When the first drops of dew dotted the windshields of Oak County, the shamans came from the hills. Mostly men, they were clad in tunics of wool and burlap, their beards long and knotty, voices primed and ready after a winter of cold disuse. The women followed, what few there were, their legs milk white and gleaming, weak and rubber-kneed. None of them spoke but there was a rhythmic thudding as they galloped unevenly over the grass. Some of their beards had ornaments woven into them. They tarried over the ground, no words drawn until Gus Beach put a foot down in stride and met the sharpened teat of an acorn’s bottom and shrieked.
This was a first. The grade of the hill was smooth, the grass soft. Nothing impeded their path towards town. Utterances of any kind were saved until they reached the pavilion. Aside from a silent stumble of one of the young initiates who, months later, was reportedly seen happily working the cheese slicer at the Arnold’s Meat and Dairy on the west side of town, they’d always made their predictions at the assigned time.
Drought, dropped babies, eczema, financial terrorism, inland hurricanes, fire ants. Mainly we laughed it off but when the plants boarded their doors and shipped off to Tajikistan, we grew curious.
They took up lodging in an industrial lot. Mall Fine built it. Came in promising jobs and job training. I took the pamphlets home and my son and I stacked up the dreams. Love driving? Competitive wages? The cement went down, the wiring, the insulation, the gypcrete. Mac and Bill, Freddy and Amanda, me and my son, we all went down, filled out the applications, peed in the cups, and then the mayor’s on TV, weeping, apologizing.
That’s when the shamans burned their tents and sleeping bags and filed into the warehouses. They set up camp. They defiled the industry that could have been. You’d think they were in cahoots, Mall Fine and them.
In that first month we went to confront them. What’d you do! we yelled. They just looked on. Some of them were wearing fresh white t-shirts and had short hair and only the shadows of beards on their faces. The women still wore their bras and hints of blue eye shadow haunted their eyes. Small fires burned in the cavernous space and iron pots steamed in the flame. Everything was draped in duct tape. Everything was gray and shimmery. Plastic and glue smells filled the air.
My son’s a trouble maker and he said to me, Mom, I got to use it.
Hold it, I said. We’ll stop at the gas station on the way home.
But he said, No, I got to use it. He took hold of his crotch and danced around, made this face until it turned red. Then he ran off into Mall Fine.
Ten minutes later he comes squirting back. Except he’s moving slowly, even though I could tell he was trying to go full tilt. He had a backpack on, brand new, and by looks it was heavy and my son, even back then, was a big, strong boy.
Look it, he said when he got back to me and before I could say, Where have you been, I’m saying, Look at, but it doesn’t matter because the pack is off and he’s dumping a bunch of something out that’s clinking and dusting.
They still has the butter on, he said.
Tile is what he dumped. Tile’s the toast. Butter’s the mortar. His father did a good deal of contracting. The butter was as hard as the tile it was affixed to. What he was going to do with a bunch of used tile, I did not know and could not fathom. We rented and renovation was beyond us. And then he took one in hand and reared back with it.
The squirrel die-off began in earnest in May. That’s when they began to pile in the roads and in our yards, on our porches, in the fields where our children played touch football. They were haggard in death, thin and dry, their bodies rigid as sundried clothes. Lumpy mounds of rancid fur that we took up in our rakes and discarded with our lawn trash.
Some of us took in the live ones, the scant few that had eluded the scourge. Treated them like rodent pets. I’d found one crouched under my rear driver’s side tire. It was hunkered on all fours, unsteady on its paws, quavering like heat shimmer, seemingly waiting for the crush of balding Goodyear, hoping for it.
When I knelt beside it, it turned its head and eyed me but did not move. What it did do was look me over, then settle back into its mope. Its breathing was labored and when I picked it up it was like a sock.
My boy took special interest in them, made little beds out of old Kleenex boxes, watched over them, fed them bits of Hershey bar and slivers of bacon leftover from his breakfast.
