but nothing compared to what awaits us. After switching into our river sandals, we hike up our pant legs, re-shoulder our packs, and drape the heavy footwear around our necks. We leave the waist and chest straps on our backpacks unbuckled. If one of us does go down, we don’t want to wind up our backs in the torturous ice melt like a stuck turtle. Especially me. There’s no way in hell my petite wife could lift me and all my wet gear, even helping me to my feet would be difficult. Across the river, I see the two soakers giving us their full attention. I understand. Sometimes, it’s fun to watch others suffer.

          “You ready?” I ask my wife while dancing in place to keep warm.

          “No,” she replies interlocking an elbow with one of mine, “but I’m not getting any readier. Let’s do this.”

          Holding onto each other for balance, we step off the bank and into the shin deep flow of ice cold water. The discomfort turns positively hurtful before we have taken half a dozen steps. The trick is to move quickly without moving fast, an endeavor further complicated because we have to find secure footing with one sandal before the other leg can follow. There is also a temptation to lift your foot entirely out of the river with each step for a second of relief, but invariably either the act of pulling out, or putting back in, causes water to splash on the bottom of your backpack.

          We are almost a third of the way across before the first true wave of pain washes over us. Now, there are all different sorts of pain in life and I have experienced my share. From third degree burns, to biting my tongue in half, to being left stranded hunched over a ski lodge bar with broken ribs while nature Fox finished her day of snowboarding, I am right familiar with the concept. And truth be told, I’ve always had a rather masochistic relationship with pain; I kind of like it. Makes me feel alive. For some reason though, the acute ache of snowmelt on submerged skin is one even I struggle to tolerate for any length of time. By the halfway point, I am crushing my wife’s hand as if her fingers are a branch to bite on while having an appendage amputated.

          “Mother of God have mercy,” I hiss through gritting teeth. My lovely wife supplements my assessment with a string of f-bomb laced expletives capable of making the Devil uncomfortable.

          Only twenty feet away now, I can hear the pooling geothermal water at the opposite bank calling my name. The sulfur has never smelled sweeter. Meanwhile, the water is getting deeper, the current stronger. The freezing torture has climbed over my kneecaps and is halfway up Jamie’s thigh. We press the pace, causing both of us to slip, and for one breathless second it feels like we are going to jerk each other off our feet. We somehow recover at the last second, and with our very bones screaming in agony, plow through the final ten feet of river and plunge our feet into the first algae ridden puddle of hot water.

          It takes a moment for our brains to realize the torture is over, but in a manner of seconds we are able to quit clenching our fists and cursing the gods. Were it not for the merciful relief of the hot spring, our feet would have continued the unbearable ache for at least another minute. At the top off the rocky drainage, looking like boiled lobsters, the two soakers offer us a round of applause. Good. Anyone making that ford without rubber waders deserves some recognition. Nature Fox and I wave back at them and once our lower legs are thoroughly warm, begin scouring the narrow strip of river bank for a suitable tent site.

          The other couple had erected their camp on a patch of exposed boulders directly in the path of the billowing steam. Interesting decision. I mean, they do have a plastic tarp draped over their tent, but I can’t imagine the dampness not seeping through the seams and eventually getting everything wet. That, or when the temperature really drops, they’ll wake up to a layer of ice over their shelter so thick they might find themselves trapped in an igloo with no door. Not to mention that it would take a couple of king sized mattresses stacked together to not feel the lumpy rocks beneath their bed.

          Jamie and I move downstream from the vapor cloud and set up our tent on top of a crusty snow bank. We place our plastic tarp below the tent. Sure, the ground is freezing, but our Thermarest sleeping pads will keep the cold at bay, and at least we’ll have level ground. We have just finished establishing our site and are eating a quick snack when the other couple descends from the top pool wrapped in large beach towels. Their visible skin is bright red and letting off steam like they have become one with the geothermal water.

          Ready for our own soak, we pass the other couple on our way to the pools. The other man and I make momentary eye contact, two naturally guarded men of the wild assessing the other with a penetrating glance. I realize I know him and my hard look instantly softens. We had only chatted on one other occasion, but he is none other than the designer and builder of the stupefying luxury before us. He too must go out of his way to avoid crowds. The last time we spoke he was working like a beaver on meth to finish mortaring the last couple soaks, barely taking a moment for any chitchat.

          “Hey, we know you,” my wife interjects. “I can’t even tell you what an amazing thing you have done here. I mean the whole thing is just awesome!”

