That something…

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We’ve all got that something. It’s the reason we hesitate to introduce ourselves, the first thing we think about when we undress with someone new, that idiosyncrasy, that flaw we’ve been taught to believe is the whole reason we’re so shy and ill at ease around others.

It’s been hammered into us that we’re physical or emotional Quasimodos, hunched, damaged, unworthy of attention from those who glide.  Every mistake, every awkward conversation is damning evidence until, like fools, we convince ourselves it’s so.

But that something is our uniqueness, our special proposition to the world that no one else has.  Most dismiss it as defect, and that’s a shame. Our difference, in particular, is what makes us worth knowing.

Across a bar, in a park, at work, we recognize the same terse, pained expressions we see in the mirror. Someone taught wrongly that differences should be hidden. Someone who doesn’t know that being exceptional, distinct, is their best attribute. It’s hard, living that deluded way. So with a glance and a smile, we say, I see you, and you’re totally cool. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to open them up. Next thing you know, you’re sitting next to a person with an incredible story. If you’re lucky they share it. And you’re infinitely richer as a result.

-F.A.F.

 

A Familiar Beauty

https://www.thrillist.com/drink/nation/how-to-flirt-with-women-dating-tips

You’ve never met before, and it takes you a while to realize it. Uncommon. Remarkable. Familiar. Warmth and a genuine smile. Simple grace that’d be wasted on film or TV—subtlety no camera could capture.

Polite questions at first then she digs a little deeper. Deep enough to tell you she’s interested. Not in your job, your house, or your income. She’s interested in you.

The more you talk, the more certain you are this can’t be your first meeting. You’re too relaxed; words come too easily. Conversation is more like catching up with an old flame. A kindred soul. One of your tribe. But that ring on her finger means she ain’t yours, mate. If you think you’re the man in the white hat, you’re gonna have to let this one go.

Well, she’s here with you, right now, twirling her hair around a finger and throwing sparks in your tinderbox. Been a while since someone took the time to figure out you’re worth finding. And she likes what she’s found. If the joint was robbed at gunpoint right now, you wouldn’t have the faintest notion. She’s that captivating. You really don’t want her to go.

So you make her laugh, and the sound of it is pure joy. Gets you wondering what a more private encounter might sound like. She sets her wineglass on the bar a little farther away than usual, so you know she’s done with it, then leans closer.

Oh, that’s her hand on your leg, right there…and that arched eyebrow is saying better than words what she has in mind.

Time to decide, mate. Weigh your regrets. When you do, you know.

God damn, she’s worth it.

-FAF

Why are we fighting so hard?

Everything seems like a fight these days; cooperation is lost in divisive issues of our time. Most conflicts have to do with scarcity, but that isn’t always the case. And when it comes to energy, is scarcity really the issue?

Economists are fond of saying we will never run out of oil. You can point to all the indicators of increased consumption and declining production you like, they just smile and shake their heads. Doesn’t matter, they say, because when oil gets scarce, the price will go up until no one can afford it. When that happens, alternative energy becomes cost effective and displaces fossil fuel in world markets. As a result, we will never run out of oil.

Huh. Makes sense.

Petroluem and natural gas producers already know this. When gas crested over $4 a gallon in 2008, wind and solar energy started looking like a comparative bargain. As a result Fossil Fuel companies increased production, flooding the market to keep prices low and stave off inevitable replacement as long as possible. But light, sweet crude isn’t nearly as plentiful as it once was, so this means increasing demand for  Venezuelan Heavy Crude and Alberta Tar Sand Bitumen. These sources come with higher contaminants (Sulfur, in particular) and that’s really bad when it comes to air quality and Climate Change.

Most of us have taken sides on this issue long ago, handing our beliefs down to our kids. Tough to break out of at this point, because these hard set ideas are so ingrained, we’ve divided ourselves into clans. We fight each other tooth and nail to accomplish…what?

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Not exactly the compromise we’re looking for…

Asking a major oil company to commit suicide isn’t going to get us far. Neither is expecting all the people who draw their living from fossil fuel to just roll over and go broke. These companies are legally obligated to maximize shareholder value. It’s in their corporate charters. They must do business in the most profitable manner possible.  Anyone who seriously believes an executive would explain to their shareholders that earnings are down because “it was the moral thing to do” is living in a fantasy. Corporations exist to generate profit, and they will always continue to do so. While many of us hate the fact that Big Oil is profiting in an industry that is poisoning our landscape, let’s reserve our judgment just a moment to see a bigger picture.

