Brokenness

May 4, Greensboro, NC

Something is wrong, or about to go wrong. It’s a fundamental truth, the beginning of wisdom. Everything breaks. In our case, it was a shackle pin.

Who knew trailers had shackles? A lot of people, apparently. Just not me.

There are four shackles, each holding a wheel in place, keeping it from drifting out of alignment. Then suddenly there were three. It’s of academic interest unless your tires begin grinding against each other or an axle is torn free from its mounting.

No life is without adversity. Something is either broken or about to break. It’s not cause for despair, simply a fact built into our universe. Shit happens. Get used to it.

Except that we haven’t gotten used to it. We’re still expecting our plans, our lives, our civilization to last forever. We act without understanding the balance of brokenness.

Leonard Cohen wrote in Anthem, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Perhaps we would be a less arrogant species and less harmful if we acknowledged our own essential imperfection, our brokenness, and walked more lightly upon the earth. But maybe that inability is characteristic of our peculiar imperfection. It’s a conundrum.

Who am I to say? I’m towing a broken trailer across America celebrating the apocalypse.

Apocalypse Tour

Tomorrow the Apocalypse Tour begins. Hauling two Portuguese Water Dogs, a 16,000 pound trailer, and my wife across the country, coast to coast and return, like water sloshing in a bathtub, seems an ironic way of celebrating the end of the world, at least the impending collapse of human society, but the universe, from all appearances, has a wry sense of humor.

I’m not sure why I’m documenting the trip or why it matters. It’s intensely personal and may be of no interest to anyone else but it feels necessary, a nagging requirement of my humanity, to stand witness to what I don’t understand. And the end of the world is incomprehensible, totally.

The name came from a thread on Positive Deep Adaptation, an online community coiled around the recognition that severely disruptive effects of climate change are unavoidable and societal collapse now inevitable. It’s a surprisingly upbeat community despite the angst about the end of the world.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).

Of course, the end of the world is nothing new. Almost every significant human culture has had a myth about how the world ended. Mostly, it didn’t end well.

It’s not wild men prophesying in the desert or priests maniplating in their temples, not this time. It’s scientists measuring changes in the atmosphere and ice melting at the poles. It’s non-linear consequences accelerating beyond our ability to predict and effects cascading beyond our control. It’s our economy, built on a fragile infrastructure stretched across the globe, vulnerable to the impacts of the changing climate, a Ponzi scheme dependent upon unrestrained growth in a restrained ecosystem. And it’s the size of our population, only partially supported at the best of times and at extreme risk in the worst.

My point isn’t to write an apology for the apocalypse. It doesn’t matter why so much as what and the what is intensely personal.

The Apocalypse Tour is a long leave-taking across the country, riding remnants of the old Route 66, from Carolina to the Anasazi ruins in the desert to familiar places along the West Coast, acknowledging each visit may be the last. No different from any other day in the life, really, but magnified by the greater human tragedy impending.

We may be approaching the end of human history…or not. Jesus hasn’t returned but a lot of people are still waiting.

And me? It’s time to get on the road again, maybe one last not. Time to look at things again, take some pictures, drink some beer, see the world from an apocalyptic point of view.

The Dark Mountain

I first stumbled upon Robinson Jeffers in his own place, the precipitous headlands of the Sur coast, the tidelands of Point Lobos, and the long arc of sand at Carmel. He was already dead and I was at risk, an unwilling soldier training to fight an unwitting war.

It wasn’t a casual meeting or by chance. We were both drawn to the Sur coast by our individual trajectories like tides drawn by the moon. We were both compelled to stand on that shore and suffer the bone-deep grief for things already lost and things yet to lose. Jeffers understood the loss more than me. I was too young and self-absorbed to span the depth of it or carry its weight.

I would burn my hand in a slow fire
To change the future... I should do so foolishly. the beauty of modern
Man is not in the persons but in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.
Rearmament
Robinson Jeffers, 1940
Robinson Jeffers, 1940

He published the poem in 1934 but already felt the future’s foreshadow, endless wars, politicians retrenched behind walls of privilege, the forced migrations of the hungry and homeless, and border wars ignited like brush fires. He may not have anticipated the changing climate but he understood the mechanics of civilization and where it likely led.

“These grand and fatal movements toward death,” the opening line of Rearmament, is even more reflective of our times than his own. The grand movement we’ve begun is the Sixth Extinction where species are forced into the darkness like lemmings off a cliff.

I don’t know that we could have done otherwise. Humanity’s trajectory was set when we descended from the trees and survived by becoming the most vicious beast on the African savannah. We’ve changed the world too rapidly to accommodate ourselves.

We may survive the Sixth Extinction, diminished by violence, hunger, and disease, less arrogant, more cautious of our choices…or not. Why presume we’re immune? Life has always been a tentative balance between fitness and failure.

Jeffers was never a poet for determined optimists. His vision of humanity was dire and uncompromising and seems now likely, also true.

Men suffer want and become
Curiously ignoble; as prosperity
Made them curiously vile.
Life from the Lifeless

He is, however, a good companion for the descent down the dark mountain. I’ve carried The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers for years, my copy expropriated from the Marysville Public Library. The pages are yellowed and dogeared, the cover frayed, the verses underlined and highlighted. And when the grief for lost beauty threatens to overwhelm me, I find some comfort in The Answer.

...the greatest beauty is 
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man's pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.
The Answer

Smuggler’s Blues

Thursday, March 24

“Bulldog, come here.” Harry was standing beside an open crate in Spike Africa’s hold. Wood shavings spilled onto the deck. “What do you make of this?”

“Bones,” Bulldog said.

“Yeah, I gathered that,” Harry said. “What kind of bones? Look at the size of them. You think we’re smuggling elephant bones?”

“Who would pay us this much money to smuggle elephant bones?” Bulldog said.

Harry passed Bulldog the crowbar. “Open another crate but be careful not to damage anything. I don’t want Hoffer knowing.”

Bulldog opened a second crate and cleared the packing material. He sucked in his breath.

“What is it?” Harry asked.

“I’m pretty sure this is the skull of Tyrannosaurus Rex.”

“A dinosaur?”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“We’re smuggling dinosaur bones?” Harry said. “How do you know?”

“I was a Paleontology geek as a kid,” Bulldog said. “Especially dinosaurs. I’m pretty sure this is a T. Rex. If not, it’s something equally old.”

“Why?” Harry said.

“I was a kid. I didn’t know better,” Bulldog said.

“Why are we smuggling the bones of extinct animals?” Harry said. “They’re extinct, right? Who cares?”

“The government of the United States, for one,” Bulldog said, caressing the dinosaur skull. “These bones were probably smuggled out of Mongolia. It’s against the law. There are international sanctions. People pay big money to add them to private collections.”

“People collect dinosaur bones?” Harry asked.

“People collect almost anything,” Bulldog said.

“Harry, you need to get up here,” Nit called from the cockpit.

“Seal these crates so they look like they’ve never been opened,” Harry said, then climbed out of the hold onto the deck.

“What’s the problem?” he asked Nit.

“Them,” Nit said and hitched his thumb over his shoulder.

In the moonlight, Harry could see the white hull and orange slash of a Coast Guard cutter on the same course a mile astern.

“Doesn’t mean anything,” Harry said. “We’re in one of the most heavily trafficked shipping lanes on the coast. It’s probably just a coincidence. For Christ’s sake, don’t stare. Act like you’re completely innocent.”

