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.
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.