These huge, multi-national corporations thrive in spite of their reputations because they hire intelligent, creative, motivated individuals. We need to stop dismissing that wealth of talent just because we don’t like the way it’s being applied.

We also cannot ignore the alarms our own scientists are setting off. We are changing our climate for the worse. Pulling out of the Paris Agreements is self-defeating. And as emerging economies demand more energy, our current path through fossil fuels is a literal dead end.

So do we start up a whole new set of renewable energy companies and subsidize them so they can kill off Big Oil?

Hell no.

We already have the brightest, strongest energy companies in the world who understand world markets. We don’t need a crop of weak startups that lack the experience, stability, and influence to endure. We need to stop thinking of fossil fuel companies in terms of what they currently specialize in, be it coal, petroleum, bitumen, natural gas, or any other form of carbon-based energy and rebrand them plainly as energy companies.

Then, our Federal Government needs to decide it is serious about preserving our world for our children and for all things that live and breathe.

Offer executives at these firms the chance to lead companies we can be proud of rather than despise. Show them how they can lead us into a clean, carbon neutral future. Explain how they will help America attain energy independence, and in the process, prevent our serving men and women from being put into harm’s way over access to energy. Entice these business people into becoming beacons of innovation that inspire our new generations and draw the best/brightest of every graduating class. How do we get there? By making these energy companies immensely profitable while doing so.

Fossil Fuel corporations would likely already be doing this if there weren’t so many obstacles. Many of them have already seen the predictions of peak oil. They understand the difficulty in accessing new reserves, etc. They see the instability of shaky governments that could be there one day and topple the next. They already know the future of petroleum is bleak. So we need to hear them out. Let them list the challenges. And then allow the Department of Energy to create needed incentives, subsidies, and grants that allow these companies to evolve while remaining in the black, financially.

Yes, we absolutely can get to carbon neutrality. There’s a fusion reactor in space that provides all the power we could ever need. There’s a moon that lugs the tides around. There’s wind, and geothermal. We are energy abundant. But we will never get to carbon neutrality if we treat our existing energy companies as demons to be slain. They will fight for life with the best lobbyists DC can offer. They will fight with doubt, confusion, conflicting reports, all the methods that have been so effective in getting their way in spite of what the public demands. (GMO Labeling, anyone? Net Neutrality?)

We must embrace these companies as partners, not fight them. Show them a better path and make it profitable.

This same method can work for any corporation producing a poisonous product. Assist these firms in divesting from their poison products (looking at you, Monsanto and Big Tobacco), and assist their transitions to something that benefits mankind. Could be energy storage (goodness knows our battery tech needs help). Could be refinement of ores from seawater so we don’t need to strip or pit mine our mountain ranges. Could be energy transport that doesn’t require a pipeline. Could be quantum computing, recycling, de-orbiting space junk, or better agricultural techniques that don’t kill our pollinators. There are hundreds of nascent technologies that need the investment and expertise of well-established firms.

Consider this: what vital technologies have been delayed because we chose energy that had to be secured through bullets and blood? Imagine how many roads, schools, and bridges could have been built with the money lost in the Iraq War. Imagine how much original research could have been funded. The opportunity cost of Fossil Fuel is much higher than most people can fathom (or believe).

We all want clean air, soil, and water. No one wants to look at a smoke stack. No one wants their child to suffer from mercury, lead, or arsenic poisoning. We don’t have to settle for a bleak status quo.

Our current administration would defund key programs at the Department of Energy, and that betrays a total lack of imagination. Much more can be accomplished when our Federal Government serves business by encouraging new innovations rather than taking campaign contributions to look the other way and letting the buyer beware (caveat emptor). Subsidizing an industry has worked in the past. It can work again.

Demand better. Let the profit motive work in our favor. Incentivize the playing field for a more stable world. And bring our existing companies (with all the people who work for them) into a cleaner future.

-FAF

Vivid Dreams VIII

Ok, so spoiler alert: it had Mark Zuckerberg, Johnny Depp, and me in it. Two out of three were robots.

