Thursday, October 24, 2013

Snoring at monsters

Jimmy was snoring—he just wouldn’t stop, and every time he’d snort and shift his football player’s bulk, the thing lurking in the Yellowstone darkness would harrumph and stomp, shaking the ground. After all the adventures we’d survived on multiple continents, it seemed absurd that snoring in a tent would ultimately kill us.

But it made perfect sense to the monster outside. It belched primal, savage snorts that rumbled in my guts. Each stomp around our tent’s thin fabric made the ground tremble. I’ve never been so scared, before or since.

I smacked my buddy and whispered, Jimmy! Jimmy, shut up! Stop snoring! There’s something out there. Half awake, his eyes went wide, and he said, “Whatever that is, it is big.” Then he conked out. I should mention we had an empty bottle of tequila outside on our camping table beside our scraps of dinner. Jimmy shifted into his chainsaw snore. The monster circled us, depressed my side of the tent with its gigantic snout, snorted hot, foul breath at me, and pawed the ground as if to charge or to devour. It was either telling us to shut up and let it sleep, or come out and let it eat. I shook Jimmy awake again. He looked at the monster’s head pressed against the tent. “Whatever it is, it probably would have eaten us already if it wanted to,” he said sagely. “Just go to sleep.” Worriers and warriors, indeed.                 

Six hours like this. Time bled by like hourglass sands before an execution. Each second involved me shivering, Jimmy snoring, and the thing outside harrumphing and pawing the ground—HRUMM! Pppphhh. STOMP STOMP. Unable to dream, I imagined heroically bolting from the tent to my SUV, knowing I would not. Even if I made it, Jimmy would be left for chum for an angry bear, yeti, sasquatch, wendigo, bigfoot, landshark, James P. Sullivan, or whatever this monster was, hot-blooded after a failed pursuit. Worse, Jimmy might have had to actually wake up, and if he blamed an untimely rousing on me there was no telling what violence would ensue.

Finally, the sky beyond the tent brightened, shining rays of hope onto those primal knowledge centers we humans continue to carry to remind us: Monsters are shy of sunlight. The thing raised itself on all fours. Stomped its mightiest of stomps. Let out its mightiest harrumph. Pushed against the tent with a big, broad part of its body. Unloaded a whizz-banging eruption, followed by an avalanche of plopping sounds, like wet stones thudding onto the grass. The monster was pooping on us. A long, dramatic, heavy, decisive monster poop. The monster plodded away, snorting and grumbling. Then silence. I began laughing, my terror overwhelmed by a five-year-old’s sense of hilarity. Meanwhile, Jimmy snored on.

I poked my head out of the tent. I just had to see our deadly roommate. A large buck stood a few yards away, staring at me nonchalantly. No, no way, that couldn’t have been the monster, it had to have been a grizzly. I swiveled my head towards the valley behind us, surveying the tall grasses swaying in the pink dawn sunlight, ensconced by majestic peaks and diminishing stars surrounding the silver moon glimmering over Yellowstone.

Buffalo. Dozens of them, sleeping. Except one—an evil mutant mega-buffalo, if memory serves—stood like an angry living boulder twenty yards away. It stared icily at me while the rest of the herd still snoozed, nestled into their grassy beds. I surveyed our tent grounds. Sure enough, there was a buffalo-sized patch of dirt pawed into the grass right by where we’d raised our tent. Squatters, we were. We’d slept in a buffalo’s bedroom. And Jimmy was still sleeping, his snores roaring over the valley like a challenge to all creatures who would stand between him and his pillow.  

I laughed even harder then, maniacally perhaps, until Jimmy stumbled from the tent, confirmed the monster’s identity, and said, “Told you to just go to sleep. Wuss.”

Friday, October 18, 2013

First Excerpt of "The Last Ancient"

The following excerpt from The Last Ancient is taken from the middle of chapter one. It’s followed by a back-cover blurb. Special welcome to all you readers coming over from Rita Bay's website fresh off my real life experience with a "monster" in Yellowstone. Enjoy!

