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A Cosmic Routine

THE STORY WHICH I AM ABOUT TO TELL YOU is a story that shouldn’t be told. It’s about a man and a woman, a cucumber, two pickles, and a frog. It’s also about a princess and three apples. Check. Check. One two three check. The mike’s working. Let’s start with the princess. There was a cougar climbing the wall the last time I saw the princess, mouth open wide in a ravishing snarl, paw reaching out to pat the bricks in a friendly way, maybe to check out the red pipe that runs from this grungy tiled floor up into the ceiling somewhere between that dirty brown duct and the shadowy corner. This is no place for princesses, I thought. Too many cougars on the loose. They’ve got her smoking cigarettes and drinking Monte Cristos. Damn this microphone. What do I need a microphone for anyway? ‘Just project, project OUTwardly’ the voice teacher always said. So the princess, the PRINcess wore white and lived happily ever after. The apples weren’t so lucky. They were bought out by IBM and lost all sense of their own identity. Yeah, well identity’s a big issue. You want me to tell you a story? So, who am I, anyway? Just a microchip with a microslip. Of course I’m stalling. How could anyone think straight with that terrible band playing in the background and cougars climbing the wall? Yes, I know: you want me to tell a story that shouldn’t be told. It should have at least one gory murder, a child molestation, or Col. Saunders’ secret recipe. Who dunnit? Let’s question the cucumber. Cool Hand Cuke. You DON’t like my sense of humour? You paid admission and this is what you get? That cougar climbing walls is really me. I smile my ravishingly toothy smile at you, unsheath my claws and rrrip! watch the pretty red globules of blood blossom on the innocent fuzz of your holy cheek, my dear princess. You blend into the red velvet wallpaper with exquisite finesse. I reach out my velvet paw and it disappears into the woodwork like a lousy cockroach or someone’s cigarette smoke. I can only catch a glimpse of your lacy white train on the edge of a ragged claw as you vanish behind the red pipe, leaving three golden apples for me to marry. The first one lasts three bites before I hit a worm and suddenly – I need another drink. A flag of this nation droops sadly in the corner, unstiffened by any breeze, witness to a thousand restless drinkings and anxious smokings, to endless empty tiles waiting for the band to play. The cougar’s losing colour rapidly, grey with age and alienation, not to mention grease and grime and the gory details of an unsuccessful hunt. It was in the mountains north of Mabel Lake just after the first launching of Sputnik, back in ’57. A freezing ass morning. Dampness dripping off the inside of our pup tent and wetting my crummy cotton sleeping bag. If I were Jewish and from the East, I’d have been celebrating my bar mitzvah. Instead, here I was, cold and miserable and thirteen in the dawn of October, waiting for my father to get the fire going for breakfast. I’d spent most of the night curled into the smallest tightest ball I could roll myself into, head under the covers with only a peephole to breathe through. Cougars and the cold. That was all I could think of. I stretched one leg into the clammy depths of the bag and prepared to zip myself out. If I’d been on the second storey in a Southern mansion I’d have done an Errol Flynn – cowaBUNGa – right over the heads of all the leaping lords and dancing dames, clobbered the cougar with my high-heeled buccaneer boots and roared off into the sunset. But Dad was out there scuffling with some eggs in a skillet and I was on ground zero. I needed that cougar bad. Meanwhile he was nosing around about five miles, over rocks and tree roots and cold cold air, away. “Paw,” I said, “Paw, what would you do if we saw a cougar, hunh?” “What’s that, Davey?” “What wouldja do–” then I changed my mind and began squirming out of the bag, cause I knew he wasn’t paying attention anyway. “Yikes, it’s cold, Paw!” My bare feet hit the wet side of the tent. When I sat up to pull some socks on, so did my crew-cut head, and a whole contingent of icy drips slithered down my bare neck into my long underwear. I shrieked. “What’s the hell goen on there, Davey, snake bite you or what?!” Embarrassed, I scrambled out of the tent and stood up, socks still clenched in my fist. Next to the fire pit was the ubiquitous campfire stump. I grabbed my boots, made a beeline for it and sat down to finish dressing my feet. “Davey, how