Cathartes Aura and the Apocalypse Zoo by Eighty Six The Poet
July 11, 2011 Fiction
Cathartes Aura and the Apocalypse Zoo is a one-thousand line post-apocalyptic novel-in-verse about a zoo on the day no one showed up, narrated by a captive turkey vulture. Written in 10 by 10 format. Episode 2: “Cathartes Aura on the Road from Nowhere” is due to be released in August, 2011.
Visit Eight Six the Poet’s site at http://eightysixthepoet.blogspot.com
Cathartes Aura and the Apocalypse Zoo
Published by Eighty Six
Copyright 2011 Eighty Six
Off day at the zoo. No one came to work.
The gates were not unchained. No tourists tapped
At the glass, grackled, squawked, mimicked the birds.
And we were never fed. Three times a day
They liked to throw us parts: legs furred with hooves,
Hindquarters with the tail, heads with antlers
Or horns attached. Every beak grab a gland
And tug, twist, flap with all your appetite.
Get your gutful before they pull the corpse.
End of show. But the gawkers, they loved it.
Pressed their cheeks and faces into the glass.
Strobe shots from lenses and flashbulbs. Big-eared
Buck-toothy profiles uglying my view,
Laughing in languages, throwing chocolates
At the children and monkeys running loose.
Sketch artists with pads on easels, scratching,
Brushing, crushing graphite into pulp. Bent
Foreheads and frowns. Crooked caps and wire-frames.
Grunting and waving off kids, they stop, stand
To smoke, to hiss and nod at their markings.
But no one today. No chap-stick blowfish.
No high-pitched docents. The straw-hat lady
Did not enter with rake and bag, cooing
Like a dove, whistling like a finch, to scrape
Feathers, dung, and coughed meat from our sawdust.
The two men with the cart did not roll up:
One strangled the garbage while the other
Snapped on fresh plastic. The can overflows
With half-eaten dogs, unwanted lunches
And fly-buzzed cans stinking outside our cage.
Four windows with four vultures glaring, snubbed
By the meat-man. On display. Crows cackle
Dancing on our chain-link lid. Pigeons strut
Rainbow and fine down the concrete catwalk
Pausing to peck at dust and lint. The Twins
Wake pissed and starved. I am beak-to-the-glass
While Eldest sits circumspect in the tree.
The park mumbles with hoots, trumpets, and grunts.
But no chik-a-chik-chik from the sprinklers.
No lawnmowers. No barks from the P.A.
Silent as a sequined dress, a peacock
Bobs and struts, nodding cross-eyed, sifting seeds
From cigarette butts, dog chips, and spat gum.
A squirrel rattles the garbage, sniffs for nuts.
The bird confronts the challenge, spreads its tail
Like a hand of great cards, jingling turquoise
Golden green. The squirrel scurries up a tree.
The three crowd and elbow me at the glass
While the peacock tracks the squirrel like a dish
Of sherbet-colored bird-footed radar.
All the paint on a peacock is varnished
And glossy on his front like a marquee.
His rump is downy brown, drumsticks shaking
Under the burden of his ass-feathers.
Eldest bangs her hooked beak on the window
Once, then twice. With a hop and a rustle
The peacock pivots, inch by step, to face
Four scarlet heads over matted black wings
Hunched, beaks wide and hissing, stubby pink tongues
Twitching like babies anxious to be fed.
The peacock squares, eyeballs like peppercorns,
Staring down its reflection. Four of us
Clouding dust and black feathers in the air,
Scratching the glass and each other, rasping
For a morsel of trash. One pane of glass.
One pane of glass. A leaf floats down the path
And the peacock moves on, switching focus
To the new disturbance, and my cell-mates
Vent frustration on me. Where’s the carcass?
When’s the feed? Always blame the little guy.
Fold my legs. Tuck my head under a wing.
Wrap my wings around my guts. I’m a ball.
I’m a tumbling weed. A turd in the dirt.
Beaks and toenails. Hisses and disgorgement.
Sawdust and rocks. I’m a slithering snake
Squeezing into a burrow where the gang
Cannot follow. This is a favorite spot.
Soon, the Twins will turn claws on each other,
Eldest will watch noon climb over the rocks,
And I’ll find perch in our tree’s highest branch.
The dust settles. Everything stops moving
But the sun. Our atmosphere grows rancid
With vulture gas, boredom, and stale UV.
The path is bare. No stirrings in the trees.
The temperature climbs. All creatures lay down:
Rodents, birds, cats, dogs, reptiles, pacaderms.
From this branch, I’ve seen trucks haul meat and grain,
Crowds grow and shrink as guides herd them along,
Yet today, we all lie watching, waiting,
But one jet, standing on a tail of smoke.
The plane hangs in the sky like the black head
Of a white spear, stretching like gum, all day
To cross the few blue feet over my head.
The sound is low: wind through a pipe, the hush
Of horror, a long cool chill up the back.
A thunderless bolt makes me blink and weep.
A beam lances the jet and with a flash
It falls in octopus streamers, curling
And smoldering like a booted campfire.
The jet-trail, halted, grows wide in the wind.
The whiskered macaque crawls out of the trees
To perch on the railing, tail like a flag,
Nostrils flared, ribs in and out, grinning wide
Before it springs atop the domed trash lid,
Which tilts a few degrees. He splays his paws,
Holds on for a time before it screeches
From his grip to clang against the concrete.
He rebounds to the rail. Ass to the sky
He buries his head in the can, tossing
Wrappers and cartons across the pavement.