Shotguns crow across the windswept prairie of mid-island Nantucket. I swear and fumble my notepad. Scan the sky. Indeed, the staccato cracks are like iron roosters. They announce a sunrise as raw and ruddy as the November leaves rattling in their stunted trees. Twisting, African-looking things that recall whittled broccoli dipped in flaming tar. For hunters, the day has begun.
            I gather my creased notepad and shake the sand off the New England Daily Tribune logo. Dr. Driscoll winks at me and says, “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.” Between machete slashes at the scrub oak and the branches covering the carcass, she whispers about the feverish late fall and its effect on the island’s various micro-ecologies. She rolls roots and flowers between her fingers and tastes a wizened blueberry. Shotguns crackle from Squam Swamp behind us. I remind her I’m not channeling John Muir for this piece no matter how eloquent her reveries.
She slips into one anyhow. “Oh man, but can’t you see it? The beauty? The history?” Dr. Driscoll squints, hacks at something, and shrugs, continuing, “Wampanoag Indians shucking shellfish around campfires.” Hack. “Quakers praying at the meeting house.” Hack. “Thousands of sheep, just grazing the New World forest into treeless Scottish heathlands.” Hack. “Whalers dragging their kills to shore from longboats – whoa, baby!”
            She jumps back, swinging the machete in front of her feet. I peer through my camera lens, snapping photos. Movement? Something big and soundless, deep in the brush, like a disembodied shadow. It’s gone before I flex my trigger finger. I blink away cold stinging sweat and look above my camera into the barbed-wire mesh of scrub oak.
            “You saw that?” I say.
            “Dude, how could I miss it?” says Dr. Driscoll. “That was an epic rat!”
            “Oh. But... Never mind.”
            Driscoll gets on one knee beside Fernandez and jots notes in her pad. I point out some coppery feathers on the other side of the clearing. She tells me to be quiet while she’s writing. I ask about the marks on the deer’s back. She says silence is gold. Fair enough.
            They don’t know I dropped out of Harvard Medical School my fourth year. I’ve also been on safari in Tanzania. I understand trauma and slaughter. The slash marks in the deer’s neck and shoulders are deep and precise. Its back is torn up. Something mounted it and ripped its head off, like a giant hyena or a wolf or even an exotic hybrid, but with the strength of a bear. The missing limb and heart and the disembowelment are confusing, however. Those look surgical. Meanwhile, the skull looks bashed, cracked open; yup, there are blood stains on the boulder. And the marks on the animal’s back resemble puncture wounds. Click.
            A sunray shoots through the sharp woody tangle. Lights up something beside the feathers. It glows like a golden strand of spider web. I point it out, but Fernandez tells me to zip it. I salute him.
            A cloud passes over the sun. The golden thread dims. I pluck it from beside the feathers before it disappears. It lights up again in my hand. The thing’s weird resilience and luster is captivating. Probably a hair, but more like a small-gauge acupuncture needle. As I pocket it, something glows blue and then extinguishes in the brush ahead of me. Maybe the sun hit on colored glass or a butterfly or a blue bird.
            Twigs snap in the distance. Then more. We share a silent what-the-hell? moment. The rustling and snapping gets louder. Closer. We discern growling. Something is crashing along the path that Dr. Driscoll just carved with her machete. I suck in breath and swivel my head. Fernandez is up, his hand on his Glock. No predators on Nantucket, right, Sergeant? Even Dr. Driscoll’s dusky face goes pale.

The Last Ancient
By Eliot Baker
Pulitzer-nominated reporter, Simon Stephenson knows he must write the story. Billions of lives and dollars are at stake. Maybe he should even kill the mythological creature hunting on Nantucket. That’s what a mysterious French alchemist physical chemist and Simon’s best friend, a charming Greek hit man, tell him.
Trouble is, he's falling in love with it. And She doesn't want him to write the story. She wants something else. Something only he can give.
He needs to put it all together. The ancient coins are the key. Someone or something is leaving them at deer mutilations and murder scenes around the island. Looking in places he’d never imagined possible, Simon confronts a diabolical conspiracy woven into his family’s darkest secrets.
Meanwhile, his tennis-champion fiancĂ©e is going Defcon One bridezilla, and a gorgeous TV reporter has her own intentions. Battling panic attacks and pursued by a host of nasty characters – some natural, others less so – Simon faces a world where no one is what they seem. Especially not himself.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Tarot Cards: One wild reading

It was harmless fun until the Tarot cards came out.
I’m pretty sure the old Dutch-Indonesian woman was moving the Ouija Board. But I still can’t explain away the cards—not entirely. Her predictions were too specific, too nuanced, too bloody accurate, to be completely dismissed.
Our goofy Ouija session went about how I thought it would go. After a day of cajoling me into using it with her in her Manhattan apartment, we placed our fingers on the rolling indicator, whereupon she fired off pointed questions concerning my life choices she didn’t approve of back then, when I was in my mid-20s. She nodded sagely as the indicator moved to “Yes” repeatedly. I tried to move it to “No” a couple times, but she’d squint at me reproachfully and finger-muscle it back to “yes.”