d’you figure on getten your pants on over those boots, now,” my father looked at me serenely, stirring the eggs and blowing at the feeble flames a bit. I blushed, dragged myself up and went back to the tent for my outer gear. As I fumbled with chill fingers, he added, “Chow’s on, boy, any time you’re ready.” My stomach growled in reply, my mouth went sour with anticipation. Hungry as a cougar. “I’m ready!” I whooped, spreading my arms into their sleeves and flopping back down on the stump. Crrrunch! My father’s head flew up. Silence. The hairs at the back of my neck prickled up in a slow sweep. Crrickle, crackle, snap! I watched my father slowly turn his head in the direction of the rustling. I thought, the cougar! it’s the cougar, I know it! it’s gonna kill us, it’s gonna pounce right out and kill my Dad and then it’s gonna, it’s gonna – SNAP! My father stood in front of the fire pit, rifle cocked and ready to aim. He turned a slow arc, peering into the brush. All I could see was his plaid-covered back. Any minute now, the cougar would– I twisted my head to look behind us, seeing blood-dripping fangs in every crease of every bush and rock. Nyah, nyah, scairedy-cat, the leaves and stones stared back at me, innocent, empty. Far to the right, something rustled away from us. My father lowered the gun and sighed in relief. “I heard stories about some cougar in these hills. Almost got this hunter from Alberta last spring – serves the guy right for hunten out of season – but a cougar’n’t gonna know the diff, just as soon jump me as him, in or out of season, eh Davey?” I tried to open my mouth but it was glued shut. “Then again, it might’ve just been a bear cub. What was that you were asken me before?” He laid the gun beside him and grabbed the handle of the coffee pot and began to pour. “Could sure use one of these now. Here.” He handed me an enamel mug. “D-do you really think that was a cougar, Dad?” He took a long swig of steaming hot coffee, choked, sputtered, “Scheiss, just about burned my tongue off– !” He wiped his mouth and sat back, looking a bit red in the face. “Neh, that wasn’t a cougar, Davey, I was just putten you on. Drink up. Let’s get some of these eggs inside you before they go cold on us.” I nodded hungrily. But I knew he was wrong. It was a cougar, all right. And that cougar was still out there, somewhere, I knew, not five miles away anymore, as I’d planned, but that didn’t matter. I was willing to wait and see. I wolfed down the eggs, not caring what they tasted like or if they were cold; my stomach was too acid to feel anything specific Even the coffee went in like warm milk and settled creamily on top of the eggs. I sat there imagining the colourful scrambled pie in my gut, tipped the mug way way back to lick out the last lukewarm drip of coffee and half-spoonful of grit, and almost went ass-over-ears into the dying embers. “The rate you’re goen,” Paw looked at me with a funny grin, “you’n’t gonna make it to fourteen, between the charcoal and the cougar.” I caught my balance as he spoke and looked at him guardedly. Did he know about the cougar? “What you eye’en me for, boy? D’I grow a wart on you or somethen? Come on,” he turned his back, his huge plaid back on me and went to the tents, “time we broke camp.” Crickle. “Paw, I’m gonna wash up the plates down at the creek.” I grabbed what I could, stacking everything into the eggy skillet, whipped up the still-hot coffee pot in my other hand and scrambled away. I had to find that damned cougar and tell him to keep off. It wasn’t time yet. Crrac-cc-kle! My feet suddenly knew where every trippable root was – one second too late to miss it – and I slowed down not to fall headlong into the stony ravine below. SNAP! This time my crewcut felt like it was growing three inches straight up. I ducked and dumped the cooking gear into the icy water, then peered around me slowly, knowing his claws were quietly unsheathing somewhere in the rustle of brush around me. Then I almost peed my pants. Right behind me on the path stood a girl with red hair down to her knees and a white dress that floated around her feet like it was a pet cloud. The pots clattered and tumbled into the rush of the stream, but I couldn’t move. She could probably see my tonsils at that point, but she didn’t seem to be looking. Then I realized she was saying something to me that sounded like water spilling into a marble basin. I closed my mouth, tried to swallow, but she kept on pouring out those syllables I couldn’t understand. Her eyes were like little green lights