“If I was completely innocent, I’d stare,” Nit said.

When Bulldog stuck his head out of the companionway, the cutter was only a quarter mile astern and closing. “Holy shit,” he said and disappeared back into the cabin. He returned with an ancient AK-47 and chambered a round.

“What the hell is that?” Harry shouted.

“I’m not going down without a fight,” Bulldog said.

“You idiot. That antique will probably blow up in your hands. If they do board us, you’ve just made it worse. They’re too close to throw the damned thing overboard. It will look suspicious as hell. What else did you bring onboard?”

“A machete. Brass knuckles. A Claymore.”

“A Claymore? You thought we’d need an anti-personnel mine? Get back on deck and keep pumping. And leave that crap below.”

When the cutter was alongside, separated by only a few hundred yards of water, a bright spotlight raked the schooner from bow to stern. A few crewmen were on the cutter’s bow near the .50 caliber machine gun, still covered. The crew rested their forearms on the rail.

“Act natural,” Harry hissed between clenched teeth, then turned and waved at the cutter.

A voice boomed over a loudspeaker. “Are you in need of any assistance?”

“No,” Harry shouted between cupped hands. “Batteries are dead. Pumping by hand. We’ll make port.”

There was a long pause and the voice boomed again. “Do you want us to report your position?”

“Not necessary. We’ll be in Port Angeles in a few hours. Thank you.”

There was a longer pause. Harry bit his lip so hard he tasted blood.

“Safe passage,” the cutter broadcast and steered away.

“Hellfire and damnation,” Bulldog whispered between clenched teeth.

“Mind your course,” was all Harry said.

By the time they anchored in Slee’s Bay, they were exhausted. They were on the downhill side of night. The Milky Way spanned the sky. They loaded the first crates into the longboat and pulled for shore, Nit on the oars, Harry in the stern.

Nit stopped rowing and looked around. “What are we doing here?”

“Isn’t that obvious?” Harry said. “We’re offloading crates full of bones.”

“I mean, Tse-whit-zen,” Nit said. “This is Tse-whit-zen.” The big man seemed to shrink. “I’m not going near that place.”

“This is where we’re landing the goods. This is where the trucks are waiting.”

“It’s a graveyard.” Nit shook his head slowly and set his jaw. “I’m not defiling sacred ground.”

“They’re dead,” Harry insisted. “Dead as dinosaur bones. What does it matter? We deliver the crates, we get paid. Everybody’s happy.”

Nit could not be moved. “You don’t mess with the dead without consequences.”

Harry couldn’t budge the bigger man and couldn’t wrest the oars from him without upsetting the heavily laden longboat. They returned to the schooner.

“Get out,” he ordered Nit. He took the oars himself. “Bulldog, get in.” Harry glowered at Nit and spit into the bay.

“You’re late,” Sully said when they finally beached the longboat. “You should have been here hours ago.”

“It’s a sailboat, for Christ’s sake,” Harry said. “Schedules are aspirational.”

“Whatever. Just get the stuff ashore before people wake up. The trucks have been here for hours already.”

By the time they unloaded the longboat, Harry realized they wouldn’t finish the entire cargo in the darkness remaining.

“What are we going to do?” Bulldog asked.

“I have an idea,” Harry said. “Row me to the wharf. I need to make arrangements ashore.”

Bulldog waited for Harry at the wharf 30 minutes before he heard the rumbling of a diesel engine. Out of the darkness, an amphibious truck appeared, shouldering the water aside. Harry stood at the wheel. He drove the truck alongside the longboat.

“Shit, Harry. You stole Qwackers?”

“Borrowed,” Harry said. “I have every intention of returning it when the job is done. Climb onboard. We’ll tow the longboat. Hurry up. We’re burning darkness.”

Qwackers allowed them to offload the entire cargo in a single trip. Nit remained onboard the schooner, carrying crates from the hold and lowering them over the side. It took Harry and Bulldog both to stow them in the boat.

Harry drove Qwackers onto the beach, over the dunes, and to the parking lot where Hoffer’s trucks were parked. When Qwackers returned to the water, Sully used a tree branch to brush away the truck tracks in the sand. “Saw it on an episode of Bonanza,” he said.

Harry and Bulldog were motoring back to the boat ramp, towing the schooner’s longboat astern, when Bulldog noticed his shoes were wet. There was water rising above the floorboards of the Duck.

“Harry, we have a problem. I think we’re sinking.”

“What do you mean, sinking?” Harry said.

“I mean the water level is rising above the floorboards,” Bulldog said. “That’s not normal.”

By the time they got the hatch covers off the engine compartment, the water was above their ankles and rising fast. “No time,” Harry said. “Abandon ship.”

They pulled the longboat alongside and got in just as Qwackers took a headlong dive to the bottom of the harbor. Only a greasy sheen and a few bilious bubbles remained to mark its passage.

“Damn,” Harry said. “We almost got away with it. A few more yards and we would have made the shore.” They returned to the schooner.

In the morning, after sleeping several hours, Harry rowed the crew ashore. He still wasn’t talking to Nit.

A crowd had gathered on the beach. A sheriff’s boat lay just offshore. A diver surfaced and tapped the top of his head with his hand. Harry landed the longboat at the wharf, then joined the crowd.

Sandy Crab, still dressed in blue flowered pajamas, was talking to a Port Angeles policeman. “…those damned squatters,” he said, pointing toward Shantytown. “And that degenerate dwarf. He’s a ringleader. Bolsheviks, the bunch of them.”

“A dwarf,” the policeman said.

“Don’t be fooled by his size,” Sandy said. “He’s dangerous.”

“A dangerous dwarf.” The officer seemed incredulous.

“I want him arrested,” Sandy said. “I want them all arrested. Atheists, radicals, breeding in their filthy nest like rats. They resent my success. You better take me seriously, officer. I have influence with the city council.”

Harry found it hard to take a man in blue flowered pajamas seriously.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Weebles Wobble

Wednesday, March 23

Bulldog Purvis wasn’t a small man. He had the body of a middle weight prize fighter and a face punished by adversity, but he was dwarfed by the man standing beside him on the dock. The man stood six and a half feet by Harry’s reckoning with shoulders so broad he could only fit through a door sideways.

Bulldog introduced him. “This is Walter Charles. Everyone calls him Nit.”

“Why?” Harry asked.

“I don’t know. They just do.”

Harry looked at the new man like livestock at auction. “He’s big enough, I’ll give you that, but can he hand, reef and steer?”

“I can speak for myself,” the man said with a voice like wooden casks rolling across a cellar floor.

“The mountain speaks,” Harry said. “And what does it say for itself?”

“I learned to sail in the junior’s program at the Seattle Yacht Club.”

Harry hoisted an eyebrow. “The yacht club?”

“His mother married into money off the reservation,” Bulldog said. “She believed in cultural enrichment. Yacht clubs, the symphony, the Burke Museum—that kind of shit. Until he began to grow. A giant Indian isn’t as cute as a kid. When he didn’t fit into Seattle society, they sent him back to the rez. He’s Klallam.”

“A dinghy is a far cry from sailing a schooner,” Harry said.

Nit shrugged. “The principle’s the same, just more sails.”

