Sometimes I pretend to sleep. I don’t want them to know I’m excited, I am in no hurry to wake up. Instead, I wait for Cardinal to roll out of bed, perform his characteristically weird stretching and yawning routine, take forever to find his slippers, and somehow bang and smash his way around making noises no one ever dreamed possible in such a spartan room. No one sleeps past Cardinal.
Jacob is also awake.
“Jesus Cardinal, you’re a one man band.”
Cardinal is dancing around now smashing together invisible cymbals and stomping his foot, a gigantic musical troll. The others slowly begin to emerge from dreams. I stretch, pull on some wool leggings and the grey tunic, and pull my hair back into a topknot. Jacob and I leave the dreamroom and head towards the mess hall.
“You ready TB?”
“For what?” I know exactly what he’s talking about.
“To rock out this assessment, you amnesiac.”
“Sure, whatever Jacob. I need some tea.”
Jacob and I always have tea together. He’s a sweet guy really, calming, funny, but easily frustrated. We avoid emotional conversation. Really the entire station does. This is not an emotional place. I notice a dried white and tan mushroom pinned to Jacob’s tunic.
“Is that a deathcap?”
“Sure is, thought it was appropriate for today.”
“You’re an odd one Jacob.” He is beaming, clearly he prides himself on his little eccentricities. He would be crazy tie guy in the office. Out here, he’s crazy pinned mushroom on a grey tunic guy.
We drink bark tea with honey every morning. We used to drink pine tea, a citrusy light refreshing beverage packed with vitamins. Then we analyzed the pine needles and found that they concentrated several isotopes to a potentially toxic dose. Tree bark on the other hand was radiation free, though it has an earthy flavor, almost like steeped mushrooms. I am sick of bark tee and honey.
“What time are we setting out?”
“Great, I’ll see you in a little bit TB. You sure you’re ready? You’re looking a bit pale.”
“Thanks Jacob, you really can turn on the charm.”
Jacob laughs as he walks out of the mess hall, his laughter echoing off the curved hangar walls. It’s time to visit the cages. Behind the hanger but within station confines is area A-7. We call it the cages because we are just that creative. A-7 consists of 24 holding pens, each pen containing animals trapped and collected during Baseline. These are my babies.
“Hi Acorn, how are ya sweetie?” Acorn is one of my favorites. A grey squirrel with a tendency to act very dog-like. I throw his green plastic ring into the corner and he fetches it back to me, dropping it into my fingers between the chainlink. ”Good boy. How are you today little fella?” He is eating, the food bowl is almost empty, eyes are clear, has good energy and is making eye contact, which for Acorn means he wants to play. I unlatch the door and pick him up, slipping his little leather harness over his shoulders and attaching the red nylon leash. ”Come on buddy, let’s check on your family.”
Acorn is an anomaly. Sometimes I think he mutated into a dog during the sun storm. At any rate, he is a definite improvement for squirrel-kind. The others all seem OK, today, well except Snarly but he’s always been a challenge. What badger isn’t. After his morning show of aggression, he circles the pen, climbs up his little treehouse and then settles down for his morning post breakfast nap. I check the rest of the charts, do some quick examinations, administer the meds, and then walk Acorn back to his pen.
“Alright buddy, I’ll come see you later OK?” He sniffs my knuckles in the way he shows affection, and then bolts up his tree system and curls up into his tail.
Showtime, I say to myself.
In the garage McMahon, Cardinal, Alonso, and Jacob are loading gear onto the ATVs.
“Gassed and good to go TB.”
“Thanks Cardinal.” He’s an oaf, but a great mechanic.
I strap on my leg guards, gloves, kevlar jacket, helmet and goggles, and double check the setting on the GPS. Jacob is testing the battery on the geiger, and Alonso is loading the rest of the gear into hardshell cases.
