Thank you for the invitation, ladies and gentlemen. I hope you can hear me with this cloth covering my face. After I tell you what happened, I’m sure you’ll understand why I wear it. And, as you can see from this covered cage by the side of the podium, I brought with me tonight, the monster responsible for it all.
It was about a year ago that the chaos of city living, even here in the formerly rural Central Valley, crept into my mind and began stirring up my brain like an eggbeater. As I look back at it now, I can see I’d grown accustomed to it all: every morning I chose a tie to wear like some leash for my boss to lead me around by, then hit the commute where either some humongous radiator of a ten ton cattle truck was in my mirror pushing me to drive faster, or some red and purple and gold painted low-rider was just in front of my hood, forcing me to drive slower.
I guess I’d become habituated to the smell of exhaust fumes in my nose every time I took a walk. Or to the constant taste of garlic and onions from the McMexican spicy taco-burger egg-roll Thai-food Breakfast Special whenever I belched.
Did the gunshots in the night start to get old? Or was it the menacing stares of drivers within all black cars that boomed with deafening music when we idled together at a red light? “Animals,” I used to call them. Believe me, after what I’ve been through, I don’t use that term so loosely anymore.
Anyway, who knows how it started? I just know that Saturdays were obligatory grass mowing days – all 380 square feet of it. And after it was cut, I fertilized it and watered it, guaranteeing its lush, abundant growth. So I’d be there with the mower again next Saturday. That lawn surrounded the house I lived in, which the Bank really owned, and for which I was only in debt to the tune of ten times my annual income.
In other words, Ladies and Gentlemen, I was a success.
But somehow, I felt unfulfilled. That really came home to me on the second Sunday in May last year at 9:30 A.M. I heard some church bells ringing from beyond the neighbor’s garage. Church bells. That’s how I knew it was 9:30. There were no football games on, of course, so I was out in my freshly cut yard, sipping the first beer of the day.
A bird chirped up in some tree that has red flowers. It was a common chirp. Probably some robin or penguin or some such. But it triggered something which washed over my brain like that smell of anesthesia you occasionally get from your long-ago tonsillectomy. Within the vapors of that memory, I began to smell and taste a mid-summer day long ago when I laid on some farmer’s green hillside in Ohio. A ten year old kid with his B-B gun, staring up into the sky, listening to birds chirping.
So I set my beer down, leaned my head back ( Man, I’ll tell you it felt wonderful not to be choked by my tie), and I looked up. The sky was pale: that hazy bleached blue we see here as the smog is building. Against that washed-out blue, there was a black form, circling slowly, once in a while giving a slow flap of its majestic wings to keep it up there.
That long-ago Ohio afternoon, it had been a crow. It had cawed down at me, and my feeble gun had pinged up toward it a couple of times. When suddenly the horror that I might actually hit the bird struck me, I put down my Daisy and just watched.
But that morning in my yard, it was something even more regal: a hawk. Red tailed. So out of place, I thought. He must live somewhere else. He probably came down from the foothills to shop. Groceries, no doubt. You know, cruising Mother Nature’s deli section: “Excuse me, Ma’am can you tell me in which aisle they keep the mice?”
He spiraled higher and higher, then he wheeled toward the east. That’s where the mountains are, I’ve been told. I watched the now-empty sky for a while, as the taste and smell and feeling of that Ohio afternoon slowly evaporated from my memory. Slowly evaporated in spite of my attempts to grasp and hold it forever. You know how it is when you try to hold onto something that beautiful? Like a faint star which is visible in your peripheral vision, but disappears when you look directly at it? And the harder you concentrate on it, the more elusive it becomes? Until, in response to your struggle to hold on, it just disappears completely.
So that memory disappeared with the hawk, its shrill call echoing in my ears. And I was, as they say, born again. I looked at my lawn, at the mower, at the six foot fence that kept out the neighbors (or trapped me inside, depending how you viewed it). I went into the house and looked at my ties, at my shoes sitting there on the table, newspaper beneath them, awaiting their shine like some Rock star waiting for his champagne. I looked at my clothes – ten suits, fifteen pairs of pants, just one pair of jeans. And they were pressed – not just clean – pressed. With a crease.
So, that was the last time you saw me. Until now.