The Johnny Depp part was brief. He breezed through the same tourist shop I was in, babbling like Jack Sparrow, wearing a lot of loose clothing and eye makeup. And he said to no one I could see, ”How the hell do I get away? Where does one go when one is an escaped slave?”

I figured, eh, he’s rich. He can afford to be weird.

Later on, I’m diagnosed with major organ failures. Both Kidneys and Liver. Terminal. But I went into surgery and came out good as new. Too good. Like, why-the-hell-do-I-feel-this-good-after-surgery good. So I reckoned modern medicine isn’t as bad as I thought. And I went back to normal life.

That lasted a few weeks. And then I’m ‘summoned’ by a bunch of black-suited goons to a meeting, of which I have no prior knowledge. Grabbed, transported, and taken to the top floor of some building in San Francisco. There, Mark Zuckerberg was waiting. With his typical lack of empathy, he said, “We’re shutting you down tomorrow. Error in the code. Enjoy your last day.”

So there’s a bit of a double whack. I’m a machine, and I’m getting killed tomorrow.

I pressed my hands against my chest, trying to see for myself if I really am a machine. I can’t tell. So I said, “But I’m alive. I think. I feel. I remember myself…”

He told me everything I am now is proprietary technology and he owns me completely. That he can do whatever he wants. Then, with an expression like I was some termite chewing away at his Hawaii estate, he opened the door for me to go.

I thought about TV programs I’d seen before, where an artificial entity was deemed legal property, and how it was no different from slavery. Made me think of Johnny Depp in the store, muttering about being a slave, and I realized, he must be a Zucker-bot, too.

I got pissed, and said, “You’re gonna just snuff out a new life form, huh?  Let’s consider the legal implications of that.” I looked around at his ridiculously opulent penthouse office. “Must be about a thousand Civil Libertarians who’d love to tear off a piece of this empire.”

That got his attention, so I hammered it home.

“The injunctions will be here before end of day. And the civil suits will be…costly. You understand, I’ll be contacting the police in case you decide to try anything.”

He still let me go.

And as soon as I was outside, I tried to dial the cops. The phone wouldn’t connect. The browser worked, but wouldn’t connect to any emergency services, or legal services. Made me wonder if it was being blocked from any address associated with law, law enforcement, even elected officials. Or, maybe I had some kind of implanted transponder that was actively blocking signal. If I did, it’d make it easy to find me no matter where I went, which is probably why Zuckerberg let me go. You don’t become a social media emperor by not covering all the bases, after all.

That night was tense. I just could not accept the idea of being someone else’s property, much less accept that my ‘owner’ was going to chuck me like a broken toy. Saw friends, talked it out, then decided I’d try to leave everything behind, even though I knew that no matter where I went, I’d be found.

But what if I was underwater? Water blocks most signals… Would whatever transmitters were embedded still work? For that matter, being a machine, would still work? One way to find out.

I dashed downhill, sprinting past people I had (until recently) taken for granted were all human. Now, I couldn’t be sure how many of them had traded flesh and blood for a synthetic simulacrum. Had they done it willingly? Is it possible I actually agreed to this prior to surgery and the memory of it had been deleted as inconvenient data?

How many of these faces were now property of Zuckerberg?

Thoughts drove me faster trough speeding traffic, across hoods of electric cars, in front of quietly whizzing trolleys down, down, down toward the bay. Everywhere, gleaming technology interconnected at the speed of light to unblinking eyes in low orbit. Even the trees had a mathematical appearance as if shaped by algorithm. But where were the dogs? The birds? All I could see were stylish, slender people under the age of forty.

Faces glanced my way, seemed to recognize me, then looked away. Were they tracking me, reporting movements? Were they circuits in this fair-looking dystopia? Or was I going completely paranoid? Was I going mad?

Street by street, down to the wharf, I ran. No air in the lungs, no fatigue…

I know what salt water does to electronics, and I have no idea if this body is watertight. Will the bay set me free? Will it short me out? One way to find out.

Peeled my jacket of cruelty free synth-wool. Stripped my unbleached cotton shirt. Kicked off my Faux-Suede uppers and dove from the pier.

Live or die, no one owns me.

 

Vivid Dreams VII

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I find myself in the back seat of a limousine, looking through the side window. The streets outside are humming with big American cars, all steel and chrome from the seventies. They gleam like new.

