A Rain of Frogs ~ Xylene
by Rob Hunter
“Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal... As spirits they belong
to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time.”
—C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
This is an inclination of secondary characters and sub-plots in any long exercise at the keyboard: they take over, and the original plot—if there was one—is lost whilst the doughty scrivener pops a new beer and ambles the byways of irrelevance. A casual browse through A Rain of Frogs found it moose-heavy. Perfect, there was room for two more; I headed to the file cabinet.
I find a moose irresistible, so sue me. Not every moose, and not every time, but generally speaking, I’m a pushover. I had created superfluity of mooses: one a natural born killer, a Mafia hit man, the other an adorable, genuine moose, albeit gifted with a supernormal foreknowledge of things yet to come. If the following backstories had made it into their respective tales: Mark Twain in Milan and The Return of the Orange Virgin, things might have been different—with those stories at least. How different only the angels know; neither made it to the final cut.
Some years back—before Mylar clingwrap, back when the Earth was still flat (thank you, Mel Brooks) and the Internet was yet a-borning—I was researching a character for the then nascent Return of the Orange Virgin. Greg Sepik, a ranger at the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge (Baring, Maine) told of the ins and outs of radio-tracking collars.
“Birds were the hardest,” said Greg. ”...we had to develop a way of anchoring a transmitter around the keel bone. So’s it wouldn’t dislodge or harm the bird.”
“Define harm,” I said.
“Well... a collar does get them some pissed-off,” Greg replied. “The weight. Damned batteries.”
Greg gave me a wealth of information, described the mating habits of the woodcock, and led me to a pen where an orphaned moose calf was awaiting her release to the wild. She belched a cheery hello and I was a lost man. Thus we meet Xylene, a yearling moose heifer.
a backstory that didn’t make it into The Return of the Orange Virgin
Summertime, summertime, sum sum summertime: The boom boxes sang to the night skies, and the certainty of a rich feed drew her through the woods and across the highway. A beach party, a clam bake and lobster boil, and she arrived fashionably late drawn by bonfires and rock’n’roll. The revelers had drunk overmuch and paired off, scattered sea-wrack on a night beach. Dance music blasted on unattended. Xylene came late and alone.
The moose splashed her way inland from the coast. The small ravine that masked her progress from sight of the main road above led to a culvert. She was returning from a trip to the beach, a productive foray; she had eaten richly and long, perhaps overlong. Dawn was breaking, and there was danger in being sighted too near the road. At the whiz of a passing car, she ducked and entered the metal tunnel. It was low tide and only a trickle of water cushioned her padded hooves as she clanged through. She was headed home to the upland marshes where she was safer. There was danger close to the highway. Human fauna packed rifles and shotguns in racks across their trucks’ rear windows and found good sport in pulling to a quick stop and squeezing off a volley of shots. These coastal woods were filled with hackmatack and wild cabbage, and spent rifle bullets flew to a final rest, each slug splatting with the deep sad resonance of a hammer on a melon.
She was a handsome specimen if she did say so herself—a two-year-old heifer, this was her second summer. Her first summer she had been taken by a pair of fish and wildlife wardens in a population study. With estrus yet years ahead, this had turned out to be a big event in an otherwise barren social calendar. And look at her now: 700 pounds, five feet at the shoulder and feet the size of dinner plates. As she browsed the brackish water formed eddies about her ankles. She caught a glimpse of her reflection through the ripples and was pleased. With a delicate touch that belied the quarter barrel of beer she had recently imbibed, the dinner plates splashed along the shallow stream. She paused to munch at the water hyacinths and lingered a reflective moment, considering her dripping mouthful of leaves and bulbs.
“Damned weed, spreading like a virus,” the rangers said the last time they picked her up to change the battery in her radio collar. Sooo... hyacinths weren’t supposed to grow this far north. Now how’d I know that? She surprised herself with the question.
Xylene nuzzled over a hyacinth island, upending the floral raft to get at the tasty bulbs beneath. She crunched the bulbs and envisioned a vegetable choir singing on TV—A Major Breakthrough! New!—for Xylene had seen television. One of the rangers had a portable set that he plugged into the cigarette lighter in the truck. She was special and she knew it, but hyacinths were no laughing matter. Hmm, trouble, but they do make a tasty nibble for a girl on the go—viatious eating—she knew the words. The vegetable choir sang, We’re Good And We’re Good For YOU!
There was laughter as one of the rangers made a reference to Maryanne, the secretary at the park office. This was what the rangers called a joke. The water hyacinth was genetically a single organism—clonal reproduction, trouble in the woods. Maryanne was evidently trouble in the woods, too.