“Yeah, I’m on it.” We keep a few cases of PPE in the garage for quick access. Tyvek suits, gloves, boot covers, N95 respirators, and face shields. Two months ago, Johnson found a freshly dead doe near marker L74 and decided to do a necropsy sans PPE. He found lesions in the lungs, a strange hyper infectious form of Mycobacterium, and a month later we had to med-evac him to base in the Hudson. PPE is now standard protocol, even the microbes are mutating.
Cardinal has head phones on, as usual.
“What you listening to big guy?”
“I SAID WHAT ARE YOU LISTENING TO?”
He smiles. “Wolves in the Throne Room, check it out!”
I put on the headphones and immediately hand them back. “That shit is terrible.” Cardinal laughs, sticks out his tongue and dragon-faces me.
“Alright big guy, hold down the fort. We’ll see you in a few hours.”
The garage door opens as Jacob and McMahon rev the engines of their ATVs. It is cloudy, with a fine mist blowing horizontally over the meadow in front of the station. Alonso edges his ATV onto the dirt path leading to the tree line and we follow one by one.
It’s good to be out of the station. No, it’s great. Even on noisy ATVs. Our little pack rolls along the meadow trail past wildflowers, wildflowers that bloom strangely out of season, their biological clock on haywire after the storm. Alonso slows down just before disappearing into the trees, followed by Jacob, then McMahon. When I hit the tree line my eyes take a few seconds to adjust, scattered daylight fragments through the sentinel pines and shadows dance as if from some conjurer’s trick. The noise of the ATVs is deadened as well, I crank the throttle and gradually pick up speed over the rolling forest trail until I catch the others.
We reach marker G34, and Jacob checks his GPS, then the handheld geiger. Each marker has its own geiger that relays data back to the station at hourly intervals. G34 has been going berserk lately, even after McMahon swapped the battery.
“What’s the reading?” No answer. “Jacob, what’s the reading?”
“Jesus! What about on the marker?”
“Marker reads 6.4Gy.”
No one speaks. We simply stare at the silent forest. At Chernobyl there were cases of individuals surviving exposures over 10Gy, but the exposures were not uniform.
“McMahon, have you recorded any telemetering data from this marker?”
“Quite a bit actually TB. Two or three collared-deer, but they went static about a week ago.”
“What do you mean they went static? They’re still transmitting from a fixed location? You know we want immediate investigations on all mortality events, so why didn’t this come up at the lab meeting?”
“Sorry TB, must’ve spaced on that detail.”
“Damn right, sound like you spaced on the entire fucking protocol. So what’s your gut, radiation poisoning, disease, or a case of extreme human negligence?”
“Ah, radiation seems obvious boss given that marker reading. Is she serious right now?”
“Come on McMoron, lead the way, we’re not going back to station until we have those collars.”
We file out away from G34 westwards, following McMahon. Some people can be so irresponsible. For two years we’ve investigated every single case of telemetry static, measuring exposure, recording cause of death. The number of recorded mortality events and subsequent necropsies have considerably diminished recently though, a trend we’ve all been associating with stunted population growth. One thing’s for sure, we’ll have no shortage of radio collars in the stock room this quarter.
I pull up alongside of Jacob. McMahon and Alonso have dismounted, and are checking out something on the trail.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know TB.”
“TB, you gotta have a look at this.”
I dismount and jog over to them. Alonso is scooping some fresh feces into a whirlpack.
We haven’t seen carnivores besides our badger since we set up the station. This has been a predator-free forest since Day 1.
“What do you think TB?”
“Well, looks like dog scat, maybe a feral pack, maybe wolves? Put it on ice, we’ll do the DNA analysis at the lab.”
“Sure TB.” Alonso packs the whirlpack into the carry-cooler. McMahon is tracking something through the pines.
“TB, if that’s feral dog, it’s a big mother fucker.”
The tracks McMahon are pointing to are indeed huge. Mastiff huge, and heavy, deep set into the mud of the forest floor.
“Yeah, no shit right?”
We’ve been conducting sentinel surveillance of wildlife in these woods for two years now, and until today have not seen a trace of top-level predator. No bears, no wolves, no dogs. Nothing. This is a watershed moment, this is a Nature paper. McMahon looks like a little kid, ear to ear smile, wide eyes. Jacob is literally beaming. When Alonso bends down to look at the print, I can feel his heartbeat as if it is pounding through the forest floor and up through my boots to the soles of my feet.