in the cream of her rosy-cheeked face. Suddenly the water stopped. I almost fell over backwards in the shock of silence and her smile. “Davey, you seem to be in search of the cougar on this day of your thirteenth birthday.” Something inside my head had finally caught up to reality and was rapidly translating her lilt. She was waiting for me to answer. “I ah - uh -” my voice clattered like loose pebbles down a rocky slope. I tried again. “Yes I am.” It still sounded more like a pail being emptied out onto a flat rock than like the princess, but she just smiled. And waited. “I’ve gotta tell it to lay off for now.” “How long do you want it to stay away, Davey?” Her eyes glittered at me. I stared at them and saw the eyes of a cat staring back, long thin pupils opening into a fathomless black. A warmth began to spread across my belly and I was breathing in shallow gasps. She turned her face slightly to the left and vanished... Which leaves us with a pickle of some kind: if I verify her existence, where does that verification exist? What affirms it, in turn? Assuming the impossibility of truth, that leaves a thirteen year-old boy shivering not far from his father’s tent, under the influence of a strange hallucination: that there is a cougar in the vicinity who is fated to cross their paths and, possibly (here the hallucination is blurred by intermittent fog patches), to kill his father, and that there is a princess who knows all about it...what do you mean, I ‘can’t stop there’? A little coitus interruptus goes a long way to prevent unwanted outcomes, so they say... So what if I’ve set up this fairytale, sexy princess and all, and our tumescent little tadpole’s ready for any adventure?– it’s pure Irish mist, every word of it. Speaking of mist, send me up another drink – it gets thirsty up here, stringing you gaffers along like this. And while I wait for it, we can play a little game... Don’t give me that shit about stalling. Do you think I’m paid Woody Allen prices to do this? – you can sweat a little too. Never mind sweating – conTRIbute! Cooperative comedy’s what I call it – you like that one? The eyes have it, said the blind man, it’s time for another pickle. SO, ‘her eyes glittered at me...’ I stared at the pots sitting in the creek, collecting water and sand, bent down and pulled them out slowly. The tent was lying in two tidy bags when I stumbled into the clearing, still feeling a dizzy warmth from my close encounter at the creekbed. Dad was kicking the ashes over when he looked up at me: “D’you bring back some water for the fire?” I dropped the plates onto the stump and ran back down to the stream, scooped a grotty blackened pot through the sparkling water and ran back to the campsite. My father stood at the edge, binoculars at his eyes. Panning steadily around the forest visible to the north, he muttered something I couldn’t understand, dropped the binoculars and sighed. “We might be out of luck, Davey. There’s a smoke trail off towards deer territory. Probably just a little brushfire. But it’ll scare off all the deer for acres.” “Paw, let’s, could we hike over that way, anyhow? I really want to see a deer before we head home, hey?” His grey eyes narrowed as he stared off through the binoculars once more. “It dun’t look too widespread, at this point. I bet it’s some idiot burning green wood there. It’s pretty wet this time of year... Well,” the binoculars swung towards the far side of the forest, “I hate to disappoint you, boy, especially it be’en your thirteenth and all – what the HELL?!!” His voice ripped through the air and yanked my head towards him. I almost crashed into the stump as I ran to his side. “What is it, Paw, what –” His left hand took the binoculars down while his right hand pressed his forehead. He peered into the glasses again without answering me. “Dad, what is it?” I grabbed his sleeve and tried to get a glimpse of what he saw. “Jeezus, Davey, it’s nothen, nothen at all.” His face was shining, as if a fine mist had settled on it. He walked over to the tent sacs, mumbling something that sounded like ‘rotess harr’, and sat down very heavily on the stump. He stared into space for so long I began to feel creepy. Besides, he only ever spoke German when he was really tanked, and that wasn’t too often around me. “Rottes Haar,” he whispered, then shook his head so sharply I was sure he’d crack a vertebra, batted his right temple once, really hard, and stood up. “Let’s go, Davey. Pack up all the stuff, and let’s get goen.” One might say that so far the princess is doing