This one name Gord-o, he told me. And this one Flame.
He didn’t point to identify which was which but I said Real good, and fretted about the cost of suet and bacon, chocolate and tissues, my line of credit which was fast receding like the river banks when Gus Beach said what he did about drought and the soy crop being turned to crud.
Within days the squirrels we’d taken in were back to their usual skittish selves. They ripped up carpeting, clambered around lamp poles, bore holes through boxes of cereal, and rang out with their wild clucking songs.
My boy was exultant and grabbed them up in his oversized hands, cooed at them, bathed the terrified animals in his sour-hot breath. Gord-o and Flame, Gord-o and Flame, he chanted and pranced around the apartment.
This lasted a week, a week and a half, and then they all dropped back into torpors, languished for a week or so in their Kleenex boxes, and were soon dead, each and every one of them, and the shrieks that came from my boy put the windows to shuddering. His cries set off a cascade of cheers from the young people of Oak County who were dressed in tie-dye shirts of their own making, I Heart Gus emblazoned on the front and back with permanent marker, and the men went into their modified garages, tuned the dials on their truck stereos, and whittled two by fours into rude bats with their hand axes. Grab Vincent turned one out smooth and fine on his powered lathe. All of them gathered the I Heart Gus t-shirts from their teenagers and soaked them in motor oil, then wrapped them at the ends of tiki torches that spoke of better times when factories hummed and birthdays were celebrated.
Gus and Co. grew in numbers. The teenagers, t-shirtless, left behind their cell phones, their computer, their parents and younger siblings. They were welcomed at Mall Fine, dressed anew in hand-me-down robes of burlap, lugging boxes and setting huge fires, stinking pyres of burning rubbish that wafted into town and upset our noses.
Of the pyres we learned that they were ritual and signal alike; caravans showed up in the height of summer. Rows of cars of all make and model, the drivers and passengers corpse-like in their silence, and they all rolled into Mall Fine to join the vehicles up on blocks, tires turned to roiling flame.
Later a group would appear in town on bicycles. They weaved slow through the roads, parked their bikes with shining locks filched from Mall Fine, and went inside where they bought up all the canned hominy, the dried lentils, the gallon jugs of distilled water. Other shoppers took to the opposite side of the store, gathered to gossip, talked poorly of the shamans’ ripe smell, their mossy teeth and apparent shunning of meat.
For everything they wrote checks that wouldn’t bounce and the cashiers, the store managers, the tellers at the banks, all of us wondered from where the money came, for there were no jobs at Mall Fine and in the unlit sign that had been hung, the sign that was to be seen from the crossroads of Highway CC-H and Fair Oaks night and day, were bird nests of sparrows and swallows.
The tile arced high through Mall Fine. We watched its course. It twirled fast, nipped the ceiling, and caught Gus Beach high on his forehead, sliced through the greasy gray-blond hairs and he mouthed, probably, Ouch, ouch, this is pain but it is good. His hands fluttered to the wound but shied away, seemingly afraid to touch the torn flesh.
My boy gawped at what he’d done, not understanding, ready to blubber and cry. He stood there kneading the soft taffy of his belly and I started to scold until Freddy chortled, Fee-fi-fucking-A! What a shot! Freddy came up to my boy, filched backpack in hand and said, That there’s a hole in one, boy. GD bull’s eye.
My boy, he let go of his pooch.
Bull’s eye, he said.
That’s right, son. Like a touchdown. You got a touchdown dance?
My boy nodded yes. Answered bodily by gyrating his pelvis. He smiled. Some of the men in our group gave him high-fives, clapped his wide sweaty back, and wagged their clenched fists at the fledgling group of shamans.
Freddy’s Amanda came up to me. She’d applied for a cashier spot at Mall Fine, had done accounting secretarial at the plants before it closed. Chalk it up to boys being boys, she said to me and smiled.
He has got to learn, I said, then turned to the group of shamans and initiates.