In a cloud of paper and foil, he curls
His tail with a question, withdraws a nut,
Sniffs it, rolls it from cheek to cheek. It cracks
Between his molars. He spits bits of shell
Into the trees and goes back in the can
For a bag of sandwich cookies. He twists
And licks the icing, unscrews another
Before stuffing the last six in his cheeks
And leaping to our window in one bound.
He fogs the glass, crunching down Oreos.
His cheeks are stretched like balloons as he grinds
Cookies back to flour, eyes wide and alive
Like a child at his first circus, scanning
From bird to bird, the hatch in our ceiling,
Our water dish, the tree and the rock wall.
He flexes his neck and swallows a lump
Of chocolate and cream then leers with canines
Speckled black. He steps back, squints at our box.
His forehead wrinkles, lips make a circle
As he hoots. He runs off, pissing a trail.
The feathers crawl up my spine, wings, and neck.
I shiver in the sunlight. No bird moves
As the sun dives, slides purpling from our view.
The light fails. The Twins stare blank at the floor.
Eldest stands stoic in the branches, down
Soft and grey ruffling on her neck, inert
With patience. The hatch does not creak. No meat
Ever falls. Pastels turn to ink and night
Comes complete. Stars twinkle like ice. Echoes
Of hoots and grunts quiet and less quiet.
Crashing in the trees, nails on stone, shadows
Flash through moonbeams, whooping. The tribe is here
Piling at our windows: eyeballs, hot breath,
Anxious teeth and hectic fingers on glass
Trying for traction. Monkeys leap screeching
For grip, chattering, nipping each other
Until one jumps from the hanging branches.
The others follow. Macaques clang like hail
On the mesh of our roof, but none can squeeze
he chain-link. They poke hissing faces.
Grasping hands shoulder-deep. Hungry muzzles
Stretched to the ears. Leaves, urine, twigs, and dung
From the ceiling. Several bang up and down
On the hatch, seeking to shake it open.
Another pokes, sniffs, and gnaws the hinge-pin
While brothers and sisters chew at the cage.
All eyeballs, limbs, and fuzz, the youngest squirms
And screws himself through a diamond-shaped hole.
He plops on our floor, face snarled like a wolf,
Claws raised like a phantom, haunting the birds.
We pile like leaves in the corner, armored
Against our attacker. The three big birds
Hide behind me, tucking heads under tails
To be invisible. The snarl slackens
On the young macaque’s face. He’s half my height.
The roof crawls with adults. He lifts his eyes
And frowns to the molars before Eldest
Flaps twice and spears the monkey by the throat.
The Twins grab limbs and I go for the guts
As the hinge-pin and hatch fall to the floor.
And the dam breaks. I’m slopping down entrails
As moonlit fur, glossy eyes, tongues and fangs
Pour in like boiling water. Our glass box
Rings with screams, steams with feathers, piss, and blood.
As monkeys rain from the ceiling, Eldest
Flaps from the floor. I follow as a fist
Tears some quills from my ass. I reach our tree
And watch the tribe pull the wings from the twins:
Still pecking eyes, flashing claws to the end.
Eldest, like a moth, floats out of the cage.
The flesh of the young macaque hits my gut
And it groans with gratitude. Just a bite.
Only a bite. The twins eyes are dead fish.
They are meat on bone and I’ve been so long
Without meat. The monkeys swarm and billow
Like smoke. Down there is death. I’ve seen enough.
Time to go. I jump and flap for the roof
Yet sink like a stone toward leaping fingers
Before finding slippery grip, stumbling
Through the air, crash-banging out of the hatch.
Rowing upstream. Never seen so much air.
It clots like syrup, sticks in my feathers,
Tows me down. Lungs and breast burn with acid.
Don’t know where I’m going and won’t make it
But I’m out of the coop, over the cage,
Into the sky. All predators behind.
I spread open like a plummeting tent.
I’m held by the wind. I feel the river
Flowing and I am a ripple, a leaf
Swirling in an eddy, a wobbling cork.
Tendons creak like a morning stretch. Bones pop.
Wings tingle with new blood. My chest opens
And I can breathe. Finally I can smell
Something other than vultures. My nostrils
Sting with pollen, fur, and loam. Dizzy, buzzed
With input, my head thin with oxygen
I glide like a dream over moonlit walls,
Roofs, and bars while anxious hooves pace the earth.
Never another cage, no box, no dirt
On these feet. I am a creature of air.
I am a shadow over trails and fields.
I am vapor through the clouds. I feel thin
As a tissue in the wind, swirling up
Up until the zoo is gone, a black spot
In the blackness. A hush in the silence.
Even my feathers go still. What goes up
Must come down, but before it does it stops.
Then the gradual acceleration,
That beak-down, stomach-floating sensation
As the zoo returns, expanding and pale.
I can see again: the moon-bleached structures,
Shining paths, silver lawns, and ashen trees.
Macaques lounge in and around my old home,
Picking teeth, each other’s fur. Dozing off.
I see their slit eyes. Whistling as I fall
I stretch my wings and lift my head as meat
Hits my nostrils again. I need to sleep,
Put this all together: the unchained gates,
The absent gawkers, unfed beasts roaming
At will, breaking out before breaking in.
A patch of grass, benches, picnic tables
Then a grove of maple trees, leaves like hands
Constructing shadow figures on the ground.
Over the fence, gazelles rest like pistons:
One at a time, a wide-eared head pops up
To scan the yard and then falls back to sleep.