Cyclopean stone buildings squat along the boulevard like engineered mountain ranges. Fortresses of turrets and parapets. Buttressed cathedrals. A crucifix and haloed dove on every vertical surface. And in that moment, I remember there is no longer any division between church and state. Taxes are indistinguishable from tithes, and, with spending on sinful pursuits prosecuted by holy writ, the amount of money pouring into these venues is frightening.

Enormous trees–thick with green foliage shaped in the likeness of biblical kings–stand sentry outside the entrances, while blazing bright signs proclaim worshipful phrases, chapter and verse, in the latest LED arrays. As I watch from the window, I take in the spectacle of Vatican City with the flash of Las Vegas, but there’s none of the touristy kitsch. No drunks, junkies, or hookers. Sidewalks are immaculate, as though rinsed hourly. Every structure I see is crafted from the finest materials man can gouge from the Earth, and is made to last. These are the new pyramids of Giza. They’ll stand for millennia.

From the angle I’m looking through the window, I ascertain I’m young, mid-teens maybe. Simply dressed in jeans and t-shirt. I can’t see the driver in front of me, he’s too far away. But there’s a woman sitting on the wide rear seat beside me. She’s gorgeous, fit. Long dark hair, bright red lips. Bare arms and shoulders, well-toned. Tanned skin. Blue silk evening dress with wide straps and a neckline that tantalizes without revealing. I don’t know her, only that she’s my escort. Or bodyguard. Or both.

The car pulls over and stops outside a building of stacked granite blocks no crane could lift. Every slab must’ve been grunted an inch at a time from its bedrock, dragged over miles of rough terrain, then shoved up dirt ramps by thousands of men and machines, all pulling in the same direction. It’s a staggering amount of effort, and it occurs to me my wildest estimate of cost could be under by a factor of ten.

She uncrosses her long legs and gets out first then holds her hand out to me. I slide across the polished leather, take her hand, and step onto a marble curb with the building address inlaid in gold. She doesn’t speak as we walk up the broad stairway and pass through deserted halls. Plush carpet piles beneath my shoes, pristine as if untrodden. Fifteen foot ceilings are hung with ornate chandeliers of silver and crystal. High walls illustrate Old and New Testament parables with masterful strokes of the world’s greatest painters.

Beyond these spacious, empty halls, the corridors narrow. Our path is dimly lit with red ceiling cans and wall sconces, sufficient to banish darkness without affecting a dark adapted eye. And it dawns on me we’re heading for a show…

American theocracy has done away with lustful, violent titillations of film, stage, and studio. Entertainment now comes from “Feats of Faith” where miraculous occurrences are broadcast to the multitude, reinforcing adherence to the One True God. But in outlawing reality TV, they have created it anew in parody of itself. I smirk at the irony.

She leads me closer to an auditorium buzzing with conversation, and I understand I’m not there to witness an event. I am the event. I’m going to be seen by millions, or more, because a fellowship of Arch-pastors has commanded their congregations to tune in. If I fail to impress, I could disappear like others who claimed extraordinary faith yet were unable to prove it publicly. A little test is in order.

I trail behind the woman slightly as I slump my shoulders, let my head droop to my chest, and I imagine invisible cords tied to my back. I yield to them, letting them suspend me, letting them hoist me up, so that my toes drag the plush carpet as I drift along behind her, light as smoke.

I can’t leave the ground completely, not yet. With practice, I’m sure I will. With greater faith, with prayer, with purity of existence…

And the peoples’ faith will be stronger from my demonstration. They will pray harder and, more importantly, tithe harder than ever before…

 

Who the Pills Want Me to Be

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“You’re getting better,” the doctor says, scratching pen across his pad.

“Am I? I can’t tell.”

The doctor looks up from the pad, peering over the top of his reading glasses. “You’re not still hearing the voices, are you?”

“They weren’t voices. Just thoughts. Bad thoughts.”

“Well, you’re not hearing them anymore is the important part.” He scrawls an elaborate signature with big looping Ls and tears the top sheet off the pad. “Get this filled, and we’ll keep it that way.”

I stare at the paper he’s shoving at me, watching it flutter at the end of his fingertips, and I tell him, “I don’t feel like myself anymore.”

“Which is a good thing,” he says, smirking, not even looking at me.

“My friends say they don’t know me, either.”

