THE MAN IN THE LOON
Chapter 1: Beater Banjo and Clean Kill
The bat burped.
The little brown bat struck me in the throat and burped a delicate puff of mosquito-flavored vapor that roused my nostrils. Not a rabid attack by a flying mammal, but a depraved one by an earthbound human. That bat had been deliberately thrown with such power that it jarred me backwards.
No bigger than a canyon wren, the bat’s teeth pricked my flesh for a split second before her limp body slithered down to snag on the shoulder of my green hospital scrubs.
I had just finished the evening feeding of a couple dozen, half-dead wild animals—shot, trapped, crushed or garroted—and had stepped out the back door of the Old Wolf Wildlife Care Center to breathe fresh sea air to practice one of my newly minted, unrequited love songs on my beater banjo. Serenade, before it got dark, the resident orcas in the Salish Sea. Killer whales need romancing, too.
Don’t kiss me into a corner,
Don’t hug until my back’s against the wall,
Don’t love too hard in my direction,
‘Cause I always break before I fall.
I was finishing that intro verse when the first bat struck. My initial thought was, damn critics everywhere.
The second bat smoked past my right ear and thunked against the center’s metal door, by which time I had sense enough to strap my beater banjo on my back, and pivot, poised to escape into the building. Shit! I’d recently redone the emergency door latch to lock automatically. My idea and handiwork to thwart vandals. Keys hung forgotten on the wall inside.
I jumped off the landing and ducked behind a western redcedar tree. Reaching up to my shoulder, I cupped the little, warm bat body in my hand. A gossamer wing fluttered against my palm.
My fingers disentangled bat incisors, sharp as wild nootka rose thorns, from myscrubs, and rubbed, with a finger pad, the fang-sting on my neck. Not the bat’s fault, but I now faced possible rabid insanity and death. I still had a coppery taste in my mouth and a gash in my gut from my last brush with insanity and death, when I bucked heads with a murderer.
Through a sea breeze, a drunken voice bellowed in the woods. “Hey, Birdman, Birdman, got any feathers? You ‘mud people’ like birds better’n humans, here’s a few for ya ta chew on.”
Near as I could tell, the menacing voice came from a patch of blue elderberry shrubs and vine maple trees beyond the blacktop of the parking lot. Above the berry clusters, I could see westward through the dusk, all the way up the Dosanomish Valley to the Olympics, peaks like the crumpled teeth of a chainsaw god that had jumped the bar. A freak winter storm up in the mountains had dusted the ridges white. They now turned seashell pink in the setting sun.
I flattened my cheek against spongy cedar bark.
“You nimrod,” I said, “bats aren’t birds!”
As a low-paid employee of the care center, I countered dozens of misconceptions a week. Do crows talk to electrical lineman? Do hummingbirds ride on the backs of swans during migration? Can woodpeckers drill through steel?
The care center had been the recent scene of vandalism in the form of graffiti; red paint scrawled on the outside walls with the word “Birdman” thrown in after every other profanity. A couple ominous phone calls followed, warning: “Get out of town, Birdman, or else.”
Another bat missile thudded into the cedar.
“Birdman, Birdman,” the sepulchur voice said, “ask your Mud Mama, can you come out and play?”
Five months before, in May, when I—Harp P. Gravey—had turned off Highway 101 into the Dosanomish Valley, half-way between Shelton and Sequim, I’d developed, with the help of a semi-shaman, a cosmic kinship with animals, in particular a handsome common loon named Qo-oo-la, whose body I sometimes inhabited, and who I hadn’t seen since last spring. I missed him like a severed arm. Or wing? Some people put down my out-of-body-and-into-loon experiences as hallucinations. How then, I asked the skeptics, was I, deathly afraid of water my whole life, now able to swim like a fish and dive like a nuclear submarine, if I was not brother to Qo-oo-la?
Anyway, I didn’t see how these new-found skills would threaten anyone. If anything, some folks would think a forty-three-year-old man, working for minimum wage, mopping up shit, puke, and guts in a wild animal hospital, is pathetic, not threatening. But having my lover and employer, April Old Wolf and friends called mud people, the local racist slur against Native Americans, made me furious—an emotion Dr. Rothenberg, my VA shrink in Portland, had cautioned me to avoid at all costs.
“What kind of game,” I said, “did you have in mind? Mutual mutilation of small mammals?”
A gull argument sounded from the shore—one of those all-out fracases over a particularly slimy morsel. Gulls go nuts for guts.
“The game goes like this, Birdman. You get out of Dodge, and we let you and your little mud family alone.”
“In case you haven’t noticed,” I said, “this ain’t Dodge and whatever your problem is, take it up with me. Stay away from my fami . . . ah, my friends.” I shied away from using the term “family,” having been a professional loner all my adult life.
Ravens, precursors of the dark, flew into the tops of tall firs, cedars, and hemlocks surrounding the care center to roost. Black beaks gronked beddy-bye.
The bat stirred in my hand. My eyes glanced down. An immature Myotis lucifugis. Pink bubbles foamed out of her miniature wolf snout. Mouse ears rigid as corn chips. One wing had been ripped off and blood oozed out of the wound. I gave her a gentle nudge, checking for more broken bones. Her chest ratcheted like ball bearings. Busted up bad. She belched more pink foam and insect breath and opened her human-like eyes to stare into mine. I brought her inches from my face.
In a moment of undeniable clarity I saw pain and pleading. The bat had been maimed and bludgeoned. Without help, she had a long and agonizing unnatural death to look forward to. Her wronged eyes knew her fate. Knew that she was never destined to fly the moonlit skies on silent wings. Never gonna mate with her chosen male and have little Myotis lucifugises.
She didn’t deserve to suffer one second longer.
With the stalker out there, I couldn’t run around to access the front of the building and take her to the CO-2 chamber to euthanize her.
I whispered a quick prayer, “Oh Great Creator, please take the soul of this noble beast to your fold, and I will remember her and all her kind with respect and humility in my heart forever.” I took three quick breaths and placed the ball of my thumb over her mammal eyes. My palm cupped her wee head, like some soft-shelled nut. Her little brain, underneath her skull, radiated heat. Sweat beads popped up between my eyes.
A fish smell blew off the sea. More gulls joined in the slime fracas.
My wrist twisted.
Her wee neck snapped. A dry twig breaking under a bed of fall leaves.
A quick, clean kill.
Copyright ©2011 by Mitch Luckett