The next weekend, I’m looking out over a different kind of lawn and up into a different sky. Not that far from here really - a little over an hour. But the grass in the mountains grows naturally - no bags of seed, no fertilizer. No damn lawnmower, either.
The deer mow that lawn.
Picture this: an old log cabin built in decades past by some miner, redecorated with paisley prints and Christmas lights by a Hippie who van-ished twenty years ago.
It sits on a hillside so that you can have breakfast coffee on the deer-trimmed front yard which slopes up to the woods. When the sun rises, its light cascades thru the trees down onto you. After breakfast, you take a hike up to a small waterfall which spawns ferns and wildflowers and which, aside from bird calls, is the only sound you hear, as long as you sit there.
In the late afternoon, you sip a beer on the deck out the back door, writing in your journal. The deck is about ten feet off the ground which slopes away beneath you toward the west. And as you sip, you watch the sky turn crimson with the sunset.
You can sit on that west-facing deck at night, and look a little to the south. There’s a white glow in the distance beneath the dark sky which, they tell me, is this city. A little, tiny piece of that light is, I suppose, the street-lamp in front of my old house. But after looking in that direction once or twice, you don’t glance there again.
And every day, you recapture a little more of that long-ago Ohio summer. As the sun warms the grass, you smell the vapors that rise from it. They’re different, of course: up here it’s a pungent thing called Bear Clover - they say it drives the bears crazy like catnip does to felines - instead of the subtle hint of mid-western hay. But after a storm, cloud shadows chase each other up and over the hillsides just as they used to in Ohio, and your eyes, following them, still feel like they’re riding a roller coaster. Birds rise on afternoon thermals, wings outstretched and gliding, so you can lay back on the hillside and watch them, just as you did back then. And you listen to the bird symphony coming from the trees to try to separate one call from another: the rhythmic chirping; the staccato twitter; the high circling caw; the cheeping in your roof rafters. And some of that finds a memory in your brain somewhere, and takes you and your bicycle off down a dusty road, lined by six foot tall corn fields, your BB rifle balanced on handlebars.
There are other sounds too, and they change as dusk descends. An owl screech prickles the back of your neck; the cicadas vibrate in the grass like a lullaby; and frogs do this sound like a teenager belching. You know, on purpose.
So every evening you sit out on your deck, watching the western horizon turn pink, then red, and you tilt your head back to see the first stars appear in the darkening sky. You feel your ears vibrate with the cicadas bizzing all around you, and you belch back at the frogs from time to time. By now, you’re used to the occasional owl screech, and sometimes you even catch a glimpse of one moving thru the dark air like a shadow within a shadow. It moves its wings, of course, but unlike all other birds that size, you never hear a flapping sound.
One evening, a few weeks after settling in there, you’re out on that deck, drinking in that raucous symphony – “raucous symphony,” that’s what I call it in my journal – the raucous symphony of evening. Suddenly, a sound rips thru it. Makes you spill your beer. Deep and growling like an earthquake, you feel it vibrating your bones. Yet it leaves your ears ringing from the high-pitched screech. You sit there, frozen to your chair, telling yourself that it couldn’t be both a growl and a screech. But it is.
And even though that evening was the most brilliant sunset yet, you go inside, lock the doors, and leave the nightfall to the animals. That night, in spite of the healthful mountain air, you don’t sleep much.
There’s a little country store a mile down the dirt road. You usually walk there, smelling the forest fragrance, to get toilet paper, rice, wood screws, whatever you need. Then you bring it all back up in your backpack. Good exercise. You lose twenty pounds in three months. But the next morning, after a pretty much sleepless night, you drive.
The guy who runs the place has a beard – half brown, half grey. The brown part is chewing tobacco juice. His eyebrows are almost as thick as the beard. Bucky they call him. Great source of local information.
“Hey, Bucky. Last night I heard this really strange sound...”
“Loud. And... I dunno ... half roar , half shriek.”
“Sound like any animal you know? Any animal I should know? Any-
thing in my Animals of the Sierras handbook here?”
“Nope. That’s seven, fifty-two. With the governor’s tax.”
“The book here says bobcats make a loud noise.”
“Or do you think maybe a mountain lion?”
“Hard to say. Here’s your change.”
So you drive home, figuring you haven’t narrowed it down too much.
