by: Chris Thompson
People live, people love, people go…. ((The art used throughout this series is by the prolific and talented Anders Tomlinson))
Perla growled as I threw a handful of chicken scraps into her waterlogged pen. She was a wolf. A real one. Not one of those hollow-eyed clones the scientists and zoos were parading around these days. No, she was the real deal. A wild-thing, born up in the backwoods of Alaska. Back when that still meant something. Back before everything went to shit. Now though, she was the last of her kind. The last wild-born Alaskan Black Wolf in the world and she was all mine.
Perla growled again, this time deeper, more threateningly, and I tossed her another volley of greasy chicken. She hated being penned up like this. Hated the fact that her instinctual need to hunt and roam was being stifled by a rusting wire fence. That her low, drawn out howls were never echoed back into the night. She hated me too I figured, seeing as I was the one who kept her penned up behind my house. Back between the half-collapsed tool shed and the algae-covered pond that used to be my swimming pool.
But what was I going to do? Throw a collar around her neck and make her walk besides me on a leash? Give her my yard to prowl around and keep a watch out for some bored neighborhood punks? Or maybe I should let her just curl up at the foot of my bed, beside the sputtering, wood-fired stove like some beloved domesticated pet? Nah, she was a wolf for Christ’s sake and plus, even if I did let her out, I lived in the suburbs, or at least what was left of them these days. Where the hell was she going to go? All the forests were torn down for lumber years ago.
Before we go any further, let me give you an appreciation for how messed-up things have become. My name’s Winston. Winston Estrada. I’m sixty-nine years old with a limp and a perpetual case of rheumatoid arthritis because all it ever does is goddamn rain. I live outside of Spokane, Washington in an easily forgettable town called Opportunity. The irony in that name I find hilarious. The cliché of America as the Land of Opportunity died out with my father’s generation almost fifty years ago. My neighbor Roland, before he packed up his family and left for God knows where, used to joke that America had become the Land of Hopelessness and I tended to share his diminutive view. The environment is fucked and everything in this once-dynamic country looks the same now. It’s one great hulking, muddy expanse of churning grays and rain-soaked browns, stretching all the way from The Chesapeake to LA. From The Great Lakes to the Alamo. Hell, even Death Valley’s wet if you can imagine that now. There’s a lake right there in the goddamn middle of it, briny as all hell. It’s fed by all the run-off from the nearby mountains and at last count it was several feet deep.
I used to work for the Department of the Interior as a Forester for the Fish & Wildlife Service. I was shot by an illegal logger in Alaska back in 2035 and was offered early retirement if I kept my mouth shut about the entire affair. I knew my superiors were being paid to look the other way, letting the logging companies strip the landscape bare like vultures on a carcass, so I took a generous pension and lifetime medical to promptly forget about the whole thing. Alaska’s protected habitats were on the verge of collapse by that time anyway so my exit from the service, I figured, was well-timed. It’s not like there were a lot of fish and wildlife still around to protect.
There is no Department of the Interior anymore. At least not like how it used to be. It’s been streamlined and gutted, turned into a Cabinet-level collection agency that exists solely to make sure the government gets its fair share of revenue from all the mining rights it leases. Anything is up for sale these days, from Yellowstone to the Smoky Mountains. The Grand Canyon to Joshua Tree. Grand concepts like Resource Management and Conservation have been abandoned in the face of so much environmental ruin. Exploitation and a quick buck have become the status quo. Profit before planet, right?
Perla came to me on a whim. Van Burgess, a park ranger colleague of mine from my Alaskan Forestry days had come across her as a cub, whining beside her dead mother’s side. The Alaskan Black Wolf had been listed as critically endangered for years by that time, and having no desire to see the species meet its demise at his hand, Van had taken her in, raising her as best he could. But Van was getting on in his years by then, and having no wife or kids, he had grown weary of trying to make a go of it up in the rapidly changing North. “It’s all these goddamn mosquitoes and blackflies,” he told me one day during a static-filled phone call. The sun had been unusually active that month and its coronal mass ejections were wreaking havoc with the world’s communications grid. “The flies, they’re just so dense Winst, they block out the sun,” Van bemoaned. “Can’t even leave the house most days and they come in through the cracks in the flashings. I’d stay up here to the end, you know? God knows it’s still beautiful up here despite all the rain. But I’ve got Perla to think about now. It ain’t natural to keep a wild animal cooped up inside the house all day.”