          “Top three public soaks in all Idaho,’ I add. “We didn’t expect to see anybody else doing an overnighter though.”

          “Neither did we,” says the red haired woman at his side. Her tone betrays a subtle disappointment and I don’t blame her. I am feeling it too. For some reason, I am hard pressed to consider a soaking experience a true success unless it was done in relative privacy. Obviously, if anybody has my blessing to share this location, it’s him. He has no reason to feel the same way about us, but our complimentary nature seems to have won him over.

          “Enjoy it while you can,” he says as his pleasant expression turns suddenly bitter. “The Forest Service is threatening to have the whole thing ripped out.”

          My wife and I stare at him stupidly for a second as if he just told us about the existence of man-eating river sharks. “What? Why?” Jamie finally sputters.

          “That doesn’t make any sense,” I say. It’s not like you snuck in these pools overnight. They watched you build it for a couple of years… and now they have a problem?”

          “I know,” he replies. “Wish they would have stopped me before I lugged thousands of pounds of concrete across the river… wasting a ton of my time and money if they blow her up.”

          “But why?” Jamie asks again. “Don’t they know the trash pit this place used to be? All those plastic tarps and broken bottles. Most people actually take care of Rocky Canyon these days and that’s totally because of what you have done.”

          “Each time it’s a different reason. They’re saying the tribes have a problem with it, that it was built without a permit, and that it’s an ‘attractant’… whatever that means.”

          “Well, of course, it’s an attractant, that’s why we’re here,” I say. “The Forest Service is run by crooks. Hell, all of Idaho is governed by crooks.”

          Sensing the beginning of a long tirade on the Gem State’s anti-environmental conservative leanings, my wife attempts to cuts me off with a question. “Don’t you work for the state of Idaho?”

          “Yes. Yes, I do. And the boss of my boss is the most evil, ignorant, wanna-be cowboy of the bunch. And the sad thing is that I would normally tell you the inefficiencies of government would delay or prevent them from ever actually doing anything but blabbing about this place, but when it comes to making ill-informed, destructive decisions, they tend to proceed full steam.”

          Galvanized over our little political cause out in the middle of the Idaho wilderness, the four of us rant and rave for a good half hour before parting ways, them heading to camp for dinner and us heading up the drainage to finally soak. Proving the old adage correct, we start at the highest, hottest pool and then move down testing three soaks before finding one of perfect temperature. In our rock-walled bath, Jamie and I lay back and let the hot water work its considerable magic on our tired naked bodies.

          Forgetting about the obnoxious snowmobiles, the brutal river ford, unexpected company, and potentially devastating news, I do my very best to think about not thinking at all. Normally impossible for my incessantly chattering brain, but in the blissful steam and super-heated geothermal pool, out-of-body experiences feel like the norm. Setting aside my usual cynicism, I become one with the mountainous landscape, and on some deep spiritual level I find the faith to believe all this too shall pass; our planet will one day shake off mankind’s sickness like a wet dog drying its fur and everything will revert to a balanced state. A new Eden where an evolved version of our species lives in harmony with the planet and understands our role in the cosmic spider web.

          My spiraling thoughts are reluctantly dragged back to reality by the distant whine of more snowmobiles. Across the river a party of three howls by, headlights flashing as dusk settles over the river valley. The sight of them reminds me that we have to walk back out tomorrow, no doubt dealing with an endless parade of the wailing smoke machines. I also find myself thinking about making the river crossing again. Unlike today, there will be no warm pool awaiting our frozen legs on the far side, making today’s pain seem almost trivial. Then again, there are some pleasures in life worth the torture, no matter how unbearable it might feel at the time. Sliding down deeper in our natural hot tub as the noise of the last snowmobilers fades, I smile at my wife. Is it too much to wish certain moments, certain places, and certain loves could last forever?