“I can’t argue with that. You know this isn’t a milk run? We get caught, we go to jail. We get across, we make a lot of money. You good with that?”

“How much money?” Nit said.

“Enough to pay your rent for a year and buy a new car. There’s more where that came from if things work out.”

“I’m good with that,” Nit said.

“Welcome onboard. Stow your gear in the boat.”

Nit only had the clothes he stood in but Bulldog carried an old Army duffle bag stuffed full. When he dropped it into the long boat’s bilge there was the sound of clashing metal.

“You never did travel light, Bulldog.”

In less than half an hour the sail covers were removed, halyards rigged, sheets run aft, and the decks cleared. When Harry turned the ignition key the diesel groaned and coughed and stuttered but failed to start. He preheated the ignition chamber longer and tried again and again the engine shuddered and coughed and failed to start. By the third attempt the battery was weakening and the engine turned more slowly but suddenly belched black smoke, stuttered then steadied, rumbling in its dark hole beneath his feet.

“No worries,” Harry called to the crew. “Reliable as a rock. Standby to weigh anchor.” Nit had already hauled the anchor rode hand over hand, pulling the schooner forward until the rode was straight up and down. “Just pull the damn thing up,” Harry conceded.

In the lee of Ediz Hook they hoisted sail—main and fores’l, jib and stays’l. The sails were frayed along luff and leech and patched like a coat of many colors. They sheeted home for a close reach across the Strait to Vancouver Island. Harry let the engine idle to recharge the starting batteries and run the electric bilge pump. They left a thin stain of oily water in their wake.

They made good speed for an old, sodden schooner. Half way across the Strait, as the sun was drowning on the western horizon, the engine choked and gasped and died convulsively. Harry spent 30 minutes trying to revive it, flattening the batteries with the effort.

“How we going to get in and out of port without an engine?” Bulldog asked.

“We’re sailors,” Harry said, rummaging in the cockpit locker for the kerosene running lights. “We sail. Now hang these lights and start pumping. The old girl leaks like a syphilitic whore.”

They arrived later than expected. The breeze held, they rounded Whiffin Spit on a beam reach, then beat up the bay to Sooke Harbor. Their destination was a dilapidated pier on the shore of East Sooke directly downwind. Harry had them lower the main and jib, sailing only on the fore and stays’l. He walked them through the sequence of events. “It will happen quickly. Everyone needs to do their part.” Bulldog looked dubious.

As they approached the dock on starboard tack the stays’l hung limp in the wind shadow of the larger sail. Bulldog rigged a preventer to the boom to keep the fores’l from swinging across the deck when they gybed, carrying the wind across their stern. Nit sheeted the stays’l home to starboard, then stood by the anchor.

Harry steered directly for the pier where several men were loafing around a cargo van. The schooner was still making good speed despite her reduced sail. White water foamed at her bow. A gibbous moon among broken clouds illuminated the schooner ghosting across the dark water of Sooke Sound.

The men on the pier began to fidget. Nit threw nervous looks over his shoulder. Bulldog closed his eyes and swallowed. Harry didn’t falter.

Nit was close enough to see the eyes of the men on the pier widen and their jaws drop. They bolted, abandoning their truck, at the same time Harry put the schooner’s helm hard over. The waterlogged schooner hesitated for a moment and then gybed, rolling onto her side as she turned sharply into the wind. The fores’l, held in place by the preventer, and the stays’l, sheeted to windward, were back winded and acted as huge air brakes. The schooner quickly lost headway. When she was dead in the water Harry shouted for Nit to let go the anchor. It splashed into the water followed by the chain rattling through the hawse pipe.

The schooner began gathering sternway. Harry steered for the wharf. “Let the sheets run,” he shouted. “Luff all.” Nit and Bulldog released the staysail sheet and the preventer. “Set the anchor.” Nit applied the brake to the freewheeling windlass. The stern of the Spike Africa came to a stop within a foot of the pier. Harry stepped onto the pier head with the stern line.

“Gentlemen, we’re here for our cargo.”

His dramatic entrance was wasted. There was no one to welcome him. They were all half way down the pier to the shore. They returned peevishly.

The gang boss was a man with a round body and a round head. Harry had seen his like in a hundred backwater ports. He was a Weeble. Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down, mostly because they were so close to the ground you couldn’t tell the difference.

“You’re late,” the Weeble said.

“We’re here now,” Harry said. “We need to be gone before first light. Can your men start loading?”

“We’re here to offload the crates, not load them onto your boat,” the Weeble said. “That’s your problem.”

Harry paused. “My problem is Dietrich Hoffer’s problem. I don’t think you want to make Dietrich Hoffer your problem.”

“I don’t work for Hoffer. I don’t give a damn for his problems.”

Nit had unobtrusively taken up a position behind the Weeble. He was tapping a crow bar in the palm of his hand. His hands were so large the crow bar looked like a screw driver.

“Maybe so,” Harry said, “but my problem is you and I don’t give a damn how I solve it. A dead whale or a stove boat. Your choice.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“My man here is ready to split your skull like a Halloween pumpkin. Your men might be able to overwhelm us eventually, but you’ll be the first one to hit the deck. And you won’t be getting up. Do I make myself sufficiently clear?”

The Weeble turned and looked at Nit who was standing so close he had to crane his neck to see the whole of him. “Don’t get your dander up. Boys,” he shouted to his crew, “get the crates off the truck and into the boat.”

The crates were stowed in the hold in a few hours. The gang boss departed with an obscene gesture. “A wasted opportunity for a good curse,” was all Harry said.

They hoisted all plain sail while the schooner was still at dock. Nit hauled the anchor rode hand over hand and made fast. They sheeted home the main and fores’l and backwinded the jib. As the bow fell off the wind, the anchor pulled free of the bottom., and Nit hauled it onboard. The schooner began to gain way, close hauled on port tack. They clawed off the lee shore and into deeper water.

Harry broke out a bottle of Pusser’s rum he had saved for some special occasion and poured them all a liberal dose in traditional round-bottomed glasses. The glasses rolled with the schooner’s motion like drunken sailors. He raised his glass in a toast. “’With laughing hearts, waist deep in rum, these times will we remember!’” he toasted. “Now let’s start pumping to keep this petulant bitch afloat.”

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

The Green Man

Wednesday, March 23

Tad Marc’s family lived in a two-story house on a dead-end street called Fauna Place. It was just past Flora Place. Rathskill left the Indian halfway down the street. Afterward, it occurred to him that a man dressed in full leathers walking down a residential street was no less suspicious.

It was an unpretentious brown house with split cedar shakes on the roof. There was a tetherball in the front yard in a patch of trampled grass and a sign near the door that read “Secured by ADT.” He suspected the family couldn’t afford more than the sign.

The newspaper reported that Tad Marc had a bedroom on the second floor. Probably in the back of the house. His parents would have the one guarding the street. The forest pressed against the backyard fence. The Marcs had guarded their front door but forgot the threat at their back.

Rathskill wondered what it was like for a mother to lose her child, a life that had grown within her body, shared her emotions, her blood. She didn’t know whether her son was alive or dead. Her guilt must be consuming. Was it something she did? Something she didn’t do? How could she know without knowing? Her son had simply vanished from his room. No clues, no suspects, no reason. The agony of waiting must be excruciating. Could a family survive such pain?

