The United States Army started a planned forest fire in the oak studded foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains east of Monterey Bay. It was hot, dry, October. Unfortunately, manageable events escaped and became difficult to control. The fire obliterated eighteen hundred acres beyond the proscribed boundaries of three hundred acres by noon. That was considered pretty much par for the course. These were no clueless rookies at work without experience in massive destruction. Officially, the Army was only trying to clear a narrow path to some buried bombs in the hills that needed to be re-positioned for strategic purposes. Enemies lurked, always. The stubborn wind, which had been predicted with high probability to be moderately insignificant, turned out differently than expected. No human error was to blame. The fire was precisely designed to be a win-win shortcut according to the detailed mission statement. Get in, get out, no sweat. Just fucking do it. Shortcuts were naturally preferred under most desirable scenarios on paper. That was before the explosions multiplied and went boom.
I watched the flames jump and the smoke rise from the rudderless helm of my boat that was drifting about a mile from shore. The pale sky seemed to have had the air sucked out and discarded. It was the last day of salmon season. I had been on the lookout for the humpback whale who appears to be light taupe, except when he more accurately seems to be dark ecru, but my luck was no better or worse than ever. I turned to see legions of beautiful birds as they began to flee the catastrophe on land. Not surprisingly, no fish were taking my bait. They were diving deep as the smoke continued to rise. Cracks were becoming holes and canyons turned into chasms.
The environmental expert employed as a consultant by the U.S. Army, Dr. Clive Hairsuit, who in his black jacket with purple shirt looked like an emaciated chorus dancer from a stock revival of West Side Story, declared that the environmental impact, “while somewhat regrettable,” nevertheless fell within acceptable parameters. “What do you expect,” he added to stiff members of the working press, “Nirvana?”
“Why is your Adam’s apple bouncing so prominently,” asked an ambitious hotshot from one of the local shopper rags who didn’t know any better. His more settled colleagues murmured sheepishly while maintaining strict bovine balance.
Dr. Clive Hairsuit, who remained unfazed, responded, “No comment.”
“What about tomorrow?”
“More of the same can be confidently predicted.”
“It’s not wise to speculate too far in front of the curve. It tends to be hard to know the reason why.”
“May I quote you?”
“I can’t think of why not.”
I had to wait until afternoon for the Coast Guard to assist me with my damaged rudder. By then, my mottled skin was starting to peel. Some spots appeared dark enough for implosion. It was all my fault, I was brusquely informed, along with so many other countless, thoughtless miscreants just like me, needless to say, who refuse to consider dire consequences.
Well, yeah, like…duh, I thought. What else is new? In addition, it turns out I was lucky the Coast Guard had better and more important things to do than place me under arrest. Jail was that same dull rapier constantly hanging over my neck. In that regard, I think all of the smoke helped me out, though. Instead, they intended to send me an exorbitant bill.
I said, “What the fuck.”
The beautiful birds who fled to the Santa Cruz Mountains began arriving late that afternoon. Many were wheezing, gasping, retching. Premature regurgitation was rampant among the owls. The lovely wife of the tawny owl, Thee Mrs., came up with the idea to throw a welcoming bash on the top of Mt. Umunhum. Who doesn’t appreciate a good buoying bash to begin a night of carousing?
The lovely Thee Mrs., who can replicate sounds from the entire history of rhythm & blues since Clyde McPhatter, began to rev her motor by singing like Tina Turner back when she was stuck like paste to Ike, who was soaring in his Rocket 88. Four red tail hawks swooped in complex indications of multi-dimensional figure-eights, the basic building blocks of the multiverse, to guide the stragglers. Their complexity mocked the linear flight of four clumsy aircraft from the U.S. Army spewing toxic smoke from Big Sur to Half Moon Bay. Fires have been the enemy of beautiful birds for half a billion years, but after misaligned humans began to stumble out into the open, the problem increased exponentially. Unless those were clumsy flights from the U.S. Navy now getting into the act. Not many humans understand how their expectations can morph so easily into such ferocious killers. To the beautiful birds, each thousand years seems to get worse. No known bird has ever started a fire.
“Each expectation,” the tawny owl has often pointed out to me, “cuts like a single blade. In common, rampant expectations multiply and wage vicious all-out war.”
Well, yeah, like…duh, I thought. By now, even I know that. No more expectations for me. I’ve sworn off those blood sucking ghouls for keeps. It’s not like I need a new Porsche and boundless gratification every season. The only more dangerous addiction than that is overcooked protein.
“Ain’t pretty to look at,” the tawny owl added.
The fire in the Santa Lucia Mountains was still burning hot after midnight when the party in the Santa Cruz Mountains was starting to really smoke. Birds just want to be birds, after all, and beautiful. The lovely Thee Mrs. was soon preaching like Curtis Mayfield to the soulful choir. Then, before the earth could cool after becoming re-heated yet again, she assumed a position exactly like Sly Stone:
I wanna take you higher
Bomma lacka lacka, Booma lacka lacka
Everyone was glad to see Hooty Owl out and about and shaking his booty when he showed up before dawn. Hooty was still recovering from injuries suffered during his imprisonment and torture by the Beverly Hills Rat. The Beverly Hills Rat was a major link to the human enablers of treacherous cats who murder beautiful birds and had to be stopped. But, partying came first.
When the skies finally had cleared enough to facilitate deep breathing again, which was either a Tuesday or a Wednesday, unless it was the day after that, the tawny owl was parsing out details to me of embedded memories in owls that spanned fifty million years. It seems that humans were never much to look at, or see, right from the get-go. He was perched in a redwood tree that had grown lithely from the stump of a great-great grand-pappy that had been slaughtered to build a porch for a sugar baron. Unless that was rice. That’s when I received an outline of my next reconnaissance mission in the war against the human enablers of treacherous cats who murder beautiful birds. It included a photograph of someone I sort of knew, sort of well. I thought, whoa, fucking whoa. Is this a spatial contradiction in least common terms? Do I stay or do I go? Does the first or the second booma lacka lacka apply equally? And then what? After I repeated my thought, I remained stumped, and stuck. I understood this was a major test. But, still.
“How many lethal expectations in a case like mine,” I ventured meekly,”is going to count as rampant?”