A Bullet with my Name

Born in the barrel
Of a .44
With one good eye
And like the stinging bee
Lucky to get its shot off
I am
Smoking breath to live
And take
A solitary synapse
Entombing second chance
In a flash of primer
Preceding inescapable trajectory

A white hot
Messenger on the lips
Of black powder kisses
This hollow point
Blossoming holes
In all that
Never would have been
Had my casing
Rolled off the assembly line
Unengaged

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Life Support

The eyes of an owl
An undeniable depth
To those black holes
A miracle to me
Capable of swooping down
And tearing the war
From before my face
Making me believe
This replanted forest
Might outlive
Its harvesters
Might overspill
Its impeccably planted rows
Split apart the concrete carpet
Expose suffocating soil
For a second chance
And live to be
An old growth haunt
For one of my soul savers
Once again

Friday, May 20, 2011

Falling on Swords

          Peering over a three foot fence and holding back a lilac branch with the remains of his right hand, Spencer Rayne hears a burst of laughter slice through the still afternoon air. Sounding like the cackles of young boys, it appears to emanate from the abandoned house next door, and he can’t help wondering if his mind is up to its usual tricks. The laughs sound again, louder this time, and Spencer is about to change his view to a hole in the side fence when the mailwoman rounds the corner. Spencer glances at his watch. 13:35. Right on time. The woman is older than Spencer, blond hair showing the first streaks of white, but defined calves and shapely lower thighs climbing into the hems of her blue shorts reveal a woman still very much in shape. As she approaches his neighbor’s mailbox, Spencer hears the voices again except, instead of laughing, they are now chanting, “Kitty, kitty, kitty.”


          He glances around for his own Maine Coon. Mrs. Piggy, named for her unusual size and temperament, had been weaving through his legs in dizzying figure eights just minutes ago. A familiar hiss knifes through the air and Spencer doesn’t bother confirming his suspicions before he is on the move. With that excited energy he grew addicted to while conducting house sweeps in Baghdad, the young man darts along his fence line until he has a visual on the neighboring backyard. In the far corner of the lot, four teenagers are gathered around an old tin shed with the doors rusted wide open. The largest of the kids is using a long willow branch to poke at something inside the storage unit. Between their legs, he catches a glimpse of Mrs. Piggy pinned against the wall. She is puffed out to twice her normal size and baring her fangs as if daring any of the boys to make a move.

          Spencer’s mind is instantly filled with the sound of small-arms fire and concussive explosions. Ash and smoke obscure his vision a split second before everything turns red. The next thing he sees are two children, pale faces filled unholy terror, running past him as they might flee a descending Tomahawk helicopter. Another boy tries to back away, hands shielding his face, but instead, stumbles over his heels and winds up on his ass inside the shed.

          The largest boy, frozen in terror, has the willow ripped from his grasp so violently it leaves a burn across his palm. In the next instant, the chubby teenager is on his backside next to his friend. Stooping over the cowering youth is a camouflaged, black-bearded demon clutching the kid’s shirt in one fist while the only remaining finger on Spencer’s mutilated hand begins poking the boy’s forehead with every syllable he speaks. His voice, a barely audible hiss.

          “If I ever so much as see you walking down my street again, I will cut you in half. Do you understand?”

          There’s no way they could understand. There’s no way they could know. In the recesses of his nightmares, Spencer is picturing what is left of a young Iraqi boy holding a plastic machinegun while his commanding officer barks in his ear. The older man is trying to convince the young soldier he had made the correct choice. The only choice, given the circumstances.

          “You will have no one to blame but yourselves, if you ever get within a mile of my cat again.”

          The color continues to drain from the teenagers’ faces as if they are bleeding out, becoming ghosts, like the walking dead survivors of an I.E.D. slowly seeping from a hundred tiny holes. A dark spots appears and begins to spread in a circular manner across the crotch of the larger kid’s jeans. Something about the smell reminds Spencer of the post battle adrenaline rush, a moment when the thunder and adrenaline subsides and the shit, piss, and blood of war sets in.

          With the battle subsiding in his mind, Spencer is able to see himself through the boys’ na├»ve, petrified eyes. Suddenly aware of his grotesque finger, the young soldier slides his pink claw into a deep cargo pocket. Fighting off a flood of foolishness, Spencer steps back and straightens himself with a long, deep breath. Even Mrs. Piggy had shrunk against the wall in the wake of his radiating malevolence. The fat cat, recognizing her owner once again, takes the opportunity to leap across the two boys and then, defying her rotund appearance, bounds up over the fence separating the properties.

          Spencer drags both boys to their feet, and with a final, “Get the hell out of here,” shoves them towards the street. As the two boys trip over each other getting to full-speed, the older man realizes the mail carrier is standing in the road staring at him. The woman holds his gaze with a slightly cocked head before realizing they are making eye contact and quickly looks away. She misses Spencer’s awkward shrug, and hustles towards the next house on her route.

