Canary, by Yvonne Osborne

When the rain started to fall, Gabe set the traps and huddled beside
the campfire and ate his dinner from a can. With the rain he wouldn’t
have to wade through the swamp with his net and flashlight. In the
rain they would come to him, like night crawlers to the surface. He
stared into the flames watching the burn change the form of the wood
and listened for the sound of the traps.

The solitude of this assignment appealed to him. He didn’t have to
report back to the university until the end of the year. He wasn’t
expected to carry a cell, which he feared could be tracked by the
satellites that passed overhead in the night. He recorded his findings
on a spreadsheet stored in a manila envelope. There was no electronic
signal emanating from his camp, no easy way for the hired hands from
the chemical plant situated on the convenient waterway with their
concealed weapons to find him. His footprint was as negligible as his
Indian grandfather’s and his habits as austere as a Capuchin monk’s—an
old Army jeep he’d rescued from a National Guard storage yard was his
only means of transportation and his tent and campstove were left over
from another generation’s lost war—though he wasn’t old enough to
remember a world without satellites and cell phones or any war that
hadn’t been lost.

The funding to continue his research came from an anonymous source,
and while he questioned the intentions of anonymity, he took the
money.

The traps were going off in the dark, and he took a swig from his
flask and lit up a smoke. The combination licked heat through him like
a tongue escaped from the fire. Yes, he took the money.

If what he suspected to be happening was, it would manifest itself
first in the susceptible amphibian population, in the frogs that
didn’t sing the night away anymore. He didn’t know why they’d stopped
singing, but the surrounding ponds and creeks of the Lake District lay
silent in the night. And that was more frightening than something
falling out of the sky, more frightening then light pollution to the
north where the only light should be the cascading colors of the
aurora borealis.  More frightening then the men with microphones in
their lapels who paid a visit to his cramped office after his
editorial piece appeared in the local newspaper. He wasn’t an idiot.
He could tell when someone was packing, and weapons weren’t allowed on
campus, and with that for leverage he’d found the balls to refuse
their demanded retraction.  If he could just get the wealthy Yacht
Club behind him, they just might get the Ro plant closed. Or at least
get it out of the Great Lakes watershed.

Gabe put his empty ravioli can in his knapsack to store in the tent.
Raccoons and coyotes would destroy his camp if they caught the
slightest whiff of food.  He stubbed out his cigarette butt and put it
in his pocket, then adjusted himself and realized he had an
inconvenient hard-on. Get a little food in the stomach and other
things activated. He was a lightning rod of connectivity. Sometimes
the need hit him like a sledge hammer at the oddest times—as if the
thought of lurking coyotes should give a guy a boner. There was
something to be said for the comfort of masturbation, but once in a
while it’d be nice to have something other than frenzied sex with
someone you didn’t want to spend the night with. Sex with someone you
could share a cup of coffee and a donut with in the morning. But it
wasn’t easy to find a woman who would put up with his lifestyle, even
for one night. They always had a problem with sleeping on the ground
next to his amphibious roommates, or with his unfamiliarity with a bar
of soap, though he would on occasion take a dip in whatever pond or
creek he was working, and that was good enough for him. He wasn’t that
involved in personal grooming.

It was after midnight when he banked the fire and collected his traps.
He unzipped the canvas tent and aimed his mag light around the
interior for the mosquitoes that were on the upswing and then eased
himself in on his knees, kicking his rubber boots off on the rug he’d
placed at the door to trap dirt.  With the door zipped tight, he lit
his lantern and killed the flashlight. He hung his rain gear on the
collapsible wooden clothesline in the corner and put on a dry shirt.

He separated the night’s catch into the adjacent aquariums, one for
the disfigured, and one for those with the fungal disease that was
attacking amphibians throughout the bay area. With their permeable
skins, frogs and toads were more sensitive to water pollution, feeling
the effects before other forms of life, including human. Gabe thought
of them as “the canaries in the coal mine” and they were sounding an
alarm with their skin disorders and missing parts. An alarm he was
trying to translate into statistics that would move officials to act.
Officials who weren’t toggled to Ro, officials who wouldn’t put off
action until the morning they woke to a kink in their knuckles and
lesions on their elbows or a clump of hair on their pillow.  OK so
that was a wild exaggeration. But he couldn’t resist alluding to the
butterfly effect to set a fire at the government level.

He numbered them in his notebook and made note of their calamities on
the spreadsheet cross-referenced to his water samples. They watched
him work, ignorant of his concerns.

The crack of a branch from outside the tent echoed inside like
gunshot.  Gabe dropped his pencil and reached for his Bowie knife.
Conventional wisdom said you didn’t take a knife to a gunfight. Modern
wisdom said you packed a firearm at the waist, or on the hip, or
around the ankle. (Behind the seat and under the bed.) But
conventional wisdom didn’t take into account a man raised by a Native
American with a knack for knives and no respect for weapons that made
noise. Gabe didn’t carry a gun.

He doused the light to put himself on equal footing with whatever
approached and slipped to the door. He listened with his ear to the
zipper and heard the shuffle of a step on the forest floor. He held
the knife loosely with one hand and eased the zipper down with his
other. There was no point in hiding.

The clearing was softly lit by his dying campfire. He shouldered his
way out and straightened his back. The rain had stopped but droplets
continued to fall off the leaves overhead. He made out the tree line
against the sky and the break in the undergrowth that pinpointed the
opening to the path he’d broken through the woods to the No
Trespassing signs posted on the high voltage fence, beyond which large
water ducts dumped foul-smelling water into the lake.

A shadow separated itself from the forest wall, and Gabe clenched the
knife and widened his stance. He heard a snort and saw, or, rather,
felt the creature move towards him through the dark. He swore under
his breath but stood his ground. The elk came into view and towered
over him. The animal likewise froze and they stared at each other.
Water droplets glistened on his hide and shimmered on the velvet of
his antlers, like rain on a pussy willow. Gabe could feel the steam
rising off him and smelled the wet foliage on his breath. He mentally
measured the animal’s height and rack with disbelief. The animal
lowered his head and pawed the earth, and Gabe tried to remember what
he knew of elk. Would they charge? Would he see Gabe as a rival? He
hoped he hadn’t been living alone in the woods so long that a rutting
elk would see him as a rival.

He took a step back and then a sudden full-bellied croak came from
inside the tent. The animal lifted his head and his nostrils flared
like a bellows.  A whole chorus of unexpected singing rose on the
night air, like a stalled car catching throttle. He swung his rack
from side to side and Gabe wondered what it would be like to walk
through the woods with that bracket strapped to your head. How would
you keep a low profile and hide during the day? How would you grow to
be old?

The singing stopped abruptly, as if swept aside by a conductor’s
baton, and the elk turned, and with a lunge of his haunches, crashed
through the underbrush and disappeared into the gathering mist that
was beginning to look like snow. Gabe blinked and wiped his mouth on
the back of his hand. It was as though the animal had been transported
from the wilds to his camp via a time warp that just as quickly
reversed itself. If he’d had more than a couple of swigs from his
flask he would’ve questioned his ability to correctly interpret the
scene.

He fingered the dog chains around his neck engraved with his father’s
name and blood type and knew he would never again discount the stories
his buddies at the ranger station told him, things they claimed to see
while perched above the forest floor with night goggles and
binoculars. It was in their manual—never discount what you see in the
woods at night. And maybe they were right about other things. “You
worry too much, man. Mother Nature is one formidable bitch. Don’t
discount her ability to cleanse herself of us.”

He went back in his tent and zipped the door shut and turned the
lantern on. The frogs were quiet. The stillness of the surrounding
woods suddenly seemed ominous. He threw a blanket over the aquariums
(his heart wasn’t in it), peeled off his jeans, and crawled into his
sleeping bag.

With the light at his elbow and his knife within reach he started to
write.  If he wrote it down he might be able to sleep, and in the
morning he would look for tracks, see what he could find. Then he
would go into town and develop his pictures and make an extra copy of
everything and put one in the safe in his office and the other in a
safety deposit box off campus. He was like a writer with a prized
manuscript leaving copies in remote locations to guard against
disaster.  He would present his findings to the DNR before the snow
fell and then let the political process percolate. He would stay away
from Ro property.

Unless the tracks led him in the wrong direction.

He was spending too much time alone. He needed someone to put a clean
shirt on for. Someone to take his mind off skin diseases and throat
lesions and the foul brew stewing on private property like mash at a
brewer’s club. If he stayed out here much longer he was going to
forget his resolve to let the DNR take care of things.  He thought of
the roll of old claymore wire coiled in the back of his jeep like a
sleeping snake, of the garbage left over from another generation’s
lost war remastered by a poor academic who was dependent on grants and
anonymous benefactors to get the job done but who’d learned from
tribal elders that a smart man had fallback and used what was at hand.
A smart man recognized the death throes of the canary while there was
still time to escape.

If he’d had a radio he would have turned it on whisper. The quiet had
turned into something he wasn’t sure he could take.

Bio: “I’m a poet and aspiring novelist. I grew up in the thumb of Michigan
and have recently moved back to the family farm. I have an organic
gardening business and a flock of chickens, but I’m happiest when
deliberating on a word. Read more of them them  here. (link to blog)
http://yvonneosborneblogspotcom.blogspot.com/

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