Damn the gag order, damn the secrecy. Eventually, the Marcs would learn what happened to their son, after the grave site above the Sail River was made public, but the waiting might destroy them. Rathskill wasn’t going to contribute further to their pain.

He walked up to the house and knocked on the front door. No one answered. He knocked again. There was no one home. He stepped back from the door and looked at the upper windows.

A woman appeared on a neighboring porch wearing an apron dusted white with baking flour. “Can I help you? The Marcs have gone away for a bit. They recently lost their son.”

Rathskill mumbled an excuse and left hurriedly. He had nowhere left to go, nowhere to pick up the trail of the dead boy. Hallelujah Bill had mentioned that the Green Man visited the graveyard.

Folktales of the Green Man had been told since the middle ages, stories about a mythic creature as much animal as human, a forest creature that walked upright and used crude tools. The stories resurfaced whenever there was a social crisis created by the tension between technology and tradition. Currently, the myth went by the name of Big Foot and Yeti.

There were historical analogies, even a local one, the Wild Man of the Olympics. Rathskill had lectured on the subject.

John Tornow had been born to a respectable, pioneering family from the Wynooche Valley near Grays Harbor. Frederick and Louise Tornow’s child was restless around others and comfortable only in the wilderness. They suspected something was seriously wrong at age 10 when he began to escape to the woods for weeks at a time. He was a deadly shot with a 30-06, having learned to shoot from the hip to keep his sight clear of the black powder cloud. His trademark was a single shot to the heart, precise and deadly.

At age 19 he was already a man, six foot two inches and 200 pounds, when his family committed him to a sanatorium in the Oregon woods. For 12 months Tornow was treated for insanity. He escaped into the forest. Nothing was officially known of him for another year but loggers around Grays Harbor began sighting a wraith among the trees, a big man who moved as silently as a cougar. He was mute, mostly, but he did once warn that no one should follow him. “I’ll kill anyone who comes after me. These are my woods.”

A year after that warning, on September 3, 1911, the bodies of Tornow’s nephews, Will and John Bauer, were found under a pile of brush. Will Bauer had been shot neatly between the eyes, his brother beneath the left eye. Both bodies had been stripped of their weapons; Will was missing his shoes.

The killing may have been justified. Tornow and his nephews had jointly inherited property which couldn’t be sold without the signature of all three. The Bauer brothers had earlier been unsuccessful in persuading Tornow to return to civilization for the sale. His death may have been their alternative.

Posses immediately scoured the woods without finding Tornow but the loggers were spooked. Logging operations around Montesano virtually stopped and hunters shied from the woods.

Then in February 1912 a trapper named Louis Blair and his partner found the carcass of an elk in the Ox Bow country north of Montesano, a carcass left by Tornow, they believed. Deputy Colin McKenzie, a friend of Blair’s, and Game Warden Al V. Elmer began tracking Tornow with a bloodhound. On March 9, the bloodhound wandered into Louis Blair’s Ox Bow camp alone.

Another posse was sent to find the missing deputy. McKenzie and Elmer were found in a shallow ditch beneath a fresh mound of earth. Both bodies had been stripped of their clothing and weapons.

Blair began tracking Tornow in earnest, driven by revenge for his friend’s death and the $3,000 reward on Tornow’s head. He partnered with Charles Lathrop, a childhood friend of Tornow.

The final scene came in April 1913, when Blair, Lathrop, Deputy Sheriff Giles Quimby, and a pair of bloodhounds tracked Tornow to a rough cabin built in a swamp beside a lake west of Matlock. The cabin was approachable only across a small foot log.

Tornow was waiting in ambush. He had been warned of their arrival by the sudden silence of the frogs he had tethered around his cabin. an old Indian trick. Blair was the first to die. Lathrop fell next. Deputy Sheriff Quimby, the furthest from Tornow’s position, rapidly fired seven times, emptying the magazine of his 30-30, and then dove for cover.

In the silence that followed Quimby couldn’t know if he had hit his mark or whether Tornow was playing possum. The frogs resumed their chorus. The night was approaching. Quimby knew he wouldn’t survive the night if Tornow was still alive. He made a precipitous dash through the woods to the nearest logging camp. The only sound he heard behind him was the baying of the dead trapper’s bloodhounds.

It was another day before the posse and pack horses could return to the cabin. They found Tornow’s body propped against a hemlock tree. He was wearing a black hat that had once belonged to Deputy Colin McKenzie. A search of his shack revealed that he had been surviving on a diet of elk meat and bullfrogs.

What Rathskill found especially interesting about the story occurred after Tornow’s death.

When they brought John Tornow’s body to the undertaker’s on April 20, 1913, he had already been dead three days. The streets of the small Washington town of Montesano were filled with jostling crowds. They had come to see the dead man’s face, to touch his burlap clothing, to breathe the scent of decay. They had come to reassure themselves that John Tornow was truly dead and, through some inexplicable communion, to share in the dead man’s power.

The restive crowd surged forward when the Tornow family tried to keep the body from public display. R.F. Hunter, the Chehalis County Coroner, surrendered decorum to good sense. “Fully 650 people passed through the room where the gaunt figure lay within a space of 30 minutes,” reported Portland’s Morning Oregonian. “Thirty Deputy Sheriffs forced the crowd to move in single file and prevented, by force, [their] tearing off bits of the ragged clothing from the corpse, cutting off locks of hair or whiskers or cutting off pieces from the table where the cadaver lay.” There were hundreds more who couldn’t get into the morgue.

The crowd filed past, some like mourners at the funeral of a saint, others like bumpkins at a county fair. The Wild Man lay stretched upon a wooden table, his hair and beard matted, his clothes patched with burlap sacks, insulated with pine nettles, and stained with blood, his hobnailed boots stolen and too small for his feet.

Sometimes myths become real, Rathskill thought.

The Forks Cemetery was a barren plot of land that grew headstones. There was an unpaved road, a few trees, but not even a fence to separate the living from the dead. The forest began just across the road and continued unbroken to the Calawah River.

The graveyard was empty and neglected. Weeds grew among the headstones. A thicket of Himalayan blackberries had overtaken part of the grounds. Rathskill wandered among the graves, reading the epitaphs. It was a professional habit. The few words left on gravestones said more about the culture than the dead. Most of them were recent and uninteresting but in the older section of the cemetery, near the edge of the forest, he stopped abruptly at the grave of Axel Berglund. Axel had died in 1937 at the age of six, about the same age as Tad Marc. On top of the weathered headstone, someone had left the figure of a horse or pony artfully fashioned from bent twigs. The similarity to the figure he had found on a tree stump near the Sail River site was remarkable.

The hair raised on the back of his neck. Rathskill had the uncanny feeling he was being watched.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Hallelujah Bill

Wednesday, March 23

The Indian thundered down Highway 101. The sound of its engine echoed from thick forest entangled in mist on either side of the road. The mist clouded his goggles and dripped from his leathers. At least it wasn’t raining. He was driving through the Olympic Rain Forest, headed for Forks, where it rained 212 days a year. No one rode a motorcycle to Forks this early in the year without a desperate purpose. Rathskill’s purpose was Tad Marcs.

Rathskill had researched the boy’s disappearance. The Peninsula Daily News reported the story. The boy had gone missing from his bed at night. There were no clues, no suspects, no reason, no ransom request. And there was no body. No one knew what had happened to him, at least, no one willing to talk to reporters. The story carried by the Seattle Times was only a paragraph of facts, facts as bare as the bones in the forest. No wire service had picked it up.