Ed, the skinny ranger, watched a lot of TV, nature shows mostly, and liked to use the air gun they carried in the tool box behind the driver’s seat. This was the gun that shot tranquilizer darts. Greg, the ranger with the beard, had said that first time, “Hey she’s only a baby; let’s just pick her up and chuck her in the truck.” “No,” Ed had said, I’ll give her a half dose, we have a long ride home and she might get frisky.” Whatever the recommended dosage, Ed Lambert was, as a pharmacist, out of his depth. An occasional aspirin for headaches was his limit—a ranger eighteen years, his snakebite kit was still in the original seals in the first aid cabinet behind the band-aids; a nice guy, a horny family man, he heated with wood and took the kids fishing. Beyond his regular six-pack, Ed was a stranger to recreational medication.
Xylene, at the tender age of six months, became the first moose on the moon, metaphorically speaking. To say the experience changed her would be begging the question—her horizons broadened, she began to think in unaccustomed ways for a moose. The doctrinaire moose part of her brain watched amazed as she found she could see into the future. Xylene became aware at the cognitive level of the relationship between cause and effect, which is, after all the ability to see into the future. She knew for instance, as she lay in a rope harness, dreamily bouncing in the back of Ed and Greg’s pickup truck, that something wonderful had happened to her. And that this self-awareness, and this ability to predict future events based on present knowledge was why rangers had trucks and moose did not. She realized, jouncing along that rutted backwoods fire lane, that she now shared in the mental powers that made human beings great, without the denial mechanisms that made them not so great. She had in one luminous instant intuitively appreciated the perfect ratio of vermouth to gin, that Spain was where the olives came from, and that to wear a string of cultured pearls with that little black dress would be understated elegance. She did not, however, know what these things were. The concept of olives left pleasant tangy aftertaste and, though there were no flavor associations, Xylene got to hankering after the little black dress.
The young moose spent a pleasant month at the park’s office in a chain link fenced pen behind the garage where the rangers showed her off to school tours and passing bird watchers. She was fed cabbage heads and a porridge of oats and barley. This was the good life, but she wanted more. There Xylene was given her name, “Xylene—I think that’s cute just like you,” said Maryanne, confusing xylene, the industrial solvent, with Jolene, a woman much sinned against in the country tunes of juke boxes in bars with lonely men and pitcher beer.
Maryanne took her head in her hands and nuzzled her baby moose nose. “Xylene, that’s just the ticket.” The orphaned moose was fitted with a radio transmitter collar, driven back into the woods and released to shift for herself on wild salad. To all appearances an anatomically correct moose, Xylene was changed. She had experienced a worldview never dreamed of by other moose in the history of their race. Xylene was a government moose and had discovered How to get things done.
Some months later, standing ankle-deep in brackish water, thinking as she ate, she decided she liked the tranquilizer darts. She briefly entertained a suspicion that this might lead to dependency. She dismissed the thought of herself, molted-looking twelve months of the year, haunting the parking lots of popular spas, begging tourists for handouts, something to pawn for a hit with the dart gun.
They will always know where I am. Assessing the abrasive properties of various representative foliage in the marshy bog where she stood, she found it all too pliant for her needs—good dinner, bad tool—and splashed up the ridge to a promising young stand of hackmatack trees. Threading a shoulder height branch through the collar she worked it back and forth, twisting, bending her large knobbly knees for leverage. The tracking collar’s latch was positioned out of sight and just out of reach behind her shoulder hump. With practice, and raising a raw spot on her neck, she worked one of the spiny stumps of last season’s winterkill between the hasp and the spring. It opened.
What no other moose had before attempted since the dawn of recorded time had taken her an hour and a half. She had gone one-on-one with human technology and come out the winner.
Back at the park office, the pen tracking Xylenes’ radio transmissions on a drum of graph paper hiccoughed and lay still. An eager college intern leaped to her feet and shouted down the hall, “Someone’s shot your moose! Or a bear got it,” she added hopefully.
September was fast approaching, the late summer night skies ablaze with stars. Xylene favored stars, not moonlight for her trips to the beach. Xylene again threaded her way among the detritus of merrymaking, searching through the shattered shells of lobster rummage with her strong, sensitive lips, sucking up puddles of drawn butter, munching roasted ears of corn from piles left untouched. She delighted at the pink streaking of an Atlantic coastal sunrise while peeling the plastic wrapper from a second package of hamburger buns when a whiff from the beer cooler called her to attention. The cooler was no longer cool, it had stopped with the music when a portable generator ran out of fuel. The aroma reminded her of that first ride in the back of a pickup truck, two summers ago, off to visit her government amongst the loose rattling empties. She held down a corner of the plastic bag with a foot, tore it neatly with her teeth, and scarfed down the dozen buns. Now for the cooler. It took some few minutes of careful work with lips, tongue and teeth, but at last the pump popped from its metal bung hole. And the smell! She gave all the indications of a backward swoon while remaining erect.