I can make it to the trees, teetering
On numb wings. I can make it to the trees
And find sleep sheltered under pale foliage
Or crash trying and become monkey food.
The next mouth fed in this park will be mine
As soon as I nap. Never flown this far.
Never been a bird, just a stuffed target
For cameras and pointed fingers. I’m born
Again in the morning. If I make it.
I’m coming in too fast. Nothing simple
To catch branches on the fly in the dark.
I circle and spread wide, slow like a bat,
And find my perch, gasping. I tuck my head,
Fall dead asleep to dream of pungent meat.
On a lilied pond, a log bobs and twists
In my grip. Must keep my wings dry. Eyeballs
Of gators, nostrils of gar surround me.
Jaws lunge and snap at my dripping feet, leap
At my tail as I flap for the ceiling
Of a glass pyramid. Walls closing in.
Something smells like meat and it might be me.
Faces smashed ear-to-jowl at the windows.
Fogging breath. Camera flashes. Starving moans.
The sun rising on a dead-eyed gazelle.
I wake so fast I drop a tail-feather.
The corpse stares glossy and gray, tongue hanging,
Throat crushed and bloodied with a long red snot
Congealed at its snout. Its hindquarters torn.
Loops of gut swing free, aswarm with black ants.
I have been a good boy and the sun shines
Finally on my plumage. The eyeballs.
The twins always beat me to the eyeballs.
But now they’re all mine, popping and juicy,
And more meat than a bird could eat all week.
I pounce and shred. I’m a savage, starved beast.
Like a downpour in the desert, sugar
Explodes on my veins and my brain. I stop
Sharp at the sight of a panther, stretched deep
In a paw-twitching, bare-fanged hunting dream.
I jump to the end of the branch, which creaks
And cracks. The gazelle shifts. The monster wakes.
Green eyes snap open. Lips curl as his kill
Crashes to the ground. Dead asleep becomes
A sling-shot boulder bounding through the crown.
Claws slice the air as I tumble backward,
Somersault once before finding my wings.
The panther roars as I flap out of range.
I row and row towards the safety of sky,
My own blue space, but my gut is like lead.
I’ve doubled my weight and float like a stone.
My wings sag. My vision narrows. Tightness
In my sternum. I see a stand of trees
But cannot fly straight. I paddle and push
Against the gusts, but drift where the wind blows.
I have caught fire. My cage-softened muscles
Have had enough. I’m coming in gentle
As a toolbox down a staircase, tumbling,
Swapping feathers for grass-stains, grace for mud.
I lift myself from my crater, somehow
Nothing busted, skull filled with hummingbirds,
And look about: a sloped lawn with a moat
At its foot, awash with spooked ducks and geese,
A tall barbed fence, scattered rocks and boulders
Draped with indolent, daydreaming lions.
The morning is golden blue. Puffed cotton
Rolls lethargic across the sky like sheep
Without a shep
herd. The zoo is silent
Except for occasional quacks and honks,
The breeze in the treetops, and soft snoring
From the pride. Tails and paws dangle from rocks.
Cubs and lionesses lay out on stones
In full radiation. The maned alpha
Grooms top to bottom with a rasping tongue
Licking his big males, finishing slowly.
Light as a moth, I creep around, alert
For a morsel of food. Knuckles and fur,
Gristle and dung. The ducks bob in the moat.
The geese patrol the lawn, snatching up greens
But no one’s fed the lions. I peck scraps
And tug carcasses. Just a little meat
Between two ribs. Flapping, I shake and twist,
Rattle bones against rocks, wish for a team.
This is easier with more than one bird.
Up the hill, ears perk. An eye pops open.
The alpha stands with a roar, shaking leaves
From trees, quaking the ground. I drop my bones
And he’s down the hill like an avalanche.
I try to fly but only hop. I’m leashed
To the earth by a sick heavy stomach.
I flap twice. The lion is in my face
When some gazelle comes back up. Must have turned
Into some kind of fish, sour and stenching.
The cat stops, skidding, batting at foul meat
Draped across one brow, hanging from his beard.
Lightened, I fly away over the moat
To perch upon the fence. The ducks and geese
Swim circles, raising ruckus, splashing wings
While the alpha licks the back of his paw,
Wipes his face, rubs his chin on his shoulder.
He smoothes his mane and shakes his whole body.
Restored, he turns his snarl to the vulture
Roosted on the fence, unattainable.
Another earthquake roar, scratching the dirt,
Upraised tail, showing fangs, spraying urine.
Roars shrink to growls and then grumbling. The male
Sneers and turns back to his harem, kicks dust
My way before reclining in the shade.
I hope these ducks don’t try to eat me, too.
Need a hideout, a place of peace, somewhere
That I’m the predator and not the prey.
Need some air under these wings, perspective,
Some distance from this dirt. I flap away
To seek altitude, a new point of view,
Sanctuary for the persecuted.
Into the wind again. Out of the mud.
Lions shrink to kittens. Noises grow faint.
A clean breeze replaces the funk of fur,
Droppings and starvation. I’ve held one breath
Since yesterday morning. I release it
And glide like a kite over gates, cages,
Bolts and locks. A sniffing grizzly bear squats
Atop a candy machine, eyeing gum,
Chocolate and pretzels. He scratches the glass
And grunts before smashing it with one blow.
As the bear separates wrappers and shards
From chips and taffy, a striped shadow creeps
From behind the restrooms. Hunched low like grass,
Ears flat, whiskers twitching, the tiger leers
At the beast licking frosting from his snout.