The Daily News published a candid photo of the boy probably taken on his mother’s cell phone, looking over his shoulder as he ran carelessly, freckled cheeks and a smile that seemed larger than his face. He was missing one of his front teeth. He probably had found a quarter under his pillow. Maybe a dollar, Rathskill thought, with the price of inflation.

Rathskill couldn’t remember when he was young enough to be visited by the tooth fairy. He felt old, old as dirt, old as the wet sky hanging overhead.

His own mother probably used the tooth fairy as a moral lesson, the moral being that love was contingent, a reward for good behavior. It could also be withheld.

Forks had the unfortunate distinction of appearing in Dave Gilmartin’s book, The Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America. Gilmartin called it “a festering wound of a town.”

It was an unremarkable town, hardly the worst, a lumber town that had fallen on hard times, foreign competition, and the northern spotted owl. Rathskill suspected the townspeople largely blamed the crash in the lumber industry on environmentalists and the endangered owl. Industry experts mostly blamed it on Canadians flooding the market.

Then Forks became a spaceport. The Rubicon, an entry in the Ansari X-Prize for civilian space flight, was launched from Forks with a mannequin as a passenger. It exploded spectacularly mid-air and littered the Pacific Ocean with bits of mangled mannequin. The bits later washed up on the beach, puzzling tourists.

After its failure in sub-orbital tourism, Forks returned to a troubled stupor until the local economy resurged because of a fiction, a novel about a young girl who moved from Phoenix to Forks and fell in love with a vampire. The vampires had adapted to the low ambient light of a climate that rained 121 inches annually. They even attended high school. The irony of an immortal attending high school likely escaped the book’s target audience. Rathskill hadn’t read the books.

What had Tad Marcs thought about vampires? Had they become as familiar and cuddly as the Tooth Fairy? Or were they still the apex predator of nature red in tooth and claw? Did the boy have nightmares about being drained of life by a vampire or torn to pieces by a werewolf? Did he ever dream about the evil ordinary men do?

Rathskill stopped at a liquor store on the edge of town to buy a pint and chat with the clerk. Liquor store clerks were often a source of local knowledge, especially when business was slow and they were bored. It was a small shop. Liquor bottles lined two walls and ammunition the third.

“Seems you’ve found a niche market,” Rathskill said, looking at the variety of shotgun shells behind the counter. “Drunken hunters. Surprised you don’t sell wooden stakes. You’d think they’d be popular souvenirs.”

The clerk looked sour. “We sell what you see,” the clerk said. “Booze and ammo. You want souvenirs, go to the Chinook Pharmacy down the street.”

“Just kidding. I was thinking about moving here. What’s the town like?”

“Why would you want to move here? You some kind of vampire groupie?”

Rathskill held up his hand. “Not me. No sir. Just retired and looking for an inexpensive place to live. Somewhere quiet and peaceful.”

“You can’t get more quiet and peaceful than Forks and still be above ground,” the clerk said.

“What about crime?” Rathskill said. “I heard a little boy was kidnapped recently.”

“Nothing much happens around here. People get drunk, punch each other. You don’t want to leave your car unlocked. People are poor. Besides that, nothing much.”

“What about the kid?”

The clerk shook his head. “Never happened before. Town’s always been safe for kids. It’s got people riled up, blaming each other. Kids could pretty much wander where they wanted until it was time for dinner. Great place to grow up, like when I was a kid. Now parents won’t let their kids out of sight. Damned shame.”

He rode the Indian into town and parked behind a screen of trees at Tad Marcs’ school. The elementary school was separated from the high school by an athletic field advertising the Forks Spartans. He didn’t stay long. It wasn’t a good time for a man on a motorcycle wearing leathers to be seen surveilling an elementary school. The school had nothing to tell him. Nothing about Tad Marcs remained.

He pulled into the parking lot of the Forks Coffee Shop, hoping to find someone who would pour his coffee and stay to talk. A man wearing a sandwich board stood on the sidewalk.

A Bible verse was hand-lettered on the sign. “There are those whose teeth are swords, whose fangs are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among mankind. Proverbs 30:14.” The board was signed Hallelujah Bill.

“Not a fan of vampires?” Rathskill said.

“Not vampires. Not werewolves. Not any spawn of hell,” Hallelujah Bill said. “Young girls come here, all fluttery, thinking vampires are like the Beatles, ready to faint at their feet. They got no idea what dangerous things walk the streets of Forks. Brother, the demons have been loosed from hell. Hallelujah!”

Hallelujah Bill looked like he hadn’t eaten in several days. His skin was the color of a salamander’s belly, not unexpected in a place where the sun never shined. Rathskill offered to buy him a cup of coffee and a meal.

“Don’t drink coffee,” Hallelujah Bill said. “Don’t drink alcohol, either. Just water. Water I draw from the spring myself. Only way to be sure I’m not being poisoned. God’s own water, that’s all I drink. Hallelujah!” He set down his sandwich boards. “Damn thing gets heavy.”

“You said there are dangerous things on the streets,” Rathskill said. “What did you mean? What kind of things?”

“I’m here, day and night, preaching the word of God, warning the unwary. I see things, things that shouldn’t exist, not in a Christian nation. Signs of the end times. I warn people. No one listens. The tourists chase after demons and the townspeople chase after their money. No one listens.”

“I’ll listen,” Rathskill said.

Hallelujah Bill looked at him suspiciously. “You with the government health services? I told you, folks, I don’t need no nurse to wipe my ass for me. I can take care of myself.”

“I’m not with the health services,” Rathskill said. “I’m interested in a young boy who was taken. Tad Marcs. I’m with the police.” Like any good lie, there was a kernel of truth encompassed by a husk of deception. “A consultant.”

“Like Sherlock Holmes?”

It took Rathskill a moment to make the connection. “Yes, like Sherlock Holmes.”

“I’m a big fan of Conan Doyle.” The man’s face brightened, then clouded again. “I don’t know much about the missing boy. I don’t know who took him. Might have been the Green Man. I’ve seen him on the edge of town. Might have been the government. They…”

“The Green Man?” Rathskill interrupted.

“He’s harmless mostly,” Hallelujah Bill said, “unless he’s boxed in a corner. I’ve seen him most often at the cemetery. He steals some, clothes hung on a line or boots left on the porch. I doubt he’d take a child. But there’s others out there. Witches, Satanists, voodoo.”

“Voodoo? What, like a houngan?”

“Don’t know what you call him. Face like a skull and a big cigar. Dresses like a dandy. Top hat and cane.” Hallelujah Bill’s cheeks puckered like he wanted to spit but his mouth was too dry.

The description—skull, cigar, top hat, cane—sounded surprisingly like Baron Samedi, the Haitian loa of resurrection. In a town that catered to vampire tourism, was it possible someone was impersonating a Haitian loa? Maybe not all the tourists who came to Forks were fluttery young girls.

“I think it was the government took him,” Hallelujah Bill said.

“What?”

“They inject pregnant women to manipulate the genes of their unborn children. Enhances their psychic ability. Then they come for the kids and take them to an underground site at Fort Mead. They drug them, torture them, make them into assassins. Psychic assassins. Never let them see the light of day again, never hear a kind word. They die young, thrown away like a broken tool. There’s no hotter place in hell than the one reserved for child abusers. Hallelujah!”