          “Real smooth,” he mutters, “the cops should be here any second. Screw it. Let ‘em come. I didn’t do anything. I could have… I should have, but didn’t. They can all go to hell.”

          Still grumbling under his breath, Spencer marches off to his backyard to check on Mrs. Piggy. Because of her tough nature, he half-expects to find her already taking a nap in a warm spring sunbeam. Instead, he rounds the back corner of his house to see his giant cat still fluffed to maximum size, turned sideways, and slowly advancing on his woodpile. Her hiss turning into a deep throated growl the likes of which Spencer had never heard.

          The young man’s first instinct is to make a joke about also hating the stack of cedar rounds because his intended firewood had been buried beneath a freakishly early snowstorm relegating them to expensive gas heat all winter. He decides the feline won’t appreciate his humor.

          “What’s with you? Still pissed about those punks? You could have taken at least two of them without my help.”

          The noises permeating from his twenty pound cat turn absolutely demonic as she approaches the base of the woodpile. Spencer begins considering the possibility of Mrs. Piggy having suffered some head trauma when he notices movement near the top of the mound. A grinning set of razor-sharp teeth emerges from the shadows of a hole tucked between the top logs and Spencer realizes his cat is only responsible for half the wretched, violent racket. The intruding beast, now extracting itself from the burrow with a set of three inch claws, is making sounds that would give Satan nightmares.

          Mrs. Piggy freezes in her tracks as the creature pulls itself into the light. Spencer recognizes the animal from a recent television documentary. As far as he knows, it is the first ever sighting in the small mountain town of Timberline and it is happening in his own backyard. The masked wolverine creeps towards the man and cat, spitting and gnashing its teeth in a manner every bit as intimidating as any legend of the predator would have people believe. Afraid to bend over and attempt to manage a squirming cat in one hand, Spencer backs away from the woodpile’s new king. Sensing her backup’s withdrawal, and for once displaying common sense, Mrs. Piggy retreats alongside her owner.

          The soldier almost bursts into maniacal laughter upon realizing his first instinct is to lob a grenade into the animal’s hole. In the next instant, he is locking eyes with the shaggy brown creature, its dark pupils shooting sparks from some inner fire. Spencer recognizes something coldly familiar in the creature’s unflinching gaze. As the animal reaches the base of the woodpile, the young man realizes the wolverine is dragging its hindquarters. Although there is no visible blood or bone, one of its legs is badly broken, the appendage hanging limp and useless from the wolverine’s hip socket.

          With a distant voice screaming, “Medic!” the young man notices the creature’s gaunt ribcage threatening to push through its tightly stretched hide. The predator’s fur is matted down in greasy patches, looking as though it has given up on grooming itself. Knowing the wolverine’s fierce reputation, Spencer is at a loss for what could have brought a warrior to such a sorry state.

          “Jesus buddy, did you take on an entire wolf pack, or we’re you hit by a car?”

          The wolverine continues its vicious display for a wary Mrs. Piggy while Spencer heads inside to rummage through his refrigerator. Upon returning, he tosses half a pound of expired bologna towards the base of the woodpile. The animal drags itself toward the pungent meat and begins to feed. Spencer almost laughs at the site of the terrifying animal as it is forced to swallow while maintaining its perpetual snarling. With the meal devoured in scant seconds, the wolverine inches backwards up the sloping woodpile into the darkness of its den, never taking its eyes from the man before it.

          “You’re welcome,” says the young soldier genuinely impressed by the animal’s ravenous nature. The wolverine reminds him of several young men at boot camp, bean poles defying physics with how much grub they could pack away.

          “Been a while since you ate, eh, or did your mom just never teach you any manners?”

          For the next week, Spencer is at the woodpile with the breaking dawn and again in the evening delivering meals to his visiting carnivore. Without fail, the scenario plays out exactly like the first time with the broken creature dragging itself from the cedar pile and churning out a barrage of stomach twisting growls as it wolfs through ample portions of chicken and pork chops. Skewering the young soldier and his cat with its black, dead-eyed glare, the animal eats every scrap, waits a second to see if more food will magically appear, and then slowly retreats to its home.

          The young soldier names the wolverine, Hank, after his deceased grandfather. Hank Rayne was the most disagreeable man Spencer had ever known. A World War II vet, the man returned from the front lines an equally hateful and self-loathing individual whose wife ultimately left him for less damaged goods. Even with nothing apparent to live for, the man held on for 100 years of chain-smoking drunkenness. Spencer’s father once said Hank would never die because Ol’ Beelzebub was afraid the bastard would single-handedly storm Hell’s gates and take over.