Her paws pad up and down, testing traction,
Revving in neutral. The bear sniffs, looks up
From his cupcakes, roars from deep in his chest,
And stretches to full height. The cat hisses
And leaps twelve feet up to the bathroom roof.
I soar away from the bear-cat standoff
And perch on a tarry wooden lamp-post
In the center of a pond. Lily pads
Dot the surface. Dragonflies fill the air.
Turtles nap on sunny logs. A ripple
Wiggles through the water, coming my way.
Gray with brown spots, the anaconda flicks
Its tongue in the air, circles the post once,
And ascends like stripes up a barber pole.
Why is everything trying to eat me?
It’s not a fast snake, so I look around.
From up here the zoo is a big pie, sliced
Into wedges by fences, walls, and paths
With the whole thing ringed in brick, ten yards high.
A lighthouse stands tall behind the front gate.
It might be safe from monkeys, cats, serpents,
Charging elephants, plague, armies of ants,
Or whatever is coming at me next.
I could get struck by lightning, but somehow
This bird needs a nap and time to digest.
The forked tongue nearly at my feet, I jump
From the pole and swoop out over the pond.
Bullfrogs snap at flies. Caimans snap at frogs.
I paddle and flap toward the gate. The air
Thickens and grows viscous. No good at this.
Struggling. My stomach starts to kick again.
Acid in my throat. The tower of brick
Pokes like a finger into the blue sky.
A lamp topped with a roof. Shelter enough.
I crash in like a feathered bag of trash.
When I’m done rasping, when my heart has slowed
I listen to the silence of the wind
Blowing through the lighthouse like a stray wolf
Calling for his pack. He howls from the west,
Receives a swirling response. I duck deep
Against the bulb, dig claws into the bricks
Where I can’t hear roars, screeches, or hisses.
No cage. Only one bird in this tower.
The vacuum builds, pulls feathers from my back.
Now the weather is coming to get me.
Certainly not in a box anymore.
Not behind a wall. I’m in the climate.
Up in the atmosphere. Not a zoo-pet
Any longer and I’m swimming upstream
Under a waterfall. How can I drown
In so much air? Cramped and crowded, I stretch
And my wings unsnap like an umbrella.
Blown into space, I tumble like a weed,
Dig frantically for control as I fall
Down from the tower like a kicked-off boot.
Racing with panic, I force myself tight
Wing-tip to wing-tip, feet straight back, tail wide
And eyes bugged, braced for a thunderous crash.
The turbulence stills and I catch the curve
Of the current, spiral in smooth circles
Over the park. I cannot fight the wind.
It leads and I follow. I can’t argue
When it speaks. I rush down mountains of air
And swoop up the other side with no flaps.
No muscles. And I can see forever.
Eternal turquoise water to the west
Curling with foam and crashing on the sand,
Thumping like drums, tossing logs like matches,
Circling the zoo. To the south, charred timber
On each side of the canal and a road
Winding away through a valley. The sky
Spins with gulls, stampedes with charging white clouds.
Herring schools shimmer around the island.
Everywhere else, as far as I can see
Wave after wave of golden evergreens.
My quills stand up thrilled on shivering skin.
Leaning into the air, trusting the lift
And build of my feathers, I close my eyes.
I was made for this: patrolling the blue
Not crawling the ground, pecking with chickens,
Collecting soil, running with dogs, twisting
In the dirt with worms. They made a hamster
From a hawk, an eagle into a hare.
Catch me now. Chain me. Stick me in a box.
I shrug the dust behind me like a plume.
The odors of salt and kelp turn my head
To the sea. So rotten, so mineral
And so clean. Never seen more than a dish
Of water until today. It has life
And a pulse that throbs in my chest, rattles
My ribs as it strikes land, charges the beach,
Slows, slides with the last of its momentum
Until it retreats, spent, pebbles shushing
And the process repeats, oscillating
Steady as the sun going round and round.
The next wave throws a spiny orange fish
On the sand, staring blank, jaws gaping wide.
From under a log, a red-lidded crab
Pokes beady black eyes, wiggles his mouth-parts,
And scuttles after the flotsam. A herd
Of crustaceans follows, clacking pincers.
They swarm the meat, which twitches one last time
Before the gulls arrive. They scream and pose
With beaks agape, wings high, voices piercing.
Each trying to prove that they’re the big bird.
I’m the big bird. These little gauzy moths.
These floating pigeons. Like a big dark bomb
I drop and they spread like a cloud of lint
While I peck out an eye and gulp it back.
I rest one foot on the fish. The other
Tingles with crabs, piling and then pinching
As the gulls reconfigure. They bombard
From all sides, louder, ten times as many
Like the waves of the ocean. I lift off
And they don’t chase, only wanting their food.
I return to the tower as the sky
Gilds and purples and the clouds glow like coals.
I orbit the lighthouse as some bed down
And others crawl out into the evening.
A black snout pokes from under a kiosk,
Sniffs left and right before white stripes emerge
Into the fading light, tail standing tall.
The skunk bounces from shadow to shadow.
Dragging its belly, the grizzly grumbles
Down the path, licking chocolate from his nose.
Grunting, he skids to a stop at the sight
Of a black and white aiming her ass-glands.
He falls on his tail. Approaching sideways
The skunk closes the distance, stamps her paws.
I perch in the tower. The wind has died
To a comfortable breeze. I fold my wings,
Hook my head over the edge as the bear
Runs for his life like a furred cannonball.