He left Hallelujah Bill hoisting his sandwich board back on his shoulders and preaching his warning to passing motorists. Rathskill wondered what tragedy or disease had unhinged the man’s mind. Hallelujah Bill was hardly alone. Estimates were over one-quarter of Americans suffered some form of mental illness. The number was rising.

Groucho Marx had quipped that he didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him. Hallelujah Bill and Rathskill both belonged.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

The Disappeared

Tuesday, March 22

Rathskill found his motorcycle where he had left it five days before, parked illegally under a stairway landing behind the college cafeteria. It was an Indian Chief, a massive V-twin flathead assembled from spare parts after the Indian factory went into receivership. The 1955 Chiefs were considered a myth by many motorcycle experts. Rathskill’s myth required two men to set it upright if it fell over.

He turned the ignition key and the Indian roared to life, startling a gull that was scavenging French fries on the sidewalk.

He drove Highway 101 to the narrow Juan de Fuca Highway, over the Elwha River Bridge and through the countryside scattered with homesteads and pastures carved from the forest. Beyond the patches of cultivated land, the mountains rose steeply, a looming presence shadowed by forest.

He turned off Crescent Beach Road onto a dirt track with the unofficial name of Witts End. A dozen mailboxes marked the intersection. The house on Salt Creek was a rough cottage with sprung boards and peeling paint but a magnificent view of Crescent Bay. Salt Creek meandered across a floodplain in front of the cottage, then broadened into an estuary. He had few neighbors and no guests.

Two turkey vultures sat on the telephone pole in front of his house. They watched him with professional disinterest as he parked the Indian. It was early in the year for vultures but a forecast of things to come.

Rathskill had bought the house for its solitude and the landscape, unaware of the annual drama staged in his front yard. Each spring vultures gathered on their migration north across the Strait to Vancouver Island. They roosted on fence posts or shouldered one another for space on split rails, in dead trees, on ruined barns and water towers and bare rock and the roof of his house, waiting for the sun to warm the earth and the earth to warm the air enough to carry them 2,400 feet aloft.

It was simple geometry. The shortest passage across the Strait was 12 miles from Salt Creek to Beachy Head on Vancouver Island, 12 miles of cold water and sinking air. A turkey vulture lost two feet of altitude for every second of glide. They had evolved to soar, to sail on the wind, but their wings were too weak to beat that distance.

They had to start their glide at 2,400 feet. If they fell short of the far shore, they drowned.

Two vultures were harmless enough but soon there would be dozens, then hundreds, then bird watchers with their cameras and telephoto lenses and life lists. They would soon be so thick you could throw a stone blindfolded and hit a buzzard or a birder.

While they waited for the rising thermals the vultures splattered the landscape with wet shit, Rathskill’s house, his second-hand patio furniture, his plastic flamingos and plaster garden gnome. He’d have to cover the Indian with a tarp. Then, with a few days of warm weather, they would all be gone until the fall.

One of the vultures on the telephone pole squirted a stream of feces that covered its legs like a whitewash. The stomach acid of a vulture could peel the chrome off a bumper. They used it like disinfectant to kill bacteria accumulated while walking on rotting corpses. It also provided evaporative cooling, a self-contained swamp cooler. It was an elegant evolutionary solution to multiple problems but smelled like digested death.

“Nice,” Rathskill said to the vulture. “Your mother teach you that?”

Nelson appeared from the brush behind the house. He covered the ground between them with a rolling gait like a sailor on shore leave. He licked Rathskill’s hand.

“Heh, old dog,” Rathskill said. “With all the neurons in your head dedicated to the sense of smell, one stink is still no worse than another, eh? Give me a few minutes to clean up and I’ll have something on the table for both of us.”

Nelson was a mutt that looked mostly like an embattled Australian cattle dog. His right foreleg and left eye were missing. He wasn’t Rathskill’s dog. He wasn’t anyone’s dog. He wasn’t even named Nelson.

They found each other on the beach. Nelson followed him home at a safe distance. Rathskill left a pork chop on the porch. That defined their relationship. Nelson kept him company on long walks and he fed Nelson leftovers. A week after their introduction he named the dog after the victor of the Battle of Trafalgar, another battered hero.

After dinner, they walked on the beach. The sand stretched from the state park at Tongue Point almost to Port Crescent, a ghost town that once had pretensions of becoming a lumber port. The beach was privately owned, a campground at one end and a resort at the other with nothing between but forest pressing against the shore and a thread of white sand so fine it sifted through his fingers like flour. Rathskill had an arrangement with the owner of the campground that allowed him to freely pass the signs warning against trespassing.

A half mile down the utterly empty beach he sat on a berm at the high-water mark with his toes in the sand. The day was clear, the air crisp as a Washington apple. The clouds in the west were ignited by the setting sun. The long twilight of the northern latitudes settled on the Strait. Only the peaks of Vancouver Island still reflected the sun. Nelson busied himself with a dead gull wrapped in bull kelp.

Nelson lifted his head and looked toward the forest, his mouth full of feathers. His ears pricked and pivoted forward.

“What is it?” Rathskill asked and turned. The old man in the cape stood on the far side of the road in the shadow of the forest, the same old man who had mooned him in class.

“So, I’m not the only one who can see him,” Rathskill said, somewhat reassured until he realized he might be hallucinating the dog’s reaction as well. Once you questioned the reality of one perception, he warned himself, there was no bottom to the rabbit hole.

“Time to go,” he told Nelson, “If we want to get back before dark.”

Nelson bounded ahead or lagged, following his nose, but kept a wary eye on the old shaman.

“What’s your point?” Rathskill finally shouted at the shaman, exasperated. “I know you’re just a projection of my unconscious, some unresolved conflict, but what’s the point if you don’t help me resolve it?”

The irony of a conversation shouted with himself occurred to him. The shaman remained mute.

He lowered his voice. “Of course, I might just be batshit crazy, like Vanoy said. How can a crazy man know he’s crazy? Does the act of questioning your sanity prove you’re sane? Or is it just another layer of madness?” The twisted solipsism made his head hurt.

It didn’t really matter whether he was crazy or sane, he thought, whether the world was real or imagined. You followed your own path because there wasn’t any other. It didn’t matter what other people thought if they were all batshit crazy too but hadn’t realized it yet.

At that moment he recognized his decision was made already. He would follow the trail of Tad Marc’s murder wherever it led, whatever Detective Vanoy or Chief Johnson or Dean Haskell said. Something about the boy’s fate compelled him.

He turned to shout at the old shaman but he wasn’t there.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Lili Marlene

Sunday,March 20

Dietrich Hoffer was a thin man wearing antique Pince-nez glasses, precisely trimmed Van Dyke, and hand tailored gloves. He looked like an aristocrat from fin-de-siècle Vienna. He was reading documents in a leather-bound binder which he closed with a precise and measured movement when Harry sat down.

“Harry Wry.”

Hoffer declined the offered hand. “You’ll excuse me. A debilitating nerve condition.”

“I’m told you’re in the import business and you’re looking for someone to haul cargo,” Harry said.

“Who told you that, Mr. Wry?” Hoffer removed his glasses and cleaned them meticulously with a linen handkerchief. It was a surprisingly intimidating gesture.