          Even though he was afraid of the man growing up, Spencer later began to admire his grandfather for having walked a road through life that few could stomach. He lived his daily existence his way and never compromised for anyone. He never felt that societal obligation to put a happy face on his bad feelings, but instead, chose to embrace the world in the manner it had presented itself. He knew of nature’s inherent ugliness and cruelty. He had seen it firsthand on the blood-stained fields of war. In that sense, Hank the wolverine is a lot like his grandfather. Almost nobody would look beyond those bitter outer shells, and Spencer was still too young at the time of Hank’s death to have done so, but through a wounded predator, feels a renewed connection with his equally damaged relative.

          On the seventh day of his woodpile’s occupation, Spencer and Mrs. Piggy approach Hank’s lair with a package of uncooked sausage. For the first time, they are greeted with silence instead of the wolverine’s guttural growls. His fat cat, stops just short of the cedar chunks and lifts her nose to test the air. The young man, standing on his tip-toes, tries to peer into Hank’s den, but can barely see inside the entrance.

          “Hank, you there buddy,” he asks while tossing a single link to the top of the woodpile. “I brought you some breakfast. Hope you like artificial maple flavoring.”

          There is no response, not a sound or hint of movement from within. Somehow, the eerie silence is more unnerving than the wolverine’s horrendous snarling. Ready to spring back if necessary, the young soldier stands on a section of stump, trying to get a better vantage point. At first, all he can see is impenetrable shadows, but the longer he stares, the more his eyes adjust to the darkness. At last he can make out the faint outline of a single paw nearly the size of his own hand down inside the hole. The unmoving appendage is all he can see. Spencer tosses another sausage link, this one landing inside Hank’s den almost touching one of the animal’s visible claws. Still, no movement. No sound. Nothing.

          “Hank, you ok?”

          An unsettling sensation creeps down Spencer’s spine. The soldier realizes he is consumed with concern. Not in a long time has he felt a genuine connection with a living thing other than his cat, but for some reason, the grumpy predator had wormed his way inside the young man’s consciousness. Mrs. Piggy punctuates the silence with a shrill cry as if also feeling the uneasiness in the air. Balancing on another cedar wedge lodged in the snow, Spencer steps half-way up the woodpile, but his view inside the wolverine’s den doesn’t improve. With a gruff, smoke ravaged voice barking in his ear, he knows what he needs to do. Nobody gets left behind.

          “I need you to trust me now, ok?”

          Moving purposefully now, the soldier climbs up the woodpile until he is at the mouth of the den, and then, with his good arm, Spencer reaches inside the hole. With alarms sounding in the back of his mind, he touches the cold ground inside and lets his fingers walk ever deeper into Hank’s lair. At the very edge of his reach, Spencer touches the paw. With a sudden intake of breath, he realizes the Hank’s calloused pads are faintly warm.

          “Jesus,” he shouts while with extracting his arm so quickly Spencer hits himself on the bridge of the nose. Fully expecting a crazed terror to follow his hand out the hole, the young soldier nearly leaps from the top of the pile to the ground below. When nothing happens, he is able to catch himself just before jumping. After collecting his nerves, Spencer reaches inside Hank’s den once more. Again, he feels the animal’s foot. In a less excitable frame of mind, the soldier realizes the flesh isn’t warm enough. Grabbing the animal’s paw tightly this time, Spencer pulls the heavy, lifeless wolverine from its home. Hank must have died within the last hour, his life force slowly fading into cold memory.

          The young soldier isn’t sure how much time has passed, but when he becomes aware of his surrounding once again, he is sitting on top of the woodpile cradling the wolverine in his lap, cheekbones damp and sticky. The creature’s bristly fur is clumped together and smells faintly of urine. Bothering Spencer the most are the wide-open eyes and frozen snarl on Hank’s face, lips pulled back in the menacing manner he’d grown used to. The wounded animal went to his death still fighting. There was no last second of peace, no pain-free drifting off into a dreamless sleep, the shaggy combatant new nothing but war in his final moments. What had always seemed an appropriate way for a warrior to die now tears through his heart like a sniper’s bullet. No soldier should have to die alone in his foxhole. With Mrs. Piggy curled up at his feet, he begins to plan a couple funeral celebrations. Another brother’s life played out like a cruel tragedy. But not without reason. He would see to that.