“Why don’t you and Perla come down to Washington and live with me?” I remember saying, the words leaving my mouth before I’d had a chance to consider their implications. “Its been years since anyone’s been over to visit. Not since Helen died and Sarah left. Plus, I’ve just installed a new steel roof and these shatter-proof windows. We can wait out the end of the world in utter comfort old friend. I’ve plenty of good books and bourbon to chase away the tedium, and there’s ample space out back to build Perla a proper pen.”
If there was any doubt in my offer of sanctuary to Van and Perla, it was short-lived. In fact, in a diminutive corner of myself, where the light didn’t often shine, dwelled a voice that was scared shitless of dying alone. I had successfully walled myself off, become incapable of feeling anything other than anger and distrust following the circumstances of my daughter Helen’s death. And after Sarah had left, choosing the senior relief centers and a federally-supported suicide over a life with me and the memory of our daughter, it had been a long time since anything exciting had drifted my way. Since the tenor of my existence had hovered above a whisper. It was like a stranger had taken up residence inside me after I lost my family. Its plan for the remainder of my days, up until the point of answering Van’s phone call, had been to wait out The End – the planet’s or my own – in relative calm, shuttered up in my weather-proof home, watching the world fall apart around me like some spectator at a perverse sporting event. But life has a remarkable way of reminding you that you are not always in charge. That no matter how much you may anticipate its unfolding, the future is not set. A part of me had been clambering for company, for interaction, for a person’s touch, for years. But I had been too caught up in my own melancholic haze. Too beholden to the person I had become, and too numb to listen to what I really needed. And then, with a simple telephone call, the winds of fortune had shifted. That anxious voice secreted deep inside had made its move, and just like that my future had no longer appeared so dim.
Van Burgess packed up Perla and a few possessions he still considered dear, and on a rainy Sunday morning in mid-November, began his journey down to Washington. Behind the wheel of his aging 4×4, it took Van and Perla a month to make it down to Spokane, what with the Department of Transportation no longer maintaining the interstate system. But they finally made it, Van twisting his mud-streaked Land Cruiser up my washed-out gravel driveway, the V8 choking on its final drops of overpriced diesel. I met him on the doorstep, arms open wide, a broad grin plastered across my eager, wrinkled face.
“Van,” I roared over the stinging winter rain “What the hell took you so long? Got yourself lost along the way?”
“Took a left at the Columbia River instead of a right,” Van countered, pulling the collar of his slicker up against the slanting onslaught. “Set me and Perla back a few days. Had to stop and ask a harbor seal for directions.” And as simple as that it was back like old times. Back like it used to be with Van and I before the ruin. Before things had gone all rotten. We were Van and Winst again, two sides of the same coin, saddled up at the Starlight Diner just outside Fairbanks, Alaska, pumping quarters into the table-side jukebox and bull-shitting away our youth over ice-cold beers.
“Bravo!” I roared, throwing my arms fully around my intrepid friend. It had been a long time since I had spoken with such emotion and I startled myself somewhat with my tone. Van laughed heartily and his firm embrace was like a step backward in time, our last thirty years of separation fading away like the fleeting tendrils of a dream.
“This here Perla?” I asked, charging down the front steps and over to his 4×4. I was full of excitement and curiosity, like a toddler exploring the world for the first time. Peering into the shadows of the cluttered off-roader, I could make out the bony form of a wolf crouched against the rear of a rusted cage.
“Yeah, that’s her. She hasn’t made a peep the entire trip. Been on her best behavior. It’s almost as if she’s been enjoying the drive.”
I folded down the backdoor, planting my palms firmly on the cold rusting metal and leaned into the 4×4, impatient to get a better view of the wild animal locked inside. In a flash Perla was at the bars, jaws snapping, teeth bared, angry shades of red and white flashing frantically around the cramped rear.
“Whoa girl!” I exclaimed, springing back instinctually, my head smashing into the vehicle’s roof. Dazed, I staggered backwards, my feet splashing around awkwardly in the wintery mix of gravel and mud before Van finally caught me.
“Eeeeeasy there, Winst. She’s a bit cagey around strangers,” Van said, struggling to upright my weighty frame. “Best to give her some time. I’ll bet she’ll warm-up to you right quick. Only took my neighbor Akan a few months before she’d let him come ‘round the cabin and drop off supplies.”
“Riiiight,” I said sardonically, pushing my rain capback straight upon my head. “Well, first thing’s first: let’s get her out of that cage and set-up in the garage. I’ve got a dry space cleared out next to the old jeep. She can stay there until we build her a pen. And then let’s sit down and have a drink by the fire. We’ve got a lot of lost time to make-up for.”
To Be Continued….