While the sun sets, an orange glow flickers
To the north past the fields of golden firs.
I’m gliding like a jet above meadows
Of redwoods, puddles of oceans, fistfuls
Of mountains scattered like a gravel road.
Condors swarm like locusts, shoals of blue whales
Breach and spout while crowds of elephants splash
And hop in the shallows like frogs. I soar
Over a valley. Chest thumping, hooting
Marmoset-scale gorillas dot each tree.
The slope tilts and steepens. I’m not flying
But falling, heart-in-ass, face-down a cliff.
I jump awake, gong my head on the lamp
And squint at the rising sun. Songbirds chirp
And whistle, always making too much noise
While meaning nothing. The macaques eat pests
From each others’ fur. The tiger stretches,
Yawning in a nest of peacock feathers.
A fuzzy lank blur swings through the branches,
Leaps over the paths, scampers over roofs,
Stops pendulous at the lighthouse, fretful,
Hanging from his tail, staring and transfixed.
The spider monkey sways like a bauble
Wrinkling his face, moving his lips and tongue
Without a noise. His curiosity
Makes me curious. He gapes and scratches
While I float down to perch upon a sign.
His attention is held by the gift-shop:
A motley window packed solid with newts,
Hippos, a rainbow of snakes, five sizes
Of elephants, parrots, and one monkey
Stretched like taffy from corner to corner.
They even have a vulture: plastic-eyed,
Plush, grinning, and much too clean to be real.
The spider jumps from his tree to the glass,
Fogs the pane, giggles with anxiety
To himself slowly, taps with no response.
He screeches, climbs to the top of the frame
To re-examine the scene upside-down.
A dozen shades of panda ignore him.
This could go on all day. I flap away
To see what all the banging is about.
The barn echoes with thuds, meat on metal,
Creaking iron. The bamboo roof trembles.
Clouds of dust, manure, bits of straw billow
From within. An ocelot tiptoes, peers
Around the corner, flinches at a blast
From a trunk. More bugles, stamping, wrenching.
I park on the fence. I can see inside:
Two elephants behind two stout steel gates.
The bull bleeds from the head. His prison strains
To contain him as he throws his whole mass.
The male hurls shoulder and ribs at the gate
While his mate leans feeble next door, too gray
And too gaunt. The bull trumpets and bashes
Until both tusks fit through the gap. He drives
With all four legs, weight low, and hinges snap.
He tumbles into open space, looks back
At the wreck and marches to sunlight.
The cat sprints up a tree. Reflexively
I leap from the fence and orbit the barn.
Ears wide, the bull snorts, primed for a challenge.
Gradually, his breathing slows, his heart
Stops throbbing the air. He quits staring down
Every tree, rock, and sparrow. Nothing here
To stomp. He strips some leaves from a branch, grinds
Them in his molars, looks back in the barn
At a trunk curling through the bars. She leans
But barely rattles the gate. He returns
With a sapling. He bangs his bloodied skull
With no change. The gate only opens out.
He pulls down beams, cracks glass, and smashes signs.
He breaks through to the lobby, where humans
Used to watch the beasts. He splinters a bench,
Pushes down a wall and stands free, silent
And still for a full minute with sunlight
On his wrinkled back. Dust settles. The cat
Pokes its spotted head from the tree, probing
The sudden quietness. The bull exhales
Before turning around, stepping softly
Over shattered panes and crushed carpentry.
He stills himself and reaches through the bars.
Chuckles and giggles carry on the wind,
Turning my attention to something new.
I swoop over a field of barbecues,
Picnic tables, shade trees, and gazebos.
On one table, quills high, a porcupine
Stands against a cackle of hyenas.
They circle, heads dipping, exchanging looks
Of cunning and concern. One dashes in,
Swipes with one paw to expose the belly
But jumps back with a face full of needles.
The sun is tall and the shadows are short.
No hyena will jump in or give up.
The porcupine grunts and pivots. A bark
Breaks the standoff. The hunters raise their heads
In union, look back at the ball of spines
And gallop toward the pond where their comrade
Has cornered the anaconda, bloated
And immobile with a corpse in his gut.
Bouncing across the waves like a hiccup,
The sound of an outboard pushing a skiff.
The ocean is a big rolling blanket
Of sparkling blue. Seals bob in social rings,
Watchful, scouting from the top of each swell
For the source of fumes and pendulous noise.
Clear and then muted, an engine sputters
With the rhythm of the waves. I circle
On the offshore breeze, effortless as sleep.
Heedless, the gulls pull apart their rockfish.
The crabs pinch off bites. An oily dark bird
Surfaces with a flounder in his beak.
He tilts his head back, opens wide, attempts
To drop the whole thing into his stomach
But finds it too wide to fit his gullet.
I hear a cascade of golden needles
And the ruffle of feathers in the air.
As the bird adjusts his catch, an eagle
Plummets from his nest on a cliff-side pine,
Swoops over and clasps the fish in one claw.
e bird splashes a frustrated circle
Chirping as the thief returns to his nest.
The western sky is puffed with white and gray.
To the north is flickering black. The boat
Hops closer and closer to the island.
The driver pushes it hard and is paid
With repeated showers of sea-water.
Her tethered straw hat streams behind. Each wave
Nearly knocks it afloat. She grips the wheel
With white knuckles, turns sharp into the troughs
And then steeply up the slope of each swell.
She beaches the boat hard, scattering gulls.