“I’m not sure, exactly. I was drinking. Your number appeared in my notebook.” He passed his notebook to Hoffer. “That is your number, isn’t it?”

Hoffer replaced his glasses before accepting the notebook from Harry. “It was my number. It’s no longer in service.”

“Yeah, I know. So, you hiring?”

“One moment, Mr. Wry.” Hoffer stood, brushed the wrinkles from of his pressed pants, walked to the old Wurlitzer in the corner of the bar and made a selection. By the time he returned to the booth Marlene Dietrich was singing the German lyrics to “Lili Marlene” in a throaty voice.

“What have you to offer, Mr. Wry?”

“I’ve got a schooner at anchor in the bay with a hold big enough to carry a substantial cargo and I’m desperate enough to carry it no questions asked. Almost no questions.”

“What questions do you have, Mr. Wry?”

“What, when, and how much.”

“And why should I do business with you, Mr. Wry? I know nothing about you.”

“You can ask Lidmann. He knows everything about me you need to know.”

“I will make inquiries, Mr. Wry. Do you have a phone number?”

“No. I live onboard.”

“You don’t have a cell phone?”

“No. Electricity is scarce,” Harry said.

Hoffer looked at him sharply.

“And they’re too easy to tap,” Harry added.

“A wise precaution, Mr. Wry. Very well. Return this evening. I’ll inform Lidmann if I’m interested further.” Hoffer opened his leather binder and waited for Harry to remove himself.

“Pleasure talking to you,” Harry said. It wasn’t.

Afterward, Harry couldn’t remember exactly what Dietrich Hoffer looked like besides the black leather gloves and the antique glasses. Almost immediately the man seemed to fade in his memory like an old photo.

He waved to Lidmann on his way out the door, blinked in the bright sunlight, and abruptly ran into a Stetson hat. Beneath the Stetson was a denim shirt, Levi’s and cowboy boots that might have been alligator hide. “Harry Wry?”

Harry lied reflexively. “Name’s Rehnquist, William Rehnquist.”

The man snorted. “A dead Supreme Court judge? Nice touch. Harry Wry, you’ve been served.”

The cowboy hat tucked a folded sheet of paper in Harry’s shirt pocket and pivoted on his cowboy heels.

Gray Marine Engine Works had filed suit for lack of payment. Harry had 30 days to pay the bill or surrender Spike Africa for impoundment.

Before returning to the schooner, Harry made a call from another pay phone in front of the Asian Soho Bistro. Bulldog Purvis answered. Bulldog had crewed for Harry carrying tourists on day trips from different ports around the Salish Sea.

“I may have some work for you if you’re not squeamish,” Harry said.

“It can’t be worse than pumping septic tanks,” Bulldog said.

“That’s what you’ve been doing?”

“It pays the bills. Most months. Like they say, it might be shit to you but it’s my bread and butter.”

“They don’t say that,” Harry said. “If it happens, it will mostly be night work but it pays better than pumping septic tanks. We’ll need a deckhand as well.”

“I’ve got a friend. He knows bow from stern and I trust him.”

“I’ll call you when I know more. There may not be much notice. And Bulldog, don’t tell anyone else about this. Not even your mother or you might not have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. The state will provide it.”

When Harry returned to the Spike Africa, he deliberately rowed around her. She had a year’s worth of marine growth on her bottom. It would take a knot off her best speed but there wasn’t time or money to haul and scrape her. The old girl’s fate wouldn’t depend upon speed, anyway. On a beam reach with a stiff breeze she might make eight, maybe nine knots, not enough to outrun anything chasing her. Her only hope was slipping between ports unnoticed.

On deck, she looked like a horse that had been ridden hard and put away wet. The white paint on her deckhouse was peeling, her teak decks were grey with dirt, and the brass ventilator cowls that passed fresh air below were green with verdigris. The varnish on her spars had bubbled and flaked, exposing bare wood to the weather. The wheel was unmounted from the steering gear and leaned against the deckhouse. Her running rigging was spliced a dozen times over but it would do. It would have to.

Harry sat in the cockpit and admired the graceful sheer of the schooner’s deck. He stroked the teak cockpit coaming. “I don’t see any other way out of this,” he said to the schooner. “We’ve got our backs against the wall and they’re loading the guns.”

That evening he returned to Fiddler’s Green. Lidmann was polishing a pickle jar full of cloudy liquid. He claimed it was the same pickle jar that Gallus Meg once kept the ears she bit off boisterous sailors in her bar on the New York waterfront during the boisterous Age of Sail.

“Lidmann.”

“Harry.”

“Any word from our mutual friend?” Harry jerked his thumb in the direction of Dietrich Hoffer’s booth.

Lidmann sat the pickle jar on the bar. “It’s a dangerous game, Harry. Think twice about making deals with the devil.”

“I don’t have much choice. I got served with papers. The old girls will be arrested if I don’t pay. Once the marshals have her, I’ll never get her back.”

“He wants to talk to you,” Lidmann said. “But Harry, watch your back. The man is a pit viper.”

“Even vipers predictably serve their own interests,” Harry said and hoped it was true.

Harry stood beside Hoffer’s booth waiting for the man to look up from his journal.

“Mr. Wry.” Hoffer was still wearing the black gloves. They looked supple enough to have been made from the skin of young goats—kid gloves. He gestured for Harry to sit.

“Do we have business to conduct?” Harry asked.

“One moment.” Hoffer walked to the Wurlitzer, selected “Lili Marlene,” and returned to the table. “Indeed, we do.”

“My references were acceptable?”

“You qualify as a desperate man, Mr. Wry. When can you sail?”

“The sooner the better. Tonight, if need be.”

“I will let you know in a few days. I’ll leave word with Lidmann. You know Whiffin Spit on Sooke Inlet?” Harry nodded. Sooke Inlet was on Vancouver Island, almost directly across the Strait from Port Angeles. “How long will it take you to cross the Strait?”

“Four, five hours, depending on the breeze and the current.”

“I’ll make the arrangements. I’ll require you to load and depart the same night. Return by a more circuitous route and unload the next night.”

“Where do we offload?” Harry asked.

“Freshwater Bay, near Observatory Point.”

Harry bit his lip.

“Is that a problem, Mr. Wry?”

“Freshwater Bay is an open roadstead. If there’s any sea running it will be difficult to land a loaded boat. It’s also an old log dump. There are a lot of snags close inshore.”

“Do you have an alternative?”

“I do. We could land on the beach at Tse-whit-zen.”

“The site of the graving dock?”

Harry thought Hoffer coughed. Later he recognized it was Hoffer’s dry, humorless laughter.

“Why not? It’s not visible from the street. No one goes there after dark. I know the night watchman. We could land your cargo safely and unobserved.”

“Amusing,” Hoffer said. He removed his Pince-nez glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. ”At the doorstep of the U.S. Coast Guard. Agreed then. I’ll accept delivery at Tse-whit-zen.”

“How much does the job pay? I have my crew to consider, and whatever Sully needs to look the other way, and…”

Hoffer wrote a figure on a napkin and slid it across the table. Harry turned it over. “Damn. Who knew smuggling was so profitable? I guess everybody but me. What is it we’re carrying?”

“I pay you not to ask questions, Mr. Wry. You will deliver my cargo without looking in the crates. If you accept my money, you accept my terms. The consequences for violating those terms are, shall we say, prohibitive. You’ll receive one third now and the balance on delivery. Are we agreed?”