I won’t use her name here, but this amazing, deeply spiritual woman has been a part of my life since I was four months old. She believes in angels and spirits. She’s had other fascinating friends who do, too. Some, she says, are no longer living but still communicate with her. She survived hardship in the internment camps of the WWII Japanese occupation of Indonesia-- called the Dutch East Indies then--and fled first to Holland with her mother and then alone to New York City, where she still lives. My friends and I used to call her Yoda, partly because she wouldn’t reach five feet on high heels even with her curly hair, but mostly for the sense of otherworldly wisdom she exuded, a connection to a higher cloud of consciousness that rained truth and enlightenment only upon her. She was mostly funny when she'd amble up to us in her cowboy boots and dimpled smile to dispense advice, but she’d been through things we couldn’t imagine, and she wasn’t shy about discussing life’s darker side, either.
This brings us to the cards. Me and my wife’s first time with the cards.

Mine weren’t great. No, they said, you aren’t going to medical school. No, no, no, no, and more no. I was getting annoyed. I took my latex and surgical steel dreams seriously. NO! they insisted. No stethoscope for you! But my health was good, I’d get into another kind of graduate school, and I’d find something else fulfilling to do outside of medicine. True, true, and more true, as it turned out.

But these aren’t the cards I’ve come here to recount.
Despite thinking it was nuts, my wife’s a good sport and she sat down before the old woman and her cards. Though my wife asked seemingly innocent, mundane, inconsequential questions, a heavy cloud hung over them all. No, the cards kept saying, your friends from Finland won’t be coming in two weeks. Why? The old woman worried over this. A child. A child is sick. Are they travelling with a child? Indeed, our friends were bringing their 2-year-old with them. Well, she is going to be sick, and they won’t be visiting next month. And… well, she will be sick.
My wife asked about jobs. Great news! She would get a job within the next month. She had the sun card in both decks, the Waite Tarot and the Madame Lenormand (a lesser-known variation named after the French mystic who used them). Unlikely, stated my wife, because she hadn’t even had a proper interview yet, just an informational interview with a woman doing her dream job at a university that wasn’t hiring; oh, and there was an informal interview with a similar group offering part-time public health research work. The old woman looked at the cards a bit, then said resolutely, Yes, you have met your future employer, two women and a man, and it’s full-time. The old woman declared that she’d get offers from both places, it was absolutely clear. My wife smiled and said that sounded nice, but that she highly doubted it.
Then my wife asked what that cross was in the Madame Lenormand cards. It kept popping up at the periphery of all her questions. The old woman sighed, and chewed her lip.

This cross, it’s following you, she said. I don’t want to scare you, but is that little girl sick? Really sick? This cross, it really follows her. And you—are you sick? And how about someone else? An old man? It’s even following your job question. You’ll get this job, and you will be happy, but there’s still this cross for the girl, for you, for the old man.
My wife got concerned. Her grandfather was very sick at the time. The atmosphere plunged from light to dark in the room. The old woman said not to worry, such cards don’t mean death literally but figuratively, a change of some sorts followed by a new beginning.
Two weeks later, our friends from Finland canceled their visit to us due to their daughter having contracted a terrible flu.  
One week after that my wife received two phone calls. The first was to say good-bye to her grandfather as he lay dying in his hospital bed. He passed away during the call.
 Moments after hanging up, her phone rang again. She looked at it in red-eyed disbelief. Answered it with the sobs still choking in her throat. Thank you, she tried to murmur to the woman offering her a full-time research position at UMass Lowell, virtually out of the blue. She accepted the position.
A day later, my wife was also offered the part-time position.
The weekend after those phone calls, we went snow boarding in Vermont. On the second run of the day, my wife broke her wrist and elbow falling in the icy conditions.
I’ll end the story here, where I hope it indeed ended. More things happened years later that could appear connected to this reading, but I won’t get into here.
I understand the power that vague predictions have over us as we try to link events with signs and omens (read: Nostradamus). Even so. The reading with the old Dutch-Indonesian woman stayed with me. Always will.