A second later Jacob is hugging me, and we are weeping. Weeping with joy over dog shit.
“Let’s go get those collars TB, it’s possible it’s not radiation.”
We mount up and head on down the trail. An hour and a half later McMahon halts the group and we dismount.
“They’re here TB, or somewhere around here.”
We divide up and start combing the surroundings. Minutes later Alonso shouts out.
“Got one!” My phone buzzes, and a picture appears on the screen: the collar on the forest floor, but no longer around the doe’s neck.
“That’s a kill TB.”
The entrails are spread away from the carcass, legs are severed, head is severed, and the bones show signs of abrasion. Definitely a kill, or a lucky scavenger. We set to work sampling what we can, putting intestinal tissue, some muscle, a bit of brain tissue into cryovials, and fill the vials with Lysis buffer. Back at my ATV, we put the specimens into liquid nitrogen and seal it up.
McMahon finds another collar, but no signs of the animal. The third is no longer transmitting.
“Well hell TB, that’s one hell of a goddamn day!”
“Thanks McMahon.” I can’t help but smile and hug him, even after his fuck up. ”We better get back. Light is starting to fade.”
This far north there isn’t much daylight, maybe 5-6 hours at most. We’ve already squandered the majority of it tracing these collars, and we’re still an hour plus away from the meadow where moon and starlight can suffice.
We mount up, and the whiny ATVs head back the way we came. Over the tight windy trails my mind starts to wander. I can see my sister at home with her kids, a birthday cake for Joanie on the table and candles lit. Party hats. I can see my dad in San Francisco, strolling down Columbus through North Beach, wearing his signature beret and stopping for an expresso. It’s been so long since I was in San Francisco, so long since I’ve seen the coast.
Jacob stops short and cuts his engine, and I slam on my brakes. I pop up my muddy goggles.
All the ATVs are silent now. There is nothing but the wind rattling the pines. Then I hear the howls.
“There must be like 4 or 5 of them!”
While we are listening I suddenly wish we had taken the rifles. Still a half hour to go, and not 15km from a wolf pack.
“Are they howling at us?”
“They can definitely hear us, they know we’re here.”
Excitement and fear are like whiskey and hangovers. I am suddenly very hungover.
Jacob is fidgeting with something on his jacket. I see him throw his death cap pin onto the pine needled floor.
“Come on, let’s go.”
We crank on the ATVs and pull out, the light slowly fading by the minute. McMahon up front has his lights on, and I do the same. The lights bounce off trees and add to the shadows, and I turn them off again. I remember my dad telling me about magic hour, when dragons would hunt in the fading light, when cats become bewitched, and when wolves howl. Magic hour. Then I realized he was just fucking with me. Or was he? The world is hazel now and the wolves are coming. I am seeing gremlins in the woods, shadows running, dancing, wolf eyes glimmering. My hands are sore from gripping the bars and my back aches from tension. I see a wall of gray up ahead and pray for the meadow. McMahon emerges first and brakes to wait for the rest of us.
“Holy shit TB, what the hell is happening out there?”
“I have no idea. Let’s get back home.”
As we file out onto the meadow road, Jacob turns around and looks over my shoulder at the pines. He stops. He points. My goggles off, I turn around to gaze at where the meadow road turns to forest trail. Two wolves lope at the edge of the meadow, dancing towards the station. But there is something odd about them. We pull out, and watch them over our shoulder as they shadow us from the tree line, growing distant as we near the road to the garage. As we hit the gravel, I see one of them suddenly stand on hind legs and sniff the air. Seconds pass and the wolf is still standing. I shake my head in disbelief and promise to check the camera trap records from the meadow this evening. As Cardinal hits the flood lights and opens the garage door, fear turns back into excitement, and my mouth waters for whiskey.
*Day 15 of Where Stories Begin