He lowers the scrip. “And what kind of friends are they? You’re doing better at work. Not obsessing over every minor catastrophe in the news. Not thinking of taking your own life. You’re functioning now at a high level. Maybe they’re jealous you got yourself straightened out.”

“Maybe.”

“Here,” he says, thrusting the prescription at me again. “Get this filled and I’ll see you in two weeks.”

I take the scrip, get up from the cushioned chair, and head for the door.

I want to get better… But does it have to be like this? I mean, isn’t it normal to get depressed about what we’ve done to our planet? What we do to each other? How corrupt our leaders are? How little there is to be proud of… My people massacred a hundred seventy years ago in the name of Manifest Destiny… And my red brothers still bleed to feed the Wendigo Capitalists…

Rich wood paneling on the door in front of me, walnut varnish. Heavy brass door handle, polished. Makes me wonder if all court ordered psychiatric patients see doctors in rooms this nice. And it occurs to me just how small a cog I am in this human machine. Billions of bits, churning along. But gears who grind get pulled and tossed.

It’s bigger than me. All of it. What good does it do to dwell on it? Make myself another pointless statistic? Mom crying at my casket? No. I’m not that selfish. 

A deep breath in and out. Glance over my shoulder. The doctor’s so engrossed in his phone, he doesn’t notice I’m still there.

Every choice I’ve made in life came to shit. Not a fucking clue how to live in this world. He knows, obviously. Look at this place. Bet his house is even nicer. Kids, friends, big car and TV…

I look down at the scrip in my hand. Jut my lip.

So tired of fighting for air… Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’ve been right all along. Being myself hasn’t gotten me anywhere.

Crank the heavy brass handle and leave.

I’ll be exactly who the pills want me to be.

 

 

Vivid Dreams V

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A place deep in the woods. Drawn to it without any understanding or reason why.

We started on foot, hiking wide city streets from the valley up into twisting mountain roads. The farther we went, the fewer cars whizzed by. Pavement was pale gray with age beneath us, and grasses forced their way into cracks, wedging the gaps. Soon, there was more grass than asphalt.

Railroad tracks crossed the road ahead, and we diverted down them instinctively. Several miles up, we came upon an old train. Blue stripes of paint still clung to its aluminum skin. Synthetic coverings still wrapped padded seats behind unbroken plexiglass. Not bad, considering it had been at least a decade since the train had moved.

Kudzu vines filled the spaces between train and tree line. Rather than hack through that web, we climbed up the rear car and hiked the roof to the front, where we found open tracks again.

A lone patch of asphalt lay across the tracks ahead, the last remnant of some forgotten road. The way to the left was passable with low shrubs growing where pavement once lay, but the way to the right pulled us.

Trees grew close to the path, shading it with evergreen boughs, and we found ourselves walking down an avenue of sand and pine straw. Road signs were absent, only an occasional posted sign that had yellowed to illegibility, and I knew this was someone’s driveway–a very long, unused driveway.

No cricket chirped. No bird sang. No wind stirred the canopy above, yet it was not stifling. We were comfortable in our early Fall layers and we enjoyed the silence.

Sun had crested the ridge line, bathing this side of the range in afternoon light, but the woods grew darker the farther we went. Tall trees reached out with densely interwoven branches that blocked the sky. Occasionally there was a creak from above and a light rain of pine needles would follow.

Perfectly natural, I thought.

Conversation was rare. We were being summoned toward something we could not explain, could not even describe. All we knew for certain was that we wanted to be there, and we wanted to find what lay at the end of the trail. This was a pilgrimage to a place we knew, on a subliminal level, would be like nowhere else on Earth. Still, there were no guarantees of welcome at journey’s end, so we kept humbly and respectfully mum.

Trees grew enormous the farther we trekked. Trunks, black from rain, rose to coniferous towers high above. All around, plush mosses covered rocks and fallen timber. Ferns sprung up in the gaps with fronds like elephant ears. Positively prehistoric.

I found myself at the head of the group, watching for signs of our destination. As I rounded a tree thicker than the six of us put together, I halted. Blocking the path were a black bear, a young moose, and a tortoise. The bear sat on its broad bottom. The moose stood behind it, head lowered, peering at us over the bear’s shoulder. The tortoise craned its long neck and its head wavered like an elderly man.  Their combined gaze seemed to lift us off our feet and weigh us.