Dizzied, she stumbles from the boat searching
For her land-legs. The gulls scold with raised wings.
She has crushed their meal but pays it no mind
As she stomps down the beach in rubber boots
Straightening her hat. “Why, oh why?” she coos,
Observing the burnt and busted timbers,
Looking south down the interrupted road.
She searches through her pockets while marching
To the gate, shaking her head and mumbling:
“The hell did they think we were doing here?”
Crows line the gate as she draws a huge ring
Of keys from her jacket. “Good day,” she chimes
And bends her hat brim. She flips through each key
Chatting to herself, recalling or not
Each one’s purpose. She removes the padlock
And the chain, one clanking link at a time.
She shoves. The gate swings smoothly. “Finally
He oils it.” Content with their view, the crows
Don’t budge. At a mess of peacock feathers
She winces, but steps through the gate humming.
She props open the aviary doors
With two garbage cans, a log, and a rock
And runs around with hands flapping, shooing
Wood-ducks, warblers, and cranes. The birds remain
Calmly out of reach. A crane spears a frog.
The warblers peck at a seed-bell. The ducks
Submerge their beaks, rooting through the flora.
With a long-handled net she bangs on trunks,
Splashes the pond, and shakes branches. “Get out,”
She urges as they stare. “You’ve got to go.”
She moves to the insect house, which is crowned
By mammoth tarantulas, horse-sized ants,
And three-meter beetles all carved from wood.
She cringes without stopping. A shadow
With green eyes watches from a tree. Next stop
Is the rainforest lodge. Primates, rodents,
And cats pace through thick jungle behind glass.
Constrictors in trees wait for their feeding.
Lizards squint and flick tongues. She starts to sing:
“Ten little monkeys jumping on the bed.”
Eyes half-open, the sloth lets the moss grow
In its pelt while he hangs. He lifts one foot,
Decides not to move and puts it back down.
In the same box, the orange marmosets
Spring from twig to leaf. One tugs the sloth’s fur.
He turns his head. He raises his eyelids
And waves a claw the monkey’s direction.
He misses. The lady raises a brick,
Heaves it from the shoulder, and with a crash
Sets them free. “One fell off and broke his head.”
Marmosets scatter. The sloth bends a branch
To his mouth and thoughtfully chews in peace.
The lady breaks more glass. Capybaras,
Howlers, servals, iguanas, and tapirs
All join the parade. She wipes her brow, bright
With pride. She walks outside to watch them melt
Into the undergrowth. A lone macaque
Sits on the railing. He circles his lips
And starts to hoot. “Mama called the doctor,”
She replies, beaming, “And the doctor said ”
The tribe congeals from shadows and bushes,
Blocking the path and hanging from branches.
Her mouth hangs slack. She tries to smile at them
But only gulps like a fish on a dock.
From three sides, they advance slowly, glancing
Back and forth, licking fangs. With no quick moves
She retreats backwards toward the jungle house.
The green-eyed ghost drops from the roof, silent
Except the thump of paws, and with a snap
Takes her by the throat and runs up a tree.
Back when people came to the zoo for fun
There was a fire. Someone had thrown the butt
Of their glowing cigar in a dumpster.
The flames soon melted the split plastic lids
And jumped to the trees before a brigade
Arrived with hoses, spraying foam from cans,
Preventing the blaze from rushing away.
Charred trunks were sawn off and the stumps removed.
The new dumpster was fenced-in and locked-up.
Still the tar of that smell clings in my brain.
That scent is back, carried by a nervous
And jerky south-bound wind, spooked and bolting
In gusts, stained with coal and stinking of ash.
I swoop back to the lighthouse for the view
And to have distance from my predators.
The northern horizon is flashing black,
Red and orange, boiling with inky smoke,
Cremating golden trees by the acre
And the mile. Much bigger than a dumpster
And I doubt the brigade is coming soon.
Like the petal of a tiny gray rose
Or a wayward snowflake, a floating ash
Lazy and weightless drifts past my nostrils.
My heart hammers. An old voice in my brain
Screams: “Fly now, fly fast, and no looking back.”
The ashes build to a flurry, swirling
And piling like autumn leaves. I can’t go
And miss what happens next. I can’t escape
And not see the final act. The storm builds
As I shudder the gray from my feathers.
Like a rifle-shot, the largest macaque
Launches to the roof of the jungle house
With nostrils and eyes wide, licking the air.
A brother follows him and is greeted
With a beating, a bite to the deltoid.
Blood running off his elbow, he tumbles
To the path where a young monk grins, gets smacked
Upside the head with the good hand and runs
Shrieking toward the fence. The Alpha flashes
His fangs at the ash-flakes, hissing at sparks.
Orange dashes dip and dodge with the gray
Like fireflies invading the daylight.
Ashes drift in dunes while the north crackles
Like sneaking through the dry woods. Thunder grows
From thousands of pops, sizzles, and crackles.
The wind is rich with turpentine, dancing
With first-date angst. Macaques gallop. Gazelles
Freeze. The big cats walk in ovals, stomping
And blaming each other for the weather
While giraffes stand tall in smoky cages.
The wind accelerates like a madman
Fleeing the crime-scene in a stinking car
Leaving clouds of obscuring gas. The day
Grows dark as a starless night. I huddle
Low as a stone while the zoo is swept clean
By the cathartic gale. Trash and ashes
Howl over my head. Strong or curious
I creep toward the edge, squinting at the glow
Beyond the ridgeline, barbarian red
Roaring and feral, charging for plunder.