I looked on them and chewed my tongue.
Mulled over what I saw and chewed harder.
Fifty yards away the shamans cowered, they howled, some of them, forgetting their vows of silence and pacifism, hurled curse words and threats in our direction; the others, lips clamped shut, shook their heads slowly and tended to Gus Beach who sat on the ground, his legs splayed on the floor.
In place of yelling, Gus Beach hummed. It was nasally, a husky drone, like a tune of mourning that caught on with the other shamans. Their voices collected, swelled, a reedy and broken dirge, which banged and clambered off the open floor and walls and ceiling.
Gus Beach sat, continued to hum, blinked away blood, and the women attended to him. Dabbed the cut with loose hems of their burlap skirts and blouses, doused it with the distilled water, plastered the gash with spider webs gathered from the dark corners of the warehouse. Coupled with the shamans, the air trembled with the buzz of hornets.
We left with most of the men and women and young children happy and confident that my son’s throw, the buttered tile, spoke more than our own chants of anger and resentment, had broken the spell of Gus Beach and his shamans. But in my heart I knew it was a false confidence.
And I knew too that our actions were no more than pure bluff. On our way back to our vehicles I turned back and the shamans were staring at us, all of them with one eye closed and the other in a squint, as though they were looking through a rifle scope, as though Freddy’s frenzied declaration of Bull’s eye had inspired them, and they were patiently waiting for us to be still before squeezing down on the curved quarter moon that was the trigger.
In time we forgot about the squirrels. Forgot about Gus Beach and his shamans. Forgot the injury inflicted upon him by my boy, whom I tried to punish. We forget, even, our teenagers.
In place of them, we looked out our windows at our birdfeeders. Birdfeeders dangled from a porch overhang and we felt that a favor had been done on us, because our feeders were free to the birds. Goldfinch, sparrows, every so often a bluebird. Not a squirrel in sight.
But we oughtn’t have felt good.
We ought to have unified, fought more, or something. Conjured up our own Gus Beach, a magi or sorcerer to batten him down. But we were satisfied with the birds. At least I was. I was content in watching them flit and fight for seed. I banged on the window to shoo crows away when they approached. Let them eat dead possum, I thought. Then my boy almost put his hand through the window, pantomiming me, and I let the crows be.
Then our memories were jogged.
On the night news stories came out having to do with the squirrels but in a roundabout way. Naked torsos and limbs with red puckers the size of the mouth of a toilet plunger. Mystery fever and a little girl on the cusp.
There was Jeanette Crisp in a woodlands parka and camo pants in Leif Cutlass Park, News14 microphone in hand.
She was talking about acorns.
An acorn shortage is the likely culprit in Oak County’s rash of wild rodent deaths seen earlier this year.
Morris Frill stepped into frame, identically clad.
That’s right, Jeanette, acorns. A lack of acorns, to be exact. Apparently, this is a fairly common but not quite understood occurrence in nature.
Lana Vasquez, PhD, stepped into frame, identically clad, plus a white lab coat.
It’s something we in the scientific field call predator satiation hypothesis. Under this theory, during bumper years, the trees litter the forest floor with seeds so completely that squirrels, jays, deer and bears cannot possibly eat them all. Then, in off years, the trees ramp down production to keep the predator populations from growing too large to be satiated.
Basically the animals starved to death, is what you’re saying, doc? Morris Frill pondered.
That’s exactly right, Morris.
And there’s more to this than dead squirrels, said Jeanette.
That’s exactly right, Jeanette. In addition to the dead squirrels, are the not so visible elements of nature? Like your common field mouse. Those are gone, too.
Kaput, said Morris gravely while reaching into a yellow knapsack.
And what does this mean, this absence of field mice?
An excellent question whose answer has ramifications for us humans.
Humans like us.
Like us, and we’ve got to be more careful. Because of the absence of mice and their habitual guests.
Let me guess – fleas?
Yes, fleas, but more dangerously, ticks. Ticks love mice and now they’ve got nowhere to go. Legions of ticks – some infected with Lyme disease – will be aggressively pursuing new hosts, like humans.
That’s why it’s important to bundle up when you’re outside, said Jeanette.
And to use plenty of Bug B Gone, which Morris had pulled from his knapsack and spritzed into the air.
It will probably turn into a big year for animals’ being killed on highways as well. Deer, in search of alternative sources of food, will leave the cover of the oak trees and wander out closer to roads.
So be careful out there, folks, chimed the three of them, News14 microphones facing out.
The plague did not come.
I slowed the car at night, cautious for deer, and hit nothing. Sometimes I drove by a bloated deer at the side of the road. Same thing every year no matter what was on the news. I kept my boy inside, soaked him with Bug B Gone when I took him to the park, the grocery store. Did the same with myself, wore my thick wintertime knee highs.
Autumn came. The leaves fell from the oaks and swirled in the air. The temperature dropped, curtains of gray clouds moved in low from the east. Fine misting rain that slicked the rooftops of our homes and kept our youngsters plastered in front of the TV.
Evenings I drew a bath for my boy and as he flung tufts of shampoo bubbles onto the vinyl tiling, I kept an eye out for rashes and ticks and new moles and anything else that might harm him.
Talk on the TV turned to weather, the new mayor, car crashes and high school football. Mac and Bill packed their things and moved to Iowa, sent a postcard of the river, wrote about the jobs they found, the tornadoes to look forward to come spring.
More cars left Mall Fine than stayed. Common now that the small warmth of the pitch fires was sucked to the rafters of the building, now that the cool of autumn was here to stay. Even a few teenagers skulked back to their parents and stories were passed around of kids surprised by their own voices, rank grit in their clothing, the unnerving way they seemed to cause radio programs to fizzle into static when they walked into a room or were driven to school.
This was my favorite season, and between shifts at Dollar Cut and the Calf Fresh Diner, sometimes I was able to scan the horizon. Fields razed and turned. Dank leaves bunched against the wire fence that ran along Highway CC-H. All the trees bare and ratcheted to and fro by the wind, trunks and branches slick with rain, coated with a luxurious black sheen deep as fresh roofing tar.
It was the shamans who came to us. Ringing doorbells and knocking politely. Cavemen LDS minus the bicycles. They bore gifts. Most people said, Trespassing entitles me to shooting your freaking asses. A punch or two was thrown. Hasty retreats were made, evil eyes thrown when the doors banged shut. Because I was curious, I let them linger in my doorway. My boy kept saying, Who they is, who that, why come?
There were two of them. A man and a woman dressed in clean clothes but their bodies rebelled. Their speech was choppy, straining to be friendly.
But my boy liked them, hugged them, asked them, What you got in them bags?
Treats, the woman said.
My boy smacked his lips.
Books, too, the man said. We made them out of animal skin.
She talked about using stumpgrind and distilled water for making pulp and pressing the wet pages between the wood mattresses each of them were assigned and air drying them in the empty loading bays of Mall Fine.
Just like that they were inside, sitting on the floor, passing out loaves of lentil cake and toasted pumpkin seeds.
No memory of the night before, just the silence of our rental home, sun cutting through the vinyl curtains. I got up and felt good, refreshed, as I hadn’t in months. I checked the time and it was late, near noon. Silence in the home and my boy not at the desktop, not at the TV, not in bed or tidying his blocks. The door unlocked. I opened the door and called his name. I looked under the bed, checked the closets, the bathtub.
The phone rang. Amanda. Her teenager’s gone.
Turn it on, she said.
Turn what on?
I hung up. I turned it on. Jeanette and Morris seemed to be on every channel. Teenagers are gone! I Heart Gus painted on the sides of houses, soaped on car windows. I called the police. I told them my boy’s missing. He’s not the only one, they said. I said he gets confused. They’ll be over, they said. They never showed.
We made our way towards Mall Fine. The tiki torches, dipped fresh in oily pitch, were lit at the drive and they belched yellow flame. We were angry. The men paused in the road to make practice swings with their rough-hewn clubs, worked at the strokes until the swish sound was heard in the darkening night.
The shamans had declared war, or something, on us. Orchestrated a coup, took our kids, those that hadn’t left on their own steam. My boy taken for the tile that cut Gus Beach’s head, I guess. They didn’t know of his problems like I did, neither could they love him. But hurt him? In my hand I had a kitchen knife, in the other a flashlight. I had filled my purse with snacks for my boy, things I knew would draw him from the arms of the shamans. Oatmeal cream pies, cold hot dogs, marshmallows.
Mac and Bill drove in from Iowa, Freddy and Amanda showed. Amanda wore a sweatshirt with shamans written on it and crossed out with red marker. Freddy had a bullhorn made of cardboard and he rallied us on.
Mall Fine loomed and smoke rose in bunches from their numerous ritual fires, lofted up to the sky. I followed its path and expected to find the sky teeming in a calamity of doom. But the smoke was swallowed in fading blue of dusk. The glow of the fires flashed against the stucco walls of Mall Fine.
Some had tom-tom drums and a steady rhythm played. Those who played had faces drawn on with a slurry of ash and canola oil.
And there were our teenagers. Stomping and tearing their clothes, wrapped fresh in throws of burlap and handspun wool, the girls and boys identical in their wrath, and they stared at us, and the adults too, closed one eye and squinted the other, raised their hands and pulled the imaginary trigger of yon.
So we advanced.
The handmade books were worded simply and there were instructions on how to be happy, how to be spiritually clean, to conceive naturally and with pleasure, how to see the future. There were recipes for the lentil cakes, for barley stew, for drinks made with agave syrup and fermented wheat berries. All of it written in a neat, flowing hand.
So I went to the grocery store and bought the lentils, the hominy, searched in vain for the wheat berries, the agave syrup, settled on honey, a half pint bottle of rum.
I bypassed the toilet paper, the dish soap, I wrote a check which the register girl took with a frown, and failed to give me a receipt.
My boy took the bag of food, his face squinchy still but at least the stain of the mineral poultice had lightened on his forehead where a careful nick remained.
On the second try the ignition of our car rolled over and I drove us home, the round tires of the car sluicing through the gray snowmelt of winter. The rental house smelled of bleach and all the worn surfaces shone as much as they ever would, our clothes jumbled, stuffed into heavy plastic bags which my boy jumped on as though they were piles of leaves.
We going for a vacation trip, he asked from the clothes, which had started to spread on the floor.
What do you think?
We going to Disney Mouse?
Well I just don’t know, I said.
A big grin appeared on his face.
I’m gotta get my thing.
Back in the car we drove. A soft mist drifted down. Christmas lights twinkled from houses and storefronts had festive sale signs in their windows. People young and old trundled head down on the wet sidewalks. The radio played. You’ve got a friend in Jesus.
Past the memorials we drove, past the char blackened husk of the pavilion, past the outraged group of Concerned Oak County Citizens Against Shamanism who shook their limp signs and brass cowbells.
Inside Mall Fine were the extinguished cook fires and scattered nearby were the cast iron pots and pans and ceramic basins, wicker baskets of cloth and silverware, smashed jars of pickled tomatoes and sweet preserves.
With my boy we stoked a fire and when the light glared so the dimness was not whole, I let my boy go and he disappeared into the semi-stocked aisles of Mall Fine and I could hear him ooh and ah and coo as he ripped open boxes of toys and sporting goods and kitchenware that had no electricity to run on.
I sifted through the shamans’ belongings, kept a comb, a wallet with intricate stitching, a large dress of burlap that I took with me to the sleeping area. I sat on a wooden pallet bed and looked around. Made sure my boy was occupied, called out to make sure, then began to undress.