“Agreed.” Harry didn’t hesitate. Later, he wondered why he hadn’t.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Fiddler’s Green

Saturday, March 19

Two days before he met Sully Marlybone at the Eagle Café, Harry Wry was startled by the sound of a gunshot. He sat upright like a released spring, struck his head on the bunk above and pitched onto the deck, stunned. He remained on hands and knees as the drunken stupor cleared from his brain and the pain flooded his head like a spring tide.

Pistol shrimp. Damned pistol shrimp. Little shrimp with a cartoon claw. They banged their over-sized claw closed so hard it created a jet of water traveling 100 kilometers per hour. Little water cannons that stunned or killed their prey. A low-pressure bubble formed in the wake of the jet. The bubble collapsed with a sound like a pistol shot. The sound passed effortlessly through water and the wooden hull beside Harry’s bunk.

His detailed knowledge of the natural history of pistol shrimp was one of the benefits of a degree in marine biology. That and three bucks could buy him an espresso.

Harry was kneeling in an inch of standing water. Saltwater. The seams of the wooden schooner wept like an old lady. There was no money to haul the boat and caulk her. Until there was he simply pumped the bilge more often. Except when he was hungover and forgot.

The pistol shrimp were banging away in the shallow water of Slee’s Bay. It sounded like a pitched battle. “Dear God, make it stop,” he whispered. It was a rhetorical prayer. Harry didn’t believe in a God who intervened with pistol shrimp but wasn’t above pleading with a fictional deity when he hurt this bad.

He was as unsteady on his feet as if the old schooner was pitching in a seaway but found his way on deck, moving one handhold to the next, and fitted the long handle to the manual bilge pump. Each stroke was like a blow to his head. He grit his teeth and kept pumping until the bilge was dry and an oily sheen surrounded the boat. He kept a bottle of dishwashing liquid beside the pump. With a backhand gesture, he broadcast drops of soap across the water. Each drop devoured the oil in an expanding circle like a petroleum-eating Pacman. It wasn’t ethical, it wasn’t even legal, but avoided a fine Harry couldn’t afford to pay.

It wasn’t the only thing he couldn’t afford. Spike Africa’s sails were so often patched they looked like quilts from the Women’s Missionary Society. She needed new standing rigging and her engine was hardly better than ballast. Everything he had was sunk into the old schooner and she was about to sink beneath him.

In the galley, he pumped pressure into the kerosene stove and boiled water for coffee. He washed down a handful of aspirin with water that smelled of rotting eggs. He pulled a notepad from his pocket and made a note to add more bleach to the water tank. The previous note was a phone number Lidmann gave him the night before. Some guy interested in importing from Canada without the hassle of customs. Lidmann didn’t say what he wanted imported.

He drank his coffee in the cockpit. The breeze had already risen on the Strait. Whitecaps were forming where the ebb ran strongly against the prevailing westerly. He heard the surf beating against the outside of Ediz Hook. Clouds of gulls followed a fishing boat returning to harbor. The gulls were squabbling over the bycatch the fishermen threw overboard.

Despite his abject poverty and punishing headache, he couldn’t imagine a better way to live. He didn’t want it to end.

Lidmann had mentioned the importer after Harry’s fourth or fifth glass of rum. He was drinking the cheaper stuff that tasted like molasses and wood alcohol.

“If I don’t find some way to make money,” Harry complained to Lidmann, “the old girl is going to sink or be arrested by Federal marshals.”

“How much do you owe?” Lidmann asked.

“More than I can pay.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Ten thousand to Haven Boatworks. And another five to Hasse’s sail loft. I can’t see a way out. Hauling tourists was a bust. It cost more money than I earned.”

“Do you have qualms about how you make your money?”

“Qualms?”

Lidmann had a subtle accent. The accent sounded vaguely European; no one could place it. He was a man of indeterminate age and indefinite history. He owned Fiddler’s Green, a waterfront bar on the wharf near Slee’s Bay. The bar was favored by locals. The few tourists who strayed far enough from safety and basic hygiene to reach the front door were dissuaded by the smell of stale beer and despair. Despite the regular customers, there was no sense of community. Men drank alone in dark corners and shaded booths, solitary men silently staring into their whiskey and beer or arguing violently with their memories. It was Harry’s kind of bar.

“It’s a perfectly good word,” Lidmann said. “And the question remains.”

“No, I can’t afford any qualms. Or reservations or inhibitions or morals. If they take my boat I’ll end up serving burgers at McDonald’s.” He rubbed the gray stubble on his head with his knuckles. It was the same gray stubble on his chin. “Can you imagine me wearing a hair net?”

Lidmann gave him the number. “Write it down. You’ll forget your mother’s name in the morning.”

It was true. In the morning he couldn’t remember if he ever had a mother. He finished his coffee and added the cup to the sink of dirty dishes. He decided to call Lidmann’s contact but needed a phone. In a cellular age, pay phones were rare. The nearest one was at the Eagle Café.

Harry hauled the long boat alongside and managed to get in without falling overboard. Coordinating two oars was difficult when he thought about it so he didn’t think. His body remembered the rhythm of the oars—stroke, feather, and return. He tied up to a float attached to the wharf and climbed the ladder. It was low tide and a long climb. The lower rungs were slick with marine growth. He missed his footing and almost fell, hanging from the ladder by one hand like a baboon, cursing.

The Eagle Café served a big breakfast for a reasonable price. The booths were crowded with men with scarred hands and women whose voices were rough from cigarettes. Hattie Malept served him a cup of black coffee.

Harry left his coffee on the counter and called the number Lidmann had given him. The phone rang twice before a woman’s recorded voice said, “The number you dialed has been disconnected. There is no new number.” His quarter fell into the change return slot. He tried again with the same result.

He waited until the afternoon to revisit Fiddler’s Green. The bar seemed always open but he needed time to recover from the partial blindness that struck him leaving the Eagle. He spent 30 minutes rowing around the anchorage looking for the Spike Africa. It was embarrassing to misplace a 70-foot schooner in an anchorage as small as Slee’s Bay. “I’m getting too old for this kind of shit,” he said when he finally found her.

“You look like a dog’s breakfast,” Lidmann said when Harry settled onto the bar stool.

Lidmann made Harry his hangover cure, raw egg in tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt, black pepper, and Tabasco.

“I called the number you gave me last night. It was disconnected.”

“What number?”

“For the importer.”

“I didn’t give you any number, Harry.”

“Hoffer, Dietrich Hoffer. You said he was looking for someone to haul cargo from Canada, no questions asked.”

“Harry, I never talked to you about Dietrich Hoffer, last night or any night.”

“You didn’t give me this number?” Harry showed him the entry in this notebook. Lidmann shook his head. “Damn. That was my last wild-ass hope.”

“He’s here if you want to talk to him.”

“Who?”

“Dietrich Hoffer.”

“Here? Now? I thought you said you didn’t know him.”

“I said I didn’t give you his number. He uses this place like his office,” Lidmann tipped his head toward the booth in the most remote corner of the bar, “but he pays his tab on time.”

“So, you don’t know anything about his business?”

“I know more than I should about his business. I just didn’t discuss it with you.”

“Is he a smuggler?”

Lidmann shrugged. “Ask him yourself but be careful. He’s a dangerous man.”


Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

"To see! To see! -that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity."