ith sheet, wool blanket, and goosedown quilt, I should be warm when
I’m in bed, but dragging over the fields and burrowing along my spine
there’s the usual mist. Or there’s a bat glancing off the window. Or
could there possibly be a man — some unusual off-season guest —
discovering a loose board in the corridor?
But I won’t be nervous.
I’ll remember trees tonight. I’ll think of nothing but leathery
leaves, smooth orange bark. Madrones grew thick in the yard where I used
to live. They were shiny in the rain, cool and quiet and never bare,
though gigantic drifts surrounded them, decades of leaves that had
Inevitably, I'll end up thinking about goats. Castoffs. High-scented,
rough furred animals — sin personified. In the lane near my former
house, neighbors kept a tethered goat. If I happened to wander by, I fed
him handfuls of grass or clover that grew beyond the circle his rope
held him in. After months, he seemed to expect me, and I could even
touch his horns and the short coarse fur between them. But his eyes
remained cold, dark as tea, with gold seams and rectangular pupils. As
he shook his head and looked sideways at me, his whole body trembled
with pent-up violence or lust, or both.
Or I’ll think of birds. When I came here and began collecting birds,
I had no idea things would turn out the way they have. I watched my pets
die, first the budgies, then the cockatiels, the parrots, the canaries.
I never wanted to get up in the morning, but lay for an hour in bed,
wondering which ones would have succumbed since I’d last been awake. I
found them — toes curled, eyes drying — wrapped them in newspaper, and
hid them in the woods. I have one mynah still — ironically, the most
exotic has survived longest. With its orange crest and shining eyes, it
seems more alert than anyone I know. It has outsmarted drafty rooms, bad
water, pesticides in the seed.
My husband’s hotel is a tough place. I like the country better, my
old house by the goat or my old campsites near the river. One summer I
lived in a tube tent by the Hoopa Reservation. It was a good spot
sheltered by oaks and redwoods. The orange plastic I slept in repelled
the slugs but nothing else — mosquitoes, spiders, and salamanders.
Ospreys used to perch over the Mad River before blasting down onto a
salmon or trout. At night, I used to undress, wade with off-balance
steps over the pebbles of the bed, and stand in a backwash, shivering
and hoping to be wild, totally free, up to my waist, moonlit circles
growing outward until they were engulfed by the main current. But such
uninhibited behavior is easy to effect when there’s nobody who could
possibly be watching. Oh, I was never out of control. I never really
left the suburbs that early defined me. Try as I might, I always knew
where the headlights were bound to hit, where the E & O
Lanes crowd went to relieve themselves on league nights when the
bathroom was full.
Then I kept birds.
They used to pace on their wooden perches. They dabbled with their
beaks as they drank from plastic cups of water. They sat on my hand,
feet clutched around my finger. As they preened and shook, I felt them
almost ready to fly. So light. So uncertain. I never determined what
killed them. Maybe pulp-mill smoke is a quiet assassin. Breezes from the
sewage pond are thick. And, of course, the hotel’s old beds, silverfish,
marked linens, and bleached towels render this a place where no one
should linger. Even the food we eat smells of mothballs, though I’ve
scrubbed and never keep naphtha myself. The true problem may simply be
that birds are delicate, unable even to inhale without succumbing to the
fumes of domestic work — Ajax, chlorine bleach, Teflon pans.
Now, when I close my eyes, I press every thought back, back. Only
uninterpreted, mute images will translate me to sleep. The suffering,
peeling, sacrificial madrone. The lascivious goat. I return to the cool
horn, the coarse fur. The dying birds. And these notes I write in
private, tucking them into the cheap TV console,
are food for our silverfish, aren’t they?
“Hey, Val!” My husband rings me up. “I need some help down here.”
I leave my flannel nightgown on, just tuck it down inside my jeans,
and throw a wool sweater over the top. Hall lights in cheap plastic
sconces bend paisley red carpet into strange relief. The paisleys’ gold
outlines appear raised above the floor as I negotiate my way to the ice
machine (still stocked and running well, though the vending machine
lights are flashing “use exact change” and I suppose that means I’ll
have to call up Shirl and get her to fill the bins).
“So, what’s up?” I ask my husband when I make it down.
He just rolls his eyes and points out into the lobby.
Twenty people, it seems, are rifling through the postcards in the
carousels that squeal as they turn. A short man with tiny feet and hands
— not a dwarf, but just so small and perfect and, well, like a bird — is
admiring the Sasquatch card.
“What the hell—” I start.
“I don’t get it either,” my husband whispers. “They just pulled up in
a van and I guess I ought to wait on them. Do you think they want to
“Well, this looks like a hotel.”
He shakes his head. Stubs out his cigarette. “We’ve only got the two
Is it an accusation? I study him, but he’s gathering pens and
registration cards, and I decide it’s just a statement of fact. As such,
I agree. But “I never thought—” I begin, in spite of myself, to blurt
out the tortured self-defense.
“Who would?” my husband smiles grimly and goes out to meet the crowd.
I hang back behind him. I try not to look too fascinated by the
birdman who seems to have decided to buy a Redwood Highway card instead
of the Sasquatch. The opened door brought in stirrings of night air that
are fighting right now with old cigarette smoke and burned coffee
smells. I haven’t breathed real air since last Tuesday when I walked
along the sidewalk with the linen cart down to the laundry. Only two
rooms overlooking the pool I find it necessary to keep up. And then I
pray for no visitors.
Every single one of those tourists is staring at us. Tourists? I
can’t tell. They look a little odd—
“Third Degree Burn,” the small man says as my husband takes his place
behind the desk. His companions look up. They’re not quite young — some
wear sharp crew cuts and that Seattle look of ten years ago.
“Excuse me?” my husband says.
“We’re a group. Alternative percussive neo-traditionalist
multi-transformational cult-goth world rock.”
“Oh.” My husband can’t think of anything to say. He stopped listening
to music back in the days of Donna Summer, I believe.
“We’re on our way to Yreka. But we have a night to kill. Do you need
I have to chuckle. My husband and I are an act.
“Well . . .” My husband looks at me, as tethered, in his way, as the
goat I used to feed.
“The thing is . . .” my husband explains, “we don’t really have any—
” he heaves a deep sigh. “Nobody is staying here just right now.”
“Cool,” a middle-aged woman with torn pants and a diamond in her left
nostril emits brightly.
“Yeah,” says the small guy, their leader, I judge. “Can we just set
up by your pool and play for ourselves? And you, of course?”
My husband glances at me. I shrug again. He stares at our rusty
credit card machine — the old kind that slides over raised plastic
letters and numbers.
“What harm can it do?” he asks.
I have this documented. It is true.
Sometimes I suspect that I'm a tourist who has not yet packed up for
home, the only genuine tourist our hotel has ever seen. At least for the
last five years. But realistically, does any tourist try to keep birds?
“So that’s it,” my husband said as he dismissed me and lit another
cigarette. Outside, the musicians were unloading their van.
I didn’t stay to watch them haul their sound equipment around the
corner and down the hall. I did climb back upstairs and observe from my
bedroom window. Here, on the second floor, there’s a view of the heated
swimming pool and the redwood coast, and I decide now to wait for my
husband to give up on the night desk. Who else will come? No one. I know
a few things.
My husband turns the back lights on, and the pool becomes an
ambitious projector of diamonds, circles, little reflective disks
wavering and bounding on the balcony walls. Third Degree Burn is setting
up the usual guitars, drums, amplifiers. But there’s a recorder duet
practicing over by the dressing room and a gemshornist at work beside
the “No Lifeguard on Duty” sign. A woman with a psaltery settles herself
in a nearly sprung chaise longue. She’s wearing a long black cape and
must tilt her head a little backward to see anything because her hair
drips in her eyes. Her lips and nails are painted black. Every so often
her tongue flicks out in concentration, and the split tips of it coil.
I’d heard of piercing before but not of snake-emulating cuts.
They ease into playing — the guitarist plucks gently and then
piccolos flutter over what will become a steady tribal percussion.
Finally, the little man is singing, growling, humming. If there are
words, they don’t burrow in through the glass. (Try as hard as I can,
the window’s stuck.) He bobs his head, clasps his hands behind his back,
and struts poolside.
“God!” I jump straight up.
“Sorry,” my husband says. His hands are cold on my neck. “I didn’t
mean to scare you.”
“You didn’t,” I say, catching my breath. I pretend to watch the band
intently for a few minutes. “Look at that vampire-snake woman.” I point
out the psaltery player.
“I’ve heard of people like this.” He sucks in his breath.
Faces bent over strings and plastic drum heads, they’re folding with
the music, contorting themselves with harmony and beat.
“Here!” My husband grunts and manages to push the window up. The
music isn’t measurably louder, though. And the man isn’t actually
singing words, just senseless monosyllables, “Ma, Na, Fa, La.” Like
mist, music cruises along, spreading under my clothes, making my skin
unbearably painful. When my husband touches my arm, it stings.
“Shall I, shall I—” he stops to gulp air, “shall I kiss you?”
And it’s out before I can stop it, the question. “Why start now?”
He breathes on my hair, wraps his arms around me. His heart dips and
I pretend to be unmoved. I’m always unmoved. But I’m leaning toward
the music, toward him.
Actually, I’m not exactly sure when they pack up and leave, but the
music succumbs to Northcoast despair. One minute they’re chanting a
capella — the next minute they’re gone. My husband drops his arms.
“Well, that was something,” he says.
I’ve learned words, memorized them, held them as my only lasting
possessions. They have never simply bloomed into thoughts. I traipse
heavily through my consciously acquired vocabulary: lassitude, insomnia,
succumbing. I used to fear the hotel’s gravitation, its vampire greed
for words, the way it devoured knowledge and rationality, returning to
the tranquility that many people came here for when the town first
became “cool.” While the cutting edge soon went dull, I’ve learned to
welcome its blank visions just prior to sleep.
I wasn’t in bed, though, or unconscious when the new guests came —
the Earth First! representative/anti-mining fanatic back from a tour of
Nevada’s little towns, the lecturer on California Indian religions, the
country and western singer/Elvis impersonator with a bootless saloon gig
in town. No, I registered each one while my husband was out buying linen
“Three guests!” he exclaimed upon his triumphant return. Triumphant
because he’d also happened to find the latest Third Degree Burn
CD at the County Emporium. A new habit in the
making, I suppose.
Now, mist hugs the window glass. Where no one can hear — far away
from the Inn, over the wood-pulp mills, the highway, and warehouses, and
deep in the giant trees — a spotted owl barks. By the gravel river, one
man from the E & O bar has come out to stalk
raccoons. His rifle turns cold in his hands. The beer in his gut grows
icy. Currents in the water play back the starlight with anemic
shimmering. I’m guessing about that. It looks good on paper. Maybe no
one has left the E & O. The crowd is enthralled by
the bartender’s stories: “The best Japanese sabers are the ones you get
by luck. Like this guy in Redding says to me . . . “
It's not that I don't like my husband. He’s okay. He’s fine. It’s not
as if he put a rope around my neck and dragged me here. It’s not as if
I’m tethered. I agreed to help build his as yet unrealized real estate
empire. I could only camp and dream and write so long. But I insisted on
the birds. I keep (kept) them because I like(d) their black claws and
feet, the way their beaks heft(ed) their bodies up the rungs of their
cages, the neat savagery they use(d) to eat an orange, the worm-like
tongue that holds(held) straight out when they squawk(ed) or pant(ed),
that bare space around their eyes, the beat and force of their
weightless bodies as they struggle(d) in my unyielding hands.
Pacing its cage, the mynah looks at me with a shining eye. Oh, I'd
release it, now. But if I did, I’d never see it again. And so I
My husband allows his cigarette to burn in the ashtray. He's giving
up one habit, anyway. Pulling himself together for a long life. No one
else is going to check in tonight, what with the mist thickening into
rain. This is how he stands now — back to the front door, hands in his
pockets, lower lip thrust out. He’s reading our check-out rules for the
two hundred and twenty millionth time. And not really making sense of
them. I just know. He’s buzzcut his hair and it sticks up harsh and,
well . . . and goat-like. His tether is long, but he’s pacing in a
The mynah races the perimeter of its cage, jumps to the perch. “Ma,
Na, Fa, La,” it croons. With its beak, it opens the door — a trick it
learned weeks ago, but which I’ve never seen until now. It prowls my
night table, turning to peck at the lighted dial of a broken alarm
My husband is listening to the boards that move in the hotel. They
all do to one extent or another, and he knows individual creakings by
heart. He can hear me now get up and go toward the window dotted with
oblique splotches of rain. He can hear the sash he loosened the night of
our concert as it opens with a grinding of wood on wood. He can hear
rain on the one madrone tree I coax along. He knows I’m lifting the
screen. He even knows that I know. Still, he will not be in time.
©2003 Cara Chamberlain