That evening, you decide to lock the front door, close all the windows – just as a precaution; nothing you wouldn’t have done at your old house – and take your evening beer on the back deck, high off the ground. You watch for the sunset sky, but you really can’t remember what shade of red it was that evening. It wasn’t so easy to concentrate.
The sky turns dark blue, stars begin to be visible. The sky turns black and the stars multiply. The cicadas start bizzing, the frogs begin their belching contests, and some birds or other twitter away like teenage girls at the mall. The usual raucous cacophony. Then – abruptly – right in the middle of a sip of beer – it stops. Dead. Dead silence. Like, you’re sitting there, can of beer poised near your lips, a mouthful of foamy beer fizzing on your tongue, your swallowing muscles half triggered already, but like – you know, frozen in mid swallow.
Deafening silence. Your ears ring from the silence.
What would cause the animals – all the animals – to all stop at once?
Then you feel – I remember this clearly – you feel how cold the air is getting. The sky is too black; the stars are too bright and even though there are millions, they really give no illumination. Where is the moon? You look toward something familiar, as if for comfort. The glow from this city is off to the south, as usual, but seems, this night, to be a thousand miles away.
You know, when it’s that dark, it’s like you’re blindfolded. And that silence, it’s like someone’s put earmuffs on you. Then the other senses get hyper, you know?
So you’re sitting there, beer stuck at half swallow, struggling to move air back and forth around the suspended beer, staring into darkness, listening into silence, and shivering from this descending cold... when the grass off to your left kind of ... snaps. So you strain to hear more. It’s like your left eardrum is bulging right out of your ear, trying to get a little closer. You stop breathing.
Eventually, you start running out of oxygen and go to take a breath, then you choke on your beer and cough and splutter and – oh, my God! Whatever’s out there can hear me. Run! you think. Run into the house.
No – wait. Don’t turn your back. What? Are you nuts? you ask yourself. As if sitting here gagging and gargling, it won’t notice me?
You’re frozen to your chair. You swallow. You suck in a big breath, then hold it again. You dig your fingernails into the wooden armrests, and listen.
Silence. Silence still. No frogs, no birds, no cicadas.
Maybe you scared it away?
Then a twig snaps – right under the deck – and the next thing you know, you’re in the cabin, bolting the door closed behind you, beer dripping onto the floor from the front of your saturated shirt.
You actually try to sleep that night. You know, lying in bed, but with all the lights on and your eyes open wide.
Somewhere around 2:30 you get mad at yourself. Cowering, whimpering under the sheets, a prisoner in your own brand-new home, your imagination teetering a little out of control.
So you decide to do something, by God. Do something.
Tomorrow. First thing tomorrow.
So, when it’s good and light, and the stupid little birds are chirping away as if everything’s fine, you go to the tool shed, and pull out lumber, your skill-saw, hammer, nails, and hinges. You go to Bucky’s and get a self- locking latch. You work away, banging your thumbnail twice.
By late afternoon, you’ve got yourself a nice little trap.
Now, you wonder, what do you use for bait to catch a – a – what? You ponder that a good long while, I’ll tell you. Three beers worth. Have to make another run to Bucky’s store for another six pack.
Two more beers into that new six pack, with evening approaching, you still can’t think of what to use for bait. You’re starting to get desperate, It’s getting almost too late to crawl under the deck and set the trap. Then it comes to you like a flash of brilliance (now I know why they use those light bulbs over the head in cartoons).
“Sometimes, you just have to sacrifice,” my former wife used to say. That was whenever she wanted to use one of my T-shirts to scrub the walls.
Sacrifice. So you pour a beer into a bowl and place that bowl within the trap – carefully, so as not to trigger the delicate trap door mechanism. Maybe, you figure as you crouch under there on hands and knees, it won’t hurt if you leave some scent of human on the trap by touching it.
Luckily, the bowl didn’t require the whole beer, so you use the re- mainder to begin your evening vigil, up on the deck.
Pink sky. Cicadas bizzing. A warm breeze blowing up-slope toward the deck. The smell of hops and grain and alcohol oozing up from beneath the deck. And a sort of self-satisfied feeling that you are smarter than it is.
You don’t have a gun, but just in case – up on the deck where you’re safe – you have a knife. It’s just a kitchen knife, actually, but it’s big. Knife in one hand, beer in the other.
Then the frogs start up, and you belch back at them for a while.
