f i c t i o n  

c a r a  c h a m b e r l a i n

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 fallen unnoticeably.

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 stay here?”

“Well, this looks like a hotel.”

He shakes his head. Stubs out his cigarette. “We’ve only got the two rooms clean.”

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 an act?”

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.

I shrug.

“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 jumps.

I pretend to be unmoved. I’m always unmoved. But I’m leaning toward the music, toward him.

Nothing happens.

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 in Eureka.

“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 hesitate.

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 circle nonetheless.

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 clock.

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



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