Atop the nearest hill a golden tree
Bursts into chips and a column of flame
With a crack that swivels every head: furred,
Scaled or feathered. They all turn south and sprint
Against fences, walls, and windows, wide-eyed
And foaming as the stampede rolls sparking
Through groves of cedars, spruces, and hemlocks
With shattering bangs, casting long shadows
Of stumbling calves, yowling pups, downy chicks
All chasing down their parents through the gloom.
Whirling like a mill, the blaze grinds lumber
Into deafness and bl
indness. The howl chimes
My spire like a tuned fork while my eyes tear
From flashes and fumes. I blink it away
And watch vortices pull branches from trees,
Trees from the earth and earth from the bedrock
Into a tornado of fuel and coals
Spinning debris in every direction:
Skyward like confetti, at the cold sea
Hissing, and forward into fresh tinder.
Hotter than August and brighter than noon
Pillars of fire soon stand north, east, and south
Drowning the noise of the surf to the west.
Snorting and haughty, they stare down the zoo
And the thin fiber of water between.
Panicked and broad, eyes gleam in the brightness.
The captives fleeing south sense they are flanked
And stop dead, turn back, or run in circles
Looking for escape as blazing timber
Pinwheels through the sky like dust from a saw.
Having stood by her cage all day, the bull
Trumpets like a volcano and charges
Out the lobby, down the path, through fences,
Stamping craters in mud, gravel, and sod,
Draped in ivy, chain-link, various bloods
With meat and bone on tusk and underfoot,
Tipping carts and lawn-mowers, smashing glass,
Concrete and bamboo, finally plowing
Through the north gate as a ten yard cedar
Crashes blazing onto the jungle house.
It’s time to go. This party’s getting old.
Too hot and sulfurous. I feel downwind
Of an oncoming train. Time to get feet
Off the tracks and into air turbulent
With combustion, coning like a cyclone.
Again I am spun skyward like a leaf,
Like a cinder from the chimney, weightless
As a trace of paper, grayed by the heat.
Below me is fire, cold sea, and the zoo
On the wrong end of locomotive fumes.
Bullseyed by a scorching cedar rocket
The jungle house spouts smoke and flames. The thatch
Disappears from the roof-beams like blown dust.
Under a skeleton ceiling, the sloth
Squints up from raiding his vacant neighbors
Of saplings and shoots. Lowering his head
He stretches a two-clawed paw to the end
Of his range then reaches with the other
Moving his back legs in time. He almost
Gains ten feet before the house collapses.
The grizzly hurtles down the path, southbound
And singed, leaving sooty footprints, sneezing
From his whiskerless muzzle. He barrels
Through the gate, turns the crow’s heads as his feet
Touch cool sand. He sniffs the air and salt-foam,
Eyes the quarter-mile of choppy canal
Between himself and the gold-needled shore.
Like an Alaskan splashing the river
After an egg-fat Chinook, the grizzly
Hits the surf with a splayed-paw, snarling leap.
In the center of a broad wheel of grass,
Shrubs and acacias, the giraffe stands stiff
As an axle, unblinking as the oaks
And elms across the fence catch like candles.
Orange flickers on his glassy brown eyes
As he turns, finding himself encircled.
His brown coat striped with white netting shudders
As oxygen gets rare. Head and neck weave,
Bobbing like a cobra. He wheezes, swoons.
His knees give and he folds up like a chair.
The garage with the vans, trucks, and mowers,
The power-tools, golf-carts, and all the fuel
Explodes like a hammer-blow to the chest.
The wall is breached. Bricks scatter like snowflakes.
Burning tires on rims bounce into the sea
Sizzling as doors, beams, and chassis splash down.
The macaques exploit the gap, dodging flames
And leaping rubble to gain the beachhead.
Without a pause they dive into the waves
To swim after logs, benches and barrels.
Head stretched tall above a bubble-gum neck,
The ostrich sprints rings around a grassfire
Toes high with a dancer’s bounce. The bird stops,
Wings wide and pointless, pivots and runs back
In a circle the other direction.
The flames build height, volume, and temperature
Until tail-feathers spark spontaneous.
The rocket-powered ostrich gallops on
Consuming down, plumage, and alulars
Until it reverts to smoke, oil, and ash.
Turtles are baked in-shell on smoking logs.
Cranes flap twice and catch fire over water
Beginning to steam. Muddy banks thicken
And crack while crawdads pop like corn and snails
Bubble and foam. Lungfish wade through mudflats
Hunting for a gillful of clean water.
Mangroves and cottonwoods burst like matches.
In the lake’s center, crocodiles huddle
With hippos, eye each other and submerge
Into cool quiet, less flammable depths.
Beside a wrecked gate, behind a locked gate
A trunk droops across a hinge, puffing short
And sharp. Dust and oxygen are vacuumed
Into the cyclone. Weeds and hay ignite.
Wood and plastic vaporize. I can’t stay
Through anymore heat, turbulence, trauma,
More waste of meat, breath, and pulse. The furnace
Drives me to cooler skies, more distant views,
A less detailed vantage where I can’t smell,
I can’t observe more flesh return to soil.
I rise with the thermals until the air
Becomes blue again. I see a cauldron
Seething with boiling smoke and quenchless flame
In the island’s place. The canal has shrunk.
The ocean’s backed off from the inferno.
The beach is a quarter-mile of dry shells
And growing. Huffing hard, a trunk cuts north
Through the waves, followed by shoulders and hips
Churning with exertion toward a shoreline
Smoldering, stripped like the path of locusts.