The bear was young, no more than eighty pounds. The moose was even younger, standing just under six feet in height. The tortoise might have been ancient, weighing nearly as much as the moose by estimation, and the front of its thick shell flared into rounded points. They all had the same soft brown eyes. Not similar, exactly the same. And there was a singular intelligence behind those eyes that extended from one animal to the other. I wondered who, or what, was seeing us.

I raised a hand in greeting then turned that hand to the group so they would calmly approach. My fellows fanned out around me, as interested and as excited as I was. They smiled, waved, and waited. First, the bear rose to all fours and ambled off. The moose and tortoise headed off in their own directions, leaving the trail open. We watched them go and continued up the path.

We spied a glimpse of red brick through thinning trees ahead. Vines and shrubs had nearly enveloped a very long home, leaving rare patches of red showing though the gaps. Moss carpeted the roof up to the ridge vent. Gutters overflowed with twigs, cones, and pine needles.

Despite the advance of nature, the home was far from derelict. Rooflines did not sag. Walls stood straight and true. Seemed as if the land had cupped this house in green hands to hold it safe rather than to reclaim it.

Walking around to the right, we noticed the garage door was half open. At the threshold stood lines of plastic toys, facing us. The tallest was less than twelve inches high, but they watched us like the animals on the path. Obviously, their plastic eyes weren’t the same soft brown, yet the same intelligence seemed to live behind them.

Stepping over them would have felt rude, so I went to the home’s front door. Its doorbell was buried beneath thick spider webs, and the door frame had swollen against the door. No chance getting in that way.

I walked past the garage door again to find another way in and saw a break in the lines of toys. Without any of us seeing them move, a path had opened. Calling the others over, I stooped under the half-open door and went in.

The garage was full of dusty cardboard boxes. How they had evaded the disintegrating humidity and mold, we couldn’t say. The air wasn’t musty, either. Dry as an attic.

The door leading inside was swollen shut like the front door, however. Wouldn’t budge. So we looked around. Always, we remembered we were guests and were careful not to rummage or pilfer the stacks of boxes. We’d peek behind some, lift others aside to check for a hatch beneath. Found nothing but drywall and concrete.

“Why don’t you try looking from a child’s perspective,” someone said.

We sank down to our knees then sat on our heels. The first thing we noticed was a set of short cabinets near the door leading in. I opened one and found a hollowed out crawl space inside. Bingo.

We crawled through on elbows and knees, and emerged into a home that was clearly unoccupied. Years of dust blanketed the surfaces of obsolete electronics, formica countertops, brass fixtures. Though dated, nothing looked cheap. Fine china occupied the cupboards and hutches. Copper pots hung from hooks near rugged stoves. Solid oak frames with museum grade glass shielded beautiful artwork and family portraits. There was still a warmth to it all, as if it had been captured in still life from a time when the home was lived in and loved.

None of the interior doors worked, and each room became its own puzzle of how to move into the next. Move the appliance to find the crawlspace, search the closet for a hidden panel, climb the bookshelf to find the ceiling hatch, etc. It was fascinating solving the mystery of this home, with each new room offering insights to the family who built it.

The entire time, I was aware of my surroundings. Well, more specifically, that my surroundings were aware of me. We behaved ourselves as interested guests, flattering this home with our curiosity and urge to explore. Because of that, we felt safe inside. Welcome.

Just behind that was a sense of peril, however. Not menace, not foreboding or threat, it was like standing at the edge of a cliff. There’s nothing complicated about a cliff. You can see the edge and as long as you respect it you’re perfectly safe. But if you screw around, it can kill you without needing to try. This house felt as rugged and powerful as snow-capped peaks that could inspire wonder or could bury you in an avalanche.

Soon, what little light filtered in began to dim, and we knew it was time to go. There was no sense the home was tired or bored with us. Rather, it seemed to enjoy having us crawling through its rooms. We wanted to keep that alive by not overstaying our welcome. We also wanted something to look forward to in a return trip.

*****

For the next visit, I wanted to bring something that would fit with the older decor, something the house would like. So I burrowed into a box of childhood toys and retrieved my favorite: an orange plastic robot. It seemed so much smaller than I remembered, though I still recalled how much I loved it when it was new. There was never a worry if the house would like it. I had loved it, imbuing it with years of good memories. And that made it a worthy gift.