fairly well: we now have two characters suffering from the same hallucination – with very little chance that their common hallucination will be acknowledged and made common, therefore verifiable. Therefore, REAL. So, as far as Davey and his father are concerned, they may each believe in the princess, more-or-less, but our hapless hallucinators cannot free themselves of the fear that they may be thoroughly off their respective rockers. And where does the cougar fit into all of this? He had been nosing around about five miles, over rocks and roots and cold cold air, away; but now the sun was flashing through the jackpines and it was fast getting warmer than red flannel longjohns. “Paw,” I said to the plaid on his sleeve, “Paw, would a fire keep the cougar away? Hunh?” I hitched my pack up higher and felt a silver trickle wend its way down my spine into the space between my underpants and my skin. “What cougar? No cougars around here, Davey, I told you.” We were now rapidly going downhill, leaping around treeroots, rotted trunks and chipped rocks like a couple of highlanders doing a fling. At least Icarus had had the benefit of a pair of waxy wings when he took off – all I was likely to do was fall flat on my face into some nasty pile of oversized gravel, a stooge not a hero. And then the jackpines took a nose-dive into thick brush, a clutter of berry bushes among rock, and the ground collapsed into a ravine. “There’s the bastard,” Dad growled, pointing a hundred yards to the left where a column of grey ash was oozing into the bright air. “Wait here, Davey, I’m goen to see what’s cooken.” He dropped his gear to the floor, oblivious to the clatter the pots made, took a few steps, looked at the rifle and grimaced, shrugged his shoulders and flung it back towards me. “You wait for me here.” The heavy wood and metal slapped my palms and I clutched it awkwardly, watching him edge his way to the source. Before I could sniff twice, he’d lowered himself out of sight. I looked at the gun in my hands and decided I wasn’t about to let the old man get all the action while I sat like a frog on a stump. I heaved my pack off, listened to the tent poles rattle in the stillness, twice as loud as the pots had, slung the rifle over my shoulder and picked my way along the ravine top. When I stopped, I could hear him breathing just ten or fifteen yards off. I dropped onto my belly and inched my way up to the ragged edge. The column of smoke was just to the east, between the walls of the hidden canyon. I peered down and almost lost my heart out my gaping mouth. Next to a shallow pit where the fire rose, not five feet from my dad, stood the princess, white lace floating, green eyes glittering. The old man was a goner. “Have you brought Davey to me?” she tinkled. I thought Paw’s eyes looked a bit glazed, not exactly super-aware that he’d left a thirteen year-old somewhere in the hazy hills behind him. From the tilt of his head I could tell that he didn’t understand a word of what she was saying – she was just a babbling brook to him. The hair began to rise on my neck and crept up my scalp as he slowly reached out his hand to pat her rippling red tress, as if she was a strange but lovely kitten. KITten? Her lips parted into a ravishingly toothy smile, her jaw thickened and under the filmy cloud a golden cougar reached out its velvet paw to touch his cheek. I cocked the rifle with out thinking. My belly grew warmer and warmer and I could hardly breathe. The woods roared around me. Someone screamed “NO!!” and a warm wetness, like blood, exploded on me. The sky turned red. A shadow melts on the wall, opens, embraces, and melts again. Is this a cougar which I see before mine eyes? Where were you when I needed you most– looking for breakfast? looking for sex? for the long way home? trying to figure out if the call of the wild is “Come and kill” or “Come and be killed”?...No, that cougar and this one, their paths never crossed princesses, never raised a single pickle, nor leapt a horny frog in the green recesses of the mind. They are thesis and antithesis, the dancer and the danced. Without one, the other would not matter, would be matter pure and formless, in the impossibility of this ragged shadow leaping up the brick wall in chase of a red pipe dream. “Davey,” says the old man when he gets good and tanked, “remember the time you shot the doe at Mabel Lake? Must’ve been just after they first launched Sputnik, back in ’57...”

Published on 13/11/2005


 © L. A. Wolanskyj

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