He rises from the brine, slips and struggles,
Sinking in the muck. Head down and driving
He powers through the mudflats, feet slurping.
He plods ashore and rolls in the gray goop,
Masking his scorched, tattered hide. He lies down
In the ashes between two matchstick trees
While the fire mobs south, cauterizing stumps,
Pillaging timber at lunatic speed
And the zoo flickers blue as a torch, clean,
Blinding and final as a funeral.
The madness fades. The noise recedes. The blaze
Thunders away, hot for fresh fuel. The zoo
Crackles and glows like a late-night campfire,
Popping and ready for the marshmallows.
Gone is the canal. Just a ditch remains,
Muddy with flopping fish, barnacled stones
And a skeleton car way off the road.
The tide is a half-mile out. Oysters roast
And suffocate in the sun while gulls squawk
Like Christmas over stranded sole and rays.
In broad new tide-pools crab snap at sculpin
Horns up, defending their dens. Pipers strut
On virgin beach, probing for bugs and eels.
The air is stunk with tide-flat gas, welcome
After so much sulfur and smoke. A yacht
Is untombed mast, bow, and stern as the sea
Rewinds. Knee-deep, the kelp forest hangs limp.
The sun dips toward dusk in a fresh cleared sky,
Shadows stretching, blue warming to purple
As the horizon turns white with charged foam.
A gun-blue wall climbs in the west. The air
Begins to shudder, liver-deep, unlike
The high, snapping roar of the inferno.
The tide-pools jump with round ripples. Seagulls
Tug at thrashing bullhead. When I look back
The wall is double size. In a moment
It’s doubled again. My quills ring like forks
As the ocean returns like a riot
Rushing the beach, sweeping crabs and slow
Pushing trees like toothpicks shaggy with kelp.
Water races toward the zoo, skirts the walls,
Refills the canal and floods the forest.
The straw-hat lady’s boat is speared like fruit
By the charred forked corpse of a Douglass fir.
The embers sizzle but kindle on, splashed
But not quenched. The sea stirs, brown and littered
With lumber to feathers to tractor parts,
Swirling with energy, seeping through gates,
The macaque-breach, hairline cracks, and peep-holes.
And then, like a gavel, comes the big swell.
With avalanche weight, the whole Pacific
Snuffs the zoo without a hiss, buries trees
Like eelgrass, caps it all, even and blue.
I soar on the offshore gale with the wave
As it pours inland: a half-mile, a mile
And still going until the trees turn green
And leafy, bending like wheat in the breeze.
I circle as the flood slows, foams and fades
Dragging cords of blackened driftwood, acres
Of topsoil, sucking boulders from the earth.
I ride the wind east over a crater
Of glazed glass and sheared metal surrounded
By a wall of wings, props, and crossed rockets,
A banana-peeled turret on a bus,
A windowless clinic so stank and sour
No buzzard would stop, a road of strafed cars
With a tank on each end, a path of blank
Zig-zagging through town marked with blown houses
And shredded barns, and a hole burned clean through
A dam spouting like a cut artery.
I float on, over a double-ribbon
Of white-striped blacktop stretching south and north,
Eight lanes spotted with lost cars and corpses.
To the south, glinting in the setting sun
Rolls a blood-garnet colored, fresh-polished
Jaguar convertible on shined wire wheels
And oversized knobbies, canvas top down
With the driver reclined, feet on the dash,
Chrome glowing, sleek like a bullet-shaped fish
Drawn by a pair of strutting brown camels.
Both left feet, then both right feet, they saunter
Down the highway, harnessed to the Jag, humps
Tall and fat. The bigger male stretches down
In stride to snag a mouthful of clover.
The female tugs at the stems protruding
From his mouth. He grunts, jerks away, but groans
And shares after she bats those long lashes.
The car sways down the road to the rhythm
Of pacing dromedaries. The driver
Sprawls in a silk shirt and panama hat.
He lifts his feet and cherry stingray shoes
From the dashboard, tilts the passenger seat
And slides it forward, raises the cover
Of the fridge where the back seat used to be.
He extracts a bottle, jar, and chilled glass,
Pours a martini with chili garnish,
And fishes in his pocket for a tube.
He thumbs off the cap, dumps out a cigar,
Lights it with a ping from his pearl Zippo,
And puts his stingray shoes back on the dash.
As the Jag rolls down the road, smoke rings spin
Away into the purpling atmosphere
Toward a giant round moon. The driver leans
In his leather bucket, touches the dash
And a muted trumpet begins to play
Languidly with a snare and piano.
“We’re all alone,” croons an unhurried man,
“Smoke rings and I tonight.” I find a perch
And watch the shrinking of the moonlit car
With “NOMOGAS” stamped on the license plate.
My sincere thanks for reading my story. I only ask one more thing: that you give an honest review at http://www.smashwords.com.
The next episode will be available soon. “Cathartes Aura on the Road from Nowhere” will follow the camel-drawn Jaguar through the remains of the world. I’m working on it now. The future may also contain an illustrated print version of “Apocalypse Zoo”.
Keep track of me at http://www.eightysixthepoet.blogspot.com.
And my deepest gratitude to my wife. Without her support, encouragement, ideas, and silent inspiration none of this would be possible. She once told me that if I finished this project within the year, she’d illustrate it for me. The cover is done and the rest is coming. How I ever got so lucky, I’ll never know.
Thank you for everything, lasko.