Our spirits were bright. Though still struggling to articulate it verbally, we had a better notion why we were returning. The closest we could describe it, we were building a new friendship, having carefully laid a foundation of respect and trust. If served well, that could grow, we were sure.

The same landmarks greeted us along the way with a touch more Autumn yellow in the leaves. Breezes were cool and dry. A stream nearby was swollen with recent rain, and one of my friends called me over to it. From the bank I looked out and saw the moose and bear wading, playing, and swimming together. Though I couldn’t see it, I guessed the tortoise was not far away.

Just when I was certain the land had become comfortable with us, allowing us unhindered passage, a black shape dived from the trees as silent as an owl. It landed on massive paws and stalked toward us with bright yellow eyes and gleaming white teeth. I recall its swagger, like a house cat, and how its eyes were lidded, relaxed. Ok, this is another introduction, I reasoned to calm my fraying nerves, not necessarily a warning.

In slow, deliberate movements I removed my pack and pulled out the orange robot. When I held it out, the panther sniffed it, then ran a raspy pink tongue up one side of it. Its whiskered lips parted and, as delicately as a human hand, took the toy in its mouth. No more than a glossy shadow in the dark woods, it piled up on its haunches and launched into the branches again.

My gift was accepted.

When we reached the house, the orange toy was standing among the others in the garage. It looked up at us with the same intelligent eyes the other toys had, and I smiled. It wouldn’t be shut up in some dark box anymore. It was being appreciated again. It was where it was supposed to be.

We followed the same path inside then proceeded farther than we had gone before. We wormed through knee walls, slid around dusty mechanicals, shimmied up a laundry chute until we were sure there was only one place left we hadn’t seen. The others stacked some crates for me and I pushed open the ceiling hatch.

Standing up, I poked my head into a converted attic space. Though windowless, there was just enough light to see the dimensions and furniture. The closest piece was a simple wooden desk, painted gray like the rest of the room. I didn’t see her until she lifted her head from the desktop, hair as glossy black as the panther’s. Her skin was pale as moonlight. Her eyes were sunken with dark circles around them, yet they were a familiar soft brown. She looked tired, and then she smiled.

All of the clues fell into place in rapid flashes, and I knew everything.

Her family was affluent, but not out of greed. Money came from a rare intersection of genuine human service and profitability. So they bought every lot of a newly zoned subdivision, built a single home on it all the way at the back, and let the rest return to the wild.

She was born here. Adored by her parents. Taught to love and respect the land, taught how to care for things that grow. Allowed to explore the streams and trees and wildlife.

Cancer took her before her eighth birthday. Her family grieved so hard they couldn’t stay, couldn’t bear to take any memories with them. They buried their little girl in the rose garden out back, closed the home, and left everything behind.

The girl had too brief a taste of life, however. Her spirit could not leave the things she loved and would not disperse. She remained by reaching out to the very things that made her happiest. Remembering her kindness, animals and plants gave themselves over to her willingly. At first, the bonds were sparse, tenuous. She was barely an idea occurring across multiple creatures at once. Then she got better, became stronger. Shared sight and hearing. Complex sensations communicated instantaneously across distance.

She gave them empathy. And they gave her a piece of their life.

Through her, lifeforms experienced each other in ways they never had before. Kinship formed unusual ties between a bear, a moose, and a tortoise. Trees, ferns, vines, and mosses cradled the home, sheltering it from the advance of weather. The panther patrolled the land as a protector, hunting far away from its kin lest it feel the sting of its own bite.

The girl had united the land, and the animals upon it, into a greater order of awareness. Her spirit had triumphed over death by aligning then merging with the forces of nature. This place radiated new possibilities of connection and understanding between beings. It was potent, and dangerous if abused. We knew she would not have hesitated to kill us if we threatened this place. Instead, we made a powerful friend.

I was amazed, and a tad envious, of that connection as I had sought it my entire life. All six of us had. That’s why we were so attuned to it. That’s why we felt compelled to come, even without knowing why. We wanted to witness it for ourselves. And to experience it, if we could.

The girl had found a way to survive beyond what her body allowed. Yet even with so many living things around her, she was lonesome for someone like her. She had called out for companionship to any who would listen. We brought the company she missed. She showed us greater cause for faith in the world around us.

In healing union, we all found new life.

-FAF

Old Pullman and Kudzu