          The next day finds Spencer sitting at the edge of his street, pulling stubborn dandelions from around his mailbox. Pretending he can’t see her approaching feet from under the brim of his floppy ranger hat, the young man looks up in feigned surprise as the mailwoman reaches his house. Instead of the guarded expression he is expecting, the pretty blond woman is smiling down at him. Swallowing hard, Spencer climbs to his feet, wiping the dirt from his one good hand on his pants.

          “Look, I wanted to apologize for the other day. I might have gotten a little carried aw…” Spencer doesn’t finish his sentence before noticing the thick purple scar tissue starting at the woman’s throat and running down past the unbuttoned collar of her uniform. The sight reminds him of his own injury and he quickly slips the mangled hand into a pocket.

          “No big deal,” the woman stammers while awkwardly reaching up to pinch together the fabric exposing her neckline. “I saw what they were doing to your cat.”

          Spencer shifts his weight from one leg to the other, forcing his gaze away from whatever trauma she had clearly suffered. “Guess if they were your kids it might be a different story,” he says attempting a slight grin.

          Still fidgeting with her collar, the woman returns his smile. “Actually, one of the first kids you sent running is my boy. I laid into him when I got off work, but didn’t even need to. I think you taught them all a lesson they won’t soon forget. Sometimes, he reminds me of my ex, but he’s a good boy. And I’m glad you scared the piss out of that one chubby monster. I don’t like my son hanging out with him anyway.”

          Spencer laughs openly. It is a sound he barely recognizes from his youth. “I’m just glad I didn’t kill anyone. Some days…” he says trailing off.

          “I hear that,” she says. The woman then glances down to where his hand is hiding out of sight. “What happened? If you don’t mind me asking.”

          The soldier’s reaction is a surprise even to himself. On any other day, talking to any other person, the question would have bothered him. The blond woman’s presence is somehow making Spencer feel hypnotically at ease. As if injected with truth serum, the young man suddenly wants to share his story with the beautiful woman standing before him.

          “Iraqi Freedom,” he says.

          “Figured as much.” The woman quits toying with her neckline, again revealing the dense scar tissue. “Desert Storm,” she says. “The ex never did get used to it, but you know what? Now that he’s gone, I don’t feel quite as self-conscious. It’s important my son sees me as a whole woman, a strong mother. Sometimes, when I wake up from another goddamn nightmare, and it feels as if those memories could swallow me whole, all I have to do is take a look at his sleeping face and I know what it is I am living for. Know what I mean?”

          Spencer looks past the woman, at the distant canopy of evergreens climbing the surrounding mountains, the blue sky and marshmallow clouds. He hears the distant chirping of starlings and notices Mrs. Piggy sauntering towards them across his lush, overgrown lawn. The warm breeze caressing his cheeks shoots electricity all across his body, a phantom sensation even tingling fingers that no longer exist.

          “I do know what you mean.” The young soldier removes his hat revealing a mop of curly black hair. “Listen, I don’t suppose you would like to get some dinner sometime?”

          The mail carrier blushes slightly, the color causing her to look like a shy, young girl. Finally looking back at Spencer, she says, “Leave an invitation for me in the box tomorrow and I’ll see about arranging a babysitter.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Not What You Think

In the echo
Of a downtown mirror
Caught a glimpse
Of someone
I should recognize
Someone
I should know better
But the guy wearing
A familiar ball cap
Was chatting up strangers
Laughing at joke’s
Half-hearted attempt
Sharing the easy
Obvious wisdom
At his disposal

Charmed himself
And a marveled crowd
Into the momentary belief
Of something more
Than the sleight of one hand
While the other
Fingered a pocket
And wondered
About the possibility
Of two radically different
Carnival house reflections
Casting the same shadow

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Let there be Light

Another monster
Of our own making
Double tapped to the
Godless glee
Of a forgetful nation
And buried
In an ocean trench
Of already
Overflowing lies

These red
White and blue filters
Blocking entire spectrums
While generating a blurry
Golden nimbus
Around black headlines
Containing as much light
As we choose to see

The enemy
Telling us who to fight
The thief asking
For charitable contributions
The illusionist
Demanding a suspension
Of our collective disbelief
The devil himself
Selling tin halos
To the pocketless
And for having forfeited
The minimal effort
Of keeping one eye open
I am nearly certain
We deserve the frontline
Of all their wars