Then a hoot owl. Then the sky grows dark blue and the city’s glow begins to materialize.
An evening breeze brings the perfumes of bear clover and various grasses to your nose.
The stars come out. The birds and frogs and cicadas sing on, and you wait for the sudden silence, the rustling grass, the snapping twig, the lapping of beer, and the slamming shut of the trap’s door and automatic lock. You chortle to yourself at the perfection of this plan, and pop another beer without letting go of the knife.
Your muscles all spasm at once to a terrifying noise. Like a lightning clap. You’re blind. You’re paralyzed.
You’re asleep. And you’re defenseless. You thrash and struggle like a drowning man trying to reach the surface. You flail toward consciousness, to get your muscles back before It eats you alive.
It takes an eternity until you can feel again. And then, what you feel is a searing pain on your right cheek and your own hot, sticky blood flooding down your face, onto your chest and shirt.
You emerge from sleep, your arms flailing, hoping to strike it a mortal blow. Your brain is panicked. It’s pitch black. It’s freezing. You take a step to begin running. You’re trapped in that familiar dream feeling that you can never outrun it. You fall to the deck from your chair (or did the monster drag you there with its fangs?) You lash out at it with both hands and whatever you’re holding in them. You roll around in the wet pool of your own blood, fighting for your life. Your ears ring with growling and shrieking and roaring and cursing and spitting and you bite and you stab and you wrestle and you punch and you thrash and finally - - - finally, you chase it off.
You stay there, on hands and knees, pouring blood from your face and heaving for breath, until the noise of your panting ebbs enough to hear again the forest cacophony of frogs and things. You wiggle your toes to make sure your spinal cord still works. You open your eyes to be certain you haven’t been blinded. A glistening pool of blood smears the deck beneath you (later, the morning light would prove it to be mostly beer with a slight tinge of blood, but you can’t tell that at the time). You push yourself erect and stagger into the shower, wounded, but certain you’d gotten the best of It.
In the faint night-light of the bathroom, you see what the Monster’s fangs and claws had done to your face. You really don’t want to see the gory details, so you don’t turn on the big lights.
It’s bad. But you aren’t about to trust the local doctor, who is a frequent subject of colorful stories of quackery and drunkenness. Stories which seemed so, you know, quaint - - - until now. So you leave it to heal by itself.
Pretty bad scar, I can assure you. Got infected. Got bigger. But somehow, you know, I guess I’m a little proud of it.
But I’d kinda pretty much had it with country living by then, so now I’m back down here now, where the night sky glows almost like daylight from these millions of electric lights and the boom-box low-riders sound like bodyguards prowling and I get lullabied to sleep each night by sirens and the screams of neighbors’ domestic disputes. The random gunshots of the neighborhood are somehow reassuring. I feel like I’m home again.
What’s that? Oh, yeah. The cage.
Well. After I’d put a few band-aids all over my wounds – man, one just missed my eye – I went down to pull out that useless trap which had failed to defend me, and take it to the dump. Well, I jumped back in shock and, I admit it, heart-pounding panic. But you can forgive that, after everything I’d been through.
The door was down and secure with its automatic latch. And inside, trapped and snarling and spitting and hissing and growling, there it was. The bait dish clanking inside the cage as the Thing paced around in its cell, ranting its anger at being trapped and, no doubt, at having lost its big fight with me.
Took me a while to figure out how to transfer it from the trap to a cage. But I did. So I could finally see it, yet be safe and certain it couldn’t get at me again.
Now, I gotta warn you that, if you’ve seen drawings from the 19th century or blurry photographs from the 1950’s of the fabled Sierra Monster, this thing doesn’t match the image, exactly. Walks on all fours, for instance, and it’s got a lot of fur. And it’s maybe a bit smaller than you expected. Maybe, a lot smaller. But believe me – it can do damage. If you could see my face - - - .
Tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna take off this cloth over my face so you can see this monster’s handiwork. I’ll give any of you who are squeamish a minute to get up and leave. Not everyone can take it. Then I’m gonna remove the cover from the cage and you can see The Thing for yourselves. Just don’t get too close.
But, while the squeamish are filing out, let me thank you again for this invitation to tell my story, and let me assure you I’m real grateful to be back down here among the gangstas and drive-by shooters. I feel safer. I really do.