Less than half an hour later, Xylene heard the truck stop in a nearby fire lane, the ratchet of the hand brake being set, and men’s voices with a fumble of doors and equipment. When the rangers came, Xylene assumed a pose she thought would pass as an enraged moose about to charge. Ed went for it and shot her twice with the tranquilizer gun. The two of them sweated and cursed levering her into the back of the truck; she had put on 200 pounds in the year past. For two days it was sunrise all day long and the world was her oyster. She saw herself at poolside in Portland or Bangor. The Holiday Inn, she remembered, where the toilets are pink and the ice is free, perhaps there she would find that string of pearls and the little black dress.
“What we’re talking here is hopes and aspirations, lady moose,” Maryann had said.
a backstory that didn’t make it into Mark Twain in Milan
Moose 2 of our deuce of moose. He is Nunzio Calabrese. Mark Twain in Milan began life as a novelette, China Flats and Maryjanes Do Not a Summer Make. In its convolutions through many rewrites it became a tale of Ada Byron Lovelace, the first human to write a string of computer code. She did this in 1841 or thereabouts.
Add in Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a writer; Andy Saperstein, of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn—a denizen of contemporary time; and Giancarlo Pieranunzi, an early 20th century mathematician on the lam from Mussolini.
Nunzio Calabrese did not think of himself as a bad person. He loved his mother, most black people because the insides of their mouths were so pink, and his pigeons. He flew his pigeons from a rooftop. He felt joy at their tight formations and gratitude when they returned to his lure, a scrap of red bandana flown at the end of a bamboo pole. Where a lesser man would unburden his sins at Confession or between the polished pillars of a willing woman’s thighs, Nunzio partook of the freedom of the skies. He was a born killer. The Moose started life as a simple farm boy in Reggio di Calabria. In America flying pigeons from the roof of his tenement on Thompson Street was the chiefest of his delights. Nunzio’s pigeons always returned.
Little Nunzio observed the message of muscle early on. One afternoon two Franciscans from Saint Anthony’s School were out on the sidewalk beating the crap out of kid who had given some lip to the nuns. Brown sleeves rolled up, cowls tossed back like marathon runners, the brothers took turns pounding sweet Jesus out of their unmotivated scholar. It was a sunny day. The kid lost a tooth and some blood. The message was clear: muscle trumps persuasion all to hell. At age five, Nunzio Calabrese started lifting weights.
By puberty the Moose was a pigeon fancier. His dream of flight, genesis and exodus, was in a pen on the roof. Genesis, the consuming need to breathe free from the stench and noise at street level. Exodus, the escape afforded by watching and controlling the birds. Escape took many forms. As soon as the Moose got up the money he got wheels, starting with a bicycle.
Rooftop space was at a premium for chicken wire coops. With the right connections the coops were free for the asking. It all depended who you knew or who owed you. Or who was intimidated by you. The Moose learned early that his size was usually threat enough. Size and a silence punctuated by grunts and the menacing lift of a single eyebrow.
Pigeons became the Moose’s passion, followed by booze and women. The booze he got free because of his chosen profession, the women likewise. But it was the pigeons that finally killed him, not Giancarlo’s blow with an alabaster statue from classical antiquity. One day in 1936, and in a parallel but divergent matrix not covered by this story, the Moose was calling his flock back to their rooftop dovecote, spinning a piece of red bandana tied at the end of a bamboo fishing pole. He tripped and went over the edge, falling six floors to the Greenwich Village cobblestones and his death. “Figlio di puttana,” he was heard to exclaim as he slipped over the cornice’s ornamental tinwork. The pigeons mourned briefly then joined a neighbor’s flock.
In the continuum generated by the runaway algorithm so aptly described by Giancarlo Pieranunzi—even now uncorking a spring vintage with Ada Byron Lovelace under the bows of a shapely ornamental yew, for such is the furniture of passion: picnics, shepherds and shepherdesses—Nunzio again cast his lot with the muscular Franciscan Brothers. After Don Paolo’s disappearance he lived out a long and respected life as a barber with a storefront on MacDougal Street. He had a window full of spider plants to screen a thriving policy book from eager-eyed police. He cut hair and shaved other men for sixty blameless years.
It must have been a stray bullet all those years ago, after they dug the Spring Street local stop on the IRT, in Giancarlo’s, Mussolini’s and Don Paolo’s time, probably fired by the Moose.
Why Spring Street? Because that’s where the outcropping ended, the Manhattan granite ledge that led all the way to 65th and Lex. Because in blasting away a hunk of bedrock ledge in the days of muscle power and nitroglycerine the mechanics digging the East Side Lex had no idea that twenty years after a target range would be going up on the spot where they were digging.
A bullet from one of the Moose’s fusillades lodged in a Consolidated Edison steam conduit. After more than seventy years the bullet popped out and live steam from the ruptured pipe cut off cable service to downtown Manhattan, thus causing eighty thousand subscribers to miss the airing of a pivotal episode of Survivor. “What I would call a lucky shot,” said Lady Ada on a Tuscan hillside as she snuggled up to Giancarlo.
The Moose died shriven and in the bosom of the Church.
The Moosehorn Wildlife Refuge www.fws.gov
Ada Byron Lovelace www.sdsc.edu